Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Flight of the Phoenix (2004) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli for

The 1965 version of Flight of the Phoenix is not a great movie, but it has a lot more going for it than the second-rate 2004 re-imagination. Despite using the same premise and numerous identical plot points, this remake replaces suspense with boredom and witty dialogue with lame lines any self-respecting actor should be embarrassed to utter. The only thing better about the 2004 Flight of the Phoenix are the special effects, and there are times when the computer-generated imagery isn't convincing.

Comparisons between the two editions may be unfair, but they are inevitable. The first place to start is the acting. 1965's Flight of the Phoenix featured four Oscar-winning actors (James Stewart, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Peter Finch). The new version is headlined by Dennis Quaid, who is joined by Hugh LaurieGiovanni Ribisi, and Miranda Otto. Among them, they have one Golden Globe nomination. I think all of them (except possibly Laurie) have attended the Oscars, but as members of the audience. While awards do not always define the performers, there's a gap between the 1965 cast and the 2004 troupe. It's possible to lay some of the blame at the feet of screenwriters Scott Frank (Dead Again) and Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen). Few actors can impress when delivering a line like We're not garbage - we're people!

Quaid plays Frank Towns, a gritty pilot who has been tabbed by a big oil company to bring their employees home after an operation in Mongolia is a bust. Among Frank's human cargo are the drill site's chief operator (Otto), a suit who's visiting (Laurie), the mysterious and insecure Elliot (Ribisi), and a group of grunts, each of whom has one discernible personality trait. On the way back to civilization, Frank's plane runs into a monstrous sandstorm. Pieces of the aircraft begin coming off, including the radio antenna (not good) and a propeller (even worse). The crash landing in the Gobi Desert takes two lives, but leaves the survivors with a dilemma. Unless they are spotted from above (highly unlikely), they have only enough food and water for one month. At that point, Elliot makes a startling pronouncement. He is an engineer who designs planes, and he believes that it is possible to build a new plane out of the wreckage of the old one.

I'm not going to complain about the improbability of the film's premise. If you're going to see the movie, you have to buy into it, or what's the point? Flight of the Phoenix's failure is the result of poor execution. I was never frightened for these people, and I never believed their venture might fail. I expected one or two of them to die along the way, but it was obvious that Flight of the Phoenix was headed for an upbeat ending. Without suspense, all we're left with is a bunch of half-developed characters reciting laughable dialogue.

When faced with an ensemble cast, it's difficult to develop all of the characters effectively. One or more is likely to be shortchanged, unless the director and writers are extremely talented (for an example of what John Moore should have used as a template, watch Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot). In this case, however, no one - not even Frank Towns - gains a shadow of multidimensionality. These are plastic people - walking stereotypes who interact using clichés. There are numerous times when Flight of the Phoenix doesn't make sense, and it's because the characters are flimsy. For example, Frank is set against building a new plane until he hears a speech about hopes and dreams; then he decides it's worth the risk. This moment was taken straight out of Plot Contrivances 101.

For the most part, people in this movie act the way they do because the script demands such behavior. There are instances in which the characters exhibit the kind of extreme stupidity normally reserved for horror movie victims. And there's one scene in which Elliot is cast in a negative light because he makes a decision that is as unpopular as it is necessary. The guy is almost always right, yet the film insists on portraying him as a bottom-feeder. And Giovanni Ribisi's campy performance doesn't help. Elliot should be generating sympathy, not causing suppressed giggles.

Mention has been made of Flight of the Phoenix's amazing photography, and I suppose it's all very pretty. But it is in the service of a movie that isn't worth the time or effort attending. Flight of the Phoenix boasts only two worthwhile moments: the crash-landing (which is handled nicely) and the take-off. Beyond that, if you're looking for awe-inspiring shots of dunes, Lawrence of Arabia is your best bet. And if you're in search of a version of the story that won't have you squirming with impatience in your seat, rent the original. This is one bird that should have stayed grounded. [Berardinelli's rating: * 1/2 out of 4]

Labels: action, adventure, drama, flying, thriller

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 47/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=48, viewers=60)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

If Only (2004) [PG-13] **

Singer and songwriter Samantha Andrews (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is studying music in London when she first meets Ian Wyndham (Paul Nicholls), and they both realize at once that they are meant for each other. However, shortly after they have their first big argument, tragedy strikes and Samantha dies in a horrific accident. Grief-stricken Ian is inconsolable until fate intervenes and the pair is given a second chance.

If Only I had read some of the reviews by professional film critics, I could have spared myself this silly, superficial and mostly meaningless romantic comedy and not wasted ninety minutes of my life. Produced by Jennifer Love Hewitt, this is mainly a star vehicle for Hewitt to make silly faces, bat her eyelashes, display her curvaceous form and sing, all of which she does badly. The screenplay is sloppily written, the dialog between Hewitt and Nicholls is embarrassingly inane, the romantic chemistry between the two is non-existent, and the ending is totally unsatisfying. If you want to see a second-chance romance with some substance, I suggest 13 Going on 30, The Family Man, Just Like Heaven or Sliding Doors, but not If Only.

Labels: comedy, drama, fantasy, romance, tragedy
Internet Movie Database
Tomatometer (critics=NA, viewers=85)

Catwoman (2004) [PG-13] *

A film review by James Berardinelli, for

Without pussyfooting around, I can state that Catwoman is a catastrophe. An amalgamation of bad clichés purr-loined from other, better superhero movies (not that there are many - if any - that can be considered worse), this motion picture is an embarrassment to all involved, from single-named director Pitof (whose moniker sounds like something often done to rice) to Halle Berry, who has by now thrown away all of the goodwill she gained from appearing in Monsters Ball. One is tempted to say that ritual disembowelment is too good for those who have perpetrated this abomination on the comic book-loving movie-going public. But that would be hyperbole, if only barely.

For about four decades, DC and Marvel Comics have been engaged in a sometimes amicable, sometimes vitriolic battle for domination of the comic book marketplace. More recently, the battle has spilled over into multiplexes, where, until 1999, DC's preeminence was indisputable. To counter DC's Batman and Superman franchises, all Marvel could boast were a few lame titles and some vague plans to bring their most beloved properties to the silver screen. Five years later, the previous landscape has been obliterated in the wake of features devoted to X-Men, Hulk, and Spider-Man. This summer, the battle pits Marvel's Spider-Man 2 against DC's Catwoman. No points for guessing which one wins.

The idea for a Catwoman was first conceived shortly after Michelle Pfeiffer made an impression as the character in the second Batman movie. For a while, Pfeiffer was attached to the project. Eventually, either because she lost interest or grew older than Hollywood's female age ceiling, the rumor mill replaced her with Ashley Judd, then Halle Berry. What's amazing is that, sometime during the dozen years when this project was churning behind-the-scenes at Warner Brothers, no one had the good sense to put a stop to it. This is how train wrecks happen - brakes are not applied in time to prevent an expensive and career-damaging accident. It remains to be seen whether Catwoman will do for Berry what Gigli did for Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, but one thing is clear: compared to Catwoman's kitty chow, Gigli is caviar.

With the exception of a bizarrely placed black-and-white photograph of Michelle Pfeiffer in her cat suit, Batman Returns is forgotten. Those who remember the film, however, will note that significant portions of Catwoman are regurgitations, with an actor named Benjamin Bratt standing in for a man-sized bat. Of course, Brattman's Tom Lone isn't nearly as impressive as Michael Keaton's Caped Crusader. He's just Berry's bitch-boy. The Academy Award-winning actress is so awful in this film that words fail me. It's difficult to decide whether she's channeling Eartha Kitt or Pulp Fiction's The Gimp. And on those rare occasions when she attempts a one-liner, it is met with hoots of derision. (Part her delivery, and part the words she has to deliver.) Berry's performance might have been campy enough to enjoy on its own had the tone of Pitof's epic been less somber. The director seems to view himself as an auteur. Then again, so did Ed Wood. As for Berry, I sense a Razzie in her future. (When was the last time an actor went from Oscar to Razzie in only a few years? Has it ever happened?)

Patience Phillips (Berry) is an ad exec at a cosmetics company run by a Really Nasty Guy named George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) and his Hell Hath No Fury bitch of a wife, Laurel (in a role devoured by Sharon Stone, clearly happy not to have been forgotten by someone). Patience sees something she shouldn't, is killed by Laurel's minions, and then is brought back to life by a cat (who, I guess, is in between naps). Thereafter, she begins to exhibit catlike abilities, and chooses to use these for the good of mankind, revenge, and stealing a few trinkets. Brattman is around to be rescued and romanced.

Another Marvel vs. DC note. Marvel gives us Alfred Molina's delightful Doc Ock. DC gives us Sharon Stone's Laurel Hedare. And she doesn't have the instinct to spread her legs to help even the odds.

Pitof directs MTV-style. He cuts during action sequences every 0.5 seconds to make sure that the viewer can never be sure exactly what's going on. Aside from agitating people with motion sickness, this approach allows a male stunt double to stand-in for Berry without the Y-chromosome being noticed. In the close-ups, it's obviously Berry. However, while Pfeiffer's stint as Catwoman caused a leather cat suit mini-fashion rage, the only place where Berry's costume will be popular is in S&M circles. And most people into that lifestyle already have similar paraphernalia. One is tempted to say that the only reason to see this movie is to ogle Berry's body, but since she has shown more flesh in better movies (Swordfish for the popcorn crowd; Monsters Ball for those who prefer dramas), that's not much of a selling point.

As poorly written, ineptly directed, and hideously acted as Catwoman is, its biggest sin is that it's boring. This movie does not offer a single worthwhile, interesting, or exciting scene. The action is dull, predictable, and repetitive. Ever thought a catfight between Sharon Stone and Halle Berry could rival a dose of valium as an effective sleep-inducer? I suppose Pitof deserves a measure of respect for being able to achieve something I would have argued was not possible.

Catwoman treads close to the so-bad-it's-enjoyable line, but, at least for me, it fails to cross over, despite a valiant attempt. As far as I'm concerned, it's just plain bad. Nothing redeeming here. Others, who are either more generous than I or drunk at the time of their assessment, may be able to uncover some camp value. I wish them luck, because such a quest means that they will have to sit through the movie. Despite its feline pretensions, Catwoman belongs to another animal family - it's either a dog or a turkey. Take your pick.

Labels: action, fantasy