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In this episode: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow | Garden State

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I have to say this for Paramount, they sure know how to suck.

It all begins with their horrible trailers. It has become a joke to me and my friends. Time and time again, the worst trailers out there belong to Paramount. Could it be that, because Paramount's movies are mostly no good, they can do nothing but produce bad trailers? Crap in, crap out? Nope. Look at Independence Day. What a huge dog. Successful, sure, but a dog nonetheless. It was a terrible movie. And yet the trailer for that movie kicked ass. I still have it on my Mac at home. Instead, had Independence Day been a Paramount movie, the trailer would have sucked.

The trailer for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was no exception to the Paramount rule. My hope was that the movie would be better than the trailer. The concept was killer, and the way it was made was unique. Here's this cool idea, which is kinda The Iron Giant with Star Wars and Indiana Jones magnets stuck to it. Here's this fun, old-fashioned title, The World of Tomorrow. What could that be? Here are prop planes and people dressing in '30s garb. Is this the future? Here are live actors in a 99% CG world. Ambitious! Because of all this, I was hoping that Paramount had just made another bad trailer and the movie was, in fact, great fun.

Sadly, they showed clips from the movie at Comicon this year. My hopes were gone. I just knew this was going to be, if not a really bad movie, then a completely mediocre one. Both the trailer and the clips gave a glimpse into what the movie was really like.

And what was the movie really like? Finally, here in the fifth paragraph, I'll tell you: Immensely stylish, fantastically retro-looking, and an utter bore.

The movie's first few shots show us something truly inspired: A giant zeppelin gliding toward a Manhattan skyline of yesteryear. As the dirigible slides across a purposefully soft-focused frame, we see its name through falling snow: Hindenburg III. How intriguing! How wondrous!

It becomes clear fairly soon on that the world of Sky Captain is an alternate universe to our own. Perhaps that's too specific a concept with which to saddle the sweeping vision of the movie, but that's the best way to describe it: Sky Captain is set in an early 20th century in which WWII never happened. There is mention in the film of World War I, so perhaps there was a World War II, because, you see, before WWII, WWI was called The Great War. Hmm. It's nicely vague. Or is this just a sloppy oversight?

Here, then, is a small glimpse into the cracks and sloppiness that will eat away at this movie like a celluloid leprosy. Missing details. Inaccuracies. A lack of continuity. As the film progresses, we are introduced not only to such maladies, but also to characters who are, at their best, two-and-a-half-dimensional. I guess I wouldn't call them simply 2-D because Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow minimally succeed in making their characters Joe (a.k.a. Sky Captain) and Polly Perkins more than they must have been on paper. The dialogue between these people is abysmal and silly, rarely funny when it means to be, and often used merely as exposition for plot points that are often ridiculous.

There are many nods to adventure films from all ages, and I think—THINK—that sometimes the things that made my head do the doggy tilt ("Hruh?") were intentional. For instance, after Poly, who's a reporter, gets a hot tip from a doomed scientist and New York is attacked by giant flying/marching robots and Polly gets caught up in the robots' ominous parade through the city streets and is semi-rescued by Sky Captain then the newspapers flash how major cities all over the globe were attacked, too, and Sky Captain limps back to his "hidden" base and, my God, there's Poly in his office waiting for him and she mentions how she met a scientist earlier that day... Of course you have to ask yourself, "This is all the same day? I must have heard wrong!" But you didn't, because later, as Polly and Joe drive back into the city, she thanks him for saving her life "today." This has to be an intentional skewing of time to give the movie an old-fashioned feel.

I wish I could say for sure I'm right in that, but how can anyone be sure when the rest of the movie is filled with confusingly messy tidbits? No, there's too much bad writing and directing here. There's no other way to explain the miraculous healing of the fire-spewing, bullet-wounded fuel tank on Sky Captain's plane. No one had any kind of time to repair it. There's no other way to explain how Polly and Joe knew Dex, the mechanical genius on Sky Captain's team, was taken alive by more evil robots. Just shouting it out does not make it so (except in Bush country). And there is definitely no other way to explain how the rock jammed in Sky Captain's rudder suddenly is not there any more after its purpose in the story is served.

Nope. No other way. Just bad writing and directing. Anything can happen if you're a bad writer and director.

I feel kind of bad for Kerry Conran. He's the one responsible for this movie. He was the quiet, embarrassed one up on that Comicon stage in front of hundreds of people, saying he was really just a guy who wanted to make a movie. Sky Captain started in the very best way a movie can: with a vision and a passion. Kerry has been making this movie for years, in his computer, all CG. He had a movie he wanted to make, and he was making it all on his own. I find that kind of dedication admirable.

Then, both fortunately and unfortunately, Hollywood came calling. Kerry's huge dream turned into a reality. The huge little project grew to blockbuster proportions. This had to have been exciting for Kerry, but at the same time, the sudden success has revealed that the guy's got limited talent. The visual success of the film deserves that Kerry be showered with all manner of accolades, and even the story idea itself is a wonderful classic adventure/sci-fi era plot contrivance. But the most important things that make a movie good are missing.

So I feel really bad blaming Kerry for his poor writing and directing. I always want people like this to succeed with their projects, for the results of their up-late-at-night-after-work machinations to become interesting, wonderful movies. It's such a shame this one fails.

There are moments of fun and enjoyment in the movie, I'll say that. The style, again, is amazing. The first ten minutes of the film are beautifully mesmerizing. And the various pilferings of films past is cool. We have an obvious The Wizard of Oz theme in here (really obvious), plus, as I mentioned, some Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Lost Horizon makes a nice appearance, along with uncountable noir and '50s sci-fi influences. Yes, there is some intellect behind the dreck. But in the end, dreck it is. Hell, they couldn't even bother to kern the font properly in the credits. What a shame.

The only reason to see this one is if you want some eye candy on a lazy late-summer afternoon. It is a spectacle to behold on the big screen. Skip it otherwise. Really, it's not worth it. Sorry, Kerry.



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Rainy GardenOkay, so while I'm talking about pet projects, here's one that, so far, is the best movie I have seen all year. Really. I don't mean that in a Gene Shalit kind of way. I honestly loved this movie.

It is not fair, exactly, to call this a Grosse Pointe Blank for the Gen-Y set. Yet it is. Kinda. They are connected on theme, where a small-town kid returns after being out in the world for a good spell, being semi-successful, living life and finding his way. Upon his return, he finds out what he needed was—and this sounds corny—right here all along.

Grosse Pointe has the gimmick of John Cusack being a hit man. It is a stupid gimmick when you just try to imagine it, but the way it was handled was brilliant and funny, and Grosse Pointe has a lot to say amid the humor of the hit man at his high school reunion thing.

Garden State will have none of that, thank you very much. This is a simple film with a delicate and realistic sensibility, an uneasiness and patina of nostalgia that is so strong and effective, you can feel it every moment. It is also very funny. The humor is as accurate as the dreamy emotion.

Andrew Largeman (Zack Braff, who also wrote and directed) is a partially successful actor in Hollywood when he comes home to his New Jersey town for his mother's funeral. He's medicated and unemotional. He seems to feel nothing, has no strong drive for anything. He meets up with old friends who, it appears, have moved on not a whit in eight years. Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) still lives with his mother, digs graves for a living, smokes pot all the time, and makes pocket change by                      (don't wanna ruin it for you). Jesse, who's become rich selling his invention of                      (don't wanna ruin it for you), remains immature and unmotivated despite being wealthy. Andrew naturally falls back in with these and other old buddies, but he no longer fits in. If, in fact, he ever did. A wonderful party scene with Andrew on some kind o' drug is masterfully done to toss the sense of pathetic dejection right at us.

Andrew barely talks with his Dad (Ian Holm). His mom was an unhappy woman who, Andrew thinks, wanted to die. A lot is going on here, but Andrew is still numb, wandering, not connected. In this way he's still like his friends, but with a softly-present urgency, something just waiting to bust through his stupor.

The perfect foil for this seeming dullard is Sam, played with impressive virtuosity by Natalie Portman. Sam is a gibbering, energetic girl with a bad habit of                      (don't wanna ruin it for you). A chance meeting brings Andrew and Sam together, and there is an immediate, although uncomfortable, bond. This is not an instantaneous movie-like connection. Watching Andrew and Sam get to know each other is a moving but awkward process. Zach has written some beautiful stuff here that is so true to life you can't help but enjoy it.

Sam and Andrew are not, on the surface, immediately likable characters, yet you immediately like them. This can only be done when a writer/director lets the characters be honest to themselves. I know, more hokey crap from me! But every character in the movie is exactly who they are. They are not concoctions of who people think characters are, and they are not constructs of a marketing team. These are real people. Okay, maybe they are quirky and unusual, but look around you. Are your friends not quirky and unusual in their own ways? This kind of character writing is rare in movies, and I drank it up.

Subtlety and comedy mix perfectly here. The humor is charming and clever, and many of the funny moments come, again, from Zach just letting the movie happen. Things are not pointed out or spotlighted to say, "Hey! Look! Funny and clever! Ha ha ha!" The moments just happen. One of my favorite funny parts in the film lasts, literally, a couple seconds, and it is purely visual. Nothing is made of it, and it is not over-milked. ALL the humor in the film is treated this way. It is refreshing and... glorious.

I have to stop my gushing here just to say that the movie is not perfect. There were times in the latter parts where the magic was starting to wear off. I wondered if pretentiousness was about to ensue. But inevitably, the movie would remain true, pull me back in, and I would be happy again, smiling and so inwardly content that I felt all glowy.

I have heard some complaints about the ending. Without giving anything away, all I can say is the ending is so much more than it seems. On the surface, it may be disappointing, but all you have to do is listen carefully—or not even carefully, just listen—to the last two lines of dialogue. Those lines so beautifully sum up the movie, sum up the ending, sum up the future, sum up the confusion and the joy and the sadness and the excitement of life.

No, Garden State is a great package. It works. I have been dying to see it again, but have not been able to. Rare is the movie I get to see twice in the theater these days, but I am going to force myself to see this one again. You should force yourself to see it, too. It's worth every moment.




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©2004 Steven Lekowicz except
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow photo ©2004 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved; and
Garden State photo ©2004 Twentieth Century Fox and Miramax Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.