Monthly Archives: August 2003

Thirteen (2003)

No one said being a 13-year-old was easy. Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood, a dead ringer for a young Jennifer Garner) is a straight-A student living with her mother Melanie (Holly Hunter, nominated for an Oscar). Her family fights to get by with Melanie’s at-home hair salon. People, usually accompanied by wee kids, stroll in and out of their house like it was a bed and breakfast. Melanie’’s previous boyfriend Brady (Jeremy Sisto) has sobered up and settled back into her life, despite Tracy’’s wishes.

Evie (Nikki Reed, who co-wrote the film with the director) is that cool girl at Portola Middle School. Tracy desperately wishes to join Evie’s inner sanctum of friends, enough that she’ll steal the pocketbook of a stranger to impress Evie. Tracy is taken under Evie’s wing and learns how to flirt, dress, dance, kiss, and terrify her mother. Melanie’s concern is a slow simmer, but she can’t ignore all the signs of what is happening momma’’s little girl. The girls revel in bared midriffs, body piercing, and gallons of shiny make-up. Evie lives with her guardian Brooke (Deborah Kara Unger), herself a sad woman ravaged by booze and pills. When she tells Melanie that Brooke beats her, the maternal instincts overpower her concern. She invites Evie to stay with her family. Evie even calls Melanie “mom.” More disintegration of Tracy follows.

Thirteen does exhibit a rare maturity in the displaying of teenage emotions, namely the pull to belong. It also pays incisive attention to our consumer society marketing teen sexuality and the implicit effects. Thirteen creates a more realistic teenager by showing the vulnerability that’’s inherent in growing up.

Wood gives a strong performance as her character descends from goodie-good to teen vamp. Her square jaw and lanky frame are physically perfect at displaying a natural young awkwardness. She looks like a teenager I’’d see on my block, not what Hollywood is trying to tell me. Wood gets a tad drunk on her character’s emotions, like a scene where she tries to scare her mother by lurching forward and cooing, ““No bra. No panties.””

Hunter’’s depiction of Tracy’s mother is out to lunch about her daughter. This makes the character seem earnest yet stupidly naïve, and after the 200th request of “we need to talk” is met once again with a closed door, the audience begins to think that Melanie has some deep-seated issues herself.

The direction by first timer Catherine Harwicke starts off as annoying with self-gratifying camerawork. The handheld camera swoops in and out attempting to establish a fluid realism. She also utilizes muted or exaggerated colors to express Tracy’s highs and lows. What started as self-congratulatory direction actually warmed me over, and I began to take notice of how lovingly Hardwicke stuffs her frame and utilizes lighting. It seems like she could have a career ahead of her as a director.

Though the acting is strong and the direction grows on you, Thirteen never really rises above its ilk of “cautionary tale.” It’’s your basic story set-up of good girl meets bad influence, gets bad, distances family and old friends, experiences highs and then crashing lows, usually capped off with some kind of lesson learned. This is Thirteen in a nutshell. Tracy’s change from good girl to pubescent trash occurs at an unbelievably fast speed.

You could make an argument that the film is trying to be daring and shocking, but this whole “”what’’s wrong with kids today”” routine has been done better in lesser films, like Larry Clark’’s Kids. Even though Clark has a fixation for lingering on nubile bodies, his film portrays wayward teenagers and their hedonistic behavior without the constraints of trying to frame sympathetic characters. Thirteen hedges its resources; it can’t be fully shocking if it keeps trying to make us like the characters, thus giving glimpses of remorse and doubt. In today’s world, I don’t think it’s shocking anymore to see 13-year-olds engaged in drugs and sex, especially after witnessing kids killing kids in the brilliant City of God earlier last year.

Thirteen is a noble effort but fails in any attempt in functioning as preemptive wake-up call. The acting is quite capable (Wood appears to be headed for junior star status) but the film is ultimately unimpressive. Perhaps the only way to be shocked by this movie is if you’re a negligent parent with a disposable income. It would be worth a rental, but there’s nothing overpowering enough in the film to justify full movie ticket price. While I was watching Thirteen I kept recalling a piece of dialogue the grandfather in Fargo said: “You let him go to McDonalds at this hour? They do more than drink milkshakes, I guarantee you that.” In the end the message of Thirteen is simply this: one bad apple can spoil the bunch.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Freddy vs. Jason (2003)

Usually cross-over flicks seem like the last stop in a flagging franchise’s journey before the wheels fall off. When it comes to slasher flicks, the nature of the genre is the exact opposite of more traditional horror flicks. Instead of rooting for their survival we can’t wait for their evisceration. Freddy and Jason are tycoons of bloody teen tyranny; this is their business, and apparently, ladies and gentlemen, business is good.

It seems that Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is not having a grand ole’ time in hell. This horrifically scarred former boogeyman used to slaughter the residents of Elm Street in creative yet gruesome manners. The residents of Elm Street have been giving their kids potent pills to stop them from dreaming, thus shutting the door on Freddy. Now Freddy isn’’t even remembered, and as he so eloquently remarks, “that’’s a real bitch.” He’s not down for the count, though. He reawakens Jason (Ken Kerzinger), an indestructible behemoth with lucky hockey mask and machete, to terrorize the residents of Elm Street so the fear quotient peaks and Freddy can regain power. Jason gets a little carried away, notably at a student rave in a corn field, and Freddy doesn’t like Jason having all the murderous fun. Thus establishes a showdown.

For the first fifteen minutes or so, it appears like Freddy vs. Jason (no under card like Michael Myers vs. Pumpkinhead) is a winking parody of the slasher films it made famous. In the opening minutes we already get our first dose of gratuitous nudity as a foolhardy coed skinny-dips in some familiar camp waters. She actually says, while swimming naked, in the year 2003, “Where are you? This isn’’t funny anymore!”

Another example of self-awareness occurs after the first murder on Elm Street. Immediately after a gruesome murder the trio of girls runs out the house shrieking, “HELP!” at the top of their lungs (and for Kelly Rowland that could get high). A passing police car stops by. The girls frantically bang on the car window, still crying for help. The officer rolls down his window and says plainly, “You girls need some assistance?” Don’t even get me started on the sudden appearance of a goat.

Director Ronny Yu previously resurrected the Chucky franchise with 1998’’s Bride of Chucky and works his magic yet again. Yu’’s staging of mayhem is alert and, despite an overly enthusiastic score, some dread does build. Some of his camera angles are also very unique.

The female lead (Monica Keena) seems like the definition of the blonde of slasher films. She’’s mysteriously always wearing white (she’s a virgin!) outfits that get drenched with water. Hmmm, wonder what the reasoning with that is? All the disposable one-note characters that populate horror films are here. The very bland male (Jason Ritter) lead looks remarkably like a Matt LeBlanc Jr., which could explain the incredible amount of blandness he exhibits. Rowland, she of Destiny and her children, plays the sassy best friend to our virginal protagonist.

Actually, the character and actress that most grew on me was Gibb played by Katherine Isabelle. She previously starred in Ginger Snaps, a really good Canadian horror flick about teen girls and werewolves (you know how teen girls are). This made it so much more surprising when the movie put her in a sequence where it appeared date rape was going to save her life. That’’s probably a movie first.

Of course with a movie title like Freddy vs. Jason ya gotta have some hearty versus action. And it’s during these moments when the Gloved One and the Solemn Goalie duke it out that the film is really cooking with gas. The battles between these two are brutal, but also brutally entertaining. When they get to their final showdown, limbs hacked off, blood spewing like caramel geysers, and these two weary fighters are still going at it, then you know you’re getting your money’s worth.

Freddy vs. Jason has the smartest collection of teens I may have ever seen in a slasher flick. They even have a round table discussion summarizing the plot and connecting the dots rather easily. “Jason was killed by water and Freddy was killed by fire. Maybe we can use that.” They don’’t. It’’s never mentioned again. But just the fact that this group is dissecting their situation calls out for a gold star. There’s a lot of dropped storylines here, like the father who may or may not have killed under Freddy’’s influence. He just kind of drops in and out whenever necessary. There’s even a stoner character that wears a knit cap, has long wavy blonde hair, and spews forth profanities. I call criminal negligence for aping Jason Mewes (he the Jay part of Kevin Smith’’s Jay and Silent Bob).

Freddy vs. Jason is nothing more than throw-away, trashy fun, but it’s a good way to waste an afternoon. I can’t recall any other movie I verbally said “”Hell yeah”” aloud during. The scene prompting this utterance was when a secondary character tries impaling Jason with an American flag. Yes, an American flag. I think that may deserve a second “”Hell yeah”” but I’’m currently undecided. Fans of the slasher genre will love this film, and fans of somewhat self-referential old school horror will get a kick too. I’ll say this; I wouldn’’t mind seeing the rematch.

Nate’s Grade: B-

S.W.A.T. (2003)

Hey, I got an idea, let’s spend 2/3 of our movie building characters no one cares about, and then we’ll let something action-y happen in the last act? What could possibly go wrong? I got an even better idea, let’s bring along Michelle Rodriguez as a, get this, tough girl cop. Oh yeah, and we need some Samuel L. Jackson too. And let’s have the bad guy be French, since no one likes them right now anyway. Brilliant.

Nate’s Grade: C

Freaky Friday (2003)

The body-swapping movie was so en vogue a while back. It began with the original 70s film Freaky Friday (which co-starred Jodie Foster), and then the 80s hit and we had Fred Savage trading places with the likes of Judge Reinhold and Tom Hanks becoming Big. Heck, Disney even remade Freaky Friday in the early 90s starring Shelly Long (where have you gone, Shelly Long?). So will audiences welcome a second Freaky Friday remake when it appears that body-swapping films went the way of synth scores?

Tess Coleman (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a therapist with a long list of needy clients and access to about every portable electronic on the planet. She’s planning her wedding to Ryan (Mark Harmon), and as the details get crunched so does more and more stress. Her 15 year-old daughter Annabell (Lindsey Lohan) is the spunky and defiant teen that just can’t see eye-to-eye with mom. She’s tormented by a bratty younger brother and is trying to get her pop-punk band (which has three, count ‘em, three guitarists; a bit much I think) into competitions. Annabell is perturbed with her mom for remarrying so quickly after her father’’s death. Is there anyway these two can get along? They’’ll find out when they swap places due to a mystical Chinese fortune cookie.

Curtis is simply magnificent. She gets to have the most fun as the teen cutting loose in the adult body. She has her teen mannerisms and vocal tics down cold. Most of all, Curtis is having loads of fun and it becomes infectious, but not in the strained and superficial way Charlie’’s Angels 2 tried to convince you with. She turns in a splendid comedic performance utilizing her tomboy magnetism. She’s a pure joy to watch because she goes for broke with her performance. I can’t even think of what Annette Benning would have been like in the role. Ditto Kelly Osbourne as her daughter (they were originally cast).

Lohan is equally up to the plate. She has a natural flair for comedy and also gets Curtis’ stilted mannerisms down to a T. Her line delivery is great. Lohan was in the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, but with Freaky Friday she’’s grown up into Avril Lavigne apparently. I also feel that Lohan has much more charisma and acting ability than in all of Hilary Duff.

The body-swapping gimmick is generally a straight forward path for the characters to literally walk in each other’s shoes and learn valuable lessons. But even so, I found myself getting choked up toward the end. It was surprising the amount you care for these two characters. Sure you know exactly how this whole enterprise will end, but exceptional acting and clever writing elevate the material.

Even more surprising is some risqué elements in the story. When Annabell is in her mother’s body, her hunky crush starts falling for mom. Of course the Disney folks don’t let this ever reach Mrs. Robinson territory before a tidy resolution. Even more risqué is the impending marriage of Tess. If the two ladies can’t reverse their body-swap, Tess’ daughter will be stuck in the grown-up body, the same one that will be married and, yikes, be engaged in all kinds of honeymoon activities. A 15 year-old marrying and having sex with a 50 year-old man? Creepy.

Some things of Freaky Friday feel tacky and out of place, like a near racist portrayal of nosy Chinese women. And it’’s never explained what Annabell’’s hunky crush does at her high school. He works there, but your guess is as good as mine for what exactly he does besides wandering the halls and making doe-eyes at young girls.

Freaky Friday is exuberant, poppy, charming and refreshingly fun. The acting from our two female leads is strong and the steadied direction from Mark Waters (The House of Yes) balances a quick pace with airy humor and pathos (and a strong soundtrack of pop-punk covers). I think I’m more surprised than anyone that the three Disney films released summer 2003 (Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean as well) were, by far, the three most sheer enjoyable films during the summer of 2003. Freaky indeed.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Gigli (2003)

It’s the feel-good movie of the year revolving around a lunkhead mobster (Ben Affleck) and his mentally challenged kipnapee and their attempts to covert a lesbian hitman (Jennifer Lopez) in between her yoga/horrific monologues concerning the superiority of female genitalia. Believe the hype people; Gigli is indeed as bad as they have told you. It’s not even entertainingly bad, like Bulletproof Monk, no folks; Gigli is just mundane and awful. During the entire two hour stretch, which feels much much longer, I kept saying one thing aloud: “How could anyone making this think they were making a goodmovie?” Did they think audiences would find it funny that Affleck’s mother (the mother from My Big Fat Greek Wedding) shows us her big fat Greek behind? Did they really think that a mentally retarded kid (who has an affinity for gangster rap and wishes to travel to the mythical “Baywatch”) would come off as endearing? Well instead it comes across as insulting. And what else is insulting is the laugh-out-loud dialogue Lopez is forced to spit out concerning her attraction for women. I can’t think of any actress that could say the line, “I love my pussy” convincingly. And I’m sure a lot of actresses out there have true affection for it. The writing is just atrocious. And so much else fails as well. The score is a perplexing mix of upbeat jazz and inappropriate string orchestra. I don’t understand what emotions they were going for during scenes in Gigli but a full string orchestra playing music better suited for a real drama does not fit. Maybe it was for a tragedy. In that case, then it’s right on the money. You won’t see a more sloppily executed, horribly acted, painfully written, lazily directed, inept film this year. And what the hell did Christopher Walken walking in have anything to do with anything?

Nate’s Grade: F

American Wedding (2003)

So it looks like Jim (Jason Biggs) and his bang-camp lovin’’ girlfriend Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are going to tie the knot. As the wedding approaches hilarious hijinks ensue. That’s really about it plot-wise. Steve Stifler (Seann William Scott) makes a return to goose every one up for a wedding, which also promises bridesmaids and a bachelor party. More hijinks ensue until the wedding.

The best thing the ‘American Pie’ makers did was shaving down their overloaded cast. Gone are Chris Klein, Mena Suvari, Natascha Lyonne, Shannon Elizabeth, and Tara Reid. And good riddance I say. What made ‘American Pie 2’ an improvement, for me, was that they focused on the interesting characters (Jim, Michelle, Stifler, Finch) and then gave the others some scant storyline. The comedy worked better when it wasn’t so divided among characters that weren’’t equal in being compelling.

Scott is a whirling comic Tasmanian devil; with his twitchy weaselly grin, his drunken leer, and near spitfire delivery of such profanity-laden lines. The Stifler character has come a long way since having only 11 lines in 1999’’s ‘American Pie’. He emerged as a strong supporting character in the 2001 sequel, igniting the screen whenever he entered. Now Scott has become the de facto star of the ‘American Pie’ trilogy: it’’s really all about the rise and evolution of Stifler. He’s gone from being the sneering jerk to becoming a lovable loudmouth. ‘American Wedding’ is really the Steve Stifler show. He shouts, dances, and eats dog crap – all for your enjoyment people. Scott’s efforts and energy are so transcendent that he rightfully owns the film, much in the same way Johnny Depp entirely owned ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’.

Biggs and Hannigan have a lovely charm to them and both are blessed with radiant smiles. Eugene Levy is still hilarious as the dad who has a problem with over sharing. The other actors serve out their roles from straight-guy (Thomas Ian Nicholas) to horrible-reaction-guy (Eddie Kaye Thomas).

Not everything works as smoothly the third slice around. Some jokes are inspired like the one-upsmanship of a bachelor party gone awry when Michelle’’s parents interrupt (which, like the second film, provides the gratuitous nudity). Some jokes feel dull, especially some misbegotten pubic hair belonging to Jim. And then some jokes just lose their momentum as they seem to stretch. Stifler dancing in a gay bar just to prove he can make even gay men want him? Funny. Have it go on and on with substandard dancing for a dance-off? Loses the funny. But with any comedy, and especially ones following the gross-out expectations, everything is hit-or-miss.

I also noticed something quite odd about ‘American Wedding’: it’’s badly directed. Many scenes are shot at oblique angles often with characters not even facing the camera. The cutting seems awkward as well as the framing. The film was directed by Jesse Dylan (How High), who is, no joke, a son of the legendary Bob.

‘American Wedding’ seems like a fitting end to these characters journeys. It’s a comedy ripe with laugh-out-loud moments and groaners, mostly supplied by Scott. There’’s also a degree of sweetness. In a summer drenched in sequels, at least one of them fulfilled some of its promise.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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