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The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Observer Scene Staff | Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The old adage that more money doesn’t mean a better movie proved true this summer. Blockbusters, sequels and indies arrived in cineplexes, many of them coupled with high box office expectations. The success of these summer films was mixed, as usual, producing pleasant surprises, major disappointments and everything in between.

THE GOOD

Four of the very best films of the summer. At least two of the movies were major surprises, while one was from a can’t-miss studio in Pixar and the other featured the cinematic directorial debut of heralded TV pioneer J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Alias”).

Cars

Although it holds the appearance of a typical child’s cartoon, Pixar’s latest endeavor is more than just an animated movie – it is a tribute to the faded mystique of Route 66.

Not quite up to par with Pixar’s past films, “Cars” makes up for the lack of wit and tight dialogue with incredible animation and attention to detail, especially through the recreation of the mom-and-pop stores along America’s most legendary highway. Owen Wilson lends his vocal abilities and infectious energy as star racer Lightning McQueen, who discovers there’s more to life than winning races. When Lightning finds himself waylaid in the dusty town of Radiator Springs on the famous Route 66, he gets a lesson in ethics and personal accountability from the town’s locals, who include the voice talent of Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, George Carlin and Michael Keaton among others. “Cars” is an enjoyable and visually stunning movie.

The Devil Wears Prada

Concocted not unlike the cappuccinos Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) grabs each morning, “The Devil Wears Prada” is a short but potent blend of froth, spice and substance.

Recent Northwestern grad Andy, seeking a career in journalism, finds herself working in New York City at the mercy of Miranda Priestly (a fantastically wicked Meryl Streep), editrix in chief of Runway magazine and unquestioned empress of her publication. Streep is eerily convincing as a woman who has sacrificed her personal life on the altar of a Kenneth Cole spread, and Hathaway has officially perfected her role of the doe-eyed brainy chick. Kudos are also due for casting rising star Adrien Grenier as Andy’s neglected boyfriend. The film’s appeal lies with Hathaway’s everygirl sensibilities. The makeover montage in particular is both funny and sweet, a credit to Hathaway’s talent in making Andy more of a sympathetic character than a cliché. Finding its niche with an audience forgotten by Superman and the X-Men, “The Devil Wears Prada” is a cute little film with more than one surprise up its sleeve.

Little Miss Sunshine

All eyes were on “Little Miss Sunshine” after Fox Searchlight purchased it for a record $10.5 million at Sundance. As a refreshing indie to cap off the blockbuster summer, the film proved that it may have been worth the buzz.

Abigail Breslin is America’s new child sweetheart. She stars as Olive, a little girl with big dreams and big glasses whose family embarks on a road trip so she can compete in the titular beauty pageant. Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette star as Olive’s parents and Steve Carell acts against type as the suicidal gay uncle. Breslin stole the show with her chubby cheeks and girlish smile. Olive is no beauty queen, but her mother wisely states that you’ve got to let Olive be Olive. The ensemble cast believably portrayed a family at a crossroads, right down to the confused teenager, ambitious father and overwhelmed mother. “Little Miss Sunshine” wrapped sweetness and sadness into a yellow VW van, and captured the psychological hardships of the American family.

Mission: Impossible III

Another entry in the summer of sequels, “Mission: Impossible III” returned Tom Cruise to the screen as Special Agent Ethan Hunt. In the film, Hunt is forced out of semi-retirement to save the world from yet another diabolical madman, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”). After John Woo’s “M:I II” flopped, producers turned to young phenom director J.J. Abrams of “Lost” fame to helm the third installment.

Abrams and his team of writers revitalized the franchise and brought back a slick, cool, spy-like feel to the “Mission: Impossible” series. Alongside headliners Cruise and Hoffman, “M:I III” featured a solid cast that included Billy Crudup and Laurence Fishburne. The strong acting coupled with extravagant special effects to create a non-stop, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride for moviegoers. “M:I III” took advantage of a May release date when there were few other major films and quickly reached blockbuster status while earning its distinction as the best of the three “M:I” films.

THE BAD

These films range from films that were huge disappointments to films that were just, well, bad. “Nacho Libre” wasn’t exactly “Napoleon Dynamite II” while “The Lakehouse” brought together the stars of “Speed” in a plodding romantic drama.

The Da Vinci Code

The biggest problem with “The Da Vinci Code” is that it’s only as good as its source material, which is to say not very. The major problems with the film – lack of character development, inconsistent pacing and undercooked plotting – are all problems with Dan Brown’s original novel. Thankfully, and to its credit, the film replaces Brown’s horrendous prose with director Ron Howard’s far more graceful moving camera.

Howard is surrounded by talent which includes Tom Hanks, Audrey Tatou, Ian McKellan and Jean Reno, but much of the talent goes to waste. The film has difficulty translating the novel’s pseudo-historical faux-intellectual ideas, though Howard tries his best to cover it up with lush photography.

“The Da Vinci Code” was Howard’s second consecutive summer blockbuster disappointment, but the major difference between it and 2005’s “Cinderella Man” is that “Cinderella Man” was actually good. Its globe-trotting university professor turned heroic adventurer may inspire comparisons to another venerable movie icon, but “Indiana Jones” it is not. At least that film was fun.

Lady in the Water

The tagline for “Lady in the Water” (“Time is running out for a happy ending.”) seems oddly apropos for the prospects of its talented creator, M. Night Shyamalan. But the filmmaker may be flirting with disaster following his last two pictures, “The Village” and “Lady in the Water.”

“Lady” remains an exercise in style, a beautifully shot film with many of the humane touches that made his first three films so lauded. The film’s meek, quirky protagonist is expertly realized by Paul Giamatti. But the magic so prevalent in Shyamalan’s past efforts is missing here. It’s easy to root for Heep’s redemption, but it’s much harder to believe in a fairy tale where the principal characters magically accept a myth the audience is still struggling to grasp halfway through the film. It’s a safe bet that Shyamalan’s next film will be his most commercially viable project since “Signs,” far from the pet project that “Lady” turned out to be. And that can only be a good news for fans of the promising young director, who just a few years ago was renowned for his ability to weave fantastical tales for audiences bored of hackneyed summer fare. Until then, the clock is ticking steadily on Shyamalan’s own success story.

The Lake House

The (not very) anticipated reunion between Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock failed to impress. An alternative to the blockbuster-heavy summer months, “The Lake House” instead offered a lack of chemistry and a mind-numbing plot involving the time-space continuum.

In the film, Alex (Reeves) and Kate (Bullock) partake in an old-fashioned letter writing romance. The twist is that the two are living in the same house two years apart with the same dog. Bullock is as lovely as ever and could probably act opposite a tree with ease and grace. In fact, Reeves’ performance is a lot like a tree – stiff. Reeves and Bullock dazzled in “Speed,” but didn’t make us care quite as much in this latest project. Perhaps “The Lake House” needed a speeding bus with a bomb to distract from this lackluster attempt at a romance.

Nacho Libre

Writer/director Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”) teamed up with actor/musician Jack Black to make this comedy about a friar who moonlights as a Mexican wrestler to win money and fame for his monastery. While the pairing of the comedic duo seemed certain to produce laughs and box office success, the end product failed to live up to expectations.

“Nacho Libre” had its best moments mostly thanks to Black’s comedic talent, but the rest of the film failed to impress. Nickelodeon Films signed on to produce and promote the film, perhaps leading to childish humor that can often turn away adult viewers. Even though “Nacho Libre” ended up as a disappointment, positives included Jack Black’s ever funny acting abilities along with a strong performance from the young, gifted actress Ana de la Reguera. For Hess, only time will tell whether he is a one-hit-wonder director or can establish himself as a prominent Hollywood filmmaker.

X-Men: The Last Stand

There are moments in “X-Men: The Last Stand” that boggle the senses and the mind. Sadly, these moments more often than not boggle in a negative and uninspiring manner.

As the third movie in an already successful comic book trilogy, there were both high hopes and expectations that “X3” would rake in box office gold. The movie was billed as an “event movie,” but the only events were needless story points and characters that were never developed or resolved. Bryan Singer, director of the first two “X-Men” movies, left “X3” to film “Superman Returns” and Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour 2”) stepped in to finalize the series.

While Singer’s talent did not help “Superman Returns,” it was sorely missed in “X3.” The first two films artfully combined character-driven storytelling with excellent special effects, but “X3” relied solely on mind-blowing effects, leaving a story that was just mind-numbing. Significant characters like Rogue were pushed aside in order to feature as many mutants as possible without expounding on backstories or character development. “X3” served as a functional film instead of the masterful climax to a trilogy befitting mention among the likes of “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings.”

THE UGLY

A mixed bag and often exactly what is expected from summer blockbusters – light, cheap entertainment that is almost immediately forgotten. While some feel like wasted potential, these films were effective diversions on hot summer days.

Clerks II

After the abysmal “Jersey Girl,” Kevin Smith returns with “Clerks II,” a film that is not up to his past accomplishments, but still worthy of the name “a Jay and Silent Bob movie.”

Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson return as Dante Hicks and Randal Graves. Their quirky relationship has its moments, but the originality and carefree nature of the first film did not translate well in the sequel – mostly because of its narrative. “Clerks II” has a story while the original consisted of two guys hanging out and talking about everything from girls to construction workers in “Return of the Jedi.” Where “Clerks” had witty dialogue and biting sarcasm, “Clerks II” focuses more on the story involving the surrounding characters. However, Jay and Silent Bob are as lazy as ever and make funny jokes at the expensive of other characters – just about everything one would expect from them. “Clerks II” is a funny film but not one that deserves a high spot in Smith’s filmography. He has made a funny and acceptable return. However, “Clerks II” is just too little too late.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

The second movie in the popular trilogy smashed box office records over the summer. Director Gore Verbinski sent Captain Jack Sparrow, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann on a quest to retrieve the Dead Man’s Chest from Davy Jones (Bill Nighy).

Highlighted by the crazy antics of Johnny Depp, top-notch special effects and action scenes, “Dead Man’s Chest” sailed to become the highest grossing Disney film ever and one of the top films of all time. Despite hauling in a treasure chest of money, some reviews of the film were tepid due to its long running time, slow plot development and cliffhanger ending. These criticisms were tempered with hopes that the third film would resolve plot holes and bring a stronger conclusion. When the final film of the “Pirates” trilogy arrives in theaters next summer, studio execs hope to couple the assured financial windfall with the critical success earned by the first “Pirates” film.

Superman Returns

Brandon Routh looks a great deal like the late Christopher Reeve, but he doesn’t display as much of Reeve’s charm and charisma in this update of the Superman saga. Bryan Singer at once paid tribute to the older films, while creating new ground for the franchise.

Although Kate Bosworth (Lois Lane) and Routh are both unexciting in their portrayals, Kevin Spacey gives an enjoyable performance as Lex Luthor. The CGI effects are stunning, and the whole movie is beautiful to watch. Even with an unimaginative storyline and a few lackluster portrayals, “Superman Returns” is still an exciting event.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

It is impossible to watch “Talladega Nights” without evoking 2004’s “Anchorman.” Both were created by writer/director Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. “Nights” may feature cars instead of news reporting, but it uses the same approach to comedy – a random collection of sketches tied together by a loose plot. The only real difference is that the “Talladega” plot is thinner – much thinner. The cast’s comedic improvisation carries the film, but the initial script could have used a great deal more work. The supporting cast is impressively funny, especially Sacha Baron Cohen as Ferrell’s arch rival, a gay, French Formula 1 racer.