Category Archives: Movie Reviews

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

A.I. – Steven Spielberg’s Wet Dream, Our Nightmare, by Michelle Alexandria

I normally try not to interject myself into my writer’s reviews, but this time I must. Ken is being way too kind with this movie. I won’t say that it sucks, but, no, actually, I will say it sucks. It blows chunks. I know every film critic in the world seems to have a hard on for Steven Spielberg, but really what was the last good movie he did, “”Saving Private Ryan””? The first half hour of that was good but the rest of it sucked. I still can’t sit through that entire movie. Luckily on DVD I can just skip ahead to the body parts exploding scenes.
Much like the director himself, A.I. is a pompous, waste of time. The movie tries so hard to make you care, but it is a empty shell. The visual effects that everyone keeps talking about? Where were they? The first 40 minutes consisted of nothing but a dark, dank apartment. Ooooohh. Ahhhhhh. Wow, I ain’t never seen anything like that before. The sets and lighting looked liked they were lifted straight from Aliens (good plot, horrible effects). And I don’t mean the ship or alien effects, I’m talking about the scene where they were just in their living quarters.

Critics are calling Haley Joel Osment the best young actor ever. Calling him that is a slap in the face to all the previous child stars who had more range than this kid has shown me. Anyone remember Drew Barrymore, Anthony Michael Hall, ok I can’t think of many people. But hell, even Jerry Mathers showed more range than Osment. Will someone please tell me why this kid is so popular? Is it because he’s the perfect little blond, blue eye boy that every white moviegoer can relate to? In the Sixth Sense he barely said anything in that movie, and every time he did speak it was in monosyllables, and again, because what he had to say was sooooo important, he spoke, reeeeeeaaaaaaalllly slow, in a very soft voice, because hey, he was traumatized. In A.I. he rehashes that same bland style and mannerisms, where we are supposed to care and go woo, woo, over him. The movie starts on a bland, boring note, and as far as I was concerned ended on one. Why did I walk out? Didn’t have the patience. I sincerely wanted to like this movie I stuck with it as long as I could. The only other movie I ever walked out on was Magnolia.The red flag started with the opening scene, William Hurt, standing in dark classroom explaining the problems of robotics and how humans don’t like them and mistreats them. His brilliant idea, “”let’s make a robot that can love. One that can love unconditionally with every fiber of his being.”” Blech. Of course someone asks, “”well can you make a robot that can love?”” My response – “”who gives a shit””.Hurt’s response – “”Making a robot that can love isn’t the problem, it’s whether humans can love a robot as though it was a real child. That’s the problem.”” And of course a debate ensues about the human’s responsibility to that robot, blah, blah, blah… I check my watch five minutes into this opening sequence it felt like 20 minutes.To get his preachifying across, Speilberg has all the actors speak reaaaaaallllly, slooooooow, and quiet. You know you are watching a serious film when everyone whispers and speaks slowly. Hey they did it in The Sixth Sense (another film I despised), and everyone went slap nuts silly over it, so why not do it here?Somehow they select these two bland people to be the recipients of the world’s first robot child that can love unconditionally. Why this couple and not some one else? What process did the scientist use to pick this unstable company for this important experiment? The movie never explains it, oh I’m sure somewhere deep inside the press kit the information is there, but in the film itself, no explanation. For most of the movie (again the 45 minutes that I saw) we are led to believe that their son died, or so I thought. The movie introduced David (Osment) into the household and I swear I think they spent 30 minutes just showing close ups of Osment. Osment watching the couple eat, watching the couple talk, etc. Ooooohhhhh, that was so exciting. Then for some unknown reason, the marketing tie-end I guess, they introduce a talking Teddy Bear named Joe, I guess he was supposed to be the comic relief. At that point I was ready to get the hell out of the theater, but I decided to stick with it a little while longer, and then the killer, they brought the couple’s child back, one minute he’s in a wheelchair. The very next he’s walking and being a complete little spoiled brat at that point I whispered to Ken, and told him I was getting the hell out of there.

Rush Hour 2 – By Sean O’Connell

After the $141 million nationwide gross of its predecessor, “”Rush Hour 2″” was as inevitable as death and taxes. In New Line’s mind, a franchise was born out of the marriage of motor-mouth Chris Tucker and fleet-footed Jackie Chan. Why, then, did it take them three years to crank out a sequel, allowing the once fresh premise of this far-fetched pairing to go stale and the stars’ unique chemistry to cool?

As a result, “”Rush Hour 2″” is a lukewarm serving of similar material, microwaved long enough for audience consumption, but one that will leave you unfulfilled and hungry for something else. And don’t think the door hasn’t been flung wide open for “”Rush Hour 3,”” but more on that later.After a hurried intro, the sequel catches up with Detective Inspector Lee (Chan) and Detective James Carter (Tucker) as they attempt to vacation in Hong Kong. The problem is Lee, who’s incessant desire to work keeps interrupting Carter’s R&R. After a bomb delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Hong Kong takes out two undercover customs agents, Lee and Carter reluctantly get involved.The duo’s suspect is Ricky Tan (John Lone), the wicked leader of the criminal Triads. Conveniently, Tan happens to be the ex-cop partner, and probable executioner, of Lee’s deceased father. And Tan’s not alone. He’s employed a silent, bloodthirsty female strong-arm named Hu Li (“”Crouching Tiger”” star Zhang Ziyi) who’s as quick with a kick as Carter is with a quip.Through no feats of exceptional detecting, Carter and Lee uncover Tan’s true motivations involving counterfeit plates issued by the United States Treasury department to the Shah of Iran that create undetectable “”super bills.”” An undercover Secret Service agent, coolly played by Roselyn Sanchez, even tags along for the fun, though her primary role seems to be feeding these dull-witted detectives somewhat obvious clues. It’s all just a tremendous excuse to jet Carter and Lee from Hong Kong to L.A. and, eventually, to Vegas, where the inexhaustible Carter can blend in with the tawdry scenery and ceaseless noise.Since Tucker hasn’t worked on another film since the first “”Rush Hour,”” it’s easy to see how or why he would bring nothing new to his predominantly one-dimensional character. It’s hard to tell if this is Tucker’s vision of Carter, or just his acting style. Tucker’s delivery resembles a blindfolded man in a closet full of chairs; sooner or later he’s bound to hit something. So for every minute of screentime director Brent Ratner allows him, Tucker fires away. Mathematically, he’s bound to say something funny in time, and he does manage to hit a few zingers, all at the expense of some race or ethnicity. You sift through a lot of jibber before you hit the jabber, and the payoff isn’t always rewarding.Even Chan looks tired next to Tucker, and it’s not because if his grueling action scenes. While the nimble karate expert no doubt performed his own stunts in this film, as he’s wont to do, his well-choreographed scenes in “”Rush Hour 2″” are decidedly shorter than we’re used to in a Chan film. No sooner does the elfin fighter build up steam aboard a cruise ship or in the back room of a casino then he’s felled by a well-placed kick, usually delivered by Ziyi. Waiting for a knuckle-cracking face-off between the two martial artists? Keep waiting. Ziyi must fight, and lose to, Tucker at the film’s climax, while Chan has to resolve his conflict with a gun, which definitely isn’t his style.While the plot of “”Rush Hour 2″” does improve over the simplistic kidnapping elements of the first installment, there’s still not a lot to work with here. Hoping not to alienate its core audience, the film takes few chances, borrowing set-ups and jokes line-for-line from the original. Ratner and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (“”Speed 2: Cruise Control””) leave plenty of room for improvisation, which Tucker just can’t fill with his scathing racial observations.The highlight of the film comes in the outtakes that run during the credits. At some point, we need to see a feature-length film of just Chan outtakes, as they always prove to be so entertaining. The much-lauded chemistry between Tucker and Chan finally shows when the two loose-lipped stars aren’t tied to a tongue-tripping script and they can just be themselves. And it’s here, buried in these clever clips, that Tucker shrewdly mentions the inevitable sequel, “”Rush Hour 3.”” At least we should have until 2004 to prepare.GRADE: C

Serendipity

“”Serendipity,”” which stars John Cusack and “”Pearl Harbor””‘s Kate Beckinsale as star-crossed lovers chained to the whims of fate, exists solely in the saccharine-sweet fabrication of Manhattan reserved for romantic films like “”An Affair to Remember,”” “”Breakfast at Tiffany’s,”” or even “”When Harry Met Sally.””

As expected, the ideal date picture enchants, but in unconventional ways, as various “”new age”” detours addressing destiny and soulmates, as well as a jazzy soundtrack of original tunes by Alan Silvestri, make the familiar material seem lively and original.In a crowded Manhattan department store, Jonathan (Cusack) and Sara (Beckinsale) meet over a pair of gloves they both intend to buy for their significant others. The mixup leads to coffee and conversation, but since they’re both involved, they reluctantly part ways. To be safe, though, the superstitious Sara conducts two tests, writing her name and phone number on the inside cover of a book while having Jonathan do the same to a five dollar bill. She then explains that if either of them should find the book or bill, they’ll know they’re relationship is meant to be.Fast forward what we’re told is a “”few years”” later. We assume the book and the bill have gone undiscovered, as Jonathan and Sara are both set to marry different people, though neither of them seems to have forgotten the magical evening they spent together. In a last ditch effort to find his true love, Jonathan recruits best friend Dean (Jeremy Piven) to help him find Sara, just as she hops a plane with her friend Eve (Molly Shannon) bound for the Big Apple and what she hopes will be her soulmate’s arms.With a tender blend of self-effacing sarcasm and sentiment, as well as a “”lovers on opposite coasts”” subplot, “”Serendipity”” draws comparisons to Nora Ephron’s “”Sleepless in Seattle.”” But Peter Chelsom’s wistful romance embarks down a different path, actively pursuing the requisite coincidences that typically drive such fare instead of merely relying on them. Sara would refer to them as “”twists of fate,”” though we call them plot devices, and they move Cusack’s fruitless search for Sara along all-too-smoothly. The last one, involving a jacket left on a park bench, is a doozy, but completey acceptable in the context of the film. While Cusack continues to prove he can regurgitate fluff like this in his sleep, it’s Beckinsale who confirms she’s capable of carrying a picture that’s not bogged down with B-52 bombers and Ben Affleck. In all, “”Serendipity”” spins some magical moments from its leads’ natural charms, though they’re all-to-often left holding the bag as the delightful supporting cast of Shannon, Piven and an acerbic Eugene Levy run away with the show.Grade: B-By Sean O’ConnellOct. 5, 2001

SCARY MOVIE II – By Sean O’Connell

Last summer, the Wayans brothers snuck their witless horror spoof “”Scary Movie”” into theaters in the shadow of studio blockbusters like “”The Patriot”” and “”The Perfect Storm.”” To the dismay of analysts, critics and executives, the little comedy that could broke box office records and entertained audiences with gross out jokes that would gaga Farrelly brother.

After the first “”Scary Movie”” converted its $19M budget to a whopping $156.9M gross, Dimension Studios fell over themselves in an effort to crank out the sequel. Having skewered the teen horror genre made popular by Wes Craven’s “”Scream,”” which itself was a spoof of horror flicks, the Wayans needed a new target. They reportedlyspent months locked up in hotel rooms watching everything from “”The Exorcist”” to “”Charlie’s Angels”” in a no-holds-barred quest for material. Cindy Campbell (Anna Faris), “”Shorty”” Meeks (Marlon Wayans) and Ray Maker (Shawn Wayans) all return. It’s years after the massacre of the first movie, and the three misfits attend Thomas Jefferson University, the setup for acheap joke. Not sure whether it’s borrowing from “”The Haunting”” or “”The House on Haunted Hill,”” “”Scary II”” signs the three up for an experiment run by an underhanded professor (Tim Curry) to spend the weekend in a mysterious castle. Joined by the typical assortment of babes, boneheads and handicapped assistants, the volunteers bumble through dozens of gags that alternately work (a “”Rocky””-style fight between Faris and a black cat) and fall flat on theirfaces (a never-ending hand joke that involves the painfully unfunny Chris Elliott). Dimension’s first mistake occurred when they saddled the unfilmed production with a July 4 release date, forcing the Wayans’ to cut corners to nail the deadline. “”Scary Movie II”” opens practically one year after the original. It shows. With no hint of rhyme nor reason, the comedy skates by on an anorexic setup, transparent spoofs and dull gags. Hints of intelligence or originality that surfaced in the first film are buried under waves of vomit jokes, mounds of poop references and the haze of marijuana smoke that emits from Marlon Wayans’ character. Faris brings nothing new to her character, a bizarre blend of every horror heroine from Heather Langenkamp to Jennifer Love Hewitt. She’s the living setup for every crass joke, and she does it all with her mouth constantly ajar. It’s bizarre. Press notes list Kathleen Robertson’s character as Jamie Lee Curtisto, a funny joke despite the fact that her name is never mentioned in the actual film. The acting in general hovers around “”90210″” level, which is appropriate because the film casts the wooden Tori Spelling in a purposeless role. And James Woods, in a role reserved for Marlon Brando, completely humiliates himself. We now know why Brando bailed out with a cryptic “”illness.”” As a director, Keenan Ivory Wayans does have chops. He accurately copies the likes of John Woo, George Lucas and Alfred Hitchcock. When necessary, his camera pans and zooms like he’s directing a stylish action flick, and his pace is lively. If he can avoid tossing in a bathroom joke every 15 seconds, he might crank out a suitable follow up to “”A Low Down Dirty Shame.”” However, that might be the most we have to look forward to.Final Grade: D

American Pie 2 Pie for the Course– Reviewed by Ken Rosenberg

With its palatable blend of hormonal teens, bawdy gags and screwball antics, 1998’s “”American Pie”” went down easily enough; a surprise hit, it finished north of the $100 million mark and earned bucketloads of cash for its makers. So a sequel was inevitable. To the surprise of no one, “”American Pie 2″” reheats the same combination of ingredients, ratcheting up the raunch factor a notch with a non-stop barrage of outrageous hijinks reminiscent of “”Road Trip.””

The entire likable, enthusiastic ensemble cast from the original “”Pie”” returns here, shaking and baking under the helm of head pastry chef J.B. Rogers, the former Farrelly Brothers assistant director whose over-the-top first feature, “”Say It Isn’t So,”” flopped earlier this year. While this confection is in no danger of being mistaken for a main course, it packs just enough empty calories to add up to a guilty pleasure.