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Hostage (2005)

18 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Hostage” could be seen as another entry in the “Die Hard” series, seeing as how it is an action-thriller starring Bruce Willis, but you’d be wrong. On the one hand, it’s gripping, suspenseful, and well-made. On the other hand, it’s grim and dark (as opposed to the excitement among the violence in the “Die Hard” movies) with a much more conflicted Willis character than his infamous action-hero character John McClane. Instead of being the “fly in the ointment,” the “monkey in the wrench,” or the “pain in the ass,” Willis plays a troubled person stuck in a situation he was hoping never to fall into, after a similar terrible experience a year ago. (No, this isn’t a sequel.)

The film opens as LAPD hostage negotiator Jeff Talley (Willis) is called upon for a scene in which a madman endangers a mother and child. After trying to play it calm, his method doesn’t work, resulting in the deaths of each. One year later, we see that Talley has left the city and joined the police force in Bristo Camino, where he is police chief. He feels extreme guilt over the lives he could have saved that year ago and finds himself better off serving in a community where nothing much happens. His biggest concern as of now is dealing with his unhappy wife Jane (Serena Scott Thomas) and daughter Amanda (Rumer Willis, Bruce’s real-life daughter), who only live with him “part-time.”

Meanwhile, an accountant (Kevin Pollak) is driving his kids (teenage Michelle Horn, grade-schooler Jimmy Bennett) home from school when he is spotted by three teenage thugs who decide to steal his car. They follow him home and sneak in to steal his keys. The intruders are Dennis (Jonathan Tucker), his brother Kevin (Marshall Allman), and their companion Mars (Ben Foster). When they’re inside the house, what seems like a simple robbery turns into something else, as the accountant is knocked unconscious, the two kids are held hostage, and Mars shoots a patrolling cop, thus bringing the whole police force on the scene and leaving Talley to have to deal with it. Talley does what he can until someone else takes over in authority, but it turns out that there are darker matters at hand, as members of the mob hold Talley’s wife and daughter hostage. They will let them go if Talley deals with the situation involving the other hostages.

OK, so maybe I could have done without this second plot thread, as the scenes involving the three interlopers and the two young hostages are tenser. By comparison, this other element is still pretty tense, but doesn’t do the credibility of the rest of the film that much service. As a result, the final (inevitable) showdown between Talley and these other criminals just seems sort of ordinary. I will give credit, though, that they do connect with the story of the accountant, who is also there for the showdown as well. So, it’s not pointless. But it is somewhat unnecessary.

How “Hostage” handles the messed-up situation involving the three guys and the two hostages is quite effective. For one thing, they don’t make the little boy (Bennett) into a whining boor—he’s resourceful and quick enough to grab his sister’s cell phone, sneak through the air ducts, and make secret calls to Talley (after seeing him on TV), to give him helpful information. Although, I have to ask—how come nobody checks up on the kid to make sure he hasn’t escaped his room?

What I really liked is the original treatment given to the three teenage crooks. Dennis is the hothead of the group, making sure he’s the one in charge of the situation and covering the fact that he’s a scared kid. Kevin is the nervous conscience who didn’t want to go along with this plan in the first place, and is stuck with nothing to do about it, other than hope no one gets hurt. Mars, on the other hand, is a complete psycho. He has a tendency to act first and think later, and he has a criminal record. The reasons as to why things go from bad to worse are because of his actions.

Bruce Willis is outstanding, playing a much different version of the heroic cop that made him a noticeable action star in the “Die Hard” movies. You can totally buy him as this tortured cop looking for redemption and finding it in yet another near-tragic position. He completely sells the drama portrayed with this character. You enjoy spending two hours watching him sort through everything that occurs in “Hostage,” a gripping, nicely-done thriller.

Red Eye (2005)

7 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Red Eye” is a psychological thriller that handles such elements of the genre the right way, while also admiring Rachel McAdams. She has turned so well into a movie star and as the Woman in Peril in “Red Eye,” the camera and script never let us stray away from seeing how plausible, convincing, and (let’s face it) beautiful she is. The Woman in Peril is a hard character to pull off in a movie like this. The wrong actress could easily overact to the terror happening to her character. But not Rachel McAdams—she remains convincing all the way through. Her weapons against a terrorist who made her red-eye flight miserable are a pen, a cane, and a hockey stick. Well of course, those are common weapons of choice.

McAdams plays Lisa Reisert, a hotel desk manager who catches a red-eye flight to Florida after bad weather cancels out her regular flight. Taking over her job temporarily at the hotel is her friend, who is not exactly qualified to handle situations that require…well, much thinking. At the bar in the airport, she meets a charming young man named Jack Rippner (get it?) and strikes up a conversation with him. And then they wind up sitting next to each other on the plane.

This sounds like the opening for a romantic drama. But Jack is definitely NOT the charming young man she met at the airport. Once the plane takes off and the two sit together, his personality transforms into something quite sinister. Jack is a terrorist and he tells her (softly) that her father is taken hostage and will be let go when she makes a call to the hotel to schedule a government agent to be booked in a different room than he already was. Then he will be assassinated. Lisa tries to find a way out of this nasty situation and goes through many threatening confrontations and conversations. It’s almost a wonder why these go unnoticed by the stewardesses, but then again this is a busy flight. The airplane scenes are handled in a plausible way.

Cillian Murphy plays Jack. He’s handsome, but his looks come with a warning. The way he handles Lisa in many moments in which she tries sneakily to get out of this situation is so sinister, it too is convincing. Cillian Murphy does a good job of switching tones in his personality. First he’s pleasant and polite. Then he’s…how many times do I have to use the word “sinister?” You get the point, I hope.

Now the final half of the film is your standard killer-in-the-house climax. I would’ve wanted something a bit more original. Who knows what you could do in an airport terminal? But still, McAdams remains plausible and convincing. I loved that her character was not dumb but a woman who is bright and thinks of what she would do; we feel for her. She has presence and credibility—she’s not one of those thriller victims are simply running around and screaming. She’s given something very specific to do and her scenes with Murphy are very effective. These two are great together.

Craven’s previous work included slasher films such as “Nightmare on Elm Street” and the “Scream” movies. Here, he gives us as little blood as possible and moves on to psychological tensions. The final half of the film may be a bit too conventional but for the most part of “Red Eye,” he succeeds in making a psychological thriller that works.

Castle in the Sky (2005)

20 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Castle in the Sky” is an animated family film made by the sensational style of Studio Ghibli and written, directed, and supervised by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki is responsible for great animated films such as “Princess Mononoke” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” “Castle in the Sky” is among his best work. It’s ingenious, exciting, and a truly fine action-adventure.

The best thing about “Castle in the Sky” is how it continues its storytelling with many twists and turns. We get from one place to another, to another, to another, and it’s all linked together so that we aren’t wondering if it could’ve gone different ways. It begins on an airship, where a girl named Sheeta (voiced for US dubbing by Anna Paquin) is being held by a man named Muska (Mark Hamill). A gang of air pirates (complete with their own personal small jets) invades the ship, seeking the crystal that Sheeta wears around her neck. Sheeta tries to hide from the pirates by hanging out a window, but she slips and falls to the ground. But a miracle occurs—because of the crystal, she falls incredibly slowly so that a boy in the village down below can catch her with ease.

The boy is named Pazu (James Van Der Beek). He’s an adventurous young man who hopes one day to save his late father’s good name by finding Laputa, a floating island said to be hidden by a thunderstorm, which his father claims to have seen. People called him crazy; Pazu wants to prove that he was right. Pazu and Sheeta befriend each other and Pazu tells Sheeta about his dream to find Laputa, which it seems has a connection with Sheeta’s crystal.

In a well-drawn, riveting action sequence, the air pirates invade the village and chase after Sheeta and Pazu on the nearby railroad tracks. You can feel the intensity coming through the screen as the chase continues. By this point, we are sucked into the story and intrigued by the execution—the animation is excellent; full of color and life.

The rest of the story is the adventures that these kids have—facing Muska who turns out to be a government agent working with the Army; encountering the air pirates and later befriending them (the bumbling pirates, led by their anxious, fed-up mother, gamely voiced by Cloris Leachman, provide most of the film’s comedy); and of course finally reaching Laputa itself and engaging in a battle over it. What do they find when they finally get there? I shouldn’t say. One of the pleasures I had with this film was that I didn’t know what was going to happen, or what I was going to find. But I can say that I wasn’t let down by the outcome. I can think of many adventure movies that run out of steam before their final act, but not “Castle in the Sky.” This is an engaging, imaginative, vigorous action-adventure from beginning to end. Indiana Jones would have been proud of these two adventurous young characters.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

19 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Harry Potter may still be wide-eyed to every new magic element he observes around him, but he has gotten used to a lot of Hogwarts activity. He joins in with his friend Ron and his brothers as they chant for their favorite seeker in the famous Quidditch team (as we learn, Quidditch is a wizard-national sporting event now not just confined to Hogwarts) or when he’s learned almost every spell he can use with his wand. At age 14, he’s almost gotten used to Hogwarts School, but nothing can prepare him for what he has to encounter in the fourth “Harry Potter” film, entitled “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

Not only is he for some unknown reason (unknown until the end of the film, anyway) chosen for the extremely dangerous Tri Wizard Tournament, but he later discovers that Lord Voldemort is on the rise. Even scarier, especially for a 14-year-old, is working up the courage to ask a girl to the Yule Ball.

It seems as though the “Harry Potter” series is getting darker and darker with each new installment. It really makes me wonder what will be in store for us in the final installment. This film ends with a setup to something even bigger. It also includes the line near the end muttered by Dumbledore, “Dark and difficult times lie ahead, Harry.” The foreshadowing is terrific.

But way before that, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his best friends Ron and Hermione (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) are in their fourth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with only three years to go after this. Things are changing, for sure. Harry is having nightmares of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) returning after many, many years; Ron is more nervous than usual; and Hermione is becoming a beautiful young woman (though still the intelligent bookworm). This year, there is a Tri Wizard Tournament to be held at Hogwarts, in which champion wizards from different schools (and different countries, I might add) compete for victory. Their names are drawn from the enchanted Goblet of Fire which chooses the winners to compete in the tournament. One is a tough-looking Quidditch seeker, another is a nice guy, and the other is a beauty queen—they are all 17 years old, which is a requirement for this tournament. But something weird is happening—Harry Potter’s name is drawn from the Goblet of Fire. He’s only 14 and he didn’t put his name in the goblet, but there’s nothing he can do about it.

So now he’s fighting for his life in this tournament—he fights a fire-breathing dragon, he must stay underwater for an hour to retrieve something from vicious (and ugly) merpeople, and go through a treacherous hedge maze that Jack Nicholson would have lost his mind in. He also befriends a weird new teacher who teaches defense against the dark arts (isn’t there always a new teacher in that class?)—This is Mad Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), a mysterious man with a robotic left eye that works as a zoom lens. But his biggest worry is finding a girl to ask to the Yule Ball. The scenes in which Harry and Ron attempt to find dates are so refreshing that it almost outshines the excellent action sequences with the dragon and the mermaids. It resembles the best of high school comedies…with young wizard crushes.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” has finally earned a PG-13 rating in the series. The tone is darker than usual and the action is more intense. But as they were with the past three films, the action sequences are amazing—particularly the sequence in which Harry battles a dragon. The computer animation again works very well.

This is not a stand-alone film—the film reaches its final half in which Lord Voldemort makes himself seen for the first time as a whole (we only saw his face in the first film). We are not disappointed—he is pale, bald, ominous, and threatening. Ralph Fiennes makes an intriguing, terrifying villain that will make Voldemort even more so in later installments. He sets up his plotting for later installments in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione may eventually have to fight him in an epic battle. That’s one I can’t wait for. What I’m really concerned about is what will happen until that battle.

Oh, I can’t believe I almost forgot to mention another funny new character—Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson), the gossip columnist for the Daily Prophet who doesn’t stop until she gets her story. Richardson really makes the most of her limited role; she’s fantastic. I should also mention a nice touch at the Yule Ball—a sweet little relationship between the gentle half-giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Madame Maxine (Frances de la Tour), who is even taller.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is a solid entertainment—it nicely blends fantasy with teenage comedies. The characters are growing and it will be nice to see them continue to grow until the “Harry Potter” series is over.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

14 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”—with a title and story idea like that, you would expect a dumb vulgar comedy. But you’d be wrong…because it’s actually a smart vulgar comedy with more to it than its title and idea. This is one of those comedies where you laugh loudly at many scenes, but more importantly, you feel sympathy for the main character when it goes for drama and it works. “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” is a guy movie written and directed by Judd Apatow and I was surprised by how wise, funny, and insightful this movie really is. There is so much to those standards that yes, I am giving the movie four stars.

One of the movie’s best qualities is the lead performance by Steve Carell. Carell, who also co-wrote the movie along with Apatow, plays Andy, a stockroom clerk who is forty years old and a virgin. He lives all by himself in an apartment full of action figures and video games, and he watches “Survivor” with the neighbors upstairs, although he has to bring the TV. He tried to have sex in high school and in college, but everything turned out so wrong that he just stopped trying. During his job, he has kept his virginity a secret from his ten-year-younger co-workers until they invite him to play poker one night and they share their own sex stories. Andy unintentionally gives away his secret when he says that women’s breasts feel like “bags of sand” to him. The buddies ask if he’s a virgin—he is.

So the buddies—wonderfully-played by Seth Rogen as a guy with advice such as “date drunks,” Romany Malco as a ladies’ man who seems to know his way towards women, and Paul Rudd who can’t seem to get over a breakup with his previous girlfriend—decide to work on him. All three guys have major flaws in the ways of seducing women, and they have major problems of their own, but they truly believe that they know what to do. But their plan to fix Andy with somebody special—actually, that’s a lie; they want to set him up with anybody—does not go very well. They set Andy up with wrong women, including a drunken woman (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife) who drives Andy home, barely making it alive and hardly making it clean. (You’ll see.) But midway through the film, Andy meets Trish (Catherine Keener), a kind woman who runs a store across the street from the mall, where she takes your stuff and sells it on eBay. She’s about Andy’s age and is probably not a virgin, but she is attractive and kind. And they start to go out on dates…

This is where the serious side of the movie takes place. How Trish coaxes Andy into asking her on a date when Andy is afraid of looking silly is surprisingly charming and well-written. This sets up their relationship through the rest of the movie, which is handled so wonderfully you forget the movie is also a comedy until Andy or the friends screw up again. The relationship between these two is sincere and very beautiful.

Steve Carell is pitch perfect in this role. He has that balance between comic and sincerity. He makes Andy a lovable main character. And he’s joined by many wonderful supporting characters, including the buddies who have brilliant comic timing, and Paula (Jane Lynch), a tall, striking woman who is Andy’s boss and gives him a tip about the term “sex buddy”—I love the scene where she sings him a Guatemalan love song without even stammering. And Catherine Keener is always fantastic one movie after another—she’s one of the best character actresses ever. Her character likes this guy; we know she’s probably going to end his virginity, but she is also very understanding.

Also, the movie has some huge laughs. One sequence in particular shows Andy getting his incredibly hairy chest waxed. That scene is hilarious and the outcome of that scene is even funnier. And then there’s a Bollywood tribute involving the four guys that had me laughing out loud. There are many other scenes like that that made me laugh—I won’t name them all to make the review funnier. In a way, this movie works both ways (quite strange for a movie called “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”). It works well as both a comedy and a romance.

Now, at almost two hours’ running time, this movie does feel a bit too long—that’s one minor criticism to this otherwise sensational comedy/romance. Judd Apatow and Steve Carell must have tried everything they could to make us laugh and cry. They succeed with flying colors. Thanks to clever writing and superior acting, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” is a great romantic comedy. With a title like that, who would’ve thought?

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

9 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a film adaptation of the well-known Roald Dahl children’s book of the same name, as well as a remake of the well-known 1971 children’s classic, entitled “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” It’s also an easy movie to review—everything in this movie works except for Willy Wonka, the magical tour guide who was a huge part of the magic in the original 1971 film. While Gene Wilder played him as welcoming, winning, magical, though maybe somewhat deranged, Johnny Depp, playing Wonka in this new version, is just…awkward. Depp plays him all over the place, but there is just no sense of magic with the way he portrays Willy Wonka. He’s not charismatic; he’s uncomfortable and creepy. Wonka is supposed to tour five kids into his wondrous chocolate factory. I’m just glad the parents are there with the kids before the crazy stuff happens to them (more on that later)—especially since their tour guide is a…weirdo.

That’s not to say Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka in the original wasn’t weird, but at least that was part of his edge. Sure, he was mysterious, but he could be kind when he needed to be and fun to be around. Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka is not only annoying, but also somewhat psychotic in the way that his motives are never quite clear.

But strangely, even if Johnny Depp’s performance doesn’t work, there are many more elements of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” that do. They help me give the movie a mild recommendation.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” centers around a little boy named Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore, who previously co-starred with Depp in “Finding Neverland”) whose family is so poor that they have cabbage for dinner every night, all four grandparents sleep and live in the same bed, and there’s a large hole in the ceiling of Charlie’s upstairs bedroom, open to cold weather. Oh, and the house is slanted. He lives in the town where Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory is located—as the story goes, no one goes in and no one comes out. But what goes on in that factory? Who’s working there?

Well, it turns out that five children will get the chance to find out the answers to those questions if they find golden tickets inside Wonka chocolate bars. The first four kids who find it each have serious character flaws—one never stops eating, one is rich, bratty, and spoiled, one is overly obsessed with winning (even chewing a piece of gum for three months for a world record), and one is obsessed with video games and TV. Charlie gets the last ticket, though not without suspense.

That’s the first half-hour of the movie, and then all five kids, each bringing a legal guardian (Charlie brings his feisty Grandpa Joe), arrive at the factory, only to be welcomed by the strange Willy Wonka who will serve as their tour guide. When he first arrives, he’s reading his greeting from cue cards and acts uncomfortable when the kids say “hi” to him. Kind of rude for someone who sends out tickets inviting people to visit inside his top-secret factory.

It turns out the factory is a dream come true. There’s a room that is like a candy wonderland—it’s a meadow made entirely out of sweets. Everything is edible, even the grass and river (which is made entirely out of chocolate and churned by a waterfall). The inventing room is full of strange inventions and neat little tricks all around. There are squirrels that are specially trained to test walnuts. And even more strange, wonderful stuff is seen. “Why is everything here completely pointless,” one of the kids rudely asks. Charlie calmly replies, “Candy doesn’t have to have a point. That’s why it’s candy.” Truer words couldn’t be spoken about this place.

Charlie is a good kid—honest, sincere, nice, and true to his heart. But the other four kids’ flaws get the better of them in this factory. With each stop, one of these kids gets a comeuppance. The fat kid drinks from the chocolate river and winds up in the filtration system after falling in—he shouldn’t have been greedy. The other kids suffer worse fates they had coming due to their flaws, but they still make it out alive so they can learn from their experiences. So the message is as clear, as in the original version—be kind and patient, and one day you’ll be rewarded. That’s how Charlie wins the big prize at the end, which I won’t spoil in this review, if you haven’t seen the original version already.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was directed by Tim Burton, who specializes in weirdness/quirkiness. As is the case with most of his movies, the movie looks incredible. Even before we go inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, the everyday modern world is neat in the way the settings/surroundings are exaggerated to look like an illustrated fairy tale. The outside of the factory seen from behind a large gate, the young protagonist’s slanted little house, even the candy stores—all of these locations/sets are fun to look at. And that’s just the first thirty minutes of the movie. Inside the factory, later, we get more visual treats. The candy room is a pure delight. Everything looks edible, and you really want to just fly into the screen and join the experience. The chocolate river, in particular, looks especially realistic. And there are more visual treats as the movie (and factory tour) goes along.

The story gets deeper with Wonka’s back-story—how Wonka became who he is now and why he apparently has a “parent” complex. We never even saw a back-story in the original version. That’s because we didn’t need one—the character was already as interesting as he could be without being the main focus of the story, which is Charlie. However, while it may not be necessary, there needs to be at least some saving grace from Johnny Depp’s awkward performance.

And I’m sorry, I keep coming back to how uncharismatic this Willy Wonka is. What’s really surprising is that Johnny Depp playing the role sounds like it would be great. This should have been the high point of the movie, or at least one of them. But I have no idea what he’s doing with this performance. How can you not think of Michael Jackson crossed with Marilyn Manson when watching him? That’s not a welcome combination, and I don’t care who I’m talking to with this review.

But like I said, everything else in the movie works. The movie looks great, the story is well-executed, and the other actors do competent jobs. Freddie Highmore is likable and sweet as Charlie, David Kelly is wonderful as Grandpa Joe, and the other four kids—Julia Winter, AnnaSophia Robb, Jordan Fry, and Philip Wiegratz—are good comic actors.

OH! I cannot believe I forgot to mention something else I liked in this movie—the Oompa-Loompas, the race of strange, little men (all of which played by Deep Roy) who are the workers of the factory. Whenever one of the kids gets into trouble in the factory, there they are to sing songs about their fate. Their musical numbers come out of nowhere and are as weird and fun as the singing waiters in “The Polar Express.” These sequences are very delightful.

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a nice fantasy film, despite Johnny Depp’s awkward performance. Just about everything else in this movie works well and are enough for me to rate it three stars. I gave the original film four stars, and that was made more than thirty years before this one. At least that version had a more charismatic tour guide for the chocolate factory.

War of the Worlds (2005)

17 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“War of the Worlds” is an updated version of the famous H.G. Wells story, and it’s by far the loudest and most tense version to come to the screen. Written by David Koepp (“Jurassic Park,” “Panic Room”) and directed by Steven Spielberg, “War of the Worlds” is mildly successful, but a pretty good time.

It’s a mediocre screenplay; I’m not going to lie. In fact, Koepp comes across better as a storyteller, and the story is well-paced and well-put-together. But it is merely an alien invasion thriller and we get the usual stuff we expect from this sort. (Although, there are a few nice little touches thrown in.) However, give Spielberg the job of directing this feature and you’ve got…a mediocre screenplay executed by a great director. But hey, it’s a nice attempt.

“War of the Worlds” is a summer blockbuster and you get the thrills and chills that come with the best feelings of such. The entire film is intense with underlying feelings of suspense, terror, and madness. The big action sequences are masterfully created with top-notch special effects and they just keep you on the edge of your seat. This is really the best way to watch “War of the Worlds”—see it on the big screen. It’s a great cinematic experience that the feelings of tension come with. (I was 13 years old when I first saw it in a cinema—it blew me away!) Even in the quiet moments, there’s still a good deal of tension because we know at any minute that something could go wrong and the heroes have to be one step ahead of it so they can survive.

The film centers around a divorced father named Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) who is left in charge of his two kids for the weekend by his ex-wife (Miranda Otto). The kids are rebellious, teenage Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and accepting, younger Rachel (Dakota Fanning). Ray doesn’t have the best relationship with them—in fact, Robbie sort of hates him and always calls him “Ray” instead of “Dad.” Things are awkward and uncomfortable for them, and then things get even worse once the lightning storm hits.

It starts out somewhat peaceful, like a big light show in the sky with a big funnel cloud that doesn’t seem to be harmful. Ray even brings his daughter outside to “see something cool,” assuring her that it’s like the 4th of July. But then the lightning hits just a little closer and that’s when things start to get scary. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place,” he calmly assures Rachel. Well, it does today.

Like everyone else, Ray goes to town to see what has happened. And then, something rises up from the ground and brings death to all. Ray survives the attack and, expecting another very soon, packs up the kids and everything he has in his house to get the hell out of dodge.

When did Spielberg become so cynical about his alien figures? This is the man who has shown through movies like “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” that life “out there” can be full of hope and friendliness. But not here; not with “War of the Worlds.” These aliens in this movie are as ruthless as the shark in “Jaws.” They hunt, they feed, and they don’t stop.

These aliens leave a great amount of dread whenever you don’t see them. You just see their mechanical giant tripod death machines for the first hour or so, and you even see a probe searching all over for the heroes while they hide, and that somehow still keeps you on the edge of your seat. But once you see the actual aliens, the fear is gone. The aliens look the same as any other alien you see in any big-budget alien-invasion picture—they look like something the cat threw up, nothing like Spielberg’s original alien creatures.

There’s something I don’t understand, though. These aliens apparently want our blood—to exterminate and harvest us. But when they first arrive, they’re using heating rays to zap everyone on the streets to ashes. I don’t get it—why destroy what you want to eat later?

There are some great visual shots in the film—in particular, there’s one featuring a fast-moving train with each car on fire, another featuring dead bodies flowing along a river, and another in which Ray exits a house he hid inside during a bigger occurrence to find a crashed plane that has trashed the place. And the audio aspects of the picture make the film even more intense—the sound editing and mixing aid the visuals to create an intense, visceral experience. Listen to the tripods’ roar in surround sound—it’s genuinely frightening.

Tom Cruise has a physical presence that he has shown particularly in the “Mission: Impossible” movies, but I have to admire the fact that his main character of Ray is not an action hero. He’s a lousy, divorced father and a hard-time working man. When the aliens attack, he relies on his quick wit and thinking to keep his kids safe and stay alive himself. Cruise acquits himself nicely in the role. The two young actors are fine, although I tire of Dakota Fanning’s precociousness too easily. There are times when I wanted her to just shut up. There’s a suitably chilling performance by Tim Robbins as a survivalist who provides shelter for Ray and Rachel, and whose head may not be tightly screwed on. There’s a question of trust in his scenes.

The ending doesn’t quite work. It ends too quickly and without the right satisfying note. It’s a clever twist, mind you, but I would have liked to see a more compelling conclusion.

“War of the Worlds” is not about fighting the enemy. It’s about fighting to survive. Our heroes are not the typical heroes who man up and fight against the monstrous aliens (although near the end, Ray does get inside a tripod to save his daughter when she gets captured—but even that’s just selfless bravery and the end of Ray’s character arc). It’s cinematically dramatic and visually interesting. And though it has its flaws, I enjoyed “War of the Worlds” as an intense action picture.