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The Dukes of Hazzard

The Dukes of Hazzard

Director: Jay Chandrasekhar
Cast: Johnny Knoxville, Sean William Scott, Jessica Simpson, Burt Reynolds, Lynda Carter and Willie Nelson
Runtime: 106 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for Sexual content, crude and drug-related humor, language and comic action violence

The Dukes of Hazzard, the latest remake to come barreling out of Hollywood in search of precious revenue, is a classic example of what you see is what you get.

Brought to us by Broken Lizard, the makers of the admittedly funny Super Troopers and the stupendous masterpiece that is Club Dread – no sarcasm there -, it’s loud, it’s dumb, it’s silly and “Yeehaw” is said more than a few times. Actually, it is a bit more like “Yeeeeeehaaaaawwww… we don’t have a real script, but who cares about that anyways?”

What plot there is basically centers around the Duke family and the way they constantly avoid the authorities, especially Burt Reynolds as Boss Hogg, and have a good time. The acting ranges from mediocre to, well, less than mediocre.

Sean William Scott as Bo Duke basically plays Stifler from the American Pie trilogy again. At least he is acting (or so we hope), though, as Johnny Knoxville plays – drum roll please – Johnny Knoxville. Well, not literally but nobody will know the difference. That’s not to say the script gives the actors much to work with, but it does seem they had more fun making the movie than any of the audience does when watching it.

Of course, Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke cannot be forgotten. In 2002, a little film called Crossroads came out and showed the world that then pop sensation Britney Spears could act worse than Madonna. Now, the torch is passed on yet again as Jessica Simpson manages to bring bad acting to a whole new level. Unlike Knoxville and William Scott, she’s not supposed to be a dumb character. Yet, she is.

In fact, she has much in common with another Simpson, one Homer Simpson. Maybe it is because in real life she always plays dumb, or at least on reality TV, and everyone knows how real that stuff is, or maybe it is just something else, but either way it almost becomes a miracle that she can say her lines straight. She is in this purely as eye candy to make up for all the time the grizzled Willie Nelson shows his mug.

Of course, young teens hitting puberty won’t be likely to mind Ms. Simpson’s appearance. In fact, that would be about the right target audience for a movie that is so pleased to revel in the utter pointlessness of its stupidity.

Now, to be fair, the original television show was not exactly a masterpiece of subtle nuance humor and complex character development. Nor was it meant to be, and in the end it had its charm and it worked well for what it was trying to do.

Most importantly, it was a show of its time. It worked in the 70’s and 80’s for those audiences, and this new film fails partly because it is an updated version of a television show that was a stamp of its time.

In trying to appeal to a modern audience, all that made the original show what it was, for better or for worse, is basically lost. In short, this is basically an “Alabama Pie” or a “There’s Something About Daisy,” and although it knows its audience much as the original show did, everything comes off not only as stupid but also as oddly redundant. Besides sharing some character names and the basic southern premise, little here has anything to do with the original television show.

Some controversy has even risen partly due to this from Ben Jones, the actor who played Cooter on the original television show. Unhappy with this new vision from Broken Lizard, he has called the entire affair “a sleazy insult” that “trashed” the original show, and insisted that fans “hold their noses and pass this one up.”

Although it seems Mr. Cooter here is taking the lore of The Dukes of Hazzard a bit too seriously, he does at least have a point in that this new offering gleefully aims low, perhaps too low.

There is no heart here, or any semblance of emotion that even the average Adam Sandler movie carries. These Dukes from 2005 carry themselves with a bunch of visual gags which, depending on your sense of humor, fall flat or make up for most everything else.

Also, another problem likely lies in the fact that the original show lasted only for an hour at a time. Go much past that mark, and silly becomes just tedious. Running at over 106 minutes, too, near the end the minutes begins to feel like hours and then years. A beard began to grow on the man two rows down.

Ultimately, after a summer of dark and somewhat mature action blockbusters, The Dukes of Hazzard will likely do quite well, much like the Wedding Crashers, helped by the fact that it is one of the only comedies in release theatrically now. People want a laugh, and this has it. Well, sort of. It’s just too bad that in trying to offer variety, the best Hollywood and Broken Lizard has to offer is the same old, same old. At least there are some nice car chases, set to the tune of “Yeehaw!”

Critic’s Conclusion: If you have seen the trailer, you know what you’re getting into. If watching Johnny Knoxville and Sean William Scott be the typical dumb but loveable idiots and Jessica Simpson being the typical dumb but hot blonde is your cup of tea, by all means go see this new The Dukes of Hazzard and have fun. If not, then you might want to skip a trip to the theatre and save some hard-earned cash.

The Dukes of Hazzard

Rating by Dan Russell: 2.0 stars
**

Land of the Dead

Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Simon Baker, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, Asia Argento and Robert Joy
Runtime: 93 minutes
CARA Rating: R for Pervasive strong violence and gore, language, brief sexuality and some drug use

With the recent flood of zombie films, it seems this is one subgenre that has been beaten to death, lame pun most certainly intended. However, if any filmmaker has a right to hop on the bandwagon, it is George A. Romero, the very man who began the trend all the way back in 1968 when he directed Night of the Living Dead.
Despite a 15-million dollar budget, the new film lives up to its name as Romero paints a world where zombies are simply a part of life. It’s an interesting premise, as zombies have become more of a nuisance than an epidemic.

Meanwhile, a city is blocked off and runs much as it used to, with Kaufman, played by Dennis Hopper, having ultimate control simply because he was a rich man in the right place to take a position of power while others panicked. It?s an interesting perspective to see, as mass chaos has passed and the remains of a tattered society have become the building blocks for a new one.

However, of course, thanks to a few zombies, headed by “Big Daddy,” humans aren’t the only ones adapting. Becoming self-aware and more intelligent, and figuring out how to mimic the actions of many humans, these newly enlightened zombies threaten the delicate balance between society and anarchy. It’s a bad thing for the main characters, but a good thing for the audience. Much zombie carnage ensues.

Still, Romero’s zombie films have often been viewed to have more than just blood and guts but to have a message as well, and this film really is no exception. It deals with themes such as power, corruption, trust and humanity. The film asks: if the zombies end up almost completely resorting back to their old human actions, then is there really that much of a difference between “us and them”?

That’s not to say the film is really “deep” or that it will have you thinking about what it says much after the credits roll, but Land of the Dead easily finds itself in the same class as Romero’s other zombie films.

With all this said, there’s still the blood and guts, courtesy of more fantastic make-up work from gore guru Tom Savini. The action is well paced, and exciting, and although the budget is low the film rarely shows its seams. Still, some of the computer generated effects would make Jar-Jar weep. One particular effect involving a zombie whose head is barely attached is frightful only in how embarrassing it looks.

In the end, although Land of the Dead isn’t exactly a revolutionary film, even within its niche genre, it is an overall solid effort that is both enjoyable and interesting, successfully falling back on the roots of its genre to bring up a few last new ideas from the grave.

Critic’s Conclusion: For a film that prides itself on giving the world even more zombies, Land of the Dead has surprising class and competency. Although not a masterpiece by any stretch of the mind, it manages to offer some good scares and action to create an ultimately satisfying cinema experience, thanks in part to the direction of horror movie legend George A. Romero.

Land of the Dead

Rating by Dan Russell: 3.5 stars
***1/2

Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four

Director: Tim Story
Cast: Michael Chiklis, Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans and Julian McMahon
Runtime: 105 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of intense action, and some suggestive content

There is no lie that Fantastic Four, Marvel’s latest superhero entry, looked terrible from the get go. From the bad teaser trailers to the even worse publicity, everything seemed to be going wrong for the big screen adaptation of the famous comic book. Thankfully, not everything is as it seems and this is one summer event film that manages to be entertaining all the way through.

It also rushes past the painful mediocrity that plagued this year’s earlier comic book adaptation Elektra. Instead, Fantastic Four manages to be blissfully mediocre.

Sure, the premise is silly. The science in the film is laughable, and even a first grader would likely be able to point out some of the plot holes. It also never really slows down to really take time with the characters beyond the usual “he loves her” romantic sap that usually counts as depth in action blockbusters.

Oh, and then there’s the dialogue. If witty lines such as “Let’s not fight. No, LET’S” are your cup of tea, well, then you likely won’t have any complaints here. For everyone else, some of the one-liners are eye wateringly bad (though at least many of the worst are used in the trailer, thus lessening their pain when they come in the actual film.)

Fantastic Four doesn’t really offer anything new, and it follows the basic formula for introducing comic book characters pretty much step by step (they have normal lives with some basic problem, then a “horrible accident” somehow gives them magical powers, and from there it’s learning to deal with whatever gift they’ve been handed while a villain conveniently shows up at about the same time to crash the party.)

Despite all of this, Fantastic Four never becomes a bore and it is entertaining to watch all the way through. The characters are mainly cardboard cutouts, but again they are charming cardboard cutouts. The villain Doctor Victor Von Doom is the typical evil rich businessman, but Julian McMahon (the guy from “Nip/Tuck” who can’t keep his pants up) gives the lame dialogue a sense of fun.

The best performances are from Michael Chiklis as The Thing and Chris Evans as the Human Torch. Both actors infuse their comic book characters with some life, and really seem to fit in well with the mindset of who they are playing. They also manage to make their sometimes painful dialogue at least bearable.

The action is mostly well done too, not cutting every half a second and consisting of all close-ups. The special effects are a mixed bag though, and they actually seem to get better in quality as the film goes on. Some of the first stretching effects are pathetic, but by the end the effects never jump out and scream, “Hey guys! I’m animated!”

Fantastic Four ultimately is a film riddled with problems. It’s not great art, some of it is rushed over and other parts are just nonsensical, but yet in the end it is imaginative and most importantly fun. That might not sound like much of a compliment, but there have been too many countless movies to come and go that were drab, pretentious and overlong to continue to believe that fun isn’t worth something.

Or, just take a look at Batman and Robin. There is a difference between stupid fun and just plain old stupid. Fantastic Four is stupid fun.

Critic’s Conclusion: Okay, so it’s not exactly a smart film. Fantastic Four is riddled with some lame dialogue and hokey plot points. It’s fun, though, and it doesn’t drag. It’s no Batman & Robin thankfully and it is well aware of the fact that it is meant to be a good time for a summer night, no more no less.

Fantastic Four

Rating by Dan Russell: 3.0 stars
***

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dustin Chatwin, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins and Miranda Otto
Runtime: 116 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for Frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images

Although rushed into production, War of the Worlds proves that swift filmmaking can help develop, rather than manufacture, raw tension and blistering effects that create an adventure not quickly forgotten. Searing images into the brain, Steven Spielberg’s latest film is a rollercoaster ride in all the senses of the word; it is exciting, daring and most importantly terrifying.

Starring Tom Cruise in the lead as Ray Ferrier, the film is surprisingly dark for the most part, loaded with little touches that are disturbingly reminiscent of 9/11 and of mass genocides. A scene featuring clothes falling from a ghostly sky is particularly eerie.

Still, much like 2002’s Signs (starring another outspoken and controversial actor, Mel Gibson – guess religious fanatics have a thing for aliens), War of the Worlds puts much of its faith in its characters, attempting to create a personal drama beyond all else. Although the characters are mainly one-dimensional, not changing much from the beginning of the film to the end, the acting help brings their stories to life and much of the film?s impact is heightened by this.

Dakota Fanning is especially good, even if her character is somewhat uneven, bouncing from the extremes of the “really mature and intelligent 11-year old” to the “shockingly stupid and whiny 11-year old.” Perhaps the point is that many 11-year olds are like that anyways, but the jumps seem staged rather than authentic.

On the other hand, a few effects-laden long shots are likely enough to make anybody remotely interested in film-making sit up in their chair and take notice.

Unfortunately, the film is also riddled with problems. For one, Tim Robbins character of Ogilvy is the very definition of “under-developed.” His scenes could have become some of the most powerful in the film but instead they become some of the most questionable, and as his kindness and braveness turn into insanity it begins to seem that screenwriter David Koepp was trying to say something without knowing how to put it.

There are also more than a few plot holes (how exactly does a camcorder work after all electronic equipment stops working?) and loose ends (why exactly do the aliens want to invade again?)

And then, of course, Spielberg adds his patented happy ending onto an otherwise grim film. The mood shift doesn’t work, and the rushed finale doesn’t fit with the rest of the film at all. Oddly emotionless and completely anti-climatic, it almost borders on offensive.

Films that document real tragedies and genocides, such as Hotel Rwanda and Spielberg’s own Schindler’s List, often temper the triumph of the main characters actions with the tragic fall of so many others. War of the Worlds earned itself a more complex ending that gives the “twist” of the original H.G. Wells 1898 novel an emotional foundation. This is one time where a cherry on top is about the last thing needed.

Overall, sometimes films are well made in the general sense, without any glaring flaws except for the fact that they are missing that extra “something,” an invisible quality that often marks the difference between a good film and a great one. War of the Worlds is just the opposite.

It is a film marked by many obvious flaws that are hard to ignore, but yet saved by the emotions it is able to evoke. In short, although it may be one of those films where it’s just good enough that you wish it was just a little bit better, War of the Worlds ultimately does work because it completely creates an alternate reality, a reality where the world is under attack by warring aliens and Tom Cruise is a dock worker.

Critic’s Conclusion: A film that really succeeds by focusing on the smaller stories within the big picture, War of the Worlds may not be a masterpiece in the general sense of the word, but it is a diamond in the rough of a film and a masterpiece of tension, and in the whole a memorable journey with a few wrong paths taken.

War of the Worlds

Rating by Dan Russell: 4.0 stars
****

Batman Begins

Batman Begins

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Katie Holmes, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, Rutger Hauer and Cillian Murphy
Runtime: 141 minutes
CARA Rating: PG-13 for Intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements

In the summer of 1989 history was made as director Tim Burton transformed one of the most popular comics of all time into one of the most popular films of the time, unleashing a dark and epic blockbuster that helped define a style. A franchise was begun, and its name was Batman.

Then, in the summer of 1997 history was again made. Batman & Robin opened, a film that achieved the rare feat of almost single-handedly stopping a hit franchise dead in its tracks. To some it is even considered to be one of the worst mainstream films of all time, and such claims are not without merit. Boy did Batman & Robin kill, bury and then utterly destroy and blast into oblivion whatever respect the name “Batman” carried, at least when it came to the silver screen. So is it even possible, or reasonable, to bring back a franchise many would consider best left dead?

Well, with a film as good as Batman Begins it is.

Perhaps the best of the bunch in the recent explosion of comic book movies, the first thing that Batman Begins has going for it is the talent. Loaded with big names, from director Christopher Nolan (the man behind Memento, the 2000 indie hit that messed with time and psychology) to a cast featuring just about everybody on the planet, everything bristles with energy, veracity and most importantly purpose.

Still, it takes more than big names to make a film good. There are no worries, though, as director Nolan is able to take all the money and opportunity thrown at him and mold potential into perfection. Or close to it, at least. Although a summer “event” film, there is much depth to be found amongst the explosions and car chases, and the film carries an emotional weight that few blockbusters care to bother with.

Now, besides the luggage Batman Begins carries in the world of Hollywood, it also has a lot to explain when it comes to the events in a little place called Gotham. Several villains, including Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul populate this new Gotham, which itself no longer appears either goth or camp. Rather, Nolan’s Gotham most resembles a real city.

Then there’s more characters in the form of a love interest played by Katie Holmes (don’t tell Tom Cruise), and all the usual suspects such as the butler Alfred and the tech-guru Lucius Fox. Adding to an already full plate is a host of corrupt executives and seedy crime lords. And then of course there’s Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, or is it Batman? And make no mistake, this is his film.

So yes, no doubt about it, Batman Begins is a busy film. Yet it never becomes a chore. Despite all the different characters and themes, the film enjoys connecting all the dots, and rather than breezing through the exposition to get to the good stuff it takes its time.

Of course, the “good stuff” is still there. Namely, action! And of course the action does not disappoint. Not overused and always purposeful, i.e. never action for actions sake, it help keeps the film on the right track, towards class and not camp.

Ultimately, though, this is a film that really isn’t just about derailed trains and twirling police cars, and it is this determination to do more than offer pleasant eye candy that helps Batman Begins avoid the disposable nature of many films in its class (for an example just move over to the next theatre where Mr. and Mrs. Smith is likely playing.) This Batman is about the characters and what drives them, with most of them fleshed out beyond the simple black and white stereotypes of “good” and “evil.”

The only main complaint that jumps out comes near the end, where it seems a scene is completely left out. Part of downtown Gotham is in ruins, many are most likely dead or at least injured, and yet hardly any mention of this is made after the fact.

However, it’s a small nitpick, and Batman Begins ends on the same high-note it began with. As a sequel is hinted at, likely to feature Batman’s most famous foe, a surprisingly high amount of anticipation is created as it becomes clear that the last words likely to go through the minds of moviegoers all about will be, “chill out.”

Critic’s Conclusion: Yes, it’s true, it seems summer 2005 is officially the summer of a good Star Wars film and a great Batman film. What next, a decent zombie flick? Anyways, if you felt burnt by the previous Bat franchise here is the cure: a smart, dark brooding film that deals with narrative and character as much as action and explosions. It does not copy what made 1989’s Batman so good and yet it creates a just as fulfilling, if not more satisfying, cinema experience.

Batman Begins

Rating by Dan Russell: 4.5 stars
****1/2

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