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Movie Reviews

by Jerry Salisbury

Click on a movie's name to go directly to the review, or scroll down and proceed through them all.

About a Boy, Bandits, Big Trouble, Changing Lanes, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Death to Smoochy, Frailty, High Crimes, Insomnia, Life as a House, Minority Report, Murder By Numbers, No Man's Land, O, Panic Room, Scooby-Doo, Spider-Man, Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of The Clones, The Sum of All Fears, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, Windtalkers

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

Ah the fertile, creative, yet fragile and malleable mind of a child. No movie in recent history has captured all these qualities so effectively, uniquely and creatively, as does Peter Care's dark coming of age movie, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. Care uses a mix of crude, but believable humor, Heavy Metal style animation sequences and gripping powerful revelations and moments to tell his tale and to honestly reflect the joys and pains of growing up. The film seems to be set in present day, but never really dates itself, since it deals with morals, issues and situations that are relevant throughout the ages.

Children in their early teens struggle to find themselves, while experimenting, playing grown-up and dealing with the changes happening to and around them. With Altar Boys, Care has made the antithesis to the Dawson's Creek-style brainless teen faire, while still maintaining a sense of fun. He mixes in doses of intelligence and delivers his message with a powerful sentiment that will have you laughing one minute, cringing another and in the end, leave you breathless in awe. During the years between 13 and 18, kids minds wander, begin to become creative and expand as their eyes are opened to the wonders of the world around them. They trek precariously, yet playfully, through these times, reveling in the highs, suffering some scars, but learning and becoming the adults that we can be. We are introduced first to four comic warriors known as the Atomic Trinity (yes, there are 4, but its a trinity, kind of like in Airheads where the band was the Lone Rangers, but there were 3) and their arch nemesis known lovingly as Nunzilla. We then meet their creators, 4 Catholic school students with a penchant for indulging in vices, talking crudely and dreaming about, girls of course. Tim (Kieran Culkin) and Francis (Emile Hirsch) are characters who are opposites of each other; yet seem to compliment each other perfectly. Tim is a risk taker, seemingly always wanting attention, while Francis is a bit more cautious, but still as curious. After a practical joke puts them in peril, they seek to distract attention away by pulling off an even bigger one.

Meanwhile Francis is struggling and stumbling through his first taste of true love with Maggie (Jena Malone), a sweet, but possibly troubled Catholic girl. I have left a lot out intentionally, as the way Care springs things upon the audience is part of the movies power. Suffice to say there are moments of crude humor, mixed in with moments of brutally honest emotion. Imagine the spirit of Stand By Me with doses of Sleepers and a splash of Chasing Amy's comic book passion and you will have just scratched the surface of Care's masterful story mix. Spawn creator Todd McFarlane's unique animation sequences simply have to be seen to be understood and believe it or not, they flow perfectly with the story.

The movie effortlessly shifts emotions so quickly, that you will literally be laughing one moment and gasping in shock the next. The ease with which he does this is both frightening and refreshing. It also helps that the film is filled with strong, believable performances. As the risk taking Tim, Culkin (the one member of that family that can actually act) uses his bed head hair, playful look and emotion filled eyes to bring a humanity and innocence to a character that may be losing his. Hirsch and Malone are both soul bearing as they discover emotions and feelings that their bodies are generating, but their brains cannot yet understand. And in support of the youngsters, Jodie Foster (sternly wicked) as "Nunzilla" and Vincent D'Onofrio, as the more humane Father Casey, both give the film an edge and show that even big stars can step out of limelight, yet still maintain it.

Ultimately, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is a unique journey through growing up, told in a style and with a mix that defies simple definition and explanation. Suffice to say, you will probably not see a film like this anytime in the near future. Just as life, in the puberty years, is confusing, clouded, exciting, stressful, so is Care's delivery of his message. Carried by the strong performances of Culkin, Malone and Hirsch and intermingled with stunning and relevant and intense animation sequences from McFarlane, Care has captured the broad span of emotions that all kids feel at some point. We all wanted to grow up faster than we were supposed to, we all dreamed of rebelling against our elders, living in other worlds, escaping away, saving the world and yet indulging in all of the forbidden vices that at the time seemed so cool.

Care has given the youth of America a movie to rally behind, or at least relate to and has given the adults the most honest look into what their kids may be doing when they aren't looking. So parents, pay attention, teachers, leave them kids alone and kids, beware of the motorcycle nuns, the sedated cougars and the ghosts at the foot of the bed. Trust me, it will all make sense after you see the movie.

Death to Smoochy

I have to wonder what has made Danny DeVito such an angry man. If films are a representative reflection of a filmmaker's view on the world, then DeVito is not a happy camper and we are the victims of this rage. With Death to Smoochy, DeVito has fired a laborious, mean-spirited salvo in the direction of children's entertainment, commercialism and the cultish faire that draws in today's youthful minds. What could have been a very dark comedy exposing the social ills of this often unseen, but probably fairly accurate link of the media and publicity machine instead gets bogged down with excessive and unnecessary subplots. Even Robin Williams, whose manic nature takes a macabre twist, goes too much over the top, if that is possible. Norton's milquetoast performance, a couple of humorous moments and some societal observations that are frighteningly accurate cannot save this film from dragging us thru this muddy mess.

There is a scene during the film's climatic sequence that involves an ice capades retrospect of what the title character has been through to get to this point. It is entertaining, creative and insightful. I just wish that the writers had put those same qualities into the remainder of the film, because going through all of this may have been trying on the character, but it was downright brutal for the audience. Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) is a disgraced and dethroned children's television host, who is replaced by a struggling performer (Edward Norton) who has been relegated to playing hospital openings and such. When he gets the shot, because the network head (Jon Stewart) and his talent coordinator, Nora (Catherine Keener) decided that they needed an infusion of morality, he becomes a hit. He is offered franchising opportunities, befriended by a bumbling ex-boxer/restaurant owner (Michael Rispoli) with hooligans for relatives and loathed initially by Nora (which translates into a love story later of course), attached to a smarmy agent (Danny DeVito) and bullied by a crooked charity organization (led by Harvey Fierstein). Oh yes and then there is Randolph's revenge thing which I assumed was the basis for the movie, but becomes the hellish center in this crowded universe of moronic subplot satellites. Screenplay writer Resnick must be bitter for having written two bombs (Cabin Boy and Lucky Numbers), after gaining notoriety writing for Letterman's late night show. His story and DeVito's direction almost defy words in their acerbic, uncaring attitude towards anything and everything in this film. I understand that dark comedies lampoon, but this doesn't just cross the line, it does warp speed over it, oblivious of any mores, sensibility or intelligence.

Norton and Williams are contradictory in character and become almost animated in their extremes. Norton seems to good and moral to be true, which he can do, but you always sense there is something deeper inside him, since he has the talent to mask simmering intensity that seeps out, through his eyes and methodical actions. As Mopes/Smoochy, he does his best with what he is given, but he seems a bit uncomfortable at times and I have to wonder if he is becoming desperate or losing his edge at choosing projects. Between this and The Score, Norton is officially in a slump. As for Williams, his characters will either be serious with a hint of humor (Good Will Hunting) or over the top and out of control (Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin). In this role, he is manic, as expected and unleashed completely, but he seems to be trying to do too much, even for his standards, as he struggles to save this movie through his extraneous efforts. The supporting characters, save a nice snarling turn by Fierstein, are wasted, which is a shame indeed. Especially for Keener who in past films has proven her proficiency for the murkier, confusing sides of life (Being John Malkovich). This time she, like the rest of the cast, is sentenced to the futile task of trying to raise this film above its cruel and unusual punishment of the audience.

Ultimately, Death to Smoochy is a droning attempt at dark comedy and social commentary that is more complex and mean spirited than it needs to be. The key to the sub-genre of black comedy is two-pronged: First, finding an irony in normal occurrences and exploring the shadows of it, or second, taking something natural and going to the extremes with it to the point where you can't not laugh but also feel you shouldn't be. What should be a tongue-in-cheek lambasting style of revenge for parents sick of the "I Love You" rift turns into a coldhearted, angry chain of seemingly never-ending expletives and hateful dialogues and satirizations. Smoochy does touch on some social aspects and have moments and doses of humor, but they don't appear consistently enough and go too far into the reaches that they do expose. The film could have benefited from less of a story, focusing on the revenge factor with a couple of the side stories to give flavor or edge (like the Coen brothers), but instead, it resorts to seeing how many times it can offend or frustrate us and how many institutions it can drag down into the mire with it. I did laugh, at times, but more than anything, I felt pity for the talent of Williams and Norton being wasted and a great potential story idea being forsaken in the spirit of embittered anger, towards whom, I am not quite sure. Death to Smoochy will go down as one of the most well-cast, well-filmed, angriest movies in history and I sure hope DeVito gets all of this ire out of his system before we are subjected to his next project. Since he's already tackled dysfunctional marriages (War of The Roses) and childhood in this one, I am guessing that he has some pent-up fears that he should deal with off screen before making his next film.


Reports say that Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz was driven by voices emanating from a neighbor's dog to commit his horrible crimes. The validity of this, of course, cannot be disputed or verified, but is never really brought into question, for the sake of Berkowitz's diminished mental state. So it's not really improbable that someone could be driven by the visions and beliefs of religion to commit unthinkable acts. It is this premise, basically, that Frailty, a twisting, methodical psychological thriller, is based upon. It is the directorial debut of Bill Paxton, who also stars, and it shows great promise in his storytelling abilities, among other things. The film is patient, intense and suspenseful, only occasionally lapsing into typicality of the genre, and has an ending with more twists than a dirt road through the Rockies. With its religious and cultural inferences and sleight of hand, Frailty deserves mention just below, but in the same breath as, the likes of Silence of The Lambs and Se7en.

The story opens with a haggard looking man (Matthew McConaughey) walking into a Dallas FBI office and telling the lead investigator (Powers Boothe) in a string of unsolved murders called the God's Hand killings that he knows the identity of the killer and that it's his brother. He then proceeds to recant his childhood, from losing his mother to his father's revelation (through a "vision") that the world must be rid of demons and that they are the ones chosen to exterminate them. The story bounds conveniently and seamlessly, from past to present as the doubting agent begins to believe the validity of Fenton's story. We are shown how possible it is for a loving father of two to suddenly become a willing servant of what he believes is righteous and right, in God's eyes. The telling of the story recalls the methods used by The Usual Suspects, the best of the genre. The balance of the two eras, along with the cultural references and even the religious undertones (some subtle, some blatant) all lend power to the story's message. The gruesome nature of the killings is left to greatest medium of all that Hitchcock, John Carpenter and sometimes Tobe Hooper, all realized; the human mind and imagination. We are given enough to ascertain what is happening, without being shown it. This alone is more shocking, frightening and powerful than any special effects artist could ever dream of. Paxton has obviously honed his visionary skills, along with his patient ability to leak the story to us, slowly, but consistently, building the suspense up to the conclusion that I will of course, leave for you to see. Whether the ending works for you or not, relies on how deeply you let yourself get into the story. Paxton the director is smart enough to leave the door open as to the validity of the visions, because this isn't a movie about killing, it's a movie about the things that drive people, in positive or negative ways to do what they do and the effect these actions can have on those around them. Paxton the actor is strong enough to make this character seem unlike any cinematic serial killer you've ever seen, by his simple believable methods and justifications. And Paxton, the storyteller, is smart enough to balance all of this and tell it in a manner that will haunt and chill you to your very core. Thanks to his mastery and balance of these three things, the film works, aided of course, by his intelligence in casting.

After a strong, almost movie-stealing performance in A Time To Kill, McConaughey has bounded between roles built around his cute, baby-faced smirk and syrupy southern drawl (Wedding Planner) and true dramatic roles where he seemed a bit overmatched by the material (Amistad). But here he strikes just the right balance, using all of his traits to make his character both charming and mysterious. Paired with the monotone, menacing nature of Paxton, as the father and two strong supporting performances from the young actors (Matthew O'Leary and Jeremy Sumpter) Frailty becomes as well-balanced, smart and intense a movie as you may see this year. Finally, Boothe, who just has a creepy look about him, but is this time, playing the doubter, rather than the doubted, gives a consistent strength in his character, as the tale unfolds in front of and around him. This is a truly artistic piece of social commentary on the power of faith and influence on the lives of those seeking answers in a world with very few.

Ultimately, Frailty is a movie that shows that why can sometimes be more interesting than who, when it comes to the cinematic exploration of criminal acts. We may question the validity and realism of some premises set forth in movies these days, but Frailty takes that thought and twists it (with doses of reality..i.e., the claymation Sunday morning shows, just to name one) so that we actually could imagine and also become scared of the fact that this could actually occur. Paxton utilizes the tool of retrospective storytelling, mixed in with current progression (ala Usual Suspects) to lure us in slowly and then zing us, just when we think we have it all figured out. Normally, movies with multiple ending points frustrate me and this one appeared to be no different. We are given a resolution, which is a twist, but not wholly original, but pay attention fair audience, because there is more to come and by the time its over, you may be shaking your head, talking to yourself and looking twice at that person sitting next to you in the pew on Sunday.

High Crimes

I think Carl Franklin and company watched A Few Good Men one too many times. High Crimes is Franklin's entry into an already crowded genre of military courtroom dramas, most of which have been done much better than this one. Franklin pulls out every plotline and cliché in the book then slaps on a sloppily done, poorly thought out ending, resulting in an effort that should be tried on its accord; for theft, of ideas and of the time I spent watching and writing about it. I am generally a sucker for any movie that is set in, or even built around, the process of jurisprudence, so High Crimes had an appeal to me and for the most part kept me interested and watching. But Franklin fails, where Rob Reiner (…Men), Billy Wilder (Witness for the Prosecution) and most notably Otto Preminger (Anatomy of A Murder) succeeded; in the wrap-up of it all. A film's finale can be like a lawyers closing argument, the whole case, or story, can hinge upon it and if the evidence, or setup, doesn't match or support it, then it fails. Franklin attempted to copy and emulate some classic films, but it's like a novice attorney reading the words of a famed barrister, if the delivery isn't there, the message and intentions seem empty. Franklin's closing argument seems rushed and unnecessarily twisted and muddled to the point where the audience is left talking about the film, but probably not in the ways that he intends.

Crimes tells the story of Claire Kubik, a promising San Francisco attorney (the opening shots will make you want to visit the Bay Area sometime soon, as it was done by someone who knew how to capture the spirit of the town) who finds her world turned upside down when her ex-military husband is accused of leading a massacre in El Salvador in 1988. She enlists the help of a disgraced ex-military lawyer who, of course, has a drinking problem. Together with the baby faced counsel who was assigned to her husband, she sets out to prove the innocence of husband and/or find out his true identity. I liked the setup, but as characters and subplots began piling up, I feared that the conclusion may fall victim to overcrowding, or plot convenience and I wasn't far off. The excess of stories and characters become distractions, rather than additions to a plot where they should have only added flavor. Davison's turn as a high-ranking military official (playing the role of Jack Nicholson) Adam Scott's presence as the young inexperienced counsel (playing the role of Tom Cruise) and Juan Hernandez's presence as the gung-ho military man with questionable morals and motives (playing the role of Kiefer Sutherland) along with a man who conveniently appears and disappears, all took away from a film that should have been kept a lot simpler than it was.

The performances are what keep this film from sinking under the weight of its traffic jam of a story, led and carried by Ashley Judd. She has almost made a career of playing victimized but vengeful and resilient souls who have the strong will and determination to fight back against whatever forces opposes them. She brings a spunky spirit along with her bubbly attractiveness to a role that seems to have been written for her. Along with Morgan Freeman, whom she developed an almost paternal bond with in their last pairing (Kiss The Girls), they play strongly off of each other's characters in a better way than this script deserved. Jim Cavieziel seems to be overacting at times with his soft voice and angst-filled eyes. But that sad face also masks something that could be buried deeper in his soul, as it did in Frequency and The Thin Red Line. Amanda Peet and Scott give the supporting roles some flavor, but also complicate and cloud things, not by their presence, but by the prevalence that their roles are given. No fault of their own of course, but more to the writers who seemed to have several ideas and directions for this film and then settled on one of the more confusing and inconsistent ones to resolve things.

Ultimately, High Crimes is a palpable, unoriginal, at times convoluted entry into the courtroom/military film genre. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then somewhere, Rob Reiner must be feeling very proud. Franklin has shamelessly borrowed elements from Reiner's excellent 1991 drama, tried to mix in some other aspects of both legal and military films and produce something original. He fails slightly at this effort. The element of doubt is a very important tool in these kinds of movies. In order to prolong a story, the makers must generate this emotion in audience. We must doubt the identities, the motives, the actions and the details, in order to keep the suspense going. Unfortunately, Franklin ties his story in knots that he is not talented enough untie, despite strong performances from Judd, Freeman, Cavieziel and Peet. The simplistic details and development of the story, give way to a train wreck of a resolution that could have been easily explained and resolved in a much better manner. Unnecessary characters, revolving loyalties, murky motivations and a hint at politics make High Crimes guilty of lackadaisical film making wrapped around a potentially interesting idea. Franklin had a good idea, in remaking Finder's novel, but is betrayed by his screenplay, which suffers from an identity crisis of if it wants to be a whodunit, a political conspiracy, a courtroom showdown, or a test of a couples love. He has proven in the past that he can make a complex, intelligent character-driven film, as he did with his 1992 debut One False Move (written by a much better writer, a then little-known Billy Bob Thornton). But amidst his directional confusion lies a film which is gripping at times, intelligent occasionally, but wholly unoriginal and, in the end, frustrating and a bit senseless. I enjoyed the majority of the film, but once it was over, I was tainted by the fact that something was missing, or could have been done much better.

For the rest of the reviews, proceed to the next page.

Also, check out other reviews by Jerry at his own site, The Reel Rambler

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