Steven Reynolds

IMDb member since May 2000
    Lifetime Total
    50+
    IMDb Member
    21 years

Reviews

Hancock
(2008)

More than a blockbuster
A drunken-slob superhero with an attitude bordering on nihilist, John Hancock (Will Smith) is despised by the people of Los Angeles. His spectacularly destructive efforts to fight crime usually end up costing the city millions. So when Hancock saves budding PR executive Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from certain death at a level crossing, Embrey offers to repay Hancock by helping reinvent his image. Embrey's young son is thrilled to have a superhero hanging around, but Ray's wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), seems to be wrestling with both attraction and alarm... "Hancock" is outrageous, funny, smart, knowingly ridiculous and surprisingly moving. Yes, moving. I was expecting "Bad Boys + super powers", or at most a spoof on the clichés of the rapidly tiring superhero genre. What we get is something else entirely. The surprising tonal shift of the second half is neither as grating nor as abrupt as preview audiences had us believing. For me, it really worked. So much so that this is one of the few blockbusters I wish had been longer, giving writers Gilligan and Ngo and director Berg more time to explore the backstory and the resonant depths it potentially had. The problem isn't so much that the tone changes, but rather that more isn't made of it. I also wanted to spend more time with these thoroughly likable characters. As it stands, "Hancock" is still a winner. The script is sharp, the direction kinetic, the music and lens work appropriately manic, and the performances fine. Most surprising is Smith who manages to keep his shirt on and wring a lot more than laughs out of Hancock. While Smith can stoke a box-office inferno with his name alone, he shows once again that he's also a pretty good actor. He can certainly do vulnerable, even in superhero mode.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
(2008)

We waited 19 years for this?
Look up "lost opportunity" in the dictionary and you'll see the one-sheet for this film. It lacks every quality for which the originals were so loved: plot, energy, pace, imagination, suspense, smart dialogue, surprising humour and spine-tingling moments of religious wonder. Such a heady mixture regularly had you grinning from ear to ear. This time around you'll be sitting there in slack-jawed wonderment at the lameness of it all. What the hell happened? A dire screenplay, for one thing, which seems cobbled together from several variants. Rather than setting up a simple goal (get the ark, get the stone, get the grail) as the driver for an array of action set-pieces, it seems content just to wander around aimlessly plundering the originals for references. Don't blame David Koepp. He's a reasonable writer, but here seems to have been hired as a typist. No, this cack-handed travesty has the stink of George Lucas all over it - the man who, let's face it, spent the last decade boring us senseless with the storyless downfall of that irritating sap, Anakin Skywalker. Where's Howard Hawks-devotee Lawrence Kasdan when you need him? What happened to the version Frank Darabont wrote? Surely it wasn't worse than this. Performances are fine, but they can't salvage it. Ford is grizzled but convincing because his age is acknowledged. Shia LaBeouf adds some cheek and youthful spark. Karen Allen's sass is tempered with girlish affection and the few snatches of dialogue Marion shares with Indy are among the film's best. Cate Blanchett brings her stagecraft to a ludicrous caricature, but not even she can save the day. The screenplay forbids it. Overall, this is a tremendously disappointing film. Sure, expectations were high. But that's not unreasonable. When one of the world's best filmmakers revives one of the world's most loved series you expect he'll make an effort. None is in evidence here. This is the laziest film Spielberg has ever made.

Beowulf
(2007)

Made me wonder...
A severely disabled child with extreme behavioural problems is murdered by glory-seekers hired by his father. Understandably, his mother is a little upset. Vengeance ensues... Faithless CGI rendering of the classic tale poses two questions. More than a decade and several billion dollars into the digital era, why can the nerds of Hollywood still not accurately depict human movement or fire? And why is it that our standards of moral decency make it acceptable to show disemboweling, dismembering and gut-clenching cruelty, and yet not the cartoon rendering of a female nipple or a flaccid penis? Baffling questions aside, it's worth seeing. Catch the 3D version at IMAX if you can.

BlackJack: Dead Memory
(2006)

Superior installment
I've not been a big fan of BlackJack, with its tired cold-case premise and the clunky pairing of hot, tech-savvy newbie, Sam (Marta Dusseldorp) and her grizzled Luddite mentor, Jack (Colin Friels) – a setup which should feel fresh but still somehow feels like a cop drama cliché – and plot lines that were often less than gripping. This episode however, breaks the pattern, thanks mainly to the superior writing of Tim Pye and some fine performances, Garry McDonald especially. It works because the story is built around a strong emotional core – Sam's guilt about the disappearance and presumed murder of her best friend who vanished on the night of her engagement party. When a fresh case with some similarities hits the headlines, she and Jack can't help but start digging up the past. Pye quickly establishes numerous credible suspects and some amusing subplots, while including enough backstory angst to ground the tale in emotional reality, and enough quirky humour to stop it ever toppling over into melodrama. It all works nicely as it shimmies its way to a fine and surprising conclusion. With higher production values, this could easily have been the basis for a serviceable big screen thriller.

Sin City
(2005)

Technically interesting, but no heart
Three stories from Frank Miller's celebrated series of graphic novels are loosely intertwined here in what is undoubtedly a highly personal project for director Robert Rodriguez and co-director Miller. The film certainly captures the visceral nature of Miller's work, with its curious focus on genital mutilation and dismemberment (but is surprisingly coy when it comes to Miller's penchant for nudity). As an experiment in aesthetics, it works - it's fun, it's technically interesting. As a film for an audience of more than two? Well, that's something else. The three narratives are insufficiently connected for this ever to gel as a single piece, and whatever chance there is of immersing yourself in the Sin City universe is constantly undermined by the insistent use of voice-over narration. You're never allowed to fall into the world, but rather are distracted by a never-ending string of "hard boiled" one-liners that describe precisely what you're seeing on screen or could reasonably deduce from the performances if the camera were ever allowed to linger on them. They could be interesting stories about complex, damaged people, but Rodriguez fails to get the most out of the material because he doesn't seem to trust it - or trust himself. In his obsession to replicate the precise look of what's on the page he fails to use more of the power of the screen - strong performances, real atmosphere, temporal and aural control rather than just visual. It leaves me wondering why he bothered. If you're not going to use the power of the other register, why bother with a transposition? The result is a film which is technically accurate, visually stunning, but ringingly hollow at the core. The whole piece seems overly cruel as a way of masking its lack of character, humanity, or actual story. And rather than growing out of the long noir tradition, it feels like a postmodern hijacking of it. Worse, it isn't even hijacked for good reason - it doesn't add to the tradition, nor critique it, nor say anything new or interesting about it. Miller has said repeatedly that his central theme is love. But in a town this self-indulgently violent and artfully superficial, it's hard to take any such subtext seriously.

War of the Worlds
(2005)

Impressive post-Schindler sci-fi hamstrung by a thin plot (includes spoilers)
Adapting H. G. Wells' novel into a Hollywood movie is always going to be hard. We all know the story, for a start - or we should. Moreover, the book is an allegorical attack on the excesses of British imperialism, where story is secondary to political intent. It's brutal, unsentimental, and it certainly doesn't follow the three-act pattern of heroic motivation that Hollywood movies require. Ultimately, the world is rescued by accident - microbes and our own white blood cells save the day - not the cleverness, pluck and heroics that are Hollywood's stock in trade. There's plenty of violent action, but the "hero" doesn't really do much except interpret it all through the lens of liberal philosophy. You can get away with that in a novel because it's a more luxurious and ponderous form. But it's hardly the stuff of Hollywood sci-fi. Drop the reflective narration and what are you left with? A pretty thin script, that's what. Fortunately, the arc of the story is broad enough for Spielberg to plug the gaps with his favourite elements - a fractured family, gutsy kids, and gob-smacking CGI (ILM's best work in years). Friedman and Koepp's adaptation is also wisely loose enough to include some fine suspense sequences and some physical heroics from Cruise. It's all handled with the absolute technical mastery you expect from Spielberg and his usual crew. It's astonishingly realistic, and I don't just mean the CGI - the scenes of mass human panic are spot-on, and the performances from Cruise and the amazing Dakota Fanning are exceptional. But all this can't overcome the impediment of the wandering screenplay and utterly unmotivated ending - it might accurately capture the powerlessness of the characters, but for the audience it feels like a cheat, even when you know its coming. Not so in the novel which is less reliant on motivated action and where the philosophical themes are to the fore. So it might have been more effective if Spielberg had either: (a) "metaphorized" the microbes and made it not only about biology but also about finding "the power of what's inside you" in an emotional sense, i.e. your courage, your determination, your uniquely human will to overcome insurmountable odds; or (b) foregrounded the theme of imperialism, given that America now lives in fear of reprisals for its own. He gestures to the contemporary connection - "Are they terrorists?", a plane crash, and a dust-covered Cruise looking just like a 9/11 survivor - but he ultimately opts to make a darker version of the same popcorn movie he's made a dozen times before. "Take one family, add a big scary threat, and top with a generous dash of syrup..." But this is post-Schindler Spielberg, so that syrup has a bitter aftertaste - and is all the more palatable for it.

Batman Begins
(2005)

Finally, someone nails it
In Christopher Nolan's capable hands, the Batman franchise finally gets the formula right: drop the camp and embrace the darkness. "Origin of superhero" stories are notoriously difficult to do well because we all know where they're heading. Fortunately, Nolan and co-writer David Goyer have focused on the right thing: it's not just how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, but why. Fear - where it comes from, how we beat it, and how it can be turned against others - is the theme here, and the Nolan/Goyer script is all the more interesting for it. They also recognize the imperative of telling a good story, offering us a well-crafted action/mystery plot which never drags despite needing to cover a lot of detail and carry a large freight of emotional and ideological complexity. Christian Bale is perfectly cast as the Dark Knight. He's fresh enough for most viewers to accept him as not just another Hollywood star in a rubber suit, and talented enough to pull off what ends up being a pretty complex character: both terrified and terrifying, sometimes simultaneously. He's impressive enough to be a credible superhero, yet fallible enough to be endearing. The big-name supporting cast are excellent, with the exception of the relentlessly banal Katie Holmes who plays Gotham's fearless, mob-busting ADA as Joey Potter in a nice suit. But she's a minor quibble. It all comes together here: a great script, engaging characters, wonderful production design, neatly deployed music (which right from the outset cleverly makes potentially tedious expository scenes feel like part of larger sequences), gorgeous cinematography, imaginative but never overpowering use of CGI, and perfect pacing. "Batman Begins" doesn't quite follow the mythology laid down in the graphic novels (which isn't internally consistent anyway) but it does prove what their readers have long known: it's not just the pretty pictures, guys - it's those wonderfully tortured characters, their desolate urban milieu, and the way it all grips your dark imagination. Nolan knows that, and he really nails it here. This is the Batman movie you've been waiting for.

Kingdom of Heaven
(2005)

Kingdom of Tedium
It looks like "Gladiator". It sounds like "Gladiator". It's directed by the guy who made "Gladiator". So why is it so dull? Blame a tedious, unmotivated story that wanders from one contrived scene to the next without any sense of order or purpose. As one friend put it, "It's like watching the daily rushes from a movie that's still in production." It's a damn shame because what the writer and director were clearly trying for here is something of a cinematic Trojan horse, not unlike "Three Kings": a message-movie disguised as an action-adventure. But "Kingdom of Heaven" ends up betraying both its genre and audience expectations. The trick with a Trojan horse movie is to make it ostensibly about something else, but this one fails because its radical intentions just aren't well enough disguised. Full credit to Ridley and crew for having a go, but with the exception of some marvellous CGI set pieces near the end and one or two good lines, the result is so miserably boring that all the effort is wasted and the message along with it. In the urge to push an agenda, they forgot to tell a story. Drama is about conflict, and you can't have that in a movie that simply refuses to pick a side. What does Orlando Bloom's Balian stand for? What does he want? What is he risking his life to achieve? He's nominally a Christian but seems essentially a liberal humanist, all too aware of the stupidity of fighting over a piece of ground that opposing religious traditions both imbue with spurious sanctity. He initially sets off to save his wife's soul from Hell, but then ditches all conviction when the chance to bed a fine wench comes along. In the end, he fights to save "the people", no matter what they happen to believe. Cut the soaring music and strip away William Monahan's fatuous phrasing and the knight's pledge pretty much comes down to, "Can't we all just get along?" A wonderful sentiment - and one the inhabitants of present-day Jerusalem would do well to heed - but a sword-and-sandals epic about the Crusades is hardly the place for it, not if you want the story to be engaging. If Ridley Scott wants to push liberal humanist ecumenism - and it certainly does need to be pushed - then his $130m budget might have been better spent on putting a copy of Tariq Ali's "The Clash of Fundamentalisms" into every American classroom. Now that would create some real drama.

The Interpreter
(2005)

Wonderful, save the subplot
"The Interpreter" is a fundamentally good suspense thriller made unconscionably tedious by the imposition of a romantic subplot. It looks great, sounds great, and when it sticks to the smart-thriller game plan, it works exceedingly well. Scott Frank's wonderful, old-fashioned film-noir sensibilities and Steve Zaillian's epic tone are both evident in the screenplay which does a fine job of making global-historical issues tangible and immediately compelling. In the best sequences – the opening, the bus, and the high-stakes finale – Pollack's direction is typically strong and self-assured. But when the Broome/Keller (Kidman/Penn) relationship strays unnecessarily from stressed-out, suspicious professionals to would-be lovers, you're inevitably reminded that you're watching a movie which probably owes more than it should to nervous executives and low-scoring all-female test screenings. The apparent willingness of Keller to contemplate bedding Broome when his own wife is barely in the grave is a character curve ball that adds nothing to the story but distaste. Had the chemistry been left to the generally subtle performances rather than corny, hamfisted dialogue, or the relationship been restricted to the more interesting ground it ultimately regains – two people helping each other through grief – then this would have been one of the 5-star movies of the year. As it stands, "The Interpreter" ends up being one of those frustrating cinematic experiences – a very good film that is nonetheless oddly disappointing.

Van Helsing
(2004)

The end of imagination
Designed in a boardroom, created on a computer, "Van Helsing" is the unholy progeny of a serial plagiarist and insatiable corporate greed. The result is the cinematic equivalent of a computer-generated woman: lovely to look at, but brain-dead and ultimately inhuman. Laughably unbearable when it isn't merely puerile, "Van Helsing" sees Sommers take his aping of Spielberg to new lows, while expanding his derivative grasp to squander James Whale, more of Universal's back catalogue of monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man – and the worst elements of John Williams and George Lucas. The film's monochrome opening in Transylvania pays tribute to Whales' "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) with a frenzied, torch-lit mob armed with pitchforks and scythes surging toward Dr. Frankenstein's castle against a huge night sky. Sommers might claim he was aiming for homage but it ends up playing like a mockery – or, at best, a nod to Mel Brooks. "Van Helsing" is postmodern in the worst sense: a collage of cinematic references distorted through a high-tech lens, assembled for no other purpose than liberating money from the wallets of gullible teens. About twenty minutes in you "get it"; you realise why this film is so awful. It doesn't need to tell a story, because it isn't a film: it's an ear-flaying, mind-raping 132-minute commercial for ancillary markets – the toys, the TV show and the video game – all of which, as Universal happily admits, are ready and waiting for the greenlight if the "film" cracks the undisclosed boxoffice nut. The saddest thing is that "Van Helsing" doesn't need to be this bad. Boxoffice infernos can be stoked with quality product, e.g. "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It just requires talent. For Sommers, handing over the writing to someone with an imagination probably would have been enough. For unlike that other doyen of event films, Jerry Bruckheimer, who has an unparalleled gift for assembling Z-grade talent, Sommers was blessed with a stellar cast and an immensely talented crew. Yet he does nothing but ritually humiliate them. And his sources. And us. It's sadly ironic that most of Sommers' literary sources sprang from minds – indeed, a whole era – which worried about the intersection of culture and unbridled technology. A century later, what has it delivered? The hairy butt-crack of a digital Mr. Hyde.

Fahrenheit 451
(1966)

Looking forward to the new version
This free-wheeling adaptation of Bradbury's classic novel is intriguing, but doesn't quite work. By conflating the Clarisse and Faber characters, it halves the exposition but it also halves the power of the story. For me, Faber is the novel's central character, and without his insightful defense of literature and freedom we only get one side of the argument. In Truffaut's film, no one explains WHY books are important, why they matter - so given that Montag only becomes violent AFTER he starts reading, this version comes dangerously close to supporting Captain Beatty's argument: an ignorant society is a safe one. It becomes less a story about censorship and "the forgetting of history" as a means of social control, and more about the repressed emotions that reading might unlock. While this does pick up on one of Bradbury's minor recurring themes - the importance of "the natural" - it isn't "Fahrenheit 451". Moreover, the relentlessly miserable look of this film misses Bradbury's point. His dystopian future isn't grim: it's a hyper-real America of neat green lawns and porch-less houses, a facade of state-sanctioned happiness masking the horror within. Truffaut's just looks like East Germany. I'm not sure why he went so far off track, because adapting this novel isn't difficult. I wrote an adaptation of it as a college screen writing assignment and found that if you stick with the book, it pretty much falls into place. Bradbury himself has said: "My books are movies already. Just take out the pages and stuff them in the camera." While that isn't quite true (there are huge slabs of melodramatic dialogue to be culled, and plenty of anachronisms to weed out), there is a lot to be said for faithful adaptations of his work - especially this one. There are few writers in sci-fi - or in any genre - who combine Bradbury's native talent for visual storytelling with such an intelligent interest in big themes. "Fahrenheit 451" is crying out for a remake. The case it puts is resurgently relevant, and our digital technology makes screening its disturbing and beautiful images entirely possible, even easy. Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption", "The Green Mile", "The Majestic" and scribe of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein") is slated to write and direct a new version for Castle Rock Entertainment sometime soon. Darabont has a great eye and a strong sense of story. More than anyone else in Hollywood today, he knows how to tell this kind of tale. If he can just resist the urge to "go Capra" and turn it into some kind of sappy, futuristic Norman Rockwell painting, I'm confident he's the man to pull it off. With it's memorable characters, compelling plot and powerful themes, it has Oscar® written all over it. I can see it now... Keanu Reeves (in "Speed" mode) as Montag, Anthony Hopkins as Faber, Robert De Niro as Captain Beatty (although Frank will probably cast Jeffrey DeMunn!)... in the right hands, it's a cross-category winner just waiting to be born.

Die Another Day
(2002)

Long, loud, laborious mess
Diamonds, DNA or doomsday? Writers, please make up your minds. This story feels like the nervous (or lazy) agglomeration of too many ideas, too many opinions, and not nearly enough good sense. Had the very surprising anti-British/American angle taken up in the opening scene been retained, this could have been a vastly more entertaining night out. But it's a Bond film, after all, so provocative subtext is quickly swept aside to make way for hot chicks, cool gadgets, and a one-dimensional megalomaniac villain with – surprise, surprise – some freakish henchmen and a doomsday device up his sleeve (this time, quite literally). But while it hits all the traditional Bond notes, it somehow just doesn't play. Halle Berry is wasted, as are Rick Yune and relative newcomer Rosamund Pike ("Grace Kelly bio-pic, here I come.") Brosnan goes through the motions capably enough (copious chest-hair notwithstanding), but Toby Stephens is simply laughable as the villainous Gustav Graves. It doesn't help that he plays him uncannily like Rik Mayall's Lord Flasheart from "Blackadder". Even the trademark, innuendo-laced dialogue is surprisingly flaccid – ironically, it now sounds like an "Austin Powers" script, but without the nerve go all the way. The digital effects are far too obvious (only the climactic sequence really impresses), but it's the "stunts" they're used to create that really annoy – Bond's escape from the iceberg goes too far, even for this franchise of cinematic impossibility. As in the "Star Wars" prequels, it isn't so much the quality of the effects which grates – it's the low quality of the writing they're trying to represent. With so many Bond parodies and knock-offs crowding the market these days – from the deliberately funny ("Austin Powers") to the unintentionally hilarious ("xXx") – the original franchise is going to have to do much more than just trade on its name. It can't be that hard. Just start with a decent script.

xXx
(2002)

Hideous
It's hard to imagine a film so awful you could describe it as a blot on Danny Trejo's resumé, but here it is. I've heard Vin Diesel call this `the climax scenes from every action movie ever made, all rolled into one.' He's right. But writer Rich Wilkes and director Rob Cohen seem to have forgotten that a climax is only exciting as the payoff to something else: an engaging story. And this isn't one. It's tediously vintage James Bond, right down to the appalling accents, oversized Euro-thugs, M, Q, gorgeous bad girl, silly gadgets, laughable doomsday device, and the obligatory love scene denouement. Either this is some kind of postmodern gesture or it's plain lazy writing. I'll go with the latter, and the proof is in the viewing: it's boring beyond belief. But at least the thumpin' soundtrack should keep you awake - that, and the macabre desire to see just how bad it can get. Along with the millions of dollars this will safely pull from the pockets of gullible teens worldwide, it should also garner at least one award - surely it's the unbackable favorite to take out the inaugural Razzie Award for Worst Editing. The escape from the Colombian drug lords beggars belief.

Long Time Dead
(2002)

Wake me when it's over
A reasonably good story concept marred by a wandering screenplay, silly editing, and a relentless string of tediously uninvolving (non)scary scenes of British teens being stalked by a boring demon. Another lost opportunity to do something new and original with the evergreen horror genre, `Long Time Dead' is truly notable only for its confirmation that, at age 24, Lukas Haas still looks precisely as he did in `Witness'.

The Sum of All Fears
(2002)

Spectacularly average
Incredibly, ‘The Sum Of All Fears' takes a sure-fire premise and turns it into one of the most ugly and boring films of the year. Amongst all the concern about whether Ben Affleck could effectively replace Harrison Ford and renew this tiring franchise, the filmmakers seem to have forgotten that the best pick-me-up would have been a decent script. This one's awful. We know from the outset precisely what's going to happen, and when it does - after an interminable hour of preamble - it's virtually a non-event: the nuclear explosion which takes out Baltimore is realized with about as much visual flair as a White House press conference. Worse, the series of events it initiates rapidly mushrooms into ludicrousness - thanks to ham-fisted, telemovie plotting - and interest is quickly lost. The direction is patchy, Goldsmith's music is typically dire, and the performances are lukewarm at best. Sure, Affleck's a nice enough substitute Ryan, but there's no getting around it: bucket-loads of boyish charm are no match for the fatherly, patriotic gravitas of Ford.

Bully
(2001)

Compelling, but what's the point?
It's hard to know whether Larry Clark wants you to pity these kids or despise them. Perhaps he's just telling as it happened, and leaving it up to us to decide. But if honesty was the intention here, `Bully' would have worked so much better as a documentary. There, the motivations and backgrounds of the protagonists could have been more thoroughly explored. As a dramatization, there are just too many characters for the really interesting thing - the psychology behind such morally vacuous teen mob behaviour - to be satisfyingly explored. The gap is filled with a few falteringly written expository scenes - Marty sobbing to Lisa on the beach; Heather giggling about her awful home life - which try to show the emotional torture and moral emptiness which might lead to such criminal lunacy, but succeed only in sounding contrived. Generally, the cast make the most of what their given: Nick Stahl is great as bully-boy Bobby (though the character is underdeveloped) and Brad Renfro as Marty is particularly convincing (as he always is). It might not be pleasant, but with its relentless cycle of nudity, profanity, drugs and sex, `Bully' is at least compelling. I'm just not sure I'm any wiser for having seen it. And if that wasn't the aim in bringing such a story to the screen, then what was?

Minority Report
(2002)

Cool and calculated
You'll enjoy this stylish blend of sci-fi and film noir if you're willing to suspend your disbelief at the door. Many reviewers have decried the plain lazy plot holes in Scott Frank and Jon Cohen's otherwise excellent screenplay, but in the end these deficiencies hardly matter. Movies dealing with predestination never answer the big questions effectively - they just use them as the springboard for a story. And 'Minority Report' tells a pretty good one, even if it does say where it's heading too soon and is occasionally marred by Spielberg's trademark mawkishness. Cruise is hugely enjoyable as the frantic John Anderton, and Colin Farrell does a really fine job of making you hate Detective Witwer. The film looks great, sounds great, holds your attention for all 147 minutes, and will even have you giggling at the spectacular product placements and some unexpectedly comic moments. This is a reasonably faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story so fans of the original should be pleased, although Act 3 does see the writers wandering off into Hollywood-ending territory (oddly reminiscent of 'The Fugitive') and has Spielberg wrapping things up on a typically optimistic false note. Still, it's refreshing to see a bunch of filmmakers tackling a sci-fi adaptation seriously, successfully, yet still with an eye on the marketplace. I don't see that as a compromise. If you're going to spend close to $100 million on a sci-fi project - and, let's face it, these days you have to - then you've got to consider the box-office. The result is a memorable film that strikes a good balance between deep thought and summer fun. It probably won't have enough explosions to please the die-hard action fans, nor enough depth to really thrill the sci-fi devotees – but it certainly worked for me.

Spider-Man
(2002)

Right film, right time
Slick special effects hung over a simple plot don't always make for a good film. Fortunately, 'Spider-Man' is saved from being just another big-budget Hollywood blowout by the utterly guileless performance of Tobey Maguire and the humorous touch of Sam Raimi and the writers. A darker tone might have made it more interesting, but than can wait for one of the many sequels which are undoubtedly in pre-production. The choices they made this time were the right ones: America needs a hero right now, and any film which has a bridge full New Yorkers rallying behind an everyday guy as he fights a villainous mastermind is going to rock at the US box-office – especially after that oh-so-unfortunate teaser trailer involving the WTC towers.

Don't Say a Word
(2001)

Nothing you haven't seen before (spoilers)
An elaborate blackmail plot involving the usual band of hoods conveniently fitted out with around three million bucks worth of hi-tech surveillance gear. This time, they're in pursuit of a six-digit number locked inside the mind of a seemingly deranged girl. Michael Douglas and Sean Bean are both convincing as anguished father and ruthless thug respectively, and Famke Janssen does wonders with a small role. It's well directed by Gary Felder, and nicely shot, too. All of which had me wondering what such obviously talented people were doing making such a banal, by-the-numbers film. The problem here is a very slight screenplay which soon kills the tension by splitting the story into too many strands – one involving a female detective who only seems to have been included so she can come to the rescue at the climax. In any case, a story which hinges on the repressed memories of a girl who won't talk, and a trauma which happened ten years ago, is much better material for a book than a film – and I'm sure Andrew Klavan's novel handled it more deftly. Scribe, Andrew Peckham, tries to make the most of this quandary with flashbacks, but in the end it doesn't really play. What happened in the past is far more dramatic than what's happening in the present – and that doesn't really make for an entertaining film.

El espinazo del diablo
(2001)

Excellent
A stylish, atmospheric ghost story which, unlike so many recent examples of the genre, does not rely on any climactic twist for its punch. The chills and thrills are happily much more old-fashioned here, and quite a bit more bloodthirsty. The performances are universally excellent, and the music, cinematography, direction and visual effects are all first rate (the ghostly rendering of Santi – the "one who sighs" – is exceptionally good). Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro's screenplay is in an entirely different league to his 'Cronos' and 'Mimic'. Sure, it has a similar level of tension and fascination, but there's a much stronger thematic vein at work here. Viewers familiar with the history and politics of the Spanish Civil War will find it particularly rewarding, appreciating the story on a deeper metaphorical level. Others will just admire and enjoy this film for what it superficially is: a slick, good-looking and remarkably unsettling piece.

Enemy at the Gates
(2001)

Europe does Hollywood - and makes all the same mistakes
A European film which aims to crack the American market but ends up making almost all of Hollywood's mistakes. The concept is a great one: a lowly Russian sniper and an intellectual propagandist together inspire the Red Army to repel the Germans from Stalingrad and effectively stop Hitler in his tracks. It begins well enough with a spectacular and bloody crossing of the Volga, and a very efficient introduction of Danilov (Fiennes) and Vassili (Law). But it's all downhill from there. The problem is a wandering screenplay which collapses under the weight of an utterly redundant love story involving the beautiful, talented and horribly miscast Rachel Weisz. With their abrupt changes in lighting and clunky editing, many of the romantic scenes appear to have been shot and inserted later, probably after preview screenings failed to ignite the American female audience. If so, we can blame the producers more that the writers. The whole film might have been better if the rivalry between Danilov and Vassili had centered on their differing social positions, and not their shared love of a woman. In doing so, it could have articulated the internal contradictions of Russia and neatly foreshadowed the social envy which ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. A few scenes and vestigial lines of dialogue suggest this may have been the thrust of the original screenplay, and it's a pity this theme was jettisoned to make way for a soggy, soap-opera romance. Overall, this was a very disappointing film which had me wondering how much better it could have been in the hands of someone like Nikita Mikhalkov (‘Burnt by the Sun') and with a Russian and German cast. But there was one thing they did get right: unlike so many recent films, the use of CGI in the battle scenes was thoughtful, controlled and highly effective. Well done, Double Negative and Richard Bain!

Life as a House
(2001)

High risk, high return (minor spoilers)
With a dangerously corny title, and a few lines which ram home the central metaphor just a little too strongly, it would be easy to hate this film. Trouble is, it's just too damn good. Sure, the story unfolds with an easy predictability, and it's as least as emotionally manipulative as any other terminal illness film. But as the patient declines, and his relationships recover, it's the three leads who defeat your cynicism and manage to keep this high-risk weepy afloat. Kline is perfectly unsentimental in a role which, on paper, must have been crying out for Kevin Spacey or Harrison Ford. But in the scenes that really mattered, Kline had me thanking God that neither of them got his part. Kristin Scott Thomas has never been more convincing. And Hayden Christensen proves that his performance in 'Episode II' was, like most of that movie, an aberration for which we can blame George Lucas. (Christensen had me crying in both films – but for entirely different reasons.) This is easily the best thing Irwin Winkler has directed, and Mark Andrus' script, for my money, beats his mostly irritating 'As Good As It Gets' hands down.

Hearts in Atlantis
(2001)

Disappointing
After giving the world two such wonderful films as 'Shine' and 'Snow Falling On Cedars,' I guess Scott Hicks as earned the right to make a bad one. The central problem here is the story. It made sense alongside the others in Stephen King's book, but here, deprived of its context and meaning, it just doesn't play. It looks, sounds and feels just like a film that should have you crying – and gives you everything but a reason to do so. Hopkins still manages to be excellent as Ted Brautigan, Anton Yelchin as the young Bobby is fine, and Hicks manages to evoke the period very well. But in the end there's something missing at the heart of this film – a point. There might be a lesson here in the adaptation of Stephen King stories – if you're going to hold back on the violence or the supernatural, then you need to replace them with something else. Bryan Singer's 'Apt Pupil' did this very well.

Wonder Boys
(2000)

Wonderful
'Wonder Boys' offers the kind of simple perfection which can restore your faith in Hollywood. Everyone's great here, everything works – from the gorgeous cinematography right down to the inspired soundtrack. Douglas, in particular, is masterful as the one-hit writer hovering on the edge of personal and professional oblivion. But its Steve Kloves' screenplay which really shines - it manages to chart the territory of middle-aged angst and redemption without ever descending into sappiness. It's a crying shame he missed out on the Oscar for this – but his peerless skills as an adapter did score him the ongoing 'Harry Potter' gig, and I imagine the pay cheque for that will be some compensation.

Mulholland Dr.
(2001)

Brilliant
Hypnotic, beautiful, and at moments legitimately terrifying, this is Lynch at his unsettling best. The self-destructive insecurities at the heart of the Hollywood 'dream' are the subject this time, and Lynch dissects them with a chilling precision – which probably accounts for the distinct lack of Oscars. But in a year in which the hallowed Academy also saw fit to ignore 'Memento,' what else could we really expect? Lynch is easily the most original and consistently interesting director working in America today. You owe it to yourself to see this film and discover just how different and challenging a movie can be. Don't be daunted by the phalanx of reviewers who deplore its impenetrability. It's a simple story you've seen many times before, just told in a different way. So take the ride, and see what you make of it. At the very least you won't be bored - which is more than we can say for many Oscar winners.

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