As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.
January 15, 2004 1:22pm EST
As Torque opens we learn that biker Cary Ford (Martin Henderson) skipped town six months before without any explanation leaving behind bewildered friends and a heartbroken girlfriend Shane (Monet Mazur) who owns a local bike shop. "Heard you were in Indochina " people ask when they see Ford who came back to "make things right." Before his disappearing act Ford hid away a collection of motorcycles left in Shane's shop that belong to Henry (Matt Schulze) a drug dealer and leader of the Hellions biker gang who wants his merchandise back--not surprising since he had stashed about $1 million worth of crystal meth in the gas tanks. Henry devises a plan to get the goods: He brutally kills a rival gang leader's younger brother and frames Ford for the murder then promises an exchange--he'll get Ford off the hook if Ford tells him where the bikes are. This doesn't fly with our protagonist who sees the drug-spiked bikes as his only insurance against Henry killing him outright. Now Ford has to prove his innocence while staying a step ahead of the gangs--and the cops--who are hot on his trail. This ridiculous film fails to answer glaring questions such as why Ford split in the first place and why he stashed the bikes for six months. But the nonsensical storyline is accompanied by even lamer dialogue: The only thing worse than the constant references to Indochina (does anyone still use that term?) is Ford's correction that he was actually in Thailand.
If anything positive can be said about Torque it's that the bad guys in the cast manage to go out of their way to overdo their characters delivering the memorably bad dialogue with the utmost passion and conviction. As rival gang leader Trey Ice Cube never laughs or cracks a smile; he snarls his way through the entire film. But the best performance in terms of facial expressions has to be Jaime Pressly's China (no not Indochina)--Henry's woman. China doesn't say a word until halfway through the film but Pressly maximizes her character's screen presence by making her sadistically raunchy: She seductively licks her pierced vixen-red lips every time violence breaks out be it a fight or better yet a murder. When she finally utters a line (something like "You messed with the wrong chick") during a wheelie showdown with Shane we at least know she means it. In contrast heroes Mazur and Henderson are positively bland. Mazur's portrayal of Shane is a straight-up tough-but-pretty girl who skids into one scene after another on her crotch rocket asking "Need a ride?" and although Henderson's stringy longhaired Ford looks the part of a biker boy the actor doesn't give his character any quirky attributes the way Ice Cube and Pressly do--he isn't having fun in the role and it shows. But the cast's biggest obstacle--besides again the awful dialogue--is the absurd leather getups they're forced to wear.
Prolific music video helmer Joseph Kahn makes his directorial debut with Torque and his roots are showing--the film looks like a barrage of stylish music videos strung together. When Ford's pal is getting it on with a biker skank in a hotel room for example N.E.R.D.'s "Lap Dance" song blares in the background ("Oooh baby you want me? Well you can get this lap dance here for free..."). But the soundtrack has nothing on Torque's dialogue and lines such as "You got 'til sundown to bring back my bikes" will have audiences laughing rather than shaking in their boots. Scribe Matt Johnson's attempted jibe at The Fast and the Furious is absolutely pathetic; in one scene Ford repeats Vin Diesel's infamous "I live my life a quarter mile at a time " and Shane sneers something about that being the dumbest line she's ever heard. Right because this dialogue is so intelligent it's earned the right to laugh at others'. It's a shame Kahn didn't look to Furious helmer Rob Cohen for tips about directing a film about fast things on wheels instead of making fun--he could have learned how to make a cheesy film entertaining. Instead Kahn delivers an action pic whose CGI effects more closely resemble a video game than reality and whose organizing principle is the three-minute music video which doesn't lend itself to fleshed out storylines or interesting characters.
November 08, 2001 12:51pm EST
Hal (Jack Black) spends most of his time with his sleazy friend Mauricio (Jason Alexander) in nightclubs chasing women who basically look like supermodels. Ironic considering Hal and Mauricio are both unattractive and devoid of personalities. In one of the film's funnier moments Hal gets stuck in an elevator with self-help guru Anthony Robbins who hypnotizes the shallow fellow into seeing people's inner beauty rather than judging them purely on looks. Shortly after Hal falls for Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow) who he sees as skinny knockout rather than an obese woman. (Rosemary's inner beauty comes from being a Peace Corps volunteer who also helps out at the burn unit of the local hospital.) Annoyed that his best friend is dating a "rhino " Mauricio convinces Robbins to remove the spell so that he can have his old judgmental buddy back. Hal is then left to deal with seeing Rosemary for what she physically is and confront his feelings for her.
In Shallow Hal Paltrow (Bounce) makes a departure from her usual corseted roles and was convincing as the shy unconfident Rosemary. But most of the laughs come from seeing chairs collapse underneath Paltrow's supposed weight and getting a glimpse of her large purple thongs rather than her performance. The film also delivers many never before seen shots of Paltrow's crotch whether it's of her bending over in skimpy lavender lingerie or falling off a collapsed chair in a dress with her legs flailing. Either way we definitely see Paltrow in a different light. Black (Saving Silverman) is impressive playing the part of a guy who doesn't get that he's with someone obese. His confused reactions like when Rosemary's end of a canoe outweighs his are genuinely funny. Alexander (The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle) is equally amusing with his painted on hair but his character's neurosis parallel's Jerry Seinfeld's a little too much.
Directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly move away from their usual gross-out comedies like Dumb and Dumber and attempt a more heartfelt picture hoping to make people laugh and cry. Shallow Hal however does not succeed on either levels. The film is constantly driving home the point that it's wrong to judge people based on their looks but then derives most of the laughs from people's appearances. At one point Mauricio explains that Rosemary has "cankles " an anatomical appendage that happens when someone is so fat that their calves hang down over their ankles. Sure it's hysterical but are we supposed to laugh or become conscience-stricken? If it is at all possible to fuse politically incorrect humor and sensitivity it doesn't happen in this film. And while Paltrow has said she believes Shallow Hal will challenge the audience's perception of fat people it probably won't.