Monthly Archives: March 2004

Jersey Girl (2004)

Writer/director Kevin Smith (Dogma) takes a stab at family friendly territory with the story of Ollie Trinke (Ben Affleck), a music publicist who must give up the glamour of the big city to realize the realities of single fatherhood. Despite brief J. Lo involvement, Jersey Girl is by no means Gigli 2: Electric Boogaloo. Alternating between edgy humor and sweet family melodrama, Smith shows a growing sense of maturity. Liv Tyler stars as Maya, a liberated video store clerk and Ollie’’s real love interest. Tyler and Affleck have terrific chemistry and their scenes together are a playful highlight. The real star of Jersey Girl is nine-year-old Raquel Castro, who plays Ollie’’s daughter. Castro is delightful and her cherubic smile can light up the screen. Smith deals heavily with familiar clichés (how many films recently end with some parent rushing to their child’’s theatrical production?), but at least they seem to be clichés and elements that Smith feels are worth something. Much cute kiddie stuff can be expected, but the strength of Jersey Girl is the earnest appeal of the characters. Some sequences are laugh-out-loud funny (like Affleck discovering his daughter and a neighbor boy engaging in “the time-honored game of “doctor””), but there are just as many small character beats that could have you feeling some emotion. A late exchange between Ollie and his father (George Carlin) is heartwarming, as is the final image of the movie, a father and daughter embracing and swaying to music. Jersey Girl proves to be a sweetly enjoyable date movie from one of the most unlikely sources.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Dawn of the Dead (2004)

For many, any notion of a remake of George Romero’’s 1978 zombie classic Dawn of the Dead would be heresy. There are only two things this remake has in common with its predecessor: 1) The characters are holed up in a mall for survival, and 2) There are zombies. That’s it. The social commentary of Romero’’s Dawn is stripped away, and in its place is a slick, lean action film with lots of very effective and suspenseful set pieces. Instead of thoughtless and lumbering zombies of Romero’’s film, these zombies have taken a cue from Danny Boyle’’s 28 Days Later brood and run, don’t walk, to nibble their meat. First time director Zack Snyder creates a movie rich in gruesome thrills and dark comedy but overloaded with characters, some of which you don’t even remember until they are eventually picked off. Indie stalwarts Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames nicely anchor the cast. Dawn of the Dead is light on characters (except in numbers) and plot, but it starts with a cataclysmic bang and doesn’’t let up until the lights go back on. If you want the film to end optimistically leave immediately upon the end credits, and if not, then stick around for some more goodies.

Nate’’s Grade: B+

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

No other movie this year captured the possibility of film like Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s enigmatic collaboration. Eternal Sunshine was a mind-bending philosophical excursion that also ended up being one of the most nakedly realistic romances of all time. Joel (Jim Carrey restrained) embarks on having his memories erased involving the painful breakup of Clemintine (Kate Winslet, wonderful), an impulsive woman whose vibrant hair changes as much as her moods. As Joel revisits his memories, they fade and die. He starts to fall in love with her all over again and tries to have the process stop. This labyrinth of a movie gets so many details right, from the weird physics of dreams to the small, tender moments of love and relationships. I see something new and marvelous every time I watch Eternal Sunshine, and the fact that it’s caught on with audiences (it was nominated for Favorite Movie by the People’s friggin’ Choice Awards) reaffirms its insights into memory and love. I never would have thought we’d get the perfect romance for the new millennium from Kaufman. This is a beautiful, dizzingly complex, elegant romance caked in visual grandeur, and it will be just as special in 5 years as it will be in 50, that is if monkeys don’t evolve and take over by then (it will happen).

Nate’s Grade: A

Taking Lives (2004)

While viewing Taking Lives my mind wandered quite a bit. There was one point where I actually gave credence to a theory that Taking Lives was so intensely bland that is was parodying the glut of serial killer films. Then I just concluded that the movie was dumb. Angelina Jolie plays one of those hard-as-nails criminal investigators who just happen to be drop dead gorgeous. She’’s on the hunt for a Canadian serial killer who murders then assumes the lives of his victims. He’’s been doing this for over 20 years. My main question is … how? Taking someone’s identity has so many variables to it. What if any family member found you? They’d know for sure you wouldn’’t be their loved one. Oh yes, and the killer masks the identity of his victims by cutting off their hands and smashing their faces in. Would that even work? All you have to do is draw some blood and do a DNA test. Taking Lives is so by-the-book that it even dares to have a scene where the serial killer calls Jolie and claims that he and her are exactly alike. The ending veers so far off track into the land of implausibility that it’s almost entertaining. Almost. The only reason to even poke your head in a theater to see this is for a gratuitous nude scene involving Jolie, and even that you’’ve seen before in better movies.

Nate’’s Grade: C-

Starsky & Hutch (2004)

The big screen adaptation of yet another 1970s television show has about one joke in it – that the 70s were funny. So after scene after scene of people with funny hair, in funny clothes, and talking funny, Starsky and Hutch doesn’’t so much coast as it skids to a flat, lifeless halt. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are an amiable duo and Vince Vaughn makes a credible cocaine creep, but director Todd Phillips (Road Trip) is left to unsuccessfully hammer his film with sight gags. Scenes and jokes will stretch on much longer than their recommended shelf life. Will Ferrell makes a welcomed cameo to give the film its only moment of juice. Snoop is wasted. You may laugh at all this but the Beastie Boys did it better with their “Sabotage” video – and that was ten friggin’’ years ago.

Nate’’s Grade: C

Hidalgo (2004)

It is important to talk about Hidalgo being marketed as a “true story.” As a general rule, it’’s good to be wary of movies that are heavily pushed as being “true stories” or “based on true events.” You have to pay close attention to the wording. Last fall, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was heavily marketed as a film “inspired by true events.” Which means it’’s about as real as your dreams are. With this said, Hidalgo is based on the real Frank Hopkins and his stories about his life. Oh yeah, it just so happens that Hopkins is also a pathological liar and none of this is real. So, what the marketing of Hidalgo should really say is something like “based on the true story of what we heard from a pathological liar.” Something like that.

In fact, if you do some minor research, you’’ll discover that the only thing true is that there was a guy named Frank Hopkins. He wasn’’t part Native American, a Pony Express employee, a member of Wild Bill’s Circus, and he never had a horse named Hidalgo AND there has never been any 3,000-mile race in the Arabian desert. Yet Disney’s marketing department still goes with “based on a true story.” I’ll remember that next time I have a dream involving little people and ice cream.

Hidalgo is the “story” of Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a former Pony Express employee who’s turned to the bottle to try to forget the slaughtering of Native Americans (exactly like Tom Cruise in Last Samurai). Hopkins enters a legendary 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert to regain his spirit. The race, across the “Ocean of Fire,” is dangerous, the elements are brutal, and the other riders will stop at nothing to win. Can the American cowboy who no one believes in triumph in the end?

Taking a hard look at Hidalgo, roughly 50 percent of the finished movie is watching Hopkins travel from Point A (usually on the left) to Point B (usually on the right). So, yes, half of this movie is watching someone walk one direction. I can’t imagine what the editing process was like. How do you know exactly where one shot of Hopkins walking should go? Sure, Lawrence of Arabia had a lot of walking in the desert from left to right, but it was also 4 hours long! Both films do star Omar Sharif, though.

25 percent of what is left involves people sitting around talking about all kinds of clichés, like pining for acceptance, independence, equality, etc. These sequences tend to bog down Hidalgo‘s narrative and bring the action to a halt. I realize that these “sit down” scenes are meant to be breathers and expand the characters. However, the characters don’t deepen because they are amidst a patchwork of clichés instead of a story. The actors are also saddled with some laughably awful dialogue, like, “There is a tempest in my tent,” or the greatest groaner of them all, “Even a blind man could see you’’re beautiful.”

So, continuing numbers crunching, an audience is left with 25 percent of a movie, and what is that 25 percent? In short, the rest. Hidalgo does have some lively action sequences and exciting horse races but these bursts of fun are much too far apart. When getting down to it, Hidalgo is 25 percent an interesting movie. Now, whether 25 percent of entertainment is enough for someone depends on how hard-fought they are for amusement.

The thing Hidalgo has going for it is Viggo’s star power. He is a handsome guy and has a smoldering presence but he whispers more lines than any actor I know. Maybe he threw out his voice after three of years of yelling with The Lord of the Rings.

There are just some wondrously odd moments in Hidalgo. When Hopkins gets to the Arabian desert he notices a group of chained black people walking beside him. “Never seen slaves before?” a rider asks Hopkins. Then we cut away. What was that? The movie gives a shoulder shrug to slavery and then moves on. Later the slave kid becomes part of Hopkins’ pit crew, which also includes a wily old goat farmer. What? I have no idea how this kid became like Hopkins’ servant, and I have no idea why he’d be so happy about it. This part of the movie leaves me stumped, especially for a film where a character is so forward thinking about tolerating other races (as the protagonists always are in movies now). By the time you get to a laugh-out-loud sequence where Hopkins is on his knees chanting Native American chants, and the wavy ghosts of his brethren encircle him, you may have already checked out of the building.

Some of the blame must be heaped upon director Joe Johnston (Jumanji). His pacing is quite slack (136 minutes) and yet he stuffs more subplots and minor characters than the narrative seems able to handle. A very long subplot involving a kidnapped princess is a nice diversion, but entirely inorganic and almost to a distracting level of fantasy. Johnston also employs some hatchet CGI work that seems like it was left over from The Mummy movies. It does not speak well to the quality of a film when it’s been on the shelf for close to a year. The surprise antagonist who kidnaps, kills, and does whatever to win the race has no repercussions at the end. They lose. That’s it. Hopkins doesn’t even find out the person is a villain. What’’s up with that? There’s no comeuppance

Hidalgo is not a bad film, but it’s not exactly a good film either. It’s cliché-ridden, clumsily plotted, and full of bad dialogue and stiff characters. The movie looks good, and the horses are beautiful, but this is one tale to put out to pasture. Those hungry for a grand adventure with a hunky lead may be partially pleased, but that’s only if they can put up with 25 percent of an entertaining movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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