Archive for July, 2003

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life

Monday, July 28th, 2003

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Summer 2003 proved one strange, inconsequential thing at the box office: movies based on video games almost inevitably suck, while movies based on theme park rides might actually be pretty fun.  In the second “Tomb Raider” entry (its full title, odd punctuation intact, is “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”) Angelina Jolie reprises her role as the globetrotting thrill-seeker, but the result is as boring and predictable as the first film.  Sadly, the bottom line is clear: it is more fun to play “Tomb Raider” on your computer than it is to watch it on the silver screen.

Does the plot even matter?  Not really – but when your foggy memory recollects that in the first flick, Croft was chasing after the Illuminati in order to prevent the controlling of time itself, the notion of tracking down Pandora’s Box does not seem any more unreasonable.  After all, the sequel’s opening set-piece – an underwater treasure hunt in a temple erected by Alexander the Great – ends with our heroine cutting her own arm in order to attract a nasty-looking shark, which she then punches in the snout and rides to the water’s surface.  Reality itself is relative in Lara’s world.

Ripping off iconic adventurers like Indiana Jones and Allan Quatermain (who rather unfortunately turned up recently in the slumberous adaptation of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) does not seem that difficult – especially when employing someone as stunning and unusual as Jolie in the lead – but “The Cradle of Life” makes a perfect mess of it.  Screenwriter Dean Georgaris elects to do nothing that might elevate his script above the lifeless sludge that preceded it, and as a result, Lara herself remains as brittle, aloof, and unknowable as she did the first time around.

Not even director Jan De Bont, taking the reins from Simon “Con Air” West, can jumpstart the lumbering, two-hour affair.  Sure, the movie teems with action scenes, but each one feels as though it was written, performed, photographed, and edited in extreme slow motion.  Lara Croft visits Greece, Asia, and Africa, but the gorgeous scenery remains utilized only as travelogue eye candy and never as a vibrant geography that demands to be treated as if it were integral to the plot or as important as the characters.  Predictably, the regional ethnicities, from an “adorable” family on a sampan/houseboat to Djimon Hounsu’s stoic warrior, are treated with old-fashioned, colonial condescension.

Jolie, whose ravishing physicality makes her the ideal human being to play a computer-generated superhero, has built a solid reputation for playing unpredictable, edgy mavericks and should therefore be able to harness Croft’s inherent appeal (the intelligence, the purposefulness, the independence, the resiliency, etc.).  Somehow, the rich and beautiful daredevil continues to elude the actor, despite her dedicated efforts.  Jolie should not be blamed, however, for the sad fact that the “Tomb Raider” movies are anything but entertaining.  The trick lies inside the rambling narratives of the video games, and more to the point, how to turn those escapades into compelling big screen tales.  Maybe next time.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/28/03. 

Bad Boys II

Monday, July 21st, 2003


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A stomach-turning quagmire of wretched excess and capitalist notions of wealthy America’s manifest destiny, “Bad Boys II” is one of the most shockingly horrid movies released in recent memory. It’s not quite “Bloodsucking Freaks” with a budget, but producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay demonstrate again and again that what they possess in the way of chase-scene finesse, they sorely lack in taste. So idiotic is this name-only sequel, audience members will wonder aloud whether Will Smith and Martin Lawrence even bothered to read the screenplay before accepting their handsome salaries.

Set in a fantasy-land version of Miami, where Henry Rollins can pass for the head of the police department’s Tactical Narcotics Team and large scale Ku Klux Klan rallies front drug smuggling operations, “Bad Boys II” plays like an abject TV cop show – sort of a “Miami Vice” from a parallel universe where the writing is no good. Bay’s visuals betray his fascination for “Vice’s” Michael Mann, but he uses a sledgehammer instead of Mann’s scalpel, and the results are boorish, ugly, and simple-minded. Imagine the movie without the charisma of its two appealing leads, and its inherent cruelty would be unbearable.

At roughly 145 minutes, “Bad Boys II” never meets an action sequence it doesn’t like, going so far as to nearly dispense with plot entirely. What little story that does exist concerns the two-man wrecking crew comprised of Lawrence’s Marcus Burnett (the tightly-wound family man) and Smith’s Mike Lowrey (the smooth-talking ladykiller) as they pursue a ruthless Cuban drug kingpin (embarrassingly inhabited by Jordi Molla as a Summer Stock version of Al Pacino’s “Scarface” mobster). Add to the mix NYC-based DEA agent Gabrielle Union (looking completely disoriented) as Marcus’ little sister, a half-dozen plot holes and coincidences, and some flashy sports cars and large explosions, and you’ve got what passes for entertainment these days.

Bruckheimer also produced “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and minus a couple of spectacular shots of things blowing up, the two films could not be any less alike. “Bad Boys II” respects neither the conventions of action movie protocol – its “heroes” are extravagantly self-centered and egomaniacal – nor its audience. One ghastly set-piece, offensive on a variety of levels, sees a van loaded with corpses carom around the streets, spilling bodies on the pavement. Some of the cadavers are then run over by pursuing vehicles, and the head of one unfortunate dead body pops off while Lawrence stifles his urge to vomit. This is supposed to be humorous.

In another scene, the bad boys badger a teenager who has come to take Marcus’ daughter on a date. At the door, Mike pretends to be a drunk ex-con, and threatens the poor kid with sodomy. This is also apparently intended for laughs. Or consider the stunt that sends a canary-yellow Hummer bouncing through a Cuban hillside shantytown, shredding the hardscrabble shacks that are homes to hundreds of people too poor to even attend a movie. The composition unintentionally renders an apocalyptic vision of America’s whip hand crushing any weaker society that doesn’t appreciate late-model SUVs – and the sight is as repugnant as the rest of the movie.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/21/03.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Monday, July 14th, 2003

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Since its debut all the way back on March 18, 1967, Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” dark ride has delighted literally millions of children and adults alike.  With its gorgeous dioramas and elaborate special effects, “Pirates” is arguably the signature attraction of the theme park.  Some may claim that its (then-groundbreaking) audio-animatronic figures haven’t dated terribly well, but visit Anaheim any given summer day, and take a look at the smiling faces of the folks stepping off the ride – dead men may tell no tales, but “Pirates of the Caribbean” is an American classic.

While the idea of making a movie based on a theme park ride is certainly novel, the Gore Verbinski-directed, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” struggles to live up to the entertainment that inspired it.  The movie version is noisy, sprawling, and cannot make up its mind how many climaxes it needs.  At more than two hours long, it quite simply cannot do what Disneyland accomplishes in a matter of minutes.  That said, “Pirates” still manages many delights, not the least of which is a fabulous performance from Johnny Depp.

Playing Captain Jack Sparrow as a flouncing, out-of-his-mind oddball decked out with colorful beads in his half-dreadlocks and mascara dripping from his eyes, Depp clearly relishes his role.  The actor might have described his approach to Sparrow as a cross between Keith Richards and Pepe LePew, but the heady stew he conjures up is something altogether original in the annals of cinematic pirates.  Captain Jack operates with a roguish insouciance that always keeps you guessing as to where his true allegiance lies.  He’s a natural born scoundrel and liar, and he has so much fun, you cheer him on even when it appears he is up to no good.

The other actors can barely keep up with Depp, but they all serve their purposes nicely.  Knockout Keira Knightley (herself something like a cross between Natalie Portman and Winona Ryder) is at the center of the plot as the imperiled Elizabeth Swann, a governor’s daughter destined from childhood to be mixed up with buccaneers.  Elizabeth’s love interest, a self-conscious blacksmith with his own ties to piracy, is played by Orlando Bloom.  Rounding out the group is scenery-glutton Geoffrey Rush as the evil Captain Barbossa, the cursed mutineer who kidnaps Elizabeth because he believes her to be the key that will untangle him from his fate.

Unfortunately, far too much time is spent away from the main characters, dwelling instead on the less-interesting scalawags in the supporting cast.  While it certainly is cool to see the special effects wizardry that turns the Black Pearl crew into undead skeletons (it happens whenever the moonlight shines upon them), the filmmakers should have paid more attention to Elizabeth.  Overall, though, “Pirates of the Caribbean” seems likely to break another major curse by becoming the first successful pirate movie in a very long time.  Virtually every effort released in the last couple of decades has been a complete failure (i.e. “The Pirate Movie” and “Cutthroat Island”), but this Disney version might earn itself a rousing chorus of “Yo Ho! Yo Ho!  A pirate’s life for me!”

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/14/03. 

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Monday, July 7th, 2003

Movie review by Greg Carlson

For a relatively outmoded, 55-year-old action hero whose best work took place what seemed like ages ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger does his thing just like that other unstoppable mechanized force, the Energizer Bunny.  He keeps on coming, with a relentlessness that somehow transforms audience boredom into something resembling admiration, if not respect.  While the same certainly cannot be said for the wooden thespian’s “call to serve” as a potential gubernatorial candidate in sunny California, seeing the impassive hulk in his Terminator leathers conjures a weirdly comforting nostalgia.  It’s hard to believe the franchise was born nearly two decades ago, when Ronald Reagan inhabited the White House.

While James Cameron shrewdly morphed the bad Terminator into a good one for 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the basic personality of the killer cyborg has remained intact all the way through the latest installment (and if “Rise of the Machines” is as monstrous a hit as the previous outing, there is little doubt we will be visited at least once more by the metallic juggernaut).  By now, of course, the Terminator is as ensconced in our popular culture as Frankenstein’s monster, with catchphrases like “Hasta la vista, baby,” and “I’ll be back” fused in the brains of millions.

Cameron is not behind the camera for “T3,” but director Jonathan Mostow, who showed much promise in his effectively-staged action sequences in “U-571” and “Breakdown” proves a solid choice to take the reins.  Fans will undoubtedly argue which of the three Terminator movies is their favorite, and that is a credit to Mostow – for merely holding his own in a world previously dominated by legendary control-freak Cameron.  “T3” is not without deep flaws, however, even if many are the result of things beyond the new director’s control.

First of all, the absence of Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong resonates deeply.  Replacing the reportedly troubled Furlong, Nick Stahl struggles to match the brooding intensity of future leader John Connor, but never equals the kind of haunting, cornered-animal quality that was the signature of his predecessor.  The same goes for Claire Danes, who plays veterinarian Kate Brewster.  Granted, it is unfair to compare her bewildered, out-of-the-loop character with Hamilton’s commanding powerhouse, but there is little doubt that she just doesn’t quite discharge automatic weapons with the same verve as Sarah Connor.

Plots of time-travel movies, especially ones that are populated by wicked human-like androids hell-bent on assassination, are generally unwise to scrutinize too closely.  Suffice it to say that once again, everything boils down to machine versus humankind, with John Connor the fated survivor who must take on the self-aware computer system that threatens anything comprised of blood and bones.  And that’s where “T3” delivers its payload.  As the TX, or Terminatrix, icy Kristanna Loken one-ups the hair-raising potency of Robert Patrick’s T1000 (even though she does not employ exactly the same kind of cool, liquid metal visual effects).  Loken is not nearly as good an actor as Patrick, but the filmmakers try to make up for it by giving the robo-babe a morphing, bionic arm that, among other things, doubles as a flamethrower.  One look at the TX, and you know that Arnold’s “obsolete design” T101 will have his work cut out for him.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/7/03.