reel reviews
6/11/04

The Chronicles of RiddickCoffee and CigarettesGarfieldSaved

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The Chronicles of Riddick
Reviewed by Jason Aaron

Pitch Black was a relatively small scale, low budget sci fi/horror film released in 2000 that starred an up-and-coming young Vin Diesel as Riddick, an angry, alien outlaw and space-age version of Conan the Barbarian.

In the four years since then, Diesel has blossomed into a huge star, so of course this sequel to Pitch Black is a lavish, big budget blockbuster that bears little resemblance to the original, other than the fact that they're both innovative, stylish and enjoyable as hell.

Diesel's Riddick is the mother of all anti-heroes: a perpetually pissed-off, thoroughly unstoppable killing machine with massive biceps, shaved head and a shiny set of eyes that see in the dark. In Pitch Black, Riddick had to save a group of stranded travelers from a whole planet-full of vicious, nocturnal monsters in the midst of a total eclipse. In the sequel, the stakes are raised, of course, so this time it turns out that Riddick is the only one who can save the whole universe. Unfortunately, all Riddick wants is to be left alone. Lucky for the universe that he has a soft spot for cute kids.

The plot here is pretty simple. It's basically "Get Riddick!" The merciless planet-smashing army of Necromongers, a group of greedy, persistent mercenaries and the good guys, led by Judi Dench's ghostly white witch, Aereon: They all want to get their hands on Riddick for one reason or the other.

Writer/director David Twohy keeps the film moving along at a lightning pace. There are chases, knife fights, gun battles, a gritty prison escape and special effects galore as Riddick kills his way across the galaxy, from a frozen ice world to a prison planet with a 700-degree sunrise. He's never really concerned about doing what's right but still manages to somehow get it done anyway.

Thankfully, Twohy spares us any sanguine romance. The female lead (played by Alexa Davalos) is more interested in trading murder techniques with Riddick than in swapping spit. This is balls-to-the-wall, break-neck action from start to finish, with enough Philip K. Dick-esque mumbo-jumbo thrown in to please the hardcore tech nerds.

As the newest, biggest action star on the block, Diesel has been compared to the past title holders like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. It's true, he does have Governor Arnie's muscles and the Italian Stallion's limited vocabulary. But Diesel is far more charismatic, witty, daring and, dare I say, intelligent than those two has-beens. For years, when asked in interviews what actress he most wanted to work with, instead of listing any number of fresh, young hotties Diesel would name veteran English actress Dench. And on top of that, did Rambo or the Terminator ever kill anyone with a teacup like Riddick does? I rest my case.

If you haven't seen Pitch Black, don't worry; it's not required viewing in order to enjoy The Chronicles of Riddick. Though it is still worth checking out, as is Below, the creepy submarine drama Twohy made in 2002. Far less convoluted and far more kinetic than last year's Matrix sequels, The Chronicles of Riddick also boasts about as cool an ending as a movie like this could ever hope to have.

The Schwarzenegger-esque one liners are a little tired at times, but Twohy and Diesel still pack The Chronicles of Riddick with enough excitement, laughter and visual flair for ten summer blockbusters. (PG-13) Rating: 4; Posted 6/11/04


Coffee and Cigarettes
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Many filmmakers devote their careers to broadening and expanding the different types of narratives we see. New perspectives and ideas are constantly being brought to the screen. However, it is rare to find a filmmaker that attempts to change the narrative structure itself. Over the past 24 years, Jim Jarmusch has developed a minimalist technique that shows little regard for common narrative structure.

His films do not rely on emotional fluctuation to drive the action. In fact, his films tend to stay on the same even keel. Jarmusch’s filmmaking relies on realism, and trusts the audience to be actively thinking and making connections as they view his works.

His films affect audience members differently: Some people leave the theater fascinated and engaged while others, put off by Jarmusch’s structure, leave angry, disgusted and with a sense that the emperor is not wearing any clothes. Make no mistake about it, Jarmusch’s work is filled with meaning and insight.

Jarmusch’s latest film, Coffee and Cigarettes, is a collection of eleven short films that he has filmed over the past 18 years. The first episode, commissioned by Saturday Night Live, is a quick encounter as Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni discuss non-sequiturs over coffee and cigarettes. The others were filmed at different times with six of the shorts shot in 2002.

There appear to be rules and guidelines that unify the episodes. The steadfast rules are that every encounter is filmed in black and white, there are no more than three characters. Coffee (or another hot beverage) and smokes must be displayed at some point in the conversation. There are no extras on screen during the encounter. The table remains isolated from other customers at the restaurant. With one exception, each scene begins with one person arriving and ends with one person leaving.

The guidelines appear to be that celebrities are encouraged to play themselves (Cate Blanchett follows this guideline and breaks it simultaneously). Characters are encouraged to click their glasses and conversations often involve misunderstanding, offense and awkward tension. Humor and failure permeate the scenes.

But what does Jarmusch want us to learn?

Coffee and Cigarettes is not about learning anything. There are no obvious life lessons. Instead, he wants us to think about how, as time goes by, our conversations and encounters are becoming more and more uncomfortable.

Coffee and Cigarettes are two comforts designed to put us at ease, so why are these encounters so awkward? Two friends who haven’t seen each other awkwardly argue whether or not one of them has a problem. Actor Alfred Molina attempts to connect with fellow actor Steve Coogan only to be belittled again and again until a phone call turns the tables. Cate Blanchett meets with a non-famous cousin who both adores and despises her. Rappers GZA and RZA find an insane Bill Murray waiting tables (in an homage to Andy Kaufman). Tom Waits and Iggy Pop, musicians who admire each other, find themselves inadvertently offending each other again and again. These encounters usually end with someone fleeing the table at the first opportunity. Has our world become so complex that simple conversation has become a chore?

Coffee and Cigarettes does not offer simple answers, but what is does offer is a brilliant examination of the nature of the modern encounter. The final encounter between Andy Warhol associate and poet Taylor Mead and cult actor Bill Rice beautifully brings the film together. As we watch the final scene where these two life veterans pretend their coffee is champagne and listen to Mahler’s “I Lost Track of the World,” it ends this fascinating and beautiful exercise that will broaden your mind while stretching the nature of film itself. (R) Rating: 5 ; Posted 6/11/04


Garfield
Reviewed by Uri Lessing

Garfield, the movie, in now out in theaters! Who doesn’t love Garfield? Who doesn’t enjoy watching or reading about a fat, smart-alecky cat that enjoys eating lasagna? Who out there doesn’t quiver with excitement at the prospect of seeing Garfield push his best canine friend Odie off of his favorite chair? Who out there lacks the capacity for pleasure, watching Garfield outsmart the big dog across the street or switching cat-food with human-food to the disgust of his owner; the sweet and loveable push-over Jim?

Who doesn’t love Garfield: Most people over the age of ten.

My four-year old son Gabriel, conversely, loves Garfield. He loved Garfield even before he ever laid eyes on that orange fur ball. He fell in love when I explained the premise. As I described Garfield and the world he lives in, my son joyfully interrupted me with cries of, “And he talks too?”

If you can read these words, you are not the target audience of this film. There is not a single joke, jibe or subtle bit of humor designed for you (except for maybe the shot of Garfield looking like one of those stick-up toys we see on cars). There is more grown-up wit in an episode of PBS’s Dragon Tales. The human actors are as lifeless as the furniture, and surprisingly, Bill Murray’s performance as the voice of Garfield sounds like reading. I suspect he put more effort into the Japanese commercials in Lost in Translation.

As an adult viewer, you will find yourself the target of a massive amount of product placement ranging from computers to crackers. The strongest messages for adults are that we should purchase and consume mass quantities of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and dash off to Petco for all of our kitty’s litter and chow needs.

Yet my cynical feelings towards Garfield have been lessened due to Gabriel’s pure enjoyment of the film. He giggled and smiled, and loved the silly harmless little tricks Garfield played on his friends. He also understood the message that even though our friends get on our nerves, life is no fun without them. Hearing my son giggling at Garfield dancing around the living room with Odie, reminded me of the joy those short, wide Garfield books by Jim Davis used to give me when I was a boy.

And three days after seeing Garfield, he is still talking about it.

Unlike Shrek, this movie is not a movie for adults and kids to enjoy together. Since the target audience is too young to go to the movies by themselves, I’m afraid you’re stuck! However, Garfield is a movie that allows us to enjoy our kids that much more, and resurrect some of those lost childhood feelings.
Besides, it’s also a great excuse to cook some healthy lasagna afterwards! (PG) Rating: 3; Posted 6/11/04


Saved
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

The 25th anniversary re-release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian served as a bit of a rejoinder to the phenomenon called The Passion of the Christ. The same satiric skepticism can be found in another new film, a teen comedy from a first-time director.

Saved, like Life of Brian, is unlikely to be embraced by Christian fundamentalists. In fact, one could argue that the entire evangelical movement is the target of this film’s contempt.

Filmmaker Brian Dannelly and co-writer Michael Urban would probably disagree with that assessment and claim that their movie is only meant as an assault on hypocrisy. That would be a bit like saying, “I’m not ridiculing your clothes…just your taste.”

Jena Malone (Cold Mountain) stars as Mary, a student at Eagle Mountain Christian High School. She is one of the “angels,” a small clique headed by the obnoxiously self-righteous Hilary Faye, played by singer Mandy Moore (Chasing Liberty).

Mary’s boyfriend Dean (Chad Faust) confesses to her that he may be gay. Believing that she has seen a vision in which Jesus encourages her to have sex with Dean in order to “save” him, Mary becomes pregnant. Feeling betrayed by Jesus, she loses her faith.

Learning of Mary’s transgressions, Hilary Faye wages an all-out offensive to disgrace her. She manages to turn many of Mary’s former friends against her, but unwittingly sends her into the hands of a group of like-minded doubters. These include Hilary Faye’s paraplegic brother Rowland, played by Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone), his delinquent girlfriend Cassandra (Eva Amurri from The Banger Sisters) the school’s token Jew, and Patrick (Patrick Fugit from Almost Famous), the preacher’s kid.

Mary’s mom, played by Mary-Louise Parker (Red Dragon) is too busy carrying on an extramarital affair with Pastor Skip (Martin Donovan from Agent Cody Banks) to be much help. Pastor Skip is also preoccupied in his attempts to be perceived as hip by the student body. (He often refers to Jesus as being “phat.”)

The script is well written and shows remarkably good aim when targeting the aspects of Christianity it wishes to ridicule. It also is guilty of stacking the deck, making sure that the characters who hold strong to their faith are seen as naïve or foolish.

The cast is uniformly fine, with Moore particularly memorable as the scheming Hilary Faye. (Those who became fans when Moore starred in the Christian film A Walk to Remember will feel particularly betrayed.)

Clearly, Saved aims to mock fundamentalism...and it does so quite skillfully. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 6/11/04


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