Hiatus…

Well, it’s probably obvious, but the updates here have been few and far between for the past few months. For personal reasons, I’m taking a hiatus from working on the website. I hope to return later this year, though it may not be for several months. Until then, the coming attractions portion of the site will get increasingly out of date. For accurate information, I would suggest visiting the following two websites:

Thanks for your patience, and I hope to be back soon…

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Almost Famous - * * * *

No stranger to the world of music, director Cameron Crowe is well known for the strong rock-and-roll soundtracks of his earlier films, Say Anything, Singles, and Jerry Maguire. However, in his youth, Crowe was actually a rock reporter for Rolling Stone. Now, the director dips into the well of his own adolescence, and creates his strongest film, Almost Famous.

Loosely autobiographical, the film follows a budding rock critic, William Miller (Patrick Fugit). In 1973, at the tender age of 15, William is given the chance to live a dream: Rolling Stone magazine asks him to write a piece on the rock band, Stillwater.

Stillwater is a middle-of-the-road band, with aspirations of greatness. Fronted by singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), Stillwater has its true strength in the talented guitar player, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Although initially viewing William as “the enemy”, the band quickly warms up to him as he sinks further and further into their world. On tour with the band, William soon finds himself seduced by the fame and “coolness” that Stillwater can provide him…a perception which threatens to destroy his objectivity as a reporter.

Meanwhile, along the way, William is beset with girl problems. They all start, in an oddly Freudian way, with his mother (Frances McDormand). Although she’s portrayed as being obsessively protective of William, it is done in primarily positive tones: she’s a sympathetic smotherer. She fears trouble with her vulnerable child let loose in the wicked world of rock and roll. That trouble appears in the lovely form of groupie (or “Band Aid”), Penny Lane. Penny proves to be a source of turmoil for both William and Russell, but also a source of inspiration.

The script of Almost Famous is very well written, but has a few minor flaws. The film garners a few quick laughs from a handful of anachronistic ’70s jokes, which, although humorous, jar the audience out of the spell created by the remainder of the film. This highlights a problem the film has in balancing an honestly autobiographical tone on one hand, and a satirical Spinal Tap-esque tone on the other. At one moment the film builds a substantial sense of earnest truthfulness, and then it blows it all away for a quick gag.

That said, the dialogue is solidly written, and the interplay between the characters is priceless. In particular, Cameron Crowe gifts the talented actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, with several choice speeches for his role as Lester Bangs, founder of the rock magazine, Creem, and mentor to young William.

Fugit is remarkably passive throughout the film, as he is primarily a sounding board for the other characters. However, the remainder of the cast has energy to spare. Crudup and Lee are vivid as the two distinct Stillwater members. But the true breakout star here is Kate Hudson, who creates a poignant portrait of a young woman who feels the need to cloak herself in the proximity of fame. The seduction of the rock-and-roll lifestyle blinds her to the point that she loses her own identity. Hudson is perfect as the flawed angel…the object of unrequited love, who in turn wastes her love on an unworthy subject.

There is a genuine love of rock and roll on display in Almost Famous. Like the proximity of fame, this love can be quickly seductive, and despite some minor flaws, the film emerges like a breakout superstar with a number one hit. Rock on.

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Mission: Impossible 2 - * * 1/2*

Mission: Impossible 2

Another Impossible Mission, this time involving the hunt for a deadly virus. Tom Cruise will star, along with Ving Rhames, Thandie Newton, Brendan Gleeson, Dougray Scott, John Polson, Rade Serbedzija and Richard Roxburgh. Anthony Hopkins will play Cruise’s new boss. Michael Tolkin and David Marconi have written the script. John Woo will direct.

Capsule Review Mission: Impossible 2 is, by any standard, a mediocre sequel. The convoluted plot of the first Mission: Impossible has been traded for a straight-line, connect-the-dots scenario that can’t even manage one surprising twist. The characters are barely there, and the script overuses its minimal arsenal (how many times must the “perfect” latex disguise mask be used?). There’s never a feeling of jeopardy, despite the entire world being at stake. Nor do any of the action sequences spur much excitement, mostly due to poor editing. As soon as a stunt starts looking interesting, the film cuts away. Director John Woo’s signature touches are all over this film, but this is a hamstrung version of his best works. The movie is good for its minimal escapism, but little more.

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Small Time Crooks - * 1/2*

Woody Allen directs and stars in this comedy about a group of dimwitted thieves trying to rob a bank. Michael Rappaport, Hugh Grant, Tracy Ullman, Elaine May and Jon Lovitz also star.

Capsule Review: One of Woody Allen’s better comedies of recent years, Small Time Crooks foregoes the traditional angst, and concentrates on the laughs. Elaine May far and away steals her scenes, but the entire cast is memorable. It’s not deep, but it’s funny!

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Dinosaur - * * 1/2*

A combination live-action/computer animation/stop motion film about why the dinosaurs became extinct. D.B. Sweeney voices the main character, a dinosaur raised by lemurs. When a giant asteroid threatens, the lone dinosaur leads the lemurs to safety, while his fellow dinosaurs become extinct, thus ensuring the rise of the mammals. Kiefer Sutherland, D.B. Sweeney, Joan Plowright, Alfre Woodard, Samuel E. Wright, Ossie Davis, Della Reese, Jonathan Harris and Juliana Margulies will provide voices. Previously titled Dinosaurs and Expedition.

Capsule Review: This film is packed with wonderful eye-candy. The first ten minutes, or so, are dialogue free. They play so well that it is a complete disappointment when the dinos begin to talk. Suddenly, the film is thrust back into being an average animated feature, with little merit or originality. It’s a shame…Dinosaur feels like the next step in cartoon evolution, but is unfortunately shackled to the past. Some violent scenes might frighten the youngest kiddies, but children will definitely get more out of this film than adults

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Road Trip - * 1/2*

Todd Phillips directs this tale of four college students travelling 1000 miles to another college. Amy Smart, Sean William Scott, Andy Dick, Rachel Blanchard, Tom Green and Breckin Meyer star.

Capsule Review: Road Trip plays like a dumbed-down version of last year’s American Pie. It has some good laughs, but few memorable ones. Tom Green’s brief appearance is notable, but if you’ve seen the film trailer, you’ve seen all the best bits. Road Trip is mindlessly entertaining, but not worth much effort

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Hamlet - * *

Contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s famous play. Ethan Hawke stars as Hamlet. Also starring are Kyle MacLachlan (Claudius), Sam Shepard (The Ghost), Julia Stiles (Ophelia), Diane Venora (Gertrude) and Bill Murray (Polonius). Liev Schrieber, Steve Zahn, Casey Affleck and Jeffrey Wright will also star. Michael Almereyda adapted the play and will direct.

Capsule Review: A flat and uninteresting adaptation of Hamlet. Almereyda’s modern adaptation attempts to update the Bard’s most famous work into the world of corporations and camcorders. However, his effort seems strained at best. Unlike William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which at least created an internally consistent fantasy world, Hamlet seems uneven, choppy, and not that interesting. There are plenty of excellent Hamlet adapations out there. This is not one of them.

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Battlefield: Earth - *

Roger Christian directs this adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi novel. John Travolta will star as the alien overlord of a conquered Earth. Barry Pepper will play Jonnie Goodboy, the human who opposes him. Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates, Sabine Karsent, Richard Tyson and Michael Byrne also star.

Capsule Review: Battlefield Earth is a pretty terrible film. It shamelessly steals from sci-fi films of the past to create a tale that…well…just isn’t all that interesting. Some of the special effects are fair, but the plot is so vacuous that the film’s not even worth watching purely on the basis of eye candy. It’s not utterly horrible (like Supernova, for example), but not worth watching either.

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Gladiator - * * *

Welcome to the madness and mayhem of gladatorial combat, where people line up for miles around to get a glimpse of the fighting on the big screen…or make that the arena floor. Director Ridley Scott ushers in the return of the Roman epic with his film, Gladiator. It is a film that captures the spectacle, but not the heart (or the history) of the Roman films of old.

The film opens with the armies of the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) in battle with the fearsome Germans. The chief general of the Romans, Maximus (Russell Crowe), is a strong leader, and Marcus Aurelius decides to name him as the next emperor of Rome.

Naturally, this doesn’t sit with Marcus Aurelius’ oldest living son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who schemes to capture the throne for himself. In doing so, he strips Maximus of his rank, and sends him to his death.

But, through a twist of fortune, Maximus ends up a slave in Zucchabar, forced to fight in gladiatorial combats to the death. Can Maximus survive the games long enough to gain his revenge?

Though a completely fictional story, Gladiator flirts with historical significance. Both the setting (Rome, 180 A.D.), and several characters (most notably the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus) are lifted directly from the pages of history. However, a perplexing final scene does a bit more than fudge history, it launches the film into a parallel universe with little historical similarity to our own. Anyone familiar with the Roman Empire will be drawn out of the movie’s spell, which is a pity.

But, this film was not made for scholars. No, like the gladiatorial games themselves, this film is made for the spectacle of it all. And, when that spectacle is onscreen, the action is riveting. From battling armies, to duels to the death, Gladiator is impressive (though bloody) to watch.

And yet, for a film entitled “Gladiator”, where is all the gladiating? We are given three memorable trips to the floor of the arena (and a simpering finale which is merely pandering to the audience), and that is it.

What does the film do with the rest of the time? Drama…and cheesy drama at that. The story is a very simple tale of vengeance that makes Braveheart seem like a work of Shakespeare in comparison.

Joaquin Phoenix makes a slimy emperor to be sure, but he lacks enough dramatic presence to be a truly sinister villain. Russell Crowe is a much more admirable heroic figure, but this is his lightest role since Virtuosity. Only in some brief supporting roles do we get to see some solid acting (by Richard Harris and the late Oliver Reed).

Like a recreated battle on the arena floor, the story of Gladiator is just the window dressing for the carnage which ensues, and the end result may not quite jibe with history. But, for those with a taste for carnage, Gladiator has plenty to share.

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Time Code - * *

Mike Figgis directs this experimental, improvised thriler. Stellan Skarsgard, Salma Hayek, Saffron Burrows, Holly Hunter, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Kyle MacLachlan, Leslie Mann, Julian Sands, Mia Maestro, Alessandro Nivola, Richard Edson, Danny Huston, Aimee Graham, Xander Berkeley, Viveka Davis, Golden Brooks and Steven Weber will star.

Capsule Review A highly unusual film, Time Code presents four simultaneous views of its convoluted plot. Yes, the screen is divided into quadrants, and the film plays out in real time. It’s actually more watchable than the technique sounds, but the plot never makes this one worth while. It’s interesting only in a technical sense.

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