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THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY It was only a matter of time before Douglas Adams' cult phenomenon - which had already moved from radio to print to television - would eventually complete the journey by edging into cinema. Yet as a movie, H2G2 is only a mixed bag, crammed with many inspired bits but never coalescing as a whole. The picture gets off to a great start, as drab human Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) learns from his alien pal Ford Prefect (Mos Def) that Earth is about to be destroyed to make room for an intergalactic freeway. These early passages present the film at its finest: Reminiscent of both Monty Python and The Fifth Element, they embody a cheeky spirit that becomes harder to appreciate once the picture begins to buckle under the weight of an overly busy plot. Zooey Deschanel is appealing as Trillian, the only human besides Arthur to make it off our planet alive, and Alan Rickman adds the right measure of resigned weariness as the voice of the perpetually depressed robot Marvin. But once Sam Rockwell, one of the most annoying actors in the world - make that galaxy - appears on the scene as the manic Zaphob Beeblebrox, his grating turn sucks most of the fun out of the movie and leaves us sifting through the ashes of good intentions. Stay through the closing credits for an amusing final gag. 1/2

HOUSE OF WAX For $14.96 or less, film fans can pick up the DVD for the original House of Wax, which not only includes the classic 1953 version starring Vincent Price but also its predecessor, 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum (featuring King Kong scream queen Fay Wray). You won't get that kind of deal if you drop dough on this new version, which manages to be even worse than the 21st century renditions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror (the mind boggles). My contempt for this film is so great, I'm reluctant to even call it a film, as that designation automatically places it in the pantheon of works by Welles, Hitchcock, Bergman and even Ed Wood. Suitable only for unemployable teens and speech-slurring rednecks (the baseball cap-wearing yahoos seated in front of me were certainly vocal in their support of the picture), this follows a group of dim-witted college-age kids as they find themselves lost in the Louisiana wilds. They stumble across a backwoods burg and quickly become slasher fodder for the town's resident madmen, twin brothers (played by Brian Van Holt) who subdue their victims and then encase them in wax. It takes an eternity of running time for the kids to reach the town, and even after the slaughter begins, director Jaume Collet-Serra (yes, another commercial and music video hack making his feature film bow) and scripters Chad and Carey Hayes still take time out for an obligatory interlude that allows co-star Paris Hilton a chance to striptease down to her undies. Sadistic beyond compare - for starters, the heroine (24's Elisha Cuthbert) has her index finger sliced off by pliers and her lips glued shut - this House has been constructed by mercenaries, not moviemakers.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN Aside from a smattering of one-note villains such as Brendan Gleeson's brutish warrior and Jon Finch's hypocritical man of the cloth, everyone is so damn noble and respectful in director Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, a p.c. drama about a period in world history that was anything but noble and respectful. Set during the Crusades, this dutiful slog through revisionist history stars Orlando Bloom as Balian, a tormented blacksmith (his wife committed suicide after the death of their child) who learns that his father (Liam Neeson) is a revered knight and decides to accompany him to Jerusalem. There, he finds himself in the middle of a growing feud between the Christians and the Muslims, both of whom lay claim to the holy city. Believing that all religions can co-exist peacefully, Balian and his allies (among them Jeremy Irons and David Thewlis) try to maintain order, but the more zealous Crusaders will do anything to force an all-out war. Comparisons to recent sword flicks like Troy and Scott's Gladiator are natural, but despite the lofty ambitions of William Monahan's literate yet arid script, such contrasts do this lumbering movie no favors. If nothing else, at least those other films moved; beyond that, they also featured several morally ambiguous characters (as opposed to the cut-and-dry saints and sinners showcased here), handed juicy roles to vets like Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed (Kingdom's name actors labor mightily in colorless parts), and, in the case of Troy, made a stronger case for contemporary relevance (even today, Christians are still bullying their way into the Middle East, but Kingdom is too timid to make many lacerating observations). The final impression is that a few bad apples were all that prevented the Christians and Muslims from joining hands and participating in sing-alongs - a viewpoint that's hopelessly naive. As the courageous Balian, Bloom has the heroic glower down pat but brings little else to the role.

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