Monthly Archives: March 2003

The Core (2003)

I knew about 15 minutes in that The Core was not going to take its science too seriously. Aaron Eckhart, as a hunky science professor, is addressing military generals and essentially says, “We broke the Earth.” He tells them that because the Earth no longer spins (don’’t think about it, you’’ll only hurt yourself) the electromagnetic shield will dissipate and the sun will cook our planet. And just to make sure people understand the term “cook” he sets a peach on fire as an example. At this point I knew The Core was going to be a ridiculous disaster flick with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.

Earth’’s core has stopped spinning and horrific disasters are starting to be unleashed with anything from drunken bird attacks to lightening strikes in Rome. I always love how in disaster films Mother Nature always instinctively goes after the monuments, the landmarks, the things of cultural importance. The United States government hires a ragtag group of scientists and NASA pilots to journey to the center of the Earth and jump-start our planet. Of course everything that can go wrong on this fantastic journey will eventually go wrong.

The Core is so improbable, so silly, that it ends up being guilty fun. If you let go, ignore the incredible amounts of birth imagery (the sperm-like ship tunneling through to get to the egg-like core), then the very game cast will take you for a fun ride.

There’’s a scene where the government approaches kooky scientist Delroy Lindo to build the super-ship that will take them to said core. When asked how much he thinks it’’ll cost Lindo laughs and says, “”Try fifty billion dollars.”” The government responds, “”Can you take a check?”” I was pleasantly reminded of an episode of Futurama where the space-time continuum is disrupted and time keeps skipping forward. The old scientist and a Harlem Globetrotter (it was a very funny episode) theorize that to create a machine to stop this problem they would need all the money on the Earth. Flash immediately to the two of them being handed a check that says, “All the money of the Earth.” Richard Nixon’s head, in its glass jar, then says, “Get going, you know we can’t spend All the Money on the Earth every day.”

The assembled cast is quite nice. Hilary Swank assumes a leadership role quite nicely. Eckhart is suitably hunky and dashing. Stanley Tucci is very funny as an arrogant science snob. Tcheky Karyo (the poor man’s Jean Reno) is … uh, French. I don’’t think anyone would believe that these people were the best in their fields (only in movies are scientists not old white men but hunky and sexy fun-lovin’ folk).

Director Jon Amiel (Entrapment) seems to know the preposterous nature of his film’s proceedings and amps up the campy thrills. An impromptu landing of the space shuttle in an LA reservoir is a fantastic action set piece, yet is likely the reason the film was delayed after the Columbia crash. The cornball science and steady pacing make The Core an enjoyable, if goofy ride. The film does run out of steam and goes on for 20 minutes longer than it should.

The Core is pure escapist entertainment without a thought in its head. And in dire times of war and harsh realism blaring at us every evening, there’’s nothing wrong with a little juicy escapist fair. Buy a big tub of popcorn and enjoy. Does anyone else wonder if we broke the Earth just after its 5 billion year warranty was up?

Nate’s Grade: C+

Dreamcatcher (2003)

Stephen King movie adaptations are usually a mixed bag. For every Carrie there’’s a Sleep Walkers or a Sometimes They Come Back. Let’’s not even discuss how many straight-to-video Children of the Corn releases there are (the answer, of course, is far too many). So what can we expect from a novel that featured butt weasels?

Dreamcatcher centers on four friends and their annual hunting trip in the woods recounting an earlier time when they befriended a mentally retarded child who would later give each of them psychic gifts. At the same time it appears an alien invasion is nearby, the military are to quarantine the area, and the lost hunter has expelled a bloody serpentine-like creature from his bowels. What does it add up to? The craziest spring break ever man!

There are several moments in Dreamcatcher where you think to yourself, “”Well, it can’’t possibly get more stupid,”” and yet the movie routinely will find a way. It doesn’’t know when to stop. Just when you think the bottom of the Stupid Hole has been hit, here comes an alien possession where the alien uses a freaking British accent (and actually says the word “”guvna’,”” proving to be the most dangerous interstellar chimney sweep). The only reason I knew what was going on was because I read the book over the summer.

The story is a mixture of different King staples: schmaltzy coming-of-age buddy stuff (It), alien invasions (Tommyknockers), gory monsters (take your pick). Dreamcatcher feels like a Stephen King greatest hits tape. The different narrative elements have great trouble gelling, as you can only segue from mentally challenged boy with mystical powers to crazy Morgan Freeman shootin’’ up slimy aliens so often. The story does not work and has too many leftover bits it doesn’’t know what to do with. Dreamcatcher is a proverbial square peg being jammed into a round hole.

The movie shows some promise in its opening, displaying the camaraderie of actors Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Damien Lewis and Timothy Olyphant (a younger looking Bill Paxton if I ever saw one). The notion of the “memory warehouse” is a fun idea that is used for nice comic touches.

Director/co-writer Lawrence Kasdan has written some of the most exciting films of the past 25 years, and screenwriter William Goldman is an old hand at adapting King (having done the masterful Misery and the mawkish Hearts in Atlantis). So what in the world went so horrendously wrong? For starters, the book is a whopping 620 pages and would be more suited in the frame of mini-series. Condensed into a messy two-hour movie, Dreamcatcher is sloppy with its pacing and scope. The movie drags for an eternity and then makes a mad dash at a finish (I won’t spoil its unbelievable awfulness but will say it veers SHARPLY from the novel).

The most interesting part of the novel, for me, was the second half that involved the alien (Mr. Gray) taking over the body of Jonesy (Lewis). What kept me reading was Mr. Gray finding a liking to human temptations like bacon and, later, murder. Seeing Mr. Gray become intoxicated with humanity and perplexed by it at the same time was interesting. Sadly, all you get in the movie is the British accent and some goofy faces as Lewis holds two conversations in one person.

Few movies come along that are as incredibly stupid as Dreamcatcher. I can’t exactly recommend it for this quality. They are playing that Matrix cartoon after it (my theater showed it before the film started). It looks like a video game and features a woman doing flips and sword fighting in a thong, because, quite simply, that’’s what women do in these things. It’’s not really that good either.

Nate’s Grade: D

City of God (2003)

Looking for a film that really packs a genuine wallop? Take the visual panache of a pre-Madonna Guy Ritchie (Snatch) film, the juvenile delinquency and debauchery of a Larry Clark (Kids) film, the propulsive narration and bloody violence of a Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull) film and mix it with a cast of about 40 characters. What you get is City of God, a brilliant and vibrant film that pulsates with exhilarating action, thoughtful commentary and devastating power.

In the 1960s, the Brazilian government transported its impoverished citizens outside of Rio de Janeiro, a glamorous tourist magnet. This new place of residency was a distant housing project of shabby slums, ironically titled City of God. In this begotten neighborhood the police rarely emerge (except to occasionally pick dead people’’s pockets) and crime has become rampant. A mixture of poverty and an overabundance of guns and testosterone have bred a culture of criminals where teenagers populate ruthless gangs.

Our story focuses on Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) narrating the rise, and many falls, of all the flashy thugs of the City of God and the ripples they create in the community. He’s a young boy who is too scrawny to be a hoodlum like his older brother Goose. His brother belongs to a gang known as the Tender Trio, who are used to hijacking propane tanks for small gain. They get the idea to knock off a brothel at the urging of Li’l Dice, a younger kid with ambition and a heart like a stone. After the successful robbery Li’l Dice cleans up after the Trio, sifting through the brothel killing everyone inside and laughing insidiously.

The murder spree has long lasting effects, with each member of the Tender Trio finding an untimely end. Li’l Dice grows from calculating child into a big-time burgeoning cruel gangster, who now calls himself Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino De Hora Phellipe). Ze has climbed to the level of kingpin the most pragmatic way possible: systematically eliminating all of the competition. Ze attains reign over the city. He instructs others not to do anything to arouse the outside police (the locals are paid off), and thus has made the City of God a safe place for rich tourists to drive in and purchase their drugs. It seems that Ze ruling by fear has brought newfound safety and prosperity.

Rocket’’s path is quite different. As he matures into a teenager he discovers a love of photography. His attempts at a life of crime are short-lived; he simply likes his victims too much to rob them. Ze has Rocket take pictures of his gang strutting their machismo that eventually gets published onto the front page of a newspaper. Rocket’s reaction is that he thinks his death certificate has been signed. Ze’’s reaction is delight. Li’l Ze’’s great weakness is his self-believed sexual inadequacy. When turned down by a girl he seeks out her good-looking boyfriend, Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), and humiliates him. He terrorizes Ned, raping his girlfriend in front of him and inspiring him to long bloodthirsty battles of vengeance against Ze that will engulf the City of God.

A complaint that could be levied against City of God is the numbing effect of its violence. The gangsters in this film aren’’t the mustache-twirling types of Gangs of New York, but merely kids. This isn’’t any kind of glamorized Hollywood gun battle. When these kids get hit their bodies go limp; they drop to the ground in weeping masses. The film’s message of the hereditary nature of barbarism is clear. One of the amazing parts of the film is that it was mainly filmed in the actual City of God and uses a cast almost entirely of non-actors.

City of God is a loud announcement to the world of the arrival of a fresh, invigorating and monumental talent with director Fernando Meirelles. The visual flair he utilizes to advance his storyline is amazing yet never falters into the land of gimmickry. The narrative folds in on itself time-wise (much like Tarantino films) yet rhythmically connects the numerous lives and history of the City of God in one lustrous and captivating tapestry of urban decay. A fantastic example is a scene that chronicles the entire history of one apartment and the origins of the entrance of drugs in one un-moving shot. Imagine the Natalie Imbruglia “Torn” video but with drugs and guns.

There is one sequence of crushing emotional power that has been burned into my memory. The sequence involves a bawling child, no older than seven, being forced to decide where he would rather be shot, in his foot or his tiny trembling hand as punishment for his mischief. The reality of City of God is a harrowing one. As you can clearly see, City of God is not for the weak. The movie has its definite squirm-worthy moments of discomfort and will not be a good choice if you and your date are looking for that perfect weekend movie. This is a difficult movie to sit through at times, and the reality can be grim and uncompromising, but City of God is rewarding in respect to the amazing narrative and visual accomplishments. This is an unforgettable film.

The film piles on the body count while at the same time advancing a pacifist message between the bursts of adrenaline and bullets. Meirelles’’ film will leave your jaw dropped to the floor by its sprawling complexity. This is what great filmmaking is all about. City of God is one of those movies that once you’’ve left the theater you excitedly claim, “Now that’s why I see movies.” City of God is simply a cinematic masterpiece and not only the best film I’’d seen in 2003 but also one of the best movies I’’ve seen in my life.

Nate’s Grade: A+

Lost in La Mancha (2003)

Poor Terry Gilliam. One of the best visual directors today hardly ever gets a break. If there was justice in the world (a rhetorical question) Gilliam would be directing a Harry Potter movie. Just imagine the greatness of something like that. But Gilliam is seen as an “eccentric” who doesn’t keep good track of his budget, as evidenced by the inflating costs of his ‘Baron Munchausen’ effort. As a result of making classy yet quirky pictures his way Gilliam has become a director that works on the fringe. His last effort was a delirious retelling of the Don Quixote tale. When it came time to film ‘The Man Who Killed don Quixote’ it seems everyone, even God, was against Gilliam realizing his dream.

‘Lost in La Mancha’ is a fascinating and equally heart breaking documentary following the making of and, more so, the breaking of Gilliam’s movie. For starters the location for a pivotal scene in the desert is located near a Spanish air force base and fighter jets roar overhead. Then there’s a flash food that destroys equipment and a set. Then there’s the star of the picture that may or may not have cancer but sure can’t ride a horse. It’s enough to pull your hair out. ‘Lost in La Mancha’ is like the cinematic version of the highly entertaining, and addictive, HBO series ‘Project Greenlight’: witness movie making first hand and witness one catastrophe after another! The two directors of ‘Lost in La Mancha’ are the same people that created the nearly 90 minute documentary on the trials and tribulations of making ’12 Monkeys’ (and this documentary is by far the best special feature on any DVD ever released). The two have a certain fondness for Gilliam but push the Gilliam-as-Quixote image way too much.

The really sad part about this documentary is that the glimpses it does show of the film (when it is working and not going into devastation) prove it could have been a wonderful and whimsical fantasy. Heck, he even got Johnny Depp to be in it! Gilliam will move on as will everyone else involved in this aborted film but there will now be a lasting mark. Whether it serves as an open sore or a Band-Aid is a different matter.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Tears of the Sun (2003)

Bruce Willis is an ARMY squad leader called in to rescue a doctor (the sultry Monica Belucci) at a missionary in Nigeria. The country is in great turmoil after very very evil rebels have assassinated the entire royal family. Oh, but the good and very hot doctor refuses to leave without Willis’’ squad taking the refugees out of the missionary with them. He begrudgingly accepts and they as a group travel through the countryside of Nigeria, all the while the very rebels are not far behind.

The film takes a tonal shift when Willis’’ men come to the choice of staying with the refugees and trying to save them all, or following their mission protocol and getting the hot doctor onto an ARMY helicopter and shipped out ASAP, with no regards to the refugees. The shift in morality isn’’t as smooth as ‘Three Kings’ but now the film tries to place an emphasis on the human scale of genocide (even though ALL of these refugees who have lived in squalor have sterling white teeth, go fig). The weight of the topic easily alludes what is little more than a by-the-numbers action film.

With action films there will always be gaps of logic. However, there was one monumentally glaring miscalculation of forward thinking that prevented me from getting into the film again (*Spoilers ahead, big angry spoilers*).

Okay, so African Rebels are chasing Willis and his team and the refugees. Got it. But then we find out later that one of the refugees is actually the, wait for it, heir to the throne of the country! All right, sounds hokey and more than a little culturally pretentious but I can follow. Hold on a second then. This heir to the country, who is obviously so important that people would risk their lives and safety for his own, why did these people not put him on the ARMY helicopters earlier that flew a handful of refugees out and to the safety of a U.S. air craft carrier. It makes no freaking sense whatsoever to have this golden opportunity that would 100% ensure the safety and longevity of THE HEIR TO THE KINGDOM and say, “Nah, you know what? We’ll catch the next ARMY helicopter guaranteeing safety to the man who would be king. We’ll sweat it out and have the rebels chase us, we could use the exercise anyway.” What has just happened to this movie?! After this, it was never the same for me; not that it was anything special to begin with.

Tears of the Sun’ is an action movie that attempts to be an action flick with a heart and a social conscious. There is a segment of the film where Willis and his cadre stumble onto ANOTHER batch of DIFFERENT but still very EVIL rebels assaulting a town, you know, rape and pillage and the like. Willis and company essentially save these people from the rebel tyranny but at this point the film’s core message has been well lodged into your gray matter: Africa needs the white man’’s saving. More than a little arrogant and a tad racist, don’’t you think? I mean not every country can wait patiently for Willis to liberate them.

Tears of the Sun’ does have some lovely examples of cinematography and some competent pieces of action here and there. In the end the film is an overblown and culturally insulting entry into the genre of people shooting and people falling down.

Nate’s Grade: C

Spellbound (2002)

The field of super spellers heading to Washington D.C. is more varied than you could possibly imagine. What is truly amazing, and equally heart-rending, are the scenes showing working-class families encourage their children to excellence. Angela’s parents fled Mexico to give a better life for their family in Texas. Her father has been a rancher for 30 years and does not speak a word of English. It’s incredible to see the amount of pride her parents have when they see her compete. She says she’’s doing it for them. Ashley lives in the projects outside of Washington D.C. She exudes confidence as she makes long treks from school to the cramp apartment her family lives in. Her mother had never expected her child, from her background, to compete for spelling contests but becomes her biggest and most vocal cheerleader.

Spellbound also shows the fanatical level of commitment some of these kids have. Neil’s father pushes his son to the extremes and the two go over 4,000-8,000 words a day. Neil’s parents even hire a spelling coach and he gets instruction from his school’s foreign language teachers on the history and spelling of foreign words. The commitment most of these kids show is jaw-dropping and obsessive. Ted is the exact opposite. He’s so nonchalant about the spelling bees that it almost seems like he’s battling complacency in his small town. His younger brother has the film’s best line: “It was so exciting. If I had blood pressure it’ would be through the roof!”

My favorite speller is April. She and her parents live in a dying town. Her father worked in a asbestos factory until it was shut down. He now operates a tavern across from the decaying factory. The family struggles to get by but has so much visible love for their daughter, so much undying support for April. I saw April’’s parents as the type you might be embarrassed to say something weird to your friends (“Mom, you are so out of it, geez.”) but the same type that you secretly thank everyday you have. April declares herself a pessimist and doubts the distance she’’ll go in the national bee. This is the kind of instantly likeable and compelling character Hollywood has forgotten how to create.

With Spellbound we get to know our hopefuls so well that we’re saddened before the national bee even begin because, at best, only one of them will win. And, as corny as it sounds, they are all exemplary examples of winners.

Spellbound is the most thrilling movie I’’ve seen in ages, totally walloping the heady pretensions of certain action movies. This film will make your palms sweat and then some. Your heart races wildly when it isn’’t in your throat. Several films like The Sweet Hereafter or American History X have brought me to tears through their adept expressions of sadness; Spellbound may be the first film that’s ever brought me to tears (about five times) just for pure vicarious happiness and joy. To see these kids achieve will, and I know this is so cheesy and blurb-y, but it will make your spirit soar and want to cheer. I’ve since watched the film several times on DVD, and I must report how surprised I am that I end up crying every time, though at different spots. This is a joyous movie, pure and simple.

Spellbound is an uplifting movie for everyone that is guaranteed to have some lasting, triumphant resonance. If you can’t feel for these kids I suggest you check if your heart is defective. This is a great example of what film can do, what the American dream can mean for people, and the great diversity an academic competition can inspire. Spellbound is thrilling, heartwarming, and sunnily satisfying. You’ll fall in love with these kids and their hopes and dreams.

E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-T. Excellent.

Nate’s Grade: A

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