Monthly Archives: November 2003

Big Fish (2003)

Big Fish (2003)

Premise: Estranged son Will (Billy Crudup) travels back home in an effort to know his ailing father Edward Bloom (Albert Finney; Ewan McGregor as the younger version). Will hopes to learn the truth behind a man who spent a lifetime spinning extravagant tall tales.

Results: Despite a shaky first half, Big Fish becomes a surprisingly elegant romance matched by director Tim Burtion’’s visual whimsy. McGregor’’s shining big-grinned optimism is charming. Not to be confused with the similar but too mawkish Forrest Gump, Burton’’s father-son meditation will have you quite choked up at its moving climax. Fair warning to those with father issues, you may want to steer clear from Big Fish. You know who you are.

Nate’’s Grade: B+

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

The best way to describe Disney’’s third movie based on a theme park ride is this: it’s exactly like the ride. Which means it’’s nice to look at but little else is there. Eddie Murphy, in his soul-selling kid friendly phase of his career, is a real estate salesman who can’t pass up the prospect of a mansion. Never mind it’’s haunted. He brings the family along, which includes a drop-dead beautiful wife, Sara (Marsha Thomason), and two annoying kids. There’’s some storyline about Sara being the one to break the curse of the mansion, something about love never dying and a mystic key which leads to a mystic chest … I know, I’’m bored already too. Despite being a mere 98 minutes ‘The Haunted Mansion’ has sluggish pacing and some cheesy special effects. This is the kind of movie someone has a fear only because they need a moment to overcome that fear to save others. Murphy mugs for the camera and occasionally it’s funny, but he has the expression that even he doesn’’t believe he’s funny. Never good for an actor. Terrence Stamp is amusing as the butler. Jennifer Tilly is a highlight at the floating gypsy head in the crystal ball. The direction by Rob Minkoff (Stewart Little 2) is solid, and his opening sequence of the film’’s back-story being played across the credits is the highlight. But what does it say when the highlight of the film is the opening titles? I don’t know who this film is for. It’s a bit too scary for young kids. Tweens won’t want to see a “Disney scary movie” and would rather see some of the PG-13 scares, like The Ring. It certainly isn’t for adults. Who is this movie for Disney? And I may be the only one, especially after recent events in the news, but when all the skeletons came out of their crypts … I thought Michael Jackson was going to come out and they’d all dance.

Nate’’s Grade: C

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Without sounding easily bemused or corny, this movie really is glorious filmmaking. With Peter Weir’’s steady and skilled direction we get to really know the life of the early 19th century. We also get to know an armada of characters and genuinely feel for them. Russell Crowe is outstanding as Captain Jack Aubrey. His physicality and emotions are expertly showcased. When he gives a motivational speech you’’d understand why people would follow him to the ends of the earth. Paul Bettany (again buddying up to Crowe after ‘A Beautiful Mind’) is Oscar-worthy for his performance as the ship’s’ doctor and confidant to the Captain. He’’s not afraid to question the Captain’’s motives, like following a dangerous French ship all around South America. ‘Master and Commander’ hums with life, and the battle sequences are heart-stopping and beautifully filmed. It took three studios to produce and release this and every dollar spent can be seen on the screen. ‘Master and Commander’ is fantastic compelling entertainment with thrills, humanity, and wonder. It’s grand old school Hollywood filmmaking.

Nate’s Grade: A

Pieces of April (2003)

The set-up for Pieces of April, a low-budget film starring Katie Holmes, is a pastiche of familiar independent film elements so much so that it could across as parody. Holmes plays April Burns, a beleaguered teen living on her own in a grungy New York apartment. Today is Thanksgiving and her family will be stopping by for a grand Thanksgiving meal prepared by April. Her cantankerous mother (Patricia Clarkson) is ailing from breast cancer, and when she tries to think of one good memory she’s had with April, she can only conjure memories belonging to younger daughter Beth (Alison Pill). She also will be introducing her family to her new boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke of Antoine Fisher). April has 24 hours to cook a memorable meal for her family and it could be the last Thanksgiving they spend together.

In the world of independent film, it seems like there’s a whole sub-genre of movies that revolve around chaotic Thanksgiving dinners and dysfunctional families. The holiday setting, her mother’s cancer, April’’s spirited attempts at autonomy in the big city, interracial dating and an apartment complex full of cute oddballs all seem like tried-and-true staples of indie film.

Pieces of April was written and directed by Peter Hedges, writer of What’’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and co-writer of About a Boy. His pedigree would certainly state that he knows something about family drama, and Pieces of April is a nice continuation of his observational humor. Hedges has a skilled confidence in his writing. The characters feel real and we gravitate to their vulnerability and hope. We see every sincere detail of April’s plight to make her family proud. The choice to shoot Pieces of April on digital video adds an extra element of intimacy, like we’re trapped inside a home video.

Holmes gives her best performance to date. April, with patches of bright orange hair and arms enclosed with bracelets, is a sweetly vibrant character. When a neighbor asks about her relationship with her mother, April describes herself as the first pancake. “She’’s the one you’’re supposed to throw out,” another neighbor explains. Holmes’’ performance is like a slow simmer of frustration, optimism and determination that wins your heart. Her more dramatic moments of helplessness and disappointment are quite affecting.

The supporting cast for Pieces of April is top-notch. Clarkson gets some weighty moments as the ailing mother, like when she runs out of the car in tears because she can’t afford one more bad memory with April. She gets the showy part but enlivens every moment. Oliver Platt further feeds my theory of his quest to be in every movie ever. In Pieces of April he plays the put-upon father who frets his wife could pass any moment. Pill shines as the hyperactively cheerful and overachieving Beth. Her cherubic cheeks and glowing smile leave an indelible impression, and makes me question if her face ever got sore from excessive smiling.

Pieces of April is a pleasurable little comedy that’s borderline touching. It’’s not much more than a small slice of family drama, but with excellent writing and strong acting, Pieces of April distinguishes itself as more than a collection of familiar staples, and as a warm and quietly charming homespun comedy with an extra helping of heart.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Human Stain (2003)

Anthony Hopkins as a black man? Nicole Kidman as a white trash janitor? And the two are LOVERS? This is a movie that is sunk by some lamebrain casting decisions. It’s one of those art pieces that yearns to be something more but just gasps for air.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Four years ago the Wachowskis revolutionized the world of cinema, with their surprise sci-fi opus, The Matrix. Their mixture of philosophy, kinetic visuals, and inventive action with style to spare laid waste to all inferior action movies and gave birth to a cult of fan boys. Now six months after the second installment, The Matrix: Reloaded, we’re left to supposedly close the chapter on Matrix land.

Neo (Keanu Reeves) is caught in a strange limbo between the machine world and the real world. The only passage back to either is through the Merovingian’s chief hobo, the Trainman (seriously, he’s a hobo with teeth like a jack-o-lantern). Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) travel to the most spastic fetish club imaginable for negotiations with the Merovingian. He agrees to give them back Neo if they will bring him the eyes of the Oracle, the prophet of the Matrix.

The rest of Revolutions takes place within two storylines. The first involves Morpheus and his former flame Niobe (Jada Pinkett Smith, finally getting a sizeable role she deserves) flying the last remaining ship of the human fleet back to Zion, the last remaining free human city, before the tunneling army of the machines breach the city walls. The other storyline involves Neo and Trinity flying a ship to the heart of Machine Town to have a face-to-face with The Wizard. They want to negotiate a peace between the two factions and put a stop to the increasingly uncontrollable rogue program, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who, left unchecked, could destroy both the human and machine world.

Reeves has never been confused with a serious actor, or even much of an actor for that matter. And sure, he has a penchant for being out-acted by inanimate objects, but his stint in Revolutions is stiff and wooden, like he’’s just punching the clock to get through another day. It doesn’’t help his case that half of his scenes involve the woefully inept romance between him and Moss.

The only person that seems to be having any fun in this overly serious melodrama with guns is Weaving. His Agent Smith character has morphed into the true star of the Matrix trilogy. He’s charming and even more likable than the dull-witted Neo. Weaving seems to love the drawn out line delivery, so much so he might be accused of abusing anti-depressants. His insidious cackles are a delight.

The plot of The Matrix: Revolutions has several head-scratching moments. Like the kid who yearns to be in the fight but is too young and clumsy. Anyone who’’s ever seen any movie ever will know how that plot point turns out. Then there are questions like, why do people far in the future still use wheelbarrows to lug ammo around? Why, during a shoot-out at the fetish club’s gun check room, do people jump on the ceiling? Why would being on the ceiling make you any more difficult to shoot? The whole sequence comes off like a poorly done rip-off of the Wachowski’s’ own bank lobby shoot-out from the original Matrix.

Revolutions is the least densely plotted of the three films. Now, one would think this would be a godsend, especially after the pretensions and bloated mess that was The Matrix: Reloaded. But there’s nothing at all memorable in this third installment, and perhaps this is because everything but ten minutes of it takes place in the dingy “real world.” Who cares about a post-apocalyptic universe where the surviving subterranean humans wear rags and pull all-night raves? I’’ve seen that stuff in a thousand other movies (maybe not the raves part, though). Everything is better within the virtual reality Matrix world; from the clothes to the gravity-defying cool acrobatics to the cinematography to, God help me for saying it, the acting and dialogue. At least Reloaded gave us the stylish goods when it came to that heart-thumping freeway chase.

Although Revolutions is a slight improvement over the tedious Reloaded, this is only because after seeing the third and final leg of this trilogy, it makes the second film look worse. The intriguing new elements of Reloaded, like the French Merovingian and his wife (the lovely Monica Bellucci), are now seen to be nothing more than dropped subplots. Even the coolest additions to the Matrix universe –the ghostly twins- don’’t even show up. Sigh. Now that I know where the story ends, the loose ends of Reloaded don’’t justify themselves nearly as much as I would have liked.

The showpieces of Revolutions are two long battles in its final act. The first is a near-20 minute assault by the Sentinels, resembling flying mechanical octopi, against the defenses of Zion. It’’s exciting for a while but battle fatigue settles in quickly. You can only watch so many CGI robo-exoskeletons shooting CGI machine guns at CGI flying machines as they explode in CGI explosions and CGI shrapnel. The effects are nice, and seem more polished than Reloaded, but the sense of imagination seems to be entirely absent. The second battle is the final fist-fight between Neo and Agent Smith in the pouring rain. Smith has duplicated himself enough to cover miles upon miles of high rises. The fight sequence is impressive and beautifully filmed, but it amounts to a big shoulder shrug after watching Neo battle 100 Smiths in Reloaded. The final confrontation in Revolutions is adequately satisfying if a bit under whelming and unmemorable.

The need for corporate coffers to ring has turned what was a great stand alone film into a mediocre franchise, one whose diminished hopes and lowered expectations can only be judged on par with the Star Wars prequels. My friend Colin equated watching The Matrix: Revolutions to a wet dream: momentarily satisfying but leaving one with nothing but pangs of emptiness. The Matrix trilogy doesn’’t end with any sense of urgency; instead it draws to a close with a half-baked artificial fulfillment. The journey of Neo and Trinity and all the rest has come to a whimpering end.

Nate’s Grade: C

Brother Bear (2003)

Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix) is the impulsive younger brother in a tribe of Native Americans living in Northern America. Where exactly? Well, I don’’t know but someplace where Kenai and his brothers can surf wicked glaciers dude. Kenai wants to be accepted into his people more than anything. Too bad he’s a screw-up. Some fish he leaves out attracts a bear that inadvertently kills Kenai’’s older, wiser brother. Kenai swears revenge against the bear and kills it. But lo, this upsets the spirits of nature and they turn Kenai into a bear himself. Oh the irony. Kenai must learn all about coping in the animal kingdom while looking after a young cub Koda, whose looking for his lost mother. Take a guess what happened to his mother. No, seriously, go on and guess. I’’ll sit here and wait. Done? Okay then.

The story of Brother Bear has as much life as a bearskin rug. Once again we have a hotheaded jerk that walks a mile in someone else’’s paws and learns valuable life lessons through their bizarre transformation. The only thing this movie is missing is Rob Schneider in the main role.

I don’’t know what the makers of Brother Bear were intending. Is this for young kids? Well there is endless slapstick and cutesy woodland creatures. However, the first part of the story is quite dark and all about family loss. Great way to start a family film huh? With some family killings? If this is also intended for kids I’’m pretty sure they’’ll be bored at the preachier moments talking about animal cruelty and tolerance.

Disney once again plays it too safe and by trying to please everybody they end up likely pleasing nobody. This is 20,000 leagues below the artful Finding Nemo. Why does it seem like when the Diz does things in-house they’re so adverse to risk? What the audience is left with is a formulaic piece of fluff that’s only memorable attribute is being extraordinarily ordinary.

The ending is so bad that it’s beyond belief, so allow me to spoil it. Kenai transforms back into a human after he’s learned his valuable lesson. He then chooses to remain a bear to watch after Koda. What? Why don’t they turn Koda into a boy? Or turn everyone into bears? Or why not turn everyone in the audience into people watching a different, better movie?

The animation of Brother Bear is clunky and awkward amidst a crayola-colored backdrop. The visuals often seem drab or like the templates for a better movie. The human characters appear so stocky. The best element of Brother Bear is the voice work of Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis doing a moose variation on their McKenzie brothers.

Phil Collins provides the painfully monotonous pop claptrap that’s cued whenever a montage is needed. How the hell did this man win an Oscar for Best Song over the likes of Aimee Mann, Sarah McLachlan, and the creators of South Park? The best way to describe Collins’ collection of unmotivated ditties is that they’re like soup for the ears: runny, bland, forgettable, and dreadfully unsatisfying. If you can’t tell, I don’t really care for soup (“Soup is too a food!”).

Brother Bear is yet another half-hearted effort from the Mouse House. The story, animation, and voice acting are all sub par. It’s the same sing and dance al over again, except this time it’s in the woods, and this time the sing and dance is your senile grandfather with his pants around his ankles doing the jitterbug. Yeah. You get the idea.

Nate’s Grade: C

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