brodie_kashmir

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Reviews

Lockout
(2012)

Fun film, but you could probably wait for DVD
When entering a film produced by Luc Besson, you can be assured of two things: 1) It'll probably be completely unoriginal and full of clichés and 2) Number 1 won't really matter because it'll be a hell of a lot of fun.

Guy Pearce is one of those actors that never really popped like he should have, but fortunately never really faded into obscurity. I caught both L.A. Confidential and Memento right around the same time, and was instantly a fan of Pearce and anticipated big things for him. His first big budget lead role in the 2002 remake of The Time Machine was a dud, but he's been maintaining a solid presence in art-fare, including 2010's Best Picture winner The King's Speech. He seems to have a lot of fun with his role as ex-CIA agent Snow in Lockout, and he takes the audience along for the ride. He's definitely channeling some Kurt Russell for this.

Peter Stormare is engaging as always, this time as an assholish head of Secret Service, and I always get a kick out of seeing Lennie James on screen (when's he coming back to The Walking Dead?). Maggie Grace has made a career of playing the damsel in distress, and pretty soon they're gonna run out of actors who can save her.

Major credit to both Vincent Regan and Joseph Gilgun for playing to great villains who would, given a better film, go down as some of the better cinematic villains of the past 10 years.

The biggest problem of the film is definitely the production design. The graphics and CGI are laughably bad in the opening chase sequence. Besson and his team created such an amazing world 15 years ago with The Fifth Element, it's almost shocking that they couldn't replicate that look for Lockout.

But I will give it to writer/directors James Mather & Stephen St. Ledger for taking what they gave themselves and making it work, barely. I was never able to fully suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride, but when I did... damn what a fun ride it was.

It's great 80s B-Movie fun, think Escape from New York in space, but with modern filmmaking notions, and a weak plot. It's fun... but never fully realizes it's potential, which is disappointing. I say wait till DVD.

Hannah Montana: The Movie
(2009)

Not my cup o' tea, but good for the kids. Good enough for me
Some of you may be saying "You're a hard drinkin, hard fightin', smokin', drinkin', tattooed son of a gun. 3 Stars? Have you gone soft?" I went in expecting the worst. I even took my friend's fiancée along, so I wouldn't seem like "Creepy old guy at the Hannah Montana." But you know what? I wound up enjoying myself with this cute little kids flick, as generally mindless as it maybe.

Miley Cyrus plays Miley Stewart, who leads a double life as pop sensation Hannah Montana. Only a close knit crew of people know of the double life, and Miley must make the difficult choice of keeping Hannah in her life, or reserving herself to a normal life as Miley. Her father/manager Robbie Ray (Billy Ray Cyrus) ships her off to her hometown in Tennessee following celebrity shoe battle with Tyra Banks to get a dose of the real world, and there she learns to love life as not Hannah. Even finds time for a love life as Miley with farm hand Travis. After it comes out that Miley is "good friends" with Hannah, she's forced into the awkward situation of being with friends and family at the Hannah Montana benefit concert, put on to save her hometown from being bought up by greedy land developers.

This movie combines all the best elements of an 80's sitcom, throws in the "Superman Complex", and rounds it all out with, good, wholesome family fun, that last part I can't, in good conscience, fully decry.

Remember in "Family Ties" when Alex would get a date with one girl for 7pm, and another for 9pm, and then the girl at 9 had to reschedule for 7, so rather than call one off, he tries to manage both dates at the same time? Oh, and at the same restaurant? He'd have to pretend to smoke for one of them, so he could get 9 to sit in the smoking section. Yeah... it was marginally funny then. And got decreasingly funny when Kirk Cameron did it on "Growing Pains," then Joey Lawrence on "Blossom," then it got passed around "Family Matters," "Step by Step," "Boy Meets World," and countless other 80's and 90's sitcoms. Yeah, that's pretty much Hannah Montana. And the "Superman Complex?" - No one seems to realize that Superman looks exactly like Clark Kent without glasses. Likewise... no one seems to realize that Hannah Montana is a blonde Miley Stewart.

The thing about Miley Cyrus, is that I'm rooting for her... she's got some great potential that has yet to be fully realized. I don't think she's a brightly burning star that will fizzle in a year when the Hannah Montana black hole collapses. That's not a slam against Hannah Montana, I just felt like running with the astronomy reference. And she does show a phenomenal screen presence that I would like to see continue on throughout for career. I hope she isn't hampered by the long arm of the Disney Channel. Think a female Shia Lebouf. Let's just hope she doesn't go on to ruin the 80's.

The thing of it is... It's not made for people like me. You know, the over 14 crowd. And it's not made for critics. It's made for kids. We all had movies that we loved as kids, and looking back, we wonder why? Mighty Ducks? Anyone? That was our kids movie, and sticks with us to this day. I now realize it as a mediocre at best flick, but it holds a special place in my heart. And it will for kids these days (that makes me sound like a fogey). I can't fault these kids for that. I'm gonna let them have their movie.

Look for fun cameos from Rascal Flatts and the very lovely and talented Taylor Swift. Barry Bostwick pops up in a funny little role. But in all seriousness... what would have made this film... is Billy Ray Cyrus singing his signature song, "Achy Breaky Heart." You picked up a guitar. You were in front of a mic. You couldn't do the "Achy Breaky?" Throw us older folks a little something.

P.S. For those of you who don't know, I'm not as old as I make myself sound. I'm 23. But I am older than the target audience for this flick.

Observe and Report
(2009)

Rogan tried, but failed, to deliver a great dark comedy
Alright this is more like it. Seth Rogan in a dark action comedy? I should be all about this. Oh wait... IT SUCKED! This was an exercise in defining WTF?!?! that was all over the place, and too scattered for it's own good.

Ronnie (Rogan) is a bi-polar mall security guard with dillusions of grandeur. He takes himself way too serious, and that is his own downfall. He's on the hunt for a serial flasher terrorizing his mall parking lot, and targeting the pretty make-up counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris). He feels some competition from the actual police, especially Det. Harrison (Ray Liotta), so he steps up his game to bring the pervert to justice. Oh, and there's a rash of robberies at the mall. Oh, and he's trying to be a real cop. Oh, and there's an underdeveloped possible love story between Ronnie and Brandi.

It's significantly darker in tone than the other Mall cop flick to come out this year, Paul Blart. But that doesn't change the fact that it's the second mall cop flick to come out this year (within 2 months of each other). Really Hollywood? Two? Are you coming out with a Go-Bots flick this year, too? Hollywood's desperation for original story lines aside, like I said, it's a scatter shot flick that never even tries to find it's proper footing. One minute we're on the pervert. The next minute we're on Ronnie's badge and gun ambitions. The third we're on the mall store robberies. What is the movie about? Everything, which ultimately leads to nothing. And not in the cool nihilistic way. But in the "What the hell did I just watch?" kinda way.

Rogan (Pineapple Express, Knocked Up) is a tremendous comedic talent and I dig what he does. And I give him props for extending his comedic range into darker territories. But this film was just wrong on so many levels, that I ask the question I do so rarely actually ask... Why the hell was this film even made? But he at least gets props for trying.

Luckily you can never count out the comedic talents of the beautiful Anna Faris (House Bunny, Waiting...). Usually despite how I feel about the film, I'll almost always enjoy her performance.

Despite a strong performance from Faris, and the interesting turn from Rogan, I can't recommend this film. Not even to rent. Skip it. You're not missing a damn thing.

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

Entertaining, but it falls apart at the end.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 3 stars That right there, giving it 3 stars, pains me. I really wanted to like this more. But because George Lucas was involved, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull went from a moderately enjoyable to completely ridiculous faster than Dr. Jones can anger the Nazi Party.

It's been about 20 years since we last saw Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr. (Harrison Ford), and that's how much time has passed in his little movie-verse. The year is 1957, right in the middle of the Cold War, and the KGB, led by Irina Spalko (Cate Blancett) has enlisted the help of Indiana to track down the famed and elusive Crystal Skull of Akator, with ties to a lost city of gold in Peru. Don't worry, Indy hasn't gone Red. He's an unwilling participant, the KGB is using him for his knowledge of ancient artifacts. After he narrowly escapes a nuclear blast test (thank you 1957 home appliance construction), Indy returns to his day job: college professor, only to find out a former colleague, Dr. Oxley (John Hurt) has been captured by the KGB, and Ox's protégé, Mutt Williams (Shia Labeouf) has come to Dr. Jones for assistance in tracking down Ox. Which leads them to Peru and the search for the Crystal Skull.

I can't really get into more without revealing key plot details, but that's the long and short of it. And it's a really great premise.

Indiana Jones 4 succeeded where several reboots and sequels have failed. It didn't fall into the trap of "Hey, remember this from the original? It was funny then, so we're gonna do it 20 times in the new one." *cough*Pirates 2*cough* It alluded to the original trilogy, in so much as it provided good bridging stories for several favourite characters, including Dr. Jones, Sr. and Marcus Brody. And there certain logical references, including a flash of the Ark of the Covenant in a secret hanger. But it never strayed into the territory of *nudge nudge wink wink*.

The problem is that it is 20 years on. Harrison Ford is showing his age. The franchise is showing its age. The 80's were a different cinematic landscape than the 00's (I believe the preferred nomenclature is the Odds, or something like that). And I appreciate the throwback to both the original franchise specifically, and to the old serial genre in general.

In the 80's, the films were centered the myth's surrounding the Judeo-Christian faith, and they took several liberties with it in the name of entertainment. And let me state that that was always the intended purpose of the films: to entertain. And they all, including this new one, succeeded fantastically at entertaining. But in 2008, the social climate concerning religious dogma, particularly concerning the Judeo-Christian faith, has become more of a taboo than it was 20-30 years ago. And I think that hindered the development process of the Indy 4. They had to take on a new artifact from a different era and a different culture. Maybe that strayed a bit too far out of my Indiana Jones comfort zone.

But since they went with the ancient Mayans, let's focus on that. Really entertaining, and I stuck with it even through Mutt Williams swinging on vines like Tarzan. But where it jumped the shark into complete ridiculousness was the end, when it switched from Spielberg to Lucas real fast. I sat in the theater thinking "What the hell?" I still can't grasp my head around the ending. Oh, I understood it. I just can't believe that they did it, because it's so phenomenally stupid. And the thing of it is, is that it's not entirely stupid. Just one aspect. Had they ended the sequence a few minutes sooner, it would have been semi-OK. But no, they went for it, and it's just a severe letdown.

Ford slips back into Indiana Jones like an old baseball mitt. He's dusting it off, finding his comfort zone, all the little spots that made the character his own. But there are definite signs of aging. Fortunately he doesn't come across as an old guy trying to recapture his youth. He plays the character as too old for the action, but he does it anyway, and he does it brilliantly.

I can't finish this review without talking about Cate Blanchett. There are so few great villainous roles written for women, and she's the perfect actress to take it on. She's the finest of our time, and throws in the right amount of villainy, naivety and curiosity.

I spoke earlier of the throwbacks to the original trilogy, and perhaps the biggest and best was saved for the third act. Karen Allen returns as Marion Ravenwood. It brings the story full circle, rather than being a cheap attempt to bridge the films.

If you liked the original trilogy, you'll be entertained by Crystal Skull. But don't expect it to be the greatest Indy film, because it isn't. As much as that pains me to write.

  • Brodie Mann

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
(2008)

Better than the first
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian 4.5 Stars You know, Peter Jackson, god bless him, but he set the bar so impossibly high for epic fantasy film making. Damn your rings and the lords of them. However... directer Andrew Adamson continues to come within striking distance of said bar with his thus-far very impressive and equally epic Chronicles of Narnia series, continuing this past week with part 2, Prince Caspian.

So, the Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy (William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley, respectively), when we left them at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they had vanquished the White Witch, brought peace to Narnia, and grown up to be legendary Kings and Queens. Then they get transported back to the real world, where literally no time has passed, and they are back to being kids. In the second installment, it's a year later for them, yet 1300 years have passed in Narnia. And they return after Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes) calls for them on Susan's mystical horn. Caspian is the rightful heir to the throne, but in a move reminiscent of the Bard, his uncle, King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) made a deadly move for the throne by killing Caspian's father. Miraz is a tyrant, all the Narnians are now thought to be extinct, yet they're just living in hiding. So Caspian, along with the Pevensies, must bring peace, order and balance back to Narnia.

As previously stated, the bar for epic fantasy is so, well, epically high, that it seems almost unattainable. And it's hard to compare The Chronicles of Narnia to Lord of the Rings, because they are so different thematically, in tone, in presentation, in style and in it's target demographic.

But there is still that similar genre, so comparisons must be made. The reason the Narnia films have done, and will continue to do, so well where others like Eragorn and Golden Compass and even Bridge to Terabithia have failed is that it seems to refuse to placate to the childhood nostalgia aspect. The others have played it safe by staying safely within the realm of "kids movie," never having to invest a lot in grabbing older audiences. But Narnia is going all out in it's movie making. While it is significantly toned down, when compared to LotR, it doesn't feel like a "kids movie." And it is the one series, I feel, that can truly be enjoyed on every level by kids, parents, and even grandparents.

Adamson presents the film, and the story, for that matter, as is. He doesn't "dumb it down" for the kids, and he doesn't get too convoluted with the storytelling. He respects the source material, C.S. Lewis, and the audience, and that's the strongest thing this film has going for it. And despite the PG rating, the battle scenes are really intense. Very well done.

I always take time to discuss the actors, because they need to respect the material just as much as the director or writer does. Adamson gets some absolutely fantastic performances from the young actors, who descend in age at 21, 19, 16 and 12 (Moseley, Popplewell, Keynes and Henley). Their grasp of the characters they play, the importance of the script, their handling of the script, and the subsequent gravitas they bring to the characters shows talent that some actors more than twice their age struggle to exhibit. With the third installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader already in pre-production (set for a 2010 release), I'm gonna miss Moseley and Popplewell. Peter and Susan are not in that book (not for long anyway), so they won't really be in the flick. And they'll be missed. By me anyway.

Definitely hit the theatres for this one.

Speed Racer
(2008)

Speed Racer gets by on entertainment alone- barely.
Speed Racer

I've often pondered if a movie can scrape by on sheer entertainment factor alone. Speed Racer answers yes, but barely.

Based on the 60's anime series (check out the first season on Hulu), Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is the kid brother of racing legend Rex Racer, who walked out on the family business and met an untimely death in a cross country rally race. Ten years later, Speed is the next big thing in racing, and he must now compete to save his family's independent auto company, and to bring honour back to the sport of racing. In order to do so he must compete in the same race that killed his brother, there-by qualifying for the Grand-Prix. He's able to do so with the help of his father Pops (John Goodman), girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), mechanics Sparky and Spritle (Kick Gurry and Paulie Litt) and the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox).

I defended this flick for a long time because I figured it would come up against the same kind of nay-sayers that 300 hit last year. They just wouldn't understand the filmmaker's vision and direction. What Andy and Larry Wachowski were going for is a bizarre amalgamation of live action and anime. And fortunately for the film, they accomplish it. It's a high energy, very kinetic, very fantastical film. I was dazzled by the sheer ballsiness of it. And it did entertain me for the entirely too long 135 minute run time.

But it came apart in the writing. That's where it got it's length. Too often the story plodded along toward the action. That could be the problem with translating anime to a feature film. Anime is known for taking forever to go somewhere (and why it got so popular with the ADD afflicted youth of America, I'll never understand). And it's sort of an irony of hypocrisies that the film called Speed Racer moves at a snails pace. But the Wachowski's never seemed to figure out that this wasn't a high concept action flick like The Matrix. It was a film based on an anime about a guy who races a really cool car to fight corporate corruption and avenge his brother's death. Stick to the racing guys.

But the remarkably talented cast did their damnedest to work with the little they were given. Hirsch (Alpha Dog, Into the Wild) has set himself up as one of the most promising young actors in the game, and even with the kitchy dialog and drawn out non-racing scenes, you get this sense that he really is trying to do both his talent and the material justice. If only the Wachowski's had done the same.

Ricci (Black Snake Moan) is pitch perfect as Trixie. As is Goodman (The Big Lebowski) as Pops. The two seemed to have a deeper understanding of the characters, that went beyond what was handed to them at rehearsals. Granted, Pops and Trixie aren't the most complex characters in the world, but they certainly are fun, and iconic in their own way. They knew it was important to get the characters right, and they did. Kudos to them.

I would have to say that kids and those with only a passing interest in the original Speed Racer would enjoy this (especially kids), as the more hard core fans will only leave the theatre disappointed and feeling nothing but resentment and disdain for the brothers Wachowski.

  • Brodie Mann

Iron Man
(2008)

He really does whatever an iron can
Iron Man The trailer for this film spoke volumes. The film... speaks an entire library. It falls in line with the great superhero films, like Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins. And in some ways, tops them. Such is Iron Man.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a multi-billion dollar industrialist who made his money from weapons development for the military. After experiencing the destructive nature of his arms first hand while a hostage in Afghanistan, Stark feels it necessary to change his life's goal, much to the chagrin of his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Keeping Stark on track and in line are his assistant/love interest Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his military liaison/best friend Jim Rhoades (Terrance Howard). In order to combat his former war profiteering ways, Stark develops an advanced suit of armor with the latest in robotics, computers, weaponry and metals, leading him to be affectionately known as the Iron Man.

In recent years, mostly since 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Downey has become one of my favourite actors. and the character of Stark/Iron Man is the best for him. Or maybe he's the best for the character. The thing fascinating thing about Stark is his motives behind being a hero. With Batman it's revenge, Superman the desire to do good and Spider-man it's guilt. But with Iron Man, it's atonement. Stark experiences first hand the wrath of his weapons. And then he realizes that he has to do more than just denounce weapons production. He has to right his wrongs. Only way to do that, is to be Iron Man.

And that's where Downey takes over. Downey has a knack for playing uniquely troubled characters. Tony Stark is one that he deeply understands, as he himself is a fan of the comic book. Downey figured out the character, and enveloped it. Too many times we had Brandon Routh as Superman or Tom Jane as The Punisher. But with this, it was Robert Downey, Jr. is Iron Man.

But Downey, as talented as he is, did not make this flick on his own. There was the bizarre, inexplicable romantic chemistry between him and Paltrow, as his long suffering assistant Pepper Potts. The two actors have had very different careers, and never in a million years would I have picked those two to portray romantic leads in a film. But for some reason, it worked. The fact that they are so different, and so are the characters, made it work.

Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski, Arlington Road) is an actor, who if you were to ask me to define his career, I couldn't. He's played a multitude of characters in a myriad of different genres. But his turn as the villainous Obadiah Stane/War Monger is a fantastic look at a villain. He wasn't the traditional villain. He wasn't driven by hatred for the hero, or megalomaniacal desires. He's driven by protecting his own interests in war profiteering. He's the embodiment of true villainy. He's looking out for number one, and he's protecting his greedy interest. He's got no real regard for anyone else, just himself. He's the perfect counterpoint to Downey's Stark.

Director Jon Favreau deserves a lot of the credit for this film. He kept the reigns on the story to keep it from getting too out there, and actually explored the practical science of Iron Man. Sure you have to suspend some disbelief as several pieces of technology don't exist or completely defy laws of physics. But a lot of it is very interesting. And Favreau, like Downey, knows and understand the material. He was able to respectfully bring Iron Man to the big screen.

I highly recommend this for anyone. It combines what made the dreadful Fantastic Four popular and what made Batman Begins so damn good. It finds the balance with light fun, hard core action and in-depth character study.

Bobby
(2006)

Gloriously realized, if at times scattered
Eerily released almost 43 years to the day after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bobby is about the people present at the Ambassador hotel at the time of the assassination of JFK's younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

The film tells somewhat interconnected stories of roughly 20 people who were at RFK campaign headquarters on the day of the California primary, including an aging singer (Demi Moore), two elderly doormen (Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte) who have seen literally everything, a young couple trying to stay out of the war (Elijah Wood and Lindsay Lohan), and various hotel workers dealing with daily stresses compounded by the political event (William H. Macy, Christian Slater and Freddy Rodriguez).

To tell you all the stars who were in this movie would be to take up all the space that's afforded to me. There's so many, it's easier to tell you who gave the best performances. Moore was engaging, Rodriguez was heartbreaking, Hopkins was amusing and Shia LaBeouf was just great as the young campaign worker worried about going to war. And the acid trip scenes were just amusing. In a movie littered with acting giants and stalwarts, the two standouts were a couple of relatively unknown kids in LaBeouf and Rodriguez. I see great things for both of them in the years to come.

One thing that I never thought I'd say, in all my years as a film fan and then critic, is could an Oscar nomination be on the horizon for Bobby director Emilio Estevez? This is Coach Bombay (The Mighty Ducks) having written and directed one of the best films of the year. It's still taking me some time to wrap my head around that. But he did a fantastic job. He faltered with the pacing. It was scattered, and trying to corral the stories of 22 major characters is a lofty endeavor. I commend him for trying, but it was ultimately too much and got out of control, he was barely able to bring it back in for the closing.

Leaving that looseness aside, where the film succeeds, where Estevez succeeds, is in the presentation the film. He presents it in such a manner that really captures the spirit of the era, of Bobby Kennedy. He and his exquisitely talented cast put us back in an era of hope, an era of faith in our political leaders. RFK had come along at the right point in history. His brother was assassinated just five years prior, Martin Luther King Jr. just three months prior and he was seen as the hope of the nation by his supporters.

The tone of the country was mixed at that time. There was distrust going on. New Orleans District Attorney William Garrison was just starting his investigations into the JFK assassination. Dr. King and Malcolm X were dead, the country was in the midst of the Vietnam War. It was a nation of turmoil. And RFK was the hope. If anyone could have made the nation great, it was him.

It seems to be perfect timing on Estevez's part to release this at this time in history. There are plenty of parallels between the time period of the movie and now. Country in turmoil, in the middle of a popular war, and there is possibly a candidate out there that could be considered the hope of the nation. A lot of people are looking at Barack Obama as a new kind of politician, to bring about change, and that he could be the next president. In that capacity, capturing the late 60's and relating it to present day, Bobby succeeds. That accomplishment alone overshadows the organizational pitfalls.

Casino Royale
(2006)

Bond is back, and is better than he has been in a long... long time
Casino Royale is gritty, visceral, bloody, violent throwback to the stripped down James Bond flicks of the 60's, a great diversion from the CG and gadget heavy films of the 90's and 2000's.

Casino Royale is about the start of James Bond's (Daniel Craig) career. From the time he gets promoted to a 00 agent (license to kill) and his first major assignment, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who helps finance various terrorist organizations around the world. His investigation takes him to Madagascar, the Bahamas and finally to Italy to compete against Le Chiffre in a high stakes ($10 million buy in) poker game in order to take down Le Chiffre's business, with the help of fellow M16 agent Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), British Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright).

The writers (Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis) and director (veteran Bond director Martin Campbell) had this idea that in order to compete for super-spy supremacy in the modern world of Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, who have their brains, their brawn, and little else to go on, a CG flick with more futuristic gadgets than Batman wouldn't fly, and opted for a stripped down, no-nonsense film. Early on in the film, the free-style walking/movement technique known as Parkour is heavily used in a very long but very intense chase scene between Bond and an African bomb maker (who is played by one of the creators of Parkour). The most high tech gadget Bond is given throughout the whole film is the portable defibrillator in his glove compartment.

Obviously, when discussing a new Bond flick that features a new actor portraying the world's most famous spy, discussion of his performance is a top priority. Everyone wants to know how he'll do. And there has been no greater scrutiny of a casting decision than that of Craig for Bond. Craig (Layer Cake, Munich) comes in at a very close second to Sean Connery for best Bond. He's got the swagger. The charismatic, cocky, "I'm the baddest mother" in the room swagger. But since he's playing a younger, less experienced Bond, he also has an intensity and naivety to his performance that makes it much more than just another Bond, it propels him to a high plane. You actually take note of Craig's talent for acting, not just his talent for portraying Bond.

Craig's supporting cast is just wonderful. The beautiful and talented French actress Green (The Dreamers, Kingdom of Heaven) is a mesmerizing Bond girl. Mikkelsen is one of the best villains we've seen since Christopher Walken in A View to a Kill. Wright, Giannini and Dame Judi Dench round out the stellar cast that help Craig slip into Bond's tuxedo with ease.

But however impressive this film may have been, it was still a rookie film. It felt like a rookie film. Craig played Bond to the best of his abilities at the time, but he's still trying to gather his full bearings. His second film will be simply amazing. He'll be more comfortable with the character. And the film just didn't feel the same without the beloved Q branch.

I would have accepted this film as just a straight spy film. It didn't need the James Bond brand. And there are times when it doesn't feel like a Bond film. Because when you think of Bond, you think beautiful women, fantastical gadgets, and vodka martinis, shaken not stirred. Giving Bond depth, emotion and multiple layers sends the franchise in a whole new direction. Only time will tell if that works for the cocky ladies man.

Stranger Than Fiction
(2006)

Entertaining, flawed, but entertaining
I always welcome the notion of a career comedian steps out of his element and turns to drama. It's done well for the likes of Jim Carrey in "The Truman Show", Robin Williams in "Good Will Hunting" and Jamie Foxx in "Ray". We're able to add Will Ferrell to that list, who takes a break from his usual goofy, over-the-top shtick to take on a toned down and more serious role in Marc Forster's ("Finding Neverland") new film "Strange Than Fiction." Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a lonely IRS agent who lives a simple and menial life until he starts hearing a woman's voice narrating his life. He decides it's not schizophrenia, as the voice isn't communicating to him, it's just talking about him and what he does, and seeks out help from a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) to help him figure out what the narrator means by "imminent death." After the pseudo-soul searching he's forced into, he changes his life so as to live it to it's fullest before his death.

It's a comedy of sorts. There are plenty of jokes in Zach Helm's script to keep it light, but it's still a somber piece that keeps the audience hooked by having us trying to figure out the end just as much as Crick is. And through the scenes involving Emma Thompson's writer character Kay Eiffel, you become entrenched with the life and outcome of Crick.

Ferrell is of course the star, and he is able to prove to audiences that he is more than a "frat-pack" goofball. His emotional and subdued performance is gold and I can only hope that he does more dramatic work in the future.

I have yet to come across a performance of Hoffman's that I don't like. Sure some are better than others, but I've enjoyed them all. This is one of his average ones, and certainly won't be one that will be spoken of at an Academy Awards or AFI tribute to him, but seeing a good actor work isn't something that should be passed up. Maggie Gyllenhaal is still doing a balancing act between independent features and major studio productions. Here she plays the love interest of Crick, and while I don't dislike her as an actor, she has yet to do a major studio film where she's really good. She handles the smaller, edgier fair much better and until she finds a stronger voice, should stick to those for a while.

And that's pretty much how the whole film goes. There is no wow factor to it. Hoffman, Thompson, Queen Latifah and Gyllenhaal, all competent, capable actors give middling performances in an intriguing film, but goes the route of the Hollywood happy ending, rather than the shockingly depressing ending. There's almost a wink and a nod to the movie in relation to Eiffel's book in a scene between Hoffman and Thompson. It's OK but not great. And Thompson says she's comfortable with OK, and explains her rationale behind it. It seems like the writer, director, actors and producers settled on OK, rather than trying for great. It works as an OK film. But that's ultimately all it is, Ferrell's award caliber performance aside.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
(2006)

Brilliantly funny, wickedly smart
"Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" not only has one of the longest titles recent cinematic history, but it's also one of the funniest and most offensive films I've seen. And I love it.

Borat Sagdiyev (Sacha Baron Cohen) is Kazakhstan's top television reporter, and he's sent to America with a film crew to learn about American culture, and bring his findings back to his beloved homeland, with the hopes of bringing Kazakhstan into modern cultural relevancy. He is naïve in the way of American manners, decency and political correctness, saying or doing whatever comes to mind, and has clearly never heard the phrase "when in Rome." The people he interacts with are either offended by what he does or oddly accepting. It's like when adults interact with a three year old who does something wrong. They turn their heads and say "oh, isn't that precious." But Borat isn't content with that; he has to take it to the point of offensiveness.

The hilarity is that the joke is on us. He isn't making fun of Kazakhstan, as they're government believes (they event went so far as to taking out a four page ad in the New York Times denouncing the film). He is making fun of American ignorance. He goads people into saying things on camera that makes them look stupid or bigoted. In the South, at a rodeo, he gets one of the riders to admit that America should to make homosexuality punishable by death. In New Mexico, he hitches a ride with some fraternity boys from California, and gets them to say that everyone should have slaves, and women are beneath men.

He doesn't trick them by asking them leading questions. These are candid conversations with the subjects. It could be construed as a trick, since it is Cohen in character, but I would hardly feel any sympathy for the subjects, as they were being honest in their bigotry. That and laughing at the clueless is just good old fashioned fun.

Cohen has proved himself to be one of the finest comedic actors of our time in just about everything he does. His devotion to his craft is unrivaled. He never broke character when he was doing his television show, "Da Ali G Show." In the movie he never breaks character. In the weeks and months leading up to the premiere of the film, he would only appear in character, in order to keep the illusion and the joke going. He really makes his subjects, and at times the audience, believe that he is, in fact, a Kazakh journalist.

I'd have to say the best moment of staying in character was the fight in the hotel Borat had with the producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian). They take it from the room, down the hall, into the elevator, through the lobby and crash a Mortgage Bankers conference in a ballroom, never breaking character. It is pure dedication, and I have never laughed so hard in my life.

The mockumentary gets bogged down by an actual (and very thin) plot. Originally the documentary Borat was shooting was to stay only in New York City. But he falls in love with Pamela Anderson after seeing an episode of "Baywatch" and decides he has to travel to California to marry her. It's an obvious "deus ex machina" that sets the action in motion, but is totally unnecessary. The Pamela Anderson meeting wasn't really that funny when compared to the rest of the film, and the cross country travel could have been easily explained another way.

But silly plot lines aside, it's one of the smartest and most intriguing comedies in a long time. I really can't remember a movie where I laughed this hard, at least not since 2003's "Bad Santa."

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause
(2006)

Hypocritical and insulting
I refuse to acknowledge the sequel rule. The rule that states all sequels are inherently inferior to their predecessors. There have been plenty of sequels out there that have far surpassed the original that just prove the theory wrong. But then there are films that completely prove that theory right. "The Santa Clause" was a perfectly nice movie when it came out 12 years ago. "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause" was just terrible, and almost a disservice to the memory of the original.

Santa (Tim Allen) has to deal with life as a newlywed with a baby due right around Christmas time (his obvious busiest time of the year), and his wife, Carol (Elizabeth Mitchell) yearning for familial company that isn't an elf. Santa decides to invite Carol's parents (Alan Arkin and Ann-Margret) up to the North Pole to keep her company. This poses the problem of hiding the fact that he's Santa for the duration of the stay. And did I mention that an ornery Jack Frost (Martin Short) is trying to take over Christmas for financial gain? The cast is fortunately able to work with what they're given (which isn't much). I'm always entertained by the underrated Allen. Mitchell is experiencing a thrust in popularity lately, mostly due to her impressive role on the new season of "Lost", but she's always been somewhat of a hidden gem of a character actor, and is finally getting some recognition. Arkin, in my opinion, was the real joy of this film. He's always funny, and a treat to watch on film. He's got this old school comedic timing that's reminiscent of Sid Caesar, and it's interesting to see how that plays off the younger comedic generation comedic in Allen, and then further down to the younger performers playing the elves.

But cast performances aside, I'm not entirely sure what is more insulting to me as a viewer. Is it the poor writing on a pure mechanical level or is it the fact that it hypocritically scolds us in a "holier than thou" manner while being completely unoriginal, and doing so poorly at it? If I look at it on the pure mechanical level, it is technically two full stories. One stretches the course of the entire film, and the other is awkwardly implanted in the middle. In the pure mechanical sense of narrative writing, it should have been broken into two separate films.

The first one being the annoying plot line of Jack Frost trying to steal Christmas away from Santa. It sounds like a rejected Rankin/Bass special from the 1970's. The all too sweet and simple dialogue seems to downplay the talent (however immense or minute) of the adult actors on screen, and makes it somewhat painful to endure as an audience member.

The second plot line was borrowed directly from "It's A Wonderful Life". Replace "I wish I'd never been born" with "I wish I'd never been Santa Clause" and you've got it. The only problem is that Santa/Scott isn't trying to learn a lesson. There's no lesson to be learned or taught. And this cycles back to this film as a whole being an insult to the viewers. It tells the audience that the spirit of Christmas is what's important, not the monetary or material gain. But if a third and unnecessary "Santa Clause" film isn't a desperate grab at the pocketbooks of parents, I'm not entirely sure what is.

There are a plethora of really good holiday films out there for everyone to enjoy. They're better, and they have a better message. In the next two months you'll be inundated with holiday programming on television and in the video stores. Find something other than this. There's even another Christmas movie coming out in two weeks. You'll do better with that. "The Santa Clause 3" is just a mess of a film.

The Prestige
(2006)

A magically wonderful film
Very rarely does a film tell you exactly what's going to happen within the first five minutes. And it's one in a billion that the movie still keeps you on the edge of your seat right up until you say "Oh my god" at the end. Such is the new thriller "The Prestige".

Brothers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan (writer and director, respectively) team up again for the first time since 2000's "Memento" to adapt Christopher Priest's novel about two magicians in the late nineteenth century, dueling for supremacy. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) start their careers as audience plants for an aging magician. After the untimely death of Angier's wife, which he blames Borden for, the two separate and challenge each other for best entertainer in London. As they progress the challenge further and further, it begins to get dangerous for the two men, both sustaining sever injuries.

Angier has greater means at his disposal, enlisting the help of his manager Cutter (Michael Caine), assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johnasson) and famed physicist/engineer Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). But Borden is craftier; having the most magnificent trick that Angier just can't figure out.

Nolan is one of the most intriguing directors of this generation. His films unfold in a way that's conducive to the actual plot of the movie. "Memento" was told backwards, so we had the same feeling of being lost as the main character. In "The Prestige", Caine explains the structure in the form of a magic act. First act is the pledge, the set up the exposition, as with any story. The turn is where we see that there's something more to the story than meets the eye. And the titular prestige, that's the payoff, the wow factor. And it's an amazing payoff. They tell you to expect the unexpected, but you're still fascinated and glued to your seat.

The film is presented in a very dark and sinister manner, which accentuates the escalating duel between the magic men. It's the same tone Nolan brought to the resuscitated "Batman" franchise.

It's a supremely talented cast that Nolan was able to put together, everyone at the top of their game. Jackman is the real stand-out, breaking away from his action persona he's carved for himself and taking on a demanding dramatic role that showcases his true talent. Bale continues his impressive streak as one of the top actors of this generation. He has this intense screen presence that very few others have and is just mystifying. You could see it in "American Psycho" and "Batman Begins", his performance is what really made those films, and helps propel this one. But I can't forget the scene stealer in Bowie. He plays the role of Tesla very dark and restrained, giving him this air of creepiness.

I can't wait to see what the sibling auteurs do with future projects (including a "Batman Begins" sequel), but if their tried and true track record holds, we're in for a cinematic treat.

The Fountain
(2006)

A visual experience unlike no other
Modern science fiction has been greatly influenced by George Lucas. It's become this big grand production of epic proportions. New age auteur Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) has dared to scale back the genre, falling more in tune with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Oddity, making The Fountain, starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz one of the more intriguing sci-fi films in recent years.

The base story of The Fountain is about Tommy and Izzy Creo (Jackman and Weisz, respectively). Tommy is a contemporary research scientist trying to figure out the cure for cancer, which his wife Izzy has. He believes he has found it in an ancient Central American tree. Meanwhile Izzy is finishing her novel set in 1500 Spain about Queen Isabel, who sends Conquistador Tomas on a mission to find the tree of life in New Spain (Central America). The third portion of the story is set in 2500, where Tommy has lived for the past 500 and is waiting for the tree to enter a nebula and be destroyed.

I could spend the entire review trying to explain the plot, but it's too intricate to do so. Jackman is still trying to prove his worth and talent as an actor to the general film going public, and after this and The Prestige from earlier this year, I don't think he has anything left to prove. He's a very capable actor, and his scenes as present day Tommy were some of the most touching I've ever seen in a sci-fi film. Weisz continues to push herself as an actress, taking on challenging or different roles than what she could take, and thus stretching her dramatic range, making her that much more appealing as an actress.

Aronofsky is of the new generation of film-making, the millennial generation. Where Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher led the pack in the 90's, Aronofsky is in the company of Christopher Nolan and Richard Kelly on the front lines of 21st century film-making. He retools a genre that's become known for being bombastic, goofy and out there. He evokes drama and emotion from the genre and it's simply moving. I can't wait to see more of his work The primary reason Aronofsky is so engaging as a filmmaker is his visual style. It's not enough for him to present a beautiful and wondrous tale; he does so in a beautiful and wondrous way. The scenes set in the future take place in space in this sort of, bubble. The tree and some of the surrounding earth is floating in a bubble towards the nebula that was believed by the Mayans to be the afterlife. It's one of the most beautiful effects created. The Queens palace in the 1500 set scenes is just as stunning. The room was lit by an amazing series of suspended candles, and it provides some of the most aesthetically pleasing visuals I've seen all year.

Aronofsky's gift for making an intriguing web of a film is a curse upon his talent that sometimes he gets so far into his own world that he forgets that the audience isn't inside his head with him. The futuristic scenes aren't made clear in their narrative intentions till about halfway through the film, confounding the audience to their impact on the story. But it's a treat to look at, so you almost don't even mind.

It's a welcome step outside the generic mainstream, which I can only assume is Aronofsky's intention.

The Nativity Story
(2005)

Stale, mechanic, boring... was it necessary?
I feel it necessary to start off this review by stating that I am an atheist. I choose not to have any religion in my life. But I'd also like to state that I can fully enjoy a religious themed movie. The Passion of the Christ was a good movie. But The Nativity Story just simply is not.

The Nativity Story is one of the most familiar stories in the Western world, and is routinely told at this time of year. It's the story of Jesus' birth. And this film from director Catherine Hardwicke (Lords of Dogtown, Thirteen) covers his immaculate conception to his humble birth. Following the arranged marriage of Joseph (Oscar Isaac) and Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes, The Whale Rider), Mary is visited by The Angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig, Star Trek: Deep Space 9), telling her that she will carry and give birth to the son of God. She flees Nazareth for a brief period to gather her thoughts, staying with her cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Agdashloo, 24) who is also miraculously pregnant. Mary returns noticeably pregnant, and is at first an outcast, but after Gabriel visits Joseph, he becomes a believer to. King Herod (Ciarán Hinds, Munich) orders every man to return to the town of their birth for a census, forcing Joseph to lead a very pregnant Mary back to the town of Bethlehem. They arrive just in time for her to go into labor, and are only able to find a manger to stay in. Jesus is born, everybody is happy. The end.

It's the same old thing we're drilled with time and time again, every December, with TV specials and recreations on the Discovery Channel. And that's exactly what this feels like. I'm sure if I flip to TLC later tonight I would find "The Story of Mary" playing. It has only a slightly better production value than those made for TV movies, but only slightly better. But the whole production was very bland and mechanical, like they didn't even try with it. It's as if she, the producers and writer Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, The Rookie) felt that the story was good enough as is, so there would be no need to do anything special to it, which is where this film fails. I'm not implying there should have been a car chase or a fight scene, just jazz it up a bit. Make me care about Jesus. Do something new.

The cast was walking through that. I didn't get the feeling that they really even cared about it. That it was just a paycheck for them. The only actor that impressed me was Isaac. It's sort of a breakout performance for this Guatemalan actor who is relatively unknown in the States. His was the most impressive and engaging in the film. He really captures your attention and emotion and holds it throughout. When the focus shifts to Mary at Elizabeth's house, you want to go back to Joseph.

The most insulting part of the production is the three wise men. They're used as comedic relief, as almost every scene they're in (the exception being the manger scene) features jokes and "witty" banter. I fail to see why this film needed moments of levity. It's OK to be serious. Especially with Jesus. You don't mess with Jesus.

What it all comes down to is, was this film necessary? I think this film begs that question. It wants to have significance, but it doesn't offer anything that you can't get with a church sermon or a PBS special.

Little Miss Sunshine
(2006)

Equal Parts Heartwarming and Heartbreaking
"Little Miss Sunshine" is billed primarily as a comedic film, which does a disservice to the more dramatic aspects of Michael Arndt's brilliant script. And it takes the combined acting talents of Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette, Steve Carell and young actors Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin to make this film one of the funniest and most heart breaking films of the year.

After the standing beauty queen has to step down and not compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, seven year old runner-up Olive Hoover (Breslin) is asked to take her place. She has to get from Albuquerque, NM to Redondo, Calif. in order to compete. Her struggling self-proclaimed self-help guru father (Kinnear) drives their broken down VW bus with his wife (Collette), heroin snorting father (Arkin), suicidal, gay brother-in-law (Carell) and voluntarily silent step-son (Dano) in tow to get Olive to the pageant.

It really says something when the most powerful and engaging performance in a film littered with such highly respected actors came from the 23 year old unknown Dano. And he had no lines till the last half hour. Dano's Dwayne Hoover embarked on a vow of silence till he was accepted into the Air Force flight training program, and at the time of the movie, he's been going for nine months. He's able to emote so much with just his facial and body expressions, and his little notebook. And then he just breaks your heart. It's so incredibly moving. I almost cried.

But beyond the praise due to Dano, the whole cast worked together to construct a family that is forced to grow together during the 800 mile trip. And they all do. Kinnear shows us his tremendous range as an actor in one of his finest performances of his career, and the tremendously underrated Collette gets to showcase the talent that few of us have known for the past few years. But Carell, above them all, is worthy of praise. His career is following the same path of Jim Carrey, and I can only hope he's more lucky with the Oscar voters than Carrey has been.

Arndt was able to resurrect a dying sub-genre of comedy, throw in some drama and score a hit with his first script. He constructed his script in a way that it was equal parts emotionally moving, uproariously funny and adorably heartwarming. It can do all of that in a span of 20 minutes. And luckily, he was able to pull that off, where as several before him failed.

It's one of those films that is like a jigsaw puzzle. It only works because every aspect fits together. The writing works because of the fusion of drama and comedy, the acting works because the characters were the right ones for the actors to portray, and vice versa, the directing works because they had so much to work with. To have this film done any other way, but any other person or group of people just wouldn't have worked. The coming together of all the pieces is what made this great.

From the actors to the writer, the film is littered with impressive rookie performances. But none more impressive than the feature film debut of Grammy winning husband-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. They cut their teeth on music videos back in the early 90's when it actually meant something, and have patterned their transformation into the cinematic world after such new wave auteurs as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. If they don't fall into the Academy's good graces with "Little Miss Sunshine", they will eventually, I'm sure of it.

I must fault production designer Kalina Ivanov for perpetuating the annoying trend of making the time setting ambiguous by mixing modern technology and culture with archaic and anachronistic set dressings and costumes. It was funny in "Napoleon Dynamite" (barely) and two years later it's just sad.

Snakes on a Plane
(2006)

Pure action, pure thrills, pure fun
Once in a great while along comes a film that is the next big "cult classic". Snakes on a Plane is that film for this generation. But it has defied all logic of the cult classic. It had a strong following before it was even released. Scratch that - before it was even done filming.

A year ago fans caught wind of a new film with the simple and obvious title Snakes on a Plane, or SoaP as it became affectionately known as, and latched onto it to create the biggest internet sensation since 1999's Blair Witch Project.

SoaP is about just that- snakes on a plane. FBI Agent Nelville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) has been assigned to escort surfer Sean Jones (Wolf Creek's Nathan Phillips) from Honolulu to Los Angeles after Jones witnessed crime boss Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) murder a district attorney. In order to keep Jones from testifying, Kim orders the release of several crates full of the most poisonous snakes from around the world on Pacific Air flight 121. Agent Flynn has to keep the passengers and crew, and particularly Jones, safe from the deadly reptiles at 30,000 feet above the ocean.

Critics and non-Soapaphiles were quick to push this into the "so-bad-it's-good" category, but I doubt their commitment to the sheer enjoyment of this film. Because that's where it succeeds. SoaP is an unpretentious action thriller that delivers on all counts. It's a pulse pounding thriller that keeps you guessing as to who will live and who will die (though the archetypal minor characters are there to provide us with good death scenes). The action is never over the top and always exciting. And the comedy is never displaced. It's always funny when it intends to be, and serious when it needs to be.

One would want to question what A-list actor Jackson is doing in a presumably B-list film littered with B and C-list actors (David Koechner and Kenan Thompson of "SNL" and "ER's" Julianna Margulies are the next most recognizable people). But Jackson is always the consummate actor, never turning down a role because work is work no matter how prestigious the gig. As an added bonus it shows he has a sense of humor. In a recent interview on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" he claimed he signed on to star after only seeing the film's title in a trade magazine, having never seen a script.

I found no real flaws in the acting. Nothing award worthy or having a significant impact on the craft of acting, but nothing inherently wrong with it. Everyone was in top form.

Let's give credit where credit is due- director David R. Ellis (Cellular and Final Destination 2) and screen writers John Heffernan (debut) and Sebastian Gutierrez (Gothika). As many view this film as a bad film that screams cheesy, it could have easily been handled as such. The film could have elicited more groans of annoyance than cheers of excitement. But it wasn't. It was taken seriously enough to not take itself too seriously, and keep it tight and cheese free.

The unambiguous-ness worked in its favor as well. Last year was littered with metaphoric titles that had to be deciphered in order to understand the movie, or they had little to actually do with the main plot. But when you walk into a movie called Snakes on a Plane, you know exactly what you're getting.

I can't imagine a time when I had that much fun sitting in a movie theatre watching a film. There was an excited energy in the air as the crowed awaited the now iconic line- "I've had it with these mutha-******' snakes on this mutha-******' plane!" and proceeded to shout along with the screen. Part of the enjoyment of the film comes from that very collective experience, but the quality of the film is separate from the viewing experience.

Accepted
(2006)

Nothing New, but funny at times
Frat Pack freshman Justin Long has elevated to his own starring vehicle with the college comedy Accepted, but while his comedic skills are finely honed, anchoring his own film is something he's just not ready for.

Having been rejected from every college he applied to and getting the "we're very disappointed in you" lecture from his parents, Bartleby Gaines (Long) decides to placate the parental units by creating his own college, going so far as to forge an acceptance letter, create a fake (though unfortunately functional website), using his tuition money to rent an abandoned facility to make his own college, South Harmon Institute of Technology (think about the acronym it creates) and even hiring wayward former professor Ben Lewis (Lewis Black) as the dean of the fake school. It all starts to unravel when other recent high school graduates show up to S.H.I.T. after receiving acceptance letters from the website. Gaines has to keep up the appearance of a functional school so uses the tuition money from the incoming freshman to actually turn the building into a "do it yourself" type of institute of higher learning.

The usual college comedy stereotypes exist in the world of Accepted. Frat boys are cocky, preppy jerks. The dean is an uptight, greedy man with an inferiority complex. And the hot chick will learn the error of her ways and go with the nerdy guy. And they aren't even done well. It's carbon copy of the films that lay the ground before it. I like to think of it as a diet Animal House or a low-carb Revenge of the Nerds.

Where the movie really fails is that it puts on the façade of a complex film with a deep message, but it's really just a simple, shallow film.

The Black Dahlia
(2006)

Pointless, misguided, but Hartnett has come into his own and it's a wonder to look at
Brian De Palma has been a maestro of modern film noir. From "The Untouchables" to "L.A. Confidential", even "Mission: Impossible" showing glimpses of noir. But with his new entry into the genre, "The Black Dahlia", starring Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank and set in 1947 Hollywood, he misses, but just barely.

Hartnett and Eckhart play two boxer/cops assigned to the grizzly murder of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), an aspiring actress who was found in a field carved and disemboweled. Twists, turns and sub-plots fly in the who-done-it, with the prerequisite femme fatales being Johansson as Eckhart's loving girlfriend and Swank as an acquaintance of Short, who also happens to be the daughter of one of the more influential men in Hollywood.

It's hard to come up with a more cohesive and in-depth plot summary for various reasons. I don't want to give too much away. I barely understood it myself. And, by fault of De Palma or editor Bill Pankow or writer Josh Friedman, the story is so convoluted that it would take an entirely separate article to explain it. It's an interesting story to be told, it was just told poorly. And I don't know who to blame. It had wonderful dialogue, and when I was able to follow the plot, I could. There was nothing too inherently wrong with the editing as it was. Nice even cuts and it flowed nicely. I can't think of a better modern director to handle this type of film. But it was one, or all of those, which contributed to the downfall of what could have been a fantastic film, a true breakout for Hartnett. I just can't figure out who to blame for the poor storytelling. All the wrong portions of the story were told, some left unresolved.

In this day and age, classic film-noir style walks the very fine line of parody and sincerity. And "Dahlia" went back and forth. Eckhart's Det. Blanchard seemed almost a goofy stereotype of 40's cops, while Hartnett's Det. Bleichert was as hard nosed as they come, challenging Humphrey Bogart for noir supremacy. The entire cast, really, handled the somewhat archaic style of acting without making it seem too hokey.

The acting is top notch all the way through. Hartnett has settled quite comfortably into this style, as his past three major films ("Sin City", "Lucky Number Slevin" and now "Dahlia" have been of this genre and its sub-genres.) He was an actor I had originally written off in the late 90's as a pin-up boy with no real talent other than to look good on screen. But he shows some real charm and chops on screen when playing a style. He's one of those young actors that will come up and join the ranks of the more prominent and serious actors, and major awards are in his future, that's my prediction anyway.

But the true center of attention of this film is the sheer visual beauty of it. Credit should go to both Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond for paying homage to the classic noir films and Italian Oscar-winning production designer Dante Ferretti (2005 for "The Aviator") for accurately and beautifully rendering the look of 1947 Hollywood(land). Zsigmond used the classic tricks of the trade to his advantage, and made a compelling and stark contrast between the feminine and the masculine characters by altering the focus to be softer on the females, making them appear angelic till true motives and intentions are revealed.

Ferretti was the only one to bring the new millennium into the classically stylized film. He made it more graphic and gory than what would have been shown in '47. I urge the weak stomached to stay away.

Jackass Number Two
(2006)

Just plain old fashioned fun
What a sad, depraved culture we live in. Man fishing. Fart masks. A puppet show, using the male's fifth appendage as the puppet. But it's just so funny.

This is normally the point in a movie review where a plot outline is given. But "Jackass Number 2" is without plot. Anyone familiar with the show and two subsequent films would know that there is no plot. It's a series of hilariously painful, disgusting and grotesque stunts strung together. It's not fiction. I don't even know what to classify it as, because it's not a documentary either. It just is. And what it is is funny.

I have this theory that the "Jackass" saga is in actuality the most brilliant concept known to the entertainment business. Since the invention of film, people have locked to the cinema, truly all forms of art, as a form of escapism. They watch the films on the screen as a departure from the daily drudgery of life, fantasizing that they're Humphrey Bogart saying good-bye to a one time love in "Casablanca" or they're Superman, zipping around Metropolis, saving lives. And the crux of my theory is that everyone wants to do stupid stuff. Every person has a secret desire to pull one stupid, insane stunt. I guarantee it. I'm not saying they should, in fact I warn against. But everyone has that desire to. And "Jackass" plays on that desire.

Relentlessly it plays on it. The viewer will run a full range of emotions. From laughing uproariously to nearly vomiting (and for the exceptionally squeamish, they probably will vomit). The most cringe worthy, for myself anyway, was Steve-O's beer enema. The most hilarious was Bam, who is absolutely terrified of snakes, locked in a trailer with a king cobra. And the most sobering event in the film comes from Chris Pontius after a horse milking stunt when he earnestly proclaims how ashamed he is of himself.

Judging this film on the standard criteria is just impossible to do. They aren't acting. There's no script. Mise en scène is the last thing on director Jeff Tremaine's mind when he's trying to capture the running of the bulls. It's shot documentary style. It really comes down to whether or not one can stomach and get joy out of watching a group of masochists cause intentional harm to themselves.

"Jackass" documenter Tremaine was able to consistently make us laugh. And he new exactly what direction to take the film in order to keep us guessing, and keep us right on the edge of our seats. The film started off tame (by "Jackass" standards, for whatever that's worth), and as the film progressed, so did the extreme nature of the stunts. They would get progressively physical, progressively cringe worthy, progressively hilarious.

I there isn't anything inherently wrong. It's just good, wholesome fun. Minus the wholesome. Don't take the family. Finish the popcorn early in case you need a basin in which to… do what some people have done after watching a stunt. Only see this if you can handle it. They put warnings at the start and end for a reason.

The Departed
(2006)

Best film of the year
Martin Scorsese's new crime drama "The Departed" cements the Irish mob's takeover of the crime entertainment monopoly from the Italian mafia. With Jack Nicholson at his best since 1992 and Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio giving the performances of their careers, it's hard to deny the sheer power exuded on screen by these three fine actors.

Frank Costello (Nicholson) is Boston's top crime boss. The Special Investigations Unit of the Massachusetts State Police in Boston has been assigned to take him down. Billy Costigan (DiCaprio) is sent deep undercover to gather all the information he can on Costello and his organization. The only people who know of his true identity are his two supervisors. Costello meanwhile has planted a mole, Colin Sullivan (Damon), inside the SIU to keep him one step ahead of the law. But being so entrenched in the lies and deception is beginning to take its toll on the two young men.

This is Scorsese's best film since 1990's "Goodfellas". There's always been a brutality to his films, and in his nearly 40 year career as a director, it doesn't get any more violent than his saga of two undercover agents on the opposite sides of the law. What's even more intriguing about all the violence and bloodshed is that quite a bit of it isn't shown on camera. Costello walks out from the backroom of a bar drenched in blood, obviously having just done some serious dirty work. It keeps the air of mystery about Costello going around. You don't know what he did, but you know it was big, bad and dirty.

Noted Russian author and playwright Anton Chekov once said that if they see a gun onstage in the first act, the audience will expect it to go off by the third. This emphasizes an attention to detail that Scorsese utilizes to make everything in his entire world, the one he created for his movie, to be expertly planned out. From the café Costigan fights the mafia in to the FBI guy sitting in on the SIU meeting. Everything means something. It makes for a much more engrossing, multi-layered film.

I could go on and on about Jack Nicholson. But come on, it's Jack Nicholson. How do you think he did? The three people that really warrant the most praise are younger actors Damon, DiCaprio and Vera Farmiga, who plays the love interest of both Costigan and Sullivan. They steal the spotlight from consummate and seasoned veterans Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Alec Baldwin. Pay particularly close attention to DiCaprio. He's fully shed that pin-up boyish look from the late 90's and has this brooding, angsty maturity as Costigan that brings his tortured character to life.

One could argue that this just adds to the deterioration of American society. That it's a glorification of violence and crime. With criminals being seen as idols to be worshipped while cops should be seen as oppressors. But looking at the cadre of violent and crime worshipping movies that have come out in the past 20 years, this one would hardly register. It's the most entertaining film of the year, and one the best. It's definitely one to watch come awards season.

Crank
(2006)

Pure, Non-Stop, Unadulterated Action... I loved it
Non-stop action fused with comedy highlight the new Jason Statham vehicle, Crank, which gets your adrenaline pumping till you want to explode. It's an interesting and totally unique concept. But why was I experiencing deja-vu? Chev Chelios (Statham) is a hit man who has just been hit with a slow acting poison known as the Beijing cocktail, which blocks the adrenal glands, effectively cutting off your natural resting supply of adrenaline. In order stay alive and exact his vengeance upon the Latino crime lords who sentenced him to death, Chelios has to stay moving to pump out abnormal amounts of adrenaline, and goes so far as to overdose on epinephrine (artificial adrenaline) and get a full defibrillator shock to the heart.

It's an action film in the purest sense of the term. It fills all 83 minutes of its unusually short run time with action that never stops, which works in favor of rookie writer/directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. In fact, I don't even mind the short runtime, because any more of all that running and fighting would have been just too much to handle, even for hardcore adrenaline junkies.

Jason Statham has this natural talent of portraying this big, tough, intimidating man that you wouldn't want to cross, and then he cracks a joke without cracking a smile which makes him seem much more down to earth, though still intimidating. And that type of energy was brought to the whole production. It's a big tough action film from start to finish, but jokes around without dropping the overall serious tone, keeping the audience reminded that no matter what, he's going to die.

And the ending isn't the real payoff of the film. In recent years, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the surprise or shock twist ending of a film that will leave you asking "what the hell?' (thanks to The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects). But for Crank, it's the journey to the end that makes the movie satisfying. It's like a roller-coaster. You laugh and scream the whole way through, not just at the end when you come into the unloading platform.

While this was Statham's film, it wouldn't have worked as well without the great supporting cast around him. Amy Smart takes what could have been a throwaway role of Chelios' girlfriend, but turned into an impressive performance, keeping up with Statham's humour. And you can't help but recognize and acknowledge the talent of perennial scene stealer Efren Ramirez (Napoleon Dynamite).

But while it is a genuinely enjoyable film, I can't help but think I've seen this before. Neveldine and Taylor seemed to have taken a cue from former Statham collaborator Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino before him on the visual style. Hype-noir action/comedies that aren't made by Ritchie or Tarantino have the misfortune of being compared against the films of the British auteur and his American predecessor. They each set/matched the standard of which all films of the genre are going to be compared for a long time to come. Whether or not it's justified in this case, too much suggests direct influence to not warrant the comparison. It's that, or it just seems like Speed, only in a person instead of a bus.

Beerfest
(2006)

Uproarious... i loved it, see it with friends
The Broken Lizard comedy troupe has had an on-again-off-again love affair with fans and critics alike. They broke into the mainstream with their uproariously funny Super Troopers in 2001, followed by the disappointing Club Dread in 2004. And in order to get their recent hilarious offering, Beerfest, made, they had to pay penance with 2005's mostly horrible Dukes of Hazzard. But luckily, they made us fall back in love with them with the new flick, and it's a true return to form for them.

In Beerfest, brothers Jan and Todd Wolfhouse (BL's Paul Sotor and Erik Stolhanske) travel from their home in Colorado to Munich to honor their dead father's burial wishes. There, they stumble upon a long standing sub-celebration of Oktoberfest known as Beerfest. Automatically dismissed as they belong the illegitimate bloodline of the family who sponsors the Beerfest, and because they are American, Jan and Todd decide to come back the next year, after putting together the ultimate beer drinking team. They ask college buddies Landfill, Barry and Fink (Kevin Heffernan, Jay Chandrasekhar, who also directs and Steve Lemme) to round out the team and endure 12 grueling months of beer drinking training.

What really made both Beerfest and Super Troopers work is the fraternal aspect of the comedy. No one person is a comedic island, all relying on the other four for support. That team effort has become lost as comic's star status and egos have inflated. While the films of Steve Carell and Will Ferrell are funny, they are more about the star, with the supporting players doing just that, supporting. You rarely see a team effort in a comedy.

It's a sophomoric film that plays to our childish humor, and never tries to go high-brow. And the attraction of these types of films is the hands down fun and enjoyment of it, without needing to think too much about the jokes.

While funny and mostly original, I did walk away with a feeling like I had seen it before. It fell into the mold of the great party flicks that came before it. Like Animal House and Bachelor Party before it, it's raunchy and loud and bawdy. It's entertaining, I'll give it that. But it's just derivative.

All the earmarks of a comedy were there. The timing of the actors was obvious, but the poor editing job did it's best to hide that. Lucky for us, it failed. And quite frankly, who likes CG beer? Not I. If you can't drink it, what's the point? But when the jokes are so funny you're rolling in the seat, you'll hardly notice the technical flaws.

It's good to see the raunchy comedy making a comeback. This along with Clerks II and Jackass 2 make the theatre a good place for guys to go and hang out. The comedy flick world is littered with cheesy rom-com's for the girls and tamer fair for teens and younger. The beer and fart jokes almost went the way of the Betamax and 8-track, and were replaced by the neurotic and inexplicably relationship challenged Jennifer Aniston.

The Covenant
(2006)

Dreadful
When watching the new Renny Harlin flick "The Covenant", one has to ask themselves "Am I at a movie theatre, or did I just turn on the Saturday Night Sci-Fi Channel movie?" Ipswitch, Mass. was founded in the 1600's by five families who fled England because of their mystical pagan powers. The Putman's were thought to have been killed off in during the Salem witch trials. Now, in 2006, the four male descendents of the remaining families are developing their magical powers, with the leader, Caleb Danvers (Steven Strait), reaching the full maturation of his powers on his 18th birthday. The families formed this covenant to keep each other in check, as the powers drain the life force of those using it. The long lost heir of the Putman family comes back into town to take all the powers for himself.

I found three metaphors in the film: puberty (get the powers at 13 years old, with full maturation at 18), drugs (the powers are addicting and slowly kill you) and to a lesser extent homosexuality ("my adoptive father caught me using magic when I was 15, and we kept it quiet"). All three were obvious, yet an attempt was still made to obscure them.

The lore and mythology was presented in an un-convoluted way. It's easy to follow and straightforward. So there's nothing inherently wrong with it. It's just simplistic and derivative, with nothing to really get excited about. You could almost figure it out without having even seen the movie.

Harlin seems to have taken a cue from MTV in making this film, adopting the philosophy of "Laguna Beach" that everyone in your high school just got back from a Teen People photo shoot. He must have cast models, as there isn't a shred of acting talent in the entire young cast. At the end of the film I was wondering if I had seen a film comprised entirely of cut footage and rehearsal shots. I was left with the distinct impression that just off camera was a stagehand holding a stack of cue cards for the cast to read from.

And the camera work was straight out of the late 80's to early 90's music video library. Half of it looked like a schlock Ozzy Osbourne video, the other half resembled Madonna's "Like a Prayer." This kind of film-making is completely unappealing. I understand that the core audience is probably 13-18 year old girls, and they most likely find that sort of film-making wondrous and spellbinding. Unfortunately for Harlin, and myself, 13-18 year old girls aren't the only ones who see films. There's a whole world of intense film-making techniques out there that would have made this film more enjoyable and pleasing to the eye. I know. I've seen it. Many have developed and mastered these techniques. But Harlin, no matter how much of a seasoned veteran he is, is making mistakes and "artistic choices" that reek of rookie director.

Not to mention the end fight scene seemed taken punch for punch from the Saruman/Gandalf fight in "Lord of the Rings" or Harry/Voldemort fight in "Harry Potter". I could go on and on about how this reeks of un-originality: "The Craft" with dudes or "The Lost Boys" with witches.

V for Vendetta
(2006)

Had the most potential of all films this year, and it was squandered
In 1983, Alan Moore wrote his seminal graphic novel, "V for Vendetta." That future was 1997. Now, 23 years after the book and nine years after the time the book was set, Andy and Larry Wachowski, the men behind "The Matrix" trilogy, bring us "V for Vendetta." Set in Britain sometime in the 2020s after America has fallen from supremacy and Britain is a powerful police state, "V for Vendetta" tells the tale of V (Hugo Weaving), a vigilante clad in cloak, cap and Guy Fawkes mask, as he recruits Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) to join him in bringing down the fascist regime. His tactics involve blowing up Parliament, an act which effectively finishes what Guy Fawkes failed to accomplish 400 years ago, kidnapping and killing government workers, and ending with a literal big bang at a famous clock.

Is the movie going public ready for a film which depicts terrorism? Not to mention that the terrorist is the hero. It's only been four and a half years since the events of 9/11, and just nine months since the actual terrorist attacks in London. Its $26 million opening weekend suggests that yes, we are.

"V for Vendetta", in its coincidental timeliness (it's been in pre-production for 18 years) sets the stage for the more reality based, but equally topical, "Flight 93" due out in April and "World Trade Center," coming to theatres this August, both dealing with the events of 9/11/01.

Weaving is by and large gives one of the best performances of his career as V, the charismatic and Shakespeare quoting rogue that is equal parts D'Artagnan, Lex Luther and, of course, Guy Fawkes. He has to let his voice and body movement convey his emotions and thoughts, as the Fawkes mask he wears throughout the film doesn't afford him the use of facial expression. He has a very distinct and dynamic voice, which he uses to his advantage in this role.

Portman proves that the "Star Wars" films were a career fluke and she actually can act. She puts on a British accent for this role and handles the tortured (figuratively and literally) Evey with the poise and skill of a seasoned veteran.

And they both benefit from the amazing supporting cast which includes character actor Stephen Rea as Detective Finch, the aging cop assigned to hunt down V, and John Hurt as the tyrannical dictator.

The Wachowskis produce and write this film; letting protégé and "Matrix" second unit director James McTeigue take the helm of this film. Therein lies the problem. Moore had an idea and the vision to carry it out when he created this alternative world. The Wachowskis were able to translate and adapt it to the silver screen and the actors were able to bring it to life. But McTeigue lacks any sort of discernible vision and directs this film with all the standard clichés and mistakes that one would expect from a first time director. For this sort of delicate and weighty subject matter, I'd rather have a more seasoned veteran behind the wheel. The Wachowskis should have directed this one, as there are many thematic similarities between "V" and their "Matrix." Fortunately the production as a whole does not suffer from McTeigue's uninvolved and lazy approach to the material. It's still an enjoyable action film, with an archaic, yet ironically futuristic, swashbuckling slant to it.

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