Pan’s Labyrinth   (Tremendous)
          When you really think about it, Grimm’s Fairy Tales were pretty grim.  You had evil stepmothers poisoning innocent girls, wolves eating grandmothers, and little kids getting stuffed in ovens.
          So now that you’re an adult, take your memories of those stories and add in the gory details.  Change the wolf into some kind of Gollum-like creature with eyes in his hands.  Then you’ve got the idea behind the fairy tale of Pan’s Labyrinth.
          The words “fairy tale” are used a lot in the descriptions of  Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, but let me emphasize:  this is an R-rated movie and you should not take your kids.  It is very graphic and very gory.
          You—now that you’re an adult—should go, because it is also very very good.
          The film—told entirely in Spanish with English subtitles—is the story of a little girl in 1944 who moves in with her evil stepfather, a cruel commander in the Spanish Civil War.  On his estate, she enters a labyrinth and meets a creepy-looking creature who could be the Greek God Pan.  Pan gives her three tasks to perform, and if she succeeds, she’ll be reunited with her real father.
          It sounds very trippy, and at times it is.  But don’t think it takes place entirely in the fantasy world.  The war is also a big factor, as we watch a group of rebels try to take down the stepfather.  In fact, it takes a little time for the fairy tale parts to really get going.  When they do, they are alternately mesmerizing and horrifying.  The creatures our heroine meets are nightmarish (although nothing caused my test audience to cringe more than a very real incident in the “real world” involving a knife).
          Del Toro has put taken the simple fairy tale premise and mixed it in with a pretty complex plot when you really take time to think about it.  It’s worth entering the labyrinth if you’re ready to handle a grim fairy tale.

Perfect Stranger
          The writers of Perfect Stranger had some good ideas there, but no idea how to make them happen.  Halle Berry plays a crusading journalist who takes on a very personal assignment:  find the man who killed an old friend.  In their last conversation, she tells Berry that she’s been having an affair with a powerful ad executive (Bruce Willis) who she met online.
          This actually would have been better about ten years ago when AOL and chatting were newer.  I imagine the screenwriters were up chatting one night and came up with the idea of Halle Berry (who I’m sure many a computer geek has stared at online) seducing Willis online to get in close to him.  But while they wrote “lol” and “brb” back and forth to each other, they didn’t think about how to write a long form story.
          When they needed to fill in some gaps, they cut and pasted from other sources.  I sensed trouble early on, when Berry needed to pontificate on corporate greed, censorship in the media and for some odd reason—the war in Iraq.  Her speech had to be copied and pasted from the “comments” section on somebody’s blog.  It was nothing we hadn’t heard before.
          In between, there are a few twists and turns, mostly spelled out for us in the badly written dialogue.  Berry and Willis are just here for the paychecks, but they’ve done that before.  I was really disappointed to see Giovanni Ribisi in this as Berry’s creepy sidekick Miles.  He’s been fun as a creep before (Phoebe’s brother on Friends for instance), but here he just makes you squirm.  There’s no reason for this supposedly intrepid reporter to have such a guy in her life.  I like creeps in movies, but this movie didn’t know what tone to take.  It would have been better off as an all-out sleaze movie that revels in it instead of giving our lead her moral high ground.
          The ending by the way isn’t fair.  I’ve complained about some twist endings before and I’ll do so again.  There’s a difference between ending a movie with an exciting twist you never saw coming and wrapping up a mystery with some unfair background that the viewer couldn’t possibly have known about.
          Final note to the creators:  I know you couldn’t use the letters “AOL” for obvious reasons, but it didn’t show that much creativity to call the online service “IOL.”  Besides that, “IOL” looks too much like “LOL.”


Premonition   (Kept Checking My Watch)
         
I know what’s going to happen.  Audiences leaving Premonition are going to be either disappointed or kind of confused.
          Like in Sandra Bullock’s underrated The Lake House, our heroine finds herself in a fantasy world, where she’s not quite sure what’s real and what’s not.  Unlike The Lake House, this is not a romance.  She wakes up one day to find her husband has been killed in a car crash and that her family life is in disarray.  Then she wakes up the next day to find him alive and everyone happy.  She wakes up the day after that and finds he is dead after all.   And so it goes, like it’s Groundhog Every Other Day.
          So what is going on here?  I think I get it, and I think I figured it out early.  The mystery is enough to sustain interest, although the action moves a little slowly.  You know there’s going to be a car crash (or is there?), but it’d be nice to have more things happen in the meantime.
          One reason it drags a little bit:  Sandra Bullock is pretty much the only person in this movie.  Her husband—supposedly someone with great influence on the course of her life—has nothing to do but his best impression of Patrick Duffy in Dallas (fans will get it. Think of the infamous season that wasn’t).  He’s played by Julian McMahon, who we know can carry a drama from his work on Nip/Tuck.  He’s wasted, as is character actor Peter Stormare, who is good in everything from Prison Break to Volkswagen commercials.  He’s underutilized as a psychiatrist, which is really weird for a movie about whether or not some poor girl’s gone crazy.

The Producers   (It Is What It Is)
          I never did get to see Matthew Broderick on Broadway, but I did see his Ferris Bueller best friend Cameron (actor Alan Ruck) at the Auditorium Center. Now I've seen Broderick in the movie version of The Producers, and I can't believe I liked Cameron better.
          In all fairness, the live experience of The Producers is more fun, and I bet even Broderick would agree with that.
          For the new film, Broderick and Nathan Lane reprise their roles as producers Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock, which have made them the biggest attractions on Broadway. Afraid to mess with success too much, director Susan Stroman has them act just like they do on stage. Which means even though they have cameras and microphones to ampilfy their voices, they speak as if they're on stage and need to be heard even in the back rows. It takes some getting used to and does make it seem as if they're parodying themselves. The two are Broadway stars, but they were movie stars before The Producers. You ask yourself: why is Ferris talking so funny?
          They do have an obvious chemistry together (they are forever linked, getting ready to do The Odd Couple on stage next), and that comes out once they stop talking and start singing and dancing.  Lane overacts in the non-musical parts, but really shines when the music starts.
          The flamboyant tone works better for members of the supporting cast, who get to overact in parts that need it. Will Ferrell is very good as the man who wrote Springtime For Hitler (more on that in a moment) and is the funniest Nazi I can recall since Col. Klink.
          The real standout is Roger Bart (most recently Desperate Housewives' psycho pharmacist) as the assistant to Springtime's director. He is wildly flamboyant and is a scream.
          But the funniest thing about The Producers-- whether it's the stage production, this new movie or the original Mel Brooks film-- is the premise. Two Broadway producers want to fail so they can take off with the money. Their scheme is to produce the worst show ever with the worst talent they can find, so they put together a musical based on the life of Hitler.
         Like the play, The Producers goes just a little too long. It peaks with the actual production of Springtime For Hitler, and after that considerable peak, it's hard to care what happens.  It would have been better to get the big laugh and go home.
          The concept, the recruiting of talent and the show itself do earn their huge laughs. The jokes are hysterical the first time you hear them regardless of the venue-- if it's this new film, fine.



Prometheus vs. Alien:  From my examiner page:  click here.


Red Eye    (It Is What It Is) 
          When you're in the confined space of an airplane, your entire life revolves around who's sitting next to you, whatever it is you're reading, when the beverage cart is going to come by and when you have to go to the bathroom.
          The great idea behind Red Eye is that one passenger's life doesn't just revolve around those things, it depends on them.  Rachel McAdams is sitting next to a guy (Cillian Murphy) who is at first very charming, then turns out to be psycho.  And it's no coincidence they're sitting next to each other. 
          Red Eye is directed by horror legend Wes Craven, but this is a thriller that deals more with real life horrors.  If you're afraid of flying, you'll be afraid here.  If you're afraid of closed spaces, you'll be afraid here.  Or if you're just afraid of psychos, you've got a good one in Cillian Murphy.  He was good earlier this summer as the Scarecrow in Batman Begins, but this time he gets to do a lot more.
          Any problem I have with Red Eye has to do what happens off the plane.  It's a great concept, but when the action is on the ground, it's a routine thriller.  It's also very hard to believe that in the world we live in now, someone can get away with as much as these characters do on a plane and in an airport.  Someone would have been all over these people as soon as they started screaming.
          The movie is very short, which means Craven probably knew he didn't have that much to work with.   

Rendition   (Kept Checking My Watch)

           One sequence wedged in the middle of Rendition sums it up pretty well.  Reese Witherspoon is determined to find out what has happened to her husband, who has mysteriously vanished after boarding an international flight.  She suspects the CIA has taken him, and after weeks of trying to get at the head of the CIA through a well-connected friend, she may get her chance.  The friend’s secretary whispers something like “She’ll be here tomorrow.”
          So Witherspoon waits at the office for Meryl Streep (who’s looking more and more like Glenn Close) for the confrontation.  She screams at her:  “Where’s my husband?”  Security has her removed.  And that’s it.  Sure, it gave the editors making the film’s trailers a shot of Reese Witherspoon getting all dramatic, but the moment didn’t live up to the buildup. 
          There’s a lot of that.  Rendition is full of moments of tension that go nowhere.  Witherspoon hints that she might be a force to be reckoned with who the CIA shouldn’t have crossed—but c’mon, I could get in Meryl Streep’s face and shout.
          There are also a lot of torture scenes, which I complain about not because of graphic content but because of repetition.  Witherspoon’s husband is tortured by his captors who demand information from him he doesn’t have, and they work long and hard to get it out of him.  There’s nothing particularly inventive about any of these scenes, and frankly, you only need a couple of them to get the point.  I can only listen to:  “Tell us what you know” – “I don’t know anything” so many times before I feel tortured myself.
          Oscar winners Streep and Witherspoon are joined by Oscar nominee Jake Gyllenhaal, who is present to watch all the torture.  He has perhaps never been blander.  His CIA operative just kind of observes before taking a little bit of action himself, but in the scheme of things, he’s as effective as Reese Witherspoon’s character.
          It might all have been worth it, but the little moments of disappointment through the whole movie work their way to a horribly disappointing ending.  As international dramas go, this is a horrible rendition. 

Resurrecting The Champ   (It Is What It Is)
           Resurrecting The Champ is less about boxing and more about journalism, so it mostly held the attention of this journalist. 
 The boxer is long past his prime.  In fact, he couldn’t be more out of his prime.  “Champ” (Samuel L. Jackson) is homeless, wandering the streets rambling about his former glory as a championship contender.  Sportswriter Erik (Josh Hartnett) stumbles upon him and the story that could make his journalistic career.
          The film is based on a magazine article by journalist J.R. Moehringer   (and stay away from the movie’s official site which gives it all away.  I’m glad I didn’t look up the name “J.R. Moehringer” until after I saw the film).  Not knowing the story, I followed Erik’s writing, research and its aftermath with a lot of interest.  But then again, I don’t know my boxing history.  Certain things may not take everyone by surprise.
          Samuel L. Jackson’s presence almost always takes over when he’s onscreen in any movie.  Now we know it’s not just for his booming voice.  Champ’s throat is shot from years on the street; it’s odd to hear such a weak voice come from Samuel L. Jackson.  But he’s totally into this homeless character and is impressive as the most “un”-Samuel L. Jackson-like I think he’s ever been.
          The movie loses some points for a ridiculous cameo by Teri Hatcher as a Showtime executive trying to recruit Erik for a job as a boxing commentator.  She’s way too slick and her lines sound as if they were written by a blogger who hates TV sports coverage. 
         It also suffers because we don’t quite know why poor Erik and his journalist wife are on the outs.  They clearly have a strong relationship, and it’s never really explained why he isn’t living at home.  The only thing I can see is that maybe she’s a better writer than he is and he’s living that sports movie cliché of “chasing his father’s ghost.”
         Finally—a little moment I want to point out to anyone reading this who’s also from Canastota, NY:   Watch for the part when Erik asks his research assistant:  “Is there a Boxing Hall of Fame somewhere?”

 

Sahara   (Kept Checking My Watch)
          I was able to take some people with me to see Sahara.  Two raved about the "non-stop action."  Another fell asleep.
          I'm somewhere between them.
          We have Matthew McConaughey as adventurer Dirk Pitt, searching for a long-lost Civil War battleship that has somehow ended up in the Sahara.  Along the way, he encounters Penelope Cruz as a relief worker investigating a mysterious illness, a series of hostile locals and an evil corporation exploiting them.  And somewhere in there, the movie seems to forget what Pitt is searching for in the first place.  The battleship becomes an afterthought to the action sequences, to Penelop Cruz, to the corporations.... Indiana Jones had a lot to deal with, but he never lost sight of the Ark.
          The action sequences are very good.  There are clever stunts with fun, hard-driving music cranked up to go along with them.  But there are too many long gaps in between.  What we get then are McConaughey's pearly whites, as if that's enough to carry a movie.
          The film is based on the books by Clive Cussler.  I haven't read any of them, but I can't help but feel a book would do a better job of unraveling the mystery of the battleship.

 Serenity (It Is What It Is)
          I think I walked in on the middle of something.
          A little while ago, there was a science fiction series on Fox called Firefly, which lasted just 11 episodes. It had a built-in cult following because it was created by Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Joss Whedon, but that cult wasn't enough to make it a hit for Fox. So Firefly went away, but the cult stayed together thanks to DVD and the Sci-Fi Channel. Enough DVDs were sold to convince producers a movie could be successful. (That's their story anyway. I think the movie was greenlighted because Hollywood wanted to suck up to Joss Whedon and let him make his pet project. He has other things in the works-- including the Wonder Woman feature film).
          I've been a fan of some cult series, so I understand how exciting it must be for fans to see their old favorites return in movie form. But I feel like I crashed their party.
          I got the basic idea: over-population forces evacuations of Earth, and there are problems with the new government of the now-many planets humans occupy. A group of Han Solos fly their ship the Serenity and help fight for freedom. But there were too many things happening for the non-Firefly fans. I didn't know why one guy was more important than another. I also didn't see the secret at the end coming. That would normally be a compliment-- but it's not something I could have seen coming since I didn't watch the series. No fair!
          (If any Firefly fans read this, please let me know what you think of a couple of things that happen. I'm not giving it away, but I bet there are a couple of things even you may not approve of.)
          It looks like there probably is something about Firefly/Serenity to like. There's clever dialogue, a good concept and some cool special effects. If you're looking for a new sci-fi cult to join, maybe this would be a good introduction.

Shooter  (It Is What It Is)
          It’s Lee Harvey Oswald—action hero.
          Oswald must have crossed the minds of the makers of Shooter, but you can’t make an action movie out of him.  So you a) make him innocent (I’m not weighing in on that fight, let’s stay focused on the movie);  b) make him look like Mark Wahlberg;  and c) you don’t have him kill a police officer and get caught in a movie theater—you make him not kill anyone during his escape but kick lots of ass and take lots of names.  Jack Ruby would not have a chance.
          Wahlberg plays a former military sharpshooter who was abandoned after a mission went bad.  He lives in a shack away from the rest of the world, looking at conspiracy theories on the internet.  He gets recruited by some mysterious government types who want him to scout out a way to assassinate the President.  They don’t want to do it—they think a plot is afoot to assassinate the President, and they want him to study “how he’d do it if he were to do it.”  Then, while he’s in what looks like the Texas Book Depository, someone fires a shot from the Grassy Knoll, and he realizes he’s been made to look a patsy.
          I’m giving the movie even less of a recommendation having just read the paragraph I just typed.
 Why would this paranoid hermit fall for what these guys in suits and black cars tell him?  Why would a smart guy who understands strategy fall for a ploy that sounds like the title of O.J’s aborted book?
          I’ll give Shooter credit.  I honestly didn’t think much of those flaws until I sat down to write.  The action sequences are good enough that I didn’t think about things like that.  Wahlberg is pretty good as an action hero (like in last year’s Four Brothers), and even though I didn’t understand a word of the movie’s frequent “gunspeak”, I got caught up in the urgency of the situation and the skill Wahlberg has as a sniper. 
         Until I started writing, my biggest problem with the movie was the ending and the way it through some real-life politics in.  Now that I look back, I see I got caught up in the shootouts and didn’t realize Shooter didn’t quite hit all its targets.

The Skeleton Key  (Kept Checking My Watch)
          When they wrote this movie, they had to have worked backwards.  The Skeleton Key has a really cool twist ending -- and a lot of dullness leading up to it.  They must have struggled to find ways to fill time before what happens happens.
          I already feel like I may have ruined the movie for you.  Looking back, I enjoyed the twist because I didn't know it was coming.  I figured a movie with as much by-the-book horror movie moments (scary old people, doors that won't open, a heroine in her underwear who should just get while the getting's good) would have an obvious by-the-book ending too. 
          So if you see The Skeleton Key, you'll have to let me know if you saw the ending coming.  But looking back, I feel like now that you know there's a twist, you'll figure out what happens to Kate Hudson at the end.

Spider-Man 3
          I’ll begin by telling you how I choose what comic books to read every week.
          I’m not just doing that to bore you, but because this is Spider-Man we’re talking about.  And just to establish my bona fides, Amazing Spider-Man and Sensational Spider-Man are on the list of comics I have pulled for me every month at the comic book store.
          What I do, because I get so many titles, is take a quick peek at the last panel to see if the story might have a “To Be Continued” there for me.  If it does, I set it aside and wait for the next issue of that title.  I like to read the whole story at once, because I’ll forget from month to month among all the comics I read.
         Sometimes, those cunning comic book editors trick me though.  The story has ended on the next to last page, and the little “To Be Continued” is just tacked on at the end as a little teaser. 
         Spider-Man 3 is a lot like that.  It’s actually three different Spider-Man stories tacked together, and when one ends, another begins.  They tie them all together towards the end, but by then it’s been a little too long and seems a little forced.
         There IS a lot to like in Spider-Man 3.  It was made by the same people who made 1 and 2, and they were among the best super-hero movies ever made.  The entire cast is back:   if you enjoyed Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane Watson and even JK Simmons as the very funny J. Jonah Jameson, you’ll like them all here.
         Perhaps more importantly, director and Spider-Man fan Sam Raimi is back.  He knows how to put together great action sequences.  If you liked the action in 1 and 2, you’ll love the action here.  The subway sequence in Spider-Man 2 was a favorite, and the aerial fights in Spider-Man 3 are just as good.  Spider-Man and the villains he fights don’t fly per se:  they fall, they glide, they swing, and they bounce off walls— all at fast speeds with intricate moves.  They are a lot fun.
         Now let’s talk about those villains Spider-Man fights.  There are maybe one too many of them.  Taken one-by-one:
         -- The Sandman, played by Thomas Haden Church (Sideways):  From all I’ve read, Raimi wanted The Sandman in the movie, the producers wanted comic fan favorite Venom.  Sandman is made of sand and can shift his body accordingly—sifting through things or turning solid and very strong.  He’s got a great look for a movie with computer-driven special effects.  He however was always very boring in the comics, and to stretch things a bit, Raimi throws a wild coincidence into his back story that lets him “dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.”  (That is code for fans of comic book movies.  My apologies if you don’t get what I’m trying to say here).
         -- The New Green Goblin, played by James Franco:  If you saw Spider-Man 1 or 2, or read Spider-Man comics, you knew this one has been coming.  In a slow build, Peter Parker’s best friend Harry Osbourne’s resentment of Spider-Man has been growing to the point where we’ve known he’s going to follow in his father’s footsteps and become The Green Goblin.  The Spidey-Goblin fights are great, but I’m disappointed that after the long slow build, Harry’s story gets sandwiched in between two other villains'.
         -- Venom, played by Topher Grace (That 70’s Show):  Venom deserves his own movie and should have been saved for Spider-Man 4.  Eddie Brock is like a Bizarro-version of Peter; he certainly looks like him, is out to replace Peter as the Spider-Man photographer at the Daily Bugle and is interested in Peter’s lab partner Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard).  Eddie lacks Peter’s morals though and will do anything to get ahead.
         In a never-really explained twist-of-fate, an alien parasite attaches itself to Peter and becomes his new costume—turning Peter into a darker version of himself.  Eventually, Eddie goes through the same thing, and the alien turns him into the villainous Venom.  Venom is just cool.  He’s a twisted version of Spider-Man—his body morphs into different shapes, Eddie’s face moves in and out of him—and he has fangs!  He looks fantastic. 
         It’s a shame we don’t see Eddie as Venom until about an hour and 45 minutes in, but that’ll happen if you try to cram too much in.  The aforementioned Gwen Stacy is huge in the Spider-Man mythos, but the love triangle she creates and her back story get lost here.  To try and please us nerds, they threw in a little bit of her background, including her father, Police Captain Stacy.  But they don’t do anything with him, so what’s the point?
         My hope for Spider-Man 4 (and you know there will be one) is that they bring back Venom and Gwen—and then stop tangling the web up so much. 


Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith   (Tremendous)
          First, let’s get to what anyone wants to know—how does Sith compare to the rest?  Here now, is my official list of best to worst:
 1. The Empire Strikes Back
 2. Star Wars
 3. Revenge Of The Sith
 4. Return Of The Jedi
 5. Attack Of The Clones
 6. Phantom Menace

           Second, let’s get my biases out of the way.
           In the present day, I have a Chewbacca Christmas tree ornament and a picture of myself with Billy Dee Williams on my desk (no special privilege there.  I paid to pose next to Lando Calrissian).
           I was about ten years old when Star Wars came out.  I memorized dialogue.  I played the soundtrack and once the needle went down on the turntable, I play-acted along with the scenes.  I ordered the very first Star Wars figures by mail.  (Merchandising wasn’t what it is now—I had to order Chewbacca and C-3PO by mail because they weren’t available in stores.)  I amassed a huge collection of those figures, complaining to my mom that I needed her to buy me more stormtroopers.  (She’d say “I bought you the stormtrooper.”  What she didn’t understand was I needed an army.)
          And I gasped in horror in 1980, when Darth Vader proclaimed to Luke Skywalker:  “No, Luke, I am your father.”  I joke around that that was the day I lost my innocence.  But I think that’s when I began liking darker forms of entertainment.  Darth Vader wasn’t just a villain at that point.  He was a character who had a back story.  He was interesting.
           He was also a mythic figure.  And that’s why Star Wars has been so important to people like me.  Mythic figures like Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi… They weren’t in Star Wars Episodes I and II.  Yeah, the prequels had the name Star Wars on them.  Yeah, there was a kid named Skywalker.  Yeah, there was some young Jedi named Obi-Wan Kenobi.  But it was like the names were on loan to them.  There were only hints of what these characters would become.
           Halfway through Revenge Of The Sith, the Sith execute Plan 66.  And then, it becomes a Star Wars movie.
           Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader (I’m not giving away anything there).  The Jedi face their last stand.  We learn why Yoda goes into exile.  We learn what happened to Anakin’s kids and why they’re separated.    (As much as geeks like me love George Lucas, we have a thing about trying to catch our heroes in a mistake.  I thought long and hard, and I don’t think Lucas leaves any loose ends.)   It’s a thrill to see the real Star Wars characters in an action-adventure movie close to the timeline of the original.
          Before Plan 66, Sith is very much like the last couple of movies.  There are some great special effects and some aliens and droids that are fascinating to watch.   There is also more of the same corny dialogue and wooden acting that Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones had.  Lucas doesn’t know how to get great performances out of these actors—even though these films have featured some great actors:   Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson…
          There is also very little humor.  Lucas doesn't even try to get all Jar-Jar Binks on us.  Of course, he seemed to forget that cute aliens were never as funny as Han Solo anyway.  What the last two movies-- and the first half of this one needed-- is some sarcasm.  While the Jedi go on and on about "the prophecies say he is the one who will restore order to The Force," someone like Solo needs to just look at them say:  "What?"
          But then that Plan 66 hits, and that doesn’t matter anymore.  Something very noticeable at that point—those last two movies weren’t all that necessary.  It introduced us to a couple of characters, but we already knew the important ones. 
When I first said on the air that I’d see Sith, I fielded calls right away about whether kids should see this movie.  Young ones probably shouldn’t.  Had this been the first film in the series, it might not have become the franchise it has and might not have captured the imaginations of little kids.  Keep in mind that Anakin starts the movie as a fresh-faced handsome young lad and ends it as a part-cyborg evil giant.  How he got there ain’t pretty.
          But how he got there is great.

(Special note for our talk radio friends:  As well as I know sci-fi geeks, I know political talk radio geeks.  You’re going to watch this movie and hear words like “the end of democracy,”   “manufactured war,” and “You’re with me or against me,”  and you’re going to think Lucas is trying to tell you something.  You’re going to whine about Hollywood liberals.  You’re going to instantly start casting “Iraq: Revenge Of The Sith” and matching up the players.  You’re going to get all huffy trying to figure out whether George W. Bush is Darth Sidious or Yoda.  If you think long and hard about it, Darth Sidious could be Bush, Saddam, Napoleon, JFK, Alexander The Great… whoever fits your argument.   There are themes that are prevalent in every war story—remember it’s called Star WARS.   Keep in mind Lucas created this saga in the ‘70’s.  Some of the messages could apply to any government, any time, EVER.  And before you get too serious about it, remember that the leader of the Jedi Council is a Muppet with the same voice as Grover.  Just enjoy.)

Stealth   (Kept Checking My Watch)
          There could be a good movie in Stealth, but they hid it somewhere.
          Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx are a trio of elite pilots with the Naval Air Force "sometime in the near future." They strike at terror cells as soon as the government gets information about them-- bombing them before they can strike. (Sorry everyone-- the War On Terror will still be going on in the "near future" and North Korea will still be a threat. Somehow there will be new countries too-- all ending with "...stan.")
          But the pilots could soon be replaced. A fourth bomber named "Eddie" joins their fighting force. Eddie is not the pilot-- Eddie is the bomber himself. Programmed with artificial intelligence, Eddie can make decisions in the air that they can't. It's not hindered by morals or emotions. Eddie can bomb and not worry about collaterol damage. And Eddie goes bad.
          I'd be more concerned about their jobs, but "movie pilots" will never be replaced.  Not the type in Stealth.  They're too cocky. There's never a humble pilot. If your standard movie pilots are replaced, who else will feel the "need for speed"? Who else will defy orders in the heat of battle to do the right thing?  Who else will wear their uniforms when they go to nightclubs?   Who else will walk side-by-side in slow motion looking good in those uniforms?
          It won't be Eddie-- especially because it doesn't look cool enough. I bet airplane aficionados will see something they like about Eddie, but to me it looked like any other stealth fighter. The only difference-- a glowing orb in the cockpit that serves as its mind. In the age of War Of The Worlds, when we see technology look like it really is alive, Eddie could have been more impressive. It's just a ship with a voice doing an impression of 2001's HAL.
          Jamie Foxx is the biggest star here, but his role is pretty marginal. He either filmed his parts before his dual Oscar nominations last year, or signed on before them.
          And our other stars? They spend too much time in the air. When all you see is your main characters' faces through helmets, you get a little bored. The special effects are pretty good, but you can only look at what amounts to a flight simulator for so long.
          There's a plot twist right in the middle that I saw coming right from the beginning. (Think Hot Shots when the character whose name I won't say says "By the way, I solved the Kennedy assassination. I'll tell you about it when I get back.")
          You're not supposed to really see a stealth bomber anyway.

 
Surf's Up  (Tremendous)
          Once those penguins marched and captured the hearts of the world, it was probably inevitable that other filmmakers would try to capitalize on the success of March of The Penguins.
          Last year, we got Happy Feet, appealing to an audience that maybe doesn’t want to think that much about the penguins but would rather take in their cuteness.  Surf’s Up also knows penguins are cute, but it manages to be—believe it or not—a little more sophisticated and subtle.
          Surf’s Up is the story of Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf), a young penguin who dreams of becoming a champion surfer.  He’s inspired by the legend of “Big Z”, a surfing penguin legend who he spent time with as a chick.  He gets his shot at the big time when he enters a tournament inspired by the legend of Big Z himself.
         The movie is made to look like a documentary, with characters addressing the camera and techniques like grainy “file footage” showing us flashbacks.  The characters are as laid back as your average surfer.  They tell little jokes and then offer clever asides that are often very funny.
          The voice work is very good—LaBeouf and the cast take just the right tone for the movie’s dry humor.  The standout would be Jeff Bridges as “The Geek,” an odd surfing guru who is a little bit of Yoda mixed with Jeff Bridges’ The Dude from The Big Lebowski.
          The penguins in Surf’s Up actually reminded me of the Geico Cavemen, if that makes any sense.  They are creatures that shouldn’t have their wit or level of sophistication—but they do.  Cody and Big Z would be very successful commercial pitchmen for sunscreen or something like that.
          As much as I like dry humor though, I wonder if kids will get it.  If you’re hoping the movie will keep your kids occupied, I think the tone may be just a little too laid back.  Kids at my screening got restless, hoping for a little more splash from their surfing.  But then again, they may be taken in by the visuals, which are sometimes great-- the computer-animated waves are like radical, dude.

 Syriana (Kept Checking My Watch)
          When I screen calls for a talk show on WHAM, I often have to urge callers to get to the point. I don't doubt they have something important to say (well, most of them), but it's no good for the listener if they drag it out.
          Yes, the power and influence oil companies have on the world stage are something worth exploring.
          Yes, it's important to know just how much the United States can control volatile governments in the Middle East.
          And yes, it's fascinating to see what happens to young Arab minds as fundamentalism takes control of them and turns them into dangerous zealots.
          Syriana is a convulted, complex movie that intertwines those themes and more. You never know where it's going to go, and it's layered so that it forces you to pay attention or you'll be hopelessly lost.
          But man, it's boring. If you saw the explosions and the torture scenes in the previews, you saw most of the actual excitement. Syriana takes place in the boardroom and in the secret places we never get to see. That's where people talk and talk and talk and talk about oil and its grip on the world.
          Syriana is from the same production company that gave us the drug war drama Traffic, and the movies have been compared. It similarly has a stellar cast (including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Chris Cooper and Christopher Plummer. Not many women though-- the oil world is male-dominated apparently.) I give the edge to Traffic: it has a lot more action, and it also has something Syriana mostly lacks: perspective.
          It rarely steps outside the world of big oil to let us know what all the intrigue and backroom dealings mean to us average Americans. Do we pay more at the pump? Do we lose jobs? Should we care? Clooney's CIA agent goes through hell because of this world he's in, but then, I'm not a CIA agent and not part of that world.
          We do however see what happens to some Arabs in their home nations, and the conclusion does touch on a very real consequence of the actions of the world's governments and oil companies. It just needs to get there sooner.  The audience has to care sooner than the end of a two hour movie.
          I'm all for movies with political overtones, but if I want talk, I can watch the chat shows on Sunday morning.
          Or listen to talk radio, where they're encouraged to get to the point.

10,000 BC  (Kept Checking My Watch)
There’s a great old Jerry Seinfeld routine where he claims when you watch a nature show, you root for whichever animal is the subject.  (If it’s about lions, you root for them to kill that stupid gazelle.  If it’s about the gazelle, you exclaim:  Get out of there!  Use your speed!).  When the tribe of main characters attacks the herd of woolly mammoths, I just can’t root for them.  Not to sound like an animal rights activist or too shallow, but the mammoths come off as these majestic beasts and the tribe just looks ridiculous.  They speak about very metaphysical concepts, yet one of them I think is named “Tick Tick”.
Full review at moviejungle.com


Tenacious D:  The Pick of Destiny  (Kept Checking My Watch)
           I guess I don’t know what I want from Jack Black.
           In the last year or so, I’ve complained to directors when I’ve seen Black in their movies:  “Let Jack be Jack,” I pleaded.  He was too restrained in the very disappointing Nacho Libre and terribly miscast in King Kong.
          So Black has reunited with partner Kyle Gass for Tenacious D:  The Pick of Destiny, the story of how their cult-comedy-band Tenacious D was “founded.”  Jack gets to go all out and enter full rock opera mode… and it’s all too much.
          I’ll give Jack Black credit for his devotion to the rock music he loves, and he does understand something I’ve come across when trying to explain my similar devotion.  In a metalhead’s mind, Iron Maiden and Dio are the coolest things that ever existed.  But you can’t possibly explain why.  As soon as you verbalize the concepts in The Number Of The Beast or Holy Diver, you sound stupid.
          In School of Rock, it worked.  Jack Black was something of an outsider and had someone to play off.  In The Pick of Destiny, it’s too much Tenacious D and it doesn’t translate.  I appreciate that Black knows who Dio is and is a fan, but just pointing out what you know about the man and his band isn’t funny.  (Hey, I prefer Ronnie James Dio in Black Sabbath, I know he’s from Cortland and I even own the Lock Up The Wolves album… see?  It sounds stupid and it’s not all that funny).
          The Pick of Destiny is a buddy-road movie featuring two rock star wannabes trying to find “The Pick of Destiny,” a guitar pick played by the devil himself that as it turns out, all the great rock stars used (no explanation as to how Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young had this pick at the same time).  
         
It relies very heavily on Jack Black’s personality, without giving him the material to let his personality shine.  It’s part Beavis and Butthead, part Wayne’s World, part Blues Brothers, but it didn’t take any of the best parts.
         One entertaining part of Tenacious D is the celebrity cameos, which I won’t give away.  They’re a fun surprise, if not all that funny, and it’s interesting to see who is kind of included in Black’s “slack pack.”

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (Tremendous)
          Stop-motion animation isn't dead. Tim Burton brought it back to life for Corpse Bride. The director says he could have gone with computers, but it wouldn't have given him the exact look he was going for.
          It's a great look-- full of the macabre characters Tim Burton is known for. Worms pop out of eyes, jaws drop off of faces-- and they're actually kind of cute.
          The movie you want to compare Corpse Bride to most often would be Burton's own The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I think I liked. Of course, it's been so long since I've seen it and, like the rest of the public, I didn't know if it was supposed to be a Halloween tradition or a Christmas classic.
          Corpse Bride is good all year long.  Despite the dark humor, it's a sweet love story about a guy torn between the woman he's supposed to marry and the corpse he marries accidentally while rehearsing his vows.  Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee and a collection of actors Burton has made into his own troupe do a nice job voicing these characters.
          And kids will be fine.  Especially sensitive youngsters might freak out at some of the ghosts, but if they can handle Scooby-Doo, let them see something like this which shows some real imagination.