Running Scared

Running ScaredAh, another mid-1980s buddy-cop movie. What a ridiculously overused sub-genre this one was back in the days of Rubikls Cube and Madonna bracelets. The trend pretty much got rolling with Walter Hillls 1982 release 48 Hrs., and kept on rolling for the nextu okay, itls still with us today. Stakeout, Red Heat, Tango & Cash, Dead Heat, Shakedown, Lethal Weapons l these are all essentially the same movie, and all are a source of glorious Cosby-era nostalgia.

But while most of these cop flicks cast two mismatched tough guys as the protagonists, the producers of 1986ls Running Scared tried to buck the trend by castingu a skinny dancer and a wimpy comedian. Say what you will about the pairing of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Belushi; at least those two look like tough guys. Despite their overt wimpiness, Gregory Hines (Tap) and Billy Crystal (Analyze This) manage to save Running Scared from being as bad as most of the other cop-buddy flicks.

What these partners lack in machismo, they more than make up for in smooth chemistry and witty banter. MGM wisely advertised this one as a comedy, and in return, the film turned a tidy profit for the studio. While there is a handful of engaging action sequences, the most appealing thing about this movie is the charisma and good humour delivered by the two leads. Within the first 15 minutes of Running Scared, youlll accept that these guys are lifelong friends.

Whatls tougher to buy is that these two are tough, grizzled Chicago cops. Crystal sports some facial hair (and an Italian accent) in an attempt to play it tough, but clmon. This is Billy Crystal welre talking about here! Hines is also somewhat askew, what with his skinny dancerls legs and all. But itls okay in the long run, because Running Scared is simply the same old ocop movieo blueprint, only made fresh thanks to the two leads. Essentially, the partners are chasing a drug dealer. Various irate police chiefs, villainous henchmen and unrequited lovers pop up from time to time in typically clichUd fashion.

Jack-of-all-trades director Peter Hyams (End of Days, Outland) keeps things moving along fairly quickly, stopping only for some clever banter between the cops or some predictable plot thread. The action scenes, while nothing revolutionary, are mildly entertaining, with a chase on an elevated train track as the standout. The city of Chicago is used to strong effect, and movie buffs in the know consider this one a truly beautiful oChicago flicko. In supporting roles, Dan Hedaya (Clueless), Joe Pantoliano (Memento) and Jimmy Smits (Switch) fill in the blanks, while Darlanne Fluegel (Bulletproof) and Tracy Reed (Car Wash) get the thankless roles of olove interest A and Bo.

With the accent more on comedy than action, Running Scared proves entertaining enough for a Friday night viewing. Fans of Billy Crystal should have a much better time than the rest of us, but if youlre looking for a true buddy-cop action movie, skip this one and just go back to the original: The French Connection.

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Oceanis Eleven (1960)

Oceanis Eleven (1960)If you donit think Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and the gang are cool, then youill have a tough time enjoying Oceanis 11, a heist flick that counts on its coolness n and a remarkably downbeat ending n for its success. Sinatra and the rest of the erat packi play crooks who are pulled together from all over the U.S. to carry out the ultimate rip-off n a huge casino robbery in Las Vegas.

The filmis first act is devoted to introducing the characters and setting the good-natured tone that continues through most of the film. Some of the 11 are keen and some are not-so enthusiastic about taking part in the simultaneous raid on five casino vaults n assisted by an orchestrated power failure. In addition to Sinatra, Martin and Davis, thereis Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, Buddy Lester, Henry Silva, Richard Conte, Norman Fell, Richard Benedict and Akim Tamiroff. These old army buddies come together to pull off the big job, and n in Danny Oceanis (Sinatra) case n to also try to win back his estranged wife (played by a very young Angie Dickinson).

In the movieis second act, each of the 11 refines his part in the big job. Several infiltrate the casinos and set things up from the inside, while several others prepare the explosives that will open the vaults, the electrician (Conte) prepares to black out Vegas at midnight New Yearis Eve, and all the pieces of this intricate puzzle fall into place. Itis fun to watch the scamsters bring things together, because they do it with such hip panache. The filmis tension isnit as great as it might be, as it seems obvious that these guys are going to succeed in pulling off the big job.

Which brings us to the movieis ending. Hereis where Oceanis 11 is really surprising. Not only do we have genuine sadness injected into the proceedings, but thereis also a final outcome n a nice wry twist n that you just wouldnit expect.

Remade by Steven Soderbergh some 40 years later in a similar showcase of big Hollywood names, the original Oceanis Eleven is a capably made formula piece. Director Lewis Milestone n in the second-last feature film of his 45-year directorial career n seems to sit back and let the story unfold without a whole lot of intervention. Some 30 years past his heyday as an Academy Award-winning director, Milestone neither makes a lot more of the movie than the script provides, nor does he detract from the raw material n a workmanlike job to be sure. Milestone does n at least n maintain the light tone until it makes a surprising shift, and he gets credit for the idea behind the movieis excellent ending.

Nelson Riddleis jazzy score enhances the party atmosphere, and the film benefits from the fact that most of it was shot on location in Las Vegas n which by itself makes the film a nostalgia piece.

The acting is unremarkable, except for the fact that this is a collection of actors that would top just about any 1960 Hollywood party invite list. Impressive acting isnit really an important part of any of the rat pack movies. Theyire more about the incredible coolness of Sinatra and company than they are the characters, or even the story. So, if youire not a fan of these guys and canit imagine spending a couple of hours watching them hang out and just be plain cool, then you might find it all unbearable. But youill be better off if you can stick it out and enjoy the nostalgia, 1960-hipness and the filmis unexpected conclusion.

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Shrek the Halls

Shrek the HallsGiven the typical movie franchise ‘arc of success’ that has been Shrek, Shrek the Halls is pretty much exactly what you’d expect – a throw-away piece of fluff with a seasonal hook to ensure it’s gobbled up by Shrek fans regardless of what really unfolds onscreen.

How many times have we seen this before? A movie is a hit, spawning an even more successful sequel, a lame third big screen effort demonstrating that the franchise has more than run its course, then an endless series of no-quality direct-to-DVD profit-enhancers.

In this case, it’s not really direct-to-DVD, but rather lame holiday season television special followed by DVD release. But the bottom line is the same. Shrek hasn’t been worth watching since the second movie (even that was a stretch for anyone uninterested in watching for endless pop culture references), and Shrek the Halls is only tolerable because it’s ridiculously short – a 30-minute television special makes for a 22-minute flick on DVD, not even long enough to get into the story or become particularly irritated by this non-event.

The characters and voice talent of the other Shrek movies are here – Shrek the ogre (voiced by Mike Myers, Fiona (Cameron Diaz, Donkey (Eddie Murphy, Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) and so on. The nearly absent storyline revolves around Shrek’s efforts to make a good first Christmas together for his new family, and the conflict that ensues when Donkey, Puss in Boots and all the other fairy tale hangers-on descend upon the family to celebrate with them – when all Shrek was a quiet time with Fiona and the kids. Will it be a warm family Christmas, or an angst-ridden gathering of too many?

It certainly seems that the whole gang – characters as well as filmmakers – are just going through the motions of coming up with answers to that question. And like holiday festivities that start in November to squeeze every last dollar out of the season, this little movie feels uninspired, forced and even insincere.

Granted, those who have adored every moment of all things Shrek will be thrilled just to see all the characters trotting out on the small screen. But beyond that a moment or two of wit, this is thin cinematic winter gruel indeed. The computer animation is passable, but clearly not to the same standard as the three big screen efforts, but it’s the lacklustre story that’s the real problem here. The conflict is lightweight and far too obvious – does anyone really expect Shrek to boot his old buddies out and carry on with Christmas without them?

Perhaps the most disturbing sign of all is that I – long since tired of the pop culture self indulgence of the series – found myself actually wishing there was a hint or two more of energetic lampooning of popular culture. That at least would provide a break from the monotony of waiting for Shrek to realize the predictable – that Christmas with all his buddies is even better than Christmas just with the family.

It seems that we’re long past the time of holiday specials that become classics all on their own, or even boost their franchise to new heights, as occurred way back when with A Charlie Brown Christmas. Rather than enhancing the franchise, Shrek the Halls is a dispiriting holiday cash cow. So, while it might offend the ultimate Shrek-aphiles, I feel compelled to rework an old line and just say, “Shrek, I knew Charlie Brown, and you are no Charlie Brown.”

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Station Agent, The

Station Agent, TheThe Station Agent is the sort of film that can find its audience just by sharing its plot synopsis:

“An alienated young man with Dwarfism inherits a derelict train station when his only friend dies. After he moves in, he is gradually drawn out of his shell by an artist grieving the loss of her son and a sociable hot dog vendor.”

Yes, this is a quirky little independent film, and it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Not only will the subject matter have some potential viewers furrowing their brows, but the film’s languid pace and sacrifice of story in exchange for character development – gradual character development – will have others heading for the exits quickly. But those who stay behind will be rewarded with a fascinating and likeable film about alienation and making a fresh start that grows on you if you stick with it.

It’s not exactly mainstream stuff. First, how many films have you seen that star – and are about – a person with dwarfism? Not too common, and when you do see dwarves in movies, it’s usually as oddities, and virtually never as well-rounded characters. Well, meet Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage), a loner and a dwarf. Second, how many movies have you seen where the main interest of the protagonist is train-watching? Oh, there are lots of train fanatics around, but they don’t generally get portrayed in movies, especially not sympathetically. Fin is a train fanatic; his work was assembling and repairing model trains, his interest is in watching and identifying trains, and his home – now that his friend and employer Henry Styles (Paul Benjamin) has died and willed him property in small-town New Jersey – is an old, long-disused train station.

The Station Agent rejects a strong narrative and instead takes a leisurely approach to introducing us to lost souls Fin (tormented for his dwarfism, he chooses to be alone), Olivia – played by Patricia Clarkson – (dealing with a marriage break-up and the death of her son, she hesitates to get close to new people) and Joe – played by Bobby Cannavale – (yearning for connections with people, the hot dog vendor talks and talks and talks, first to the point of driving people away, but eventually winning them over with his authenticity and clumsy charm).

Some might say that nothing really happens in the film, and that’s not far from the truth if you’re just counting physical action. But there’s lots going on here, in the hearts and souls of these characters. And writer/ director Thomas McCarthy has done a fine job of exploring loneliness, alienation and opening up to the world – and without sounding a single false note in the process. Except maybe for Olivia knocking Fin into the ditch on both of the first two times she drives by him – that’s maybe a bit contrived, but nothing else in The Station Agent is that way at all.

Dinklage deserves great credit for making all this work. He makes Fin a heartbreakingly real character, ignoring those who gawk, tease and torment him for his dwarfism, keeping to himself, and only gradually – and authentically – coming out of his protective shell. The wonderful Clarkson also does well, making Olivia simultaneously flaky and deeply sad. And Cannavale perfectly balances Joe’s obnoxiousness with his inner loveability, successfully portraying the big mouth who tries too hard but wins anyway because he’s a good person at heart.

Don’t expect action; don’t expect huge tragedy or huge achievements; just expect unusual but real people struggling to find meaning in their lives. If that’s what you’re looking for, The StationA gent delivers big-time.

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PromisesWhatis the justifiable pretext for ignorance n and can the explanation substantiate itself?

In the documentary, Promises, such an exploration ensues. The film is a call to those living out of bondage, who still find ways to persuade themselves of the victimized lives they lead. Modern day dysfunction in most Western nations seems utopian compared to the commonplace tragedies that plague the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Palestinian communities. This film is as enlightening as it is sorrowful, as triumphant as it is disturbing. It marks the exigencies of seven innocent children as they walk a daily tightrope held above a world of machine guns and checkpoints. Itis an existence that would seem downcast to most, but serves as inspiration to Daniel and Yarko (twin boys), Mahmoud, Shlomo, Sanabel, Faraj, and Moishe, as they marinate in the potential excitement of victory, revenge and eventual peace.

Ignorance takes on prismatic qualities within the film. First and foremost are the ignorant governing officials of Palestine and Israel, who subject their people to violence and disorder, rather than drafting a reasonable solution. Next is the ignorance that children inherit. Last is the rampant ignorance in modern-day America n a cultivation of hampered education and petty excuses n where a teenaged suburban witness to a street fight can easily exploit the social services system, by blaming the itraumai for his erratic behaviour. While I see no justifiable explanation for such ignorance, Promises can only sympathize with it.

Promises is the remarkable work of three creative forces n B.Z. Goldberg (who was born in the United States, then lived in Jerusalem. His fluent Hebrew, and conversant Arabic adds to the filmis personal touches), Justine Shapiro (who was inspired to make the film while shooting another project in Israel and the Palestinian territories), and Carlos Bolado (who, as a Third World citizen, felt empathy with the Palestinians). The collected talents and varying viewpoints of these three help create a truer-than-fiction film thatis as entertaining as a crafted tale.

The filmmakers open up with a black screen to appropriate the sobering nature of the film, and continue with a paragraph describing the war-over-land between Israel and Palestine n a war that dates back to 1914. The screen finds light with the complex image of a tire in flames, as it tries to roll to safety. Drenched in smoky grays, and dull blues, is the imageis battered landscape n a landscape that seems to sustain the bellicosity of each Palestinian refugee. Underneath such a harrowing visual are the sounds of innocence n children laughing and playing n as the creative team sets up an evocative dichotomy. Next weire introduced to the seven children whose blend of political ferocity and insouciance creates startling, interesting subjects. Promises has the intellectual capacity to juxtapose political struggle with the fancies of youth. Itis amazing to meet children like Faraj, who at once complains about the murder of his best friend, and rejoices at the chance to run the 100-meter dash. Equally enlightening is the double-sidedness of Yarko, who never cried as a witness to human brutality, but wept uncontrollably at the loss of a volleyball championship.

Promises chronicles a world of unexpected, interesting reactions and debates. With equal amounts of vigour, come two sets of opinions on weighty issues such as politics, religion, life, and death. Itis a marvellous journey from childhood idealism to adolescent self-absorption. After three years of filming, Yarkois opinion has matured: iI want there to be peace here. I really do. I have other concerns though, like friendsO and volleyball.i

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Summer of e42

Summer of e42Believe it or not, there once existed a handful of movies in which adolescents dealt with sexual issues without relying on pointless nude scenes, sniggering scatology, or non-stop erection gags. To those weaned on films like Porkyis and American Pie, the cinematic quest for ifirst sexi will undoubtedly be an exercise in immaturity. Occasionally, there comes a movie that tackles this issue with sensitivity and understanding, and Robert Mulliganis 1971 film Summer of e42 does precisely that. Itis readily apparent in every scene that this is a highly personal film for screenwriter Herman Raucher (The Watermelon Man), and the nostalgia is so palpable that it nearly slides off the screen.

As the title suggests, the film centres on three teenage buddies and their last boyhood summer together. Living on a quiet and uncomplicated New England island, Hermie (Gary Grimes) combs the beaches with his two best friends n their days filled with nothing more important than discussions about their raging hormones. After poring through a medical isex dictionary,i the trio feels confident about shedding their virginityO maybe.

Oskie (Jerry Houser) is a bit more confident about his sexuality, and he and Hermie double-date a few times with some island girls. Unfortunately, Hermie has his eye on an iolder ladyi n the 22-year old Dorothy. The young womanis husband has recently been called away to war, and Dorothy forges a sweet friendship with the love-struck Hermie. While his friends find his devotion to Dorothy a bit extreme, itis obvious that Hermie is learning a lot more about love from her than he ever could from campfire fumblings with girls his own age.

Gary Grimes (The Spikes Gang) is affecting as the smitten Hermie, while Jennifer OiNeill (Scanners) delivers a wonderful performance as Dorothy. Although heis relegated mainly to icomic reliefi status, Jerry Houser (Slap Shot) is entertaining as the perpetually horny Oskie. Although he appears in just the one scene, Lou Frizzell (The Reivers) is note-perfect playing a bemused pharmacist n in one of the filmis funniest sequences.

Summer of e42 couldnit feel more iauthentici unless you owned a time machine. Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) delivers 1942 New England down to the most faded detail, and the production design is superlative throughout. The moody and romantic music by Michel Legrand works wonderfully, and it was good enough to win an Oscar in 1971 for Best Dramatic Score. The film works as a sweet-natured coming-of-age story, a mild iteen comedy,i and a disarmingly touching love story as well. If the screenplay seems a tad schizophrenic n switching back and forth between the ibuddies hanging outi and the idiscomfort of puppy lovei storylines n itis a flaw youire willing to forgive, as the film as a whole fits like a comfortable old shoe.

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ZodiacItis the aspects of Zodiac that differ from a typical thriller or police procedural that make this movie special. David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room) isnit afraid to make a movie that n consistent with the actual events on which itis based n stretches the story out over not just days, but years.

This intriguing film makes you want to know more about what actually happened in and around San Francisco during the late 1960s and early 1970s when the self-named eZodiaci killer was wreaking havoc with innocent people at night, while enjoying himself by taunting police and the local media with letters giving hints and a secret code, aimed at making the chase more delicious n for him.

Fincheris approach is risky, as most similar movies would derive their tension out of a close connection between the audience and one or two central characters, whose fate becomes vital to us. Here, Fincheris use of an ensemble cast allows one character to be discredited, another to spiral downward in alcoholism and a third to lose his family n all at least partly due to their obsession with this case n yet we watch this from something of a distance. Thankfully, there is more than enough tension, and more than enough fascinating detail, for this approach to work, and to benefit from the added complexity of so much going on in the lives of so many characters.

Carried by an excellent cast n Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue, and on it goes n this is a film that holds your interest well over more than two and a half hours, and with numerous apparent dead ends and leaps of time in the investigation. Unlike most thrillers, which unrealistically pack the intrigue into a neat little package, Fincher allows things to unfold gradually, with numerous dead ends, findings later discredited, and characters who enter and eventually depart the storyline.

Instead of making the movie boring, this pace actually makes it all the more fascinating, as weire as uncertain and frustrated as are the cops. Itis no surprise that they all eventually pretty much give up, leaving just one obsessed newspaper cartoonist (Gyllenhaal) to devote his life to (and alienate his family over) digging for the truth.

As much about the price of obsession on the part of Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), reporter Paul Avery (Downey), and detective David Toschi (Ruffalo) as it is about the killer, Zodiac is tense, despite the fact that there are only a few scenes in which we feel any of these characters might be in peril (not counting the peril to their personal lives, which is substantial). We, like these investigators, want to learn the truth, and this is the source of our tension more than fear over when, where and how the Zodiac killer may strike next.

Some may be struck by the absence of significant female characters (Sevignyis role is played up, although hers is a secondary character), but this is a function of the reality of police stations and newsrooms in the e60s and e70s. Fincher pieces together the film skilfully, recreating the killings, and presenting us with montages of newspaper clippings, recreations of panicked calls to police, and plenty of scenes of frustrated investigatory work by police and the newspaper men.

More realistic-feeling than Fincheris previous films (largely due to the fact that he emphasizes the historical basis of the film), yet equally tense and fascinating, Zodiac is the work of a mature, sure-handed director who has a solid grasp of the thriller genre.

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JabberwockyLike many North American Monty Python fanatics, I discovered the six wacky Brits early in my teen years. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was an instant classic among me and my friends, while my sister and I combed the Public Television airwaves searching for an episode of the Flying Circus. Like most new obsessions, this one burned brightly and I quickly devoured anything related to the Pythons: the concert film Live from the Hollywood Bowl, the collection of skits entitled And Now For Something Completely Different, and the features Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life. Thinking that I had taken in all that Python had to offer, it was only by chance that I stumbled upon a movie called Jabberwocky. Directed by one of the Pythons (Terry Gilliam) and starring another (Michael Palin), Jabberwocky looked to be a piece of hidden treasure. But I didn’t treasure it at all.

Fifteen years later, the Jabberwocky DVD shows up at my door and I’m eager to give it another chance. After all, this movie was an early work by the Terry Gilliam, who went on to become one of Hollywood’s most celebrated (and controversial) filmmakers. Certain that my adolescent dismissal of this movie was soon to be eradicated, I watched the film. Sadly, I still didn’t find it a treasure.

There are several good things about the movie that deserve mention. As a glimpse at Gilliam’s earlier work, Jabberwocky proves to be an entertaining diversion. The visual styles and graphic displays so prevalent in movies like Brazil, Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are also evident here, only on a much smaller (and grimier) scale. Gilliam’s taste for broad, graphic humour is never more evident than in this movie; Palin gets urinated on within the first five minutes.

The medieval story (based on the epic poem by Lewis Carroll) centres on a disgraced young fellow named Dennis Cooper. Disowned by his dying father and dismissed by his obese girlfriend, Dennis makes his way to the local castle town hoping to find work. Governed by King Bruno the Questionable, this is a city in a severe state of disrepair. Of course, the appearance of the terrifying “Jabberwock” creature doesn’t make things any easier for the beleaguered monarch. Bruno proposes a tournament to find a champion powerful enough to slay the beast, which has been feasting on tax-paying peasants.

Infuse the “dark ages adventure” with some mildly amusing Python-style comedy bits and you have a strong sense of what Jabberwocky is all about. As the confused hero Dennis, Palin is entertaining, and old-time British actor Max Wall is simply hysterical as the clueless king. (His best bits come later on, as an advisor explains to the king how killing knights might not be the best way to protect the kingdom.) For eagle-eyed Python fans, you’ll catch both Terrys (Gilliam and Jones) in brief cameo bits.

Although several bits clearly point to Gilliam’s burgeoning directorial talents, the movie as a whole simply moves too slowly, with a handful of truly inspired sequences coming in small doses. Most of the jokes are of the bodily-excretion sort, the violence is over-the-top and extreme, and you’d have to look long and hard to find a movie this filthy-looking. For casual fans of the ‘costume drama,’ I’d have to say avoid this one. For curious fans of Palin or Monty Python ‘completists,’ Jabberwocky is at least worth a viewing.

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Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver SurferIt might just be that market research n the stuff I figure that was the entire basis for the first Fantastic Four movie n sometimes can lead to good being done. Either that or itis just pure luck that director Tim Story and his team took the financially successful but heartless original and came up with a sequel thatis a significant improvement.

The first movie looked great, but very much seemed like a superhero movie that was going through the motions. It lacked passion, and n even more seriously n it lacked a really good villain. Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) was unlikeable, but really not very scary. And the movie was passable, but really nothing more than a big, loud time-filler.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is better than that. Itis not great, but itis got more life, less preening silliness and a far more interesting force for our quartet of heroes to struggle against. Yes, Von Doom is back for a return appearance, but this time heis more of a nuisance than anything else; itis the energy-sucking, planet-destroying Galactus, and its able assistant, the Silver Surfer, that are the real problem. And the rubber man (Reed Richards, played by Ioan Gruffudd), invisible woman (Sue Storm, played by Jessica Alba), man of flames (Johnny Storm, played by Chris Evans) and stone guy (Ben Grimm, played by Michael Chiklis) have their hands full.

Itis interesting how societal change is reflected in the movies. Not so long ago, a mainstream movie wouldnit have portrayed the legitimate U.S. military openly torturing a prisoner. But here, weive got the Silver Surfer, precursor to the coming storm that intends to consume planet earth, in custody and a U.S. general stands by patiently while henchmen tie up and torture the shiny guy. Kind of sad, that. The debate over whether all really is fair in love and war seems to have ended without anyone acknowledging that our societyis answer is eyou bet it is.i

Of course, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer isnit exactly a deep examination of whatis happened in our world since September 2001. But, to its credit, itis more complicated n and subtle n than the first movie in this series. The Silver Surfer is a fascinating character n essentially a foot soldier who justifies his destructive behaviour simply by acknowledging that this is how things work in his world. Yet thereis a chink in his amoral armour, one thatis exposed when shiny guy encounters Sue Storm. Thereis nothing like a bodacious female superhero to remind us that love exists, and once heis reminded of the one he loves, the Silver Surfer suddenly shows that he has a heart and a conscience. Before you know it, heis acknowledging that we do indeed have choices and need not just go along with whatis done just because itis whatis done. An interesting conclusion to be reached in a film that portrays torture as a standard method of business.

But back to the action. And itis pretty decent. The superheroes find themselves fighting the Silver Surfer, then Von Doom, then Von Doom and Galactus. Itis a lot of conflict packed into a refreshingly concise 92 minutes of popcorn cinema. Like the original, thereis all sorts of colour and action here, but itis less silly than the original without losing any of the fun.

While Iim rarely keen about sequels and movie series, Iive got to say Iim actually okay with the prospect of the seemingly inevitable: more of the Fantastic Four in the future.

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Frankenstein (1994)

Frankenstein (1994)Commonplace sayings are funny; whether the ring we sense to them comes from their perfect wording or simply their familiarity, there’s no question that coming close is not good enough. So, when the 16th century dramatist John Lyly wrote, “as neere is Fancie to Beautie, as the pricke to the Rose, as the stalke to the rynde, as the earth to the roote,” it somehow just didn’t stick as a memorable phrase. Even Shakespeare didn’t quite make the top 40 of catchphrases with his version of the same sentiment: “Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye, not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues.” Ditto David Hume a century and a half later: `Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.”

It wasn’t until 1878 that the line we know came into being, in the writings of Margaret Wolfe Hungerford: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

As an aficionado of all things classic, I expect Kenneth Branagh could quote more than just the line we all know. I doubt, however, he’d be as keen on a slight variation: “melodrama is in the eye of the beholder.” And this is the line that points us in the direction of deciding what to make of Branagh’s 1994 version of Frankenstein – a story that predates Hungerford’s catchphrase by some 60 years.

Clearly, one person’s authentic homage is another person’s overwrought teeth-gnashing fest, as Branagh’s film, sporting an impressive cast that includes the director, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter and numerous other notables, never hesitates to slop on the melodramatic mustard. The only thing Branagh seems to favour over scenes of screeching, arm-waving angst is scenes of himself, shirtless, being a hunk like the good Dr. Frankenstein has never been a hunk before.

This Frankenstein prides itself on being “true to the original,” yet this favourable attribute can’t conceal a more fundamental truth: that Branagh’s film is self-indulgent and excessive, succeeding in making De Niro less interesting than Peter Boyle and in making us want its moderate length (123 minutes) to pass more quickly.

The story is familiar – a young doctor, fascinated by death and frustrated by the physician’s inability to always preserve life, sets out to beat the Grim Reaper by cobbling together a living man from the flesh of various easily available corpses (many of them belonging to executed criminals), topped off by the brain of a brilliant (but now deceased) colleague. His creation does indeed come to life, but finds adjusting to society something of a challenge. Carnage ensues.

There are moments here where Branagh really gets it right – he succeeds in creating the dark, brooding atmosphere this story needs and he keeps the story moving along nicely. But after the fourth or fifth time we witness Branagh running about yelling and gesturing madly and the second or third time he doffs his shirt, we realize that this is more of an ego trip than a film that’s going to fire on all cylinders.

Bonham Carter makes the best of her role as love interest and monster number two and De Niro really does seem to be trying to exude confused-monster-angst. But just like a filmmaker who sets out to remake an old silent movie, complete with actors delivering facial contortions to compensate for the lack of dialogue, Branagh’s efforts here just don’t hold together well. The total package simply doesn’t work, so this one gets filed away neatly in the “Nice try, but…” category.

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