Friday, July 16, 2004

Another One of Those, Y'know, Catch-ups 

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2004) - Dodgeball is yet another example of lazy comic writing: a pretty good concept that makes use of almost none of the possibilities inherent to said concept. In other words, for a movie called Dodgeball, very little of it is actually about dodgeball. Most of the jokes are standard sexual/potty humor found in just about any other movie, and only in select few moments (such as a public-service ad parody starring Hank Azaria) do we see jokes that naturally evolve from the idea of dodgeball-as-pro-sport. There are committed comic performances from old reliables like Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Gary Cole, Stephen Root, and Rip Torn, but the mediocre material keeps them from generating much more than mild chuckles. C+

Around the World in 80 Days (Frank Coraci, 2004) - Mildly charming, sympathetic actors and a handful of celebrity cameos occasionally liven up an otherwise rote, predictable story that over-emphasizes its humor to the point of annoyance. I really don't have much to say about this; it's pretty much the definition of C material.

The Stepford Wives (Frank Oz, 2004) - The Stepford Wives has been taking quite a beating from critics, and I can certainly see why: it's got a lame cop-out ending that smells badly of studio-enforced rewrites and makes a big mess of the already-thin sci-fi concept. Up until then, though, I was kind of grooving on Frank Oz and Paul Rudnick's attempt to update the 70's suspense story into bitchy black-as-pitch comedy (the original film sympathized greatly with its heroine; this one sympathizes with pretty much nobody), as obviously infused with Rudnick's campy sensibility as possible. Dark comedy is probably the right direction in which to take The Stepford Wives; these days, the story wouldn't play if done seriously, and some of it is pretty funny. But then there's that ending -- oh my, what a shame. B-

The Terminal (Steven Spielberg, 2004) - For a movie that's basically about nothing, The Terminal is as charmingly about that as a movie can be. You know you're going to find nothing less than top-notch technical merit in a Spielberg film, and The Terminal has gilmmering cinematography, clever musical score, and excellent performances to spare. There is, unfortunately, the small problem of the script, which seems to be making a point about American xenophobia or somesuch and then ambles off on a love story involving a stewardess and jazz music. Even with all that, the film still seems to be going somewhere interesting (hey, Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can had fairly layered themes), but it reaches the end without resolving any of the secondary character arcs or making much of a point, leaving me with a profound sense of "blah". But at least it was a warm, fuzzy "blah". B-
Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004) - Napoleon Dynamite employs a pretty audacious strategy for a comedy: it tries to win us over by being as ugly and mean-spirited as possible. This tack might've worked -- if the filmmakers were at all sincere about it. The problem with Napoleon Dynamite is not, as you may have heard, that it's all about "laughing at the nerds" humor; it's that it's so plainly, bluntly not about making fun of the nerds -- this is a geek ode so self-congratulatory as to make Antoine Fisher blush. In every second of star Jon Heder's overly-mannered performance, you can hear him giving you the old wink-wink-nudge-nudge: "I'm not really like this, but isn't it terribly cool that I am?" I suppose it's unfair to expect another masterpiece along the lines of Ghost World or Rushmore -- nerd-sympathizing films that still acknowledge the self-gratifying martyrdom of nerdiness -- but Jared Hess's faux-triumphant finale is the kind of cynical ploy we should all immediately see through. C-

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron, 2004) 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban continues the ever-improving argument in favor of giving talented indie filmmakers a big-budget toy to play with. This time, the Harry Potter franchise has been turned over to Alfonso Cuaron -- known best for his low-budget Mexican hit Y Tu Mama Tambien -- and his entry into the series feels like a breath of fresh air. Chris Columbus had competently and unobtrusively filmed the first two installments (The Sorcerer's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets), but I have to confess that until Prisoner of Azkaban, I hadn't realized what was missing. For the first time, Hogwarts Academy feels like a real space, stretching, morphing, and changing as though it were one of the characters. I loved the "milestone" scenes with a certain reacting to the changing seasons, loved how Cuaron kept things in the shot -- like a certain picture of Sirius Black -- even if they weren't serving the plot (visual symbolism! Hey!), and loved the unconventional staging he brought to almost every scene: that darkened-hallway meeting between Harry and Snape is brilliant for its use of real darkness, and not "movie darkness" (which is usually a kind of soft blue), pierced by points of light.

Cuaron's visual "opening" of the world (the film was shot on location -- good idea) comes at precisely the right time for Harry as a character; Azkaban is the volume in which Harry starts to discover that things don't always work out perfectly, and begins to realize the magnitude of his burden: the world looks bigger to us in the audience because it now looks bigger to Harry. Strangely enough, Prisoner of Azkaban is probably the most narratively shaky of the Potter films -- J.K. Rowling's source makes use of a slightly hoary time-travel device, and a great deal of plot has been chopped for the film version -- but it almost entirely doesn't matter, because Cuaron is there, doing little visual cartwheels, taking risks, and generally going about the business of creating art. Anyone who saw his terrific version of A Little Princess shouldn't be surprised about how he handles this more famous coming-of-age children's story -- in Cuaron's hands, the kids are all right. B+

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