Friday, June 25, 2004

'The Terminal'

—Originally published 6.25.04

Steven Spielberg plays it too safe to be my favorite director, but he is certainly the master of balancing artistic filmmaking with a mass-audience-pleasing product.

Never is this more evident than "The Terminal," a laugh-out-loud yet touching film that, like most Spielberg outings, wraps up a little too nicely.

Tom Hanks, the best mega-star actor in the business, is his usual brilliant self in the starring role as Victor Navorski, an Eastern European whose fictional home country undergoes a military coup during his trip across the Atlantic.

The uprising leaves Navorski without a country and, because of a loophole in our nation's laws, he is stuck in the neither-here-nor-there region of New York's JFK airport, better known as the International Transit Lounge.

The movie follows Navorski as he struggles to survive in the terminal -- a man with no country, no money and no English. He takes up residence in a section of the airport set for renovation, makes money doing odd jobs like returning carts and construction, and so on.

As if the odds against him aren't stacked high enough, Navorski also must endure Homeland Security Acting Field Commissioner Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci). As a man who wants everything in his airport to be just so, Navorski is naturally a gigantic fly in the obsessive-compulsive ointment. Dixon goes to great lengths to get Navorski out of his way, using deception, intimidation, blackmail -- whatever it takes.

So we watch Navorski as he begins to cope with his surroundings -- learning to read by comparing his native New York City tourism guide with an English version, washing up in the men's restroom, trying to earn food money by retrieving carts and performing odd jobs.

Along the way he meets all sorts of odd characters who, although they have a place to call home, still seem as stranded in their lives as Navorski is in the terminal. Enter Catherine Zeta-Jones, stunning as always, as a troubled United Airlines flight attendant whom Navorski befriends and eventually falls in love with during his year-long stay in the airport. There's also Enrique (Diego Luna), who stocks the planes with food but enlists Navorski in a plot to win the heart of an immigration officer. Or there's the illegal immigrant janitor hiding from the law in plain sight; he thinks Navorski is an undercover C.I.A. agent come to get him.

All of these supporting characters are well-developed; however, all we know about the stranded European is his desire to reach a certain hotel in New York City. As the movie unfolds, we learn the purpose for his trip to the Big Apple, but little else.

This lack of development is the film's greatest failure. Its two most prominent characters, Navorski and Dixon, are polar opposites, yet we have no idea why the European is so excessively nice and Dixon is so excessively cruel. I guess we're just supposed to accept this as a necessary source of conflict and move on, but it prevents "The Terminal" from becoming a truly great film.

The film sports Spielberg's trademark class, charm and fluidity and Hanks is a pleasure to watch, as always -- his mere presence elevates this movie from merely watchable to exceedingly entertaining. That is, of course, if you're able to enjoy "The Terminal" for what it is: A well-crafted piece of filmmaking with a big heart, lots of laughs and quality performances, but little lasting impact.

Grade: B+

Friday, June 18, 2004

Stay away from 'Stepford'

—Originally published 6.18.04

Neither funny or compelling, "The Stepford Wives" fails on almost every level.

I love a good dark comedy, but this is one of the dullest I've ever seen. When I check my watch more times than I laugh, you know things aren't going so well.

Nicole Kidman, an excellent dramatic actress, borders on pathetic in her "comedic" turn as Joanna Eberhard, a television executive fired in the opening minutes of the film for pushing the reality envelope a little too far. She suffers a nervous breakdown which leads her husband, Walter Kresby (Matthew Broderick), to quit his job at the network and move the family out of the big city and into Stepford, Conn. -- apparently home to every suburban cliché known to man.

Stepford is populated by mediocre men with "perfect" wives -- a little too perfect, as it turns out. The women of Stepford have microchips implanted in their brains which transforms them into their husband's "dream wife": Beautiful, sex-crazed, keep-the-house-spotless types whose only job is catering to their mates' whims.

As a suburban kid with a homemaking mother, this movie turned me off completely. It takes the typical big-city attitude that a woman's only validation is through building a professional career. All of the Stepford wives were former big-shots: CEOs, judges, etc. Now, they're just housewives -- how horrible!

Call me old-fashioned if you want, but in a society where more and more kids come home from school to empty houses, women who sacrifice their own careers to stay home and raise their children should be celebrated, not vilified. And it's not just a gender thing -- I would gladly stay home with the kids, given the option and financial security.

"Stepford Wives" also delves deeply into the tired cliché of "looks aren't everything," but I find it hard to swallow such a message from a film starring Kidman. She is Hollywood's ultimate porcelain doll, with 18 thousand stylists prepping her every move; preaching to me about how men should look deeper than superficial beauty drips with hypocrisy here.

The only redeemable insights from "Stepford Wives" involve its portrayal of men. As a whole, we are, in fact, a disreputable bunch -- I don't understand why women put up with us at all, really. The men of Stepford are pathetic schlubs, jealous of their wives' successes to the point of mental illness. They hole up in a giant clubhouse and whittle away the hours smoking cigars and playing with remote control robots (besides their wives). Welcome to male paradise, ladies -- "Stepford Wives" pulls away the curtain.

The film features decent performances from Glenn Close, Bette Midler and the always-welcome Christopher Walken. But the script is so boring, the stereotypes so typical and the jokes so lame, the actors' talents are essentially squandered.

If you want a film that seriously examines a woman's struggle for a satisfying life, go rent "Far From Heaven." If you want a dark comedy that is funny and poignant in its examination of suburbia, watch "Pleasantville" again.

Either way, forget the "Wives."

Grade: D+

Friday, June 11, 2004

Blockbusters aren't what they used to be

—Originally published 6.11.04

"Shrek 2" earned $314.5 million in 19 days -- certainly an achievement worth noting. So is, I guess, the $128.4 million taken in by "The Day After Tomorrow" in 10 days, or last weekend's box-office winner, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," which hit $93.7 million -- the third-best opening weekend ever.

It's easy to be dazzled by box-office receipts like these. I was surprised by "Shrek 2's" opening weekend of $108 million; the film is funny and well-done, sure, but I drastically underestimated how popular it would be with the general public. I was stunned, however, with its only slight drop over Memorial Day weekend, taking in another $95.6 million.

The last three weekends have the movie industry giddy with joy, but let's not lose our heads here. These are impressive figures, certainly, but we're not talking about my father's summer blockbusters.

When it comes to ranking the biggest hot-weather smashes of all time, numbers do lie.

You think "Shrek 2's" $300 million three-week haul is extraordinary? Try this figure on for size: $800 million.

That's the total for "Jaws" USA TODAY came up with two years ago in a piece that adjusted box-office numbers from previous summer blockbusters into current dollars. If it had been released in the 21st century instead of 1975, Steven Spielberg's $260 million breakout hit would have finished its run with a whopping $800 million.

And even that figure pales in comparison to 1939's "Gone With the Wind," which has an estimated adjusted gross of $1.2 BILLION, according to (The film's actual gross, which included several re-releases, was $198.6 million.)

The rest of Mojo's adjusted top 10 goes like this:

2. "Star Wars" (1977), $1.07 billion

3. "The Sound of Music" (1965), $858.8 million

4. "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), $855.4 million

5. "The Ten Commandments" (1956), $789.9 million

6. "Titanic" (1997), $779.1 million (currently the actual box-office champ at $600.7 million)

7. "Jaws" (1975), $772.3 million

8. "Doctor Zhivago" (1965), $748.5 million

9. "The Exorcist" (1973), $666.7 million (scary, huh?)

10. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), $657.3 million

Don't be fooled into thinking something really special happens each time a box-office "record" falls (just wait for the frenzy that follows "Spider-Man 2's" opening weekend receipts when it hits June 30). All-time box-office figures grow less and less meaningful by the weekend; comparing films of the last 15 years with the rest of the lot is like comparing apples to oranges.

Of the 19 films in history that made $300 million or more in their initial runs, only one -- "E.T." -- came out before 1990. Of the 54 films that brought in more than $200 million, just 10 were released prior to 1990.

Much has changed about the way movies are brought to the public during the last 30 years. Compare, for example, "Jaws" with "Shrek 2": "Jaws" opened June 22, 1975, on 409 screens, while the "Shrek" sequel set a record by debuting last month on more than 4,100 screens. The Regal Exchange 20 in Augusta had six showings alone, running every half-hour all day long.

Combine availability with higher ticket prices and an intense, expansive marketing campaign for the Big Green Ogre, and "Shrek 2" was as close to a sure thing as there is in Hollywood. ( "Jaws" and "Shrek 2" do have at least one trait in common, however -- great word-of-mouth.)

This weekend the third installment in the "Harry Potter" series is also a lock to cross the $100 million mark, currently the industry's standard for "blockbuster" status. "Azkaban" will be the 306th film to reach the $100 million plateau; the Spidey sequel will certainly become No. 307. The latter are definitely blockbusters, but when two middling action flicks like "Van Helsing" and "Troy" qualify, too, it's time to up the ante.

Now if "Spider-Man 2" goes on to make a billion dollars, that would really be something.

-- Box office totals and release dates taken from The Internet Movie Database,, and Box Office Mojo,

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Darker 'Potter' yields brighter results

—Originally published 6.11.04

In an attempt at full disclosure, I am a Muggle through and through. I haven't read a single page from any of the five "Harry Potter" books, nor do I really care to.

Nevertheless, a movie based on a book should be able to stand on its own two legs (as in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings"). I have now seen all three movies in the Potter series and the most recent "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," is the first watchable installment.

The die-hards may grumble "Azkaban" leaves out too much of J.K. Rowling's text (from what I gather, there's A LOT missing), but for the five of us who haven't read these books, the dramatic changes in both look and feel from volumes 1 and 2 are welcome.

Credit all of this to new director Alfonso Cuaron, who takes Harry and his wizardly friends in a radical new direction. "Azkaban" is better than the first two films in the series combined; Christopher Columbus, who directed those movies, should never be allowed back into this universe.

Columbus seemed bereft of any style whatsoever as he tried to jam every tidbit of Rowling's novels into his movies. Instead of rushing from plot point to plot point, Cuaron burns away the background and allows scenes that make the cut to actually live and breathe. The story gets a little confusing at times, but I'll take that over Columbus' kitchen-sink mentality.

Maybe it's simply a maturation process, but the entire cast seems to have swallowed some magic acting pills or something. Just about everyone is better this time around, most notably a much older-looking Daniel Radcliffe in the title role and Emma Watson as his friendly companion Hermione Granger.

At the beginning of No. 3, we once again greet Harry, now 13 years old, in his Mugglish aunt and uncle's home where he's struggling to deal with life sans magic. Fed up with his legal guardians' overbearing behavior and downright cruelty, Harry leaves early for the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizadry.

But before he arrives, he has a frightful encounter with the Dementers. These nasty creatures (reminiscent of the Black Riders from "The Lord of the Rings") are searching high and low for Sirius Black (Gary Oldman, in an excellent performance), an evil wizard accused in aiding the murder of Harry's parents. He recently escaped from Azkaban Prison and now he's out to finish the job and kill Harry.

Thus "Azkaban" slips into darker waters, and the film is all the better for it. The kids who started reading Harry Potter books several years ago should definitely be old enough to handle the scares by now, and the story's added dramatic weight makes this movie much more palatable for adults -- or anyone looking for a decent time at the movies.

The first two films in this series made scads of money and were wildly popular with children, but they still stunk. By comparison, "Azkaban" may look better to critics than it probably is. As a Muggle, I'm growing tired of what are apparently required scenes in each novel/film: Quidditch matches, school lessons and the bratty young wizard Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) being, well, bratty and getting away with it. Harry's friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) is one of the most annoying characters I've ever seen, and if he says "bloody hell!" more than once in the next film, screenwriter Steve Kloves should also be banished from this world of wizardry.

Still, for at least one installment Cuaron brought this series out of the doldrums and it's a shame he isn't at the helm of No. 4, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," due in November 2005. Instead, we get Mike Newell, whose checkered history includes some goodies like "Donnie Brasco" and "Pushing Tin," but also bombs like last year's "Mona Lisa Smile." About the only director out there who could match Cuaron's mix of artistic vision and childlike sensibilities is Tim Burton, but I'd be surprised if he gets a shot at Nos. 5, 6 or 7.

Oh well, we'll always have "Azkaban."

Grade: B+