Capsules for 2004

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2004. Includes all the movies of 2004 I've seen that I did not write a full review for.

Garden State
Director: Zach Braff
Rating: 6/10
I tried to like this movie, but honestly the kooky-girl-wakes-up-sleepwalking-guy story does very little for me now. Garden State's a decent film and an ambitious directorial debut for star Zach Braff, but the movie struck me in just such a way that I was able to see the gears turning and the seams being sewn. I think it's because I had the tendency to dream up these kinds of stories before, where the lonely, catatonic, misunderstood dude gets lucky because some lively spirit has decided to talk to him and open up to him, thus causing him to open up as well. My personal experiences have since served to quash such fanciful notions, so I require extra effort to believe in this kind of thing these days. In the meantime, Braff's got potential -- he thinks about visuals and is obviously full of ideas; right now, his problem is his ideas are a little too obvious. Because the story is not an uncommon one, it requires standout characters and incidents to make it memorable, and I think the movie is too conscious of this, so it's trying too hard. Garden State would be that much stronger if it were just a little less precious. (added 10/7/2004)

The Girl Next Door
Director: Luke Greenfield
Rating: 4/10
Here's a movie that tries so hard to be this decade's version of Risky Business that it feels transparent and insincere. The problem is the spark that should drive this tale is more of a puff of smoke. Little is invested into the one-dimensional titular character (Elisha Cuthbert) -- she is playfully cruel so she can break the main character, high school senior Matthew (Emile Hirsch), out of his shell, then given the wounded heart of gold so Matt's later actions can be justified by noble love (after all, what's not noble about saving a sweet porn star from having to be a porn star?). Naturally, none of this really matters -- all the movie really wants to do is show how funny it can be when an uptight goodie-two-shoes makes his life more memorable by getting into one crazy scrape after another. It doesn't succeed well in that front either -- nothing particularly memorable (for the moviegoer) happens, and by the time the multiple climaxes start to occur, things get predictably boring. The filmmakers don't lack the formula for success -- a "bawdy" teen comedy works these days by balancing outrageous events with a sentimental sweetness; it's just that, with The Girl Next Door, the formula is so conspicuous it's practically written up on the screen as the movie is playing, and little else compensates for that. (added 4/13/2004)

The Grudge
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Rating: 7/10
If at first you don't succeed, try again? OK, not everyone will agree with me that Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On: The Grudge didn't succeed, but, for my money, its repetitiveness foiled the effectiveness of its many many set pieces. Still, it was enough to impress some folks in the U.S. (including producer Sam Raimi), who thus convinced Shimizu to direct a Hollywood-funded remake. The result is actually an improvement. Given a tighter script to work with -- one that gives us an actual protagonist (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and retains the original movie's more effective scenes -- Shimizu practically recreates a shot-for-shot version of Ju-On, with mostly American actors in the major roles and minus the extra narrative fat. That the film retains its original location of Tokyo majorly helps. In a way, using displaced Americans in Japan gives the movie a new way to read it -- the extreme discomfort of living in a foreign place is manifested by a murderous presence; it's almost like the ultimate foreign cultural dread, being victimized in the worst way by something you had no chance of immediatly understanding. Anyhow, that's already too much interpretation for what essentially amounts to a formula slasher flick that uses ghosts (and ghosts that irritatingly follow no rules, for that matter). The movie exists for its set pieces, and there are still a lot -- it's a scare endurance test that'll be very effective on viewers who are freaked out by ghosts; meanwhile, thankfully, this time it also has less potential to bore those who aren't. (added 10/21/2004)

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Director: Danny Leiner
Rating: 8/10
Deciding to make a stoner movie and casting the leads with the least likeliest of characters -- two smart, early-twenties Americans of Asian background -- not only strikes one as a bold move, but works so well for what it wants to do that its ingenuity stands out. It subverts everything in sight, from its genre to racial stereotypes. Korean Harold (John Cho) and Indian Kumar (Kal Penn) are exactly the kind of people that are missing from Hollywood's cross-section of America -- people whose ethnic/social backgrounds matter to them in terms of family, behavior, expectations, and present surroundings, but who are otherwise bona fide true-blooded Americans. Their quest to fulfill a very specific munchies-driven craving takes them through a loopy and ludicrous American-style movie towards an all-American goal. As for handling racism, this is how you do it -- don't hide it, just incorporate it, and get viewers on the side of the protagonists firmly so as to make racial epithets look out-of-fashion. Harold and Kumar is a rather uneven gross-out movie, and there are plenty of those, yet I can say I've never seen anything like this. It's funny and brave; it's tradition with a refreshing new twist, which is what it ought to be. (added 4/15/2005)

Hellboy
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Rating: 9/10
Thorough, patient, and well-paced, Hellboy is a comic book story told with confidence. Although it still visits several trappings of this sub-genre -- e.g., the way all the mythological backstory, told with the requisite amount of confusion, culminates in a magical world-threatening scenario -- the film handles them such that it doesn't fall victim to them. In other words, it's a movie that allows its story to dictate its action scenes, rather than the other way around. It cares about the tale its telling, perhaps most evident in the ending where a moral dilemma carries more climactic weight than the ensuing monster battle, which is actually played more for comic relief. Much of its success comes from its commitment to a central theme -- the use of a non-human to answer the question, "What makes a man a man?" It's successful because that character, Hellboy (Ron Perlman), is given a depth rarely seen in these kinds of heroes -- his angst isn't simplistic, it feels worn in, tempered by the years. As a result, his actions are believable, his issues are sympathetic, and his humor is genuinely funny. Combine all this with seamless CGI work and kinetic, dynamic direction by Guillermo del Toro, and we have one of the best examples of how to do this kind of flick right. (added 4/4/2004)

Home on the Range
Director: Will Finn and John Sanford
Rating: 4/10
The problem with this movie is that it needed to be funny. It's not cut from Disney's usual gooey lesson-spreading cloth; instead, it has the sharp angles, zippy motion, and reliance on cartoony takes that The Emperor's New Groove employed so well. But Home on the Range just isn't funny. The story elements and jokes are too obvious, and Judi Dench and Roseanne Barr simply do not make a rollicking comedy team, no matter how much they tried to force the issue. Cuba Gooding Jr's horse character just grates, and everything else feels like old, blindly applied strategies (cute but mischievous animal kids; negative-IQ sidekicks for the villain; "We've got to save the farm from foreclosure!" plot). It feels like everyone involved with the project just phoned this one in, and the audience is the one who gets to suffer. The movie's so boring that I literally awoke from slumber with anticipatory excitement when a horse spoke with Patrick Warburton's voice, only to plant my face back in my hands when his part amounted to a 30-second cameo. I hate to say this is the worst Disney animated feature I've seen in a long, long time, because it's possibly their 2-D swan song. Snow White must be rolling in her glass coffin. (added 10/7/2004)

Hotel Rwanda
Director: Terry George
Rating: 8/10
This is a movie mostly hoping to get by on its subject matter, which works out well for it because that subject matter is indeed compelling. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of the movie feel pretty standard -- there's nothing fancy going on, just straight-shooting, familiar editing, actively-steering storytelling, and mostly earnest acting. While this may also start a film on the path to cheese, Hotel Rwanda has two big things going for it. First, there's that aforementioned subject matter -- a little known story about a man named Paul Rusesabagina, who housed innocent civilians in the hotel he helped run in Rwanda as militant insurgents began to murder members of an opposing faction. What hits home is just how readily people divide themselves into groups/gangs and create deadly belligerence, even when there's no good reason to. Barely anyone in the movie can tell who's a Hutu and who's a Tutsi without either asking or assuming, and the way the Hutus bear down upon the more powerless Tutsis provides a believable, modern example of the just-add-rhetoric fomenting of mob mentality (and just in case you didn't catch some of these lessons, Joaquin Phoenix's useless character is there to point fingers and say these things out loud). It's too sad that it's so easy. It's also scary. The second big boost for the movie comes from its two lead actors, Don Cheadle as Rusesabagina and Sophie Okonedo as Tatiana, his wife. They give performances that have the effect of sucking audiences into their plight; more than half the feeling of urgency the movie generates comes from their work. They're good enough to make you wish Nick Nolte would just get out of the way whenever he shows up. (added 12/22/2004)

Imelda
Director: Ramona S. Diaz
Rating: 8/10
This documentary about Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines and notorious social/political celebrity, starts out deflecting the common association most people may think of when regarding her -- her gigantic shoe collection -- to rightfully embark on a journey detailing her life, from her rise to fame to her marriage/partnership with former President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos to her later years grappling with numerous lawsuits. Though the documentary is quite polite and rule-abiding (it's straightforward and interviews people both pro- and con-Imelda), a fascinating portrait nonetheless emerges mainly because one of the interview subjects is Marcos herself. Long known to be a bit, well, kooky, Marcos, who seems well aware of that reputation, does little to disprove that, gladly sharing, with all seriousness, her beliefs about beauty equalling love and expounding on her special brand of pictorial cosmology. To me, this is less a fascination of awe (as in, "Dear Lord, she's nuts!") and actually more a fascination of recognition -- Marcos exhibits what I might call an extremely refined version of the cultural traditionalism infused with superstition that I've observed in many of the Asian women previous to my generation. With all her money and special access to privileges, she's had a lot of time to really hone this part of her personality, to the point of self-delusion -- but even within this delusion I can see someone who's accessible. On the surface, Imelda may be documenting a once-in-a-lifetime personality, but I see it more as documenting a once-in-a-lifetime development of a certain personality type, the result of which isn't as simple to pin down as we'd expect. (added 3/2/2006)

Infernal Affairs (2002; released in U.S. in 2004)
Directors: Andrew Lau and Alan Mak
Rating: 8/10
The Chinese cop melodrama feels as if it's been around forever, but it's still nice to see something like Infernal Affairs, a solid character-centric piece that's more interested in psychology than in gritty action sequences. It proves that genres stay alive by holding on to the core of what drives them -- in this case, the relative moralities of those embroiled in law-breaking and law-enforcing -- instead of caving in to the latest cinematic fad. There's still a bit of cheesiness around the edges here, but it doesn't stop the film from being engrossing. In fact, the conventions become a way of showing off the film's roots -- this is a confident Hong Kong entertainer, helping to support the hopes that Hong Kong entertainers are here to stay. (added 2/3/2005)

Ju-on: The Grudge (2003; released in U.S. in 2004)
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Rating: 5/10
If you've ever had to practice piano, you'd remember finger exercises -- those sets of notes you played over and over to improve your fingering. Well, Ju-on: The Grudge could be called the horror movie version of finger exercises. Takashi Shimizu sets up a scare moment, and then repeats for 90 minutes. Now, a concert of finger exercises wouldn't be much fun to listen to; along those lines, Ju-on becomes less fun to watch by the umpteenth repeated scare moment. Each one is essentially the same: strange noises and frightening music crescendo as tormented characters peek around corners, suddenly catching glimpses of a ghostly little boy or a scary-looking woman. The staging of each scene is usually well-done, and quite a few of them are effectively creepy, but they'd be even more so if they were isolated as events, allowing steady build-ups to do their jobs in creating dread and anticipation. Having very little plot doesn't help, either -- what we're left with is a string of frightening images and ideas, their notable potential diluted thanks to overexposure in a presentation lacking regard for dramatic flow. (added 8/12/2004)

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Director: Brad Silberling
Rating: 8/10
Yes, it's another chance for Jim Carrey to do his Jim Carrey thing, but, hey, he's gotta please the part of his public that was confused by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, right? At least Lemony Snicket has other great elements to indulge in as well, starting with the art production, a competent facsimile of the Tim Burton style. The costumes are particlarly grand in this children's lit adaptation; everyone looks -- impeccably -- like they're ready for Halloween. Although Carrey threatens to chew the scenery whenever he can, the kids hold their own as the stars of the show, with Emily Browning in particular exhibiting an appeal that can be described as, "the look of Hilary Duff, but with much more depth." The kids' resourcefulness is what's on display, although their inventive solutions to problems are as believable as those of The Goonies. Meanwhile, the movie continues director Brad Silberling's understandably personal interest in dealing with how to move on from loss. Even in an energetic family flick, he tries to make tragedy significantly affecting; I don't know how many children can really relate, but it's an interesting attempt nonetheless. (added 12/17/2004)

A Love Song for Bobby Long
Director: Shainee Gabel
Rating: 6/10
I'll admit this is a decently put-together film, although it didn't do much for me personally. I believe it counts as Shainee Gabel's first solo directorial effort, and it's ambitious and confident. It's tough to sell a drama, though, if it doesn't find some natural way to rise above the ordinary, and that's this movie's biggest challenge. It wants to establish a lot of bases -- it has the mystery of the dead mother character, the backgrounds and personalities of its three major characters, and the preciousness of its poetic/literary aura -- but when it adds together, it's all rather tame and, well, not that interesting. John Travolta doesn't help matters with his performance, which feels too aware of itself, as if he knows the whole time that he's playing a Character. And since he's Bobby Long, his role is pivotal in establishing something a viewer can latch on to. Unfortunately, little presents itself -- it's mostly surface stuff, with his backstory and his peculiarities (some of them are just too cute) -- and since we are asked in some way to pity him, he needs a lot more than that to earn that pity. The movie is otherwise good at creating a lazy atmosphere, but that in itself is also a danger, and you don't have to think too hard to figure out why. (added 12/28/2004)

The Manchurian Candidate
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rating: 8/10
I'm still not sure why anyone decided a remake of the 1962 classic was in order, but Jonathan Demme's version is assured and stylized; if anything, it also lends support to this American story's bid for timelessness. With a few modifications here and there (most notably replacing the Communists with a wide-reaching corporation named "Machurian Global"), the tale not only fits comfortably in today's setting, but also comments on it. While the original film expressed concerns about how the Cold War might be fought, this update puts its eye on the power private interests have over our political system. Not that this is news, really, but today the situation has attained a heightened urgency, and appropriately the movie's tone is paranoid, tense, and disturbing. It also reflects the story's new level of believability -- the original was entertaining because it was fantastic and satirical, but the amount of metaphorical implausability it contained has diminished with the new re-telling; i.e., you might not have fully bought Communists messing around within our system, but you don't need much convincing to believe corporations are. Although you can still see the stretch marks in Daniel Pyne and Dean Geogaris's screenplay, their version is wound tighter than the original (no more useless Janet Leigh character -- her counterpart, played by Kimberly Elise, has a purpose now) and Demme uses his visual talents to milk the scenario's dreamlike dread. Meanwhile, the three leads (Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Liev Schreiber) do fine jobs, with Streep clearly having the most fun. Most welcome are the film's many nods and direct parallels to its predecessor -- my favorite was how it slyly combined the latter act double murder with the original's "go jump in the lake" scene. Sadly, though, I could not find a reference to the Queen of Diamonds; I thought she'd at least have a cameo. (added 8/4/2004)

Maria Full of Grace
Director: Joshua Marston
Rating: 8/10
What works really well for Maria Full of Grace is its unpredictability; while watching it, you can't really tell where it's going, and it never quite goes where you expect it to, yet you're glued to the events all the way. A good combination of solid elements contributes to this. First, its story -- about young Colombian women who turn to smuggling drugs to the U.S. for income -- is naturally fascinating, especially when you find out how they go about this smuggling. Second, the movie is shot in the natural, straightforward style that emphasizes realism and well-disguises writing contrivances. Third, its star, Catalina Sandino Moreno, turns out to be one of those great finds of the screen, a convincing actress with beauty and charisma. The movie is subtly harrowing, with a quiet bleakness. Perhaps it can be too subtle; it contains a lot of religious symbolism and maintains a sympathetic distance from its characters, so it hopes to make a seeping, not sweeping, impact on the viewer. (added 1/9/2005; edited version featured at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)

Mean Girls
Director: Mark Waters
Rating: 8/10
Mean Girls is indeed another iteration of the regular-girl-in-school-has-run-in-with-popular-girls movie (there have two others in this year alone, one of them also starring Lindsay Lohan), but this one has the truth-exposing agenda of Election and almost as much bite. Tina Fey's script is written with the determination of someone who's been there, in that demeaning world of high school girls, where labeling reigns as that most cruel yet too-easily-accepted pastime. It's no wonder she herself plays the character who makes the most effective plea in the end for the insensitivity to stop. The movie doesn't follow the usual path of these kinds of stories (though the prom or its equivalent once again serves as the final confession/resolution stop), opting not for revenge but instead for compassion, which, in this case, feels earned. It makes the whole thing feel rather noble in its intent, although it never once forgets that it's a comedy first. (added 10/1/2004)

Miracle
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Rating: 6/10
I'll usually give a middle-of-the-road movie a pass if I can find something a bit off-center to latch on to. I couldn't find that in Miracle. It's strangely disappointing because it only meets expectations, going faithfully by the sports-movie numbers. For every plus it displays, it puts out an equal minus -- the hockey scenes are full of life and the period details are caught well, but the rest woefully feels like a tv-movie, favoring close-ups; Kurt Russell is on his A-game with a meaty role as Coach Herb Brooks, but the skillful Patricia Clarkson is given nothing to do as his wife; and while it features some genuine moments of inspiration, it spoils them by handing out literal pronouncements, telling us exactly what to think each time ("This isn't just a hockey team!"). It'll please the crowds, but if Miracle was a hockey player, Coach Herb might not even let it make the team since it doesn't put in the extra effort to showcase its miracle with anything more than a standard treatment. (added 2/6/2004)

Napolean Dynamite
Director: Jared Hess
Rating: 6/10
Napolean Dynamite's been accurately described to me by more than one person as a movie that makes you go, "Huh? O... K..." while you're watching it, only to have it grow funnier in hindsight. And while this is actually true, I can't really say I'm a fan of the movie. It feels like a caricature of dorkdom that isn't saying anything about dorkdom, and its characters are too extreme overall to form any sort of connection with. In the end, the titular loser is just a freak show, a shallow, disposable piece of pop culture (I mean, how different is a character like this than, say, someone like William Hung?). "March to the beat of your own drum," the movie may say, "but we will laugh at you." This is not to say one should feel guilty chuckling at the social misfits on parade here; it's just that there isn't anything more to it than that. That the film is shot mostly as a destinationless series of gags is something to admire as a counter to the usual; that the series of gags might as well be 90 minutes worth of the same comedy show skit is lamentable and tedious. Also, I may be one of the few people on the planet who doesn't like the acting job by Jon Heder -- I always got the feeling he was smarter than his character, and that hurt his believability. (added 2/3/2005)

Ocean's Twelve
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Rating: 6/10
Having caught this just after the reviews had come out, I've noticed that many of those who were delighted by Ocean's Eleven were disappointed by Ocean's Twelve. I guess it depends on where you're coming from; I didn't like Ocean's Eleven because it was devoid of suspense, its screenplay so obviously filled with manufactured obstacles and solutions, but I enjoyed Twelve as I was watching it because I couldn't tell where it was going. The problem is, once it was done, I didn't really care about where it went after all. Maybe the most interesting thing about it is how it works as evidence of Soderbergh's mastery of the workings of Hollywood. He makes the crowd-pleasing "Ocean" movies in between his more artistic projects, almost, it seems, for the sake of funding those more serious works. Meanwhile, these fundraiser movies have the minimum requirements for success -- thin plotting, big star power, and a light touch -- so the director, cast, and crew just concentrate on having fun while making the film, knowing that audiences will come watch regardless of what actually goes on in it. It's a throwaway movie, a harmless time-waster, but it'll make money, and moviemakers and viewers alike will most likely have a cheerful time with it. It doesn't necessarily make the movie good; it just makes it... there. (added 12/11/2004)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2004

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