"Not up to Woody's standard"
Dir. and writ. Woody Allen; feat. Allen, Téa Leoni, George Hamilton, Debra Messing, Mark Rydell, Treat Williams (PG-13)
Any longtime Woody Allen fan knows he has zingers aplenty. There will probably never be a time in his life that he can't invent a delicious one-liner, and Hollywood Ending has quite a few of them, enough to make the film a pleasant time-filler for Allen die-hards. Unfortunately, great comedy demands more than that. It needs a pace and structure that this — and Allen's last film (Curse of the Jade Scorpion) — really lack.
One example highlights the way his work here doesn't measure up to previous gems: The plot is about a filmmaker who has gone blind and is trying to complete a film without anyone finding out. For at least half of the movie, most of the dialogue revolves around how baffling the footage he's shooting is — nobody understands it, but they want to trust the once-great director's "vision." Had Allen made Ending early in his career, there is no way he would have missed the chance to show us some of the incompetent footage that was being produced. He could have milked it, and the reactions to it, for a million laughs. Here, though, all anybody does is talk about it. — John DeFore
A Shot at Glory
"Cinderella Scottish team kicks arse"
Dir. Michael Corrente; writ. Denis O'Neill; feat. Robert Duvall, Michael Keaton, Ally McCoist, Libby Langdon, Brian Cox, Cole Hauser, Morag Hood, Kirsty Mitchell (R)
It is customary to claim that a particular sports movie is not really a sports movie, that it uses baseball or football or hockey merely to explore lofty themes of pride, discipline, and love. A Shot at Glory is a sports movie, though the sport it explores as a test for pride, discipline, and love — Scottish football (soccer) — is rarely seen on local screens.
If the setting — Kilnockie, a working-class seaside town in Scotland — is unfamiliar, the plot is not. A Shot at Glory is the Cinderella story of how the Knockies, a second-division team of perennial losers, makes its way to the national finals. Leading the charge is their manager, Gordon McLeod, a Gaelic Vince Lombardi who declares: "Enjoyment to me is winning." There is much to enjoy in Robert Duvall's performance, including an accent that makes him harder to decipher than fellow actors born to the brogue. Those include Ally McCoist, playing Jackie McQuillan, a scapegrace striker whose marriage to McLeod's daughter, Kate (Mitchell), has brought bitter family strife. In order to win, the Knockies need the brilliant McQuillan, and he needs to subordinate himself to the team. Shrewd American owner Peter Cameron (Keaton) intends to move the franchise to a larger, more profitable stadium in Dublin, but it is impossible not to root for spunky Kilnockie. — Steven G. Kellman
"Sets the senses tingling"
Dir. Sam Raimi; writ. David Koepp, Stan Lee (comic); feat. Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson (PG-13)
Those of us with personal attachments to super heroes find it hard to be lukewarm about Tinseltown versions of our childhood icons. If these things let you down, they tend to do it hard — witness Joel Schumacher's Tom of Finland-ization of the Dark Knight in Batman & Robin. So it is with perhaps exaggerated glee that I report that Sam Raimi's Spider-Man is very nearly ideal.
As with the first Superman, the filmmakers understand not only how a comic book feels, but why this particular one is special. When he was introduced in the Sixties, Spider-Man was unique in that he was a real kid with real-world concerns. (Superman was an alien; Batman was so rich he might as well have been.) Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker is as socially awkward as most of the kids who read his adventures, and the filmmakers capture his plight sympathetically; they're wise to remain faithful to the hero's early adventures, which plot a believable transition from Parker's early self-interest to his eventual conviction that "with great power comes great responsibility."
They stray in small ways from comics lore, and one of these alterations is truly inspired. In the comics, Parker invents a web-slinging contraption to complement his super powers; here, the webs are an organic product of the boy's mutated body. In a humiliating scene in the school cafeteria, Peter is horrified to discover his ejaculatory power — it's a metaphor for male adolescence that never would've passed the Comics Code Authority (the censorship structure that governed mainstream comics for decades).
Parker soon gets the hang of the whole web thing; after a few failures he learns how to swing from building to building in a truly exciting chase scene. In these action sequences, Raimi grapples with the difficulty of lending computer-generated effects the visceral oomph of the physical world; for the most part, he succeeds.
Raimi's success relies largely on the fact that he and screenwriter David Koepp are never trying to be cool. This is two-dimensional melodrama with a four-color kick — meaning moviegoers expecting nuanced dialogue and subtle exposition are in for a letdown. But such expectations would be pretty silly. A more legitimate complaint is that Spidey's dialogue doesn't zing with quite the wit it might have. One of Stan Lee's many insights into teenager-dom was that, with a mask hiding his awkwardness, Peter Parker was free to say those clever things that normally come to us hours after an uncomfortable conflict.
Speaking of masks, one of the film's questionable choices is the decision to put the fiendish Willem Dafoe behind a helmet that obscures his whole face. Yes, it allows for a delicious split-personality scene between Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin he has become; it also puts him on the same footing as Spidey, who must win audiences despite a fully-masked visage — but the hero/villain pairing shouldn't be equal, and Dafoe's delicious sneer is too hideous to hide.
That is the kind of nit-picking at which "true believers" excel. The fact that such quibbles didn't come close to spoiling this fanboy's fun is pretty high praise. — John DeFore
"Brazen athletes fill very big screen"
Dir. & writ. Bruce Hendricks; feat. Bob Burnquist, Brian Deegan, Carey Hart, Mat Hoffman, Bucky Lasek, T. J. Lavin, Dave Mirra, Cory Nastazio, Ryan Nyquist, Travis Pastrana (PG)
Why would anyone whose brains have not already been battered attempt a backflip 50 feet off the ground on a 250-pound motorcycle? "They're all tweets," observes Jason Ellis, a commentator for ESPN's Summer X Games. "They've all got issues." Ultimate X, which magnifies the seventh edition of extreme sport competition, held in Philadelphia, onto the IMAX screen, includes a montage of pulverizing spills — of skateboarders, BMX riders, motocrossers, and street lugers who suffer brutal punishment for violating the laws of probability. It also contains transcendent moments, in which human bodies manage to float free of gravity.
Ultimate X is a brief introduction to the outlaw culture of daredeviltry, which, in less than a decade of organized competition, has developed its own heroes and traditions. We learn little about the background of the mostly white male participants and less about their fates, except to note that the athletes do not get rich. "It's all about doing what you want to do," explains stunt-bike competitor Ryan Nyquist. What I wanted to do while watching the freak shows in this film was leave my soft seat and go play tennis. — Steven G. Kellman
"Flaubert via Chabrol via Lyne"
Dir. Adrian Lyne; writ. Claude Chabrol (original film), Alvin Sargent; feat. Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Olivier Martinez, Erik Per Sullivan (R)
When Claude Chabrol made his version of this film in 1969, his adulterous protagonist was called Helene; the fact that "event film" auteur Adrian Lyne would allow his lead character to bear the monumentally unsubtle moniker Constance is not a good sign. But despite this and other moments of ham-fistedness, Unfaithful is a generally engaging tale of infidelity. The luscious Diane Lane is distracted from her perfect marriage by a French male-model type who peddles rare books, and husband Gere has to deal with it. The affair's aftermath drags somewhat unnecessarily, but that's balanced by small, compelling moments: the creeping sadness with which Gere's suspicion grows; the way Lane's sin contaminates them both; how her body turns against her during the affair's first consummation. This is no Madame Bovary, but it's a step in that direction from the man who gave us Fatal Attraction. — John DeFore