Thursday, June 30, 2005

War of the Worlds / ***½ (PG-13)

Ray Ferrier: Tom Cruise
Rachel: Dakota Fanning
Mary Ann: Miranda Otto
Robbie: Justin Chatwin
Harlan Ogilvy: Tim Robbins

Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks present a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Writte! n by Josh Friedman and David Koepp. Based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images).

I stopped buying concessions at the movie theater when I was about 12. I guess I had decided they were for people who were more interested in eating than really watching a great movie. For years I would fly past the concession stand on my way into the cinema like a native New York commuter passing everyone on the Long Island Expressway in the breakdown lane during rush hour. About 8 years ago all that changed when I met the woman who would become my wife. On our third movie date, she grabbed my arm on our way past the concessions and asked, “Could we please get some snacks?” Now, it is given that we will get a Sprite and a small popcorn (without butter) and sneak in some Reese’s Peanut Buttercups we bought at double the quantity and half the price of the theater’s from the local supermarket at every show we see. My wife will eat half the popcorn and hand me the remainder of the bucket and we will pass the soda and candy between us throughout the film. During Steven Spielb! erg’s latest summer blockbuster War of the Worlds, I didn’t eat a bite (or sip a drop) for the first time in those 8 years. At about the beginning of the third act I discovered a small wad of paper product in my hand that had at one time been the napkins I had grabbed as we left the concession stand an hour and a half earlier that evening. To call the experience of Spielberg’s latest dream project “intense” may be one of the understatements of the year.

War of the Worlds, adapted fairly faithfully other than the modern updating from the pioneering alien invasion novel by H.G. Wells, is a strangely simple story that is less about the aliens or the invasion itself than it is about the journey of one man to survive inevitable death. Spielberg (Jurassic Park) and screenwriters Josh Friedman (Chain Reaction) and David Koepp (Spider-Man) have opted to throw two children into the works, as is Spielberg’s nature; but they manage to utilize the children to effectively raise the stakes involved for their father. Instead of just looking out for his own skin, he must also keep his children alive and eventually, in an emotionally charged scene filled with the chaos of all out war surrounding them, he must choose between them.

Tom Cruise (The Last Samurai) plays Ray Ferrier as the total jerk many people have been perceiving Cruise himself as lately. Ray is not a good father and was a worse husband, who has the kids for the weekend while his ex, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto, The Lord of the Rings), and her current husband go away to Boston. Rachel (Dakota Fanning, Man on Fire), the youngest, has become the adult Ray is incapable of being, while Robbie (Justin Chatwin, Taking Lives) is the teenage son who wants nothing to do with his father and will likely grow up to be just like him. Robbie spews a hurtful tirade at Ray once they are on the run from the alien threat that is filled with enough truth to have the same jaw dropping effect on his father that the initial glimpse of the alien death rays has on him and the audience alike. It is a family dynamic filled with anger and pain that does not blossom into something better under the threat of imminent death.

I’m glad the filmmakers resist the urge to turn Ray into some kind of hero. Although his emotional connection for his children grows through the film, he never really gets any better at being a father. Nor is he a Die Hard type “everyman” action hero who expresses the raw feelings of the audience member watching the film but can still figure out how to blow up a building in a way that will kill only the bad guys. Ray is a true everyman who has no clue what the hell to do when faced with the unimaginable other than run for his life and do simply his best to keep his children with him and alive.

Spielberg does not vacillate in getting the action started, as an alien craft emerges from the very earth itself in a New Jersey intersection mere minutes from the start of the first reel after a dazzling lightning storm during which “the wind is blowing towards the storm… That is so cool!” With the trio of central cast members barely introduced, the aliens start frying everyone in sight with only their clothes surviving the blows, drifting up into the air in an eerie sight. Spielberg never lets the tension drop and in a shot that reminded me of the shot of the hero and children climbing over the soon to be high voltage fence in Jurassic Park, he demonstrates his mastery of using the camera as a tool of suspense. As Ray races from his town, with his two children, in the only working vehicle around due to the electro-magnetic pulse given off by the aliens upon their entrance into the Earth’s atmosphere, the camera does a 360 rotating shot from the front of the van, ! going around to the back and traveling through the van as the characters argue about just what is going down.

“Can’t you see we’re under attack?!”


“No, this came from someplace else.”

Spielberg also knows just when to slow things down to keep the tension up. As the flight from peril just starts to tire, he adds a new dimension of suspense by introducing the film’s only other significant character, Ogilvy, a man who doesn’t want to run away, a man with a much more terrifying suggestion of taking on the aliens head on. Tim Robbins (Mystic River) teeters on the edge of psychopathy with this character reminding us that whatever threatens humanity; even in our resilience, the monster of man lies within each of us. Does survival of the fittest apply to man more than monster?

Although so far War of the Worlds has been fairly well received by critics, there are some who have attacked it for being too much like mindless summer blockbuster fare, with aliens that illogically attack the Earth and a resolution that is a cop out. It is important to remember that this film is first and foremost an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel. While it has been updated, the storyline and images mirror the novel surprisingly well. Wells is considered the father of science fiction and created the blueprint for the alien invasion story with his book. While many other films have been made based on this story blueprint, such as 1996’s big summer blockbuster Independence Day, few of these retellings realize that this alien invasion, as with all good science fiction, is merely a prop by which a tale of the human experience can be told. Spielberg and his writers wisely seize this story of human survival, utilizing Wells’s images and backgrounds to conve! y it, and inject it with a broken family dynamic to give it even more resonance in its modern setting. And while the film does not spell out the purposes and logic of the alien invasion (that is not the story they are trying to tell) the materials are there to make sense of it. How can we say that an alien race we neither know anything about nor understand lacks logic? They merely lack human logic.

Some people dislike the way Spielberg ends his films with rose-colored lenses (not literally). These people will certainly find pause with the happiest possible ending Spielberg finds here, and I have to admit this is the one area I find to subtract points with this film. The happy ending is unwarranted considering the brutality of the story up to its closing moments, especially considering a bittersweet ending could have easily been envisioned. This is a failing of the film’s blockbuster ancestry. With Spielberg often being credited as creating the modern blockbuster with his 1975 hit Jaws, it really is no surprise to see many of the traits of the typical blockbuster here, like the heavy use of special effects and action sequences to tell the story. But Spielberg is a master of these devices and creates some awe-inspiring images such as the erupting Interstate Highway and the plane crash site. But only Spielberg could get away with telling a blockbuster tale witho! ut providing a hero, and only Spielberg could preserve the integrity of a work as important to science fiction as H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Exorcist: The Beginning / * ( R )

Father Merrin: Stellan Skarsgard

Sarah: Izabella Scorupco

Father Francis: James D’Arcy

Joseph: Remy Sweeney

Jeffries: Alan Ford

Major Granville: Julian Wadham

Chuma: Andrew French

Semelier: Ben Cross

Warner Bros. Presents a film directed by Renny Harlin. Written by Alexi Hawley. Story by William Wisher and Caleb Carr. Running time: 114 min. Rated R (for strong violence and gore, disturbing images and rituals, and for language including some sexual dialogue.)

First a little history about this prequel production. After a surprising box office total on the re-release of the original The Exorcist as “The Version You’ve Never Seen” a few years ago, Warner Bros. decided to bleed some more blood from the stone and announced plans for the very long awaited prequel that would depict the exorcism in which Father Merrin, the Max Von Sydow character in the original, had participated in his younger years. Writer director Paul Schrader (Auto Focus, Affliction), known for his unflinching character studies of deeply flawed heroes, was tapped to both write and direct the project. Left pretty much alone to do what he wanted, he turned in a very modestly budgeted drama that executives at WB felt was too slow to scare modern audiences. After months of battles over re-writes with WB demanding a new ending and several re-shoots, they finally decided to fire Schrader and hire a new director. Who do they hire to replace such an ! art house heavy as Schrader, but the Fin whose first American film was A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and also brought us the gem The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, Renny Harlin. Harlin brought the spark of action the WB execs were looking for to the project. He also insisted on re-writing the entire script, and re-shooting the entire film from scratch with an entirely new cast (save Stellan Skarsgard as Merrin) and storyline. They essentially made an entirely new movie even though they already had one in the can. It cost them more than double because Harlin’s budget was larger than Schrader’s original film.

Then the film hit theaters in late summer last year. Warner Bros. showed they still had no confidence in project by not allowing the press advance screening. The press that did bother to review it panned it. They were right. The fans did not go to see it. It would have lost money even if WB had only spent one film’s worth of budget on it. Maybe Schrader’s version is more what people wanted, so WB announces they will include the Schrader version on the DVD release of the Harlin film. But when the DVD is released in February of this year Schrader’s version is not on it. This is because the powers that be at Warner Bros. decided now that Schrader’s version is good enough to release in theaters. It was released in May, in very limited markets, as Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. As I felt it was inevitable that I would watch and likely review that film because I am such a fan of The Exorcist, I decided it was only fair of me to see the Harlin version, Exorc! ist: The Beginning, and review it. How I suffer for my obsessions.


The opening shots of the Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea) directed Exorcist: The Beginning involve a holy war fought in Biblical times. There is a shot of one holy man horrified by the carnage, staring at the gore of a few fallen soldiers around him. Then the camera pans back to reveal a sea of corpses disappearing in the horizon farther than the eye of the camera can see. This is a wonderful example of the dangers of digital technology and the extreme overkill used by Harlin in this sad prequel to one of cinema’s great films.

Then the movie takes us to the time just following WWII, where there is no record, not even in the Vatican, of this long ago holy war that obviously took millions of lives; but in Kenya a 5th Century Byzantine church is discovered in an archeological dig. Of course, Christianity hadn’t even reached that area of the world by the 5th Century and apparently this church is what that epic holy war that nobody knows about was fought over, but the movie is aware of both of these facts even though knowledge of the latter makes less sense than the former. It is never explained how a Christian holy war could have commenced over a Byzantine church in an area where Christianity didn’t exist at the time, nor is it even explained why the demon/devil known as Pazuzu would be interested in perverting this land as if it were a Christian one when that form of religion didn’t exist there…. Ow! Damn! This is beginning to hurt my head, trying to make sense of this. I’m s! ure there is some more logic to it than I’m suggesting (there must be), but it isn’t readily enough available to help during a virgin viewing.

Anyway, an artifact collector named Semelier (Ben Cross, Chariots of Fire) approaches the archeologist Lankester Merrin, a former priest whose faith has fallen after seeing the atrocities committed during the European war, to find an object for him before the British do. Semelier suspects, for more mysterious unexplained reasons, the object will be found beneath the church. The object is the small bust of the demon Pazuzu that launched the events depicted in the original Exorcist film.

The Vatican is also interested in the church dig for obvious reasons, considering that so many people seem to know about this 5th Century church of which there is no record. They send their own emissary, Father Francis (James D’Arcy, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), who for some reason acts as if he is Merrin’s assistant even though Merrin no longer has any connection with the Catholic Church. Upon their arrival in the Turkana village that acts as the dig’s home base, the two men learn that strange things have started to occur in the camp since the discovery of the church. Men have been disappearing and soon a small child, Joseph (Remy Sweeney) starts acting disproportionably evil for a child of his age. And it is all the camp’s doctor, Sarah (Izabella Scorupco, Goldeneye), can do to wash up all the blood that starts flowing and still remain sexy enough to interest a former celibate priest who has lost his will for all but digging! in the dirt, like Merrin.

Stellan Skarsgard (Breaking the Waves) is easily the best element in the film. He is perfectly cast as the younger Merrin from the Max Von Sydow character of the earlier film. Skarsgard projects the extreme intelligence and gentleness that are essential elements to the priest of both ages. Merrin’s struggle with his faith can be seen in the weariness of Skarsgard’s face, although I fear the only purpose of this struggle is to add biographical detail that the audience couldn’t have guessed about the character in previous incarnations. His falling out with God really has little effect on the story told here, although the director and first time screenwriter Alexi Hawley would like the audience to think it does.

I think the director and screenwriter lost sight of the purpose of this film with the Merrin character, however. This project was supposed to depict Merrin’s first encounter with the demon Pazuzu and the exorcism the nearly broke him and claimed the life of another priest. Well, Father Francis barely factors in to the exorcism at all and once again takes the apprentice role to Merrin, as the younger priest in the original does, rather than Merrin being the less experienced priest in his first exorcism as implied by the original film. Perhaps that is my own assumption of Merrin’s first encounter with Pazuzu from the original film, but what could be the point of showing Merrin in the very same power dynamic in the prequel as in the original film? And the exorcism itself in this new film plays like some extended action sequence, with nary a scare and barely a thrill.

What the filmmakers do with the child who appears to be possessed is nothing short of cinematic exploitation. Trying not to give away too much for those who might still be interested in seeing this movie, I’ll say their use of the kid is a paltry trick that is simply an attempt to re-capitalize on the effect of having a child possessed that worked so well in the original Exorcist. Of course, instead of the disturbing mental chills of seeing the child deformed into a clearly adult monster, with a sadistic adult intellect and post-pubescent voice, this time the child is surrounded by graphic violence, vicious cruelty, blood and gore. I don’t have a problem with a filmmaker tricking me into thinking one thing, when another thing entirely is going down, but there must be some sort of logic as to why the original perception is happening. Even putting the treachery down to the work of the demon makes little sense. Why would the demon frame someone with someone else, when! he can just frame someone by controlling his or her own actions?

Perhaps the greatest failure of this film is the fact that it seems to have no understanding of religion what so ever. The primary reason The Exorcist was such a success was because it took the Catholic religion seriously and used the beliefs of the religion to support the film’s storyline, even propping the validity of the story elements up with the full support of the Catholic church. Most of the priests depicted in the film were actual priests and it was filmed in the actual Georgetown locations in which it takes place. Exorcist: The Beginning uses the Catholic religion merely as a prop for the story. There is a Byzantine church and a couple of priests and the Vatican are very interested in what happens, and that is about the extent to which the religion is used and explored in this plot. There is no reason for the religion to be involved in this story other than so one priest can question his faith while the other is devoted to the “establishment.” The d! emon is just a scary monster here, instead of the creature that is dependent on and manipulative of the beliefs of the Catholic scriptures in the original film.

It is possible this film isn’t quite as bad as I’m making it out to be. It does a good job building its suspense and sets a solid tone based on the opening archeological dig from the original Exorcist. But it is that original film that sets a high bar for this one to reach, and this movie lands painfully short of that one’s greatness. Yes, perhaps if this movie had nothing to do with the original Exorcist, I would have liked it more; but I still wouldn’t have liked it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Batman Begins / ***½ (PG-13)

Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale
Alfred: Michael Caine
Henri Ducard: Liam Neeson
Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman
Lt. Gordon: Gary Oldman
Rachel Dawes: Katie Holmes
Carmine Falcone: Tom Wilkinson
Earle: Rutger Hauer
Ra’s Al Ghul: Ken Watanabe

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Nolan and David S. Goyer. Based on characters created by Bob Kane. Running time: 140 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements).

Sometimes this self-imposed role as a critic gets the best of me while I’m watching a movie. Not very often, but sometimes I lose that idealism of someone who is just going to the movies to see something he really wants to enjoy. Sometimes instead of just watching a movie I sit there and think about everything in it and how I would like to approach it when I’m writing about it later. In fact I usually have two heads about me when I’m watching movies lately -- the film fanatic and the film critic.

I never really got swept away from my own reality while watching Batman Begins like I used to back when Tim Burton’s Batman was released in 1989. Of course, I never really thought about any of the movies I watched and enjoyed back then. Perhaps one reason I watched this new beginning for my favorite comic book icon with such staunch seriousness is because this Batman was approached with so much more realism than the half-baked child-like fantasies that made up those four goofy Batman visions in the ’90’s. I actually spent last week watching those four films, which become even sillier with age, because I have this collector’s disease that forces me to own them. Yes, even the nightmare debacle that is Batman & Robin. Batman Begins is a breath of fresh air compared to those earlier films; easily the best Batman film Warner Bros. has produced, and one of the best superhero films I’ve seen.

The only other thing those 90’s Batman films got right was the character of Bruce Wayne’s butler and faithful confidant, Alfred Pennyworth (actually the first two, helmed by Burton, got the gothic mood right as well). This time all the characters are spot on and Alfred, played with both gravity and a lighter side by Michael Caine (Secondhand Lions) is even better. He is the perfect reality check for Bruce.

Alfred: “This ‘disguise’ is also designed to protect those close to you?”

Bruce: “Thinking about Rachel?”

Alfred: “Actually, I was thinking about myself.”

Although this is much more reality based it is Bruce himself who points out in the film that “Anyone who dresses up like a bat, clearly has issues.” But I get ahead of myself…

I had concerns when I first saw the size of the cast. Despite the fact that it was filled with some of film’s greatest acting talents -- Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, Katie Holmes, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe -- the large cast list gave the impression that the filmmakers would be stretching themselves thin on story with a heavy focus only the villains and supporting cast rather than the title character, much like the previous films. But these fears were unwarranted. The presence of all these major acting talents is never forced upon the story. For the most part the supporting characters are understated. These masters of their craft simply come in and do the job their characters must to further the story without drawing undue attention from the story at hand. This film is quite sharp in its focus of telling the story of the man Bruce Wayne, and how and why he creates this mythic alter ego the Batman.

The movie starts off in a Chinese prison camp where we meet a ragged Bruce Wayne, who is filled with rage and has a reputation of being one prisoner you just don’t mess with. After a fight with six other inmates, Bruce is dragged away by the guards for protection.

“I don’t need protection,” Bruce says.

“Not for you, for them.”

A mysterious character named Ducard (Neeson, Kingdom of Heaven) visits Bruce on the day before his release from the prison claiming to work for a martial arts sensei named Ra’s Al Ghul as part of his justice seeking League of Shadows. He challenges Bruce to join this team of elite warriors to help purge his rage and put his skills to good use. Upon his final test with this League of Shadows, Bruce finds his own moral standards do not match up with the cold-blooded ruthlessness with which these warriors seek to pursue their “justice.” There is a falling out.

Throughout these opening passages the audience is treated to lengthy flashbacks of Bruce’s youth that explain where his rage and fears come from and how they relate to each other. Unlike past films, and most comic book depictions for that matter, the murder of Bruce’s parents in one of Gotham City’s crime ridden back alleys at the hand of a petty thief, Joe Chill, is depicted in great detail. Although I was disappointed the nod to Zorro was dropped as a primary influence in the creation of Batman, I liked the way the events that lead up to the murder of his parents right before his eyes made their fate weigh even heavier on Bruce’s shoulders than in versions that just use the murder alone as the motivation behind Bruce’s sense of justice.

Bruce returns to Gotham for the first time with a definitive direction in which to pursue his own beliefs. He enlists Alfred before their plane even touches down and quickly proceeds to build up the playboy image of Bruce Wayne. This creates some friction with his childhood girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Holmes, Pieces of April), who is the Assistant DA for this city that has come almost entirely under the control of a crime lord name Carmine Falcone (Wilkinson, In the Bedroom). He also finds he has lost control over his own Wayne Enterprises to the company’s CEO (Hauer, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), but enlists former board member Lucius Fox (Freeman, Dreamcatcher) to help him re-establish his worth in the company and establish his arsenal as Batman. As for Batman, he finds one of Gotham’s few incorruptible cops in Jim Gordon (Oldman, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), who is very wary of using a vigilante’s methods to secure peace. Unfortunately for Gordon’s sensibilities, a madman known as the Scarecrow (Murphy, 28 Days Later) threatens the city with a fear-inducing drug that only Batman seems to understand.

To go further into the plot would be pointless, as it would sound like a comic book plot, but is presented here as something more important, something of a crusade. More detail might also reveal a very large secret, and since I’ve credited every other major character with a performer, perhaps I should mention the casting of British-born actor Christian Bale (Reign of Fire) as the caped crusader himself. Bale is the first perfect casting of the character. He is able to encompass every aspect of both Bruce Wayne and Batman. His very presence is dark and brooding, but he also has the looks and pompous nature to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes with Bruce’s feigned playboy persona. George Clooney was the only past Wayne who I could see that side of the character from. Val Kilmer certainly was pompous, but his whole performance seemed to be posturing. And Michael Keaton was too much the everyman to be the silver-spooned Wayne.

Of course, all the previous Batmen were pretty much the same in the suit, but in this film Bruce doesn’t even don the cape and cowl until an hour (maybe longer) into it. And this time around director Christopher Nolan (Memento) wisely uses editing to speed up the fight sequences. If the new costume is as restrictive as the previous uniforms, it doesn’t show during the fast paced fight scenes.

The primary focus of this new Batman though, seems to be how could any of this actually work. Jack Nicholson’s Joker asks in Burton’s Batman, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” Here there is an answer. Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer (Blade series) are adamant about making the Batman mythos logically possible. The storytellers meticulously layout where both Batman’s knowledge and gadgets come from. As Bruce grills Lucius on the functionality of the body armor that will become the Batsuit in the underground Wayne Enterprise Technology Development Division, Lucius wryly asks, “Why are you interested in this?”

“I wanted to borrow it.”

“What for?”



“Yeah. You know, cave diving.”

“Just how many armed assailants are you planning on meeting in these caves?”

It is no surprise that Lucius is eventually let in on the Batman secret here. There is no way Bruce could pull off everything he needs to be Batman without him.

For all its attention to the business of being Batman, to call the movie entirely realistic would be an error. This is a fantasy. Hell, one of the villains wears a mask that makes him look like a scarecrow, not to mention the title character’s choice of apparel. Production designer Nathan Crowley (Insomnia) retains some of the fantasy flavor of Gotham City itself for the purpose of keeping the elevated dramatic quality of a superhero environment. The most notable exaggeration on reality is the public elevated train that plays a large role in the story’s climax. This train has just a flavor in its scope, size and design of Anton Furst’s vision of Burton’s Batman, but Nolan wisely leaves most of the film opened up to location settings rather than the dark studio sets of the previous films.

I don’t really know why I didn’t get swept away by this production I obviously greatly admired. Perhaps the collaborated score by James Newton Howard (Collateral) and Hans Zimmer (King Arthur) offered no anthem to march me into that fantasy world of the movies, but even with the reserved observational post of a critic, I was impressed by this understanding effort to bring to life an American icon, and a hero I have always worshiped. In fact, I can’t wait to see it again, no doubt to be swept away when I’m not worrying about my review to write.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Madagascar / ***½ (PG)

Featuring the voices of:
Alex the Lion: Ben Stiller
Marty the Zebra: Chris Rock
Melman the Giraffe: David Schwimmer
Gloria the Hippo: Jada Pinkett Smith
Julian: Sacha Baron Cohen
Maurice: Cedric the Entertainer
Mort: Andy Richter

DreamWorks Animation presents a film directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath. Written by Mark Burton and Billy Frolick. Running time: 80 minutes. Rated PG (for mild language, crude humor and some thematic elements).

For the past few days my son has been walking around the house singing the words “I like to move it, move it. I like to move it, move it. I like to… MOVE IT!” I asked him what he was singing, and he said it was the Madagascar song. Some people might recognize those lyrics as belonging to a popular club song from a few years ago; those simple lyrics are about all there is to the words, which are backed up by a driving dance beat. Well, the filmmakers behind Madagascar have given the rather vaporous song new life for the kids and even adults who go to see the simple but wonderfully charming and fun new animated feature from DreamWorks.

The lyrics above make up just about the entirety of the words to the song and the film is not much more complex, but it is a hell of a fun time. Marty (voiced by Chris Rock, The Longest Yard) is a Zebra in the Central Park Zoo in New York City. Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller, Meet the Fockers) is his best friend, a lion who is the star attraction of the zoo, knows it and loves the attention. He is also neighbored by an empowered hippo named Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith, The Matrix Revolutions) and a neurotic hypochondriac giraffe named Melman (David Schwimmer, TV’s Friends).

Marty dreams of the freedom of the wild, while his friends try to convince him how wonderful they have it with the cushy zoo life. One day the penguins of the park miscalculate in their breakout attempt and end up digging into Marty’s pen. The penguins are one of the film’s many treasures with their diabolical determination. It is as if they don’t even really care to be free so much as they just can’t help but scheme and make trouble. Anyway, the penguins plant a seed in Marty’s head and soon he is walking down the streets of Manhattan getting his first taste of freedom. His three friends go after him and when the authorities catch up to them in Grand Central Station it is assumed that they have all gone feral and they are boxed up and shipped off to a wildlife refuge. Meanwhile the penguins stow away on the ship and highjack it. During the exchange of control, the four animals’ boxes are lost overboard and wash up on the shores of Madagascar.

Melman’s germ phobic giraffe threatens to steal the show on several occasions. Whether visually as when he is stumbling through a Manhattan subway car with tissue boxes on his feet, or vocally with Schwimmer’s pitch perfect neurosis ridden delivery; Melman’s laughs are the biggest and most consistent of the cast. Why Woody Allen hasn’t tapped Schwimmer to play one of his nervy neurotic comedic heroes yet is a mystery.

There are several scene-stealers in this movie. The zoo provides Melman and the penguins, whose subplot of hijacking the ship to Antarctica is followed through in conjunction with the main characters’ adventure in Madagascar. It is on that jungle continent where our heroes stumble upon the most blatant scene-stealers of the group, the lemurs. Specifically King Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen, Ali G of HBO’s Da Ali G Show) is the only scene-stealer who is aware that this is what he is. This character loves the spotlight and works to keep it focused on himself at all times. Since his governing skills leave something to be desired, it can be assumed the only reason he is king is for this purpose. The lemur culture here is presented as one that only exists to par-tay, so they don’t mind their king’s self-serving ideals. It is King Julian who sings the house anthem “I like to move it,” and for the first time I found this clubbing mindset charming in these lemurs.

I also appreciated that the plot didn’t run down the typical fish out of water stream of the cultured outsiders learning how to live from the primitives and those noble savages learning how to make life better from the outsiders. Yes the outsiders learned to loosen up a bit, but this was not the point of their story. Their story focuses much more on the friendship between Marty the Zebra and Alex the Lion. Marty wanted the freedom of the wild, but it is Alex whose wild nature blossoms in the jungle; and as his instinctive predatory nature slowly sets in, it threatens to destroy their friendship. Not in some schmaltzy emotional way, but because Alex wants to eat his friend. “Why are you biting my butt?” “I’m not biting your butt.” “Those aren’t your teeth in my butt?”

Unlike most modern American studio animation, this movie doesn’t strive to reach some broad demographic by adding depth or deluging the adult audience with pop culture humor. There are a few jokes involving Planet of the Apes references and the like when the crew first arrives on the shore of Madagascar, but it doesn’t stuff the movie so full of in-jokes that this becomes the movie’s purpose, as in Shrek 2. Mostly it is just a bunch of animated animals having a hell of a lot of fun, and that translates into a lot of fun to watch.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith / **** (PG-13)

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor
Anakin/Darth Vader: Hayden Christensen
Padme: Natalie Portman
Chancellor Palpatine: Ian McDiarmid
Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson
Voice of Yoda: Frank Oz
Senator Bail Organa: Jimmy Smits
Count Dooku: Christopher Lee

20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by George Lucas. Running time: 140 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and some intense images).

The rumors began 28 years ago. Cinema was introduced to one of its greatest villains and everyone had a theory as to how Darth Vader came to be. As the original Star Wars trilogy unfolded the secrets of Darth Vader became one of most speculated aspects of the series and one of its greatest intrigues. When creator George Lucas finally returned to his “far, far away” universe, under intense fan anticipation and scrutiny, he clearly stated this new trilogy would be about the origin of Vader, following the life of the Jedi Anakin Skywalker to the point where Vader was born out of him. Through two prequels the writer/director and fans alike have been so distracted by other elements of the series; annoying CGI characters, the origin of a bounty hunter with a total of five minutes screen time in the original series, the invention of a digital camera that produces film quality pictures (or not), bad acting, bad dialogue, trade federations and overcomplicated political plot points, the clones actually being early versions of storm troopers and fighting for the good guys (?), and Samuel L. Jackson kicking ass as a Jedi master; that the origin of Vader only seemed to be a side note. Well, in Episode III - Revenge of the Sith the spotlight falls squarely back on the original purpose of this prequel trilogy, answering the question of just how a noble Jedi Knight could become a Dark Side warrior and a driving force of the evil galactic Empire.

I realize that I seem to have enjoyed the Star Wars prequel series more than most people, but I think this time Lucas has finally given his audience what they’ve been waiting for from this series. The politics and pseudo-mysteries have played themselves out and we finally get to witness the fall of a Jedi into the Dark Side. But in this final chapter of a Jedi before he becomes the ominous Lord Vader, Anakin Skywalker is not merely a frustrated adolescent who has had it with being good and joins up with the wrong crowd. Anakin makes some hard choices in this movie. They not only seem righteous and good to him, but they are choices so convoluted by the truths and lies that have lead up to this chapter of the saga, only the purest of souls could have fielded them better.

Like all of the Star Wars episodes, Lucas brings the audience in on the middle of an action already set in motion. It is the height of the Clone Wars and Anakin and his Master Obi-Wan Kenobi fly a frenzied course in small star fighters through a maelstrom of laser fire and battling spacecraft toward the ship of the evil robot General Grievous, where the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid, Sleepy Hollow) is being held captive by the Sith Lord Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, Lord of the Rings). Lucas uses this opening sequence to out dazzle all the special effects previously seen in the series, with a space battle so vast in scope that the total destruction to the Star Wars universe brought on by these Clone Wars can be easily conceived.

The effects of the war on the Jedi Order is evidenced by the scattered Jedi Council who still convene in the Jedi Temple tower on the city planet of Coruscant via holograms. Few seats are physically occupied, while holographic images of Jedi Masters leading the charge in other star systems show the diminished spirit of the Jedi. This ever-darkening mood falls over the entire story as Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz, Trading Places) and Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, Coach Carter) become suspicious that the prophecy hailing Anakin Skywalker as “the one who will bring balance and order to the universe” may have been misinterpreted.

Unlike Episode II, Hayden Christiansen’s (Shattered Glass) embodiment of Anakin is a fully realized character. His performance in this final episode is not as stiff as in the previous film. He captures not only the hot head nature of his character but a truly troubled inner conflict of someone who wants to do good but is impatient with both the bureaucratic nature of the Republic government and the unobtrusive teachings of the Jedi. This makes him easy prey for the manipulative power-mongering Palpatine.

This development of Anakin being placed in the middle of the power struggle between Palpatine and the Jedi Council is the real meat of the story. I loved the way Lucas was able to make Anakin’s choices genuine dilemmas. I don’t suppose I can say anyone would make these same choices since the scenario is in such a fantastical setting that there is no everyday quality about it, but Anakin’s choice to start down that path to the Dark Side is very easy to believe. I wondered how Lucas would be able to convince his audience that someone with the nobility of a Jedi Knight could choose the dark side without so obviously betraying his own desire to be good, but he has done it. Throughout this prequel series Yoda claims that love leads to the dark side through selfishness; finally, I was able to see how in the way Anakin desired to protect his secret wife Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman, Closer) from a death he had foreseen in a dream.

While this film is easily the darkest of all six Star Wars films, there is one glimmering light throughout in Ewan McGregor’s (Big Fish) portrayal of Anakin’s Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. McGregor has been the rock throughout this prequel trilogy with a character that evolves in each episode. By Episode III Obi-Wan is a confident Jedi who is completely at ease with himself and his place in the universe, a perfect Jedi and a smooth operator (Attention! James Bond producers!). McGregor uses this concept as a chance to let Obi-Wan’s bemusement with the craziness surrounding him live right up on the surface of his being. He is not always smiling, but you can sense his spirit is. Although he is caught up in a horrible situation, even having to duel his pupil and friend Anakin in the film’s climactic conclusion, it is obvious he is doing what he is meant for and good at.

As in Episode II, Obi-Wan’s storyline is the one that keeps the adventure in this space opera. He is the swashbuckler who is sent by the Jedi Council to find and eliminate General Grievous after his?… its escape during the Palpatine rescue. The light saber duel with the four-sabered robot is one of the highlights of action (among many) in the movie even if just for the mode of transportation Obi-Wan uses to hunt Grievous down. Other highlights include, Windu’s and Yoda’s respective showdowns with Darth Sidious, the montage sequence when Sidious finally turns the clones against their masters, the way Lucas works a few of the original trilogy ship designs into “earlier versions” of the X-Wing and Tie Fighter space ships, and of course Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into the black leather clad asthmatic Darth Vader.

I was surprised at how well the final actions of Anakin’s battle with Obi-Wan matched my own imagination of the events that must have lead to injuries that necessitated Darth Vader’s ominous suit. I also appreciated the references Lucas threw in to the horror classic Frankenstein in Anakin’s “rebirth” scene as the Darth Vader that we all know from the original trilogy.

Will audiences who are not already fans of the series care about any of this? For that matter will anyone who isn’t a fan even know what I’m talking about in this review? I turned to my wife for the answer to that first question (she hasn’t read my review yet), and she claimed it was the easiest movie of the prequel trilogy to follow. And I think it will satisfy all the cravings of the fans that have been left categorically unfulfilled by the first two chapters in the series. The climax of this prequel trilogy certainly doesn’t leave the audience with the warm feelings of the original trilogy. That is due to a combination of the passing of one of the most original works of film history and the fact that the bad guys won this time around. I think that speaks very much to the differences in the world outlook today versus twenty years ago. In that sense, Lucas chose the perfect time to return to his opus.

I wrote a research paper on the original trilogy when I was in high school and read from interviews with Lucas in the 70’s that he had originally planned a nine part series, beginning with the middle three chapters, going back to the first three, and finishing up with the final three installments, with the droids C3PO and R2D2 as the only characters who would appear in every episode. If that is still Lucas’s plan, he is being tight lipped about it and rumors are flying about various television projects being the films’ final legacy. Hopefully, if those final three chapters do become a reality, the world will be a brighter place that will allow for a much more cheerful ending for the entire series. For now, the climax to the Star Wars universe’s darkest period of history marks one of the film legacy’s high points.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven / **** (R)

Balian: Orlando Bloom
Godfrey: Liam Neeson
Hospitalier: David Thewlis
Guy de Lusignan: Marton Csokas
King Baldwin: Edward Norton
Sibylla: Eva Green
Reynald: Brendan Gleeson
Tiberias: Jeremy Irons
Saladin: Ghassan Massoud

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film produced and directed by Ridley Scott. Written by William Monahan. Running time: 145 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence and epic warfare).

What man is a man who does not to make the world better?

This is the sentiment written on the rafter of a blacksmith’s workshop in France. It is the 12th century and Europe has been involved in a Holy Crusade, at war with Muslims over the holy land of Jerusalem for over 100 years. The Crusades have become a mission for any man trying to find any sort of purpose during these dark ages. Godfrey of Ilbelin returns from Jerusalem on his own mission to make peace with his God and find the son who doesn’t even know him. The blacksmith is Balian, the son who doesn’t know his father, nor does he think his God knows him; yet rarely a man has understood the heavenly charge scrawled on his rafter better than he.

Kingdom of Heaven is a war epic directed by Gladiator helmer Ridley Scott. Scott’s faith driven battle epic avoids the muddled down histrionics of other recent period epics, such as Troy and Alexander, by taking a hard focus on the hero Balian and his own personal journey. The screenplay by William Monahan, his first produced screenplay with three others fast on its heels to come including the fourth Jurassic Park adventure, imbues Balian with more depth of character than Gladiator’s Maximus, driving the emotional level of the battles and the entire picture to match Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

Despite a cold reception of Godfrey when Balian first learns of his origins, Balian soon joins his father for the journey back to Jerusalem. Any apprehension Balian feels toward his once estranged father is quickly diminished when Godfrey’s band of warriors defends Balian’s freedom against sheriffs sent to arrest the blacksmith on rightful charges of murdering a priest.
In the film’s most gruesome and intimate battle sequence a number of Godfrey’s soldiers give their lives for Godfrey’s own right to his son and Balian’s freedom. The devotion of Godfrey’s men and the sudden brutal endings to lives forged for the sole purpose of battle paint a startling picture of the times depicted. It is amazing such prudence of purpose could produce such horrific madness in practice. Perhaps this philosophy of life is best personified by the group’s Hospitalier, played by David Thewlis (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) with his typical sagely delivery. He sees to the wounded with harsh words of how to remain alive, yet fights with the same skill and devotion alongside them. Liam Neeson (Kinsey) also brings grace and honor to his role as the noble knight Godfrey.

Orlando Bloom finally blossoms into a true hero with his role as Balian. No longer is he merely the sexy youngster swashbuckler who wins favor with his smooth skin and sweet smile in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or Lord of the Rings; in fact, I don’t think he does smile in the first hour of this two and a half hour epic. Nor is he the insipid whiny wimp who brought about the destruction of Troy by somehow winning the heart of the most beautiful woman of the time. Kingdom of Heaven is Bloom’s passage into manhood, and what a man he has become. There was a point when the selflessness of his character’s actions in this story actually forced me to say under my breath, “Wow! What a hero!” This hero is the rarest of heroes, a man who acts solely to make the world a better place.

Upon his arrival in the holy city, he finds himself in service to Jerusalem’s monarch, King Baldwin. Edward Norton (The Italian Job) turns the thankless role of the perpetually masked leper king into an amazingly nuanced performance despite the expressionless mask. The legendary, now aged, Tiberias, a gravel throated Jeremy Irons (Being Julia), sees the goodness and potential of Balian in the political structure of the region. Tiberias observes that for all of Balian’s natural nobility, “Jerusalem has no need for a perfect knight.” Baldwin and Tiberias have forged a fragile truce between the Christian occupants of Jerusalem and the equable Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud); a truce the Templar leaders, the war mongering Reynald (Brendan Gleeson, The Village) and the crown seeking Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas, The Bourne Supremacy), are itching to break.

Guy: “Give me a war.”

Reynald (dancing around like a fairy sprinkling magical dust): “That’s what I do.”

There is also a slight love story that enters into the mix with Sibylla (Eva Green, The Dreamers), wife to Guy, sister of Baldwin. Balian’s values appeal to this woman trapped in an arranged marriage to her tyrannical husband. An adulterous love scene threatens to stain Balian’s perfection, but when offered more by the King himself, Balian’s response shows his belief in the sanctimony of holy marriage. Although the affair could be considered a flaw in the evolution of this character, I saw it as more of a glimpse that Balian truly is human, with natural human desires and temptations.

I have no idea how historically accurate this story is, and frankly I don’t care. While movies can exist to teach us many things, history is a fairly minor factor in the realm of drama. What this movie has to teach is very important indeed. It seems to me many men claim to know God’s will, but few really do. I believe Balian is one of those few. He remains true to his faith and even his political loyalties throughout, but never gets caught up in the claims of religion. I was reminded more than once in this film of a line spoken by Inman, Jude Law’s character, in Cold Mountain, “God must tire of being called down on both sides of a conflict.” Balian realizes God does not work for one side or the other, God only works his will and as his vessel it is man’s job only to be good and let God’s will be done.

It is a shame religious organizations in this country have not gotten behind this film in the way some did for last year’s less spiritual, more literal The Passion of the Christ. Kingdom of Heaven is a much more humanly story than Gibson’s realization of the Passion play. While his film dealt with literal scripture and heavenly edict, Scott’s deals with what faith is to man. What it means to have and express faith in God. While Gibson’s depicted the persecution of a god in a cauldron of intolerance, Balian earns his place in the kingdom of heaven by practicing tolerance even while surrounded by the hate of friend and foe alike that have lost sight of their faith. Never has a depiction of faith been so clear to me as the force of God that thrives in this hero’s soul.