The Coen Brothers remake of a beloved 1955 British comedy may not quite match its predecessor, but it works in its own eccentric way. The action has moved from England to the Deep South, where a churchgoing widow (Irma P. Hall) agrees to lease a room to Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks), little suspecting that hes a criminal mastermind who plans to use her cellar as his base of operations for a planned casino heist. Passing themselves off as musicians, Dorr and his cut-rate crew work quickly to carry out their plot, but once the senior citizen gets wind of their scheme, they decide that bumping her off might be the best course of action. The oddest aspect of this coolly detached comedy is that it never feels especially funny at least not in the gut-busting, knee-slapping sense. But thats not necessarily because the movie fumbles its gags; on the contrary, theyre executed so well that paradoxically we end up admiring the intricacies behind the set pieces rather than the set pieces themselves. The same goes for Hanks offbeat characterization as a loquacious gentleman who looks like Colonel Sanders illegitimate son. Hanks portrayal is masterful in its attention to the characters fussiness and flamboyance, but its too mannered, too coiled, to draw genuine laughs: Any pleasure we derive is because we know its Hanks, not because he disappears into his character. But all this isnt meant as a putdown of this smartly constructed comedy; in fact, this might be the first instance in which the ultimate middle-school putdown, Thats so funny I forgot to laugh, can be interpreted as the highest compliment imaginable.
SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED PP
The 2002 summer hit Scooby-Doo was cheesy, redundant and juvenile, which of course means it was fairly successful at recreating the spirit of the original animated series. While not entirely lacking in charm, Scooby-Doo 2 isnt as sure-footed as its predecessor, even though the same director (Raja Gosnell) and writer (James Gunn) are involved. Instead, the worst elements of the first film the characters tedious soul-searching, their obsession with the media spotlight, all those flatulence gags (I dont recall Casey Kasem ever breaking wind on the TV show) have been placed front and center, resulting in an exhausting effort that feels twice as long as its 90-minute running time. In this outing, those meddling kids Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Velma (Linda Cardellini) and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) and their CGI mutt find their reputation tarnished by a busybody reporter (Alicia Silverstone) even as theyre preoccupied with fighting a whole army of misshapen creatures. The big surprise of the first film was Lillards dead-on Shaggy imitation; here, its a subplot in which Velma gets a beauty makeover trust Hollywood to take the homeliest cartoon character this side of Olive Oyl, cast a real looker in the part, and then play up her hubba-hubba qualities. You also get Peter Boyle making a welcome appearance, American Idols Ruben Studdard in a negligible cameo, and, funkiest of all, Scooby-Doo in a towering fro. Atomic Dog, anyone?
DAWN OF THE DEAD PPP
George Romeros seminal horror film from 1968, the zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, didnt exactly cry out for a remake, but that didnt stop filmmakers (including Romero himself) from releasing a dreadful new version in 1990. The same goes for 1974s influential The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And now some fool has decided to give us a new take on 1978s Dawn of the Dead, the second in Romeros zombie trilogy and a movie that has long been hailed by both critics and cultists as one of the few great splatter flicks ever made. But hold on. This new version is that rare bird: a remake that actually succeeds on its own terms. Director Zack Snyder and writer James Gunn clearly knew that simply offering a lumbering retread of the original would be a fatal mistake, since it would be difficult to duplicate its sharp satiric slant (watching mindless creatures lumbering through the mall is perhaps the final word on both consumerism and conformity) and its shifting viewpoint of the zombies (villainous against the leads, heroic against the bikers who appear late in the film). The new Dawn wisely presses forward in its own direction, retaining the mall setting but offering different characters, different situations and a different outcome. The result is a crisp horror flick, a fast-paced picture thats exciting, icky and often quite funny.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND PPP1/2
Scripter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) has come up with another mindbender of a movie, an existential drama that, like a lovelorn Memento, often plays out in reverse order. When we first meet them, anally retentive Joel (Jim Carrey) and free-spirited Clementine (Kate Winslet) are drawn to each other on a beach, not realizing that they were once lovers. It turns out that Clementine, bored with their relationship, opted to take part in a breakthrough procedure that allowed all traces of their romance to be permanently zapped from her memory. Angry and hurt, Joel elected to receive the same treatment; only once it began, he had second thoughts and then did everything he could solely within the parameters of his own mind to save the more precious of his many moments with Clementine. If this sounds a tad confusing, thats because Kaufman doesnt exactly write stories that can be summed up in one line at a pitch meeting. Yet for all its smart-aleck shenanigans and dense plotting, this delightfully different movie is no mere parlor trick. It takes a serious look at the value of memories and the dangers of monkeying with the mind, and its laughs are tempered by a sorrowfulness that dogs every scene.
JERSEY GIRL PP
Jersey Girls stabs at humor are ham-fisted at best, and the sentimental moments recall John Hughes at his worst. Ben Affleck stars as Ollie Trinke, a New York music biz publicist whose life is shattered when his wife dies during childbirth. (Jennifer Lopez plays the tragic spouse, and to deflect the post-Gigli perception that this was another Affleck-Lopez vehicle, her role has been trimmed down to practically nothing.)
TAKING LIVES P1/2
Angelina Jolie, whose post-Oscar career is only slightly less humiliating than that of Cuba Gooding Jr., plays FBI profiler Illeana Scott, whos been summoned to Montreal to assist in tracking down a serial killer who murders young men and then assumes their identities. Could the psycho be the key witness (Ethan Hawke)? The tough-talking detective (Olivier Martinez)? The guy who simply keeps hanging around for no discernible reason other than to be a suspect (Kiefer Sutherland)? A real cop would have this wrapped up in 20 minutes, but Jolies detective, only slightly less dim-witted than Ashley Judds boozing cop from Twisted, seems to be merely one more graduate from Inspector Clouseau Academy.
SECRET WINDOW P1/2
This dum-dum drama is about an author whos accused of plagiarism, and one has to wonder whether this irony was lost on writer-director David Koepp and author Stephen King (on whose novella this is based). Johnny Depp, whose recent ascension to superstardom wont be damaged in the least by this recyclable nonsense, stars as Mort Rainey, a successful author still reeling from the fact that his wife (Maria Bello) left him for another man (Timothy Hutton) six months earlier. Holed up in his isolated cabin in the woods, Mort is startled one day by a visit from a Mississippi rube named John Shooter (John Turturro, too good an actor to be treading water in such a one-note role), a slow-speaking hayseed who accuses the writer of stealing his story.
STARSKY & HUTCH PP1/2
Having now appeared together in several films, it might be time to regard Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as Hollywoods latest certified comedy team, a tradition that has included such twofers as Laurel and Hardy, Hope and Crosby, and Lemmon and Matthau. Like their predecessors, these guys are able to bring out the best in each other, a vital ingredient in making Starsky & Hutch more tolerable than most movies based on past TV shows.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST PP
In relating the saga of Christ from his betrayal by Judas at the Garden of Gethsemane right up through the crucifixion, Mel Gibson has basically taken the greatest story ever told and turned it into a snuff film. It's not that I was offended or put off by the film's excessive violence; on the contrary, an honest depiction of this tale probably needs to showcase such degrees of brutality up close and personal. But what's sorely missing from the movie is any meaningful context. Martin Scorsese's superb 1988 offering The Last Temptation of Christ -- still the best and most affecting religious flick ever made -- worked because it presented us with a Christ who was both fully God and fully man, not an untouchable icon but rather an immediate figure working through the pleasures and perils of life itself. By contrast, Gibson's focus is so narrow that his film never gives us a sense of Jesus the Man -- all we get is Jesus the Martyr, who's forced to spend a tedious two hours incessantly beaten by spittle-spraying Roman soldiers. As Jesus, Jim Caviezel (The Count of Monte Cristo) looks aptly beatific, yet he's so hamstrung by the one-note depiction that he never registers as anything more than a symbol. Other performers, including Monica Bellucci (The Matrix Reloaded) as Mary Magdalene and Romanian actress Maia Morgenstern as Mary, ably handle their equally sketchy parts. Curiously, the most fully rounded character is Pontius Pilate (well-played by Hristo Naumov Shopov), who is presented as a decent -- even sympathetic -- ruler who feels for Christ but who's ultimately too weak to stand up to His bloodthirsty persecutors. w
Viggo Mortensen is adequate as a sensitive soul who, shaken up by the mass genocide of Native Americans, turns to the bottle and performs in a Wild West show before accepting an offer to journey to a foreign land (yes, this movie kicks off exactly like The Last Samurai). In this case, the character and his trusty horse Hidalgo are invited to take part in a grueling 3,000 mile race across the Arabian Desert, a contest in which most participants perish under the merciless sun and the few survivors must contend with duplicity and double-crosses at every turn. What follows is a rousing adventure yarn that includes breathtaking vistas, worthy comic relief, occasionally terrible CGI effects, a supporting role for Omar Sharif (as the Sheik overseeing the race), and plenty of exciting derring-do in the grand tradition of Indiana Jones.
Twisted stars Ashley Judd as a detective who becomes a leading suspect in her own investigation when the victims all turn out to be her former lovers. But given all these disposable titles and plotlines, how can I be sure? Because this one stands out through the sheer fact that its the worst one yet, a preposterous yarn in which not only is it easy to deduce the identity of the killer (with at least an hour to go) but also to figure out how the climactic scene will go down.
THE RETURN OF THE KING PPP1/2
Pulling off a successful threepeat, director Peter Jackson wraps up J.R.R. Tolkiens fantasy saga with a dazzling chapter guaranteed to please true believers.