In theaters Episode III is

The rather inexplicable acclaim Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith has been receiving from fans and critics may well be definitive proof that there is such a thing as a Jedi Mind Trick. People seem to be responding to this film not because of any actual cinematic merit, but instead simply because it’s finally arrived in theaters. Since Star Wars mogul George Lucas first announced this second trilogy back in the mid-1990s, fans have been impatiently waiting to see how Anakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader. Revenge of the Sith at last delivers on the goods. Indeed, the film's final 30 minutes or so – Anakin’s climactic lightsaber duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi and his subsequent encasement inside that familiar black helmet – are fairly compelling. But it’s compelling not because of anything Lucas has done in this prequel trilogy, full as it is with digital sound and CGI fury signifying nothing. Any emotion one may experience in Revenge of the Sith will likely be the result of deep-seated affinity and connection with the original trilogy (i.e. you care how this one ends only because you already care so much how the next one – 1977’s Star Wars – begins).

The big problem with Revenge of the Sith, as has been stated repeatedly by others, is that Lucas may be an unparalleled visualist and mythmaker, but a director of actors and writer of dialogue he is not. The dialogue and acting in Revenge of the Sith is so wooden and creaky that it’s impossible to muster any involvement in Anakin’s plight. Hayden Christensen may be a decent actor, but here he relies on the same glowering facial expression over and over, delivering his lines in a clench-jawed monotone. He’s such a creepy, humorless guy that it seems unlikely Obi-Wan, Yoda, or the rest of the Jedi Superfriends would ever have trusted him for a moment.

And that leads us to the film’s most egregious sin: failing to sell Anakin and Padme’s romance. Though Chancellor Palpatine (a scenery-chewing Ian McDiarmid) is manipulating Anakin on a number of fronts, it's really Anakin’s love of Padme that sends him to the Dark Side. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in this film - or in 2002’s Attack of the Clones for that matter - that suggests a genuine connection between those two characters. They repeatedly say they love each other, so maybe we’ll just have to take them at their word. One wonders how more interesting the prequel trilogy had been if they’d begun with Hayden in the title role and allowed his fall to span all three films, exploring in detail what would seem to be a complicated process rather than waiting to shoehorn it all into final hour of the third film.

Three more problems with the prequel trilogy in general and Revenge of the Sith in particular are worth mentioning.

1. Lucas’ continued obsession with cramming every frame with as much CGI wizardry as possible. It’s all just visual noise, confusing in its complexity and busyness (the visuals here makes the original three films, which follow the prequels in the Star Wars timeline, seem deserted and empty by comparison).

2. A strange determination to introduce seemingly powerful new villain characters and then kill them off right away. No time is given the audience to get to know these characters. Just as you’re starting to really feel some unease and malevolence, the villain’s gone – pffft. Not only is the exit sudden, it's also rather easy, especially when compared to the resilient Darth Vader of the original trilogy who seemed unstoppable. Here, though, the fearsome bad guys turn out to be about as formidable as paper targets at a rifle range. For evidence, see Phantom Menace (Darth Maul), Attack of the Clones (Jango Fett), and Revenge of the Sith (General Grevious and Count Dooku).

3. The abject lack of humor. The prequel trilogy could have sorely used some Princess Leia-Han Solo sarcasm. Everyone's so grim, everything's so serious. Lighten up!

Yes yes, there are some truly rousing moments in Revenge of the Sith (e.g. Obi-Wan’s finally revealed to be the Jedi bad-ass we all hoped he was, Uncle Owen holds baby Luke in a genuinely poignant moment, and the Jedi are cut down in chillingly orchestrated massacre), but all in all there is a bitter sense here of disappointment and missed opportunities. The original three films deserved far better than the three new films. So did faithful audiences (particularly those 30-somethings who grew up with Star Wars) who have lined Lucas’ pockets with more money than even Han Solo could imagine.


Lost "Exodus Part II"

Cool: At long last, in the two-hour season finale’s final seconds the Thing in the Woods with the Locked Hatch is opened with the help of some nitro-sweating dynamite. What’s inside? A very deep, very ominous ladder well leading, presumably, to the second season.

Cooler: A poignant flashback showing the various characters boarding ill-fated Oceanic Flight 815 in Sydney completely unsuspecting of the horrors that await them. Considering where they end up, there’s a real kick to see the characters interact here as awkward strangers. Knowing how 815 ends, there’s also something chilling about the everyday dullness of the flashback – all of us have been in those cramped seats, watching the other passengers board, stowing carry-ons in the overhead bins. And all of us surely at one point or another have wondered the big “what if?” and thought about what it would be like if the plane crashed.

Coolest: In what is without question the series’ scariest sequence to date, rafters Michael, Walt, Jin, and Sawyer encounter what initially seems to be a rescue boat (although pragmatic viewers never bought it for a second) emerging out of the darkness. And then comes “We want the boy.”

Huh?: The show works best when things are kept ambiguous, when it walks that fine line between the plausible and the supernatural. Throwing that balance totally out of whack was that weird black cloud thing that tried to drag Locke into the ground like Pitfall Harry. More cheesy than scary.

Best Line: “That was messed up.” – Hurley, after watching Arzt detonate in an explosion caused by the aforementioned nitro-sweating dynamite.

Falling: Charlie – His dogged quest to protect Claire and the baby despite his complete and utter incompetence is quickly becoming irritating, especially his decision to throw a clumsy punch at professional bad-ass Sayid. Judging by Charlie’s acquisition of a Virgin Mary statue full of heroin, it looks like viewers will get to watch Charlie fall off the wagon next season, a turn that will surely add all-new annoying layers to his annoying character.

Rising: Sawyer – The show’s most complex character, posturing like a too-cool-for-school loser (he doesn’t deny Michael’s suggestion that he joined the raft crew because he wants to die), but unable to stop more heroic impulses (he risks his neck to save the raft’s rudder). Extra credit for the steely, Anakin Skywalker-style rage he displays in the “We want the boy” scene.


Summer 2005 Box Office Prognostication

The Teacher’s PetStar Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (domestic B.O. prediction: $360 million) – $158 million in four days? You do the math.
The Obvious HitsWar of the Worlds ($212 million) – Minority Report may have been a disappointment, but there’s no weirdo pre-cog gimmick to explain here. Here’s the pitch: Mars attacks, we run, repeat as needed.
Cinderella Man ($115 million) – This season’s Seabiscuit.
The Wedding Crashers ($103 million) – Both men and women love Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson and this looks particularly funny.

The Disappointments
Batman Begins ($73 million) – A hunch that people (comic book geeks don't count) are getting sick of Batman, that's all.
Dark Water ($28 million) – The Japanese horror remake cycle is fading fast.
Stealth ($32 million) – Jamie Foxx is due for a flop and this one's not an easy sell.

The Unexpected Flops
Mr. and Mrs. Smith ($59 million) – Have you seen these noisy, tedious trailers? Historical note: tabloid intrigue didn’t do anything to help the Meg Ryan-Russell Crowe thriller Proof of Life.
Fantastic Four ($32 million) – It could be another X-Men... but it probably isn’t. It just looks cheesy.
The Pink Panther ($29 million) – Buzz says they’re trying to re-package the marketing in the 11th hour, which isn’t a good sign.

The Surprise Sleepers
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants ($88 million) – It has the look of one of those fizzy chick-flicks that hits big.
Herbie Fully Loaded ($75 million) – The trailers make it look way more interesting than it has any right to be.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ($52 million) – Discerning viewers know that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp doing Roald Dahl cannot be missed.
Domino ($60 million) – This bounty hunter thriller starring Kiera Knightley and directed by Tony Scott just looks really, really cool.
The Dukes of Hazzard ($63 million) – Everyone and anyone born between 1970 and 1975 will go.


7.3 ways to win at “Survivor”

1. Lie, just don’t get caught. At least not by people in a position of power.
2. Stay charming. Do what you can to avoid making enemies.
3. Do whatever you can to bring with you to the Final Two an unlikable or undeserving tribemate.
3.1. To leave nothing to chance, this may require cutting a deal during the final individual immunity challenge.
4. Choose your alliances wisely. It’s always better to hitch your wagon to dominant players, although it can be hard to tell who’s going to be dominant in the early stages.
4.1. But always be willing to abandon a crumbling alliance in the name of self-preservation.
5. Pick your persona: either stay “under the radar” (Vecepia, Amber) and lie low or become a “steamroller” (Richard, Tom) and dare the others to attack. To try and do both tends to make one seem needlessly wishy-washy and thus unlikable.
6. When answering the jury’s questions, be tactful and deferential.
6.1. And don’t be afraid to tell the jury (tactfully, deferentially) that you played the game better than them and therefore deserve to win. Juries seem to like honesty as opposed to hollow rationalization and slippery vagueness.
7. The only way to win the $1 million is to keep your eye on the ball and not let sentiment or friendship or morality get in the way. Sad, but true.

"The tribe has spoken": Analyzing past Survivor winners

Season 1 (Borneo): Richard
The original Survivor was perhaps the most unapologetic in his duplicitous machinations, but he won anyway. Though Sue’s bizarre “I would not give you a drink” jury tirade against Kelly may have helped Richard a little, his win was mostly a result of his inarguable assertion to the jury that he played the game better than anyone. That said, never again would someone win Survivor without making even a meager attempt to lay on the charm and pretend to be a nice guy (see Brian below). Extra credit to Richard for founding the now-essential Survivor “alliance” concept.
Season 2 (Australia): TinaTina’s win boiled down to this: using her aw-shucks, down-home maternal aura to convince runner-up Colby to bring her to the Final Two rather than unlikable Keith, perhaps the show’s most vivid example of how strategically important it is for the final immunity winner to choose wisely who he/she brings to the Final Two. Colby’s inexplicable decision may have preserved his Texan honor (he felt loyalty to Tina) but it left his bank account empty. Not to deny Tina’s remarkable powers of persuasion or sully her win, but everyone knows Colby should have won.
Season 3 (Africa): EthanIn a first for the show, the final individual immunity winner didn’t win the game. Runner-up Kim won final individual immunity, but she chose to take with her to the Final Two eventual winner Ethan rather than tattooed Lex. In her defense, both Ethan and Lex were equally likable, so it’s possible Kim was doomed either way. Regardless, Ethan succeeded in becoming the first “nice guy” to win Survivor (the anti-Richard, as it were), which he claimed was his intention all along.
Season 4 (Marquesas): VecepiaVecepia was perhaps the first instance of an “under the radar” winner, that random contestant everyone suddenly realizes never got voted off. Did you even remember that Vecepia won? Me neither. So how does one fly “under the radar” exactly? 1) Contribute enough in the challenges and at camp so that you don’t seem lazy and useless, but 2) avoid doing too much so you don’t get labeled a “threat” and risk getting voted off. It’s a tough line to walk and it always seems to be the unassuming players like Vecepia (or Amber below) who do it best. In the end, Vecepia’s win was cemented by that classic Survivor element: the “Final Immunity Deal.” Here, Vecepia and Neleh (another “under the radar” girl) cut a deal during the final individual immunity challenge – Vecepia lets Neleh win immunity, Neleh brings Vecepia to Final Two. Thus, the more deserving and likable competitor (Kathy) – and a likely winner – was cut out.

Season 5 (Thailand): Brian
Brian out-Richarded Richard in the lying and manipulating department, making promises, double-dealing at every turn, telling everyone what they wanted to hear. How he kept it all straight in his head is a feat in and of itself. But the most remarkable aspect to Brian’s game was that he maintained such a charming façade, smooth talking everyone. By the time his fellow contestants began to realize Brian’s true colors, it was too late. Brian’s dirty pool led to a close vote: he beat runner-up Clay by a 4-3 score. As a footnote, Jeff Probst has said Thailand’s Final Four – Brian, Clay, Helen, and Jan – were the most unlikable of any season to date.

Season 6 (The Amazon): Jenna
Playboy found a centerfold in 21-year-old winner Jenna, who wisely brought with her to the Final Two decidedly creepy runner-up Matthew, who not only looked a bit wild-eyed to begin with but who liked to sit around and sharpen his machete late in the game. Picking Matthew over the charming wise-ass Rob was an easy choice, again pointing out the value in choosing wisely who you bring the Final Two, as Jenna’s lopsided 6-1 victory can attest.
Season 7 (Pearl Islands): SandraIn a season that featured the show’s most likable hero (the cuddly, heart-on-his-sleeve Rupert) and shameless villain (the proudly horrible “Johnny Fairplay” who made everyone think his grandmother died just so he could win their sympathy), it was another “under the radar” contestant that won. Sandra was amusingly sassy and cunning, but in the end her victory came down to runner-up Lill’s missed opportunity to bring with her the Final Two a more unlikable tribemate. In this case, the bewildered Lill – who had been voted out of the game earlier in the season only to return for an undeserved second chance via the season’s strange Outcast tribe gimmick – won the final immunity. But rather than take with her to the Final Two the hated Johnny Fairplay, she rolled the dice on spunky Sandra (who lobbied hard for Lill’s vote, playing the “I’m a mother” card)... and lost in a 6-1 landslide

Season 8 (All-Stars): Amber
The argument can be made that Amber was the most undeserving winner ever because it was her island boyfriend Boston Rob that dominated this season from start to finish. On the other hand, it can be argued that Amber was the most deserving winner ever because she employed the “Hitch Yourself to a Strong Player” strategy better than anyone. Seeing Boston Rob steamroll his fellow contestants was a thing of beauty: they knew he was doing it from almost the very beginning, but were helpless to stop him. The most poignant example of this was poor Lex, who spared Amber at Boston Rob’s request only to be voted out the next week. Ouch. Amber beat Boston Rob by a 4-3 squeaker (showing how divided juries can be when picking between Amber’s benign “under the radar” approach and Boston Rob’s aggressive “steamroll” approach). But it’s all moot anyway since they ended up getting married.

Season 9 (Vanuatu): Chris
Chris was a classic Survivor winner in the mold of Richard and Brian, ruthlessly backstabbing everyone while keeping a laid-back smile on his face. The more interesting wrinkle here is that Chris beat runner-up Twila, who seemed to be much more likable at first but who fell victim to a strange backlash because she lied to another player while swearing on her son’s life. This outrage was apparently too much for the jury to handle (they voted for Chris 5-2), even though any rational person could see that Twila’s one clumsy lie was nothing compared to the string of polished lies Chris habitually spun. Note that this irrational backlash seems to have been exactly what Chris was counting on, which is why he brought Twila with him to the Final Two instead of the more affable, well-liked Scout.
Season 10 (Palau): TomTom was a game leader from the outset, powering Koror’s domination over the hapless Ulong tribe. In most seasons, Tom would be an obvious target. But Tom was such a “steamroller” in the vein of Boston Rob that he managed to persevere through a combination of determination and smooth talking. What would have happened had Tom gone against Ian (the game’s other strong player) in the Final Two is anyone’s guess, although Ian’s clean-cut image had taken a hit late in the game. But with Ian forfeiting final immunity (to win back Tom’s friendship), it was “under the radar” Katie who went to the Final Two with Tom. For the jury, Tom played the Richard card – I deserve this because I’m here and you’re not – but he did so humbly, whereas whiny Katie lacked much in the way of tact. End result: a win for Tom, perhaps the show’s most deserving and likable winner ever.


Lost "Exodus"

Cool: Faced with the possibility of never seeing Jack again, Sawyer softens up just enough to tell Jack that – while in Australia – he met Jack’s estranged father, who had nothing but good things to say about Jack. This allowed a powerful Emmy moment for both actors: a bit of sucker-punched vulnerability for Matthew Fox’s smug Jack and a compassionate wrinkle to Josh Holloway’s defiantly self-serving Sawyer.
Cooler: Guess what? The “black rock”? It’s not an island geographical formation. It’s a ship. Whoa, dude.
Uncool: You ever wonder what the other castaways think about how the Jack-Sayid-Locke triumvirate runs things like a dictatorship? Note here how Jack tells everyone else to just sit tight while he and the other well-paid series stars hike into the jungle to gather unnamed supplies that hopefully will save them, otherwise they’re all doomed. Talk about a veil of secrecy. Donald Rumsfeld has got nothing on Jack. It’s only Hurley’s democratically big mouth that lets everyone else learn the truth about the Thing in the Woods with the Locked Hatch.
Huh?: Another clumsy introduction of a new cast member for next season – Michelle Rodriguez’s Anna Lucia, who apparently got stuck in the doomed back of the plane and thus never made it to the island. Unless she’s one of The Others.
Huh? Part 2: And if it was so urgent to get into the woods to get Danielle the Hermit Frenchwoman’s dynamite, why not just, like, go? Instead, Jack says “We’re leaving in half an hour.” The urgency is almost too much to bear.
Falling: Kate – While in custody in Sydney, she freaked out over that toy airplane like she was a mental patient.

Rising: Danielle – If only because she seems to maybe have some answers to all of the questions.


Best Film of 2005 (so far)

Writer-director Paul Haggis’ powderkeg film Crash is the most uncomfortably realistic look at American racism since Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. This film, in fact, provides a good counterpoint to Lee’s 1989 film. Both films take place in a single 24-hour period, but whereas Do the Right Thing was set in a single crowded, sweltering Brooklyn neighborhood where multiple ethnicities had to rub elbows all day long, the characters in Crash are spread out among the sprawling suburbs and freeways of Los Angeles, a city where races are brought together only by coincidence and happenstance. A white cop pulls over a black motorist, a Latino locksmith is hired by an Iranian shopkeeper, a white couple is carjacked by two black youths. Yet in every instance, looks are deceiving as one character’s assumptions of another – almost always informed solely by racial stereotypes – are soon proven wrong. And so the locksmith who looks like a gangbanger is a devoted family man, the suburban housewife who seems to have it all is secretly miserable, the tough-talking carjacker isn’t as cold-blooded as he seems, and on and on. These vignettes are strung together in a complex cause-and-effect daisy chain of sequences in which each character’s choices impacts others in unexpected ways, subtly making the point that we’re all in this together. Haggis, who wrote Million Dollar Baby, is at the top of his game here, making an impressive directorial debut and getting powerful performances from just about everyone in an ensemble cast that clearly relish these roles, packed as they are with big, showy emotional swings of rage, grief, and fear. Particular standouts are Matt Dillon and Terence Howard, but even Sandra Bullock shows some unexpected depth and range here. A must see.


Katie is the new Penelope

Below The Hollywood Reporter’s Ray Richmond pulls back the curtain on the recent empty-headed, bug-eyed Entertainment Tonight/US Weekly hoopla surrounding the new Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes “romance”...
Between all of the voicemail-messages-from-hell stories and Paula Abdul's appearance over the weekend on "Saturday Night Live" (more free publicity for "American Idol"!) and such blockbuster local news features as "The Horrors of Spyware!" and "The Self-Tanning Lotion Test!", it's already been quite a sweeps period here in the homeland. Yes sir, we must be doing something right in America, because we sure have plenty of free time to focus on stuff that doesn't matter in the slightest.

To that end, nothing has been more purely entertaining lately than the new "relationship" of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. What makes it so great is the way it just sort of popped up out of the ether, with publicists issuing statements confirming something that had not yet even been suspected.

Overnight, Cruise and his new squeeze were spotted in Italy cooing and staring longingly into one another's eyes and kissing up a storm and, in general, carrying on like kids in the throes of a puppy-love crush.

"Yoo-hoo! Paparazzi! Over here!" they practically screamed.

It's a fascinating thing when celebrities play lovey-dovey for the camera. It usually means they have something to prove or promote. In this case, of course, Cruise and Holmes both have new movies coming out, giving this the unmistakable aroma of a union of convenience. It's like, please invade our privacy -- and that's "War of the Worlds" and "Batman Begins," got it?

In no other business would having two people behave overly affectionately in public be viewed as a potential boon to their product. Imagine a couple bedecked in McDonald's and Burger King uniforms pawing each other in the belief that it would inspire increased sales of Big Macs and Whoppers.

While the Cruise-Holmes pairing could be legit, it just seems like the kind of made-for-Us-Weekly pairing that was cooked up in a backroom with the stars, their reps and various image consultants in attendance. Had you been a fly on the wall, you might have heard, "OK, Tom, you get to be linked with an actress in her mid-20s to help people forget that even actors who can open blockbusters are not immune from the aging process. Katie, you get the boost of being associated with a hunky superstar as your career is starting to gain steam. Just sign right here."

Is it overly cynical to suspect this kind of crass commercial dealmaking? Maybe. But that also doesn't mean it isn't accurate and doesn't happen on a smaller scale all of the time. Showbiz being a game driven heavily by impression and perception at the expense of fact and sincerity, nothing should be discounted as too far-fetched.

The problem with the Cruise-Holmes story is that it smacked so heavily of concoction from the get-go. Those manipulating the puppet strings were so clunky that they in essence exposed the inherent absurdity.

What you're supposed to do is stage occasional sightings of the joined couple together -- preferably while making half-hearted attempts to hide --- and in the process issue stern denials. Then after a few more weeks/months of furtive moments captured through tabloid lenses and increasingly empty refutations, there's the invariable grudging validation.

But the Cruise-Holmes braintrust bypassed all of the usual calculated mating ritual steps and fed this directly to the mainstream, putting the tabs in the unique position of trying to refute a coupling. Straight out of the box, the strangers were an item seemingly within minutes of meeting -- dining on sushi aboard his private jet before jetting off together to Rome. Some guys just know how to woo a girl on the first date, you know?

What we have here may be the first big-time Hollywood romance where we actually desire to know less. And for sure, it's getting tougher and tougher to tell the relationships from the corporate mergers.

Lost "Born to Run"

Cool: After inadvertently touching Locke and presumably sensing the danger of the Thing in the Woods with the Locked Hatch, Walt suddenly blurts out to Locke “Don’t open it!” A nice reminder that Walt’s got some very creepy psychic powers.

Cooler: When told by his father Mike that they don’t have to leave the island on the raft after all, Walt replies ominously “Yes we do.” This suggests A) Walt knows Locke is going to disregard his advice and open the Thing in the Woods with the Locked Hatch anyway and B) Walt doesn’t want to be around when Locke does so. A classic goosebump moment.

Uncool: The writers decided to saddle poor Kate with even more baggage by showing in flashback that, while on the run in Iowa for bank robbery and murder, she accidentally got her ex-boyfriend shot to death by police. Making matters worse, said dead ex-boyfriend was married with an infant son. It’s becoming harder and harder to like Kate, no matter how many Hot Lists actress Evangeline Lilly winds up on. Next week maybe we’ll see Kate kicking puppies and stealing lollipops from kids.

Huh?: That was a rather awkward introduction of the high school science teacher character. He appears in one scene to give a demonstration on How Trade Winds Work. Clearly, this guy is going to be a new series regular, which meant he had to seem like a familiar face to the other castaway characters even as people all over America were nudging each other on sofas and whispering “Who the hell is that guy?”

Falling: Michael – There’s just something annoying about this dude, like the way he was so offended by the suggestion that taking his son out into the Pacific Ocean on a raft made of bamboo and airplane parts was perhaps a bad idea.

Rising: Sawyer – Bonus points for calling Kate the Ex-Boyfriend Killer “Puddin’.”


Visitor number one and counting...

Let's all welcome the newest Cheese Fry addition: the webpage site meter. You can find it at the bottom of the page.


One Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster, on the rocks.

Garth Jennings’ film adaptation of the Douglas Adams cult book series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – which had been famously stuck in Development Hell for years – certainly gets the oddball, deadpan details right, whether it’s an explanation of Babel Fish’s amazing powers; encounters with the bureaucratic, bad-poet Vorgons; or a hunt for the question to Life, the Universe, and Everything that’s mysteriously answered by Deep Thought with “42.” If you have any idea at all what I’m taking about, then you may well find some pleasure in this film. The books themselves are quite hilarious, mixing social satire and absurd humor with some fairly sophisticated philosophical musings (heavy themes hidden inside gadgets and aliens being the bread and butter of any good science fiction). But in the end the movie never hits its stride because for all of the inspired little touches, it fails miserably to deliver on more important cinematic necessities. For one thing, the characters – with the possible exception of a spunky Zooey Deschanel as Trillian – are disappointingly flat. Protagonist Arthur’s transformation from homebody to galactic explorer seems like an afterthought and he seems too dull to ever attract someone as interesting as Trillian. Worse, the plot is extremely sketchy. It’s all got something to do with Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell, trying too hard) hoping to cash in on finding the aforementioned “42” question, but that mission is explained in some brief throwaway dialogue that could be easily missed if you’re crunching on popcorn at the wrong moment. And the steps Zaphod takes to find the question, dragging Arthur along for the ride, don’t make a whole lot of sense. It's all very random, which suggests that the filmmakers were interested more in finding ways to string together the funny scenes and quirky bits from the books (bonus points for turning the “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” dolphin message into a song) than in creating an organic, stand-alone whole. Mostly harmless, but it could have been so much better.


The Best Films of 2004

1 Million Dollar Baby proves again the lean poetry that director Clint Eastwood brings to his work. As with Eastwood’s last film Mystic River, there are no wasted moments in this melancholic tale of a grizzled boxing manager and his eager pupil. Every scene provides what the story needs and nothing more. This kind of stripped-down filmmaking is increasingly rare as movies rely more and more on noisy spectacle. But Eastwood refuses to get in the way of Paul Haggis’ script (based on two short stories by F.X. Toole) or his actors, which include poignant turns by Hillary Swank and Morgan Freeman. Yes, I know, points should be deducted because of Freeman’s overwrought narration that describes scenes his character never witnessed. Even so, it’s a Best Picture winner that truly deserved it.

2 The Incredibles, the, uh... incredible story of a dysfunctional superhero family that bands together to fight a supervillain, is a whole lot of fun. This is a film packed to the rim with suspenseful, candy-color action that rivals any Bruce Willis movie; satirical riffs on superhero stereotypes; amusing insights into suburban dissatisfaction, both at a chaotic home and a boring office; a deliciously mod-retro sense of style that includes a jazzy spy movie score; and some unexpected thematic depth, looking not only at the power of family, but also asking hard questions about whether making everyone feel special diminishes true achievement. Once again, Pixar (and writer-director Brad Bird) proves the value of a smart, fully-developed story.

3 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind serves as another showcase for the wonderland imagination of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. This time around the story isn’t so self-consciously quirky and look-at-me clever as Adaptation or even Being John Malkovich. Here the narrative curlicues fit nicely with the story of a heartbroken man (a subdued Jim Carrey) using technology to erase painful memories of his ex-girlfriend (a rather too-exuberant Kate Winslet). Engrossed by the confusing, non-linear structure exploring the subjectivity of memory and the ugly dissolution of a once-perfect romance, you won’t realize until the film’s final moments that this story is really about the inescapably eternal and fated nature of true love.

4 Hero has echoes of the popular 2000 martial arts saga Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but it’s a far more powerful film if only because it eschews Crouching Tiger’s convoluted soap opera plotline. Hero, by contrast, is a study in poetic simplicity. Yes, the film toys with the nature of subjective viewpoints, debating how much of protagonist Jet Li’s kung-fu adventures really happened. But that element feels like a grace note to the epic film’s real purpose: spectacular action set pieces of swordplay. Director Zhang Yimou, who previously spent much of his time on smaller, more intimate dramas, really cuts loose with this one. It may be the most beautifully photographed film of the year. Every shot belongs on an art museum wall.

5 Collateral allows director Michael Mann, after biographies like The Insider and Ali, to return to the urban back alleys where he belongs. Into this familiar movie-world of grizzled cops and cold-blooded crooks comes a curveball: introverted cabbie Max (a startling good Jamie Foxx). Max is kidnapped by hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise) to serve as chauffeur. What this means is that while the film delivers the expected genre twists and turns (cops close in on Vincent, someone Max knows is on Vincent’s hit list, a violent shootout, et al.), it also explores the mentorship go-getter Vincent provides passive Max. It’s Max’s transformation from victim to hero that gives the film its power and smooths over some egregious moments of illogic that mar the movie’s climax.

6 Spiderman 2 suggests there may be something cosmic at work with superhero sequels ending in “2.” As with superior sequels Superman II and X2 (note that the wretched Batman Returns didn’t employ a “2”), this sequel far exceeds its predecessor in both character depth and popcorn thrills. It’s got to be liberating for filmmakers to no longer have to spend time on a superhero’s origins (which we all know anyway). Thus, this sequel – written by Alvin Sargent - can be devoted to having fun with the Spiderman character, whether he’s balancing superhero duties with the needs of his girlfriend or single-handedly stopping a runaway subway (the movie’s best sequence). Director Sam Raimi is clearly having a blast here and his enthusiasm is infectious.

7 Sideways isn’t the cinematic masterpiece snob film critics would have you believe, but it is pretty good. It’s a story of mid-life crises, shameful truths, and quiet desperation as two old friends (a solid Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) realize that, for entirely different reasons, their lives are dead-end disasters. The script – written by director Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor from a novel by Rex Pickett – sparkles and crackles in a way that brings out the best in the cast. This is perhaps most notable in the now-famous porch scene between Giamatti and Virgina Madsen in which they seem to be talking about wine, but are actually talking about themselves. That single scene is why Madsen was nominated for an Oscar.

8 Dawn of the Dead irritated a lot of horror purists for daring to remake the 1978 zombie classic by George Romero. But they really should get a life. This movie, part of a new “Zombie Movie Renaissance” along with last year’s 28 Days Later, shows what a fresh coat of paint can do to an old title. True, the original used its premise – people escape zombie hordes by hiding in a shopping mall - to slyly criticize consumer culture (shoppers are like zombies, get it?) while nothing here comes close to that kind of thematic depth. But for those looking for visceral horror and edge-of-the-seat scares, look no further. This is a loud, violent, suspenseful exercise in sweaty survival. Not everyone will make it and those who don’t will not die easy deaths. What more do you want in a zombie horror movie?

9 Passion of the Christ is a case study for the value of a single maverick cinematic artistic vision, rather than a committee of executives, marketing experts, and serial writers working to come up with some kind of compromise to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. The famous/infamous behind-the-scenes drama of this film (director Mel Gibson’s determination to get it made, the risky gamble distributors took in releasing it, the accusations of anti-Semitism, its shocking box office success) in addition to sidebar religo-political debates often hijacks any discussion about its ultimate merits. Aside from all of that baggage, one cannot deny that this is a tragic story told in a way that skillfully and vividly conveys that tragedy.

10 Napoleon Dynamite is without question an acquired taste as its polarized cult status will attest. Some love it, some hate it. It’s a deadbeat, goofball movie that relies more on its extremely quirky characters to provide the humor rather than outrageous situations or witty one-liners (unless you think “Dang!” or “Sweet!” is witty in and of itself). Think of it as comedy of the mundane. For those in the right frame of mind, though, there’s nothing else quite like writer-director Jared Hess’s tale of a singularly outcast high school student (perfectly cast Jon Heder in the title role) and his efforts to both woo a girl and help a friend become student council president, although neither effort is really what the movie’s about.

Honorable mentions: 13 Going On 30, The Aviator, The Bourne Supremacy, Fahrenheit 9/11, Friday Night Lights, Garden State, The Girl Next Door, Kill Bill Volume 2, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Maria Full of Grace, Miracle, Starsky and Hutch, Super Size Me, A Very Long Engagement.

The Worst Films of 2004

The Stepford Wives is so horrible that it’s hard to know where to begin. Trying to shoehorn a 1970s feminist plot (scared men are turning strong women into robots) into a 2004 world is a hard enough proposition. But last-minute edits by the filmmakers to salvage this disaster left the secret behind the Stepford women – which is the whole point to the story, really - completely impenetrable. Are they robots or not? Hell if I know. Faith Hill sure acts like a robot and Nicole Kidman finds what seems to be her robot double, but at the end it turns out these women have only been brainwashed and with a flip of a switch everything’s fine again. A contrived happy ending like this is like a cherry on a turd.

The Grudge boasts a number of cool individual scares and creepy moments, ratcheting up the tension and creating a sense of dread and paranoia, trademarks both of this sub-genre of Japanese horror. And for a while it works. But the pieces never come together and in the end the story goes nowhere. You know that pale-faced elf kid in the promos with the wide-mouthed look of horror on his face? That’s you when this thing is over and you realize you’ll never get back those 96 minutes.

Anchorman isn’t nearly as funny as the trailers would have you believe or the people making it seem to think. Looked at through the prism of glossy 24-hour CNN video news, there’s clearly something inherently ludicrous about those quaint local newscasts of the 1970s with their shag-carpeted sets, 16mm film, and wide lapels. But Will Ferrell and his lame writer/director team are too lazy to take advantage. If he’s not careful, Ferrell will fade into cinematic mediocrity like a 21st century Chevy Chase.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse, a sequel to the underrated 2002 B-movie zombie thriller, takes what is already a fairly over-the-top concept and drives it right over the edge at full throttle. Whatever muted humanity and emotion star Milla Jovovich conveyed the first time around has evaporated. She’s in Action Heroine mode here, showing no weakness whatsoever and doing ridiculous things like driving a motorcycle through a church window when the door would have done nicely. It’s a bunch of noisy, hard-boiled nonsense. Consider yourself warned.

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason is a textbook example of a sequel that’s so afraid of alienating fans of the original film that the filmmakers decide to play it safe and just remake the original film (watch Bridget humiliate herself again, watch Bridget try to choose between two boyfriends again). It’s as if the first film never happened. Most annoying of all is how petulant and irritating the Bridget character has gotten, a change dictated solely by the need to undo the happy ending of the first film. It is v.v. bad.

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