2003

Johnny English (2003, Peter Howitt)

Johnny English runs just under ninety minutes, which is one of the film’s secret weapons–nothing ever goes on too long, not the good stuff, not the bad stuff, not the mediocre stuff. There’s not a lot of bad stuff–more varying degrees of mediocre; when things then get better, when things finally pay off, it’s a cause for celebration. When Johnny English gets funny, it gets funny.

The film is a Rowan Atkinson vehicle masquerading as an incredibly safe James Bond spoof. Atkinson is a British Security Service office worker who gets promoted to number one agent. Because, through his incompetence, everyone else has been killed. Somehow his boss, Tim Pigott-Smith, never holds Atkinson accountable for the very inept and dangerous things he’s done, instead railing on him for the things where Atkinson is actually right.

Like how French private prison-owning billionaire John Malkovich is a bad guy.

Malkovich is another of English’s secret weapons, because he doesn’t play his part like a Bond villain. He plays it like a goofy Malkovich comedy part. He’s never outrageous or campy–unfortunately–but he’s always got enough energy to make the scenes work. Atkinson never gets to be showy. Malkovich gets to be showy. He’s the only one who gets to be showy.

Bringing us to the other–and probably last–secret weapon: Ben Miller. He plays Atkinson’s subordinate. Miller is the spy office peon who should be the secret agent. There’s a lengthy period where Miller’s not in the film and Atkinson is playing sidekick to real secret agent Natalie Imbruglia and Malkovich isn’t really in the movie and it gets long. There are also too many poop jokes. Because without Miller and Malkovich around, English has to go into the literal potty to get some humor going.

Because Imbruglia doesn’t bring anything. It’s not a great part and she’s not terrible, but she’s got no presence and less personality. Her comic timing–at least in her timing as it reacts to Atkinson–is fine though.

Atkinson has some great physical comedy in English. Nowhere near enough, but the movie wouldn’t really know what to do with any more. Director Howitt does an adequate, uninspired job. He doesn’t get in the way of the good jokes and he doesn’t make the bad ones any worse. So he wouldn’t know what to do with more physical comedy. Howitt’s impatient, while everyone else seems completely comfortable not being rushed. Not ninety minutes but also not rushed. The film’s self-awareness about its limitations increases its charm.

Anyway, back to Atkinson. He’s good. He’s hilarious at times. His straight man performance as the stupid secret agent is most impressive–at least during the expository scenes–in how seriously Atkinson takes the part. He’s going for it’s funny because he’s so serious. When other actors aren’t as serious about their parts as Atkinson, it hurts. Imbruglia, for example. Miller gets it, Malkovich gets it. Pigott-Smith not really.

Of course, the writing tends to be thin. Pigott-Smith not transcending the caricature isn’t entire his fault.

Howitt’s lack of enthusiasm for directing his actors–he showcases the comedy, focusing tightly on the comedy, not the actors essaying it–doesn’t help either.

Technically the film’s fine. Nothing stands out, good or bad. The music isn’t overtly “Bond,” which is kind of nice, and the Robbie Williams theme song is fun.

Thanks to Atkinson (and the professionally executed production), it’d be difficult for Johnny English to fail too hard. It’s both a surprisingly pleasant comedy and a not insignificant disappointment. With Atkinson, Miller, and Malkovich, it seems like it could be better. However, it’s not clear if it should be any better.

Additionally… if you’re going to have Prunella Scales play the Queen, give her at least one joke. What should be an inspired comedic casting is instead an end credits curio.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Howitt; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and William Davies; director of photography, Remi Adefarasin; edited by Robin Sales; music by Ed Shearmur; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam, and Lucette Legot; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Rowan Atkinson (Johnny English), John Malkovich (Pascal Sauvage), Natalie Imbruglia (Lorna Campbell), Ben Miller (Bough), Tim Pigott-Smith (Pegasus), Oliver Ford Davies (Archbishop of Canterbury), and Kevin McNally (Prime Minister).


The Station Agent (2003, Tom McCarthy)

The Station Agent is not a character study. It does try, at almost exactly the one hour mark (it runs a breezy, but deliberate eighty-nine minutes), to become a character study, but it is not a character study. It is actually a perfect example of how to not make a character study.

Writer-director McCarthy spends the first hour avoiding showing the audience enough about protagonist Peter Dinklage to even hazard an understanding, then gives Dinklage a series of challenges to overcome in the third act. The challenges are mostly hackneyed; if they aren’t hackneyed, McCarthy doesn’t want to stick with them because there’s no character development for Dinklage (onscreen). So instead of achieving something sublime, Station Agent rushes a finish. It’s a long rush–the last third–and an obvious, predictable one.

It’s all thanks to the actors it works out. Dinklage is awesome. If McCarthy weren’t terrified of making the film about him, Dinklage would be even better. There’s the potential for a great role, but McCarthy doesn’t write for it. He wants to keep things genial. Station Agent is a comedy with some melodrama. Most of the comedy comes from Dinklage’s sidekick, Bobby Cannavale.

Dinklage inherits a train station depot. He’s a train enthusiast. He moves across New Jersey to live in the depot. Cannavale runs his recovering father’s food truck–inexplicably stationed in the same remote lot as the depot. It’s got nice scenery, I suppose. Station Agent is a visually precious film. Oliver Bokelberg’s photography–except at night, really–John Paino’s production design, the locations. McCarthy succeeds with a visual result better than his composition.

Anyway, Cannavale wants to be friends because there’s “no one cool in town.” Dinklage doesn’t want to be friends because he doesn’t want to make friends; he lives a solitary life, avoiding social interactions because he has dwarfism. McCarthy’s inability to convey that aspect of Dinklage’s character in the script (and plot) is Station Agent’s big problem. He can’t figure out a way to talk about it.

Dinklage even tells Cannavale–who is so charming and lovable and downright good, they have to become friends–Dinklage even tells him he doesn’t want to talk about it. Because Station Agent doesn’t want to think about it, even though it informs all of Dinklage’s actions.

Again, movie can get away with it because it’s got a good sentiment, great performances, and solid dialogue. It’s fun to watch.

Dinklage and Cannavale find a third Musketeer in Patricia Clarkson. Clarkson’s good, but she gets the shaft as far as a character. She’s separated from husband, painting (weird faces), her toddler son has died. If it weren’t for Clarkson’s nervous distraction, the character would be as caricature on screen as in script. But Clarkson does a lot with the part.

Until McCarthy kicks her out of the movie. Then he kicks Cannavale out of the movie. In their place, he brings in Michelle Williams as a possible love interest for Dinklage. Williams’s good, she and Dinklage have chemistry, but McCarthy chickens out of it.

The Station Agent is a charming, beautifully acted, solidly constructed film. But seeing as how everyone showed up to do some work–even Stephen Trask’s slightly overbearing, omnipresent score excels–it would have been nice if McCarthy had something for them to do after the movie hits the one hour mark.

I mean, it’s not even clear Dinklage gets water and power at the train depot. The one plot thread McCarthy follows up on is to make a plotting thing work. The subplots are all fake; Cannavale’s father is a contrivance, ditto Williams’s home situation, ditto Clarkson’s mourning. Dinklage gets a charming but empty subplot with a fellow train enthusiast, middle schooler Raven Goodwin. Because McCarthy’s scared to do an actual subplot. And, no surprise, Goodwin even gets a fake subplot in an otherwise disposable, yet charming scene.

The Station Agent is good. But it’s frustratingly close to being great; it just needed some development for its characters. Onscreen character development for its cast. Dinklage, Cannavale, and Clarkson are all good. And they all showed up ready to be exceptional. And McCarthy chickens out every single time they can be.

But always in a charming way.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tom McCarthy; director of photography, Oliver Bokelberg; edited by Tom McArdle; music by Stephen Trask; production designer, John Paino; produced by Robert May, Mary Jane Skalski, and Kathryn Tucker; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Peter Dinklage (Finbar McBride), Bobby Cannavale (Joe Oramas), Patricia Clarkson (Olivia Harris), Michelle Williams (Emily), Raven Goodwin (Cleo), and Paul Benjamin (Henry Styles).


Daredevil (2003, Mark Steven Johnson)

I like Ben Affleck. Even his early phase–the self-aware, “Bruce Willis doing a Harrison Ford” impression thing actually worked out on occasion. It helped he kept the persona between pictures. Of course, Daredevil comes after Affleck decided to do his own thing. He gets an incomplete in Daredevil. You couldn’t hate watch it for his lousy essaying of the role of blind, gymnastic ninja lawyer but you also can’t say he came anywhere near making it work. It’s not his fault, it’s a terrible script, terrible direction, terrible everything, but he still didn’t make it work.

So while I can hope Affleck doesn’t embarrass himself, Daredevil is another story. Watching the film, for long, boring portions, there’s nothing to do but hope for it to fail a little bit more. Just to make things interesting. Director Johnson tries to do Batman meets Spider-Man meets The Matrix meets “extreme sports.” It’s awful. Though it does look a lot like a low budget, serious attempt at Joel Schumacher Batman movie. Even the crappy Graeme Revell music fits that vibe. It’s got enough budget to attempt effects sequences, but no idea what to do with them. It gets outrageous enough, it seems like Daredevil is actually going to break into absurdity. Little CGI Ben Affleck chasing little CGI Colin Farrell. Like they’ll stop and ask the audience how they can be believing anything so silly.

Farrell gives the most forgivable performance. Not even Joe Pantoliano (I miss Joe Pantoliano’s “stunt casting” phase) does well. No one does well. Jennifer Garner manages to adequate but unlikable. She’s even sympathetic during the cheesy romance montages, which Johnson certainly shows more aptitude for directing than anything else in the film.

However, the third act has a surprisingly decent pace. Daredevil overstays its welcome, but seems to realize it and make reasonable amends. Until the idiotic epilogue sequence, which has way too much CGI and way too little imagination. Oh, look, I unintentionally ended on a metaphor for the whole movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson; screenplay by Johnson, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett; director of photography, Ericson Core; edited by Dennis Virkler and Armen Minasian; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Barry Chusid; produced by Gary Foster, Arnon Milchan and Avi Arad; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ben Affleck (Matt Murdock), Jennifer Garner (Elektra Natchios), Colin Farrell (Bullseye), Michael Clarke Duncan (Wilson Fisk), Jon Favreau (Foggy Nelson), Scott Terra (Young Matt), Joe Pantoliano (Ben Urich), Leland Orser (Wesley Owen Welch), Erick Avari (Nikolas Natchios), Derrick O’Connor (Father Everett) and David Keith (Jack Murdock).


Freddy vs. Jason (2003, Ronny Yu)

Freddy vs. Jason is terrible, no doubt about it. It’s poorly directed, it’s poorly written, it’s poorly acted. Not even composer Graeme Revell–who’s actually worked on good movies–tries. His most ambitious part of the score is the generic mixing (consecutively cut together) the two separate franchises’s familiar themes. It’s real lazy.

One cannot accuse director Yu of being lazy, however. He, photographer Fred Murphy and editor Mark Stevens rush through every shot in the film. With the exception of two or three crane shots, there’s nothing well-directed in the film. Yu’s a lousy director; the film looks awful and the actors clearly weren’t getting any direction.

As the primary damsel in distress, Monica Keena is awful. Kelly Rowland is awful as her friend, Jason Ritter is awful as her boyfriend. The film’s best performance is probably Brendan Fletcher but only for half of his performance. Really bad acting from Kyle Labine.

Like most franchise pairings, Freddy vs. Jason doesn’t have much in the way of artistic potential; it might’ve been nice to have an iota of intelligence from Damian Shannon and Mark Swift’s script.

Not even the film’s fight scenes work out. Robert Englund looks silly battling his hulking adversary. Well, Yu wouldn’t know what to do with the footage anyway. He can’t construct a scary sequence and he’s even worse at trying to do a fight sequence.

The film’s mean, misogynistic, homophobic and a little racist. Freddy vs. Jason’s only achievement is being entirely worthless.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ronny Yu; screenplay by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, based on characters created by Wes Craven and Victor Miller; director of photography, Fred Murphy; edited by Mark Stevens; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, John Willett; produced by Sean S. Cunningham; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger), Monica Keena (Lori Campbell), Kelly Rowland (Kia Waterson), Jason Ritter (Will Rollins), Chris Marquette (Charlie Linderman), Lochlyn Munro (Deputy Scott Stubbs), Katharine Isabelle (Gibb), Brendan Fletcher (Mark Davis), Zack Ward (Bobby Davis), Kyle Labine (Bill Freeburg), Tom Butler (Dr. Campbell), Garry Chalk (Sheriff Williams) and Ken Kirzinger (Jason Voorhees).


American Splendor (2003, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)

American Splendor has a little too much going on. Directors Berman and Pulcini seem to want to do something different–Splendor opens as a cross between a docu-comedy and an attempt at time period preciousness (which gets them into trouble later as the film doesn’t progress, visually, out of the eighties). Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar from the sixties through the nineties. Harvey Pekar narrates and gets interviewed.

Berman and Pulcini don’t really give Giamatti a part so much as a comic book character. Splendor is the dramatized true story of Pekar, who dramatized his own life in a comic book. So it’s a comic book adaptation once removed or something. The filmmakers don’t actually do anything with it–Pekar, in the narration, recounts how he’d become a quirky, exploited outlier at the height of his eighties celebrity, but the filmmakers don’t do it much different.

Then Hope Davis shows up as Pekar’s wife. And Pekar’s wife shows up for a bit too in the interview sequences. If Berman and Pulcini only give Giamatti a caricature based on Pekar to play, they give Davis even less. When there is actual dramatic material–cancer, a foster child–the filmmakers go straight to summary. Splendor’s all artifice.

Maybe if Berman and Pulcini were better directors–Terry Stacey’s photography, presumably on location in economically depressed Cleveland saves a lot of the visuals–the film would work out better.

Giamatti’s really good, he just doesn’t have much material.

Splendor’s too slight.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman; screenplay by Springer Berman and Pulcini, based on comic books written by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner; director of photography, Terry Stacey; edited by Pulcini; music by Mark Suozzo; production designer, Thérèse DePrez; produced by Ted Hope; released by HBO Films.

Starring Paul Giamatti (Harvey Pekar), Hope Davis (Joyce Brabner), James Urbaniak (Robert Crumb), Judah Friedlander (Toby Radloff), Joyce Brabner (Real Joyce) and Harvey Pekar (Real Harvey).


Capturing the Friedmans (2003, Andrew Jarecki)

Director Jarecki tries to appear like he’s staying out of Capturing the Friedmans. His voice occasionally appears behind the camera when interviewing but these questions are usually for effect. Jarecki is deliberate in the construction of the documentary; he only lets it get away from him once.

Capturing the Friedmans examines a sensational child abuse case from the eighties involving Arnold Friedman and his son, Jesse. Jesse Friedman, his older brother David Friedman and their mother, Elaine Friedman, are the principal interviewees. At least after the first third or so, where Jarecki concentrates on the police and prosecutors, who are all sure of the defendants’ guilt.

Once Jarecki focuses on the story from the Friedmans’ perspective, he’s able to use a lot of home movie footage. Both Arnold and David Friedman were home movies enthusiasts, though Arnold made idyllic family home movies while David used the technology to chronicle his father and brother’s legal dealings and their family’s collapse. That element Jarecki can’t control? Having David Friedman as protagonist while the home movie footage shows him berating his mother.

Jarecki can stay out of Friedmans all he wants, but certain elements–like how he’s able to use that private home movie footage–should be made clear. There are a number of devices Jarecki utilizes to sway his viewer. Like when Jarecki needlessly shows the possibly overzealous cop has a George W. Bush coffee mug.

Or all of Andrea Morricone’s lovely, if saccharine, score.

Friedmans is a well-made, reductive package.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Jarecki; director of photography, Adolfo Doring; edited by Richard Hankin; music by Andrea Morricone; produced by Jarecki and Marc Smerling; released by Magnolia Pictures.


2 Fast 2 Furious (2003, John Singleton)

At some early point during 2 Fast 2 Furious–probably soon after the first car race, it becomes clear the film has two major influences for director Singleton. First, Star Wars. The car races often feel like Singleton is shooting an X-Wing sequence. Second, dumb white cop/black cop eighties movies. In this one, Paul Walker is serious white cop while Tyrese Gibson is funny black cop.

They’re not actually cops, they’re undercover ex-cons trying to clear their records. It doesn’t matter. For a movie about two childhood friends reconnecting in their adulthood, there’s no character development in 2 Fast. Singleton doesn’t just have superficial banter and car races, there’s Mr. Big too!

Cole Hauser, apparently in make-up as a Cuban-American but playing a German Miami villain (did they change their minds last minute and give him a new name?), is an evil Mr. Big. He tortures people and he menacingly cuts his cigars.

The torture scene is actually rather disturbing. Singleton manages not to take much seriously but even he apparently has limits.

Walker’s not any good, but he’s somewhat likable; his Keanu Reeves impression is improving. And while Gibson struts instead of acts, some of his lines work out well. As the girl, Eva Mendes is harmless. Hauser’s silly, James Remar’s atrocious, but otherwise, the supporting cast is fine.

Except Devon Aoki; she’s bad.

Good photography from Matthew F. Leonetti, bad editing from Bruce Cannon and Dallas Puett.

Decent car races.

Pretty dumb movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Singleton; screenplay by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, based on a story by Brandt, Haas and Gary Scott Thompson and characters created by Thompson; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Bruce Cannon and Dallas Puett; music by David Arnold; production designer, Keith Brian Burns; produced by Neal H. Moritz; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Paul Walker (Brian O’Conner), Tyrese Gibson (Roman Pearce), Eva Mendes (Monica Fuentes), Cole Hauser (Carter Verone), Ludacris (Tej), James Remar (Agent Markham), Thom Barry (Agent Bilkins), Devon Aoki (Suki), Roberto ‘Sanz’ Sanchez (Roberto), Mo Gallini (Enrique), Edward Finlay (Agent Dunn), Jin Auyeung (Jimmy), Michael Ealy (Slap Jack), Amaury Nolasco (Orange Julius), Eric Etebari (Darden) and Mark Boone Junior (Detective Whitworth).


Turbo Charged (2003, Philip G. Atwell)

With the exception of being a Hollywood production (even if it’s a Hollywood production for video), Turbo Charged plays like an amateurish short movie make on an iMac. The kind of thing iMovie was great for back in the late nineties–lots of imaginative transitions, the omnipresent music so there doesn’t need to be any dialogue or even sound recording.

And at the center of Turbo Charged is movie star Paul Walker. He doesn’t have any lines, he just has to walk around, just has to run from the cops (he’s on the run, a rogue undercover cop, or so all the national news coverage says). Right, national. Because Turbo Charged is cross country, with flashier Indiana Jones map travel lines.

Only all the locations are in Southern California.

Those unreal moments are nothing compared to Walker. He can’t even successfully essay his part when he’s silent. He’s visibly lost.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Philip G. Atwell; written by Keith Dinielli; produced by Neal H. Moritz; released by Universal Home Entertainment.

Starring Paul Walker (Brian O’Conner).


The Incredible Hulk 76 (October 2004)

The Incredible Hulk #76It’s hard to feel bad about Doc Samson getting his butt kicked after he just lectured the Hulk on the importance of corporal punishment for children.

Did Jones even think about what he was writing? Did his editors read the scripts?

Braithwaite and Reinhold are back on art. Sometimes they’re a little better than usual, but Braithwaite’s Hulk is still awful.

I guess Jones’s wrap-up of his huge conspiracy story line makes “sense.” It’s not a good wrap-up, but it’s better than where he tries to leave Bruce Banner at the end of it. Maybe the closing line–with someone being real mean in a Hulk description–calls back to an earlier comic. I hope so, because, otherwise, it’s just a crappy line.

Jones leaves the comic much in the place he started it. He wipes the slate clean and leaves Bruce Banner far less a character than he started out with.

F 

CREDITS

Shattered; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, Dougie Braithwaite; inker, Bill Reinhold; colorist, Raul Trevino; letterer, Randy Gentile; editors, Cory Sedlmeier and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

The Incredible Hulk 75 (October 2004)

The Incredible Hulk #75Here I thought Darick Robertson and Tom Palmer on the art would help….

It does help for a while. But the issue’s double-sized and once Doc Samson shows up, maybe a quarter of the way in, the art starts sliding.

Jones reveals the mastermind behind all of Bruce Banner’s troubles. It gets sillier when the villain explains all of it; the ludicrousness of Jones’s conspiracy doesn’t hold up well under examination.

There’s a slightly interesting gimmick, which Jones shuts down so he can bring back the supporting cast. I’m not sure how Nadia–just a regular small business owner in Nevada or somewhere–can get to L.A. in a matter of hours to help save the day. Worse, Tony Stark is around to hang out with Doc Samson. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Tony to help as Iron Man? Or maybe call the Avengers.

It’s a lousy comic.

D- 

CREDITS

Wake To Nightmare; writer, Bruce Jones; penciller, Darick Robertson; inker, Tom Palmer; colorist, Raul Trevino; letterer, Randy Gentile; editors, John Miesegaes and Axel Alonso; publisher, Marvel Comics.

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