Mandel Maven's Nest Flicks: Popcorn-Eaters
”ad captandum [vulgus] – gustum populi Americani!!!.” – Mason Locke Weems on his first 1799 draft “biography” of George Washington
--Quoted in Francois Furstenberg, In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
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Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
The Pure Necessity (Die Reine Notwendigkeit) (seen at 2019 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (1/31/2019)
Going South (seen at 2019 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (1/31/2019)
Ralph Breaks The Internet: With the same creative team as Wreck-It Ralph (2012), directors Rich Moore & Phil Johnston, screenplay by Pamela Ribon & Johnston, and the addition of Josie Trinidad as story head, this follow-up deserves its PG rating in the best possible way. Because this is no lame sequel, but a feisty send-up of video games, popular culture, the commercialization and corporativism of the internet, and even of Disney’s role in perpetuating stereotypes for decades into the online world.
Be patient through the opening “Magic School Bus Explains the Internet”-type establishment of the plot. Vanellope von Schweetz (again voiced by Sarah Silverman) sets off with big brother-like Ralph (John C. Reilly) to find a replacement steering wheel for her old arcade “Sugar Rush” racing game. From a virtual ad for eBay, the two are directed by a friendly spam-generator to Yesss the head algorithm of BuzzzTube (Taraji P. Henson), who seems eerily like the entrepreneurs behind Chinese live-streaming documented in Hao Wu’s People’s Republic of Desire, showing this week at DOC NYC Festival and premiers on PBS’s Independent Lens 2/25/2019.
One of the funniest scenes in animated movies, maybe in any good film this year, comes amidst their quest to capture attention that will translate into money to pay too much for the piece from the past. Vanellope flees Star Wars storm troopers like Princess Leia and lands smack into the canon of Disney Princesses. In the press notes, co-writer Ribon explains: “Vanellope is technically a princess, but hasn’t really been included among Disney royalty. Who wouldn’t want the Hoodie Princess in there? That’s my Princess! I loved the idea of getting her into that club.” What takes this to another level is the involvement of the original princess voice actors: Auli‘i Cravalho (Moana); Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel (Frozen); Kelly MacDonald (Brave); Mandy Moore (Tangled); Anika Noni Rose (The Princess and the Frog); Ming-Na Wen (Mulan); Irene Bedard (Pocahontas); Linda Larkin (Aladdin); Paige O’Hara (Beauty and the Beast); and Jodi Benson (The Little Mermaid). Against the usual trope, Vanellope converts them to her casual wear even as they keep their distinctive identities – Cinderella’s T-shirt has a pumpkin carriage with ‘G2G’ for ‘Got To Go’ and Snow White’s jeans have an apple print.
Vanellope mocks their signature ballad “princess song”, but she stays true to her own dreams and feisty style in a marvelous parody of that saccharine genre. Silverman warbles “A Place Called Slaughter Race” (my nomination for Best Song Oscar, with music by Disney regular Alan Menken, lyrics by Johnston and Tom MacDougall) where she expresses how much she loved being in that fast-driving video game with big-sister-like Shank (voiced sultrily yet warmly by Gal Gadot) – in effect how much she now wants to grow up with her own role model. Together, Shank and Vanellope blow up any stereotypes of the dreaded tomboy label to show they can enjoy driving fast and hard, yet being girls. Ralph will just have to adjust.
The many references to internet companies and a plethora of pop culture icons (including the obligatory cameo of Stan Lee, sadly seen on the day he died) will entertain audiences from pre-teen up, and will mystify potential very young viewers, who will have endless questions. But very little kids shouldn’t be brought to see this entertaining, funny, and even scary animated film in theaters -- this is absolutely correctly rated PG. There is a “monster” scene that pays tribute to both the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters and Fantasia’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in a way that is genuinely frightening. Wait until you can watch this at home with your smaller kids and pause or zap as needed, after you have introduced them to all the other licensed characters Disney owns.
So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish Princess.
NB: This review is in fulfillment of Disney’s requirement that I post a review in order to be kept on their invitation list for press screenings. (updated 11/17/2018)
The Grand Bizarre (preview at 2018 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/6/2018)
Psychopaths (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Summer Camp Island (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Odd is an Egg (Odd er et egg) (short) (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/10/2017)
Beauty and the Beast (2D) (3/20/2017)
Pete’s Dragon (8/12/2016)
The BFG: Director Steven Spielberg adapts Roald Dahl’s enormously popular 1985 novel quite literally, in colorfully fleshing out the original 1975 short story tribute to his father’s night tales in Danny the Champion of the World. Yet the film retains the delightful, child-like sense that the parallel world of magical fantasy is, of course, possible with a smooth blending of animated and real figures that evoke (and colorize) Quentin Blake’s classic drawings.
Continuing his collaboration with Spielberg from his physically-expressive, barely-speaking role in Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance’s voicing of The Big Friendly Giant, with his Carroll-ish jabberwocky Sheridan-ish malapropisms grounds the film in its British origins. Melissa Mathison’s script smoothes over the 1950’s un-PC phrases in his dialogue, and adds in more back-story in how he learned to read from an earlier human bean visitor.
Keeping that nod to Dickens with the BFG’s favorite book Nicholas Nickleby, the plucky orphan Sophie is played by 12-year-old Ruby Barnhill, who gymnastically dives into the green-screened Big Friendly Giant’s Cave and Country without annoying child-actor ticks. While my husband thoroughly enjoyed her adventure even unaccompanied by kids, he wondered if boys would buy into a girl lead, though this is faithful to Dahl’s intention to immortalize his daughter after her death, and our sons had loved the book to read on their own.
While a colleague in the ladies’ room afterwards disdained the story as “silly”, I was charmed by how Penelope Wilton’s Queen of England was utterly convincing in believing in the power of suggestion from the BFG blowing a nightmare into her ear. Ordering around the military and meeting with ambassadors, she was pretty much re-playing her determined Harriet Jones in Dr. Who, and I do think The BFG could appeal to those fans. While there’s a bit of a slow-down with the slapstick jokes of BFG dining with the Queen, despite Rafe Spall’s officious attempts as the Butler, the pacing worked better for kids though it’s a bit longer than Spielberg’s draggier The Adventures of Tintin (2011). Rebecca Hall’s Mary has been upgraded from a maid to a business-like assistant who is yet sweetly maternal to the motherless Sophie.
In a bit of Wizard of Oz tribute, several late night carousers and others in the “real” world of London later voice the Bigger Badder Giants, particularly Adam Godley (of his own giant ears). Among the other people-eating giants, Jemaine Clement zestily voices Fleshlumpeater’s aggression, along with Bill Hader’s Bloodbottler. Their fate is satisfactorily changed to be more visually amusing (and fair). John Williams’ score is one of his most fun in years.
NB: This review is in fulfillment of Disney’s requirement that I post a review in order to be kept on their invitation list for press screenings. (6/30/2016)
Finding Dory: I have good memories of Finding Nemo, without the details, but the quick prologue is supposed to fill the audience in on “Dory” the little blue fish’s short term memory loss, as there are some kids who may not have seen that. She quickly grows up, still with the same problem. So now her issue is presented as some sort of developmental disability, with the ongoing theme of her (again voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) learning independence to trust herself: “What would Dory do?” Albert Brooks again voices the ever-worrying “Marlin”, now accompanied by his own son. Off “Dory” goes to find her parents she barely remembers and they follow! What follows is gently entertaining. The film gets funny once they make it to the Marine Life Institute in Jewel of Morro Bay California that “Dory” vaguely flashbacks to as her parents’ home – especially when she heard what adults will more appreciate is Sigourney Weaver’s recorded voice repeatedly booming out that its mission is to “rescue, rehabilitate, and release”. (Though it’s continually unclear if that’s ominous or not.) The search through the Institute is a humorous adventure tour of talking aquatic species and, ironically, avoiding eager children. The highlight is “Henry” the octopus (voiced by Ed O’Neill), who negotiates to help her in exchange for a tag to get him shipped to “Cleveland” (which could be an aquarium or not -- certainly for-profits continue to be a post-Blackfish issue, which was why the setting was moved from a Sea World type facility). “Henry”s shtick is his chameleon ability to change color to reconfigure into whatever environment he’s in. Which leads to the question – how accurate is the marine information provided? At least kids will learn something about echolocation, courtesy of “Bailey” the recovering beluga whale (voiced by Ty Burrell). Those tidbits provide something for adult attention when they take the kids – but, unfortunately, that is not enough of a reason for adults to come on their own. Also disappointing, is the lack of original songs. Every now and then “Dory” tries out a song as a mnemonic – but not more than a phrase. Even the closing song is just a cover, Sia doing “Unforgettable”, but is worth listening to while the credits roll because the film continues afterwards, with more funny biz between a goofy seal and the rock-dominant sea lions “Fluke” (Idris Elba) and “Rudder” (Dominic West), in writer/director Andrew Stanton’s fan-boy The Wire reunion.
Piper is the cute thematically related short preceding Dory. Admirably not anthropomorphizing too much, director Alan Barillaro follows a dependent baby sandpiper learning how to cope with the tide from a hermit crab in order to successfully get to bi-valve meals itself. Luckily the mussels, or oysters, or clams, whatever, aren’t also given personalities before they’re down the little bird’s gullet. The animated scenery is lovely.
NB: This review is in fulfillment of Disney’s requirement that I post a review in order to be kept on their invitation list for press screenings.
Simshar (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (5/23/2016)
Free as the Birds (short) (seen at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/2/2016)
This Magic Moment (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/29/2016)
Perfect Strangers (Perfetti sconosciuti) (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/28/2016)
Elvis and Nixon (previewed at 2016 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/5/2016)
The Finest Hours (1/28/2016)
The Good Dinosaur: See it in 3D! Even watching it alone in my local movie theater on the opening morning, I laughed at the visual jokes and gasped at the wilderness dangers. What with the father dying, not the mother like in most Disney flicks, you'll feel like you're in the Western epic John Ford would have made if he wanted to do alt-evolution animation. Or think of it as the beautiful scenery of The Revenant but in PG safety. But please explain to your grand/kids that the prologue comet did NOT really miss Earth and that humans did NOT live with dinosaurs! Don’be late so you can see the wonderful short Sanjay’s Super Team, that opens with director Sanjay Patel noting it’s “based on a true story (mostly)”. This may be Pixar’s most multicultural celebration and delightfully, colorfully unites Indian and U.S. pop culture for all kids. (11/28/2015)
Brothers…Blood Against Blood (8/19/2015)
Kidnapping Mr. Heineken (3/16/2015)
A Hijacking (Kapringen) (briefly reviewed in best of year- scroll down) (see it with The Project - briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (12/23/2013)
Lil Bub & Friendz (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/9/2013)
Fresh Meat (briefly reviewed in Youth in Rebellion at Tribeca 2013 at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/5/2013)
A Cat In Paris (Une Vie De Chat) (Note: I recommend the Cat Cam documentary short about the story of the Cat Cam product. The cat and cat burglar also leap around the spires of the city past Billie Holiday’s “I Wished on the Moon” playing on an old 78 record. The mother’s vengeance confrontation fantasy is very dramatic. In the English language version, Matthew Modine voices only a very small part as the detective partner “Lucas”.) (6/1/2012)
The Artist (briefly reviewed in best of year- scroll down) (previewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/23/2011)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (12/19/2011) (Note: Another advantage of keeping the original Swedish setting is to keep the journalist’s comfortable relationship with his co-publisher Erika Berger (Robin Wright), who still keeps her sophisticated marriage warmly open to satisfyingly include him, as she has for many years. In America, they would seem more like adulterers than mature lovers.)
Rabies (Kalevet) (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (4/22/2011)
Boxing Gym (11/5/2010) (Note: The gym walls are flamboyantly covered with posters from champion bouts and more conventional boxing movies that contrast to this documentary.)
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (Luftslottet Som Sprängdes) (11/5/2010)
Peepli Live (8/14/2010) (Notes: Many in the cast are members of the Naya Theatre repertory company renowned for blending folk performance traditions with contemporary stories, and the most poignant song about the farmers is sung by the traditional village musicians of Badwai. More people will doubtless see this funny film than Deepa Bhatia's informative documentary Nero's Guests, seen at the 2010 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center, on the efforts of activist P. Sainath to expose the causes and extent of the financial and human disaster behind the farmers' suicides.)
The Girl Who Played With Fire (Flickan Som Lekte Med Elden) (7/9/2010)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Män Som Hatar Kvinnor) (3/19/2010)
Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation! (7/31/2009)
Masquerades (Mascarades) (briefly reviewed in Part 3 Family Ties Around The World at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/9/2009)
North (Nord) (briefly reviewed in Part 1 Recommendations at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/26/2009)
The Swimsuit Issue (Allt flyter) (briefly reviewed in Part 1 Recommendations at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/26/2009)
Newsmakers (Goryachie novosti) (briefly reviewed in Part 1 Recommendations at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival)) (Russian remake of Breaking News (Dai si gein)) (4/26/2009)
The Fly (Mukha) (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)
The Grocer’s Son (Le Fils de l’épicier) (previewed at 2008 Rendez-Vous with French Film at Lincoln Center) (6/7/2008)
Ten Canoes (6/1/2007) (emendations coming here after 11/1/2007)
Opal Dream (11/17/2006) (emendations coming here after 4/17/2007)
Lassie (11/14/2006) (including DVD extras) (emendations coming here after 3/14/2007)
Beowulf & Grendel is a beautiful looking, modern re- interpretation of part of the legend with a reluctant hero and sympathy for the monsters. The barren Icelandic coastal scenery with wind-swept sounds dominate the film, and will doubtless be lost on small screen viewing, but the characters may then seem less dwarfed by nature. (I did wonder where they got their food, fuel and metal from these rock-hewn shores.)
Though the ponderous narration duplicates the onscreen words as well as the visuals, debut feature film screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins makes several bold interpretive choices for a renowned man vs. monster legend, at least as I know it from Seamus Heaney's recent poetic translation. The original's artistic focus on the power of the storyteller is frequently mocked, almost Monty Python and the Holy Grail-style, as Gerard Butler's Beowulf is consistently embarrassed by how his exploits have been carried and exaggerated by ever more flattering troubadours -- even as debut feature film director Sturla Gunnarsson has him quite dramatically emerge out of the sea from a shipwreck. His different accent, Butler's own Scottish brogue, is even explained by his distant homeland. Within the scope of modern manly epics, Butler carries off the costumes and fighting better than Clive Owen in King Arthur, but doesn't come up to the high bar set by Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
From the opening unprovoked attack that establishes the basis for Grendel's life-long revenge-seeking, Stellan Skarsgård's increasingly haunted King Hrothgar seems to intentionally recall the obsessively grieving king Denethor of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, in a nod to Tolkien's significance as a Beowulf scholar.
Grendel himself seems to come out of a classic Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movie, though without CGI, as a giant who selectively tears into men (and there is quite a bit of blood spewn in his attacks). "Grendel's Kin" (the script refers to them as "trolls") is scarier in the water before she vengefully stomps onto land, looking a lot like a Very Tall Wraith from the TV series Stargate: Atlantis.
I haven't read the John Gardner version, but this one is certainly sympathetic to Grendel from the beginning, and on as Beowulf oddly finds he can communicate with him, through the quizzical character of the alleged witch Selma (Sarah Polley returning to Iceland as in No Such Thing). While explaining her Canadian accent due to having been carried off as abused spoils in war from yet another outpost, her gradual seduction of Beowulf doesn't have much more heat in this cold clime than her other sexual encounters. She does spit out the sharp-tongued retorts quite well -- when Beowulf tries to establish sympathy that he too had been a war captive, she wryly comments that he hadn't worried about being made a whore by the victors. Unfortunately, her Cassandra-like prophesies kill some of the suspense.
As Beowulf gradually figures out the background truth, he becomes increasingly ambivalent about helping the king, which raises the question that maybe successful movie epics aren't meant to have Hamlet-like, hesitant heroes. His rueful warning that the others who come after him will be different is literally a double-edged sword.
The language is a confusing effort at trying to seem both ancient and modern, though the very contemporary Mamet-like profanity effectively gets across that this is a testosterone-fueled world of rough warriors. The actors all seem more natural and passionate when the dialogue is more modern. I assumed the male teasing was intentionally funny Shakespearean-like jibes, but no one else in the audience laughed at the sarcastic comments and one guy kept yawning. The literal pissing contest between men and monster was also funny.
The Christian overlay in a bloody pagan tale of magic is dealt with by having this Danish tribe presented as being on the cusp of Christian conversion hastened by the old gods seeming helplessness against the monsters' attacks.
The men's wigs and beards are among the best and most believable I've seen in an historical saga. However I would find it hard to believe that the Queen's hairdo was supposed to intentionally recall "Princess Leia" from Star Wars. She doesn't get to do too much but is a strong helpmate covering up her husband's weaknesses. Polley's 'do is pretty much just a rat's nest.
The score is overly bombastic, but occasionally incorporates tribal sounds of percussion and eerie voices that are more evocative. (7/30/2006)
Thank You for Smoking is the funniest political satire since Wag the Dog.
Amidst uproariously salty language, some of the humor is broad (a gun-laden NRA-type going through security) and some hits familiar targets (a creatively profiteering Hollywood agent), it has unusual heart in Aaron Eckhart's portrayal of tobacco lobbyist "Nick Naylor". His lobbyist is just a guy who does his job and does it well - within the bounds of democratic capitalism he provides equal time within the court of public opinion for a legal product. Rather than doing the politician's trick of not answering the question asked but what he wants asked, his specialty is "I talk." His delivery adds a wry touch to the usually over-used voice-over narration.
What helps to create the personal touch (and more than Eckhart gets in how Neil LaBute has used his rugged handsomeness) is his continuing effort to connect with his estranged son, a relationship, according to an interview with the creative and production team on Charlie Rose, that writer/director Jason Reitman added and was not in Christopher Buckley's original novel which only had him referred to in a single line: "What would your son think?". For once, Cameron Bright's old head on young shoulders works in a non-spooky context, as his dad brings him along on business trips for their bonding potential.
While William H. Macy's senator seems a bit too easily flummoxed in a debate for an experienced politician, even one from Vermont, Maria Bello shines as the alcoholic member of the very funny Merchants of Death who exchange tips on making tobacco, liquor and firearms more palatable (and who at the end are joined by an amusing array of co-conspirators). J.K. Simmons does a more hard-driving take on his Spider-Man boss. Robert Duvall's last of a dying breed of entrepreneurial captains of industry is more than a little stereotyped. Katie Holmes plays the sweet card well enough as an ambitious reporter (the more pumping than revealing sex scene that was accidentally left out at Sundance is more about the dialog than the visual). Just when you think Sam Elliott's on target portrayal of a former Marlboro Man-type cowboy is touching and meaningful so can't be satirized, this film finds a way to throw in a zinger.
Real video footage of the infamous tobacco companies' Congressional testimony is threaded through for an amusing reality check and faux news and TV shows are recreated very realistically. Though the trailer does give away some of the best jokes, the humor is consistent through to the end (though some of the celebrity references may date the script), with the hero getting more cynical, not less, to the Kingston Trio singing "Greenback Dollar". Without giving any spoilers, rest assured that it is delightful that unlike so many movies about such characters he does not end up on a slacker beach or doing humanitarian volunteer work.
Even more pop song references to cigarettes could have been selected but the opening use of the full hearing of Tex Williams's "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette!" is fun. The credits solemnly point out that even though there is a clip of John Wayne smoking in a movie, his family's foundation is against smoking and the health issues around smoking are ironically made personal to the hero.
The sold out audience I was with at the opening weekend matinee at a theater playing it every hour had great fun laughing out loud.
While "Naylor" references the usual example of morally flexible appearing professions in lawyers who defend serial killers, I've seen his identical type among fund raisers who as hired guns can convince donors to give money for any cause or nonprofit organization. At a fundraisers' conference I saw a confrontation quite similar to one in the film, where a health organization chastised a museum for accepting tobacco money and was coolly responded to that the donor fit depends on the organization's mission. Let alone my brother-in-law the risk communicationist advising corporations around the world. Both my sons were presidents of their high school debate teams and I'm used to living with talkers who at the flip of a coin at the beginning of a debate can switch affirmative or negative on any issue. I just never realized they were in training to be lobbyists. (3/21/2006<)
Firewall is a pedestrian thriller. It picks up about half-way through as the body count rises then falls improbably flat.
Harrison Ford looks so aged in this film that I could believe that he was an old-fashioned security specialist but he had no credibility as an IT specialist and seemed more comparable to Alan Arkin's well-played corporate fogey. Someone doubtless punched up Joe Forte's debut script to add in touches that deprecate Ford's age, such as his sneering that no teen geek would successfully hack his system. There's some effort to almost give him an age-appropriate wife, and Virginia Madsen even has an architectural career that justifies that gorgeous McMansion, but the young kids still look like a second, trophy family. (He must have been 50 when the older girl was born, but then she doesn't have much to do anyway.) At least Madsen gets some spunky dialog and isn't completely helpless.
Paul Bettany is just plain bland in the obligatory British baddie role, the villain that was made iconic by Alan Rickman in the original Die Hard. (Robert Patrick as the corporate take-over specialist seemed somewhat more threatening.) He only occasionally flashed hidden evil. Unfortunately we get no background on how the diverse criminal band got together, but Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Bettany's underling "Liam" (and who also had good chemistry with him in the very different Wimbledon), quite brightened up the younger hunk factor on the screen.
While it is helpful that about half-way through Ford's character summarizes the plot to a co-worker for us (Mary Lynn Rajskub pretty much re-playing her "Chloe" from 24), the last five or so minutes are dreadful, backed by the fakest looking matte I've seen in a Hollywood film in years for a setting that makes absolutely no sense to the story.
While I saw it in a theater, it was in a neighborhood movie house with a relatively small screen which did no harm to the viewing and indicated that one could just as easily be entertained by seeing this on TV/DVD/video. (3/17/2006)
Until the cute animated closing credits referenced the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand as the source of star's Emma Thompson screenplay, I thought Nanny McPhee was a charming new take on a Mary Poppins for a new generation.
Unlike P.L. Travers' creation, this Nanny 911 is much more about the children themselves learning to use their wits and initiative for more than making mischief. While the girl children are uniformly bland, the boys are quite captivating with their actions and bright dialog, particularly Thomas Sangster who was also quite good in Tristan & Isolde (though the baby should be a toddler not an infant in terms of the time line of the mother's death and the family's grief recovery).
Colin Firth is endearing as the beleaguered widower, even if his job as an undertaker is Roald Dahl-like macabre for a kids' movie. Too bad Derek Jacobi and Patrick Barlow play his assistants like broad imitations of Quentin Crisp. Angela Lansbury has her best role in years as the snobby aunt. That Imelda Staunton's cook was ex-Army added considerably to her character. The education of Kelly Macdonald's maid was sweet side story character development. Celia Imrie plays up the sex-starved bit too much for a kids' movie, though. I was actually disappointed that the Nanny started to look more and more like the real beautiful Thompson as the children learned to behave.
The production design is cotton colored candy delightful, even as it gets more and more fanciful. The wedding scene is uproarious, with broad food fight humor that children will love. The vaguely Victorian setting added to the fairy tale feel, and there are several amusing references to nursery rhymes and fairy tales, particularly about wicked step-mothers.
There are a few big vocabulary words in the dialog that young children won't understand but they also won't need to follow along.
Patrick Doyle's score is a bit overpowering at times but is still appropriately light-hearted. (3/15/2006)
There isn't much about Eight Below that couldn't have been done by Disney more contemporaneously with the Japanese film from the 1980's this is based on (Nankyoku monogatari), let alone the actual, sadder real story in the 1950's that inspired that film.
The dogs' story is less compelling than March of the Penguins (La Marche de l'empereur) and I think young children would be restless, even with a very large leopard seal as a villain. While the rigors of nature aren't presented quite as frankly as a documentary, some sad outcomes are presented discreetly. Sometimes they seem to be acting out those Sesame Street interludes on cooperation.
With a bit more work debut screen writer David DiGilio could have given the human characters more depth, but at least not all the women are just adoring girlfriends or wives, though Moon Bloodgood must be the most beautiful, long-haired bush pilot this side of a Bond movie if not in the history of aviation. Even the scientist's wife is addressed as "doctor".
At least director Frank Marshall did find a way to get Paul Walker's shirt off for the opening seconds, even for a film that mostly has him either in snow bound Antarctica or the cloudy Northwest. Otherwise we do gets lots of shots of his blue eyes filled with concern for his dogs - more so than for his ex and future girlfriend. Jason Biggs is amusing as the comic relief side kick.
Mitchell Amundsen's second unit did capture beautiful scenery even if we don't quite get a sense of such a harsh, dark winter that is keeping the rescuers out.
Mark Isham's score is very atypically corny.
The soft drink brand product placement is way too obvious and intrusive.(3/16/2006)
Joyeux Noël uses every movie cliché about World War I since at least All Quiet on the Western Front. But despite stiff directing and characterizations by writer/director Christian Carion, it still manages to push irresistible buttons and be touching.
For all the sentimentality, each character of a very large and genuinely multi-national cast, of French, Germans and Scots, does have his reasons, in that great phrase from Renoir as another war observer. We are never confused which trench we are in.
Guillaume Canet is almost distractingly handsome as "Lieutenant Audebert," like a French "Dr. McDreamy." The comparable German hunk Daniel Brühl is all bearded to try to make him look more serious and grown-up, though one of the implied plot themes is that the spontaneous holiday truce is partly made possible at this particular point in the lines because of the youthfulness of those in charge, as the more senior officers are off for Christmas. Their youthful exuberance and naiveté does come through well. French audiences doubtless enjoyed an ironic plot turn when they discuss the nationality of their wives. Canet's off-screen ex-wife Diane Kruger has an odd co-starring role as a soprano who traipses to the front to entertain the troops, with her lover, played by Benno Fürmann with none of the charisma he evinced in The Princess and the Warrior (Der Krieger und Die Kaiserin), perhaps due to all the self-sacrificing operatic lip syncing he has to do. He seems like he's acting in an old silent film. But we have seen all these actors do more challenging work.
The post-Christmas Eve camaraderie is more intriguing than the go for broke tear jerking religious and singing cooperation. A more contemporary commentary on the bureaucracy of war is the concluding montage of the reactions by their elders (including a chilling cameo by Ian Richardson as a bishop), as if needing to stamp out a contagious peace virus, whether that part of the story is true or not.
While inspired by true events (and there's also a lovely song Christmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheon about it as well), there's a certain convenience in setting a fictionalized anti-war film in this view of World War I: there's none of the messy ideological issues of later wars (other than a brief opening with the child's-eye view of the war); the warring parties are all Western European with a mostly shared culture, particularly around religion and the Latin mass (except for a token and heavy-handed reference to one guy being Jewish); some are not far from home, and the countries were close enough so that some had visited each other's neighborhoods and knew their language (sometimes they share French, sometimes English). Though that does lead to the ironic comment by a Frenchman to a German: "You don't have to invade Paris to come have a drink with me."
The film evinces only a frisson of the class cynicism that made A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles) so memorable, the authority issues of Paths of Glory, or the gritty realism of the British The Trench. There is just a brief recognition that the generals, as usual, think they are fighting previous wars with a closing mention of regret for the cavalry.
The musical score emphasizes the schmaltz, though it is sweet how it is traditional songs that unite them.
It was ridiculous that the MPAA originally gave this film an R rating for a brief romantic scene, as the war scenes are more about frozen bodies than blood. (3/13/2006)
The World's Fastest Indian is a fairly charming road movie, but, even as based on a true character, Anthony Hopkins's obsessive Mr. Magoo wears thin.
As a straightforward story of the eccentric retiree Burt Munro who from faraway New Zealand dreams of breaking a speed record in Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats with the titular home-jiggered motorcycle that he entertainingly fixes like McGyver's mechanic, the film lacks the poignancy or self-reflection of The Straight Story. Hopkins in a promotional interview noted how Munro's obsessions had driven off friends and family, but we get little sense of those conflicts other than neighborhood annoyance at his messy lawn.
The opening scenes at his home base have the feel of 1960's authenticity. He takes wry note of what others view as symbols of mortality that he has avoided - graves, war, the flu pandemic, cigarette smoking, etc. -- but he sees all that as proof of his luck.
Even if true (and I haven't seen director Roger Donaldson's documentary this is based on), he seeks his fortune by meeting up with a rainbow too full of too colorful characters -- roustabouts, a Hollywood transvestite, a real Indian in Nevada, a soldier on leave from spraying Agent Orange in Viet Nam (a sweet Patrick Flueger), a randy widow (Diane Ladd unusually over the top) among other older women repetitively giving him the eye among other things, a Latino car dealer (Paul Rodriguez in a non-comic role), before reaching fellow speed junkies gathering for "Speed Week." Yeah we get that he was dependent on the kindness of strangers.
Hopkins keeps his character consistent throughout, from the accent to the partial deafness, childlike trust and compulsive focus on details. It is nice to see that he can do a regular guy and not just egomaniacal geniuses, presidents, dictators, emperors, murderers, etc., and without hiding behind make-up or costumes.
The cinematography by David Gribble of his highway journey from the California docks to an Utah we haven't seen in films before is lovely. The speeding scenes are fun roller coaster rides. (2/23/2006)
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is rollickingly faithful to the spirit of the original satirical novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, who was making up as he went along the literary format we now call a novel, publishing serially from 1760 - 1770. There's a joke in the film that it was listed by The Guardian as the 8th most important book and is corrected, no that was in chronological order.
As an innovator Sterne had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted in relation to the reader and director/co-writer Michael Winterbottom free-wheelingly adapts that notion to film.
While it's a running joke in this film about making a film of the book that only a production assistant has read the book (but then she also has a thing for obscure Fassbinder films) as well as Stephen Fry playing an on and off screen pompous character, the very broad humor is completely in keeping with the original, with easy sight gags, like demonstrations of the use of forceps, that are very much in keeping with the book. The visual techniques are also parallel to the book, such as an all black screen, freezing the action with the narrator in front, etc.
The actors are playing the characters in the novel adaptation as well as actors named for themselves who have some of their same backgrounds, but they are of course all vain and egotistical and full of peccadilloes. We also the see usual tabloid journalists, on set flirtations, the lead actor's visiting real baby cries all the time vs. the movie one who spends most of the film being born, animal bodies, etc.
While there's jibes like the "co-lead" would only be the lead in the sit com version, it is in fact TV's self-reference that made this conception possible, from George Burns cackling at his co-stars on a precursor to closed-circuit TV to pseudo-reality shows like It's Garry Shandling's Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Unscripted and Extras, that go way beyond breaking the fourth wall. That similar tone is what doesn't make this a movie about filmmaking like other films about filmmaking, such as State and Main, Day for Night or Living in Oblivion. Another difference is the period story, so much of the contemporary discussions about authenticity and budgets, including on cell phones, take place while they're changing into 18th century costumes or make-up.
The humor, though, oddly slows down the further back stage we get, literally, as we retreat more and more to the characters' off screen lives. The comedy stops when the "Steve Coogan" character actually does become a 21st century man and lovingly takes care of his son. It is very sweet, compared to all the discussion about "Walter", Tristram's father's, relationship with his son. I figured it was intentional that an added bit that Coogan's character insists on adding to the birthing sequence literally falls flat, when there's a comment at the end that another expensive scene has been cut because "it wasn't funny."
Coogan is the center of the film and carries off the different levels of the film with finesse, even upside down in a womb with a view, like Steve Carrell in The 40 Year Old Virgin. Rob Brydon has a wonderful rapport with him as a deflating side kick, though I haven't seen any of their Brit com work to know if this is their ongoing mode, but there's jokes cracked about their relatively minor film work up to now.
The rest of the cast is a delightful mix of Brits familiar from TV, like Keeley Hawes of MI-5 (Spooks). I couldn't tell if she filmed this before or after giving birth at the end of 2004, but it adds to the amusing reality/not reality that through most of the film she portrays the mother in labor (another actress expresses sympathy that's she's been screaming for three days). I half expected her ex-co-star/now husband Matthew MacFayden to show up as if on the set, but the final credit does say "of course" the characters are fictional.
Gillian Anderson is a good sport in brief scenes. I assume it's part of the joke that they are oblivious that she's really no longer in L.A. but lives in Britain. While her "Widow Wadman" sounds like her "Lady Dreadlock" in the marvelous Bleak House currently showing on PBS, her dancing eyes show that she has a flair for classic comedy that should get more opportunities to be showcased. The references to The X Files are amusing, and reinforce the Larry Sanders parallelisms, as David Duchovny, her partner "Mulder", was a frequent guest.
The other celebrity references come fast and furious (such as Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain, and so on) and I'm sure I missed some British jibes, but these are in keeping with Sterne's contemporary references. (The Grouch claims he didn't catch a single reference but he laughed heartily throughout anyway.) Sterne's pseudo-scientific explorations are matched with a funny take on Pavlovian comparisons to "Mrs. Shandy"s sexual moods.
The score is a delightful pastiche, credited in order of appearance in the opening credits as are the supposedly jealous actors. Many of the selections are from other film scores, such as Fellini movies by Nino Rota, and "Sarabande" by Georg Friedrich Händel and "Sommarnattens Leende (Smiles of a Summer Night) Galop" by Erik Nordgren for Bergman film references, both directors who have done films about filmmakers.
The variety of protean film styles that Winterbottom has done recently is simply astounding. His 24 Hour Party People is amusingly referred to in passing, even though Jeremy Northram is playing the director, as quite handsome if not all that in control or competent.
Warning -- there's quite a number of shots of baby penises - also faithful to the novel. (2/20/2006)
Even with never having seen Remember the Titans, Coach Carter, Miracle, or even Hoosiers, etc. etc. I can still tell that Glory Road is a pretty much by the numbers "based on a true story" intended to be inspirational moment of sports history.
The best moments are those that are unique to this individual portrait of an ambitious small college basketball coach who makes the somewhat cynical decision just to win by exponentially integrating NCAA games through the recruitment and playing of black players in the early '60's. The tour of Northern and inner city neighborhoods, such as Gary, Houston and the South Bronx, and how he cajoles them and their families in to coming to El Paso is both entertaining and sociologically revealing of class issues at the time. I particularly liked a comment that the best job possibilities a black basketball prodigy had at the time was to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. But there are only the most trivial token efforts made to put any of this in historical context with brief flashes of TV news about the civil rights movement and the Viet Nam War, with passing references to black power, Martin Luther King and Elijah Mohammed. We hear lots of Motown music and occasional gospel which I guess is the source of the title that other wise eluded me (but "People Get Ready" twice?), though very little country or Latin music despite the Tex Mex locale. We do get some rueful acknowledgment that this is a side light sport in Texas compared to football, as we saw in Friday Night Lights.
We get some of the usual threats scenes with racists of the period, both alumni supporters and on the road in the South -- though, oddly, none in El Paso. There is one more unusual scene where the white players somewhat uncomfortably try to participate in a black majority party; some of the best dialogs are these gingerly getting to know you black/white interchanges. Otherwise we see very little of their college life, but then playing college ball really is a full-time job.
I was hoping for some ironic awareness that as well as seeing this story as a great civil rights victory of some kind that a coach was playing all-black starters and winning against larger schools with only token black players that this might have been the moment in time when somehow the message all started to go wrong: is this when the wheel turned so that education became a farce --and the only classes we see them in do seem to be dumbed down jock courses-- and all that mattered would be the human and other bling and signing to the NBA from high school? The sop is the brief glimpses we get of the real participants during the credits as we see an interview with the real legends, including coach Pat Riley, who lost to this team in college, and see pictures of the real players with brief descriptions of their career and family paths, many as teachers, including working as coaches from high school to professional leagues. How did it get from them to kids graduating with no non-basketball skills and no moral compass?
Josh Lucas is personable as always, but he is the garden variety inspirational coach. If he said "son" one more time, rather than referring to a player by name, I thought I'd scream. Emily Deschanel has almost nothing to do in a virtual traditional First Lady role as his wife who tolerates living in a boys' dorm with their little kids.
Derek Luke is the stand out among the players. Their court action is very convincing.
Jon Voight, with prosthetics, is marvelous in a virtual cameo as the nemesis, Coach 'Adolph' Rupp, of the Goliath they face in the finals. Of course, the credits hasten to add that Rupp later expanded his black roster and coaching staff.
I know very little about basketball so I appreciated that all the games were narrated by sports broadcasters.
Per any Bruckheimer produced movie, it is very loud.
Looking back to this somewhat innocent experience as some bright shining moment doesn't change that the NCAA still needs to cleanse its soul. It's sad to see what colleges could have done with these opportunities for young black men. (2/9/2006)
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is sheer delightful joy!
From beginning to end the enjoyment doesn't stop, from belly laughs to chuckles or just plain constant grins. While there are gleeful references to King Kong, Frankenstein, The Muppet Show and Beatrix Potter and other horror and sci fi classics, these are much more in tribute than the usual stitched-together dependence on popular culture knowing winks that passes for two-level humor for both adults and kids in most animated films. But there is no talking down to kids, similar to Sleepy Hollow, while adults can attend for fun on their own. There are adult puns and leering visual jokes, particularly using melons, there are far fewer than in most contemporary animated features. An interviewer on BBC America thought the humor would be "too British" for Americans, but even with some difference in terms I was too busy laughing to notice. Certainly all the accents are comprehensible.
The plot resolution didn't make 100% sense but it was all so good-natured it didn't matter.
While I haven't seen the preceding Wallace and Gromit shorts to know if directors Steve Box and Nick Park have further developed their stop animation technique, the action and detail were marvelous.
Helena Bonham Carter's voice over work was even better than in Corpse Bride. Ralph Fiennes's voice was unrecognizable as he created a whole new character.
Stay through the credits, where every employee of Aardman studios and their newborn babies are thanked, for the floating rabbits and the funny disclaimer.
Way too early for Christmas, the film was preceded by a holiday short featuring the penguins from "Madagascar." Mostly funny, it played on many more stereotypes than Wallace and Gromit did. (10/20/2005)
Crimen ferpecto is one of the funniest movies of the year. Director/co-writer Álex de la Iglesia carries on the wickedly black comedy tradition of Blake Edwards, Billy Wilder and Danny DeVito. While it is full of social satire -- of consumerism and department stores; of male/female stereotypes, including chauvinist Latin lovers; reality TV -- it is poking fun not polemics.
There's much talk about the return of the "R" rated raunchy comedy with Wedding Crashers and The 40 Year Old Virgin, and with plenty of half-naked women and frequent use of the "F" word this would be a hard "R" if it hadn't gone out unrated in the U.S., but it has little of the sentimentality or atonement that weakens those funny films and I would hate to see that tacked on for a Hollywood re-make. This one is a cheerfully cheeky reprobate from beginning to end, though just about each character gets some kind of comeuppance and revenge in surprising ways.
It intentionally spoofs several genres, even having the lead character watch old movies to get noir ideas that he hilariously enacts, as represented by the spoonerism of the title. References to other movies come and go, from Saturday Night Fever to Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry, but are irascibly exaggerated for broad humor. While satirizing films with ponderous narration, the voice-overs are very funny as the wonderful Guillermo Toledo, who segues from suave to frenetic, suddenly looks to the camera and asks "Oh no, can you hear me?" Mónica Cervera matches him as his nemesis in surprisingly spirited ways.
The sight gags and pratfalls abound but that just helps to keep the frantic pace up so you don't stop laughing from one crazy situation to the next. Some of the situations do get just too silly, such as a ridiculously bizarre family. The scenes in an amusement park go for the usual laughs in that setting. But the direction emphasizes the humor with zooming close-ups and dizzying movement so it stays laugh out loud hilarious, from belly laughs to chuckles, even when the sight gags have been seen many times before.
The colorful production design heightens the unreality of the department store and shopping mall where most of the film takes place. The competition between the men's and women's clothing sections is as much represented visually as through the characters' interplay. (10/12/2005)
For the first half of this Oliver Twist I thought that Roman Polanski had chosen to do yet another version of the Dickens tale because kids today tend not to watch black and white films so won't see David Lean's classic and a movie provides a Cliffnotes take on a plot for kids with short attention spans so get restless with the mini-series adaptations that have captured the story more fully.
This first half has wonderful character actors with distinctive faces that match Dickens's names and colorful descriptions as bureaucrats and hypocrites are humorously pilloried. The settings are well established from the dark, dank work house setting for that classic line - "More sir" -- to the endless pastoral road to London. The vignette at the undertakers' and the mournful boy parade are also charming. This opening section is very effectively from a child's view point. Throughout the film, the background mattes are the most beautiful that I've seen in films in years and the sets are filled with details.
But things got confusing once the lad arrives in London, though the market scene and the trek through the slum look great. The child actors (including Polanski's children) are pleasant, and have excellent middle class diction which, while that makes them understandable to an American audience, is not too believable. As a family, they all seem too much like the cheerful group out of the musical version than the novel. Amusing that the credits included pickpocket consultants. Harry Eden seems to be too young to be the Artful Dodger but he's nicely insouciant, if a bit bland.
Ben Kingsley's Fagin is problematical, but not in the usual way. He's virtually completely de-Judaicized until, jarringly, near the end, but he just doesn't seem threatening enough. Perhaps making him more sympathetic is to make him more complex. But his switch to toadying to Bill Sykes isn't a sharp enough pecking-order turn. As the punishments he gives aren't as bad as those in the work house, he certainly seems more benevolent than the philanthropists. On top of that, as the film goes along and the plot complicates, it gets harder and harder to understand what he's saying, particularly for a neophyte to the story if a kid has stuck it out this long.
Maybe Fagin was softened to hype Bill Sykes's villainy, as if Rachel Portman's Snidely Whiplash theme music wasn't cue enough (the weakest part of her otherwise entertainingly programmatic score). Jamie Foreman seems older than the usual Sykes, which does add to the queasy unambiguity of his brutal relationship with an unusually zaftig Nancy, as we see her go from confident tart to trembling abused partner trying to do the right thing. The film drags when Bill and Fagin plot revenge on Oliver's benefactor and I doubt a kid would follow the ins and outs of their unintelligible conversations but will look for the emotional clues from the actors and the music.
At this point, Polanski's eye takes over, particularly from the most violent act on. The gorgeous cinematography in the last quarter of the film carries the story. The scenes of fog and chases through London are lovely. The climactic run down of the villain recalls classic scenes from Frankenstein and The Hunchback of Notre Dame with lanterns and moonlight highlighting dark doings. The unflinching violence is dramatic, but I've seen so many kids at puerile violent movies lately this emotionally contextual, silhouetted reality should be handleable by kids. We appropriately blink when Oliver comes out in the sunshine.
Polanski persists through the coda of a confrontation between Fagin and Oliver that raises complicated moral issues about guilt, punishment, forgiveness and hypocrisy that no kid will follow.
Polanski doing this Dickens is like a singer choosing a standard to cover, as he draws out those shadings and interpretations that are important to him. (10/7/2005)
Flightplan is Jodie Foster doing Sigourney Weaver from Alien crossed with The Forgotten, in the air but against humans.
The film mostly features Robert Schwentke's relentlessly dollying camera and Foster's face, pushed by James Horner's music. When the explication and the music get pedestrian, Foster's expressions take over the film.
Florian Ballhaus's cinematography sets us up for foreboding from the get go, with a tip of the camera to Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. Up until the film abruptly and clunkily changes narrative focus, the story is told effectively visually. There are a few groaningly cliché shots amidst some plot elements that don't quite make sense.
The story nicely plays on our assumptions -- of an hysterical mother or an unstable grieving widow, of racial profiling threats on an airplane originating from Germany (amusingly one of the actors playing on the stereotype is a Cohen), of a creepy potential child molester and annoying plane passengers.
Foster demonstrates how to do a female action hero right and why so many have failed. First, unlike the allegedly degreed Bond Girls, we actually believe she is an engineer when she spouts technical facts about the planes she has helped design. Even though her deductive reasoning goes beyond Sherlock Holmes at a critical point, we do believe she is thinking resourcefully.
Second, most moms in movies look like they must have had the kids when they were 10, while Foster's maturity helps to add to her conviction here. Notably, she is not dressed in spandex or in a plunging neckline. She is not running around in spike heels, her hair gets messed up and she doesn't flirt. Finally, she is a tremendously emotive actress with limitless communication through what are practically continual close-ups.
Peter Sarsgaard gets to again play, ironically, on his nice guy looks, and presumably finally got a bigger pay check than his serious indie films. Sean Bean is all crisp and not the out and out villain he has been on screen lately, but his lurking menace is useful.
If you only want to see one threatening airplane thriller, Red Eye is a better film, but Foster is a force unto herself (and the audience screamed for even more of her Panic Room-like vengeance).
While it is educational to get such a tour of the insides of a jumbo jet, it was inappropriate that parents brought very young children to a matinee, as the intense climactic scenes were too much for them. (9/28/2005)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a visual and aural delight, even with the worn-out print I saw as probably the last New Yorker to see the film. The production design and Danny Elfman's music are worth a movie screen experience, and the script occasionally shows the cynical and whimsical flair that Roald Dahl was known for, including updated cultural references, such as very funny satires of MTV.
Never having read the book, so I don't know what was faithful, changed or updated, nor have I seen the earlier adaptation, so this was my first experience with the story and it could be this generation's The Wizard of Oz. Even if the visuals are consistent with the book's descriptions and did not spring from director Tim Burton's conception, the details are wonderful.
Outstanding are how the choreography and deadpan of the multiplying Oompa Loompa, portrayed by the obviously up for anything Deep Roy (and sung by Elfman with a final chuckle after the credits), are wonderful in those marvelous settings.
The rest of the acting amidst the sets and blue screens, other than "Charlie"s parents --nice to see Noah Taylor playing someone relatively normal for a change--and grandparents, are a bit weak. While the other children's parents besides James Fox are just plain bland and have wavering accents, Johnny Depp is simply unappealing, from his voice and body language to his make-up, and not just because he's creepily like Michael Jackson. His occasional tart jibes show refreshing flashes of spirit that make the rest of his performance just that much more dull. Christopher Lee adds his usual panache to the typical movie stereotypes of an evil dentist, though surely the floss reference is not from the book. Freddie Highmore as "Charlie" is more earnest than natural.
Geoffrey Holder's narration sounds charming. It's not only lovely to hear his Caribbean lilt, but it's nice to know that Morgan Freeman doesn't have the monopoly on voice-overs.
Though the ending comes a bit close to cloying, the film does not talk down to children, who should be able to appreciate the lessons the very funny annoying kids are taught.(9/22/2005)
Wedding Crashers is unevenly funny. The first third very amusingly introduces the premise of the charming Owen Wilson and motor mouth Vince Vaughn as the titular con men suavely moving from divorce mediation to multi-ethnic celebrations and quickly earns its "R" rating with brief nudity as they successfully bed their targets. It is cute that all the dances climax with the Isley Brothers' "Shout." The pair are just funny riffing off each other.
The second third drags down in Philadelphia Story-like competition with a post-wedding WASP-y family weekend. While Jane Seymour as the randy matriarch adds some humor, her character's tipsiness, as well as the grandmother's senile comments, just become yet another stereotype in the household. The boyfriend is just plain crassly mean (even if his punches don't seem to have any lasting impact on anyone), particularly disconcerting as Bradley Cooper usually plays nice guys. The brother's character is way too broadly drawn odd, like a homophobe's idea of a gay guy, if Igor from Young Frankenstein was a closeted homosexual. Christopher Walken is given far too little to do; even his scenes build up to expectations, he's not allowed to let loose.
What lights ups this section is Isla Fisher as a sister who turns male fantasies on their head. Even her Mutt and Jeff size difference with Vaughn is amusing. The women show spunk in the first two-thirds then are just blanded down to smiles. Rachel McAdams (as a brunette this time) has lines with personality at first, but then just becomes an object of affection, even as she gets in a nice dig that Wilson isn't that young any more, as he is obviously quite older than she.
The last third has some funny twists, particularly with an unexpected cameo and some outrageousness before it settles into conventionality. The final wedding is at least not a repeat of The Graduate.
The camera work is pedestrian, with close-ups indicating serious thinking.
The 40 Year Old Virgin is Animal House 27 years later (if the frat boys were 13 then, which is how they acted). Like that film, regardless of the "R" rating, the matinee I was at attracted babies up to boomers, with each segment laughing at different jokes (well, the babies mostly cried.) The kids hooted at every frequent use of four letter words, which were used quite naturally in conversations, and didn't get any of the funny musical references to the '70's.
Director/co-writer Judd Apatow and co-writer/star Steve Carell well capture single guys exaggerated braggadocio to each other, with each having a different immaturity issue (while they all share a love of video games) and still oblivious about and inept with women.
However, the trash talking takes an unnecessary racial turn with Asian and African-American co-workers for repetitive jokes that went on too long of other guys talking black that was already classically done in Airplane, plus the constant gay joshing, that like in Four Brothers, defensively borders on homophobia. Carell's character is most believable when he's not parroting these other guys but is genuinely himself. While it recalls Mind of the Married Man, it is very funny when it braves original takes on dating and sex education, hair waxing and condom use. Some of the actors' cracking up looks like genuine reaction to the goings on. Paul Rudd's lovelorn depressive is particularly amusing.
The film is bolstered by the strong performances by women, as these are real actresses and not just the usual bland beauties such comedies employ, with the women getting the last laugh on these guys. Catherine Keener's character has a real, amusingly complicated life (with a nice promotion for e-Bay) and past that informs the development of her relationship with the titular character. Elizabeth Banks, notably more bubbly than in Heights, is charming.
The film does go on a bit long, and while evidently some jokes were cut due to unsympathetic responses of test audiences, more could have been. The credits close with a nice thank you to Michael McDonald - "You rock"-- as his DVD is a source of a running gag. A lot of pop culture references go by --actors, movies, TV shows--and I wasn't sure if they were product placement or had particular resonances.
Red Eye is the first Wes Craven film I've seen, and I think it's probably atypical as it seemed like a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, from Saboteur, through the two Man Who Knew Two Much and Torn Curtain, in maximizing tension in restricted spaces with little gore.
The opening segments perfectly capture the quotidian nature of today's airplane travel. Security wasn't shown but the tedium of weather delays in sterile airports, unhelpful airline personnel, annoying fellow passengers and cramped quarters that add to one's feelings of helplessness well set the framework for the vague sense of uneasiness that accompanies air travel these days. The clever plot reinforces that queasiness as debut screenwriters Carl Ellsworth and Dan Foos show how to diabolically get around security.
Cillian Murphy, with the captivating blue eyes and an excellent American accent, is perfectly believable as he slightly flirts with the incandescent Rachel McAdams, seemingly to relieve the boredom. Almost too believable, as Craven surprisingly plays down the sexual tension, letting other passengers presume what isn't there.
As this overnight flight, despite its name, is not all the way cross-country but just from Dallas to Miami to telescope the framework, the action ratchets up fairly quickly, as Murphy even more so than in Batman Begins turns on a dime with his charm just a sinister veneer he can brandish at will.
As established by the shots of her home bedroom with its old soccer trophies and cheerleading outfit, McAdams is a plucky heroine, with a back story that nicely explains her reactions. But non-helpless women play key parts throughout the story, from a clerk, to an old lady, to a young girl, to a hoochy mama feigning helplessness, to the flight attendants, and are notably not bland or stereotypical.
While the key climax isn't really much more exciting than the usual action movie in it's somewhat rote just-in-time-ness, the subsequent chase scenes are serviceably entertaining. One does concur with McAdams' character "Don't you have a back-up?" as certainly technology has even more unpredictability than her nemesis anticipated. With Brian Cox as her father I expected even more plot twists.
I missed Craven's cameo as a passenger, but that would reinforce the Hitchcock feel. (8/23/2005)
Four Brothers takes an off-kilter premise and makes it credible, even though over-the-top violence challenges the extensive efforts to create realism.
The film is anchored in the strong, macho camaraderie of the four excellent lead actors to make us believe two white and two African-American boys could have grown up together as rough foster brothers adopted by a kind-hearted ex-hippie. The easy chemistry among the four is physical, both in interactions and how they move around their childhood home, and in their running graphic teasing. Their back story is smoothly relayed as police report summaries by Terrence Howard, convincingly using his third accent in a film this summer after Crash and Hustle & Flow. (Also stay for the credits when sort of home movies are shown about the brothers' earlier experiences.) While Mark Wahlberg's swagger is a bit much, though worked in as an ex-hockey player context, each actor effectively embodies a unique character at a raw point in his life. Particularly outstanding as non-stereotypes are Garrett Hedlund, as an androgynous rocker haunted by past abuse, and André Benjamin, as a husband and father struggling with a business. Brit Chiwetel Ejiofor very effectively masters Americana as a head hood.
While director John Singleton said on Charlie Rose that he sees the film as a Western in the tradition of John Ford and Howard Hawks (a la The Sons of Katie Elder), it's more like Sam Pekinpah crossed with detective "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" twisty noir vengeance mysteries. The gritty one-on-one confrontations are much more effective than the exaggerated machine gunned destruction, even as Singleton brings unexpected poignancy to a key rampage through a sympathetic victim that is heartbreaking.
Either it is an ironic commentary on their inner city culture or just odd that the ex-marine brother isn't the lead ordnance expert. While this seems like the third in a recent trilogy of using Detroit as a violent wasteland, after the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 and Land of the Dead, Singleton accents the usual urban abandonment scenes by telescoping the action between wintry Thanksgiving to Christmas of constant snow, culminating in a white frozen climax that is more cleverly mano a mano and less violent than the preliminary confrontations. It would recall Springsteen's "Meeting Across The River" except that the soundtrack song selections superbly are later Motown, visualized nostalgically with '45's playing with the notable local skyline on that dark blue label. The rocker brother is a nice tribute to the city's white kick out the jams heritage as well.
The women are strictly ancillary for stereotypical uses, though respected. Sofía Vergara as the "La Vida Loca" old irresistible girlfriend feistily adds to the multicultural mix.
The instrumental score is clunky and unsubtle.
Both for the violence and the blunt language it was really inappropriate that parents brought young children to the matinee I attended.(8/22/2005)
March of the Penguins (La Marche de l'empereur) is a pretty National Geographic nature film. The visuals are lovely, but there is little science. The English-language narration by a nicely dry Morgan Freeman, adding more richness than his tone in his War of the Worlds voice-over cameo, avoids any mention of evolution and wincingly anthropomorphizes procreative instincts into romantic relationships. But the nesting habits of penguins are an incredible, irresistibly involving tale, almost Ripley's Believe It or Not, to get to see - and doubtless filming it was too, though I presume we'll only get the photographers' tale on the DVD. The harsh realities of nature are shown frankly enough, even though edited to avoid a PG rating, that a toddler in the audience yelled out at a predator bird "Go away!" and declaim this as a "bad show" when it didn't listen to her plea. The music is a bit corny. It was very ironic that this was playing in NYC in an art house theater where the adjacent screen was showing 9 Songs restricted for 18 years+ tale of another male in Antarctica with sex on his mind. (8/9/2005)
An expert says my interpretation is wrong: see Talk to the Animals by Bernd Heinrich, emeritus professor at the University of Vermont, the author of The Geese of Beaver Bog, in The New York Times, August 26, 2005
Murderball blows all those corny "Up Close and Personal" Olympic spotlights out of the water.
It is not just that these wheelchair-bound athletes are charismatic with poignant four-letter tales to tell of fate, reconciliation and competition, or even that their testosterone jumps off the screen and into our laps. The key to shaping their individual experiences and collective para-Olympic experience into a terrific film is how co-directors Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro edit and frame their stories.
They lay the groundwork of the story, gradually introduce us to the players and their families, particularly the women in their lives, and build up suspense. They also follow the parallel rehabilitation of a recent paraplegic, climaxing in how the athletes affect his life and recovery (I'm sure that by now the $3,000 for him to buy his own Mad Max competitive wheel chair have poured in).
While perhaps too much time is spent on the coach's psychologically complicated life, his interactions with his nonathletic son provide an interesting counterpoint to the jock culture the movie otherwise celebrates as therapeutic.
By the end we realize that these ferocious guys who are so determined to be perceived as men --and we frankly see all aspects of their masculinity--have hearts of gold.
The climax of bringing what they've learned in their lives through their sport of wheelchair rugby to still raw veterans of the Iraq war is a warm tearjerker.
The occasional use of animation is very effective for providing technical explanations. (7/30/2005)
Happy Endings is a modern screwball comedy that updates Billy Wilder's cynicism that everybody lies and has secrets to these days of blended families, confused sexuality and voluntary parenthood.
As in Opposite of Sex, writer/director Roos sees manipulative straight women determined to entrap sexually confused or naïve gay men. But with Lisa Kudrow he has a more sympathetic central character, as she is able to wondrously combine comedy and pathos, victim and perpetrator, as she means well and is caught between conflicting emotions that we so marvelously see across her face in many close-ups and in her struggling voice. It is nice to see her getting to play a grown-up dealing with grown-up issues as she connects a complicated ensemble of gay and straight siblings, parents and children, friends and lovers, some of whom learn to accept each other foibles and all and some who don't.
Roos also satirizes a would-be documentary filmmaker (Jesse Bradford is very funny in the role) who quite accidentally does pick up some truths on screen while baldly self-serving his own ambitions. Roos amusingly edits his scenes as if the kid was shooting his own life, with the camera swooshing around in and out of focus. We are laughing heartily at these foolish characters one minute, then caught up in their genuine drama and revelations the next as we learn very surprising things about each one.
While the on-screen written narration borders on cutesy, especially as it flashes back and forward in time, it is a relief these days that it's not a character grown-up voice-over, but instead works as an omniscient, reassuring author to tie together a series of short stories about serial mostly monogamy and keep us sympathetic at least some times to characters (even Tom Arnold) regardless of how far they are going onscreen at the moment. The characters have lied to each other and themselves so often that it's hard for those close to them to believe them when they tell the truth.
Roos not only plays on the double entendre of the title, but on the wording of "pro choice" and "pro life", as one character shrugs that "No one would be pro-life once they understand it." Does Roos think anyone should have kids? Or parents?
The song selections are quite fine, with lots of Calexico, and Maggie Gyllenhaal doing an effective rock 'n' roll chanteuse, infusing Billy Joel's pop songs with meaning. (7/25/2005) > (So, nu: commentary on the Jewish women)
The Warrior feels like a Northern Indian take on the Man With No Name mercenary renouncing violence genre that was influenced by John Ford movies, let alone High Noon, taken up as samurai by Kurasawa, re-invented by the Italians as spaghetti Westerns, and, I thought, brought back to rest with The Unforgiven.
The first third of the film looks so much like the old-fashioned Hollywood take on Asian despots that I half expected the war lord to be played by Lee Van Cleef and for young Kirk Douglas or Tony Curtis to ride up. Though we are given no information about the locale or time period or if it's based on a legend or whatever, debut writer/director Asif Kapadia's take on the genre has breathtaking local scenery and native actors partaking in the usual greedy violence, though the blood is almost too discreetly off-screen to be haunting, plus heavy-handed spiritual magic realism, complete with a fortune-telling blind crone.
Irfan Khan as the henchman suddenly struck with a conscience, however, is mesmerizing and gives the film whatever gravitas it has, as it becomes his picaresque tale of searching for redemption. He also has wonderful chemistry with the excellent child and teen actors who come and go in the story. His performance raises it above the similar looking but pedestrian recent Chinese warlord film Warriors of Heaven and Earth (Tian di ying xiong).
It is both intriguing and off-putting for the pacing that the mano a mano duel doesn't really feel climactic, compared to the warrior's true quest for inner peace.
The bombastic music is disconcertingly Western, even though we occasionally hear local singing and instruments playing on screen.
It is very commendable that the English subtitles are legible throughout, even through many desert scenes. But I simply do not understand why it got the BAFTA awards. (7/21/2005)
Howl's Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro) builds on the animation and special effects classics of the past to create a marvelous visual world, though I haven't read the Diana Wynne Jones novel to know how much is invented by adapter/director Hayao Miyazaki. There's the scarecrow, magic meadow and shrinking witch from The Wizard of Oz, the scary forest from Sleeping Beauty, the spell on the hero from Beauty and the Beast, the frightening, drunken nightmare from Dumbo, the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, the battles from the Disney studio's anti-Nazi propaganda cartoons, the sad statue from Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, the chicken-legged house from the Russian Babi-Yar legends, as well as visual references to the classic adaptations of Yellow Submarine and Gulliver's Travels, while characters morph in and out of spells like the faces from a classic Michael Jackson video.
But this tale has unusual elements not seen before, as the tributes fly by. The spell by a spurned witch seems to have ironically turned the hero into a threatening woman-chaser, though, confusingly, as the spell progresses, and even more confusing when we travel to the past to see how he got enchanted, he becomes a peacemaker when the film suddenly changes to a war, causing him to fight off another physical transformation, like the demon-bitten hero of Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime), with a strong anti-war message.
The witch has also cast a spell on the heroine, turning her into an old woman, and much of the delightful humor is from her struggling with her infirmities even as gray power triumphs, such as a scene when she and her nemesis compete to get up the royal stairs.
Every inch of the screen is filled with a dazzling and quickly changing scene and climate and would make the sub-titled version a distraction.
The English-language voices are mixed in effectiveness. Christian Bale is surprisingly bland with his Americanized accent, Emily Mortimer confusingly British as the young heroine. Lauren Bacall and Blythe Danner are marvelous as mature witches, and Jean Simmons as old Sophie is both touching and humorous. Billy Crystal is way over the top as Calcifer the fire, but brings to mind his small role in The Princess Bride, and such sidekicks are usually done for broad humor.
This is the first Miyazaki film I've seen in a theater so I don't know if the detail in his previous works is quite so breathtaking. It is charmingly set in a Jules Verne-period Victoriana where technology can coexist with magic, such as in flying machines. A complex townscape with streetcars is trumped by lovely scenes of snow falling and rain slowly soaking a dress.
While the mother isn't dead as in most such films, just a bit pre-occupied, the occupants of the Castle re-create their own family, including caring for the apparently now senile witch -- wouldn't it be nice if we could all just add another bathroom to our houses.
The music is fairly corny, so the long patches of silence are a relief.
I don't know why this has been mostly distributed through art houses as children in the wider world of multiplexes would enjoy it, even if the story is a bit complicated and confusing. (7/18/2005)
Up to just beyond the half-way point Mr. & Mrs. Smith works as a modern screwball comedy, a less dark Prizzi's Honor.
But the gloss of suburban satire turns unappealing when the violence first gets personal, then becomes like mutual S & M foreplay, if not disturbing abuse, and then goes completely over the top into military operations that make one wonder what has happened to law enforcement. Staging the final battle in an Ikea-type store seems like a lame attempt to restore the satirical element of two assassins who have been living undercover as suburbanites, but it looks and feels more like a video game, though the shiny cinematography emphasizes their brittle surface environment.
So maybe it's not so much that their violence is an aphrodisiac as it is a wake-up call to stir latent emotions (including a Lethal Weapon 4-like scars comparison) as certainly two of the most beautiful physical specimens on the planet do have sparkling chemistry together and each keeps up the battles of both wits and guts. Brad Pitt even occasionally shows some charming vulnerability and Angelina Jolie is a droll bad ass. The camera simply loves them and there is just enough banter to keep up interest in them as people when they are blowing up everything around them.
But the dialog misses many opportunities to go any deeper into their psyches beyond cartoon characters. The contrasts in their businesses is amusing, with Pitt's casual headquarters anchored by motormouth mama's boy Vince Vaughn incongruously and vicariously planning mayhem, while Jolie manages an all-woman high tech, high gloss operation under cover as a temp agency, including Jennifer Morrison of House, M.D. as yet another overly efficient assistant.
The music mostly supports the comic undercurrent, including a Muzak take on "The Girl from Ipanema" contrasting with other excellent Latino selections on the soundtrack.
While once your stomach has been turned by the mutually destructive violence so that it's hard to keep laughing, this is mostly about Pitt and Jolie looking gorgeous and doing impossible things -- and they pull it off entertainingly. Ah if only real violence was about these fantasies and not terrorists. (7/7/2005)
Après vous... is a gentle, screwball cross between Cyrano and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, or, more accurately probably, its French progenitor Boudu sauvé des eaux.
Daniel Auteuil very expressively plays a much put upon Good Samaritan, whose life and identity get more and more entangled with the object of his personal philanthropy. While the employment and romantic lengths that he goes to in helping his hapless beneficiary, who shares some foibles with TV's Monk, stretch believability, he is very amusing and certainly the viewer gets as caught up as he is in the ensuing complications, even if they do seem a bit endless.
One of its charms is that all the characters have saving graces. Unlike similar American movies, characters who are in the way of the inevitable are not shrill and the screenplay, co-written by director Pierre Salvadori, is not mean or condescending to them, as there is equal poignancy and laughter. There may be additional jokes about French restaurants and cuisine that lose something in the U.S. as this is almost as much a restaurant movie as Dinner Rush or Big Night.
The English subtitles, when they are not white on white, have poor grammar and spelling, including inconsistency of a character's name. The repeating amusing sounding pop tunes on the soundtrack seem to have some significance, but the lyrics are not translated.(6/20/2005)
Kingdom of Heaven would work very well as a silent movie with its terrific percussive soundtrack as accompaniment. Orlando Bloom is breathtakingly beautiful as he poses in the spectacular production design.
But even after having watched all the co-promotional ersatz history "documentaries" on cable A & E, the History and Discovery Channels, I still can't figure out if Bloom's character "Balian" is even a composite of real people, particularly as to his actions in the Holy Land with the inevitable "into the breach" type speech to a rag tag army. (It is amusing that seemingly every one in the Holy Land says to him: "I didn't know he had a son.")
The plot, such as it is, puts the best face possible on the Crusades, at a mid-point when some are disillusioned and pushing for coexistence in Jerusalem.
The actors portraying fair Arabs have the most gravitas (Alexander Siddig has established a nice post-Star Trek niche as a noble Arab), especially compared to an incongruous-seeming Liam Neeson (as when he has to explain that he didn't really rape "Balian"s mother - "I forced her, but not against her will. I loved her in my fashion.") and the usual hot-headed bad guy who, surprisingly, is actually based on a real person, played by Marton Csokas. Jeremy Irons at least carries off bitter irony well.
I'm not sure if it's Bloom's deadpan deliveries, (even bending over backwards to be explained as his character being in mourning shock), or Ridley Scott's overall directing that makes the film devoid of emotion.
Eva Green is only a visual accoutrement; her discreet seduction scene of "Balian" could only be sexy to the twelve year old boys I presume this R rated film is really inexplicably aimed for (though it's also possible she's bedding him for political machinations as another explanation), so it's hard to believe it's the same actress from The Dreamers.
The film really picks up during the battle scenes, which are like a medieval version of Scott's Black Hawk Down and include an even more fascinating recreation of period fortresses and armory than PBS's Nova's episode on Medieval Siege, as he had a heck of a larger budget. Another striking visual is also true to history, the king who hides his leprosy behind a mask.
In the battle of the recent epics, this rates far higher than Alexander and about equal with Troy, which had the advantage of the Homeric story and gleaming hard bodies. (6/2/2005))
Unleashed is an oddball meshing of Jet Li's balletic martial arts with the milieu of the gritty Brit gangster flick -- bringing Hong Kong style violence home to the mother country. The writing/directing team behind The Transporter tries to repeat the formula of a heart of gold wrapped in a violent package and almost pulls off the trick of creating a bullet-proof date movie.
Jet Li's fighting, per usual, is even more visually entertaining than Jason Statham's chases, but the heart of this film is wincibly weaker. Sexy is eschewed for the cloyingly Charlie Chaplin-esque sweet gamine and a blind man as an oasis where music can soothe the savage beast on the lam from the grim, literally dog-eat-dog underground. She practically says they're not in Kansas any more, where she has somehow landed from to attend Glasgow's music conservatory.
The touch of high culture is part of the film's pretensions; a grungy tenement fight locale opens up to reveal an artist's studio. Li's thespian skills were more on display in Hero (Ying xiong), while Bob Hoskins is revisiting a now darker side of his early Mona Lisa.
The cinematography makes Glasgow look spookily like the setting for 28 Days Later. . ., so the blood really stands out from a practically black-and-white background. The round and round camera work and quick editing keep the pace up, so the icky poo scenes stand out even more for their slowed-down pace.
The Massive Attack music throughout is terrifically throbbing, but the RZA closing rap comes on when most of the audience has left and merely summarizes the plot.
All in all, it is stylish entertainment for the eye, not the mind. (6/2/2005)
A Man's Gotta Do is an Australian Arrested Development-like wacky suburban family crossed with
The Sopranos, as the central characters are a thug dad who hides his profession from the daughter he dotes on.
While much of the activity in this frank drawing-room comedy is predictable and a bit silly, it is good naturedly charming. It recalls Muriel's Wedding, which is probably why it got U.S. distribution, as it satirically contrasts girly-girly wedding woes with bloke culture.
The actors are quite appealing, though the dad's accent is a bit thick for American ears to decipher (John Howard may have heightened local fishermen's dialect as I don't recall him being hard to understand in previous films such as Japanese Story).
Alyssa McClelland as the daughter and Gyton Grantley as his hapless protégé are a couple to root for. Her mopey songs are amusing chick singer/songwriter satires.
The cinematography is bleached out with exaggerated cotton candy colors. (5/30/2005)
Robots is a rollicking, laugh out loud ride through a mechanical alternate universe in the tradition of Jim Henson's Muppet movies.
Unlike movies made from comic books that portray the central clash as between good and evil, this film follows the Muppet tradition of setting up the conflict as between paternal entrepreneurism vs. ruthless capitalism (like the fast food frog leg restaurant or the greedy landlord), though the villain we first meet is the newer Disney mode of the bland handsome dolt. As with the Henson approach, for every fart joke, there are other visual and verbal jokes that intentionally go over the kids' heads, including many references for nostalgic baby boomers. Some of the references go by so quickly (including It's A Wonderful Life, The Hucksters, The Hudsucker Proxy, Sesame Street, Star Wars, Britney "Gears") that they will probably only be appreciated on the endless re-plays of the DVD/video tape, while other satirical elements go on too long (such as references to Singing in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz and Braveheart).
The good will is further tested in the over long climax that seems to be an endless chase scene and could be considerably shortened, even within a movie that's only 91 minutes long as it is.
The voice over actors are mixed in their effectiveness, with the character actors being the most interesting and the stars too bland, particularly Ewan McGregor as the lead, and whose American accent wavers. Robin Williams is pretty much replaying his Aladdin shtick, though with fewer impersonations.
The music is the weakest element, with virtually no original songs. As much of the credits I sat through had no additional jokes, which was atypical for this genre.
The movie has a vague message about the importance of recycling over planned obsolescence. (4/15/2005)
Schizo (Shiza) is a wonderful demonstration of how new world cinema can take old stories that we've seen in the movies before and make them fresh in a new context.
We've all seen the movie about the poor, naive kid in way over his head with the local gangsters, who provide the only jobs in the neighborhood, then he starts feeling sorry for his boss's victims and tries to do the right thing for the survivors.
Debut director and co-writer Gulshat Omarova takes a unique approach through several elements. First is the striking views of Kazakhstan in what has to be some of the bleakest locales of economic hopelessness and anarchy since the Mad Max movies, and this isn't post-apocalyptic science fiction.
Second is the striking casting of first-time or amateur actors with simply marvelous faces and onscreen presence, particularly the young man playing the titular nicknamed character. I'm sure U.S. audiences are missing some of the inter-ethnic tensions that can only be guessed as the actors have a variety of racial features, from Russian to Central and East Asian to Middle Eastern, let alone their accents or use of language.
Also unique is how the story has the tenderness of Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows in seeing how an out of kilter kid gets treated harshly in this environment, from lousy schools to incompetent doctors, and has to grow up too fast.
While the film is excellent at demonstrating how raw masculinity and cruelty thrives in this brutal atmosphere, it is beautiful at showing the attraction of domesticity as women have appeal beyond (though of course including) sex.
It manages to make unlikely relationships touching and credible as humans strive to create family out of whatever fractured groupings are available to them. It reinvents the love story. (4/1/2005)
Millions is a wonderful evocation of a child's imagination helping him to fill in the pieces of the confusing reality around him.
Neither director Danny Boyle nor writer Frank Cottrell Boyce have demonstrated before that they could put their gifts of magic realism to enter the naive mind of a child with the spirit of Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
The springboard for the enchanting young lad at the center of the film coping with many changes in his life is the lives of the saints, much as most other kids could be obsessed with dinosaurs. They appear to him amidst candy colored cinematography, animation and as people as real as God is to Joan of Arcadia. His conflicted relationship with his practical older brother keeps the film anchored as they gradually deal with the reality of a sudden acquisition of a quite real bag of cash.
The rollicking cheerful cynicism in the film is a delight, especially towards the condescension of religion, charity, grief and Britain's entry into the Euro. Ah, if we really could believe all those things we tell our children!
Christopher Fulford is an appropriately scary bogeyman, while James Nesbitt is his usual appealing self. The accents are a bit thick at times for American ears to catch all the amusing dialog.
It is surprising that the U.S. distributors did not time its release for the Christmas holiday, as the season is an emphasized theme, though St. Nicholas only makes a cameo appearance, unless they planned the DVD release for then, as it's sure to become a December favorite, as it's as heartwarming about the intersection of fantasy and reality as Miracle on 34th Street. (3/29/2005)
Up and Down (Horem pádem) is a comic Amores Perros, using the techniques of coincidental propinquity to bring together characters from different social classes and standing, ethnicities, prejudices, political histories and opinions. But co-writer/director Jan Hrebejk is only using humor as mechanism to try to make somewhat heavy-handed social messages and ironies go down easier.
The large ensemble is a freighted microcosm of the Czech Republic as it emerges from the isolation of a Soviet Russian satellite to being at the crossroads of globalized geo-political economics and human migrations, only to threaten to come full circle to the bigotry that led to world wars and divisions that created European turmoil in the first place.
Chance interactions bring together a dizzying range of emotionally or criminally guilty individuals -- thieves, smugglers, and their victims and beneficiaries, from a dying formerly blacklisted college professor to obsessed soccer fans, an abandoned wife who also happens to be a Russian translator feeling stranded in a changing neighborhood, ex-lovers and step-children, a social worker whose condescending liberalism turns out to be thin-skinned, racially diverse immigrants and a prodigal son, such that some of them are more circumstantial types than full-fledged individuals.
I'm sure I missed many references to and commentary on Czech politics; for example I didn't realize that "the president" was in fact played by Václav Havel until I read the credits (and I do appreciate that they were translated into English). While some scenes with particular characters go on so long that you forget the other stories in the mean time, some of the connections go by literally in a blink of an eye so can be missed, and others simply strain credulity to the utmost, even if they are eventually explained.
I have no idea if the director intended the penultimate scene of cheering skinhead soccer fans to feel as neo-fascist as it looks to an American. Some of the quirky characters just end up painfully sad, even as the film concludes on what I assume is an optimistic, if ironic, note about the future of Europe being in Australia. (3/20/2005)
Intimate Stories (Historias mínimas) has superficial similarities to Straight Story, as one of the characters is also an obsessed, guilt-ridden, crotchety old man. It similarly shares with Schultze Gets the Blues how a casually imparted piece of information can cause a propulsive epiphany that sets the old man off on an improbable quest, as well being part of a tradition of road movies from Five Easy Pieces to Smoke Signals, The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta) etc.
But director Carlos Sorin has more social commentary in mind than personal transformations, more like Balzac's La Comedie Humaine at the intersections where the Scenes of Country Life meet the Scenes of Provincial Life, at a comparable historical moment where technology, communication and transportation are bringing these isolated environments into contact.
Sorin leisurely with subtlety visually and thematically intertwines debut screenwriter Pablo Solarz's stories of three very diverse characters in a tiny, dusty, rural community in Patagonia as they coincidentally decide to follow their dreams to the regional capital of San Julian. In addition to the almost blind old man is a naive young mother and a charming middle-aged salesman.
While each one's quest is literally quixotic, they manage to affect everyone they meet, as the foibles and ironies of human nature are delightfully and poignantly portrayed. While the salesman's story is the most predictable, the film is amusing and heartwarming, as well as a beautiful travelogue through unusual terrain. (3/20/2005)
Bigger Piece of Sky is a sweet little movie about why people do theater, specifically community theater as “let’s put on a show”-ism in its purest form. It cheerfully embraces the clichés of theater folk to go beyond them to understand the people within.
Our entrée to their world is a sad sack who makes his way into the local troupe therapeutically to get out of his depressed lonely doldrums after being dumped by his girlfriend. The actor who plays him is a bit problematical, in that he really does seem like an amateur, particularly as he is surrounded by pro’s John Corbett, Amy Smart and Sean Astin having a rollicking good time. It does seem like the editing has to create the illusion that he’s rising to the occasion for the climax.
I’ve had a soft spot for Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac ever since I read it in high school, so I’m sympathetic to how it is used throughout the movie for its symbolism about panache, using another’s words to express one own’s inarticulate feelings, and the liberation of pretending to be someone else. The theme is also exuberantly updated to role-playing games as another outlet when even the stage isn’t enough.
It was refreshing that a character who is ill doesn’t seem to have the usual movie star disease but actually shows some effect of the illness. While we only learn about the non-stage life of the central character, so we have no idea what the other participants do in their “real” lives, it is successful at demonstrating the truth behind the song that show people are the best people to know.
While the quote that is the source of the title goes by very quickly, the dialogue has cheerful good humor and gentle laughs and the plot turns enough not to be predictable.
The Portland locations are used very well, particularly of an old theater.
It is a cute joke that Patty Duke plays twins, which will lead to baby boomers in the audience humming a certain TV theme song on the way out.
Head On (Gegen die Wand) is a completely original love story and shames conventional Hollywood romantic comedies with its fresh take on love and loss as rich as Rhett and Scarlett.
The closest I can think of a dysfunctional couple meeting so oddly cute and playing out an unusual relationship is in Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning which shares self-destructive lovers. The German literal title of Against the Wall is more resonant of how they feel, but the American distributors probably thought that had too much political implication.
The completely self-involved he and she here are innately off-kilter because writer/director Fatih Akin sets them within a diverse Turkish immigrant community of Germany, so that their personalities are circumscribed by cultural expectations and restrictions, she chafing against binds on women and he lost in the nihilistic punk rock underground. The rocky journey of how they find their own individuality within their sexual and emotional needs and ethnic identity and what each means to the other is an unpredictable thrill ride as each unexpected action leads to tears, laughter, poignancy and regret of bad timing.
This is a baldly brash and frank exploration of the meaning of love and marriage, as individuals and within a web of family, friends and culture. Craggy-faced Birol Ünel is riveting as the older, burned-out case whose past we only glimpse. Sibel Kekilli at first seems like just another pretty young thing, but brings spunk and sympathy on her maturing roller coaster ride. Evidently, deleted scenes that are available on the European DVD help to expand on the hints as to what her closing motivations are.
Dependant on the English subtitles, I'm sure I lost some significances as I wasn't sure when characters were speaking Turkish or German, let alone able to discern their fluency in either, with the added filip of recognition of globalization with a sudden concluding discussion in Istanbul in English of their future.
The chapter introductions by an ethnic band playing a traditional sad love song adds to the timeliness of the tale that is reminiscent of old folk ballads of tragic love stories. In between, the punk rock and contemporary world fusion selections are terrific, including the moving closing song. (2/16/2005) We don't get to see a lot of German-language romances in the U.S., but this is the best one since the also quirky The Princess and the Warrior (Der Krieger und Die Kaiserin). (added 3/20/2005)
I had not seen the original Assault on Precinct 13 and couldn't remember its inspiration Rio Bravo so I approached it with an open mind.
But then I had to fight back reminders of clichés from every other movie that this version imitates, from as far back as Petrified Forest and Key Largo to sci fi movies like Outland and Pitch Black, and practically every horror movie ever made.
After all, it has fine actors Ethan Hawke and Laurence Fishburne claiming in TV interviews that this is really a character study. But no, this is their testosterone pay-back for having made sensitive movies like Before Sunset or Gabriel Byrne recently in P.S.. They can all barely contain the glint in their eyes for the fun they are having playing cops and robbers with staggering firepower.
All the violence is way over the top and exaggerated. Jean-François Richet directs this as a 3-D video game - where a gun will do there's a semi-automatic; where a car crash will do, there's an explosion; where one Molotov cocktail will do there's two; where a fatal shot is fired, there's a close-up of blood dripping from a bullet hole in the forehead; where there's two women on the side of the law, the plot is stretched to put them into slinky outfits.
But even accepting that it is aimed at pre-teen boys, despite its deserved R rating, that I should try to approach it as if I hadn't seen any other movies, the final scene just lost me -- there's an evergreen forest in Detroit?
The directing tried to add to the suspense with skittering hand-held shots, but combined with Graeme Revell's bombastic music it all just adds to the feeling of being manipulated.
There are a handful of good lines in the dialog, but the script preens them with repetition and then they get repeated again in the Kris One closing summary rap over Revell's music, that does work as a base. (1/21/2005)
While The Aviator is Martin Scorsese as a for-hire director, he barrels into it with the same visual zeal for exposing the surface excesses and tragic consequences of unbridled capitalism of 1930's/'40's Hollywood and the aviation industry that he did for the Gilded Age of Age of Innocence and the Las Vegas of Casino.
There is more than a passing resemblance to Citizen Kane in story arc and style as the outsider millionaire Howard Hughes seizes the popular imagination to take on The Establishment of the media moguls, business competition and the Congress while bedding stars and battling personal demons amidst a loyal coterie. The metaphors come together in a foreboding scene within the klieg lights of a Hollywood premiere as Hughes, with Jean Harlow on his arm in a cameo by Gwen Stefani, is blinded by light bulbs that crash onto a red carpet strewn with broken glass and is too deafened to partake in PR banter.
From the opening shots of the making of Hell's Angels Scorsese ties together the two improbable if it weren't true twin obsessions of Hughes, movies and airplanes, so we also see the source of the director's interest in the project. Scorsese's love of old movies comes through as he really gets into Hughes’s upstart moviemaking techniques outside the studio system and the ratings board. There’s almost too many movie clips (though I’ve seen interviews where Scorsese’s descriptions of the airplane footage in the original Hell's Angels are more thrilling than what’s actually re-created here), but they serve as a haunting backdrop for Hughes’s deterioration as he silhouettes against replays of his films like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
Leonardo DiCaprio is surprisingly and astoundingly effective as he wouldn't naturally seem to resemble the imposing Hughes. Perhaps that's why Scorsese uses an unusual, for him, number of close-ups which emotionally work as an entree to Hughes's perceptions, enthusiasms and psychological problems. While DiCaprio is aided by excellent make-up and hair styling as he ages and the character matures and changes, the accent, body language, tortured expressions and seductive intensity are all his.
The movie powerfully shows how involved the self-taught Hughes was in the design of his innovative planes and his gutsy piloting. I hope DiCaprio's youth appeal will bring in younger audiences, as the few in the audience I saw it with were clueless about the historical figures and references in the film.
I was leery of anyone taking on Katharine Hepburn so I was surprised not only how good Cate Blanchett was but even more surprised by her chemistry with DiCaprio, which I thought originally was as odd a casting pairing, as well, Hughes was with Hepburn. They really make it work, both together and in a fast-talking dinner with her intellectual, politically active Yankee family.
Alan Alda is terrific as the corrupt senator, but I was surprised that he had his New York accent rather than adopt a Down East one as he was supposed to be a Maine senator. Even in comparison to the climactic Senate hearings in The Godfather, this ping pong conflict is exciting, helped by the exaggerated production design and theatrical lighting that reflects how Hughes sees the match up in his shaky mental state. (There’s no hearing room in Congress that large or would have photographers that close.)
Also in the ensemble Alec Baldwin and John C. Reilly are almost too restrained as, respectively, the Pan Am CEO and Hughes's COO. Ian Holm is delightful in a very small part that helps to show how Hughes kept around him a small group of loyalists who enabled his eccentricities. Jude Law as Erroll Flynn is a cameo and seems to be there only to represent the conventionally dissolute Hollywood as opposed to Hepburn and Hughes being in a parallel trajectory. Kate Beckinsale is just pretty and has none of Ava Gardner’s earthy presence nor brazenness. Even though she talks frankly, she is not a tough dame and she just seems to be playing dress-up in the extravagant period costumes.
Sandy Powell’s period costumes are wonderful, even the men’s clothes are eye-catching in how they set off the actors' bodies, yet are stylistically appropriate.
The production design is a bit over the top, but it emphasized how outsized Hughes’s environment was, as a billionaire controlling a huge airplane factory and airline and as a Hollywood arriviste in the glamorous nightlife. The flying special effects, particularly of the breathtaking Beverly Hills crash, fit the overall tone. The cinematography is ravishing, over a wide variety of settings and environments.
As usual for a Scorsese film the period song selections are superb. Stay through the credits to hear a Leadbelly song about Hughes. It's fun to see three Wainwrights -- Rufus, Loudon and Martha-- as nightclub entertainers. Howard Shore’s score is a bit overpowering, but does work with the exhilarating aerial shots.(1/1/2005)
I did not see the original Flight of the Phoenix so I easily got caught up in the plot twists.
I was perfectly willing to suspend belief for the magic of the movies as much as I would with a sci fi/fantasy movie. But I kept being brought up short by discontinuities that just didn't make sense so that I had to keep letting those problems go in order to get caught up again.
The visual look of the movie is key to getting involved, both the cinematography and the many special effects, which according to the credits include mattes, models and time lapse photography, among many other techniques, for beautiful shots of desert and wind.
It is annoying how very little we learn about the lives of the characters, as we only learn why three of them even have a reason to go home from working in Mongolia for an oil exploration company. It is nice that the actors who are mostly from the British Commonwealth get to use their native accents, such as Australian Miranda Otto, Brit Hugh Laurie (only somewhat less misanthropic than in House), Jacob Vargas as a Chicano, though I don't know why Dennis Quaid doesn't use his native Texas drawl. Giovanni Ribisi is almost unrecognizable in one of his best roles. It's nice to see the appealing Jared Padalecki of Gilmore Girls make it to the movies.
Though there's a reference to e-mail and PDAs, the soundtrack did little to remind us that the re-make has been re-set in today, with a predominant use of a bombastic score, classic country and rock riffs and only one hip hop song (OutKast's "Hey Yeah"), though it's used effectively. (12/23/2004)
Ocean’s 12 may not represent the end of American civilization that so much money is spent on such a trifle, but can be seen as a profitable export of the US. No animals were harmed in the making of the film, people were employed around Europe, no acting skills were taxed but most of them are American citizens so presumably pay US taxes so the Treasury benefits.
I just hope everyone involved from Steve Soderbergh to George Clooney et al do some indie or charitable work so their karma makes up for this lighter than air romp. Soderbergh’s exceptional directorial, editing and cinematographic skills were put to such better use in Traffic.
The actors basically have to just show up, which George Nolfi's script even makes fun of, as each character pretty much plays self-referential satires of themselves and their personas-–including Brad Pitt preening in tight silk shirts and expensive cars, Matt Damon spoofing his all-competent Bourne by being a bumbling apprentice, Clooney’s age vanity, climaxing in making an explicit joke of Julia Roberts, but heck it's breezily funny. At one point the characters ask each other if they have a moral objection to the nonsense going on and there’s a funny moment’s hesitation before they –and we enjoying the show—think, nah.
Best are the even shorter cameos, Topher Grace, Albert Finney, Robbie Coltrane, Cherry Jones who add some ballast as otherwise the story is so light weight that it a couple of times threatens to blow away. The Bruce Willis cameo adds to the silliness but it does work.
It is hard to watch all the energy Catherine Zeta-Jones’s "Europol" cop puts into catching thieves when one hopes that in real life Interpol is working on catching terrorists. I suppose we can all rest easy that Osama’s folks don’t have these thieves’ skills so that therefore we can sit back and enjoy this 007 for civilians, a world where master thieves are so bored they pretty much have to keep occupied by stealing from each other. Too bad real life is showing us that thievery is really so much easier than it’s shown here, from Enron to the Tate Gallery.
It is staggering the number of assistants each actor required, let alone hair dressers, so I think it worth noting that I really don’t like Damon and Pitt with buzz cuts and Zeta’s long wig in one scene is really bad.
The charming score keeps things moving right along.
Was it another self-referential joke, perhaps in the Utah moments, that one of the many incidental songs was written by Senator Orin Hatch so that he’ll financially benefit from this silly export? (12/11/2004)
With just a bit of reining in the schmaltz Finding Neverland could have gone beyond a very good movie to an excellent film.
The film is at its best when, like Topsy Turvy, it shows how an artist creates a beloved masterwork. Grounding the story in the theater helps us enter into James Barrie's head very effectively, such that it's just a small step for us to join him into the Imagi-Nation (as Kris Kringle called it in Miracle on 34th Street). It is much more convincing than Big Fish in showing us the power of the storyteller because it is related more to the joys of the child in all of us rather than the avoidance of maturity, though that's how other adult characters chide Barrie. I presume it is intentional that Barrie's real life seems so drab compared to his fantasies, but it is a bit stiff to watch.
The child actors are at their best when they are not miniature Edwardian adults but are rambunctious brothers like the no-necked monsters in Desperate Housewives. It's a relief to see in film that not all upper class Britons were banished to strict boarding schools.
While mildly dealing with rumors about the nature of Barrie's relationship with the mother and her children, David Magee's script is weakened when he has the younger boys talk preternaturally like adults, especially when it is solely for tear jerking effect. The oldest brother's gradual acceptance of adult responsibility is convincing, but Peter is just a shade short of annoying.
The biggest weakness in the film is the maudlin handling of the illness of Kate Winslet's character, which is as old-fashioned a decorous cinematic portrayal of consumption as Greta Garbo in Camille. Could she not have at least been made up to look less radiantly healthy or did she only have Terminal Movie Starness?
Julie Christie and Radha Mitchell have thankless, one-dimensional roles, but make the most of what they're given to work with and only the former gets to prove she believes in fairies. (12/3/2004)
The only reason Alexander will be remembered is as the only movie that managed to make Colin Farrell, let alone Jared Leto and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, seem unsexy.
No it's not because they are playing gay men (and they aren't bi-sexual -- Alexander only gets it up for a woman with a knife at his throat when he realizes he needs an heir). While the script makes several jabs at the film Troy for portraying the Achilles/Patroclus relationship as familial rather than as lovers, at least that mess luxuriated in the male figure homo-erotically; this may be the only sword-and-sandals epic where almost the only part of hunky male anatomies we see are eyes and flowing hair. Russell Crowe was plenty sexy in Gladiator with virtually no romantic scenes.
The actor playing the young Alexander does look extraordinarily like Farrell, but the untying of the Gordian Knot is not presented as terribly exciting.
Oliver Stone films are usually distinctive for their in-your-face editing, but only two battle scenes enliven the long story. And those mimic Christopher Doyle's color coded cinematography in Hero (Ying xiong), as first one is covered in desert sand and the second in a forest of blood (and I did keep wondering how elephants were fitting between the trees in an Ewok-like terrain).
Women, as usual in any Stone film, get short shrift but they are used more confusingly than his other work. Poor Rosario Dawson has to endure a naked scene that's violently animalistic before she turns into a nag - how can she whine about returning to Babylon when she's never been there? The casting of Angelina Jolie as Alexander's mother made some sense in the early scenes of his childhood, but the decision not to age her twenty years is just annoying. We are perfectly capable of realizing their Oedipal relationship without having them appear as their actual comparable ages to make it creepier, let alone constantly surrounding her with snakes as some sort of inappropriate reference to Eve. Her Transylvanian accent just sounds silly, even if it fits into the geographical premise, though the occasional maps don't really help amidst the confused use of both ancient and contemporary geographical terms. I suppose it's a comment on the history of talking film that has portrayed Ancient Greeks as high class Brits that the Macedonians here all speak with variants of Farrell's Irish accent to indicate that they are usurpers.
I was looking forward to the long movie finally ending with Alexander's death but no we had to suddenly endure what seemed like a half-hour flashback that was supposed to add mysterious motivations to the anti-climactic death scene and could just as easily have been put in chronological order.
The Vangelis score is just annoying. (12/2/2004)
Friday Night Lights is somewhere between Any Given Sunday and Leni Riefenstahl's lyrical documentaries of Fascist ritual gatherings.
While this view of high school football is not as over the top as Oliver Stone's treatment of the excesses of the professionals, the criticisms that glide by in sight and sound are drowned out by the competitive story of the sport and overwhelmed by the obsession that Texans have with their Glory Days that the movie not only captures visually, through talk radio and booster confrontations with the coach, but ends up being as seduced by as these fans. I was personally horrified and disgusted at the money spent on huge stadia, teams and coaches - with none to spare on medical attention for the players-- but I didn't feel that came across to the guys filling the movie theater with their small sons (but then my sons were presidents of their debate teams). We don't even get to see how the academic side is doubtless being starved, which is only hinted at in the post script on how these players got on with their lives and in the fathers and fans that look to them to recall the peak of their youth, before alcoholism, stunted marriages, boring jobs, etc.
While evidently quite a few liberties were taken with the characters in the book for dramatic effect (particularly I would think the racial aspects, not having read the book yet), the personal stories of the players and their families are very involving.
The young actors are very effective. It's nice to see Lucas Black all grown up from his child actor days in American Gothic, Southern accent intact. Newcomer Garrett Hedlund is particularly good in tandem with a very scary Tim McGraw, who is so strong that his character's post-game contrition doesn't balance out his abuse. The females are pretty much only around for the pre-season and just disappear until they are cheering at the final game, which didn't seem completely realistic, particularly about high school.
While I know zilch about football and could not follow anything that happened at the games other than the score board, Peter Berg's in-your-face directing style grips you from the opening. The football games are shot Saving Private Ryan-style, with excruciating grunts heard like bulls fighting for leadership of the herd (the sound editing should get an Oscar nomination), making the case that this is about testosterone given free rein.
The soundtrack songs are a good selection of hip hop as background for the kids and classic rock for the dads, though there's less country music than one would expect to recreate the Texas soundscape.(11/2/2004)
I Heart Huckabees is a completely original satire that both spoofs and builds on the films of the Coen Brothers (especially The Hudsucker Proxy, here updated to corporate co-optation of environmentalists) and Woody Allen, going beyond his jokes on Freudian therapy as a solution to angst.
There's also plenty of droll takes on detective and spy conventions as it's a long riff on the premise that "The unexamined life is not worth living." The cast goes for broke, especially Jude Law and Heather Watts playing off their beauty, though his American accent falters a bit.
In most movies, we just have to pretend to ignore that we are looking at the most beautiful human beings on the planet and assume they are everyday folk; here, they get to make fun of their charm and good looks as they get their comeuppances. Isabelle Huppert gets to poke fun at French intellectual and sexual stereotypes.
While the film does drag in spots, it is laugh out loud funny at many other points. Amidst these jokes, the philosophical arguments get to even make some serious sense and I almost followed them.
Amusing touch having Jason Schwartzman's mom Talia Shire play his character's mother who has a different last name than he does. (10/26/2004)
Maybe Ladder 49 was conceived post-9/11 as a tribute to the firefighting profession in general, but it was overshadowed by the honesty of the TV series Third Watch even before, let alone the frankness of Rescue Me since.
This is a bland, uncritical, hagiographic portrait where even though we see the characters supposedly over ten years in flashbacks they do not grow, learn or change, either physically or emotionally. This salute to male camaraderie ignores any racial, sexual or labor conflicts, with just a hint of problems that some may have with alcohol and ex-wives as a consequence of being married to their jobs.
John Travolta is particularly blah, while at least Joaquin Phoenix is sweet eye candy.
The music choices are not very interesting, though it's nice to hear Robbie Robertson on the closing track. (10/16/2004)
Shark Tale is a mediocre cartoon.
The visuals are boring and make kids restless because there is not enough interesting going on. The dialogue is lame. It is not funny.
I doubt the ongoing Car Wash satire would even be appreciated by the parents of the very youngsters this too long, predictable cartoon will appeal to.
The voice-over actors are mostly playing on their persona from other movies, including lines from those movies.
The songs are mechanically revved-up covers of golden oldies. (10/1/2004)
Warriors of Heaven and Earth (Tian di ying xiong) is such an old-fashioned, conventional swordplay movie that I expected young Kirk Douglas and Robert Taylor to pop up. This is Cecil B. DeMille with a lot smaller cast.
We've seen many times before the charismatic law enforcement guy end up allying with the charismatic not-really-a-criminal he's duty bound to bring in ("Sometimes it's a crime not to kill.") to defeat the bad guy, who literally here is a rasta-braided blue-eyed devil, along with a tribe that I'm not sure our history books would translate as "The Turks."
The romance is oblique, which is just as well because the seductive miss may not be legal and he's old enough to be her grandfather, but that doesn't prevent a scene as old as the Bible, where the soldier comes upon the maiden in the bath.
It does serve as a nice promotion for China's various and impressive movie locations. I'm not sure if it was dubbed that even pre-teen boys would care about this kind of action movie any more.(9/15/2004)
Hero (Ying xiong) is a visual delight, not the chop socky film it is being promoted as; this is much more a date movie than a guy's action flick. (It is not, however, for children who either cannot read the subtitles, nor have no patience to read them or the philosophical ruminations on love vs. idealism vs. sacrifice that drives the plot.)
The comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are inevitable, both for the relationships and the soaring around fighting. But Hero doesn't even try to be as realistic when they jump to challenge gravity, because this is a tale of story-telling, like Big Fish.
It's about how legends are created, as the myth is created right before our eyes, until even the teller begins to believe what he's relating. Actions, let alone long, smoldering glances, mean very different things in every re-telling of the story (with each re-telling indicated in a different brilliant color and ever more breathtaking locale).
The cinematographer is the Australian Christopher Doyle who also did the equally gorgeous but very opposite in scale Thai film Last Life in the Universe (Ruang rak noi nid mahasan) that shares shifts in its storytelling with absolutely delightful and enthralling magic realism twists. The beauty is even more luscious than a fabulously breathtaking film that was also nommed for foreign language Oscar, the Korean Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom) that was also fable like, but with no martial arts and small scale. The ads mostly emphasize Jet Li as the star but the movie is taken over by the other absolutely magnetic and romantic male lead Tony Leung Chiu Wai and the two women (the older Maggie Cheung and the younger Ziyi Zhang, both fabulously beautiful).
Sure there's a political angle of favoring uniting warring Chinese states into one empire, but one could say the same about movies about Napoleon or probably most of the samurai movies, let alone The Last Samurai. Heck, wasn't Britain trying to rule the world in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World among other imperialistic period flicks?
Media reviews have noted that the subtitles are quite different in the current release compared to the import DVD releases. I would think the music is too as now Itzhak Perlman does the fiddling -- and be sure to stay through the end of the credits to hear the full effect of the thrillingly percussive music. (9/8/2004)
Open Water is a small, tight, digital video scare 'em movie that uses character and imagination much more effectively than a blood and gore fest would.
Writer/director Chris Kentis sets up a very realistic relationship and natural dialogue for a busy professional couple fitting a short, expensive vacation into their scheduled lives, in an ironic counterpoint to the charter boat company - were the words: "They seemed pretty casual" ever used so presciently in a film? The movie sparely gets down to business, with no distractions but plenty of foreshadowing that builds up the believability of the "based on true events" prologue. The fluctuations in the relationship between the man and woman are almost as fascinating as the shark threats they face.
The emphasis on dread over blood shouldn't fool anyone over the "R" rating; I thought it inappropriate that caregivers were bringing young children to the matinee, as in language, visuals and strong emotions this is appropriately rated.
The final shots so captured my morbid curiosity and fear that I got distracted from looking at the extensive music credits sharing the screen, but the music, especially the Caribbean selections, were excellent in helping to establish setting and feelings. (9/6/2004)
The Village is a beautiful looking, but slow, long extended Twilight Zone episode or Ruth Rendell-type mystery with a twist.
Not only does the camera move slowly, but the characters speak very slowly, especially William Hurt as the Village Elder, to emphasize their non-modern context.
So Bryce Dallas Howard lights up the screen almost by default because she gets showier action and lines (though she looks so much like Judy Greer playing her screen sister that I was confused at first about Joaquin Phoenix's subtly quietly different reactions to each). And there isn't much else that Phoenix gets to do, other than look like he could be the object of desire of two young women which he doesn't have to do much to be for any woman, even a blind one, while Adrien Brody just has to laugh a lot as the Village Idiot. The very slow build-up does finally have an ironic pay off, but we've gotten pretty restless by then. (8/10/2004)
I only caught up with IFC's "Samurai Saturdays" after they finished showing weeks and weeks of various Zatôichi serials, so I hoped I had enough of a grounding to be able to get the satire of Zatôichi: The Blind Swordsman.
What I didn't expect was a complete auteur experience, as writer/director/star/producer Takeshi "Beat" Kitano takes on every cliché of samurai movies with surprise twists, sweet poignancy and good natured humor, amid spurts of blood, even as I'm sure I didn't get all the genre references.
Yes there's revenge -- but undertaken by a transvestite geisha who has been sexually exploited, as we see in quite sad flashbacks.
Yes there's a ronin, an unemployed master swordfighter, but he's just trying to pay family medical bills and the ramifications of his ultimate failure are surprisingly moving.
Yes there are both dumb and noble villagers to be protected, but here there's literally an idiot.
Yes there's leadership corruption, but they seem to be forerunners of competing yakuza gangs controlling gambling and protection rackets, complete with detailed tattoos.
Yes there's sword fighting schools, but no one seems to survive practice sessions that could have been choreographed by Mel Brooks (or at least John Belushi).
And of course there's the usual peasant festival finale - but I've never seen one that looks like Riverdance by way of Bollywood, choreographed like Busby Berkeley to exuberant music and percussion by Keiichi Suzuki.
Kitano creatively turns a genre on its ear. (7/31/2004)
The Bourne Supremacy is fun Hollywood entertainment.
It's one big chase movie and while it doesn't come close to the climactic classic scenes from Bullitt or Ronin, let alone gimmicky ones like in the recent The Italian Job, it keeps you holding on to the roller coaster bar.
I thought the director must have come out of music videos as there's a lot of fast, shaky camera movement accompanied by John Powell's driving electronic music (who probably not coincidentally also did Job) to keep the action going along. But surprise, it's by Grit Brit director Paul Greengrass who did the startlingly realistic docu-drama Bloody Sunday.
I was surprised how few holes there were as this follows immediately in story from The Bourne Identity, such that I think it would be a bit difficult get to into this one without seeing part one (and I appreciated seeing this one for free with my coupon from the DVD.) (But then my parents insisted they loved Before Sunset without seeing the first one.)
The biggest head scratcher is that "Bourne" has been off the grid for two years and while his companion has gone all native in hair and dress, Bourne still looks like a jarhead -- who knew you could get a hair cut like that in India? (And for this Damon's hair stylist gets an individual credit?)
Joan Allen and Brian Cox anchor what satisfyingly enough post-Cold War cynical story there is to provide ballast to the breathless visual action. Though I had trouble telling apart the various Eastern European baddies, I recognized the charismatic Oksana Akinshina of Lilja 4-ever in a very small role but one she makes very meaningful with few lines.
I couldn't tell from the credits if the closing musical piece was by Mocean Worker, but it fit the mood nicely. (7/26/2004)
King Arthur seems like a prequel to Hollywood's usual telling of the legend, as it goes back to the origins of the myth, pre-medieval chivalric culture (and I even watched the promotional documentary on the History Channel to be prepped).
As written by David Franzoni, who used similar themes in Gladiator, this Arthur is loyal to some ideal about Rome -- that's strikingly similar to that other commander's. Which is confusing because THIS Rome is now the Holy Roman Empire. Arthur's disillusionment when he finds out that Rome has fallen far short of his ideals raises the movie out of just being an action flick - but not by much.
Much as Clive Owen has grabbed my attention since I first saw him on Brit TV, he's not exactly an inspiring leader here. He's more Hamlet-like, the cerebral one among the Knights of the Round Table, with a particular philosopher he's loyal to, as Maximus was to an earlier one. While there's a lot of borrowing from Seven Samurai, the knights also recall a certain Fellowship of diverse hair styles; it can't be a coincidence that a Danish actor is styled to look a lot like Aragorn, another is an Australian hunk, while Ray Winstone takes over his scenes with Cockney bluster.
But then the accents make zero consistent sense, from the first moment we meet Lancelot as a young boy stepping out of the family yert on the steppes of Eastern Sarmatia with perfect enunciation of the King's English. Stellan Skarsgård has great fun as a sullen Saxon villain (providing a new meaning of WASP - White Anglo Saxon Pagan?), much like Brian Cox's actor-slumming in Troy.
This Guinevere is in cahoots with Merlin to bring Merlin's prophesy true that Arthur will lead her tribe to victory-- helped by knowing his secret mixed Roman/Briton origins -- and she'll do anything to get him to do so, much further than Princess Leia went to keep Han Solo loyal to her rebels. Though her eyes are on Lancelot, her head's on manipulating Arthur. Heck, she even has to show him what to do in bed to inspire him in battle, while Lancelot keeps bragging to the other knights about his sexual conquests. But her leather thong battle bikini was straight out of a guilty pleasure TV show that Sci Fi Channel repeats sometimes - Roar that also takes place when some Roman Empire or other is faltering in Britain and the tribes need uniting against them.
The battle scenes are just plain fun! We've seen showers of flaming arrows before, but the battle on ice even beats out the snow fights in one of the Star Wars. Which was probably why the matinee audience I saw it with was mostly guys. Too many knights are killed off to make for a good sequel, but then I wasn't even sure what geography exactly Arthur is king of at the end.
The music is endlessly noisy and Moia Brennan's vocalizations are ineffective. (7/9/2004)
Napoleon Dynamite is a refreshing, low-budget take on the teen freaks and geeks vs. popular kids high school comedy.
Writer/director Jared Hess's setting it in his home grounds of rural Idaho makes for a nice change of scenery from the usual suburban teen locales. The geeks this time are genuinely dysfunctional -- not the kind who just take off their glasses and become stunning.
Napoleon turns out to be the normal one in his just plain weird family. But what at first turns us off in them -- one almost even sides with the jocks and cheerleaders -- becomes charming as we get to know them and their cheerful refusals to compromise in any way.
The surprising conclusion is a delightful comeuppance for all.(7/6/2004))
My viewing of Troy was helped by The Younger's exegesis, courtesy of two years of Ivy League reading of Dead White Men's civilization. He pointed out the legend of Troy isn't just based on Homer but also Virgil's The Aeneid, among other sources for the Trojan Horse legend, and he approved of Aeneas's sudden appearance in the last few minutes of the film.
As I haven't yet started my summer reading of Homer and Virgil, I'll relay his comments. Paris's wimpiness was Homeric, especially in his use of the bow & arrow, as Homer strongly feels that archers are cowards and Real Men use spears and swords. Gee, and I thought it was Orlando Bloom being "Legolas" again from Lord of the Rings. All the best scenes - such as Hector saying farewell to his wife, the consequences of Achilles' cousin in battle, Priam begging for Hector's body (with Peter O'Toole wiping Brad Pitt off the screen with his acting)-- were straight outta Homer. The guy in front of me complained that a review he'd read "had given away too much of the plot." Gee, 3,000 years of literary analysis seems to have passed this guy by. But, then, as the arrow hits Achilles, there were a good portion of people who gasped and said "Oh! His 'Achilles heel'!" I couldn't help laughing when Achilles bellowed for Hector as if that's where the word "hectoring" must come from.
Leaving out the quarreling gods' manipulations of humans leaves out a good part of the legend, but The Grouch thought a modern audience wouldn't buy magical excuses. People got killed off who didn't die in Homer just because the leaden screenplay had turned them into figures that the audience would want dead. Of course that would leave several Greek playwrights high and dry as they dealt a lot with the aftermath of Trojan War soldiers.
I got a kick out of Helen's and Paris's adultery being treated like the Tonkin Gulf incident as just an excuse for the king's imperialistic intentions. The effort to get us to sympathize with a young woman trapped in an arranged marriage to an older lout was weakened by the model's non-acting (yeah there's been a lot of jokes in reviews about how many ships this face deserved), but she managed to be quite heroic in her nude embrace against Paris's metal armor.
Pitt's spoiled surfer dude is actually very close to Homer's portrait of Achilles, according to my son, and Homer did report on his constant squabbling with the king about a woman captive. As for me, I had no doubt that she wasn't going to resist Achilles when her first sighting of him is naked and covered in sweat and the blood of her fellow Trojans. I was wondering more if Brad's glistening, very impressive body could possibly really be all personal training or had any prosthetics as I don't recall any interviews with him during shooting that had him THAT muscle-bound even after 6 months with a personal trainer and no smoking.
I did think the best parts of the movie were the 2 minutes altogether here and there of beefcake (including Eric Bana, who also movingly portrays Hector as a devoted family man, and a quickie shot of Bloom, though mores the pity none such of Sean Bean as Odysseus) that can wait to be seen until folks post screen shots on the Internet from the DVD, with the sound off so as not to hear Pitt's wandering accent and ineffectual declamations. While certainly physical beauty was an important element of Greek culture so Pitt's poses can have unprurient justification, the men's role as rippling sex objects is reinforced by the recurring images of supine womenfolk, so satiated that they cannot be roused when their menfolk leave for war.