Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting award winning children's book the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve where a doubting young boy lies in his bed waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead however is the thunderous roar of an approaching train where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on." Gives ya goose bumps doesn't it?
Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express the boy's father. Wait isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With
The Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called "performance capture." "[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character " visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh is that all? Problem is no matter how hard they try it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express that real-life connection is missed at times.
Of course like the images in the book it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed
Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now with The Polar Express it's this performance capture which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy does he make use of it. True the story is a classic but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this the film is padded with exhilarating scenes such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!
December 18, 2003 12:55pm EST
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) a novice professor from UCLA lands a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 and she's thrilled at the prospect of educating some of the brightest young women in the country. But her lofty image of Wellesley quickly fizzles when she discovers that despite its academic reputation the school fosters an environment where success is measured by the size of a girl's engagement ring. Besides learning about fresco techniques and physics the women take classes in the art of serving tea to their husband's bosses something that doesn't sit well with the forward-thinking Katherine who openly encourages her students to strive for goals other than marriage. Katherine inspires a group of students specifically Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) but newlywed Betty (Kirsten Dunst) feels Katherine looks down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty goes on the offensive and uses her column in the school paper to drive a wedge between the professor and the stuffy faculty. But while Betty puts on a happily married face her hostility towards Katherine is actually misplaced anger stemming from her miserable marriage to a cheating charlatan.
Katherine is Mona Lisa Smile's most complex and intriguing character and Roberts is a fitting choice for the part. Like an old soul the actress has a depth that's perfect for a character like Katherine who's enlightened and ahead of her time. But Katherine never emotionally connects with any of her students which isn't surprising since they're so bitchy and self-absorbed. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the young women's characters and building their relationships with Katherine sooner but as it is the underdeveloped friendships between the women will leave viewers feeling indifferent rather than inspired. The worst of the bunch is Dunst's character Betty who is intent on making everyone around her feel unworthy. She has her reasons of course but they're revealed so late in the story that it's hard to suddenly empathize with her after having spent three-quarters of the film hating her guts. Stiles' character Joan is perhaps the most congenial but like Betty she never develops a strong bond with her teacher. The most "liberal" of the girls is Giselle played by Gyllenhaal but the character suffers the same burden as the rest: She's unlikable. Giselle's penchant for sleeping with professors and married men is so odious that not even her 11th hour broken-home story can salvage her character.
While Mona Lisa's smile in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting has often been described as subtle director Mike Newell's star-studded drama is anything but that; Mona Lisa Smile is so heavy-handed that unlike the painting for which it was named there is nothing left for moviegoers to ponder or debate. The film plays like a montage of '50s ideological iconography: A school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control; a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist"; Betty's prayers are answered when she gets what every woman dreams of--a washer and dryer. But the film's critical insight into '50s culture isn't as shocking as it thinks it is and the way it highlights feminist issues is as uninspired as trivial as a fine-art reproduction. Newell also spends too much time basking in the aura of the '50s era focusing on countless parties dances and weddings sequences that while visually ambitious are superfluous. The film may be historically accurate but its characters story and message will leave moviegoers feeling empty. A climactic scene for example in which Katherine's students ride their bikes alongside her car as a show of support comes across as a tool to evoke sentiment that just doesn't exist.
Maid in Manhattan is yet another take on the Cinderella story. There are very few surprises but the film is still somewhat enjoyable despite its predictable setup. Cinderella aka Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez) is a hardworking no-nonsense single mom who loves her son Ty (Tyler Posey) and dreams of breaking out of her job as a maid at a five-star hotel in Manhattan. Her Fairy Godmother aka co-worker Stephanie (Marissa Matrone) unwittingly gives her that chance when she convinces Marisa to try on some expensive clothes left in a suite by the Evil Stepsister aka spoiled socialite Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson) while they're cleaning. In walks Prince Charming aka Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes) an incredibly handsome U.S. senator candidate and the city's most eligible bachelor and Boom! sparks fly. Chris thinks Marisa is the expensive suite's occupant--and she's too overwhelmed by the domino effect that happens to tell him different. Ah what a tangled web love at first sight can weave. Marisa spends the rest of the movie trying to cover up her error in judgment while also becoming increasingly drawn to her prince. Will he find out who she really is? Of course. Will it matter in the end? Of course not.
This may have been created as another vehicle to help further propel the career of actress/singer/designer/fiancee to Ben Affleck J. Lo but unexpectedly someone else comes out of the film looking better--Fiennes. It's little hard even for Jenny on the Block to outshine an Oscar-nominated actor. He elevates the formulaic subject matter and portrays a pretty down-to-earth Prince Charming without us ever seeing a forced move. I'm curious as to why such a high-caliber actor would choose such a run-of-the-mill project like this but whatever the reason he makes it work--at least for his part. Lopez doesn't do anything out of the ordinary. In fact it looks like she may have simply cloned the same expressions she put on in her other successful romantic comedy The Wedding Planner. And unfortunately Lopez and Fiennes don't share the same kind of heat she shared in that film with Matthew McConaughey or even George Clooney in Out of Sight (still her best performance to date). Yet they manage to convey a fair amount of good feelings to make the movie palatable. Richardson has a blast playing the rich bitch Caroline while Matrone making her film debut just comes off as annoying and pushy even if she thinks she's doing the right thing. Thank goodness she is because if things had turned out badly it would be in Marisa's best interest to go out and shoot her. Stanley Tucci as Christopher's watchdog campaign manager and Bob Hoskins as a senior-level butler at the hotel both do the best they can with silly parts.
Maid in Manhattan relies so heavily on the been-there-done-that Cinderella formula it becomes one of those romantic comedies you'll end up waiting to watch on cable one Saturday night rather than paying to see in a movie theater. It's really a shame because director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) had some interesting elements to play with and lots of acting talent to back it up. Perhaps Lopez could have played Marisa more wacky than so serious maybe try to show some comic ability. It would be a nice change of pace to think out of the box for once--what if the lovestruck pair didn't get together in the end? (I know the film would have fallen flat on its face.) But instead Maid wallows in predictability and implausibility. Christopher falls a little too hard and a little too fast for reality. Also it's hard to believe a maid would have access to all the hotel's amenities as Marisa does--borrowing a Harry Winston diamond necklace from the hotel jewelry store for the gala event? Unlikely to say the least. The only aspect of the film that stands out is the sneak peek you get into the inner workings of a top-notch hotel. It's definitely a world you don't get to see very often.
In the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Ignatz Sonnenschein (Fiennes
with beard) deals with anti-Semitism and a rocky marriage to his
cousin/adopted sister (Jennifer
Ehle). In World War II-era Hungary Ignatz’ son Adam (Fiennes with
mustache) deals with anti-Semitism and romantic overtures from his
brother’s hottie wife (Rachel Weisz). In Communist postwar Hungary
Adam’s son Ivan (Fiennes clean-shaven) deals with anti-Semitism and an
affair with a married comrade (Deborah Kara Unger). Get it? Things never
Fiennes can be a ferocious presence onscreen as he demonstrates in
isolated moments such as an electrifying bit when the usually
unemotional Ignatz suddenly explodes in anger at Harris’ character. For
the most part however the melodramatic dialogue ("Give me the salt
damn you!") is more than even he or expert supporting players such as
Miriam Margolyes ("Romeo + Juliet") and James Frain ("Hilary and
Jackie") can sell. Oh and why are the Hollywood imports Unger and
William Hurt doing British accents?
Hungarian director Istvan Szabo’s soap opera-ish treatment of the
material would be hard enough to take in a standard-length feature but
this sucker clocks in at a butt-punishing three hours. With its
sputtering storyline and routine visual approach the film certainly
provides no competition to Vittorio De Sica’s similarly themed 1971
masterpiece "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis." As Fiennes vehicles go
this one is closer to the laughably bad "The Avengers" than "Schindler’s