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Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released July 11, 2001:

Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.

The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.

Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.

Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.

The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.

Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.

The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.

The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

There was a time where the world wondered whether 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to put actors out of business. The Columbia/Sony animated feature, the first the studio released theatrically since the second Care Bears Movie, was a big technological leap. Square Studios, the makers behind the extremely popular video game RPG series, opened a new studio stationed in Hawaii to enter the realm of Hollywood, and they devoted four years and countless hours of processing to create photo-realistic visuals. This was still at the dawn of CGI animated features taking over the landscape and the leap was impressive. None other than Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he considered the movie a milestone along the lines of the first talkies. Before its release, there was scuttlebutt whether or not this was the wave of the future and actors would be replaced with computer versions, never mind that vocal actors were still being employed. The lead “actor,” Aki, was depicted in a swimsuit on a Maxim cover as an icky promotion. The 2002 movie S1mone satirizes this concept further, with Al Pacino fed up with temperamental industry actors so he secretly uses a photo-realistic computer program instead.

I don’t really know why people got so worried. There are nuances that humans can convey that machines cannot, but even beyond that distinction, it’s simply a lot cheaper to hire an actor, put a costume on them, and record them than to build a model from scratch in a computer and toil for hours just to get the right look of the character raising an eyebrow. The listed budget for Spirits Within is $137 million, though has been rumored to be as high as $170 million (even more than Waterworld). For reference, the budgets of other 2001 movies include $125 million for the first Harry Potter, $93 million for Jurassic Park 3, $100 million for the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and $93 million for The Fellowship of the Ring. Even if you view Spirits Within as paving the way for motion-capture animated movies, the kind Robert Zemeckis spent a decade of his career slaving over, even those were eventually deemed too expensive for their returns. I think we can, at least for the time being, put this question to rest. Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.

Twenty years later, the animation that once inspired awe now feels dated and surpassed. That’s the nature of the speed of technological advancement; even the company had to redesign scenes from the movie as they finished because the tech improved dramatically over the four-year development process. The visuals of the movie have become the norm for modern-day video games. There are aspects of the animation that are missing or just unable to be fully formed at the time. The faces look too slick and plastic, absent grooves and pores and imperfections that provide texture to people’s faces. The human appendages move like rubber. The hair seems to flow like it’s captured from a bouncy shampoo ad (apparently a fifth of the processing power went to animate the lead heroine’s 60,000 follicles). The character’s mouths look to be wired shut and unable to articulate their words. From a 2021 standpoint, the animation looks more like an extended video game cut scene from late 2000s. Its innovation has become commonplace.

It should be no surprise that the script went through numerous rewrites. All the attention for Sony and Square was on the technical achievements and much less so on the story, which I guess they assumed would come together at some point. The project began with the Final Fantasy writers coming up with the initial plot, which would make sense until you realize the RPG fantasy series isn’t known for its sense of realism or cohesion. The plot of Spirits Within is not very in keeping with the more fantastical Final Fantasy series world. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar (I, Robot) was asked to read the script because the studio reportedly did not understand the project at all. His analysis was that they should completely start from scratch. The studio asked if he wanted to rewrite the script and gave him three weeks. His words were translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, which left something lost in translation a couple times over.

It’s surprising that the movie is even slightly coherent with everything it’s been through. It’s still a mess of a plot, with aliens having crashed onto Earth and made parts of the planet uninhabitable by their presence. They’re also revealed to be ghosts. So… alien ghosts. And there are eight horcruxes, I mean, um, spirits that need to be found to… something. The screenplay, under all of its laborious mutations, is really about a military team and a pair of scientists collecting MacGuffins and trying to use dreams to thwart a fascist from using a doomsday laser. It is simultaneously overly simplistic and overly complicated and quite silly. The villain, voiced by James Woods, even gets the full Nazi wardrobe but his viewpoint seems logical considering he’s pitted against scientists saying they need to break through to the “spirit of the Earth.” It’s hard to take their claims and wild speculation seriously in this more realistic world. Apparently, there was a plot development where Aki was revealed to be pregnant and her unborn child was the eighth and final spirit needed. You can still see its place in the plot. Reportedly, this storyline was cut because it was deemed “too Japanese” and I have no idea what that means.

The real reason to ever watch The Spirits Within has come and gone. It’s now a footnote in animation history and a mild curiosity at best. I suppose you can still try and think how cool everything must have been to experience in 2001, and then your mind will wander because the nonsensical story will do little to hold your attention. It was such a financial disaster that Square Studios closed down and the company went back to focusing on video games full time with the occasional CGI direct-to-DVD movie (2004’s Advent Children and 2016’s Kingsglaive). Square Studio did make one of the CGI animated segments for 2003’s Animatrix, a concept paving the way for other ambitious animated anthologies like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots. The entire emphasis of this expensive production was slated onto its visual decadence, but the story was muddled, confusing, trite, and alien to the source material and the fanbase it was appealing to. I want to give my 2001 self a high-five because I’m happy that even at 19 years old in my original review I could see the evident faults of the mediocre storytelling as well as the arguments for replacing real actors with virtual facsimiles. Back in 2001, I said Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had the benefit of always giving the viewer “something to sit in wonder and take in.” Twenty years later, that lone benefit has all but disappeared. Conversely, video games have become so much more ambitious, artistic, and emotionally engaging since 2001. So skip the movie and just play a game instead.

Re-View Grade: C

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

If you’re a Jim Jarmusch fan, you can probably stop reading now. I encourage you to continue but I don’t know if anything will be of help for you from here on out because, frankly, I don’t understand you. Jarmusch is a longtime staple of indie film and I’ve watched three of his films (Only Lovers Left Alive, Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog) and disliked all three to varying degrees, and that’s fine. There are plenty of hallowed names in filmmaking that are just beyond me, like Terrence Malick and Nicolas Refn, but I can at least partially understand what the fans of those auteurs value, an immersive visual, sensory experience at the sacrifice of narrative and coherency. When it comes to Jarmusch, I just don’t understand the appeal whatsoever. This is a man who found a way to make vampires crushingly boring, and now he finds a way to do the same with zombies. The Dead Don’t Die is the widest release of his career and it might be the worst movie I’ve seen in a theater all this year. It certainly feels like the longest.

In a sleepy small Ohio town, the police force consists of Chief Robertson (Bill Murray), Ronnie (Adam Driver), and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny). They’re going about their typical day, warning Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), listening to the alarmist worries of Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi), and picking up supplies at the hardware store run by Hank (Danny Glover) and Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones). There’s a traveling group of students, lead by Zoe (Selena Gomez), as well as a group of kids in a juvenile detention center. Then the dead come back and small-town life will never be the same.

Anyone walking in expecting a zany comedy from the premise and cast, not to mention marketing materials, will be sorely disappointed, because what The Dead Don’t Die better resembles are the humorless anti-comedies of late-night Adult Swim blocs. It’s not so much that there are jokes, it’s more the absence of jokes, and somehow that might be the joke? The humor is stuck in one mode throughout the film. A character will slowly say something understated or obvious (Example: “That’s not good”) and then the reaction of others will be delayed, and then after that nobody will say anything for several painful seconds later. That’s about it, folks. It’s hard to find humor with that. The deadpan jokes are too obvious and too uniform to really strike any potent comedy targets. The consumer “satire” is brittle to the point of breaking. Various zombies will shamble around and say one-word items of whatever was important to them, ranging from “Coffee,” to, “Fashion,” to, “Chardonnay.” It’s like the one-word utterances are the entire joke (Hey, this dead guy liked fishing, isn’t that a riot?). It’s not satire and it’s not funny. How about the characters of Rosie Perez and Tilda Swinton being named Posie Juarez and Zelda Winston? Is that the kind of humor that sounds appealing? How about Tilda Swinton flexing a samurai sword to slice and dice the undead. Is that supposed to be cool? Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to be funny that it’s trying to be “cool”? What is anything?

Later, the film inserts a new comedy element with meta asides where people seem to know they’re in a movie, and yet again the jokes are obvious and uniform, except now it’s even lazier, relying upon the meta recognition to simply stand in the place of a joke. If anything can happen in the small town, especially toward its crazy end, then why do these things have to happen? Or better yet why don’t better things happen? Because of the deadly pacing it makes every attempted bad joke feel that much more unbearable.

This movie is only 105 minutes but it felt so much longer. the pacing not just as a whole but scene-to-scene and even line-to-line from conversations is deadly still. Every moment feels stretched out but it doesn’t ever feel like you’re going anywhere. Characters will be introduced and given meet-cute moments and little indicators they might be significant players later, and then we’ll just find them dead. Other characters will be introduced and then never leave their locations, having no bearing on the larger story. It’s rare that I could honestly say there are entire supporting swaths of this movie that could be cut completely and not impact the story at all. It makes the many storylines we hopscotch across feel like they don’t matter and are generally wasting our valuable time.

Then there’s the ending where Jarmusch just instructs Tom Waits to unleash a torrent of narration bemoaning how society deserves whatever downfall it incurs and that we’re all just zombies anyway. It’s so clumsy and overbearing and unearned after an entire movie where the cultural criticism amounted to a racist saying he doesn’t like his coffee black and then pointedly staring at the only black man in the movie. Even if we got more moments like that I might say some of the ending vitriol is justified, but the commentary gets muted in the middle until Waits has to finally tell us what the point is. There are scant political and environmental references but they feel like tossed asides themselves.

I don’t blame the cast for any of this although I can’t say what on the page must have seemed attractive. Murray is always going to be an amiable screen presence and Driver is a fun partner, slipping into a skillful deadpan and straining to find humor where there is precious little. Everyone feels wasted on screen because even if you’ve never seen these actors before you know, instantly and instinctively, that they have been far better.

The Dead Don’t Die is further proof that I am not a Jim Jarmusch fan. I can’t fathom how someone can actually be a fan of this writer/director. I was tempted to walk out at several points but I held in there. The jokes are too obvious and barely jokes, the pacing is awfully slack, and the whole movie is reprehensibly boring. Even when it has moments of weirdness it finds ways to make it boring. The structure does little to nothing with a large ensemble of very good actors. The movie and premise had potential. The idea of a zombie outbreak in a small town where everybody knows everybody is ripe for comedy and tragedy. Ultimately The Dead Don’t Die feels like one egregiously long in-joke that the audience isn’t privy to. The joke’s on us, folks.

Nate’s Grade: D

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

Unlike many of my critical brethren, I do not view Michael Bay as the devil incarnate. I think the man has definite talent and is one of the finest visual stylists working in the realm of film. I’ve enjoyed about half of the Transformers franchise and don’t consider it the end-all-be-all of modern American cinema. Transformers: The Last Knight is exactly what the detractors have railed against from the start: a cacophonous ejaculation of incomprehensible nonsense. The charge has often been made against Bay’s long filmography that his stories are unintelligible, but Transformers 5 proves to be the new measuring point for incensed incredulity. This isn’t only the worst Transformers entry in a seemingly never-ending franchise (thanks product placement, merchandising, and toy sales) but an early contender for worst film of 2017.

Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is hiding out with other Autobots in a South Dakota junkyard awaiting the return of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). Prime ventured into space to find the remnants of the Autobot home world, Cybertron. Once found, he’s brainwashed by the Cybertron goddess Quintessa (Gemma Chan) into being her servant. She’s after an ancient staff that will prove to be the key to restarting Cybertron. It was last seen on Earth during the Dark Ages and rumor has it was given to Merlin. Cade is enlisted by a centuries-long secret society to help find the staff before the evil forces at bay get hold of it.

It feels like the Transformers 5 writers were on a week-long cocaine bender when they cobbled together this impenetrable narrative. Let me give you but a taste of the confusing, muddled, and overall mind-numbing plot as it exists. There’s a magic staff from the robot world that will recharge the robot world, and it just so happens 12 robot knights, which form a giant robot dragon, landed on Earth and gave it to Merlin, played by a soused Stanley Tucci who was already a different character in the fourth Transformers movie, who then established a secret order that would keep the giant alien robots secret even as they were doing things as high-profile as literally killing Hitler, and the members of this secret society include Frederick Douglass and Queen Elizabeth and Shia LeBouf, and this staff needs to be retrieved from an underwater spaceship under Stonehenge by Merlin’s blood progeny and will be aided by an alien talisman that forms an alien sword that does something, and the evil alien robots are going to recharge their planet by scraping the Earth’s crust, which has horns protruding from it that once aligned with Pangaea, and there’s an evil alien robot goddess who brainwashes Optimus Prime to retrieve her magical items on demand and then Megatron is being hired the U.S. government and a team of special ops are trailing him to get to the staff and… I’m sorry; did your brain start bleeding out your ears? I looked over to my friend Ben Bailey during the screening and saw him slumped over in his chair and thought, for a fraction of a second, that the movie had literally killed him (he had just fallen asleep for the third time). What an ignoble end.

The movie is a nonstop barrage of yelling and movement, an assault on the senses that leaves you dumbfounded and dazed, and without anything to moor onto. Almost every single actor is on screen for one of two purposes: quips or exposition. These are not characters but devices for words that ultimately don’t make sense. Wahlberg has two different female sidekicks. For the first half, he’s got a plucky teen that serves as a surrogate daughter figure. Izabella (Isabella Moner) is a kid with attitude and carefully arranged strands of hair that always fall over her face in every single shot in the entire movie. Izabella’s introduction actually might be the highlight of an otherwise soul-crushing experience. Then Wahlberg leaves for England and he adopts a new sidekick, this time the hot smart woman who changes into a more comfortable outfit but literally keeps her heels. Vivian (Laura Haddock) is pretty much the next in a long line of highly sexualized, tawny female characters under Bay’s alluring gaze (I wrote about the second film: “Women don’t seem to exist in the Michael Bay world, only parts and pieces of women.”). Her mother doesn’t care about the end of the human world, or her daughter’s many academic credentials, and instead pesters her about getting herself a man. This leads to one of the film’s worst comedic moments, as Vivian’s mother and friends giggle and eavesdrop on her and Wahlberg trashing a library as a spontaneous bout of sexy time. Wouldn’t it be weird for anyone’s mother to take pleasure in listening to your escapades and offer a play-by-play?

But the strangest characters are Anthony Hopkins’ Sir Edmund Burton and his 4-foot robot ninja (voiced by Jim Carter). You can clearly tell that Hopkins didn’t care at all what he was saying. He uncorks ungainly monologues with relish and then transitions into strained comedy as a doddering old man. The robot butler begins as a C3PO-esque prim and proper servant with a disarming fighting ability, and it works. However, as the movie progresses, the robot butler gets downright belligerent and seemingly drunk. It’s truly bizarre, as if this robot is acting out to be seen like he’s one of the cool kids, but whom exactly is he trying to impress? At one point, he tells Wahlberg that he is “on my shit list” and torpedoes out of a submarine, brings back fish, prepares a sushi dinner for the humans while supplying ingredients that were totally not found on a WWII-era sub that was parked as a tourist locale up until 20 minutes ago. The character makes no sense and seems to bounce around behavioral extremes. Take this passage late into the film:

Robot Butler: “Of all the earls I’ve served-“
Me: “You were the greatest?”
Robot Butler: “-You were the coolest.”
Me: “Whaaaaaaaa?”

Another confusing part of the film is the setting of its story. We’re five movies in to an alien civil war taking place on Earth, so you would assume that normal life shouldn’t feel normal after so many catastrophes. Egypt was destroyed in the second film (only Six Wonders of the World left in your punch card, Bay), Chicago was decimated in the third film, and China was blown up in the fourth film. It’s about time that people started paying attention to these things and behaving differently. A new government agency is tasked with hunting down Transformers and there are war zone portions of the world that are quarantined, but that’s about it. I initially thought this fifth movie was going to take place in a somewhat post-apocalyptic Earth where human beings have to struggle to survive. That’s not Transformers 5 at all. It seems all too easy to ignore reality; Wahlberg’s daughter is away at college. After four movies, the world of this franchise needed a jump in its stakes. Bay’s films have always possessed an alarming sense of urgency but it rarely feels earned. Characters yelling, running, and explosions going off like fireworks isn’t the same thing as genuinely developed stakes.

Another confusing aspect of Transformers 5 is Bay’s jumbled aspect ratios (i.e. how wide the frame of the movie is presented). Sizeable portions were shot on IMAX, which has become all the rage for action movie directors since Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was three different aspect ratios that jumped from shot to shot. Two characters will be having a conversation and the aspect ratio will cycle and it rips me out of the movie every time (there are SIX credited editors). The Dark Knight’s IMAX sequences worked because they were sustained sequences. I expect the higher-grade IMAX film stock for the expansive action or picturesque landscapes to take in the natural splendor. What I wasn’t expecting was measly interior conversations to be filmed in IMAX. Did I really need to watch a conversation with Vivian and her mother in IMAX to fully appreciate their bookshelf? Like much else in this perfunctory movie, this game of pin-the-tail-on-the-aspect-ratio makes no sense.

I don’t normally like to quote myself, but reading over my concluding paragraph of 2011’s Dark of the Moon, I was struck by how much of my assessment could equally apply to the fifth film, even down to the exact running-time: “Transformers: Dark of the Moon is likely everything fans would want from a franchise built around the concept of robots that fight. There’s wanton destruction, a plethora of noisy explosions, and plenty of eye candy both in special effects wizardry and pouty, full-lipped women. But at a colossal 150-minute running time, this is a Transformers film that punishes as much as it entertains. There’s really no reason a movie about brawling robots should be this long. There’s no reason it should have to resort to so much dumb comedy. There’s no reason that the women should be fetishized as if they were another sleek line of sexy cars. There’s no reason why something labeled a ‘popcorn movie’ can’t deliver escapist thrills and have a brain too.” Take this assessment and times it by ten for The Last Knight. The incomprehensible plotting, infantile humor, nonchalant misogyny, empty action bombast, and dispiriting nature of the film are enough to suck the life out of you. I was bored tremendously and contemplated walking out on the movie (I stayed for you, dear reader). It feels like the screenplay was put into a blender. Transformers 5 is exhausting and exhaustively mechanical, and if this is the first start in a larger Expanded Transformers Cinematic Universe (ETCU?) then resistance may be futile. Still, it’s worth fighting against brain-dead spectacle that only moves you to the exits.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

The-Incredible-Burt-Wonderstone-Poster5The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a far better comedy than it has any right to be. It’s not perfect by any means, but it finds clever or darker angles to take that surprise, at least until it hits the next big marker on its jerk-learns-a-lesson plot playbook. The titular magician (Steve Carell) has a falling out with his longtime assistant and even longer-time (is this a word?) friend played by Steve Buscemi, who is disarmingly affable and warm. Their Vegas act is old hat in the face of younger, hipper, and more danger-seeking magicians, notably the Chris Angel-styled Steve Gray (Jim Carrey). While only a supporting character, Carrey’s bits onscreen are easily the best thing he’s done in a decade, comedy-wise. His physical comedy finds a perfect outlet. Gray’s schtick is more Jackass than David Copperfield, and the movie does well to explore this division and why people gravitate to magic in the first place. It’s ultimately a sweet film about the bonds of friendship, with Carell and Buscemi taking the bulk of the running time, and while it has plenty of silliness there’s also sincerity there. It all builds up to a great climax and a conclusion that left me laughing so hard I was in stitches. Make sure to stay through the credits. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, from the writing team behind Horrible Bosses, is a charmingly broad comedy that has enough heart, committed comedic performances, takes enough clever turns to justify a viewing.

Nate’s Grade: B

Rampart (2012)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A corrupt L.A. cop (Woody Harrelson) makes bad choices, alienated and frightens his family, and looks to be on the way out as a career of taking the law into his own hands is at long last catching up with him. Yeah, you probably stopped me after the third word in that sentence. This dour character-study showcases Harrelson nicely as a cocksure cop who’s so self-destructive and paranoid that he pushes everyone away. Co-written and directed by Oren Moverman, who made the terrific and searing drama The Messenger, this movie just about turns into high-gloss navel-gazing. The plot is quite loose and there’s very little traction. We get to see scene after scene of Harrelson behaving badly or violent, but what does it all add up to? We already know he’s a bad cop tortured by his own sins and the demands of the job. In a way, there’s an intriguing connection between law enforcement and soldiers who are often called to bear incredible burdens and just deal with it, forgotten by a public complacent with being safe. But really this movie is just one long trip with an angry man who keeps everyone, including the audience, pushed away. He’s complex but I can’t say we ever got to know him better. The film is well acted with plenty of recognizable stars, but why should I care? The central message about the prevailing influence of corruption is a bit heavy-handed as well; at one point Harreslon’s wife says, “You made us dirty.” Rampart is a disappointing venture for Moverman despite Harrelson’s best efforts. In the end, when you’re stuck with a dirty cop he better be worth the time.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Island (2005)

To many film critics, director Michael Bay is the devil. He’s the man behind such ADD-edited hits like Armageddon, both Bad Boys, and Pearl Harbor. Each film was more or less savaged by critics and each film was a hit. Bay has always said he makes popcorn movies for audiences and never listens to the critics. That would probably be a good thing since they don’t exactly have a lot of nice things to say about Bay and especially his editing techniques. But how would someone like Bay, who dreams about blowing stuff up with every night’s sleep, handle material a little more subtlety than, say, corpses filled with drugs being thrown at oncoming traffic (see: Bad Boys II or better yet, don’t)? The Island is Bay’s first film without uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and it’s also Bay’s first encounter with science fiction. Can he make The Island into another popcorn miracle or will his blockbuster tendencies get the better of him?

In the year 2020, the Earth has been contaminated by pollution. The survivors live in a series of isolated towers and are monitored, given strict diets and jobs, and even matching white jump suits. There is an upside to this life; every so often there is a lottery where the winning inhabitant gets a trip to The Island, the last uncontaminated spot on Earth. They’ll spend the rest of their days living it up in paradise, or so they think.

Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) has been at the facility for three years. He has questions for the good doctor Merrick (Sean Bean, your go-to guy for villains when you can’t afford Al Pacino), the man in charge of the place. Lincoln questions his purpose and wonders why he keeps having recurring nightmares with images he can’t place. He’s also been having a very close friendship with Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson), though they?re not allowed intimate contact and the living quarters are separated by gender. One day Lincoln finds a butterfly on a different level of the facility and investigates the higher levels. In a few minutes time, Lincoln discovers the truth about the facility: it’s a station harvesting clones to keep rich people going when they need an organ or two. There is no Island but there is an operating room that you won’t return from. Lincoln escapes back into the facility’s population but springs into action when he learns Jordan has been selected to go to The Island. He fights the facility’s staff, grabs his girl, and the two are off to learn the truth of their world and to live.

McGregor is on autopilot with this one but still manages to have some fun, especially when he’s playing two different versions of himself (“What’s with all the biting?”). Johansson looks more beautiful than ever but does little more than stare vacantly. It doesn’t help that a majority of the dialogue after the half-way mark consists of one-word shouts like, “Go!” and “Move!” and of course, “Lincoln!” The best actor by far in The Island is Michael Clarke Duncan who plays a clone who wakes up on the operating table. His mad rush of screaming, tears, confusion, horror, and betrayal may be some of the finest two minutes of acting from the year. Duncan’s cries will hit you square in the gut.

The fish out of water scenario does provide some fun moments of humor, like Lincoln being confused by the phrase “taking a dump.” The Island also asks how people who have never known sexuality deal with their expressions of sexuality (plus it doesn’t even come close to viewer discomfort of something like The Blue Lagoon). The always welcomed Steve Buscemi provides the biggest laughs in the movie as the wise-cracking outsider who helps the runaway clones.

It’s comforting to know that in the future product placement will be as large as ever. I?m normally not too offended by product placement in ads, but The Island seems like it’s contorting to show company names. In one scene, Jordan gazes at an image of herself in a perfume ad, and it’s a real ad Scarlett Johansson did. This got me thinking, what if The Island‘s villains were really today’s actual flesh-and-blood movie stars that wanted fresh parts. The real McGregor and Johansson would become the bad guys. Unfortunately, it seems a little too meta to pull off for a Bay film.

The Island is an intriguing sci-fi movie that doesn’t know what to do once it gets to the surface. As soon and our clones go on their Logan’s run, the movie devolves into a series of bloated, mediocre chase scenes. If the first half is Bay at his potential best, the second half is Bay at his lazy, expected self. The chase scenes aren’t too lively and, except for a late subplot involving McGregor playing dual roles, The Island wilts as soon as it turns into an action movie. There doesn’t seem to be enough plot for this overlong 140 minute movie. Bay’s requisite chaotic grandeur and spectacle has a ho-hum feeling and dulls the viewer right when they should be racing with excitement. Bay’s done this all before and better, and that’s why the first half is so exciting a change for him. It’s thoughtful, tense, interesting, well plotted and visually fun, and then we regrettably hit the second half and it all goes downhill from there.

The movie limps to its over-extended climax and saps all the potential from the opening. The Island really is two disjointed movies slapped together. The first hour is a classic science fiction setup and we are given morsels of information like bread crumbs, which heighten the tension. The second half is an unimaginative, plodding thrill ride that never seems to take off. Sure, the first half may be derivative of a hundred other sci-fi films (most notably Parts: The Clonus Horror) but the second half is derivative of a thousand other action movies. I’ll take smart sci-fi over dumb action most days, even during the bombast of summer. It feels like The Island began as a scary sci-fi film and in order to make it to the big screen the studio had to piggyback a lifeless action movie on top of it. The Island‘s action sequences feel like Bay fell asleep at the wheel.

It may seem like I’m being over cruel about The Island, but the reason I lambaste the second half is because I was so thoroughly entertained by the first half. For many The Island will be enough to quench their summer thirst, but for me it only showed flashes of life in the first half. Once all the explosions, noise, and flying debris kicked in, The Island transforms into any other dumb action movie. Such promise, such vision, all quickly flushed down an embryonic feeding tube. Even if someone prefers the noisy second half they would still take issue with the first half, calling it slow and boring. Fans of Bad Boys II and Logan’s Run don’t exactly mix well. How can a movie possibly work this way?

Bay may be a master maestro of explosions and gunfire, but The Island flat lines when it transitions from thoughtful, eerie sci-fi parable to rote action flick. This feels like two very different movies slapped together, and most audiences are going to like one half stronger than the other so the film won’t work. The action sequences feel unimaginative and all of the film’s potential gets stranded by its about-face in tone. We’ve seen all of these things before, and that’s what’s most regrettable about where The Island leaves you after flashing an iota of glossy potential. Bay may not be the devil but he’s certainly losing his edge, and The Island would have been all the better for it.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Big Fish (2003)

Big Fish (2003)

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

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

Nate’’s Grade: B+

Mr. Deeds (2002)

Adam Sandler seems like the reason they created the “no shirt no shoes” policy for restaurants. His niche is playing the lovable goodhearted goofball that triumph over the pretentious jackass and somehow wins the heart of the fawning one-dimensional love interest. Sandler appeals to the masses as our nation’s greatest warm-hearted simpleton. He’s the Jimmy Stewart of slobbery. So why mess with that? Well for starters, if you want entertainment anymore you might want to.

Mr. Deeds, Sandler’s latest idiot opus, is disastrously, even tragically unfunny. In the film Sandler stars as the only known heir of a multi-billionaire media mogul. Longfellow Deeds (Sandler) is a simple New Hampshire pizza delivery boy who treats people with respect and kindness. However, the mantra “cruel to be kind” must be alive and well because Sandler mercilessly beats people to about an inch of their life throughout ‘Mr. Deeds’ for brutish comic effect.

Peter Gallagher and his monstrous eyebrows serve as the stand-in villain. He’s a greedy tycoon who wants the Deeds fortune all to himself. Gallagher actually plays his part well and seems to at least have some fun with the broad comedy role. Wynona Ryder, on the other hand, does not. Ryder has never proven she can handle any comedy other than black, and slapstick just ain’’t her thing. She painfully goes from scene to scene clueless as a tabloid journalist hiding her identity so she can get the scoop on Deeds, only to fall madly in love with him.

The film has some glimmers of comedy, mostly from its supporting cast including John Turturro as a very sneaky Spanish butler. It’’s nice to see Turturro in something this high profile and get some recognition this journeyman deserves. There’’s also a really funny cameo served up by a former tennis giant himself known for his boorish temperament. Steve Buscemi should be charged with grand theft movie because his three minutes on screen as the “crazy-eyed” local are funnier than anything with Sandler onscreen.

The movie becomes far too redundant of Sandler’’s other comedies to the point where seeing former stars like Rob Schneider in his ‘Big Daddy’ character is somehow supposed to be funny. This kind of stuff is strewn throughout the film. It feels like everyone’’s going through the motions. Now I’’m not a total Sandler basher, because I do believe the man can be funny when worked right. ‘Billy Madison’ is still hysterical to me upon every viewing and I do get some fun watching ‘The Wedding Singer’, but ‘Mr. Deeds’ is sub-par Sandler –even for Sandler.

I’’m sure most of the people buying tickets for this have no idea that the concept is based upon the Capra film starring Gary Cooper. But what good is Gary Cooper? He didn’’t write cutesy greeting cards or save a litter of kittens from a raging inferno like Sandler’’s Deeds. In the end, this mostly laugh-free comedy is short on imagination, energy and entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Monster’s Inc. (2001)

Pixar are the animation titans who have been delivering first-rate pictures under the Disney banner for the last five/six years. The placement of their name is like a seal of quality, unlike the placement of the Disney name. Monsters Inc. is the latest and it’s crammed full of humorous jokes and lively imagination that can propel it forward despite the bad score by Randy Newman.

Monsters Inc. is a corporation in a monster universe that trains its workers to enter the bedrooms of sleeping children and derive scares for resources. Their monster world is powered by the screams of children and it seems times are getting tougher. Children are becoming harder to scare (blame CNN) and it seems an energy crisis is looming. The pressure is on for the big blue bear that is James P. “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman). Sully is close to achieving the all-time scare record with the aid of his assistant Mike (Billy Crystal), a small one-eyed green guy. But their scare colleague Randall (Steve Buscemi), a bad tempered purple reptile, is nipping at Sully’s heels.

The clever twist of Monsters Inc. is that these frightful creatures, some with spikes and some as many eyes as Elizabeth Taylor ex-husbands, are as afraid of children as they are of them. Reportedly their touch is toxic and possibly fatal. A single sock getting stuck to one unfortunate monster on his return causes an entire decontamination unit to spring forward. The joke is both alarmingly timely but also a great visual gag as all the different shaped monsters fit into their suits.

One night Sully accidentally lets a small toddler enter their world. He fears what the ramifications of this outbreak might be and struggles to keep her presence under wraps with the help of Mike, but Boo (as Sully dubs her later) is more than an adorable handful. The pair get into a mess of trouble and constantly trying to keep Boo clear of contact.

John Goodman provides a great performance as the sweet and cuddly Sully. His demeanor is one that warms him to the audience. Crystal provides some good laughs and walks a very fine line of going overboard into his usual borsch belt humor. Buscemi has the menacing voice that gives Randall life. The real star is Boo, whose actual voice was provided by one of the animator’s own kids. Every coo, every laugh, every word she says is full of such glee that it’s uncontrollably cute. She’s almost an overpowering force of cuteness.

Late into the story it tries to go for something below the surface by having Sully see the consequences of his profession. His attachment to Boo is a bit far-fetched in the great speed it occurs and the groan-worthy happy ending is a miscue that could have been ripe with possibilities.

The animation of Monsters Inc. is nothing short of flawless. Something Pixar does better than any studio is fluidity of movement. At times during Shrek the characters are a tad stiff or blocky in their movements, but with ‘Monsters Inc.’ every gesture, every wavering hair on Sully, it’s all wonderfully fluid. Pixar are marvels at what they can do with computers and Monsters Inc. is another impressive chink on their already impressive belt.

The film lacks the heart of a Toy Story but doesn’t lack in imagination. The whole concept is very inventive and reconfirming of the suspicion we all had as kids. A sequence late into the film where Randall chases Sully and Mike through a vast area with thousands of doors on rails is the true highlight. This scene is awe inspiring and a head rush by the majestic care put into it and the comic payoffs it has. It’s a chase scene that’s worth following.

Monsters Inc. is funny enough and creative enough to be well worth a viewing. It lacks the subtext and human emotion of the two Toy Storys, but is still entertaining in its own right. My grandma described it as the movie “with the talking M&M.”

Nate’s Grade: B+

Ghost World (2001)

Thora Birch. Mmmhmm. I mean, an excellent showcase for the outsider in all of us, brilliantly tweaking our society and culture while fostering surprisingly poignant, deeply funny characters and situations as they interact with a world they barely understand and don’t wish to. And it’s got Thora Birch.

Nate’s Grade: A

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