How I Spent My Summer at the Movies, Really

Four years after hanging up my critic's cap-- an act some friends still haven't forgiven me for-- and I'm still avoiding the cinema like the plague. Who was that guy going to the movies two and three times a week for so many years? Did I really take all those notes and write all those reviews? Though free passes continue to flood my mailbox, I've sat my butt in a theater maybe five times a year. Except for this summer, that is, when the Great Curmudgeon was compelled to see a record seven movies between Memorial Day and Labor Day: Batman Begins, War of the Worlds, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, The Dukes of Hazzard, Broken Flowers, and The Aristocrats. (And, no I haven't been renting DVDs all this time. Sweetie watches one nearly every Friday night; not me, man.)

Five blockbusters and two art films were seen this summer. The former were screened at off-peak hours, either late Friday afternoon or very late on weekdays. Thus the number of talking people, crying babies, and ringing cell phones was mercifully minimal. Either that or I'm considerably better at blocking them out. Still, the multiplex remains an odious experience. Particularly offensive are the funky smells in the newest theaters. Phew. At least I avoided those bludgeoning previews by intentionally arriving 10 or 15 or even 20 minutes late.� (I never did miss the start of a show.)� Alas, I didn't take a notepad into the theaters so the following comments are from memory only. Consult a real critic for a professional opinion...

Batman Begins has too many notes, as Jeffrey Jones pompously noted in ol' Amadeus. And a particularly bad, bloated finale. Christian Bale is the best costumed depiction of the Dark Knight to date, though I prefer George Clooney as Bruce Wayne. Who wouldn't? But what's up with Bale's mouth? Good gadgets, great Batmobile, and a nearly top-line cast, except for Katie Holmes' obligatory and unnecessary love interest. She's a lightweight. Director Christopher Nolan takes the whole thing very seriously, maybe too seriously-- would it have killed him to have included an Adam West cameo?-- but there's enough dark, sick fun to be had until the whole thing collapses at the end. The sequel will be better. They always are.

War of the Worlds is a whole movie of reaction shots, really. Steven Spielberg is the master here, no question, and respected mental health professional Tom Cruise is an exceptionally able lead. So what if he's trumped by child actor Dakota Fanning? The lack of Independence Day-scale effects is a nice touch that shrinks the scope of the movie, even if you're left itching for a few more money shots. It's good stuff for about an hour, then comes a dreadfully deflating sequence with Tom and Dakota hiding in a basement with a kooky Tim Robbins. Yawn. Then Spielberg commits a second deadly sin by showing the aliens. Good God. Well, two-thirds of a good movie is better than no thirds.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory adapts Roald Dahl's beloved book for a second time, but with a darker tone and a more literal interpretation. Or so I've read. Tim Burton is behind the camera and he's the perfect weirdo to capture Johnny Depp's perfect weirdo. No trace of Gene Wilder here, which isn't necessarily a good thing. What Burton brings in eccentricity, however, is negated by a horrible narrative flow. He's really a terrible director in that regard and the scenes just lumber along in a clumsy fashion. Great music, though, as performed en masse by Deep Roy's computer-cloned Oompa Loompas. They're the show-stealer.

The Island thinks it's smarter than just a loud, dumb, sci-fi actioner. The first hour is conventionally paced (and shot) with lots of white-suited people walking around glassy sets amid a barrage of futuristic product plugs. Director Michael Bay turns into Michael Bay in the second half of movie as he chases, smashes, or kills everything on screen. The plot's got a lot of interesting ideas, most of which we've seen in earlier or decades-earlier movies. The script makes increasingly little sense, but, hey, it's summer and it probably doesn't matter. Plus, two hours of Scarlett Johansen Marilyn Monroe-ish innocence isn't so bad either. Sign me up for the unrated version!

The Dukes of Hazzard isn't gloriously awful in a lobotomy-inducing way, but it's still dumb and really quite bad. Johnny Knoxville and that other guy are enthusiastic enough as Bo and Luke Duke, though Burt Reynolds' Boss Hogg is a white-suited sleepwalker. As Daisy Duke, Jessica Simpson looks like a man from the neck up and her acting abilities suggest something computer-generated. Willie Nelson as Uncle Jesse is certainly inspired, at least on paper. There's also a late cameo by a drunk-looking Joe Don Baker. I saw it for the stunts and they didn't disappoint. Beware the long stretches without racing cars, however. Bloopers play over the closing credits, showing both acting flubs and crash crashes. Rent it someday and watch those.

Broken Flowers is one of the summer's higher-praised art-house entries, with Bill Murray as a staid, solitary businessman pressed into a road trip to reacquaint himself with his ex's after learning that he has a twenty year-old son. The emotional pacing of Murray's character is deliberately and almost painfully slow. His encounters with his old flames, however, overturn his stoic apple cart to wonderfully droll effect. The Lolita sequence-- starring Sharon Stone and some cutie named Alexis Dziena-- is a particular howler. The ending is awfully abrupt; a shrug of sorts that I'm still figuring out. I'll take it home and check for clues.

The Aristocrats may be the bluest movie ever made, with 100-some comedians telling or talking about an improvised dirty joke that involves a family, a talent agent, and assorted bodily functions described to increasingly horrific effect. Nothing's sacred in this one and you may enjoy watching your companion as much as the movie, especially if you take a date as I did. Very funny stuff, with a number of famous faces including a few forgotten funnymen like Chuck McCann (remember him?) and Larry Storch (still alive!). Alas, there's so much talking about talking in this digital documentary that the intentional repetition becomes repetitious. Enough already.

Copyright 2005 by Michael J. Legeros


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