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Summer movie roundup

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The summer is traditionally known as the blockbuster season for studios and audiences, as glossy special effects and movie stars drive box office receipts. The latest summer season, however, was alarmingly indistinct and lacking in many truly worthwhile films. Sequels and remakes seemed to be the trend, even for high-profile directors like Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg and their equally big-name stars, Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise.Despite the potential of several summer films, most were disappointing, which was the general climate of the entire season. The relative failures (“Cinderella Man,” which fell short of recouping its more than $80 million budget) and smaller films (“Crash,” written and directed by “Million Dollar Baby” scribe Paul Haggis) ended up being the best and most interesting in a summer largely devoid of originality.Aside from these brighter blips, there were far more disasters than usual. Stars and directors alike stumbled, resulting in films that were either wildly disappointing (“Fantastic Four”) or should never have been made in the first place (“Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo”). These films were over-saturated by their ad campaigns – money that would’ve been better spent ensuring the quality of the finished product. With a few exceptions, the best films of the summer seemed released in the wrong month, as they would’ve been better suited to Oscar season. This is a disappointing trend, as summer blockbusters have their own place and tend to be the most enjoyable pictures of the year. That tradition was certainly was not the case this season.

THE GOOD:Batman BeginsThe gauntlet had been thrown down by Marvel Comics. Each of the last four summers, the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” sequels alternatively wowed critics and mass audiences, garnering high praise and even higher profits while raising the bar for intelligent, entertaining comic book films. This June, DC Comics finally awoke and struck back with “Batman Begins,” dusting off a cobwebbed franchise and restoring it with vigor. Employing a similar recipe to the one used by Fox Studios and Sony Pictures for “X-Men” and “Spider-Man,” respectively, Warner Bros. hired director Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” “Insomnia”) to reenergize a character that had fallen into despair under the campy fluorescent lights of “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin.” Nolan, whose previous films had been low-budget independent films with a focus on strong characterization and a skillful directing style, focused the spotlight of “Batman Begins” firmly on Bruce Wayne, a tortured soul torn between revenge and justice.Unlike the previous films, where villains like Jack Nicholson’s Joker frequently stole the show, Batman is no longer thrown to the wayside. The talented Christian Bale inhabits the dual role of Wayne and his alter ego, bringing a fierce intensity to the role that dismisses the previous interpretations of actors Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and the clumsy George Clooney. Bale got so into the role that even the name on his trailer door was labeled “Bruce Wayne.”Surrounding Bale is a veteran cast, studded with perennial Oscar-contenders Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson. The solid script and impressive cast helped the film paint an original, captivating story in a summer where originality was as hard to capture as Batman himself.

Cinderella ManRon Howard’s “Cinderella Man” failed to become the blockbuster that the studio expected, though it’s difficult to see why. Perhaps its summer release hindered its potential, as many audiences would reject a serious (albeit uplifting) film about a boxer in the midst of the Great Depression. Wariness over the real-life antics of star Russell Crowe may have also contributed to the film’s failure to find a mass audience. But despite being a relative commercial failure, “Cinderella Man” wound up as one of the best films of the summer season.Good filmmakers know that the secret of boxing pictures is that they aren’t really about boxing at all. Instead, they focus on character, which helps underscore the brutal nature of the sport itself. In that regard, “Cinderella Man” is at once a biopic of real-life Heavyweight Champion James Braddock and a spot-on depiction of Depression difficulties.Great acting and directing carries “Cinderella Man.” Russell Crowe is reliable as ever, playing one of the genuinely nicest protagonists in recent memory. The rest of the cast is equally consistent, from Renee Zellweger’s concerned wife to Paul Giamatti’s fast-talking agent. The film is well-shot, especially in the boxing sequences, which are stylized and brutal, more “Raging Bull” than “Rocky.” This allows the fights to carry a surprisingly effective emotional weight.In his review of the film, critic Roger Ebert pointed out that “there’s no great need for another [terrific boxing movie],” but he shouldn’t complain. As long as they’re being made, they should all be as terrific and inspiring as “Cinderella Man.”

Crash”Crash” is an intelligent, well-crafted film and a distinct departure from the recurring trend of sequels, remakes and fundamentally bad films that were released this summer. The movie deals with the difficult topic of race relations in Los Angeles, but writer/director Paul Haggis, who also wrote the critical favorite “Million Dollar Baby,” creates multifaceted characters and intertwining stories that simultaneously evoke thought, anger and hope. While the topic of race is difficult to deal with, “Crash” portrays a wide range of racial issues both sensitively and critically while still managing to be a highly entertaining film. The ensemble cast is brilliant, and it includes a somewhat unusual group of actors, such as Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillipe and rapper Ludacris. Some of the most notable performances include Sandra Bullock with her work as a depressed socialite, proving that she can do more than just romantic comedies, and Ludacris, playing a carjacker who simultaneously complains about and embodies stereotypes about young black men, revealing that the rap superstar just might have a future in the acting world. While each of the characters spends only a small percentage of the film on screen, “Crash” manages to give each of them depth and makes them seem like real people. While the film is alternately uncomfortable and inspiring to watch, it is one of the few films in the last few years that offered such a genuinely interesting and insightful critique of human relationships.

THE BAD:Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryThis summer seemed to be the season of remakes, few as high-profile as Tim Burton’s second adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Burton’s direction and style are as evident as ever, resulting in a jagged look to Charlie’s hometown and a Chocolate Factory that’s more of a sensory overload than a confectioner’s headquarters. To the filmmakers’ credit, the movie looks and sounds very good, buoyed by the art direction and a truly bizarre musical score by Danny Elfman.However, there are two major problems with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” The first is the addition of a gratuitous backstory that de-emphasizes Charlie and concentrates instead on Willy Wonka and his candy-hating dentist father (though the casting of Christopher Lee in this role is a stroke of brilliance). The second is with Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka. Depp and Burton have teamed up before, often to glorious results (“Edward Scissorhands” and especially “Ed Wood”). But in “Charlie,” his bizarre mannerisms and child-like tendencies are far creepier and less effective than his performances in either of those other two films. For an actor of Depp’s caliber, this is disheartening, though it does demonstrate just how good Gene Wilder’s performance as Wonka was in the original.Comparisons to the pseudo-psychedelic 1971 original are inevitable, and while the 2005 version is far more stylized and visually arresting, it’s not nearly as effective as the original. What’s strangest is that the title of this version is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” while the original was entitled “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Yet the removal of the Everlasting Gobstopper subplot and addition of Wonka’s backstory actually de-emphasizes Charlie and focuses on Wonka himself. Considering Depp’s odd performance, this is the worst decision in a film that had far more potential than it fulfilled.

Fantastic FourThe summer season employs a revolving door for genre films. Paramount among those genres has been the comic book film, as ever-present as summer itself. In this year’s throwdown between Marvel and DC, the two venerable comic book giants, “Fantastic Four” limped far behind “Batman Begins.”Doomed by a mediocre script, unimpressive visual effects and dull characters, this film featured little to celebrate. Beyond a few witty one-liners by Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), the story plodded along and was punctuated by brainless battles that didn’t pop with the energy associated with memorable action films. The playful banter and pranks thrown back and forth between the Human Torch and the Thing (Michael Chiklis) were the only workable elements of a story that claimed inspiration from creator Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s popular 1960s comics.The wooden performances of Ioan Gruffudd and Jessica Alba as Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Girl dragged the film down to mediocrity. Dr. Doom, the main villain played by Julian McMahon, was more a nuisance than a menace.The film’s script was so feeble that the Thing’s fiancé actually trekked all the way out to the Brooklyn Bridge – as the fantastic foursome busily averted disaster – to throw him back his ring, rejecting him for his hideous transformation. That supposedly dramatic scene, worthy of any episode of “Days of Our Lives,” appeared and vanished in a few meager seconds, another example of a summer film trying to fast forward to the next jaw-dropping action scene. Yawn.When the inevitable “Fantastic Four” sequel rolls out, the directing and writing team would be wise to invest some heart into their lead characters, instead of stringing audiences along from one mindless action sequence after another.

War of the Worlds”War of the Worlds,” while not an awful film, doesn’t fulfill the expectations that most moviegoers had for the pairing of director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Cruise. Spielberg has directed two other hugely successful alien films, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.,” and Cruise has starred in a string of successful summer films, including “Mission: Impossible.” The combination of Spielberg, Cruise and H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction story led to huge expectations for the film, which it unfortunately failed to meet, despite making a large amount of money at the box office. The action in the film is well directed and keeps viewers’ attention, but the film stumbles when it puts too much focus on Cruise, who plays a irresponsible, divorced father, and his children, particularly Dakota Fanning. Tim Robbins does some great work in the film as a creepy survivalist, but none of the other actors put forth any notable performances. The end of the movie is incredibly disappointing and fails to match the suspenseful build-up. By that time, the audience has seen Tom Cruise narrowly escape death so many times that it simply stops being believable. The film is entertaining while it is being viewed, but looked at logically, the plot of the entire movie falls apart and becomes increasingly unsatisfying. “War of the Worlds” is by no means an awful film, but considering the amount of talent and money that was poured into it, it fails to meet any of the expectations that were held out for it.

THE UGLY:Deuce Bigalow: European GigoloSome films are made to have sequels, such as “The Lord of the Rings,” while others are bad but aren’t awful, like “Miss Congeniality 2.” Finally, there are the sequels that simply make you cringe, like “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.” The original film, “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo,” was bad to say the least, but it had a few inappropriately funny moments that made it possible to sit through. The first film was really nothing more than a one-joke movie, and attempting to stretch the already weak concept to fill another movie makes the sequel dull and tedious to watch. The sequel’s plot centers around Deuce’s return to work as a male prostitute while his fellow workers are being mysteriously murdered. All of the tasteless jokes that you would expect are included, and moving the action to Europe doesn’t really change much except that stale jokes about different nationalities can be exchanged to fit the new continent. Rob Schneider and Eddie Griffin could potentially be funny as a team with the right material, but the thin premise of this movie gives them nothing substantial to work with. This film is truly a testament to the lack of original ideas and taste in Hollywood.

Dukes of HazzardMovies based on defunct television shows are rarely any good, but “The Dukes of Hazzard” manages to sink to a new low. This film is nothing more than a lame excuse to blow things up, have car chases and bring Jessica Simpson out in a bikini. While the television show was not anything close to critically acclaimed, it was still popular and possessed some sort of charm and energy that made it a successful show with a devoted legion of fans. The film version merely appropriates the show’s name and characters and repackages them for a younger generation, an odd strategy because it ignores the fans of the show and aims for those who never watched the original. The casting is squarely aimed at attracting a younger audience, with Sean William Scott (“American Pie”) and Johnny Knoxville (“Jackass”) filling in as Bo and Luke Duke. Scott and Knoxville are normally entertaining regardless of how bad the film is, but even they get bogged down in the dull and meandering plot. Jessica Simpson relies entirely on her ability to wear a bikini, which is probably for the best because her acting skills are nonexistent. She is completely overwhelmed by what is going on around her.The presence of notable casting choices like Burt Reynolds, Willie Nelson and Linda Carter (TV’s “Wonder Woman”) isn’t enough to save this film and it raises questions as to why they are there in the first place.”The Dukes of Hazzard” is simply bad, boring and nearly unwatchable.

StealthThere is an odd trend of recent Academy Award winners going on to make subpar films, from Denzel Washington making “Man On Fire” to Halle Berry making “Catwoman” to Gwynth Paltrow making “Shallow Hal.” Jamie Foxx joins that Hall of Shame with his latest, “Stealth.” What’s sad is that Foxx’s performance isn’t terrible at all, but it seems terrible because the dialogue and plot are so poor. “Stealth” might qualify as a popcorn picture, except that a popcorn picture is designed to be enjoyable. The logic of the film is questionable at best and egregious at worst, and the pacing is much slower than might be expected. The cast ranges in quality, from extremely good (Sam Shepard, whose echoes of “The Right Stuff” is more depressing than thrilling) to extremely poor (Jessica Biel, who is straddled with such bad dialogue that one is almost tempted to forgive her). There are actually a surprising amount of quality actors on display here, which is ultimately a shame since they are stuck in a movie with such poor dialogue and plotting.The special effects and charisma of its lead star help carry “Stealth,” but not by much. Director Rob Cohen, whose previous credits include “The Fast and the Furious” and “XXX,” is often regarded as a subpar popcorn moviemaker, but at least those films were enjoyable in a mindless sort of way. “Stealth” doesn’t even grant that guilty pleasure. The film didn’t do well at the box office despite a monstrous marketing campaign, which bodes well as it demonstrates that audiences expect a lot more than special effects and star power to carry a picture. It’s something that Jamie Foxx ought to remember as he chooses roles, especially since it served him so well in “Collateral” and “Ray.”