Friday, March 31, 2006

Match Game: “Thank You For Smoking” Cast Lights Up the Screen

If we can’t laugh at people who die from smoking cigarettes who can we laugh at? Just about the entire civilized world knows that smoking cigarettes isn’t the healthiest way to live. Neither is eating fatty foods. Or staring at the TV for ten hours a day. And how about binge drinking every weekend? Most of us are smart enough to know the dangers we put upon our bodies but is it really anything to laugh about? Of course! That is the feeling you get from watching the morally charged film Thank You for Smoking. The film’s hero is a lobbyist who speaks on behalf of cigarettes. He wants everyone to smoke. Even you. For everyone that doesn’t smoke he is out one customer and for every smoker that dies, he’s out one more.

A film that deals with such a hot health topic is sure to set off alarms for some people. How can a film’s main character endorse such an addictive, unhealthy habit? As Nick Naylor, played with warm zest by Aaron Eckhart, a spokesman for cigarettes, he sees such items as just a product. He wants to sell them and he wants to make money. His real goal however isn’t really just to sell these tobacco products, but to convince others that they aren’t as dangerous as they seem. So what we have here is a battle of wits. He doesn’t have to prove that his side of this health issue is right; he just has to prove the other side is wrong. This is a lesson that he teaches his young son, who ends up winning his school’s debating championship. I guess live with a lobbyist and reap all the benefits.

Nick much match wits with his main adversary Senator Finistirre (an always wonderful William H. Macy) who is hot on a campaign to attach a skull & cross bones logo on every cigarette package as a warning that these tobacco products are just as poisonous as anything found underneath your kitchen sink. Of course Mr. Naylor isn’t too worried because his wildly cool confidence can win over just about anyone. On a talk show with Joan London that opens the film, Nick wins the heart of the audience by proving he wants a sick boy dying of cancer to live, if only so he can keep on smoking. Nick also spends once a week with the “Merchants of Death” his friends (David Koechner & Maria Bello) who speak on behalf of guns and alcohol. Their conversations are witty, sly and downright funny. Here we are at the end of March and we’re already skewering America’s health crisis. I guess 2005 couldn’t hold all of those political charged films.

As written and directed by filmmaker Ivan Reitman’s son Jason, the film has a biting sense of humor and knows exactly what it wants to do. But as the film’s only real quibble I felt its bite wasn’t as big as its bark. While the satire thankfully doesn’t go over the edge, it really doesn’t reach it either. Scenes like the one that opens the film and with the Merchants of Death are strong, but when Nick comes up with an idea to implant cigarettes into the hands of sexy Hollywood stars in the movies it never goes as far as I would have liked.

The entire cast, from Katie Holms as a sneaky reporter who’s screwed over in more ways than one, to a brief appearance by The OC’s Adam Brody, is sensational. They all appear to be having a great time. We have a slick satire that is wholly enjoyable and filled with smart laughs. If this is only a preview of what’s to come for the rest of 2006, I can’t wait. GRADE: B+

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Heist Anxiety: Spike Lee’s Joint “Inside Man” Has its Moments

What are typical elements of a hostage movie? Masked robbers? A bank vault full of unmarked bills? That one hostage who makes a stupid move because he feels he can save the day? What about the negotiator that runs the outside world and speaks to the robber via direct phone line? How about the demanding of a jetliner as getaway? Sure these are in just about every hostage movie. Some of these appear in Spike Lee’s new “joint” entitled Inside Man and others don’t. There are good things about the movie and there are quibbles. The good things outnumber the quibbles. Let’s examine things more closely.

The film opens with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen), addressing us, the audience. I gather we are going to be good friends. When we learn later in the movie that Mr. Owen is the man behind a white mask who just took an upscale New York City bank hostage, perhaps we’re on his side. Dalton and his buddies are scary and intimidating and they certainly mean business. This scene of them taking over the bank is rather suspenseful. This film must but serious right? Soon however, we learn that Dalton Russell is more like Danny Ocean in Ocean’s 11, cool and in charge. He’s a bad guy we’re supposed to like. So if we’re supposed to like him? Who are we supposed to dislike?

Enter two mysterious figures: Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) as the owner of the entire bank chain & Madeline White (a fabulously pointy and stern Jodie Foster) as the inside woman if you will who knows high people in sketchy places. We learn that old fogy Arthur perhaps has something to hide in the bank that is being robbed and he enlists Madeline’s help. Perhaps this a major plot point or perhaps it’s just a red herring, but it’s a mystery nonetheless. I guess this is isn’t your typical hostage movie.

Then we have Denzel Washington as Detective Keith Frazier the hostage negotiator who wants to know exactly what the robbers want. And it doesn’t seem like they just want cold hard cash. When Det. Frazier isn’t trying to figure out what’s going on inside the bank in the present, he spends the future in soft, colorless scenes interrogating the hostages, some of who may or may not have been the robbers. So apparently the robbers get away? There goes the suspense. But not entirely.

While the beginning of the film when the robbers enter the bank is suspenseful, what’s really intriguing is what Arthur wants. Is he in on it? What does he have to hide? And of course, how much do we as an audience love seeing Jodie Foster playing wildly against type?

Remember I mentioned that this was a Spike Lee joint. So how much does the outspoken, mostly independent director put his own spin on the bank robbery situation? He uses cool camera tricks and adds his own racial tension flair to decent use. A cop mistaking a hostage for an Arab is funny in this post 9/11 world. Unfortunately, we don’t get the moral situations that were so present in say Do the Right Thing. And he certainly doesn’t offend like many found in his under appreciated Bamboozled. This isn’t a film about the ethical & racial implications of bank robbery, but it is a fun, entertaining two hours. I could think of worse ways to spend a dog day afternoon. GRADE: B-

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Family Matters: "The Hills Have Eyes" Remake is Brutally Inconsistent

Spring is in the air and death is at the multiplex. When it comes to today’s scary movies there have been plenty of examples of “the more you show the less scary it is” (let’s say The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake?) and there have been examples of “the less you show the scarier it is” (how about The Blair Witch Project?) Both of these films were in the horror genre, yet were very different movies. I believe Chainsaw’s attempt was to disgust just about everyone while Blair Witch just wanted to scare everyone’s pants off. The Hills Have Eyes wants to do both and it’s bloodily frustrating.

First off I appreciate the filmmakers’ (the makers of the no holds barred High Tension) attempt to go all out. You can’t remake Wes Craven’s disturbing cult film from 1977 and hold back. That film has some extremely unsettling sequences and to retrain in a remake would be silly. The Hills Have Eyes definitely doesn’t follow the likes of the PG-13 rated When a Stranger Calls or The Fog in an attempt to get 12 year olds in the theater. (Although there was a 5 year old joined by his family when I saw the movie) This new film is violent, bloody and just wants to mess with your mind. However, I can’t say it is completely successful. But of course this IS just a horror film.

The plot is thankfully simple: a typical American family traveling cross country gets lost in the middle of desert only to be stuck in the middle of a government nuclear test site which is inhabited by a society of cannibalistic humanoids. In most cases horror films with simple plots, that don’t take place over a long period of time are definitely more “believable.” For instance, in the days that pass during the Final Destination films do you really believe that the characters would really spend all that time yelling at each other trying to figure out how to cheat death’s clutches? Of course the family in this film takes some bogus advice from a local nut job with three teeth and ends up stranded in the middle of nowhere. At least they have a full camper with food, drinks and lawn chairs.

Before we know it the crazy, mutant locals are terrorizing the father, the mother, the son, the two daughters, the son-in-law, the grandbaby, and the two dogs. There are plenty of people to kill off, which the film takes its time doing (of course one of the dogs dies first, don’t they always?). You think the film is going to go the Blair Witch route and just keep us in suspense but then BAM, we get a completely messed up scene in which one of the daughters is raped while the other cannibal helps himself to the other daughter, her head nearly gets blown off and the mother gets to witness this before being shot in the stomach. This scene in the original film is bleak, intense and incredibly upsetting. The disturbing quotient in the remake is also up there. These aren’t your typical horny teenager slashings. This is a family unit being brutally tortured.

In a sick way this scene is the high point of the movie. The rest of the film goes downhill from there. You sense from the disturbing sense of the previous scene that the rest of the film will be just as grotesque and disturbing, but ultimately isn’t. The Democratic son-in-law must search out these monsters and kill them off in typical slasher style in attempt to rescue his baby which the killers have kidnapped. Back at the campsite the surviving daughter and teenage son mourn the dead and prepare for the cannibals’ return. There are typical shocks and jumps throughout the film but nothing that really hasn’t been done to death before. Of course there is plenty of blood, which is always an added bonus. The gore isn't really all that disturbing, just excessive.

Wait? Why did I mention the son-in-law was a Democrat? Because the film, in a not so subtle way, wants to shove down the audience’s throat the political dynamics of the these two types of families: your average Middle American suburban Republicans and then the cannibalistic kind. And because the government went all nuclear on these people they turned into human flesh-eating Star Wars creatures that elicit chuckles when they should be scary. So its the American nuclear family vs. the ACTUALLY nuclear family. Get it? People are stabbed with American flags. The son-in-law totes a baseball bat (baseball is of course an American pastime) and wouldn’t you know the cannibal family has its own left-wing activist who wants to save the baby. The original film did this much more subtlety and more successfully, but perhaps that’s because modern audiences won’t understand the allegories unless it’s painfully obvious.

I’m sure you could sit there and analyze the film to death (ha!), but in so doing you also realize the film’s ultimate flaws. But when a horror flick has enough gore to fill an entire Friday the 13th franchise, who’s really complaining? GRADE: B-

The Man Show: Felicity Huffman is Not Your Average Housewife in "Transamerica"

Transamerica could have been a gimmick movie. Let’s see, a woman pretending to be a man who wants to be a woman. A one-note idea has been spun into a wildly entertaining dramedy about family dynamics and the courage to be who you are. The film seems to have ingredients of many other movies cooked together to make one generous helping of movie goodness. What we have here is a road movie. Place two people in a car traveling across America with plenty of comical and dramatic mishaps along the way. What we have here is a gender issue drama. A man throughout his whole life has always felt like a woman and decides to take the final steps to become the person he always knew he should be. What we have here is a buddy movie. Place two mismatched individuals in an inescapable situation and see what happens. Transamerica is the brilliant story of a man-to-woman transgender individual who just before his final surgery discovers he has fathered a son out of wedlock. Wow, I wonder if this film will ever play at the White House?

Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman is wonderful and surprisingly well cast as a man in final metamorphosis into a woman. As Stanley, or Bree the female counterpart, Huffman embodies the character with every quirky step, flick of the hair and line of eccentric dialogue. As Bree’s troubled teenage son Toby, Kevin Zegers is also exceptional. (He was that kid from the Air Bud movies). Just days before her final surgery, Bree gets a call from a New York correctional facility from her alleged son. She flies out there and pretends to be a Christian missionary assigned to make sure the young man gets on his own two feet. Toby hopes to move out to LA and become an actor… in adult films. Easy money, exciting career choice apparently? They decide to drive so that Bree can sell the car they’re driving when they finally arrive back in California. She hopes to leave Toby in the care of his stepfather or any other parental figure.

Boy is Bree in the pickle of all pickles. Young Toby has no clue Bree is really a man, although he senses something “different” about her, as most people do. And not only that but Bree is Toby’s father. That certainly would put a slight kink in any type of father-son relationship right? Bree and Toby’s traveling adventures unfold in fun, quirky vignettes. This mismatched pair is pretty uptight with each other. For instance, Bree explains to Toby why he should put his seatbelt on. She doesn’t want to see his insides splattered on the dashboard in the unlikely event of an accident. Bree knows she has to be quick, and sharp with the young man. After all, the kid does drugs, sells himself to grungy middle-aged men, and has a mother who committed suicide. Both Toby and Bree have secrets and it’s a wonder watching everything unfold before us.

The film is at times serious and at times hysterically funny. The situations these characters find themselves in are believable, but it is their sometimes unbelievable oddities that speak so much. A quick dip in a waterhole with a hitchhiker proves unsettlingly authentic and uncontrollably comical. The film works so well because of the underlying way that it is driving towards the various “what’s going to happen next” scenarios. The characters find themselves interacting with characters that I found reminiscent of Alexander Payne’s films. The movie has air of About Schmidt with a wonderful gender bender twist. The film is at times lightly humorous and then at times seriously dramatic which surprising works. You never feel that the filmmaker (fairly new Duncan Tucker) is tugging you in the wrong direction at the wrong time.

The film is fun, poignant and can surprisingly play well to a wide audience. Perhaps it is because Bree is ultimately played by a real woman so that it’s easy for a general audience to root for her. Perhaps a man in the role would have been slightly awkward. Huffman’s performance is a force of nature. This is a prime example of great storytelling that doesn’t need to be based on a true story. These characters are real people. You can't get any truer than that. GRADE: A

Friday, March 03, 2006

UPDATE: Oscar Forecast: Brokeback with a Slight Chance of Crash

UPDATE:Well the evening started off predictably enough. George Clooney? Check. Rachel Weisz? Check. Of course things turned completely topsy turvy when Jack Nicholson read the best picture winner: CRASH. Even he couldn't believe it. The screams echoed throughout the auditorium and my house as if the Red Sox had won the World Series again. Pure pandemonium. So I was most definitely sure that Brokeback Mountain was going to take the top prize and low and behold another film crashed its planned victory. As I mentioned in my forecast, if any film were to beat Brokeback I'm awfully glad it was Crash. It deserves it. Of course the biggest surprise of the night for me? I incorrectly predicted the Best Picture of the Year... but managed to get Best Live Action Short. Go figure. And just for funsies: My Total Score: 19/24 Entertainment Weekly's Total Score: 16/24.... paging EW's human resource dept....

Will Academy voters take the expected trip to "Brokeback Mountain?" Does "Capote" have a chance to "Crash" the party? And I must bid "Good Night, and Good Luck" to "Munich" because this year it’s “an honor just to be nominated.” If you’ve read ANYBODY’S Oscar predictions they are most likely right on the money. This year pre-Oscar awards and the buzz has done a good job of steering those who want to know the outcome of the Academy’s voting in the right direction. Having seen just about all the of the nominees I have decided to cast my own vote for who I think will win and who I think should win. Here we go:

Best Picture:
Will Win:
Brokeback Mountain. You’d have to be living under a rock below the basement of the Republican Party National Headquarters to not know that Brokeback Mountain is most definitely going to take home the night’s biggest prize. Crash is the only film that could take away Brokeback Mountain’s glory, however the chances of that happening are slim to none. (But strange things can happen right Shakespeare in Love?) It would be the biggest surprise since The Pianist’s shocking trifecta win (Director, Actor, Screenplay).
Should Win: Brokeback Mountain is definitely most deserving of the award, but so are the other nominees. (If Crash were to win, it would certainly be just as fitting as Brokeback)However, my personal vote would go to Munich, which I gave the top spot on my Best Films of 2005 List.

Best Actress:
Will Win:
Reese Witherspoon. Many have said this is the weakest selection of nominees in some time. However, there are some terrific performances here. On Sunday night it will come down to Felicity Huffman as a woman playing a man who wants to be a woman in Transamerica and Reese Witherspoon as singer June Carter in Walk the Line. Having not seen Transamerica, what I’ve heard is Ms. Huffman is extraordinary. But the actress that really stands out in this category is Ms. Witherspoon. The Academy loves giving this award to young, aspiring beautiful actresses (i.e., Halle Berry, Gwenyth Paltrow, Hilary Swank, Julia Roberts, and Charlize Theron just to name a few) which means Judi Dench will definitely have to sit this one out. It’ll be Reese’s night.
Should Win: I’m partial to Reese Witherspoon because I love Walk the Line and have not even seen Transamerica. Reese is a great actress and her charm radiated whenever she was on screen. She deserves it.

Best Actor:
Will Win:
Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is a tough category for everyone in the running. This is an exceptional year for leading male performances. Everyone is deserving. Hoffman’s part is the most showy and he doesn’t just imitate author Truman Capote he becomes him. Although those who won’t vote for him will most likely vote for Heath Ledger who don't see this young actor's performance as a gimmicky parlor trick, but as a raw, emotional performance which exudes acting excellence. Having said that…
Should Win: Heath Ledger is definitely the one to look out for, because he has been just mediocre before in very mediocre movies. His performance in Brokeback Mountain as a conflicted gay ranch hand has won accolades from critics and audiences alike.

Best Director
Will Win:
Ang Lee. He has been snubbed before and won’t be again come Oscar night. He made Brokeback Mountain palatable to mainstream tastes. It’s an issue film with out really being an issue film and most importantly is a very entertaining film. Having said that…
Should Win: Ang Lee! Steven Spielberg is one of my favorite directors and since he already has won this award twice I’m willing to share the wealth. Besides he was snubbed for directing War of the Worlds this year! Ok maybe snubbed isn’t the right word.

Best Supporting Actress:
Will Win:
Rachel Weisz. I have to go with her simply because she has the most buzz and has collected the most awards. This is of course, one of the hardest categories to call. Many upsets have happened here in the past. Remember when Marcia Gay Harden won for Pollack? NO ONE saw that coming. Many believe votes will be split between her and Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain. Which of course leaves a surprise nominee available to snag the prize. Having said that…
Should Win: Amy Adams. I wasn’t all that impressed with Ms. Weisz in The Constant Gardener. She’s the heart of the film yes, but Amy Adams is also the heart of her film Junebug. A wickedly fun independent film, Adams plays a naïve, pregnant Southern woman who wants to name her child Junebug! Her performance is wonderful because she makes you laugh and shows great vulnerable emotion as well. The Academy loves funny supporting ladies. Remember Marisa Tomei and Mira Sorvino? My vote is for Amy.

Best Supporting Actor:
Will Win:
George Clooney. Clooney is nearly a lock because he has come such a long way since guest starring on an episode of The Golden Girls. (Although everyone seems to remember him on The Facts of Life) With three nominations this year, the Academy obviously WANTS to reward him, and this is where they are most likely to do it. Paul Giamatti is the most possible upset, after his previous “snubs.” If he were to take the gold it would simply be a sympathy win. Of course watch out for dark horse Matt Dillon. Speaking of which…
Should Win: Matt Dillon. Mr. Dillon has come a long way since his teen years and as Crash’s solo acting nominee, his performance provides that film’s greatest dramatic arch.

Other Predictions:

Best Original Screenplay: Crash

Best Adapted Screenplay: Brokeback Mountain

Best Cinematography: Brokeback Mountain, or could Geisha prove too beautiful to ignore?

Best Editing: Crash

Best Art Direction: Memoirs of a Geisha

Best Costume Design: Memoirs of a Geisha

Best Original Score: Brokeback Mountain, or could John Williams win his 6th Oscar for Geisha?

Best Original Song: Crash ("In the Deep") or could it be a pimped out night for Hustle & Flow?

Best Makeup: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Best Sound: King Kong, watch for a possible Walk the Line upset

Best Sound Editing: King Kong, although the aliens in War of the Worlds sounded scarier

Best Visual Effects: King Kong, but I did hear that lion looked awfully realistic in Narnia

Best Animated Feature Film: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Best Foreign Language Film: Tsotsi

Best Documentary Feature: March of the Penguins, but could Murderball kill the Penguins?

Best Documentary Short Subject: God Sleeps in Rwanda; A Note of Triumph

Best Animated Short: 9; The Moon & the Sun

Best Live Action Short: Six Shooter