The summer in review: Vol. 2

According to the calendar above my desk, summer technically lasts about 13 weeks. Which is why my tally of 15 summer movies viewed is either an impressive achievement or a depressing statistic, depending on how you look at it.

Nevertheless, my goal to review those 15 films in three weeks will not be deterred by the technicality that summer will officially be over the day after this issue goes to print. Look for the final installment (as in, final five films) next week.


It is encouraging to see that a rich, ensemble drama dealing with a “hot button” issue can sustain one of the longest runs at the box office during a summer movie season. Considering its content and rating, one might expect a film like this to go the way of other ensemble “message” films by either heading straight to video or polarizing critics and audiences.

But writer/director Paul Haggis (who adapted last year’s “Million Dollar Baby” script to Oscar gold) manages to strike a specific nerve with his daring, if occasionally overly earnest film. A multi-cultural cast of Los Angeles-dwellers are played masterfully without exception by marquee names (Brendan Fraser, Sandra Bullock), respected favorites (Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon) and up-and-comers (Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton), as well as some surprising efforts by actors somewhat new to the genre (rapper Ludacris, Ryan Phillipe and Tony Danza ... yes, Tony Danza).

The “issue” is race, and the interweaving lives of the film’s characters tackle it head-on, blessed with a strong script that mixes plausible dialogue with Haggis’ unique poetry (see Cheadle’s opening speech about car accidents in L.A.). While each character’s story is compelling not all reach a satisfying resolution, which is probably Haggis’ intention. The most resonating of these, however, is in Michael Pena’s Daniel, a hardworking Hispanic father who, as the film’s moral guide, emits a silent scream at one point that epitomizes the audience’s frustration over the truth “Crash” tells us about ourselves. Grade: A—; out on DVD now (rated R).

‘Mr. And Mrs. Smith’

First impressions of this Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie action vehicle were quite cringe-worthy, I have to admit. The trailer led me to believe the film would be a sad attempt to rehash the domestic tensions of “War of the Roses” mixed with the action and sex appeal of a James Bond film (that and all of the tabloid “Brangelina” gossip indicated a “Gigli”-like debacle).

However, a closer look should have shed a more favorable light on the project. Its director, Doug Liman, helmed the witty classic “Swingers” as well as the action smash “The Bourne Identity.” As for Pitt and Jolie, for every “Troy” and “Tomb Raider” between them, there is also a bevy of interesting and mold-breaking choices like “12 Monkeys” or “Girl Interrupted”. It turns out, the “Smiths” thrilled and entertained like no other movie this summer.

The movie transcends its stars’ off-screen rumors as well as its simple premise (an average married couple are both trained assassins, unbeknownst to each other). While Pitt and Jolie’s chemistry is undeniable, what is more impressive is Liman’s deft maneuvering between clever, dialogue-driven comedy and heart-stopping fight sequences (Pitt particularly surprises with his comedic skills, holding his own with a hilarious Vince Vaughn who cameos).

It turns out, “War of the Roses” meets James Bond isn’t such a bad analogy after all. Grade: A; in select theaters, on DVD Nov. 29 (rated PG-13).

‘Batman Begins’

Not being very familiar with the source material for “Batman” (as in, comic books), my impression of the Dark Knight has been shaped by a campy ‘60s TV series starring Adam West and by Tim Burton’s masterful and Joel Schumacher’s abysmal film revivals in the ‘90s. Thankfully, Christopher Nolan (“Memento”) has resurrected the character in this origin tale that, while lacking Burton’s style and the fun of superhero colleague “Spiderman”, has invigorated the franchise with a comic book hero that’s downright believable.

The best sequences of “Batman Begins” take place before Bruce Wayne (a well-cast Christian Bale) ever dons a cape and cowl. His progression from traumatized youth to angry young wanderer is endlessly fascinating. What’s more, we can finally see a Gotham City that is truly eroding, but nonetheless worth saving (as idealized by Wayne’s father in flashbacks). By giving us a long sequence of Wayne’s training with a Tibetan ninja clan, Nolan allows us to understand more about Batman’s psychie as we watch him slowly develop a philosophy.

Once those pointy ears are on, however, the surreal comic-book origins begin to betray the gritty realism Nolan is hoping for. It’s still difficult to believe that Wayne, aided only by his butler Alfred (Michael Caine, to the “manor” born) and Morgan Freeman’s inventor, can produce and build all of his gadgets and bat-cave gizmos (a phenomenon we were willing to forgive in Burton’s stylized efforts). Also, considering how fun it was to see Bale make Wayne an irresponsible playboy to help shield his identity (unlike previous Waynes who did nothing to distinguish the hero and his alter ego) why does he ultimately reveal that identity to love interest and district attorney Rachel (a much-too-young Katie Holmes)?

Perhaps that is a complaint for the comic book writers, however, since the movie is based loosely on Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and other modern retellings. As I mentioned, I wouldn’t know. Grade: B+; out on DVD Oct. 18 (rated PG-13).

‘Cinderella Man’

It’s unfortunate if star Russell Crowe’s brutish behavior in a New York hotel lobby contributed to the disappointing box office returns for Ron Howard’s Depression-era boxing fable. Sure, one can understand if audiences’ taste for Crowe were soured by the reports that he struck a concierge with a telephone (an incident for which he recently settled out of court), but it’s a shame if Crowe’s real-life brawls turned moviegoers off to his fictional ones as non-fictional boxer Jim Braddock in the stirring sports drama “Cinderella Man.”

It may be that the public has had its fill of inspiring true-story athletic movies in recent years starting with “Seabiscuit” two years ago, to “Friday Night Lights” last year, to the (loosely-based) Oscar-winning “Million Dollar Baby.” The low turnout certainly couldn’t be for lack of star power, with full-bodied performances from Crowe, Renee Zellweger (playing Mrs. Braddock with more palpable fear and resilience than “Rocky’s” Adrian) and Paul Giamatti (who gives Braddock’s zippy manager the same depth and complexity he invests in every role). In addition, the film offers ample opportunity for smaller players to shine, as is the case with Paddy Considine as a down-on-his luck layman and Craig Bierko as the vicious scene-stealing champ Max Baer.

Howard tells Braddock’s tale with the same master’s stroke he lent “Apollo 13”, another true story with an ending most audience members already knew. His skill lies in never telegraphing the resolution everyone suspects is coming. Instead, we are given every reason to believe that a happy ending is actually quite unlikely, in this case due to some disturbing video footage Braddock views of Baer literally killing another fighter in the ring. And Crowe, for all his personal demons, sells the story best by giving a better representation of humanity than we have come to expect from our larger-than-life stars. It’s really too bad if this powerhouse of a film was floored by the TKO of its star’s personal life. Grade: A; out of DVD Dec. 6 (rated PG-13).

‘War of the Worlds’

I didn’t want to do it, but I’m afraid I have to jump on the “I’m sick of Tom Cruise” bandwagon. My beef with the diminutive dynamo has nothing to do with his Katie canoodling, Shields-slamming personal life, however. Rather, I’m sick of Tom Cruise in the movies. Or more accurately, Tom Cruise in movies he has the clout to star in but shouldn’t. “War of the Worlds”, a big budget remake of H.G. Wells classic novel, is a well-made film with one major flaw: its star.

Steven Spielberg, the man who made aliens so endearing and even adorable in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.”, is just as skilled at making them menacing and blood thirsty (literally). The special effects are second-to-none in “Worlds” and serve their purpose rather than being showy for the sake of “oohs and ahs.” And give Spielberg credit for his continued ability to keep the focus of his large-scale films small, giving us one family’s perspective of the surprise attack on Earth, rather than images of military leaders around a large table or iconic monuments being obliterated. Finally, you have to appreciate the director’s less-than-subtle ironic imagery, like a mundane street sign isolated in the foreground of abject devastation.

But in casting Cruise as a deadbeat dad who wins back his kids’ love by saving their lives, the movie falters. It’s difficult to buy Cruise as a blue-collar dockworker, let alone a man who has trouble showing emotion. The star is best when playing heightened characters with little to say (as in “Mission: Impossible” or Spielberg’s “Minority Report”) or when portraying hustlers, scammers and salesmen who use the flashy smile and playboy swagger that serves Cruise so well in Hollywood (“Jerry Maguire”, “Magnolia”, “Rain Man”, “The Color of Money” - the list goes on and on). When his character is similar to our perception of him, Cruise’s vulnerability and even his humanity can be powerful. But a science fiction movie like “War of the Worlds” would have been better served with someone like Gary Sinise, Viggo Mortensen or Russell Crowe who know how to give us believable, withdrawn heroes. In a film where that hero doesn’t even ultimately “save the day” (remember, it’s SCIENCE fiction), a mega-star like Cruise is superfluous anyway. Well, at least they didn’t put his face on the poster. Grade: B; in select theaters now (rated PG-13).

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