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Monday, November 18

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Firewall
Here's one thing that has always fascinated me about Harrison Ford: How can an actor who has portrayed so many iconic film heroes be such a chicken shit when it comes to choosing roles in the latter half of his career? I remember reading years ago that Ford had been cast as the newly appointed drug czar in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, and then he backed out (the role ultimately went to Michael Douglas, who did a remarkable job). If I'm not mistaken, Ford instead made What Lies Beneath, where Ford actually did break character to play a villainous husband to Michelle Pfeiffer. It's not a terrible film, but certainly not as challenging as what he would have done in Traffic.

Was Ford bothered by the fact that he would have been part of an ensemble cast and not the center of attention? It's a fair question, and his choice of films since he played Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan seems to indicate that this man needs to stand in the spotlight alone as the sole male lead. Whether it's in lame comedies like Sabrina or Six Days Seven Nights, rehashed actioners like The Fugitive, Air Force One or K-19: The Widowmaker, or films falling somewhere in between, like Hollywood Homicide or the insufferable Random Hearts, Ford has been consistently playing it safe. I'm not saying all of these films are bad (at least half of them are highly watchable), but Ford has returned to the big screen for the first time in nearly three years with yet another film in which he plays an ordinary man, thrown into extraordinary situations, who must rise to the occasion and be the hero. Welcome home, Mr. Ford. I hope your stay here is nice and cozy.

The film starts out promisingly. Ford plays Jack Stanfield, the security manager of a global bank run by the man whose very presence screams global bank, Alan Arkin. The bank is in the process of being taken over by an even larger financial institution, represented by Robert Patrick, who comes to blows with Jack over certain security issues regarding the acceptable level of identity theft and stolen records from their electronic files. Jack confides in his chief security man (Robert Forster) that he is less than confident about the new merger. Jack is also a devout family man, with two kids and a wife, Beth (Virginia Madsen). In an opening-title sequence, it appears that Jack and his family are under intense surveillance; it doesn't take long for the bad guys to show their faces and make their plan known.

Paul Bettany plays Bill Cox, who leads a mixed team of techies and muscle who kidnap Jack and his family, threatening them with all sorts of nasty doings if Jack doesn't help them relieve the bank of money belonging to its top 100 clients. I'll admit, I got sucked into this story. The kidnappers seem to have every angle covered, and all of Jack's initial attempts to escape or outwit them are met with equally slick retaliation. The bad guys are so good that their hands-off approach to stealing the money even sets up Jack to look like he's embezzling money to cover ficticious gambling debts. Bettany is a credible villain, although I never really believed for a second that anyone in Jack's family was going to die in the course of the film.

The plot begins to unravel once the money is moved (electronically) by Jack, and he begins the task of clearing his name and retrieving his family from the clutches of the kidnappers. Bodies pile up, logic goes right out the window, and Harrison Ford transforms from hapless victim to trained superhero. That's right, as shocking as it may sound, an action film starring Harrison Ford turns very silly and improbable in its second half. And don't think for one second that clues to how Jack and his family will escape the bad guys aren't dropped all over the place: a remote-controlled car, an electronic dog collar and Jack's assistant (Mary Lynn Rajskub of "24"). The only thing missing from this list is a massive sledgehammer whomping you over the head as someone screams in your ear, "Pay attention! This is important to the plot!"

In his first Hollywood feature, veteran UK director Richard Loncraine (Sir Ian McKellen's Richard III, Brimstone & Treacle, Wimbledon) does the best he can to keep things from getting totally out of hand for at least the first half of Firewall. But the entire time I was watching, I kept sensing Ford's hands all over the screenplay, trying to find ways to inject a car chase, fist fight or crazy stunt into the mix. And by the end of the film, you won't be able to keep from laughing at the crazy twists and reveals the plot makes. Firewall feels all-too familiar and eventually becomes all-too ridiculous.


Final Destination 3
One of the best surprises early in 2000 was the release of a little film called Final Destination, a film that took a different approach to teens-in-danger films. I think a big part of the reason the first Final Destination worked so well was that it was co-written and directed by former "X-Files" and "Millennium" writer James Wong. Rather than simply present us with another colorfully dressed killer with a wacky nickname, Wong made his taker of teen lives Death itself. Rather than giving us a skeleton in an oversized cloak wielding a sickle, Death instead takes the form of a series of impossibly complicated coincidences resulting in devastating accidents that kill victims in the goriest way possible. Just imagine if Death had designed the board game Mousetrap, and you'd have a pretty good idea how ridiculous these "accidents" are. But you know what? The film is extremely entertaining.

Wong didn't give into any temptation to soften his material. All three Final Destination films are extremely R rated, mostly for violence that includes head crushing, weird impalings and more severed body parts than most people can handle. The other genius element to the series is that you don't have to worry about retaining cast members for sequels. Each film features an almost entirely new cast of virtual unknowns, one of which has a vision of a terrible accident killing multiple people. This person (along with many of his/her friends) manages to avoid getting killed (in the case of Final Destination 3, the tragedy is a masterfully staged roller-coaster disaster), and, as a result, Death comes to collect these people who have escaped his icy grip. The best news about FD3 is that Wong is back (after sitting out the first sequel to make a Jet Li movie), and he continues the fine tradition of creating inventive ways to killing high school students.

The visionary teen in FD3 is Wendy Christensen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who had a small part in Ring 2), whose boyfriend and many other kids are killed on the roller-coaster ride from hell. The boyfriend (Ryan Merriman, also in Ring 2) of Wendy's now-dead best friend is one of the survivors, and the pair eventually figure out that Death is a-comin' for them and the half dozen or so other kids that got off the ride when Wendy flipped out after having her vision of a horrifying crash. The plot elements of all the Final Destination films are pointless. Somebody always seems to discover that if Death's second attempt to take your life fails, you're in the clear, which never turns out to be the case. And ultimately all these films are really only about logic- and physics-defying coincidences that add up to some really clever death sequences.

The filmmakers even toy with their own concepts by dropping in false clues and hazards that appear life threatening, but are just there to throw us off the scent. I'll confess: I still have fun playing the game. I'm ready for more. Who cares that the acting sucks? In films like this, it's supposed to suck. The blood is everywhere. Brain matter and fleshy bits fly like pink confetti at a gay pride parade. Most importantly, the audience is always into it (of course, they're usually rooting for Death). After enduring such nonsense as The Fog, When a Stranger Calls and Bloodrayne in the last few months, it's refreshing to get a film that actually has fun with its horror without making a joke out of it. Final Destination 3 continues its fine franchise tradition.


Curious George
There's a nice-sized chunk of my brain that thinks I shouldn't even be reviewing this film. It's not geared at my demographic—not even in the same general direction. And my brain is just too far advanced from a child's to even relate to any of the subtleties that a film like Curious George might bring to the table. But two factors combined to justify (at least in my feeble mind) my taking a critical look at this movie: I remember loving the H.A. Rey book (which were followed by many other Curious George adventures) as a child, and the film is populated with the vocal talents of such Hollywood dignitaries as Will Farrell, Drew Barrymore, Eugene Levy, Joan Plowright, David Cross and Dick Van Dyke.

I always prefer to see a film with its intended audience. Last week, I mentioned that I'd seen Something New with an almost entirely black female audience. I like seeing horror films with people who are into blood and guts, because, although a horror film might lose points for character development and certain dramatic elements, if it throws enough red squishy bits at me, I'll probably recommend it. And I like seeing kids' movies with kids in the crowd, which is exactly how I saw Curious George. Let me be the first to tell you, the kids will love it, and adults will suffer and/or sleep through it. As much of a torture as it might seem, seeing a film in a theatre filled with children isn't the worst thing. (In case you were wondering, the absolute worst thing is a theatre filled with the elderly; the amount and volume of talking is unbearable). If a movie geared at kids is any good, the kids are usually pretty quiet, and most of the kids at my screening of Curious George were quiet and stayed in their seats. So if you have children, my guess is this movie will satisfy them.

My review, on the other hand, is not as kind. Keep in mind, Curious George is about little kids. So you won't get any of the double-entendre or scary elements or even emotional impact that you get in some of the Pixar or Dreamworks films. This one is all about the cute, and George the monkey is undeniably cute. There isn't really a plot to Curious George, other than: an explorer in a yellow suit and hat (Farrell) finds the mischievous George in the jungle, they play around together, George ends up sneaking on a boat back to New York with the explorer, and gets into all sorts of trouble in Manhattan. There are some cute, but hardly clever, King Kong references; and the entirely sexless flirting going on between the explorer and an elementary school teacher (Barrymore) is sweet. But all of this goodie-goodie behavior seems like slumming for these actors, especially the irreverent David Cross, playing what passes for a bad guy in Curious George. At least he's drawn funny, even if he isn't.

The animation for Curious George isn't particularly innovative, but I'm not going to knock the film for that. Its style stays true to the simple artwork of the book, while adding a bit of computer animation for the backgrounds. Not a particularly inspired approach to the visuals, but it makes sense. The same could be said for the entire movie, which doesn't bother to branch out beyond the monkey-gets-in-trouble storyline as its main source of amusement. But the kiddies loved it, so maybe this cynical attitude is the price I pay for growing old. Now get off my lawn so I can focus on counting the gray hairs on my head.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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