Friday, July 23, 2004

Do movie goofs = gaffes or greatness? You decide

—Originally published 7.23.04

Want to ruin a favorite movie you think is just perfect? Go check out the "goofs" section at The Internet Movie Database. is one of the best sites on the Internet, in any category. It offers every possible answer to the ubiquitous movie-watching question: "What else has that guy been in?" and is an obsessive-compulsive movie fan's dream.

There is no way to go into all the site offers here, because it would just take too long. Plus, I've been visiting for years and still feel like I haven't cracked the surface.

But the "goofs" are particularly fascinating.

One of the first goofs I ever caught was while watching the original "Star Wars" as a kid. During the battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, the Jedi master has all sorts of special-effects trouble with his lightsaber. Until I checked IMDb, I had no idea there are so many other problems.

Take, for instance, what the site calls "the most famous Star Wars goof of all": I never noticed this, but apparently a stormtrooper knocks himself silly while walking under the partially-open door of the room where C-3PO and R2-D2 are hiding in the Death Star.

That is one of more than 70 goofs listed on the "Star Wars" page alone -- everything from the direction the wind blows in different takes to costuming troubles to crew members accidentally winding up in a shot is there for you to marvel or laugh at, or both.

It's really quite amazing to read. I've watched "Star Wars" more times than I can remember and haven't caught more than a handful of the problems listed at IMDb. Don't think I'm just picking on "Star Wars," either.

"The Big Lebowski," another favorite I've watched about 30 times, has 18 goofs listed -- I've caught almost none of them.

You want classics (well, I count "The Big Lebowski" as a classic, but you know what I mean)?

• "The Godfather," a personal favorite rated as IMDb's No. 1 movie of all time: 47 goofs.

• "Casablanca," an unquestionably great film: 18 goofs.

• How about "Citizen Kane," widely regarded as the best movie ever made: 17 goofs.

There is a double point here. First, no movie is perfect, no matter how wonderful or praiseworthy it may be. I never would have believed there were so many problems with "The Godfather" before checking that list. A truly great film moves beyond those minor flubs; a bad film drowns in them.

And second, these goofs don't actually ruin anything. The more minor problems listed, the greater the film must be because people must have watched it many, many times to find all this stuff.

In fact, I may print out the "Star Wars" list and check them off as I watch the movie for the umpteenth time. Sounds like just the right kind of game for an obsessive movie fan like me.

'I, Robot' nice to look at, hollow at its core

—Originally published 7.23.04

Box-office receipts say otherwise, but it's time for Will Smith to find himself a new summer character because he's been playing essentially the same one, oh, forever.

Smith's charming, smart-alecky personality has propped up many an average summer flick, but the act wears out quickly in his new movie, "I, Robot."

Directed by Alex Proyas ("The Crow") and "suggested" by the Isaac Asimov short-story collection (as the end credits tell us), "I, Robot" takes place in 2035, a time when cars drive themselves and don't run on gas, and three beers cost $46.50. The story follows Chicago cop Del Spooner (Smith), an anachronistic techno-phobe who sports leather and Converse All-Stars while struggling to convince the world it's too dependent on machines.

Spooner is a bit of a loose cannon, because everyone else seems to have no trouble with the notion of one robot for every five humans. The character should feel familiar, because it's different in name only from Smith's other moneymaking aliases, including Det. Mike Rowley ("Bad Boys"), Agent Jay ("Men in Black"), Capt. Jim West ("Wild Wild West") and Capt. Steve Hiller ("Independence Day"). Here Smith wisecracks at everything that moves -- humans, robots, cats, whatever -- yells and runs a lot, and little else.

The cop's radar is going full-throttle right from the start, as he's called to investigate the "suicide" of Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), head of the robotics division for parent company USR. Spooner is convinced Lanning's best bot, Sonny (voiced by Alan Tudyk), killed the doctor in direct violation of his programming. With the help of "robot psychiatrist" Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), Spooner spends the rest of the two-hour film trying -- against seemingly insurmountable odds and robots -- to prove his case and save the world from the machines (don't call him Neo).

For all of Smith's pre-release chatter about going "smart" for summer, there is only a marginal difference between "I, Robot" and his other warm-weather flicks, and this one isn't ultimately as satisfying as "Independence Day" or the first "Men in Black". The main question of the movie -- is artificial intelligence a good thing? -- is a good one to ponder, but this film doesn't slow down long enough to really consider it. Instead, the question is ultimately buried beneath an avalanche of vigilante heroics and special effects and then answered in a bit of corny dialogue right before the end.

Yet it's those effects -- as opposed to Big Willie Style -- that save "I, Robot" from the summer garbage bin. Produced by Weta Digital, the wizards behind "The Lord of the Rings," the metalheads and action sequences in "I, Robot" are spectacular, further distancing the New Zealand company from all its competitors -- this is what George Lucas' "Attack of the Clones" should have looked like.

Sonny is a wondrous creation, and even though we know he's computer-generated, the illusion of reality rarely falters. For those who don't care about little things like character development and dialogue, there are several action scenes of note, including Spooner and Calvin tracking Sonny amongst a field of his brethren, and a subterranean car chase in which Spooner's sleek Audi is attacked by a multitude of robots.

But the best action flicks are grounded in humanity and relatable characters; in that respect, Proyas' film never sniffs the territory covered so well by "The Terminator" two decades ago. It's cool to look at, but rarely thrilling.

For a movie that focuses heavily on robots' lack of human emotion, "I, Robot" has little heart of its own.

Grade: C+

Thursday, July 15, 2004

'Kill Bill' lives up to Tarantino's reputation

—Originally published 7.16.04

While they may tell one story, the two volumes of Quentin Tarantino's kung-fu revenge epic "Kill Bill" are entirely different. After watching "Vol. 2" (released in April and now in second-run theaters), it's nearly impossible to imagine cramming the two installments together into one movie -- although, viewing them back-to-back on DVD will be great.

It's equally difficult to pull them apart in terms of criticism, since they are so intimately linked. This story of a female assassin seeking to destroy her former employer's organization is literally split down the middle -- and neither is quite a complete movie standing on its own.

"Vol. 2" has a more traditional feel than last year's "Vol. 1," which was heavy on blood-and-guts samurai-sword-slashing extravagance but light on backstory. It's not until the second volume we really learn about The Bride (Uma Thurman), her nemesis Bill (David Carradine) and the events leading up to this clash of the titans.

Disclosing much about the film's story, though, would ruin the experience for you, so I'll restrain myself. Highlights include a wicked closed-quarters fight between The Bride and former Deadly Viper Assassination Squad colleague Elle (Daryl Hannah) and enthralling scenes of The Bride's early training from master Pai Mei (Chia Hui Liu).

The carnage is toned down for "Vol. 2," but Tarantino's characteristic extreme violence from out of nowhere is still at full throttle. In fact, the pain and suffering dished out in this film actually makes more of an impact because our senses are not dulled by continual bloody punishment. Thus, when Bill's equally sadistic brother Budd (played to creepy fullness by Michael Madsen) buries The Bride alive, the scene is much more gripping than any of the lopped limbs from the first film.

(Insert here the typical warning with any Tarantino film: If you don't want to view extreme acts of violence -- no matter how artfully or wittily filmed -- don't watch any of his movies. They can be disturbing.)

Pulling back on the violence allows the writer/director's beloved main characters -- and the actors who portray them -- to shine in "Vol. 2." Thurman and Carradine should both be considered for next year's Academy Awards with these performances, as their indelible turns create the usual Tarantino conundrum: These are really, really bad people whom you can't help but love on a character level. Don't look for any tidy moral to this story because, outside of a mother's love for her daughter, there really is no morality whatsoever.

Love him or hate him, though, nobody makes films like Quentin Tarantino (not that myriad wannabes haven't tried). His "Kill Bill" duology probably won't go down as a "landmark" piece like 1994's "Pulp Fiction," but that doesn't take anything away from these films; if you can stomach the violence, they comprise a stylish, thrilling, captivating tale.

More than a decade into his filmmaking career, this movie-clerk-turned-auteur hasn't lost a step.

Grade: A (for both parts and the whole)

Friday, July 09, 2004

'Spider-Man 2': Best comic-book adaptation ever

—Originally published 7.9.04

"Spider-Man 2" should be renamed "Peter Parker 2," and credit director Sam Raimi for summoning the guts to make such a notion possible.

This sequel not only surpasses the 2002 original, but flies past with web-slinging leaps and bounds. Raimi and his host of story contributors refuse to placate typical summer action-flick expectations; instead of sinking into the sequel mentality of everything's-gotta-be-bigger-and-badder-than-the-original, the director actually pulls back on the action to let his characters shine through.

Then, when we are fully involved with the human element of their stories, Raimi unleashes his true visual wizardry and we get payoff, after payoff, after payoff through the final half hour, including numerous special-effects shots that put "Spider-Man" to shame.

Tobey Maguire is even better this time around as Peter Parker, now in college struggling to balance school, work and, oh, by the way, fighting crime as his alter-ego, Spider-Man. When we last saw him, our hero had just graduated from high school, defeated the Green Goblin and told the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst, the best comic-book damsel-in-distress since Kim Basinger in 1989's "Batman"), they couldn't be together. (She doesn't know he's Spidey, but Peter knows she never can or face imminent danger.)

The strain of balancing dual identities is becoming too much for Peter, though, manifested in powers that start to fail him. Making matters worse is the new baddie on the scene, Dr. Otto Octavius, played brilliantly by Alfred Molina ("Chocolat"). Octavius is working on a revolutionary new energy source called "fusion," but when a lab experiment goes wrong, he ends up fusing four metal arms to his body and nervous system. The appendages are imbibed with artificial intelligence and take over Octavius' brain, turning him into a madman who goes to whatever lengths necessary to complete his work.

Such grand designs require a good bit of cash, as you might expect, and it's during a bank robbery we get the first thrilling glimpse of the Ock-Spidey confrontation as they battle up the face of a clock tower -- with Peter's Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) hanging, quite literally, in the balance.

Ock gets away and Spider-Man is implicated in the heist by Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, played by J.K. Simmons, who once again blows the doors off this boisterous role. Combine that with the announcement that Mary Jane is getting married to Jameson's son, and Petey-boy has had enough. Tired of being taken for granted and destroying relationships with loved ones, he gives up the role of superhero and returns to a "normal" life.

All of this character development takes time, and the film pays for it slightly with some slow moments in the middle. There are no cringe-inducing lines of note, however, which the first installment could not boast. And without the slow build, Raimi's masterwork could not reach the peaks it hits in the concluding act. Leaving the theater, I hadn't felt so good for a comic-book character since I first saw mild-mannered Clark Kent send the diner bully crashing into the pinball machine in "Superman II."

Speaking of, "Spider-Man 2" is the best comic-book movie adaptation of all time. It beats them all, including the fabulous "X2: X-Men United" and the first two Superman installments. Like the latter, this Spidey sequel reaches for (and grabs) the heart as much as the eyeballs. Raimi correctly realizes the great comic-book film truism: Anybody can don a fancy suit and zip around the silver screen, but it's what you do with the character once the super-duds come off and the civilian clothes come on that matters.

As a result, "Spider-Man 2" is the first movie I've seen this summer that I want to watch again -- and I do mean now.

Grade: A+

Sequels on an upswing

—Originally published on 7.9.04

Something must be amiss in Hollywood because there are way too many quality sequels at the cineplex these days.

In the last month and a half, we've seen "Shrek 2," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and now "Spider-Man 2." In my reviews, I'm running out of ways to say "so much better than the original."

Sequels have a bad reputation, and deservedly so. For a sampling of why, check out E! Online's list of the 10 worst "suck-wells" of all time. (Hint: No. 1 includes the most annoying character ever generated by a computer.)

Instead of focusing on negatives, though, let's deal with the positives (as much as possible, anyway). Just what does contribute to making a successful sequel?

• Planning -- While some may lambaste the "franchise" mentality of a film series as simply reusing brand-name characters to make a quick buck, there are several instances where committing to a succession of films yields incredible results. It can allow filmmakers the opportunity to flesh out backstories, create overarching themes and hone their craft over a number of years. Look no further than the "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" franchises which, so far, have gotten much better with time. And there's always "The Lord of the Rings," but it's hard to consider those sequels, rather than one 10-hour movie cut into three parts.

• Continuity -- It is absolutely ESSENTIAL to bring back all the principle characters each time. Can you honestly imagine anyone other than Mike Myers voicing Shrek, anyone other than Tobey Maguire playing Spidey or anyone other than Al Pacino in the role of Michael Corleone? Just look what happened to the "Batman" franchise. An exception: James Bond, a truly serial character that lives separate from time and continuing plotlines.

• Innovation -- I don't want the same ol' thing every time. If I'm plunking down another eight bucks, there better be some new stuff to see. The best sequels, even though I know the characters well, still make my jaw drop. The bad ones, like "Bad Boys II," simply rehash tired material.

• Commitment -- It's easy to tell when actors are going through the motions just for the paycheck. Typically, this occurs when the original went big and the studio said, "Oh boy! Let's make another!" (I'm still not convinced "The Matrix" was meant to be more than just one film.)

• Leave 'em wanting more (but not too much) -- This only applies to the franchises, which typically use the current movie to set up the next installment. This is a delicate situation, though, because if the filmmakers spend too much time in this area, it feels like simple shilling. "Spider-Man 2" director Sam Raimi nailed it this time around, using just one brief scene to hint at things to come in 2007; "X2," on the other hand, spent several minutes setting up No. 3 (due in 2006), which was way too long.

• Oh yeah, that little thing called STORY -- Just slapping our favorite characters back on the screen doesn't do it. Case in point, both "Star Wars" prequels, "The Godfather, Part III" and any number of good ideas gone bad. There needs to be something for the players to do -- other than make money for the production company.