Category Archives: Movie Reviews

The Princess Diaries – By Sean O’Connell

Director Garry Marshall returns to his roots for “”The Princess Diaries.”” Call it “”Pretty Woman Redux,”” or “”Still Nothing in Common.”” He even goes so far as to cast Hector Elizondo, who at last count has starred in at least 10 of Marshall’s films since 1984’s “”The Flamingo Kid.”” Just don’t be so quick to dismiss “”Diaries”” based on the fact that the material is extremely worn, by this same director no less, because it certainly doesn’t make this heartwarming “”ugly duckling”” fable any less appealing.

After an indistinct turn in the Fox TV drama series “”Get Real,”” statuesque newcomer Anne Hathaway makes her big-screen debut as Emilia “”Mia”” Thermopolis, the frizzy-haired daughter of a San Francisco-based artist/single mom/divorcee. At school, Mia belongs to the “”invisible”” group, blending into the background whenever possible with her best friend, Lilly (Heather Matarazzo). All that changes one day when Mia meets her absentee grandmother, Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews), who’s making an unexpected trip through San Francisco. Grandmothers never just “”pop by”” for visits in movies like this, though, and Clarisse is no exception. She has news for Mia that’s a little tough to swallow. It appears Mia’s recently-deceased father, Clarisse’s son, was the prince of the country of Genovia, which makes Clarisse a queen. It also makes the shy, awkward Mia a princess, and she has the opportunity to claim her crown and rule from her father’s throne. “”Diaries”” delivers its premise in what I like to call the “”hurry-up offense.”” Everyone involved knows the situation to be improbable, but no one slows down long enough to question anything. We’ve all come to see the hilarious consequences, and stopping to think would only delay the inevitable. Instead, Marshall simply digs up his proven plot maps and topographies to chart the film’s course straight toward its foregone conclusion. Comedian Larry Miller shows up as a caricature of a gay stylist who transforms Mia from class geek to tre chic. Elizondo plays Mia’s rigid chauffeur/guardian who never lacks for a pearl of wisdom to bestow on the empty slate of a young lady. And an endless supply of physical jokes erupt from Mia’s “”stranger in a strange world”” scenario over the film’s two hours. What’s most surprising, though, is the amount of fun “”Diaries”” still manages to concoct on the laborious path to its predetermined conclusion. For every groan-inducing physical mishap Mia must endure on her journey to the throne, there’s a well-penned line or dialogue exchange lobbed over the plate for the eager cast to smack over the fence. Years of experience in front of the cameras allow the dry as dust Elizondo and the dignified, stately Andrews to reign supreme over this court. Andrews’ performance is the spoon full of sugar that helps this medicine go down. But the new generation, represented by Matarazzo, Hathaway and MTV staple Mandy Moore – also making her feature film debut as Mia’s snobby school rival – are never completely overshadowed, which speaks volumes about their ability. Just don’t be charmed into submission: “”Princess Diaries”” never amounts to more than predictable family fluff churned from the same Disney factory that last year brought you Bruce Willis’ “”The Kid.”” “”Diaries”” doesn’t allow us to forget that excruciating bomb, but it gives us reason to forgive. FINAL GRADE: B By Sean O’Connell August 1, 2001

Hearts in Atlantis

At least eight of Stephen King’s works have been optioned for film and television productions by 2002. In fact, since Brian De Palma directed “”Carrie”” back in 1976, Hollywood has plundered King’s words, ideas and characters for approximately sixty-four different projects, sometimes with great success (“”The Shawshank Redemption,”” “”Stand By Me””, “”The Shining””), but oftentimes not (“”Cujo,”” “”Maximum Overdrive””).

“”Hearts in Atlantis,”” the scribe’s latest story to receive the big screen treatment, actually bears a strong resemblance to “”Stand By Me,”” another film adaptation of a King short story. Directed by proficient directors (Scott Hicks and Rob Reiner, respectively), both tackle the loss of innocence through distictive rights of passage. But whereas “”Stand By Me”” lucked upon four gifted actors who happened to by children – Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman and the late River hoenix – “”Atlantis”” relies on real children who are not yet actors, and the weighty material slips in their tiny hands. Screenwriter William Goldwin adapts “”Atlantis”” from the King novel of the same name, though he works primarily from the book’s first story, “”Low Men in Yellow Coats.”” The low men in question are shadow-dwelling scoundrels who pilot gaudy automobiles and are currently pursuing Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), an old man who incidentally just moved into the apartment above young Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) and his overprotective widowed mother, Elizabeth (Hope Davis). Ted’s bizarre mannerisms and too-polite demeanor immediately rouse Elizabeth’s suspicions, but Bobby likes him well enough, and soon the old man recruites him for a series of tasks. Most importantly, he wants Bobby to keep an eye open for Ted’s low men. Bobby eagerly agrees, but even he is starting to doubt Ted, who’s prone to repeatedmental lapses. In fact, Ted’s prone to much more than that. He possesses the power to “”see things”” others can’t see, and he can pass that ability on to another through human contact. Once, he inadvertently passes it on to Bobby, who uses to it clean up during a rigged game of “”Find The Queen.”” It’s this power that has the low men salivating, and has Ted on the lamb. Bobby desperately wants to help his new friend, but it is the summertime, and he’s easily distracted, shaging flies with his best friend Sully (Will Rothhaar) or locking lips with his pretty little girlfriend, Carol (Mika Boorem). When signs of the low men begin to appear, Bobby ignores them, half convinced Ted is mistaken but also confident his friend will leave if he knows danger is near. Ted eventually realizes that the low men have arrived, but by then it’s practically too late for him to do anything about it.The material is strong, but this production feels rushed, perhaps in an effort to include all the elements of King’s enchanting tale. A sleepy-eyed Hopkins trips and murmurs his way through, occassionally coming off as a pedophile who leers at Bobby and his friends with his mouth ajar. Instead of a peer, as he was in the book, Hopkins’ Ted is a wise old sage who has plenty of anecdotes, but no legitimate reason to hang out with children. And the kids themselves, who obviously know they’re very cute, recite thematerial with forced enthusiasm. Yelchin is particulary guilty of piling it on, and as a result, almost none of Bobby’s lines ring true. As he did with David Guterson’s “”Snow Falling on Cedars,”” Hicks filters a best-selling author’s beautful prose through his camera’s lens with lifeless results. He does a very good job maintaing the mystery surrounding the low men, though the screenplay goes too far, suggesting a motivation never addressed in the novel (and rightfully so).Hicks’ strongest contribution still lies in his ability to capture locations through his lens. “”Atlantis'”” dreary Connecticut suburbs are appropriately sullen and gray and they frame the story as well as the wintry landscapes did in “”Cedars.”” Hicks joins the ranks of directors unsuccessful in carrying King’s mystic prose to the screen, but he’s in the good company of Bryan Singer (“”Apt Pupil””), Taylor Hackford (“”Dolores Claiborne””), David Cronenberg (“”The Dead Zone””) and John Carpenter (“”Christine””), all of whom have gone on to better things.Grade: CBy Sean O’ConnellSept. 28, 2001

Behind Enemy Lines

Imagine if the soldiers showcased in those flashy Navy commercials were able to talk, to act, to process thoughts. What would they say? How would they behave? Answer these questions and you might figure out the point behind first-time director John Moore’s “”Behind Enemy Lines,”” a ridiculously shallow hack job that fails to register an iota of the patriotism and pride that even the aforementioned commercials muster.

And speaking of commercials, Moore may have a future in them soon, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The plot, per se, involves Navy Lieutenant Chris Burnett (Owen Wilson), ordered by his commanding officer, Admiral Riegart (Gene Hackman), to run a routine reconnaissance flight over Bosnian territories on Christmas Day. Burnett earns this choice assignment by voicing his displeasure with the Navy

Sean looks at “”I Am Sam””

Jessie Nelson’s custody-battle drama “”I Am Sam”” solicits a range of emotions, some genuine and some genuinely fake. Nelson’s intentions are evident, though the methods by which she achieves them can often be considered pious and manipulative. The result is a flawed gem that will have you wiping your eyes one minute and rolling them the next.

At the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to Sam (Sean Penn), a mentally challenged Starbucks employee (I know, they all seem mentally challenged at times) whose imprudent relationship with a homeless woman results an unwanted pregnancy. The woman gives birth to a girl, who Sam names Lucy after the Beatles’ trippy ode, “”Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,”” but the mother runs, choosing freedom over responsibility to either the father or the child.Luckily for Sam, as well as for Lucy, the man comes with a built-in support system. His friends – a close knit group who share Sam’s mental limitations – lend helping hands, as does Sam’s agoraphobic neighbor, Annie (Dianne Wiest). Lucy (Dakota Fanning) matures, though we see that when she begins to pass her father mentally, she holds herself back for fear of disrupting the simplified life they’ve established. Instead of reading her class assignments, Lucy prefers to have her father read “”Green Eggs and Ham”” for the umpteenth time. It’s not the story that’s comforting, but rather the practice of her father reading it that works like a security blanket Lucy’s not ready to shed.However, officials from Lucy’s school realize what’s happening, so they intervene. Sam’s ability to raise a child is questioned, with no legitimate answers given. And when a social worker (Loretta Devine) conveniently crashes Lucy’s surprise party just in time to see Sam scuffle with a belligerent father, the courts step in and take Lucy away. Sam’s search for proper legal council leads him to the offices of attorney Rita Harrison (the ageless Michelle Pfeiffer), or “”Lovely Rita, Meter Maid,”” as Sam repeatedly sings when in her presence. An emotionally vacuous lawyer, Rita wouldn’t help Sam if he were Christ incarnate on his way to Pilate’s courtroom. However, peer pressure inexplicably prompts Rita to accept Sam’s case pro bono, and the two set out to win, not because it will reunite the father with his daughter, but simply because Rita hates to lose. “”Sam””‘s problems begin and end with Pfeiffer’s character, an unfortunate mesh of stereotypical dilemmas established simply so they can be ironed out by her coincidental interactions with a mentally retarded character. What, Sam’s uphill battle to reclaim his daughter wasn’t dramatic enough that the filmmakers needed to mix in the salvation of a shrill, soulless defense lawyer as well? Through no fault of Pfeiffer, who tries hard with what she’s given, Rita’s conversion lacks empathy. What’s worse, Sam’s healing power seems to stretch over Rita’s son, as well, who hates his mother throughout the film, but shuttles their disagreements and welcomes her back by the end of the film. Too tidy, shameless, and completely unnecessary given the emotional weight of the film’s prime storyline. Which returns us to Sam and Lucy, the true focal point of the film and a showcase of immense talent and emotional chemistry. Penn’s towering performance as Sam bolsters the film’s highs. Some actors who play retarded capture the illness, while some merely capture Dustin Hoffman’s performance in “”Rain Man.”” Penn manages both, latching on to a catch phrase (“”That’s a wonderful choice,”” he tells his Starbucks customers), while honing in on the innocence Sam displays when faced with adult problems. On top of that, Penn’s connection with Fanning is palpable. Their shared scenes are gut-wrenching, their forged bond sincere. “”Sam”” raises intriguing moral questions that bear discussion. Should mentally retarded people be prevented from raising children? While “”Sam”” wraps up a little to easily for my tastes, it does carry a commendable message of familial love. If only it utilized something a little more consequential than Beatles lyrics and song titles to express it. Final Grade: B-Sean O’Connell

A.I. = Imitation of Life, by Ken Rosenberg

It is an admittedly intriguing question whether, in the future, man will be able to instill human emotions in robots. A.I. is premised on just such a phenomenon; the soulful-eyed boy “”mecha”” (pronounced “”Mecca””) David (Haley Joel Osment) is created by Professor Hobby (John Hurt), and conveyed to a bereaved couple (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards), whose only child (Jake Thomas) lies comatose. In the opening scenes, as the magisterial prof explains the breakthrough, one of his students throws out an ethical question that stumps him: what responsibility will humans have toward these creatures?

The rest of the movie–clocking in at a hefty 2 hours 25 minutes, and feeling every minute of it–is concerned, in one way or another, with answering that question. But while Steven Spielberg tries to recapture the otherworldly, humanist magic of

Ghost World — Reviewed by Ken Rosenberg

“”Ghost World”” — Growing PainsDirector Terry Zwigoff’s last movie was the off-kilter but fascinating 1994 documentary “”Crumb,”” a profile of the way-eccentric alt-comic auteur whose jaundiced worldview and ultraviolent, ultrasexualized fantasy scenarios fly way under the mainstream comic-book radar. Another cartoonist of the same ilk is Daniel Clowes, who along with Zwigoff adapted his graphic novel “”Ghost World”” for the screen here. What this coming-of-age/unconventional love story lacks in narrative propulsion it almost makes up for in whimsical, arty sensibilities and its sharply-etched, colorful protagonists.

Training Day

Once, in an effort to clarify the complexities of the narcotics beat for his rookie recruit, Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) blares, “”It’s not checkers, it’s chess.”” His statement could also refer to “”Training Day,”” a tantalizing chess match waged between morale adversaries claiming to be from the same team.

The pieces on this chessboard, though, are never simply black or white, good or evil, as that would be far too easy. Instead, each piece resembles a shade of gray, and you’re never sure which side of the board they’re trying to conquer. The only point of certainty is that Washington’s Harris is the queen, the dominant piece with the power to change the game with a simple move, or end it with several short, precise strokes.The recruit is LAPD officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), a 20-month rookie given the opportunity to audition for Harris’ elite team of plainclothes narcotics officers. Eager to please, Hoyt takes Harris’s words to be gospel, no matter how often they contradict the academy’s training manual. Harris adopts a “”big picture”” approach to crime, choosing not to waste time on petty thugs and relying on rule-bending street justice. He’s aggressive, opinionated, experienced and informed: a bully with a badge that’s so drunk with power he’s hung-over and miserable about it. Only Hoyt, operating on the opposite end of the morality scale, can piece together the fact that Harris might actually be a corrupt cop, though David Ayer’s dubious screenplay leaves the door open to the idea that Harris’ underhanded behavior could all be a test for the green officer. For the first time in his nearly 25-year career, Washington plays the villain, and he approaches the role as he does any, with an unmatched passion and intelligence. Not only does the actor know how his character needs to be perceived, he knows how the entire script needs to be played to maintain the picture’s ambiguity until the last possible second. It’s a credit to Hawke that he not only holds his own but also helps us to sympathize with this rookie by nailing the uncomfortable feeling one gets watching a pigeon being victimized by a tyrant.More surprising than Hawke’s admirable performance is Antoine Fuqua’s inspired direction. Gone is the choppy, over-stylized hack techniques Fuqua relied on in “”The Replacement Killers”” and “”Bait,”” replaced instead with steady camera sweeps and lingering pans that seize the complicated material and hold it still, allowing us a minute to contemplate and digest what we’re being fed. It’s not all kosher, and some scenes reach simplistic conclusions for the good of the plot. But several pieces must be sacrificed over the course of a chess match if checkmate is to be achieved, and the film rights itself after each sporadic misstep.Grade: A-By Sean O’ConnellOct. 5, 2001