Bo (Seann William Scott) and Luke (Johnny Knoxville) Duke are cousins--two hell-raisers who drive fast sell moonshine and bed sexy farm girls all across Georgia's Hazzard County. They've got another cousin Daisy Duke (Jessica Simpson) a drop-dead hottie who waits tables at the local watering hole. If someone gets a little too friendly with the gal she's knocks 'em on their ass--and if her cousins get into trouble she shakes hers to get them out of it. Then there's Uncle Jesse Duke (Willie Nelson) who makes the moonshine on his farm tells bad jokes and sings country-western songs. I can't quit thinking about how the Duke family dynamics work. They're all tight-knit cousins right? But Uncle Jesse isn't the father to any of them. So like where's the rest of the Dukes? There's gotta be other siblings parents maybe. It perplexes me. But I digress. Suffice to say the Dukes are always outrunning--and out-jumping--the local law enforcement in their souped-up Dodge Charger the General Lee. The boys are also constantly doing battle with the crooked county commissioner Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds) who cooks up one nefarious plan after another to make Hazzard County his own personal cash cow only to be thwarted by those darn Dukes. Dagnabbit.
Although some diehard fans of the TV show may disagree the casting for this feature film redo is pretty spot on. Knoxville and Scott do just fine as the rip-roarin' Duke cousins bantering about one upping each other--you know boys stuff. Nelson's still got the whole pigtail thing going for him but he looks like he's having a good time. Reynolds does too but he's definitely a lot slicker--and a lot better looking--than the show's original Boss Hogg Sorrell Booke. As the bumbling police veteran character actor M.C. Gainey who always plays bad guys at least gets to show off some comedy chops as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane. Michael Weston (Garden State) as the wimpy Deputy Enos Strate is sufficiently reduced to a puddle whenever Daisy is around. And then there's Simpson. My my my. It's obvious the camera (and whose ever behind it) loves every inch of her and she tends to light up the screen whenever she's on it. Of course playing Daisy in her acting debut isn't much of a stretch but Simpson still shows a comic flair. The singer-turned-actress could actually become a fairly serviceable comedic actress if she plays her cards right.
This is what director Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers) had to say about making The Dukes of Hazzard: "I had a poster of Daisy Duke [played in the original show by Catherine Bach] on my wall when I was nine that was very inspiring and when you combine the prospect of a new Daisy Duke with the opportunity to send the General Lee flying through the air again it was impossible for me to say no." Well Jay actually you could have said no and maybe the whole Hazzard as a feature idea would have gone away. It's perfectly suitable to have a television show be about nothing but cars flying through the air hot women in skimpy clothes and idiotic behavior. We'll always accept brain-friendly crap on TV. But to be subjected to an entire feature-length film of mindless stupidity is just too much at least in Hazzard's case. Sure watching the General Lee perform seemingly impossible stunts is fun. Apparently 28 Dodge Chargers had to be converted into the multiple General Lees needed for the film and the parts had to be hunted down on the Internet in junkyards or by word of mouth. Still after about the 100th time the car jumps over something you've had quite enough.
The Crusades were a series of religious wars in which the Christians tried to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims who had conquered the Middle East in the 7th century. With the battle cry of "God wills it! " thousands of Europeans answered the call and were able to retake the fabled Holy City in the 11th century. Kingdom of Heaven begins in 1186 between the Second and Third Crusades. A fragile peace prevails mostly through the efforts of Jerusalem's enlightened Christian king Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and the military restraint of the legendary Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). But it's difficult to maintain the peace. There are extremists within the Christian brigades--known as the Knights Templar--who want to wipe every Muslim off the face of the Earth. On top of that King Baldwin's health is failing. Once he's gone war is sure to follow. If ever there was a need for a hero this is the time. Enter the young French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) who is in deep despair over the loss of his family. He joins the Crusades after the father he never knew Godfrey (Liam Neeson) comes back from Jerusalem and convinces him it's a quest worth fighting for. As Godfrey passes his sword to his son he also passes on that sacred knightly oath: to protect the helpless safeguard the peace and work toward harmony between religions and cultures so that a kingdom of heaven can flourish on earth. No pressure or anything though.
Orlando Bloom carries his first major motion picture very well easily handling the chores of being such a gallant conscientious and morally upstanding knight. As Balian the Troy costar plays the gamut. He broods over his lost wife and child has father-son epiphanies upholds his knightly duties on a regular basis falls in love with a beautiful but troubled princess and finally bravely defends the Holy City from the encroaching Muslim army thus becoming a legend. Not bad for a day's work eh? There are even times especially toward the end when Balian is standing before the denizens of Jerusalem urging them to fight when you swear you can see a little of Bloom's The Lord of the Rings alter-elf Legolas creep in. The supporting cast also does an adequate job painting a picture of some trying times. Chief among them: Jeremy Irons as King Baldwin's right-hand man Tiberias; Marton Csokas (The Bourne Supremacy) as the evil leader of the Knights Templar; Massoud as the great warrior Saladin; and lovely Eva Green (The Dreamers) as Princess Sibylla King Baldwin's sister who captures our hero's heart but makes some bad choices with dire consequences.
Even if these sword-and-armor epics are all blending together you've got to give props to the directors who make them. These films are massive undertakings and Kingdom of
Heaven with the expert Ridley Scott at the helm is no exception. The Oscar-winning director of course has had his fair share of recreating history first with the classic Gladiator and then with the contemporary Black Hawk Down. But in recreating the Crusades Scott faces his toughest challenge to date and takes on the responsibility very seriously. He is painstakingly meticulous with details even as he is building a 12th-century Jerusalem or corralling 2 000 heavily costumed extras for the colossal climactic battle sequences. And it is always a good thing when a historical film can teach you something you may not have known like what the heck the Crusades were really all about. No Kingdom's biggest obstacle is timing. While it certainly has more substance than Alexander it is not nearly as intense and stirring as The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the granddaddy of them all Braveheart. Too many of its ilk has come before and the concept has unfortunately worn thin.
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.
Edward Bloom (played in his younger years by Ewan McGregor and as an older man by Albert Finney) is not an easy man to get to know but everybody he meets loves him. His elaborate stories--of his encounter with a witch whose glass eye shows a man's death his dramatic exodus from his hometown with a giant his return with gorgeous Siamese twins his job in the circus meeting his wife his son's birth and his own attempts to catch the biggest fish in the lake--entertain everyone who hears them except his estranged son William (Billy Crudup) who's heard them all too many times. He'll hear them again though; the film shows us the father's fantasy world in all its Tim Burton glory flashing back to Edward's youth and showing the stories as he tells them. Juxtaposed with these colorful imaginings are scenes of Edward's bittersweet reality: He's old now and dying. William has come home hoping to confront his father whose incredible fictions enriched his childhood but made him an embittered adult. They both know that soon the only story left to tell will be the one whose ending Edward has kept secret his entire life: the vision of his death that the witch showed him in her glass eye.
Because the stories from the past and the present are interwoven so closely Big Fish is a little hard to grasp in the beginning. Because the story's so complex the characters aren't immediately accessible even though the acting is generally good--barring a few slips in the Southern accents from McGregor and Alison Lohman. Once we start to get the gist though it becomes clear that Big Fish has some very rich rounded complex characters played well across the board. Finney stands out with an intelligent and moving turn as the older Edward among a cast of highly regarded thesps including Jessica Lange Helena Bonham Carter and Steve Buscemi. A five-time Academy Award nominee but never a winner Finney may see another nod--and given his empty mantel maybe even a win--for this role in the Best Supporting Actor category come February.
Next to the originality of the story Tim Burton's direction is perhaps the most compelling thing about Big Fish. Known for embracing his inner weirdness in films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas which he produced and Edward Scissorhands which he directed and produced Burton continues that trend with Big Fish's "tall tale" sequences. The director restrains the freaky side of his creative impulse during the reality segments proving himself as adept at serious drama as he is at fantasy. The cinematography and set design throughout are as gorgeous as they are appropriate to each segment's theme: The fantasy--of foggy lakeside sunrises the quaint yet not-quite-right town of Spectre and its soft-focus hoedown the dark haunted forest--contrasts with the stark reality of the hospital ward and a dying father's deathbed. Director of photography Philippe Rousselot who worked with Burton on the director's last film Planet of the Apes captures every meticulous detail of the magical sets produced by art director Richard L. Johnson production designer Dennis Glassner and set decorator Nancy Haigh.
In a lighthearted riff on Homer's epic poem set in the Depression-era South verbose
charmer Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney) and two dimwitted cronies (John
Turturro Tim Blake Nelson) break free from a Mississippi chain gang only to face
a long series of trials including a trio of seductive laundry-washing sirens
and a fearsome one-eyed Bible salesman (Homer's Cyclops of course creepily portrayed
by John Goodman). Unlike the original Ulysses Everett also must contend with
pursuing cops Southern-friend politicians and the KKK if he is to prevent his
less-than-faithful former wife (Holly Hunter) from marrying a rival suitor.
Leading goofs Clooney Turturro and Nelson gamely get into the Three
Stooges-ish tone of the piece with Clooney in particular delivering a
winking self-mocking turn that must be his broadest screen performance to
date. Nelson ("The Thin Red Line") is also a riot as a mild-mannered yokel
for whom every slow-moving thought requires visible effort. Disappointingly
Coen veterans Goodman Hunter and Charles Durning have less to sink their
teeth into than in previous outings with the brothers.
Writer-director Joel and writer-producer Ethan Coen rack up yet another enjoyable
romp featuring all of their signature elements - playfully stylized camerawork
offbeat music colorful characters distanced by dripping irony. Evoking the road
comedies of the '30s and '40s this easygoing comic adventure has an old-fashioned
flavor and (for a Coen picture at least) a relative lack of graphic violence
that links it to the brothers' underrated 1994 Frank Capra homage "The Hudsucker
Proxy." Amusing as it is however "Brother" rarely achieves the same hilarious
heights as previous Coen laughers such as "Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski."