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March 23, 2007


Here’s my premonition: You won’t like this movie.

By Shawn French

Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint precisely what it is that separates a good movie from a bomb. But other times, a film is so aggressively awful that it almost seems like the filmmakers wanted it to suck. With a gibberish story, bizarre directorial choices and a cast of dull, uninteresting characters, “Premonition” is one such movie.

The premise is essentially this: Sandra Bullock plays a mother of two daughters whose husband (Julian McMahon) dies in a traffic accident. She wakes up the next morning to find her husband is still alive and she’s living a few days in the past. Next time she wakes up, he’s dead again and she’s back in the future. And so on, until she eventually lives the week out of order, finishing on the day her husband is supposed to die. It had promise as a “Final Destination” meets “Groundhog Day” sort of thing, with the wife trying to figure out how to keep her husband alive.

But man, this movie is a train wreck.

While most of the issues are story-related, director Mennan Yapo contributed some truly head-scratching moments. Presumably to alleviate the boredom in this flat-line tale, Yapo films a couple of bland scenes as if they were big action sequences. At one point, Bullock gets blood on her hands from a dead bird. The music swells dramatically and there’s shaky handheld camerawork as she races to the sink. It’s delivered as if she’s fleeing a serial killer, but she’s just washing her hands. Ooh, germs. Spooky.

But the story is the real culprit here. Yikes, what a mess. Time-bending stories are notoriously tricky, but there’s potential for greatness and a high re-watch value if the writer is clever enough to hide seemingly minor details that jump right out upon subsequent viewings. Unfortunately, the script by Bill Kelly (“Blast from the Past”) is a rambling, incoherent mess loaded with inconsistencies, plot holes and tremendously idiotic lead characters.

The whole narrative pull of a story like this is seeing how Bullock’s character pieces together the clues and finds a way to cheat fate. But her character is too stupid to do that. Instead, she just retraces the same steps that led to the problem in the first place. During one post-death day, she’s committed to an asylum by a psychiatrist she’s never met, Dr. Roth (Peter Stormare), who claims to be her shrink. But the next time she wakes up, it’s a few days earlier and her husband is still alive. So she actually makes an appointment to see Dr. Roth, who doesn’t know her at that point. You know he’s going to commit you in four days, you turnip. Call a different doctor.

But the film truly jumps the tracks in the final act and veers wildly off course, with montage flashbacks composed of really obvious things we already know and scenes we just watched 10 minutes ago. And then out of nowhere, it shifts into a God movie that’s all about her having lost faith. As a priest explains, those without faith in God are “empty vessels” whose fates can be hijacked by greater beings. Apparently the key to saving him is to mend her relationship with God or something. It was so thoroughly out of left field that I couldn’t discern any actual connection to the story.

As bad as the first hour and a half are, the final five minutes are epically inept. The story completely unravels and the characters are forced to be monstrously stupid to advance the plot in the direction the writer wants it to go.

My opinion of this movie can best be summed up by the thought that hit me midway through the final act: “To think, I could be watching ‘300’ right now.”

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

March 20, 2007

The Persian Army has a rough couple of days in “300.”

By Shawn French

I remember walking out of the movie theater in September 2004 feeling like Hollywood was on the verge of a new frontier. I had just seen “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” the Jude Law/Gwyneth Paltrow futuristic robot flick that was filmed entirely against blue screen, with the backgrounds digitally added.

As long as there has been film, the challenge has been getting the stunts or effects -- the movie magic, if you will -- to appear seamless. Conceal the wires, add in some CGI fire and such. The goal has always been to get the added elements to fluidly match with filmed images and Hollywood has become remarkably adept in this field. But there are still limitations and we’ve all seen movies where bad special effects hurt the overall product.

What “Sky Captain” showed is that filmmakers can completely bypass the limitations in terms of matching CGI to film by reversing their thinking. Don’t add CGI to live video. Instead, just insert the people into a computer-generated world. That way, everything is seamless and every inch of every frame is exactly what the director wants, because he’s creating it digitally. What had been a weakness was now a pathway to a new visual medium.

I liked “Sky Captain” more than most critics did, but it wasn’t the movie I had just seen that had me so excited as I left that theater. I was excited about a movie in the future that takes full advantage of this technology. One that creates a hyper-real environment and ushers in a new style of cinema entertainment. That movie is finally here and it kicks all manner of ass.

Director Zack Snyder (the recent “Dawn of the Dead” remake) delivers a highly mythologized telling of the battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans (with a little help from some allies) held a mountain pass for days against hundreds of thousands of Persian invaders in 480 BC. In this tale, based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, Spartans are epic warriors, raised from birth to do battle. And their Persian nemeses are a snarling, sprawling mass whose ranks are bolstered by unnatural creatures. War rhinos, 80-foot-tall elephants, a demented giant and so on.

While some history buffs criticize the film for historical inaccuracies, those claims are more than a little goofy considering the movie doesn’t for a second pretend to be accurate. I don’t think people will really walk out of the theater believing that the Spartans held a mountain pass against a bunch of undead orcs and mutant animals. It’s just a movie. Relax.

The cast, headed by Gerard Butler as Spartan leader King Leonidas, is excellent. Lena Headey steals scenes as the queen that Leonidas left behind, trying to garner up support to send reinforcements to her husband’s battalion before it’s too late. Toss in David Wenham (Faramir from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy), Dominic West (McNulty from “The Wire”) as a Spartan traitor, and a couple of hundred chiseled pro-wrestler types and you have a cast worthy of this epic poem come to life.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be a movie for everyone. There’s lots of nudity and highly stylized graphic violence, and the dialogue may be a bit heavy on chest-thumping and “freedom isn’t free” ideology for some viewers. But those are minor quibbles in the face of an opportunity to see something truly new in film -- something no director has ever done before.

Sure, “Sin City” had a lot of the same elements, but as much as I love that movie, “300” blows it off the screen visually. It’s like moving through a painting come to life. In spite of the violence (and even during some of the violent sequences) it’s a breathtakingly beautiful film.

It’s the most fun I’ve had at the movies since “Kill Bill: Vol. II” and I’ll definitely be seeing it again, likely at an IMAX. Don’t miss your chance to catch this one on the big screen.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

March 9, 2007

Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. make an unlikely crime-fighting duo in “Zodiac.”

By Shawn French

Around this time every year, after sitting through week after week of half-rate or flat-out awful movies in Hollywood’s garbage dump January-February period, I find myself wondering the same thing. Are these movies really that bad or am I just being too hard on them? After the fifth or sixth consecutive negative review, I can’t help but wonder if maybe the problem is me. But then a great film comes along and I’m reminded that I still love movies. I just hadn’t seen a good one in a month and a half.

Leave it to David Fincher to break me out of this early-year rut. The director responsible for “Se7en” and my all-time favorite flick, “Fight Club,” delivers the best offering so far this year with his retelling of the Zodiac murders. The grisly and seemingly random string of killings that rocked the Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s was before my time, so I had the luxury of walking into the theater not knowing much about the infamous case.

Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt base the story on the case files and a pair of books by former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), whose sometimes-public obsession with finding the killer made him a target. The action spans three decades, starting with Zodiac’s first killing and the subsequent mailings to San Fran newspapers demanding that they print his letter (and encoded message) on the front page or more murders would follow. It’s this first hour of the film that delivers some of the more traditional suspense movie jolts, as well as the best newspaper boardroom sequences since “All the President’s Men.”

The cast is fantastic, with Robert Downey Jr. as a drunkard crime-beat reporter at the Chronicle, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards as detectives assigned to the case and John Carroll Lynch as on-again, off-again lead suspect Arthur Leigh Allen.

As the movie unfolds, Graysmith’s involvement in the case progresses from a puzzled enthusiast’s interest in deciphering the coded messages into a full-blown obsession with catching the killer. The focus eventually shifts from the hectic pursuit of an active murderer to a cold-case investigation led largely by the cartoonist with some off-the-record assistance from law enforcement. It’s during the latter half of the two-hour-and-40-minute flick that viewers expecting a traditional “Silence of the Lambs”-style thriller may find themselves disappointed.

The case doesn’t lend itself to a traditional Hollywood format and Fincher doesn’t try to cram it into that mold. Instead, he sticks to the case files and lets the story be what it is.

There are no car chases, gunfights or heroes leaping out of exploding buildings. It’s mostly dialogue driven, but Fincher’s stylish delivery and eye for detail makes it an entertaining ride, as the case consumes the lives of everyone it touches. And moments like Ruffalo’s detective character sitting in the theater watching 1971’s “Dirty Harry” -- inspired by the Zodiac killer he has struggled and failed to catch -- are classic.

As anyone familiar with the case knows, it doesn’t have the tidiest of endings and there are those who dispute Graysmith’s conclusions that a mountain of circumstantial evidence is enough to confirm the killer’s identity. But Fincher delivers a patient and thoroughly engaging tale that’s almost epic in scope. It’s clearly among his two or three top films. Although the movie’s duration and lack of jolts may turn off some viewers, the running time really is necessary to show the full span of this case. It may not be a movie for everyone, but I dug it a whole lot.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

March 2, 2007

‘The Number 23’

Jim Carrey takes a walk on the dark side in the mediocre “The Number 23.”

By Shawn French

The first few months of the year -- far from Oscar selection time and the summer blockbuster period -- tend to be a rough stretch for cinephiles. It’s a time when theaters are full of once-promising films that have since been cast off to the movie calendar's equivalent of Siberia. So when a trailer pops up that actually appears interesting, it generates a lot of attention. Such was the case with “The Number 23,” a psychological thriller by Joel Schumacher, a director who is capable of making good movies (“The Lost Boys”), but more often disappoints with crap like “Batman & Robin” and “Batman Forever.”

The trailer suggested a dark, atmospheric thrill ride in which Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) spirals into madness over his obsession with the number 23. As a person who has been known to count ceiling tiles, I kind of dug the idea, loosely based on the 23 Enigma, a numerological game of finding 23 in as many sinister places as possible. Caesar was stabbed 23 times; the Twin Towers fell on 9/11/2001 (9+11+2+0+0+1=23); George Herbert Walker Bush is 23 letters; the Titanic sank on 4/15/1912 (4+1+5+1+9+1+2=23); and so on.

Sparrow has a mundane existence as a dogcatcher, but all that changes when his wife (Virginia Madsen) buys him a book called “The Number 23” as a birthday gift. Walter soon becomes obsessed with the novel and the mounting similarities between himself and the book’s protagonist, a detective known only as Fingerling (also played by Carrey). As Fingerling uncovers what he believes to be a curse on the number 23, he unravels and eventually murders his lover. Reading along, Walter finds himself sharing Fingerling’s obsession and seeing the number everywhere. His Social Security number, date of birth, wedding date and address, everything seems to point to 23.

The story is told in part through film noir flashes as the book is read, with Carrey and Madsen playing double duty as Fingerling and his paramour, Fabrizia. The segments brought to mind “Dead Again,” another movie that toys with dual roles in flashbacks. Unfortunately, “The Number 23” isn’t quite up to par with the Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson thriller.

The first couple of acts are actually quite compelling and Carrey is excellent as his world slowly crumbles around him. He fears that he’ll follow in Fingerling’s footsteps as he’s haunted by the number and recurring dreams of killing his wife.

Unfortunately, the final act is a long rambling mess, despite a strong twist that I didn’t see coming. The big reveal takes place in a monologue that goes on and on and on and on. It’s like screenwriter Fernley Phillips couldn’t figure out a way to deliver the information within the story, so everything grinds to a halt while a character explains the plot to death. And then the movie continues for several more minutes, just sort of wobbling along with no discernable sense of purpose.

Critics have been shredding the movie, but it really doesn’t deserve the beating it’s been taking. The opening two-thirds (another 23, ooh spooky) of the film is fine for the most part, although the characters have to make some pretty goofy leaps in logic to justify finding 23 everywhere. For instance, they count 32 as a match because it’s 23 reversed. And five is also a match, because it’s 2+3. It would have been a better movie if they stuck to the legitimate occurrences of 23. One of the loonier was the color pink, which they said equals 23 when replacing letters with their corresponding number. Pink is red (18+5+4) plus white (23+8+9+20+5) for a total of 92. And 92 divided by four (the number of letters in pink) equals 23. I understand that the guy was in the midst of paranoid delusions, but it was tough to take the movie seriously after that.

For a late-February release, “The Number 23” is passable. The performances are strong throughout and the story does have a nice narrative pull. If you can overlook the sizable collection of flaws, it’s a decent way to pass an hour and a half.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

February 26, 2007

‘Ghost Rider’
“Ghost Rider” is every bit as bad as the trailers suggest.

By Shawn French

Not every comic book is a good candidate for the big-screen treatment. For every Batman, there are a dozen low-tier superheroes with poorly developed characters and bad writing. Unfortunately, Marvel seems committed to turning every single one of them into a movie, no matter how awful the quality.

The latest is “Ghost Rider,” the story of daredevil Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) who makes a deal with the devil (Peter Fonda) and becomes an invulnerable cartoon skeleton with a flaming head riding around on a flaming motorcycle beating on uninteresting villains.

Wait, it gets worse. It’s directed by Mark Steven Jackson (“Daredevil”), the guy who wrote the my-dad-came-back-as-a-snowman movie “Jack Frost” -- a film so terrible it has to violate the Geneva Convention somehow.

The opening act of “Ghost Rider” isn’t aggressively bad, focusing on the stunt rider’s teenage years and his budding romance with Roxanne, whose father doesn’t want her dating a carnie. It’s when we jump forward in time that things really start to fall apart. Two big reasons are Cage, who has devolved to “Wicker Man” form, and the truly awful Eva Mendes, who appeared to be reading her lines for the first time. In her defense, she’s said in interviews that Cage kept going off script, which could explain why she looked so confused all the time.

The film was originally slated for a marquis release last summer, but it was delayed, allegedly to work on the CGI more. Perhaps they should have delayed it a bit longer, because the effects are goofy looking. While they were at it, maybe they could have written a coherent script or done some fact checking. At one point, Blaze jumps from one goal post to the other on a football field, which the film repeatedly states is 300 feet. It boggles the mind that despite hundreds of people working on the movie, no one pointed out that the distance between goal posts is 360 feet. This is simple math we’re talking about.

But that’s the least of this movie’s problems. The dialogue is loaded with embarrassingly inept one-liners of the “Batman & Robin” caliber. The acting is routinely bad, the majority of fight scenes were boring and one-sided (with a couple of brief exceptions) and the rules of this film world don’t hold up to even casual scrutiny.

In order to regain his soul, Ghost Rider is tasked by Mephistopheles to corral the devil’s out-of-control son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley). So the hero is sort of like Supernanny, but with a whip and flaming head.

And have filmmakers not learned by now that a superhero with no weakness is dull? The flaming skeleton can even ride his motorcycle and fight underwater. The closest thing the hero has to a weakness is that he only bursts into flames at night. But the villains generally don’t fight during the day either, so that’s not really a disadvantage. Plus, even in human form, he’s invulnerable.

There have certainly been worse comic-book movies than “Ghost Rider” -- it’s not quite “Catwoman” bad. Sam Elliot is solid as a former Ghost Rider, although his character is underused. And Fonda as the Devil is fun in a campy sort of way.

So if you like the idea of a flaming cartoon skeleton who summons his flaming motorcycle by whistling for it and then chases villains around town -- riding up the sides of buildings at times -- this is the movie for you. But it’s definitely not the movie for me.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

February 22, 2007
‘Hannibal Rising’

Gaspard Ulliel makes a fine young cannibal, but he’s no Anthony Hopkins.

By Shawn French

There’s nothing scarier than the unknown. Sometimes it’s what we don’t know about a movie villain that makes him so interesting. And yet, there’s always money to be made by rolling back the clock and showing the bad guy before he was a bad guy. A quick look at the American Film Institute’s all-time best movie villain list shows that the top four bad guys (and gal) of all time -- in order, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West -- now have prequels (official or otherwise) that discuss their childhoods.

Sometimes this can be a good thing. The novel “Wicked” changed the Oz mythos in a very cool way. And “Psycho IV” was surprisingly good if you can get past the base premise of Bates being released from prison again. Darth Vader, on the other hand, was gutted by his prequels. What had been one of the most feared and intimidating characters in film history was transformed into a whiney kid who answers to the name “Annie” and pals around with Jar Jar Binks. How can anyone ever take Vader seriously again?

So where does Hannibal the Cannibal’s prequel rank? Somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t destroy the character, but it’s just not a very good movie. Part of the problem is there’s no real way to rationalize a monster like Hannibal. No matter what the movie shows, no one will be walking out of the theater saying, “Oh, now I understand. The time he made a guy eat his own brain makes perfect sense now. And when he cut off that guy’s face and wore it as a mask, I totally get that.”

It’s an impossible task from a writing standpoint.

The film opens in Lithuania, 1944, with a young Hannibal (the not-yet cannibal) and his family caught in a battle between Nazis and Russians. Orphaned with his younger sister, Mischa, Hannibal tries and fails to protect her from a band of war criminals. We jump forward 10 years into a textbook revenge flick. He travels across Europe and ends up living in France with an aunt (Gong Li) he’s never met. She, of course, is a samurai. I kid you not.

A kendo montage later, he’s ready to hunt down his sister’s killers to quite literally exact his pound of flesh as payback. In his way is a French investigator (McNulty from “The Wire”) who also lost everything in the war and sympathizes with the fledgling serial killer.

Gaspard Ulliel is actually quite good as the young Hannibal. He has a sort of Crispin-Glover-meets-Matthew-Modine creepiness about him. But the story itself takes no unexpected turns and the film is dull at times. It’s the first of the Hannibal stories that novelist Thomas Harris also penned the screenplay for and the pacing is considerably too slow for a visual medium.

But every time I was about to give up on the story, a decent scene would pop up and retrieve my interest. There are a few good moments and my interest in the Lecter character was ultimately enough to carry me through -- but barely. If I had stumbled across this on TV one night, I would have been satisfied. But paying money to see it on the big screen is not something I’d recommend. It’s definitely a renter.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

February 9, 2007

‘The Messengers’
Dylan McDermott battles the crows in an unintentionally funny scene. Photo/Shawn French

By Shawn French

It’s sad to see what’s become of the horror industry lately. It seems like there are only two styles of “scary” movies released these days -- gross-out graphic horror and completely declawed PG-13 movies. There used to be a middle ground of non-vomit-inducing R-rated horror, but it’s being test marketed into oblivion. Producers know that by sticking to one of the two popular horror niches they have a decent shot of breaking even on opening weekend. Unfortunately, neither extreme gore nor kiddy horror tends to translate into quality movies.

The latest of the PG-13 variety is the staggeringly derivative and frequently nonsensical “The Messengers.” The trailers actually looked pretty decent and the established premise is a good one. The movie’s tagline: “There is evidence to suggest that children are highly susceptible to paranormal phenomena. They see what adults cannot. They believe what adults deny. And they are trying to warn us.”

It’s a good concept and one that hasn’t been overused. The movie’s official Web site also plays low-frequency sounds that children can hear but most adults can’t as a way of supporting the underlying premise. But that premise is barely touched on, which is a shame because it was the closest thing this film had to an interesting idea. I can’t help but wonder if the people designing the trailers had actually seen the movie.

Instead, the story is about a couple (Dylan McDermott and Penelope Anne Miller) that moves from Chicago with their teenage daughter, Jess (Kristen Stewart), and mute toddler son to a haunted sunflower farm in the country. From there, it’s essentially the same ghost story I’ve seen a hundred times. The family moves in, ghosts mess with them, they realize the old occupants died in the house and they have to resolve their murders to be left alone.

There are a couple of legitimately creepy images, but they were all in the trailer. For scares, co-directors The Pang Brothers (“The Eye”) rely again and again (and again and again) on loud sudden noises to create artificial jolts.

One attempted scary scene was absolutely laughable. McDermott is unloading sunflower seeds from his car and turns around to find crows in his vehicle chowing on the seeds. But it’s delivered as if he just found his wife’s head in a box. The music is overbearing and it’s built up like some horrifying event. But it’s just birds eating seeds. Crank the soundtrack as loud as you want, that’s still not scary.

The Pang Brothers also use William B. Davis (the Smoking Man from “The X-Files”) for a couple of attempted jolts. He’s a weird real-estate guy who keeps magically popping up 3 inches away from McDermott and scaring him. I think he was supposed to be creepy, but he’s there trying to buy their home, which isn’t an inherently chilling agenda. Oooooh, a spooky offer on the house. Run for your lives, it’s a fixed-rate mortgage!

As for the ghosts, they were nothing impressive. They are shown only in brief glimpses, and every time it seemed the filmmakers were going to do something interesting with the concept of the kid being the only one to see the ghosts, the action would instead shift to more birds or real-estate offers.

And as frequently is the case with horror, the plot is driven by character stupidity. At one point, a crazy drifter with a rifle (John Corbett) shows up and after 30 seconds of conversation, the dad invites him to live with them. What could go wrong?

All in all, it’s a completely forgettable movie that I eagerly look forward to forgetting

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

February 2, 2007

‘Smokin’ Aces’

Action is king in the over-the-top shoot-’em-up “Smokin’ Aces.”

By Shawn French

While it can sometimes be tough to judge a movie by its trailer, other films deliver exactly what they promise. Such is the case with “Smokin’ Aces,” an absurdly over-the-top action flick that is every bit as goofy, ridiculous and fun as the trailer suggests. Which isn’t to say it’s a good movie. It’s not. Unless you really like action movies, you’d be better off in any other theater.

When stage illusionist Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) turns state’s evidence against the mob, he becomes the target of a million-dollar bounty. A swarm of rival assassins converge on the hotel where he is under police protection, racing to get to him first. The assassins are a total freak show, including the chainsaw-wielding neo-Nazi Tremor Brothers, a master of disguise (Tommy Flanagan), bungling bail bondsmen (Ben Affleck and Peter Berg), a pair of hotties (Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson) and mysterious figure The Swede (Vladimir Kulich, the big Viking-looking dude from “The 13th Warrior”).

At the same time, FBI agents (including Ray Liotta, Ryan Reynolds and Andy Garcia) get word of the bounty and rush to beat the killers to the prize. The cast is loaded with cameos, other notables being the doc from “Lost” as the head of hotel security, Booger from “Revenge of the Nerds” as Israel’s manager, rapper Common as Israel’s right-hand man and Jason Bateman stealing every scene he’s in as a lowlife fetishist lawyer. It’s a huge collection of celebrities in small, offbeat roles all competing for the same prize. Sort of like “The Cannonball Run,” except everyone’s on crystal meth and packing heat.

With a cast this strong and a solid action movie premise, this could have been a great film. Unfortunately, it’s all over the place in terms of mood, theme and genre. Writer/director Joe Carnahan (“Narc”) never settles into a rhythm and several story choices are completely surreal, to varying effects. When one of the Tremor Brothers starts manually moving a dead guy’s mouth with his fingers and carries on an extended conversation, it somehow worked and was extremely funny. But other bizarre choices are wildly off mark and perplexing, like when a wounded guy seeks help at the home of an old woman and her one-eyed ADD ninja grandson. (I assure you, it’s even stranger than it sounds -- and not in a good way).

Mixed in with the surreal nuttiness and graphically violent action sequences are a few scenes with real emotional weight that feel completely out of place. Piven is great as the degenerate junkie magician, but his scenes bear little resemblance to the rest of the movie.

“Smokin’ Aces” borders on incoherent in places, wobbles badly off course several times and the much-hyped fight scenes don’t quite live up to expectations. And yet, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a good time. The premise is such fun, and the constant parade of familiar faces in bizarre roles made for an entertaining experience, despite the flaws.

I think this was the movie that “Crank” was trying to be. Although it takes a while to get going as the billion characters are introduced (each labeled onscreen with name and profession), once everyone starts closing in on the hotel, things get interesting in a hurry. There are several good jolts and the film sort of works in its own strange way.

Basically, if you saw the trailer and thought it looked great, you’ll probably dig the movie to some degree. And that’s about as close as I’m willing to get to a recommendation.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

January 26, 2007

‘Pan’s Labyrinth’
Ivana Baquero stars in the brilliant adult fairy tale, “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

By Shawn French

Before Disney started rewriting the classics as happy stories with dance numbers, fairy tales generally had a darker, more sinister edge. They told stories of wolves devouring grandmothers, abusive stepparents, children gobbled up by evil witches and queens who behead visitors to their realm. They were used to keep children in line through fear. The tales may have softened over the years, but the genre still has roots deep in the human psyche.

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro (“Blade II,” “Cronos”) goes back to those twisted roots in his extremely adult fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Before I start gushing about what a brilliant film this is, a couple of warnings about the potentially misleading trailer. First, it’s a Spanish film with subtitles. I know for some folks that may be a deal breaker, which is a shame because you’d be missing out on some great cinema. The more important warning is that this movie is not intended in any way for children. It’s graphically violent at times and while the trailer may suggest a Narnia sort of flick, it’s really, really not. Do not bring young kids to this movie.

Against the war-torn backdrop of 1940s Spain, 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) moves with her very pregnant mother to live with a new stepfather, the sadistic Capt. Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who is charged with routing out the leftist rebels in the forested hills of northern Spain. Ofelia finds an escape from her bleak existence when a fairy approaches her and leads her to the heart of an ancient labyrinth to discover her destiny.

Generally speaking, these alternate-world fables start by establishing an unsatisfying home life, be it Dorothy’s Kansas, Harry Potter’s room under the stairs or the four siblings sent away in the Narnia stories (also set during World War II). Then the heroes find a portal of some sort and escape their world to explore a realm of magic and adventure. What sets this tale aside is that Ofelia doesn’t leave. The quest she receives in the center of the maze must be completed in her world and the fantastical story elements are intertwined with the intrigue of Capt. Vidal’s brutal hunt for the rebels, two of whom have infiltrated his outpost.

Ofelia is at the edge of childhood, at an age when she’s expected to begin giving up childish things, like her belief in fairies. It can be disheartening when you begin to realize that many of the ideas and stories you’re so enamored with aren’t real. At one point, Ofelia asks housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) if she believes in fairies. “I used to. I used to believe in a lot of things,” is the gloomy reply.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a film whose sadness weighs on the audience at times. Del Toro brings to life two dark, overlapping worlds and creates a completely immersive cinematic experience. It’s a rare thing for me to be midway through a movie and still have no idea where it’s heading. For that reason, I’m reluctant to discuss plot specifics. It’s not a “Sixth Sense” thing where knowing a big plot twist could ruin it, but I think it’s best to approach the film with a blank slate.

While this might not be the ideal choice for a light date night, it’s a great discussion movie and is clearly one of the two or three best of 2006. Where many films fall apart under close scrutiny, “Pan’s Labyrinth” flourishes. The more I think about the many layers of the story, the greater my appreciation becomes. It’s a film worthy of multiple viewings and I look forward to seeing it again this weekend.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

January 19, 2007

‘Alpha Dog’

Ben Foster chews up the scenery in “Alpha Dog.”

By Shawn French

In 1999, Jesse James Hollywood landed himself on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List after the kidnapping of a rival drug dealer’s little brother went horribly wrong. Writer/director Nick Cassavetes thought it would make an interesting movie and he’s about half right. The first hour isn’t awful. The resolution, on the other hand, is a rambling mess.

Presumably, because Jesse James Hollywood is in custody awaiting trial, the names are changed to protect the not so innocent. Cassavetes was given access to the ongoing case files while writing the script and decided on a visual style often reminiscent of “Dateline” specials -- time stamps and locations are printed onscreen and passersby are labeled with their name and witness numbers.

Emile Hirsch (“Lords of Dogtown”) plays Jesse James, renamed Johnny Truelove for this story. The San Fernando Valley drug dealer and his collection of wannabe gangster sidekicks (including boxer Fernando Vargas and a heavily tattooed Justin Timberlake) live a life consumed by partying. Sort of like “Entourage,” but with guns and bad writing. Johnny and his posse are thoroughly unlikable characters: racist, gay-bashing, violent degenerates.

A conflict over a drug debt owed by Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster) escalates through a series of retaliations, including such charming moments as Mazursky taking a dump on Truelove’s living-room carpet. Truelove eventually snatches up Jake’s 15-year-old kid brother, Zach, to hold as ransom until the $1,200 debt is paid.
As anyone who followed the news story knows, that’s when things start getting weird. During his three days in captivity, Zach is brought with the boys as one of their own to multiple parties. He drinks, does drugs, loses his virginity and is even offered the chance to escape on a few occasions, but he decides to stick around to avoid dealing with his overbearing mother (Sharon Stone). Dozens of witnesses see Zach with Johnny’s crew and many know he is a prisoner, but he is having fun so no one reports it.
A couple of days into the ordeal, Johnny finally realizes he’s committed a serious crime and that they could be facing major jail time if the boy is released and talks. This leads to the primary question of the story. How far would you be willing to go to cover your own butt?
The film is entertaining at times, but the story crumbles as it progresses. Part of the problem is that the actual events of the story aren’t satisfying from a narrative standpoint. But the bigger issue is that Cassavetes doesn’t seem to have a clue how to end the movie. Once the main story arc is completed, the film continues wobbling along for no apparent reason. This aimless stretch provides the funniest moment in the movie as Sharon Stone implodes in a mental institution. Unfortunately for Cassavetes, he didn’t intend for it to be funny. He put Stone in a Jiminy Glick fat suit that is comically bad and the scene is shot in extreme close-up, highlighting an awful prosthetic job. It’s supposed to be a heart-wrenching scene, but the half-dozen other people in the theater were laughing while I kept waiting for her fake chin to fall off.

Other eye-rolling moments include widespread overacting and some epic meltdowns by Ben Foster’s character, including one where he flips out and attacks an entire party -- and wins.

Ultimately, the story of Jesse James Hollywood would probably make a fascinating “48 Hours” episode, but as a feature film, it just didn’t do anything for me

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

January 12, 2007

‘Children of Men’

Clive Owen stars in the sleeper hit “Children of Men.”

By Shawn French

Science fiction is an especially dicey genre for films. There is potential for truly great escapist stories that transport audiences to a faraway place while reflecting on current society. But most Sci-Fi flicks focus on futuristic gadgets and eye candy, failing to take the time to develop engaging characters and storylines. Luckily for fans of the genre, every now and then there comes a thoughtful, intelligent movie like “Children of Men.”

Set in 2027, the action takes place in a bleak world, 19 years after the last human child was born. People don’t know why their species is suddenly sterile and with no hope for the future, the planet has spiraled out of control. England (the film’s setting) has become a totalitarian state, where bombings are frequent and immigrants are aggressively rounded up into brutal containment camps.

Theo (Clive Owen) is a reluctant protagonist -- an apathetic, cynical drunk who is kidnapped by his ex (Julianne Moore), the leader of a freedom fighter cell, to help smuggle a young pregnant girl, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), out of the country. It’s an action movie, but Theo’s no action hero. Despite the frequent gunfire around him, he is one of the very few characters in the film that doesn’t wield a gun at any point.

Director/co-writer Alfonso Cuarón made several bold decisions with the story, most notably breaking from the source material and delivering a movie that bears almost no resemblance to the novel by P.D. James. Rather than focus on the upper class trying to deal with the sterility crisis, he brings the action to the streets, following a single character (Theo is in every scene) and only telling the audience what he knows. There are no voiceovers or long expository speeches explaining the backstory. Instead, Cuarón trusts the audience to piece things together as the story moves along.

Cuarón used handheld cameras for the action scenes, which can be headache-inducing in the case of quick-cut directors. But he has the patience to stay with a single shot for minutes at a time and there are some truly fantastic action sequences. In one battle scene, the camera lens is accidentally speckled with blood, but since it was such a long sequence, they kept rolling and the scene is actually better for the mistake. The directorial style immerses viewers in this bleak dystopia and creates the illusion that we’re closely tailing Theo through his ordeal.

The supporting cast is also fantastic. Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Serenity”) is as great as always in his role of Luke, a resistance leader. And Michael Caine steals every second he’s on the screen as the hippy pot farmer Jasper.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the lack of clear information about the world. It’s a film about hope and Theo’s quest to save what may be mankind’s last chance for survival. We don’t know why Kee is pregnant, who can be trusted or even if Theo’s end goal of getting her to The Human Project is a good thing. None of the characters knows much about the organization, so neither does the audience.

The movie provides a dark and violent vision of the future and it’s not a story for the faint of heart. If you can get past the violence that’s integral to the tale, “Children of Men” is patient, intelligent and really worth seeing. You’ll want to bring someone with you, as it’s a great discussion film filled with powerful imagery. As I sit down to write this review, five days after seeing the movie, I’m still kind of soaking up the experience. I’m looking forward to a second viewing and the director’s commentary track on the DVD.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

January 8, 2007

‘Rocky Balboa’

The Italian Stallion returns for one final fight in “Rocky Balboa.”

By Shawn French

Thirty years ago, Sylvester Stallone won America over as the smalltime Philly boxer who got a chance at greatness in the Academy Award-winning “Rocky.” What made the film such a classic were the protagonist’s blue-collar charm and a script that didn’t bow to standard sports-movie clichés. The second movie was decent and the third, in which he fights the Tyson-esque Clubber Lang (Mr. T), was a more by-the-numbers action movie, although fun in a guilty pleasure sort of way. The fourth movie was a steaming pile of Cold War rhetoric, with the Italian Stallion taking down the monstrous Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). And the unfortunate fifth film was a trainwreck.

Sixteen years later, the 60-year-old Stallone is bringing Rocky out for one last fight. I know, it sounds awful. Yet somehow Stallone (who wrote and directed the film) pulls it off by going back to the character’s roots. “Rocky Balboa” isn’t so much a boxing movie as it is a movie with some boxing at the end. The film focuses on the character of Rocky, now in his 50s and trying to find his way without the love of his life, Adrian, who died four years earlier.

The time invested in their relationship in the early films really pays off in the finale. Adrian was never just a love interest -- she was an integral part of Rocky’s existence. Watching him struggle without her is heartbreaking, and Stallone’s low-key directorial style really works for what is essentially a character piece about a broken man trying to find a way to go on. Stallone delivers the best acting of his career in this film, showing a range he’s not particularly known for. It’s not a slick action movie by any stretch and it’s the best Rocky film since the original.

After an ESPN simulation shows Balboa beating current champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (played quite well by boxer Antonio Tarver), Rocky considers coming back to fight a couple of small bouts. But management for the wildly unpopular Dixon, whose biggest fault seems to be a lack of decent challengers, railroads the former champ into an “exhibition bout” against Dixon. And the fight is on.

One of the big surprises for me was how well a couple of the monologues worked onscreen. During his promo tour, Stallone repeatedly showed one monologue excerpt that looked awful. Yet the same scene in the context of the story totally worked.

The film also breaks convention in a number of ways. Dixon isn’t the villain, for one. No one is. He’s a decent fighter searching for respect, not the snarling beasts we’ve seen Rocky take on in the past. And when Rocky befriends fellow broken soul Marie, a minor character from the first film, it doesn’t turn romantic. It’s just a platonic friendship, something rarely given much screen time these days.

While the fight itself bears little resemblance to boxing (Balboa still blocks with his face), it has the same emotional pull as the earlier films. It’s hard not to smile when that theme music starts up. The film is loaded with cameos by real-life boxing personalities, including Mike Tyson, who is seen ringside calling out Dixon for a fight. Of course, given Tyson’s crazed downward spiral, he might not have known there was a movie being filmed that day.

It’s hard to tell how well this movie would work for someone who wasn’t familiar with the Rocky mythos. But if you liked even a couple of the Rocky movies, it’s really worth checking out how the story ends. For me, it was the most pleasant theatrical surprise of 2006. It’s a sweet and emotionally powerful film, and a fitting conclusion for America’s greatest fictional sports hero.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

January 4, 2007


“Eragon” is basically “Star Wars,” except with dragons and bad writing.

By Shawn French

The first attempt at fiction by any young writer -- even one who may eventually become a good storyteller -- is generally derivative crap. It’s a normal part of the learning process. Until a writer gains some life experience, most of his or her work is just a cheap knockoff of other writers' work. That’s why fanfic is so popular. It’s a good place for aspiring writers to practice the craft before they’re ready to create their own storytelling worlds.

Typically, the derivative tales of young aspiring storytellers are never heard about. But when your parents own a publishing company, as was the case with then-teenager Christopher Paolini, sometimes they do get heard but aren’t ready for publication. His 2003 young adult novel, “Eragon,” and 2005 follow-up, “Eldest,” found a solid fan base, despite the fact that his mythology and storyline are stolen plot point by plot point from “Star Wars.”

Substitute magic for The Force, dragons for spaceships, rename the characters and voila, a new story. See if any of this sounds familiar: A sandy-haired farm boy (Eragon/Luke Skywalker) is raised on his uncle’s farm after his parents dumped him there. He discovers a mystical item (egg/light saber) that unveils his destiny as one of the last of an ancient line of warriors (dragonriders/Jedi) with magical powers. He meets a dour former warrior (Brom/Obi-Wan), now living a broken life of solitude, who teaches him about his mystical powers. After the evil empire destroys the uncle’s farm, Eragon/Luke receives a distress call from a rebel princess (Arya/Leia) who has been captured by the bad guys and says he’s her “only hope.” He must rescue the princess and return her to the rebels, while avoiding the pursuit of the dark lord (Galbatorix/Palpatine) and his apprentice (Durza/Vader).

I haven’t read the books, but I’ll bet you a dollar that down the road Eragon/Luke’s father turns out to be one of the big bad guys. Any takers?

I’ve never seen a major studio film that so blatantly plagiarized another one. It was funny at times. I don’t mean to bash Paolini, now in his early 20s. The stuff I wrote in my teens had the same sort of flaws. I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice kid and one day he’ll write stories of his own. But this isn’t one of them.

Story elements aside, it’s not a terrible movie. Not a good one, but not awful. Some of the flying scenes with the dragons are visually cool and it’s basically a Nickelodeon version of “Lord of the Rings” (another mythology he borrows heavily from). The cast is also decent, although the lead (Edward Speelers) doesn’t have much in the way of acting range. Jeremy Irons is passable in the Obi-Wan role and John Malkovich chews up the scenery as the Palpatine knockoff character. The script by Peter Buchman (“Jurassic Park III”) also wasn’t great, with lots of forced speeches and plot holes.

But reality is I’m not the target audience. I dig the medieval fantasy stuff a whole lot, but I’ve read and studied so much of it that I tend to be especially picky with this genre. It’s intended for young adults and, truth told, I probably would have loved this movie when I was 10, the way I did “Dragonslayer” or “Clash of the Titans,” neither of which were great movies. I don’t know that adults will get much out of “Eragon,” but if you have a kid who is into this stuff, it’s a decent way to pass an hour and a half.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.


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