August 25, 2006

‘Snakes on a Plane’

“Hello, operator. I’d like to report a snake. On a plane.”

By Shawn French

The wait is finally over. The movie event of the summer has arrived. While some might list the latest “Superman” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels as the movie to see, real film fans know it’s all about the snakes. On a plane.

I started tracking this movie a little over a year ago when I stumbled across the title in a list of upcoming pictures. It was such an amazingly stupid movie name that I was ready to buy my ticket then. Samuel L. Jackson had a similar reaction to the title, but signed on to star in the film without reading the script.

Once he was attached, the furor started building, with fan sites, unofficial “SoaP” gear and parodies aplenty. New Line then tried to shift the title to “Pacific Air Flight 121,” but Jackson (and the snake groupies) would have no part of that. And the studio caved.

The “SoaP” crowd got another boost when New Line actually listened to its suggestions. In March, the studio scheduled a five-day re-shoot to film new scenes and shift from a PG-13 rating to an R. The biggest addition was the one line all fan sites were clamoring to hear Jackson deliver. “I’ve had it with these mother <expletive> snakes on this mother <expletive> plane.” Vintage Sam Jackson.

With the film altered to appease fans, it was time for opening weekend. The buzz, or hiss as it were, surrounding the film was enormous. But was the Internet crowd laughing with or at the movie? A little of both, it turned out. The movie opened to a modest $15.2 million weekend -- about half what the industry predicted and right on par with most widely released B horror flicks.

The movie itself is exactly what the title implies -- unapologetic cheese. Jackson stars as Neville Flynn, an FBI agent transporting a key witness (Nathan Phillips) on a flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles. But midway through the flight, hundreds of snakes (on a plane) are released in the cargo hold. A hefty dose of pheromones drives them crazy and they wreak havoc in the cheap seats. Led by Flynn, the survivors hole up in first class and try to fend off the attack until they can land. But things get worse when they discover Snakes in a Cockpit and lose both pilots.

The snakes (on a plane) vary in appearance. Although hundreds of real snakes were used in filming, most of the close-ups are obvious CGI and a few look like Muppets. None are particularly scary and the attacks are cartoonish, gory and over the top, just as advertised.

“SoaP” is loaded with B-movie goodness, similar in tone to “Slither.” But it has little crossover appeal. Those who heard the title and couldn’t wait to see the movie will adore it, and everyone else will stare at the screen blankly and wonder what’s wrong with society. The term “lowbrow” doesn’t do the film justice. We’re talking subterranean brow here.

The best aspect of the movie is the audience interaction. It’s designed for the crowd to be loud and raucous and I can almost see this building into a “Rocky Horror”-type cult. There were a couple of applause breaks during the Thursday night preview I attended, and more applause when the credits rolled. This isn’t a movie you’ll want to see during a mostly empty matinee. If you’re going to see it, do it right. Go on a weekend night and bring a big group with you. The reaction from the crowd is as much fun as the movie itself.

As goofy as the film premise sounds, it’s not a new concept. In a 1989 “Saturday Night Live” sketch, comedian Will Ferrell played a pilot bitten by a cobra in the cockpit. He spent most of the sketch delivering gibberish loudspeaker announcements while he hallucinated from the venom. “Mad TV” also had a snakes-on-a-plane moment years ago when the character Miss Swan tells an airline stewardess that there are snakes (on a plane). Also, the cheap(er) knockoff “Snakes on a Train” just came out on DVD.

For months, the Internet crowd has been pitching other animal-on-a-vehicle films. “Scorpions on a Hang Glider,” “Squid on a Segway,” the list goes on and on. There was that one movie about Beatles on a submarine, but I’m not sure if that qualifies. I assume the sequel to “SoaP” (if there is one) will actually be called “Snakes on Another Plane.”

Is “SoaP” high quality cinema? Nope, but it’s not trying to be. It does, however, deliver exactly what it promises -- an extremely enjoyable bad movie.

Shawn French can be reached at

August 21, 2006

‘The Descent’

Claustrophobia is king in this horror flick.

By Shawn French

One perk of the indy horror boom of the ’90s and (whatever it is we’re calling this decade) is that more foreign flicks are finding their way to American cinemas. In years past, the movies would be pillaged for ideas and dumbed down into Americanized versions. Producers would bump up the budget, make all the plot points really, really obvious and tack on a happy ending.

Now we’re starting to see more foreign horror films in theaters, and the latest import is the extremely graphic 2005 British monster flick, “The Descent.” A year after her husband and daughter are killed in a car crash, traumatized survivor Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) is talked into attending the annual getaway with five thrill-seeking gal pals. The previous year had been whitewater rafting, but this time around their adrenaline junkie leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza) has discovered an off-book cave system in the Appalachian Mountains for them to explore.

Shortly into their spelunking, a cave-in blocks their exit. With limited batteries, food and water, the six women have no choice but to push deeper into the caves in hopes of finding another way out. But they’re not alone in the dark, and soon are marked as prey by a gaggle of creepy Gollum-looking critters.

In most horror flicks, the time until the monsters appear is filler. What’s so refreshing about some foreign films is that they properly use that time to develop the characters and their past relationships. One character had an affair with the husband of another. In a Hollywood film, we’d probably cut away to show them cheating, then the two women would spend the movie glaring and sniping at each other. But in this movie from across the pond, the affair is never actually mentioned or shown onscreen -- it’s just implied. That sort of subtlety, especially from a horror flick, is a welcome change.

Another convention-breaker is that none of the women are damsels. There are no male characters in the film (aside from a couple in brief set-up scenes), and the women don’t need to be saved. They’re adventurous, they’re rugged, and they’re determined to get out by whatever means necessary.

Writer/director Neil Marshall (“Dog Soldiers”) takes time to really establish the setting and characters before unleashing the eyeless bat-like “crawlers.” The claustrophobia is palpable and audiences get to see how dangerous the environment is even without mutant albino cannibals chasing you. Another nice touch on the set was Marshall not letting his actors see what the monsters look like until the moment their characters are attacked. Their jumpiness feels real because it is real.

Visually, the film is great. Most scenes are lit using only the light sources carried by the characters, which create a real sense of immediacy. When the girls’ lights falter, audiences are plunged into the dark alongside the characters. A scene where Sarah gets lodged in a narrow passage and suffers a panic attack is particularly effective.

The fight scenes also felt authentic. The women don’t suddenly become ninjas when under siege. The battles are raw, wild and they take an emotional toll on the women -- the last ones standing seem nearly as feral as the creatures hunting them. The title works on several levels, as one main theme seems to be the characters’ descent into inhumanity.

Interestingly, “The Descent” did get a little reworking before being shown to American audiences, specifically a new ending. There’s been a lot of online debate about which ending is better. The American version is superior thematically, but it’s not quite as fun as the original ending (which you can find at

The film does get quite a bit too graphic for its own good in parts. If you have a weak stomach, take a pass on this one. But if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, this is a pretty decent horror flick. The characters aren’t stupid, the story moves along at a steady clip and it’s the scariest movie I’ve seen this summer.

Shawn French can be reached at

August 14, 2006

‘Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby’

Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen face off in “Talladega Nights.”

By Shawn French

When Will Ferrell beat out Steve Carell for a spot on “Saturday Night Live” in 1995, he was regarded by many as the worst cast member ever. He was considered too spastic, and most of his characters were aggressively annoying. It wasn’t until the final episode of that season (with Jim Carrey hosting) that he had his breakout, and by the late ’90s he was the anchor of the cast.

His parodies of Alex Trebek, James Lipton, Harry Caray, Robert Goulet, George W. Bush and Neil Diamond helped create an “SNL” resurgence, and his 2000 “cowbell” sketch with Christopher Walken is considered by many (myself included) to be the best in the show’s history. After leaving the program in 2002, he became the only cast member to have two “Best of” DVDs -- there was just too much good material to fit in one.

Since then, Ferrell has become a household name, but he never really hit it big at the box office. “Kicking and Screaming,” “Elf,” “Old School,” “Anchorman” and “Bewitched” all opened in second place, although the wonderfully goofy “Elf” worked its way into the top spot through good word of mouth. But he had yet to headline a true blockbuster. All this changed when producers delivered the following six-word pitch to studio execs: “Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver.”

The movie got put on the fast track, and on opening weekend it left the competition in the dust, raking in $47 million for Ferrell’s biggest box office performance to date.

The movie tells the tale of Ricky Bobby, a man addicted to speed from the moment he was born in the back of a car going 100 mph. Quick flashes of his childhood include him stealing his mom’s car for a joyride as a toddler, and ending up as a NASCAR pit crew member for the Laughing Clown Malt Liquor car. When the driver bales out mid-race, Bobby hops into the driver’s seat and a legend is born.

Ricky Bobby is a vintage Ferrell character, clueless to the extreme. When adopting the new nickname Diablo, he explains to equally numb racing partner Cal (John C. Reilly) that it means “Spanish fighting chicken.” Later, he argues with his wife while saying grace about which incarnation of Jesus he should be praying to, the baby or the full-grown guy.

As the best racer in the world, Bobby has it all -- fame, fortune, a “smoking hot” wife and his young sons Walker and Texas Ranger. But all that is threatened when new racer Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) arrives on the scene. He is every redneck’s worst nightmare — a gay Frenchman. Driving the Perrier car with his boyfriend (Andy Richter) in tow, Girard is an affront to everything Bobby and his good ole boys stand for.

After suffering defeat to the Frenchman, Bobby loses his confidence, his trophy wife and his best friend. With the help of his estranged father (Gary Cole), he must overcome his sudden fear of speed. One method his dad springs on him is driving with a loose cougar in the car.

The film is a bit erratic, but in the same sort of way “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Anchorman” were. The actors improvise frequently, leading to some bizarre and hysterical riffs (with many showing up in the end credit outtakes). While you sacrifice some fluidity with this style, it’s worth it.

Sacha Baron Cohen (“Da Ali G Show”) is a great addition to the Brat Pack. This movie is worth it just to see Cohen and Ferrell go face to face in numerous showdown scenes. Most Ferrell movies consist of him being a freak and the people around him reacting to it. This time around, he’s matched against an even more fearless comedian and the result is a riot.

All in all, this is Ferrell’s best film since “Elf.” It’s the kind of character he excels at. He’s surrounded by a great supporting cast (including the surprisingly funny John C. Reilly); and director (former “SNL” head writer) Adam McKay knows how to deliver this style of comedy.

Reilly, Ferrell and McKay had so much fun together that they’ll again collaborate on “Step Brothers.” Ferrell and Reilly play grown men still living at home when their single parents marry one another, forcing the men-children to share a basement. Ferrell fans can also look forward to a 2007 “Old School” sequel and the one I’m anxiously waiting for — Ferrell and Jon Heder as figure skaters in “Blades of Glory.”

I’m so there.

Shawn French can be reached at

August 7, 2006
‘Miami Vice’

Crockett and Tubbs are back -- sort of.

By Shawn French

Director Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Collateral”) revisits the ’80s franchise he helped create in this modern version of “Miami Vice.” Why he chose to do that remains a mystery.

The newest entry in the “What were they thinking” department features Colin Farrell in Don Johnson’s old role of Sonny Crockett and Jamie Foxx as partner Ricardo Tubbs. Gone is the white-suited sockless look of the original franchise and, as much as it pains me to say it, that was probably a mistake. The film version uses an ashen palette that, combined with the frequently washed-out visuals, would be better suited for a Depression-era film.

Gone is the old flair. In its place are two actors trying so hard to be tough guys that they neglect to interact with the actors around them. Foxx and Farrell have no chemistry whatsoever and may as well have been delivering their dialogue in separate rooms. In some action films, you might be able to get away with that. But aside from a big finale shootout, this isn’t really an action movie. Like Mann’s last film, “Collateral,” it’s a character-driven story with elements of action. Unfortunately, neither of the protagonists are developed enough for the audience to care what happens to them.

The plot of the film is a takeoff of the TV series’ pilot episode, and it’s overworked into a convoluted mess. When an old informant runs into trouble with a Miami group of white supremacists, Crockett and Tubbs take the case to bring down the Aryans and their South American suppliers.

Sure, sending a black guy undercover to bust up a ring of white supremacists sounds like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. But I assure you this is a humorless film. Even the gifted comedian Foxx is kept on a tight leash.

And the cop-movie clichés are out in full force. Crockett falls for hot Asian drug-runner Isabella (Gong Li), who is involved with drug lord Jesus Montoya. And there’s the obligatory capturing of a cop’s wife. (Rule of thumb: If there’s a scene in the first 20 minutes of an action movie showing that a guy loves his wife, she’ll be tied to the railroad tracks by the third reel. Guarantee it.)

In fact, the women in this movie don’t serve much of a purpose other than flashing some skin and getting abducted. Even Isabella, who is the closest this film gets to a strong female character, turns damsel in the end. At least three male characters face the “We have your girl so you’ll do what we say” scenario. Two in a movie is pushing it. Three is just silly.

Mann has had great success in the past using handheld cameras to create a sense of immediacy. This time around, especially in a few early scenes, the action is shot too close and too choppy to even know what’s happening. Good guy runs after bad guy, close-up of chest, close-up of back of head, close-up of shoulder, indistinct cracking noise, bad guy falls. Um, OK.

The story (minus a half-dozen extraneous characters and subplots) could have worked as a more traditional action film. Blend in some humor, lighten up the mood occasionally, and this could have been a decent flick. But Mann delivers a dour, one-note movie that is frequently dull. Foxx is completely wasted and Farrell never looks like he’s even vaguely interested in what’s going on around him.

The movie bears almost no resemblance to the TV series -- not in tone, look, sound or feel. Take away the title and I never would have guessed there was a connection between the two. Justified or not, the original series was iconic. The title “Miami Vice” conjures up images that the movie doesn’t even try to incorporate into the story. Mann would have been better off creating a new franchise from scratch. Sure, this still would have been a bad movie, but at least it wouldn’t feel so self-contradictory.

Shawn French can be reached at

August 3, 2006

'Clerks II'

Dante and Randal are back, this time living in fast food hell.

By Shawn French

In 1994, writer/director Kevin Smith burst onto the Hollywood stage with his wonderfully inappropriate black-and-white comedy, "Clerks." The film, made for under $30,000, followed slackers Dante and Randal through a day at work as clerks in adjacent convenience and video stores. The movie became an instant cult classic and Smith was elevated to household name status.

The next installment in his "Redbank trilogy" was 1995's "Mallrats" -- generally regarded as the weakest of the series. Then came "Chasing Amy," "Dogma" and finally "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," which was intended to conclude the quintet of films. While none were sequels, per se, the movies all take place in the same area of New Jersey and the films frequently reference one another.

Smith had vowed to retire the series, but his first non-franchise film, 2004's "Jersey Girl" was a flop. So he went back to his roots and cranked out the sequel he swore he wouldn't make.

The action picks up a decade after we last saw our slacker protagonists, and both are unemployed after Randal accidentally burns down the convenience store he works in. Fast forward one year, and both are now stuck at Moobys, a fast-food joint. It's Dante's last day of work before heading off to Florida to start a new life with annoying and controlling fiancée Emma (played by Smith's actual wife, Jennifer Shwalbach).

The choice of when to set the film was the first of several key mistakes in this movie. A big part of the fun should have been watching these guys transition to a new environment. That is the established premise of the film, after all. Blowing past their indoctrination into the world of fast food bypassed a lot of good potential material.

So essentially, we get Dante and Randal in the same situation, stuck in dead-end jobs. But now they're in their 30s and are starting to question the paths they're on. Smith tackles more serious subject matter this time around, but fails to integrate those issues into the script. The scenes that advance the character arcs almost feel plucked from a different movie. The tone changes, the speech patterns change and there are a few fairly long stretches with no laughs.

But the funny parts are very funny. Two worthy new additions to the View Askewniverse are Elias (Trevor Fehrman), a nice Christian boy who is endlessly tormented by Randal, and Becky (Rosario Dawson), the Mooby's manager with a thing for Dante. Elias provides the fodder for the majority of the film's best scenes, the highlight being the ongoing "Star Wars" versus "Lord of the Rings" debate. Vintage Kevin Smith.

Unfortunately the movie is wildly uneven, veering off course in a few places, including an extended musical number that tries too hard and achieves too little.

On his Web site, Smith talks about how stunned he was that the movie didn't get slapped with an NC-17 rating. He successfully fought the MPAA after it branded the first "Clerks" NC-17, arguing it down to an R rating without making cuts. This time around, Smith said he was braced for a fight, but the ratings board let it slide through uncut.

"Good Morning America" film critic Joel Siegel threw a hissy fit during a Manhattan screening roughly midway through the movie, when Randal books a "donkey act" for Dante's going away party. Siegel loudly stormed out of the theater, making a scene and cursing as he went. It's hard to pinpoint what's more pathetic: someone who uses profanity in his protest against profanity, or a professional film critic who doesn't realize it's wrong to yell in a theater mid-film. Leave if you want, but leave quietly. Twit.

In a great rant about Siegel on ViewAskew, Smith said he was relieved to hear someone was offended. "I was beginning to think I was losing my touch," he said.

The humor is unrelentingly crude and perverse. If that bothers you, you'd do best to take a pass on this one. As in most Smith movies, no topic is taboo.

All in all, fans of Smith (and I am one) will probably find that the stronger scenes are worth coughing up big-screen bucks for. I definitely laughed a lot, but overall I'd rank this the fourth-best installment in the franchise, behind "Chasing Amy," "Clerks" and "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," but ahead of "Dogma" and "Mallrats."

Shawn French can be reached at

July 29, 2006

'Lady in the Water'

Bryce Dallas Howard and Paul Giamatti in the nonsensical "Lady in the Water."

By Shawn French

Dear M. Night Shyamalan,

Are you OK? I just got back from seeing "Lady in the Water" and yikes, what a train wreck. It's absurdly convoluted and, quite frankly, seems like the ravings of a madman. Have you been getting enough sleep?

I've been a fan of yours since "The Sixth Sense," which I thought was a brilliant film. You followed with "Unbreakable," my second favorite movie of yours. Then there was "Signs" -- not so good. And of course 2004's "The Village." I seem to be one of the 11 people on the planet who liked that movie. It was a glorified "Twilight Zone" episode, but you filmed it with such style. As for your latest film, on the other hand, I don't even know what to say. I'm equal parts horrified, confused and sad. I had such hopes for you.

Let's start with the story itself. Despite taking three pages of notes during the movie and researching extensively online, I'm still not entirely sure what was going on.

Here are the established rules of your movie world, as I understand them. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Story, of an aquatic race called narfs. Due to humans warring so much, she and several other young narfs are sent to the world of man to fix everything. Or something. She somehow surfaces through a swimming pool in an apartment complex, The Cove, to find and inspire The Vessel, a writer who is destined to change the world. She must then find The Healer, The Guild, The Interpreter and The Guardian to help her get home on the back of the Great Eatlon, a bird with a 40-foot wingspan. All of the people she seeks are humans with special powers they don't know about. And there's no discernable way to tell which person is supposed to fit each role.

In Story's way is a scrunt, a mystical wolf made of grass -- sort of like a Chia pet, except mean and with claws. The only way to see a scrunt when it's hiding in grass is by looking for its eyes in the reflection of a mirror. The Guardian can babble sacred words to force a scrunt to show itself, then hypnotize the beast and force it to move backwards. If a scrunt scratches the narf, she is infected by a poison called kii. The only cure is magic mud she has hidden in her apartment underneath the pool. But, if she's hurt badly, she can only be cured by assembling seven sisters, The Healer, a man with no secrets and a respected man.

Scrunts generally won't attack narfs who are waiting for the Giant Eatlon, for fear of incurring the wrath of the Tartutic -- a trio of evil Chia-monkeys who work as police for The Blue World. Since the scrunt does attack Story, it means that either it's a rogue scrunt or Story is actually a madam narf, destined for greatness. Scrunts will attack madam narfs regardless of the laws.

That's three paragraphs packed full of gibberish rules for the audience to learn. What were you thinking, Shyamalan?

I know this story started as a bedtime tale for your daughters, and I think it's great that you're spending this sort of quality time with them. But just because a story entertains your sleepy children doesn't automatically make it a reasonable subject for a movie. I think you'll agree that bedside and big screen are vastly different storytelling mediums. In the production notes for the film, you state: "The way I tell my stories to my kids is very freeform -- whatever pops into my head and comes out my mouth."

See, that's the problem. This tale feels made up on the fly. The rules are bizarre and often border on crazy talk. You could have taken a few of the key plot points and fashioned a sensible story out of them. Instead, you delivered a film that's a total mess.

I know you broke with Disney after they read the screenplay and refused to make your movie. Perhaps you're falling into the trap lots of popular young writers do as they get more creative control over their projects? You don't have to fight as hard to get a project made, but sometimes the fight is what forces a writer to really fine-tune his script. "Lady in the Water" is about five drafts shy of coherent.

You're a gifted director, you really are. Even as messed up as this movie was, there were a couple of great moments. (Paul Giamatti's breakdown scene was amazing.) Maybe it's time to consider directing something you didn't write, because it seems you're getting so wrapped up in your films you're losing all objectivity. Movies need to make sense on screen, not just in the writer's head.

I've defended you repeatedly in the past, both in conversation and in print. But you're making it increasingly difficult to stand in your corner these days. As much as I wanted to like this movie, it just wasn't possible. I'm sorry.

I hope you'll bounce back strong. Truly I do.

Your (now slightly less) loyal fan,

S. Night French

Shawn French can be reached at

July 22, 2006

'A Scanner Darkly'

Woody Harrelson steals this scene in "A Scanner Darkly."

By Shawn French

Some collaborations are just meant to be. Philip K. Dick, the late fiction writer whose work has been transformed into the films "Blade Runner," "Total Recall" and "Minority Report," to name a few, also wrote a dark sci-fi novel about drug addiction and paranoia. "A Scanner Darkly" has long been regarded as an unfilmable novel, due to the story involving frequent hallucinations and a device called the "scramble suit," which allows the wearer to appear as anyone. When not locked in on a target, the suit cycles through the millions of possible human appearances, which would be nightmarish from a CGI standpoint.

Enter Richard Linklater, the writer/director behind "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused" and 2001's "The Waking Life." In the latter film, Linklater employed a technique called rotoscoping, where the action is filmed live, then artists trace over the scenes frame by frame, adding subtle alterations. The result was a cool, live-action cartoonish pseudo-reality that worked well for "The Waking Life," which was more a series of rants than a narrative tale.

Linklater's rotoscoping technique makes the effects of "A Scanner Darkly" possible, but perhaps the biggest reason he's a good fit is that he actually knows how to write scenes involving drugs -- something Hollywood is not traditionally very good at. (See Kidman and Cruise trying to play stoned in "Eyes Wide Shut" for one of many, many examples.)

With the right technology in hand and the experience needed to bring one of Dick's darkest stories to the big screen, the next challenge was finding a crew that could convincingly play drug-addled characters. Linklater has a pretty good track record here, and his ensemble of Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder and Rory Cochrane is one of his best to date.

The story is set seven years in the future, when a drug called Substance D has claimed the loyalty of 20 percent of the population. Bob Arctor (Reeves) shares his tract home with a collection of junkie friends: Donna (Ryder) is a sex-phobic coke junkie/dealer; Ernie Luckman (Harrelson) is a deadbeat surfer dude; James Barris (Downey) is a fast-talking, disloyal rat; and Freck (Cochrane) is an end-stage D junkie whom we first see trying to scrub hallucinatory aphids from himself and his dog.

What the group doesn't realize is that Arctor is an undercover cop, the house is wired with cameras and they're all under investigation -- including Arctor himself. Complicating matters further, Arctor's use of Substance D has weakened the connectors between the hemispheres of his brain and his personas are starting to split. As he spends hours at the office poring over video footage, he detaches further, not knowing for sure if he's one of the people in the house or if it's all just a bad trip.

The druggie persona of Arctor, along with his housemates, grows increasingly paranoid as the film progresses, fearing conspiracies both elaborate and mundane. In one fantastic sequence, Barris purchases a stolen 18-speed bike. But upon examination, Luckman sees it has one set of six gears and one set of three. So they determine it's a nine-speed bike, and plot their revenge against the seller who "defrauded" Barris.

Visually, the movie is great. It's unlike anything else you'll see on the big screen. The not-quite-real look infuses every frame with the effects of Substance D; the characters are never quite sure what is real, so neither are we. The effect is cartoonish at times, while other scenes are almost indistinguishable from reality.

The movie, like the story it was based on, captures the moment when the euphoric high of addiction gives way to something much darker. For Dick, who died in 1982, it was a cautionary tale about his drug use in the '60s, and the friends he lost during that period. The dark content is tempered with solid humor throughout and the film is always entertaining, despite having a story that sort of wanders from time to time. But as the main characters could tell you, sometimes it's more about the trip than the destination.

Shawn French can be reached at

July 15, 2006

'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest'

Captain Jack is back.

By Shawn French

The pirate genre seems like such a natural fit for movies, yet Hollywood had been unable to put together a decent one since the days of Errol Flynn. In the '80s and '90s, Roman Polanski's "Pirates" with Walter Matthau, Geena Davis' "Cutthroat Island," "The Pirate Movie" with Kristy McNichol and "The Pirates of Penzance" with Linda Ronstadt each invented new ways to make a crappy pirate film.

All that changed in 2003, and oddly enough it was Disney that got it right with the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" flick. Johnny Depp delivered one of his most memorable performances (and that's saying something) as the addled captain Jack Sparrow. Keira Knightley was catapulted to leading lady status, and Orlando Bloom proved there is life after "Lord of the Rings." The film grossed $305 million, and two sequels were immediately ordered, with a combined budget of around $450 million.

The investment paid off, as "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" looted the box-office record book last weekend, setting new marks for opening day ($55 million), opening weekend ($132 million) and it became the fastest film to hit the $100 million mark (two days). But perhaps the most impressive accomplishment was shattering the per-screen average record despite opening on the fourth largest number of screens in history.

This second installment in the trilogy finds Will (Bloom) and Elizabeth (Knightley) arrested on their wedding day for aiding Jack Sparrow. To save Elizabeth from the hangman's noose, Will must track down Captain Jack and bring his magical treasure-finding compass to Lord Beckett -- who needs the device to locate an artifact that will help his company control shipping lanes.

Meanwhile, Jack has his hands full trying to stave off yet another mutiny and avoid settling an old debt to the tentacle-faced lord of the seas, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). The plot this time around is a sprawling mess, full of nonsensical rules and thinly veiled setups for prolonged action sequences.

Generally speaking, this is a bad thing. But this is one of the rare franchises that can stay afloat just on style and the strength of its cast. What I wanted from the sequel was another great Depp performance, more of the amazing fight choreography from the original, and a good, escapist adventure. On those fronts, the movie more or less delivers.

It's a darker film, more graphically violent (although still PG-13) and scarier than the original, which unfortunately hamstrung Depp a little. The over-the-top cartoon character performance from the first film wouldn't mesh well with the grittier themes, so he reins it in a bit, but is still entertaining.

The fight choreography, while extremely inventive, doesn't hold up to the lofty standards set by the first installment and is quite sloppy at times. On a couple of occasions, one combatant stands idly by waiting for the other to get in position to defend. I can excuse some of those hiccups from a stage performance, but not on the big screen. The best battle from a choreography standpoint involves Elizabeth and a pair of Jack's crewmembers sharing two swords while fending off a pack of Davy Jones' watery thugs. There's also an interesting one-on-one-on-one free-for-all fight scene that doesn't quite live up to its potential.

While the swordplay doesn't measure up, there are a couple of great action scenes, the best involving Jack's crew trying to escape from a suspended cage of bones. It's Indiana Jones-style goofiness at its best.

But where the film truly succeeds is creating an immersive environment for audiences to escape into. In "Superman Returns," I couldn't figure out what the big budget was spent on. This movie puts its budget to great use. Visually, the film is stunning. Director Gore Verbinski delivers a beautifully shot movie with some of the most seamless CGI to date. Despite having a face covered with tentacles, Davy Jones looks as real as any other character on the screen. And his crew of ocean critter/human hybrids is great, my personal fave being the hammerhead-shark first mate.

At two and a half hours, the film runs a bit longer than it should and dragged a little around the two-hour mark. But all in all, it's a worthwhile sequel, although a notch down from the original. The cliffhanger ending sets up the final installment, "At World's End," set to open May 25, 2007, and will feature the long-awaited cameo by Rolling Stones guitar player Keith Richards as Captain Jack's father.

Shawn French can be reached at

July 8, 2006

'An Inconvenient Truth'

By Shawn French

Over the past couple of decades, it's become increasingly difficult to ignore the climate changes caused by global warming. The 10 hottest years on record all occurred in the last 14; CO2 and global temps have spiked to previously inconceivable levels; a 2003 heat wave in Europe killed 35,000 people; the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes has doubled in 30 years; we've set new records for U.S. tornados in the past two years; the Arctic Ocean is on pace to be ice-free in summer by 2050; long-dormant volcanoes are waking up; South America got hit with its first-ever hurricane in 2004; and in Maine, there was basically no winter of '05-'06.

Most of the world has figured this out and started to correct its behavior. 1997's Kyoto Protocol, limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gasses, has been embraced by nearly every developed nation in the world. Sadly, our country is one of the two defectors from this global movement -- and we're by far the biggest contributors to global warming.

Problem is, this got painted as a political issue years back and we've yet to collectively figure out that it's something we all need to deal with, regardless of who said it first. The early movement to correct the global climate change latched onto the phrase "Save the Earth," which was another problem. They should have gone with "Save Ourselves," a rallying cry Americans might actually get behind.

Former Vice President Al Gore's filmed lecture, "An Inconvenient Truth," concisely lays out the scientific community's knowledge about global warming, and shows us the terrifying results. Gore has been delivering this lecture for over 15 years. When he started his tour, the trends suggested serious global changes to come, but it was speculative and I could see a reasonable person disagreeing.

It's no longer speculation. The reality of the past decade has been worse than even the most extreme environmentalists expected. And last month, The National Academy of Sciences reported that "the recent warmth is unprecedented for at least the last 400 years and potentially the last several millennia." Core drilling shows that we're off the charts even when looking at the last 650,000 years. Way off the charts. These aren't Earth's standard fluctuations. We've crossed into new territory and we're starting to pay the price.

I've never been a huge Gore fan, but I'd never seen this side of the man. He's funny, engaging, and he delivers complex material in a clear and entertaining way. While the film is a lecture of sorts, it's a fascinating presentation that never feels like a lecture.

Many portions of the film are shocking, like time-lapse photos of glaciers shrinking away to nothing over the past 30 or 40 years; or the 2002 collapse of Antarctic's Larsen B ice shelf in just 35 days; or worse still, the next two glacial regions on the verge of destruction -- Greenland and a West Antarctic ice sheet. The collapse of either would have devastating global consequences by raising ocean levels 20 feet. The film shows what our world would look like were even one of them to go. A quarter of Florida would be gone; San Francisco wiped off the map; and the new World Trade Center memorial (along with the rest of Manhattan) would be underwater.

This movie is a must-see for kids. I sincerely hope schools will take heed. Adults in this country have become so polarized that they'll place themselves and their children in peril if they don't like the person delivering the warning. Kids have less mental baggage. Show them the reality of the situation and they'll understand it. The evidence is now impossible to ignore without willful ignorance.

The filmmakers pored over 10 years of peer-reviewed science articles about global warming -- 928 in all. Not one questioned the reality of global warming, yet 53 percent of press stories in that period refer to it as "alleged" or a "theory." Of course, this isn't by accident. A leaked document from the Bush Administration details plans for spinning the undisputed scientific evidence as conjecture and downplaying the threat. It would be too much of a "financial burden" for his corporate buddies to have to clean up their act to help save the Earth.

Author Michael Crichton was actually invited to advise the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works about global warming after he wrote a "The Da Vinci Code"-style novel about an environmentalist conspiracy. No legitimate scientists back this administration's assertions, so now they're bringing in the "Jurassic Park" guy to lecture on science? While we're at it, Stephen King wrote a TV series set in a hospital. Let's name him surgeon general.

We, as a nation, can't afford to be spun on this issue any longer. The embarrassing reality is that Americans are more to blame for this problem than any other country on the planet. We pollute the most and we've proven the least willing to alter our behavior, no matter the consequences.

Global warming isn't some distant threat that could affect our great-grandchildren. It's happening now. It's worse today than it was yesterday and it'll be even worse tomorrow. The situation is salvageable, but it requires immediate action. And as Gore points out, we already have the technology. We just have to embrace it. Even China, the second-worst CO2 producer, has substantially more rigorous emissions standards than we do. In fact, American cars can't even be exported to some countries these days.

Whatever your political affiliation, you owe it to yourself and to your children to see this movie. Despite playing in limited release, the film has shattered per-screen average records for documentaries. Perhaps there's hope for us yet, although it's hard to ignore that the biggest film in the country at the time of this movie's release was "Cars."

For more information on global warming, visit

July 1, 2006

'Superman Returns'

Despite the physical similarities, Brandon Routh is no Christopher Reeve.

By Shawn French

With the tremendously successful "Batman Begins" and a decent "X-Men" trilogy now in the books, the stage was set for reviving the Man of Steel for a fifth go-round. Brian Singer directed the two best installments of the "X-Men" series, so he was a natural choice to helm this project and brought two of his "X2" writers along for the ride.

With a solid director and writers, and a budget topping $260 million, this should have been cool to jaw-dropping proportions. Not so much, as it turned out. It was a total letdown.

I'm not a big fan of the whole Superman mythos. For starters, the character is absurdly unbalanced. Is there anything he can't do? Flying, X-ray vision, limitless strength, frost breath, heat rays from his eyes. He can reprogram people's memories and he's virtually indestructible.

He actually stops a bullet with his eyeball in this film. Then there's the whole turning-back-time thing from the first movie, which was a horrendously nearsighted narrative choice. Once it's established that he can rewind reality, no threat matters anymore. If he doesn't like the way a conflict plays out, he can just redo it "Groundhog Day" style until he gets it right. Why should we, the audience, be concerned with any threat he faces once that ability is revealed?

Singer picks up the story five years after the events in "Superman II," pretending that the third and fourth films never happened. After a trip to the remnants of his home planet, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Metropolis to find Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) engaged and with a young son. He also discovers that she won a Pulitzer Prize for her column, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." At least she's not bitter.

Lex Luther (Kevin Spacey) is back on the loose, serving only five years of a double life sentence because Superman failed to show up for a court date. And the bald mastermind is once again hatching a plan that will kill billions. Gee, I wonder if it involves Kryptonite.

Parker Posey ("Waiting for Guffman") stars as Luther's sidekick, Kitty Koslowski. I adore Posey, but her character is just a slightly modified rehash of Luther's bimbo from the first movie. In fact, when Luther delivers the same speech (nearly verbatim) he gave in "Superman" about his father's advice regarding real estate, Kitty interjects with the exact same joke told by Mrs. Teschmacher in the 1978 movie. If you're starting a franchise over, as in "Batman Begins," I have no problem with recycling a few ideas or lines. But when the events from the earlier movies actually happened in this film world, reusing dialogue is inexcusable.

There was an energy in the first two films that's absent here. Christopher Reeve always looked like he was having such fun, whereas Routh lacks his charisma and is a bit mopey both as Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent. I'll accept melancholy from Batman, but if you're the most powerful creature in the galaxy and everyone on the planet loves you, the incessant pouting really isn't appropriate. Frank Langella also underwhelms as Daily Planet editor Perry White, delivering a flat performance instead of giving us the crusty old tyrant he's shown himself capable of playing well on "Unscripted." Even Spacey's Lex Luther shows only occasional flashes of the manic glee that makes the character such fun.

And 22-year-old Bosworth is a decade too young to play Lois Lane. If Superman was gone for five years, that means she was 17 during the events of the first two films? (Margot Kidder was 30 when she played the role, so the character should now be in the 35 range.) Kidder's Lane had a barely controlled desperation to it, as she approached middle age still in search of her big break. That's what made her relationship with the ultimate Boy Scout interesting. He represented order; she lived a life of chaos. This time around, Lane is young, gorgeous, hugely successful, always in control and quite boring.

This isn't an aggressively bad film. It's decidedly mediocre, along the lines of the most recent "X-Men" installment. The difference is that this film had potential for (and aspirations of) greatness. This is the director of "The Usual Suspects" we're talking about. And I can't help but wonder what the quarter-billion-dollar budget was spent on. None of the effects were mind-blowing, and the flying scenes completely lacked the sense of exhilaration audiences get when Spider-Man swings down city streets. Even 1978's "Superman" managed to capture that feel, and special effects were goofy looking back then.

While plenty of films far worse than "Superman Returns" will be released this year, it's unlikely there will be one so disappointing.

Hamden Daily News - Your hometown cyberpaper
Hamden Weather
What We Are | Inside Hamden | Letters to the Editor | HDN Contact Info | Archives | Send Us Money
Search the HDN
Click here for
2007 Municipal Election Results

Inside the HDN
General News
Town Government
In Your 'hood
A Chat in Hamden
Kids' News
Mark Your Calendar
Press Releases

Highville Charter School Story
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

At Least Think About This New
The Dunbar Hill Report
Guest Column
HHS Newsroom
My Word
Ron Responds
Tony Talks Sports
Victual Reality New
Whitneyville Before Elvis

Neighborhood News
Mount Carmel Buzz
Wanna be a neighborhood columnist? Please click here.

Special Sections
Hamden Milestones
Hamden Landmark Tales
Hamden's 70th Memorial Day Parade
Scenes from Summer Camp
The Angels of Martyrdom,
a novella by Hamden High senior David Amrani

The 7th Annual Brooksvale Fall Festival
Maple Sugaring at Brooksvale
Inside Hamden's Farmers Market
Hamden Snapshots, 2007

Town Stats
Local Obits
Bad Boys, Bad Girls 2008
Red Hot Calls 2008

Local Politics
Legislative Council '07-'09
LC Committees '07-'09
Board of Education '07-'09
BOE Committees '07-'09
Hamden Democratic Town Committee '08-'10
Hamden Republican Town Committee '08-'10
Hamden Green Party

Local Sports Links
Hamden High Cheerleaders
Hamden Hurricanes
Hamden Fathers' Baseball/Softball

Hamden Fathers' Basketball
Hamden Youth Lacrosse
Hamden Youth Hockey Assoc.
Hamden Figure Skating Assoc.
Hamden Soccer Assoc.
Greater Hamden Baseball Assoc.
Hamden Heronettes Synchronized Swimming

Town Links
The Mayor
Town Clerk
Town Hall Departments
School Superintendent
School Department

Hamden Police Department
Hamden Professional Firefighters
Hamden Arts Commission
Hamden Public Library
Hamden Dog Park
Elections & Registrars


Hamden State Reps.
Peter Villano
Brendan Sharkey
Cameron Staples
Alfred Adinolfi

Hamden State Senators
Martin Looney
Joseph Crisco

Interesting Links
Vision Appraisal, Hamden
Concerned Citizens for Hamden Neighborhoods
Hamden Alliance for Responsible Taxation
Hamden Tax Relief
Hamden: Nobody Gets Out Alive
Hamden High Student Web Site
DEP Newhall Community Blog
Newhall Project Remediation
The Cheshire Town Post
Underground Town Hall
New Haven Independent
My Left Nutmeg
Connecticut Local Politics
Colin McEnroe, To Wit
Kent Tribune
The Huffington Post
Drudge Report

Yale Rep
Long Wharf Theatre
Shubert Theater

U.S. Veterans Affairs



Auto Accidents
860 343 3443

email us

Check us out!

Help support the Hamden Daily News by clicking a link below. If you purchase something at one of the advertised businesses via that click, we get a few bucks -- while you don't pay an extra cent.

21st Century Insurance
Anna's Linens
Barnes & Noble
Beau Ties
Beyond Bedding
Big Mans Land
Cheap Trips
Constructive Playthings
The Container Store
Cuban Crafters
Dancing Deer Baking Co.
Green Cine
Kaplan Test Prep
Lane Bryant
National Pet Pharmacy
Nirvana Belgian Chocolates
Office Depot
Sierra Club
Thrifty Rent-a-Car

Talk To Us
Talk To Us
Letters to the Editor
Copyright© 2005 Hamden Daily News
Site designed by Joanne Kittredge

Tip Us Off
Send news tips