A billionaire TV producer (Robert Mammone) has a great idea for a reality show that he wants to put on the Internet and his goal is to beat the 40 million Super Bowl audience. He has compiled a crack team of young hip and immoral tech geeks directed by Goldman (Rick Hoffman) and puts cameras throughout a remote island where former prisoners are going to kill each other while audiences watch after shelling out the pay-per-view fee. The location is done on a remote secret island and the death row prisoners are bought from prisons around the world with the promise that the survivor gets to walk free. Among the contestants are a rogue Aussie named McStarley (Vinnie Jones) a martial arts expert (Masa Yamaguchi) a husband-and-wife team (Manu Bennett and Dasi Ruz) a monstrous killer who doesn't do much more than grunt (Nathan Jones) and others known only as The Italian The German and other monikers quickly forgotten. Enter the sole American Jack Conrad (Steve Austin) who's in a South American prison for some obscure reason and is recognized on TV by his wife (Madeleine West) who tries to save him. However it looks like Conrad is pretty good at helping himself. Don't expect the acting to be much more evolved than what could be seen among the World Wrestling Entertainment superstars especially since many of them were plucked from the ring to star in this morality tale. But Austin (who had in a strong cameo in Adam Sandler's Longest Yard) proves he has a sense of humor as well as strength. Vinnie Jones is ridiculously over-the-top as the Aussie who's the hand-picked winner of this game shown setting up alliances Survivor style only to turn on them later. The supporting cast are refreshingly entertaining but one-note caricatures both in the contest and running the contest. It's obvious that they aren't going to be around long but the actors do milk their tiny roles for every bit of attention they can get. Rick Hoffman as the brilliant camera mastermind of the project is both whiny sniveling and mean-spirited so when he joins some of the rest of the crew and suddenly develops a backbone and a conscience he ends up stealing the movie with his acerbic humor. But it's the understated American hero Conrad who holds a mirror up to the people who like to watch this stuff. Director Scott Wiper who co-wrote this story has also acted in similar movies like this (A Better Way to Die). It’s obvious he knows what he’s doing with The Condemned and develops a sense of voyeuristic angst like those of us who can't keep our eyes off a train wreck. Like the darkly subversive Belgian film Man Bites Dog the camera crew remains safely distant and remote until the reality directly involves them. Then the crew wonders "What the hell are we doing?" while the audience might be thinking "What the hell are we watching?" Much like Series 7: The Contenders Rollerball and other movies which show a dark and bloody near future this kind of reality doesn't seem too far away and maybe proves that movies which provide this type of gladiator spectacle target a certain segment of the human population who need to blow off steam.
The Number 23 starts off with mild-mannered Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) receiving a mysterious novel from his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen). Suddenly his idyllic life is thrust into an inferno of psychological torture as he becomes more and more obsessed with the story about a detective named Fingerling. Cutting between scenes with the real Walter and the fictitious Fingerling (also Carrey) they both delve deep into obsession over what the significance of the number means to them. Now had the The Number 23 just stuck with that idea--how 23 somehow permeates our very existence--then it may have worked better. Instead the action veers off into Walter’s past as he starts to unlock suppressed memories and unearths an unsolved murder mystery which doesn’t really have anything to do with the number. And you feel ripped off. Is it a curse (divide 2 by 3 and you get .666)? Does it predict the future (the Mayans believed the world will end Dec. 23 2012 [20+1+2=23])? Or is it just one of those numbers that haunts you the more you try to figure it out? We want to know more dammit (that last sentence is 23 characters without spaces by the way). Yes Carrey plays it straight and this may be his darkest turn yet but it’s not like he’s never done it before. Carrey is a consummate actor folks. He’s pretty good at doing whatever he sets his mind to. He played the straight guy in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind just fine allowing Kate Winslet to be kooky instead. And as Walter he resolutely indulges in murderous obsessive-compulsive behavior while including a few moments of his unique comic stylings. Meanwhile Madsen is playing her second loving and supportive wife of this week (she plays one in The Astronaut Farmer as well) but that’s fine. She does it effectively. But what she also gets to do in Number 23 is portray a saucy sex-craved alter ego from the novel who likes to have dangerous and kinky sex with Fingerling—and she plays it to the hilt. Give this woman more juicy parts! Director Joel Schumacher knows how to make a Hollywood movie--that’s why the studios love him. Sure he’s made more than his fair share of stinkers (Batman Forever AND Batman & Robin) but he has also made some finely tuned thrillers such as Phone Booth and A Time to Kill. Number 23 sort of falls somewhere in between. Schumacher takes some creative license when we are in Fingerling’s world which makes for some arresting and stylistic visuals but he and newbie screenwriter Fernley Phillips really stretch things to make the whole murder-mystery subplot work within the context of the premise opting for cheap thrills and a standardized ending. Honestly it nearly ruins the whole movie—until you drive home and notice the number 23 EVERYWHERE! Number 23 is still gonna stick with you.
Based on E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.