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The Legend of Zorro

The Legend of Zorro

Director: Martin Campbell
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Giovanna Zacarias, Raul Mendez, Rufus Sewell, Adrian Alonso and Nick Chinlund
Runtime: 129 minutes
CARA Rating: PG for Sequences of violence/peril and action, language and a couple of suggestive moments

Pop quiz! Okay, so is it a good or bad sign when a hit adventure film spawns a sequel seven years after its initial release? Common sense says this is a bad thing, and I’m not talking about that pamphlet from Thomas Paine, but The Legend of Zorro proves a different truth.

Yes, it is true, The Legend of Zorro is half decent. Go ahead and slap that on your posters, Sony Pictures.

The plot is pretty much the traditional powerful bad guy wants to take over the world, or a sizeable portion of it, with some obscure evil plan that of course will never work. However, a Zorro film does not necessarily sink or swim because of its plot alone.

Remarkable locations, intense action and memorable characters can keep a popcorn film alive, especially one destined to mediocrity from the get-go. Most of these elements are at work here, helping to making the experience enjoyable.

Nick Chinlund, who played the bounty hunter Toombs in the misfire that was The Chronicles of Riddick, plays an effective sadistic henchman with a mouthful of wooden teeth.

Also notable is Adrian Alonso who is only slightly annoying as Joaquin, the child of Zorro and his beautiful warrior wife Elena played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Thankfully Alonso’s screen time is mercifully limited.

Despite the fact that this Zorro outing is rated PG, the original The Mask of Zorro from the summer of ’98 was a hard PG-13, this new film is perhaps more brutal than its predecessor.

Although blood never spurts out spastically there are numerous instances of people dying, being burnt with fire and even exploding. Also, near the beginning a character falls into a cactus, resulting in a lovely face full of painful needles.

Thus, it is relieving to know that The Legend of Zorro doesn’t quite become the film for little kids its rating and trailers have suggested.

With that said, there is a level of goofiness that rears its ugly head at a few unfortunate spots. Still, the slapstick rarely becomes downright embarrassing, and the stupidest moments are already proudly displayed in the TV spots (I’m looking at you “E Z.”)

In short, this is far from a mature film but it is a successful match to the first film, and chances are if you enjoyed The Mask of Zorro, assuming you remember it, you will enjoy this.

Martin Campbell, the director of the original and of the upcoming Bond movie Casino Royale, keeps the action heavy and quick in this fluffy adventure. The film especially opens with a bang, not wasting any time to get straight into the action.

One aspect of The Legend of Zorro that is somewhat surprising is the beautiful cinematography. Certain shots are really breathtaking, and most of the action takes place in clear day and can actually be followed.

Speaking of this, some of the stunts are eye catching. Refusing to use the popular digital stuntmen of today’s day and age it is refreshing to see a real stuntman doing flips and jumps.

It is probably a double blessing that CG is rarely used, for when it does appear it truly is laughable. There is one computer generated reaction shot of a horse widening its eyes that is so absurd in both idea and execution that, well, it is a very good thing that if you blink you will miss it.

Still, the fight sequences are impressive, if absurd. Banderas himself gets in some wicked sword moves, and the mix of the aforementioned stunt doubles and the actors is well balanced.

That is, except for the stunt double of Joaquin who clearly is an adult. How exactly the child of Zorro even became so talented in fighting remains a mystery. Is it implied that his “Zorro” genes give him the unique ability to do acrobats at age 10?

There are actually many moments that require quite a bit of suspension of disbelief, but with this type of film that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Worse, though, is the two hour plus runtime, as this vapid action adventure begins to wear out its welcome about twenty minutes too early. It doesn’t really ever become terribly boring or unbearable to the point of inducing stress, but some stuff could have been cut. This certainly shouldn’t pretend to be The Lord of the Rings.

With all this said The Legend of Zorro works. Likely successfully because much of the talent from the original film has returned, this film is in the same league as its predecessor. There are more moments that work than ones that don’t.

In the end it can be put bluntly: if the idea of a new Zorro film interests you, you won’t be too disappointed. If it doesn’t, well, this won’t convert non-believers.

Critic’s Conclusion: Although the timing of an action adventure film for Halloween is a bit weird, perhaps The Legend of Zorro will prove to be successful counter programming. If you enjoyed the first film (assuming you remember it), you will enjoy this fluffy but enjoyable ride.

The Legend of Zorro

Rating by Dan Russell: 3.0 stars
***

Family Guy presents Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story

Family Guy - Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story

As Asian reporter Tricia Takanawa says during a mock after-party of the new straight to video Family Guy movie, “I think mildly entertained would be the best way to describe the reaction.” Never has a movie known itself so well.

Sure, Family Guy is a great show, a show so good that pure love from the fans got Fox to bring it back from the only thing worse than death: cancellation. Sure, it’s also a show that beat The Simpsons to the punch by having a feature length movie made.

However, part of the reason Family Guy has always worked is because in a nice little 22 minute segment the lack of real plot or characters doesn’t matter. It’s all about being random, funny, and obscure. And you know what? It works.

However, 88 minutes of Family Guy actually proves that there is such a thing as too much Family Guy. It sounds impossible, I know.

Still, the basic premise of the movie is somewhat clever. It begins with the red carpet premiere as the “actors,” i.e. all the characters from the show, come to the theatre with the Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story movie playing. The movie then plays, which is the bulk of the 88 minute runtime, and then at the end the reactions and after-party are “documented,” just like a real red carpet premiere.

The actual movie within the movie mainly focuses on the talking baby character of Stewie, as the title promises. After Stewie thinks he sees his real dad on TV in San Francisco he begins a journey to get there and find him. Of course, the truth will reveal many surprises to him, most of them as absurd as the rest of Family Guy.

However, where Family Guy really succeeds or horribly fails depends on how funny the jokes are. Since this is an “unrated” DVD, there are a lot more sexual jokes and Glen Quagmire, the perverted neighbor of the Griffins, gets a lot of time to shine. However, at other points everything falls flat and the gross-out humor lacks any purpose except to try and shock.

It doesn’t. Since when has this been “There’s Something About Stewie”?

Perhaps part of the problem is that Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, has 35 new episodes to work on of Family Guy, plus the episodes of his new show American Dad and then finally this straight to video movie.

While he clearly isn’t writing and directing each one, it’s still obvious that the new stuff is rushed. Many of the jokes in this movie are better than the last few episodes of the new season, but they still aren’t up to the original seasons that made Family Guy such a hit to begin with.

Oftentimes the cheapest gag is used, and even with funny stuff such as gags on The Shield and Michael Chiklis, Jesus and his awesomeness and on Bugs Bunny cartoons (finally Bugs gets it), there are a million lame jabs that lack any semblance of cleverness or wit.

It’s ironic because in some ways Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story becomes just what Family Guy is usually satirizing: comedies that constantly shoot for cheapest jabs and the lowest common denominator.

So, in short, this is definitely not a movie that will convert those who have never liked Family Guy to begin with.

Still, for fans it is worth a watch. A lot of references to the show are put in here. Some work, some don’t. The evil monkey has a great moment, but the greased up deaf guy shtick seems to be funny only because fans can go, “Hey I remember when that actually had somewhat of a point!”

Oh well, at least Jesus returns to show off some more of his talented skills beyond turning water into funk.

Critic’s Conclusion: Sure to please Family Guy fans but not to convert non-believers, this straight to video movie of the hit television series both capitalizes on what makes the show so great and falls into the very traps it tends to attack with cheap humor and overused, witless gags.

Family Guy presents Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story

Rating by Dan Russell: 3.0 stars
***

A History of Violence

A History of Violence

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Peter MacNeill and Ashton Holmes
Runtime: 96 minutes
CARA Rating: R for Strong brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use

Much like its main character, there is much that the new release A History of Violence hides. Perhaps beneath its deceptively simple plot there once lay true significance, or maybe a nifty premise is all screenwriter Josh Olson had up his sleeve. Either way, one of the biggest disappointments of 2005 has just been unleashed.

The latest from fairly infamous director David Cronenberg (The Fly, eXistenZ), A History Of Violence features Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, your average country home dad. That is, until one day when two men walk into his restaurant bringing more than empty stomachs.

Killing them in self defense and saving the lives of the few people in the restaurant with him, Stall becomes a hero and a mini-celebrity. However, all is not rosy as questions begin to arise about his past and why exactly he was so capable in killing his assailants.

With this clever basic premise, this is likely one of the movies that critics will love because it is so vague that it simply “seems” deep.

While A History of Violence may have worked as a 20-minute short film, as a feature it is simply a hollow beast that lags and drags without actually doing much of anything. At times the mystery is quite palpable and when the action and violence does occur it is appropriately gritty and believable, except for one moment at the end that involves a little bit of bullet dodging.

Besides this, though, the film is merely average, placing much faith in the success of an overall payoff that never really comes. It also tries to say something about human nature. There are some vague themes of evolution and history and the way we evolve not only as a group but as individual people, but it all mainly comes off as a simple puff of steam.

There are also moments of intense raw emotion not trapped by any of the usual sentimental chords found in the typical family drama.

The beginning is anything but raw, though, screaming “Happy Family! Happy Family! Look at how happy that guy from The Lord of the Rings is, oh man wouldn’t it suck if that changes??”

The script only really begins to come alive after Stall defends his restaurant and becomes a mini-hero, and even after this the moments of real tension and passion are few and far between. Especially near the end when it seems everything is coming to a rousing finale, the sad truth is that there is little left to be discovered.

Tremendous cliches that border on laughable also abound. One of the best is the town bully who has a vocabulary of about three words. Something tells me he’s been spending too much time watching Tom Berenger in The Substitute. Dude, the 80s are over.

There are also two sex scenes, one of them completely gratuitous and unneeded, the other expressing some of the most complex emotions of the characters that this film ever dares to explore.

In the end, the pretentious mess that is A History of Violence folds under its own weight. Failing to decide whether it wants to be a thriller or a drama, it balances the two genres poorly and never really hits a climax in emotion or tension.

Ultimately proving that it really comes down to the script and the execution of the story, nearly everything else here works.

The performances are all top notch. Viggo Mortensen is especially great, capturing with perfection the bevy of conflicted emotions within Tom Stall, the insanity and the warmness.

The rest of the supporting cast is also top notch. Ed Harris is memorable as the lead man who stalks Stall and his family. Maria Bello is able make her shallow “happy housewife character faced with a dilemma” character feel real even if she isn’t.

David Cronenberg competently directs and the cinematography borders on gorgeous, mixing beautiful images of a peaceful countryside with the seedy underpinnings of city life. Also, the score by Howard Shore is unusual and unique, helping to add some class to a movie that at least avoids trashiness.

Yet, with all this said and done this is still a film that just skims across the surface of its characters and ideas without ever plunging in headfirst. By the end, few of the initial questions posed are truly answered or even investigated.

With this said, worse than the answers that are not given are the questions that are not asked. Except for one simple line, there is never a reason given as to “why” Tom Stall is the person he is, the person he has become.

While certain things are best when they remain ambiguous, ignoring the complexities of the main character beyond a few pained looks is inexcusable. The mysteriousness works only to a point. There needs to be more than a few simple allusions to some vague cliches of old gangster films.

Despite some haunting themes of bloodlust, sadism, and repentance, when all is said and done A History of Violence opts to keep it simple, giving the illusion of depth while actually choosing the road most traveled.

Critic’s Conclusion: One of director David Cronenberg’s more mainstream films, this is tailor made to win awards and earn critical approval. Unfortunately, the actual film takes its unique and mysterious premise and goes nowhere with it. Lacking real depth or any conceivable twists, this is a thriller without the surprises and a drama without the emotion. For a better version of the same general themes go rent Unforgiven or Miller’s Crossing.

A History of Violence

Rating by Dan Russell: 3.0 stars
***

The Man

The Man

Director: Les Mayfield
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Eugene Levy, Luke Goss, Susie Essman and Miguel Ferrer
Runtime: 83 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for Language, rude dialogue and some violence

What can be expected from a movie called The Man? A comedy from the director of American Outlaws starring Samuel L. Jackson, riffing on his Jules character from Pulp Fiction, and the dad from American Pie can’t be decent, can it?

Surprisingly, this new fall comedy is actually humorous, if not outright hilarious, and it is certainly better than it looks on paper or in the TV-spots. It is a great example of a “pleasant surprise.”

That’s not to say the premise isn’t pretty cookie-cutter: Andy Fidler, an innocent dental tools salesman (cue Eugene Levy) gets caught up in an illegal weapons plot and must deal with Special Agent Derrick Vann (Samuel L. Jackson playing what he plays best) and his crazy world. Vann and Andy happen to be polar opposites, as well. What a surprise.

If this all sounds strangely like the average buddy comedy about the well-mannered white guy and the tough-as-nails black guy who don’t get along at first but learn to appreciate each other and then become best friends, well, it pretty much is. However, unlike many buddy comedies, this one is actually enjoyable.

At a brisk 83 minutes the movie never lags too much and, instead of focusing on its implausible story or cliche subplots, The Man keeps it mainly about the chemistry between its two main characters. Also, although much of the script is forgettable, seldom reaches the level of pure boredom.

Typical cinematic traps, such as unoriginal overused subplots and gaping plot holes, often catch many unsuspecting buddy comedies by surprise and leave them D.O.A. (dead on arrival), but The Man actually seems to revel in its unoriginality, content with not pushing boundaries but with instead just having some fun.

In the acting department, Samuel L. Jackson is especially a surprise. While it seems he would be pretty much bored of playing the same badass character time and time again, he manages to come off convincingly and even have some fun riffing on his theatrical persona. However, the movie never winks too much at the audience and it is able to stand on its own two feet rather than constantly say, “Hey guys don’t mess with the Samuel L!”

The fact that Eugene Levy is very talented at playing a character who is truly clueless also helps. Both Jackson and Levy have good chemistry and even though it’s pretty much a two-man show The Man comes off without a hitch because it knows what its strength is: Levy and Jackson.

The only other actor that even warrants a mention really is Luke Goss as Joey. He helps make a mundane role tolerable and interesting. He doesn’t steal the show, but he has fun with being the typical criminal villain surrounded by non-descript henchmen.

In the end, much credit should go to director Les Mayfield for his quick pacing and use of a variety of jokes. Again, with a movie that is basically just a rehash of many other comedies it is smart to never dabble on one topic too much and to let the actors roam free and get into their performances. The Man never becomes showy with fancy special effects or tons of big star cameos. Rather, it makes do with what it has.

Sure, there are a lot of visual gags and the infamous “fart jokes” – those don’t seem to ever get old for Hollywood – but it’s all in good fun and there’s enough semi-clever situation humor to keep the entire thing moving. Sometimes it’s even evident what is about to happen, but it happens in a way that is just unexpected enough to be humorous in its absurdity. One gag involving the drop off of “some merchandise” at a crowded street corner is a nice play on the cliches of so many other movies very similar to this.

In the end, lives won’t be changed because of The Man and it probably won’t be as well received or as popular as something like the Wedding Crashers, but funny is funny and for an evening out at the movies a lot worse things could happen. Just look at The Cave.

Critic’s Conclusion: It’s not the funniest movie of the year but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny at all, and what The Man lacks in originality it more than makes up for in charm mixed up with some lively performances. It’s better than the TV-spots might lead you to believe and although it’s not a must see there are a million worse ways to spend a few bucks and a couple of hours.

The Man

Rating by Dan Russell: 3.0 stars
***

The Cave

The Cave

Director: Bruce Hunt
Cast: Cole Hauser, Piper Perabo, Morris Chestnut, Eddie Cibrian, Lena Headey and Brian Steele as the Creature
Runtime: 97 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for Intense creature violence

The new thriller The Cave is inspiring! It?s stupendous! Incredible! It will reaffirm even the most jaded movie goer’s faith in the power of cinema and film schools all around the country will become overloaded with impressionable youth now newly inspired! At least, that?s what would be said if Screen Gems offered ten burlap sacks stuffed full of Ben Franklin’s to any willing corrupt movie reviewer.

Unfortunately The Cave is easily one of the worst of 2005, if not the sole possessor of such a coveted spot. Every single cliche that can exist in the “monster horror” genre is exploited to no end and, despite the lack of ambition, the screenplay still manages to make very little sense.

That’s not to say screenwriters Michael Steinberg and Tegan West are the only ones worthy of blame. The acting is caught red-handed, showcasing amazing skills ranging from deadpan delivery to dulled empty gazes. Whenever a character dies the real laughs begin and lead actor Cole Hauser appears to be bored out of his mind.

It’s not a surprise though. Hauser already did Pitch Black, another sci-fi creature feature very similar to this one except in the quality of the end product. Piper Perabo cannot be forgotten either. Playing Charlie, she is a special standout because of the authenticity she lends to her character. Why aren’t real genius scientists ever so hot and scantily clad? Or dumb?

The real star of the show though is director Bruce Hunt, who lavishes poorly lit sets and incomprehensible editing on his unsuspecting audience. Previously a second unit director, it is clear Mr. Hunt isn’t quite ready for the big leagues yet. Instilling no mood or sense into his feature debut, The Cave stutters along painfully in search for cohesion or even a good scare.

Its okay Bruce, the University of Toledo has a nice film program. Maybe you should check it out.

Sadly, the rest of the movie isn’t even worth talking about. The effects are pathetic and seldom used; the plot twists are, well, non-existent. The characters act in completely unreasonable ways and there are lapses of logic that require a bit too much suspension of disbelief, even for a movie about a cave full of supernatural beasts.

Best of all, the action scenes appear to have been shot by a man with severe epilepsy and the editor was most likely eaten alive by a shark before finishing. Far-fetched? Maybe, but it would explain why The Cave is edited and paced the way it is.

To be fair, though, it must be kept in mind that a movie such as The Cave isn’t meant to be an award winner or a life changer. However, when all is said and done there is still a difference between entertaining and just plain bad.

Talent, and more importantly passion, can make even the driest overdone ideas interesting again, and even the average B-movie can have a certain magic to it. Sometimes a night at the movies is just meant to transport and entertain, and there’s nothing wrong with finding huge mutated cave dwelling creatures entertaining.

However, in the end there is quite a bit wrong with The Cave. For a movie so devoid of any desire to stand out, it still stumbles at even the most basic levels. From the broadest elements right down to the littlest details nearly every conceptual choice is flawed and underdeveloped.

Remember, a good creature feature probably won’t be great art, but at least it won’t be The Cave.

Critic’s Conclusion: The tagline proudly proclaims “There are places man was never meant to go.” Clearly any darkened movie theatre playing The Cave is one of them.

The Cave

Rating by Dan Russell: 0.5 stars
1/2

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