Capsule Reviews
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21 GRAMS/ (R)
Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro star as both victims and culprits in a twisted game of life and death who will all find their ways towards one another as they seek answers. A puzzle film in the spirit of "Memento" and "Mulholland Drive," the film tiptoes around essential plot specifics for a good half hour. But once the goals are revealed, the movie absorbs us in every basic way--it's brilliantly offbeat and dramatic and flawless in its delivery. This is the kind of movie you watch to be reminded of the promise of great cinema.

Spike Lee examines the lives of a select few wanderers whose lives are reshaped or re-examined by the disasters of September 11 in New York City. Edward Norton provides the director with his outlet of anger and injustice, and the movie's verbal lashes at society and culture are startlingly realistic, a cry of bravery that might have been heard long before had the American public not been told to keep up a happy charade following the World Trade Center disasters.

The brilliant British film that won critical praise overseas only months before finally arrives in North American cinemas. A two-hour tension-filled roller coaster, this unsettling tale about global chaos erupting after the outbreak of a deadly blood disease is horror at its most effective, in which scares don't just exist but gradually manifest themselves in a reality much like ours. The characters are also very well drawn and provide good contrast to the movie's crop of villains, which come in more forms than just typical flesh-eating zombies.

The latest collaboration between director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman is nearly as brilliant as their "Being John Malkovich." In the rarely-emphasized "movie-within-a-movie" approach, Nicholas Cage plays Kaufman following the filming of "Malkovich," as he struggles desperately to adapt the bestselling book "The Wild Orchid" into a successful screenplay. Needless to say, his result is "Adaptation," a film about the making of itself.

Adam Sandler stars as a business man with major social flaws who is accused of losing his temper on an airplane and is sentenced to take anger management classes. His instructor: an obnoxious creep played by Jack Nicholson, who is more obviously disturbed than even the most enraged pupil of one of his courses. Not very funny and extremely ill-conceived, but the film does contain a moment on a freeway that left me cackling for a few seconds.

Two friends (one played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) decide to embark on a singles cruise to jumpstart their dormant libidos. One problem: the cruise they go on just happens to be filled with horny gay men. So bad it makes you feel like you're being imprisoned in your theater seat.

Michael Moore's courageous and startling document of the American obsession with violence ruffles more than a few feathers, but not just because the director's stance is generally antigun. Facts, opinions, circumstances and coincidences are exposed during the two-hour running time like a government conspiracy file surfacing for the first time, and though we don't always agree with messages, approaches or even specific scene inclusions, it's hard not to walk away without wanting to discuss the issues further. Now that is what documentary filmmaking should be about!

Steve Martin and his fellow cast members find themselves in a cliched plot contraption that encourages them to act like hip black people, if only perhaps to make Queen Latifah's obvious stand-out to appear less so. A comedy with good intentions, but its formula and by-the-book structure is simply exhausted, and the jokes are never very funny.

Jim Carrey has been given the powers of God. Yeah right. Then he decides to use them to remove the bad luck from both his personal and professional lives. Yeah right again. Much later, however, he realizes that his life was pretty much easy compared to so many others, and that half of his decisions were so vane that they wound up creating more problems instead of solving them. Gimme a break.

The longest lingerie commercial ever made, "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" is a sequel so bad that it almost makes its appalling predecessor seem tame in comparison. Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz are victims in this travesty of misjudgment; they are playing heroines who seem to care more about how they look while kicking someone's butt instead of the actually butt-kicking itself. To top it all off, the movie even features Demi Moore in its mix, which should have been the first sign that it was doomed to failure.

First-time director Rob Marshall undertakes the task of converting the Bob Fosse stage show into a movie musical, but his efforts, alas, don't add up to much. "Chicago" is shrouded in annoyance, bland delivery and an unnerving sense of claustrophobia, and of the major actors featured in the ensemble cast, only Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah emerge as remotely plausible. One of the most overrated Oscar contenders of our time.

THE CORE / (PG-13)
The most cheerfully absurd disaster film in recent memory utilizes all sorts of spectacles and goes places that few other films in the genre has (specifically, in this case, to the Earth's very own core), but its reward factor is generally numbed by the fact that Earth's interior really isn't that spectacular in the visual sense. A lot of admirable talent went into concocting this script, but it could have been better.

Eddie Murphy's decent into cinema hell continues with this very unpleasant comedy about laid off fathers who decide to start their own career caring for other peoples' children (never mind the fact that they can barely manage their own toddlers). The result is more like nap time than anything else, and the various gimmicks the story emplores in order to garner laughs fall flat virtually every time. Try harder next time, Murphy; at least this wasn't as bad as "The Adventures of Pluto Nash."

Fashioned from a relatively low-key comic book saga, "Daredevil" sees Ben Affleck undertake the role of a blind superhero whose other senses experienced heightened sensitivity after the accident that rendered his eyesight useless. On his obligatory crime-fighting voyage, he meets the dashing Elektra, uncovers the plot of the Kingpin, and even matches wits with the dangerous Bulls-Eye. Not the best of the comic book adaptations, but enjoyable, true to form, and compelling in several ways regardless.

This stellar cop drama is set against the horrendous backdrop of the early 1990s Los Angeles, just mere breaths away from the reading of the Rodney King verdict and the street riots that followed. The movie is never quite about events, but interior motives. Kurt Russell is amazingly effective as a cop whose hatred for others compromises his integrity, and the movie surrounds him with supporting players who all share a level of corruption within the legal system. One of the year's best movies so far.

Tooth fairies aren't scary or even remotely unnerving, but the makers of "Darkness Falls" try their darndest to remedy that situation. Rather than developing any kind of deep psychological agenda with this premise, though, they simply cave into conventional horror by throwing lots of loud and swift sequences of action at us. Needless to say, little of it is scary or amusing.

The latest screen adaptation of a populat Stephen King horror novel revolves around four friends, who find a man lost in the woods, bring him to their cabin, and realize their mistake when it turns out he is harvesting something deadly inside him. How in the world this idea can splinter into so many directions, I dunno--the movie utilizes alien invasion, bloodthirsty creatures, possession, military conspiracies and deadly viral outbreaks without the slightest regard to relevance or purpose. The movie starts off promisingly, but splinters into utter madness. In the end, the fact that there's any kind of conclusion to all this lunacy is shocking.

A prequel to the Farrelly brothers comedy stars two relatively-unknown actors in the roles made famous by Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. Bad sign. But then the movie does even more unspeakable things than we expect and manages to emerge as one of the most unfunny and useless excercises in comedy we will ever see. Is it a wonder no one from the original film wanted to return this time around?

Julianne Moore is marvelous in Todd Haynes' much-hyped 1950s social and family drama, as a woman who has no love life but then starts having feelings for the local black gardner, who gives her the attention that her husband is incapable of. The very rich set design and photography are big pluses, but this is basically just "American Beauty" and "The Ice Storm" under the thumbprint of a Douglas Sirk wannabe.

As a general rule of thumb, sequels to mildly successful horror films aren't generally acceptable, but "Final Destination 2" has a perspective in mind plausible enough to garner recognition. This isn't the creepy thrill-ride that its predecessor is, but rather a hilarious and silly excursion through gruesome absurdity that leaves many audience members in intentional hysterics. Worth seeing strictly for its undeniable kitsch value.

The latest Pixar endeavor is among one of the most breathtaking films ever made, a colorful and vibrant pictoral of undersea life that will not so easily be forgotten. The writers supply this visual magic with an equally-effective story about a clown fish who goes in search of his kidnapped son, but there are several moments when the plot is simply a background element in the immense foreground.

Martin Scorcese returns to the visionary brilliance that he has been seperated from with his last few endeavors in "Gangs of New York," a vibrant and compelling period drama that is dark, violent, wrapped in history and played out with dramatic brilliance. Daniel Day Lewis is award-worthy as Bill the Butcher, the leader of the native gang of the Five Points area in New York. DiCaprio emerges as a weak spot at times, but that's okay, because the movie is seldom dull or overstated.

Yes, believe all the negative buzz you have heard--"Gigli" starring Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck is as bad as bad movies come, a deplorable mess in the worst sense. None of the characters emerge as plausible humans, and their situations are so detestably amateurish that it's a wonder anyone with half a brain could have thought they would be plausible on screen. Then again, this is the same director who made "Meet Joe Black" too--in essence, decency is not on his side to begin with.

GRIND/ (PG-13)
When it comes to this rugged excursion into the world of skateboarders and their uphill battle into making it as professionals, viewers must not simply have basic affection for the sport itself, but patience with the film's other elements as well, like a story that takes nearly forever to actually get off the ground and characters who don't begin to reveal themselves until long after the adventure is underway. Much like the ramp that serves as a platform for these kinds of extreme sports participators, this is the kind of movie that is in an uphill battle with itself before it finally finds the courage to soar. By that point, we're not exactly bored or too exhausted to care, but the thrill factor is decidedly thinned and our interest is too minuscule to warrant an enthusiastic reaction.

This insipid and dry comedy about an Indian who ventures into America searching for success and fame is one of the most amateurish movies Hollywood has done in recent years, filled with such clunky scenes like one in which the stars dress in Indian attire while singing to one of the final numbers from "Grease." The modern "Ishtar" in almost too many ways to mention.

Disney has not generally been a studio to leave pleasant surprises for audiences in the form of live action book adaptations, but here they have broken the mold with what is perhaps one of the most interesting and amusing family adventures of the recent past. Louis Sachar's story about a kid whose destiny takes him to the middle of a desert is funny and charming, but also very well structured in terms of plot background. Shia LaBeuof is solid as Stanley Yelnats, a kid whose accident with the law leads him into a gloomy situation that eventually turns him into a much better person, and the supporting players are all well drawn. A winner for both kids and adults.

HULK / (PG-13)
Easily the most character-driven of the recent comic book screen adaptations, Ang Lee's "Hulk" is nonetheless an uneven effort in which the great buildup fails to give us the payoff we deserve. The special effects are admittedly hokey, and the last hour of the film is so stretched and dimwitted that it's a wonder the director is the same guy who did "The Ice Storm" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks play impending in-laws who have to work together in order to ensure that their children's wedding day is an effective one. The problem? Douglas' character is a world-renowned spy who is heavy in espoinage just when he is supposed to helping out his son. This isn't a comedy about colorful families and their dysfunction, as it probably should be, but a spy caper in which the narrative is indecisive and the humor vapid.

Yet another failure for the Coen brothers, this dark romantic comedy starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones is mean-spirited, petty, bizarre and downright cold in the way it tries to provoke laughter. The chemistry between the two stars is intoxicating and creates a likable aura, but the Coens refuse to let that element drive the movie. Thus, it fails.

Cut from the same cloth that every other mindless horror film has come from in the recent years, "Jeepers Creepers 2" is as dumb and appalling as one would expect. Aside from the fact that the idea feels like it was brainstormed in the basement of amateur B-movie directors, there really isn't anything here to be scared about or interested in (other than the fact that the villain at least puts a halt to all the stupid dialogue by eating up the culprits).

One of the more potent documentaries in recent memory, available exclusively on DVD, tells the story of a major man-made flood that destroyed a chain of towns in Pennsylvania in 1889. Narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, the picture is so clogged with facts that you lean forward to absorb them. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of dramatization utilized for the events--scenes of re-enactment that seem useless and lack spirit, and they sometimes happen so repetitively that it interferes with many of the facts.

If the first film wasn't problematic enough, Disney decides to louse up their animated legaciy by unleashing this lackluster and repetitive animated sequel in theaters instead of on video store shelves. In either case, parents are wasting their money here; the movie has no spark, no imagination, and barely has the energy to keep its own characters interested, much less the tykes in the audience.

Edward Zwick directs one of the finest films about the ancient Japanese warriors I have ever seen, a remarkable achievement of flavor and potency that poses moral questions when it could have just easily concerned itself with pure adrenaline. The visual beauty of the film is also quite astonishing, and the sheer depth the script uses with it results in one of the best films of 2003.

The absolute worst of the 2003 summer blockbusters stars Sean Connery as Alan Quartermain, an assassin of sorts who is assigned on a mission with famous story characters like the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde), Dorian Gray and Mina Harker (the heroine of the "Dracula" story). Such an ingenious idea would have worked wonders had there been any sense of logic or amusement in the setup, but alas there is not. The movie is detached in the worst way possible, and there is never a moment when we care about what happens to anyone associated with the heroes. Dreadful.

The third and final installment into the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is a satisfying blend of its two predecessors: beautiful, exciting, dramatic and intelligent down to the finest crevices. Peter Jackson's effort stretches beyond just typical movie blockbuster, too; his work finds the heart and the spirit of its story and is driven purely by those emotions, not special effects or giant explosions (even though there are several of those as well). The best film in the trilogy is still the first, but this a fitting and exhilarating close to the most successful film trilogy of our generaton.

Don't you just love the Looney Tunes? Of course--we all do. But if there's one thing that you CANNOT love about them, it's that moviemakers continue to emplore them in these excercised live action/animation hybrid films that have little payoff other than the fact that they end. "Back in Action" is no different than "Space Jam"--it's long and thin on plot and laughs, and doesn't really inspire any notable emotion other than rolling eyes. There's a reason why these types of combination films don't get made very often.

A writer whose husband is kidnapped by a local drug cartel goes in pursuit of him and meets up with two men who will subsequently change her whole outlook on life. One of them, an older gentleman, is wise beyond his years, and the other, someone who is much younger, temps her sexually in ways she has never experienced before. Though the movie is good in the way it brings her have realizations and experience joy (should she even bother finding her husband now that she's happier without him?), but the movie overall is rather tame and nothing ground-breaking. Wait for video.

Vin Diesel plays an anti-narcotics officer whose recent capture of a famous drug lord results in the demise of his own girlfriend... and the subsequent revenge plot to follow. Unfortunately for the movie, it doesn't make much sense in several of its plot situations; the celluloid is like a giant piece of Swiss cheese, sporadically leaving gaps here and there without the need to explain or justify them.

Easily the worst major Oscar contender in recent memory, a horrendous and muddled mess of a movie that tries to be too many things in far too short a period of time to emerge successfully. None of the characters in this Jack Aubrey sea-faring adventure have much depth, but that could have been passable had the plot enlisted them in something genuinely exciting. But the movie is nothing of the sort--it is dry beyond reason, cold and vague when it shouldn't be and very frustrating on a narrative level.

Nicholas Cage is a con-man who has just found out he has a teenage daughter he's never known, and her arrival throws a monkey wrench into the neat and tidy environment he calls home (not to mention his career as a scam artist). Needless to say, however, this loner eventually learns to be more of a human being with her than with anyone else he has ever been in contact with, and the movie surrounds them (and us) in feelings of greatness and accomplishment. The climax is such a jolt that it almost dislogs the entire emotion, but thankfully it manages to follow through with a fitting solution.

The Wachowski brothers' return to the world of the Matrix is as exciting and intelligent as one could have hoped it to be. Keannu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne all return to the roles they originated, as the last suriving human city of Zion is meeting immediate threat from sentinels of the Matrix of a home invasion and eventual devastation to the human race. The journey they go on to try and combat the system is not just exhilarating on visual levels, but on narrative ones as well; the movie goes great places and delivers satisfying payoffs.

The second sequel in the "Matrix" series is a great companion piece to its predecessors, but as a separate entity falls short of being completely satisfying like the first two films were. Not much in the way of plot or specifics exist here; the essential function of the film is to deliver a two-hour climax, which was set up via the events of "Reloaded." The ending is at least satisfying, but you can't help but wonder if this installment could have given us so much more than what it currently does.

Four strangers are invited to participate in a reality internet show that puts them into an abandoned house in the mountains away from all human contact. The catch? If even one of them leaves, then none of them get the impending prize money. Adopts traits from "The Blair Witch Project" as well as TV's "Big Brother," but the payoff is so implausible and stupid that you wonder why anyone even bothered in the first place.

Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort examines the fragmented lives of three friends who survived a childhood trauma and are now dealing with equally-devastating ones in the present. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins are great in the way they deliver on emotion without seeming overzealous in the effort, and the screenplay has a certain Shakespearean quality about it in the ways it deals with relationships, personal tragedies and sadistic forms of revenge.

The latest gross-out buddy comedy is a return to the tradition of the greats, eyeing itself more on character reactions rather than specific ploys of extreme perversion. Will Ferrell is outwardly brilliant as Frank the Tank, a guy who is so dimwitted he barely remembers his own name half the time. Lots of great isolated scenes as well, such as one involving Andy Dick teaching a class on oral sex. Not overstated or even emphasized by plot, but funny and watchable regardless.

Kevin Costner's lastest excursion is another one of those personal revenge tales he is familiar with, but one that at least draws solid performances and doesn't seem to insult the audience in terms of plot specifics like "The Postman" did. Robert Duvall is the highlight as a fellow loner who offers wisdom and opinion through very witty dialogue, and the scenes in which he and Costner engage in gunplay with enemies who murdered one of their own friends are great in terms of delivering tension.

Joel Schumacher gives us 80 minutes of pure and uncomprimised tension in this brilliant little thriller, in which a sniper lures a hot-shot publicist into a phone booth and holds him there even while surrounding authorities are threatening him for supposedly killing an innocent pedestrian. The setup is brief and taut, but the emotional core of the script is extremely driving; it's like watching events directly on the front lines. Colin Farrell easily gives his best performance to date as the morally-corrupt anti-hero who is about to be given his just-desserts, and there is a special surprise waiting for some of us when the identity of the sniper is revealed. One of 2003's best films.

A family with countless personal problems must put aside the past and come together in the present in this Thanksgiving-day drama starring Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson (among others). April is a woman living in the city detached from her family unit, and she invites them all to her place for the holiday knowing that her mother (Clarkson) has very little time left after her battle against breast cancer. Can differences be put aside and new memories be made? That's the focus of the effective story, although the low-budget digital photography of the film tends to be more of a distraction to the message than a benefactor.

Johnny Depp gives a riot of a performance in this piratey adventure about stolen aztec gold and the curse it has put on those unfortunate pirates who stole it. The goal to remove the curse, alas, reels in two innocent lovers as a result, and a plot of swashbuckling adventure ensues. The movie is exciting and fast-paced, but it's also too long and over-emphasized during crucial action sequences.

Al Pacino plays a CIA recruiter who has acquired a young and talented computer expert played by Colin Farrel for Central Intelligence training. But who what purpose, we ask? The movie doesn't have much of a clue about anything, other than telling us that "everything is a test," throwing characters into sticky situations and then yanking out the rug from underneath us like it's some sort of colossal surprise. Boring, confusing, and infuriating.

The first film adaptation of a John Grisham novel that I can recall admiring. John Cusack and Rachel Weisz star as people whose involvement in a firearm trial's jury reveals secret vendettas, but their efforts may or may not be comprimised when a powerful tycoon behind the prosecution (played by Gene Hackman) seems to have his own personal goals in mind as well. A war of the wits and ethics are put to the test in this constantly-exciting legal thriller.

The sick and twisted struggle for power that goes on in this bizarre endeavor leaves viewers with some of the most strange facial expressions you would ever expect to see; even scarier, watching viewers form these mutated looks is perhaps greater, more amusing and plausible than anything the movie itself has to offer. Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal in a "breakout" performance, the film is laced so severely with sexual tension and S&M innuendo that it lacks all sense of satisfaction. Save your money or go rent a porn.

The follow-up to "Shanghai Noon" starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson take their wisecracking sidekick characters onto British turf, where a plot to murder the English royal family has a mysterious link to the death of Chan's own father back in China. Good comic timing for characters who have the attention span of drywall, but not spectacular by any stretch.

The biopic about Stephen Glass, a journalist who fabricated many of his articles in The New Republic back in the late 1990s, is basically just a solid and mild character study with some great performances, hardly the earth-shattering achievement so many procclaim it to be. Peter Saarsgard is solid as an editor who is just about to uncover his most popular writer's damaging secret, while Hayden Christensen's performance as the likable and persuasive Glass compliments the equation.

Another one of these half-hearted feature cartoons from Dreamworks, "Sinbad" arrives at a time when the industry is gratified by the mere presence of "Finding Nemo," easily one of the most beautiful and effective animated films we've seen in years. Though that doesn'tindicate the quality of the former product, it shouldn't be a matter of concern for anyone regardless; the movie is very tame in both narrative and characters, and the animation styles are so drastically different between background and foreground that it's almost like watching two different versions of the same film layed ontop of each other. Good for kids who need a distraction, but otherwise nothing special.

Bruce Willis is the head of a Special-Ops unit assigned to apprehend an American doctor, two nuns and a priest from the Nigerian jungles, where a group of rebel forces is just about ready to unleash an "ethnic cleansing" on all its innocent civillians. The movie, alas, has no shape or focus beyond what is required of a typical summer blockbuster, and the very notion that we as viewers can accept a group of stone-faced, unflinching and morally fragmented soldiers as heroes is a bit insulting.

As exciting and effective as sequels come, "Terminator 3" returns viewers to a world of time-travel and paradoxes that is seeped with the threat of human extinction. This time, a female Terminator dubbed the "Terminatrix" is sent back to eliminate John Conner and a group of former friends that are to be his colleagues in an eventual uprising against machines, and Schwarzenegger's older Terminator, once again, follows behind in order to keep the most important people alive in order to give mankind a fighting chance. The ending of the film is ironic and shocking but easily one of the most brave moments we have seen from this series.

In a dark futuristic metropolis, classic Hollywood movie monsters are waging a war with each other that creates a sense of havoc and personal dillemma that is unlike anything they have experienced. So does the movie operate on similar wavelengths--it is exciting, fresh and beautiful to behold, a hybrid of "Matrix" production values and "Blade" sentimentality that works on nearly every level it crosses. What a wonderous way to enhance the traditions of movie vampires and werewolves without disregarding their essential functions.

Cate Blanchett stars as real-life Irish journalist Veronica Guerin, who waged a personal war with major drug lords in her country and lost her life as a result. While the movie seems almost too sympathetic with Guerin's plight to seem genuine, the one thing that holds it all together is Blanchett's performance; she disappears into the role as easily as she does in any other movie, and her conviction is persuasive and incessant without seeming overdramatized. The movie might have been great if it had just simply downplayed most of its melodrama.

A remake of the 1971 cult classic, in which a man with no friends and no social skills befriends a basement rat, and soon finds himself the keeper of thousands of ferocious rodents. Starts off promisingly, with a silly but exciting edge, but the movie quickly descends into cold chaos. This isn't mindless or even innocent entertainment, but viscious, mean-spirited and despicable crap. Those expecting otherwise will be sorely angered by what is thrown on the screen.

X2: X-MEN UNITED / (PG-13)
The second installment into the inevitable "X-Men" movie franchise has much more character development and chemistry than the first film, but unfortunately not nearly as much of an excitement factor. That's because the plot holds them in situations that are too nonsensical for their own good, and none of the twists have the kind of quirky dramatic thrust that the comic books depend on. It works, but nowhere near the level it should.

2003, David Keyes,

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