After making a sparkling debut in 2004 with his first feature film the slacker comedy Napoleon Dynamite offbeat writer-director Jared Hess seemed poised for a fruitful career as an earnest more accessible alternative to hipster auteur Wes Anderson. But he stumbled a bit with his sophomore effort the uneven Mexican wrestling flick Nacho Libre despite Jack Black’s desperate mugging for laughs. And he falls apart completely with his latest comedy the crude maddeningly insipid Gentlemen Broncos.
It’s a shame too because Gentlemen Broncos held so much potential. Its trailers promised a lively battle of wits between a pompous sci-fi author played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and the teenage protege (Michael Angarano) from whom he plagiarized his latest bestselling novel. It could have been Hess’s Rushmore. But what the trailers don’t tell you is that Clement plays merely a supporting role in Gentlemen Broncos and that his character Dr. Ronald Chevalier virtually disappears after the film’s splendid setup. Clement is by far the best part of the film and when he isn’t on the screen the story devolves into an increasingly irksome blend of manufactured quirk and lame sight gags. Hess’s sense of humor has regressed to sub-adolescent levels with Gentlemen Broncos. Defecating snakes breast-puncturing blowdarts and jars of human testicles are just a few of the lowbrow delights that await the brave soul who attempts to make it through a viewing. When Clement returns at the end of the film and mounts a quixotic attempt to rescue it from the mire his heroic effort is sadly for naught: The disastrous fate of Gentleman Broncos was sealed long before.
New York lawyer David Owen (Tim Robbins) is going nuts. The noise of the big city is putting him over the edge especially when it comes to car alarms. His wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) and little girl (Gabrielle Brennan) are not quite sure what to make of his growing obsession with stopping the invasive noise but at first they indulge him. But as David's anger escalates and he begins to vandalize the shrieking cars--and get arrested in the process--he loses both his family and his job. Even that doesn't stop him. He turns into “The Rectifier ” a vigilante noise-abatement specialist who wields a hammer baseball bat and battery-wire cutters smashing cars all over town. And he becomes a city hero too much to the annoyance of the foul-mouthed mayor (William Hurt) and his overeager chief of staff (William Baldwin). David even finds a partner in crime (and in his bed) Ekaterina (Margarita Levieva) a beautiful young woman who offers up a more legal way to accomplish his goal of silencing the screeching autos. Robbins gives a completely believable performance as David a man at the end of his Noise rope. With his sad-sack face and towering body Robbins is the perfect picture of a New Yorker whose life has somehow spiraled out of his control. The only part of the scenario that is hard to believe is his ability to get gorgeous women to sleep with him; his central relationship with his wife (the as-always emotionless Bridget Moynahan who has a film career based solely on her beauty) is completely unbelievable and jars with the rest of the movie. More real is David’s slightly twisted relationship with Russian beauty Margarita Levieva as Ekaterina--at least it is conceivable that she is fascinated with his larger-than-life vigilante persona. Plus Levieva gives a lively fun performance that elevates every scene she is in. William Hurt and William Baldwin do a sort of Laurel and Hardy routine as the silly mayor and his right-hand man which is interesting to watch but sadly not very funny. And what is up with Hurt's dyed red hair? That's just weird. Noise’s writer/director Henry Bean uses a variety of film techniques including split screens time-shifting--even superimposing the text of a Hegel philosophical tract on the screen--creating visual interest in what is otherwise an often static story. But while the basic plot revolving around one man's obsession with ridding the city of noise is an interesting one the journey of the film is a slowly paced and talky slog. It isn't a good sign when one of the best moments of the whole movie comes as the credits roll as Bean's protagonist gleefully smashes the crap out of two cars with a baseball bat. Otherwise the movie is mostly about conversation as characters discuss ad nauseam the affect that noise has on humanity's collective psyche. The result is a film that fails to ignite our imagination or hold our interest.
Based on the sensational 1968 trial of the Chicago 7 (a group of anti-war protestors charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot) Chicago 10 is part documentary part motion-capture animation. The Chicago 7 was actually eight people and Chicago 10 is named after the group's two attorneys who also went courageously to jail. The men on trial included Abbie Hoffman the outspoken icon of Chicago-based activism and Jerry Rubin a 20th century celebrity in his own right. Chicago 10's cartoon portion tries to recreate the drama of the real-life trial. The jury listens skeptically and a crotchety old judge (voiced by the late Roy Scheider) gives the defendants’ opposition. It’s a commentary of the farcical nature of the trial--and the surreal standards behind it. Connecting the dots is a music video-like series of documentary images spotlighted by horrific scenes such as the Chicago police and National Guardsmen striking back scores of protestors. Rage Against the Machine and Beastie Boys songs underlie violent tableaus. For Americans born 1980 and after this era of left-leaning cultural dissent can be a foreign world. The 1960s’ silencing of voices questioning the government in the era of civil rights and the Vietnam War has been echoed with the Iraqi War. But protests like Chicago 10 are a rarity today. On display are the voices of a handful of top Hollywood stars--including Mark Ruffalo Jeffrey Wright Nick Nolte Liev Schrieber and Hank Azaria--as the voices of the courtroom players. As with many star-studded animation productions the result is not greater than the sum of its parts. Although Scheider in his last performance provides the most distinctive voice as Judge Julius Hoffman Ruffalo Wright et.al are lost in the mix. Partially because of a limp-ish script the actors have to inject excitement into a static courtroom environment--but compared to 12 Angry Men or Primal Fear it just doesn’t engage. Director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) comes with a fresh visionary perspective. He brings a vibrant attitude to this anti-war flick but it's one poorly executed or at least unevenly so. At the heart of the film's animation there are technical problems. The character's eyes are dead and their movements clunky despite the lively body motions. Compared to a higher budget movie like Beowulf the animation is many years behind. It's a big reason to discount the slowness by which Chicago 10 chief concept operates. The animation doesn't provide enough dramatic potency to involve the audience and becomes more like a gimmick. Messy psychedelic assemblage of documentary footage--though culled reportedly from thousands of images and minutes of tape--doesn't add insight beyond common knowledge. Unfortunately it just isn’t much different from what we've already seen.
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!
When he was 12 years old Cody Banks (Frankie Muniz) was recruited to attend a summer camp secretly run by the CIA. Four years later the Agency comes knocking on his door with a mission: He must get close to Natalie Connors (Hilary Duff) a prep school student in Cody's home town and the daughter of a scientist developing deadly nanobot technology for the evil organization ERIS. Problem is Cody is not the most confident guy when it comes to girls and meeting Natalie proves to be a mission in itself. Luckily for Cody his agency mentor is the stunning Ronica Miles (Angie Harmon) who knows a thing or two about relationships. Cody must now prove himself as an agent and stop ERIS from completing its mission. Can he do it? And more importantly will he get the girl? With its crop of predictable gadgets and two-dimensional villains Agent Cody Banks MGM's answer to James Bond for 'tweens is not too imaginative. But its likeable cast and characters make this pic a tolerable undertaking.
Muniz is only 16 years old but he's hardly a newcomer to Hollywood. He stars in Fox's hit sitcom Malcolm in the Middle and has two features My Dog Skip and Big Fat Liar under his belt. Muniz doesn't come across as a manufactured Hollywood kid actor and there is something refreshing about the fact that he doesn't use puppy dog eyes or speak childishly to wring sympathy out of moviegoers. He possesses an intelligence that comes through in his work especially here where he plays a quick-thinking operative. Duff meanwhile stars in her own hit Disney Channel series Lizzie Maguire a comedy about a young teenager and her animated alter ego. In Cody Banks Duff plays Natalie a smart and clever teen who doesn't have to follow the pack to be popular. Together Duff and Muniz make a snappy little onscreen duo. Rounding out the cast is Harmon (formerly of NBC's Law and Order) as Cody's proctor. Harmon obviously saw the humor in this part and ran with it. You'll love her leather outfits and shoulder-pad stuffed cleavage.
Director Harald Zwart's pint-sized secret agent flick is packed with silly but entertaining action sequences. The film starts off on a high as Cody jumps on his skateboard to save a toddler trapped inside a runaway car in a thrilling high-speed rescue. Although Agent Cody Banks has some lively action the storyline is a bit derivative and follows the basic spy formula of good versus evil complete with bald scarred villains seeking to destroy the world for no reason other than to be well evil. The gadgets--an important part of any spy movie--are also basic fare (think suction cup shoes and x-ray vision glasses). But the film is still fun to watch because a) it only runs 96 minutes leaving little time for boredom to set in b) it's got a really likeable cast and c) it doesn't take itself seriously. Zwart who directed the 2001 comedy One Night at McCool's lightens the film with some humorous touches here and there including playing Nelly's "Hot in Herre" whenever Ronica Miles makes a sultry entrance.