THE WILDWhile it’d be easy to dismiss The Wild as a rip-off of Madagascar, it would also be inaccurate: Taking production schedules and release dates into account, both films were obviously being produced at roughly the same time, leading one to suspect that both might have had their genesis in the same dog-eared screenplay (expect lawsuits to emerge any day now). But comparisons to the fine Madagascar aren’t necessary to point out the myriad shortcomings of The Wild, which manages to be abysmal on its own terms. Considering that at least 80 percent of today’s animated features condescend toward children by assuming they’re all too retarded to digest anything of substance, it’s no surprise that this movie comes along to serve as the exclamation point on this sorry development. The CGI animation is impressively lifelike -- it recalls the Tyrell Corporation’s slogan in Blade Runner, “More human than human” (or in this case, more animal than animal) -- though it begs the recurring question as to why we would want our animated movies to not look like animated movies. Everything else about this toxic toon is intolerable, especially the sidekicks who accompany Samson the lion (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) as he leaves the comforts of the New York zoo to search for his wayward son in a faraway jungle. Nigel the koala (Eddie Izzard) rates a special mention, emerging as the most loathsome animated character since Martin Short’s insufferable robot B.E.N. in Treasure Planet.
If nothing else, this deserves credit for offering us a break from the current trend of nihilistic horror flicks whose sole purpose is to devise groovy new ways for psychopaths to torture and murder innocent people. Make no mistake: Slither offers gore by the bucketful, but the movie’s in the spirit of those enjoyable, us-against-them monster yarns that ran rampant from the 50s straight through to the mid-80s. Starting out as an “invader from outer space” opus (think The Blob) before switching gears to become a quasi-zombie flick (think Night of the Living Dead), the film involves a gelatinous E.T. that turns hicksville businessman Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) into its agent of evil on earth. The master plan eventually involves a mass assault by hundreds of slugs that take over humans’ bodies by entering through the mouths; naturally, the entire planet is doomed unless double-Grant’s wife (Elizabeth Banks) and an amiable sheriff (Nathan Fillion) can figure out a way to shut the otherworldly operation down. Slither takes its time getting started, but once it does, it never lets up, throwing the blood, slime and one-liners (some woeful, most of them witty) at the screen with feverish abandon. Banks, recently seen as the bookstore nymph in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, is actually touching as the wife who doesn’t comprehend why her husband has morphed into a human squid. And between his starring roles here and in last year’s sci-fi tale Serenity, Fillion might end up becoming a new generation’s Bruce Campbell. The worst part of the film is the unnecessary coda tacked on after the closing credits have run their course; luckily, the auditorium will be empty at that point anyway.
TAKE THE LEAD
An unfortunate number of filmgoers still insist on staying clear of documentaries, which even in this era of Michael Moore and penguins are often presumed to be dry-as-desert-sand. Fortunately for these audience members, Hollywood is always willing to water down the formula by offering fictionalized versions of true-life tales. Therefore, viewers not interested in the superb nonfiction feature Spellbound have their choice of Bee Season (out on DVD last week) or the upcoming Akeelah & the Bee. Similarly, if watching the enjoyable doc Mad Hot Ballroom sounds too much like work, there's always the new theatrical release Take the Lead.
Fortunately, because Tinseltown has always been partial to underdog stories, its inspirational sagas are often told with a certain amount of panache and a flair for button-pushing melodramatics that will entertain as many moviegoers as it irks. Take the Lead might be a tad too predictable for my taste, but it’s just the sort of uplifting yarn that could conceivably generate enough positive word-of-mouth to emerge as a modest sleeper hit. Inspired by a true story (and rarely has that opening disclaimer been used so loosely), this centers on the efforts of ballroom dance instructor Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas) to teach his elegant craft to a high school class of rowdy inner-city youths. Initially resistant to his efforts, the kids eventually come around once Pierre agrees to mesh his moves with their hip-hop music. The climactic ballroom dance competition (surely you didn’t expect this to end any other way?) is clumsily presented, and I could have done without the heavy-handed “villains” of the piece: a blonde upper-class dancer who talks down to the inner-city kids and a busybody teacher who all but foams at the mouth as he rails against Pierre and his teaching methods. Still, Banderas and his young co-stars are attractive and appealing, and the subplots involving the students’ troubled home lives carry more currency than one might expect.
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
The so-called “culture of spin” gets taken for its own spin in this lacerating adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s celebrated 1994 novel. Even with a too-brief running time of 90 minutes, the movie manages to pack in all manner of material both saucy and dicey, yet when the smoke clears, what’s most visible is the emergence of Aaron Eckhart as a major talent. At the film’s outset, Eckhart’s Nick Naylor understands that, as the chief spokesman for the tobacco companies, he’s viewed by a significant part of the population as Public Enemy #1. Yet Nick isn’t especially troubled by this designation; if anything, it only challenges him to make the best case he can on behalf of the nation’s cigarette companies. He spends his days working his magic as a spin doctor, and he’s bursting with ideas on how to return this country to the days when smoking was not only fashionable but expected. One such brainstorm takes him to the door of Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe), a Hollywood agent who, after listening to Nick’s pitch, figures he can convince Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones to engage in a post-coital smoke in their upcoming sci-fi epic set on a space station. One unenviable assignment -- to offer a bribe to a former (and dying) Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) who’s planning to lash out at the tobacco industry -- only succeeds because Nick is second to none when it comes to deconstructing opposing arguments. Indeed, he’s so skilled at his job that he attracts the attention of Big Tobacco’s Big Daddy, a crusty old coot (Robert Duvall) prone to Mint Juleps. The first half of the picture features a steady stream of laughs, meaning there’s a noticeable drop-off during the second part. In many black comedies, this signals that the storytellers suddenly feel a twang of remorse over their unrepentant characters and start softening up the picture for a sentimental fadeout. Is that the case here? That’s up to each individual viewer to decide.
FIND ME GUILTY
The best way to enjoy Find Me Guilty is to view it as an indictment of the jury system, as a smackdown of a procedure that allows the dirty dozen to form their opinions of a person’s guilt or innocence not by the incriminating evidence stacked against him nor by the testimony of reliable witnesses but rather by his charisma, his looks and his ability to tell a joke. The only problem is that it’s clear that an anti-jury stance isn’t what’s on director Sidney Lumet’s mind. In telling the true-life tale of a low-level member of a New Jersey mob family, Lumet (sharing screenplay credit with T. J. Mancini and Robert J. McCrea) clearly sides with his protagonist and, in effect, the jury that falls in love with him. Lumet, who’s made a career out of law & order films (Dog Day Afternoon and The Verdict are but two of his numerous gems), obviously has great affection for Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel), the maverick defendant in a gargantuan court case which finds prosecutor Sean Kierney (Linus Roache) simultaneously seeking charges against dozens of members of the Calabrese crime syndicate. While the other mobsters are represented by seasoned lawyers, Jackie elects to defend himself. Jackie’s “aw shucks” persona begins to make an impression on the jurors -- one woman even calls him “cute” -- and what appeared to be an open-and-shut case for the prosecution suddenly looks like it could swing either way. Diesel delivers an impressive performance that will surprise those who pegged him as a one-dimensional action hero, and the supporting cast is peppered with sharply etched characterizations. Yet Lumet’s sympathies repeatedly tug against the natural grain of the story. Jackie may be an amiable loudmouth but he’s still a crook, and the hard-nosed head of the mob family (Alex Rocco) clearly belongs behind bars.
LUCKY NUMBER SLEVINThis year’s Sin City is one thin ditty, a hollow exercise in hipster chic that once again proves (as if more evidence was required) that the Pulp Fiction bandwagon has not only run its course but jumped off the track some while ago. Sin City escaped wanna-be status by virtue of its genuine pulp fiction origins (graphic novels by Frank Miller) and a startling visual scheme; Slevin, on the other hand, is the sort of convoluted, twist-packed yarn that strains to be unpredictable but is actually even easier to figure out than those Jumble puzzles that appear in the dailies. Josh Hartnett, cinema’s favorite lightweight, plays Slevin, a seemingly guileless guy who finds himself caught in a power struggle between two rival crime lords (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley). Bruce Willis is on hand as, natch, the taciturn hitman who turns out to be more involved than he initially appears. Hartnett would seem hard-pressed to carry a basket of laundry, let alone carry a motion picture, while the three reliable vets seem almost bored trying to keep up with the plot’s changes of direction. The movie’s saving grace is Lucy Liu: Cast as a chatty neighbor who helps Slevin piece together the mystery, she’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that too often suffocates on its own fumes of pungent testosterone.
INSIDE MANSpike Lee is a maverick filmmaker who has always marched to his own beat, which, unfortunately for him, usually means soft-to-nonexistent box office regardless of the picture's quality.
While other African-American directors have had to either (take your pick of phrases) sell themselves short or simply sell out -- who ever thought talented filmmakers like Bill Duke and John Singleton would be handed sloppy seconds on the rancid order of Sister Act 2: Back In the Habit and 2 Fast 2 Furious respectively? -- Lee has always held true to his convictions, potential fallout be damned.
Lee’s Inside Man kicks off in standard play mode, with a quartet of intruders -- decked out in painters’ overalls, sunglasses and masks -- commandeering the Manhattan Trust bank in New York’s Wall Street district. Armed with machine guns, these three men and a lady order the hostages to hand over their cell phones, strip down to their underwear and don outfits identical to the ones worn by the robbers. Once the situation is secure, gang leader Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) waits for the police to arrive to listen to demands. The NYPD turns to hostage negotiators Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) and Bill Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take charge of the facilitating. In Inside Man, the upper-crust is repped by Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), the bank’s founder and the person most worried about the robbery unfolding at his institution. He employs the services of Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), an enigmatic woman who has made a career out of helping wealthy clients out of sticky situations. While delivering the goods with a thriller premise, Lee is once again more interested in making astute observations about contemporary society, especially as it relates to a post-9/11 mindset.
V FOR VENDETTA One irate citizen’s Margaret Thatcher is another’s George W. Bush, which might explain why writer Alan Moore has distanced himself from V For Vendetta, the big-screen adaptation of his influential graphic novel. Penned in 1989, Moore meant for his work to be taken as an indictment of Thatcher’s conservative platform in Englan. The screen version, filtered through the sensibilities of Hollywood players like debuting director James McTeigue, producer Joel Silver and the writing-producing team of The Wachowski Brothers (all of whom were involved in the making of the Matrix trilogy), has been upgraded for a new chapter in world history. The Great Britain of the 1980s remains, but it's now forced to share space with the United States of the 2000s. Like so many other recent blockbusters, V For Vendetta can be viewed on two different levels. In one respect, it's a typical big-budget FX affair, not the sort that rolls off the assembly line but the type that shows that as much creativity as dollars went into every aspect of the production -- including the screenplay (see also Minority Report, King Kong, Spider-Man, etc.). Yet on another level, it can be viewed as a thinly disguised assault on the present state of the union, a wake-up call to Americans disgusted that their country has been hijacked by criminals, traitors and warhawks. The screen version has been upgraded for a new chapter in world history. Set in England in the year 2020, V For Vendetta envisions a world that’s been torn apart by all manner of conflicts. The United States, we’re told, has fallen as a superpower and now lays in ruins. England, meanwhile, struggled with a dreadful plague that killed thousands but has since reemerged under the rule of a fascistic government headed by Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt). Dissidents, intellectuals and homosexuals all meet with the same fate -- execution -- while all news is filtered through the sensibilities of a government-sanctioned TV network. Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is a low-level worker at the TV station, yet she’s also the daughter of political activists who were dragged off and murdered by government thugs when she was still a child. She meets V (Hugo Weaving), an eloquent swashbuckler who sports a Guy Fawkes mask and speaks of a regime change. A man of mystery, V subscribes to the theory of a radical revolution, of achieving freedom by any means necessary. Evey gradually comes to understand his goals, she can't quite commit to his methods. V For Vendetta is that rare blockbuster that's interested in words more than action. That's not to say the picture doesn't contain its share of explosive set pieces; V's mission to take down Sutler involves blowing up lots of prime real estate (indeed, the movie's November 2005 release was delayed partly to distance it further from last July's London bombings), and those in charge refer to him simply as "the terrorist." But when a government is as rotten as the one seen here, does the end justify the means? Because his face is hidden behind an immobile mask, Hugo Weaving relies on his voice and movements to bring life to the role of V. Yet the performer to watch here is Natalie Portman. Heroines in fantasy flicks often get swallowed up by the extravagance surrounding them, yet Portman’s work is on a par with Aliens’ Sigourney Weaver, The Terminator’s Linda Hamilton and King Kong’s Naomi Watts.Matthew McConaughey plays Tripp, a 35-year-old who still lives at home with his parents (Bradshaw and Kathy Bates). Anxious to move their grown boy out of the house, the folks hire Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), a professional consultant who -- get this -- makes a career out of building up the self-esteem of adult males still living at home by romancing them and then dumping them once they feel independent enough to move out on their own. But Paula soon discovers that Tripp isn’t like her other clients, which leads to a sputtering romantic comedy that moves like clockwork through all the expected plot predicaments.