Saturday, September 25, 2004

'Tis Friday and we must have video reviews forthwhiff!

‘The Punisher’
Latest in the comic-book movie roundup is “The Punisher,” based on the venerable Marvel comic about a former cop who turns into a gun-toting vigilante when his family is murdered.
Frank Castle (Thomas Jane) is about to retire when his police work draws the rage of Miami crime lord Howard Saint (John Travolta). When Saint exacts his awful revenge, Castle transforms himself into a skull-wearing antihero, The Punisher.
Ultimately, “The Punisher” is a glum, sadistic movie about brutal men. The movie takes us through Castle’s tragic origin, really wallowing in the gory circumstances that lead to his transformation. It’s unpleasant and as far from the more optimistic “Spider-Man” as you can get.
The problem is that the Punisher is not really heroic. He takes the crimefighting mentality of Batman or Superman to its extreme — kill the bad guys. But basically he’s a wacko with a gun, and “The Punisher” is really just “Death Wish Part XVII.”
The Punisher character really works best as over-the-top parody. Recent comics by writer Garth Ennis have made the Punisher a hard-boiled lunatic, and the movie steals a few ideas from Ennis, including the best scene, a wrestling match with an unstoppable Russian assassin. The loveably eccentric housemates Castle befriends here are all straight from the comic books, but on film they become insufferably annoying. Castle’s revenge plan is needlessly complicated, and it feels like a setup for the inevitable sequel.
Throw in an absolutely awful John Travolta hamming it up to Timbuktu and back as the villain, and you’ve got a half-baked cheese sandwich of a movie.
The movie, despite flashes of talent — notably Jane’s steely, solid performance in the lead role — fails to become anything more than a by-the-numbers, illogical vengeance potboiler. It’s got shooting and car crashes galore for those who dig that, but there’s very little heart and soul. It’s just punishing.
*1/2 of four

‘The Ladykillers’

A Southern-fried mix of heist movie, comedy and gospel musical, “The Ladykillers” is the newest oddball extravaganza from the Coen brothers.
This time, Tom Hanks is the star, as the verbose Goldthwait Higginson Dorr III, Ph.D., an educated, white-suit wearing dandy who plans a big theft under the nose of his unsuspecting landlady, burbling quotable lines like “We must have waffles, forthwhiff!”
Dorr assembles a crew of like-minded criminals and plans his crime, involving dynamited tunnels, extortion, bloody revenge and more.
Fans of the Coen brothers’ quirky, unique world from “Fargo” to “Intolerable Cruelty” will find something here to like, but non-fans expecting a typical Tom Hanks movie will probably be turned off.
A remake of a 1950s film, “The Ladykillers” is a crazy-quilt of a movie, patched together from many parts. It wants to be a wacky cartoon, but there’s a reason those Bugs Bunny shorts only lasted five minutes or so each. It’s amusing in fits, but in the end not very filling.
Don’t look to “The Ladykillers” for realism. None of the characters are much more than broad stereotypes, and their effectiveness is based purely on the shoulders of the actors involved.
Marlon Wayans’ obnoxious, profanity-spouting “gangsta” thief seems to have wandered in from another movie altogether, and jars you right out of watching every time he’s unleashed. Irma Hall, on the other hand, is wonderful as the proud, deeply religious widow at the heart of the story.
But the highlight here is definitely Hanks’ Foghorn Leghorn-meets-George Plimpton thief, who uses pretentious language and sniggering mannerisms to create an unforgettably odd character. He’s a hammy delight, and it’s the most fun Hanks has had on screen since the “Toy Story” movies.
There’s a rambling sense of play to “The Ladykillers,” as in most of the Coens’ work. It’s not meant to be a serious life-and-death epic, and it’s definitely on the more disposable end of the Coen brothers’ resume. But Hanks’ amusing performance makes it worth seeing for the spectacle at least.
**1/2 of four

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