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The Sum of All Fears

The bottom line: if you go in expecting a “Jack Ryan movie” in the vein of the Harrison Ford films, you may come out disappointed. However, on its own terms, it’s an enjoyable and well-made thriller.

The biggest complaint about this film has been, from day one, the casting of Ben Affleck as Ryan. Now, this isn’t the same Ryan that Harrison Ford portrayed. Instead, Affleck’s Ryan is still trying to find his feet in the chaotic world of intelligence. Our first encounter with him in the office is watching a video and debating whether or not the Russian President has gained or lost weight. When this Russian President dies and is replaced by a person Ryan has done research on, he is rapidly elevated into the halls of power, and doesn’t know how to respond. Affleck may not be a great actor, but he does nicely here. He doesn’t try to fill Ford’s shoes, but instead makes the character his own.

Affleck is helped by two things. First is a script that neither looks down on the audience or looks away from the hard moments. Fortunately, there are no bad one-liners in the film, even though there could have been. The script doesn’t hesitate to be funny, but also doesn’t force humor out of inappropriate situations. The film isn’t riddled with sparkling dialogue (although, be honest, did you expect it to ber), but the characters seem realistic and intelligent. Second, the script doesn’t cut away. There’s a major terrorist attack during the course of the film, and we see it and its aftermath pretty explicitly. People die (including important characters), and people are killed. The script is probably the most faithful adaptation of Clancy’s text of the films, skipping from location to location and dropping us into situations we know little or nothing about and forcing us to find our way around. It’s intelligent enough that it doesn’t feel like a “dumbed down” version of a film, which was a big worry of mine.

The second major help for Affleck is a dynamite supporting cast. Morgan Freeman is, as always, solid as the Director of the CIA who “discovers” Ryan. James Cromwell puts in solid work as the President, and he manages to have enough charisma to make you believe he IS the President rather than an actor playing the President. The President’s advisors are given character by Alan Bates, best known as a stage actor, and Ron Rifkin, putting in a VERY different turn from his current work on Alias as the resident peacenik. Finally, Liev Schrieber manages to endow John Clark, perhaps Clancy’s only truly interesting character, with both the ability to kill and the knowledge that killing is bad.

Does the film fail at timesr Yes. Sometimes, it globe trots a little much, and the final 30 minutes are too hectic for their own good, with lots of yelling about “order the strike!” Finally, Bridget Moynahan feels tacked on in her part as Ryan’s girlfriend, especially in a couple of scenes in the middle of the third act, where she serves as a distraction from the tension in the main plot.

Despite the occasional failings, the film is a hell of a lot better than last year’s Memorial Day offering with Affleck, and actually manages to work, at least for much of its length. It’s mainstream and a bit cookie-cutter, but that’s not always a bad thing. Pick up some popcorn and a Coke, and enjoy the ride.

Rating: B-
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Hearts in Atlantis

The problem with the movie is that it tells two disjointed stories. The stories are both set off by Robert Garfield (David Morse), in the present day, getting a letter and a baseball glove as a bequest from his childhood friend John Sullivan’s will. As a result of this, he flashes back to his childhood, where we have two distinctive plotlines:

1. A relatively realistic coming-of-age story between young Garfield, the young girl he loves, and his friend Sullivan. Add to this a meddling, overprotective mother (Hope Davis), and complications ensue. Gradually, Garfield becomes stronger as a person and moves toward adulthood. This story is well-done, but somewhat underplayed. In particular, even though Sullivan leaves Garfield the glove that sets off the reminisence, he’s never given any character or substance. Also, because the “big star” of the movie isn’t in this plot, I suspect it may have gotten cut down in the testing process.

2. A somewhat odd supernatural story about Ted Bradigan (Anthony Hopkins), the new boarder in the Garfield home. Ted has a “second sight” (exactly what this extends to or means is never really explained), and is being chased by “Low Men.” He asks Garfield to keep him safe and watch for the “Low Men.” Slowly, he befriends Garfield, and their relationship develops.

Now, the stories do intersect, especially near the end of the film, but to a large degree, they’re very separate. One is pretty starkly realistic while the other is heavily supernatural. The supernatural story leaves A LOT of questions unanswered. What exactly are Bradigan’s powersr How did he get themr What is her Who are the “Low Menr” Why are they chasing himr What do they wantr We don’t know, and the unclarity makes it confusing.

Hopkins is really good here, playing a haunted man, but the story doesn’t really drive him forward. His character is just haunted the whole time and doesn’t really change or grow. Also, the child playing young Garfield (Anton Yelchin) is excellent and has a strong chemistry with Hopkins. The movie really rises or falls on his shoulders, and he holds it together well.

So, did I like the movier I think it’s a good film, and worth seeing. It’s well-made, well-acted, and beautifully photographed. The problem is it’s not particularly entertaining or insightful. The insight it has to offer is that “childhood is a wonderful experience, but it’s fleeting.” This isn’t really anything new, having been said for ages in various movies, books, TV programs, and other sources. It’s interesting and noble, but in the end, I’m not sure it’s the great film it so painfully wants to be. It’s better than many films this year, but it’s not (I suspect) going to make my Top 10 for the year, nor do I expect it to burn up the box office, as it’s slowly paced and self-indulgent.

Rating: B-
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Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back

The film begins with an “origin” story for Jay and Silent Bob. Sadly, the comic “payoff” in this scene is simply a baby saying “fuck” several times, which doesn’t do it. Then, Randal and Dante (from “Clerks”) call the police and get a restraining order against Jay and Silent Bob, preventing them from staying at their post outside the Quick-Stop. They then go visit Brodie (from “Mallrats”) at his comic store, who tells them that a movie is being made based on the “Bluntman and Chronic” comic book. As usual, Jason Lee is brilliant in this little bit. So, they visit Holden McNeil (from “Chasing Amy”) who tells them that the movie is being made, and introduces them to the “Internet”—where people say nasty things about Jay and Silent Bob. Because nasty things are being said about them, Jay and Silent Bob head off to Hollywood.

The next act has some serious problems, and makes no sense from a narrative standpoint. There’s a lot of sketch-y type stuff going on—a long bit involving “the rules” of hitchhiking, a completely out of place Scooby-Doo parody, until finally, at a “Mooby” restaurant (one of the few “Dogma” references in the film), Jay and Bob meet Justice (Shannon Elizabeth) and her friends Chrissy, Missy, and Sissy (Ali Larter, Eliza Dushku, and Jennifer Schwalbach Smith). They, along with an animal-loving troubadour (Seann William Scott) are going to Boulder, Colorado, allegedly to free animals from a research lab.

We get to Boulder, and it’s revealed that Jay and Bob have been set up as patsies by the girls. They will break into a lab and liberate monkeys, while the girls perform an elaborate diamond heist across the street. I’m unclear on exactly how the heist is performed, but it requires all the girls to get dressed in skin-tight leather catsuits and perform strange martial arts maneuvers. Needless to say, things go wrong, but everyone escapes, just barely—the girls with the diamonds, and Jay and Bob with a monkey. Jay and Bob then, with the monkey, finally make their way to Hollywood, where the final act occurs.

In Hollywood, Jay, Bob, and the monkey, pursued by Federal Marshal Willenholly (Will Ferrell) and an overzealous security guard (Diedrich Bader), go on a wild romp through the Miramax lot, and everything climaxes in a shootout and everyone getting down to the music of Morris Day and the Time. Obviously, the plot really doesn’t matter that much. It’s all an excuse for bizarre comic set-pieces and speeches.

The film is intermittently hysterical. Basically, once Jay and Bob get onto their first movie set, there’s a 10+ minute stretch of the film that’s non-stop laughter as they’re chased through various movie sets. After then, we move into closing the film’s “plot,” which takes far too long for its own good, including a 3 minute montage of Jay and Bob kicking people’s asses. There are a lot of good jokes and solid laughs throughout the film (with Affleck and Lee giving the most laughs per time), but there are times when the film is just DEAD.

The film has substantial problems as well. First is its inaccessibility. There are LOTS of lines that are fairly obscure “View Askew” jokes—like “Affleck! You were da bomb in Phantoms!” and brief appearances by just about every major character from Smith’s previous films who still exists on Earth. Most of the audience isn’t going to get those. Second is the film is way too self-referential for its own good. Lines like “people act like this in movies!” are uttered, and then the characters stare out of the screen at the audience. Hilarity allegedly ensues. Also, the film relies on an on-screen caption to make a joke at one point that stops what could have been a clever comic sequence dead in its tracks. Third, the film’s jokes often are too dated. The “jewel thief” sequences are obviously intended to be a parody of “Charlie’s Angels,” but as that film indulged in self-parody, it’s very hard to parody it well. Finally, the film doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and isn’t really ABOUT anything, unlike Smith’s more recent and more impressive films.

So, in summary, “Jay and Silent Bob” is a good way to while away a summer afternoon, at least if you’re a fan of the View Askew universe. Just don’t have your expectations too high. I suppose it brings the characters of the “Jersey Trilogy” to a close. I just hope Smith can leave them behind now, and move to something new and different. He obviously has talent as a writer that I think can transcend these narrow characters.

Rating: C+
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Changing Lanes

1. The forms given at the end of the screening are by no means sufficient to state my views of this film.

2. I want to make VERY clear to Paramount that while this movie needs fixing, it does NOT need the sort of fixing I suspect tonight’s screening will be taken to suggest.

3. The print looked complete. There was a temp score (that actually worked pretty well), temp opening titles, and no closing credits, but aside from thatr This was a finished film.

“Changing Lanes” starts with a simple premise. A yuppie lawyer (Ben Affleck) gets into a wreck with a middle-class insurance broker (Samuel L. Jackson). The lawyer doesn’t want to give the insurance broker his insurance information, tries to give him a blank check, which is refused, and he scurries off to court. Unfortunately, he’s dropped a file, and Jackson’s character doesn’t want to give it back. That’s a superficial story outline, but there’s A LOT of storylines beneath it. Jackson’s character is going through a nasty divorce and is a recovering alcoholic. Affleck’s character had been having an affair with another lawyer (Toni Collette) and is worried that he may be on the wrong side of the case.

The fundamental premise and the lead cast led me to believe that we were going to get a mainstream Hollywood thriller, but that’s not what we get at all. Instead, we get an explanation of right and wrong. Both of the lead characters constantly try to do what’s “right” by their moral code, but wind up fucking up their good intentions. There are a LOT of long speeches about right and wrong, mostly delivered by Sydney Pollack as the Senior Partner of Affleck’s firm, and by William Hurt, in a nice cameo turn as Jackson’s AA sponsor. This is a drama, folks, about two men at the breaking point—it’s not a thriller, and it need not try to be. What I saw tonight was far better than the execrable Tomb Raider, and contained solid performances pretty much across the board, with the exception of the actress who plays Jackson’s wife, who is too hysterical for her own good and winds up hurting what could have been a powerful scene between her and Jackson in a jail cell.

So, my suggestions for how to recut the film:

1. Action Should Be Abrupt: There are “action sequences” in the movie. The car wreck that starts the film, another car wreck about midway through the film, and a couple of fist fights. These sequences need to be recut to be more jarring and sudden. Right now, they’re shot simultaneously too lyrically, with slow mo, and too jarringly, with quick cuts all over the place. Give us the incident in one take, from one wide angle, and it’ll be more effective.

2. Expand the Supporting Characters: Toni Collette and Ben Affleck’s characters OBVIOUSLY have history together. In fact, it’s made clear at one point that they were having an affair that is now over. Unfortunately, Collette’s character doesn’t have a back story, or any real development. Collette’s a talented actress! Use her! Additionally, William Hurt’s part should be expanded a little more. If we knew a bit more about the ties between him and Jackson, a scene at the jail would really come alive.

3. Cut Down The Cinema Verite: There are, especially early in the movie, a lot of documentary-style shots that establish setting. Those are all well and good, but they linger a bit too long. The film feels long as it is, and it runs only about 100 minutes. Basically, the film needs to be tightened throughout… little cuts, though… nothing big.

4. Emphasize The Themes More: The whole movie takes place on one day, Good Friday. There’s obviously some religious imagery going on. Hell, Affleck’s character even spends some time in a church. But if there’s a religious parallel going on, draw it out a little more. You don’t need to hit us over the head with it, but make it clear. It’s too fuzzy as it currently stands.

5. Rework The Ending—The ending, as it stands, is abrupt and silly.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT

After a day of battling, Jackson shows up at Affleck’s offices to give him the file. Affleck and Jackson first talk, and Affleck has a nice speech about right and wrong. Here’s where we veer substantially off-track. They get into an argument about whose “fault” the accident that morning was, and get into a fist fight, which spills out onto the balcony. The folder drops to the floor of the balcony, and the file begins to blow away. Jackson saves the file, but Affleck takes it from him, lets it blow into the breeze and they laugh together. Fade to credits.

END MAJOR SPOILER

How about ending it this wayr Jackson shows up at Affleck’s office and gives him the file (thereby doing the right thing), they discuss right and wrong (it turns out the file is actually a fraud designed to funnel money into the firm’s hands), then Affleck disposes of the file, preferably by burning or shredding it. The end. More satisfying, less unbelievable, and lends more closure to both characters. You don’t need the fistfight. All you need is closure to the characters.

6. Don’t Fuck It Up: What already exists here is a decent movie. I suspect it test screened poorly. Scenes that I found effectively dramatic drew laughter from chunks of the audience. However, don’t feel compelled to turn this into a taut thriller. That’s not what Roger Michell (the director, who previously made Notting Hill) made, and not what Michael Tolkin and his co-writer wrote. They created a story about two people facing crossroads in life on the very same day whose paths happen to intersect. THAT’S the movie! Not an action thriller or an Affleck/Jackson showdown, but two stories that happen to intersect. Some touch-up will help… a new score (might I suggest Thomas Newman, whose music would fit nicely) will make sure the right emotional buttons get pressed, and tightening will help, but this isn’t a movie that needs to be completely reworked.

The film is slated for a Christmas-time release, it looks like, and it can make it. The changes I’ve suggested are far from gigantic, and would make the film a better film. In fact, Jackson and Pollack’s performances are both potentially award-worthy, and Affleck yet again does above-average work in a role he’s started to make his trademark when he’s doing real acting… that of a young shark who’s trying to keep it together in the wake of tragedy and change. The current film commits a cardinal sin: it’s uncommercial. However, it has a virtue even stronger than that. It’s a good film already, and it can be an excellent one with a little bit of tweaking. Paramount, take the risk and give us a movie closer to the cut I saw tonight, a drama about lives intersecting, than the cut I fear, which turns the film into “a taut thriller about men at the edge!”

Rating: B-
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The Score

The basic plot is simple: Nick (Robert De Niro) is an aging thief who wants to get out of the business, but his longtime fence, Max (Marlon Brando), leans on him, convincing him to do one last job – steal a scepter worth $30 million dollars. The problemr Nick must work with Jack (Edward Norton), a young thief who’s “undercover” as a janitor in the building where the scepter is being stored. Complications ensue, and the characters clash. There’s not much in the way of surprises along the way – the thieves have to acquire computer codes, which turns into an elaborate exchange in a public place, and of course, there’s an obligatory and predictable double-cross at the end.

Where I think the movie succeeds is that it creates tension effectively without an excess of danger or violence. No one dies in the film. A couple of folks get beaten up, and a gun is fired 2 or 3 times (as warning shots). There’s an explosion to blow a safe open, and that’s about it for “action.” The tension comes from the presence of the actors, and that’s an impressive feat. De Niro does his now well-worn “aging tough guy” shtick, but no one really does it better, and his chemistry drives the whole film. Norton’s character, unfortunately, is little more than a variation on his (admittedly excellent) work in “Primal Fear.” As part of his “undercover” work, he pretends to be mentally handicapped, and he shifts back and forth between that and his “true” personality effortlessly.

Although De Niro and Norton are strong performers, they dominate the movie to such a degree that other actors don’t make much of an impression. Brando has little more to do than sit there and nod as De Niro delivers his several “but the kid’s a loose cannon!” type speeches, although he gets some nice digs in. Truly wasted is Angela Bassett, as De Niro’s girlfriend, who wants him to get out of the “business.” She shows up in about 4 scenes in the entire film, and I kept waiting for something to happen with her, but nothing does. In fact, none of the supporting performers (except one actor who plays a computer hacker) make any permanent impression whatsoever.

Finally, I want to briefly address the thing that scared me most going in. The film is directed by Frank Oz, whose filmography consists mostly of very good, but very light comedies. As dark as he’s gotten is “Dark Crystal” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” He pulls the film off with admirable aplomb, especially considering how dark the film is (lots of it takes places in sewers, basements, and dark hallways.) I hope this is his first step toward branching out as a filmmaker.

To sum up: “The Score” is a decent flick – not a spectacular one, but it’s nonetheless worth seeing, and it’s certainly a pleasant respite from a movie season that’s (at least thus far) been far more about big movies with flashy explosions and cool special effects than it has been about smaller films with strong performances from great actors.

Rating: B
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