Category Archives: 2004 Movies

Finding Neverland (2004)

My friend George Bailey and I came to a similar conclusion during a recent conversation. There are a handful of movies, usually released around this time of year, that are packed to the gills with awards hype and general goodwill. Then I see them and feel underwhelmed for whatever reason and I walk out and feel that I should like the movie more than I do (if I do at all). I don’t know what to call it, societal guilt, elitism, but this is exactly what I felt when I left Finding Neverland.

J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is in search of his next play. It?s 1903 London, and the financier (Dustin Hoffman) of his last play has taken a financial bath. Barrie’s also emotionally closed off from his wife (Radha Mitchell). One day in the park, Barrie stumbles across Sylvia (Kate Winslet), a widow managing four boys by her lonesome. Barrie takes a shining to her children and delights in spending long days with Sylvia and her boys. From his encounters with Sylvia and the boys, Barrie works up the inspiration to write a new story, called Peter Pan. Of course the public has its own gossip about a married man gallivanting about with a widow and her boys (think recent Michael Jackson scandals). Then there?s Sylvia?s mother (Julie Christie), who is set to put her house back in order starting with removing Barrie from their lives.

The message of the movie is about the need for adults to slow down, open their imagination, and become bewitched by the power of believing. Because it’s not like there aren’t any other Hollywood movies out there that teach us to loosen up and enjoy life. Thank you Finding Neverland, I never would have found this out by myself. The message of belief overpowering all is also a bit naive, but then it works into the whole cross-stitching of sap the movie is generating.

Not even Depp can save the film. Long established as one of the most versatile and exciting actors, Depp finds ways to disappear into his oddball characters. In Finding Neverland, Depp sports an impressive Scottish brogue, but, sadly, this is the most impressive aspect about his performance. There had been much talk about Finding Neverland being Depp’s next opportunity at finding Oscar, but it would be a shame if Depp won for such a lackluster, artificial performance especially when he’s been brilliant so consistently in other movies. J.M. Barrie was somewhat eccentric, but in Finding Neverland he comes off as mostly vacant. The film tries to show that Barrie didn’t really fit in, but instead of becoming a showcase for Depp’s acting it becomes a showcase for Depp’s silence. The performance is so subtle that it doesn’t even come off as a performance. If Depp stood in the background of a movie, it would be akin to this performance.

Winslet has also been a very versatile actor. Her role in Finding Neverland never really deepens beyond Disadvantaged Woman. She’s been hit by adversity, she’s beset by four rambunctious kids and an icy mother, but that’s about all the film does for her characterization. Winslet is a tremendously talented actor, as evidenced by her Oscar-worthy performance in this year’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So why strand her in a role where her character’s greatest acting moment is coughing fits?

Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) has the frustrating habit of having two shot styles he shoots in. He decides between medium shots which usually involve two or three people, or large close-ups. While I was watching Finding Neverland I never once thought to myself that something was filmed in a visually interesting way. Some of Forster’s decisions seem unnecessary, like when he has to visually show us scenes of imagination instead of allowing the audience to, gasp, use their own imagination (hey, isn’t that the message of the movie?).

Finding Neverland tries so hard to be a three-hanky movie (and truth be told I heard a lot of sniffling in my theater during the last half hour), but what stops the film short is how unbelievably transparent everything is. Finding Neverland could have explored the rich complexity of an enigmatic figure like J.M. Barrie, but instead it settles for goopy sentimentality at every opportunity. Barrie becomes sugar-coated into an earnest father figure, and in the process key facts are sugar-coated as well. What do you mean? Well, Sylvia’s husband didn’t die until several years after Barrie wrote Peter Pan. Barrie’s wife didn’t have her affair until long after Peter Pan. Also, the original Peter threw himself in front of a train because of how upset he was about his connection to the famous character. I guess that’s why this is a biographical movie merely “inspired” by true events, much like Hidalgo.

The filmmakers rely on cloying tricks to make an audience care about its characters. The movie paints in very stark black and white tones, mainly “adults = shortsighted” and “children = special.” This is a film that is proud to take the easy road and makes little effort to cover its pride. It plays toward audience expectation and thus loses any long lasting magic.

Finding Neverland takes the easy road for audience-friendly sappiness. Barrie insists that 25 orphans be strategically placed around the theater on opening night of Peter Pan. Sure enough, the theater is full of old white men with monocles, and apparently they just don’t get the spirit of theater. The orphans laugh and squeal from the stage antics, and somehow this triggers all those old curmudgeons to learn to laugh once again. You see, all it takes is strategically placed orphans to make us laugh at life again.

When Sylvia is hanging laundry she starts to gently cough. If you’re smart, you’ll instantly figure out what trajectory is in store for her, but even if you miss this single cough don’t worry, because Sylvia will be doubled over with coughing later to spell it out for everyone. You can all but see the strings being pulled (the audience will cry… now!). All can be overcome in the end, those who didn’t understand will, and we’ll all be happier and live life to the fullest, in theory of course.

Finding Neverland wants to be Shakespeare in Love, another whimsical movie that shows how a writer utilized the people and events around them to pen a masterwork. Except in Shakespeare in Love there was a romance to fall back on, as well as some ripe comedy, but with Finding Neverland there isn’t anything to fall back on. It’s a Hallmark card mass-marketed to the largest possible audience.

Everything about Finding Neverland is disappointingly under whelming. The direction is shabby, the actors are marooned by their weak roles, and nothing is sacred in the film’s pursuit of that tearjerker ending. This is a movie for people that ask little of their movies, and yet I can reasonably see Finding Neverland becoming an audience favorite and riding good word of mouth all the way to awards season. Finding Neverland is a film that never takes flight because it’s too content to stay grounded by going the easy route.

[Nate’s Grade: C

The Incredibles (2004)

You’ve been there before. You know the drill. You’re staring up, mouth agape, at the multiplex’s list of new titles wondering what to see. It happens to the best of us. Who can you trust in these situations? Most people used to think they could trust Tom Hanks, but after his accent experimentation in The Ladykillers and The Terminal, not to mention his giant creepy mustache in The Polar Express (with accents!), that train of trust might have left the station. A lot of people felt they could trust an Oliver Stone movie, and, well, look how that turned out. No, moviegoers, the only trustworthy name that won’t let you down is Pixar. With hits like Toy Story and Finding Nemo you know that those computer wizards are looking out for you. Their newest work, The Incredibles, will keep Pixar alive in the moviegoer circle of trust.

The Incredibles takes place in a world where superheroes walk, run, jump in single bounds, and zip through the sky. They’re beloved and revered, with the super-strong Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) at the head of the pack. But then a fiend strikes more powerful than any dreaded super villain: litigation. A mountain of lawsuits pile up against superheroes, and the government disbands its programs and relocates all super-abled beings into new identities and homes.

Fifteen years later, Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, has married Helen (Holly Hunter), a.k.a. Elastigirl, who can stretch her shape, which comes in handy keeping their two children in line. Dash (Spencer Fox) begs his parents to allow him to use his power of super speed, especially at his schools sports. Violet (Sarah Vowell), all long haired Goth angst, uses her power of invisibility to just disappear during school and other functions she feels she doesn’t fit. It seems the only member of the family fully adjusted and happy to a “normal” life is Jack Jack, the Parr’s infant son who may or may not develop super powers of his own. Bob feels crushed by the grind of office work and hiding what makes him and his family special. He escapes at nights with old friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and the two of them relive the good old days with attempted heroic acts. Helen catches on and they have a huge fight with the kids as witnesses. Helen explains to her family in the best way that she can that their days as superheroes are over. They have to adjust to a different life now.

Bob’s wanderlust is soon quenched when he receives a mysterious invitation from a beautiful, white-haired woman named Mirage. She offers Bob the chance to become Mr. Incredible once more, to use his gifts and abilities to stop a robot on the loose on some island. Bob leaps at the chance, hiding his ongoing super exploits from his wife, and regains a sense of purpose. He hasn’t been this happy in ages; however, it all comes to a head when he learns that Syndrome (Jason Lee), the one responsible for the run-amok robots, has other plans. Not only this, upon capture Mr. Incredible realizes that he has ties to Syndrome way back during one of his less-than-super moments.

Helen is shocked when she finds out what Bob’s been up to, but also partially relieved it’s not an affair. She visits their old costumer Edna Mode, whose glasses and black wig may be bigger than the rest of her shrimpy body. Edna has redesigned a team of superhero costumes, and with them in hand Helen becomes Elastigirl once more and takes Dash and Violet on a journey to save their father and become a family once more.

The Incredibles is a film bursting with entertainment. This is an explosion of imagination, of wit, of grand storytelling, that the audience should sit and soak up every loving and beautiful second of it.

The voice work is wonderful. I’m sure Disney execs were scratching their heads over Craig T. Nelson, but I cannot imagine anyone else that could deliver as much in the role. Hunter is excellent, as always, as a doting mother and crime fighter. Lee is great with a villainous role that has a lot more depth to it than near any live-action film. His verbal gymnastics are perfectly suited for a slighted super villain.

Writer/Director Brad Bird’s first feature was the 1999 masterpiece, The Iron Giant, which I consider the finest animated film of all time (you heard me, Walt). Bird’s first film was a masterful mixture of little boy fantasy, reality, strong characters, humor, and excuse-me-there’s-something-in-my-eye tenderness. I know many people who, after seeing The Iron Giant, say they were, “crying like they watched a puppy get hit in the face with a shovel.”

With this being said, my trust in Bird as a master storyteller is still there. The Incredibles is the first Pixar film concerning real people, not just toys, ants, fish, monsters, and, uh, more toys, and the results are astounding. This is a film rich in complexity, human insights, family warmth, and, again, realism. Bird has fully realized The Brady Bunch of superheroes. They feel just as flesh and blood as any characters I’ve seen in any film this year. They have desires, secrets, shame, guilt, anger, burdens, pride, and above all, love. I mean, how many animated films have an actual subplot involving marital suspicion? You won’t find that in The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie. When Elastigirl and the kids go off to save her heroic hubby, she has a sit-down with her children and warns them that, yes, death is very real, and that these people will indeed kill them if discovered (this is the first PG-rated Pixar film, by the way). It’s a great moment that reminds you how much you care for these people.

Bird’s imagination seems incomparable. He has a razor-sharp feel for comedy, like Elastigirl’s scene caught between several sliding doors or the lively, hysterical Edna Mode personality, but he also possesses the ingenuity for crafting some of the most exciting action sequences in a long time. The Incredibles has uncanny action scenes, set to Michael Giacchino (TV’s Lost) blazing jazz score, which should make the James Bond producers die from envy.

Bird has created a stupendous action film, a heartwarming family drama, a hilarious comedy, and a gorgeous film to watch. Movies rarely get this entertaining, but for Pixar, it’s all just part of the norm. I hope someday we don’t take Pixar’s accomplishments and staunch consistency for granted, because they aren’t just reinventing what animation can do, they’re also reinventing what films themselves can do. You can have all the accents you want Tom Hanks; I’ll gladly take The Incredibles and its bounty of offerings.

Nate’s Grade: A

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004)

You don’t see too many sequels to romantic comedies, and that?s practically by design. Most romantic comedies consist of keeping the leads apart as long as possible, and then in that final climactic moment they connect, embrace, kiss, usually while a camera pans around them and some up-tempo Top 40 songs swells on the soundtrack. Then we end, our story finished. You see, romantic comedies are essentially modern fairy tales, and they end on the “happily ever after” moment, the most joyous moment. We don?t think about what their lives could be afterwards. I doubt few in the audience are biting their nails to know who does the dishes or if their sex life diminishes.

So for all of these stated reasons, sequels to romantic comedies are rare, unless, of course, they’re based on a book series that’s a cash cow of chick lit. Thus, America, we are given Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the sequel to the smash 2001 film Bridget Jones’s Diary.

The movie takes place four weeks after Bridget (Renee Zellweger) and Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) cuddling in the falling snow. Their relationship is all lovey-dovey, until Bridget starts reconsidering if she made the right choice of men. Her former boss, Daniel (Hugh Grant) has gone on to fame as a travel correspondent for TV news. He’s a bad boy, for sure, but sparks flew with him. Bridget also suspects Mark of cheating on her with a leggy colleague (whose final plot revelation is quite dumb). Bridget tries her best to fit in with Mark’s upper crust society, but is starting to feel unaccepted. Then she becomes a partner to Daniel on his travel reports, and the two visit exotic locales and sparks begin once more.

Edge of Reason feels like a poor slapdash grab at money. The film lifts entire scenes from the first Bridget Jones movie and tries reworking them for similar effect. Watching Firth and Grant sissy fight each other is amusing … the first time I saw it in 2001. For the most part, it seems like the filmmakers behind Edge of Reason were straining to come up with things after that “happily ever after” moment. What other reason can there be for some of the disastrous plot turns in Edge of Reason? The revolving door of writers (including author Helen Fielding herself) manufacture petty and foolish nitpicks for Bridget that she treats as life or death. It’s hard to feel concern for her. When you strand your main character -in a romantic comedy, no less- in a Thailand prison because she was caught smuggling drugs -in a romantic comedy, remember- then you have some giant plot issues.

The wit and biting commentary from Bridget seem to be stripped away. She only makes two journal entries, which open and close the film, and they were responsible for some of the greatest comedy bits in the original movie. She no longer comes across as a snappy, ordinary girl with a big heart and some big neuroses (did I mention the Thailand prison?). The Bridget of Edge of Reason seems a bit obnoxious at times. The comedy of Edge of Reason doesn’t generally rise above slapstick. Watch Bridget parachute into a dung field (Ha!), watch Bridget ski backwards down a slalom (Hilarious!), watch Bridget get stoned from magic mushrooms (You’re killing me!), and don?t forget to watch her fall down, like, a lot (R.I.P. Nate; cause of death: laughing too hard). The makers of Edge of Reason are just trying too damn hard.

It’s a wonder that Edge of Reason does work at times, and that reason is because of the acting of our romantic trio. Zellweger is still incredibly charming despite some of the things she’s forced to do. She’s never looked better than when she has her Bridget Jones physique; she’s practically glowing. Grant is at his best when he’s a cad, and once again he gets the best lines, especially when he’s undressing Bridget during a work trip. The movie comes alive when he and Zellweger start their flirtatious battle. Firth adds shades of humanity and adoration to his fuddy-duddy role. He’s got a great everyman appeal even when he’s being a twit.

Edge of Reason also seems to flog whatever it feels is funny. If Bridget saying something inappropriate in front of a group of dignitaries and ambassadors is funny, then expect it to happen again five or six times. And it does, sadly. Edge of Reason is almost a wall-to-wall torture chamber of public embarrassment for Bridget, and if the filmmakers thought that would endear her to audiences they were wrong. We were endeared already by her wit and charm, but I guess the people behind Edge of Reason thought we didn’t want more of that. I miss you old Bridget Jones, wherever you are.

The first Bridget Jones movie was directed by Sharon Maguire, a personal friend of Fielding. Maguire was close enough to know how to adapt the story and retain the elements that made Bridget Jones entertaining. Edge of Reason‘s director Beeban Kidron seems to be assembling a Bridget Jones movie for a focus group. We lose the personality of Bridget and get an accident-prone buffoon. All that’s missing are the banana peels.

Everything about Edge of Reason screams laziness. A great example of this is the film’s choice for music. The songs are so obvious, from “All By Myself” to “I’m Not in Love” to songs that simply have “love” in their title, like “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” to Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” Chances are, if your band ever released a song with “love” in the title, the music director of Edge of Reason considered using it.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason will likely entertain its core audience (there were very few men unaccompanied by women in my theater). The cast makes this stilted sequel worth watching. If you really liked Bridget Jones’s Diary, you’ll probably be intermittently amused with Edge of Reason, because it’s the same meal, only reheated with a bit of a chill. Let this be an example of why Hollywood doesn’t make sequels to romantic comedies. We’re happy enough with “happily ever after.”

Nate’s Grade: C+

Saw (2004)

Saw was pieced together by two first-time filmmakers, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell. They envisioned that old movie favorite, the imaginative serial killer. Their killer would put people in horrific life-or-death situations, testing our will to live even if it meant rummaging around the intestines of a live human being for our key to freedom. With a budget of a mere million dollars, Wan and Whannell have executed a dark, slick, sometimes thrilling, sometimes laughable fright flick. The only question is if audiences are hungry enough for the splashes of blood Saw can deliver, or if they’d rather watch Sara Michelle Gellar turning Japanese.

Adam (Whannell), a private photographer, and Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), a workaholic surgeon, are in a very strange circumstance. They’ve both just awoken and find themselves chained by their feet at opposite ends of a bathroom with a dead body between them. Neither has any idea how they got there. Dr. Gordon theorizes that they’re the culprits of the Jigsaw Killer, a psycho that places his victims in elaborate death traps they must fight to get out of. In the pants pockets of Adam and Dr. Gordon are audio tapes from Jigsaw establishing the rules of this “game.” In eight hours, if Dr. Gordon does not kill Adam, his wife and daughter will be killed. Jigsaw has even left them clues to their escape, most notably a pair of rusty saws not strong enough to cut through their chains, but still plenty strong to slice through their feet if they so choose. Outside this game, Detective Tapp (Danny Glover) is closing in on the identity of the Jigsaw Killer and may be the only hope Adam and Dr. Gordon have.

Saw is a grisly horror movie that hits the right macabre marks. Horror is such a tricky genre, and you can either build tension in an effective what’s-around-the-corner kind of way (The Ring, 28 Days Later), or, if that fails, and it often does (The Grudge anyone?), you can cut your losses by showing the gory goods (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, any slasher film). This isn’t to say one version is inferior to the other; sometimes we just want to be grossed out. Saw is a horror film committed to horror, sometimes to a rather unpleasant and sadistic point. In a way, the fact that Saw goes for broke in its depiction of the grotesque makes it more enjoyable than recent horror fair that tried to hedge their bets on jump scares and nosy cats.

In some manner, Saw is like a dumber, trashier Seven. They both involve serial killers with agendas and they both give the killer the upper hand. While Seven is a masterpiece of the thriller genre, Saw is a mostly entertaining horror entry. Its premise is razor-sharp and really hooks an audience. We know only as much as the characters do, so their discoveries work two-fold. The pacing is tight, the cinematography is exceptional for its budget, and the end had me jump out of my seat. I will say this; Saw reluctantly seems to think that it needs to reveal the identity of the Jigsaw killer, as well as his motives, to satisfy an audience. I think no answer could ever be satisfying; however, the actual reveal of Saw‘s true killer had me wanting to give the filmmakers a standing ovation. There are fleeting moments of greatness here among the misery. Whannell knows when to show which cards, and it makes the story more enticing.

There are glaring issues with Saw. The acting is one of them. Elwes is usually a stable character actor, but chain him to a wall and say,”Go!” and the man will overact as if his real wife and child depended on it. Whannell, a first time actor and the co-writer, goes deliriously over the top in some battle of scenery chewers. Don’t feel too bad if you feel like laughing during certain moments of “emotional turmoil.”

Saw seems to exist in that magical place known as It Could Only Happen in Movies World. For example, a serial killer designing highly elaborate, and personally clever, death traps could only happen in a movie. I love the fact that the film even shows evidence that the Jigsaw Killer builds dioramas of his future death traps. If he entered them in the Third Grade Sadistic Science Fair, I’m fairly certain he?d at least earn a blue ribbon or a gift certificate.

Yes, only in a movie are we expected to believe one man can kidnap people, lug them around, set up his elaborate Rube Goldberg puzzles, and then kick back and elude police capture. The entire premise of Saw is whole-heartedly ludicrous, and the plot turns are heavily contrived, but, as an audience, you must yield such ordinary eye-rolling to enjoy the pleasures of Saw. If you can swallow plot holes and just go with the film’s skewed logic, there is some enjoyment to be had.

Wan can also be his worst enemy. Too often he punctuates chase scenes with pounding heavy metal, which does little more than numb an audience. Wan’s film loses some of its focus in the middle as the audience endures flashback after flashback. To goose up the viewing, Wan shoves in extraneous flashes of gore. Just like The Exorcist prequel, flashes of something horrific do little more than to cause an audience to yelp. They’re immediate. If you want true gut-churning reactions, you have to build, and in the end Saw remembers what it came to do and sprints to the finish line.

Saw also exists in the grimiest possible world. Whether it be parking garage, office, or even personal apartment, the characters of Saw exist in some netherworld of filth crying out for an army of scrubbing bubbles. I’m sure this was intentional, but can’t any place in horror movies afford a coat of paint nowadays?

Saw is a gruesome, twisted, sometimes sadistic horror movie with a knock-out premise, a moderately good ending twist (not the final end, though), and some lag time in between. Wan and Whannel really stretch their budget to impressive ends and imply more blood and guts than are shown. Fans of hardcore gore horror should be pleased with Saw, though they may find themselves giggling at it from time to time. I was hooked by its premise and found myself getting more intrigued as the revelations began to sift. Many will find Saw too ugly, gory, or stupid, but for fans of the genre, it should satisfy the itch recent PG-13 horror couldn’t efficiently scratch. Saw is violent, contrived, ridiculous, but also, in the end, gruesomely entertaining in parts.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Surviving Christmas (2004)

Surviving Christmas was originally supposed to be released, get this, a whole year ago for Christmas 2003. Paramount objected to the original release, saying it was too close to the release of their own Ben Affleck action flick, Paycheck (I doubt anything could have helped that turkey). So Dreamworks held onto it for another year and released it around the holidays. Halloween that is. The nation hasn’t even experienced Halloween or Thanksgiving yet, and we’re already getting a Christmas movie in our stocking. Given Affleck’s recent track record (the man hasn’t had a hit movie since 2002’s Sum of All Fears), audiences might not expect more than a lump of coal when his name’s above the title.

Drew (Affleck) is a cynical ad executive trying to figure out his plans for the approaching Christmas season. He gives his girlfriend tickets to Fiji, but she expected an engagement ring, so she dumps him right there claiming he doesn’t know what family life is. Drew finds his old family home now populated by the Valco family. He offers Papa Valco (James Gandolfini) $250,000 for him and his wife (Catherine O’Hara), son, and daughter (Christina Applegate) to be his family for Christmas. Papa Valco accepts. Drew is a stickler for family tradition, and mandates tree shopping, hat wearing, dinner script reading, and sleeping in his old room. The family’s hostility begins to wear down but things get even stickier when Drew falls for the Valco’s daughter, and then his ex-girlfriend shows up wanting to see his family.

The central flaw of the film is Affleck’s character. Drew is a jerk. That’s all there is to it. Somehow Affleck has become the go-to actor for arrogant, work obsessed men that desperately need to see that there’s more to life (Bounce, Jersey Girl, Forces of Nature). I think this is also the second or third time he’s played an ad executive. Surviving Christmas seems to exist in some weird dimension where a jerk shows us the true meaning of Christmas and family togetherness. What’s even worse is that Drew doesn’t change as a character, he doesn’t seem to grow, and the ending actually seems to reward him for his selfish, material, obnoxious ways.

I like Affleck, I really do. I like his work in Kevin Smith’s films, and he can make a good action hero if given the right material (Say a Sum of All Fears, and not so much a Paycheck). The man is charming, he’s eloquent, and he’s self-deprecating and constantly funny. He’s the kind of guy you want to buy a beer. Now, having said all this, Surviving Christmas is Affleck’s worst performance of his career. Affleck can do comedy, and not just in a Greek tragedy kind of way with his life in the tabloids. In Surviving Christmas, Affleck mugs like nothing is sacred. His eyes bug out. He exaggerates near any expression, from his smug grin to his childish fits. For a man who has Gigli, Reindeer Games, and Pearl Harbor to his credit, it’s something when it’s said that Surviving Christmas may be his acting low point.

Gandolfini seems to have been cast to play against type. He’s still got that flinty stare and slow simmer of anger, but he’s generally wasted. He’s the comic foil to Affleck’s jerk, and yet he still doesn’t come across that much better. His monstrous woolly beard is also mildly disturbing. Applegate brings more life to her love interest role than the role deserves. Her romance with Drew seems so spontaneous, especially given her natural hostility to him. The only actor that has any real moments to stretch and shine is O’Hara. A veteran of improv, O’Hara has some of the film?s funnier moments, like when she makes mini marshmallows with a butcher’s knife, or her wild photo shoot Drew arrangers for her.

Surviving Christmas is indeed a chore to sit through. The movie, at its gooey heart, doesn’t know what kind of holiday film it wants to be. A good example is the opening montage of holly jolly Christmas sequences. In between standard, saccharine moments of feeling, there?s an old grandmotherly woman who bakes a tray of gingerbread men, with frosted frowns, and then sticks her head in an oven. Huh? Surviving Christmas tries to have it both ways. It wants to lampoon Christmas sentiment with the occasional touch of dark humor, but then it plays into a feel-good holiday formula complete with sled rides, tree lighting, and hot cocoa. The result is a schizophrenic comedy that doesn’t work being dark or cuddly.

The whole wacky premise of Surviving Christmas screams sitcom, and the conventional proceedings and stock characters that follow guarantee it. The only way this could be more of a sitcom is if they drew a line down the middle of the house, the boss was coming over for dinner unexpectedly, and a pesky cat swallowed someone’s wedding ring. Surviving Christmas‘ relation to a sitcom is the only way I can explain why the film has stale jokes about internet porn (What, there’s porn on the Internet? When did this happen?). There’s even horny old men and wedgie jokes too! This is a movie in desperate need of a laugh track. I kept expecting everyone to turn their heads and go, “Dreeeeeeeeew” and then Affleck shrugs his shoulders, bugs his eyes out, smirks, and the studio audience goes wild.

It probably doesn’t help that Surviving Christmas is credited to over five writers and was directed by the director of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. The comedy rarely hits its marks because it’s so frustratingly tied up in its identity. The film wants to make incest jokes, but then in the same breath it wants us to listen to some syrupy back story explaining why Drew is the lonely, socially challenged jerk he is. The laughs of Surviving Christmas are mostly limited to broad slapstick and the occasional inappropriate remark. The preview audience I watched the film with seemed to be rolling in the aisles while I mostly rolled my eyes.

There will be a section of the public that enjoys Surviving Christmas. Fans of Christmas cheer and broad PG-13 comedies may find laughs amongst the wreckage. Surviving Christmas doesn’t have the gusto to commit to black comedy like Bad Santa (a new Christmas classic), but it also doesn’t build its characters strongly enough for an audience to care about them. They’re all mainly jerks and twits. This is a Christmas movie that doesn’t know what stripes it is. How else to explain it coming out in late October.

Nate’s Grade: C

Team America: World Police (2004)

The MPAA is mad, plain and simple. It’s an organization intended to rate movies so our wee ones don’t stumble into something not intended for their virgin eyes. They also have a long history of haggling with filmmakers over ratings and the necessary cuts to ensure a commercial rating. And, in their eyes, puppet sex was deemed too indecent. You see, the MPAA initially gave the all-puppet action movie Team America: World Police, the new film from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, an NC-17 for an extended scene of two marionettes engaging in enough sexual positions to make a G.I Joe blush. However, we’re talking about puppets, people! Puppets! They’re not even anatomically correct. Does anyone find it crazy that a governing board says watching two dolls bang together in “simulated sex” (is there any other kind with puppets?) is inappropriate for all ages under 17? Surely, if the MPAA is to be eventually reformed, this will be Exhibit A.

Team America is an elite team that fights terrorists and police the globe in red, white, and blue helicopters, jets, and flying limos (the team logo is a bald eagle with the earth in its beak). The team leader Spottswoode recruits Broadway actor Gary, star of the musical Lease (key song: “Everyone has AIDS”), because they need someone to pretend to be a terrorist and flush out their secret plan. Gary is reluctant at first but agrees to join the team.

Team America flies to Paris and Cairo to battle terrorists. They snuff the terrorists, but world monuments like the Eiffel Tower and Sphinx get lost among the collateral damage. Things look promising for Team America, and Gary expresses feelings for Lisa, a blonde psychologist haunted by the loss of a teammate and a lover.

Terrorists strike the Panama Canal in retaliation, and a group of celebrities led by Alec Baldwin condemn Team America. Michael Moore, with hotdog in each hand, protests outside Team America’s headquarters. In these moments of disarray, we learn the true source of the Weapons of Mass Destruction and brains behind the attacks is North Korean dictator Kim Jon Il, who has a plan for “9/11 times 2,358.”

While not reaching the satiric highs of the South Park movie, Team America is a political movie that lambastes both sides of the coin. This has been a very heavy year for political films, from leftist documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, The Hunting of a President and Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, to more subtle jabs at the current administration (the very Cheney-like VP of The Day After Tomorrow), to more obvious indictments (the stuttering, axiom-loving dumbbell candidate in John Sayles’ Silver City). So in a year bursting to the seams with political screeds, it’s quite refreshing to have a movie that lampoons both the Right and the Left.

Team America satirizes the arrogant, shoot first ask later, cavalier foreign policy America has been accused of (“We’re going to bring democracy to you if it kills you.”). The film also criticizes Hollywood celebrities who feel that their uninformed, unsolicited opinions are germane to the political process. In the end, it’s the celebrities who get the worst of the beating (Matt Damon appears to be, um, challenged). Parker and Stone shrewdly satirize pretentiousness and ego, no matter which side it falls upon. They lose their focus as the film enters its final gory act, instead resorting to garish ways of killing puppets.

Team America has a good one-two combination with its political punch, but where it really shines is the knockout it delivers to bombastic Jerry Bruckheimer action films. This is a delirious send-up of a wide array of action movie clichés, including team members and their secret crushes as well as their hidden traumas. Characters will fight or die in slow-motion for dramatic effect. Characters will all have some special talent that will come into play at an important moment. Kim Jon Il has a typical villain lair, including large shark tanks and trap doors. When a character dies in the opening sequence he mutters the line, “I feel so… cold[.” Hilarious! There’s even an entire training montage set to a song called, “Montage” (sample lyric: “Show a lot of things happening at once, remind everyone of what’s going on!/ And with every shot show just a little improvement – to show it all would take too long!/ That’s called a montage!/ MONTAGE!/ Even Rocky had a montage!/ MONTAGE! “). There’s also a love song all about Pearl Harbor sucking as a movie.

Like all the other films by Parker and Stone, Team America is a robust musical. The songs aren’t as sharp as the ditties from the South Park movie, but they’re still quite amusing. The Team America theme is a rousing anthem called “America, Fuck Yeah!” which is a perfect example of the film’s simultaneous mixture of the profane and the brilliant. Later in the film, when Team America is taking a public backlash, there’s a somber remix of the theme that’s even funnier.

Some things are just funnier because of the limitations of puppets. Watching two marionettes try to fight is hilarious, because they really do nothing but kick their legs and limply slap each other. Before Team America, I never realized how funny it was just to watch marionettes walk. They’re so awkward and jumpy, that just seeing them step from side to side can put a smile on your face. When the music of Kill Bill comes onscreen, and the puppets walk in slow dramatic fashion, it’s even more absurd and funny.

Parker and Stone also have fun with self-awareness, like when they take Gary on a tour of the sights of Washington D.C. and he stands next to an actual tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery. There’s also a Matrix parody that actually comes off as fresh. There’s a giddiness to watching puppets swear, fight, vomit, stagger drunk, and even do the nasty. It’s a gimmick that doesn’t get old.

This is also one terrific looking movie. The sets are massively intricate and the photography by Bill Pope (who did shoot the Matrix films) bathes the proceedings in beautiful mixtures of light and dark. There may be moments you forget that what you’re watching are miniatures. It is filmed to look like a typical action movie. The music is a spot-on parody of action films, with its heaviness on flutes when the villain is around, to the foreign lady mournfully singing during scenes of tragedy. There’s fantastic craft and detail worked into Team America that I can unequivocally say Team America: World Police is the best looking, R-rated all-marionette musical action movie… ever.

Team America may be the funniest film of the year. There are some moments of drag, and sometimes less profanity would make certain punch lines better (unfunny homophobic jokes like the acronym F.A.G.), but the movie is a comedy that’s pee-your-pants funny. Team America is definitely not for kids (what kind of irresponsible parent assumes “puppets = for kids” and ignores an R-rating?). Because of the equal opportunity satire, this may end up being a movie that conservatives and liberals both claim to be their own. For fans of erudite satire, crude humor, and puppet sex, Team America will be a blast. Make sure to stay throughout the end credits to hear a special closing song not in the film.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Forgotten (2004)

Fair warning: This screed contains huge spoilers about the movie as I rip it apart. The press release for The Forgotten says, “What if you were told that every moment you experienced and every memory you held dear never happened?” And now, upon having seen The Forgotten, I say, “Oh, if only.”

Telly (Julianne Moore) is still grieving the loss of her nine-year-old son who died in a plane crash 14 months ago. She’s seeing a psychiatrist (Gary Sinise) and slowly coming to terms with her loss. One day she discovers all remnants of her son missing. His clothes, baseball glove, even his appearance in pictures has vanished. She accuses her husband (Anthony Edwards) of stealing them, but then is shocked when her hubby and doc both tell her that Telly never had a son. She’s been delusional for years since a miscarriage and has created an imaginary son. Telly refuses to accept the possibility that she’s nuts, and finds initial resistance and then acceptance from another parent (Dominic West) who also remembers a daughter that died in the same plane crash. Together they set off to learn the truth, all the while being hunted down by the NSA for some mysterious reason.

The Forgotten shares a very dubious honor. Only twice in my life have I been strongly tempted to walk out on a movie, and that was while watching Lost in Space and The Thin Red Line. Six years later, The Forgotten became the third. It got so bad during the second half that I was fashioning my moveable armrest into a crude headboard for me to sleep upon. I was that bored. I can explain the reasons for my boredom very easily: terrible plot structure.

The Forgotten opens with Telly grieving over the loss of her son, and Moore is so good at grief that she can hook an audience as soon as her face crinkles into sadness. Around the 20-minute mark, Telly is told that she never had a son and has been delusional the whole time. Now, stop right there. That’s a great premise. If the makers of The Forgotten had stretched this part of the movie to about 90 minutes, put some thought and skill toward it, then we could have had something fascinating and heartfelt. Instead, you’re given the easily expected and the very boring.

At the 20-minute mark, Telly is told she has no child and she’s crazy. At around the 30-minute mark, none of this matters. The movie doesn’t even allow an opportunity for Telly to even doubt for a sheer second about her wild hunch that everyone in her life, including The New York Times, being apart of some global conspiracy to hide the fact she had a child. And of course, because she?s our heroine and this is Hollywood, her incredibly outlandish theories will be proven right. I understand that, but to reveal her theory’s accuracy only TEN MINUTES later is ridiculous. The Forgotten wastes no time proving Telly’s wild ranting as being correct. It’s as if The Forgotten feels that its audience is cultivated from the dumbest common denominator.

At the 40-minute mark the “A-word” is used, and before the 60-minutes mark, the audience knows everything. The last hour of the film is so obvious; no, it’s beyond obvious. It’s super obvious. It can’t even be obvious because The Forgotten has told you EVERYTHING. You’re not waiting around for predictability to play its way out, because you’ve been told everything. All that’s left is to sit and watch dull chase scenes (a book editor outrun NSA trained agents? Please).

There will be some heavy spoilers in my discussion of the film’s plot. I’m posting fair warning now, but doubt they’ll be too surprising given the ads on TV for The Forgotten (who else would you think was responsible?).

I have no idea what the makers of The Forgotten were thinking. They blow all their secrets in the first half and then mill around for another hour. It’d be like if The Sixth Sense revealed Haley Joel Osment sees ghosts and Bruce Willis is dead in the first hour, and then for another hour they sit uncomfortably and ask about the weather. Anyone think that movie would have worked the same? This is why I was so bored. I could have fallen asleep and accurately predicted everything that would happen in the second hour. There didn’t even need to be a second half to this film. It was all irritatingly explained to us in the first hour. Once the mystery’s gone, the only thing the audience has to keep its faltering attention are the questions of whether Telly can win back her son, and who will be vacuumed out of the universe next. That’s not much to justify another tension-free, revelation-free hour of awful movie.

The ending is also steeped in lunacy. So apparently all-powerful aliens love to play experiments on us and basically control our whole lives. Peachy. Telly is apart of an experiment, and the creepy, slim alien tells her that she’s the anomaly. All the other test subjects have forgotten, but not her, and the little green men want to know why. What’s even more peculiar is that this specimen of a supposedly advanced race is mad at Telly for gunking up the project, and he’s (its?) going to beat her until she forgets and the project is finished. But the alien just said she was the lone anomaly. By definition the project worked if everyone else succeeded. I’m no advanced race and I figured that out. Guess I’m smarter than the screenwriter of The Forgotten.

Once again, humans miraculously triumph over supposedly all-powerful alien species. I realize an audience wants to see our heroes succeed at the end and conquer evil, but is it even plausible when this evil can alter everyone’s existence at a moment’s notice? In the end, Telly gets her son back and her life is fulfilled. The makers of The Forgotten expect you to take this for a happy, victorious ending. Don’t. Sure, Telly has her kid back, but what’s to stop these all-powerful aliens from doing it again. For that matter, since she was the anomaly, wouldn’t they continue to perform experiments on her to see what makes her tick?

What makes The Forgotten even more irksome is that it’s a blatant rip-off of Alex Proyas’ visionary 1998 sci-fi noir, Dark City. The plot of Dark City is about all-powerful aliens that experiment with human beings. They plant different memories into their heads, allow their human test subjects to live multiple identities, to see what makes us work. A reluctant doctor helps the aliens but is really rooting for the one test subject that seems beyond their power. The aliens are baffled about this anomaly. This is practically the entire plot for The Forgotten; trade Shell Beach for Quest Air, lose all the style, thrills, imagination, and pacing of Dark City, and what you’re left with is The Forgotten.

It’s not enough that The Forgotten is possibly the most ineptly plotted movie ever, or that the trailer and commercials gave away too much (I knew the ending before stepping into the theater), the ails of The Forgotten are exacerbated by the fact that it’s a shallow, homely, incompetent rip-off of Dark City.

I do not fault Moore. She is one of the finest working actresses today and will elevate anything she is in to some degree. She’s stranded by the material. The only performance I even took any note of was the surprise appearance of Lee Tergesen. He’s shown equally impressive comedic chops (USA’s Weird Science) as dramatic chops (He was the closest thing to a hero on HBO’s Oz). It’s always fun to see personally beloved character actors, even if it is in an abomination like The Forgotten.

Director Joseph Ruben (Money Train, The Good Son) finds astonishing ways to make The Forgotten even worse. He overplays his hand early, like having many overhead shots cued with weird, aerial noises. There’s also an ominous and extremely mobile cloud formation that spells out the antagonists. The second half is filled with pointless chase scenes, and Ruben can’t manage to make any part of them exciting. He does have one interesting jump moment while Telly is riding in a car, but I already saw it this year in the superior Bourne Supremacy.

The Forgotten may end up being the worst film of 2004, and with a year dotted by the likes of Hellboy, Van Helsing, Catwoman, and National Lampoon’s Gold Diggers, that may be all I need to say. I suppose someone out there may find something redeemable about The Forgotten (if they haven’t already seen Dark City), but the film’s tepid pacing, mind-numbingly foolish plot structure, and mounting illogical doom the poor audience to two hours of head-smacking boredom. This is a first-class Hollywood train wreck. It doesn’t work as a drama about grief, it doesn’t work as a psychological thriller, and it really doesn’t work as a half-baked X-Files episode. The Forgotten is a really great title, because in a few weeks it’ll be exactly that.

Nate’s Grade: F

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow started as a six-minute home movie by Kerry Conran. He used computer software and blue screens to recreate New York City and depict a zeppelin docking at the top of the Empire State building. The six-minute short, which Conran spent several years completing, caught the attention of producer John Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes). He commissioned Conran to flesh out a feature film, where computers would fill in everything except the actors (he even used the original short in the feature film). The dazzling, imaginative results are Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Polly (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a reporter in 1930s New York. She?s investigating the mysterious disappearance of World War scientists when the city is invaded by a fleet of robots. The city calls out for the aid of Sky Captain, a.k.a. Joe (Jude Law), a dashing flying ace that happens to also be Polly?s ex. Joe and Polly form an uneasy alliance. He wants to stop Totenkopf (archived footage of Laurence Olivier) from sending robots around the globe and rescue his kidnapped mechanic, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi). She wants to get the story of a lifetime, a madman spanning the world to abduct scientists, parts, and the required elements to start a doomsday device. Along the way, Captain Franky Cook (Angelina Jolie) lends her help with her flying amphibious brigade. Together they might stop Totenkopf on his island of mystery.

Sky Captain is a visual marvel. It isn’t necessary a landmark, as actors have performed long hours behind green screen before (just look at the Star Wars prequels). Sky Captain is the first film where everything, excluding props the actors handle, is digitally brought to life inside those wonderful computers. The results are breath-taking, like when Polly enters Radio City Music Hall or during an underwater dogfight with Franky’s amphibious squadron. Sky Captain is brimming with visual excitement. The film is such an idiosyncratic vision that there’s no way it could have been made within the studio system.

Sky Captain has definite problems. For one, the characters are little more than stock characters going through the motions. The story also takes a backseat to the visuals. The dialogue is wooden and full of clunkers like, “You won’t need high heels where we’re going.” Generally the dialogue consists of one actor yelling the name of another character (examples include: “Dex!” “Joe!” “Polly!” and “Totenkopf!”). My father remarked that watching Sky Captain was akin to watching What Dreams May Come, because you’re captivated by the painterly visuals enough to stop paying attention to the less-than-there story and characters. The characters running onscreen also appears awkward, like they’re running on treadmills we can’t see, reminiscent of early 1990s video games.

Let’s talk then about those characters then. Paltrow’s character is generally unlikable. She’ll scheme her way toward whatever gains she wishes, but not in a chirpy Lois Lane style, more like a tabloid reporter. She whines, she yells, she complains, she berates, and she doesn’t so much banter as she does argue. Sky Captain is more enigmatic as a character. He seems forever vexed. Jolie’s Captain Franky Cook gives her another opportunity for her to use her faux-British accent. Jolie’s character is the strong-willed, sexy, helpful heroine that should be the center of the film, not Paltrow’s pesky reporter.

It’s also a bit undignified to assemble Laurence Olivier as the villain. It’s very unnecessary, but at least he wasn’t dancing with a vacuum cleaner.

Now, having acknowledged the flaws of Sky Captain, I must now say this: I do not care at all. This is the first time I’ve totally sidestepped a film’s flaws because of overall enjoyment. I have never felt as giddy as I did while watching Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. When the giant robots first showed up I was hopping in my seat. When I saw the mixture of 1930s sci-fi, adventure serials, and Max Fleischer cartoons, I was transported to being a little kid again. No movie has done this so effectively for me since perhaps the first Back to the Future. I loved that we saw map lines when we traveled from country to country. I love the fact that the radio signal hailing Sky Captain is reminiscent of the RKO Pictures opening.This is a whirling, lovelorn homage that will make generations of classic movie geeks will smile from ear to ear. I don’t pretend to brush over the flaws, with which story and characters might be number one, but Sky Captain left me on such a cotton-candy high that my eyes were glazing over.

One could actually make a legitimate argument that the stock characters, stiff dialogue, and anemic story are in themselves a clever homage to the sci-fi serials of old, where the good guys were brave, the women plucky, and the bad guys always bent on world domination. I won?t make this argument, but it could lend credence more toward the general flaws of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Sky Captain is an exciting ode to influences of old. It’s periodically breath-taking in its visuals and periodically head scratching with its story, but the film might awaken childhood glee within the viewer. I won’t pretend the film isn’t flawed, and I know the primary audience that will love Sky Captain are Boomers with a love and appreciation for classic cinema. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow will be a blast for a select audience, but outside of that group the film’s flaws may be too overwhelming.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Cellular (2004)

Cellular, a new thriller, relies on the simple device of a cell phone for the crux of its plot. With cell phones becoming ever more present, and ever more an eyesore in our daily lives, it was only a matter of time before they had their own movie. They’ve slimmed down from their heavier 1980s days, and become more useful, allowing one to surf the Web, take candid pictures of people in gyms, and are able to ring in the tone of the new hot rap song of the week. The premise for Cellular may be pitch-perfect for our modern society, but will an audience answer its call?

Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger) is a high school biology teacher caught up in some scary events. She’s been kidnapped by a gruff man (Jason Statham), and locked in an attic. She’s informed that her son and husband will be found and kidnapped, unless she tells him what he wants to know. Unfortunately, she’s clueless as to what her kidnappers want. There is a wall phone in the attic, and one kidnapper smashes it with a sledgehammer and walks away satisfied. Jessica goes to work re-configuring the shattered phone pieces, tapping wires until she can reach out and touch somebody.

Ryan (Chris Evans) is a hunky beach bum who’s chastised by his ex (Jessica Biel, I know, I didn’t believe it too) for being too irresponsible. He’s driving around in his cool ride when he gets a panicky phone call from, you guessed it, Jessica. At first he thinks it’s a practical joke until he overhears her kidnappers threaten her. Reluctant to help, Jessica asks him to stop the kidnappers from reaching her family. Ryan runs around town all day scrambling to help Jessica’s family and solve the case. He also enlists the help of a retiring police officer (William H. Macy), who’d rather open a day spa than do desk work.

The premise for Cellular is near-genius and provides an abundance of smart, problematic possibilities. Ryan runs around and is always in danger of losing the signal. At one moment his cell phone is about to die from low battery charge. Another time the lines get crossed. Every step seems believable and the characters’ reactions seem credible. With Cellular, the audience thinks along with the characters step-by-step. When Ryan encounters stumbling blocks, the audience is with him in solving them, and this makes for a very engaging and thrilling movie.

The acting in thrillers is usually a minimal speed bump but the actors in Cellular do fine work. Basinger attempts to make up for her role in The Door in the Floor and plays harried and teary like a pro, but her best moments are when she uses her biology teacher know-how in precarious situations. She’s like a female MacGyver. Cellular is really a coming-out for Evans as a leading man. He’s had small roles before in The Perfect Score and Not Another Teen Movie, but this is his first leading-man role, and he handles the running, shouting, and panting with aplomb. Statham does his usually fine work of sneering and acting menacing. It’s also fun to watch William H. Macy, usually playing an every-man or a sadsack loser, play a bloodhound cop that morphs into an action hero.

The pacing in Cellular is breakneck. In the first 10 minutes, we witness Jessica’s kidnapping, and the momentum built up from that point is exhilarating. There is rarely a moment to catch your breath in Cellular. The action sequences are exciting but not redundant, and the tension readily mounts, especially when the audience is given more information than our heroes. There’s also some fun jabs at our country’s cell phone lifestyle.

Director David R. Ellis worked as a stunt coordinator for 20 years, before advancing into the director?s chair and helming 2003’s schlocky gore-fest Final Destination 2. Ellis knows how to keep his plot moving, and something is always happening in Cellular to draw our attention or to push us on edge. Cellular was written by Larry Cohen, who also penned Phone Booth and probably won’t rest until he’s the Robert Rodat of telecommunications (Rodat wrote Saving Private Ryan and The Patriot, and seems destined to write a movie about every American war). Might I envision an erotic thriller with the “Can you hear me now?” Verizon guy just around the corner? Only time will tell.

As with any thriller, there are going to be lapses in logic that have the possibility of stopping the story dead in its tracks. Cellular‘s biggest logic loophole occurs right at the start, and if you can get behind it then you can enjoy the rest of the ride. Instead of smashing a telephone, why not yank it out of the wall and fully decommission it? Or, even better, why leave your kidnapped victim in a room, out of your sight, with a phone? Would it not have been easier to just tie her to a chair in plain sight? The mind boggles. The real answer we all know, of course, is because then we wouldn’t have a movie. There’s also a sequence late in the film where the bad guys discuss their evil plan on cell phones, which seems a tad careless considering anyone with a police scanner could listen in. As I said, gaps of logic are expected in this movie terrain and it’s your ability to rise above them that will determine if you enjoy the film.

Cellular is a thriller that dials the right numbers. It may have some gaps in logic, but it delivers when it comes to sharp suspense, smart action and a great premise. Fans of action thrillers should lick their lips with what Cellular has to offer. Just remember to keep your cell phones turned off during the movie, unless, of course, you’re surfing the Web, sneaking pictures of some girl, or jammin’ to the rap song of the week.

Nate’s Grade: B

Catwoman (2004)

Halle Berry has not exactly followed up her 2001 Best Actress Oscar with the wisest choices. There was a starring role in a James Bond movie, Die Another Day, there was Gothika, a spooker that didn’t scare anyone, except studio executives who saw the final gross. Now there’s Catwoman, a big-budget superhero film that’s got such a ripe odor to it to smell from miles away. It’s not good when a studio pulls a trailer because fans laugh at it, and it’s certainly not a good sign when the studio hires reshoots a month before the film is released. Catwoman’s looking for a big chunk of the superhero money out there, but will it land on all fours?

Patience Phillips (Berry) is a frazzled, down-on-her luck graphic designer at Hedare, a giant cosmetics corporation led by husband and wife team George and Laurel Hedare (Lambert Wilson and Sharon Stone). Patience is described as being “fun-deficient,” and lets people walk all over her. She tries saving a cat from a ledge one morning, and Officer Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt) jumps out of his car to intervene, thinking she’s a jumper. He rescues her, though she doesn’t need it, and then asks to go out some time for coffee, the universal first date without it having to be a date.

Patience is returning her designs late one night and overhears that Hedare’s newest product has the unfortunate side effect of making people’s faces melt if they discontinue use. The Hedare goons chase her down a water drain and flush her into a river. She’s revived somehow by the same cat she tried saving from the ledge. Patience reawakens with superhuman powers, heightened sense, and expert agility. There are some kinks, though. She sleeps in odd places, gobbles tuna by the handful, and loves to swing a whip. Who knows what she does to go to the bathroom. The new Patience is a bit confusing to Tom, but he goes along for the ride. He’s also on the hunt for the Catwoman, a mysterious leather-clad woman responsible for some jewelry theft. Patience unravels Hedare’s cosmetics conspiracy and aims to stop George and Laurel from mass production, all the while staying one step ahead of her boyfriend’s investigation. But Laurel is also experiencing some growing pains of her own. Unsatisfied with being pushed out her company’s advertising spotlight for being “too old,” she begins using heavy amounts of their newest beauty product and makes her skin as tough as living marble. With this new power, she schemes to retake power from her husband, as well as eliminate a pesky Catwoman.

Let’s not mince words and get directly to the elephant in the room: Berry’s hideous, trashy costume. This is, by far, the worst costume ever in a superhero movie, and possibly the worst costume in cinematic history. It’s so overwhelmingly ridiculous that perhaps the filmmakers felt Catwoman’s ultimate weapon against evil was having it die from laughter. It’s a bizarre combination of a mask with large mouse ears, leather bra, criss-crossing belts, gloves with diamond-tipped nails, and leather pants that look like they were mauled by a bear. Oh, and then there’s also the open-toed shoes. What? A superhero who wears open-toed shoes? All evil doers would have to do is step on her feet. The only purpose the outfit serves is to make Berry look sexy, but you didn’t need a stupid, tacky outfit for that.

The story of Catwoman takes a giant leap into weird mythology. Apparently, possibly immortal cats decide someone will become a Catwoman, a woman we’re told is not bound by our foolish rules. There’s no explanation why the cats choose who they do, what the purpose of this is, or what is even expected in return. We do get a montage of Catwomen through the ages dating back to ancient Egypt. Apparently, Catwomen follow the same lines of mythology like Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Unto each generation, a Catwoman is born.” It’s also kind of funny that a film called Catwoman, about mythic Catwomen, has a crazy old cat lady (poor Ruth Fisher).

The villainous scheme in Catwoman is awful. I can’t imagine the FDA not having some grumblings when their test bunnies start having their faces melt off. More importantly, what company would EVER release a product that melts your face in our litigious society? Just think of the mounting class action lawsuits that could very likely bankrupt that company. So, right there the villain’s plot is moronic for two big reasons. Don’t even get me started on Stone’s superhuman strength aided by the beauty cream we learn melts faces.

The acting is what you would expect. Berry is a beautiful woman, no doubt, but her performance is split between flighty wallflower and naughty dominatrix, neither of which is convincing. Bratt is the worst police officer ever (he can’t identify Catwoman even though only a tiny part of her face is obscured) and tries valiantly to hold his own amongst the ridiculousness. Wilson was such a stock corporate villain that they could have erected a cardboard cut-out of him and gotten the same performance. I never thought I’d say this, especially after The Muse, but Sharon Stone is the best thing about this movie. She’s an ice queen, but an entertaining one until she goes overboard on her beauty cream.

Catwoman is the first superhero film for Warner Brothers since their disastrous franchise-killing Batman and Robin in 1997. It’s hardly a coincidence that Catwoman is the also the worst superhero film since Batman and Robin. The film is trying really hard to be Spider-Man. Before her feline transformation, Berry is a frumpy dweeb, and afterwards she gets heightened senses, a new jolt of self-confidence, and the love of her man. Catwoman even has the guts to rip-off Daredevil, an amusing but fairly flawed movie itself trying to be Spider-Man. There’s a scene where Patience and Tom play a competitive game of basketball surrounded by chanting children. This is a direct rip-off of the scene in Daredevil where Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner play fight on a playground. I don’t know about you, but when you’re ripping off Daredevil of all movies, you have problems.

This film has five credited writers, which works with my Rule of Five for films: if there are five or more people responsible for the script, then there was no script. Who amongst the five wants to take credit for all the dreadful cat puns in the dialogue, like Catwoman saying, “What a purrr-fect idea.” There’s also this wonderful repartee where Laurel says, “For you, Patience, it’s game over.” Then Catwoman responds, “It’s overtime!”

Catwoman is director Pitof’s (perhaps short for Pitof-ful?) first real break as a director. He began his career as a visual effects artist on films like Alien: Resurrection, City of Lost Children, and The Messenger, but can anyone recount a visual effects artist that went on to become a decent director? (If you bothered to answer with Joe Johnston, then I don’t think you understood the question)

Movie Director Pitof has a love for cheesy CGI shots, but what’s more harmful is his penchant for confusing quick-cut edits. After watching Catwoman, I had to pop some Advil when I got home because the film’s editing had actually caused me a headache. It became so annoying that I started counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc.” to gauge the average length of a shot. Let’s just say that we didn’t make it past “one Mississippi” about 95% of the time. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with quick-edits; The Bourne Supremacy used them effectively to keep a lively, unpredictable experience. Catwoman’s editing is just jarring, especially during action sequences where you’d be hard-pressed to figure out what’s exactly going on.

The effects work is also rather pathetic. Pitof adores zooming exterior shots that become tiresome after the eighth or ninth time. Worse are all the scenes where Catwoman jumps and leaps through the city like she’s Spider-Man’s long-lost sister. The film is bending over backwards to try and ape Spider-Man, and these joyless, silly sequences of CGI Halle Berry crawling and jumping around the city don’t help the comparison. I do suppose that making a CGI Halle Berry flex and bend in her leather outfit was probably the most rewarding work for an animator since digitally making a breast grope itself in Hollow Man.

Who exactly is this movie intended for? If the filmmakers were going for fans of the Catwoman character, then why did they break away from the comic’s history and create something distant and different? If the filmmakers were strictly making an action movie, then why all the visual fluff, idiotic romance, and headache-inducing editing? I suspect that the producers felt that the names Catwoman and Halle Berry would be enough to put butts in the seats. So, then, I deduce that the selling point of Catwoman is, “Wanna see Halle Berry in a sexy leather outfit?” Now, most males will say, “Sure thing,” but why would they pay seven to ten dollars to see sexy non-nudity when they could go online. The short answer to who this film is intended for is, of course, no one.

Catwoman is derivative, incomprehensible, dumb, and just plain boring. The only people who will get a kick out of Catwoman are either hormonal teenagers aroused by Berry’s outfit, or those who enjoy jeering a terrible movie. I can’t even recommend seeing Catwoman because of its ineptness. It’s bad, oh boy is it bad, but it’s not insanely idiotic like Bulletproof Monk or Dungeons and Dragons to the point where the lunacy is a must-see. It’s just boring bad, enough that it almost put me to sleep.

Perhaps the funniest thing of all, Berry has publicly stated in interviews weeks after Catwoman’s release that she’d love to don her leather outfit and do a sequel. Maybe she needs to talk to the producers who lost a bazillion dollars and inadvertently created a midnight movie howler. Catwoman will certainly get delegated to the litter box, but how many lives does Berry have left in Hollywood?

Nate’s Grade: D

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