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. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: Film-Forward; FF2 Media; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

Recommended Films at Mandel Maven's Nest Reel Life: Flick Pix

Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Checkpoint Zoo (at 2024 Tribeca Film Festival) (6/6/2024)

The Lionheart (at 2023 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/29/2024)

Elemental (at 2023 Tribeca Film Festival) (9/5/2023)

Werewolves Within (preview at 2021 Tribeca Film Festival/ courtesy of IFC Films) (7/3/2021)

Frozen 2 (11/24/2019)

The Lion King (in 2D) (7/15/2019)

The Outsider is an ultra-violent, ahistorical Western revenge flick, but get over these extremes and it’s an intriguing mash-up of genres. The fulcrum is a Chinese couple. Jing Phang (the really captivating Jon Foo) has finished working on the railroad and is looking forward to achieving his American Dream with his wife Li (Nelli Tsay), who would have been one of the very few Chinese women in the country. Their sweet love is represented by folding the Chinese version of origami zhezhi, though the symbolism becomes more like in Blade Runner. But she catches the eye of the brutally misogynist son James (squirmingly villainous Kaiwi Lyman) of the town’s gruff, Bible-quoting Marshal Walker (country star Trace Adkins). Unusual in an American Western since the 1970’s outside a Jackie Chan comedy, Jing Phang has agency himself and starts laying waste to James’s enablers through devastating use of his formidable martial arts skills. In a town that mostly seems to exist at night and in the rain because this was the last film shooting at the famous Paramount Ranch as the Malibu Woolsey Fire was destroying the set, the Marshal sends for teams of bounty hunters who are humorous in their stereotyped diversity, including a troop of Mexican bandito types fielded by Danny Trejo as Carlos. Meanwhile, drunken, but quite appealing, ex-Army tracker Chris King (Sean Patrick Flanery) has some back-story that motivates him to slyly help the downtrodden over the violently corrupt powers that be. While the earlier films that I haven’t seen by director Timothy Woodward Jr. and his collaborative team, including writer Sean Ryan, also appear to stress the macho, The Outsider is worth looking through your fingers for a contemporary trail of bloody bodies through the Olde West. (Available as of June 14, 2019, theatrically in 11 North American cities, including Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Seattle, Tampa, and Toronto, and available On Demand and Digital.) (Preview courtesy of Cinedigm) (6/16/2019)

Aladdin (in 2D) (5/22/2019)

Dumbo (in 2D) (4/4/2019)

The Mustang (3/15/2019)

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. (6/17/2016)

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)

Zarafa (7/12/2015)

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)

Freakonomics (10/1/2010)

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. (8/23/2005)

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. (8/23/2005

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. (2/25/2005)

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.
The major difference between this very long movie (after all the Trojan War did last some 10 years) and '50's sword-and-sandals epics is now the camera can go quite seductively a few inches lower on the hunks. [Anthony Quinn in The Independent (5/21/2004) notes: "It's also significant that Patroclus, whose death provokes Achilles to murderous revenge, is here styled as his "cousin" instead of friend; heaven forbid we should suspect any gay attachment between these strapping dudes."]
The leaden directing tried to use the bombastic music to make the action move while the dialogue was just silly stiff. I stayed through all the credits and wasn't surprised that I didn't recognize any of the special effects shops as the cheesy boats and soldiers looked like the old Jason and the Argonauts movies, resonating like Pitt's voice-over in the cartoon Sinbad last year.
Along with the hand-to-hand combat and the jewelry, particularly the women's earrings and the men's necklaces, one of the few imitations of Gladiator that almost works is Tanja Tzarovska and the Bulgarian Women's Choir doing a fair imitation of Lisa Gerrard's Oscar-winning soundtrack contributions.
As to Homer's stirring tale of war, politics, family, and loyalty that has echoed through millennia, the only lesson that all the women and at least 10% of the men will take away is that Achilles was eminently fuckable. So if this film gets more people to use condoms, it will have been a success. (5/17/2004)

Ned Kelly is a straight-forward re-telling of the legendary Australian who has a powerful symbolism as both an outlaw and a revolutionary.
It is not based on the award-winning novel by Peter Carey, True History of the Ned Kelly Gang, because the rights to that were taken by the Irish Neil Jordan to the consternation of nationalists who rallied around this adaptation of Robert Drewe's Our Sunshine. But, oddly, though Drewe is listed as a co-producer, this chronological narrative by first-timer John M. McDonagh flattens out the power of the novella's focus on the final three-days' battle that's as important to Australia as "Remember the Alamo!" is to Texans.
Director Gregor Jordan particularly undercuts the core of Kelly's transformation in the public imagination from petty criminal to charismatic Robin Hood to uprising leader against injustice by barely letting Heath Ledger dictate a few lines of the so-called 'Jerilderie Letter', perhaps because it is the powerful centerpiece of the voice of the Carey book. Jordan opts for portends of the key confrontation that will only be caught by those familiar with the legend -- Kelly idly looking through an illustrated book about body armor, the loading up of the infamous train that will carry the police to the attack, and Geoffrey Rush replaying his Inspector Javert, but with only implications of a Les Miserables back story.
Jordan presides over an excellent recreation of the milieu of the time, as Ledger's basso voice-over connectors do resonate. There's a strong visual evocation in the art and set direction of time, place, and geography, especially with Oliver Stapleton's beautiful cinematography. The social class differences between descendants of POMmies (Prisoners of his Majesty) and their British overlords, are documented starkly, particularly in carrying over the Irish vs. British conflict to another continent (though the bland music score misses a real opportunity to illustrate that, with only a couple of traditional Celtic songs literally stuck in).
Non-Aussie Orlando Bloom makes quite a dashing Joe Byrne, Kelly's best friend, attracting Rachel Griffiths in a somewhat silly cameo, and many other recognizable Australian actors pass through. Unfortunately, Naomi Watts and Ledger can be added to the lengthy list of real-life lovers who evince little reel chemistry -- did that only work to our benefit for Bogart/Bacall and Tracy/Hepburn?
[My discussion of Kelly novels is listed under Carey at my fiction book club's readings.](4/2/2004)

Goodbye, Lenin! is a delightful and touching play on what must be a German parlor game: "How would someone waking up from a coma react to the incredible changes since The Wall came down?" But writer/director Wolfgang Becker has a lot more on his mind than the punch line to one joke, as funny as that alone is.
Yes, the basic premise is the clever, devoted son trying to keep his fragile mother from another heart attack by swathing her in the cocoon of an East Germany that still existed just before she went into a coma. And, yes, the increasingly extreme lengths he traverses to maintain the fiction by hunting down the inferior products of the people's utopia are hilarious--such as getting distracted from a sexy rendezvous with his girlfriend when he finds a closet full of what he's been searching for, the detritus of the discredited economic and social system.
First, what sets this above an easy comedy are the complex characters, played by a marvelous cast. No one is a stick figure, all have very individual, complicated lives and hopes you can root for and reasons for the choices they made, both under the Stasi and now under capitalism. Their personal interrelations are believable and involving, as the growing-up and maturity of the family members parallels the complicated changes around them.
It is because they are such humans that they start to chafe under and manipulate the son's fictional dictatorship of the proletariat, even if it exists in just one bedroom, as much as they did under the real one, as it starts to crumble under the power of truth. This particularly comes out as he has to create his own propaganda that is both trenchantly satirical and scarily efficient to put an hilarious spin on the real world as it starts to intrude on his worker's paradise island, both from the politics and economics to the intensely and very movingly personal uncovering of lies. There is one minor plot point near the end that was either confusing or intended to add yet another layer of complexity to the mother/son relationship. I don't know if Becker had to go to great expense to recreate the mis en scene of the changing Germany or if his camera's timing was as perfect as Louis Malle's was in capturing Atlantic City on the cusp. Another irony, for an English-language viewer, is that there can be all these changes in the world yet subtitles are still white on white!(3/28/2004)

I have somehow managed to miss the entire serial killer tracked by empowered female investigator genre begotten by Silence of the Lambs, but I got suckered into Taking Lives by the hunky combo of Olivier Martinez and Ethan Hawke. Clearly my neighbors in the packed theater had seen the multitude of such Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, etc. movies because they were laughing at my gullible reactions to what seems to be conventions of the gory genre.
I was used to director D.J. Caruso's tricks from TV murder mystery series so I saw through his chop-chop editing at crucial climaxes that cover up weak plot points to see the villain too soon. But the final twist should entrap any viewer. Evidently, though, one would have to read Michael Pye's original novel to figure out how the heck Angelina Jolie's character makes the key link by staring at the grisly photographs plastered above her bed as she certainly doesn't tell us.
I couldn't help thinking, though, that the CSI crowd would have solved the whole thing a lot more easily than Angelina's mystical communing with the dead that was supposed to justify why the Quebecois authorities had to bring in a FBI profiler.
It was nice for a change to have a mystery set in gritty French Canada, letting Martinez fit in naturally, though why the heck they kept having shots of Quebec City stand in for Montreal made no sense -- and couldn't they have found a role for Quebecois actor Roy Dupuis? (3/28/2004)

Hidalgo is an old-fashioned romp in the Indiana Jones vein, with less clever dialogue (mostly along the lines of "You can insult me, but if you insult my horse. . .").
But it has stunningly beautiful cinematography by Shelly Johnson, lovely scenery, and excruciatingly bombastic music by James Newton Howard. It riffs off a similar premise as The Last Samurai in the lead character's disillusionment (not Hidalgo, that's the horse - Viggo plays Frank Hopkins) over the Indian Wars and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, but uses that more effectively for self-discovery as his mother was a Native American.
A nice modern twist in the genre is that the women, whether villainess or heroine, are not helpless, even as bound by 19th century conventions.
Combined with Viggo being nice and easy on a horse and on the eyes, though he doesn't have to show his emoting chops along with his chaps, this movie really carried me back to my pre-adolescent fascination with horses, like the lovely Russell Crowe film The Silver Brumby: King of the Wild Stallions.(3/12/2004)

I know what I was supposed to be feeling as I watched Big Fish, as Tim Burton banged me over the head with his theme on the importance of the storyteller enlivening our drab existence, but he was so insistent and rigid in this that I thought the whimsy and charm were drained out. Maybe because I was won over more by Billy Crudup as the cynical son living in the real world than Albert Finney as the tale-spinner who straddles reality and fantasy with Jessica Lange as his still-blonde devoted Stepford wife.
I'm a big fan of magic realism, from Bedford Falls to even Neverending Story, but the fantasy elements here were too brittle. From Ewan MacGregor, who shows none of Finney's Tom Jones flare when enacting his younger self, to the preternaturally too bright smiles that everyone stiffly wears in the stories to match the too bright M & M artificial colors cinematogragraphy by Philippe Rousselot under too much make-up, including on Alison Lohman, though she eerily mimics Lange's body language as her younger self.
Part of the fantasy includes the very fake Alabama accents, which are Network Standard Southern, even though they filmed near Mobile.
I wasn't sure if it was an intentionally transitional point in the movie as the fantasy elements start to intersect with the real world that we jarringly hear for the first time period-appropriate songs with "5 O'clock World" and the Allman Brothers' "Travelin' Man." The closing song by Eddy Vedder and Pearl Jam was lovely. (1/11/2004)

Cold Mountain is a grand old-style, satisfyingly catch-you-up-in-the-sweep-of-emotions/resistance-is-futile romantic Hollywood epic, whose primary difference from Gone With the Wind is that the actresses get to flash some tasteful T & A and use a four-letter word more vulgar than "damn" about manure.
Perforce it can only be a hurried "scenes from" the engrossing novel (not its dialogue, making Jude Law's character even more inscrutably taciturn) which puts Penelope and Odysseus amidst the Civil War where author Charles Frazier added irony to Homer as Ada/Penelope first has to (metaphorically) learn to weave as she keeps suitors and other dangers at bay and Inman/Odysseus is not a hero but barely survives as a deserter to face parallel trials on the way home as his efforts at a separate peace keep backfiring on him. The book at least includes a map so readers can trace Inman's lengthy Odyssey, but the movie unfortunately opts out of that 1940's-style even as it follows other conventions of the genre, particularly as seen through John Seale's beautiful cinematography from the fog of war to the fog of snow.
While producers Miramax are technically not a major studio, their casting is part of what puts this in the grand Hollywood tradition. Even under dirt and mussed hair, Nicole Kidman and Jude Law are two of the mostly stunningly beautiful human beings on the planet --and it's a pretty safe bet that they'll be entered in MTV's "Best Film Kiss of 2003"--yet they almost don't stand out amidst an attractive cameo cast with the likes of Natalie Portman, Cillian Murphy, Giovanni Ribisi, Charlie Hunnam, with Ray Winstone as the villain, etc. It was almost startling to see Eileen Atkins's mountain woman as the first non-pretty or handsome character actor. Renée Zellweger gets to chew the scenery as an over-the-top Ma Kettle, but her comic relief is enjoyable. While the complex production design, from battles to farms to log cabins, creates whole environments, "Ada"'s wardrobes must be pretty huge to fit all those beautiful dresses; it was only in the last days of poverty of the war that she actually had to repeat wearing one.
A good deal of the credit for the irresistibility of the movie is the music, especially T. Bone Burnett's Americana and Jack White's Americana-sounding selections (and White acquits himself adequately as a shy singer in the film), and I would have preferred even more of those and a bit less of Gabriel Yared's score. Allison Krauss's singing is especially evocative in enveloping the audience in the mood and themes, in the short Elvis Costello co-penned "The Scarlet Tide" and closing with Sting's "You Will Be My Ain True Love", which is a shoo-in for an Oscar nom.
There was a credited dialect coach, but I found the Southern accents bland. And none of the quibbles really matter. (1/5/2004)

The Last Samurai has been quite accurately skewered as Dances With Samurai, but that only begins to get across how ridiculous this movie is, as, in contrast, I liked Dances With Wolves.
At least Lawrence of Arabia was based on a true, if improbable, story on how an Occidental gets caught up in the Mysterious Orient (as the Mideast too was called then), takes on traditional values and becomes a Great Military Leader, while this is pure bunk fiction. Or does he travel east because this is one group of people that for the most part Tom Cruise can be taller than? How can Cruise's disillusioned Civil War veteran adopt a culture that he and we actually don't even learn about, other than a few words of Japanese. One can certainly learn more from watching Yojimbo or a number of other Akira Kurosawa films than the zero one gets here. (My son took a whole course at Harvard in how samurai culture is routinely misrepresented in films, so I'll get more detail from him at some point.)
The one-on-one fight scenes are not only unconvincing once, but director Edward Zwick takes one tutoring fight and repeats it three times, one time even in slo-mo. It is out and out laughable that the head samurai speaks fluent English, let alone the surprisingly accessible Emperor; at least in old World War II movies the general always says: "You are surprised I speak your language? USC, Class of '38!" Maybe he went to USC class of 1838? Is that how he came to be so well informed about the American Indian Wars (but not about classical Greek military history)?
The romance is much played up on the trailer but mostly consists of curious and longing glances that could be out of a Jane Austen novel, plus the mandatory cliché shot of the bland beauty discreetly bathing by a stream. And I was a bit confused as an audience member that I was being manipulated to cheer for an American who joins a fanatical resistance against an effort to open up a foreign country to Western influences, corrupt as they might be, and grovels with blind allegiance to an absolute monarch while in effect yelling "Bonsai!" against an army of ill-trained peasant conscripts. Hmm, isn't that what John Walker was doing in Afghanistan?
The battle scenes are more like the naive brutality of old vs. new military technology showcased in Barry Lyndon than the drama of Saving Private Ryan.
The repeating drum beats in the score, redolent of traditional Japanese drumming, are effective. (12/20/2003)

The Cooler is like an indie take on Pretty Woman, taking a tough situation and making it pretty and romantic.
Alec Baldwin, however, adds gritty realism, even if he's over the top sometimes, and keeps the film from being frothy. Baldwin is playing his most complex bad guy since Glengarry Glen Ross as Tony The Soprano-like (or is that Bugsy Siegel-like?) he personally upholds the traditional values of Las Vegas through violent means against the blander villainy of Corporate America.
I don't know if writer/director Wayne Kramer was predicting that Vegas's run as a family entertainment mecca would be closing when he drafted the script or if it's just ironic that adult entertainment is rising there again like a scantily clad phoenix. I did wonder how Baldwin's character would feel about Celine Dion becoming a Vegas fixture, if that could have been a modernizing compromise for him.
The movie is otherwise unsubtly entertaining even as it takes a few unpredictable turns through twists in the unlikely relationship between sad sack William H. Macy and fellow casino employee woebegone Maria Bello. Doc Watson makes an unexpected cameo.
Mark Isham supervised the music, so I presume he selected the Rat Pack-sound-alike soundtrack. (12/20/2003)

Runaway Jury is a serviceable piece of disposable Hollywood entertainment, accomplished efficiently by pro's doing their usual accomplished thing so we should get distracted from how disheartening it all is.
Gene Hackman has practically copyrighted his Mephistopheles impersonation, from No Way Out through Unforgiven on, and is so much fun at it here he just may really be the Devil. Probably playing against his old friend Dustin Hoffman as a much less showy knee-jerk liberal juiced him up even more than usual. (The Scion reports he and his girlfriend were the youngest people in the theater so I guess only old folks care about matching up these two actors.)
John Cusack recalls his Grifter, as a nice guy con man. Rachel Weisz uses her feminine wiles even more manipulatively than she did in Shape of Things.
David Baerwald was the music coordinator, so it's disappointing that there isn't more New Orleans music to set the wasted mis en scene, though that sure sounded like Sonny Landredth's distinctive slide guitar behind the Peter Malick and Norah Jones Dylan cover over the credits.
And I wasn't even biased by the fact that my cousin the actress's day job is working for jury consultants by coaching witnesses to speak convincingly! (11/12/2003)

Matchstick Men is a glossy, highly professionally made con men movie featuring terrific performances.
Director Ridley Scott and cinematographer John Mathieson (both were together on the very differently scaled Gladiator) have crafted a beautiful looking movie. The various sting plots, which as is standard for the genre don't make 100% sense from the premise on, are helped immeasurably by the leads.
Nicholas Cage adds to his range of tics from Adaptation and Alison Lohman centers the movie as luminously as she did White Oleander. Their father/daughter relationship is unusual for a caper flick, and keeps it out of the more typical noir atmosphere, and perhaps unnecessarily reinforced with the coda after the twist uncoils.
Are the rat pack music selections supposed to intentionally recall Ocean's 11? The movie recalls the 1849 tabloids source of the term "confidence man," from the first grift that the police identified, that started with the line "Do you have confidence in me?" In these pro's we do.(9/21/2003)

Seabiscuit is a beautiful looking movie, but ultimately feels like a tableau reenactment.
The only element not static is the frequent, of course, horse races, which I zoned out of with repetition and slo mo's. With David McCullough's narration and integration of black & white photos of the period, it feels like an extended version of the hour-long American Experience episode on PBS, which also included excellent interviews with book author Laura Hillenbrand, whose book I have not yet read.
Every emotion is visually telegraphed then repeated with writer/director Gary Ross's script. For example, at the moment before jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) is introduced to the horse, we see trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) look at Seabiscuit reared up fighting against stable boys and see him comparing that to Red fighting off attacks from fellow jockeys.
Then again. And again -- hey, we got it, they share something, thanks. And, oh yeah, they need each other.
The opening panorama as we are quickly introduced to the background of each character, and the final section when each rises to deal with calamity are the most moving.
While it looks like all the period recreation is authentic, the sets and people seem to be playing more dress-up than fully realized people, though Maguire puts some liveliness into his portrayal. Real life jockey Gary Stevens was quite good, though the guy behind me, who offered commentary throughout the film, kept complaining that there was no way the jockeys could be having those extended conversations during the races.
Yes, you'll tear up, as every melodramatic element in this story is hammered home, supported by Randy Newman's uncharacteristically maudlin and incessant score. (9/14/2004)

Open Range has a lot of good, strong contemporary takes on the Western genre to balance some of actor Kevin Costner's schmaltzy tendencies as a director and winceable lines in Craig Storper's script (who knows, they could be direct from Lauran Paine's novel The Open Range Men).
The cinematography is simply gorgeous that needs to be seen on a big screen; filmed in Alberta, there was a lot of digital special effects in the credits, so I don't know how much was created by computer and how much was nature, including the torrential rains.
Robert Duvall anchors the film, ignoring the script and other problems by being completely in the story (which is pretty much of the Bogey-variety of "When a man's partner. . "), even as we learn surprising background about his character. Nice touch to have Diego Luna as the protégé; not only is he adorable but it's about time we see a Latino in a Western other than as a stereotype.
While these characters talk a lot more, and are a heck of a lot more self-aware, than the crisply laconic classic cowboys, they owe a lot to films like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (here set up and undertaken quite originally in an extended and complex choreography), My Darling Clementine (including the heavy symbolism of a construction site in town), and High Noon (including the townspeople's evolving reactions to the Big Boss Rancher Michael Gambon and the ensuing violence he foments).
The contemporary touches include Costner's character's post-Civil War/gunslinger-traumatic stress syndrome, recalling Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, the relationships, such as the easy male bonding among the free-herders (including amusingly showing that they don't really know each other after 10 years of cattle herding together), and Annette Bening's straight-talking nurse. How nice that she is a specifically age-appropriate romantic interest for Costner in the film, unlike in his personal life. (Which is among the reasons I haven't been to his past three (lousy) films after even sitting through For Love of the Game). Though there's lots of effectively visual build-up to the request for that kiss, it won't rate as one of cinema's most satisfying, unfortunately.
Michael Kamen's non-Western score is continuous without being bombastic (my parents report that he is a son of a colleague friend and has been very good to his parents with his success).
The concluding song demonstrates Costner's weakness for treacle, as does the frequent, repetitive frames of kids threatened by crossfire.
The concluding scene unnecessarily repeats lines and talky themes, as we're didactically told again that, unlike John Wayne's hero at the end of The Searchers, this one can fit into civilization. (9/7/2003)

I missed at least 10 minutes of the beginning of The Italian Job due to wrong times in the listings, but I seem to have gotten there just in time for any of the key plot points that were referred to later in the movie.
This is a breezy robbers vs. robbers movie with none of the character gravitas nor noir sexual tension of The Good Thief or even the cute interplays and dialog of a similarly re-made Ocean's 11.
The chase scenes are very entertaining in neat surroundings, but with little of the life-and-death suspense of Ronin or French Connection, maybe because all that's involved is money, ho hum, whether it's $35 million or $27 million.
Maybe because Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron are just too light-weight here. Edward Norton is wasted as a one-dimensional villain; even Wahlberg's character disparages him as lacking imagination. At least for once a distinction is made between Ukrainian and Russian criminals.
There's a fun cover version of Pink Floyd's "Money" by Scott Weiland, Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum (last 3 are ex-members of Guns 'N' Roses) in the movie twice at least, but is NOT on the soundtrack CD.
It is nice to see that the robbers' goal is to catch an Amtrak train; public and freight transportation could use the plug. (9/7/2003)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is an over-the-top romp that's just plain fun. Gee, much like an amusement park ride.
Too bad the roster of good actors (including from British TV comedies The Office and Coupling) were clearly directed to lay it all on broadly (except Jonathan Pryce who is very atypically laid-back and therefore wasted).
Orlando Bloom doesn't get to do too much, Geoffrey Rush has a ball being a villain, while Johnny Depp steals the show with his loopy pirate captain (I like most folks comparison of him to Keith Richards). I figure the only reason he plays it sort of drunken and crazy is to not add an unintentional romantic triangle with a very contemporarily feisty Keira Knightley.
For all the action, there's too many close-ups and not enough opportunity to take it all in from a broader perspective.
Stay through the extensive credits (and, evidently yes, they did film some of it in the Caribbean) to see a cute plot coda.
The music is so bombastic and continuous that it's not completely attributed to just Hans Zimmer but to a large team. (7/16/2003; revised 9/7/2003)

Together (He ni zai yi qi) is close to being a contemporary Chinese Stella Dallas. Even the well-acted wayward characters (a cynical, self-absorbed music teacher, a harlot with a heart, a cruelly ambitious mentor) are almost as stereotypical as the annoyingly devoted, self-sacrificing rube father who withstands the cruelties of Beijing in order to further his son the violin prodigy so that they can all understand what's really important in life. While the audience lapped it up, I found it all just too saccharine. (7/15/2003)

Finding Nemo is a complete joy!
It shows the value of using character actors for voices, rather than bimbos and himbos whose faces you can't see anyway. Not only wonderful are Albert Brooks as a worry wart dad (that's not a fish species) and Ellen DeGeneres (whose character is clearly inspired by Ani Di Franco's song "Little Plastic Castle": "They say goldfish have no memory/I guess their lives are much like mine/and the little plastic castle/is a surprise every time/and it's hard to say if they're happy/but they don't seem much to mind."), but we get to hear real Australian accents via Geoffrey Rush and Eric Bana. Phil Procter (of Firesign Theater) was listed as one of the many ancillary voices and The Grouch commented that he could have done all the voices.
The side characters are more than charming -- surfer dude tortoises, 12-stepping sharks and dynamic interactions in a prison, er, aquarium. The references to old movies are very funny, including The Birds and Psycho (with credited use of that screechy music).
Though, as my dad has been documenting the image of dentists in popular culture, I do protest the stereotypes about pain and tooth-pulling. Why do all Disney movies have to have a dead parent? But at least we didn't have to suffer through the usual schmaltzy ballads as surprisingly this isn't a musical.
It's worth staying for all the credits as the amusing animation continues to the very end.
Though the jokes should appeal to all ages, the toddler running loose in our theater was probably too young, until a character on screen shouted out "You there, stop!" and she did, mesmerized wide-mouthed that the movie was talking to her, giving her mother time to catch her and take her outside. (6/15/2003)

Man Without A Past (Mies vailla menneisyyttä) is one of the films bruited at the Cannes Fest that makes you wonder if those folks have ever seen old American movies.
Like, duh, had they never seen a comedy about an accident victim with amnesia and how the character creates a new life? And that's not even including lousy movies like The Majestic or Overboard. I'll throw in shell-shocked soldiers' stories for comparisons, too. One character even refers to such by offering to hit him on the head to help him regain his memory, like he's seen in the movies.
And all those were a lot faster paced than this is as the jokes get very slowly made. Even the Salvation Army angle seems out of Guys and Dolls.
The original elements here are the victim's interaction with the Finnish social welfare state that resents a man with no identity and that the community he rejuvenates is homeless.
The musical references are cute, but the Finnish covers grate after awhile.(5/10/2003)

Holes is a kids' satire on Cool Hand Luke or a very funny and entertaining, G-rated Oz.
Supported by an amusingly serious chain-gang-sounding bluesy soundtrack*, the characters mostly play it straight (except for an over-the-top Jon Voight as the Warden who does everything but say "What we have here is a failure to communicate.") Tim Blake Nelson contemporizes the jailer as a new age social worker, while Sigourney Weaver is a sexy Cruella de Ville.
Not having read the book, I still had no problem following the complicated flashbacks, which do border on silly with many exaggerations of stock characters teaching us tolerance lessons, but are still funny, such as Eartha Kitt's cameo gypsy and Patricia Arquette's sweet schoolteacher turned Bonnie Barrow.
The boys in the gang are surprisingly less of a rainbow than one would expect for the situation, but the production design for dry, sweaty Camp Green Lake is effectively evocative (I suppose kids will appreciate the arm pit humor more than I did).
The excuses for the confusions at the end are also drolly shrugged off as "holes" in the plot.
Stay for the post-credit joke. (5/6/2003) *The soundtrack listing is not on either Amazon or the IMDB so here it is (too bad Disney didn't include Tom Waits's "Way Down In The Hole," either by him or as performed by The Blind Boys Of Alabama, probably because it's been used as the opening theme of The Wire): 1. D Tent Boys - "Dig It"; 2. Shaggy - "Keepin' It Real"; 3. Eels - "Mighty Fine Blues"; 4. Moby - "Honey"; 5. Teresa James & The Rhythm Tramps - "I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday"; 6. Keb' Mo - "Just Like You"; 7. Pepe Deluxe - "Everybody Pass Me By"; 8. Stephanie Bentley - "I Will Survive"; 9. North Mississippi All-Stars - "Shake 'Em Down"; 10. Eagle-Eye Cherry - "Don't Give Up"; 11. Chicago Catz (Richard Davis) - "Happy Dayz"; 12. Dr. John - "Let's Make A Better World"; 13. Fiction Plane - "If Only"; 14. Eels - "Eyes Down"; 15. Little Axe - "Down In The Valley.

Phone Booth is like an old-fashioned Twilight Zone episode, but Colin Farrell's tour de force performance makes this a first-class thriller.
The talky intro (think Rod Serling) awkwardly tries to update Larry Cohen's old script, wishfully written for Hitchcock, into an evidently pre-Giuliani-crack down/Disney-fied New York City. It becomes obvious that only a few background shots were done in Manhattan and the ten-day shoot was in L. A. (I'm so tired of Hollywood directors just assuming that the NYPD does helicopter chases like LAPD does!) It's also obvious that Kiefer Sutherland's really creepy phone caller (a very contemporary take on Clarence the Angel) was re-dubbed in afterwards, as there's some off-timing in his interactions with Farrell, and the editing in general could be a lot tighter, even for an 81 minute film.
The impact of Farrell's character "Stu" being forced to evaluate his personal relationships would have been greater if we knew something more about the other people, especially the women, who are just simply blank to us. More could have been done with Forest Whittacker's police captain dealing with tensions from his brass, but the confusing pressures are there as we see how he tries to understand the situation and solve it.
But that's the carping that flits through in just a few seconds of down time. What matters is Farrell captivating us as his layers are violently removed one-by-one from cocky Bronx hustler (and his Irish accent only slips through a not-bad New York generic working-class accent once early in the film) to reveal a broken potential mensch. This performance is a bravura monologue that the rest of the movie supports.
Director Joel Schumacher has now gotten Farrell's two best performances on film, with this and Tigerland; this could be like DeNiro and Scorsese if they continue to work together.(4/5/2003)

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (À la folie... pas du tout) is a marvelous French twist.
The re-wind technique of different perspectives, descended from the Japanese Rashomon, has combined entertainment with philosophical insight by the German Tom Tykwer, in such as Run Lola Run and with socio-political commentary in the Mexican Amores Perros. Add in the American know-how of creepiness from Fatal Attraction and One-Hour Photo, and the French writer/director Laetitia Colombani, mais oui, applies it all to matters of the heart. She uses both a rational and visual approach to an enormously entertaining take on "she says, he says"/"he loves she who is in love with he who is in love with she" etc. that is an unpredictable roller coaster.
One lead character is a cardiologist (the particularly hunky Samuel Le Bihan) and the other plays on our expectations of that gamin par excellence Audrey Tautou of Amelie. We see her at first surrounded by flowers and heart decorations so of course our sympathies go out to her. Ah, how our interpretation of those wide black eyes can change! And if only Hollywood actresses would be willing to allow their images to be so cleverly manipulated.
Our other stereotypical assumptions also lead to other surprises. Unlike Hollywood, this movie respects our intelligence, and leaves us to figure out what's going on and anticipate what will happen after the end.
Just like it took awhile to feel good about "Singing in the Rain" after Clockwork Orange and a certain classic rock song after Reservoir Dogs you may get a frisson of the creepies from hearing Nat King Cole after this.
While you not may feel good at the end about particular characters and what they have done or will do, you will feel good about moviemaking and going to the movies.(3/2/2003)

The Recruit may convince the Rest of You what I knew from the moment I saw Colin Farrell mumbling in an incomprehensible Irish brogue on television in one brief season of BallyKissAngel and then when he stunned the big screen in the little indie Tigerland. Despite some miscasting and some lousy movies that followed, the guy here proves he is a Star to the camera, and overwhelms the pedestrian directing of into the camera reaction shots.
His sexiness would also have been more effectively served in the second half if Bridget Moynahan's character had continued to challenge him more, especially in bed, let alone in the dialog, though I guess the CIA spending so much money on psychological testing for match-making purposes takes away some of the guesswork.
Director Roger Donaldson returns to his mode and locale of one of my favorite romantic hunk-in-twisty-espionage-thrillers No Way Out, with a similar mentor/protégé motif. Al Pacino has gotten some sleep since Insomnia so he's a much sharper mentor here, but similarly ethically challenged -- though I don't know why his character is a native Floridian.
This is all clever fluff that requires some concentration, but one can't think too much about such details. Like - -in these days even a fictional CIA class still only has one African-American and one Asian, and just a couple of women? Is CIA training really so much like an episode of Oz?
I also got distracted during the climax by reminders of Dog Day Afternoon instead of following the confusing points, so I have some questions about the conclusion to rerun in video. And, well, to rerun looking at Colin.
But will Colin be enough to sell tickets for a positive movie about the CIA overseas?(2/9/2003).

Is Catch Me If You Can an indicator of the end of Western civilization? How to justify the enormous amount of money and talent that went into creating a slight entertainment with zero significance? As The Younger pointed out -- the idea was to make a profit and they doubtless are.
The cleverly done details overwhelm the substance, almost hiding the lack of any.
The opening credits are a marvelous salute to similar animated openings, like The Pink Panther and The Man with the Golden Arm, period classics by noted graphic designers like Saul Bass (the designers were incorrectly ID'd on the IMDB*).
John Williams captures the Mancini feel of Peter Gunn etc. with the finger clicking accompaniment to the opener.
The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, costumes and art direction stunningly continue the period feel, as well as expensive use of appropriate songs like "Look of Love," so we really do see all the money on the screen. Because Spielberg doesn't spend $1,000 where he can spend $100,000. The camera is constantly moving back to reveal huge, decorated sets, and swooping around to show us just how much environment has been re-created.
This is to Spielberg's oeuvre what Ocean's 11 is to Soderbergh's. It feels like Spielberg was trying to do a tribute to Billy Wilder, without the cynicism that he simply can't do, but the film is dedicated at the end to the late Bruce Paltrow. Wilder would never see family deterioration and recreation as a motivator as Spielberg does, with a recurring theme of Christmas Eve reunions, complete with a wide-eyed little girl (with a similar divorce propulsion as in E.T.).
Leonardo DiCaprio is much better cast here than Gangs of New York as a protean teen-ager, while Tom Hanks is his usual obsessively dedicated employee. Christopher Walken is marvelous in a small, fatherly role and even gets to dance very briefly.
But I kept wondering whether this story would have held up as a little indie film and decided it would not without the gloss. (revised 2/20/2003)
*More background on the opening credits, as the Web is full of inaccurate information on the designers, is in Movie credits find new currency in retro images by Jon Burlingame, in Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2003 (fair use excerpt):
"The job of animating the Catch Me titles fell to London-based Nexus Productions. . .[producer Walter F. ] Parkes was even more impressed with the work of Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas, a pair of French artists who are not only animators, but also conceptual artists for everything from museum exhibitions to restaurants. .Supervising, and acting as liaison between Parkes and Spielberg in Los Angeles and Kuntzel and Deygas in Paris, was Nexus co-founder Chris O'Reilly. . "The actual characters are created by carving stamps, then putting them in ink and reapplying them on paper over and over again to animate them." Parkes adds that "they specifically went for a hand-stamped or woodblock look; it gives the whole thing a handmade quality." . . Parkes said . . "It was on the third go-round that we said what you want to do is just identify two characters: the pursuer, the man with the hat -- we added the glasses at the very end -- and the character that's being pursued, who changes identities. And to make sure there is a chase. That's as much narrative as we really needed." . . [S]aid O'Reilly. "It was a combination of traditional and contemporary digital animation," he explains. "Those print-block animations were taken into computer, and then the backgrounds were all constructed digitally. The camera moves within it were also created within a 3-D animation system." . . .After Nexus received the [John] Williams track in September, "it was quite inspirational for us," O'Reilly said. "When we got that music, we were starting to animate in earnest, and we were able to heighten the sense of story and drama." The actual animation work occupied about 15 people in London and Paris through mid-November. . .Spielberg pressed for a greater degree of integration between the letters in the titles and the images, "so that the sweep of a J becomes the off ramp of a freeway, and a character will jump on a rope and slide down from one card into another and it'll become the L of someone's name. Those kinds of elegant transitions came into being after John's music," Parkes said. . . "We moved the camera around in a 3-D fashion," O'Reilly said.

Four Feathers reminded me of Dances With Wolves, a beautiful try at PC reinterpretation of a soldier's role in an imperialistic war.
While I haven't read the original novel or have seen any of the previous five filmed versions of the story and my knowledge of the history of this period is pretty much formed by movies and Masterpiece Theatre, this is the first one done by someone born in a former British colony, director Shekhar Kapur, so I was curious to see how the natives were treated (well, more like the Pawnee than the Lakota in Wolves).
This version also carries today's symbolic weight of Western soldiers against Muslim warriors, especially as the enemy is identified as the Mahdi -- who Osama Bin Lama proclaimed as the last glory of Islam that he aspired to replicate.
This new interpretation has Heath Ledger refusing to fight in the Sudan not because of the cowardice symbolized by the titular feathers but more in the spirit of Country Joe McDonald's view of the Viet Nam War.
I got lost a few times in the geography and rescue choreography and found Djimon Hounsou a noble African with no motivation or reason for being there whatsoever.
However, the cinematography is gorgeous and will all be lost in video. Particularly thrilling are the battle scenes, which rate up there with Barry Lyndon. I was especially impressed that Kapur didn't keep repeating the same sight lines, as most show-off directors do about shots that must have taken hours to set up.
While crossing and re-crossing the sands didn't make a lot of sense with little explanation as to survival, the treks and fights there were lovely.
And heck, I'm a fan of the three leads, Ledger (who looks great even in a fright wig), Wes Bentley and Kate Hudson (who mostly gets to dress up and look pretty), so I just sat back and enjoyed an old-fashioned big-screen Hollywood adventure (despite the endless chatter from the row of old ladies behind me). (9/21/2002)

The Bourne Identity was a quite good TV mini-series with Richard Chamberlain that didn't really need re-making. But with all the strife I read about that went into this re-make, it's actually a pretty serviceable Hollywood thriller.
Franka Potente, so good in Tom Tykwer's German movies where she got to do a lot more, has some chemistry with Matt Damon, though Clive Owen, who has a tiny part here, would have done more complexity with the role than Damon does.
But, heck, if the point of having a new hunk in the role is to get women's fannies in the multiplex seats, more romance would have been nice; evidently Damon thought that interrupted the flow of the story so demanded it be taken out.
Well, the story does in fact make more sense than most such Hollywood thrillers. I guess we'll see the deleted scenes on the DVD. (7/14/2002)

Elling shows that European actors can also fall victim to Rain Man/I Am Sam-itis.
We get a Norwegian take on a story-line very similar to the documentary Best Boy, as we learn that it wasn't just in New York that a generation of developmentally-disabled adults was hidden by shamed or neglectful parents and didn't benefit from special education and mainstreaming, but now are thrust into community, independent living, as are the de-institutionalized Oscar and Felix here, who also seems to have compulsive obsessive disorder, among confusing symptoms.
How they learn their way, such as using telephones, and find tolerantly eccentric guides to the real world is amusing and optimistic.
In the inevitable Hollywood version, I'm quite sure the guiding social worker will not be a leonine chain-smoker, and if he is there'll be a romance for him too.
The subtitles are of the old-fashioned kind where the characters talk excitedly for a couple of minutes and we get one line of written dialog.(6/16/2002)

I wanted to like The Rookie. I like sports romances; I like director John Lee Hancock's other work; and the soundtrack included the likes of John Hiatt, one of my faves (though not with much in the way original songs and the songs weren't very illustrative).
I like Dennis Quaid (nice to see that smile again) and Rachel Griffiths (who is given almost nothing to do except prove that she's not always crazy Brenda from Six Feet Under).
But I was bored silly and simply lost concentration by the time the end finally came.
Overlong and unoriginal.(5/19/2002)

Star and producer Sandra Bullock's detective could have been watching an episode of CSI instead of Matlock that she does in Murder By Numbers, as it's basically like a two-parter of the CBS series.
Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt are creepily involving and alternatively sympathetic as Leopold and Loeb-types (gee wasn't that what Compulsion was already about?) and Bullock has flashes of uniqueness.
I enjoyed the sexual role reversal in the beginning which made the interplay with Ben Chaplin as her partner start out interesting, but that wasn't pursued, more's the shame.
At one point I thought I was confused or had dozed off, but it turned out we were all being played with, but then I don't think the kids would really have made the mistakes that led Bullock to them. (4/27/2002)

I went to see Stolen Summer only as the final episode of HBO's Project Greenlight.
Surprise - I mostly got involved in an enjoyable movie and only was occasionally snapped back into the series and only a couple of times winced at amateurish writing or directing by first-timer Pete Jones, mostly due to the basic decision to focus the movie and too knowing lines on a 9 year old actor.
In terms of the horrors we witnessed during the filming, the lack of both the rained out baseball game and even the climactic swim in the lake were not even noticeable. And there's Jeff the stressed-out producer as an extra in one of the scenes.
But who can witness the yes lovely composed shot of the walk under the El without thinking again of the stupidity of trying to shoot dialog under frequent trains?
The movie's success is dominated by elements that may be incidental to Jones and seemed to be accidental in making the movie: first, the terrific casting of the adults, Aidan Quinn as the pugnacious and proud Irish fireman dad, Bonnie Hunt as the put-upon Mom of 8 (for goodness sakes - 8 at her age?), Quinn's friend Kevin Pollak as the rabbi dad, and a cameo by Brian Dennehy.
While the secondary kid is quite magical, the lead kid is problematical both in terms of his too earnest acting and lines he has to say that just don't work.
But the setting and production design won me over -- it absolutely felt like real-life families in 1972, as I grew up a decade earlier in a somewhat similar neighborhood with similar religious tensions, conflicts that are rarely alluded to in family films, and this film deals with the issues quite frankly of Catholics and Jews living on parallel streets in this life and the next. I really got caught up in the story and bawled and bawled, though the last exchanges of dialog brought me up short out of my tears.
The score also helps smooth out the editing.
But will Jones ever get a second shot? "Project Greenlight is essential viewing with this film.(4/5/2002)

Ice Age is a lot of fun!
It's laugh out loud funny, even though it's not Shrek or Chicken Run but it's definitely entertaining for adults, including shots like a passing reference to The X Files movie and showing why the dodo became extinct.
Sure it sticks with Disney-established cartoon clichés of orphaned kid, wisecracking side-animal and nature that's scary and dangerous.
But the odd trio of stand-up comics with thick New York accents of Ray Romano, Denis Leary and John Leguizamo work really well off each other.
I didn't recognize the voice of Goran Visnjic from E.R. as the villain.
I was disappointed that they didn't bother to do any original songs, just a recap of the old Rusted Roots song "Send Me On My Way," though that does happen to be a fave of mine.(updated 3/17/2002)

To try and stay awake during Hart's War I tried to keep track of the number of movies, TV shows and books that it borrowed from, but I lost the battle.
There went A Soldier's Story, and here comes Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, and every WWII movie in the Pacific Theater that has the Japanese commandant say "You are surprised I speak your language. USC 1938." This grafts together at least four different military movies--battles, tortures, POWs, "You can't handle the truth!" court martials -- so there were a lot of clichés they could draw on. This is a male version of Charlotte Gray for a contemporary, uncredible approach to WWII.
I went to see it to monitor Colin Farrell's career whose debut in another military movie, Tigerland was electrifying, and I liked director Gregory Hoblitt's TV work. But Farrell as a Yale Law School student in 1944 was about as believable as Bruce Willis as a fourth generation West Pointer. I kept wondering how they keep their hair so neatly trimmed in the POW camp.
Terrence Howard comes out the best in integrating the story of the Tuskegee Airmen into the stalag part of the movie, though wasn't there a black soldier in Hogan's Heroes? The German commandant, played by Rumanian actor Marcel Iures, was also non-stereotypical.
Rachel Portman's swelling music is really intrusive to any suspense.
The theater was virtually empty and I don't think it was due to the plot-revealing ads, as the director claims.(3/3/2002)

Aw shucks, I wasn't the only one in the audience who never read The Count of Monte Cristo, or saw the zillion other versions, so I had no idea what would happen.
Along with everybody else I booed the bad guy, cheered the hero, sympathized with the romance, was warmed by the side kick's loyalty and gasped at the feats and coincidences. Ah, they do make movies like this anymore!
This is The Younger's favorite book and my family was bound to see the movie so we could discuss it (he discovered the book through reference to the author "Dumb-Ass" in The Shawshank Redemption that he watches every time it's on cable, which is about once a month, and has since been reading all of the Dumas books. I taped all of the French mini-series off Bravo, but of course didn't watch it, but he went through my piles of video tapes over vacation and found and watched the whole thing. Then he complained bitterly that the 8 hours (with commercials) didn't begin to do the book justice so sneered at the previews for the new 2 hour version.)
Jim Caviezel is simply marvelous, from naif to hairy prisoner to revengeful knight. But Guy Pearce was simply directed wrong to be supercilious. Usually actors tear up the scenery being a villain, so love doing it, but Pearce takes the foppish route instead of the Alan Rickman model, more's the pity.
Richard Harris puts in another canny mentor role.
The audience immediately recognized Luis Guzman, who usually plays Puerto Rican drug dealers, and got a big kick out of his amusing Sancho Panza, with his and other modern language asides put in for fun.
The stunts and effects were effective and believable, while the music was unexpectedly unobtrusive. And now I do want to read the book - well, some day.(1/20/2002))

I went to Black Hawk Down mostly for the line-up of hunks, and it had even more than the highly advertised one including Sam Shepherd as the grizzled general and a bunch of guys who I recognized late in the film, such as Ron Eldard and Jeremy Piven, and some whose names I only recognized in the credits.
Ewan MacGregor was on screen for a few minutes and director Ridley Scott should have yelled "Cut!" when his English accent painfully came through, but as a Brit himself I guess he didn't notice.
Eric Bana kept his Ozzie accent under control after awhile (and I wonder if his character, one of the few memorable ones, was the guy who we are told at the end is now in jail for severe wife abuse or if I'm projecting from his staggeringly violent role in Chopper.)
But this is no ogle-fest: it's a problem that the guys are completely unrecognizable as I simply couldn't keep anybody straight, especially once they put their helmets on and the shooting started. Couldn't they have bent reality a bit more and given each primary character different, non-buzz-cut hair cuts? Or at least have a few more with their names on their shirts or helmets? Band of Brothers was easier to follow than this troupe, as in Thin Red Line as well.
While many critics have complained about the short shrift given Somalis and overall tactics and strategy, what I thought was even more of a problem was the Army's blithe neglect that these guys are not trained to counter urban guerrilla action. Maybe riot cops would have been better prepared, or maybe that's the future of peacekeeping actions that needs to be prepared for.
And all the laser gizmos can't replace understanding of local politics. There's fleeting reminders when we suddenly see a schoolteacher huddling to protect her students and a father/son attack team.
This is mostly just a shoot-em-up. Lots and lots of shooting.
The music choices were mostly good and unbombastic, though some of the old rock 'n' roll choices didn't make sense for today's hip hop Army.(1/20/2002)

Heist is Mamet doing a Ronin or any number of hard-boiled caper movies and his wife Rebecca Pidgeon getting to do a very sexy moll.
It's more of a showcase for Mamet the director than the writer, as there's less zingy dialog than juicy epigrams: "I don't tie my shoes without having a back-up plan." and "He's so cool the sheep count him when they try to sleep."
I did get lost in all the twists and turns and some of the devices got a bit too Mission Impossible-y in their credibility -- yeah two crooks could do all that in that short amount of time without getting caught?
There's lots of violent fun anyway and even the fewest uses of the F word in a Mamet script that takes place post-WWII. (11/25/2001)

Bandits is a fun caper movie that steals a lot from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so it's like a Western set in contemporary times, here in small West Coast towns. It gets lost for the last quarter, so my mind wandered until the cute powie ending.
Cate Blanchett shines as a housewife transformed by her involvement with the hapless bandits. But I'm a sucker for movies that use classic rock lyrics as part of the dialog, and the songs are mostly used effectively. (11/3/2001)

American Outlaws had a better historical sense than the Young Guns series.
While its contemporary slang, haircuts, make-up and gleaming white teeth on the attractive stars are definitely non-period, I was surprised that this re-interpretation of the Jesse James myth actually worked as a story line. I don't remember seeing a Western, particularly none by John Ford, that made the link before between post-Civil War societal transformations, the railroad construction, federal government intervention and the James gang.
With a lot less to work with dialog-wise than he had in Tigerland, Colin Farrell is still mesmerizing to the camera (even though his native Irish brogue occasionally slips out), helped by standing-out in comparison to his too bland co-stars.
Of course, no visages can match the sets of actual brothers and relatives that Walter Hill used in The Long Riders to viscerally communicate the James/Younger gang's closeness.
Timothy Dalton's Pinkerton hints at an interesting historical character.
There's an odd credit at the end that some scenes were taken from the movie Maverick - scenery or something else? (8/21/2001)

I would probably go to see Clive Owens and Helen Mirren read the phone book, and I practically did in Greenfingers but it's still fun for fans of Brit coms and such.
While Clive's "Colin" isn't one of the hardened convicts of Oz, he is emotionally cut-off and his blooming with his flowers is sweet, facilitated by mentor David Kelley from Waking Ned Devine.
The love story doesn't quite ignite.
The other reformed-through-horticulture prison-mates are the usual Brit class and race rainbow, so are hard to understand sometimes.
It will make a nice episode of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. (8/4/2001)

Made has a lot that works well.
Best is the buddy relationship between writer/director Jon Favreau, as a well-meaning boxer, and Vince Vaughan as his best friend and verbal and literal sparring partner who just can't let well enough alone.
The characters are better than the plot, as they get bogged down in a picaresque trek through a very dark, fictional New York underworld. I lost track of some of the clues in what is in effect a scavenger hunt as they do an errand for Peter Falk's crime boss.
Poor Famke Janssen is miscast in an unfortunate role as yet another stripper girlfriend who exists only in Hollywood.
"Pussy" of The Sopranos helped to ground the crime part of the plot, and Sean Combs was adequate.
The ending is pleasantly not clichéd.(7/27/2001)

A Knight's Tale is jolly good fun.
The rock 'n' roll ambiance, clearly inspired by Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, helps you relate to the goings on more viscerally, so that the jousts come across as big sporting events (via Queen's "We Will Rock You") and the ball seems like a prom night (via Bowie's "Golden Years"). In fact, I would have eschewed the Carter Burwell score altogether and just had a rock 'n' roll soundtrack.
The knights' code of chivalry is forgotten as an historical principle (though some pesky wars do intervene) and the jousting events do get a bit repetitive, but the matches are still cheer-worthy.
The break-out star is Paul Bettany playing Geoff Chaucer as a spin-meister shill.
But writer/director Brian Helgeland (far, far away from his L.A. Confidential script) must be the only one not to have seen Star Wars: Episode I -Phantom Menace with this ethereal princess love interest played by a vapid super-model type (actually she was a club DJ) rather than someone with more zest. I much preferred the lady blacksmith, but she wasn't given much to do, let alone much of a life, and Rufus Sewall as the villain.
Oh and yeah Heath Ledger is easy on the eyes and ears, sigh.(5/29/2001)

I went to see Enemy at the Gates with The Grouch, as I knew it was about his favorite battle of his favorite war that he watched continually on the Military Channel. After having to endure a harangue the whole way to the screen about how we would be seeing the real battle that won the war, not that inconsequential D-Day that Saving Private Ryan made such a big deal about as the U.S. didn't come in until the Russians already had turned the tide, I asked could he please be quiet during the movie and refrain from commenting on inaccuracies, etc. until after.
But other than the clarification I needed between the Battle of Leningrad and the Siege of Stalingrad which I always mix up (whoops, I think I just did it again), and Hitler's and Stalin's fallacies as military leaders in relation to the symbolic importance of the Volga (and the movie could have used more strategic explanations), he and I pretty much agreed about the movie.
There's a taut, gritty war movie screaming to come out of a drekky melodrama. The best parts are the battles, of troops and individuals. The opening sequence of soldiers thrown from trains to boats to the front line is terrific and frightening.
The one-on-one between Ed Harris's Nazi sharpshooter and Jude Law's hunter (though he doesn't do working class too convincingly) is exciting.
The most captivating surprising is Bob Hoskins as Khrushchev. He completely inhabits the character and brings him completely to blood and guts life - showing just what it takes to survive as a top man to Stalin.
There was also more potential in Joseph Fiennes' political officer as insight into propaganda that is only occasionally effective (after all, Ryan was similarly about a PR stunt).
I thankfully dozed off during most of the ridiculous sub-plot of the love triangle. There appears to be only a couple of women living in this city, and they sure do get in the way, as these few can themselves provide multi-lingual translations, sex, food, lousy child care and brave sharpshooting.
The music by James Horner is atrociously bombastic, wincibly so. (3/31/2001)

It took quite a bit of negotiation to get the family to see State and Main, but the cast of William Macy, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alec Baldwin, etc. finally convinced them.
The Grouch was leery that David Mamet could be funny, but we all thought it was hysterical and laughed heartily.
It's a much more mordant take on moviemaking than Truffaut's Day For Night where a love for the magic of the movies still shows through. This has much more of a Larry Sanders Show or Arli$$ sensibility of total cynicism about the internal and external goings on as a movie company takes over a quaint New England town.
While the writer is poked fun at as much as anyone, Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon of course gets to play a nice, bright, if manipulative, lady.
I'm pretty sure we were the only ones in the audience in Houston who got the Yiddish jokes and references.
Stay for all the credits; the jokes continue through the very last frame.(2/4/2001)

I went to see Snatch by accident due to confusion over movies listings. I haven't seen Lock Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels so I can't say how similar Snatch is.
It seemed like a Lavender Hill Mob crossed with Woody Allen and Run Lola Run and contemporized by language and Pulp Fictional violence and circular storytelling. My friend thought it was very music video style.
The ethnic references were vaguely unsettling, including Benicio Del Toro's exaggerated Yiddish accent and a prominent menorah in the diamond dealer's office -- oh yeah we Jews all keep Hanukkah ritual objects around the office.
But gypsies (or maybe they were Irish Travelers) were probably also unsettled at being used for jokes.
I did like that the American movie stars were secondary to the Brit character actors and there's no corny romance.
It is an amusing hour and a half or so. (1/28/2001)

The Gift is an old-fashioned Southern Gothic tale, even though it's an original story co-written by Billy Bob Thornton and directed by Sam Raimi.
Hitchcock didn't stoop to such regionalistic stereotypes, though this tries to be Rebecca-esque, and Flannery O'Connor knew how to take this mise en scene to a rich, creepy level that these guys don't.
Cate Blanchett rises above the mediocre material.
The art direction and natural costumes help her create a fulsome character, of a psychic in a small town that would sure prefer to keep its secrets intact.
Gary Cole is doing his same American Gothic character and Keanu Reeves almost enjoys too much being abusive. Greg Kinnear continues a string of quite good supporting roles. And now we know that Katie Holmes naked is as gorgeous as we suspected she would be.
Not enough use is made of country music to help support the atmosphere.(1/21/2001)

I figured how bad could it be to watch Matt Damon and Charlize Theron for two hours in The Legend of Bagger Vance And I have a fondness for sports romances.
But the movie feels like it was made in 1939, complete with the smiling darkie servant (Will Smith).
Damon and Therize were supposed to have been affianced in 1916, went through very good-looking hell of war and the Depression, and are reunited in 1931, well, gee, then by how they look they must have been 10 in 1916. Damon's just another Robert Redford Golden Boy and has nowhere the appropriate washed-up athlete look that Kevin Costner had in Tin Cup, a much better golf movie.
Theron gets to be The Girlfriend Who Wears a Different Gorgeous Period Outfit in Every Camera Shot. She shows a bit of spunk, as does Damon, in the washed-up beginning, but the whole thing loses pizzazz during the match.
Redford seems to think that golf can be invested with the same magic as baseball in The Natural and can be a stand-in for American idealism as baseball is in Field of Dreams. On a segregated country club golf course??
The rest of the audience loved it, cheering and clapping at each of the character's.successes. I had trouble staying awake.
Not enough use is made of period music to match the costumes. (11/5/2000)

What Lies Beneath tries SO hard to be Hitchcockian.
Well, I've been watching Hitchcock again and this ain't no Hitchcock.
It's a grown-up Scream for adults, what with mature co-stars in Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford.
Director Robert Zemeckis uses every cliché shot in the book, every expected trick, and gosh it still grabs us.
But every time the audience screams -- and we did, a lot--we immediately all burst out laughing at the "gotcha!". It's the kind of movie that the audience narrates out loud as if doing closed captioning for the blind- "Oh look, the door's open!" "Oh she found a key!" "Oh the bath tub's full again!"
Hitchcock did it all already and better -- the shower in Psycho, the taking on of a ghostly identity in Vertigo, the quotidian being the scariest of all (a playground in The Birds --gosh one of the most frightening scenes on screen--and a kitchen murder in Torn Curtain etc. etc.)
It's a roller coaster ride in a water park that you go on to enjoy being scared at because you know it's going to go downhill underwater fast.
The music was so cliché that the audience even narrated that "Oh scary music!" (8/4/2000)

I was a big fan of Swamp Fox during the Mickey Mouse Club, so I enjoyed most of The Patriot.
Though the 25% I didn't, I really didn't, i.e. the happy darkies (even if they managed to find historically accurate ones on the Gullah Islands, making Mel Gibson a Carolina up-country farmer--an extremely, atypically prosperous one, instead of a slave-owning plantationist). Conflating the Brits with the S.S. is awful (read Schlink's The Reader for a discussion of the ramifications of the same S.S.'s tactics.)
Heath Ledger was really cute, though I'm not sure he really came across as a passionate idealist (I read an article that he was nervous as hell working with Gibson as his idol and I think that showed).
Why is Gibson always pairing up with much younger women? Joely Richardson as his wife's sister must have been barely older than his "son" -- and what is that a baby she's carrying around at the end?
It's always nice to see Chris Cooper; he's a rock.
This is definitely for those of us who like historical fiction. It reminded me of Barry Lyndon and the Sharpe series, which are both more thoughtful, deep, and better done. Only towards the end are the dramatic possibilities of the non-repeating, takes time to re-load muskets used whereas that's glossed over for most of the movie, probably on the assumption that Americans are used to more rapid-fire violence, and this is as violent as Gladiator.
The mattes of backgrounds were used very effectively, particularly of the harbor and battle scenes.
John Williams's bombastic music is awful. I kept wishing that Mark O'Connor had done the score and then blimey it turned out he did the violin solos, the only good parts of the score. (7/15/2000)

I didn't read the book, don't fish and don't sail and felt The Perfect Storm was a mediocre movie.
I didn't even mind that the audience talked non-stop throughout it, as their conversations were mostly drowned out anyway.
The movie blew not doing more Weather Channel explanations (I was thinking of other movies like Titanic that did the technical background explanations better). When they were fighting the waves I couldn't figure out what they were trying to achieve and wondering why they weren't already cowering in the hold.
The non-watery acting was appealing (though if George Clooney was insistent on not doing a Down East accent than they should have taken out the line about him growing up in the neighborhood).
I liked Waterworld better. But I actually really liked Waterworld.
The music didn't support the action. The closing song by John Mellancamp is absolutely awful. (7/9/2000)

What other movie could I take 10 relatives ranging in age from 10 to 55 in the midst of an extended family gathering weekend? So we piled into a discount matinee of Chicken Run and we all laughed hysterically.
By coincidence my son had recently seen The Great Escape on cable so got that this was a satire, including of the theme song. And he had taken a course in swing music at college so got the satire of "Jump, Jive and Wail" too.
Mel Gibson did a surprisingly good voice-over, but the star voice is Julia Sawalha, the daughter "Saffron" from Ab Fab.
This is not just for kids only, being hugely satisfying fun.
And stay through the amusing credits (hey, I want to be a puppet wrangler! Or where else would you see a credit for a beak replacement coordinator?) for the continuing debate on which came first, the chicken or the egg. (7/4/2000)

Erin Brockovich is no Norma Rae -- including the tell-off-the-guy scene is no where as effective as Sally Field's challenge by the sink.
The first third or so of the movie is Julia movie star bright and snappy and captures us. (All of the other women in the movie are really bland so as not to challenge Julia's flash.)
In, the second third she doesn't smile and the movie fades.
The last third is a legal drama that's a little guy triumph over nasty corporation.
One can't even tell that the director is the same Steven Soderbergh whose two most recent movies Out of Sight and The Limey had brilliant directorial control that stylistically added to the basic story. This shows none of that, just a straightforward feel-good story. (3/19/2000)

The first half or so of The Road to El Dorado is fun, but then the plot gets lost and ridiculous (as it turns into an Aztec Jurassic Park) and I think the very restless little kids didn't follow it even if the images were entertaining.
The music by Elton John is completely inappropriate sugary pop -- why not use Latino rhythms for Spain by a Latino artist and some sort of pseudo-Indian for the Aztec culture?
But then the two Spaniards are voiced by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, who are a lot of fun even if illogical. I'm sure Branagh enjoyed being transformed into a blonde surfer dude. Rosie Perez was neat, with producer Jeffrey Katzenberg's trademark impossibly bombshell female character (not sure why she ends up with Kline's character -- didn't the On The Road movies leave us guessing more who Dorothy Lamour would be with?)
The animation is terrific -- with lots of water storms thrown in as is de rigueur in animation these days. Much better than the previews for blown up TV cartoons from Pokemon and Rugrats.(4/8/2000)

The Whole Nine Yards is surprisingly effective screwball comedy that reminds me of such classics as Bringing Up Baby though with way higher amoral body count.
At first the actors seem to be each in a parallel movie, with Matthew Perry doing physical slapstick comedy, Bruce Willis deadly serious, Rosanna Arquette just nasty, Amanda Peet being her Jack and Jill character (one of my TV guilty pleasures) and Natasha being like a super-model.
Then something clicks in and it just gets funny and I couldn't help laughing and laughing.
I hope Michael Clarke Duncan gets to keep those fancy suits, because it must be hard to get ones to fit him; with Green Mile, this performance impressively shows his range. (3/19/2000)

Despite the baby who screamed in back of me for the entire Toy Story 2 (so much for picking an evening showing to try and avoid that), I adored this follow-up.
The references to Star Wars are very very funny (though not a single other person in the audience of very young children with their parents got them).
Randy Newman's music is not as good as the original, except for a beautiful ballad sung by Sarah McLaughlin. I did expect more from the Riders in the Sky (I'm a big fan of theirs) involvement of cowboy songs, but then none of the audience got the references to boomer TV shows either as the parents in the audience were way younger than me.
Kelsey Grammer was mis-voice cast as the old prospector; he's best as Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons; I don't know why they didn't pick a wily Western voice instead of snobby Eastern voice. Joan Cusack was a live wire as a cowgirl. Wayne Knight was as terrific a villain like in Jurassic Park.
But the animation was fun and the story quite clever. I figure the theme of playing and loving toys rather than saving them for collectors benefits Disney in the long run, as they encourage people to buy two of each!
The "outtakes" at the end are also funny satires. (1/16/2000)

I thought what a great combo for Any Given Sunday- Oliver Stone and professional football -- excess meets its match. So I grabbed a chance to go to the movies with my sons. They got a lot more out of the first and third thirds of the movie that are football games, which I couldn't follow at all, knowing zilch about football so I missed any references to significances of plays and strategies and didn't recognize the zillion football players past and present in bit parts, but I got other visual and music references they didn't.
The football field is explicitly a jungle, with the sounds like an elephant herd crashing. Of course Stone never says or shows once what he can get across 5 times, so the jungle fever point of the primalness of sports as a venue for male violence is accompanied by Native American chants, aboriginal and Asian Indian mystic strains as well. I don't know enough about rap to judge those selections -- I could tell there were lots of lyrics about "niggaz" working for The Man type of thing.
The second third should have appealed to me as that's when the huge ensemble has personal interactions and we learn all their selfish, dastardly, unpleasant motivations, but I was on sensory overload. Example: Al Pacino as the Old Guard Coach calls in Jamie Foxx as the suddenly first string quarterback (in a terrific performance), for a tete a tete on the pro's of Jazz over Rap, as a metaphor of the old football of finesse (what? all those flashbacks to black & white football games were of a subtle sport?). But when Foxx walks in Pacino has Ben Hur playing on a wide-screen TV. As if we didn't get the point Foxx actually says "The old gladiators, huh?" If we still didn't get the point the conversation keeps intercutting with the chariot race. And if we still didn't get the point any reference in the conversation to racial issues then intercuts to the galley slave scenes from Ben Hur THEN on top of that, the NFL commissioner who puts the Bitch Owner in her place for trying to play with the Big Old Guys is none other than Charlton Heston.
No one just has a conversation -- everyone shouts, usually at the same time, so I had to close my eyes and I'm not sure if I missed something.
This is Sunbelt Football of expansion teams where the sport is not a Fall/Winter season - so the women were everywhere in tank tops, cleavage, midriffs bare and hips swinging, even Cameron Diaz as the Bitch Owner. Though all the women are really high priced prostitutes (even usually sweet Lauren Holly is a hardened cold Football Wife).
What I don't think I missed was Stone's outsize determination to ignore the homo-erotic aspects of male sports violence that Fight Club reveled in. Aw come on Stone, not a single gay player in the closet? He crowds the behemoths into locker rooms and showers that can barely contain their bodies--but he's so afraid of showing them in contact that he even at one point has one throw a baby alligator into the shower so they scatter.
Everyone is criticized-- including the sportscasters, which Oliver revels in playing one (I think in general this movie is a show down between Stone and Spike Lee as it takes on more racial issues than he's done in the past). What a coincidence that ESPN is continually bad-mouthed when there's a big legible credit at the end to Turner Sports Network when this is a Time Warner movie and ESPN's a competitor.
Stone of course goes out of his way to link football with war, to fit into his oeuvre, with battle quotes from Vince Lombardi and some sort of link with Pacino's father dying in WWII that was irrelevant it seemed to me.
I think this is Dennis Quaid's at least third football movie and in the genre of such movies as North Dallas 40, Longest Yard, Great American Hero, etc. and this joins that pantheon as a terrific football movie.
The music selections were by Robbie Robertson (with Paul Kelly but I'm not sure which Kelly that is) and he did as seamless a job as he's done for Martin Scorsese. The music credits at the end were impossible to read -- in 3 columns of a vertical font that was like watching the credits on TV - plus the movie continues under the credits so all those who bolted missed the ending.
Professional football deserves to be Oliver Stoned. But if I never saw any more football that'll be fine with me. (12/27/1999)

Three Kings is not only a post-Vietnam War movie about a post-Vietnam war but it's post-movies about the Vietnam War, where we already expect that the GIs are lost in the internal politics of the land they "save" and their biases and perceptions are not only useless but dangerous as well. It reminded me of the Thomas J. Friedman's insight in From Beirut to Jerusalem where he said the GIs in Beirut were like "Betty Crocker in hell."
George Clooney again plays Bogey much as he did in Out of Sight. Once again he has to make the crucial decision of personal benefit vs. altruism with the plot building in a complicated but inexorably convincing way for us to see how he got to that crossroads and why he makes his choice.
Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg were also surprisingly good (including a opening shot of Marky Mark that refers to his previous career).
The cinematography is intrinsic to the story, blinding us with the desert sun and the claustrophobia of bunkers.
This is certainly a thinking person's action movie. My 15 year old son and his friends got around the "R" restriction by having one of the kids use a credit card to buy the tickets from a machine. This is one of those times where I don't mind him watching the violence because the violence was subservient to important themes and moral conflicts, particularly as all the violence had specific physical consequences.(10/18/1999)

The ads for Fight Club are completely misleading. While Variety is probably right to call it "the anti-date movie," the promos I saw gave absolutely no indication that in fact it's a social satire in a similar vein to American Beauty, and likewise turns into a psychological thriller.
It's Robert Bly's "Iron Johns" taken to the extreme, only they're in the basement and then out in the cities instead of in the woods, which seems inevitably to result in Lord of the Flies. If you only see the trailer you'll think it's a gratuitous violence-fest.
Brad Pitt uses his bronzed and buffed movie-star image for specific effect, and the script even has him referring to the irony of celebrity-worship (though I wouldn't be enthralled if very young hunk-seekers would throng to see it).
Helena Bonham Carter is in it only to try and convince us that the guys are straight, despite all the gleaming homo-eroticism splashed all over the screen.
Edward Norton, of course as usual, is spectacular, with reminders of his Primal Fear role.
While the novel probably worked better in leaving more to the imagination, the cinematography does very well at making the dark side visual in a world that could be today, could be sometime in the near future in some city. The next urban step would be as portrayed in Blade Runner.
Certainly it's not a very hopeful view of what a world of only men, without women, would be like, so it plays into the hands of feminists, rather than rebelling against them. It could scarily be an argument for frequent wars to serve as a release valve, if today's video wars don't even do that. Or maybe just Rollerball as a solution. (10/18/1999)

We caught Dudley Do-Right just before we went to Canada and found it sprightly amusing family pic which mostly kept the spirit of the original. But because my kids are older I think the Pokemon satirical bits went over my head.(9/26/1999)

Hooray for Hollywood! The world may be falling apart so like we needed money spent on a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. But then heck if Tinseltown in all its unoriginality doesn't do a bang-up fun job of unreality with characters who have no place in the Unreel World, from the classy looking opening credits to Sting covering "Windmills of my Mind" over the closing credits.
In the opening scene I'm thinking, wait I know that woman's voice and voila it's Faye Dunaway from the original film as Crown's shrink - I cheered out loud (OK so I was the only one in the audience that got the joke).
Pierce Brosnan and Renee Russo are an age-appropriate couple with genuine fireworks and chemistry (with help from director John McTiernan and editor John Wright in the tango and copulation scenes).
There's unconventionally good music choices - that tango is from Three Penny Opera of all things and a terrific use of Nina Simone's "Sinner Man" in a marvelous Magritte-inspired ironically tense heist scene.
Brosnan's trainer gets a credit, as there's plenty of skin. Russo laughs, a gorgeous belly laugh, unlike so many frozen femmes fatale.
The credits also say that no museum was used as a locale, so gosh they really recreated the Met amazingly accurately (and how much did that cost?), though it didn't seem crowded enough Crown goes in at 9 when the museum doesn't open until 11.
I would think this is a great date movie. 8/22/1999)

I went to see Mystery Men because the script writer Neil Cuthbert was our class clown in high school. And this sophomoric humor does sound like the same jokes he told when he was a sophomore.
In fairness, I bet that most of the strained funny bits weren't his ideas but were in the basic concepts of the comic book series this is based on, such as the very funny themed gangs, esp. Disco Guys and Frat Boys, as I don't remember him being particularly into comic books then. The kids in the audience laughed at every fart of course, but there were plenty of other times they weren't laughing.
The leads make interesting characters. Janeane Garofalo is always fun, especially here talking to the spirit of her dead dad in a bowling ball, Ben Stiller is almost too grounded for the satire though William Macy and Hank Azaria manage to straddle the pitiful and satirical with a nice balance. The director Kinka Usher has a cameo, as does Mark Mothersbaugh who did some of the music.
The art direction and costuming are absolutely terrific, like a satire of a Tim Burton movie.
The camera is endlessly busy, though not enough to cover up lags such that I actually started to think about work instead.
The battles are really mean, with participants really getting beat up distastefully, though Tom Waits was clear as a mad inventor that he wanted non-lethal fighting. (8/8/1999)

Run Lola Run (Lola rennt) is 80 minutes of terrific visuals and fun concept.
It uses animation, 1965 World's Fair split-screen film techniques, Sliding Doors type what-ifs mixed in with a time deadline story.
It has such a driving pulsating rock score that half the senior citizens in the audience got up and walked out, so this is a foreign-language film for young folks. Who knew that Germans could be fun and creative!
For the first time ever the Grouch waited for the credits to see what the music was - much of the original score was by writer/director Tom Tykwer-- and went out to buy the soundtrack. And not even on sale.
The subtitles are hard to read at points. (7/18/1999)

I loved Tarzan!
I was afraid that Disney would cheap out on the romance but there was enough in it for me.
I liked the Phil Collins drums, but wasn't crazy about his voice throughout the whole film (nor were the restless toddlers in the audience), rather than character voices singing.
The animation was wonderful, incorporating computers and gels.
The elephant was too much like Horton Hears A Who, but Rosie O'Donnell's voicing of the ape friend was wonderful.(7/12/1999)

The Grouch, who watches the War Channels constantly, hated Thin Red Line because it was certainly not a conventional war movie. I think it should be compared to Kurasawa's epic films. I let myself float with it.
Certainly WWII is used as an excuse to meditate on war in general, from a post-Vietnam perspective. I did have to ask the Grouch for some particulars on Guadalcanal and he noted some things that were correct in the movie (the unpreparedness of the military who just threw 1000s of recruits into battle slaughter) and inaccuracies (at one point a key character defends his men because he's been in battle with them for 2 1/2 years - the Grouch chortled that no American served in WWII that long at the point when the movie takes place, certainly not in the Pacific, as they served from Pearl Harbor to V-J day, from '44 to '45. He just meant that at the time the sergeant was speaking in the film he couldn't have served for 2 1/2 years with those men in the Pacific theater because that battle started in 8/42, 9 months after the war started and the movie seems to take place at the beginning of the battle. Guadalcanal ended 2/43, which still wouldn't be 2 1/2 years).
But this was the first war movie that makes the visual case of war as anti-environmental.
John Toll's cinematography is staggering beautiful. This is not a movie to rent on video but to see on a wide screen theater.
Famous hunky actors come and go in visual and auditory cameos, much like they did in The Longest Day; clearly all the Best Young Actors were dying to play soldier, but they are so dirty it's sometimes hard to tell them apart--but that's like war too. (Hey wasn't that John Cusack? Whoa, it was him! Hey isn't that John Savage sort of replaying his character from Deer Hunter? Yeah it was.)
The romantic memories are some of the most beautiful romantic visuals I've ever seen in the movies, but then all the images are breathtaking, but that makes the realization that war destroys love too all the more shocking.
If Saving Private Ryan, which used every war movie cliché of the past 50 years, was about realism in war movies, Thin Red Line is about the philosophy of war (with a few anthropological clichés thrown in).(1/24/1999)

Disliked the music and script of Prince of Egypt but liked the animation. (1/16/1999)

We saw Saving Private Ryan as a family. The Grouch, who watches the War Channels constantly to the extent that I walk by teasing him that I'll let him know the end - "The Germans lose!", thought it was a fresh spin on traditional war movies by showing the doubts of the soldiers.
I thought it was just a color WWII movie as young 'uns refuse to see black and white movies these days. I could match that this actor was playing the William Bendix role, this one John Garfield's, this one Robert Ryan's, this one Montgomery Clift, etc.
Those movies were restricted by the Hays Code and the need to spur war time spirit that they couldn't show doubts, though I remember some revisionist movies made after about the impact on Berlin, another with Robert Taylor vs. the Japanese on some island. Or even Bridge on the River Kwai. So they weren't all jingoistic.
I walked out of Ryan saying "Gee, war is hell."
Edward Burns was excellent.
The cinematography was terrific and compelling. (8/26/1998)

We went as a family to see The Mask of Zorro.
It walks the fine fun line that Indiana Jones does of taking the serials both seriously and satirically.
The directing is pedestrian but the actors really get into what they're doing so keeps the believability high. Catherine Zeta-Jones's character is as feisty as Mulan, so maybe this is a new, positive trend.
The villains didn't have to be so pure evil, on and on with their sadistic crimes, but the Grouch said you had to really justify the heroes killing them otherwise we wouldn't be sympathetic to such violence.
Kudos to all the stunt actors who were kept mighty busy.
The music is mediocre.
All in all, my family really enjoyed it. (7/25/1998)

I went to see Titanic for Leonardo DiCaprio - so what? (Heck I'd already seen Kate Winslet naked in Jude. What - so guys don't go to the movies to see a certain Pretty Woman?
But it was inappropriate that people brought kids, what with kids talking and asking questions through the whole movie and the parents commenting back. This is a big Hollywood extravaganza but it doesn't mean that kids should be there as if it were Men in Black.
It's selling out every showing in my neighborhood. So it's the most expensive movie ever made. It's what Hollywood is good at regardless of where it was filmed and what other things could be achieved in this world with all that money. (1/4/1998)

The Van is pleasant enough (I'll watch Snapper on Bravo tonight for comparison.) It's comparable to The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill. . ., and not just because Colm Meany is in both (interesting that he's the only Star Trek-er with a parallel career).(5/23/1997)

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