“THE ISLAND” (2005) Review

“THE ISLAND” (2005) Review

The summer of 2005 saw the release of a science-fiction thriller called “THE ISLAND”. Directed by Michael Bay, the movie proved to be a box office failure in the U.S., but a hit with overseas moviegoers.

Many have described “THE ISLAND” as a a pastiche of “escape-from-dystopia” science fiction films of the 1960s and 1970s like “FAHRENHEIT 451”“THX 1138” and “LOGAN’S RUN”. The movie begins with a young man named Lincoln Echo Six, who lives in an isolated compound which strictly regulates its inhabitants’ lives. The Overseers control every aspect of the lives of Lincoln, his friend Jordan Two Delta and the other residents from diet and free time activities, to social relationships. The inhabitants hope to win a lottery to go to “the Island”, the only place on Earth not contaminated by a deadly pathogen.

Already dissatisfied with his life, Lincoln illicitly visits a power-plant basement where his friend, technician James McCord, works. There, he discovers a live moth in the ventilation shaft, leading him to realize that the outside world might not be contaminated. When Lincoln releases the mother, he follows it to another section, where he witnesses the murders of two lottery winners – one after childbirth, and the other in the process of having his liver harvested. When Jordan becomes the next lottery winner, Lincoln rescues her from a similar fate and the two make their escape from the facility. While the facility’s medical official, Dr. Merrick, hires mercenary Albert Laurent and his men to find Lincoln and Jordan, the pair learns from McCord the truth about their existence – they are clones of wealthy sponsors, who intend to use them for spare parts or surrogate motherhood.

“THE ISLAND” received mixed reviews from critics. Some complained that the movie seemed to be an uneasy mixture of a science-fiction thriller and an action film. Others complain that the movie did not handled the ethical issue of cloning very well. I might as well be honest. I like “THE ISLAND” very much. In fact, it is one of four Michael Bay movies that I consider favorites of mine. And I am not a big Michael Bay fan. Unlike many critics, I thought the movie did an excellent job of mixing science-fiction creepiness and high octane action. Well . . . most of the time. Now, I would not consider“THE ISLAND” to be perfect. But my complaints about the movie are different from those made by other critics. Well . . . not really.

A good number of critics had a problem with the movie’s action sequences. They felt it was too over-the-top. I was fine with most of the action sequences. But there were two that failed to entertain me. Lincoln and Jordan’s arrival in downtown Los Angeles led to a high octane chase that involved the pair, the Los Angeles Police and Laurent and his team. It was too much and too damn confusing. I found some of the stunts – especially those that involved the two clones hanging from high-rise building to improbable to swallow. It was just too over-the-top for my tastes. I also had a problem with Lincoln’s fight with Dr. Merrick in the finale. It involved wires, glass and some rather confusing photography from Mauro Fiore. I have one last complaint. What in the hell happened to the clones at the end of the movie? I realize that they managed to escape the facility. But what happened to them following their escape? Like Lincoln and Jordan, they were adults with the mentality of adolescents or younger. Unlike Lincoln and Jordan, they had no experiences of life outside of the facility. What happened to them?

But for me, the good outweighed the bad in “THE ISLAND”. There were a good number of action sequences that I actually enjoyed. And they include Laurent’s confrontation with Lincoln and his sponsor, the real Tom Lincoln; and Lincoln and Jordan’s encounter with Laurent’s team at the Yucca train station in Arizona. But the best sequence for me proved to be Lincoln and Jordan’s escape from the facility. I found it absolutely thrilling and well shot by Bay and Fiore. The action sequences also benefited from Nigel Phelps’ colorful production designs and especially from the movie’s special effects team.

The above action sequences were not the only aspects of “THE ISLAND” that I enjoyed. The movie also featured some rather interesting scenes that I found either creepy, very dramatic or rather funny. Screenwriters Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci did an excellent job in setting up what I believe is one of the film’s best moments – namely the two murders that he witnessed and his discovery of the truth behind the facility. And the latter sequence was truly frightening, but in a subtle way. The most jarring moment proved to be Starkweather Two Delta’s attempt to evade the facility’s guards and have his organs harvested. That scene really had me on edge. Another wonderful scene proved to be one between Laurent and Dr. Merrick, in which the former begins to harbor doubt about the activities of his client’s cloning facility. Lead actor was allowed to strut his stuff in a scene that featured Lincoln and Jordan’s meeting with the former’s sponsor, billionaire boat designer Tom Lincoln. I found it creepy, yet rather funny. However, the best scene – at least for me – proved to be James McCord’s revelation that Lincoln and Jordan were clones. This scene was so well acted and so funny that not only is it my favorite one in the film, but . . . it is just a favorite of mine, period. If I had to list my ten favorite movie scenes of all time, it would be on the list.

I thought the cast was impeccable. Instead of using an American accent, Ewan McGregor used a Canadian accent for his role as Lincoln Six Echo. And it worked. If I must be honest, I have never been a fan of his American accents. And for his performance as Tom Lincoln, the actor used his own Scottish accent. Whether he was the clone Lincoln or the billionaire Tom Lincoln, McGregor was brilliant. I believe that his performance in this movie is among his best work ever. “THE ISLAND” turned out to be the first time I ever became aware of Scarlett Johansson. And she not only impressed me with her performance as the surprisingly strong-willed Jordan, but also made me realized what a strong screen presence she possessed. What I liked about her performance is that beneath Jordan’s projected facade of delicacy and charm, laid a tough young woman who also proved to be rather observant of other people. And Johansson did a great job with her role.

The movie’s supporting cast included Sean Bean, who portrayed Dr. Merrick, the cloning facility’s administrator. One of the best things I can say about Bean is that he is an actor who strikes me as being a persistently first-rate chameleon. He can play hero, villain or otherwise at the drop of the hat. And while his Merrick is obviously a bad guy, he is a very subtle and at times, an emotional one. Djimon Hounsou portrayed the Afro-French mercenary, Albert Laurent. And like Bean, he also gave a first-rate and very subtle performance. In fact, Hounsou’s Laurent seemed like an enigma to me. Thanks to his performance, he deliberately made it hard for the audience to surmise whether he was a true villain or someone who might prove to be an ally for the two protagonists.

“THE ISLAND” also provided comic relief from first-rate actors such as Ethan Phillips, Kim Coates, and Brian Stepanek. Michael Clarke Duncan gave a brief, yet very effective performance as Starkweather Two Delta, the doomed clone whose elation at being chosen to live on “the island” became despair over discovering that he was being operated on for his organs. It was a great moment for the Oscar-nominated actor. But my favorite performance came from Steve Buscemi, who portrayed Lincoln’s friend, engineer James McCord. Remember my rhapsody over the scene featuring McCord, Lincoln and Jordan? Well, he was mainly responsible for making it so memorable for me. Mind you, both McGregor and Johansson also contributed to the scene with some excellent acting. But Buscemi made it for me. I believe it was one of his finest moments on screen – big and small.

I will not claim that “THE ISLAND” is a perfect film. It had a few action scenes that seemed over-the-top for me. And I believe it could have been more clearer about the fates of the clones at the end of the movie. But I cannot deny that it was an entertaining film with an intriguing plot. And for me, it worked, due to Michael Bay’s energetic direction and a superb cast led by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson.

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“THE UGLY TRUTH” (2009) Review

”THE UGLY TRUTH” (2009) Review

Romantic comedies – at least those I have personally found entertaining – have become increasingly difficult to come across in the past decade or two. In fact, I can honestly say that I can count at least five or six romantic comedies that I have truly liked during this period. And recently, ”THE UGLY TRUTH” became one of them. 

Directed by Robert Luketic, ”THE UGLY TRUTH’ told the story of Abby Ritcher, a romantically challenged producer of a television morning show named with slowly declining rating. In an effort to boost ratings, her manager hires a cynical and slightly crass television personality named Mike Chadway, who gives seemingly chauvinist comments about love and marriage to boost ratings. The two commence upon a rocky relationship. But when Abby falls for her next door neighbor, a handsome doctor named Colin, Mike persuades her to follow his lead. She agrees to his helpful advice and if he can get her the man she wants, proving his theories on relationships she will work happily with him. But if Mike fails, he agrees to quit.

I might as well put my cards on the table. I really did not expect ”THE UGLY TRUTH” to be entertaining. But much to my surprise, it was. And most of the entertainment came from the screen chemistry that generated between Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler. On screen, the pair was a basket of firecrackers, as they traded barbs, looks and kisses between each other. Heigl gave a deliciously funny performance as the uptight Abby, who stubbornly refuses to give up her ideal views on romance and especially in what she construed as the perfect man. And Butler was a hoot as the cynical, crass and yet witty Mike, whose views on romance and both genders came off as refreshingly honest.

Both Heigl and Butler were ably supported by a solid cast. Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins were hilarious as Georgia and Larry, the married co-anchors of Abby’s morning show, whose marriage was saved by some blunt advice given by Mike. Bree Turner gave a sly performance a Abby’s assistant, Joy, who lived vicariously through Abby and immediately sensed the chemistry between the latter and Mike. Nick Searcy provided stability to the cast as Abby’s no-nonsense manager, Stuart, whose decision to hire Mike would change Abby’s life. The only bad apple in the bunch came from Eric Winter’s performance as Colin, the object of Abby’s desire. Let me be clear . . . Winter did not give a bad performance. He simply had the bad luck to be saddled with a dull and one-dimensional role created by the screenwriters.

Robert Luketic did an excellent job of not only generating hilarious and first-rate performances from his cast. He also did justice to the screenplay written by Karen McCullah Lutz, Kirsten Smith and Nicole Eastman. And I must commend the screenwriters for creating a hilarious and entertaining romance. But I am also amazed that three female writers managed to avoid indulging in constant male bashing jokes (I said constant, for there were a few) and reveal that both men and women are guilty of bringing their own particular baggage to relationships. As I had stated earlier, their only misstep was the creation of the Colin character. Surely they could have created a more interesting rival for Abby’s heart.

Most critics gave ”THE UGLY TRUTH” mixed reviews. Some claimed that Heigl and Butler had no chemistry. Others claimed that Lutz, Smith and Eastman’s screenplay did not live up to the leads’ talent. They are entitled to their opinions. But I prefer to form opinions of movies on my own. And as far as I am concerned, I found ”THE UGLY TRUTH” – especially Heigl and Butler’s performances – to be very entertaining.

“TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

”TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

While playing a small part in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama, ”EMPIRE OF THE SUN” (which ironically starred a young Christian Bale), actor/comedian Ben Stiller had come up with the idea of a group of prima donna actors filming a Vietnam War film. Over twenty years later, Stiller’s idea came to fruition in the action comedy movie, ”TROPIC THUNDER”.

Stiller and fellow co-writers, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, created a hilarious and very original story that began with a series of fake commercials and movie trailers. The commercials featured rap singer Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) promoting his “Booty Sweat” energy drink and “Bust-A-Nut” candy bar. Then the movie continued with a series of movie trailers that included action star Tugg Speedman’s (Stiller) latest film, “Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown”; and another for low-brow comedian Jeff Portnoy’s (Jack Black) film, “The Fatties: Fart 2” that spoofed Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of multiple characters such as in “NUTTY PROFESSOR II: THE KLUMPS”. But the final trailer – and the funniest in the bunch – featured award winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downy, Jr.) and Tobey Maguire as two gay medieval monks in a parody of films like “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” called ”Satan’s Alley”.

But the meat of the story featured the three actors, the rap singer and character actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) as co-stars in ”Tropic Thunder”, a movie adaptation of the memoirs of a disabled Vietnam War veteran named “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte). The movie’s production is spiraling out of control and rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) seemed unable to handle the prima donnas or keep the movie on schedule. Cockburn is ordered by studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) to get the production back on track or risk having it shut down. With inspiration from Tayback, Cockburn drops the spoiled actors into the middle of the jungle, where he installs hidden cameras and special effect explosions rigged by pyrotechnics man Cody (Danny R. McBride) so he can film the movie “guerrilla-style”. The actors have only a map and a scene listing to guide them to the helicopter waiting at the end of the jungle. Shortly afterward, the director is blown up by a land mine left by the French, but thanks to his preceding diatribe, only Lazarus realizes his death was real. Even worse, the actors ended up in the middle of the Golden Triangle, the home of the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon gang, led by a young boy named Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo). And Cody and Tayback end up as prisoners of the Dragons. As for Tran and the Dragons, they believe the actors to be DEA agents.

”TROPIC THUNDER” not only struck me as a parody of the Hollywood movie industry, but also a parody of the lengths human beings go to create illusions about themselves. Tugg Speedman is a failing action star who had earlier attempted a serious role in order to save his career. I can only assume that ”Tropic Thunder” is his second attempt. Yet, he seemed incapable of facing the possibility of being a has-been and has to depend upon his agent, Rick “Pecker” Peck (Matthew McConaghey) to maintain his ever deflating ego. Jeff Portnoy resorts to drug addiction to deal with the realization that his past success mainly came from his talent from flatulence humor. Lazarus is an Oscar-winning Australian method actor who has a bad habit staying in his role even when the cameras are not rolling. For ”Tropic Thunder”, Lazurus deliberately undertook an operation to change his skin pigmentation in order to portray an African-American sergeant. Naturally, Lazurus’ role produced resentment and anger from Alpa Chino, the rapper trying to break into films. But even Chino is projecting a façade about himself, which his fellow co-stars manage to break through near the end of the film. The only one in the bunch who seemed real is young Sandusky, the drama student who seemed to be the only sane head in the bunch. Yet, despite the fact the film is bursting with Hollywood phonies, the biggest phony turned out to Tayback, who had never seen combat during the Vietnam War or was disabled. Even worse, he had spent the war aboard a Coast Guard garbage scow that never left U.S. waters. He had originally written the book as a tribute to U.S. servicemen.

I have to say that this movie’s cast more than impressed me. Ben Stiller portrayed one of his best roles as Tugg Speedman, a Hollywood veteran struggling to save his career. Yet, his sanity nearly went down the toilet when Tran and the Dragons force him to replay the scenes of his failed drama, ”Simple Jack”. By the time his fellow cast members found him, Speedman had gone by the way of Colonel Kurtz. I must admit that I usually have difficulty finding Jack Black funny. However, I do believe that Jeff Portnoy was probably one of his better roles – hilarious without being over-the-top. I realize that drug addiction is nothing to laugh about, but his and Sandusky’s attempts to help him deal with withdrawal and reject the temptation of the Dragons’ own heroin were rather funny. Nick Nolte and Danny McBride made an amusing comedy team and I especially enjoyed their interaction when Cody discovered that Tayback is not a Vietnam veteran, but a phony. Matthew McConaghey did one of his best roles as Speedman’s always eager agent, Rick Peck. And Tom Cruise must have had a blast portraying the arrogant and overbearing film producer, Les Grossman. He was hilarious. A member of my family was surprised to discover that the balding, foul-mouthed man was actually Cruise.

Most critics have lauded Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the method actor Lazurus, who spends most of the movie trying to act like an African American. RDJ was hilarious. In fact, I can honestly say that he was the funniest member of the cast. His most hilarious moment came on the heels of an argument between Lazurus and Chino, when he breaks into a litany about the black man’s 400 years of oppression (damn, has it been that long?) and Chino’s use of the “n” word that ended with him singing the theme to television series, ”THE JEFFERSONS”. It took me nearly five minutes to recover from my laughter. But Downey’s take on Kirk Lazurus could have ended in disaster without the presence of Brandon T. Jackson. His Chino not only expressed anger at Lazurus’ portrayal of a black man, but provided some pretty sharp zingers at the actor’s ego and sanity. Another funny scene featured Chino’s insults about Lazurus’ Australian background. What made the scene so humorous were Lazurus’ protests against Chino’s insults, while maintaining his charade as a black man. Weird.

I believe that Ben Stiller should be proud of ”TROPIC THUNDER”. Not only did he give an excellent performance, he also co-wrote and directed what I believe should become a comedy classic. That’s right. A comedy classic. ”TROPIC THUNDER” is one of the best comedies I have seen in years – along with the British action comedy, ”HOT FUZZ”. I also feel that it is Stiller’s best movie since the police parody, ”STARSKY AND HUTCH”. Hell, it is better than the 2003 movie he had co-starred with Owen Wilson. The cast was superb. So was Jon Toll’s photography of the island of Kauai, which stood as both Vietnam and Cambodia. Stiller, Theroux and Cohen had created one hell of a comedy.

“DREAMGIRLS” (2006) Review

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“DREAMGIRLS” (2006) Review

When I had first learned that “DREAMGIRLS”’ eight Academy Award nominations did not include one for Best Picture and a Best Director nod for Bill Condon, it seemed pretty odd to me. The movie, based upon the 1981 Broadway musical, had already won plenty of accolades – including a Best Musical/Comedy Picture and two other Golden Globe awards. Was it possible that “DREAMGIRLS” had failed to live up to its hype?

Several movie critics, including one for “The New York Times” had claimed that this might be the case. This critic and others went on to say that although “DREAMGIRLS” was a pretty good movie, it lacked the qualities to be considered as a nominee for Best Picture. Since I had yet to see “DREAMGIRLS”, I began to wonder if my sister – who had highly recommended the movie – had exaggerated its good qualities.

When I had eventually saw “DREAMGIRLS”, I discovered that my sister had not exaggerated. The movie not only possessed a rich, in-depth look at the music industry for African-Americans in the 1960s and 70s, it can also boast fine performances and a very unusual direction.

The cast, which included Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose, Danny Glover and Jennifer Hudson. Foxx, Knowles and Glover all did competent jobs in their respective roles. I was especially surprised to see Foxx (usually seen in comedy roles and Oscar winner for his portrayal of Ray Charles) portray villainous record producer Curtis Taylor Jr. in such a subtle, yet intimidating manner. Knowles proved that she can be a competent actress – especially in two scenes that feature her character’s (lead singer Deena Jones) growing resentment toward Taylor’s control over her career and life. It was good to see Glover in a substantial role again, after so many years. He was his usual competent self as the more conservative manager of Eddie Murphy’s character, James “Thunder” Early. Another character connected to the Early role was Lorrell Robinson, portrayed by Anika Noni Rose. I must admit that Rose’s portrayal of the young, star-struck Lorrell seemed a little hammy and unconvincing. Fortunately, her performance improved, as her character matured.

Two of the best things about “DREAMGIRLS” had turned out to be the show-stopping performances of Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson as R&B singer, James “Thunder” Early and the Dreams’ real talent Effie White. Not only have both performers won Golden Globe awards for Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, both have received Oscar nominations for the same categories. Murphy bypassed his usual comedic performances to portray James Early, a R&B singer doomed to have his raw talent being slowly squeezed to death by Curtis Taylor’s ambition for acceptance by the white audience in 1960s/70s America. Not only did Murphy give a brilliant performance as the doomed Early, he also proved that he could be a knock-out musical talent. “DREAMGIRLS” must have seemed like sweet revenge for Chicago native, Jennifer Hudson. After being dismissed by “American Idol” judges halfway into competition, Hudson managed to win the role of Effie White, a talented and mercurial singer forced to deal with rejection by Taylor because of her “soulful” voice and physical appearance. Hudson’s show-stopping performance of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” combined the best of her acting ability and magnificent voice, and may have possibly rivaled Jennifer Holliday’s performance of the same song in the Broadway version.

Not only did “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” beautifully showcased Jennifer Hudson’s talent, it also proved a theory of mine. I once told a friend that singing in front of a live audience took more than simply holding a microphone and singing. To get the song across to the audience, the performer needed to act out the meaning behind the song through facial expressions and body language. Such expressions through song has been shown before on both the screen and stage, but Hudson took it to a level that left me breathless . . . and almost crying. Not only did the song’s lyrics expressed Effie White’s desperation to maintain Curtis Taylor’s love, but her facial expression and body language effectively did so, as well. I also have to commend Knowles, Foxx, Rose, Keith Robinson (who played Effie’s songwriter brother C.C.) and Sharon Leal (who played Effie’s replacement, Michelle Morris) for their performances in a scene in which they all express their hostility and resentment toward Effie’s volatile behavior. For a moment, I thought I was watching an operetta.

In fact, one felt the sense of watching an operetta, instead of the usual musical. Since the Astaire/Rogers series of the 1930s, movie musicals have perfected the art of movie dialogue seamlessly segueing in a song. In “DREAMGIRLS”, not only does the dialogue segue into song, but sometimes segue back into dialogue in the middle of a song. Or . . . two characters would end either do the following: 1) interrupt the dialogue with a few lines of song; or 2) switch back and forth between song and dialogue. This made “DREAMGIRLS” feel like no other movie musical I have ever seen and I have to commend director Bill Condon for creating this unusual style for any musical.

Now, I find myself back to thinking about the Academy Award nominations. Had those critics been right to believe that the Academy was right to withhold Best Picture and Best Director nominations for “DREAMGIRLS”? In the end, those critics are entitled to their own opinions. I had learned from another source that “DREAMGIRLS” had enough votes from the Academy members to receive a Best Picture nomination. But from my personal view, all I can say is . . . ”What the hell had the Academy thinking?”