Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Swordfish: This One’s Big Enough to Keep

“”Swordfish,”” the next summer slammer to attempt to weave gunfights, car chases and gratuitous nudity together in a coherent matter, starts off with the biggest bang of the season that literally has to be seen to be believed. It wouldn’t give too much away to say that the scene involves plenty of C4, hostages, John Travolta, a slew of ball bearings, and the same stop-motion camera work made popular by “”The Matrix.”” But this works. And more miraculously, “”Swordfish”” holds its own for 90 minutes after said opening sequence, a trick that’s mightier than you’d think.

Travolta, reeling after last year’s “”Battlefield Earth”” and “”Lucky Numbers,”” plays Gabriel Shear, a rogue spy who operates his computer piracy at arm’s length of the law. For his next project, which involves him stealing $9 billion in unused government funds, Shear needs the help of famed computer hacker Stanley Jobson (Hugh Jackman), a Leavenworth inmate on parole who only wants enough money to get his daughter back from his drug-addicted ex-wife. Halle Berry co-stars as the women in Shear’s life who may not be as loyal as she seems, and Don Cheadle plays the FBI honcho assigned to bring Shears down.As is required of most blockbusters in the post “”Sixth Sense”” age, “”Swordfish”” boasts more twists that a third-graders French braid, and most of them make sense, which is a pleasant surprise. Director Dominic Sena (“”Gone in 60 Seconds””) stages fantastic action sequences and lingers his camera on them long enough for us to appreciate them, a novel concept that has eluded the choppy directors behind “”Bait,”” “”Double Take”” and countless Jean Claude Van Damme films. Plot holes big enough to fly a bus through do appear, more to force the film’s surprise twist than anything. Sena avoids them, for the most part, by keeping the film in fifth gear, burying logical questions under layers of shiny car chases and glistening guns. “”Swordfish”” will not boost Travolta out of the acting cellar he climbed into with “”Battlefield Earth”” and “”Lucky Numbers,”” but it does further the argument that Hugh Jackman is a bona fide star waiting for the right role. Admittedly it’s not the freshest catch, but as a summer break, it’s certainly one fish you shouldn’t throw back.

“”Legally Blonde””: Pretty in Pink

“”Legally Blonde”” Pretty in PinkGrade: B1999’s underrated Election was memorable mostly for the sparkling, magnetic performance of Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, a high school overachiever who pursued her goals with a manic, good-natured singlemindedness and a delicious comic edge. Now Tracy Flick comes of age–and how–in this facile, perky comedy of redemption, as Witherspoon plays sorority Pollyanna and fashion doyenne Elle Woods.

Dressed to thrill in an audacious, pastel explosion of pinks and turquoises, Elle enrolls in Harvard Law School in a bid to reclaim her social-climbing boyfriend (Luke Wilson). Instead of fulfilling the expectations of her egghead classmates by falling on her face, Elle sets the place on its ear, smashing the dumb blonde stereotype by embracing it with smarts, style and class. Much of the repartee is featherweight, especially the sorority scenes that dominate the first half-hour; “”Legally Blonde”” isn’t above cheap, sitcom-y laughs, a la “”Bridget Jones’s Diary”” or “”The Wedding Planner.”” But depth matriculates with devilishly clever handling of difficult situations, such as Elle’s novel responses to Socratic grilling by law school profs and her handling of a murder case as she defends a sorority sister, played with desperate abandon by Ali Larter of “”Final Destination.”” This should be a breakout role for La Reese; though she doesn’t trade in overt, blunt sexuality like, say, Denise Richards or Nicole Kidman-she’s a bit too generic looking and fleshy-she plays the camera like a Stradivarius, with glamor and emotion to burn. The only young actresses who could give her a run for her money are Natalie Portman, Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles. Also noteworthy here are Selma Blair (“”Cruel Intentions””) as a starchy brunette classmate, and Raquel Welch as a wealthy matron. Directed by Robert Luketic. Written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. Running time 1:40. Rated PG-13. For Movie Reviews and Commentary, go to www.kenrosenberg.com

Life As A House

Until director Irwin Winkler decides what he wants his latest drama “”Life as a House”” to be, I don’t think it’s quite fair to judge it. But by that rationale, it also might not be fair for him to release it, as its bound to motivate, sadden and perplex anyone who sits through it, quite possibly achieving all these emotions at the same time.

As it stands now, on a shaky foundation of mixed metaphors and powerful symbolism, “”House”” resembles a line of Hallmark cards penned by goth rocker Marilyn Manson. Because Mark Andrus’ screenplay desperately wants to be edgy in an “”American Beauty”” kind of way, it mistakenly forces teen angst, divorce, gay prostitution and adultery into an underlying “”movie of the week”” story of terminal illness and father/son bonding. It doesn’t work because it fails to commit to either track fully, so few of the emotions it illicits feel genuine.The father in question is George (Kevin Kline), a long-time divorcee and unsatisfied model builder for a successful architecture firm who learns (in the same day, no less) that he’s losing his job of 20 years and suffering from cancer. Given months to live, George commits to not one project, but two: He’s going to renovate his ramshackle waterfront home, and connect with his alienated teenage son, Sam (Hayden Christiansen), in the process.Of course, absentee father George has no grasp of Sam’s problems. An outcast both at school and at home, Sam balances a steady diet of anguish and prescription drugs and is attempting to raise some extra cash by pimping himself out to male clients, one of the film’s most uncomfortable sequences. Shame on Winkler for believing some tender moments with dear old dad set against the backdrop of a dazzling California sunset can correct such problems in a wayward teen, but “”House”” goes so far as to make that assumption.On the rare occasion that “”House”” does connect, it’s because of Kline’s tender performance. His George puts up a brave front, hiding an illness from his ex-wife (Kristen Scott Thomas), his son and himself, for that matter. But Kline can only endure so much, and he eventually buckles under the weight of the ludicrous devices Winkler tosses at him. There’s enough dysfunction here for a series of films, and too much for just one. Common knowledge suggests that any house built on an unstable surface such as this can only come crumbling down.Grade: C-By Sean O’ConnellNov. 2, 2001

Ali – Will’s KO Performance

Appropriately enough, Michael Mann’s “”Ali”” begins with a song – an old-school celebratory hip-shaker that writhes with pain as it riles the crowd. The musical prologue zips us through the early years of world championship boxer Muhammad Ali (Will Smith), a kinetic figure both inside and out of the world of sports, and sets the tone for Mann’s work. It just doesn’t linger too long, for as relevant as the past may appear to be, we don’t have time for it here.

Instead, Mann’s cinematic book report only dissects a decade in the legendary boxer’s life, though the time frame chosen reflects most of the champ’s highs and lows. Beginning with his first world title fight against champion Sonny Liston (Michael Bentt), “”Ali”” meanders its way through matches, failed marriages and government crackdowns until we reach the “”Rumble in the Jungle”” in 1974. The screenplay, from a story by Gregory Allen Howard, focuses primarily on two facets of Ali’s life – his religion and his sport – and relays them to us via the boxer’s relationships with two strong men: Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and Howard Cosell (Jon Voight). How they met or became so close is left to our imaginations, though Ali’s respect for them is evident. The relationship with Cosell, a bond of mutual respect that fueled an on-air promotional circus from time to time, deserves its own movie – and the wonderful Voight would have to resume the role. Here, it is left in the shadows too often.””Ali,”” however, does pack plenty of punches, most notably the mesmerizing turn by Smith. Older colleagues I watched the film with had difficulties seeing Ali in Smith, and understandably so. The man himself was so charismatic, so alive – a tough act to follow. Mann’s film, and Smith’s performance, must compete with the collective memories of boxing fans, as well as the highlight reels and outtakes shown year-round on ESPN. They display the real Ali – floating, stinging, and constantly singing his own praises. But I did see more than a few traces of Ali in Smith, and I learned more about both men as a result of the actor’s resounding performance. While Mann makes surface glances over the life of a prominant figure without exploring too deeply, Smith provides the man with passion, pain, extreme confidence, and even fear (look for it when Ali faces the juggernaut of George Foreman in Africa). I enjoyed Mann’s approach to the boxing matches, which resonate with stunning clarity and originality. Directors have filmed the boxing ring in various ways, some effective and some off-kilter. Mann brings a fresh outlook by alienating the sound in the ring, muting the crowd and amplifying the grunts, groans and sighs uttered by the feuding warriors. When contrasted with Mann’s pre-boxing shots, brimming with endless chatter, verbal jabs and taunting, the matches pack that much stronger of a punch. But in the ring, it’s business. In the ring, it’s put up, as well as shut up. But once again, the director needs an editor. With “”Heat”” and “”The Insider,”” Mann has earned his reputation for lengthy prose, and “”Ali”” certainly goes the distance. At just under three hours, the film stutter steps, bobs and weaves for 9 solid rounds, but tires just when the knockout punch should have been delivered. By the famed “”Rumble In The Jungle,”” a benchmark battle between an exonerated Ali and the relentless Foreman, the length and reptitiveness of the material was felt. Another press conference became another sideshow, and another pretty face (Michael Michele, this time) once again signified the boxer’s cheating heart. Everything that could have been said about the champ had been said by then, and said well. Ali, the film reminds us, fought beyond 1974, losing and regaining his title three more times. Though humbled by Parkinson’s disease, Ali was even able to attend the premiere of his own film, a true triumph. Grade: BBy Sean O’ConnellDec. 24, 2001

America’s Sweethearts, Don’t Analyze This–Reviewed by Ken Rosenberg

“”America’s Sweethearts”” is a movie about the movie business, in the tradition of “”The Player”” or “”State and Main””. But “”America’s Sweethearts”” is a cinematic tabloid, a National Enquirer of glass-house personal lives, eggshell egos and entourages. Hosting this madcap parody of the sybaritic lives of the rich and famous is Lee (Billy Crystal), an ace publicist responsible for the media feeding frenzy known as a press junket.

Ghosts of Mars – By Sean O’Connell

Fans of Roger Corman’s visionary low-budget camp, rejoice. John Carpenter (“”Escape from New York””), taking a page directly from the legendary schlock-meister’s book, has crafted a woeful sci-fi/horror stinker on a shoestring budget that foregoes rational thought and an acceptable plot simply because his story takes place on a neighboring planet in the distant future. Except Carpenter’s “”Ghosts of Mars”” would have felt dated even in the ’60s. And if he wasn’t going for homage, you have to wonder why he made this film at all.

It’s the year 2176, and the red planet of Mars is colonized and policed by Earth’s citizens. The planet exists as a denizen for criminals and gang members – kind of like Carpenter’s futuristic vision of Manhattan island, but a lot bigger.Helena (Pam Grier) leads her team of officers on a mission to the colony of Shining Canyon to pick up the vicious criminal known as “”Desolation”” Williams (Ice Cube) for transport. As expected, Helena’s group is packed to the gills with stereotypical personalities. Melanie (Natasha Henstridge) is the fiercely independent butch beauty, and Jericho (Jason Statham) the gravel-voiced pig who never stops trying to get in her jumpsuit. Two rookies tag along, though their only purpose is to point their guns and die horrible deaths when the script calls for it.The team isn’t in Shining Canyon two minutes before they realize something’s not right. They discover that the colony’s entire population has been massacred, decapitated and hung upside down by their ankles. Only the prisoners have been spared, and one of them, a doctor, can identify what’s behind the slaughter. She explains that, for reasons unknown, a harmful organism that seeps into the soil and stews has been released, and now jumps from human host to human host – carried by the wind, no less – destroying the person from the inside. The infected specimens, now zombies, dig at their own flesh and carve bizarre tribal symbols into their own bodies. The army of the diseased resemble rejects from the set of George Miller’s “”The Road Warrior”” who have joined a cult of Marilyn Manson worshipers. It’s horrific. And if that’s not enough, these beastly beings also harbor a strong desire to destroy anyone or anything they consider to be an outsider, and that includes Helena and her team. Lucky for Grier, she kicks it relatively early. Her agent must have fought hard for that stipulation in her contract. That leaves unlikely allies Henstridge and Ice Cube to blast their way out of the camp – really just an laughable set of model miniatures that look faker than Tori Spelling’s nose – and onto a train heading for safety.””Mars”” substitutes a body count for a brain, and sets it all to a numbingly cyclic techno soundtrack with music by Buckethead, Anthrax and Carpenter himself. If nothing else, it explains where those rogue party-crashers from John Hughes’ “”Weird Science”” came from. I’ve always wanted to know thatAs bad as it is, though, there’s no way “”Mars”” won’t turn a profit. Carpenter saved a spaceship full of dough by hiring third-rate talent like Henstridge, Grier and Cube. And he certainly didn’t spend a dime on special effects, sets, costumes or a screenplay. “”Mars”” feels like it was shot by teenagers on a three-day binge in Arizona. I kept looking for the silhouettes of Joel, Tom Servo and Crow from the dearly-departed “”MST3K”” to appear in the bottom right corner of the screen. Not that we need them. The film’s clunky dialogue gives us more than enough to laugh at. Grade: D-By Sean O’ConnellAug. 24, 2001