Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Star is Born: “Dreamgirls” is a Moving, Stylish Piece of Musical Cinema

Yes, it’s true that "Dreamgirls" is very good musical; perhaps the best since "Chicago." Of course with films since then such as "Phantom of the Opera," "Rent" and "The Producers" that’s not exactly saying a lot. "Dreamgirls," which was written and directed by Bill Condon (who wrote the Oscar-nominated "Chicago" screenplay), is a movie musical that can be enjoyed by those who don’t know anything about the Broadway show; myself included. When I first heard of the film I assumed "Dreamgirls" was an original piece, however I learned that it was an early ‘80s musical loosely based on the rise of Diana Ross & the Supremes. It has a jazzy R&B sound that employs many talented voices and an intriguing, although not altogether original, story.

Perhaps the headline of the year is the breakout performance of American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson. The finalist scores the role of a lifetime as Effie, whose emotions and dreams get stomped on when she’s forced out of a smalltown1960s female R&B group (The Dreams). Like big stars before her, she’s destined for big things, but she’ll have to wait until the third act before she gets any hope of her dreams being fulfilled. The other two members of the talented trio are Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx becomes the girls’ manager and before you can say Gladys Knight & The Pips, stardom comes their way. Hudson is definitely the standout here, and while she’s not the best actress to ever grace the silver screen, it's impossible to deny the sheer emotional power that she emulates during her song numbers. She moved the audience I was in to tears and thunderous applause; in the middle of the film!

Yes the story is something that been seen countless times before: small town singers hit it big and obsession with fame gets the best of them. But Condon tells his story in such a flashy, entertaining way that you never realize you’ve actually heard it all before. He’s skilled at making the song numbers catchy and engaging, while letting it all make sense. Yes there are times when characters breakout in song, (during catfights, no less) but most of the music takes place on stage or in the recording studio. This is truly a beautifully filmed vision of dreaming big and achieving big time success.

And who could talk about “Dreamgirls” without mentioning the return to form of Eddie Murphy? While I’m not exactly Murphy’s biggest fan, I know talent when I see it and he’s got it. He slips easily into the role of aging Motown star James “thunder” Early. Murphy can actually sing despite having previously recorded “Party All the Time” way back in the ‘80s.

"Dreamgirls" is a well crafted movie musical, with performers and filmakers in top form, that sweeps you up and entertains for its entire running time. It’ll be interesting to see how it does come Oscar time, and while it’s not one the best films of year, you really don’t need to look much further to find such a winning time at the multiplex. GRADE: B+

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Christmas Gory: “Black Christmas” is a Treat For Blood Fiends, Fruit Cake for Everyone Else

If you thought Arnold Schwarzenegger staring in “Jingle All the Way” was a holiday horror film, wait until you see “Black Christmas.” Horror movies have covered many holidays over the years, from the iconic film Halloween, to the horror-spoof April Fool’s Day to the, killer-in-miner suit flick My Bloody Valentine. I guess it’s only a matter of time until a horror movie is set on Thanksgiving with murderous Native Americans. Or what about a psychotic killer slaughtering voters on Election Day? Somebody please page Wes Craven! It was inevitable that a remake of 1974 not-so-classic slasher “Black Christmas” was in order. While that original film had the benefit of a small budget with some suspenseful moments, this new film is filled with more expensive style and some of the more gruesomely graphic violence since Hostel. In fact there are more gouged out eyeballs than Eli Roth could have ever imagined putting onscreen.

If there’s anything really wrong with this new Black Christmas it’s that it is completely awkwardly structured. I don’t go into a gore fest actually expecting a “well-made film” but I at least want some coherence. A bunch of college girls stay home for Christmas in their sorority house. They basically sit around the house recalling the story of the wacko family that used to live in their sorority house. And wouldn’t you know the psychotic children who used to living there are celebrating a murderous Christmas homecoming. The blandly written girls refer to each other by name when the other is not present, so we have no idea who they heck they’re talking about. They’re like, “Where’s Clair,” or “Have you seen Kelli?” And I sat there thinking who the heck are they talking about? Director Glen Morgan hardly has character exposition in mind, but at least he gets spends little time getting to the good stuff. And while the girls sit around drinking wine, the sorority mother (do these even still exist?) entertains the girls with the backstory of wacky Billy and how he killed his family and now lives in a mental institution. These flashbacks, although filled with cool angles and a sense of style, should have been regulated to the opening of the film instead of breaking up the present day scenes.

This is one of the most gory films I have seen in a long time. This movie puts The Hills Have Eyes, Hostel, Saw, etc to shame. The violence is old-fashioned 1970s exploitation gruesomeness and you couldn’t ask for anything more in a film set on the wonderfully cheery holiday of Christmas. And Morgan lingers on the blood. He doesn’t cut away or use flashy editing to make it “scarier.” I’m talking bloody close-ups galore! This film, like the Final Destination films, (in which Morgan and James Wong made together) has some of the most exciting and original deaths in recent memory. And this is perhaps the only film in which I’ve seen a death by candy cane.

Anyone who is fan of the splatter film will rejoice for Black Christmas. While the film isn’t necessarily “scary” or “suspenseful” it has enough style and blood to please fans of the genre. And of course it has the necessary scary moments to make the annoying teenage girls in front of me to squirm in their seats. Now here’s hoping that the sequel finds Father Time offing sexually active teenagers on New Year’s Eve. GRADE: B-

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Saved by the Mel: “Apocalypto” is a Spellbinding Success Due to Mel Gibson’s Masterfully Sadistic Direction

The enjoyment I received from watching Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is directly proportionate to how much I ultimately didn’t want to see it. I think the common people will agree with me. I was sick of the trailer by the middle of the year when the film was originally slated to be a summer release. A film about an ancient tribe of people who all speak an ancient language, with no familiar faces? Yawn. I had already seen The Passion of the Christ and even though this new film didn’t star the Savior I didn’t want to see that again. But I gave the movie a chance and by golly it’s amazingly good! This sadistically bloody, action-packed epic, which shames gore pictures like Saw with its excessive use of realistic violence, is a completely thrilling film that had me on the edge of my seat.

If there were any film that is Apocalpyto’s opposite in terms of cast it would be the recent Bobby or any Robert Altman film. Gibson, who co-wrote with Farhad Safinia, has chosen to use unknown actors. And by unknown I mean unknown. Seriously, have you ever heard of Rudy Youngblood? I didn’t think so. Mr. Youngblood makes a strong lead as Jaguar Paw who is a member of a close-knit South American (?) tribe deep in the jungle circa centuries ago. His wife is pregnant and they have a young son. Without warning some Mayan pillagers completely ransack the village in a sequence that is brutally realistic as anything seen in Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. Many of the adults are taken as prisoners, leaving some small children behind (including Jaguar Paw's wife and son in a deep hole). And on sets the film’s entire story, which is seen through Jaguar Paw’s fearful but brave eyes. He has no idea what these people have in store for him.

Mel Gibson, who hasn’t exactly been having the best public year ever, proves that he is a tremendously talented person who certainly belongs behind the camera. This is one of the most suspenseful action films I’ve seen in recent memory and it’s emotionally powerful and truthful. The film is essential one long chase, on foot no less, and Gibson applies a sure hand and eye. He has brought a gloriously conceived vision to the screen in a film that in essence shouldn’t really have succeeded to begin with. This could have been a boring, confusing mess, but Gibson knows exactly what he’s doing and has crafted a tremendously entertaining film.

Many will be put off by the fact that the film is, like I said, just one long chase. Jaguar Paw carries the entire weight of the film on his shoulders as his escape from the Mayans makes up most of the film. We really learn little of the Mayan culture or how their society eventually collapsed. We only understand as much as Jaguar Paw can conceive as he is taken prisoner. He and his people are taken to a ritual in which the captives’ bodies are painted blue and their heads are loped off, but not before their hearts are ripped out while still alive. This is a gristly and gory movie that will likely turn off many filmgoers. It’s a movie that doesn’t really glorify the violence, but depicts it as a natural way of life for this ancient people.

Gibson, who deserves a Best Director nomination, has made a film that shouldn’t have succeeded on so many levels, and yet it does. Not for one second was I turned off by having to read subtitles. The detail that was put into the film is extraordinary. You really sense the history behind these ancient people. This is a brilliant story of survival, revenge and family that sucks you in right from the start and never lets go. The two hour-plus running time literally flies by. The film is worth seeing if only for the exciting jaguar (or was that a panther?) chase scene that almost has the power to stop your heart. This is a great film that’s a highly recommended must see. GRADE: A

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Like a Surgeon: Partying Travelers Run Into the Brazilian Organ Harvesting Massacre in “Turistas”

Vacation movies can go either way: sidesplitting comedy (National Lampoon’s Vacation, European Vacation, etc) or gut wrenching horror (Hostel, Wrong Turn etc). I think National Lampoon should start making horror films. If they did, they’d end up with National Lampoon’s Brazilian Vacation. But it’s already been made as “Turistas,” in which some South America-bound hotties looking to have a good time end up being unwitting organ donors. Director John Stockwell, (Blue Crush and Into the Blue) known for showing off outside body parts finally gets to show us the inside parts and display enough graphic surgery to make the show Nip/Tuck blush.

We start off with a young woman being strapped down to a table. She’s shaken and disturbed. She cries out “I want to go home.” At this point most people are going to want to take her advice, however, if you enjoy the typical hot vacationers + weirdo locals = graphic torture, you’ll probably want to stick around. Big brother Alex (Josh Duhamel) is chaperoning his sister Bea’s (Olivia Wilde) and her friend Amy’s (Beau Garrett) Brazilian vacation. Somehow the tour bus they’re on ends up at the bottom of a hill, so they’re stranded for hours until the next bus comes. They meet up with fellow travelers Pru, Liam and Finn and party all night at bar located right on the beach.

I’m sure you can guess what happens next. They wake up the next morning in a tub of ice and their kidneys have been removed! Well not exactly. They are drugged and robbed. But unfortunately it takes awhile before any graphic surgery takes place. Meanwhile a local named Kiko takes them on a ten-hour hike through the jungle to his uncle’s cabin in the middle of nowhere. They stop off at some underwater caves for no other reason except for the establishing fact that these caves exist so that when the final chase occurs we’re familiar with the locale. They finally end up at the house, with no one home. In the middle of the night, the surgeon and his team arrive, and some internal organs are finally spilled.

While there are some “suspenseful” early moments, a modicum of impending doom, and some gory parts (finders being cut off, a stick in the eye) the film doesn’t take as long to get to the good stuff as Hostel did. Hostel was definitely a National Lampoons movie that took way to long to get to the gooey goods. Turistas doesn’t take quite as long and even though there’s really only one major organ removal scene, it’s quite graphic and disgusting. It’s obvious that this film is one 10-blade (I'm a Nip/Tuck fan) slice away from an NC-17 rating.

Turistas is definitely standard horror movie stuff. Fans of the genre should enjoy it but everyone else will want to take the film’s opening “I want to go home” advice. I’m sure I could make up some kind of meaningless cinematic reason to see the film. The cast’s beautiful bodies are in sharp contrast with the grotesqueness of the situation they find themselves in. Oh who am I kidding, this movie’s a piece of junk. In other words, it’s a pretty enjoyable. GRADE: B-

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Family Jewel: “Blood Diamond” is Equal Parts Suspense, Brains & Morals

I’ve never found Leonardo DiCaprio to be an actor with very much range. That isn’t to say that he hasn’t tried a variety of roles, many of which I haven’t found him very compelling in. Earlier this fall I utterly enjoyed DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant crime thriller “The Departed” and wouldn’t you know he’s just as enjoyable in Edward Zwick’s thrilling “Blood Diamond.” Both films are gritty and share themes of violence and greed and neither shy away from fully exploring the violent human mind. While it might sound weird at first to hear a South African dialect come out of the same guy’s mouth who started his career on the TV sitcom “Growing Pains,” DiCaprio and the rest of the cast deliver a wonderfully enjoyable story about the morals of the ravenous human condition.

The film is set in the 1990s in the western African country of Sierra Leone. There is a brutal (and that’s an understatement) civil war raging on. The rebels kidnap the adult male locals and force them to search for diamonds, to be unlawfully traded. The boys are sent to rebel training school, which includes machine gun target practice with dummies and live humans. The women and girls are of no use. The boys are completely brainwashed to honor the rebel army. One man who is taken from his family is Solomon Vandy (an intense Djimon Hounsou). While being forced to dig for diamonds, he comes across a large one that will set the film’s entire plot in motion (cue the McGuffin). Solomon is able to bury the diamond for safekeeping and is able to escape his rebel army captors. He hopes the large diamond will be a key in reuniting with his wife, daughters and son (he of whom has begun rebel army training).

Let’s enter DiCaprio in his best performance since “The Departed” as mercenary Danny Archer. Danny is a character who is constantly doing something that is wholly not “the right thing.” He smuggles diamonds and is sent to prison where he hears about Solomon’s hidden diamond. The diamond will mean a big fortune for Danny and could mean a family reunion for Solomon. And so begins a relationship that isn’t exactly what you would call buddy-buddy. While we get to understand DiCaprio’s character it’s hard to predict how he is going to act, which causes tremendous anticipation in the viewer. Danny knows in his head he’s basically just using Solomon to get the score of a lifetime. American photojournalist Jennifer Connelly also realizes this. She befriends both Solomon and Danny on their amazing journey through rebel territory to recover the “conflict diamond.”

This film not only offers a plot that is exciting and completely enjoyable but offers a realistic and moralistic tone that isn’t preachy or forced. We learn early on that people are tortured (i.e., hands lopped off) just so that illegal diamond trade can exist. And where exactly do these precious stones end up? Most likely on your favorite gal’s ring finger. The film does an incredible job of raising awareness of an important issue that I personally had no knowledge of. It’s horrible to think that so many innocent people are killed just so a woman can have an engagement ring loaded with karats.

The film is brutally realistic in a documentary/Schindler’s List kind of way, but it’s never gratuitous. It just helps it feel real. You almost sense that the filmmakers actually shot scenes in this conflict zone. And while the film does use a non-fiction backdrop to tell a fictional story, it almost seems too real to be just a movie. This is a film that shows that violence is occurring in other countries besides Iraq. This isn’t only an intelligent and suspenseful drama, but it has an actual soul. If it causes one person to think about where exactly the diamond came from on their ring and who had to die just so she could have it, then maybe it’s true that art can change the world. GRADE: A-

Sunday, November 26, 2006

You Say You Want a Revolution: “Bobby” is a Nostalgic Look Back to an Age When Politicians Could Be Heroes

It’s hard to imagine Emilio Estevez writing and directing a movie let alone one about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Yes, the former Brat Packer has gathered enough stars to make the show Will & Grace jealous for a film that isn’t so much about RFK’s death as it is about what was going on in America around the same time. The film opens up with a brief history of what the U.S. was like in 1968 with the war still raging in Vietnam and the public’s dismay of the never-ending bloodshed (sound familiar?). The best parts of Estevez’s film are the bookends, the instant nostalgia trip opening and the closing scenes in which all of the film’s characters intersect as RFK’s assignation is carried out. The middle however is chock full of Irwin Allen-esque movie stars that seem to be awaiting some kind of natural disaster.

While the film doesn’t really do anything new with the ensemble cast drama (think Crash, Magnolia, or Nashville) it presents us with interesting enough characters to last us two hours. It would take three full reviews to even begin to mention the entire cast, which is made up of the prestigious (Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Martin Sheen etc) to the not so prestigious (Heather Graham, Ashton Kutcher, Joshua Jackson etc). It’s obvious from the film’s ideals that Estevez certainly doesn’t segregate the good actors from the bad ones. Let’s not forget the has-beens (Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, Estevez himself) and the up and comings (Lindsay Lohan, Elijah Wood, Shia LaBeouf). There is what seems like a million more from where that came from. Each character has their own backstory which together plays like a microcosm of the American people of the time. This includes women marrying men so they didn’t have to go to war, the plights of people of color, tripping on acid for the first time, adultery, and political campaigning.

The movie weaves many plotlines without ever really confusing the audience. But maybe that’s more of a complaint than a real compliment. After all with so many stories and characters (more than 20) it’s impossible to be very in depth. The movie sort of plays like a long pilot of a TV show, taking it’s time to establish the characters and their motivations so that we can be hooked for the rest of the season. What Estevez skimps on in terms of storyline depth he makes up for in political idealism. It’s extremely interesting watching the stories unfold at the Ambassador Hotel in California during a summer primary election. Senator Kennedy will be at the hotel to give a speech and what will be his final public appearance before his untimely death.

The problem with these characters is that on the surface their troubles seem completely unimportant when played against the backdrop of RFK’s assassination. Since the killing only occupies the film’s last quarter, it almost seems as if it was an afterthought, a climax so dramatic and tragic that perhaps the characters will become better people because of it. Actually the ending scenes are far more intense and dramatic (with a voiceover of one of Kennedy's most powerful speeches) than anything we had previously seen in the film.

While the characters’ stories in “Bobby” seem insignificant when compared to RFK’s tragic death, the film certainly is an interesting ode to the chaotic time period. It does a great job of evoking the era without the gratuitous use of popular 60s rock tunes (with the exception of the well-placed "Sounds of Silence). RFK was an important man, and Estevez has crafted an intriguing look at a time when people actually looked up to politicians with a glint of optimism in their eye, instead of daggers and false hopes. GRADE: B

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Hollywood Squares: Christopher Guest’s Usual Quirky Cast is Award Worthy in “For Your Consideration”

I want to criticize “For Your Consideration” right away to get it out of my system. The film as a whole was a slight disappointment. Perhaps it’s because Christopher Guest and his genius troupe of extremely gifted actors’ high point was way back in 2000 with "Best in Show." That film expertly skewed those nutty dog show contestants, created an air of excitement and suspense, and gave us extremely appealing characters that all had hilarious chances to shine. For Your Consideration should work simply by default. When you assemble the same funny actors in a story that is entertaining it should just work. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. There were large chunks of the film in which I just didn’t laugh. And that was disappointing. However, this is a movie that is really hard to dislike despite its faults.

Now that it’s out of my system let’s talk about the film’s positives. The actors are very funny people, and when the film focuses on the funny storylines it’s a success. The film revolves around the production of the independent film Home For Purim. Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer, Rachael Harris and Christopher Moynihan are the actors playing actors in the film within the film. Christopher Guest is the director. Eugene Levy (co-scripter with Guest) is an agent. Jennifer Coolidge is a producer. Ed Begley Jr. is the flaming make-up artist. John Michael Higgins is a publicist. Bob Balaban and Michael McKean are the screenwriters. Michael Hitchcock and Don Lake are co-hosts of an Ebert & Roeper-like film critic show. And finally Jane Lynch and Fred Willard are at their best as co-hosts of an Entertainment Tonight-like entertainment news show. During the filming of the film within a film, someone mentions O’Hara’s name with an Oscar and there you have the simple flame that starts the fire that is Academy Awards buzz.

What’s interesting about the film is how bad Home For Purim really is. From what we see of the shooting, there’s no way that any of the actors would ever be nominated in real life. And that’s the film’s point. That awards really mean nothing. Sure there are plenty of filmmakers and actors out there worthy of praise, yet there are just as many who aren’t. Just the simple excitement that such a crappy film could be considered in the Oscar nomination race is enough to send shockwaves through the film’s cast. I less time was spent on the filming of Home For Purim, and more time on the actual building of buzz. Some of the scenes of Purim are so bad they’re tedious because like I said its film that would never win awards. All of the actors are uniformly excellent except they all don’t have the juicy roles that they all had in Best in Show. The film does create excitement leading up to the nominations.

Of particular interest here is Catherine O’Hara would is actually so good that she deserves a nomination. Seriously. She is funny as always, but she adds just a bit more that makes her role not only humorous but also actually quite affecting. Her character’s transformation from simpleton thespian to… well I don’t want to spoil it… is just simple exquisite and delightful. Wouldn’t it be the film’s ultimate irony is she scored a nom? She’s definitely worthy and under appreciated actress. This is her best performance.

While For Your Consideration isn’t Guest’s crowning achievement, it is a fun and lighthearted ode to movie making. While it’s not in the “mockumentary” form as his previous efforts, the narrative flows evenly enough to keep the viewer intrigued for the most part. While the actors themselves are funny, I couldn’t help but wish they’d all grab a pooch and go all dog show nutty for me. GRADE: B

Saturday, November 18, 2006

On Golden Bond: “Casino Royale” is an Ace Short of a Full House

My James Bond knowledge is limited to what I’ve seen in the Austin powers trilogy. During the outstanding and exhilarating opening sequence in which Mr. Bond follows a suspect by foot up a construction site, I wanted to shout “Juno chop” whenever he punched the bad guy. I don’t really count what I’ve seen in bits & pieces of the sometimes unavoidable 007 marathons on cable TV. Of course there had to be something about the super secret agent that has caused him to spawn films for nearly four decades. And that something finally came with the latest installment “Casino Royale” in which Munich co-star Daniel Craig donned the black tux and shaken martini. This is a film that will be overwhelmingly pleasing to Bond fans and a modicum of entertainment for Bond virgins.

Seeing as though I don’t know too much about the Bond franchise, “Royale” is more like The Bourne Identity than Dr. No but critics are certainly happy with it. I found most of it exciting (the first half) but the rest seemed to creep along at a snail’s pace. Director Martin Campbell who directed GoldenEye starring Pierce Brosnan as Bond, does an equal job of creating excitement in breathless action sequences and scenes in which the character sit down to a game of extremely high stakes poker (we’re talkin’ millions here). I’ve never found poker extremely fun to play let along watch so I have to give credit to Campbell. He must have spent his nights watching Ultimate Poker Challenge or something.

I’m not so sure what the plot of this renovated Bond flick is but from what I hear this is supposed to be a prequel of sorts. Bond has just been granted with 007 status and the person in charge is none other than Dame Judi Dench herself. (Oscar worthy you ask? You never know with the Dame) He tends to be a rather pesky pain in the butt for her and the audience gets to laugh at his annoying antics (he breaks into her house and is sitting on her couch when she arrives home, he calls her in the middle of the night). Bond travels all over from Madagascar, without the talking animals, to Europe to the Bahamas and Miami. The bad guy is Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) who tears blood. The “Bond girl” is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) who Bond names his trademark drink after.

I knew the action was flagging with the film took a strange turn. Towards the end of the film our hero is captured, stripped and tortured ala “Hostel.” While it’s not graphic at all, it seems a rather odd development. I’m not sure of 007 films’ naked torture record. I would say the film runs about 25 minutes too long but the first half is extremely strong and fun.

Bond fans are probably going to rejoice with this reinvigorated action flick. Apparently the last installment was God-awful, (Denise Richards as a scientist?) but I’m sure this is the way Bond was meant to enter the 21st century. While many are balking at Craig’s blonde hair and baby blues, that hardly seems like a worthy complaint. If anything, I wish editor Stuart Baird had convinced the director to cut this Bond down a bit. GRADE: B

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Write Club: “Stranger Than Fiction” is an Entertainingly Quirky Ode to Literature

There’s one thing that was on my mind after seeing “Stranger Than Fiction.” I want a damn chocolate chip cookie. Not just any cookie, but a warm, homemade cookie. The delicious kind your mom used to make on a snowy winter day as a child. The whole house would reek of chocolate goodness. This film is not only an ode to literature and the interweaving of fiction and reality, but the sweetness of life. It’s all about the little things, i.e. homemade cookies that make life worth living. Perhaps I’m a little ahead of myself, but director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, last year’s Stay) has crafted an intelligent, original film which answers the age old question of what would happen if an author’s fictional main character were actually a real life person living his own real life.

Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is an eccentric author writing a book. Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an IRS agent living his dull life. What they don’t know is how these two separate individuals are related. Harold is the character Thompson is writing about. We’ll learn that they both exist in real time. Harold can hear Kay narrate as she writes her novel. He thinks maybe his toothbrush is talking to him. He asks the woman next to him at the bus stop if she can her the voice too. Perhaps he’s just crazy. Crazy in love that is! He is auditing Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) a baker with her own fabulous cookie shop. (Geez where is this place, I wanna go there!) Ana and Harold have a love-hate relationship that just might develop into a love-love relationship. Ana just happens to be the person to show Harold that life doesn’t have to be so mundane.

Kay has a problem in that she doesn’t know how to kill off her main character. Her books have always been successful because she kills off her protagonists for dramatic purposes. Maybe a car crash? Maybe he should jump off a building? The thing is, since Harold just so happens to be a real person, the audience is completely and quickly sucked in to what Harold’s fate will be. Harold receives some advice from English professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman). Hilbert suggests to Harold that he figure out what kind of novel the voice is narrating and perhaps then he can track down the author and prevent her from killing him off.

No description can give this movie the justice it deserves. It’s very funny, extremely smart, completely original (credit first time screenwriter Zach Helm) movie. It’s some sort of cross mutation Charlie Kaufman and Woody Allen hybrid that delivers in spades. If you’re in the mood for a smart, beautifully made slice of American entertainment, with great actors giving even greater performances, Stranger Than Fiction is the way to go. It’s certainly one of the most unique films of the year that certainly makes life a little sweeter. GRADE: B+

Do You Hear What I Hear: “Babel” Offers an Intriguing Patchwork of Characters Lost in Translation

Babel is a complicated and mature film that interlocks the stories of several characters all of whom are of different races. Sound familiar? This isn’t a rip-off of last year’s Oscar-winning “Crash” but it is certainly just as well done. Of course it’s not as “in your face” about its statements how people from different cultural backgrounds relate to each other. It’s simply the story of how a deadly riffle ends up in the hands of two young Moroccan boys and the tragedy that unfolds before the audience. It is a film filled with sensationally subdued performances from a racially diverse cast.

Brat Pitt and Cate Blanchett are Richard and Susan a married couple vacationing in Morocco. While riding a tour bus an unseen object strikes Susan. She’s bleeding erratically. This is serious. In the previous opening scene we’ve seen a man giving two young boys a riffle to be used to scare of animals that might try to eat the family’s flock of sheep. Unsurprisingly the boys decide to shoot the riffle into nothingness and then into driving vehicles far in the distance. One of those vehicles is a tour bus. There is also the story of promiscuous Japanese teenager Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi in her first American film) who is deaf. Her and her father are also connected to the riffle.

Meanwhile back in the states, Richard and Susan’s two WASP children are being taken care of by their Mexican nanny Amelia (an effective Adriana Barraza). She and her nephew (Gael García Bernal) have to travel to Mexico to go to her son’s wedding and since she can’t find anyone to take care of the little tykes (Susan’s accident has prevented them from coming home on time), she takes them and their passports along for the ride. This will prove to be an obviously terribly rash decision. Two Mexican’s traveling across the border with two Caucasian children is unfortunately not a good situation.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has crafted an intriguing tale of characters who all speak different languages whether it be Spanish, English or even sign language. What we have is a morality play about how difficult it can be for people of different backgrounds to really understand each other. Iñárritu’s direction of Chiecko’s scenes is especially effective due to his way of immersing the audience in the world of a deaf girl. Pitt performance here is subtle but strikes a nerve that he has rarely evoked in the past. Barraza has a strong emotional weight as the children’s caretaker and the scene in which they attempt to cross the border into the U.S. crackles with suspense.

Iñárritu has crafted a meaningful, well-made film that is a terrific follow up to his “21 Grams,” a film that is equally emotionally riveting. In a time where immigration is the talk of the town, perhaps we should follow the film’s extremely useful and wise tag line: “If You Want to be Understood... Listen.” All that wisdom for the price of a movie ticket. GRADE: B+

Friday, November 03, 2006

Odd Bless America: See “Borat” For Make Benefit of Laughing Audience; I Like!

I purposely postponed writing this review until I could see “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” twice. The film basically requires two viewings. The first time you see it, you’re completely shocked and awed by it and since you spend so much time laughing, you miss a lot. I felt a second screening was necessary so that I could determine whether the film stands up to multiple viewings. It does. While the film obviously wasn’t as surprising the second time, it still felt as fresh and funny as the first time. While the film runs at only 84 minutes, it is certainly stretched awfully thin and feels as though it’s nearly two hours, but you’re so into what’s going on you don’t even have time to notice. This is certainly the funniest, craziest and most bizarre film of the year.

Borat is a character created and played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (of The Ali G Show) who you may have seen this summer in “Talladega Nights.” Of course you would never know that the man you are watching for 84 minutes is only a fictional character. You never think for a second that Borat is a character being played by an actor. You believe 100% of the time that Borat Sagdiyev is an honest to God real human being. Of course human being is pushing it. This guy is racist, misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic and wet your pants funny. We accept that this man is so culturally inept because he’s portrayed as a real person. He makes such a horrible person into such a lovable, endearing character. Part of what makes Borat so genius is that he’s really not nearly as mean-spirited as the many Americans he meets along his journey through America (in an ice cream truck, no less). You see Borat is a Kazakhstan TV reporter sent to the “U.S. and A.” to bring back some cultural learnings to his home country.

Along the way Borat meets the epitome of the American people, whether they be rodeo lovin’ red necks, gun totin’ Southerners, Jesus freaks, drunken frat guys, homophobic subway riders, high society, garage sale “gypsies”, a nice old Jewish couple and plastic-breasted Pamela Anderson. While Borat himself is rather offensive, he lets the Americans make fun of themselves more than he could ever hope to. The film is essentially a mockumentary with some scripted footage along with what seems like in-the-moment reactions with real people in real locales. Borat has squeamishly awkward confrontations with feminists, hotel clerks and Jews that are so over the top that you can’t help but laugh. (During dinner with some high society people he comes back to the table with his feces in a bag and invites an overweight hooker to the party) That includes some of the most un-PC dialogue ever to grace an American film. Things that would be offensive in any other dumb R-rated flick make a perfect home here in this film. References to Jews causing 9/11 would be in extremely poor taste in any other movie but here it’s turned into brilliant satirical wit.

“Borat” is truly a sight to be seen; a film that is nearly impossible to describe. Fans of reality TV will be impressed, sketch show fans will be delighted by a sketch film that is actually funny, and anyone who is distraught with our country’s current political climate will certainly be in for a surprise with Borat. He is a unique character whose film makes the guys from “Jackass” look like the Little Rascals. You’d be doing yourself a favor by checking out “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” more than once if you’ve got the time. It’s nice! GRADE: A

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Stars & Stripes Forever: “Flags of Our Fathers” is More Than the Flag-Waving Film You’d Think It Would Be

“Flags of Our Fathers” just very well may find itself on the ballot for Best Picture this spring at the Academy Awards. Of course that would just seem like Clint Eastwood overload after Clint’s previous two Oscar-grabbing efforts “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River.” One can’t help but wonder what the heck Clint is putting in his gin & tonic to help him make such fantastically successful films. While it’s easy to dismiss his latest directorial effort as just another World War II drama trying to impersonate Steven Spielberg’s genre defining “Saving Private Ryan,” Eastwood’s film is much more than just elaborately staged battle scenes with emotionally charged performances. It has an interesting story to tell, based on actual events no less, about the Battle of Iwo Jima and the effect that one particular flag raising had on entire nation sick and tired of war.

It’s obvious from the time we live in that war films no longer have the flag-waving “proud to be an American” feel they way they did back in the 40s and 50s. War films are constant truthful reminders that war is an evil that no human being should have to suffer; yet thousands have, do and will throughout the years. The story of Flags of Our Fathers revolves around the infamous photo of several American soldiers raising an American flag upon the top of a mountain during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the South Pacific. This image forever changed the view of the war. Americans were tired of war but the government insisted that they press on and continue to fight. The image represents the American can-do attitude and it instantly became a staple of America’s hope to come out on top during this tragic period in time.

Eastwood’s film certainly does justice to this extremely interesting story of war being sold as if it were popcorn at a movie theater. War can very well be a product and the waning American people’s interest in supporting the fighting turned around as soon as the government turned those men who raised that flag into a symbol of helping support the war, “buy war bonds!” The cast Eastwood has assembled is simply wonderful. Ryan Philippe is as strong here as he was in “Crash.” The same goes for the other assorted young men including Jesse Bradford, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Joseph Cross and the relatively unknown Adam Beach who turns in a great performance as Ira Hayes, an Native American who is constantly the target of disgusting racial discrimination.

What is so interesting about the film is the way its two stories are intertwined. We get lots of footage of the actual Iwo Jima battle that many will agree seems to be in direct comparison with the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan.” But give Eastwood credit, these scenes are very well done (the DP is John Stern) and certainly stand well on their own. A simple flag mounting on the island and its photo is enough to change history. We get to see the soldiers as they reenter society as heroes. The photo is in every newspaper and monuments are erected. These men aren’t just turned into heroes of Iwo Jima they are turned into an image of how America is the best and we can overcome anything.

What a perfect time for a film like this to come along with our current state of affairs overseas. It’s so simple to turn one image into something completely different. Writers William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis (Crash’s Oscar-winning screenwriter) craft an interesting story about war, hope and heroism that will certainly make people think about the parallels of present day. In a time where so many are being killed everyday, maybe a movie can help many of us change our minds for the better. GRADE: B+

Friday, October 27, 2006

Cut it Out: Hopefully “Saw III” is the End to this Blood-Soaked Thrillogy

There are some things that Saw III is and some things it is not. Saw III is gross and bloody. What it is not is suspenseful, scary or “Return of the Jedi.” While I’m not exactly a Star Wars aficionado I do know the ending of a trilogy when I see one. But what I don’t get is why the end of Saw III which kind of wraps things up nicely, leaves the door open for Saw IV: A New Beginning. Have the Saw movies, low-budgeted, bloody and wildly popular, turned into the Friday the 13th films of the 21st century? Are we bound to have 10 more installments in which helpless victims are strapped into heavy duty, expertly designed devices ready to gouge, rip and shred up the people foolish enough to be trapped in one? If there’s one thing I’m thankful for the Saw films is reinventing the hard R rated horror film with plenty of blood and guts to make The Passion of the Christ look like a fairy tale. What I don’t like is the style in which these films are made, let’s credit director Darren Lynn Bousman for copying James Wan’s style from the first “Saw.”

I get a headache every time the camera whips around the room in circles, the focus going in and out, and hard rock music blaring on the soundtrack, with an edit every 10th of a second. It’s mind-numbing and headache-inducing. If there’s one thing we can expect in a Saw film is lots of blood and guts. So just linger on it already! You’ve ripped open someone who had metal hooks attached to every one of their body parts so why must you shake the camera so much that we can’t even see what’s going on? If you’re trying to avoid actually showing us the gore maybe you shouldn’t of hired a make-up guy and just pulled a Blair Witch and imply the violent dread. What’s the point of showing a person’s ribcage being torn open if you’re just going to cut away? Ok I may sound like a freak here, but the camerawork of Saw III (and all of them) is the most annoying thing about them. It’s supposed to be stylistic, but it’s not.

While I didn’t love the second Saw installment, I must say the plot of it was more interesting than Saw III. Here we have our villain Jigsaw, a cancer stricken patient on his deathbed (ooo scary!) and his apprentice Amanda, who was a victim in the first film. It turns out she was in on the torturous events of the second film, and there’s something that we’ll learn about her and Jigsaw that is mildly interesting (No, Jigsaw is not her father). They have kidnapped a surgical doctor and placed a device around her neck that will make her head blow up if Jigsaw’s life-support machine flat lines. And let me just say this guy’s about 20 minutes away from death. He has to be kept alive so that he can witness the game that is being played on a man who has lost his young son to a hit and run driver. This man is all about vengeance so it’s Jigsaw’s job to torture him until he realizes that he should give up trying to find the man responsible for his son’s death. Jigsaw isn’t just a sadistic cancer patient, he makes people realize the value of life. That’s something you don’t see in a Jason flick. We don’t get to learn anything about this guy, which is why I liked the second film better, because we get to see the people work together to escape the torture house, and see the evil that is waiting inside every human being.

There are some pretty decent death scenes in the film but the camera moves so fast or scenes are so under lit that it’s kind of hard to tell what’s really going on. We get a woman who freezes to death, a man stuck in a huge bin with pig guts nearly drowning him, and let’s not forget the guy in the twist-o-matic, in which his arms and legs get twisted so that his bones break and protrude from his flesh. Okay if this all sounds gross, maybe you shouldn’t see the movie, but it’s surprisingly not as gross as the second installment. And it’s most definitely never scary. The parts I did like were going back to the beginning (the first film) and seeing things we know now that we didn’t know then. There are some interesting surprises that fans of the series will look forward to seeing.

All in all, Saw III fits the other films well. If you like sadistic horror, this is your ticket. Unfortunately the film isn’t scary or that well made. It’s obvious that the filmmakers are amping up the visuals to make up for the lack of budget, good acting, plot, yada yada. But do we really care about any of that? I don’t think artistic merit is on the menu when you buy a ticket to film called Saw III. GRADE: C

American Psychos: Bening is a Cut Above the Rest of the Crazies in “Running with Scissors”

If we can’t laugh at life’s quirky events while growing up, what can we laugh at? Unfortunately in the film adaptation of Augusten Burrough’s memoir “Running with Scissors,” there’s not much that’s funny. What read as funny on the page doesn’t necessarily translate well to the big screen. The eccentricities of Augusten’s childhood and teen years read very well in a book that acts like a bunch of wild vignettes about his mentally unstable mother and moving in with her even more mentally unstable psychiatrist and his odd family. Burroughs makes life’s little tragedies and peculiarities into extremely hysterical and emotionally truthful episodes, but as a film director Ryan Murphy (creator of TV’s Nip/Tuck) has turned this story into a awkwardly toned, dramatically inconsistent film that doesn’t always work.

The cast is top-notch and they do very well with the translation that Murphy has written. Annette Bening gives a tremendous performance as Deirdre, Augusten’s wildly unstable mother. All she wants to be is a famous poet. She feels she was destined to be a renowned auteur. Her son Augusten (Joseph Cross) feels he was also destined to be great: as a beautician and perhaps the head of a major line of beauty products: perhaps the next Vidal Sassoon. Augusten’s alcoholic father played by a restrained Alec Baldwin soon leaves the Burroughs’ home after he and Deirdre decide to call it quits. So it’s just Deirdre and Augusten until she begins seeing Dr. Finch, played by an unrestrained Brian Cox. We soon get to know Finch and his wildly eccentric family (and that’s an understatement). These people would have driven the Brady Bunch out of the neighborhood. The eldest daughter Hope (Gwenyth Paltrow) is a Bible dipper (don’t ask) and works at Daddy’s office. I wanted to see more of Hope (she’s has a large part in the book). The younger daughter Natalie (Evan Rachael Wood) enjoys hooking people up to her dad’s old electric shock therapy machine. Then there’s my favorite of the Finch crew, the matriarch
Agnes enjoys watching corny old horror films and munching on dog chow. I was waiting for Nomi from “Showgirls” to join her. This clan lives in a dilapidated old Victorian house. They certainly give the Addams Family a run for their money.

While the book focuses a lot on Augusten’s adjustment to moving in with and then becoming a part of the Finch family, the film focuses more on Deirdre’s psychological issues. This in turn let’s Bening steal the film away from her talented co-stars without them even knowing it. While mental unstableness isn’t really a laughing matter, Burrough’s crisp writing had a strong sense of satire that was funny yet emotionally powerful. While reading you’re always either laughing or feeling sorry for the beyond strange circumstances this young teen found himself in. He had no boundaries as a child, no rules. And neither does the film really. The film isn’t as emotionally grounded as it could be. And since the dramatic intensity is pushed up it unfortunately undercuts the comedy aspect. There are parts that are funny and will make you laugh, but other parts that should be funny rarely are. And some scenes either weren’t funny or emotionally satisfying. Some parts just kind of hung there as if Murphy couldn’t decide what was funny or dramatic.

Any success of the film rides on Annette Bening’s powerful performance. Not as satirically funny as she was in “American Beauty” or Joan Allen was in “The Upside of Anger” and not as hopelessly pitiful as Ellen Burstyn in “Requiem for a Dream.” Her character seems harsh and unpleased at first, because she is, but you do eventually feel sorry for her once you realize what a whack job her shrink is. While Bening’s acting raises the film to another level, I almost wished her character didn’t take up so much screen time. Life at the Finch’s house for Augusten was more interesting to me, when it was treated as comedy. I wanted to know more of the oddities of the Finch home, and more about what it felt like to grow up in that crazy house, which fortunately I know since I’ve read the book.

This is a wildly inconsistent adaptation of Burrough’s novel, but the actors do a good job and the film is mildly engaging. It’s obviously difficult to squeeze in everything from the book, but turning up the dramatics just seemed unnecessary. The book is funny so the film should have been too. While the film is a decent time capsule of the 1970s (I dug the soundtrack) I can’t help but feeling an emotionally empty film that could have been a lot more grounded and focused. While the film works on some levels, it’s certainly a step down from Burrough’s wonderful novel. GRADE: B-

Monday, October 23, 2006

Do You Believe in Magic: “The Prestige” Offers Enough Twists and Turns to Keep the Viewer Engaged

I enjoy watching a magician perform feats of magic just as much as the next guy. As a little kid I always wanted to know how they did it. How did he guess that person card? How did that coin end up in that lady’s purse? How did David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear without the use of CGI? But there’s one thing I know I would never want to see: a performer drowned alive right before my eyes. And what about sawing a lady in half? I remember being terrified that severed body parts would spurt out from the stage. So not only is magic exciting it can also be kind of freaky and disturbing. Director Christopher Nolan takes the excitement and apprehension of magic and concocts an intriguing tale of two rival magicians well played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. While the film isn’t perfect there are worst things to do with your time.

The film is set during the brink of the turn of the 20th century in England. Jackman and Bale along with assorted others, including Jackman’s wife (Piper Perabo) are part of a magic stage show. Without giving too much away, a terrible tragedy occurs. This incident rather abruptly leads to a chain of events, which sparks a heated, and at times extremely vicious, rivalry between the two leads. What was once for the betterment of the forefront of magic has become a whirlwind of “anything you can do, I can do better.” A 19th century version of "Yo Mamma" if you will. Bale and Jackman are good at playing nice, friendly men or mean, evil men. And here they mainly channel evil and so it’s hard to really side with either character. We slightly understand the motivation behind each one, but it’s a lot more complicated than he’s the good guy and he’s the bad guy.

It’s practically impossible to describe the film without revealing important plot points and twists. What can be said, without regards to the story, are its artistic merits. The film is virtual tour de force of costume and set design. The art direction is simply spot on, not that I’m an expert in this particular time period, but I image this is exactly how it would look. The camera work is equally dark, gloomy and beautiful. Nolan is an extremely gifted filmmaker who is always bringing a strong sense of dread, mystery and darkness to his films (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins). The acting is also very good. While no performer out acts another, nor gives the most impressive performance of the year, what we are given are people that we believe to have existed during the film’s time period. It was actually refreshing to hear what I think is Bale’s native accent. The supporting cast which includes Michael Caine, David Bowie and Scarlett Johansson doubling as a love interest and magic trick spy. Rebecca Hall plays Bale’s wife and their relationship is consummated so quickly I hardly bought that they were in love.

The plot, which I can’t really describe beyond the fact that to call this a period thriller makes good sense to me, is twisty without really being confusing. We get fragments of the past and present but the time line isn’t as screwy as Memento. After all what good is a story that is too twisty to actually follow? It’s pretty interesting where the film leads. It brings up some moral issues dealing with the theme of fantasy vs. reality and illusion vs. science. This helps raise the film beyond the level of simple entertainment.

For all the fancy sets, camerawork and costumes, what we really have is a story of two men not willing to let each other get in the way of their magic acts. The film’s title refers to what is called the third part of a magician’s act: the prestige, but it also more importantly refers to the status both men are willing to achieve at ANY cost. Of course there’s a whole lot more to it, but why should I give away the secrets and spoil the magic? GRADE: B+

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Desperate Housewife: Kate Winslet and Her Adult Cast Amaze as “Little Children”

Everyone remembers being a child. Life was so carefree and simple. You basically got to do whatever you wanted. Go to the playground to have fun with other kids. Sleeping time so you could get reenergized. But let’s not forget the bullying because let’s face it: children are children. And in Todd Field’s new film “Little Children” we learn that even adults can be children. Kate Winslet is Sarah, a young housewife with a young daughter. Sarah brings her daughter to the park every weekday to play with the other kids, even though she can’t stand the other annoying moms. And while the children are gleefully cavorting about, their mothers are acting even more childish than their offspring. We’re then introduced to the lone, attractive stay-at-home dad whom these desperate housewives refer to as the Prom King. He is really Brad (Patrick Wilson) who’s married to Kathy (Jennifer). They have a young son. And we get the feeling right away that perhaps Sarah and Brad will be doing some playing of their own.

Director Todd Field is an actor’s director. This is because he is an actor (Unfortunately, I really only know him as one of the storm chasers in “Twister”). His only other feature film is the Academy Award nominated “In the Bedroom,” where he displayed a brilliant knack for getting extremely good performances from his stars (Three of whom were Oscar nominated). He manages to again wring remarkable performances from everyone in “Little Children.” Winslet is simply suburb as a young suburban mother. There’s no hint whatsoever that she really has a British accent. Wilson also amazes. With every film he does he improves. He’s a far cry from the stageyness he displayed a few years back in the film version of “The Phantom of the Opera.” But of course that’s because he’s a Broadway veteran. And Connelly makes the best of her smaller role as Brad’s too busy wife, who just might be starting to suspect something.

A wry suburban satire, which was previously a novel written by “Election” scribe Tom Perrotta, (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Field) children focuses on Sarah and Brad and how they quickly and humorously form a public friendship because they both have young children. This quickly turns into a very private sexual relationship that they both really want but aren’t altogether prepared for. Sarah’s husband is a distant and rather cold man, who is a fan of Internet porn. Brad’s wife Kathy is an extremely busy documentary filmmaker. It’s a longing for something different and perhaps something better that brings these two people together. The film, which has the structure, look, and aura of a deep, tragic melodrama, is actually punctuated with extremely funny and well-placed humor. The humor isn’t as obvious or as present as in let’s say “American Beauty” but it fits the film extremely well. The voice over narration, which seemed odd at first, actually suits the movie (its read as if this were a child's bedtime story) and adds to the character’s underlying motivations.

Put into the mix a subplot about Ronnie, a local sexual predator being released back into society played by the original Bad News Bears’ Jackie Earle Haley. It’s just simply amazing how the film approaches everything about this man who is treated as a full fledged human being (by the filmmaker, not the film’s characters) and fully realized character and how all the adults in the film treat him. It’s as if they are all bullies on the playground. A scene in which Ronnie shows up at the public pool is extremely funny and downright heartrending all at once. Then we have Brad’s ex-cop friend Larry (Noah Emmerich) who is the worst of all. He constantly appears on the man’s front lawn at odd hours of night with a bullhorn shouting to the neighbors about the pervert who should be locked up. It’s interesting how this storyline and Sarah and Brad’s all come to an end. Especially since the film is constantly building and building. And an ending that could have had a million possibilities makes the most sense.

This film is engaging, well made and extremely deep. It’s a film that can be analyzed to death yet extremely entertaining. Field brings an audacity to the film that just simply makes it sparkle. He never lets the humor break the emotional tension. And he never let’s the mature subject matter get in the way of the humor. The film has so much to say about how sometimes adults just never grow up and are sometimes less mature then their own kids. This is a film that turns the mundane suburban life into thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile experience. GRADE: A

Friday, October 13, 2006

Mr. Williams Goes to Washington: “Man of the Year” Doesn’t Get My Vote

There’s one fact that I know is true: Robin Williams is funny. There’s also a fact that some may disagree with me on: Robin Williams in “Man of the Year” is not funny. How is that possible? Because the film doesn’t know whether it wants to be a comedy when it grows up or a thriller. That sounds just crazy, you may ask. All the advertisements I’ve seen make Man of the Year seem hilarious. Ah hah, seem is the key word. Perhaps the film should have been called “The Illusionist.” Because if you’re in the mood for a hysterical political satire you’re barking up the wrong voting booth. It’s deceptively not the film you’d think it is. If you want to see a funny movie in which Robin Williams becomes president, this isn’t it.

“Mrs. Doubtfire” is my 3rd favorite movie of all time. If you think I’m crazy, I won’t even tell you what number 2 is, but I digress. Robin Williams is a hilarious and genius comic. He has a gift to carry an entire film on the weight of his shoulders without ever outshining his costars. In Man of the Year he just seems like everyone else. He’s Robin Williams playing a less funny version of Robin Williams as a late night political talk show host. (Think Jon Stewart or Bill Mahr) Life imitates art in this film and many people are fed up with the current government (although in this film the current prez is a Democrat). An audience member suggests Williams should run for president and low and behold he does without any real motivation or explanation. Williams is surrounded by a staff who is supposed to be funny including Christopher Walken and Lewis Black.

The film doesn’t really begin as a comedy and then switch genres. We understand right during the opening credits that there’s some kind of conspiracy/cover-up that is going to happen. This mostly involves Laura Linney who mostly looks like she took this role to get a paycheck. I mean she’s good cause she’s Laura Linney and that’s about all. One of her scene’s seems right out of a “Halloween” film, which normally I would love, except it seems odd in a comedy starring Robin Williams. I’ll try not to give anything away but Linney knows something she really shouldn’t and well I don’t really want to ruin anything for you, but a scene in which she goes bonkers attempting to buy a cappuccino is simultaneously odd and funny, yet the audience is completely confused as to what the tone really is.

Writer/director Barry Levinson doesn’t seem to know whether he wanted to write a comedy or a drama. The film feels like it should be a comedy, according to the ads, but it’s really more of a conspiracy thriller with unfunny Robin Williams quips thrown in. All of this I could really care less about if the film was overall just plain fun and entertaining. The dramatic parts make the comedy less funny and the comedy makes the dramatic parts less thrilling. There is a great scene at a presidential debate between Williams the current president and the Republican candidate that I enjoyed. If only the rest of the film could be up to this scene’s standards. It’s funny and poignant and he takes sharp jabs at the current way things are run that are extremely relevant in real life. A stop by Weekend Update at SNL Studios with Tina Fey and Amy Pohler was a much-welcomed breath of comedic air.

If anything “Man of the Year” is just a disappointment and a slight misfire. It’s a movie I can’t really recommend because most people who thing they are going to see a funny Robin Williams movie are going to be in for a surprise. Those interested in a political comedy would best having a double feature of “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “All the President’s Men.” Call me Deep Throat if you want, but “Man of the Year” is a big fat liar. GRADE: C

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Rating Game: “This Film is Not Yet Rated” Shows How Some Films Will Never Be Coming to a Theater Near You

Kirby Dick’s intriguing documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated” manages to take an interesting subject and make it really interesting. The film comes so close to perfection that one gets disappointed when certain aspects continue to bog down the entire thing. I’ll be the first to agree that the Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating board is slightly bonkers. Their “guidelines” for how films receive parental guidelines are basically outrageous. And I’m not even a parent! Let’s give a little lowdown. We have G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. Most are probably familiar with let’s say the R rating. That’s the rating that restricts youngsters from seeing a movie unless they have a parent or look over 17 years of age. Anyone can get into a G, PG or PG-13 movie. And no one under 17 can get into an NC-17 rated film. This doesn’t really seem to be a problem right?

“This Film…” takes a few stands against the MPAA’s ratings board. Of course it’s important to understand why some filmmakers are so outraged. A film that receives an NC-17 is basically a financial disaster waiting to happen. No posters, TV spots, or other forms of ads are really allowed in most areas let alone the fact that most theaters won’t show films with this rating. But why? It’s probably because the NC-17 used to be the X rating and we all know what that means: porn porn porn! But not really. Yes material in these films are considered more graphic and risqué, but equating a film that’s rated NC-17 with pornography is just wrong. This film insists the way movies are rated is unjust. Also, the major studios control the MPAA which basically means when they want a softer rating they’re more likely to get it. Hence independently financed films have a harder time getting an R rating.

Dick does a great job of giving us lots of useful information that is clear, precise, to the point and beyond fascinating. And “This Film…” is a movie lover’s dream. There are oodles of film clips that are interesting to see in context to how they were rated by the film board. We get to see the “uncut” versions of some scenes. Like what had to be cut in order to go from an NC-17 rating to the more financially friendly R. And not only do we get clips from movies but we get insights from the filmmakers themselves. Interviews range from king of the bizarre John Waters to Mary Harron the director of “American Psycho.” We get Matt Stone of South Park fame and “Clerks” director Kevin Smith. Their comments are insightful and really interesting when they discuss how an NC-17 rating can really offend a person and the grief that it can cause a filmmaker with a particular artistic vision. I also enjoyed watching Dick’s journey to get have his own film rated (slapped not surprisingly with an NC-17) and unsuccessfully appealed.

Everything about the film is fascinating. And then there are the sequences in which the filmmaker hires a private detective to find out who exactly the people on this film ratings board are. The MPAA keeps these people who view films, discuss them and then give them a rating based on objectionable content are kept private so that outsiders don’t influence them. (Gimme a break, they don’t want their names publicly announced so that they aren’t beaten to death by angry mobs of filmmakers). It’s a fact that although ratings are “made by parents for parents” it seems odd that some of the raters have kids in their 20s or have no children at all. Scenes in which Dick and the detective sit outside the MPAA headquarters (and go through their trash) are kind of silly and while it’s funny to see them practically stalk the raters and flash their real identities on the screen as if they were all secret superheroes, it tragically grinds the film almost to a halt. The private detective’s job is not nearly as interesting as the film clips, interviews and history of motion picture censorship provided throughout the rest of the film. I wouldn’t say this aspect was unnecessary; it just seemed awkwardly fit with everything else.

The bottom line is that the film ratings system is imperfect. That’s not really a bad thing and not too surprising. There is no perfect way to let parents in on what objectionable content a film has. But when the film board says that it’s not promoting censorship and then slaps a film with an NC-17, which in turn means it basically can’t be shown anywhere, that just doesn’t make sense. NC-17 films should be able to be shown everywhere. The stigma that these films are pornographic is ridiculous. What this rating means is that kids shouldn’t be seeing it, and that’s all. That shouldn’t be punishing adults who want to see these films. If adults want to pay to see trash like “Showgirls,” it’s their right. I don’t want to live in a society in which films like “Showgirls” can’t be accessible to everyone over the age of 17. Anyone even remotely interested in how the film industry works with find everything in “This Film is Not Yet Rated” absorbing. GRADE: A-

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Boston Illegal: Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” is a Fascinating Masterwork of Writing, Acting, and Directing

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not one of Hollywood legend Martin Scorsese’s biggest fans. I saw his remake of Cape Fear a while ago. It’s decent. I rented Taxi Driver from the library years ago. It was all right. I sat through all 2.75 hours of The Aviator two years ago. It was okay. I probably responded most to The Aviator. It had extremely great things going for it: a good cast, a wonderful look, just an overall great production. I couldn’t help but think there was just something missing. And so I have yet to see any of his other films, for I have felt none of the ones I’ve viewed were anything too special. And now comes The Departed. A turning point for both the director and I. Perhaps I’ll give his other films a shot, perhaps the filmmaker will get an Oscar. But more importantly this is a film in which all of his others from now on will be judged.

Scorsese starts in a new location, Boston, MA. It is the land of overly pronounced As, the Red Sox, and Irish crime lords. One of the latter being Jack Nicholson in one of his best performances (and you know that’s saying a lot) as Frank Costello. Here is a less campy Joker from Batman; a tough talking’ racial slur speakin’ tough guy with many an evil expression to spare for the film’s quickly paced 2 1/2 hour run time. To put it simply just give the man his fourth Oscar already and call it a night (In fact just give everyone an Oscar). But there’s plenty more astounding actors from where that came from. We get Leonardo DiCaprio, finally completely convincing, as an undercover cop infiltrating Costello’s crime ring. On the other side Matt Damon is part of Costello’s gang who has trained to become a cop and he might as well be called Evil Will Hunting. These characters set up what could have easily become a tired retread of other lesser-made crime thrillers. The cast elevates the material extremely well. Also great here are Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg who are the only ones who know of DiCaprio’s mission. Alec Baldwin also shows some great acting chops. Vera Farmiga is just about the the only female in the cast and she's terrific as a link between DiCaprio and Damon.

While the film isn’t as visually scrumptious as The Aviator there is plenty of terrific technical aspects worthy of note. The film maintains a frenetic energy without the use of overly shaky cameras or quick fire editing. The imagery is extremely strong. Scorsese, not known for his restrained use of graphic violence, uses the brutally potent images to shock and let you know not everyone in this world is a saint. I also enjoyed the use of music. While Howard Score provides a score, most scenes are filled with rock-pop Irish jigs and most notably The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter.” Not only is the music pleasing to the ear, but so is the dialogue. While disgusting racial and homophobic comments, including other pervasively colorful language, fill the character’s mouths, it’s hard to argue that screenwriter William Monahan hasn’t created pure poetry with each spoken line. And boy do I love those Bawston accents!

“The Departed” is a wholly enjoyable movie that has to be seen to be believed. Every cinematic element is spot on. The story is exciting and works like a thriller, but it’s so much more. It’s a superbly entertaining piece of art. This is a great example of a film, a collection of sounds and images that are put together expertly to create a thoroughly pleasing experience. This is filmmaking at its best. GRADE: A

Friday, October 06, 2006

Red State Horrors: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” is Delightfully Depraved

If you have no intention of seeing this gloriously disgusting and repugnantly sadistic exercise in masochistic horrors stop reading right now. There’s nothing I’m going to say to help convince the slightest non-horror fan to see the latest Leatherface flick to hit the multiplex. If you’re interested in how a person could find such disgustingly graphic violence and cruel images a form of entertainment keep reading. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” is in no way a terrific motion picture. It doesn’t deserve to be mentioned anywhere along the lines of classic cinema. Heck it hardly deserves to be mentioned with trash cinema. But to horror film fans who delight in seeing the make-believe world of bodies being ripped open from end to end, it’s a splendid piece of putrefied celluloid that is dank, dark, depressing and wholly enjoyable to anyone who gets a thrill by seeing blood being spilled and splattered.

There’s nothing I can really say to anyone to even convince them this is a “good” movie. Even the word “entertaining” is pushing it, because I’m sure many think a person would have to be Jeffrey Dahmer to enjoy such movies. The odd thing is there are many “normal” folks out there who are nice, decent and wholly moral human beings who enjoy watching movies that scare them, sicken them or make them feel like they’ve been punched in the gut. Yeah I’m sure normal’s the word.

So yes, I am one of those people. I enjoy a good kill on screen and it doesn’t have to be particularly scary. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be particularly gory. But it has to be one or the other. While some delight in seeing wizards conjure magic, and lovers bathing in the warm summer sun, and spaceships battling it out in a galaxy far, far away, I’m one of those people who would rather see a teenager get a chainsaw to the gut. Speaking of chainsaws, “The Beginning” actually lives up to its red state influenced title. This is a chainsaw massacre if there ever was one.

Director Jonathan Liebesman begins screenwriter Sheldon Turner’s story of “The Beginning” with the birth, quite literally, of our favorite chainsaw-wielding maniac. Leatherface fans get to see him at work in the slaughterhouse and make his first human skin mask. We get to see how his uncle’s legs were removed and how his deranged surrogate father (an always menacing R. Lee Ermey) became the dying town’s “sheriff.” These cannibals are deranged beyond belief (I guess you’d have to be if you were a cannibal). And into the story comes two attractive couples (the two guys are about to be sent off to Vietnam) who likely won’t have their good looks for long. A traffic accident sets up the rest of the film’s ‘story” and then we get scene after scene of escape, capture and kill. And let’s not forget the car that won’t start and characters asking each other if they’re ok when they been bear-trapped and skinned alive. And why won’t lead Jordana Brewster just get the hell out of there when she has the chance. Did I mention the gruesome scenes of sadism???

I am not recommending this movie for anyone except those who enjoy watching gory thrillers. This movie is sick and repulsive and I was amazed at how it achieved an R rating (Although I’m not actually too shocked). I jumped, I winced, I vocalized, “yeah that’s gross” and I found myself enjoying the entire ride (Even more than the 2003 remake). Do yourself a favor, grab a barfbag, watch this brutal flick and go out for an extra rare steak dinner afterwards. Wow, I never realized how repulsive I am. GRADE: B

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Unwatchables: “The Black Dahlia” Fails to Conjure Any Excitement

If you ever thought that Brian De Palma’s films Mission: Impossible and The Black Dahlia would have nothing in common you’re wrong: they are both utterly confusing. Yet, Mission: Impossible achieved something that The Black Dahlia never even comes close to: being a gripping, thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. How could the stylish De Palma turn the true story of the most notoriously infamous unsolved murder in California (based on the book by James Ellroy) into a dreadfully uninteresting bore of a film? While I still believe Mission: Impossible to be one of the most entertainingly confusing films of all time (even after repeated viewings and endless explanations from friends) The Black Dahlia is just a bewildering mess. One of the biggest mysteries is how the film could have turned out to be such a dog.

Should we star with the cast? I refuse to ever believe that Josh Hartnett could or ever would be any kind of detective/cop/investigator. End of story. Aaron Eckhart who was smashing earlier this year in the subversive Thank You For Smoking, just simply looks embarrassed here. Two-time Oscar winner Hillary Swank reverts back to her days of doing 90210 and The Next Karate Kid with a humiliating performance as an accented femme fatale. And Scarlet Johansson gains no acting skills whatsoever here as Eckhart’s blonde wife. The film tries to act like its taking place in the 1940s but unfortunately none of these actors are capable of being associated with the time period (the only ones who succeed are the costumers and set designers). What is supposed to be the acting style of long ago just turns into plain old bad acting. Annoying.

And the story is so convoluted and overly complicated that it borders on tedium. I was interested in this film because of the fascinating story of the murder of the Black Dahlia. I figured this would be an exciting, suspenseful thriller with a noir style. I was wrong. The murder case that gives the film it’s title seems to be just a simple subplot as Hartnett and Eckhart seem to be more interested in busting drug dealers and other lowlifes. So many characters are introduced I had to keep asking myself “Who’s that, pay attention, stay focused!” Understanding movies shouldn’t be this hard. I enjoy complicated movies, but instead of being intelligently made, the film is just an unsuccessful mishmash of characterizations with some smooching and gore thrown in for good measure.

The Black Dahlia is a wholly unsatisfying time at the cinema. A story that should have been captivating from the first frame is monotonous, forgettable and at points laughable. The film isn't without its technical merrits. Check out that crane shot when the murder victim is finally introducted, but by that point I was ready to go home. De Palma is a gifted director (see Dressed to Kill or Body Double if you actually want a thrill, heck I’d even take the overrated Carrie any day of the week over this) who just simply stumbles here. It’s obvious that he had a good sense of the kind of film he wanted to make, but I guess all the stars weren’t aligned. GRADE: D+

Saturday, September 09, 2006

School Daze: Ryan Gosling Mesmerizes in “Half Nelson”

“Half Nelson” is simply and foremost a tour de force of acting. This is a rare movie in which aspiring performers can actually study the film and learn more in 2 hours than in any acting class. The film highlights a surprising performance from Ryan Gosling of The Notebook fame, as an inner city middle school teacher who leads a double life as basketball coach and drug addict. Shareeka Epps plays a young student who has perhaps a stronger affect on Gosling than anything he sticks up his nose. This is a film about a relationship between teacher and student, rescuer and rescuee. The filmmakers, including first time directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden achieve a greatness that is immeasurable. They completely draw you in to this world.

Finally a film about drug use that isn’t simply just style over substance. Yes there are the quick cuts and the jerky camera movements, but that just goes with the territory. There is a lot more going on here that camera tricks. The filmmakers take a serious approach to the subject matter and advocate realism over fantasy. A film that comes quickly to mind is “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” in which a young Diane Keaton portrayed a teacher who spent her nights bar hoping and doing drugs and the film ends in a disgusting, manipulative way that caused the entire film to fail. Here, while I wont spoil how it ends, we’re presented with a scenario that seems all too real and finds a natural way for things to flow and an ending that fits the story extremely well.

As Mr. Dunne, gosling is simple sensational. Perhaps he should start writing his Oscar acceptance speech. No, no yes it’s too early to pick the winner, but he brings something so great to his performance that it just seems like he’s not doing anything special at all. He’s just there and we’re amazed by what he does. As the young Drey, Epps is also an astonishment. What we usually have in teacher/student relationship movies (think Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester) is that the teacher takes his student under his wing and guides him. This film brilliant flips that tired formula around. Perhaps the teacher is in need of guidance. To say anything else would spoil this terrific and moving film.

As clichéd as it sounds, Half Nelson is a tour de force of radiant dramatic filmmaking. It’s a film, I hope as small as it is, will be able to make a large impression. Whether it wins any awards or not, it deserves to be seen by anyone who even has a slight interest in watching poignant films. GRADE: A-

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Bite Club: “Snakes on a Plane” Unabashedly Flies Bad Movies to New Heights

If you recall my review of “Little Miss Sunshine” from last week, you’ll remember that I mentioned, “There simply isn’t a more entertaining time at the movies. All with your brain in full functioning mode.” Well if you’re desiring a movie just as entertaining, but without the need of a brain “Snakes on the Plane” delivers the corny goods. This is the 70s-esque disaster epic Irwin Allen would of come back from the grave to make. May he rest in peace in that swarm-filled upsidedown towering inferno in the sky. “Snakes on a Plane,” the film that became an internet phenomenon nearly a year before it’s theatrical release, is a combination of so bad it’s good movie and cheesey entertainment thriller. This is a movie that almost seems like more of a tribute to the mock-filled spoof “Airplane!” than to the wonderfully horrible diaster flicks that inspired it. This is a film filled with lines of dialouge destined to become classic and moments guaranteed to make you glad you paid for your admission. Turn you’re brain off and enjoy the fun.

Do I really need to explain the plot to you? The title obviously says it all. It’s about snakes on a plane. (A mob boss releases the snakes midflight to kill a witness, you’d think a gun shot would do the trick, but alas there’s be no movie!) And the picture nearly isn’t as disasterious a motion picture as you’d think it would be. Yes it’s corny, cliched and over the top. But at the same time there’s an almost underlying homage to everything we love about going to the movies. The movie KNOWS that we go to the movies to have an experience. Its sole purpose is to entertain, to take you into a world where you completely believe that a terror filled airpline ride filled with venoumous, slithering reptiles could actually happen. “Snakes on a Plane” is pure mindless entertainment and we’re all the better for it. But it accomplishes something no other film in history has. It has become a midnight cult film before anyone had ever even seen it.

I was lucky enough to catch a latenight showing of the trashy cult favorite “Showgirls.” I was amazed at the response the audience had: reciting lines of dialouge, shouting out at the screen, and appluading and laughing at all the precise moments. I found nearly the same reaction during opening night of “Snakes on a Plane.” It’s as if everyone had already seen it and remembered every horrible line of dialouge that ranged from “OK let’s go get these people their air” and the now infamous Samuel L. Jackson quip “I’ve had it with these mother%#$&*!@ snakes on this mother%#$&*!@ plane!” “Snakes on a Plane” isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience. And the audience isn’t the only one who knows it. The cast does a great job at acknowledging that they’re in a movie called “Snakes on a Plane.” We get to have just as much fun as they do. And no one has more fun than ER vet Julianna Margulies wielding an axe.

However, beneath the cult following and the “audience participation” which started way back with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” there is still a fun, kind of shocking and at times grotesque movie (there are plenty of actual jump scares and disgusting make-up jobs) that is just a barrel of fun. Yes there are parts that are too easy to make fun of and there are so many things we’ve seen countless times before, but it all works completely in its favor. A question remains as to whether the film would be as popular had it not been for its title. Perhaps, but the film would still be the same whether it was called “Snakes on a Plane” or the boring “Pacific Flight 121.”

When a film has the courage to both acknowledge it’s cheesiness and offer you seconds as well, that is a true motion picture experience. This is a film that you not only watch but you live it. Perhaps nothing like this will occur again and my guess is there won’t be a “More Snakes on a Plane” but if there is, I’ll be the first in line, with a rubber snake around my neck. GRADE: A-

Friday, August 11, 2006

“Little Miss Sunshine” Puts the Fun in Dysfunctional Family

“Little Miss Sunshine” achieves an amazing feat. It recycles just about everything you’ve ever seen in various other movies and turns everything inside out to make a completely fresh, smart and most importantly entertaining dysfunctional family comedy-drama. We’ve got the fighting parents, the misunderstood teen, the overachieving youngest daughter, the weirdo uncle, and the crotchety old fogy. Add in a road trip in which everything that could go wrong does and you’ve got the latest indie to break out of Sundance, “Little Miss Sunshine.” It’s a wildly entertaining and well-made romp about life that has funny, interesting characters and enough dramatic wit to please those who enjoyed the wine allegories in the overrated “Sideways.” Think “National Lampoon’s Vacation” meets “American Beauty” filtered through “Happiness” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” This is perhaps the wittiest, funniest, most dramatic film to come out in awhile. It if were December we’d be talking Oscar buzz.

This is a movie I want to recommend to everyone who even remotely loves movies. Like I said before it has parts that we’ve come to see before in other movies. But for some reason here they just make perfect sense and seem like we’ve seen them for the first time. Greg Kinnear and Toni colliete both portray Richard and Sheryl. Richard is having some problems at work and it’s looking like his providing for the family is looking glum. Sheryl is the typical matriarch: tired of being the matriarch. They have a teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) who is at that awkward “I’m in silent protest mode” stage. Richard’s father credited as Grandpa is Alan Arkin a sex-perv granddad we all wish we had. Frank (Steve Carell) is Sheryl’s manic-depressive brother. She has just picked him up from the institute in which he was committed after a failed suicide attempt. Are they dysfunctional yet? And last we have little 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) who just wants to be crowned Little Miss Sunshine.

Due to a technicality (something to due with diet pills) young Abigail who was runner-up in the regional Little Miss Sunshine pageant now gets to compete in the finals out in California. Cue the family getting into their Volkswagen van to start the road trips to end all road trips. Many things come out of this voyage. Yes it’s a voyage for little Abigail to compete in her beauty pageant, but this is an independent movie remember, so there’s more than one literal voyage. This is a voyage to the heart of this family, if there is one; I believe there is which is obvious in one of the last scenes in which the family gets together and…oh why spoil what really happens? There are plenty of oblivious mishaps along the way, but they are extremely humorous and extremely emotional.

This is a family on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Hmm interesting I wonder if their car will breakdown as well? Writer Michael Arndt has an exceptional idea of what has been done before and twisting things around so they feel fresh. Note how the family’s van’s stick shift needs to be replaced. It’s a VW so obviously the part will take forever to get. The family must push their van every time they want it to get going. Each time this happens it seems funnier that the last time we saw them do it. Arndt has this amazing ability to write scenes that are alternatively hysterical and dramatic within lines of dialogue (lines too good to ruin here). One very emotional scene, in which something rather sad occurs (don’t worry I won’t tell you what happens), before you know it, your tears of sadness suddenly become tears of laughter. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris add greatly to the already terrific screenplay. They make the most out of their frame. They are fantastic add emotional and comical weight to each scene.

Everything in “Little Miss Sunshine” is top-notch. The actors are great and the filmmakers are great. The lines are funny and have emotional credibility. Moments will make you cry and moments will make you laugh. There simply isn’t a more entertaining time at the movies. All with your brain in full functioning mode. Now that’s amazing. GRADE: A