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.

Primer
Director: Shane Carruth
Rating: 9/10
Start with a premise wrapped in mystery, throw in a bunch of confusing events and "huh? moments," and make the story seem impenetrable yet solvable, and you've got yourself a mindbending hit, right? Well, sure, yeah, it sounds easy when it's put that way, but you've got to give credit to people who think they can pull this off, and the guys behind Primer definitely think they can pull it off. It's shot on a very low budget and it really shows, but the digital graininess actually adds a lot of atmosphere to this rough-edged piece of science fiction. Refreshingly, it tackles an old topic from an entirely new angle. It was also a great idea to depict its characters realisitically rather than in some glorified manner -- the two protagonists talk and act like recognizable engineers, so the manner in which they handle their dilemma is easily believable (call it a geek appeal), at least up to the time where the story starts throwing its weight around, trying to rustle up confusion. At that point, you can choose to be fascinated (like I was), or just give up all together. Either way, you gotta admit, these guys have guts. (added 1/9/2004)

The Punisher
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Rating: 6/10
The Punisher's world is a world of pain. That's about the only insight one can take away from this latest Marvel superhero adaptation, a would-be comic book movie that's actually not much more than a straightforward revenge movie. I wonder if this might've worked better had the filmmakers used something other than his origin story as their basis because, as it is, it doesn't have enough to call its own -- the eye-for-an-eye plot is certainly not unique, and the hero's modus operandi itself is too similar to DC's Batman -- no super-powers but a lot of resourcefulness, cool weapons, a cold streak, and a big load of hurt inside. That hurt translates a bit too graphically well to the outside, though -- this is one of the more squirm-inducing movies I can think of, in terms of its depiction of anguish both mental and physical. Call that a strength or a weakness -- I'd call it a strength, but a) it makes the movie uncomfortable to sit through, and b) it offers little else to savor, outside of a dedicated performance by relative unknown Thomas Jane, and John Travolta actually not going over the top (of course, whether or not that's good in this case is also arguable). (added 4/15/2004)

Saw
Director: James Wan
Rating: 4/10
Saw is one of those movies where an omnipotent psychopath, intelligent and enlightened to the point of cruel detachment, perfectly engineers murderous scenarios to entrap the unwashed in order to teach them life lessons. It's Se7en and Phone Booth and probably a bunch of other serial killer movies I haven't yet seen, only this one flounders in both the areas of profundity and thrills. It's not very suspenseful because both adherence to genre conventions and the heavy use of flashbacks usually telegraph the outcomes of the set pieces. Still, it says something about the creative energy brought to this movie by its creators that it's able to hold interest most of the way through, unraveling back stories that feel as if they might lead to something. But then the ending arrives, hysterical and histrionic, dismantling its own credibility minute by overblown minute, before topping itself off with a moment of cleverness-for-cleverness's-sake. The rest of its cleverness is reserved for the supposed ingenuity of the various traps created by the evil mastermind for his previous victims (assisted by hyper video techniques meant to ratchet up anxiety); level of fascination, however, depends strongly on how much you're already predisposed to finding these kinds of things intriguing. (added 4/20/2006)

Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed
Director: Raja Gosnell
Rating: 1/10
Silly me to think that maybe the sequel to the wretched Scooby-Doo would get a few things right this time. Nope -- it's a faithful extension of the first movie, which is to say it's crap. Honestly, if the makers of these (I shudder to call them) movies aren't even going to bother getting the characters' personalities right, what's the point? Worse yet, screenwriter James Gunn, who also penned the first disaster, continues to write about the gang from the position of being able to mock them, a cheap shot considering they were originally simple personalities, thus freeing up Gunn to turn them into unrelated stock character types to make fun of. You might as well have just made up five random joke butts -- this includes Scooby, who is considerably dumber and more oblivious than he was in the cartoons (oh, but he does the electric slide and he farts, so he's funny, ha ha). There are a plethora of other things wrong with this movie that I'm too tired to get into, but it all starts there, with the characters. I always liked the Scooby gang; I couldn't care less who these losers in Scooby-Doo 2 are. I can only hope one day the real gang will come and unmask these execrable imposters. (added 3/25/2004)

The Sea Inside
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Rating: 8/10
Alejandro Amenábar presents an issue movie, and it's perhaps a little too disappointingly sober and straight. Thus, it can't really achieve greatness, but you can see it trying and trying hard -- the acting is top notch, with Javier Bardem playing real-life Ramón Sampedro with commitment. What really helps the movie is the subject matter -- euthanasia -- and, for the most part, how it's tackled. The Sea Inside has a definite point-of-view and isn't afraid to say so, and this gutsiness is admirable. However, it also ironically depicts how enriching Sampedro's life has been since his debilitating accident, particularly for the people who have taken the time to know him. Viewed in this light, the intrinsic selfishness of suicide is illuminated even as the movie makes a direct case for having the right to die "with dignity." So it's disconcerting when the film mars its complexity in the last act; the denouement with Belén Rueda's character is particularly tactless. Still, it can be forgiven because of how boldly it confronts the issue overall, taking viewers to a place they won't feel comfortable in but should spend at least a little time exploring. (added 12/17/2004)

Shall We Dance?
Director: Peter Chelsom
Rating: 6/10
Masayuki Suo's charming social comedy has been remade into romantic fluff. Fans of the original film worried that changing the setting of the story from Japan to America would cause it to lose its cultural relevance -- after all, the tale works mainly because of Japan's rigid social codes. Well, the worries were founded -- although the story's skeleton still functions as a decent plot map, the experience is notably less meaty. It's now concerned with recapturing a zest for life in places where you don't expect it, a generic albeit more universal theme. The film starts off weakly -- it rushes itself and makes caricatures of its characters -- but ends decently, making an optimistic statement about recognizing and taking the time to appreciate a good marriage. The result might be described as blandly pleasant. Even the casting reflects this mediocrity -- Richard Gere is effortlessly pseudo-charming, while Jennifer Lopez is bizarrely miscast. She can't convey the depth her character needs, although it may not be all her fault, since screenwriter Audrey Wells seems to have underwritten her, dropping the weight of her backstory from the original movie. At least Lopez can dance -- the numbers they give her are gratuitous, but they're entertaining. (added 10/14/2004)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Director: Kerry Conran
Rating: 8/10
It's practically impossible to not join the chorus in praise of this movie's visuals. The computer-generated backgrounds are spectacular, and the actors blend in with them seamlessly. Also, because Conran made this movie as an homage to the sci-fi, comic books, and adventure movies of the '30's, '40's, and '50's, the visuals are doubtlessly loaded with tidbits of information and references that fans could probably spend hours looking for. But Sky Captain has to make fans, first, and that might be a little tough, given its light dimensionality. The movie takes its own whiz-bang spirit a little too much to heart, so much so that it forgoes creating convincing suspense; it tries too hard to make you smile, not enough to make your heart beat faster. When that's combined with Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow's only functional performances, we don't have much that's human to connect to (after sitting through the whole thing, I still feel I barely know the Sky Captain) -- this is a movie we watch more than we experience. As such, I myself admired the movie more than I enjoyed it -- it's loaded with unrealized potential, but that potential comes in the form of some great technical work, which itself is worth the time to view. (added 9/19/2004)

Spanglish
Director: James L. Brooks
Rating: 5/10
I already don't like depictions of women as hysterical harpies, so you can imagine how appalled I felt while watching Téa Leoni's character descend into a teary-eyed, red-faced lunacy. The sad part was how part of this was supposed to be played for comic effect, as if we weren't really supposed to believe in this caricature, especially since Spanglish spends so much time making her unredeemable as a person. The movie itself is a muddle -- its framing device wants us to believe it's the story of the daughter (Shelbie Bruce) of a Mexican illegal immigrant (Paz Vega), and how the daughter finds her identity through the struggles of her mother, but it also wants to be about the privileged yet neurotic L.A. family they work for. It's allowed to try and have it both ways, but it doesn't play fair, making the family's father (Adam Sandler), grandmother (Cloris Leachman), and daughter (Sarah Steele) sympathetic and somewhat dimensional, while forcing Leoni's mother character into a cardboard villain role. She's not malicious, she's merely stupid, insecure, and pathetic. And there's no reason for it -- the story doesn't call for something so extreme because it's only trying to achieve a warm, fuzzy comic tone that should make us all feel more happy about the positive forces of family and culture. Or maybe it isn't; maybe it's trying for something else entirely. That's the problem with Spanglish -- you can't tell. (added 12/17/2004)

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie
Director: Stephen Hillenburg
Rating: 7/10
I'd never seen an entire episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, so I went into this movie almost completely uninformed and without previous bias. And I gotta say, it's pretty danged funny stuff -- surreal, absurd, and conscienceless, while never forgetting that its target audience is kids. Or, perhaps more precisely, its target audience consists of kids (and kids-at-heart) who can appreciate nerdy lunacy. I think that was the most surprising thing for me -- SpongeBob and his starfish friend Patrick are prototypical nerdy teens (pre-teens?). They have indulgences only they can fully appreciate, strive for achievements more admirable in their own minds than in the minds of others, and are happy living in a world that has only tangential relationship to the perceptions of the mainstream. But instead of being made fun of, they're the heroes -- they've got energy and have things they get excited about, and they're celebrated for it. When's the last time you found the kid who's way too much into his Dungeons and Dragons heroic? Subversively admirable? Hip? SpongeBob kind of gives the hope that the freak flag-flying portion of the population can be positively accounted for in the study of the human race. (added 11/24/2004)

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003; released in U.S. in 2004)
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Rating: 8/10
A beautifully filmed and patiently paced Korean piece about the life lessons of a Buddhist monk who lives on a floating monastery in the middle of a lake. I'm sure over two dozen people have used the word "meditative" to describe it, but, with its contemplative moments and exquisite use of natural color, the word simply fits. The story is kept as simple as possible while retaining an ethereal aura of mystical mystery. For me, personally, it was satisfying to see a movie about having to learn the hard way, even when the learner is supposed to be as dedicated a pure soul as a Buddhist monk -- he still has to err as a human before he can make the leap toward wisdom and transcendence. However, I thought it was unfortunate that the tale needed to involve a woman in the thankless role as a primary temptation. It feels like a small, unsightly smudge on an otherwise pristine print of captivating art. (added 10/1/2004)

The Stepford Wives
Director: Frank Oz
Rating: 2/10
What a sad, sad mess. None of us needed an update of this story in the first place -- the original 1975 movie was already a nice time capsule statement about male paranoia in response to the women's movement, an appropriate comment on its decade -- so any remake would already have to work hard just to find some reason to exist. They made the correct first move, which was to shift it from a thriller to a comedy (since most people already know what a Stepford Wife is, suspense isn't a factor). Unfortunately, the comedy they employed was overstated, self-aware camp. And it isn't funny; the jokes thud one after another, wildly waving their arms for attention and relying heavily on reaction takes to convince the viewer to laugh already. To make things worse, the movie has no internal logic -- its story strains to make any bit of sense when set in our modern world, and it isn't consistent about what the Stepford Wives literally are. The ending is completely tacked on and incompetently executed on a spectacular level. The whole thing's a big train wreck. Any attempt at being dark or having something to say about the battle of the sexes is therefore completely nullified. Even if the movie just wanted to get mileage out of the idea that there's this town full of backwards women, it fails because that premise stops being funny after about two minutes. At some point while watching this, I just wanted to say, "It's ok. Really. You can stop trying now. Please." (added 11/18/2004)

Super Size Me
Director: Morgan Spurlock
Rating: 8/10
The latest in the recent trend of shockumentaries is this film in which its director, Morgan Spurlock, finds out what ill effects befall him while eating nothing but McDonald's food three meals a day for 30 days straight. The health-threatening results are expected, though the extent of the damage doesn't fail to disturb. Spurlock uses his stunt as an opportunity to spotlight America's struggle with obesity and to attack the marketing philosophies of food/snack manufacturing corporations. The film is mostly comedic and not surprisingly reminiscent of Michael Moore's brand of skewering. That makes it a little derivative, but it's still effective -- every time you watch Spurlock wolf down another Big Mac, you can feel yourself getting more sick thinking about it. If you need just a little extra incentive to keep you away from the drive-thrus, this movie is for you; I myself have been thinking twice about ever getting fast food since I've seen it. (added 5/27/2004)

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003; released in U.S. in 2004)
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Rating: 7/10
J-horror has become so popular, everyone wants to get into the act -- hence this entry into K-horror. Based on an old Korean fairy tale, A Tale of Two Sisters is a dash of haunted house, a dash of reliable evil stepmother, and a helping handful of fashionable questionable narrative reality. I like what it's trying to do -- use a ghost story surface to tell a tale of guilt, blame, and madness -- but was disappointed in the conventional tactics it used. There's a subtle story here, but it fights against your usual jump moments, familiar images of ghostly Asian girls with long black hair, and suspense-amplifying rattling sound effects/music cues. The photography is beautiful -- perhaps too beautiful, as I find glossiness and ghosts don't go together well for me, but it's effective in glamourizing the gorgeous set design. All this, and the story is non-linear and deals with memory, which means much of what happens on screen may not be trustworthy (so it's yet another descendant of the 2001 mindbenders). Consider the movie as having strong potential in its involving ideas, alas undercut by seen-it-once-too-many-times techniques. (added 1/13/2005)

Team America: World Police
Director: Trey Parker
Rating: 8/10
I haven't laughed myself to tears in a while, but this movie made it happen. Too bad it doesn't quite hold itself together all the way through, otherwise it might've been a slam dunk. Team America starts out by skewering the attitudes held by those who believe in the war on terror -- their paranoia, culture-phobia, and empty patriotism. It's also all done in the mold of a corny Bruckheimer-esque blockbuster, thus roasting brainless action movie formulas. It gets to the point where the parody becomes a warrior on terror's ultimate fantasy, where outspoken liberal celebrities join forces with terrorists in the name of peace, but this is where creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone let things get too personal, clouding their generally centrist ideas. Not that what happens isn't funny (most of it is, some of it isn't); it's just unfortunate that the last half of the movie contains a playground pettiness that the first half managed to avoid. Thus, the movie becomes a personal target range for Parker and Stone, who attack shallowness, arrogance, issue simplification, and the extreme views from both the right and the left with such scattershot bitterness, it almost derails the film. Almost -- Team America contains enough evidence of brilliant comic writing to carry it through to the end, all jumpstarted by the inspired use of marionettes in the first place. These puppets are funny and expressive -- let's just say actors who worry about being replaced with cg-characters ought to be worried in more than one direction. On many occasions, the comedy based on the puppetry and the concessions to its limitations is funnier and definitely less sour than Parker and Stone's target practicing -- yes, enough to bring me to tears. (added 10/16/2004)

Tokyo Godfathers (2003; released in U.S. in 2004)
Director: Satoshi Kon
Rating: 7/10
Here's a cool little story about three homeless Tokyo-ites who find an abandoned baby, leading them on a wild romp of coincidences and revelations in the holiday days between Christmas and New Year's. It has a tight, nifty script that probably would've worked just as well in a live-action flick, but the characters are so, well, animated that turning it into an anime was perhaps the best way to go. Indeed, the rather broadly drawn personalities and the unapologetic stream of happy accidents are what keep the material from achieving a deeper resonance. Instead, what we get is a sweet little melodrama of deep, personal wounds being treated by dashes of holiday miracles, and it's enough to bring a smile to one's face. At the very least, the movie deserves points for featuring an animated flamboyant homosexual as one of the leads -- again, depicted rather broadly but the sentiment is right. Or maybe this is something that isn't too unusual in anime, and I just haven't seen enough to know. But then consider -- would such a character ever see the light of day in an American cartoon? It's something to think about. (added 11/6/2004)

Touching the Void
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Rating: 8/10
People love survival stories, probably because most of us will never have to face a survival adventure ordeal in our lifetimes, and so we all contain repressed, untapped survival instincts that are hardly exercised other than vicariously. Touching the Void's story, like Gerry's, is about reaching the point where the urge to survive leaves the realm of human consciousness, when one is no longer a thinking being and becomes a machine, an animal, simply driven to survive. In this case, two mountain climbers scale the imposing Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, finding out the way up is easier than the way down. The point where the two become separated is the pivotal point of the film; afterwards, it's about one man's struggle to live against despairing odds. Both those events illustrate the inherent human instinct to self-preserve, and the movie does a great job showing how the ideals of nobility, sacrifice, religion, and even love are by-product luxuries of having higher intelligence. The story is narrated by the survivors and re-enacted in convincing detail; however, it's the words, the descriptions of the mental struggles, that offer the real insights in this tale. (added 6/28/2004)

Undertow
Director: David Gordon Green
Rating: 7/10
David Gordon Green's genre thriller, unlike his poor protagonist (Jamie Bell), starts off on the right foot. Evoking a late '60's/early '70's style, Undertow gets it right from the old-fashioned title cards to the happy use of freeze frames and zooms, with a tone-setting first sequence that features unvarnished pain befitting a terror tale from the sticks (and about that first sequence -- OWWWWW!). The only aspect that might betray its modern origins is the neatness of its atmosphere control, from the looks to the sound to the editing. When the suspicious uncle played by Josh Lucas arrives, the tension is uncomfortably claustrophobic, with Lucas giving a dead-on performance of a creep. But, sadly, after the movie's major middle event, Undertow starts to peter out. Green, the director of the critically esoteric George Washington and All the Real Girls, infuses his new movie with his trademark character observation in the last half, concentrating on the study of the relationship between Bell's character and his brother (Devon Alan). This is not exactly a bad move, but it does make the film feel confused about itself. Here, Green is showing how adaptable a director he can be -- his suspense scenes in the first half were as effective as anything I'd seen. If Undertow had a killer ending, this would easily be one to write home about. (added 10/21/2004)

Vera Drake
Director: Mike Leigh
Rating: 9/10
With abortion being as touchy a subject as it is, perhaps Mike Leigh's greatest accomplishment with Vera Drake is how he handles a movie on the topic without succumbing to the passionate heat of the debate. It gives the appearance of not taking sides on the issue by depicting plain-faced events (in 1950's London) related to various women and how they handle their unwanted pregnancies while centering on the activities of a character many have now described as a "backstreet abortionist." Yet, just by showing the different plights and how difficult they are to handle (almost always with secretive shame), it does reveal where its sympathies lie. Vera Drake is most masterful when it illuminates the situations as everyday realities; the character of Vera herself is the argument for regarding the issue with an indispensible caring selflessness. Imelda Staunton deserves the praise she's receiving for her performance as Vera, and although the film takes a limiting turn towards the end by becoming a domestic drama (complete with musical cues mostly absent from the early parts of the movie), it's a minor concern in the face of the work's overall dramatic impact and topical relevance. (added 11/24/2004)

Walking Tall
Director: Kevin Bray
Rating: 3/10
In this new version of the true story already covered by 1973's Walking Tall, The Rock comes home from years in the service only to find that Biff Tannen has taken over the town and plunged it into a world of sin. Well OK, it isn't quite the scenario from Back to the Future Part II, but it's close enough -- some dude The Rock used to know has opened up an ultra-modern, ultra-decadent casino, turning it into the town's main source of revenue, thus giving him all power over the town, including its crooked police. He also uses it as a front to sell drugs to the local kids. Naturally, this makes the good ol' boy Rock very angry, so he takes matters into his own hands. The result is a movie overloaded on testosterone, indulging in its manly violence and destructive urges in a manner as wasteful and unimaginative as the immoral lifestyle it pretends to look down on. Look, I absolutely dig The Rock, but he really needs to get away from these simplistic Vince McMahon-backed productions. His screen charisma is the only thing that makes this movie watchable, and it's just waiting to break out in some truly worthy movie. One day, he'll make a really great action picture and be propelled to Schwarzeneggerian heights. It just ain't today. (added 4/1/2004)

Wicker Park
Director: Paul McGuigan
Rating: 3/10
Both Wicker Park's story and execution are exercises in obfuscation, but sadly, in both cases, all the smoke and mirrors are working hard to obscure nothing of interest. The movie creates a romance-mystery using lots and lots of flashbacks and fancy visual editing, from split-screens to blurring to freeze-frames, but when the story finally reveals all of its cards, we see nothing more than an unspectacular soap opera relationships plot. Unlike a soap, though, the film never embraces its potential for trashiness. It fancies itself a thriller, but it can hardly qualify because of the lack of any real danger or menace. The whole thing thus ends up feeling pretty benign (or, worse, boring), and all we as viewers can do is chuckle at the characters' efforts to keep the movie's contrivances going. The flashbacks are excessive and the visual gimmickry is forced, but they're at least some kind of attempt at creativity and perhaps pretty much the only thing the movie has going for it. (added 9/2/2004)

Wimbledon
Director: Richard Loncraine
Rating: 7/10
Yes, I'm sad to say it, but I enjoyed much of this movie. It's another harmless British romantic comedy in the mold of Notting Hill, and there really isn't anything distinct about it other than that it features tennis and its star is Paul Bettany. He's pretty much just playing Hugh Grant, only scruffier and more chapped, but at least he's able to unobtrusively offer up the role's necessary disarming charms. The requisite American girl this time is Kirsten Dunst, who neither sinks the ship nor stands out here. I'll admit that my interest in tennis softened me up for this rather predictable sports romance, but even then I had to smile away a few of the bad tennis scenes, featuring what must've been a computer-generated ball. It's mainly Bettany and the now-too-familiar wry British humor that keeps it all afloat. Someday, perhaps, I'd like to see a meatier story about the affairs of the international players who live in the bustle of the pro circuit; for now, I'll consider this an innocuous potential precursor. (added 9/16/2004)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2004

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