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Summer Movie Roundup 2004

Rama Gottumukkala, Molly Griffin, Maria Smith, Becca Saunders | Thursday, August 26, 2004

THE BEST OF THE BEST:

1. Spider-Man 2In a summer dominated by superior sequels, it’s only fitting the best movie of the summer was “Spider-Man 2.” With a tighter plot, heart-felt dialogue, a convincing villain and stunning action sequences, the film improved on the original in almost every regard.After the enormous critical and commercial success of the original “Spider-Man,” it would have been understandable if director Sam Raimi had tried to maintain a status quo for the series. Instead of selling this sequel on the basis of more advanced special effects and a passable script, he employed the talents of a host of terrific screenwriters to pen this latest effort. Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (creators and writers of the TV show “Smallville”), Michael Chabon (Pulitzer prize-winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”) and Alvin Sargent (two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter for “Ordinary People” and “Julia”) were able to pool together their respective strengths as writers to present a summer blockbuster with palpable warmth (a rarity in recent summers). Even if you took away all of the hype preceding the film’s release, “Spider-Man 2” would still be as 100 percent captivating and memorable as any Oscar winner to come out in recent years. And considering this film would probably still have made a bundle of money regardless of the story (or lack thereof), that truly is a feat to marvel at.

2. Shrek 2″Shrek 2″ takes the monumentally successful formula that made “Shrek” popular (skewing popular fairytales, bathroom humor, pop culture references), and takes it to the next level. Added to the cast are a megalomanical Fairy Godmother, a self-absorbed Prince Charming and the scene-stealing Puss in Boots, along with a whole host of other new cast members, including an Ugly Stepsister voiced by Larry King. “Shrek 2” loses the simple kind of buddy-comedy/skewed fairy tale magic that the original had, but the sequel has its own rapid-fire charisma. As is true with the first “Shrek,” this film has many levels of jokes and references and can truly be enjoyed by all age groups. With more characters, a more involved plot and more listen-or-you’ll-miss-them jokes, “Shrek 2” is just like the original, but on a grander scale. One of the major tenants of all sequels and summer movies are that bigger is always better, and “Shrek 2” proves this to be true. The latest effort in this series continually impresses and shows that sequels can sometimes be even better and more memorable than their predecessors.

3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanThe people behind the “Harry Potter” franchise finally figured out what was wrong with the series. To be fair, the first two films weren’t bad, but they were missing the edge and slightly scary quality of the book series. Previous director Chris Columbus, best known before “Harry Potter” for his work on “Home Alone 3”, faithfully brought the first two books to the screen, but he lost the slightly sinister tone of the books in his more family-friendly translation. Alfonso Cuaron, an interesting directing choice considering that his previous works were “A Little Princess” and the gritty “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” produces an adaptation of the third book delivers what the earlier films were missing. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” faithfully follows the book, but adds just enough twists, turns and dark humor to make it the most memorable and enjoyable film of the franchise. The young actors playing Harry and his friends seem more comfortable in their roles. The special effects are more seamless, particularly quidditch. And the film is shorter and moves at a much swifter pace than the previous films. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” captures the true spirit of the book without getting bogged down in the details that made the other ones somewhat dull.

4. CollateralIt was a gamble that has paid off in the past. Select an A-list star, one long used to holding center stage as an atypical action hero, and cast him in a role completely opposite the ones that previously made him a box office king. “Training Day” succeeded in garnering Denzel Washington an Oscar for his sinister efforts. And while the cast of “Collateral” is a lot more balanced than “Training Day,” Tom Cruise uses the opportunity to shine in a rare villainous role.Director Michael Mann (“Heat” and “The Insider”) has long dabbled in the thriller genre, and has excelled in the past. The plot for “Collateral” is, at the very least, passable yet he manages to slowly but surely ratchet up the tension in this stylish thriller.Cruise plays his role as Vincent, a calculated, ruthless assassin, with a confident, relaxed composure and even manages to bring out an air of charisma to the villain. Jamie Foxx, playing a timid, New York cabbie fatefully thrown into the mix, exudes an every-man quality that comes across so naturally that you can’t help but pull for him.In the end, Mann’s gamble works as Cruise and the entire cast shine.

5. Napoleon DynamiteOdds are you don’t have friends like “Napoleon Dynamite,” but if you did, you would be laughing a lot more. Indie film “Napoleon Dynamite,” with its unusual but hilarious characters, has proven itself among the funniest of summer comedies. Director Jared Hess creates a world where the quirkiest actions become normal, at least to the main characters. Napoleon (Jon Heder) is the nerdiest and most awkward high school student in Preston, Idaho. He spends most of his time talking about all the “skills” he possesses, spouting out lies about his proficiency with a staff bow and how he is “pretty much the best I know” at drawing mythical animals. Napoleon befriends new student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and the two of them do their best to find dates to the school dance and help Pedro run for student body president, all in their very own idiosyncratic fashion. Dynamite plays out similar to a Cohen brothers’ film with its unique and infectious dialogue. Before you know it, Napoleonisms will sneak into your own vocabulary. The best part about “Napoleon Dynamite” is its consistency. Instead of just a few solid jokes, the audience gets what most comedies lack – laughter until the end.

THE WORST OF THE WORST

1. Catwoman”Catwoman” seems like a good idea on paper. Cast recent Oscar winner Halle Berry in the role of a character already proven successful by the “Batman” films and put her in a leather suit. Add to the mix Benjamin Bratt playing a cop, a role he has honed to perfection after several seasons of “Law and Order” and cast Sharon Stone, who will forever be notorious after “Basic Instinct” as a villain. Unfortunately, “Catwoman” has a script that is so laughably awful no amount of casting or computer generated images can hide it. The plot, which tells the tale of a shy graphic designer who is killed when she finds out a company secret and comes back with cat-like abilities, is fairly innocent and straightforward, but the film’s dialogue is just plain silly. Quotes like, “Man-sandwich! Four o’clock,” “Amateurs! You’re just going to come in here and steal all these nice things? What a purrrfect idea!” and “White Russian, no ice, no vodka… hold the Kahlua” abound throughout the film. The film tries to blend the camp and humor of the old “Batman” television show with the big-budget special-effects and dark edge of the films, but it fails on both fronts.

2. White ChicksA movie that parodies the Hilton sisters is in trouble from the first second the film begins to roll. Two black men, Shawn and Marlon Wayans, are substitutes for the super-rich, super-thin and super-blonde heiresses. This should be a red flag that this movie isn’t exactly Oscar-caliber cinema. The brothers play FBI agents who must stand in for the “Wilson” sisters in order to protect them, and end up, as is the case with all gender-bending movies, in awkward relationship situations. The entire movie is slightly disturbing because the two men in latex skin and blonde wigs just don’t look right. They seem less like the teenage girls they seek to parody and more like Michael Jackson in drag. If you are able to suspend disbelief enough to see them as passing for two “White Chicks,” the movie is really just nothing more than a litany of tired black against white jokes and mocking ditzy rich girls. The Wayans brothers can be extremely funny, and we can only hope “White Chicks” is nothing more than a low point in their careers.

3. Van HelsingWhat do you get when you add a pinch of the Wolfman, a dash of Frankenstein’s monster and a dollop of Count Dracula into a mix to form a single film? A potpourri of mess that is a dreadful bore to sit through, and a film you would be hard-pressed to remember a few years down the road.The concept seems interesting on paper. Who wouldn’t want to sell a summer blockbuster on the basis of one hero’s quest to hunt down every single monster in memorable lore? And all this goes on while trying to recover his humanity in the process? It sounds like the perfect recipe for box office success during the long summer months.Unfortunately, director Stephen Sommers seems to be so in love with cool, rushing camera angles and bloated computer-generated graphics that he forgot something along the way – a passable plot.There are parts at the beginning of “Van Helsing” that you could not help but gawk it, especially since this film kicked off the summer season of movies. But after the first few monster fights (of which there are many), any significance is lost and the film spirals out of control from there. An interesting concept is wasted and the monsters themselves lose any distinct identities. If another effort is ever launched into the “Van Helsing” world, perhaps the plot will be granted a tad more attention.

4. The Stepford WivesPlagued by budget problems, on-set strife and a trailer that gave away the entire plot of the movie, “The Stepford Wives” was in trouble before it even came to theatres. Unfortunately, things only got worse when it actually arrived in theatres. The film itself is so bad that it ends up being nothing more than a waste of talent and one more example of why remakes are a bad idea. The original 1975 version of “The Stepford Wives” was well-received and has remained something of a cult classic for years. Studio executives just couldn’t resist remaking it with some big marquee names, including Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken, Bette Midler and Glenn Close. The movie tells the story of a Connecticut community where all of the women have been changed from driven career women into perfect automatons of 1950’s era femininity. The remake glosses over the major feminist issues that the original dealt with. It just becomes another star-bloated mess created solely to make money, an unfortunate and common occurrence during summer.

5. The VillageIf you were looking for a good scare this summer, “The Village” was not the place to go.Manoj Night Shyamalan gained national fame when “The Sixth Sense” came out in 1999, but since then his work seems to have gone downhill. “Signs” didn’t measure up to its predecessor, and “The Village” was an even greater slide from expectations.The movie was especially disappointing because of the way it was portrayed in previews. Viewers came to the theater expecting a straight-up spine chiller like “The Sixth Sense,” but instead got a fairly tame show with few truly frightening moments and a plot that felt disjointed instead of compelling. Once again Shyamalan’s famous plot twist failed to measure up to the masterful turn in “The Sixth Sense.”If you do decide to rent “The Village” or catch it at the dollar theater, make sure you go for the ensemble cast’s acting and not the thrills.