Matt's Movie Blog

Friday, May 21, 2004

Review: Still, We Believe: The Boston Red Sox Movie
May 20, 2004; Regal Falmouth #3
* * * ¼ (out of 4)

Seeing this movie will firmly establish any Red Sox fan's position as a masochist. As if going back to the Boston boys of summer every year isn’t bad enough – there’s always disappointment – this documentary-style look at the tragic 2003 season allows Sox fans to punish themselves in the off-season as well. From shaky start to heartbreaking home run, the filmmakers recorded every bump in the up-and-down season that was almost the season.

The film follows the 2002-2003 season as seen primarily through the eyes of about eight fans, including a pair of Boston women, a wheelchair-bound man, a bar owner in California, radio’s “Angry Bill,” and a commander in the Boston fire department. In addition, the filmmakers were granted full access to the clubhouse, Fenway Park’s dugout, management offices, and any game footage they deemed appropriate. Despite all being set against the same backdrop, some of the fans’ stories are more interesting than others. Eternal pessimist Angry Bill, a regular on Red Sox radio WEEI, watches his initial stubbornness crumble away, eventually shattering when the Sox actually make the playoffs in the wildcard spot. So addicted to the team is Bill that during the super-stressful ALCS with the Yankees, Bill stayed home from work physically sick for a week. His pessimism was broken by Game 7, only to be reconfirmed by Aaron Boone’s 11th-inning walkoff shot. Other stories take similar patterns, but some are downright boring; the two women involved always seem to be saying the same thing over and over again, and I learned from them that even fellow fans can get aggravating after a time.

The gems here come from the all-access pass given to director Paul Doyle and his crew. Shots from the clubhouse after wins show an off-the-wall team, led by Pedro Martinez showing off a goofball side that hasn’t been prevalent since Nomar Garciaparra taped him to a post outside the dugout in a 2001 game. The onscreen antics of Pedro and teammates Kevin Millar and Derek Lowe are priceless, and they exemplify a feeling that everyone in the film reinforces: when you play in Boston, you play for fun, and a love of the game. The truth is that we fans are sheep; after 86 years of disappointment, we’re still coming back, because the Red Sox are Boston’s pride and joy. The rivalry with the “Evil Empire” of the New York Yankees is so strong and so powerful… no fan would be able to forgive himself if he weren’t in some way present for the eventual toppling of the Bronx behemoth. The fan base of the Boston Red Sox is more than secure; we just expect the team to give us all they’ve got.

The film shows the emotional rollercoaster that the season put fans and players through, using infamous clips like Johnny Damon’s collision with Damian Jackson, Trot Nixon’s walk-off homer in Game 3 of the ALDS, and Pedro’s confrontation with Yankee Don Zimmer. Most powerful is a clip of Tim Wakefield in the clubhouse, sobbing after giving up Boone’s home run, showing just what playing in Boston can mean. Every player wants a World Series ring, but no team has been teased and rejected like the Red Sox.

The appeal of this film is awfully limited; Boston fans will eat it up, but I doubt fans in other regions will be interested. Every team has dealt with disappointment; why Boston gets a movie about it might be hard to explain. All I can say is that in Boston and the rest of New England, the Red Sox are a way of life. The 2002-2003 season was one of the most exciting and disappointing seasons in baseball history, and it’s a saga to remember. Still, We Believe is a fine way to do it.

Review: Shrek 2
May 19, 2004; Regal Falmouth #5
* * * ½ right now; * * * in ten years (out of 4)

It has proven very, very difficult for a film sequel to outdo the original. Recent examples like the two Matrix sequels, the Austin Powers sequels, and Jurassic Park 3 show that in most cases, filmmakers are better off to start from scratch. Only in rare cases, such as Toy Story 2 or The Empire Strikes Back, does a second outing surpass the first. It's a close one, but you may be able to add Shrek 2 to that list.

This one picks up where the first film left off, montage-style. After a brief look at the honeymoon of Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz), they return to the swamp, only to be met by a lonely Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and an invitation to visit Fiona's parents in celebration of her wedding. The catch is that the King and Queen (John Cleese and Julie Andrews, respectively) aren't aware that it was Shrek who rescued their daughter; they are expecting Fiona to return on the arm of the dim-witted surferboy Prince Charming (Rupert Everett). Naturally, Shrek’s arrival is both unexpected and unwelcome, and after being threatened by Charming’s mother, the Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders), the king must enlist the help of top-notch hitman Puss-In-Boots (a show-stealing Antonio Banderas) to resolve the Shrek dilemma. Obviously, no one’s plan can go off without a hitch, and silliness ensues.

While Myers, Diaz, and Murphy are billed as the stars, and deliver good performances that match those they gave in the first Shrek, they are all but forgotten anytime Banderas’s feline personal takes the screen. Puss is written so beautifully, some cross between Zorro and Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride fame, only it’s funny cause it’s a freakin’ cat. Banderas is given some of the best lines in the script, and he uses them in conjunction with some hilarious character animation to pull focus away from the romantic issues, and just ham it up for as long as he can. Being able to ham when you’re not physically on camera must be difficult, but Banderas pulls it off, and it’s apparent he had a great time doing it.

The downfall of this movie is the same as the original’s – in ten years, half of the references made may be lost on a newer generation. While no one expects Starbucks to go anywhere, something may change that might make it much less funny to see people fleeing from one “Farbucks” to another right across the street. To this generation, that’s funny because it is a reality; there’s no telling how long that will hold up. Some of the film references will stand up more reliably (the Ghostbusters sequence got me good), some will fall flat when presented to a ten-year old in 2015. Movies that rely this heavily on time-specific circumstance can’t help but age poorly.

But that’s later. Right now, Shrek 2 plays on everything absurd, silly, or ridiculous in our world, along with poking its share of fun at the blockbuster films of the last few years. Add in beautiful animation (though still a half-step down from Pixar), writing that will draw laughs from ages 8 to 80, and performances that couldn’t be better with the real actor, and Shrek 2 is a damn good time. Even though some of the jokes may be lost on the kids of the next generation, there's still a fun story to be had, and enough mainstream humor to hold its own, even if time makes it less socially aware than the movie is now, at its peak.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Review: Troy
May 13, 2004; Regal Falmouth #1
* * * (out of four)

Oh, what this could have been. Understand that a three-star review is none too shabby, but there are a few downfalls that severely limit this movie. Most of them have to do with exactly how much of the story was really "inspired" by Homer's The Iliad, but more on that later. Mostly what you have in Troy is an epic in the style of The Return of the King, using massive battles and a beautiful backdrop to propel an ensemble cast through an under- or misdeveloped story.

Troy was adapted from The Iliad by David Benioff... but why? Records of Homer's story date back three thousand years, and along with The Odyssey it is still considered one of the most celebrated epics ever composed. One would think that alone would make for a compelling movie, and for me, too many liberties were taken; moreover, most of the liberties played out much worse than the original story would have. For example, in the original story, the main conflict within the Achaeans is Agamemnon's (Brian Cox) seizure of a Trojan priestess that Achilles (Brad Pitt) had claimed as his war prize and bride. In Troy, the relationship between Achilles and Briseis (Rose Byrne) is romantic, almost to a Romeo and Juliet level. It strikes me that this would change the entire character of Achilles away from how he is historically presented. Also, though an assault on a temple to Apollo confirms the importance of the gods in the every day lives of the characters, only Achilles's nymph mother Thetis appears. The other gods who play prominent roles in the story - Zeus, Hermes, Athena, Aphrodite - are only mentioned, and never hold any significance over the story itself. This disregard for the immortals clashes harshly with any historical evidence ever presented, and it seems like in some cases the filmmakers shirked historical accuracy in order to make a straight action movie, even though including the facts not only would have been easy, but also would have turned this into a smart action movie.

But despite these shortcomings, the cast drives through this movie in an uncanny, impressive manner. Brian Cox plays Agamemnon with such a lust for war and power that it is completely impossible to feel any regret when his time comes. Sean Bean's Odysseus is a wonderful contrast from the rest of the Achaean generals; he spends most of the movie quietly planning, and when he opens his mouth, it means something. Peter O'Toole plays King Priam of Troy exquisitely, rolling the love of a father, the compassion of a king, and the stubbornness of a warrior into a single being, never allowing any characteristic to overwhelm the other two. Shining above all else is Eric Bana as Hector, prince of Troy and commander of the Trojan army. Hector is the only character who truly shows every aspect adequately: the love of a husband and father, the love and protection of a leader, respect of a son, the love for a brother, disdain for a brother, respect of a warrior... all this and more. Impressive is that Bana never allows these heavy emotions to weigh Hector down; he's able to focus on each task while maintaining the importance of all the others. This is the only character I felt any pang of sorrow or lump in my throat for when the end drew near.

Conspicuous by their absences are Orlando Bloom and Brad Pitt. Bloom's Paris is humiliating. Granted, Paris is by no means a likable man - he steals another man's wife, and his lust results in the deaths of thousands of Trojans and Achaeans. But Bloom is playing a teenager dabbling in a man's war. Only cowering before Menelaus's (Brendan Gleeson) rage does Paris seem right in the movie. Pitt is hit-or-miss with his acting. If he has someone worthwhile to play off of (O'Toole, Bana, Cox, or Bean), he comes off looking excellent. Make him push the romance with Byrne, and one would begin to see Pitt getting bored, almost as if he knows what he's doing isn't working, or at least isn't meshing with Achilles's personality. Fortunately, there's enough of a focus on the supporting cast and Eric Bana that Bloom can be ignored, and Pitt can be remembered for the good parts, and forgiven for the bad.

Overall, Troy is enjoyable. Though a more strict adaptation of The Iliad would fare better, director Wolfgang Petersen delivers the action movie I think he wants to. Beautiful backdrops, excellent duels, and acting that ranges from solid to amazing sufficiently overshadow some bad choices and bad casting. Maybe not the kickoff to the summer blockbuster season that I and others had hoped, but Troy delivers 2.5 out of 3 hours of solid entertainment.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Review: Mean Girls
May 7, 2004; Regal Falmouth #5
* * * 1/2 (out of 4)

I was very, very wrong.

I walked into this movie expecting it to be so ridiculous it was funny. Funny in ways it wasn't supposed to be. I expected something in between the typical teen comedy and the typical SNL-connected movie, which would be the most spectacular train wreck the motion picture industry has ever seen. Instead, what I was pleasantly surprised by was the most honest depiction of high school interactions since American Pie, convesations that were almost always worth a laugh, and Lindsay Lohan proving that Freaky Friday wasn't the fluke some passed it off to be. Color me impressed.

Though never a huge fan of the SNL phenomenon, I admit some great comedic writers have emerged; Al Franken, Mike Judge, and now Tina Fey. The woman knows what's funny. Not only does she present a near-nonstop ride of fresh jokes to keep the audience entertained, but she captures the flow and style of high-school dialogue better than most writers 12 years removed from their subject. Every line out of every character's mouth is believable and fitting, and conversations flow perfectly, mixing in punchlines with casual ease. Also, through all the joking, she tells stories that anyone who ever set foot in high school can relate to - first days, crushes, rumors; everyone lived this.

Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) just moved to the Chicago suburbs from Africa, where she was home-schooled by her anthropologist parents. On her first day of public school, she's thrown head-first into every conflict high school can present to a girl: friends, rumors, crushes, cliques. As she makes friends on both sides of the popularity division, Cady learns quickly that dealing with the average American teenager isn't that much different from confronting African predators: they're unpredictable and dangerous.

Lindsay Lohan drove full-force into this movie to impress any skeptics. Granted, playing 16-year-old Cady Heron wasn't that much of a stretch for her (she was 17 when the movie was filmed), but sometimes the hardest things to show are the ones that hit closest to home. She is very comfortable in what seems to be her own skin, and her confidence makes Cady that much more self-confident and likable. Also notable is Rachel McAdams playing Regina George, leader of "the Plastics" and Cady's rival in the film. With a character who immediately assumes the film title's description, it would be easy to overplay the meanness in Regina and ignore everything else - everyone can think of someone who they didn't think had any other side - but McAdams actually turns her into a real person that the audience can connect to in some insane way by the end.

All around good performances from the entire cast, including Fey and SNL regulars Tim Meadows and Ana Gasteyer, are supported by writing that is as real and accurate as anyone could hope for. Unfortunately, the movie's focus is limited to the high school crowd, and only they might benefit from the message - though no one expects that this movie is going to revolutionize the way high schoolers socialize and interact. For the rest of us, Mean Girls is a fun reminder of how silly things could get when playing by the entirely different set of rules that made up high school. Worth a ticket for a good laugh and a warm feeling.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Review: Van Helsing
May 8, 2004; Regal Falmouth #2
* * (out of 4)

Squeezing the last drop of juice out of Universal's classic monster lineup does not a good movie make. But the world be damned if they're not gonna try. It's not bad enough to basically mock a number of classic horror movies, but Universal also chooses to rip apart the mythology that created Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man. Hidden amongst this chaos is a good cast that is desperately lost and misguided, most of them handing in performances well below what anyone has come to expect from them.

Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) is a "hunter of evil things" in the emplyoment of the Vatican. He is shipped off to Transylvania to find a way to kill Count Dracula before the Count can give life to thousands of his undead offspring. Along the way he'll meet the last decendant of the Count's rival family, Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale). Together they must stop Dracula from obtaining Dr. Frankenstein's key to the creation of life, but must contend with Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula's brides, and the Wolf Man before getting to the Count himself.

Maybe this is just too much for one movie. The Wolf Man barely gets touched - he becomes no more than Dracula's servant and hitman. Frankenstein's monster is at least given a personality, which is more than can be said for many other characters in the film, but his screen time is sorely limited. Dracula himself provides the biggest problem. Richard Roxburgh plays a good villain, but Count Dracula is supposed to be the king of the vampires, and there's little indication here that Dracula is anything all that special. Sure, the normal methods of dealing with vampires are ineffective against him (interesting, but it basically shreds Bram Stoker's novel to pieces), but in previous incarnations, the Count has always been something more... mystical. The idea that Dracula only turns victims who beg, plead for it automatically lends him this ultimate charisma that Roxburgh simply doesn't have. Dracula becomes just another villain trying to take over the world; he's not special or different in any of the ways that have made the Count interesting since Bela Lugosi first brought him to life in 1931. Beyond the monsters, who are the real focus of the movie... Jackman is collecting a paycheck, and Beckinsale is swamped by a bad wig and a bad accent. The leads aren't that interesting, so it's hard to root for them and even harder to believe their romance.

What's good here are some gorgeous special effects. As awful as it was plot-wise, the final fight between Dracula and Van Helsing is just too much fun to watch, gorgeously done as both characters slide from human form to computer-generated avatars. This standard of effects is maintained through the movie, starting with an appearance by Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll's alter-ego. Hyde is beautifully conceived... it's a shame he's voiced as Fat Bastard's brother. Another bright spot is Carl (David Wenham), Van Helsing's friar sidekick. He exists almost entirely forcomic relief, and for once the character works. 90% of his dialogue is funny, and he drags this movie away from taking itself too seriously on more than one occasion.

It feels like writer/director Stephen Sommers bit off far more than he could chew. More than that, he tried to put a new spin on classic material, but all he did was insult the original stories and use two and a half hours of film that could have been used for something better. The three leads (Jackman, Beckinsale, and Roxburgh) seem either bored or miscast, and despite their best efforts they don't manage to hold the required interest. Van Helsing wanted to be the summer season's first blockbuster, but it missed.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Review: Envy
May 3, 2004; Regal Falmouth #1
* * 3/4 (out of 4)

It's a hard sell to say that this movie is not low-brow comedy. The trailers haven't told much more about the plot beyond Jack Black's character inventing a spray product that makes dog poop mysteriously disappear, and Ben Stiller's character becomes wrought with jealousy. Yeah, that's the basics, but the to the movie's credit is that for the most part it avoids running rampant with the poop jokes. The film's funniest moments have nothing to do with feces; unfortunately, those moments are just a little too few and far between. There's nothing bad here, exactly... it's just that a lot of different ideas were thrown around, and more often than not they misfired.

What's good here is the casting. Both Tim (Stiller) and Nick (Black) are for the most part average guys. Stiller has made a livinglately by being the straight man in outlandish situations, but it's harder to pull that off without an off-the-wall partner. Once he gets rich and begins living it up, Black becomes a bit more crazy and outlandish, but it's still a very subdued role by Black's standards. These are two pretty normal guys, and at first that comes off as a little disconcerting considering the actors, but they pull it off very well. The funniest scene in the film is a conversation between the two in Tim's office; what the two talk about is completely ridiculous, but they do it completely deadpan and straight-faced, and it's a perfect sell. On the other side, filling in the role these two usually get hit with is Christopher Walken. He's proven in the last few years that he's funnier than anyone ever gave him credit for, but he's more off the wall here than I've ever seen him. It seems like he picked up this part just to be silly and have a good time, and that's exactly what he does.

Unfortunately, what this movie doesn't have is the momentum that usually comes with the two leads. In places, the movie drags pretty badly. A big part of that is because a lot of the things that Tim does that are supposed to be funny are fueled purely by jealousy - they're not good-intentioned plans that went wrong, but the results of Tim being too shallow to admit that his best friend has finally beaten him in something. Moreover, it never really feels like this changes - he confesses his blunders to Nick eventually, but even during that it feels like he's still condescending and unwilling to give the credit and praise deserved. Were it not for Nick's forgiveness underlining the worth of a good friendship, Tim would just come off as mean and nasty, with no redemption.

Like Stiller's Starsky & Hutch, this is another movie that suffers from the lack of the "big laugh." There's not really much that will keep an audience laughing after the credits have rolled; the joke that is supposed to supply that becomes a dead horse due to overexposure. The film shines in two places: when it gives normally-oddball actors purposefully ridiculous dialogue and doesn't allow them to physicalize it, and when the supporting cast is allowed to steal screen time. Walken is fantastic as the resident lunatic, as is the pitifully-underused Rachel Weisz as Tim's wife. It was good to see Ben Stiller and Jack Black trying to stretch a little more, but they need some material that is slightly better paced for it. This tried to be fast-paced, but no one was there to carry it through.