MAN ON FIRE (20th Century Fox) Director: Tony Scott. Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony. (R)
Take One: Traditionally righteous hero Washington takes on yet another in a series of ambiguous antiheroes (Out of Time, John Q, Training Day), this time as a down-and-out former anti-terrorist operative who bodyguards young Fanning in Mexico City, then goes on a murderous rampage after she's kidnapped and reported killed.
Take Two: Shamelessly manipulative and sadistically violent, Man on Fire builds up a cutesypoo relationship between Washington and Fanning solely to fan the flames of Washington's righteous anger when she's reported killed. That way, anything he does is justified, no matter how depraved. Offensive language and brief sexuality.
Final Take: Did I mention abuse of Catholic iconography? Evil men profess devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and Washington clutches a St. Jude medal when he should be going to confession. Man on Fire is a new low for both Washington and Scott, and one of the nastiest bits of business I've seen at the multiplex in some time.
13 GOING ON 30 (Columbia) Director: Gary Winick. Jennifer Garner, Mark Ruffalo, Christa B. Allen. (PG-13)
Take One: Garner is charming and Ruffalo preternaturally likeable in this shameless knockoff of Big that posits a 13-year-old girl magically waking up nearly two decades in the future. 1980s nostalgia buoys the film as Garner gets down to “Thriller” and quotes inspirational phrases from Pat Benatar lyrics.
Take Two: Although the movie plays it for laughs when men come on to Garner and keeps things pretty chaste with Ruffalo, there's still something unavoidably distasteful about the whole business of a 13-year-old girl-woman in the grown-up world. Sexually immoral situations and references; crass language and an instance of profanity; some drug/ intoxication references.
Final Take: Appealing as the stars are, they can't redeem the dopey writing or the unnecessarily crass content.
HELLBOY (Columbia) Director: Guillermo del Toro. Ron Perlman, Selma Blair. (PG-13)
Take One: If you can have make-believe good witches (The Wizard of Oz), how about a good demon? Perlman is entertaining as comic-book hero Hellboy, a hardboiled noir hero with red skin, horns and a tail who fights to defend mankind from fellow “demons” (not evil spirits tempting souls, but more like fantasy monsters).
Take Two: Despite fantasy elements, the movie's hellions are in some ways uncomfortably close to the real thing, including vulnerability to holy water and other sacramentals, various occult accoutrements and Hellboy's own resemblance to the stereotyped demon of Christian art. (Anyway, a “good demon” is just much more problematic than a good witch, for numerous reasons.) Strong, sometimes gruesome action violence; occasional profanity and crude humor.
Final Take: Hellboy never succeeds in redeeming its imagery or storyline the way it would have needed to really work, plus it lacks an interesting villain and storyline. And where is God in all this? One villain taunts a hero about “your God” being “silent”; in a movie like this, that kind of challenge deserves an answer.
ELLA ENCHANTED (Miramax) Director: Tommy O'Haver. Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Cary Elwes. (PG)
Take One: Based on Gail Carson Levine's popular fantasy novel, Ella is a Princess-Bride style fairy tale about a high-minded young girl unfortunately spellbound to comply with any order, absolutely and literally. Dancy plays the young prince sheltered from the sufferings of the kingdom's elves, giants and other magical creatures at the hands of his wicked uncle (Elwes).
Take Two: Ella is apparently not very faithful to its source material, and the book's many fans widely consider the film a disappointment. A few crude expressions and an instance of mild profanity; mild sensuality and action violence; brief comic intoxication.
Final Take: Departures from source material aside, Ella the film has more than enough magic and charm to work on its own terms. Hathaway is delightful, and the themes of youthful idealism and social justice actually matter for once.
THE ALAMO (Touch-stone) Director: John Lee Hancock. Patrick Wilson, Jason Patric, Billy Bob Thornton. (PG-13)
Take One: Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis come to life with surprising nuance and humanity in a remarkably intelligent and serious-minded drama about a critical moment in the Texas Revolution when a tragic defeat became a rallying point for victory.
Take Two: Deliberate pacing and an introspective, character-driven approach may leave some viewers cool. Intense but largely bloodless battle violence; an implied sexual encounter; some crass language.
Final Take: Against all odds, Texas-born director Hancock turns in a cinematic version of the Alamo story well worth remembering, not least for Thornton's impressive performance as the man in the coonskin cap.
Steven D. Greydanus, editor and chief critic of Decentfilms.com, writes from Bloomfield, New Jersey.
Spotlight: Spring Movie Doldrums; Box Office Revenge
With The Passion of the Christ finally fading at the box office, the traditional spring movie doldrums tightens their grip on multiplexes.
Even when a film actually is worth finding this time of year, it doesn't always find its audience. For example, Ella Enchanted and The Alamo haven't exactly lit up the box office, though they're two of the better bets currently in release.
What is hot at the box office at the moment? For one thing, murderous revenge and vigilantism.
Last weekend, three of the top five films in U.S. theaters — Man on Fire, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and The Punisher — were ultraviolent revenge fantasies about killer antiheroes wiping out scores of foes implicated in hurting people close to the antihero. Rounding out last weekend's top ten was Walking Tall, a warmed-over tale of vigilante justice with a body count not quite as high as the first three films, but still brutal and unpleasant enough.
Is this a fluke? Or has Hollywood tapped into something in the national zeitgeist? After all, embattled American forces are facing an increasingly complicated security situation in Iraq. Could it be that folks find it gratifying to watch Denzel in a foreign country single-handedly meting out his own brand of rough justice, rooting out a covert terrorist network, torturing and maiming and murdering at will to get the job done?
Whatever the answer to that question, summer can't come fast enough for me.
- May 2-8, 2004