video/dvd
December '05

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All Reviews by Jason Aaron

Hero

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon introduced many American viewers to the Chinese wirework genre. If you liked Crouching Tiger but haven't seen a martial arts movie since then, go rent Hero. It's not only more compelling than Crouching Tiger, but also more visually impressive, as Hero's highly stylized fight scenes fill the screen with vibrant colors.

Jet Li plays a celebrated, nameless hero who comes before the King of Qin to tell the story of how he single-handedly defeated the King's deadliest enemies. However, the King quickly realizes that there's more to this hero than he's willing to reveal.

If you only know Jet Li from his lackluster American films (like The One and Cradle 2 the Grave), this is a great introduction to his vastly superior Chinese filmography, which includes the amazing Once Upon A Time In China trilogy. Originally released in 2002, Hero was brought to the states this past summer with Quentin Tarantino's name attached as producer in order to give it some extra visibility. And Hero deserves all of the spotlight it can get. It's not only the best Kung Fu film in years; it's also one of 2004's best films, period. (PG-13) Rating: 5


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban

While the first two Harry Potter films were easily the best work of director Chris Columbus’s career, they were still as tame and uninspired as the rest of his lackluster oeuvre, which features forgettable hits like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire.

With this third entry, Alfonso Cuaron, a Mexican director best known for his sexy road flick Y tu mama tambien, takes over and imbues Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with a welcome sense of dark humor and an inspired visual flair that Columbus never could have mustered. It’s also great to see Gary Oldman, one of the perennial heavyweights of overacting, appear in a role where the majority of his screen time consists of a screaming mug shot, endlessly looped on magical wanted posters throughout the film. Oldman plays the recently escaped prisoner of the film’s title, who, of course, is intent on ending the spell-casting career of the heralded Mr. Potter.

In his third year at Hogwarts, Harry is still the campus superstar and Quidditch hero. He still draws the ire of the wily Professor Snape (played to the hilt by Alan Rickman). He has the same group of friends (a collection of child actors who’ve improved greatly over the last few years), an ever growing collection of enemies, and the expected new assortment of mystical creatures (like the skeletal soul-sucking Dementors) and oddball classes (Emma Thompson‚s quirky, nearly blind Professor Sybil Trelawney lectures on crystal ball gazing and how to divine the future from tea leaves).

The film’s complicated yet entertaining climax, involving time travel, a conniving rat, an angry werewolf and plenty of magical wand-waving, packs more punch than the previous two films, both of which overstayed their welcome by about 30 minutes. The Prisoner of Azkaban runs a little long as well, but it’s still a far more kinetic 142 minutes than its predecessors. Let’s hope that like the young, trouble-making wizard himself, Potter’s filmmakers will continue to take risks, however slight, with their billion-dollar franchise. (PG) Rating: 4


Spider-Man 2

Spider-Man 2
does more than just improve on its predecessor in every way. And it's more than simply the best superhero film of all time. It even goes beyond being among the best scripted, best directed, most moving, most awe-inspiring and most downright enjoyable films of 2004.

Thanks to a team of top-notch screenwriters (including Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon), Spider-Man 2 ranks as one of the best written action films ever made, right up there with Die Hard, The Matrix or even Raiders of the Lost Ark, and actually it's far more moving than any of those three. Spider-Man 2 is conversely funnier and more serious than the original film. It’s hard to imagine any movie with a spandex-clad main character being more emotionally powerful than this one.

The script nails everything that makes lovable loser Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) such a compelling and enduring character. His web slinging and crime fighting may earn him the adoration of children everywhere, but it certainly doesn't help him hold down a steady job, keep up his grades or commit to the woman he loves. Even his super-strong alter ego Parker can't win, what with publisher J. Jonah Jameson (brought to life in another hilarious performance by J.K. Simmons) slamming him as a menace in every issue of the “Daily Bugle” newspaper and Parker's best friend, Harry Osborn (James Franco), dead-set on getting vengeance against the wall-crawler in the name of his late father, Norman Osborn, a k a the Green Goblin.

As if all that wasn't enough, now Spidey seems to be suffering a bit of superhero performance anxiety, causing his powers to short out at the most inopportune moments, like when he’s swinging between skyscrapers or facing off against Doctor Octopus, a misguided scientist with a set of creepy, metallic arms. Veteran character actor Alfred Molina is perfect as Doc Ock: never over the top but always menacing.

The effects are flawless, the jokes fresh, the character well defined, the emotions real and the action inspiring. Overall, this is the once and future Citizen Kane of comic book superhero flicks. (PG-13) Rating: 5

Collateral

Michael Mann is an incredibly talented director, though you wouldn't know it from his last film, the mystifyingly awful Ali. Collateral is a return to form for the man who made Manhunter (THE best Hannibal Lecter film) and Heat (which boasts one of the five greatest shoot-outs ever filmed).

Tom Cruise plays a ruthless hitman who's traversing the city, committing several murders in one night. Despite Cruise's usual stellar performance, the spotlight belongs to one of the year's hottest and most surprising actors. Jamie Foxx is enjoying plenty of Oscar buzz for his turn as Ray Charles in Ray, but his performance in Collateral as a taxi drive pressed into aiding a hitman is equally impressive. Collateral's only missteps are its occasional implausabilities and unnecessary secondary characters.

Mark Ruffalo plays an L.A. cop whose purpose in the movie I'm still trying to understand. Just as mysterious is the FBI, who appears and then unceremoniously disappears, only flirting with raising the film's level of tension. Still, the tension between the two leads is more than enough to keep you invested for two hours. The is another one of the year's best. (R) Rating: 4

 


              
              
                 

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