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.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Director: Adam McKay
Rating: 6/10
With the release of this movie, it's becoming apparent that there's a certain group of actors today who are in firm control of successful, broadly appealing American comedy. This group includes Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Owen and Luke Wilson, and Will Ferrell. Their film output is fast and furious, their popularity has held steady, and they never stop cameoing in each other's movies. Such comedians used to be a part of television troupes, like SCTV and Saturday Night Live; they'd hone their skills in skit work before usually bombing in the movie front. Now, these guys have shown how to achieve film success -- by making the box office the barometer, and running with what worked every time one of their movies does well. In their case, character comedies make it happen -- they invent characters made to last 90 minutes long instead of stretching a skit character beyond its limits. Anchorman is the latest creation, although this particular movie isn't as strong as Dodgeball or Starsky and Hutch primarily because the satire inherent in these flicks isn't paid as much attention to this time around. As a result, Anchorman feels like a string of skits, haphazardly assembled, with more emphasis on the goof than what's behind it. Case in point: if this movie were transplanted from its environment -- male-dominated tv newsrooms of the '70's -- most of the gags would retain the same chances of succeeding and failing because they aren't particularly related to the topic. The woman's fight against the glass ceiling is less a driving force than it is a joke clothesline. Still, the movie is pretty fun -- it has more hits than misses, but that's the best one can say about it. (added 7/8/2004)

Around the World in 80 Days
Director: Frank Coraci
Rating: 7/10
Ooooo-kaaaayy... Perhaps the most fascinatingly, absurdly bizarre movie I've seen all year. This is essentially one of those '70's Disney family race/chase movies glued together with a Jackie Chan flick, all dressed up in the period and concept of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. One minute you could be cursing its obvious, formulaic approach to the material; the next minute you'll forget what you were thinking, grinning as Jackie Chan goes into another fun-filled, choreographed fight scene. Then, as he wraps it up, you'll go back to thinking, "And what did this have to do with Jules Verne?" How did it end up like this? I'm sure this started out as a promising idea -- after all, Chan is a natural to follow in the footsteps of Cantinflas as Passepartout from the Oscar Best Picture-winning 1956 movie. But then it warped into something that didn't necessarily lose its promise as much as it mutated into an all-together unrecognizable, yet somehow diverting, comedy. The only things this new version and the 1956 version have in common are the cameos -- here, stars from both sides of the Pacific get in on the act, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sammo Hung. The coolest surprise has to be the inclusion of Karen Joy Morris (better known in Hong Kong by her stage name, Karen Mok) as the Chinese villain counterpart to Jim Broadbent's bombastic British baddie. Broadbent and the rest of the cast get to throw out quite a few good lines too, which help to make this trippy, goofy, and nearly senseless concoction one of the more entertaining cases of "What-in-the-heck?" out there. (added 6/15/2004)

AVP: Alien vs. Predator
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Rating: 2/10
The writers took a premise rife with potential and created perhaps the most boring story possible to accomodate the two sci-fi races. It's a story set in the present (and, thus, outside of the Aliens' natural time element), where human involvement is minimal in its significance and emotional weight, and the confrontation between the Aliens and the Predators is given almost no room for suspense. These guys are supposed to be scary -- here, they're just not. Kudos to Sanaa Lathan for playing a character you actually can invest some sympathy in, but everything else is there for gratuitous spectacle. Paul W.S. Anderson directs the movie like it's a clever way to show off how much cool stuff he knows about the two franchises. Ooh, look, the Alien eggs! Ooh, look, the Predator heat vision! Ooh, look, the acid blood! It'd be OK if any of this showed up naturally within the context of the story, but any hopes of that go right out the window when the Alien face-huggers lunge at their victims in bullet-time-like slow motion! This movie might work as a time-passing sci-fi flick if you don't really care about the franchises or their possibilities; but to those who do, it's a real missed opportunity. (added 2/24/2005)

Bad Education
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Rating: 8/10
The best thing about Pedro Almodóvar movies is how you can never tell where they're going. Take this one, for instance -- at first, it seems to be some kind of exposé on Catholic school priests who practice predation on the schoolboys. Before you know it, however, the movie turns into a full-blown gay film noir, with Gael García Bernal as the femme fatale! The Almodóvar trademarks are intact, from the vivid use of color and music, the blurring of gender and transgender roles, and a plot that twists and turns, using the passage of time as just one of the many elements at the mercy of the storyteller instead of it being the other way around. Also characteristic are the playful sense of perversity and the comfortably quick shifts from melodrama to humor and back again. I think, to Almodóvar, life is one long, sad comedy. Bad Education bogs down a bit with more exposition than the writer/director usually allows for, but I suppose there's a lot more to explain this time, since the movie features a series of accounts that slowly lead the viewer to the truth. It's another tragicomic tale of human foibles fueling the unstoppable momentum that drives lives forward to the most unpredictable predicaments. (added 11/18/2004)

Before Sunset
Director: Richard Linklater
Rating: 9/10
Here's a movie no one saw coming: the nine-years-later sequel to 1995's Before Sunrise, a movie I saw only recently and liked from a distance. You see, I don't quite get swept up by young romance as easily as I used to, which is why Before Sunset is more up my alley. The two young lovers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), meet again, this time in Paris, for the first time since the promise that ended the first film. What ensues is a catch-up conversation, portrayed in real time from the film's beginning to end, wherein youthful ideals ravaged by reality and age are revealed. It shows that although we inevitably become wiser, feelings, passion, and emotion don't become any easier to figure out; we just get better at corralling them. The movie is deft at exposing the cracks in the psychological foundations we build for ourselves as we approach middle age; we build them out of weariness, really -- weariness from having to deal with life -- and it sadly makes us defensive. This is what makes Before Sunset so good -- nothing like an unexpected meeting between two ex-strangers-in-the-night to break open the floodgates, amounting to a mental cleansing for both the characters and the movie's viewers, and, perhaps, a rediscovery of youthful ideals. Linklater's babble-works aren't for everyone, but here, because the words bear weather-beaten scuff marks, they seem more accessible than ever. And, oh yes -- the ending to this movie is perfect. (added 7/1/2004)

Being Julia
Director: István Szabó
Rating: 6/10
I really enjoy seeing big, juicy roles being made available for veteran actresses, and the main character in Being Julia is as big as they come. Annette Bening takes full advantage of the opportunity, giving a performance that truly earns the description "tour de force." Watching her is the main pleasant activity of this movie, which is otherwise a simplified descendant of All About Eve. I don't know what it is about theater people, but they're again depicted as constantly acting, whether onstage or off, outwardly charming while finding some subtle way to twist those knives they've got in their associates. Being Julia might've been a decent vessel for this wicked spirit, but it's smeared by a very childish ending. I guess I should have seen it coming, but I didn't, and as a result it almost wrecked the movie for me. But there is that Bening performance to savor -- hardly do skilled actresses get to show off so much range and depth, and that's quite appreciable. (added 1/9/2005)

Beyond the Sea
Director: Kevin Spacey
Rating: 6/10
Ironically, Kevin Spacey's labor of ego doesn't fail due to the ego's unsubstantiation. He really does have talent. Spacey croons all the numbers in Beyond the Sea, and not only does he sound good, he dances just fine too. And he knows how to direct a good musical sequence -- the "Beyond the Sea" number is one of the most delightful scenes I've seen in the movies this year. Unfortunately, there are just too few like it in the movie itself. The first half relishes its own surreal world, embracing the inherent, lovely absurdity we must all accept when watching a musical. But the second half crashes, diving into draggy biopic territory, complete with protagonist and wife (Kate Bosworth, playing Sandra Dee in a thankless, thin role) fighting and getting on everyone's nerves. By the ending, the movie's narrative structure has been completely abandoned, but we're thankful for the closing number because at least that's entertaining. Meanwhile, oh yes, the movie is about Bobby Darin, but we don't learn a thing about him other than he was arrogant. So, actually, the movie's about Kevin Spacey. (added 12/17/2004)

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Rating: 7/10
I'd call Zatoichi stylish to the point of distraction, except I'm not sure what I was being distracted from. Make no mistake -- the slices of mayhem, the seemingly random acts of flashbacks, and the, yes, dance numbers are the show. What's going on? It doesn't really matter. There are numerous parties, each with their own subplot, and they eventually take sides with good or evil, but it all doesn't demand close attention. Hip Japanese artist/personality "Beat" Takeshi's movie is about spontaneity and bursts of kineticism and humor, presented with comic book-like (or, perhaps more appropriately, manga-like) visuals. True to its spontaneous nature, though, the film isn't ever involving for more than a few minutes at a time. The showstopping swordplay lacks suspense because, given the skills of the spotlighted combatants, the conclusions always feel foregone; however, they are flashy in an eye-popping, gut-punching way. Zatoichi is cinematic performance art; maybe it's too zany and loose to leave a lasting impression, but it sure is fun while it lasts. (added 10/28/2004)

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
Director: Beeban Kidron
Rating: 4/10
I wasn't a fan of the first Bridget Jones movie, an entitlement fantasy if there ever was one. Now the sequel has come out and it's worse -- not only does it rehash the original's elements, its story is one of the most unimaginative I've seen. It's a plot for a bad sitcom episode, driven by the protagonist's supposedly charming idiocy, and resolved, once again, by extremely generous forces outside of her influence. As in the first movie, she just falls into things and then somehow arrives at a very happy ending. I think I can see why this kind of storyline might appeal to people who identify with Bridget's everyday concerns, but come on -- even folks who spend life feeling sorry for themselves should somehow proactively earn their happily ever afters. What makes the movie bearable is the likeableness of its three stars: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, and the consitently entertaining Hugh Grant, whose character really doesn't have any reason to be there, but I'll take it just because Grant is funny. But these guys really deserve better than a script that does little else besides perpetuate the silly image of Bangkok as the land of prositutes and prisons awaiting unsuspecting tourists. Give me a break. (added 11/11/2004)

The Butterfly Effect
Directors: Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber
Rating: 6/10
The Butterfly Effect is an extreme movie, and as a result it walks a super-thin line between horrific believability and hilarious unbelievability. One can admire it for its conviction, which can nudge a viewer into going along with it, but the movie seems to be unaware that the events it portrays work a little too well in nudging the viewer back the other way. Either way, however, you can have fun with it -- you can be sickened and involved by the shock horror, or you can laugh deliriously at bad dialogue and dopey scenarios. I had the strange experience of being just involved enough to want to know where it was going, even as I was ticking off the holes in logic -- I guess there's just something about time-travel premises that gets me fired up, no matter how goofily they may be executed. My main complaint about the movie is how its overreacting forcefulness seems custom-designed to cater to Ashton Kutcher's youthful, instant-thrill-fed core audience; thoughtful subtlety would have done this story a lot of good. But since the movie is primarily concerned with just punching you in the gut, it's lucky it has an intriguing story to go with it. This combination actually helps make The Butterfly Effect more memorable than it deserves to be (either for its tragedy or unintentional comedy) -- and that might be the best result it could ever ask for. (added 8/10/2004)

The Chronicles of Riddick
Director: David Twohy
Rating: 3/10
Let's admit it -- every sci-fi geek dreams of creating his or her own Star Trek-like universe and sharing it with a few fans. Naturally, few people ever get that chance, but David Twohy got his because of the relative success of his Vin Diesel-powered movie, Pitch Black. But just because you want to create a universe doesn't mean you'll be able to present it well, and The Chronicles of Riddick, Pitch Black's sequel, is a case in point. Most of the movie is ponderous nonsense, with hammy characters babbling on and on about worlds, universes, alien races, and prophecies. It's too much fictional information unfolding too conscientiously, almost none of it prefaced by Pitch Black, bursting on to an audience for accelerated consumption, except that the information is spooned out in such a boring way it's more like dribbling on an audience. Vin Diesel mumbles unintelligibly, Thandie Newton vamps amateurishly, and Judi Dench's presence is totally unnecessary. I don't blame Twohy for his efforts, but in the middle of sharing a world, one should make sure the audience doesn't start by asking "What's going on?" and end by asking, "Who cares?" (added 12/2/2004)

Director: Michael Mann
Rating: 9/10
When I can feel the screen crackle with atmosphere -- calculated, yet feeling completely natural and organic -- that's when I get pumped. Collateral may not break any ground as a crime thriller (in fact, its partnering of a manipulated pure-heart and a murderous cold-heart, riding through the streets of L.A., just happened a little while ago in Training Day), but Michael Mann turns it into an opportunity to flex his muscles, resulting in another of his usual character studies of male minds and their battle of wills. Tom Cruise is Hollywood solid, but the real surprise here is Jamie Foxx, who gives a smooth, modulated performance which is never betrayed by the comic showmanship we might expect from him. The third star of the movie is nighttime Los Angeles, in all its sprawled-out, points-of-light bespeckled glory. The main characters' journey across freeways, through surface streets, and past buildings is hypnotic and meditative. Its depiction perfectly fits the film's ideas of L.A. as a land of complacent alienation and isolation, its denizens encouraged to insulate themselves with a quiet confidence and sense of independence in the face of the city's vast, distancing space. It's the type of environment Mann has made a specialty of recreating, and the movie is marvelous at showcasing the feel of this solitude, alluringly peaceful yet lonely. In between scenes of driving and tense, pseudo-philosophical conversations between the leads, we're treated to some stimulating suspense sequences. The movie's ending becomes sadly outrageous, but, for the first hour-and-a-half or so, this was cinematic heaven as only Mann could have wrought. (added 8/10/2004)

Dawn of the Dead
Director: Zack Snyder
Rating: 7/10
Sure enough, this remake of the George Romero classic doesn't have the depth of social commentary of the original; however, in its own right, it's a decent zombie movie, made with a fair amount of thoughtfulness and with more seriousness than its predecessor. It's less reflective of today's version of mindless horde-driven consumerism and perhaps simply more reflective of today's version of horror movie-making. This is isn't your father's Dawn of the Dead indeed -- no longer conspicuously low-budget, it's slick, polished, and meant to connect with a young mass audience. Well, maybe it's not that polished -- the movie gets sloppy in places, making some of the action hard to follow and muddling some of its logic (for instance, there's a birthing scene during which someone becomes a zombie and I'm not sure why, and I suspect that the entire scene only exists for what the filmmakers must've thought was a cool horror punchline; in the meantime, it seems wasteful of the characters involved). Some good characters anchor the film, and it's their conflicting sets of motives that make it (and any good horror film peopled with a healthy number of potential victims) engaging. Meanwhile, the running zombies are better utilized in 28 Days Later, which this movie seems to borrow a lot from, stylistically. (added 11/6/2004)

The Day After Tomorrow
Director: Roland Emmerich
Rating: 4/10
This is the movie equivalent of trying to get someone to stop smoking by saying, "Don't smoke, or you'll die instantly within 24 hours!" Meanwhile, you turn on a smoke machine to freak the person out. And you really want the smoker to just quit, but you're more interested in how neat the mist looks while it's filling up the room. The Day After Tomorrow may have a nice little message about the environment, but because it uses movie science, its message isn't very convincing; meanwhile, don't these tornadoes look cool destroying Los Angeles?! I mean, what was that scene even for, other than to look cool? And don't get me started on the wolves -- you have a movie about the threatening weather, and you can still run out of ideas for danger? So you pull out the wolves? About the only thing I found interesting in the movie was its implication that dumb people die and smart people live. The heroes were Academic Decathlon contestants, some book lovers, and a resourceful homeless guy. It's an action movie where muscles can't save a thing; too bad the movie itself isn't as smart as its characters. (added 12/2/2004)

Director: Irwin Winkler
Rating: 6/10
This musical biopic about Cole Porter offers a handsome production and a strong performance from Kevin Kline, but they're forced to serve a wobbly theme positing Porter's wife Linda as his true love. This would be love of the non-romantic variety, since Porter was a homosexual and Linda knew it and allowed him leeway for it, but the movie applies too much gloss, trying to fashion a meant-for-each-other story so consciously that its contrivance feels glaring. It wouldn't be too bad, really, if it also didn't contrast their struggling relationship -- the one the film wishes to sell as, ultimately, a hard-fought success -- with Porter's gay dalliances, seen as having a positive impact on his art but a corrosive impact on his marriage/partnership. It creates a strange vibe, as if to say a gay man's only truly worthy relationship could come from a woman. I know it's not meant to be seen that way, but I think there's danger in its potential to be interpreted as such, particularly when it's presented with only light complexity -- here, Porter's sexual indulgences play a collective role as the major source of conflict to an otherwise productive union. Even the wonderful songs they inspire serve as coded messages of discouragement to Linda. Speaking of those songs, the soundtrack and the staged numbers are entirely comprised of Porter's work (many performed by famous hey-look!-it's-[blank]! musical guests). They make the film lively and engaging, especially in the first half; unfortunately, the music takes a back seat in the second half to the biopic standard of watching its subjects grow tragically old and crippled. More frustrating is how the film then goes fully into redemption mode, and while the final shot of the couple is touching, one can't help but catch an unwelcome whiff of ironed-out glamourization. It seems that even behind every great gay man, there stands a woman. (added 7/1/2004)

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Rating: 7/10
The ad slogan for the movie's featured evil corporation is, "At Globo-Gym, we're better than you, and you know it!" The movie itself could've easily used the slogan, "We'll make you laugh mindlessly, and you'll know it!" Being supremely aware of every stupid, immoral, uncivil, and just-plain-wrong thing it does makes Dodgeball either very smart or just as dopey as it's trying to look. It almost feels like a dare: laugh at this because you know you it's easy to get hooked on an underdog/sports story; laugh at this, even though you know it's wrong to find stereotypes funny; laugh at this, even though we all know this is totally dumb. Viewers are constantly kept aware of all the intentional idiocy by the exaggerated onslaught of genre conventions, and the whole thing is capped off by an object wheeled in during the climax that's literally labeled "Deus Ex Machina," and by a post-credits cherry featuring Ben Stiller commenting on the audience's lowbrow tastes. Although the movie clunks in many places, it has enough comic inspiration to save it, from its lampooning dodgeball as a demeaning sport (thus actually making an honest critique of the origin and existence of this semi-barbaric activity in the process) to Stiller and Vince Vaughn switching roles against-type as the bully and the put-upon protagonist, respectively. They make the most of it when Stiller rattles off circuitous, ineffective threats and Vaughn reacts in squinty-eyed disbelief. I was also reacting to the movie that way, but I was laughing at the same time. (added 6/17/2004)

The Door in the Floor
Director: Tod Williams
Rating: 6/10
Just ask the Ordinary People or the folks In the Bedroom -- when tragedy befalls your family, its cohesiveness and internal relationships start coming apart in all manners of ugly ways. In The Door in the Floor, it's even uglier than usual, as the father (Jeff Bridges) and the mother (Kim Basinger) act out their antagonism towards each other with despicable passive-aggressiveness. Not helping matters is the presence of a newly hired assistant (Jon Foster), whose own interest in the family soon proves to be a destructive force. This is another entry in the fallout-from-grief genre, but it subscribes too readily to the theory that tragedy automatically equals importance. The movie drowns in pretentious symbolism that's meant to intrigue the viewer into believing there's meaning here, and it relies on this self-importance as the main foundation for what amounts to decent (albeit obvious, style-wise) filmmaking about nothing interesting in particular. Sex plays a big role as well, and one wonders if its inclusion is meant to add another metaphoric layer to the tale or to merely titillate audiences into staying awake. Probably both. Having nothing new to say about the grieving process in any sort of readily accessible way, the movie can at least brag about Bridges's performance, who doesn't play the usual sad, badly affected figure found in these stories (that would be Basinger's job). He's actually quite a detestable character, as are the other main players, and this possibly communicates The Door in the Floor's most graspable idea: "Bad things do happen to bad people." (added 11/18/2004)

Finding Neverland
Director: Marc Forster
Rating: 8/10
After sitting through several biopics this year, I expected to politely endure another one, this time about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie. I was happy to find out Finding Neverland is actually more traditional story than life story, a touching little drama about how Barrie's acquaintance with the Llewelyn Davies family inspired him to write his magnum opus. And at only 100 minutes, too! Very economic. With a fanciful illumination of a playwright at its center, the story feels similar to Shakespeare in Love, only sadder and more bittersweet. Forster, who previously directed Monster's Ball, proves a good fit for another story about finding a way to move forward after facing the losses in life. The fantasy elements, where the imaginary games of Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies kids come to life in intercutting edits, add the necessary light touches for what might otherwise be a pretty downbeat movie. Thanks to that balance, the movie is able to sail through familiar waters rather than sink under the weight of clichés. (added 11/11/2004)

Friday Night Lights
Director: Peter Berg
Rating: 7/10
Friday Night Lights starts out rather discouragingly. Director Peter Berg seems to aping Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday, but instead of pro football we're watching high school football, or at least we're trying to, amidst the rapid editing, whip pans and zooms, and an assault of character glimpses. But once it settles down, it does something rather unique, even as it traffics in sports movie clichés. After all the scenes of individual players and their own personal dilemmas, watching the major injury cripple the star, seeing the new rising stars in his place, getting to know the beleaguered coach (Billy Bob Thornton) and the small-town football fanatics for whom nothing else matters; after the games building up to the playoffs, the locker room speeches, the big game itself, what Friday Night Lights offers is the perspective that, for the people and young players caught up in this whirlwind, football simultaneously means everything and ultimately nothing. It's at once a glorification of and a rather harsh reality check about school-organized sports, showing there's really nothing beyond the days on the field and the momentary adulation of the home crowds. Is it an anti-football football movie? Not strictly so -- the games are presented as exciting, after all, and the viewer is encouraged to root for the featured team -- but at least it has the guts to know the place of its vaunted subject. (added 10/30/2009)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2004

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