Mini Reviews (April 2006)
Team America: World Police, The Mummy an' The Armadillo, Just Before Dawn, Lucky Number Slevin, Americano, The Wild
Team America: World Police (April 2/06)
Though it starts out as a funny and surprisingly accurate parody of big-budget action flicks, Team America: World Police wears out its welcome awfully quickly and eventually morphs into a tedious, thoroughly dull piece of work. The story revolves around an inept band of international agents dedicated to ending terrorism, and their efforts to put a stop to Kim Jong Il's diabolical plans for world domination. Screenwriters Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Pam Brady initially capture the slick energy of a typical Jerry Bruckheimer-style shoot-'em-up, right down to the wisecracking dialogue, insanely over-the-top score, and swooping camerawork. But at a certain point, the whole thing just becomes tiresome - partly because, since all the characters are played by puppets, there's not a single character here worth latching onto. More than that, though, the movie is hurt by Parker and Stone's reliance on speechifying and heavy-handed diatribes to propel the story forward - particularly in terms of its approach to the "celebrity" characters, including Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, and George Clooney (it's immediately apparent that the filmmakers clearly have nothing but disdain for their left-wing antics). The addition of several needless musical numbers certainly doesn't help matters, and there's just no getting past the feeling that Team America: World Police would've worked a whole lot better as a three-minute short on Saturday Night Live (or another show of that ilk).
The Mummy an' The Armadillo
Initially intriguing but ultimately interminable, The Mummy an' The Armadillo transpires over the course of one very long night at a rundown and out-of-the-way diner. Sarah (Clare Kramer) is just passing through town when she stops at the Armadillo Cafe, where she encounters a sassy hostess named Billie (Lori Heuring). As the evening progresses, Clare finds herself faced with Billie's seemingly psychotic family - including her dim-witted brother (Brad Renfro) and mentally-disturbed mother (Betty Buckley). The Mummy an' The Armadillo, based on a play by writer/director J.S. Cardone, suffers from an almost unbearably stagy vibe, particularly in terms of its exceedingly thin narrative and stilted, thoroughly self-conscious dialogue. Cardone eschews anything even resembling a plot in favor of a relentless cavalcade of quirky, colorful supporting characters, some of whom seem as though they'd be more at home in the latest installment of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. The distinctly over-the-top vibe extends to the performances, which are generally uncomfortably broad - although Kramer and Heuring are admittedly far more effective than the film deserves.
Just Before Dawn
Just Before Dawn follows five friends as they embark on a fun-filled trip into the mountains, where they quickly come under attack from a pair of crazy, inbred mountain men. It's an exceedingly familiar premise that's been done countless times before, and although Just Before Dawn is generally credited as being one of the progenitors of this horror subgenre, the slow pace and lack of character development cements its status as a forgettable piece of work. This is despite some admittedly effective kill sequences, which are suspenseful and tense in ways that the rest of the film is not (particularly one involving a hapless camper, a rope bridge, and a maniac with a machete). Director Jeff Lieberman infuses the proceedings with sporadic bursts of style, though one can't help but question his decision to bathe the majority of the film's third act in total darkness - which, not surprisingly, lends the proceedings a distinct air of incoherence. The acting is actually fairly effective, as folks like Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson, and George Kennedy (who spends much of the movie riding around the forest on a white horse!) deliver better-than-expected performances - though, ultimately, there's just not enough of interest here to warrant a hearty recommendation.
Lucky Number Slevin
Lucky Number Slevin stars Josh Hartnett as a distinctly unlucky figure named Slevin, who - within the space of about a day - loses his job, girlfriend, and apartment. After arriving in New York, where he's made arrangements to stay with a friend, Slevin finds himself embroiled in a complicated scheme involving two sinister mob bosses (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley), a deadly assassin (Bruce Willis), and a tenacious detective (Stanley Tucci). The majority of Lucky Number Slevin consists of quirky, colorful characters spouting screenwriter Jason Smilovic's overly clever and thoroughly stagy dialogue, with the end result a film that's sporadically intriguing but mostly tedious. The broad performances generally reflect this vibe, though Freeman does bring a fair amount of depth to his role (Kingsley, on the other hand, goes over-the-top early and often). And although much of the film's first hour is generally disposable, the third act - packed with twists and revelations - is surprisingly involving and a big improvement over virtually everything that came before it (one can't help but wonder if the movie would've worked better had some of the twists been revealed at the outset). In the end, Lucky Number Slevin is just as ineffective as director Paul McGuigan's previous films - though it is a considerable improvement over abominable early efforts such as The Acid House and Gangster No. 1.
Plotless but engaging, Americano follows three American friends (Joshua Jackson, Timm Sharp, and Ruthanna Hopper) as they spend the last three days of their European vacation in Spain during the famed running of the bulls at Pamplona. Writer/director Kevin Noland infuses Americano with a free-wheeling, breezy atmosphere that effectively captures the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, a vibe that's cemented by Jackson's engaging and sincere performance. The lack of narrative never becomes terribly noticeable, thanks primarily to the lush scenery - which is, at times, simply breathtaking. Noland does a nice job of placing the viewer smack-dab in the middle of the action, imbuing certain scenes with a visceral, you-are-there sort of quality (Jackson and his costars, for example, were apparently forced to participate in the running of the bulls without the use of stunt doubles). That sort of authenticity is all over Americano, though one can't help but question Noland's choice to include graphic footage of a bull being murdered by a blood-thirsty matador. Still, there's plenty here worth recommending; Americano certainly succeeds as a romanticized travelogue, and if this doesn't make one want to grab a backpack and head for the hills of Spain, nothing will.
The Wild (April 12/06)
Though The Wild is slightly better than the majority of its computer-animated brethren, one can't help but wish that movies of this ilk weren't being geared solely towards small children. Like Chicken Little, Ice Age: The Meltdown, and Valiant before it, The Wild generally emphasizes style over substance - to the extent that, although there are some funny bits here and there, the film is ultimately a forgettable and disposable piece of work. The storyline, which is uncomfortably similar to last year's Madagascar, revolves around a cadre of zoo animals who find themselves stranded in the wild after one of their own goes missing. Although the opening half hour of The Wild is actually fairly engaging - particularly as head lion Samson (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) has to figure out how to retrieve his wayward son - the film goes downhill fast once the animals arrive on the deserted island, particularly as the group splits up and encounters individual problems (ie Eddie Izzard's koala bear discovers that a tribe of wildebeests consider him a god). The sudden emphasis on wacky hijinks - coupled with the general lack of plot to propel things forward - quickly transforms The Wild into a typically frenetic farce that has little to offer viewers over a certain age.