Picking up 10 years since 1997’s Henry Fool we see that struggling writer Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) has fled the country and is presumably dead leaving his estranged wife Fay Grim (Parker Posey) to fend for herself. She is now using her maiden name trying to live a normal life as a single mother. Fay’s poet laureate brother Simon (James Urbaniak) is in jail for aiding and abetting Henry while his publisher (Chuck Montgomery) is putting the moves on Fay. But then the CIA shows up on Fay’s doorstep with suspicions Henry may still alive and believe the clues to his whereabouts may be in his diaries. Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) sends Fay on a spy mission to obtain said diaries and things get further complicated as more quirky characters weave in and out of Fay's journey. It might be wise to rent Henry Fool before seeing Fay Grim just so you can remind yourself about these characters and have a better understanding. Everyone is being idiosyncratic on purpose but not in an unnatural way because the characters aren't too far off from the performers' distinct personalities. Posey is naturally off kilter overwhelmed by her surroundings whether as a character in a movie or an actor navigating red carpets and press junkets. As a woman left in the lurch by her husband and thrust into international espionage she’s perfect. Goldblum speaks with his usual frazzled authority. The other lesser known personalities fill their roles effectively as well. Urbaniak is just socially awkward enough you can see why he'd be the chump but smart enough to be ultimately helpful. Montgomery is an executive type who relishes his involvement in the intrigue. As Fay's son Liam Aiken plays the loner kid not quite Goth but a disaffected rebel nonetheless. Fay also encounters plenty of European spy types who bring a certain level of campiness to the espionage genre. You might feel left out if you haven't seen Henry Fool. They manage to fill in the Henry Fool backstory without a lot of exposition but there is definitely something missing. Then again so what if it might all be a little confusing? Figuring out the details is not important it’s the ride that counts. Being ultimately quirky himself indie director Hal Hartley manages to keep the pace moving throughout Fay Grim and all of the elements seem to tie in. The breezy dialogue is a treat. And for being an international adventure on a budget the film never feels cheap. Presenting chases and gunfights as a series of still shots may avoid actually staging elaborate action sequences but it's also more interesting to watch than the same old shoot 'em ups. Nobody is going to out-Woo John Woo so having this device is better. At two hours it does get a bit overwhelming to keep up but there are worse places to be stuck for 120 minutes.
After the death of their parents Rashad (Tip "T.I." Harris) and his younger brother Ant (Evan Ross) have to fend for themselves. Trying not to think about his pending high school graduation Rashad works as a janitor for his stingy uncle (Mykelti Williamson) and hangs out with his friends practicing for the Skate Wars competition at their local roller rink. Ant however approaches life differently after he hooks up with Marcus (Big Boi) a big-time drug dealer in the area. Marcus recruits Ant to do his dirty work and the kid gets himself tangled up in the harsh world of drugs money and violence. It’s up to his older brother to get him out of it and finally steer him in the right direction. ATL proves some rapper-turned-actors can indeed be in a movie not based on their real lives. Known as “The King of the South” in the rap world T.I. displays some notable acting skills. Born and raised in the ATL (that’s Atlanta to us lay folk) his southern slang and cool demeanor lend credibility. As well Big Boi (half of the Atlanta-based hip-hop group OutKast) does a nice job giving his drug lord character multi-layers. He plays it smooth recruiting high school kids and promising them more money then they have ever seen. When they don’t pay up he then turns on a dime and becomes quite menacing. And watch out for Evan Ross the youngest son of the legendary Diana Ross. In his debut performance as Ant he tugs at your heart even when you’re hoping Rashad will smack him for the bad choices he makes. Music video director Chris Robinson makes his feature directing debut with ATL a story loosely based on ATL producers Dallas Austin and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins’ (of TLC fame) experiences growing up in Atlanta. With many of the hottest hip-hop artists coming out of Atlanta Robinson--along with first-time screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism--impressively incorporates the music without focusing on it. Sure the soundtrack crunks it up but this is not a film about a wannabe rapper trying to make it out of the ‘hood and into the spotlight. There aren’t any lengthy shootouts and no one dies. Instead ATL interweaves compelling themes of family dynamics rich vs. poor--and even a roller skating motif which seems to come out of left field but provides some fun moments. ATL is a breath of fresh air for a hip-hop movie that isn't about hip-hop.
Scooby and the gang at Mystery Inc.--Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) Velma (Linda Cardellini) and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard)--are at the top of their game and just about everyone in Coolsville loves them. Even the Coolsonian Museum is honoring them with an exhibit--a costumed display of Mystery Inc.'s former foes such as The Pterodactyl Ghost The Black Knight Ghost and The 10 000 Volt Ghost. Yet at the museum's gala opening the team's stellar reputation is put in serious jeopardy when said monsters come alive re-created by a masked villain who vows to bring Mystery Inc. down. Under pressure from relentless reporter Heather Jasper-Howe (Alicia Silverstone) the gang launches an investigation into the monster outbreak but as the mystery deepens Mystery Inc.'s members end up questioning their roles within the organization. Can macho leader Fred and image-conscious Daphne look past the superficial and find the identity of the Evil Masked Figure? Will brainy Velma let her feelings for Coolsonian Museum curator Patrick Wisely (Seth Green) blossom even though he is a key suspect? And finally can Shaggy and Scooby stop cowering--and eating--long enough to prove they can be detectives? These are tough times for the gang but they've got to pull it together so they can solve the mystery and save the day.
Even though it seems a little ridiculous that Scooby-Doo 2's fleshed-out cartoon characters would try to dig deep to find answers within the returning actors continue to have fun exploring their alter-Scooby-egos. Prinze's Fred has a hipper haircut this time (the original matted blond 'do had to go) and isn't quite the braggart he once was. He is still unquestionably the "face" of the group until he is made to look foolish by the ruthless Heather played with relish by Silverstone who shines in the bad-girl role. Gellar has definitely dropped Daphne's "damsel-in-distress" routine getting all Buffy on the monsters but is still worried that its her looks not her skills that get her attention. Cardellini's Velma on the other hand gets a love interest--and even all dolled up at one point--but can't get rid of her inherent geekiness. It's Shaggy and Scooby who experience the biggest revelation realizing they really are nothing but giant screw-ups. Lillard actually turns in some (and I can't believe I'm actually saying this) poignant moments as Shag grapples with his inequities. They all realize in the end though that for the good of Mystery Inc. it's best to be true to yourself. Thank god.
Director Raja Gosnell goes full throttle in his second Scooby effort with more action and more elaborate theme-parky sets than the original. Even as the characters pause to reflect on their faults these moments are thankfully short-lived before the gang is thrust into another wild chase or fight sequence keeping the kiddies' minds occupied--and allowing the adult fans to laugh at all the monsters they remember from the TV show. One of the criticisms from the first Scooby-Doo was that it didn't provide enough "inside" jokes for the grown-up enthusiasts (and face it there are probably more of them than kids). But Scooby-Doo 2 harkens back to the good old days and even pokes fun at all those criminals whose evil plans and ghost disguises were foiled by the meddlesome quintet. They all gather at their own watering hole called the Faux Ghost where they can throw darts at pictures of the Mystery Inc. gang. Funny stuff. Overall the sequel provides the same madcap fun the original did without requiring the use of too much brainpower.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.
From the creators of the TNT miniseries Gettysburg including executive producer Ted Turner and writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell Gods chronicles the Civil War from its beginnings when the South rises up. Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) a distinguished military man but also a loyal native Virginian chooses to fight for his home rather than his country while Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) a devoutly religious man becomes Lee's most trusted lieutenant. On the other side we have Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) a professor from Maine who ends up one of the Union's finest military leaders. In between there are glimpses of the wives and families left behind. Stories of this magnitude with their dramatic bloody battles and tragic endings usually leave you numb or crying for those lives lost and destroyed. Instead Gods and Generals holds no resonance whatsoever meticulously plotting out the details and making this decisive moment in American history interminable at three and a half hours. It's like wading through a textbook--or worse watching Civil War fanatics carefully reenact the famous battle scenes on the very ground they were fought over and over again--while the players stand around quoting long-winded verse from the Bible or Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Blech.
The actors in Gods and Generals must have honestly thought they were making something important when they signed up. Main players Lang (who played Major Gen. George Pickett in Gettysburg) and Daniels (who reprises his Gettysburg role as Chamberlain) have their moments but after hearing them recite one speech after another especially Lang's Jackson who says more prayers to God than anything else you start to wonder if they ever realized they made a mistake. (Or have we for sitting through it?) One of the more superfluous scenes is when Jackson and his black cook Jim played by Frankie Faison are standing outside in the freezing cold night for about 15 minutes both looking up at the stars and praying to God. It seems like the actors are trying to make such sermonizing poignant meaningful but all this pontification simply drags the movie further down. These speeches aren't just Lang's and Daniels' territory--Mira Sorvino as Chamberlain's wife and Kali Rocha as Jackson's wife get their own personal moments in the sun too. If you count the cast of thousands each with their own things to say well you get the point. Thankfully Duvall who is the only good thing about the movie gets to keep the talking to a minimum.
If you want to see a Civil War melodrama at its best where watching the heroes race through a sacked city makes you hold your breath and witnessing horrific hospital scenes makes you squirm then watch Gone With the Wind. If you want gut-wrenching Civil War battles or more understanding of how slaves truly felt then watch Glory. If you want a heartening history lesson about the Civil War that not only teaches you about the era's political machinations but also shares the insights and thoughts of the men and women who experienced it then watch Ken Burns' documentary series The Civil War. Gods and Generals offers none of that in its dry textbook version of the Civil War which uses the same shots are used over and over again (how many times does the camera pan up to the night sky or show the panoramic view of Fredericksburg Virginia? I lost count) features more actors waxing prophetic than real drama and actually makes you yawn during what should be intense battle scenes.
The problem with a film in which characters stand around philosophizing about the nature of life is the fact they are standing around philosophizing about the nature of life. It can make for a compelling character piece or it can bore you to tears. Sunshine State does a little of both. The story centers on the locals of this island and how the regional real estate developers are looking to change the sleepy beachside community into a manicured resort area. One woman Marly Temple (The Sopranos' Edie Falco) is tired of running her retired father's motel and restaurant. She starts a tentative affair with a landscape architect (Timothy Hutton) but is really looking for a way out--perhaps to sell the business to the developers. The other woman Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett) returns home for a visit to show off her new husband Reggie (James McDaniel). But she has a tense relationship with her mother (Mary Alice) after being sent away by her parents at 15 for getting pregnant. Plus it seems the small black enclave in which she grew up is also being eyed by the developers. As their community is about to change both Marly and Desiree must deal with the sometimes overwhelming weight of family history and family expectations while trying to discover their own paths in life.
Of course this kind of film is an actor's dream--all characters and words with very little action. The array of talent in Sunshine State is vast with many standout performances but unfortunately just not enough substance to keep them all riveting. Falco comes off the best as the bored Marly dealing with her long-winded ornery father (played by the long-winded and ornery Ralph Waite) and her free-spirited mother (played by the delightful Jane Alexander). When Falco is on the screen the film takes on a quirky sensibility that writer/director John Sayles probably intended for the whole film. Her scenes with Hutton are packed full of interesting twists--and she definitely has one of the better lines of the film: "Having sex with me this drunk would be like being at the dentist....You know something's going on in there but you don't know what." Bassett doesn't pull her part off as well. She shows the right emotions as Desiree but somehow her storyline seems forced and the same goes for the supporting players around her. The rest of the cast--and it's considerable--fill in the blanks. Mary Steenburgen as the organizer of the local historical event known as "Buccaneer Days" and Gordon Clapp as her gambleholic husband with suicidal tendencies are also standouts.
Sayles is an eclectic filmmaker to say the least. Obviously a brilliant writer he picks his projects carefully and usually puts his own unique stamp on his films such as the powerful little gem Lone Star and the historical Eight Men Out. The framework and the setting of Sunshine State does set it apart from the rest. The director has a genuine affection for the Florida landscape shooting the entire film on Amelia Island one of the only places in history where blacks were allowed to go to the beach in segregated times. Sayles loves to dabble in the past and with some amazingly beautiful surroundings he is able to capture a certain historical feeling. Yet Sayles veers off from his usual style in how he sets his story. The writing is at times bitingly clever but it seems that Sayles is channeling director Robert Altman by trying to interweave the stories of several characters. Unfortunately he doesn't do nearly as good a job as Altman. With too many cooks in the kitchen you end up concentrating on only the characters that interest you thus tuning out the rest.