What story? Does it really matter? Basically the Wildcats have graduated to the big screen for their senior year with the daunting task of -- guess what? -- putting on a big show. In addition to performance anxiety the singing and dancing kids must also figure out what to wear and who to bring to the prom. Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) in particular have to figure out what is to become of their romance when Gaby goes to Stanford while Troy stays in Arizona. Adding to the drama is the fact representatives from Julliard will be in attendance at the show and their approval could be just the showbiz break these young talents are looking for. All of this interstitial storytelling is just an excuse to launch into one of the 10 big musical numbers written for this theatrical continuation of the enormously successful Emmy-winning Disney Channel TV films and although the songs seem to have come out of the same cookie cutter mold the production values make this HSM an eye-popping celebration of song and dance that’s pure entertainment from start to finish. This attractive and energetic young cast have used the two previous films to grow into their roles and win instant audience recognition. It’s in the expanded and more demanding musical numbers that everyone really gets their turn in the sun and no one disappoints. Zac Efron channels Justin Timberlake with his athletic and singular “Scream ” a breakdance against the walls of the school’s hallway that’s pretty damn thrilling to watch. It’s the hip-hop equivalent of Fred Astaire’s classic dance on the ceiling in 1950’s Royal Wedding. Equally effective is his intense auto junkyard number with Corbin Bleu (returning as Chad) “The Boys Are Back ” is a lively paean to Michael Jackson’s ‘80s videos like Beat It. Hudgens does nicely with the largely forgettable ballads “Walk Away” and “Right Here Right Now” (with Efron). Lucas Grabeel back as Ryan goes all top hat and tails on us in the Broadway inspired “I Want It All” -- opposite diva-like Sharpay played with conniving authority once again by Ashley Tisdale. Monique Coleman as Taylor is right at home here as well along with the other veteran of the earlier films Olesya Rulin as Kelsi. Assuming the series goes on after graduation a new generation of HSM performers will be required and that is the apparent reason for the generous screen time given to younger newer cast members: Matt Prokop Justin Martin and young British import Jemma McKenzie–Brown. With director/choreographer Kenny Ortega at the helm the HSM concept has been opened up to fill the expanse of the big screen. At its core the musical numbers are much MUCH larger and grandiose than they ever were in the TV films. Ortega and his team have used bright vivid Technicolor images reminiscent of the heyday of ‘50s Hollywood musicals and married it to a contemporary approach. Still he seems to be channeling in some ways the elaborate Busby Berkeley movie musicals of the ‘30s particularly in Grabeel’s set pieces. Clearly Ortega ‘gets it’ and knows what style and verve a musical like this needs -- no matter how young the intended audience. Having the luxury of directing most of his primary cast in the two previous HSM TV outings he takes that small-screen energy and lets it explode in all its widescreen glory.
Like Madagascar the story starts at the New York Zoo. Samson (Kiefer Sutherland) the lion is once again the star of the show but unlike Madagascar’s Alex Samson claims he came from the wild. He regales the other odd assortment of zoo denizens--including a talkative giraffe (Janeane Garofalo) a lisping anaconda (Richard Kind) a snarky Koala (Eddie Izzard) and a take-charge squirrel (Jim Belushi)--with tales of danger and excitement abroad. Of course Samson can’t tell the real truth that he was actually born in captivity and is making it all up because everyone including his rebellious teenage son Ryan (Greg Cipes) would think less of him. But when Ryan runs away thinking he can’t live up to his dad’s reputation and is mistakenly shipped off to the wild Samson has keep up the charade as the gang embarks on a dangerous mission to rescue him. The lion does come clean at some point in case you were wondering. Another vocal roster of big names another dollar. This time around we’ve got Sutherland Garofalo Belushi all doing the animal thing. There’s also William Shatner as a villainous wildebeest headed for the loony bin after deciding he’s tired of being the prey and turns predator. He’s even got his herd of wildebeest dancing a Busby Berkeley number around a volcano á la Lion King. Sigh. Luckily there is one saving grace--sort of: Izzard as the wisecracking Koala bear Nigel who gets mistaken for a god by the wildebeest and milks it for all its worth which isn’t a whole lot. Still if anyone has seen the British comedian’s hilarious HBO special Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill you can just imagine him strutting around as a Koala dressed in women’s clothing and doing his shtick. The Mouse House once again proves it doesn’t have an inventive bone in its body--or even the gumption to realize that had something with potential. Apparently the pitch from writers Mark Gibson and Philip Halprin had been mulling around Disney for about nine years before it got made giving the likes of Nemo and Madagascar a head start (I’d be peeved if I were those writers). But even if The Wild did come first it still wouldn’t be able to measure up mostly because the story is insipid. Wildebeest turning into predators? What’s THAT all about? The CGI-animation is spot on of course but we are definitely taking all of that for granted these days. No now what we want is a good compelling story. If not that then at least we should have a couple of really funny characters--like commando penguins or a fish with short-term memory--to help things move along. The Wild doesn’t have either so while children may be left mildly entertained for an hour and a half parents will be left twiddling their thumbs waiting for it to be over.
In the 1950s Senator Joe McCarthy began a witch hunt in Washington and Hollywood to cleanse the nation of "commie sympathizers." No one dared stand up to him for fear of being targeted themselves until journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) did an expose of the senator on his television program See It Now. In doing so he risked himself the livelihoods of the reporters working for him and the reputation of CBS. The network stood behind him although very reluctantly and Morrow swayed public opinion--a landmark moment in broadcast journalism.
David Strathairn is wonderfully subtle as the legendary Murrow from small nervous facial tics as he prepares to go live on the night of his controversial broadcast to his barely concealed contempt for the puff pieces he has to do like an interview with Liberace. Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr. also do nice work as a married couple who hide their relationship since it's against company policy but their characters--and indeed all of the characters--are all very thinly sketched. The meatiest supporting role belongs to Ray Wise (Laura Palmer's crazy dad on Twin Peaks) as CBS news anchorman Don Hollenbeck who is barely hanging on after being labeled a "pinko" in the right-wing press. George Clooney as Murrow's producer Fred Friendly is low-key but still deftly funny. A number of supporting players like Tate Donovan don't have much of a chance to stand out. McCarthy himself is presented only in archival footage.
George Clooney in his second outing behind the camera is clearly going for a documentary type of feel resulting in out-of-focus shots and quick pans that often land on nothing at all. Dramatic scenes are interspersed with so much unedited archival footage that after a while it does feel like you're watching a documentary although a documentary would likely have provided more context. For some reason a jazz singer (Diane Reeves) is frequently seen performing in a studio at CBS or at a club that Murrow's staff all frequents. The musical interludes are lovely but ultimately rather pointless. You have to respect Clooney's wanting to tell this story and to tell it an unadorned non-Hollywoodized kind of way that Murrow himself would likely have approved since he didn't approve of mere "entertainment." But except in a few rare moments the film remains more of a dry history lesson than a movie in its own right.
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.
Based on a series of six Marvel Comics created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1962 The Hulk revolves around a scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) who following a laboratory snafu absorbs a normally deadly dose of gamma radiation. Bruce thinks he has escaped unscathed--until he gets mad ... real mad which causes him to turn into a huge rampaging green monster known as the Hulk. In order to make this 40-year-old gamma theory somewhat more believable for today's science-savvy moviegoers screenwriter James Schamus and his team decided to arm the script with a somewhat more convincing scientific rationale. The story follows Bruce's father David Banner (Nick Nolte) who as a young scientist conducted prohibited genetic experiments on himself thus changing his son's life before he was even out of the womb. While modernizing the scientific reasoning behind Bruce's transformation makes sense it's a pity it had to be done in such a heavy-handed way. By adding such an elaborate layer to the story The Hulk becomes more about Bruce and David's tormented past and any semblance of a plot is buried in melodramatic dialogue between the characters. The result is a comic book adaptation that is much too serious for its own genre.
Despite the theatrical discourse don't expect complex characters to emerge from The Hulk. Although Bana (Black Hawk Down) is a good choice for the lead of the nerdy scientist and reluctant hero his character is so busy pretending he doesn't have any problems that the audience never gets to see his emotional side. Bana's character grimaces convincingly as he represses his anger for example but he fails ever to open up on a personal level to his love interest in the film his co-worker Betty played by Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind). Betty is Bruce's old flame but the two are obviously still in love: she is obsessed with fixing whatever is broken about him. As the Hulk Bruce need only look at Betty once for his anger to subside and allow him to morph back into human form. They have weighty discussions about the significance of their dreams and Bruce's past yet they never seem to connect on any level. One of the film's best performances comes from Nolte (The Good Thief) in the role of Bruce's mad scientist father David. Almost Shakespearean at times Nolte--scraggly hair and all-- completely immerses himself in the role. The cast's performances however are muted by the general heaviness of this would-be actioner. Look for quick cameo appearances by Lou Ferrigno (from the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk) and Marvel legend Stan Lee.
For his follow-up to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon Ang Lee has turned to bigger greener matters. The Hulk the director's visual effects-intense picture (with a little help from Industrial Light & Magic) is stunning and startlingly well done. The green beast's computer generated movements from his heaving chest to the single leaps that spring him well into a different zip code are convincingly real. Not only does the ground shake when this goliath lands but his momentum even throws him off balance at times sending his lumbering arms flailing. But while the CGI Hulk has been meticulously honed Lee's homage to the world of print comic books--using multiple screens to present concurrent storylines and alternate angles of the same scene--is off-putting: Rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) suspiciously walks out of the lab Betty reacts in one panel Bruce sits back in another. The simultaneous screens don't necessarily show anything pertinent going on making the far and wide close and medium shots of the character's reactions a distraction rather than a helpful storytelling technique. But the most disconcerting thing about the film is that in its leap from the four-color paneled pages to the big screen it lost its wit.