Tarzan

Disney has been somewhat in a slump the last few years with their films. They abandoned their traditional format of using fairy tales for their primary animated fodder after the Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast, and the result has been a series of hits and misses, from the botched Pocahontas to the hilarious Aladdin.

When Disney works from novels, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Woman Warrior (a book by Maxine Hong Kingston and the inspiration for Mulan), the filmmakers have to try and stuff the story into two hours. When they work from a fairy tale, they usually have to spread it out–and that’s where the room for their classic songs come from. What’s more, the songs make more sense in the fairy tale setting, whereas Victor Hugo certainly didn’t write any songs for The Hunchback (at least, not to my knowledge).

Tarzan is a film that is true to the Disney formula with the fun and adventure that was lacking Hunchback and Pocahontas. Phil Collins’ soundtrack is refreshingly subdued, and except for one clever and entertaining song (“Trash the Camp”), not a single note issues from the characters’ mouths.

Actually, there’s a distinct lack of dialogue in much of this film – but that’s not a bad thing necessarily. Tarzan is a part of the natural world, and as such he often communicates through movement rather than his voice. But what movement! This is one of the most energetic Disney films I’ve ever seen. Tarzan slips, slides and swings through the forest with dynamics that would be nearly impossible to capture in live action. Finally, a Disney film with animation that rivals their Japanese counterparts.

The plot is familiar–indeed, it’s embedded in Western cultural tradition. A Victorian family is stranded on a desert island; the parents are killed by a panther, and the boy is raised in the wild by gorillas, who name him Tarzan (voiced by Tony Goldwyn).

The animated film succeeds in many areas all the previous live-action films could not. Tarzan’s gorilla parents, the loving Kala (Glenn Close) and the belligerent Kerchak (Lance Henriksen, an unusual choice for Disney) could never have the same personality and humanity in a live-action film without segueing into comedy (see George of the Jungle). Close and Henriksen succeed in giving their characters depth. Goldwyn’s Tarzan has a deep, resonant voice, the kind that easily attracts Jane, played by Minnie Driver.

All in all, Tarzan is a visual feast. The African jungle has never looked more gorgeous, or more interesting as it speeds by you as Tarzan slides from branch to branch. The story is fun, the characters are interesting, and the plot, while predictable, plays itself out to a satisfying end.

American Pie

American Pie is a funny movie. Let’s get that out of the way first. It’s very funny; it’s also quite risque. The sexually squeamish be warned: the infamous scene in There’s Something About Mary is taken to the next level here, with the offending bodily fluid being ingested. The film is brutally frank and, occasionally, truthful about teen sex in a way I found refreshing. While there is the obligatory aggrandizing of sexual activity, it’s touched by a curious amount of sentimentality and even sensitivity.

First, the comedy. It’s almost entirely based upon sex and its various effects upon teenagers. The most uproarious scenes have been predictably shown in the ads–namely, an encounter between one of the male teens and the title characters. There’s a lot of masturbation jokes, too, but I think that even parents can relate to one scene in which a father desperately tries his hardest to successfully have That Talk with his son.

The basic plot line revolves around four teens–Oz (Chris Klein), Jim (Jason Biggs), Kevin (Thomas Ann Nicholas) and Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas)–who make a pact to lose their virginity by the time they graduate, in three weeks. What’s interesting is the way the stories play out–there’s a subtext to the comic writing that’s not there in other comedies. One of the boys’ story is a romance; another a tragedy; another a comedy, and the last a sort of Modernist carthasis, though it doesn’t really become clear until the end.

The performances are good. Biggs’s Jim is an affable lug, and his scenes with his well-intentioned father are funny as well as endearing. Chris Klein, as Oz, essentially reprises his role from Election, but rather than being an entirely clueless jock, he falls for a choir girl and begins to question his place in the school dynamic. Tara Reid, as Nicholas’s girlfriend Vicky, deserves a lot of credit for successfully portraying the sexual pressure on girls in today’s teen world. Natasha Lyonne is also a treat as Vicky’s “experienced” friend.

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer fans beware: Alyson Hannigan (Buffy‘s Willow) does appear in the film (as band geek Michelle), but her part is quite brief. However, her role pays off in one of the funniest lines in the film, shortly before the end.

American Pie will doubtlessly go down as one of the Great American Teen Flicks, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Scream. It’s as enjoyable as, well, a good slice of pie.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

It’s been an entire month since it opened. Well, about a month. Anyway, I now feel that I have digested this film enough to review it. Of course, by now it’s already become a part of pop culture–witness the denigration of Jar Jar Binks–as well as a part of Star Wars lore, so I’m probably not looking at it entirely objectively. But I’ll do my best. This review, unlike several of my others, will not be a pseudo-professional review–given my enthusiasm for the subject matter, though, that would be nearly impossible anyway. But I digress–on to the review!

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is a (deep breath) good film. I will not lie; it is not a great film, nor is it anything like what I expected. That is both a good and a bad thing.

I was discussing this film with a friend online, and I believe I have hit upon the main dilemma that George Lucas faced and, ultimately, failed in solving. Lucas wanted to create a film for both the core group of Star Wars fans and the mass-market audience. Thus, he ends up pandering to both. Jar Jar Binks is not just in there for kids; he’s there to make the women who came with their obsessed boyfriends laugh. And I have first-hand evidence–a friend or two of mine–that he did his job, in that respect. The “Jar Jar Must Die”-style websites are the creation of diehard Star Wars fans, embittered by this shameless creation.

Jar Jar Binks was entirely computer-generated. This could have been an excellent opportunity to show how a realistic CGI character could take the leading role in a film–IF JJB had been cool. But he is decidely not so. However, he is at times amusing. Even I will admit that. This may actually be a greater achievement than a bad-ass CGI character.

But allow me to lay JJB aside. He is just one part of the problem. You’ve also got the stuff for the core group which the mass-market knows nothing about–for instance, the fact that Senator Palpatine becomes the Emperor of Return of the Jedi. Lines like “We’ll watch your career with great interest” (spoken by Palpatine to young Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader) fall entirely flat on the ears of anyone who hasn’t seen the previous trilogy. In that respect, this is almost definitely a film that must be watched after viewing the original trilogy.

But enough–down to the nitty gritty. The characters are not particularly well-developed; only Neeson’s Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn, is given any kind of backstory–and that’s because he dies at the end of the film (I warned you there’d be spoilers!). This is Lucas’s only chance for characterization; Ben Kenobi, Queen Amidala, Senator Palpatine and, most importantly, Anakin Skywalker will be developed over the next few films. Luke, Leia and Han were similarly underdeveloped in the original film; only Ben Kenobi was given any characterization (Peter Cushing embedded some in Tarkin with his acting alone, but that’s somewhat different).

Now, the acting. Neeson does fine in most scenes, especially when acting with Ewan McGregor; however, if he’s ever in a film with CGI characters again, he’s going to need to work on his imagination. He never feels like he actually sees Jar Jar Binks. Ewan McGregor, on the other hand, does a marvelous job with Jar Jar, as does Natalie Portman. Portman’s performance is also wonderful, and seeing a young actor like her do so well makes Jake Lloyd’s acting seem even worse. I really, really hate to pick on a kid at all, but I simply wasn’t impressed with Lloyd’s performance in this movie.

However, all the actors–including Neeson–are upstaged by Ian McDarmid as the sinister Senator Palpatine. Darth Sidious aside, McDarmid seamlessly enters the science fiction world of Star Wars, and seems perfectly comfortable in his role. He’s devious, scheming and insincere–just as his character should be. He’s a pleasure to watch.

The plot: mediocre at best. Who is this Trade Federation? I’ve never heard the like mentioned in all of the Star Wars mythos. In terms of the Star Wars mythos as a hole, this film’s plot has no real significant elements except the fact that Queen Amidala and Anakin Skywalker meet, and Senator Palpatine becomes the Supreme Chancellor. The Gungans? Never heard of ’em in the original trilogy. Darth Sidious? Pretty obvious he’s just the Emperor. Darth Maul? Dead, dead, dead.

The effects, of course, are astounding. However, I’ve reached the point where I’m a bit jaded with computer graphics. This film, with a computer-generated aspect in almost every shot, actually rings a bit false to me. In the original films, those deserts, those arctic places, even those forests–none of it was CGI, and we got to see lots of it, close-up. Naboo looks gorgeous–in the CGI long-shots. But we never get a real good look at the landscape. And as good as the effects are, I can still tell that JJB, the battle droids and most of the pod-racing aliens are CGI.

I have to admit, this review isn’t as in-depth as I’d like to be, and it’s also a little more negative than I might have written. I may revise it at a future date, maybe after I see it again, because it’s been a while. In any event, it is a Star Wars film, and it’s still a lot of fun.

If anyone strongly disagrees with this review or any other review on this site, feel free to write in your own–I’ll post it under the same review.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I planned to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream before I saw this film. Unfortunately, I got busy and was unable to do so. However, the plot is simplistic enough that one can tell where the film was taking risks or toying with Shakespeare’s play (though some would say that these are one and the same).

At any rate, the creators chose to set this adaptation in late 18th-century Italy–apparently just so the characters could ride bicycles. While the locations, including a castle and the Italian countryside, are often gorgeous, the majority of the film takes place in a grove that looks like it was left over from a 40’s Tarzan film. This grove is also dark and dank, and overall a rather uninteresting place to set a film. But that’s more a limitation of the script than the filmmaker’s vision.

The plot centers around four lovers. Demetrius (Christian Bale) wants to marry Hermia (Anna Friel) but she loves Lysander (Dominic West). But her father approves of Demetrius and not Lysander, so she is given the choice to marry Demetrius or die. Complicating matters is Helena (Calista Flockhart), who is infatuated with Demetrius and thus annoys him to no end. Hermia and Lysander decide to run away, and tell Helena their plan; Helena then tells Demetrius in hopes that he will abandon the hopeless Hermia and love her instead.

The four of them end up in this mystic grove, where Oberon (Rupert Everett) and his wife Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) have apparently been hanging out since Roman times. Oberon, angry with his wife over the custody of their child, comes up with a concoction to make Titania fall in love with the first thing she sees–which turns out to be Nick Bottom (Kevin Kline), an aspiring actor turned into a half-donkey half-man creature by an amused Puck, a satyr and aid to Oberon, the latter of whom also decides to try and rectify the situation with the four lovers by sending the oft-confused Puck (you can just imagine the chaos that creates). Got all that?

For what is supposed to be a comedy focusing on the trials and tribulations of the four lovers, the biggest laughs in Midsummer come after the young’uns’ problems have been solved, when they’re at a play passing the time before they can all go to bed and make love. Nick Bottom, cured of his ass-ness, and his fellow actors put on a performance of Pyramus and Thisbe that is awesome in its amateurism.

With the exception of Kline, who gives a certain kind of romantic wistfulness to his Nick, and Pfeiffer, whose Titania has one excellent scene (the one in which she is introduced), none of the actors provide a particularly impressive performance. Of greatest interest is, of course, Calista Flockhart of Ally McBeal fame. Her performance as Helena is one of the better in the film, but still rather dull, in a very not-quite-ready-for-film manner. A pleasant surprise is found in Max Wright, best known for his work on the 80’s sitcom ALF. Wright plays a wry member of Bottom’s acting troop whose cigarette is in his mouth so often that at one point he pulls it out to repeat a line.

While the film is at times fun and definitely a good date film, it’s not much more than that. It’s a light bit of fluff, but perhaps that’s the way the Bard intended his comedies to be.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me

Like the original film, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is a fun romp that mocks 60’s pop culture and Bond films. While it recycles quite a few jokes from the original, there’s enough new material here–and enough fun in seeing the familiar characters–that Spy lives up to its only claim–to be not bigger, not better, but funnier than Star Wars: The Phantom Menace…and in some ways, more fun.

The story once again pits Austin (Mike Myers) against his arch-nemesis, the indefinably accented Dr. Evil (also Myers). After a ridiculous but amusing plot twist to rid Austin of his new bride, Vanessa (Elizabeth Hurley, in a game cameo), Austin is back on the case, this time tracking Dr. Evil back to 1969, where he has gone to swipe the frozen Austin’s “mojo” and thus render him powerless.

While the loss of his mojo doesn’t seem to affect Austin much (there’s really only one scene in which his lack of mojo figures prominently), he still has his hands full tracking down Dr. Evil, who’s residing in his “hollowed-out volcano.” Luckily CIA agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham) is there to assist him. While Graham does a competent job as Austin’s sidekick (her intelligence upstages Austin’s, in the same way Penny on Inspector Gadget was the real reason Gadget always succeeded), she doesn’t mesh with Myers as well as Hurley did–and her American accent seems strangely out-of-place.

However, there are several new characters to spice things up. Before leaving the 90’s, Dr. Evil has himself cloned–but the clone is a mere 1/8 his size. He dubs this creation “Mini-Me” (Verne Troyer). A hilarious dwarf that gives off, as Dr. Evil puts it, “creepy Oompa-Loompa vibes,” Mini-Me is much funnier than the disgusting Fat Bastard (Myers yet again), a Scottish double-agent for Dr. Evil that weighs “a metric ton.” While Mini-Me’s vicious nature and flat-out creepiness, combined with Dr. Evil’s fatherly affection for the little monster, makes for some of the film’s best laughs, the toilet humor surrounding Fat Bastard is utterly sickening. Watch out for the “coffee scene.” There’s no need for it.

The film’s best laughs come from a wonderful scene, of a type not found in the first one, when Austin and Felicity are caught in a compromising silhouette. No, it’s not what you’re thinking–it’s much funnier than that. Other amusing scenes include Dr. Evil’s rendition of Will Smith’s “Just the Two of Us” to his precious tiny clone and Dr. Evil’s reaction to a sip of Austin’s mojo.

There are a few problems in the film. The most obvious is the lack of the fish-out-of-water theme from the first film; once Austin’s back in the 60’s, the film begins to drag a bit. There’s also too much of Dr. Evil–he definitely has more screen time than Austin, unlike the original film. This is unfortunate; a little Dr. Evil goes a long way. However, since Dr. Evil is vastly funnier and more interesting than Austin, his overuse is forgiveable.

The aforementioned toilet humor does go overboard too often. But it’s made up for by scenes like the silhouette.

Overall, the film is about as funny as the first one–it recycles some old jokes, but makes up for them with new ones. While the fish-out-of-water theme is lacking, the switch to a focus on Dr. Evil–it could almost be called “Dr. Evil: The Spy Who Came After Me”–creates some balance. But most importantly, it’s fun.

Never Been Kissed

I have to admit, I’ve been a fan of Drew Barrymore since Poison Ivy. This is a slightly
naughty film that also stars Roseanne’s Sarah Gilbert and Tom Skerrit, whom I’m not a big fan of. Anyway, the film stars Barrymore as a Lolita-like teen hired to help around the house when Skerrit’s wife gets sick or is in an accident or something. Anyway, you know how it goes, one thing leads to another and Skerrit and Barrymore, to quote my friend Michael Mazzilli, “get it on.” The wife kills herself, Gilbert’s character catches her dad and Ivy in bed and is understandably screwed up by this, and the whole thing is tragic, etc. etc. Anyway, this movie made me a fan of Barrymore. Perhaps for the wrong reasons. Hmm. Anyway…I really became a fan of Drew Barrymore after The Wedding Singer. This is a sweet little movie starring Barrymore and Adam Sandler as two lovebirds destined for each other, despite the usual 2-dimensional villainous love interests. Barrymore has, as Jay Carr of the Boston Globe wonderfully put it (paraphrasing Dreiser, I think), a “face that inspires yearning.” She makes you want to make everything perfect for her, to give her whatever she wants. She’s adorable.

Barrymore plays this role to a tee in her newest film, Never Been Kissed. It’s a sweet movie focused around high school, a genre that has been pushed by Hollywood lately (see my review of Election).

In Kissed, Barrymore plays a reporter, Josie, who works for the Chicago Sun-Times. In the breakthrough assignment of her career, Josie is sent undercover to a high school for a human interest story. Of course, Josie, who was at the top of her class at Northwestern, was not exactly the most popular student at her high school–a fact which is related through a series of heartbreaking flashbacks. Josie seems headed for disaster during her undercover assignment, failing so miserably to infiltrate the “popular” clique that she is mistaken for a Special Ed student. Enter David Arquette as Josie’s brother Rob, a 23-year-old wash-out looking for one last chance at making it into minor league baseball by going back to high school and joining the team. Of course, he becomes popular in a single day, and uses that popularity to make Josie into a high school star.

Barrymore plays the insecure Josie with a perfect blend of intellectual confidence and social ineptitude. As she becomes more and more mired in the culture of the popular clique, we see her fight against it inwardly, remembering the smart, slightly geeky girl who first befriended her (played by the wonderful Leelee Sobieski). Of course, there’s a love interest as well–Sam Coulson, Josie’s Shakespeare teacher, played by Michael Vartan, whose job it is to basically stand around and look attractive.

There are a few misfires in the film. The flashbacks to Josie’s high school experience occasionally ring false with their viciousness–particularly the scene in which she waits for her prom date. The way that Vartan’s Coulson flirts with Josie seems so improper that I almost want to agree with her boss when he tells her that Coulson’s scandalous behavior should be her story. And finally, there’s the rather implausible final scene, which I won’t ruin for the reader; I’ll refer to it as Roger Ebert did, as the “5-minute wait.”

The one amusing, if rather cheap, scene is the one in which Coulson’s girlfriend is introduced. I’ve never seen the “other man/woman” character be introduced and revealed in all their evil 2-dimensionality so quickly. Even Billy Zane’s character in Titanic had a few minutes before he became totally evil. It’s a nice counterpart, however, to Barrymore’s similarly shallow boyfriend in The Wedding Singer.

Overall, Never Been Kissed is a charming, entertaining crossover between the high school coming-of-age film and the romantic comedy. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it doesn’t do anything too wrong, either. While I don’t recommend it for those who are troubled by scenes of extreme embarassment–I cringed through half this film–it’s still a nice film for a date on a Saturday night.

Election

Seeing Election was one of those rare times when I’ve gone into a movie without any real clue of what it’s about. I had been told that it is a vague allegory of the 1992 presidential election, but watching for allegorical elements in the film was pretty fruitless. Instead, what I was presented with was a quirky, entertaining, if not entirely believable portrait of a high school, complete with the archetypes of the brilliant go-getter, the affable jock, the troubled teacher and the disillusioned rebel. It all adds up to an entertaining and, well, thought-provoking, if occasionally unrealistic, film.

The majority of the story centers around Tracy Flik, a high schooler whose eyes have been on the prize since infancy. That’s not surprising, given that her paralegal mother is the type to tell Tracy, when she needs consoling after an unsuccessful speech, that she should have added the parts her mother told her to and tried a little harder. Reese Witherspoon, coming off an excellent performance in last year’s Pleasantville, finds just the right balance of relentless ambition and romantic naivete in the brilliant but lonely Tracy. The best moments are when Tracy perceives a threat, such as Chris Klein’s presidential rival Paul Metzler: Tracy’s eyes widen with anger and disbelief at the hubris of Fate, and the soundtrack screams with something reminiscent of an Amazonian war cry.

The rest of the story is given over to Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister, a good teacher whose unhappiness with his mediocre existence causes him to self-destruct. While McAllister starts out as a likeable character, he soon becomes mired in adulterous desires for his neighbor, and this combined with his seemingly irrational dislike of Tracy turn him into a pitiable wretch. It’s a tribute to author Jim Taylor (who wrote the novel on which the film is based) and director Alexander Payne (who also co-wrote the screenplay) that by the end of the film, the audience is more apt to identify with the lonely Tracy than the pathetic McAllister. Broderick plays the role as well as could be expected for an actor who made his name playing affable fellows like Ferris Bueller.

A few other highlights including Klein’s saintly Metzler, who couldn’t possibly be any nicer, and his sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a rebel who, in the Perot role, enters the presidential race only to drop out later.

The film does suffer from a few flaws. Anytime you have more than ten minutes of voice-over narration in a movie, you’re asking for trouble, and the device does occasionally slow down the film, or plays awkwardly in key scenes. The lesbian angle of Tammy’s character, while handled quite sensitively and realistically, seems too much of a side-plot–as does McAllister’s adulterous longings–for a single film. Finally, there’s simply no way a brainy, goody-two-shoes loner like Tracy could even have a shot at winning a high school presidential election. Like Never Been Kissed, the high school world portrayed in Election just doesn’t ring true.

But these are minor flaws in an overall entertaining film. Witherspoon’s an absolute delight, and Klein and Campbell are fun to watch. Broderick plays his character adequately, and Payne keeps the story moving fairly quickly. In the end, Election reminds us that, though following your heart always seems like the right thing to do, there are always costs.

Go

Like my previous review of The Matrix, I wanted to give myself some time to digest Go before I posted on it. I’m glad I did, because had I written the review when I saw it, I would have been here raving maniacally about it and telling everyone to see it instantly. I would have been what I most hated–someone like Harry Knowles when he practically busted a capillary telling people to see The
Matrix
.

Now that I’ve had time to consider my experience in seeing Go, I still find it an extremely entertaining film. However, it is not a particularly original film. As some reviewers have noted, Go shares marked similarities with Pulp Fiction: it’s set up as a series of vignettes, it focuses on characters in wild situations, and the last story is the “quirky, funny one” as opposed to the dark first tale and the action-film second part.

The movie begins with the tale of Ronna (Sarah Polley), a cashier at a supermarket who agrees to work for her British buddy Simon (Desmond Askew) in order to get cash to pay her rent. Simon, it turns out, is a drug dealer, and when some buyers approach Ronna to see if she can score the goods, the story begins its series of bizarre twists and turns that include automobile accidents, shootings, drug-induced tangos, wild sex and, of course, laughs.

Go is not a classic film, but that comes more from owing so much to Pulp Fiction than any fault of its own. Director Doug Liman has a lot more to work with here than his previous film, 1996’s Swingers (an amusing cult hit). Of the entire cast, Polley and Jerry McGuire’s Jay Mohr provide the strongest performances. Polley’s Ronna, 18 but living on her own (one of a few unexplained plot aspects, but easily overlooked), walks the line between good girl and bad girl perfectly, all the while giving off some of the sexiest vibes in a teen film to date. Mohr, while a tad older on average than the rest of the cast, is excellent in his role, though to tell any more about it would give away a bit too much of the film.

It’s worth noting that Dawson’s Creek darling Katie Holmes is in the film, though her character is wasted, the majority of her part being tacked on to the last part of the movie, though the discussion about the funny page between her and drug dealer Todd (Timothy Olyphant) is on of the funniest scenes in the film.

The only area where the film becomes a bit questionable. There are two major sex scenes in the film, but I think most people would agree that the second seems a little unnecessary and over-the-top; and while it’s played for a certain plot point that becomes important throughout the rest of the film, there are numerous ways the same result could have been brought about, without the uncomfortable and, frankly, misogynistic addition of the latter sex scene (actually, both scenes are pretty bad, in that respect.

Overall, Go is not a classic film, but an entertaining one, and is sure to become a cult classic like its predecessor Swingers. Now, if Liman can just come up with something a tad more original, he may come in to his own as one of the big names in Hollywood.

Blade

I know this review is a tad late, but I saw the film Blade for the first time just a few weeks ago. I haven’t quite figured out why I avoided the film when it first came out last August, but apparently I didn’t particularly care of vampire movies or just wasn’t appealed by the trailer. I think I may have been into Star Wars or Star Trek at the time, or maybe I was just busy. Anyway, I didn’t see it until I rented it on video, and boy, did I make a mistake last August.

Blade comes from the same family of neo-comicbook films as Spawn, Dark City and the recent The Matrix. For a more in-depth discussion of this class of film, read my review of The Matrix; now I’m going to talk about Blade, and only Blade.

My original decision to see the film arose from my desire to buy the Blade action figure. This 6″ figure from Toy Biz has 16 points of articulation–an insane amount for a six-inch figure, let me assure you. Add to that a dead-on likeness of Wesley Snipes and an awesome pleather trenchcoat and you’ve got one of the best true action figures ever made.
Deciding to get that figure was one of the wisest decision I’ve made this year. Heaven knows when I would have finally seen the film, but I’m glad I did.

The opening scene sets the stage for the entire film [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!]. A suspiciously enthusiastic clubber (Traci Lords) leads an unsuspecting young man into a slaughterhouse, where a bunch of twenty-somethings dance to hypnotic techno music. Of course, they’re all vampires, and pretty soon the kid is getting knocked all over the place while blood pours down from the sprinkler system. Will he die? You’d think…until he begins to crawl away and finds himself at the feet of a trenchcoat-bedecked savior.

The following action sequence, like most in the film, owes much to the classic kung-fu films of the ’70’s. But this is kung-fu in slick Hollywood style, and it’s even better that Wesley Snipes is a 5th degree black belt and actually knows his stuff. And unlike all the various Batmen, Snipes doesn’t need any special ab-enhancing armor.

I’ll be frank with you: there’s not much plot here. This is a comicbook film. A comicbook film based on a comicbook. There’s the usual archetypal characters–Snipes’s heroic Blade, his mentor Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), the unwitting bystander Karen (N’Bushe Wright), and of course the villains–here it’s upstart vampire Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) and his sidekick Jimmy the Cabdriver (just kidding)–his sidekick Quinn (Donal Logue).

Snipes does as good a job as can be expected with a character like Blade. Basically, he only needs to be able to deal out whoop-ass–and he does, in spades. Kristofferson is fine as Whistler, and Wrighte seems like a promising rookie, though she’s clearly kind of new at this. Dorff is delightfully irritating as the maniacally insecure, devilish Frost, and Logue is always a treat.

But the real meat here is the action sequences, and basically, they’re some of the best I’ve ever seen in terms of martial arts combat. Each shot is brilliant; each fight is perfectly choreographed, and moves with a pace not too fast to follow (like most of Armageddon) nor too slowly to be interesting (like The Matrix).

Blade is not a classic movie, by any stretch of the imagination. But it is one of most entertaining movies I’ve seen in ages. It easily outclasses all the Batman films in my mind (except perhaps the first), and it never drags. If you like action films, comicbooks or especially kung-fu films, run, don’t walk to your nearest video store and check out Blade.

The Matrix

First, an admission. I went into The Matrix expecting a bad film. I was extremely biased against it, for several reasons. First and foremost is the starring presence of Keanu Reeves. After his horrific performances in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Devil’s Advocate, I knew I would be exposed to a series of monosyllabic commentaries with each passing revelation within the film. I wasn’t disappointed. The Matrix contains such vintage Keanu lines as “Woah” “Okey-Dokey” (four syllables, there), and “No!” Great stuff. I’m as big a fan of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as anyone, but that’s really the only role Mr. Reeves is made for. He should have gone on to star in a series of goofy twenty-something direct-to-video beach romps, like National Lampoon’s Spring Break: movies where the psychogically damaging effects of his inability to change expression–even when under extraordinary levels of pain (even Shatner thrust his arms out)–can only harm the members of society as emotionally and intellectually defunct as himself.

Phew.

All right, now that my anti-Keanu rant is over, I’ll mention the other points that biased me against the movie. I’d heard something about the plot, and went in thinking it would be similar to Dark City. It was–even more than I thought it would be, in both style and plot. I’d also just recently seen Blade, and some of the effects in Matrix come from the same stock as those in the vampire film. Finally, I hate Keanu Reeves. Did I mention that already?

However, The Matrix did have something going for it, in my mind. I’ve been following Roger Ebert’s slowly growing fondness for comic-book style movies, and the impact he believes they will eventually have on the film industry. Citing Dark City as the flagship of these new films (he picked it as the best film of 1998, and even contributed two hours of uncompensated commentary to the DVD edition), as well as Blade and Spawn, Ebert has finally come to value what legions of film geeks (myself included) have for years. In any event, I had recognized The Matrix as being from this family of films (as Ebert indeed supported in his review, which I read afterwards), and in that respect, I knew it might hold some promise.

A film review is always tough without a summary. The Matrix, as a film, would suffer from too much exposition, so instead I’ll provide a vague outline. Reeves’s Neo is a brilliant computer hacker and society-shunning geek who, for some reason, has heard of something called the Matrix and is looking for it. He hooks up with an equally antisocial and darkly garbed woman named Trinity (Carrie Ann-Moss), and is soon confronted with Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne, slumming it), the apparent emissary of this Matrix thingamabob. Morpheus tells Neo, as you’ve doubtlessly heard dozens of times on the ads, that “the Matrix is the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” Without getting too more explicit than that, Neo decides to open his eyes and is plunged–quite literally–into the “real world.” What follows from there is an interesting experiment in questioning the nature of reality that ultimately deteriorates into a cliched action extravaganza.

Now, to give you some idea of my experience of watching this film, take the scene where Morpheus and Neo meet. The dialogue here is just terrible. Awful. To make matters worse, Fishburne swipes Kiefer Sutherland’s stilted speech patterns from Dark City. I saw this movie with two friends. One was giving it the benefit of the doubt. The other was laughing so hard, biting his hand to keep the noise down, that tears streamed down his face. Needless to say, I joined in with the latter. Thankfully, my 6’8″, 250-lb friend who was trying to listen didn’t break us both in half on the spot.

Upon reflection, and after reading Ebert’s review, as well as those of several other sources, I’ve decided that I didn’t really give The Matrix its due. It’s not just the valid points these critics make; I’m the type of person who has a difficult time taking a hard-line, fully polarized opinion of anything, particularly in disliking something.

I’ve spent enough time harping on the bad points of The Matrix. What about the good ones? Well, the stark similarity to Dark City, in terms of plot, can be somewhat minimized with the information that the Wachowski brothers wrote it way back in 1993, possibly before Alex Proyas even set pen to paper on City. Seen in that respect, The Matrix is as original as any sci-fi film fare is these days–perhaps more so. Stylistically, while there are lots of parallels with the dark tones and special effects of City and Blade, Matrix is cooler than the former and smoother than the latter.

Overall, in this group of neo-comic-book style films that Ebert mentions (the Batman films are excluded because they’re more a refined and jazzed-up version of the type of film created by the Superman series than a member of this new generation), my personal favorite is Blade, followed by Dark City, and then probably The Matrix before Spawn (Todd McFarlane may be a great artist and make cool toys, but he is an awful writer–I’d almost put Spawn in the same sub-genre as Batman). So I’m giving
the film its due. If you’re into science fiction films, then you might as well see this–I don’t think there’s going to be any other good sci-fi flicks this year, do you? I didn’t think so.

1 38 39 40