Friday, September 24, 2004

'Sky Captain' soars on digital wings

—Originally published 9.24.04

The innovation and craftsmanship of "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" dramatically enhance what would otherwise be a tepid action flick.

Filmed entirely against a blue screen in essentially one room, the movie from first-time filmmaker Kerry Conran is unlike anything you've seen before. More than 2,000 digital effects (yes, that is not a misprint) comprise most of the shots, allowing the stellar cast to come fill in the blanks. The result is a nearly seamless mix of next-generation technology and classic melodrama and noir that works pretty well, if a little strange.

Jude Law stars as Joe Sullivan, a.k.a. Sky Captain, a mercenary fighter pilot called upon to save the world from a sinister scientist, Dr. Totenkopf. Set in 1930s New York, the city is under attack from skyscraper-size robots and curious mechanical flying machines of death. They serve little purpose other than to look cool and provide Sky Captain an excuse to fly stunts through the city, but those two reasons are good enough.

The good Captain is joined in his quest by ex-lover Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a plucky metro reporter for a New York newspaper. She's been tipped off about the mad scientist's plan -- information Sullivan desperately needs once his sidekick, techno-wiz Dex (Giovanni Ribishi), is kidnapped by the evil genius. So the two work together to save the world, sparring with each other as much as the baddies.

While Angelina Jolie shares equal space in the credits with the other two stars, she has more of an extended cameo than a lead part as another of Sullivan's ex-lovers. She portrays eye-patch-wearing Franky Cook, a captain in the British Royal Navy who helps the Captain in his quest, allowing Conran an opportunity to showcase more aerial and aquatic acrobatics with machines that in no way could have existed in the '30s.

But that's the nature of this ambitious film. Sure, some of the lines and jokes get a little old by the end (a quick 100 minutes) and the plot is rather formulaic, but everything plays second-fiddle to the look and feel of the movie, which is anything but typical. Rather than deride it as unrealistic, celebrate "Sky Captain" for its joyous surrealism and imagination -- something like "Casablanca" meets "Batman" meets "Star Wars."

Speaking of, there's been a lot of discussion lately concerning the artistic merits of the "Star Wars" trilogy, now that those classics are out on DVD. Creator/director/Hollywood emperor George Lucas said he never intended for his movies to be seen several times over and especially not on a television; they were meant to wash over the audience in a big theater, where nit-picking details the first time around is overrun by the overall experience.

We may look back on "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" the same way. Seeing it again from the couch won't be nearly as fun, but the first time around it's a sight to behold -- on the big screen, anyway.

Grade: B+

Don't let 'Lost' get away

—Originally published 9.24.04

If you didn't catch the premiere of ABC's new series "Lost" Wednesday night, may I say: Wow. Don't make the mistake of missing any more episodes of what looks to be the year's best new show. Here's a quick summary:

A jet plane crashes on a remote island somewhere (presumably) in the Pacific Ocean, leaving just 48 survivors. Among them is a doctor named Jack, played by Matthew Fox in his first major role since "Party of Five." With his medical skills and cool-under-pressure personality, Jack is the default leader of this band of castaways.

After he helps a few fellow survivors, Jack enlists the aid of Kate (newcomer Evangeline Lilly) to stitch a wicked gash in his back -- with a travel sewing kit and, obviously, no anesthesia. The two become fast friends and spend the rest of the hour-long pilot searching for the plane's cockpit in hopes of finding a radio to call for help.

The show is the brainchild of writer/director J.J. Abrams, who at age 38 is rapidly approaching household-name status. Despite dealing with completely different subject matter, "Lost" is very reminiscent of Abrams' other ABC series, the cult hit "Alias." Both feature superior action and build tension that leaves the audience wanting more and more, all the while making the unbelievable relatable by grounding the series in characters with emotional depth.

Abrams is a master of the serial; if you thought the cliffhangers in "Alias" were tough to take, just what in the world is the mysterious beast prowling around this new show, knocking down trees and eating people one at a time? Hopefully we'll find out soon.

More important, though, "Lost" proves Abrams is no fluke. He has a rather checkered screenwriting career, which includes abominable movies like "Armageddon" and "Gone Fishin'," along with the modest hit "Joy Ride." However, none of those projects gave him complete control like "Alias" and now "Lost." For a film such as "Armageddon," it's easy to imagine a scenario where a good script from Abrams could be ravaged by a hack like director/producer Michael Bay.

Thus I was extremely pleased with the announcement earlier this year that Abrams will be at the helm of the next "Mission: Impossible" installment, starring Tom Cruise. I can think of no one I'd rather have driving this project than Abrams -- after all, "Alias" is a lot like the old "M: I" TV show.

So Abrams essentially gets to transfer "Alias" to the big screen with oh-by-the-way Tom Cruise as the box-office draw; and now the writer/director will have more time, more creative freedom and -- most important -- a monster budget.

The first "Impossible" film was OK; the second was much better under the watchful eye of action aficionado John Woo. But the third, with Abrams aboard, will undoubtedly be the best in the series -- and maybe one of the best action movies we've seen in a long time.

Now all we have to do is wait until 2006 -- sounds like a typical Abrams cliffhanger.

Friday, September 17, 2004

'Star Wars' isn't king anymore

—Originally published 9.17.04

I remember how excited I was for the theatrical re-release of George Lucas' "Star Wars" trilogy back in 1997. My friends and I bought tickets early and sat outside the theater for more than an hour playing cards, just to make sure we got the seats we wanted.

And I remember how excited I was when the "special edition" was released later that year on VHS (boy, do those three letters seem like they came from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). I put an advance payment down a month early and picked them up the day they came out.

Now, as we near yet another release of the trilogy -- this time on the infinitely superior DVD format -- it's surprising to me that I could really care less.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm sure the box set will end up on my shelf at some point, if for no other reason than to watch them in widescreen with surround sound (the old VHS are pan and scan and will never look or sound as good).

It would stand to reason that movies I loved as a child shouldn't grab me the same way as an adult. And that's a good thing -- I like movies now that I never would have sat through 10 years ago.

But simple maturity isn't the reason, either, because I still like the first two "Die Hard," "Terminator" and "Alien" movies; the quality of their craftsmanship appeals to both raging-hormone teenagers and hoity-toity movie critics.

No, the real reason for my lack of enthusiasm boils down to two entities: The "Star Wars" prequels and "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

First, those dreadful prequels:

Other than last year's "Matrix" sequels, I can think of no other movies in my lifetime that came with so much hype and turned out so badly. With every film he makes, Lucas is looking more and more like The Luckiest Man of All Time. The original "Star Wars: A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back" -- particularly the latter -- are excellent films; but things started to slip with the fuzzy-wuzzy "Return of the Jedi" and collapsed with the phenomenon known as Jar Jar Binks from 1999's prequel "The Phantom Menace."

Although there was mercifully little Jar Jar in 2002's "Attack of the Clones," the movie was still a clunker, bogged down by an impossibly stiff script that led to horrendously stiff performances from every actor. It's the only "Star Wars" installment I've seen only once; the scene where Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is having a "nightmare" about something or other is burned into my memory as particularly painful. I was so irritated by the nonsensical plot and awful dialogue, when the climactic battle came around, all I wanted was to get the heck out of the theater -- lightsaber-wielding Yoda or not.

Lucas used to be the indisputable king of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, with his technical wizardry and indelible characters (read the "expanded universe" books from the last 10 years, and you'll see just how great his creations are). But his actual filmmaking skills get more and more suspect all the time.

Consider jolly ol' Peter Jackson, who came along and blew Lucas out of the universe.

As if the "Star Wars" prequels weren't bad enough, when compared to the work Jackson and his mates did on "The Lord of the Rings" cemented for me that Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and the rest were no longer the standard-bearers for the genre. It's no mistake that "Return of the King" was honored with a best-picture Oscar while the "Star Wars" flicks were ignored -- there's really no comparing them in quality of storytelling, production or credible performances.

I can see the apologists lining up to defend Lucas: He wasn't out to make an "epic" in the first place, they'll say, just an old-school, rollickin', good-time popcorn movie. That argument would work if the filmmaker had not gone completely away from that line of thinking himself -- with the obsessive-compulsive, self-involved special editions and especially the prequels, which are neither fun nor rollickin' (Han Solo, where are you?).

This discussion probably doesn't matter in the long run, because the fans will be out en masse Tuesday and "Star Wars" sets will be flying off the shelves like so many X-wings; in the meantime, the anti-fantasy slugs will continue their decades-long defamation of the entire genre as worthless pap, citing Lucas and "Star Wars" as Exhibit A.

Me? I'll buy them at some point, sure, but I kinda wish I could see them through those 15-year-old eyes again.

Friday, September 10, 2004

ESPN's silver anniversary showing tarnish

—Originally published 9.10.04

Michael Jordan took the National Basketball Association -- and professional basketball as a whole -- to previously-unseen heights during his near two-decade reign in the sport.

But he may have ruined it at the same time. Look no further than the U.S. Olympic basketball team comprised of a bunch of MJ wannabes. Everybody wants to run and jump and, most importantly, dunk like Mike, but very few want to work on the rest of their games like Mike. Thus, the NBA product looks less and less like basketball every season.

The same could be true of ESPN, the unquestioned worldwide leader in sports, because now everybody wants to be like Stuart Scott.

As it puts the wraps on an obscenely self-congratulatory "silver anniversary" year celebrating 25 seasons on the air, the cable sports giant -- much like the NBA -- is in freefall when it comes to the quality of its product.

Thanks in large part to the success of anchors like Scott on ESPN's signature show, the omnipresent "SportsCenter," the network is now nearly unwatchable.

Scott and former "SportsCenter" anchor Craig Kilborn debuted in the mid-1990s. Predecessors such as Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick and Chris Berman were clever in their telecasts, but Scott and Kilborn took the role of ESPN TV personality to another level.

In high school at the time, my buddies and I used to recite the duo's new catch-phrases every day. They were funny, fresh and unlike anything we'd heard on the sports channel -- or any other sportscast, for that matter. Who other than Kilborn could pull off, "He's breathless in the zone!" or "He's not your 'Vydas, he's not my 'Vydas, he's Arvydas!" referring to then-Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis.

Scott worked in any number of pop-culture references, even singing a little tune while running through a highlight, and always gave a nice "boo-ya!" once per episode.

Kilborn obviously has uncommon comedic talent and thus didn't stay long as a lowly sports anchor; he moved on to host "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central and just put the wraps on his successful late-night talk show for CBS.

But Scott is still at ESPN, and his act is wearing thin. How many more times can we listen to him yell, "boo-ya!" without going crazy? And worse yet, his flamboyant style has seeped out into the entire network -- and not just with painful "SportsCenter" anchors like Steve Berthiaume and Scott Van Pelt.

Loud-mouths like Steven A. Smith, Greg Anthony, Sean Salisbury, Michael Irvin, Mike Golic and John Kruk now dominate the channel's "analyst" roster for both "SportsCenter" and its ancillary shows like "NFL GameDay" and "Baseball Tonight." Most either spend their time screaming (Irvin doesn't even speak in complete sentences), trying to show how tough they are (i.e. Sean "I couldn't make it as a backup QB" Salisbury) or -- and this is often -- both.

ESPN's three best shows remain:

"Pardon the Interruption," featuring lovable loud-mouth sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, who get the fact that taking themselves too seriously is a bad idea. The debate program is preceded by the similar "Around the Horn," which is yet another example of imitators who can't hold the water at ESPN.

"Outside the Lines," which is excellent night in and night out -- for those who are still awake to watch it at midnight. Former "SportsCenter" anchor Bob Ley is the main host, with Jeremy Schapp filling in frequently. Each episode focuses on only one or two topics (everything from steroids to memorabilia) with in-depth reporting and coherent analysis from experts in the given subject.

And finally, there's "College GameDay," hosted by three guys who remember it's the players on the field -- not the anchors on the set -- that make people turn the channel on in the first place. All credit to the network for starting from nothing 25 years ago and building an empire of highlight reels, but it's too bad the rest of the station's other personalities don't follow the classy examples of "College GameDay's" Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreet, who host hands-down the best sports preview show on any channel at any time. Period.

Friday, September 03, 2004

'Garden State' a nice change of pace

—Originally published 9.3.04

At the end of a summer movie season filled with big-budget special effects and blaring soundtracks, it's refreshing to sit through a quiet, quirky film like "Garden State."

Refreshing, but not overly moving.

"State" marks the solid directing debut of 29-year-old Zach Braff, star of NBC sitcom "Scrubs," who also wrote the script and plays the lead character, Andrew Largeman. Braff succeeds in maintaining an off-beat, muted tone throughout, putting the audience as much as possible behind the clouded eyes of the main character.

As the movie opens, Andrew learns -- via a message on his answering machine -- his mother has drowned in the bathtub and he must return home to New Jersey (the Garden State) for her funeral.

Andrew was sent away to boarding school as a 16-year-old and it's been nine years since he last visited his hometown of Newark; the time away hasn't been kind. He lives in Los Angeles, waiting tables at a trendy Vietnamese restaurant while trying to make it as an actor. (His biggest claim to fame was playing a mentally challenged quarterback on TV.) His medicine cabinet is full of anti-depressants prescribed by his psychiatrist father (an under-used Ian Holm) and Andrew, in his own words, wanders through life in a numb haze.

"It's recently occurred to me that I may not even have a problem, but I wouldn't even know it because for as long as I can remember, I've been medicated," Andrew tells a doctor he is seeing for headaches.

Andrew is not alone, though. As he re-enters life in the Garden State, he bumps into all of his old friends from high school, equally numb to the world -- only instead of prescription drugs, they use alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy to escape their ennui.

All but one. While in the doctor's waiting room, Andrew meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a firecracker who could care less what the rest of the world thinks of her or her cooky family. Andrew spends the remainder of the film -- about three days -- hanging on to this young woman, a life preserver dragging him from the depths of his metaphorical drowning.

A mixture of Julia Roberts and Jennifer Garner (but quirkier than both combined), Portman steals "Garden State." If your only exposure to this fine young actress is through the "Star Wars" prequels, you haven't really seen her perform.

Braff's story (for mature audiences only) is enjoyable on the whole -- laugh-out-loud funny in parts and equally touching in others -- but it smacks a bit too heavily of another (better) film, 1996's "Beautiful Girls," which also featured a fine Portman performance.

There are plenty of good messages in "Garden State," though, including the dangers of over-medicating children, the empty thrills of drug abuse and the illusion that an easy life is a happy life. Yet after an hour and a half of off-kilter, charming work, Braff lets his film slip too close to romantic comedy cliché -- and the conclusion falls rather flat.

Grade: B