Monthly Archives: May 2004

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

I must confess a giant moment of geekery: for a month or so I waited patiently until the Wednesday before the new disaster opus The Day After Tomorrow opened so I could finally say, “The Day After Tomorrow opens … the day after tomorrow.” I’m surprised the marketing department didn’’t beat me to that punch.

Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is an environmental scientist concerned about global warming trends and the chaos they could cause. He tries to alert government officials to these dangers but is met with a cold shoulder. Jack’s son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), is traveling to New York for a school quiz tournament on the slightly less grave mission of earning the affections of one of his classmates. Somewhere between the establishment of these two stories, all hell breaks loose. Jack and another researcher (Ian Holm) share data and discover that the world is headed toward a gigantic climate shift, a new Ice Age. While the world is crumbling, Jack is determined to reunite with his son, trapped in New York.

The special effects of The Day After Tomorrow are indeed awe-inspiring, but once they finish the viewer is left with a story that is, shall we say, overcast. Unlike director Roland Emmerich’s other disaster films with aliens or giant lizards, a cataclysmic climate shift is not a beatable foe, so the story is left without resolution. It’s kind of hard to vilify the weather.

What do you do once the world starts another Ice Age? Not much besides keeping your butt from freezing off. So this means that the crux of the “after” scenes revolve around Jack trying to reunite with his son. Jack tells his son to hole up where he is and, cue heroic music, he will come find him. Sure. Does anyone stop and question, “Why?” I know why Jack treks, on foot no less, from Philadelphia to New York, but it isn’t even necessary. His son and their friends are fine where they are and the only severe threat they face is when the giant frosty eye of the storm looms overhead. Quaid’s character has no opportunity to assist them during even that scene. I’m sure someone thought it would be a touching display of a father’s love for his son, but it’s really just winds up looking foolish. He tells his son not to move, then disobeys his own advice to venture out. Nothing of significance happens because of Jack’s journey. He might as well have stayed home and read a book.

The acting of any disaster flick is really confined to yelling and … panting, I suppose (which could also accurately describe the acting prowess of the late night programming of Showtime). Quaid is a sturdy hero but seems to look ten years older than normal. Gyllenhaal is one of my favorite young actors (I adore Donnie Darko) and, to his credit, he does a suitable job of running around and yelling.

Perhaps the funniest thing in The Day After Tomorrow is a Vice President who refuses to listen to environmental concerns that looks a heck of a lot like our current VP, Dick Cheney. The timeliness also extends to a somewhat witless president who, when faced with a crucial decision, turns to his VP and asks, “What do you think?”

The necessary scenes of planetary and civilization destruction are first-rate in the film. Emmerich is our premiere master of laying waste to the world, particularly New York City. Emmerich keeps our view of the carnage mostly restrained to long shots where we can witness the full magnitude of devastation he is trying to put forth.

The weather effects are top notch, especially a series of tornadoes that devastates downtown Los Angeles. There are some beautiful visual moments, like seeing thousands of birds migrating from impending doom, or a final image from above of the iced Statue of Liberty. Tomorrow also has a clever moment late in the film when the frost storm hovers over New York and forces characters to outrun advancing … frost. It’s not as stupid as it sounds. And, as per usual in disaster flicks, Mother Nature always knows where to strike – landmarks. How else does one explain the precision of taking out the Hollywood sign?

For a good hour, The Day After Tomorrow is great escapist entertainment. The scenes of destruction are riveting, and the moments leading up to them have great suspenseful pacing. The film’s climax is its half-way point, which is never a good sign. After all the floods, rain, snow, twisters, and everything Mother Nature has in her arsenal, we are left with characters scrambling around running from … wolves. Going from tidal waves to wolves is not exactly an increase in suspense.

There is a hilariously awful moment in the film involving Sam’’s wife, played by Sela Ward. Sela is a nurse at a hospital watching over a child with cancer. She refuses to leave him alone and waits for an ambulance to arrive, because, for some reason, the cancer kid can only be transported by ambulance. It’’s just distasteful and dumb that this storyline even exists: brave woman determined to stay by the side of cancer child.

The Day After Tomorrow is an exciting diversion that doesn’’t know what to do with itself after all the big money shots are spent. It’s like a balloon once the air is all out. Perhaps the creators should have consulted any prior warning about stranding an audience in a story that no one cares much about. It’s worth seeing, but it’s also worth leaving after Mother Nature unloads her goods.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Van Helsing (2004)

Crossover movies have a distasteful history in the world of cinema. Some movie exec gets the notion, “Hey, why can’t two great tastes taste great together?” But what we’re left with is usually uninspired (The Flintstones Meet the Jetsons notwithstanding). Crossovers for horror movies are the worst of the lot. For every Freddy vs. Jason there’s a dud, like 1966’s Jesse James meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. That year went down in the annals of cinematic history, however, as it also gave us Billy the Kid versus Dracula, marking two entries in the expanding genre of cowboys battling famous monsters (as far as I know, this genre still stands at two movies). So what can one expect from Van Helsing, a big-budget creature feature that includes Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman?

Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman and a really big hat) is a secret soldier for a covert order of the Vatican. This covert order dispatches monsters and creepy-crawlies the world over. He’s been ordered to assist Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), the last in a Romanian family line that has sought to kill the infamous Dracula (Richard Roxburgh). It seems that their family line is dwindling. And Anna’s brother being turned into a werewolf doesn’t help the situation. If her family line dies before Dracula then they cannot enter heaven. Van Helsing comes to town to help out the locals who are terrorized by Dracula’s flying brides. Van Helsing effectively kills one of the vamp ladies and is celebrated as a hero by the village. As he gets closer to Anna he also learns more about his own mysterious past and his connection to a certain figure with big teeth.

The Big D has a dastardly plan. He wants to find Frankenstein’s monster (Shuler Hensley) to channel enough power through him to awaken zillions of goo-sacks harboring the vamp’s undead brood. Of course, Frankenstein’s monster isn’t too keen on this. Together, he and Van Helsing, with the help of Anna as well as a comic relief monk, battle to stop Dracula from unleashing his children of the night.

Van Helsing is stupid, stupid, stupid. Director Stephen Sommers exists in his own indulgent world where bigger is better and some CGI spackle will fix any plot holes. He makes check-your-brain-at-the-door popcorn movies, but a “popcorn movie” is no excuse to forgive a rambling, incoherent, loud, stupid mess. I liked the first Mummy flick and even found some good with the second, but Van Helsing is Sommers at his rock-bottom worst, gorging on a trough of special effects and vomiting the results onto the big screen. Sommers’ idea of character development is knocking people through walls like they were in a Looney Tunes cartoon.

Van Helsing raises some interesting questions, like why do Dracula’s brides morph into flying demons that are conveniently genitalia-free? Why does a werewolf rolling over the top of a carriage somehow cause it to catch on fire? Why does Dracula keep his magic lycanthropy cure in the open? It doesn’t matter. Van Helsing is so straight-laced about its absurdities that questioning them will just get tiresome.

Not that you would expect much, but the acting in Van Helsing is bad. Beckinsale’s accent couldn’t be less convincing if her role were played by Charo. The trio of Dracula’s brides are played by swimsuit models and let me just say their performance is on par with what you would expect from swimsuit models. Roxburgh is quite possibly the worst vampire in the modern history of vampires, and that includes Blacula, Count Chocula and Tom Cruise. He couldn’t look any less sinister if he was in a diaper and bonnet. What’s up with those strands of hair that dangle in his face? Why do the Van Helsing creators want their Prince of Evil and son of Satan to look like he was the keyboardist for some 80s pop synth band?

This overly long film feels like a seven-year-old’s book report that he hasn’t read: it’s like a child is making this up as they go. “And then … a werewolf pops up … and then Dracula’s flying brides … and then they all need Frankenstein’s monster ….” Seriously, were the penning this script on the fly? It’s a $150 million improv film. The reels of the film could be switched around and no one would be able to tell the difference. Van Helsing is one long, exasperated action sequence that drags its heels instead of wowing. It beats the audience into submission with its stupidity and redundancy.

The entertainment level of Van Helsing is exceedingly weak. It runs an eternity, which wouldn’t be a problem if one were intrigued by the story, the characters, or the action sequences. The action could have been suitable but Sommers has gotten less reliant on the physical and more superfluous with his CGI. Watching a CGI monstrosity smash into a CGI monstrosity before a CGI background where no semblance of reality is present grows tiresome after 130 minutes. The effects are passable, but they overload the viewer and numb whatever slight interest may have existed for the classic monsters.

What should have been a clever homage turns instead into a hollow marketing ploy that’s so frenetic and tireless with its manic pacing and bad special effects. Even the many attempts at humor are flat. It has to be some kind of apocalyptic sign that Hellboy and now Van Helsing have been unleashed unto the innocents of this world. Some will find Van Helsing decent popcorn entertainment, but most will grow weary of its sloppy design and wafer-thin substance. For me, this is one to avoid, period. There isn’t an ounce of fun to be had while sitting through the painful pair of hours that is Van Helsing. This is one monster mash that’s a real monster mess.

Nate’s Grade: D

Super Size Me (2004)

Morgan Spurlock was just sitting on the couch one Thanksgiving. He saw two overweight girls on TV who were suing McDonald’s because they blamed the fast food giant for making them obese. Spurlock got off the couch and was inspired. He set off to see what would happen to a healthy adult body if he ate nothing but [i]McDonald’s[/i] food for a 30 day period. The results are Spurlock’s award winning documentary, Super Size Me. Spurlock monitors his “progress” with a team of doctors. He follows certain guidelines as he begins his fast food binge: 1) He must order everything off the menu at least once; 2) He must eat McDonald’s three times a day; 3) If someone asks him if he wishes to “Super Size” his order, he must comply.

The results are staggering, if a tad expected. Spurlock gains 30 pounds, loses his sex drive, experiences what he fears are chest palpitations, and develops symptoms of depression when he’s not stuffing his face with French fries and the like. Spurlock starts out wide-eyed and giddy at the prospect of living every kid’s dream –at first he is awed by the food– but by the halfway point he’s noticing a discernible change for the worse. He’s starting to develop an actual dependency on his subject. Along the way Spurlock interviews an assortment of dieticians, a man who’s eaten 20,000 Big Macs, doctors, health trainers, lobbyists for food corporations, Jared from Subway, and tries ever so hard to garner an interview with a McDonald’s spokesperson (he calls about 17 times). The result is a sprawling look at what makes our fat nation tick, and the weird, wonderful, and scary people within.

Spurlock puts a lot of gut-churning effort into stating the obvious. You mean eating nothing but McDonald’s is bad for you? Stop the presses! Perhaps for his follow-up, Spurlock will unleash a searing expose telling us not to look directly into the sun, stick our tongues to icy poles, or place our hands on a hot stove. The world waits. Even though Spurlock’’s McDonald’s diet gimmick grows somewhat boring (watching someone eat is about as exciting as watching someone brush their teeth), Super Size Me’’s true strength lies in the tangents it takes on its otherwise high-fattening journey to artery corrosion.

Spurlock examines what it is in our culture that makes us more prone to obesity, and the results are equal parts startling and fascinating. The film’s best moments occur when Spurlock looks at the national school lunch programs and how kids are already being molded to live unhealthy lifestyles. At the same time in our nation’s history, food programs are getting less healthy (pizza, fries, soda) and mandatory gym programs are on a steep decline. The effects of this segment are far scarier than watching a grown man balloon in weight.

The film follows the Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11) style of documentary, minus the distasteful half-truths. Spurlock knows that humor is the best way to get a point across, so with the use of clever animation he throws every statistic you can imagine out there, hoping that some will stick. Some are obvious, some are amusing, and some of the information is startling when visually represented, like the amounts of sugar and fat Spurlock consumed on his 30-day diet. Super Size Me’s results retain Moore’s signature underdog-fighting-the-Big-Boys method that creates a rapport with the audience, but it also refrains from any sort of bullying. Spurlock doesn’’t have the broad charm of a Moore, but he’s likeable enough and keeps his information as the heart of his documentary and not the fairly silly gimmick.

With this new genre of Gimmick Documentaries, there is a greater sense of voyeurism than in the genre’s usual outpourings. The central concept is watching a man essentially destroy himself, and there is a perverse pleasure in viewing medical changes that scare the crap out of Spurlock’’s teams of dumbfounded doctors. So while Spurlock’’s odyssey may not always be stupefying, it usually is genuinely entertaining in some form or another.

Spurlock’’s excess is our revelry. He’s crafted an intelligent, entertaining, and sometimes grotesquely disturbing portrayal of our Fast Food Nation (I live in the sixth fattest U.S. city, Columbus Ohio, by the way). Fans of muckraking documentaries should be delighted, but Super Size Me has the appeal to reach out to a wider, more divergent audience. Spurlock’’s film, despite some inherent flaws, is a strong wake-up call. Super Size Me is a lucid debate about personal responsibility, the boundaries of corporations, and the possible future health of the fattest nation on earth (eat your heart out Norway).

In the end though, it looks like Spurlock is having the last laugh. His film was a hit at the 2004 Sundance film festival, and shortly after McDonald’s announced they were officially phasing out “Super Size” portions from their menu. They denied Spurlock’’s film was the cause of their Super Size Slashing, but it doesn’t take a genius to see through the corporate rhetoric.

I confess that Super Size Me really got to me and motivated me to live healthier. I was determined to exercise more regularly and eat less junk food. I was empowered. And then I saw a McDonald’s on the way back from the theater and, well, the #1 plan, Exercise More Thoroughly, was scratched in favor of a #2 Value Meal (the double cheeseburger one). Carry on Spurlock; carry on my Fu Manchu-ed son. Your documentary is entertaining and, at points, fascinating, but I’ll get on that treadmill next week.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Spider-Man 2 (2004)

No other movie had higher expectations than Spider-Man 2 and no other movie met and trounced those expectations than director Sam Raimi’s high-flying webslinging sequel. Spider-Man 2 was that rare sequel that excelled in near every way. The action sequences were lively and highly exciting, but what made Spider-Man 2 so thrilling was its success in building strong emotional characters. After all, how many superhero films are written by the writer of Ordinary People? (One wonders what he would have done with Catwoman) Alfred Molina, as Doc Ock, made for a great formidable foe and brought surprising humanity to the dastardly part. Spider-Man 2 was a momentous crowd-pleaser that also dazzled the hardest critics. It reaffirmed exactly what a summer popcorn film can make us feel.

Nate’s Grade: A

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