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Live Free or Die Hard

Top-notch action!!
It's been a long twelve years, but John McClane is back and better than ever. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is now divorced from his wife and dealing with a broken relationship with his daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The FBI requests that he pick up a known computer hacker, Matt Farrell (Justin Long), and bring him in for questioning regarding a recent security breach of the FBI computer system. McClane arrives just in time to save Farrell's life from a team of assassins. Meanwhile, more computer attacks are being carried out by a terrorist mastermind named Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) who is systematically shutting down a variety of utilities, bringing Washington, D.C. to a virtual halt. Farrell recognizes the pattern of events as a "fire sale," a plan to destroy the country's infrastructure. Taking Farrell into protective custody, McClane has to keep him alive as they avoid continued attempts on their lives and race against time to stop the terrorists from plunging the nation into a new stone age.

I've loved the "Die Hard" movies since I was a kid, and I knew this one would not disappoint. While I don't mind CGI in movies, "Live Free or Die Hard" is a terrific throwback to '80s action movies, and while there are a fair share of digital effects, a lot of stuff is done live and even with models, giving it something of an old school feel that elevates it above a lot of stuff that's come out in recent years. A little over 50 years old, Bruce Willis easily slips back into the role of John McClane and shows he can still kick ass. The rest of the cast is good. I particularly like Olyphant as the villain. At first I was worried how the film was going to handle the fractured relationship between McClane and his daughter, but it was thankfully done very well and did not distract from the story in the way many other parent-child relationships like this have done in other movies. Winstead plays Lucy McClane as a feisty girl who can take care of herself, and she gets some nice moments during the later half of the film.

The story is tight, has a great pace and some nice developments along the way, and the action is top notch. Director Len Wisemen brings back some of the closed-in, claustrophobic feelings that were present in the first two films. This is probably best recreated during an excellent sequence that involves McClane fighting Gabriel's second hand, Mai Linh (Maggie Q), in and around an SUV that finds its way into an elevator shaft, dangling precariously several stories about the ground. Their preceding fight ranks right up there with the fight in "Die Hard" between McClane and the terrorist Karl. And the climactic sequence in which McClane, having commandeered the terrorist's high-tech big rig, is pursued by an F-35 Lightning jet is one hell of an action set piece. Many fans complained about the film's PG-13 rating, since the previous three films were all rated R. But it didn't bother me at all. I've now seen it three times. This is a top notch action film, one of the best in the last ten years, in the finest "Die Hard" tradition, and nothing delivers action quite like a "Die Hard" movie.

Superman Returns

I don't care what anybody says, I liked this movie!
Superman has always been a bit of an oddity for me, something I've tended to like more in concept than practice. So when "Superman Returns" was announced, I didn't give it much thought. But as I started reading about its progress on the Internet and began seeing ads for it, I found myself curious about it and wound up seeing it in the theater. Much to my surprise, I loved it! Newcomer Brandon Routh is well-cast as Clark Kent/Superman. Although he did remind me of Christopher Reeve in a few scenes, in his look and acting, Routh certainly made the role his own without just imitating a previous performer. I also liked that his Clark Kent is not as annoyingly-nerdy as Reeve's was. Kevin Spacey, for the most part, is surprisingly down-to-Earth as Lex Luthor and wipes clean any memory of Gene Hackman's portrayal. Kate Bosworth is decent as Lois Lane, but delivers nothing exceptional. I suspect any number of young actresses could have easily played the part. The rest of the cast is good: James Marsden plays Lois' boyfriend, thankfully not the smart-ass character he could have been, given his place in the subplot's "love triangle" (though I'd hardly call it that at all, and the situation is handled nicely). Frank Langella and Sam Huntington, as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, respectively, are good but a bit underused. The young actor who plays Lois' son is good, never annoying or overacting like some child actors.

The special effects are top notch. Seeing Superman in action with today's F/X technology is amazing. The first action scene of the film, Superman saving a plane full of reporters after a malfunctioning shuttle launch, is riveting. Without question, my favorite sequence of the entire movie. I'm still surprised how much of a response this movie got out of me. Not only did I tense up and find myself in suspense during the airplane/shuttle rescue, but in a later scene, Superman is weakened by Kryptonite and finds himself at the mercy of Lex's goons before Lex stabs him in the back with a shard of Kryptonite. Usually, I know the hero of the movie will be okay and all, but in this scene, I don't know what it was. I actually felt anger towards the bad guys as they were beating up Superman. I felt helpless watching it and wanted to jump into the scene and lend a hand.

It could have probably been about twenty minutes shorter or had a bit more action, as the middle act does get a bit slow. It also took too long for Superman and Lex to finally meet, which they don't do until near the end of the film. I was hoping for more interaction between them. But all complaints aside, I thought "Superman Returns" was a rousing success. I had not expected to really enjoy it, having not liked either of Bryan Singer's previous "X-Men" movies, but I really got a kick out of it. It's definitely the best Superman movie, and the only one I have bothered owning. It's certainly one of the better superhero movies in recent years, easily surpassing "The Hulk," "Spider-Man 2," and "Batman Begins." It's a solid film and very entertaining. I only wish it would get a sequel instead of being abandoned for yet another reboot.

Batman Begins

"Batman Begins" after 8 years . . . but was it worth it?
I cannot remember the last time I was so disappointed with a movie. I went into BATMAN BEGINS with pretty much no expectations, and I was very disappointed. I actually felt sad on the way home afterwards because I was so disappointed. I really can't even think of much that I did like. Christian Bale was alright, but the only scene where he really shined as Batman was when he interrogates a crooked cop atop a fire escape. But otherwise, he was just so-so as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. I missed seeing Michael Gough as Alfred, but Michael Caine was the highlight of the film, without question. My favorite scene of the whole film is in a flashback where Alfred tells young Bruce that his parents' murder wasn't his fault. The rest of the cast was okay, except for Katie Holmes, badly miscast as a District Attorney. Gary Oldman fared pretty well as a pre-Commissioner James Gordon (he certainly looked the part), but he's given almost nothing to do and seems to only be in a handful of scenes. Rutger Hauer is the CEO of Wayne Enterprises in a subplot that isn't needed at all. I couldn't help but feel that a lot of the movie was just padding that could have easily been trimmed out.

As for the villains, we get the Scarecrow, Ra's al Ghul, and Carmine Falcone, a local gangster. Now, I know the point of this movie was to make it Batman's film, but the villains were handled so badly I practically felt cheated. The Scarecrow, one of my favorite of Batman's Rogues Gallery, is seriously wasted. He's no longer the Ichabod Craine-looking college professor, but instead a sophisticated-looking pretty boy psychologist. In the comics, his poisons cause people to experience their greatest fears. Here, they simply make people act crazy more than anything else. Ra's al Ghul is also wasted. He appears to be killed early on, but turns up later in an unnecessary plot twist that reveals Ducard (Liam Neeson) is really Ra's, the one we saw killed having only been a decoy. Thus, Ra's is absent for a good bulk of the film, and as a result fails to make much impact as a villain. Even worse, the "villain" shifts constantly, from being Falcone to Scarecrow to Ra's, instead of just giving us one for Batman to deal with, the way it should be. This was the problem with the third and fourth Batman films, and I was very surprised to see them falling for it again in this film. (Anybody remember how well it worked out for the first BATMAN and SPIDER-MAN when when you've only got one villain?) It just really ticked me off how they handled the villains, because they were using two of the most interesting ones. We saw glimpses of Scarecrow's potential in a few moments, and when he finally gallops into the thick of the action at the end, on horseback and (finally) in full Scarecrow costume, we expect to really see things hit the fan. But what happens? He gets zapped with a stun gun by Katie Holmes and runs off screaming into the night like a little girl, never to be seen again. What!? And Falcone was a total waste. We already had two other much more interesting bad guys, so we could have done without him.

Other things that irked me: I really hated the Batmobile, even more so after seeing it in action instead of just pictures. And the scene where it jumps across rooftops? Geez, wasn't the point of restarting the franchise to get away from the junk we got in the last two films? I couldn't believe it. The murder of Bruce Wayne's parents was also poorly-handled. It had much more emotional impact in Tim Burton's BATMAN, where I actually felt sadness seeing it happen as opposed to this one, where it's over and done with before you can really react to it. (Which I guess is something they might have intended, but it still had no affect on me.) And Gotham City! I know Christopher Nolan has said they wanted to make a "realistic" Batman film, sort of bringing him "into the real world." Well, it clearly doesn't work. The Gotham City of Tim Burton's film lived up to its name. Here, the movie could have just as easily taken place in Los Angeles. And this is really just a small complaint, but Batman's gadgets were hardly used. Where's his gas pellets during his escapes (like we saw demonstrated for him earlier in the film)? And the Batarangs were virtually missing in action. The action scenes, what few there are, were terrible. The MTV-style editing and camera work didn't help, practically drowning out any suspense and excitement they may have had. Half the time, I couldn't even tell what was going on and who was hitting who. And the excessive use of flashbacks in the first act made me feel like I was watching an episode of LOST.

By the time the movie was over and I was heading out of the theater, I really didn't even feel like I had just seen a Batman movie, but something else entirely. It's really a shame. The film had lots of potential, and after eight years of waiting, this is all we get. It could have been something really good. I know everybody's raving about it, but I really didn't see the big deal. I thought it was pretty lackluster. Perhaps if the writer hadn't been David S. Goyer? Who knows? All I know is that I'm extremely disappointed. Of the four live-action Batman movies (not counting the one with Adam West), I guess I'd rank BATMAN BEGINS at Number 4, right behind BATMAN, BATMAN RETURNS, and even BATMAN FOREVER. It seems that SPIDER-MAN's place as the best superhero movie of all-time isn't likely to be challenged anytime soon.


Halloween: Resurrection

the fans get screwed again
I'm really starting to think Moustapha Akkad is losing it in his old age. First he gives us HALLOWEEN: H20, a sequel that insults us by asking us to ignore the events of HALLOWEENs 4-6 and is more like SCREAM 4 than HALLOWEEN. Then he gives us HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION, which seems more concerned at being BLAIR WITCH 3 than HALLOWEEN. Thanks to screenwriter Larry Brandt, gone are the intriguing characters and any attempt at continuity. Films 4-6 steadily built up a solid story that was continued and built upon further by each subsequent film, something not every horror series can claim. There were characters intent on discovering the secret of Michael Myers and how to (if at all) stop him, and there were characters you cared about and found yourself rooting for. Here, we're given a bunch of characters who just want to make some quick bucks by staying the night in Myers' house.

The characters are all paper-thin, whereas even in the previous films (except for H20) we had strong characters. Here, everyone just hangs around waiting to get hacked, in death scenes that seem more like FRIDAY THE 13TH than HALLOWEEN. For the most part, the actors are unknowns in stock roles--they're able to scream and shout on cue--but that's about it. Busta Rhymes wasn't quite as bad as I was expecting him to be, but he seems to have been cast more because of his own popularity than anything else. Tyra Banks, also, is cast simply to draw a crowd, and she really does nothing but sit in front of a bank of computer monitors and drink coffee for most of the film.

There are some minor highlights, but not many. Brad Loree does an excellent job of playing Michael Myers the way he should be, making up for the awful Chris Durand interpretation in H20. The mask is about as close to the original as we're likely to get, but still has some problems with it, mostly a little too much hair and the fact we can see his eyes, a part of him that was very rarely seen in the previous films and helped generate a lot of mystery. But he has the menacing walk down perfect. Danny Lux's musical score returns to what made the previous films' scores work, by underlining the on-screen events instead of highlighting, like with John Ottman's overblown H20 score. And the atmosphere is terrific. As he did with HALLOWEEN 2 twenty-one years ago, director Rick Rosenthal brings a great sense of atmosphere to the film that menacingly exploits pools of light and shadow, and several shots of Myers hiding in the dark are truely creepy images. The sequence involving the one girl finding Michael's lair in the sewer underneath the house is very nicely filmed. So the film at least looks nice, which is not something that can be said about H20. And the Myers house itself, from the outside, has been recreated very much like the original, though the interior is (to fans) noticeably messed up.

But for the most part, it was another failed attempt. I fear the glory days of the HALLOWEEN series--when they had characters you liked and stories that were simple yet helped the films develop more than other horror series--is over, having ended with HALLOWEEN 6, and now the films are turning into just pail SCREAM wannabes. The rights should be taken away from the Weinstein brothers and given to an independent company, like some of the previous ones, a company that will respect the fans and the previous films in the series.

The Fantastic Four

a pleasant little surprise
Back in 1994, I rented a movie (since forgotten) and saw the trailer for THE FANTASTIC FOUR. I was absolutely jazzed. I was a huge comic book fan back then, and at the time, movies based on comic books weren't being made as often as they are know, so it was nice to see that one was on the way. Of course, the film was shelved days before it's premiere. Over the years, I'd heard reviews of the film from those who had seen bootleg copies of it, and most touted it as a huge disaster in every regard. Well, eight years later, I've finally had the opportunity to see it, and I must say, I found it to be pretty decent. Sure, it definitely looks low-budget (it has the feel of a TV show more than a feature film), but you can tell it was a labor of love for all involved and that everybody gave it their all.

A few of the effects shots--especially the Human Torch's full-body burn at the climax--reveal the film's extremely low budget, but the filmmakers make up for that with the story and characters. Though not the event film I always pictured a Fantastic Four movie to be, it instead takes a slightly more personal approach, focusing on the characters as they come to terms with their changes before pitting them against Dr. Doom. The cast does a good job, and the costumes, especially The Thing and Dr. Doom, are well done and faithful (unlike the another superhero team movie, X-MEN). The subplot involving a character called The Jeweler was a bit on the distracting side. I was bored whenever the film switched to him, but thankfully, the rest of the film was better. It's a shame this was never released, at least on video. Like another little-known (and just barely-released) comic book movie, CAPTAIN AMERICA, THE FANTASTIC FOUR scores thanks to its actors and the story exploring the characters, even if the production isn't quite as big as it should have been.

If the movie had had a slightly bigger budget and some better effects shots, I think it could have done reasonably well in the theaters. It will be interesting to see if the big-budget version (rumored to have been in development by a major studio since around the time this film was made) can create a good balance between story and character when it's sure to be made into a special effects extravaganza.

American Outlaws

completely and utterly lifeless
I knew not to expect much from AMERICAN OUTLAWS. The glory days of westerns are long gone, and the new ones can't all be SILVERADOs and WYATT EARPs. But I was expecting to at least have a fun time, even if it was another film that portrayed real-life bad guys as the "heroes" of the movie.

Even on just a level of pure entertainment, AMERICAN OUTLAWS didn't score that well. I'm not sure why, but this film was just bland most of the time, and the actors (despite some talented ones in the parts) just seemed to walk through the performances, as if they were simply trying to just get the whole thing over with. Even the versatile Timothy Dalton seemed to be at a lost as to what to do.

And the characters themselves were terrible. By the end of the film, we still knew nothing about any of them. I like to have at least some understanding of the characters in a film. Whether they're the good guys or the bad guys, at least give me something about them to understand, sympathize with, or relate to. Sure, Frank and Jessie wanted revenge for a personal tragedy, but the depiction of that tragedy is handled so lazily we often forget about it for the rest of the film. The other characters tagging along with the brothers do so to make a stand against the railroad tycoon (Harris Yulin), but again, we don't get anything from them personally to make us root for their success.

A couple of the action scenes are nicely-executed, if sometimes over the top. The Hyperion job is the standout sequence of the entire film, as the James-Younger gang must fight their way out of a trap while attempting to rob a bank. And Trevor Rabin's exciting score (which I had already bought a few months ago and really enjoyed) helped make some of the boring parts seem more important.

Perhaps if the script had treated the material seriously and if the director had stayed awake during the shoot, it might have at least passed as a good time-waster for a dull Saturday night.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

a very pleasant surprise
I hadn't read any of the novels, so I wasn't that anxious to see the film, assuming it was just a kiddie flick and that I would be totally lost since I hadn't experienced the Harry Potter phenomenon. Well, on a whim I decided to rent the movie and give it a look, and boy was I surprised. It was great.

There's never a dull moment as Harry Potter travels to a mythical land to study magic at the Hogwarts school, where he meets a variety of colorful characters ranging from the funny Hagrid to the "he's definitely up to something" Prof. Snape. Every character in this film seems alive, thanks to a terrific cast of seasoned veterans and fresh newcomers. Daniel Radcliffe is a standout as Harry Potter. I doubt any other kid could have been as good as he was, and out of the (rumored) thousands of kids who auditioned, he was obviously the best of them all. Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are good as his new friends, Ron and Hermione. The veterans of the cast include the always-reliable Richard Harris as Prof. Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as Prof. McGonagall, a barely-noticeable Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, and Alan Rickman as the dubious Prof. Snape.

Though I've not (as I said) read any of the books, I can't compare them to the film, but it seems like director Chris Columbus went as far as he could go to literally bring the book itself alive. He seemed to go to great lengths to adapt as much of the Harry Potter world as possible. It's definitely an admirable effort, and I have to applaud him for making the film able to attract newcomers, such as myself. Not since STAR WARS has a movie made me feel so much like a kid again.

The pacing of the film moves nicely. At just about two hours and thirty minutes, it flies by like one hour. There are many standout scenes throughout the film, most notably the Quidditch sporting event (more exciting than the over-hyped pod race from THE PHANTOM MENACE) and the giant chess game battle near the end of the film. The cinematography is top-notch, the fantasy characters well-designed, and the score by John Williams ranks as one of his best of recent years, with a grand theme, beautiful epicness, and action-packed excitement.

All-in-all, the movie is a fun-filled adventure that both parents and kids can enjoy. Kids will like the action and special effects, and parents will feel like a kid again.

I wasn't a Harry Potter before, but I am now.

The Others

Nicole Kidman delivers, the movie does not
THE OTHERS is certainly one of the best-looking ghost movies in years. Rich with atmosphere, you easily feel as if you really are inside a WW2-era English mansion. Without a doubt, the atmosphere is the next best thing in the movie besides Nicole Kidman. She scores a bullseye with her performance as a mother of two young children living in a mansion on one of the English Channel islands, a mansion which appears to be haunted. Her daughter claims to have seen some of the spirits, and the new team of helpers who have arrived know more than they're letting on.

Unfortunately, the well-set up film fails to deliver. The story meanders seemingly forever, and I can't even recall how many times I found myself glancing at the clock to see how much time had passed during the first thirty minutes alone. The pacing is terrible. Some scenes go on too long. Others just fail to be effective. The suspense is almost non-existent with the possible exception of a few moments here and there, but even then it's rather lackluster, with only some good performances to keep you awake.

Alakina Mann and James Bentley are good as the kids, though why must one of them always be a little brat who likes to torment the other and mouth off? It's getting tiresome. Fionnula Flanagan is the next best element of the film, but otherwise, there's not much to get out of the movie. The story drags and drags until the final ten minutes or so when things finally began to pick up, only to lead to a twist ending that (while unexpected) seems just as much of a cop-out as the ending to THE SIXTH SENSE. Thanks to that overrated film, ghost story movies now feel they must offer a "shocking twist ending." At best, this could have worked as a short film of about fifteen or twenty minutes. But as it is, it's just like THE SIXTH SENSE: nice to look at, but ultimately completely unsatisfying.

Will Penny

a forgotten classic
Not many people think of WILL PENNY when they think of the great westerns, but it certainly deserves to be remembered. A simple tale of an aging cowboy (Charlton Heston) being nursed back to health by a woman (Joan Hackett), and then having to protect her and her young son (Jon Gries, son of the director) from the slimy characters who left him to die, the film is headlined by a wonderful, understated performance from screen veteran Heston, undoubtedly one of his finest. Joan Hackett also gives a great, if somehow delicate, performance. Donald Pleasence is a delight as always as the sadistic Preacher Quint, and there's good support from Lee Majors (in his major film role), Anthony Zerbe and Ben Johnson (both of whom, sadly, never really get to do much), character actor Slim Pickens in a small role, and Bruce Dern in one of his countless villain parts. And Gries is good as the boy.

The cinematography is beautiful, especially once the story moves to the snow-covered terrain where much of the film plays out. A little slow at first, but the pacing soon picks up and moves nicely. My only complaint is that the film's score is at times overbearing and distracting, but not enough to ruin the enjoyment of the film. All together, a fine little gem of a movie that should be remembered if AFI ever does a 100 Greatest Westerns special.

Vanilla Sky

a strange and fascinating movie
VANILLA SKY is one of the most strange and bizarrely-fascinating movies I've seen in quite some time. Normally I would just turn such a movie off and not bother finishing it, but as strange as this film was, I just couldn't look away. Something about it kept pulling me in further and further until I was as utterly confused and frustrated as Tom Cruise's David Aames as he tried to figure out just what the hell was going on.

I've never really thought much of Tom Cruise as an "actor," but more as an "entertainer." But here he delivers an exceptional performance that is, quite possibly, his best. He's a man who suddenly has his whole life turn into a bizarre, surreal world where nothing makes sense and everything is constantly changing. The way he handles the transition from easy-going to boiling-with-frustration is great, and we, the audience, buy the transition because we sort of go through it for ourselves as well.

The film has its share of surreal images and "art house movie" moments, something I usually don't go for, but there was just something about this film that made it all work. The revelation at the end wasn't close to what I was beginning to suspect it was, and I won't give it away here. Even now, just a few hours after watching it, I'm still trying to figure out exactly what happened at the end.

Co-stars Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz, while completely untalented, don't distract too much from the film, but (especially in Cruz's case) there are plenty of moments when you realize how more effective the parts could've been with talented actresses in the roles. Kurt Russell is good (as always) as the psychiatrist who wants to help Cruise figure things out and determine if he is responsible for the murder he's being charged with.

It's not a film I would watch over and over again, and it could have been a little shorter (a couple scenes went on a little too long), but overall it was a satisfying movie that will have you confused, frustrated, and amazed until the very end.

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

Lucas somewhat redeems himself
Well, I'm not ashamed to admit, ATTACK OF THE CLONES wasn't quite as bad as I had thought it would be. It was certainly an improvement after the over-the-top, ritzy-ditzy, incredibly-awful EPISODE I, but still not as good as the original trilogy. It had an even balance of ups and downs, making for quite a mixed bag in my opinion.

THE GOOD POINTS: The special effects weren't as overkill as they were in EPISODE I, and I liked the darker tone the film had. But for me, the best thing about this film was Ewan McGregor. Although I liked him in THE PHANTOM MENACE (the only other principle actor I liked in that movie besides Liam Neeson), he was much better this time around. At times, I felt as if I was actually watching a young Alec Guiness, and I could easily buy that this was the same war-hardened Obi-Wan we'd be seeing again in EPISODE 4. I know these prequels are about Anakin Skywalker, but I would have been perfectly happy if this film (and EPISODE III) focused entirely on Obi-Wan. He was terrific.

Watching Samuel L. Jackson kick ass with a lightsabre was cool (and one of the things I was really looking forward to), but it was a moment that could have been much better. His fight with Jango Fett was too short. Temeura Morrison was good as Fett, but the character was rather underused I felt. He needed more presence in the film, and he should have been saved for EPISODE III, as he had the makings of a really interesting character. Jar-Jar, thankfully, is barely on-screen, though he's still a cringe-inducer when he is. And one of my favorite scenes is the one with Yoda and the young Jedi kids.

The chase through the city on Coruscant was pretty good, but went a little over-the-top with Anakin successfully managing to catch a falling Obi-Wan, and Anakin, moments later, diving headfirst through the city. He must have an excellent sense of timing, because judging from the distance he fell and the time it took him to get there, the vehicle he was jumping to was nowhere near the vicinity of them. And even if it was, it would have been long gone before Anakin could have even thought about jumping out.

THE BAD POINTS: Hayden Christensen was quite bad, more so in some scenes than others, but overall proved to be a bad choice. I didn't buy for one second that this is the kid who will become the fearsome Darth Vader just a couple years down the road. Perhaps if his murder of the Tusken Raiders had actually been shown (and not just the two we did see), it might have helped a little. His emotional scenes were unconvincing, as were his scenes with Natalie Portman, who was as dull as she was in EPISODE II. And why must her hairstyle/wardrobe change with every scene? It really gets laughable after awhile, especially with that pseudo-dominatrix outfit during the fireside scene.

The always-watchable Christopher Lee arrived too late in the film, doing what he could with Count Dooku, another underused role that should have been a lot more menacing than it was. A weak villain, though better than Darth Maul. Yoda fighting Dooku was one of most hysterical moments I've ever seen on film. Using the Force to block objects being thrown at him was good (reminiscent of the confrontation between Luke and Vader in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), but once he started bouncing around like Jim Carrey in THE MASK with a lightsabre, the sequence instantly well apart. And Anakin going double-lightsabre on Dooku was rather annoying, something you would expect in a John Woo movie, not a STAR WARS movie.

And when will filmmakers learn that humans riding on the backs of thrashing animals doesn't look at all convincing? Whenever the film was with Anakin and Amidala on Naboo (and, later, Tatooine), the pace dragged badly. When it was with Obi-Wan trailing Jango Fett from one planet to the next, it was great. Obi-Wan's subplot was, for me, the most entertaining aspect of the film.

Composer John Williams seemed to be on autopilot for about the first hour or so, with music that seemed to do little beyond providing atmosphere. Only around the time of Obi-Wan and Jango Fett's first confrontation (my favorite sequence of the whole film) did he seem to finally get going, coming back with a couple of the themes we all know and loved, though a better use of them would have been nice.

Seeing it once in the theater was enough, but being as how Obi-Wan was just so damn awesome, I'd probably buy the DVD just to have his moments.

All-in-all, I give it a 3.5/5

Street Smarts

I'm not much for game shows, but STREET SMARTS is very addictive, combing the typical elements of game shows with an aspect similar to Jay Leno's "Jay Walking" segments from THE TONIGHT SHOW. Frank Nicotero is the hysterical host, and the people he finds on the street to ask questions to often make one think of where this country might be headed in the future. The in-house contestants sometimes display too much of an ego thing, but it's probably all put on for the show. Whereas something like JEOPARDY is more for the people who know the Encyclopedia Britanncia from beginning to end, STREET SMARTS is more for the average person. I hope it stays around for quite awhile.

UC: Undercover

slick actioner
UC: UNDERCOVER was a very slick action-thriller that was heavy on complicated plots and very stylized cinematography. The first episode was a rollercoaster ride of action and excitement. The next few after that didn't quite live up to it, but once the season got going, things started picking up again. Oded Fehr was awesome as the team leader, displaying a terrific combination of mystery and coolness that made his character the most intriguing of the bunch. Jon Seda and the sexy Vera Farmiga were good as the team's pointmen, with Jarrad Paul and Bruklin Harris adding support as the information gatherers of the team. William Forsyth was a standout as Sonny Walker, the illusive criminal mastermind who always managed to elude the team. But my favorite episodes were the ones that dealt with the team going after other criminals.

As I had expected, NBC cancelled it before the season was even over, but I do have to give them credit for at least airing two final finished episodes, especially since one of them featured a story that closed the door on the Sonny Walker subplot and gave fans at least that much amount of closure. I now regret not recording any of them, but maybe they're show up again somewhere in reruns for awhile. My Sunday nights are definitely boring now.

Trading Spaces

very addictive
I'm not that much of a fan of home improvement shows, but I find TRADING SPACES to be rather addictive. Frank Bielic is, without a doubt, the best designer on the show, the one who always keeps the homeowner's tastes and feelings in mind, always open to suggestions and willing to sacrifice one of his ideas if the team he's working with isn't too sure about it. The next best would be Vern Yip and Southern gal Laurie Smith, followed by Doug Wilson, who bombed continuously in the first season when he wasn't doing kitchens, but has done some real winners in the second season. Genevieve Gorder and Hildi Santo-Tomas often boggle the mind with their ludicrous ideas (Gorder's rusted wall, Tomas's gluing hay to a wall and painting--painting!!--couches and chairs like they were made out of wood), and often make one wonder if they ever really did go to design school. Paige Davis isn't quite as good a host as the first season's Alex McLeod (the real reason I started watching the show), but she's improved over this second season. Throw in two rotating carpenters--funny guy Ty Pennington and sexy Amy Wynn-Pastor--and you've got a fun show that will have you saying "That's great!" as often as "Hildi is whacked!"


the ultimate comic book movie
One word best describes this movie: awesome. I haven't had this much watching a comic book-inspired movie since probably THE PHANTOM. Relieving the bad taste left behind by X-MEN, SPIDER-MAN is a powerhouse of what every comic book movie should be. It's amazing how faithful the movie remained to the source material, with only very minor alterations that don't become a problem thanks to Sam Raimi's mastery of the rest of the film. Knowing the film opened with a good deal of focus on the origin story, I was fearing a long drawn-out exposition with lots of talk and little excitement. But watching the development of Peter Parker from a nerdy everyday teen to a man learning to deal with incredible powers was just as exciting as watching Spider-Man and the Green Goblin fight it out over Times Square.

Tobey Maguire makes an appealing Peter Parker, someone we can instantly identify with. We feel sorry for him when he's harrassed by the school bully, and we root for him when he gets the upper hand during a fight with them. Kirsten Dunst is good as Mary-Jane Watson (even though the character was not Parker's first love interest), and though her portrayal of the character is a little different from the comics, it's still one that should win over most of the die hard fans. The always-watchable Willem Dafoe is a delight as Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin. What could have been a typical over-the-top, maniacal super-villain is instead an intriguing struggle between Norman's good and bad side. The scene in which Good Osborn talks to Evil Osborn in a mirror is terrific. James Franco is also good as son Harry Osborn, one of Parker's few true friends. Veteran screen actor Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, and J.K. Simmons (as J. Jonah Jameson, a part I always thought character actor Peter Jason would be perfect for) round out the good supporting cast, with Raimi usual Bruce Campbell doing a great little cameo. Spider-Man creator Stan Lee also has a blink-and-you-miss-him cameo during the parade attack. Watch closely.

With references to Dr. Curtis "The Lizard" Conners and (apparently) Eddie "Venom" Brock, and MJ calling Peter "Tiger," among other references, screenwriter David Koepp obviously did his research in writing the story. Many moments throughout the film are taken verbatim from their original source, and while some may see that as lazy, I see it as excellent: staying nearly 100% true to what has already been established, whereas BATMAN and SUPERMAN had their origins and other things altered for the film versions. The CGI of the film was much better than I had been lead to believe. I've heard complaints that the CGI Spidey was terrible, but it was incredible. Although I feel CGI will never replace live actors, recreating an entire human form and making it appear fluid (at least in regards to making these characters act the way you would expect) now appears very doable.

All-in-all, a really incredible film that that has set a new standard for comic book-to-film adaptations that I think will be very hard to pass. Let's hope the sequels maintain quality, unlike the BATMAN films. 10/10.

Don't Say a Word

an A+ thriller
DON'T SAY A WORD turned out to be much better than I was expecting. Michael Douglas was great as a man racing against time to unlock the mystery surrounding a young patient in order to get his kidnapped daughter back. Director Gary Fleder creates a suitably rainy, dreary atmosphere for the film and gives the big city of New York a strange sense of claustrophobia. Sean Bean heads the bad guys in his usual villainous manner, Famke Janssen is good but rather wasted as Douglas' bed-ridden wife, and Britany Murphy is a standout as the girl who isn't as troubled as she leads people to believe. Murphy is definitely one of the few teen actors in Hollywood with any talent, and her performance here is excellent. Jennifer Esposito is good as a cop involved with a double murder that ultimately develops a connection to the main story, though we never learn much about her character other than the fact she wants to get things solved. Perhaps there were already enough characters to work with. Oliver Platt rounds out the cast as a colleague of Douglas' who always seems to be hiding more than he's telling.

For a film that runs nearly two hours, it flies by rather quickly, with a lot of suspense and good performances from everyone involved, all leading up to a tense climax on an East River island that looks like it came from an old Hammer horror film. My only complaint is that, after this big build up for almost two hours that we know Douglas and Bean are ultimately going to go at it, the demise (and I think it's giving nothing away to say the villain gets his at the end) of Bean's character was rather lackluster.

But otherwise, it's a solid thriller that delivers a good deal of suspense, excellent performances, and an intriguing story.

Thir13en Ghosts

could have been a lot better
13 GHOSTS had the potential to be an ultra-frightfest, but failed at it. After all, what would be more frightening than being trapped in a scary old mansion with 13 ghosts? But the execution is lackluster, with only the performances of Tony Shaloub and F. Murray Abraham coming out as the highlights. Matthew Lillard also surprises, leaving his usual goofball image behind and playing things straight. Shannon Elizabeth is awful as usual, but thankfully doesn't have to do much "acting," and ultimately disappears for a good majority of the film until turning up again at the end. That was nice on the filmmakers' part. The ghosts aren't very memorable, but the make-up jobs are excellent, the set design/atmosphere great.

Otherwise, it's a rather disappointing film. The concept had potential, and perhaps in the hands of another writer and/or director, something great could have come out of it. I give it 3/10.

Darkman III: Die Darkman Die

an improvement over #2
Despite what people say, I found DARKMAN III to be a better sequel than DARKMAN II. It had a quicker pace and more action that helped move the standard story along. Jeff Fahey is fun to watch as always, and Arnold Vosloo again does a good job portraying a sympathetic hero. The use of footage from the previous film in some scenes is a little distracting, but otherwise it's pretty good, and the scenes in which (a disguised) Darkman interact with the villain's child are nice. Obviously not up to par with Sam Raimi's original, but better than the previous sequel. I doubt we'll see them, but I wouldn't mind some more sequels.

Darkman II: The Return of Durant

a decent sequel
DARKMAN II isn't as good as the first (obviously), but it's a decent sequel despite the obvious: there's no way Durant should be able to return. He was most-assuredly fried, roasted, toasted and burned all to hell at the end of the previous film, and his return is rather laughable. The story only briefly mentions that he was in a coma since that incident, and doesn't bother trying to come up with anymore more believable. They at least could have had him horribly scared or something, giving him a taste of what he did to Westlake.

But still, it's fun to have him back only so we the audience that take delight in patiently waiting to see him get his at the end. He's just as vial as he was the first time around. Arnold Vosloo takes over for Liam Neeson, and it was nice watching play the hero for a change. He did a good job. Kim Delaney is rather wasted in a part that could have been much more vital to the story than it was.

The film did a good job keeping up the feel of the original, despite lacking Sam Raimi's added punch. It still maintains that comic book feel, with a hidden underground lair and a hero struggling with his own inner rage while trying to stop a madman. Also nice to see the film keep the original movie's musical themes, something sequels don't often do. There's not as much action as the first one, and it's not as good as the second sequel, but as a sequel itself, it's not bad. If only a more believable explanation for Durant's return had been given.


the best non-comic book-inspired superhero movie
Ever since it's original release, I'd been told by nearly everyone I know that DARKMAN was one of the absolute worst movies they'd ever seen. Well, 12 years later (not really sure what took me so long), I finally got around to seeing it and have this to say to everyone I know: you were wrong.

DARKMAN was one of the most fun films I've ever seen. It's virtually a comic book come to life. If you've ever read a comic book and tried to imagine what the action on the paper would look like if it was real, DARKMAN is that thought realized, right down to the hero talking to himself as he ponders obstacles and such. Nearly every camera angle is a comic panel come to life thanks to director Sam Raimi's obvious love for comic books. Though not based on a comic book, DARKMAN has everything I like in a comic: a likeable and sympathetic hero, a truely despicable villain, a remote sanctuary for the hero, an array of set pieces, loads of action, and a lot of excitement. DARKMAN has it all.

It's a bit funny to see Liam Neeson is such a B-movie film, but somehow, he seems perfect for the part, though his acting (amazingly) seems a little off-kilter in some scenes. Larry Drake shatters his L.A. LAW image as the vial Robert G. Durant, displaying a great amount of menace that places him high up on the list of comic book/film villains. Darkman's use of masks to impersonate other people could have easily grown tiresome and repetitive (like in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2), but is handled well, and there are a few moments of well-spotted humor. And unlike a lot of people, I felt this film somewhat lacked Raimi's usual style, especially with there being a lack of fast zoom-ins.

The bluescreen effects are really the film's only weakness, as they literally scream out at you everytime one appears on-screen. But in a way, being that this is a zany comic book come to life, it sort of adds to the fun factor of the film. Raimi handles the action sequences with a frenzied pace that never lets up, my favorite being the sequence involving Darkman hanging from the helicopter as it roars through the city. (Though the sudden inclusion of some wisecracks during the scene seem out-of-place for a character who has remained pretty serious throughout the film).

Another minor quibble is something that I've grown tired of seeing in comic book movies: the hero always ends up without his mask in the big climax. It happened in BATMAN RETURNS, THE SHADOW, and even CAPTAIN AMERICA, if I remember correctly. It's like the filmmakers think the audience will be mad if we can't see the face of the hero during the big final action scene.

But otherwise, DARKMAN is a highly-enjoyable action/thriller with loads of fun that will definitely be appreciated by comic book fans, and should be enjoyed by anyone looking for a fun, over-the-top action movie.

Mission: Impossible II

a real stinker
Amazing that such a great film could be followed by one of the worst movies ever made. Whereas the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was a suspenseful thriller with a sharply-written story, this sequel is just nothing but two hours of Tom Cruise. There's no sharp storyline, no well-executed sequences, no interesting characters, and worst of all, no team work. Cruise pretty much just does everything himself this time around, leaving co-star Ving Rhames in the background. Dougray Scott is a weak villain, Anthony Hopkins is wasted, and Thandie Newton is a disaster, one of the worst actresses I've ever seen. It's amazing John Woo could turn out such a terrible film. Some say BROKEN ARROW was bad, but this is Woo's absolute worst American movie thus far, but then again, you can't really blame the director. I would be tempted to blame the writer instead, but Cruise is probably the one to blame. Skip this movie and stick with the first, but hope the inevitable M:I3 is at least half as good as the first.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park

50s monster movie action
I like trilogies in which each film is a little different. Such is the case with the JURASSIC PARK movies. The first is sort of a science-fiction/epic adventure. THE LOST WORLD is more akin to a 50s monster movie. And JURASSIC PARK III is just a full-blown action movie. Like the best 50s monster movies, THE LOST WORLD offers a simple premise: the good guys travel to an island to rescue another good guy, but get stuck there with a bunch of bad guys and living dinosaurs. Although the movie never really gets going until the forty minute mark (which could have used some editing here and there to quicken things a little), once it does, it doesn't let up. The action is non-stop, the dinosaurs seemingly more real and menacing than before.

Though following the old monster movie standard of set up and attack, set up and attack, Spielberg does a great job with it. The child character adds some cornyness to the film (a part that should have just been left out; does she really do anything important?), but the rest of the film makes up for that flaw. Jeff Goldblum is good as always, even if he is just playing himself, and there's good support from Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Arliss Howard, and Richard Schiff, though Pete Postlethwaite steals many scenes. His (deleted) introduction scene at a marketplace in Africa is very cool. Check it out on the DVD. As a fan of the book, I was very disappointed with all the changes (the book was awesome). But as a movie fan, I was pretty pleased. The film does have its flaws (nearly every movie does), but it's an otherwise well-made monster movie that delivers.

Mission: Impossible

a great and well-written(!) action movie
*possible spoilers* Proving how stale the recent Bond movies have gotten, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is what the future Bonds should aspire to be like. An exceptionally well-written spy-thriller with mysterious characters and a plot for those who like to play the mystery. Tom Cruise is awesome as IMF team pointman Ethan Hunt, who's on the run to prove his innocence after nearly his entire team is killed during a mission in Prague. For the entire film, we're absorbed with the story and Hunt's quest to clear his name and find the person responsible. Co-stars Ving Rhames, Jean Reno, Henry Czerny, and the beautiful Emmanuelle Beart lend some good support to the film as shady characters who you're never sure what side they're on. Jon Voight is a standout as Jim Phelps, in a role that now seems to have typecast him as the over-the-top villain. Much like RONIN, the film has a gritty realism and shows that flashy cars and neat Bondian toys can't always save you. From the now famous (and often copied/spoofed) CIA computer room break-in to the adrenaline-pumping helicopter/train finale, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is one of the best spy-thrillers ever made, and though I love many of the Bond movies up until TOMORROW NEVER DIES, this film most assuredly topples them all.

The Pretender

an enjoyable action series
There's been many shows over the years featuring a nomadic character who helps people as he goes about his journey, but THE PRETENDER is probably my favorite of the bunch. Whereas in other shows the character was always the same, this series added a twist: he was a genius with the ability to assume any profession he chose, from park ranger to FBI special agent. I'm surprised he never posed as an astronaut and went into space. Michael T. Weiss was terrific as the title character, Jarod, who helps right wrongs as he attempts to find the parents he was taken from as a child and continually eludes those chasing him from the mysterious organization from where he's escaped. Because of his ability, each episode was like an individual little movie, because he was someone different each week. And one of the things I liked was the way he would get revenge. Rather than just go for the person, he would slowly toy with them, taking his plan one step at a time. It was really fun to watch him play around with the person.

Sexy Andrea Parker played Miss. Parker (an amusing coincidence that she herself said was one main reasons she took the role), who was filled with utter determination to capture Jarod and return him to the Centre, despite the times he helped save her own life and was someone she knew as a child growing up in the Centre. He even got her to start questioning the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of her mother, whose killer has remained a mystery through four seasons and two TV movies. Patrick Bauchau was Sydney, one of the few people Jarod ever felt that he could trust, and a father figure to him. Sydney often seemed happy for Jarod that he was free of the Centre and able to experience life, and their phone conversations (when Jarod would call for advice or just to talk) were always very nice. The good supporting cast included Richard Marcus (appropriately evil as the nefarious Mr. Raines), Jon Gries as scardy cat computer whiz Broots, Jamie Denton as Parker's brother, Harve Presnell as Parker's father (though that later became debatable following events in the first TV movie), and one-time James Bond himself George Lazenby as Jarod's father, who disappeared from the show as mysteriously as he had appeared.

For three seasons, THE PRETENDER maintained a high quality of entertaining adventures and stories, with a good balance between the Jarod "pretending" stories and the Centre mythology sub-plots. But with the forth season, the show made the same mistake THE X-FILES made: it got too involved with itself. There was more and more focus on the internal conspiracies of the Centre instead of a focus on Jarod and his exploits. The show's mythology began to take over, and it seemed each week there was a new revelation about someone, like the writers couldn't make up their minds as to what they wanted to do. Thanks to this and a heavy dose of pre-emps, PRETENDER began to sag and was cancelled at the end of the season (just so NBC could carry XFL, and look how well that paid off).

But thankfully, some loose ends were tied up by TNT, who picked up the show for reruns and gave us two movies. The first three seasons were the best, and I hope some day the show is made available on DVD.

Batman: The Animated Series

the greatest animated series . . . ever!
I probably don't have anything to say about this show that hasn't already been said in another review. BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES single-handedly revolutionized weekly animated series. Gone were the cheesy animation and lackluster storytelling that had dominated the cartoon during the 60s, 70s, and 80s (though there were notable exceptions during that time). Batman introduced the American public to a new bread of animated show, one that featured detailed stories, top-notch animation, excellent voice work, and feature film-quality music.

What could have been a total disaster turned out to be the best animated series ever. Following in the path of B:TAS's success was a number of series that attempted the same thing, most notably THE X-MEN, a series that also featured excellent animation, writing and voice talents. But B:TAS was the show that survived, receiving numerous Emmy nominations and critical acclaim. Many hailed it as the most faithful (not to mention most amazing) adaptation of the character ever. Quite a statement, but the show more than lived up to peoples' claims.

Though some episodes fell below fans' expectations, the series featured numerous memorable episodes and stories. The team of writers did an excellant (and impressive) job faithfully adapting characters and their stories from the comics. A great deal of credit must also be given to the cast for providing not just great vocals to their roles, but to giving their parts one of the most crucial elements of any role, animated or otherwise .. . character. Kevin Conroy *is* Batman, and Mark Hamill *is* The Joker. Every single character was well-cast, though some were recast; Melissa Gilbert remains my favorite Batgirl.

Another talent deserving of mention is head musical composer Shirley Walker, who each week (along with her rotating team of co-composers) delivered music unlike anything ever heard in any previous animated series. Walker has composed music for television series and feature films (she also conducted the orchestra for the original Tim Burton BATMAN film), but the animated Batman contains her greatest work.

The show should (and most-likely will) always be remembered as an excellent bookmark in the history of daytime animation, and as far as I'm concerned, BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES is *the* greatest animated series ever produced for American television.

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