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
No Man's Land
Until Sept 11th, war, terrorism, religious differences, and such, seemed like something that was worlds away from us, accessible and traceable primarily through the evening news. But this is a new world, and things are viewed from a different perspective now. When you break it down to its barest form, war is little more than a glorified miscommunication over whatever differences may exist between two parties, be it religious, geographical or political. No Man's Land, the Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film (in a blatant robbery from Amelie) attempts to show the minutia that makes up the grander scale of these horrific occurrences. The film takes a slightly humorous Catch-22 situation, and effectively uses it to communicate how silly, yet tragic, war can indeed be. While the film doesn't do anything that spectacular, its message still rings true, even in this new semblance of normal that we live in.
The film is set in an area called no man's land. It is a neutral area between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbian borders. Two troops on patrol in a trench, come across a seemingly dead body, and decide, for a joke, to place a pressure sensitive mine underneath his body, so that when someone tries to recover the body, the mine would rise up, explode and spread shrapnel all around. Only two problems with this, first, the soldier is not dead, and secondly, they are not alone in the trench. A fellow soldier, Chiki shows up and kills one of the two other soldiers, leaving the less experienced soldier, Nino to deal with the circumstances. Once the opposing soldiers realize their predicament, it becomes a waiting game, to see whose army shows up first, to defuse the mine, and to return to their respective sides. The Catch-22 plays in, because neither trusts the other, each trying to cast blame for the war, and trying to keep the wounded soldier still, until the mine expert arrives. Complicating matters are the media, of course, seeking to exploit the situation, and the UN Peacekeepers, trying to find a resolution that is amicable to both sides, without causing a national incident. The film balances, and intertwines all of these stories into a strong commentary on the state of politics, the absurdities and oddities of the causes and effects, and ultimately, the tragedy and victims of the repercussions. This is helped along by the contrasting personalities of the performers, who play off of each other with a dedication, and brutal reality of two men caught up, defending ideals they may not believe in, for the sake of a national unity and pride fed to them by a government that they are sworn to support. These two actors, along with the reporter, and the oblivious leader are representative of the morals and convictions of the participants, and the many faceted levels of the filmmaker's story. They are the messengers of this powerful tale, fitting, poignant, realistically humorous, and consistently ironic.
Ultimately, No Man's is a powerful commentary on all aspects of war, from the media, to the bigwigs, to those who try to mediate, down to those who are actually involved. The conclusion of the film is the most powerful statement that can be made about war, that there are no winners and losers, despite who may prevail. Senseless violence, masked as justified is still violent and unnecessary, and the causalities are sometimes the most innocent, on unintended. No Man's Land makes a powerful statement, not with the amount or gratuitousness of the violence, but rather the harsh realities that aren't always captured in the media. The film's setup may seem a tad repetitive and laborious, but the payoff, in its stark, frustrating nature, represents the true horror and tragedy that war presents. No one comes out ahead, the media will cover it, and move on, and the higher ups will do whatever is best, without really taking any chances. The contrast, yet bond created between the two soldiers, shows that these are just innocent people, driven by idealisms, to defend their beliefs, at whatever cost. Without trying to, No Man's Land makes one of the strongest anti-war sentiments in recent years.
For Tim Blake Nelson's sake, ignorance is indeed bliss. It's a good thing that I have never read, nor am I that familiar, shamefully enough, of Shakespeare's original interracial story, Othello. If I had been, then it may have made my dislike for this remake even greater. As it is, O, yet another unnecessary rehash of Sir William's work is a dull, inconsistent, and inexplicably uneven retelling, whatever the origins may be. On it's own, it stands as a tireless effort to capitalize on the serious side of the teen movie genre, while attempting to capitalize on the issues of interracial dating, familial jealousy, and true love. The characters actions are never justified, because they are never developed, or explained enough to make us care. Cursory mentions, and glances are not enough to show any kind of depth, and in order to elicit any kind of empathy or sympathy, introspective knowledge or personality and emotion is necessary. This film has none of those qualities, and as a result, collapses under the weight of its own words and intentions.
O, is Odin, a star prep school basketball player whom the coach loves more than his own son Hugo (Josh Hartnett) and who is dating the dean's daughter Desi (Julia Stiles). If haven't guessed, O is black, Desi and Hugo are white, Odin is the only African-American at the school, and apparently comes from a troubled background, but is truly genuine in his intentions towards Desi, and his career. When Hugo finds out that his friend Roger (Eldon Henson) has a crush on Desi, it is the last straw in his contempt for Odin, who considers him a close friend. Through a series of deceitful and manipulative actions, Hugo sets out to create tension between the two lovers, using the racial differences, her friendship with another player Mike, and heresy based on typical male/female relations. Granted, this story makes it sound a lot more interesting than the actual execution is, and the failure rests squarely on the shoulders of the director and writer who are so anxious to deliver the reactions to emotions, that they fail to generate any dimension to any of the characters so that we would actually care about them. Show us more of the rift between Hugo and his father (Martin Sheen); give us more insight into the background that Odin came from, without making them distractions and subplots. Simple character development, something screenwriting 101 should teach you, is this films biggest failure. The potential existed for a very acerbic, realistic perspective on racial, social, and paternal issues here, and the reactions from the characters are intense, Pfeiffer especially helps this along with his incendiary, yet heartfelt performance, but I never got into any of it, it came across more like a botched WB movie of the week than anything else. Director Nelson, who ironically co-starred in a much more successful classic literary adaptation (O Brother Where Art Thou) must still be honing his skills at giving his characters emotional and sympathetic reactions and making us care about them, while progressing a story. When dealing with Shakespeare, whether it be in pure form, or adaptation, it helps for us to understand motivations, and relate to them since they are essential to story progression. Nelson, given a talented cast, fails on all accounts.
Mentioning performances, aside from Mekhi Pfeiffer, whose debut film Clockers is an underrated gem, the remainder of this immensely talented cast gets lost in the shuffle. Stiles, reprising a similar, but less complex, character from Save the Last Dance, does little but smile, look cute, be sexy, and react to things that the script tells her to feel. Henson, star of another underrated classic, The Mighty, is the true causality of this film, relegated to almost buffoon status. Even when he gets a chance to show emotion, such as a scene during a basketball game where he sits in the "wrong section", his reaction is more a byproduct of what we expect, and what he was told, then what he actually may be feeling.
Ultimately, O should be the final nail in the coffin in Shakespearean cinematic translations, although I know it won't be, since wherever there's an idea to borrow, exploit and capitalize on, someone in movie land will do it. It is sacrilegious, and should be illegal, for an untrained eye and ear to attempt to create something out of the words of one the greatest literary geniuses ever. Nelson has made a pointless film, about important issues, that forgets the fact that there are human beings behind emotions, and to make people care about characters, we have to know and understand them. The words of Shakespeare, oft repeated, improvised, and inspirational to more of our art than any other in history, become drowned amidst the film makers desire to show that he has some kind of ethical message to tell. But when your messenger comes in as empty handed as this film does, the point gets diluted and even lost, as it does in O. It almost makes me want to read the story, just to see how bad this interpretation was, and to make me appreciate a true storyteller at work.
On initial glance, it would appear that David Fincher has painted himself into a corner. By giving Panic Room an initial premise which wouldn't seem very likely to be sustained over a reasonable running time and setting the film in one very spacious, but limited, 3-story townhouse, Fincher seemingly had nowhere to go with Panic Room but down and quickly. Instead, he fills the movie with intelligent characters, presents them with realistic situations, gives them expected and sometimes unexpected, but sensible reactions and keeps his finger on the suspense button throughout. He does this by fulfilling an unofficial niche in the movie watching process. Often, we in the audience offer suggestions, or ask questions during or after a set of circumstances have occurred. Fincher populates the film with the answers to any possible scenario or inquiry and the answers work so well, that the tension level in Panic Room only begins to wane as the film figures out how to conclude things. Overall, it's an experience that will not disappoint, may inspire some discussion and be a pleasantly sustained surprise throughout.
As stated before, the entire movie, save two short scenes, takes place inside a lofty townhouse Manhattan's upper East side. We are taken on a walking tour by a landlord and an overzealous real estate agent and shown the details that will become very intimate to us over the next 2 hours. The townhouse is being shown to a newly separated mother Meg (Jodie Foster) and her tomboy-looking diabetic daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart). Near the end of the tour, Foster inquires about the size of one of the rooms and the landlord states that there is a secret room, conveniently called a panic room. This room is basically self-sufficient and independent, with 3-inch steel walls and doors, a separate power supply and phone line, video cameras and rations to survive for a few days inside. He states it was designed as a safe room for those well to do folks who wanted to ensure their safety in the case of something unexpected occurring. Call it a modern-day castle keep, urban bomb shelter or tornado cellar. It was installed by the previous resident who was a wealthy financier and required personal care in his later years, hence the security and the elevator, things rarely seen in dwellings inside the city. Of course we are being shown this for a reason, which becomes quickly evident on Meg and Sarah's first night in the house. Three intruders, one with a kind heart and knowledge of the security of the "room", one with a knowledge and connection to what is in the room and a loose cannon wild card brought along for kicks I can only guess. Meg and Sarah secure themselves in the room and the mental chess game begins. You see the thieves can't get in unless the occupants come out. They cannot kill them either; otherwise they would never get in. An interesting dilemma and one that may not seem to be able to stand the test of a full length movie, but Fincher pulls it off to near perfection by showing the actions and reactions of both occupants and thieves. Several times, the dialogue becomes secondary to the action, the music and the intriguing camera work. I will leave the details of how things unfold and the various other events for the film to reveal. Suffice it to say that Fincher pretty much leaves no stone unturned and no plausible event unconsidered or touched upon. Also, as John Dahl did in Joy Ride, Fincher sustains the simplicity of natural occurrences with realistic dialogue and doses of humor on both sides of the room. The way he plays the chess game would make Bobby Fischer envious. The fitting irony of escaping intruders to gain safety, only to have the tables turned and become trapped, becomes a Catch-22 that is exploited to a patient and insightful perfection. He does stumble ever so slightly in his conclusive scene, but it is another case, as with Joy Ride's suspension of sensible thought, that is forgivable in the grand scheme.
Along with Fincher's direction, the brilliant camera work of Conrad Hall and the screenplay by David Koepp, the performances lend some strength and intensity to things. This is obviously Foster's film to carry and as she's proven in the past, she melds into the character to a near perfect pitch. Her eyes, her mannerisms and her vocal tone are all so effortlessly expressive, that we feel her anger, her frustration, her desperation and her justification for the actions and events. Coupled with Stewart, in a strong debut as her daughter, they do indeed make a formidable team. But they alone would not have made this movie as enjoyable, if their foes did not present some kind of adversarial challenge. The three criminals, similar in intent, but differing slightly in morality levels, have a chemistry that bonds them together, as they seemingly self-destruct and make their moves opposite Foster and Stuart. Jared Leto, nearly unrecognizable under the dread locks, is the thoughtless hothead with the connection to the fortune and his youthful exuberance and cocky demeanor come across. Dwight Yoakam, who is making a movie career out of playing unlikable sorts, is the wildcard, who spends the majority of the movie under a ski mask and when he comes out of it, looks more like Clint Howard than someone formidable. But don't let the fact that he's a singer fool you, his vocal tones, sneering looking and deep-set eyes, give an ominous feeling to things as they unravel. Finally, Forrest Whitaker, whose career has been hit and miss, brings the right balance of calm, intelligent persistence, yet justified exhaustion at the situation at hand. Fincher has given us smart people, doing things we would expect, answering questions that we think and may not ask.
Ultimately, Panic Room is a realistic thriller that plays on natural human fears and is cast with people who we believe in and can relate with. There is a direct proportion to the effectiveness of a suspense movie to how closely it hits home with the audience. In Panic Room, Fincher taps into the universal fear of invasion and entrapment and then proceeds to take us down a believably natural path towards a resolution of things. In the hands of lesser directors, this one could have easily spun off into a bad movie of the week, but using some amazing camera shots, as he did in Fight Club and instilling with a genuine sense of cinematic claustrophobia, as the Wachowski brothers did in Bound, Fincher gives us one of the smartest films set entirely in one building, that we may ever see. And like Dahl, once he has our attention, he never lets up and never insults our intelligence or tries our patience. In this cinematic world where everything is carbon copied, simplistic and by the numbers, Fincher proves once again that he is on the cutting edge and possibly one of the heir apparents to try and fill Hitchcock's very large shoes.
There really is no need to mince words; Scooby Doo is a really bad movie. Director Raja Gosnell obviously put little thought into the story, or little effort into making even a remotely interesting film, so I don't feel it worthy to put much of either into reviewing the film. Every aspect of this movie is disastrous. The acting is either cardboard or grossly cartoonish, the dialogue is horrific whether it's trying to make in-jokes or inferences, or trying to update the cartoon into present day. The humor is non-existent, even resorting to the disgusting trend of gross-out humor and even the sets, costumes and effects look like something that a community theater would make fun of. Overall, this is a prime example of why animated slices of pop culture should stay where they are, instead of risking the tarnishing of an established success.
The cartoon worked because the antics were physical, the stories were simple and they were pure escapism for children and young adults who dreamed of conquering the things that go bump in the night. In bringing things to reality and trying to throw in modern touches, Gosnell has failed on every level. The story involves the 4 ghost hunters, known as Mystery Inc, breaking up and going their separate ways. Obviously this was an attempt to give the 23-year-old cartoon a newer feel. Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr. ) is a teen idol, Buffy, er, Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), has taken martial arts classes to no longer be a damsel, Velma (Linda Cardellini) worked for NASA and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) and Scooby spent their days on the beach, grilling veggie burgers and eating anything in site. They are called to an amusement park called Spooky Island (where do they get these names, so creative, so unique) where teenagers are being turned into mindless zombies, in an obvious effort to create people who would actually enjoy this film. The island is run by an eccentric, who wonders why so many people leave his island devoid of any original thought, I guess the writers of this movie must have just returned from there too. Granted, Scooby Doo cartoons were never known for intelligence, plot or character development, but they were fun, simple, goofy fun. Now, the movie has been reduced to a series of inferences, gags, physical and gross-out humor and a resolution that defies the Thesaurus in coming up with new words for absurd. Add in the fact Prinze looks like a zombie himself while delivering his lines, Gellar plays the role as Buffy with a scarf and monochromatic wardrobe, Lillard's Shaggy is a one-note impression dragged over 87 minutes and the animatronic Scooby just looks out of place and I have still only scratched the surface of this movie's annoyances. There are so many that I could name, but I won't. Just take my word for it, stay away from this movie, unless you have kids that you want to punish.
Ultimately, Scooby Doo is a cinematic abomination that fails at everything it tries to do. The appeal of the original show was that it was entertaining to multiple levels because it's simplicity and antics appeased children, while the stories and inferences were effective at recapturing the youth of adults. This time around, Gosnell has zapped both of those right out of the film, by lowering the humor level, creating an insulting story and failing to put an ounce of thought or effort into even the most minute of details. Translating cartoons into live-action movies can be a precarious task at best with the risk of offending a fan base and the overwhelming task of recreating a magical spirit. Gosnell failed where films like Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle succeeded, by not having fun with it and by not taking a tongue in cheek approach to everything. In trying to appeal to too many, this film will appeal only to those fresh out of lobotomy surgery.
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