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