Monthly Archives: May 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

The story behind the making of X-Men: The Last Stand is more interesting than most. Bryan Singer had directed the first two X-Men films and had done a fine job establishing many loveable characters and the universe that housed them. Warner Brothers has been trying to get their Superman franchise flying for so long, going all the way back to 1996 when Kevin Smith wrote the script, Tim Burton was to direct, and Nicolas Cage was going to be the man in tights. Since then directors and drafts of screenplays have come and gone, including Brett Ratner, best known for directing both Rush Hour movies and a slate of mostly mediocre movies. Then Warner Brothers poached most of the X-Men 2 team to make Superman Returns, hiring Bryan Singer as director, plus X2‘s screenwriters, cinematographer, editor/composer, and maybe even the cat that licked Wolverine’s claws. Fox was left without a captain for X-Men 3. They daringly picked Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) but then he dropped out for family reasons. Then Fox went with their second choice … Brett Ratner. Both directors had essentially switched projects. Hollywood’s funny like that.

It’s been a few months since the events in X-Men 2. Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden) is still mourning the loss of his love, Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), who sacrificed herself to save the rest of the X-Men. He’s tormented by her voice, whispering all around him and pleading with him to return to Alkali Lake, the site of her death. Miraculously, Jean returns from the dead but she’s much different. Her persona has broken and the Phoenix has taken over, a destructive killing force unparalleled on earth.

Magneto (Ian McKellen) has great use for such a force. There’s been news of a new drug that suppresses the gene that causes people to be born as mutants. This discovery has been dubbed a cure. The question persists, is should being different be curable and what would that even mean? Magneto sees the writing on the wall, knowing that any cure would only be voluntary for so long. He collects new mutant fighters along with his stalwarts the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) and fire starter Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a former student at Xavier’s School for the Gifted.

Over at Professor X’s (Patrick Stewart) school, the mutant students are each questioning life with a cure. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is considering it so she can finally touch her boyfriend, Bobby “Ice Man” Drake (Shawn Ashmore) without killing him. Plus, so he’ll stop spending so much time with Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (Ellen Page), a girl who can walk through matter. Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) are left to run the team after some disastrous setbacks. Henry “Beast” McCoy (Kelsey Grammer) is a man covered in blue fur and appointed as head of Mutant Relations for the president. He senses the growing danger and anxiety the administration has with mutants and joins the X-Men to do what he feels is right.

It feels like that in a rush to production that character development, subtlety, and subtext were chucked out the window to make time for more boom-boom action. The first two X-Men flicks juggled the characters and introductions but still managed to squeeze in one great moment for the characters we cared about. The plot moved at a mature pace, insightful and touching on elements of psychology, politics, and personal struggles to fit into a society that fears you. There was some sophisticated, relevant stuff bandied about this franchise in between the kick-ass action. But with X-Men 3, you basically have Halle Berry doing less with more. She’s got more screen time, in part to her demands, and now she can use that extra time onscreen to show us how perfectly bland her character is as the film’s most laughable moral ideologue. The idea of a cure for the mutant gene is vastly interesting with all kinds of great avenues for character introspection and socio-political debate. But X-Men 3 renders all of its debate to be merely superficial, another in a series of plot points to get the action moving quicker.

The X-Men franchise was already overpopulated with lots of characters vying for screen time, so I don’t understand the decision to add even more characters to the ensemble and cut down the running time to a brisk 100 minutes. As a result, certain characters sit out for long stretches of the film, are inactive during key moments, some are mostly forgotten, or some meet unjustifiably hasty ends. If I was still an ardent comic book fan, and a follower of the X-Men, I might view the third film as heresy. Why even bother bringing the character of Angel into the movie if he’s just going to be on for two minutes, including a forehead-smacking deus ex machine moment? The Dark Phoenix storyline is the most pivotal storyline in the comic’s history, so why even bother dragging it into X-Men 3 if it’s just going to be Zombie Jean Grey? It feels like Ratner is off screen with a pole poking Janssen whenever the story needs her to wake up and stir up some stuff.

I hope comic fans enjoy the brief glimpses of some of their favorites, because X-Men 3 does a good job of throwing characters into a meat grinder. I had to check online to just to find out who they were, and even then my realization was followed by, “Her? Him? What?” And what the hell is up with Porcupine Face? That has got to be the worst mutant ability of all time. What’s he going to do to his enemies? “Hey, will you come a little closer. I have a secret to tell you. Closer … closer … closer still … that’s right, now please lean against my face.”

The movie trades character for action, so is the action even good? Ratner is a workmanlike director devoid of any personal style, which further brands X-Men 3 as ordinary. The action sequences aren’t anything extraordinary, there just happens to be more of them. The climax pits mutant against mutant in short-lived bursts. A battle between Ice Man and Pyro should be awesome, but Ratner stages the showdown like he was choreographing his neighbor’s kids. This battle lasts a whopping 45 seconds. The climactic end battle, the “war to end all wars,” is rather sloppy. Ratner keeps cutting back and forth between his pairing of Good mutant vs. Evil mutant (why do the two black girls seem forced to fight each other?), but his showdowns are all too quick to quicken the pulse. Wolverine’s brawls in the woods never rise up to the adrenaline-soaked fights in X-Men 2. The special effects and make-up are just as good; they’re just not being put to as good a use. If Ratner is going to dump character for action he has to make his action exceptional. The movie feels on autopilot.

Ratner is not fully to blame for the shortcomings of X-Men 3. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zack Penn (Elektra) have crafted an overly rushed story that is more tailored for getting the job done than telling a good story. They present some big ideas and interesting elements, like a love triangle between Rogue-Ice Man-Shadowcat, but then most of the promise is either skipped over or dropped. They’re trying to juggle too many balls at once, and it just makes me miss Singer and the X2 screenwriters and how effective they were in defining character even in the smallest of moments. Some of the X-Men 3 dialogue is awfully stilted, like “You of all people know how fast the weather can change” and “Sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.” There’s also a silly subplot about Storm teaching Wolverine what it means to be responsible. Try and count how many times you roll your eyes with that one. How many times are they going to have the president look blankly at a TV screen and gasp, “My god”? There’s some clever use of mutant powers during battles (mostly involving Shadowcat) but there’s just as many routine moments as well.

The acting is all over the map. Jackman owns his role as Wolverine. McKellen and Stewart bring a needed dose of grandeur to the proceedings. The X-kids are enjoyable, and Ellen Page (knocking ’em dead in Hard Candy) makes a very nice addition to the fold. I’ve likely enjoyed Paquin the most in this series, next to Jackman of course, so it’s so frustrating that she just plays Jealous Girlfriend at Window. I think it’s criminal how little she’s examined in the movie, especially since the supposed cure has the most questions and ramifications for her. Grammer is essentially Frasier in blue fur, but that’s essentially what Beast is so it works. He has a very nice moment when he sees what life would be like minus his mutant likeness. It’s really hard to judge most of the performances because of how short they appear in the movie.

X-Men: The Last Stand is far from boring but it’s more serviceable than special, and lacks the maturity and imagination that its previous films held. This was a franchise full of limitless potential, so to see it drop to something ordinary is sad, especially if this is the rumored end of the franchise (a record opening gross over Memorial weekend says otherwise). This franchise feels dumbed down; yes it’s still entertaining on a mass market level but it doesn’t have the creativity and precision that Singer’s movies had. X-Men 3 is fast-paced and not without its great geek moments, but it’s also the least emotionally involving of the films. When the deaths and departures come you’ll probably shrug your shoulders because of how the film presents them. X-Men 3 is fine, but I expect better from this franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Poseidon (2006)

The Poseidon production design is rather fantastic and director Wolfgang Peterson (Troy) has a real handle on large-scale carnage, but Poseidon is a stripped down action flick that lacks the suspense and emotional involvement to bring strength to its attempts at harrowing survival. Some sequences, only some, are nail-biting, like a very claustrophobic escape through an air vent slowly filling with water. We’re presented a situation and then Peterson cranks up the tension and utilizes different characters working together. The sequence has the added benefit of utilizing the child to save them, unlike most films of this nature where irritating kids just become a liability to your own safety. The fact that this sequence, the film’s high point in my view, is also the least expensive of this $160 million dollar movie’s sequences is not lost on me. The film’s premise of working through the bowels of an underwater ship is filled with potential. The original Poseidon Adventure was cheesy, yes, but it was a lot of fun. This slick remake brings the action fairly early, having its “rouge wave” flip the ship at the 15-minute mark. Because of this decision the audience has no attachment to the film’s collection of characters, given fleeting seconds to establish some sense of personality. You really don’t care at all what happens to these people in the ensuing danger. The female characters add nothing to the story except to fall into the constant need of being rescued. Peterson paces his obstacles mercilessly right after the other, but he runs into the problem of killing off all his expendable (read: non-white) cast off too quickly. That lessens even the small amount of tension the film had going. Poseidon is way too big-budget and serious to go for camp. The special effects are above average and the pacing is swift. Frankly, you could do worse this summer for entertainment than spending 100 minutes watching this movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has been a best selling novel for three years running. Continents of trees have been felled to produce the 50 million published copies worldwide. Brown’s novel details a centuries long cover-up of some crucial background on Jesus Christ, as well as certain omissions about the role of women in Jesus’ discipleship. The book has been condemned by Christian watchdog groups as heresy, never mind that it is clearly labeled “Fiction.” Debunking fiction is simply redundant. Now Hollywood has adapted The Da Vinci Code into a massive movie, directed by Ron Howard. I must be one of eight who have not read the book, so I entered the theater with little expectation and no idea where the story would take me. Is this a great threat to the Christian church, as some argue, or is it just another dime-store thriller that lucked into becoming a national phenomenon?

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is a Harvard professor of symbolism lecturing in Paris. He’s called in by a police captain (Jean Reno) about a local murder. The curator for the famous Louvre museum has been killed and his death leads to a series of coded clues about a deeper conspiracy involving Leonardo Da Vinci. Sophie (Audrey Tautou) is an investigator, and the granddaughter of the museum curator. She helps Robert escape and the two of them set off on an adventure through France and England, finding clues that lead them closer to the location of the Holy Grail. They get help from Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), an old friend of Roberts that has his own theories about what the Catholic Church may be so desperate to keep hush-hush. All the while Silas (Paul Bettany), an albino monk, is on the warpath to dispatch all who know too much, including Robert and Sophie.

There are just so many harebrained, hokey moments in The Da Vinci Code that can rip you right from the movie. Why does Sophie have to pay someone to leave a park bench when she and Robert can just walk out of earshot? Why does a bank teller, with his own devious intentions, drive Sophie and Robert to safety and then threaten them at gunpoint? Surely letting them be captured by the police would have served his needs better. Oh, the bank also has a payable escape clause, like it was a Scooby-Doo mansion. But the hokiest moment comes in the opening minutes. The museum curator, an old man who couldn’t hobble away from his attacker, gets shot in the gut, a quite painful place for a bullet to lodge itself. So he’s fatally shot in the stomach, but the man still has time to scribble coded messages on three separate paintings at different points in the museum, strip down, pose, write a message on the floor and a symbol on his chest. And remember, he’s an old man on top of all this. It’s like he had a checklist he pulled out in case he was ever mortally wounded at the Louvre.

The characters aren’t any better. There’s little to any depth to these people and most of them are irrational stock roles. The Jean Reno cop character is laughable in how doggedly he’s convinced Robert is his man. Apparently, a priest told the cop Robert confessed. Case closed? Perhaps the cop, in his furtive rush to judgment, should do some outside research. The museum curator?s time of death, something any crime scene tech could denote, would prove that Robert would be ruled out, given that the man was giving a lecture in front of hundreds of alibis. That’s verifiable science, but no matter. Would not a place as heavily trafficked as the Louvre, with so many priceless pieces of art, have security cameras? I think that alone would tell you who murdered the museum curator. These details make the Reno character stupid and unbelievable. The police work hasn’t been this sloppy since the Police Academy saga.

There’s a late scene where a character addresses another and more or less says, “No one will suspect us, my partner. Let us split our winnings together. I will take your identity to my grave. What? Yes I will take a drink from your flask you’re offering me but not drinking from yourself.” The film could not hit you over the head harder with what is to come. I’d expect these kinds of half-hearted character turns from a rote made-for-TV thriller, but The Da Vinci Code has too much intended intellectual prestige to wallow in this manner.

This is not a good film adaptation. This isn’t structured like a thriller, let alone a movie. There?s no sense of momentum and the story is really an ongoing series of mini-climaxes, sputtering out to no payoff. Puzzle-solving and word games can work on the page, with the reader feeling like they’re right along, but onscreen it cannot work in a story of images. Howard highlights certain letters a la A Beautiful Mind, but then it simply becomes less a puzzle and more just witnessing how a character’s mind breaks down the code, nothing more. As a thriller, Brown seems to do just enough to push his narrative further, but he frequently writes himself into a corner and relies on plot contrivances to save his ass. There’s a scene at Leigh Teabing’s mansion involving a gun standoff, and how does Brown get his characters out of it? By conveniently having a bird fly and distract the evil gun-bearing monk. Talk about a cheat. The Da Vinci Code‘s lame behavioral explanations and short cuts are expected in a rote thriller, but Da Vinci doesn’t want to be seen as one.

But that’s the fundamental error of The Da Vinci Code: it wants to have it both ways. The film, and I’d judge that the novel as well, wants you to shut your brain off and swallow these trite lapses in judgment and reality, forgiving the movie for zero character development and polluting the narrative with stupid genre stock roles, but then it also wants you to pay close attention and activate your brain to untangle the origins of symbols, conspiracies, and church doctrine. This flick was destined to fail at birth. You can’t be a brainy thriller and fill the story with hokey moments and lapses in thought, and likewise you can’t be an enjoyably straight forward thriller if you bookend all your action sequences with talky sit-downs to explain the minutia of your story. The Da Vinci Code is thusly pulled in two directions and grinds its gears to the very end.

This is not a very entertaining flick, in fact is nearly put me to sleep a half dozen times. The Da Vinci Code has tiny bursts of action, and most are easily swept away before the viewer can get a grip. These moments are then succeeded by lengthy, ponderous sessions of heavy exposition. It’s like characters will breathe a sigh of relief at another ludicrous escape and then say, “Well, now let’s discuss in detail some more convoluted theories.” The dialogue reeks, and characters spout plot points whenever they’re needed. The conspiracy doesn’t even make sense. Why would the Church protect a secret that could supposedly destroy its hierarchy? If Jesus was not divine then what difference does it make to go after relatives 2000 years removed? And if Jesus did have heirs would there not be thousands in 2000 years time, not one convenient individual? Even The Da Vinci Code‘s ending seems to soft peddle its “dangerous” message, where Robert, after learning all he has, says it’s all about what you believe.

If it wasn’t for Bettany and McKellen I really would have nodded off. Silas is by far the most interesting character in the whole film, and the only one with a penetrable personality. A deeply religious albino killer monk is a great character, and Bettany makes him scary but also frightfully sympathetic. I was rooting for Silas to knock off the film’s heroes and go on a better adventure of his own. McKellen is handed most of the monologues and he gives his character all the gravitas needed. Thank God for these two actors, because Hanks is miscast and Tautou isn’t nearly as endearing as her work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There’s a really good international cast assembled for The Da Vinci Code and the movie manages to mishandle most of them.

The Da Vinci Code played out on the big screen is ponderous, talky, boring, poorly adapted and poorly written. Some things work better on a page than onscreen, and I guess if this is the final product than the whole damn things works better on the page. The story is brimming with lame, hokey moments you’d see in a lazy TV thriller, but then the story also wants to talk you to death with its convoluted storyline. The action sequences are brief, the dialogue is smothered by lengthy exposition, and the plot just isn’t that entertaining. The cast is mostly wasted in thankless stock roles. So let me get this straight. After seeing The Da Vinci Code, the biggest threat the Christian church is facing is … bad movies? I think they’ll be alright.

Nate’s Grade: C-

American Haunting (2006)

Courtney Solomon made one of the worst movies I have ever seen, 2000’s abomination Dungeons and Dragons. It is bad on a rarely seen cataclysmic scale. The shot selections were awkward, the handling of the actors was cringe-worthy, the story lightweight but ridiculously stupid, and the special effects were like something a third grade diorama contest could best. Dungeons and Dragons holds my record, in all the many films I’ve seen, as having the worst line readings of all time. Fortunately, the film is one of those so-bad-it’s-hilarious entries to stop it from being an absolute wash. Now six years later Solomon is back with An American Haunting. Normally his name alone attached to a movie would guarantee my avoidance, but I checked this out for you, dear readers. Let’s just say Solomon has a looooooong way to go before he even reaches the competence of Uwe Boll

In 1818 Tennessee, the Bell family moves into a new residence. John Bell (Donald Sutherland) has cheated an outcast woman on her land loan. This woman, branded a “witch,” curses the Bell family. Things are fine for a while, but then young Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is being attacked by an invisible spirit night after night. Her father and mother, Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek), are powerless to stop the haunting. Before you can ask, “Why don’t they let their daughter sleep in a different room?” they’ve reached out to a preacher and schoolteacher (James D’Arcy) romantically curious with Betsy. No one can stop this haunting and John Bell searches to gain atonement for his sins to spare his family.

So, let’s get this whole thing straight, spoilers be damned. An American Haunting is marketing itself as a film based on the only medically credited murder to a ghost. Never mind how you verify that, just go with it for a second. This couldn’t be any more wrong. We learn at the end (“learn” wouldn’t be the right word since the film requires voice over to explain itself) that Betsy had been raped by her father. But wait, it gets better. Betsy had subconsciously developed a protector spirit to guard off further molestation and to punish her father. So right there the ghost in An American Haunting isn’t even a ghost, just the angry manifestation of an abused girl. There is one death accredited to the ghost, that of John Bell. However, the movie presents his wife poisoning him, not the ghost. So then the murderous ghost is neither. Plus, one has to wonder how shocking John’s loss is if he was willing to kill himself to lift the curse from his family. How believable is a “true account” of a medically documented haunting death when people were blaming demons for things for ages? I mean, there must be written accords from medical professionals of the day attributing the Black Plague to man’s sins. Just because an official said so centuries in the past does not make it medically sound today. If that were true no one would last through puberty without flogging themselves to death (and I did NOT mean it like that). An American Haunting is not true, is not about a ghost, and isn’t about a ghost committing murder.

Writer/director Solomon has made some strides in his filmmaking, but the results are still laughably the same. He’s gotten a better feel for actors and … that’s about it as far as improvement goes. An American Haunting is a creaky old timey ghost story that couldn’t scare a soul. It feels more attune to a 1970s made-for-TV flick. Solomon cribs all his scare tactics from Spook 101, which means lots of stagy jumps and creaky noises. The most annoying decision Solomon makes is that when he wants to convey the point of view of our ghost, he quickly swoops the camera down and up, spinning around the room like a paper airplane. I’m surprised more ghosts don’t get motion sickness if this is how they roll. You’ll either grab your stomach from the camerawork or the story.

Solomon’s story is just painfully uninteresting. Some good actors do their best to liven up a pretty run-of-the-mill haunting tale. An American Haunting is insufferably boring and lame. The first half is also exceedingly repetitive, as we watch the spirit creep into Betsy’s room and beat the daylights out of her. I don’t know how many times Solomon expects us to still be entertained, let alone scared, by just repeating this scene verbatim. Apparently, if a ghost keeps smacking you it won’t wake up the people sleeping right beside you. I always did wonder. An American Haunting is lackluster and boring, but it’s the arbitrary current day scenes that open and close the film that makes it truly awful. A modern-day mommy discovers Richard’s diary of the haunting and sits herself down for a good read. Then once she gets to the end she sends her little daughter off to spend time with her ex-husband/daughter’s father. And then Betsy’s protector spirit pops up in the car, looking very sad as she’s driven away. An American Haunting is trying to make us connect that the modern-day woman’s husband is molesting her daughter, but the movie expects you to make a lot of jumps to get there. I don’t think “spirit pointing” will hold up in the court of law. And truly, if the Betsy protector spirit was really trying to be helpful, shouldn’t it be less vague and just spell it out? These modern segments feel tacked on and needless if the whole of the film is spent on the 19th century ghost story. An American Haunting requires gobs of text at its conclusion to explain that it was, technically, a ghost story by its new and expanded definition.

The only nod I can give Solomon and his tale is that they cover my number one complaint of all haunted house movies: why the hell don’t the people just leave? Your house is haunted with the spirits of the damned, so you’re just going to wait it out? MOVE people. Find another place to live! An American Haunting features a spirit that can travel outside the bounds of its house and attack carriages, no less.

An American Haunting is marketed as a true-life ghost story, the only in our nation’s history where a murder was credited to a spirit. However, this movie doesn’t have the foggiest idea how to scare an audience beyond stagy high school theatrics. It’s not a ghost story, unless you swallow whole the film’s flimsy recanting of what a ghost is, it doesn’t feature a murder by haunting, and it isn’t even true, unless you can additionally swallow ye olde folksy, biased medical accounts. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy this. This movie isn’t so bad that it’s funny; it’s just boring. People as a whole should steer clear from this dull, amateurish fright flick. The only screams you’ll hear during An American Haunting are unintentional laughter.

Nate’s Grade: D

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Few celebrities have had the intense flame-out Tom Cruise has experienced in a little over a year’s time. First there was the PDA-heavy relationship with Katie Holmes, never a wet tongue-kiss away from a camera. Then there was the couch aerobics on Oprah Winfrey’s set, bleating his over-the-top declarations of love like Roger Rabbit. This was followed by a series of testy interviews about his war of words on psychiatry and prescription drugs. Entertainment Weekly just ran a cover story asking, “Is Tom Cruise worth his paycheck?” He’s gone from Hollywood’s most bankable actor to a national punch line. To bring new life to Cruise’s spy series, he tapped TV mastermind J.J. Abrams to make his feature debut after Cruise churned through two seasons of spy series Alias DVDs. Abrams is a gifted franchise starter, first with Alias and then with Lost, and with Mission: Impossible III he does the best he can to erase the memory of Tom Cruise, daredevil of furniture.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is out of field work at the Impossible Mission Force, training recruits for the big time. He’s settled into a comfortable home life with Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he’s blissfully engaged to be wed. Ethan’s happy home is disrupted when IMF needs his services. It seems one of his trainees (Keri Russell, Felicity goes badass) has been captured by an arms middleman Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man that will get any deadly force to the right bidder. Hunt reluctantly goes back into the field, assembling a team that includes Luther (Ving Rhames), Zhen (Maggie Q, quite fetching), and pilot Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Their mission goes badly and Hunt is reprimanded for his cavalier actions. He’s determined to snag Owen and get justice. This leads to an incredibly stuffed game of cat-and-mouse, each jockeying for leverage. There’s some super powerful device called the “rabbit’s foot” that everyone wants but it’s not really important. What is important is that Owen is eager to strike back at Ethan’s most vulnerable point — harming Julia.

This movie is quite possibly one of the greatest TV adaptations of all time. No, not the Mission: Impossible series but Alias. Just like J.J. Abrams’ TV brainchild, this slick, propulsive caper puts a smart spin on familiar ground. We’ve got the flash-forward narrative trickery, the super gadgets, the undercover teamwork, the world-trotting sprawling vistas, and anchoring the whole thing with an emotional counterpoint, trying to lead a double, “normal” life and keeping your loved ones equally safe and in the dark. There’s a great scene in the middle of a mission where Ethan and Luther casually discuss the impossibilities of living a normal life given what they do. Luther warns that those close to you will only end up getting hurt, and by this point thanks to a startling, right-to-the-point opener with a gun to sweet Julia’s head, we know he’s right. That’s what makes the third go-round different: Abrams has injected some emotion into the darn thing. Ethan is pressed back into service and then becomes something of a knight in shining Kevlar, trying to save his beloved in the crossfire of international espionage. There are a handful of scenes between Cruise and Monaghan and they sell the emotional drama in tender quiet looks. As a result, the audience and Ethan are rooted to their seats beyond just the assembly line of pyrotechnics. Just like Alias (at least up until Season 3 when it jumped the shark with the long-lost sister). It’s like if True Lies was played straight and Tom Arnold was mercifully forgotten.

Ah, but what pyrotechnics they are. Things get heated with a trip to the Vatican and they literally do not let up, all the while raising the stakes by pulling Ethan’s home life closer to the danger of his job. You’ll be left breathless absorbing all the exhilarating action sequences, which to my best estimate are more than the first two flicks combined. The stunts are superbly death-defying. What makes action sequences so enjoyable, pay attention you Hollywood rubes, is when the stage is set and then we watch organic complications. Abrams has a tremendous feel for action and playfully extends virtuoso sequences of awesome carnage. An attack on a bridge is simply outstanding and gave me an overload of geeky joy. We’re given the tight, controlled setting, and then Abrams introduces the outside conflict and keeps developing it masterfully step by step. There’s air attacks, there’s running back and forth amongst the wreckage, there’s searching for guns while escaping attack, and then there’s flying leaps over gaping concrete holes. I was jumping in my seat with boyish glee. The slow-mo gun toss between Cruise and Russell? Awesome. The swing-shot jump off a gigantic skyscraper in Shanghai? Awesome. The use of Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) as gadget guru? Awesome. Mission: Impossible III is, if nothing else, an incredible adrenaline rush orchestrated by a man with a finger directly on the pulse of his audience. By summer popcorn standards, Mission: Impossible III is everything you could hope for. Sure it’s highly implausible but it’s just so damn fun.

Abrams has created quite a breakthrough for himself. Long regarded as a TV visionary for his tangled, engrossing pop-pulp like Alias and Lost, Abrams shows what he can do with a bazillion dollars and one of the world’s most recognized stars. Abrams intelligent, deft handling of his material, elevating tired genre devices with flash and reverence, reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg. This is a man that respects his material and respects his audience, but still knows how to bring home an entertaining movie. I’ve followed Abrams’ career since getting hooked on Alias in 2001, and I’m confident he will become the best friend a movie geek could ever have (Star Trek fans should be clicking their heels about Abrams’ rumored involvement). Even though Mission: Impossible III is Abrams’ film debut (and on record the most expensive ever for a first time film director) he already shows more command, more wit, and more hipness than most of Hollywood’s graying old guard.

Finally, this is the first Mission: Impossible film to utilize the team aspect of the TV show. Granted, Cruise still does most of the running, jumping, climbing trees, but thankfully this movie is more than the Tom Cruise Kicks Everyone in the Face Show a.k.a Mission: Impossible II. The supporting cast all have their one great moment and part of the fun is their interaction, seeing the pieces fit into place. Just like last summer’s Batman Begins I would like to see another movie immediately with everyone involved. Make it happen. This is the Mission: Impossible world I want to explore in greater detail.

Mission: Impossible III is not bulletproof. The movie seriously needed more time for its villain. Hoffman does a great job of bringing his bad man to grumpy life. He goes about business with a detached nonchalance, like a plumber fixing his 10,000th clog. It may sound silly but it works because Hoffman gives his character a lizardy, unscrupulous sense of ethics. He really will put a bullet between the eyes of anyone, possibly while reheating some food in his microwave. That’s the greatness of Hoffman’s villain, how ordinary he sees his line of work and what it calls him to do. Now, with such a terrific villain it would behoove Mission: Impossible III to give him plenty of screen time. Sadly, Hoffman has about three real scenes, and his end is anticlimactic and so is the film as a whole. And what does IMF have to do to curb moles? There’s been one in all three Mission: Impossible movies. Maybe they should offer better vacation plans.

Tom Cruise may have done a lot to wear out his welcome with the public but he knows to surround himself with good people. The decision to let J.J. Abrams helm Mission: Impossible III has finally given this franchise vision and sustained excitement. This movie is far more emotionally based than any other in the series and there’s a genuine emotional reason for all the fireworks this time. The team aspect is finally addressed and Hoffman makes a truly lecherous, scary villain. But the bread and butter of this flick are its breathless action sequences, brilliantly choreographed by Abrams, a name destined for even greater things. Abrams knows how to spin genre clichĂ©s into clever, loose, twisty, funny, thrilling, emotionally centered gold. I don’t care if Cruise abused a couch and the public’s good will; Mission: Impossible III is an extravagant popcorn movie and a great way to start the summer. If only they were all like this.

Nate’s Grade: B+

An Unfinished Life (2005)

Einar (Robert Redford) is a gruff  rancher living with his long-time friend and ranch hand, Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who has been recovering from a bear mauling. Jean (Jennifer Lopez) and her young daughter (Becca Gardner) have run away from her abusive boyfriend and seeking temporary refuge with Einar. There’s still a lot of tension and unspoken anger between the two. Einar blames Jean for the death of his son from a car accident. As their stay continues each member imparts wisdom to the other, hard exteriors get warmed, and lessons about forgiveness are learned.

This is melodrama with a capital M. An Unfinished Life is clunky, the movie hasn’t the foggiest idea when it comes to subtlety, the characters all shout out their feelings all the time, and worse yet, it’s also incredibly transparent. A scene where Lopez breaks a dish and Redford goes nuts is just too much. Of course they’re talking about his dead son but the moment is played to the hilt that I half expected every line to end in a wink (“It’s just a dish” wink “Maybe it’s more than a dish to me!” wink “Maybe that was my favorite dish!” wink). Honestly, it was at this point that the film lost me. The metaphors are another symptom of the film’s overly ramped-up obviousness; Redford might as well be pointing at the bear to pantomime that it?s supposed to represent his pain and anger. And Freeman’s eventual forgiveness of his attacker is meant to encroach upon Redford to do likewise to the source of his pain, and many other moviegoers, Jennifer Lopez. I cannot find a movie emotionally involving when it doesn’t even bother to mask its grand statements.

Seriously, this movie is brimming with sprawling earnestness meant to cover the narrative shortcomings. This is a simple tale that could have suckered the audience in with its framework to showcase complex characters and their personal interactions, like a Million Dollar Baby, but even though An Unfinished Life is simplistic it still manages to beat you over the head. Every line of significance is underlined so you get it. It’s like director Lasse Hallstrom was making a seething parody of these overarching, small-town, large cast, homesy feel-good flicks he’s specialized in for a decade.

The acting is all fine. Redford is fun to watch and get his Jeremiah Johnson back on. Lopez makes you forget how much you hate her in other movies. Freeman is settling into a weird groove as a disfigured narrator. The acting of the ensemble really isn’t the issue with An Unfinished Life.

Despite all its earnest intentions and lush scenery, An Unfinished Life is too much melodrama squeezed into such a small space. It’s an old fashioned tale that feels too convenient, too simplistic, too perfunctory, and too unhappy with being any of those things. This feels like a Hallmark card turned into a movie by someone who has no grasp for human emotion. Everything is shouted when it needs to be a whisper and explained when it needs to just be experienced. And yet there will be an audience for this slow burn small-town tale of forgiveness and accountability. It may please people immensely, but I prefer a little subtlety to my drama. I won’t say the film is bad but I’ll never say An Unfinished Life is particularly good, even as melodrama.

Nate’s Grade: C

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