If the legendary Scottish Loch Ness monster exists Water Horse imagines how he may have come to be. Based on the book by Dick King-Smith and set during WWII it all starts when Angus (Alex Etel)--a young Scottish lad living with his housekeeper mother (Emily Watson) on an estate while his father fights in the war--finds an enchanted egg by the shores of the local lake. Thinking it another crustacean he takes it home but soon finds himself face-to-face with an amazing creature: the mythical "water horse" of Scottish lore whom Angus calls “Crusoe.” As Angus becomes attached to his new friend the young boy does everything he can to keep Crusoe a secret even as the animal grows abnormally large over a short period of time. With the help of a handyman (Ben Chaplin) Angus soon has to put Crusoe into the lake so he can live comfortably. But outside influences conspire to expose Crusoe--even threaten his life--and Angus risks everything to help his friend. Young Etel expertly carries Water Horse on his small shoulders proving his stellar performance in Danny Boyle’s Millions wasn’t a fluke. He never goes over the top or tries to play it with too much sweetness and light. Instead Etel is a complete natural convincingly interacting with a green-screened creature and most importantly conveys all the right emotions to get the audience just as wrapped up in the sea monster’s plight as he is. The rest of the cast however is a bit misplaced. Watson is mostly wasted as the mother hardened by war who can’t bring herself to tell her young son the truth about his father. The Oscar-nominated actress is simply too good for something this childish. Meanwhile Chaplin (The Truth About Cats and Dogs) doesn’t really connect with his character a soldier who returns home after being wounded only to wander the country working aimless jobs. The only adult actor who stands out is veteran Brit Brian Cox. As the film’s narrator he plays an old pub patron who tells the true story of Crusoe after two American tourists spy the now-infamous “photo” of the Loch Ness monster. It’s the constant twinkle in his eyes that gets you. Director Jay Russell has a key into family fare having helmed films such as My Dog Skip and Tuck Everlasting so there is an ease to his direction in Water Horse. He guides his young star to deliver an unaffected performance and handles the special effects with a sure hand. Crusoe is awfully cute when he’s a youngster flopping around and making a mess of things. Then when he’s full grown he is quite impressive. The moment Angus faces his fear of water climbs on Crusoe’s back and lets the creature take him for a deep-diving swim in the lake we are hooked by the exhilaration of it. Unfortunately there is also a level of predictability to Water Horse especially when it comes time for Crusoe to escape the lake into open waters before he is killed by the local militia. Not too hard to figure how it all ends up.
The thing is Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties doesn’t even have anything to do with the classic Charles Dickens novel. Two Kitties is more a pauper/prince type story. I guess kids probably don’t know what a “pauper” is and well The Prince and the Pussy wouldn’t really work would it? Still they could have at least come up with a clever story to go along with the title. This time around Garfield (Bill Murray) wants to stop Jon (Breckin Meyer) from asking cute-as-a-button vet Liz (Jennifer Love Hewitt) to marry him on a trip to London by stowing away. Once over the pond the fat yellow cat ends up being mistaken for a royal fat yellow cat Prince (Tim Curry) who has just inherited a castle. Sure Garfield likes all the perks--minced pie anytime he rings a bell; pampering beyond your regular tongue bath; and no Odie. There are a few downsides namely an evil relative (Billy Connolly) who wants the cat dead so he can get the estate but it doesn’t matter. Both cats are killed in the end anyway. Oh I’m kidding (I only wish). The laconic Murray is certainly a wise choice to voice the indolent fat cat and was mildly entertaining in the first Garfield. But for the Oscar-nominated actor to agree to do it again let’s just say it must have been very costly for the producers. I would hope anyway that he asked for a lot of money because why else would you do something as inane as this? The character interminably grates. There are also a bevy of British actors in Two Kitties who are equally annoying doing animal voices--from Curry as the mollycoddled Prince to Bob Hoskins as a bulldog and Sharon Osbourne as a pig. As for the human factor Meyer and Love Hewitt are gag-producing sugary sweet while Connolly just makes a complete ass of himself as the dastardly villain. It’s kind of embarrassing actually --for everyone involved. It still boggles the mind the first Garfield grossed $75 million domestically. Yes it was an understandable endeavor since the comic strip has always been immensely popular and with the advent of CGI creating the Garfield we all know and love for the screen was finally possible. But the first Garfield was so mind-numbingly ridiculous you just have to wonder what the audiences saw in it. I guess maybe it had something to do with keeping 7-year-olds occupied. Of course all the studio execs saw were dollar signs so it stands to reason they’d make a sequel. It made money dammit so we have to do it again can’t you see that? OK so let’s say we go with that reasoning hoping maybe they’ll have realized their mistakes with the first and come up with something better. No such luck. I have feeling this time around however those same execs may be disappointed. In a summer full of far more stellar entertainment for the kiddies these Two Kitties are going to thankfully fall by the wayside and put an end to the franchise once and for all.
October 01, 2004 10:40am EST
As Ladder 49 opens Baltimore firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) gets trapped inside a blazing warehouse while rescuing a trapped civilian. With his escape routes either caved in or burned down Jack has to keep his wits as he waits for Fire Chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) and his fellow firefighters to rescue him. Lying in a bed of rubble Jack has rather vivid and detailed flashbacks of pivotal moments in his life including his first day at the firehouse the day he met his wife-to-be at the supermarket their wedding day the birth of their daughter and so on. While these flashbacks provide neat chronological accounts of his life they do very little to shape or build Jack's character because they are focused on his heroic antics rather than the man underneath the uniform. The film also works feverishly to showcase the brotherly bond between the men but doesn't extend beyond silly firehouse pranks including putting a goose in someone's locker or tossing a lit newspaper into an occupied toilette stall. The only thing missing from these tawdry sitcom-like moments is a laugh track. Third Watch the NBC drama following New York City police paramedics and firefighters on the 3-11 p.m. shift offers more character development and intrigue in a one-hour episode than this feature film dishes out in two hours.
Phoenix is both sweet and awkward in the role of Jack a rookie firefighter who can't hide his enthusiasm about his line of work. Jack's charming side is demonstrated in his relationship with his wife particularly in the intensely loving way Phoenix looks at his co-star Jacinda Barrett whether they're at a crowded birthday bash or riding on the back of the fire truck following their humble small-town nuptials. Phoenix's Jack also has a slightly dim-witted side which comes through in the "Aw shucks" way he reacts to being the butt of many firehouse pranks. But there's a third sadly missing dimension missing to Jack: He's a hero with no fire in his belly. Travolta on the other hand just isn't convincing in this blue-collar role of fire chief. Perhaps it's just that these characters are too damn perfect. Post 9/11 firefighters have become more than rescuers they are in the eyes of many Americans heroes and Ladder 49 adopts the biased notion that they are also faultless.
Director Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting) visually captures the essence of this working class Baltimore neighborhood and its firehouse from Jack's cluttered wood-paneled home to Mike's utilitarian firehouse office. Production designer Tony Burrough paid meticulous attention to set details particularly in how the backdrops age over a decade; Jack's house becomes junkier and his gear gets dingier. The controlled fires on the set look incredibly real and feel equally oppressive--and this is where Russell's direction really shines. A scene in which Jack enters his first burning building for example adds to the film's authenticity: The probie (firefighter lingo for a new guy) runs up the stairs too fast and doesn't aim the hose high enough. These small details remind moviegoers what an exact line of work this really is. But while Ladder 49 effectively demonstrates the risky and altruistic work firefighters do it doesn't delve any deeper than its spectacular rescues. Throughout the film Jack is asked what motivates him to run into a burning building when everyone else is running out--a question scribe Lewis Colick never lets Ladder 49's characters answer.
Based on the award-winning children's novel by Natalie Babbitt the story is set in 1914 as Winnie Foster (Alexis Bledel) a rich girl on the brink of maturity longs for change in her life. Her domineering mother (Amy Irving) has plans to turn her into a respectable lady but Winnie is one spirited lass who wants nothing to do with the rigid conformities of her time. In fact she'd much rather escape into the woods surrounding her house. Getting lost one day Winnie stumbles upon Jesse Tuck (Jonathan Jackson) a boy unlike any she's ever met before. He and his family--father Angus (William Hurt) mother Mae (Sissy Spacek) and brother Miles (Scott Bairstow)--live hidden away in a little cabin on a lake and they warmly accept her as one of their own. Winnie realizes the Tucks are different ageless somehow but once Winnie starts to experience the Tucks' freedom and simple way of life she contemplates never going home. That and the fact she and Jesse have fallen in love. Still the Tucks harbor a powerful secret no one else must know about--ever--but an evil man (Ben Kingsley) tracks them down threatening to expose them and profit from the "secret." Luckily things have a way of working out for the Tucks one way or another. It is Winnie who ends up making the tough decisions--life forever with her beloved Jesse or a life with a beginning a middle and an end. Sure I could come right out and tell you what the film's big secret is but then that might spoil the fun of finding out for yourself (although I've given plenty of clues).
The fresh new talent of Bledel Jackson and Bairstow adds to the film's youthful appeal while the veteran actors compliment them nicely. Bledel best known for the WB's Gilmore Girls plays Winnie with the right amount of fiery spirit and endless curiosity while Jackson with those full lips and floppy hair plays the love-struck Jesse perfectly. You believe instantly that Jesse has fallen deeply in love with Winnie; however it's Bledel's performance where there is a problem. She is great at being the spunky Winnie but is somewhat stiff and unconvincing as the smitten one which takes away from the film's romantic scope a bit. Bairstow is quite good as brother Miles a character who shows how the Tucks' "secret" has a dark side. When he tells Winnie the truth about his family and how damaging it has been to him it is a moving and powerful scene. Kingsley as the malevolent Man in the Yellow Suit (that's the character's name I swear) expertly plays upon the film's main theme: the wish by most humans to be able to live forever. Kingsley's greedy eyes tell it all. Hurt and Spacek do a nice job as the simplistic elder Tucks while Irving and Victor Garber deftly play the contrast as Winnie's parents. Each however show how they love their children and will protect them at all costs.
Tuck is definitely one of the more beautiful films to watch certainly up there with other such children's stories as The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. Shot in the wooded areas of Maryland the film is full of lush green tones and spectacular vistas. Director Jay Russell is no stranger to heartwarming films having directed the endearing My Dog Skip and knows how to deal with environment. Watching the two young lovers running through tall grass or jumping into pool with a cascading waterfall honestly would make any girl want to go into the woods to find a handsome guy who'll sweep her off her feet. Russell handles the romantic elements as well. Careful not to make it too melodramatic he sweeps you up into the magic of the story while delving into the film's moral dilemmas and life choices the characters must deal with. Unfortunately he can't bring out the best performance from his leading actress but the rest of the film makes up for it.