Alternate Reviews

Friday, October 06, 2006

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (Alternate Review)

Aaron Eckhart Thank You For Smoking Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Aaron Eckhart
Reviewed by Byron Merritt



There’s something to be said for a film that makes no apologies for being completely politically incorrect, and THANK YOU FOR SMOKING certainly has something to say.

That audiences may find themselves cheering on "the bad guy" will make this movie all the more entertaining. Aaron Eckhart (SUSPECT ZERO) stars as Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for the tobacco companies, and he’s very good at what he does. One of his sayings is "If you argue well enough, you’re never wrong." The moral flexibility Nick has is akin to an ethical gymnast. But his son Joey (Cameron Blight, ULTRAVIOLET) is growing up fast and is learning the ways of the father. We see Nick navigating these parental waters with a touch of dignity and a splash of chagrin. Can he be a good father while towing the line for the tobacco companies and telling everyone that cigarettes are a personal choice rather than a death sentence?

William H. Macy (
EDMOND) stars as Senator Finistirre, "the good guy" who is trying to get a skull and crossbones image stamped on every carton of cigarettes. But he’s also a politician, trying to further his own career. He represents a state that produces tons of fatty cheeses, thus adding to Americans weight and cholesterol problems. And he most certainly isn’t above taking campaign contributions from businesses, is he?

That the film is filled with contradictions and hilarious moral dilemmas is a tribute to the author of the book,
Christopher Buckley. That he can turn the tables on alcohol, tobacco and firearms (all of which are addressed in the name of "business") is a testament to some damn fine writing.

What makes the movie work so well is Aaron Eckhart’s affable portrayal of Nick. He’s so darn likeable yet utterly incomprehensible (in the moral sense) that the audience will be grudgingly cheering him on. That he can out-maneuver his opponent (Macy) makes the movie-watcher dislike whom they really should be cheering for! What a turnabout!

The ensemble cast is incredible, too. In addition to Eckhart, Macy and Blight, there’s Maria Bello (A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE), Sam Elliott (TOMBSTONE), Katie Holmes (PIECES OF APRIL), Rob Lowe (THE WEST WING, TV series), Robert Duvall (THE APOSTLE), and quite a few other notables.

This film must certainly be on people’s top-ten list of movies to watch ...if they haven’t caught it already.

Click here for the Thank You For Smoking movie trailer!

Click here for Chad's review of Thank You For Smoking

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

FANTASTIC FOUR (Alternate Review)

Ioan Gruffudd Fantastic Four Directed by Tim Story
Starring Ioan Gruffudd
Reviewed by Chad Wilson



Films about super heroes have become almost a mainstay of the summer box office, like action flicks and romantic comedies. While many a fan – including myself – is excited about finally seeing our favorite books on screen, the result thus far have been mixed. While X-Men, Spider-Man, and Batman were good films within their own limits, Daredevil, Electra, Punisher, and Hulk all failed to meet expectations. So it is regrettable that I place the Fantastic Four in the latter group rather than the former.

This tale of super heroes finds scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and comrade Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) promoting a manned mission to an orbiting space station to study a once in a millennia cosmic event. Unfortunately, Reed’s finances are lacking, so he turns to old college friend Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) for financing, only to find his past love interest Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) on Doom’s payroll. Doom agrees to the mission with tough conditions and also insists Storm’s brother Johnny (Chris Evans) pilot the space craft. The mission goes awry, bathing the characters in a heretofore unknown type of radiation. Upon the return to Earth, each character slowly discovers new abilities; abilities which some embrace and others shun.

Fantastic Four is a film with very little depth and typically, most audiences have low expectations for the dramatic in super hero fare. Unfortunately, Four manages to sink below those rather low expectations, reducing the entire cast to mere caricatures of better writing. There are some genuine attempts at real emotion, but they are buried beneath a script that has to go somewhere but never does. The viewer isn’t taken anywhere special, as we find our heroes bickering (Reed and Susan), showboating (Johnny), or wallowing (Ben) until the inevitable conflict with a newly created super villain (Doom). We all know what to expect from these characters at the beginning, so none of their reactions are the least surprising. What we get is a fairly generic origin story for a super powered team in the rough who obviously must work together as a team in the end to face a great evil.

While many would argue that the Fantastic Four have never been Marvel’s strongest title, the characters and villains have more to offer than what director Tim Story has given us. This is a film that’s riding the wave of past super hero movie successes and it shows. Fantastic Four is aided by some fine casting (with the exception of Alba) and the special effects do offer some great new eye candy. While none of the acting is anything special, most of the cast competently portray each role enough to get the audience through the slows scenes and into the action. The dialogue can go either way, depending upon your penchant for cheese and obvious humor.

A film that could have been fantastic is rather bland, with a story, characters, and dialogue all done much better in other films of the genre.

Click here for the Fantastic Four movie trailer!

Click here for Byron's review of the Fantastic Four.

V FOR VENDETTA (Alternate Review)

V For Vendetta Natalie Portman Directed by James McTeigue
Reviewed by Chad Wilson


Rare indeed is a science fiction film with more to offer than the newest special effects display and rarer still a science fiction film with political/ideological subtexts that thrill and inspire audiences. V For Vendetta may be a film that offers science fiction, political commentary, and controversial ideology, but each of these parts mesh to create a vibrant film that resonates. V For Vendetta opens upon the audience like a firework, its story rages like a storm, and the finale lingers like an aftermath.

Adapted from the graphic novel by Alan Moore, V For Vendetta is a science fiction story set in a totalitarian Britain spawned from a vaguely described disaster in years past. The suppression suffered by the masses is personified by young Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) who - falling into trouble with state police called Fingermen - finds herself rescued by a masked revolutionary named “V” (Hugo Weaving). Dressed in the guise of folk hero Guy Fawkes, “V” engenders unto Evey the dream of a new and better world to replace the iron-fisted regime of Sutler (John Hurt) that cages Britain and her people in fascism.

Without doubt, V For Vendetta is a pointedly disturbing film. The character of “V” both inspires and terrifies the viewer through his actions, at times heroic and equally monstrous, particularly his methods of persuading Evey to join his new revolution. As “V”, Hugo Weaving plays the provocateur entirely behind a masked fascade, like some Phantom of the Oppressed. Proving he’s up to the challenge, Weaving adeptly utilizes his melodic voice combined with deft body language to create a vibrant performance as theatrical as V’s personality. Equally enjoyable is Portman’s Evey, portrayed with enough emotion to perfectly fathom the character’s fear and the right amount of anger to trust the honesty of her transformation into freedom fighter; all this and a convincing english accent too. As antagonists, the varied cast conveys brutal authoritarianism through dictator Adam Sutler (John Hurt), blind ambition from thug Creedy (Tom Pigott-Smith) and gradual enlightenment via Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea).

While these powerful performances would engage any audience in an average film, V For Vendetta is never content to tell a conventional tale. Driving directly into issues such as free-will, homosexuality, and persecution, screenwriters Andy & Larry Wachowski masterfully adapt Moore’s classic graphic novel for the screen. First time director James McTeigue obviously benefits from the instruction of the Wachowski brothers, bringing the script to life and bravely dealing with the moral ambiguity of extreme ideology and the human dilemma between death and freedom. Those expecting to see an action piece will be disappointed, but those expecting a smart thriller with powerful action to match the well-paced tension will be ecstatic. V For Vendetta features compelling mystery, authentic drama, and some truly innovative fighting sequences sadly absent from many movies that claim to be action films.

With a film this reactionary, it’s only natural that some of the flaws will be examined with scrutiny. The film can drag briefly at points of exposition and sometimes the audacity of “V” can stretch a scene into absurdity. Yet overall V For Vendetta works and works well, even if the movie lacks a certain polish. In its defense, the movie has solid acting, a bold story, provoking drama, and a strong cinematic style that should win over most.

V For Vendetta features many surprises and introspective moments best left to experience unspoiled. Many skeptics have complained of hollow films and a diminishing interest in the stories being told on the big screen, so V For Vendetta will hopefully be accepted as a rich movie worth watching. While the current politically sensitive climate in many democratic nations may cause some to marginalize the film, V For Vendetta is that rare important film which deserves to be seen before judgement is rendered.

A fantastic adaptation of a seminal graphic novel and a memorable film which will stimulate debate and discussion as all good art should.

Click here for the V For Vendetta movie trailer!

Click here for Byron's review of V For Vendetta.

THE DA VINCI CODE (Alternate Review)

Tom Hanks The Da Vinci Code Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Tom Hanks
Reviewed by Chad Wilson



The Da Vinci Code book by author Dan Brown has been discussed so much since release, the controversy has taken on a life of its own. So it can come as no surprise that the film adaptation has generated an equal if not greater controversy prior to release. Yet lost in most of the debate is a simple question for this film fan: is The Da Vinci Code a good movie?

The Da Vinci Code is a thriller which delves into religious iconography and myth to tell the story of a Semiologist (called the fictional discipline “Symbology”) named Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) who becomes involved in a mystery after the death of an old colleague in France. Hank’s Langdon is approached by DCPJ officer Bezt Fache (Jean Reno) and brought to the Louvre Museum to assist Fache’s investigation. Here Langdon meets the curator’s granddaughter and cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) who discreetly informs Langdon that he is Fache’s prime murder suspect. Escaping Fache’s custody, Langdon and Neveu investigate the curator’s death, leading the two on a perilous chase to discover a conspiracy by the Catholic Church that conceals the true story of Jesus Christ.

If the plot of Code sounds contrived at this point, trust that it is very much so and more despite director Ron Howard’s effort. The introduction of Langdon into the conspiracy is just barely plausible, an error that ever impedes one’s suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t help the narrative that a side story about $20 million and Bishop Manuel Aringarosa (Alfred Molina) is never explained or that the relentless assassin monk Silas (Paul Bettany) is given flashbacks while stalking our heroes. The film is so full of useless information the last thing it needs is lengthy exposition, but we get that in spades with the inserting of Langdon’s friend Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen). McKellen spouts near endless drab dialogue, but he does manage to inject some humor and life into an otherwise dark and dull movie. How dark it is indeed, a film so clouded by shadow it comes off as annoying rather than anything a viewer could appreciate as cinematic style.

So much goes tragically wrong in the execution of The Da Vinci Code it becomes a puzzle in itself choosing where to start a critique. The humorless main characters, the dreadfully lengthy exposition, the boring first two-thirds, the constant out of focus closeups, and yet more disparaging criticisms could be written to fill two reviews. The list of faults could be overlooked if a strong script engaged the audience. Instead, Code offers nothing engaging at all and opts instead for Langdon and Neveu literally stumbling unto solutions without so much as an ounce of deduction or reason. Who needs Sherlock Holmes when dumb luck will suffice?

In defense of Code, the story itself is a rather fresh setting for a tried and true mystery thriller. While Howard’s directing of Code does little to distinguish the film from other such films as National Treasure, the concept of a conspiracy surrounding the true nature of Jesus is compelling. Many will find a lot of interesting thoughts and theories on western religions and the history of which is called into question. Even in such a lifeless film as Code, there are a few thrills to be had and some genuine twists will satisfy those with low expectations. However, the controversy preceding the release is by far more impressive and entertaining than the film itself. If any film deserves to be derided for creating a lot of hype about a lot of nothing, The Da Vinci Code certainly qualifies.

The Da Vinci Code is an average conspiracy thriller whose only claim to fame is a pre-release controversy.

Click here for The Da Vinci Code movie trailer!

Click here for Byron's review of The Da Vinci Code.

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (Alternate Review)

X-Men: The Last StandHugh Jackman Directed by Brett Ratner
Starring Hugh Jackman
Reviewed by Chad Wilson

THUMBS UP (3 out of 5 rating)! THUMBS UP FILM REVIEW RATING (3 out of 5 Rating)!

Prior to release, X-Men: The Last Stand was known more for its tumultuous development problems and lack of a director than for the anticipation of what was once the new darling film franchise of the summer blockbuster season. With the departure of series creator Bryan Singer and the decline of an offer to direct by up-and-comer Matthew Vaughn, speculation was high that the final choice of Brett Ratner to direct would spell doom for the X-Men film franchise. While rumors of the third film’s demise may be greatly exaggerated, X-Men: The Last Stand is a semi-successful sequel that doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first two X-Men movies.

Reprising their roles from the first two films, the group of super-human mutants Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Storm (Halle Berry), and Cyclops (James Marsden) struggle onward to protect mutants and humans alike after the tragic loss of their beloved teammate Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Arriving at Xavier’s mansion, Secretary of Mutant Affairs Dr. Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammar) gravely informs the X-Men that a drug company has discovered a method to suppress mutation and strip mutants of their super-human powers. Reacting with unbridled defiance, fierce mutant leader Magneto (Ian McKellen) swiftly moves to insure mutant superiority by rescuing the captured Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) and building an army with which to control the source of the cure, a mutation-negating child named Leech (Cameron Bright).

It would only be fair to say that Bryan Singer is missed in this third film. X-Men: The Last Stand does lack the accomplished production design, vibrant cinematography, and polished character driven stories that were strong elements in the two previous efforts directed by Singer. However, Ratner has to be given due credit for creating a better than average sequel. What Last Stand may lack from previous franchise installments it compensates with some risky character choices, a clever story, and some of the best effects-laden action you’re likely to see this year. Stylistically, the film starts off with the now-familiar cerebro marquee and includes the expected prologue before the film pushes into the main story. The characters, both old and new, are setup with near consistent aplomb allowing the story to easily integrate into the current narrative flow of the X-films.

There is a good deal to find entertaining in Ratner’s version of X-Men. The script for Last Stand treats the established characters faithfully, from the development of the infamous Cyclops/Jean/Wolverine love triangle to smaller stories like the relationship between Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). The film is strongest when doing action and tension. Fans will enjoy numerous mutant showdowns, from a fire-and-ice battle between Iceman and former X-student-turned-villain Pyro (Aaron Stanford) to a deliciously destructive chase between young mutant Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and brawling bruiser Juggernaut (the always enjoyable Vinnie Jones). Where the film falters is with the introduction of one too many mutants as in the case of the charismatic but underused Callisto (Dania Ramirez) to the barely necessary inclusion of Warren Worthington (Ben Foster). The film tries to accomplish a great deal in one movie and while success is often achieved even with a trim 104 minute running time, it is clear that there is more happening onscreen than the film can ultimately support.

There can be little doubt X-Men: The Last Stand indeed stands as the weakest of the three X-Men films, yet the movie does bring more to the franchise than its status as a sequel. For good or ill, director Brett Ratner has put his own stamp on the X-Men film fable, creating a third film that largely meshes well with the two preceding films and features a story with lasting consequences for the cast of characters. While Last Stand is a very bleak X-Men film that leaves the viewer feeling more sombre than satisfied, Ratner and company are to be commended for taking risks that result in a better than expected film delivering the goods a modest serving more than it fails.

A worthy yet flawed close to the first X-Men trilogy, notable for entertaining action and finality over the character and style of the first films.

Click here for the X-Men: The Last Stand movie trailer!

Click here to go to Byron's review of X-Men: The Last Stand.

SUPERMAN RETURNS (Alternate Review)

Brandon Routh Superman Returns Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Brandon Routh
Reviewed by Chad Wilson


THUMBS UP FILM REVIEW RATING (3.5 out of 5 Rating)!

To say that one should approach Superman Returns with trepidation is an understatement, but a healthy dose of caution never hurt anyone. Director Bryan Singer, having left the X-Men film franchise, has been expected to create a great film post-Donner era that would re-invent the Superman mythos for a new generation. With aplomb he largely succeeds with Returns, but the film can’t quite achieve the success of the other recently resurrected superhero seen in Batman Begins from director Christopher Nolan. Perhaps the subject matter is to blame or the simple fact that Superman has never been as compelling for dramatic storytelling as the Dark Knight.

Created to take place roughly after Superman II (1980), we find Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman (Brandon Routh) has left Earth, gone to peruse the remains of his doomed homeworld after astronomers located the remains in space. Upon his return five years later, Superman discovers the world has got along without him, including Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) now a mother and author of a Pulitzer winning article debasing the man of steel. Before Superman’s return, arch-nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has secured a fortune via dearly departed wealthy widow. Stealing advanced alien technology from Superman’s own Fortress of Solitude in the Antarctic, Lex Luthor plans to create a new continent at the expense of existing North America.

True to a genuine character driven story, Superman Returns invents a very dramatic story by focusing on Superman as a person rather than the spectacle of his nature as a near-indestructable superhero. This is not to say the Returns is deficient in grandiose special effects sequences; the opening 30 minutes showcases an edge-of-your-seat passenger plane crash that will make older film audiences praise the advancement in special effects over the years. However, it is fresh-faced Brandon Routh in his strong performance as Superman and a carefully written script by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris that delivers a new man of steel to audiences that is uniquely human in spite of his nature as super being. Routh’s Superman struggles with the heart and it is this focus on the personal dilemma’s of the character that makes the film succeed in re-defining this classic superhero.

To strengthen the picture even further, Superman Returns features a fully realized world filled with modern-meets-retro set designs and a strong supporting cast with Frank Langella as dogged Perry White, Kate Bosworth as modern Lois Lane, and Kevin Spacey’s deliciously ruthless and grounded Lex Luthor. This new Superman movie also features a refreshingly restrained use of special effects. Singer clearly put in the effort to craft his new film in such a way as to avoid the pitfalls of effects-laden big budget blockbusters and keep a sharp eye on the core of his drama-driven main character. When Superman is given lease to let loose, the result is polished, spectacular effects that keep the audience cheering for more. In between these character stories and crowd-pleasing effects, the film pays homage to previous Superman movies with a digitally created cameo of late Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Superman’s Father. A well-deserved dose of humor is also to be found, particularly thanks to excellent scene-stealing lines delivered from Parker Posey playing Luthor’s side-kick Kitty Kowalski.

With everything going for it, one would think Superman Returns was a perfect superhero film that serves everything an audience could want. Alas this new Superman may be super, but like his flawed character in the new movie, but he can’t do everything. Perhaps Superman is just a difficult character to write given his awesome might or the fact that the man of steel embodies classic comic book super heroes that may not be in current fashion. Singer has created a different Superman film that takes an introspective look at his human side, but the adventure scenes and eventual showdown with Luthor hardly come across as fresh or reinvented. There is a sense that, while somewhat intentional, we have seen much of this before in other movies. It may be that audiences have been spoiled by more socially-relevant heroes or that the savior-like aura projected by Superman doesn’t relate to a spiritually-broader modern society. In truth, the film is about a new as one could make such an old hero and while that’s all we can expect, one does leave the theatre expecting something more; especially from such a super character.

Superman is reborn in a modern film with a more human story that will please younger fans and maintains a strong respect for the older Donner film.

Click here for the Superman Returns movie trailer!

Click here to go to Byron's review of Superman Returns.