Saturday, November 24, 2007

Royal Flushed: Amy Adams Brings Animation to Life in “Enchanted”

“Enchanted” is a delightful ode to the animated fairy tales everyone grew up watching. Everything from Snow White to Cinderella is referenced in subtle and not so subtle ways. In fact the film even features traditional cel animation for that old school vintage vibe. Giselle is a lonely girl who is rescued by a prince and they are soon to be married after meeting only once. Problem is, his wicked stepmother has banished her to a place where happy endings don’t exist: the live action world of modern day New York City. Each animated character has a human being counterpart and Amy Adams simply shines as the woman destined to find her prince and live happily ever after.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat. If you think you’re too old for this movie, get your head examined! This is a movie than can play to any age and either sex. Kids will love the kiddie stuff and grown ups will love everything else. In fact while this is a movie the whole family can enjoy, it’s really made with adults in mind. I mean, who else would spot all those classic Disney references?

Speaking of which, how many could you count? Look, there’s the woman who voiced Ariel as a secretary. I think I hear Under the Sea in the background of one scene involving a fish tank. Was that Pumba I spotted amongst other animated woodland creatures? Cute and cuddly animal sidekick? Check. Poison apples? Of course. Glass slipper left behind? You bet. Not to mentions countless other fairy tale references. It’s like a cinematic Where’s Waldo. Director Kevin Lima, who also directed Disney’s “Tarzan,” fills every frame with something remarkable to see. And it’s really astounding to see how amazingly clever Bill Kelly’s script really is. He’s obviously spent some time reading up on Disney clichés; one of my favorites being the princess who calls all her animal friends and uses her buddies to clean up any mess in sight during a catchy dance number. And it’s no until you see some of these situations acted out with live people that you realize how ludicrous fairy tales really are when compared to real life.

What’s so lovable here are the actors who fully embrace their characters. Giselle is a grown-up girl who loves to sing and prance her way through life. And Amy Adams (who was Oscar nominated for “Junebug”) plays her with such a terrific naivety you simply want to reach into the screen and knock some modern day sense into her. She fully embodies every twitch and innocent gesture with full force as if it was going to be her very last screen appearance. And heck if Julie Andrews could win an Academy Award for “Mary Poppins” why couldn’t Adams win for this? The film is simply radiant every second she’s on screen. When Giselle comes across a little person in a suit she automatically assumes it’s one of the Seven Dwarfs. A large billboard for the “Palace Casino” features a larger than life picture of a magical castle and she therefore assumes it’s home. Amy Adams perfectly captures her animated counterpart. Every moment is rendered perfectly. You really believe she walked out of cartoon-land and into the hectic world of New York City.

Giselle runs across divorce lawyer and single dad Robert (Grey’s Anatomy’s Patrick Dempsey) and his six-year-old daughter who are pretty much the only two friendly people in the entire city. The child is happy to come across a real life princess and insists that she stay as if Giselle were a lost puppy. Because she’s never head of women’s lib, Giselle is convinced her Prince Edward (James Marsden) will come and find her. And he does, sort off. Marsden spends the entire film in ridiculous purple coiffed attire that clashes terrifically with the city. He spends his time slaying buses; trying desperately to find his true love, through song if necessary. Of course Edward’s evil stepmother (played by Susan Sarandon) is hot on his trail along with her silly goon Nathaniel (Timothy Spall). Pip, the cute chipmunk sidekick, rendered here in expressive CGI, discovers his species cannot talk in NYC. Welcome to the real world, my friend.

The actors do such a great job of bringing their animated characters to life that you kind of forget how cookie cutter the plot really is. It’s a fish out of water tale (that kind of reminded me of the Tom Hanks movie "Splash") with a storybook ending but it’s told with such passion to keep the audience interested, laughing and surprised that we don’t mind the little contrivances here and there. You know who’s going to end up with who and that everyone will live happily ever after, but the journey is so much fun and the songs are so catchy (thanks to Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz) that it’s impossible not to fall head over heels in love with this enchanting movie. GRADE: A-

Friday, November 23, 2007

What About Bob? “I’m Not There” is a Surrealistic But Disappointing Portrait of Bob Dylan

“You’re kidding me right? I…I…I can’t watch this.” Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There

It’s not a new thing to see various actors play the same role. I mean seriously, how many guys have played Batman over the years? You can argue about who did the best job and who brought what to each role. But very few times have different actors played the same role in the same film. The most recent in my memory is Todd Solondz’s wickedly subversive tale “Palindromes” in which seven actors of different races, sexes and sizes played a young girl who just wants to have a baby. He used this gimmick in a fascinating way without forgetting that the ultimate point of a film is to entertain; message or no message. While there’s no doubt in my mind that director Todd Haynes is a talented artist, I’m not sure he can really make film that draws you in and makes you forget that you’ve been sitting in a seat for over two hours watching a screen.

Hayne’s film “I’m Not There” is supposed to be a surreal look at the many lives and personalities of singer Bob Dylan. He’s been such an iconic and bizarre pop culture phenomenon that it’s not surprising a filmmaker would want to take a weird look into the artist’s crazy life. Haynes sees Dylan as living 7 different lives and therefore he implores 7 different styles of directing to each of these stories and has 6 different actors play a version of Bob Dylan throughout the film. Each Dylan has his or her own name and each is supposed to represent Dylan in various stages in his life. I do not know too much about him and perhaps that is why I found all of this less than thrilling.

See this film if you are a really, really, REALLY big fan of Bob Dylan or if you can stand over two hours of surrealist, visually striking but ultimately mind-numbing images that don’t really gel into an enjoyable story. I actually enjoy Cate Blanchett so I was really drawn to the film because she plays an androgynous version of Dylan named ‘Jude.’ Jude is at the point in Dylan’s career when he decided not become a political spokesperson and decided to concentrate on the electronic sound of rock n roll. His fans didn’t really like his new sound and they promptly booed him in the film. Believe me, I wanted to join them.

What I really didn’t like about the film was how haphazard it seemed. There’s really no story here so if you go to this film to learn more about Dylan you’d probably be better off reading his Wikipedia page. This film won’t make any new Dylan fans. If you’re expecting Walk the Line, just walk away. I know I may sound like some guy who walked into the wrong film, but I knew this film was going to be strange going in which I don’t mind, but it just seemed incoherent. It flashes a bunch of random images at you that don’t mean anything on the surface and this gets old after awhile. This is a film that would be more fun to dissect in film class rather than to enjoy as a Saturday afternoon getaway.

The film is surrealistic but not interesting. It doesn’t grab you. It’s cold toward its audience and for someone like me it can be a tedious experience. It's made nor a narrow audience and those Dylan fans are more likely to be rewarded. There are things that I admire here. I like the original approach of having different actors playing the different aspects of Dylan’s personality. We get a conglomerate of talented actors who portray the mysterious singer in a variety of ways. We get Christian Bale as folk and born again Dylan, Heath Ledger as celebrity Dylan, Richard Gere, in the most dull sequences, as outlaw Dylan, Marcus Carl Franklin (who is Black and a child) as the train hoppin' youthful Dylan, and Ben Wishaw as the Dylan who doesn’t really get to do much except narrate the film. I was obviously most impressed with Blanchett who is worth seeing and will likely be a best supporting actress nominee. There are other notable actors here and there like Julianne Moore as a Joan Baez-type, David Cross as Allen Ginsberg and a nearly unrecognizable Michelle Williams.

I understand part of the film’s message about the power of celebrity and how famous people are looked at as if they were God-like creations, but most of it really went over my head. I didn’t really grasp the symbolism which was frustrating and I’m sure many people wouldn’t get it on a first viewing. But the thing is, I really don’t want to see this movie again. The film really is a direct reflection of the mystery that is Dylan which I guess in a way makes it successful. It’s obvious Haynes knows Dylan inside and out and I admire that but this isn’t a film that’s easy to enjoy. He seems to have made a feature length music video without making a logical story worth investing time in.

The film's one and a half minute teaser trailer is brilliant. It implores great use of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" which doesn't even appear in the film until the end credits (and can't even be found on the CD soundtrack!) You’re morel like to be entertained by the trailer than the film. If you listen to Dylan songs on repeat or if you can find surrealism entertaining than this is the film for you. This is a movie that is original, stylish, and beautiful and yet I couldn’t really stand it. Nothing is more disappointing than that. GRADE: C-

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Heist Tension: “No Country For Old Men” Has Enough Suspense For Three Movies

Hitchcock may be the “Master of Suspense” but I’ve never really had to watch one of his films through my hands. Psycho is my 5th favorite movie of all time and while it’s genius filmmaking and a terrifically realized movie-going experience, let’s all admit that it doesn’t have the punch it once did. Sure showering still hasn’t been the same and although Norman Bates is an iconic screen villain he doesn’t come close to matching the coolly intensity that Anton Chigurh (played coldly by sure-to-be-nominated Javier Bardem) brings to Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film “No Country For Old Men.” And like Hitchcock, the Coens can take the most mundane places, such as motel rooms, and craft masterfully made scenes of tension.

Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy “No Country” tells the story of lower class man Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) who, while out hunting in the open plains of Texas, happens upon a bag full of money (2 million to be exact), a truck full of drugs, and lots of dead bodies. It was some sort of big drug deal that we never get to see. Being a trail park guy with little moral instincts, he decides to snatch the money up for himself. Little does he know Anton is killing anyone in his way to get to that money. Anton’s weapon of choice is a hydraulic machine that’s used to kill livestock. He walks around these desolate locations so casually as if it were his trusty umbrella. The plot is twisty and fun and the Coens’ script never take a false step along the way. And yes it does have moments of dark humor.

The film is almost constantly searingly intense. It has scenes that literally made me grab my shirt to pull up over my eyes. I twitched in my seat, squirming with both pleasure and agony. My heart pounded. The film actually created a bodily response from me. I nearly ripped the armrest from the seat. It’s so easy to say a movie is a nail-bitter but when a film nearly makes you recoil into the fetal position, that’s potent filmmaking at it’s greatest.

The plot is classic Hitchcock an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. The movie works because of what the audience knows and what the characters don’t know. We know Anton is after Llewelyn but he’s not sure until one of the most suspenseful sequences of recent memory. Lucky for Anton he has a tracking device that beeps when he gets closer to the bag of money. Unfortunately Llewelyn doesn’t realize that a tracker is in the bag. He’s not the smartest character but he’s witty enough to be able to find ways to survive. And added into the mix is the Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who is also on the heels of Anton. It’s just a matter of time before Bell catches up with Anton or Anton catches up with Llewlyn.

You are completely drawn into the story right away and not a since frame is wasted (thank you brilliant cinematography Roger Deakins). And as quickly as the film’s story begins, it just ends. Yes this is one of those movies that just ends. It ends appropriately yet frustratingly at a point with pretty much nothing wrapped up. And that makes sense for a story like this. There can be no happy ending and no closure. You get to see point A to point B. But we purposely don’t get to see point C.

The Coens use music sparingly. In fact, I don’t recall music at all, just the sounds of silence. Silence is the score because nothing a composer could have written could have made the film any more intense. (Although Carter Burwell has some theme good music at the end during the credits.) It’s so good I want to see it again, yet it’s so relentlessly suspenseful I’m too scared to lay my eyes upon it.

This film has scenes that were made just so that they could be put in film textbooks. I don’t know if I’d call this a western although it takes place in Texas. I’m not sure I was just call it a suspense film although the tension overflow. I don’t know whether I’d call it a heist movie, because we don’t actually ever see a heist. It’s a conglomerate of genres, which is what the Coen Brothers do best. Call it “Fargo” in Texas if you want, but drop what you’re doing and catch this flick ASAP! GRADE: A

Friday, November 16, 2007

Poem Sweet Poem: “Beowulf” is a Stunning Adventure Full of Battles, Blood and Butts

“Just don’t take a course where they make you read Beowulf.” That line of dialogue spoken by Woody Allen in Annie Hall really says it all. The epic poem that has frustrated countless English students is one of the most indecipherable, boring and tedious texts one will ever hope to read. It only makes sense that anyone who would try to adapt it for the big screen would, not only be a completely misguided, but doomed to fail. However, director Robert Zemeckis, using his trusty CGI computer animation motion capture technology and a comprehensible script by Roger Avery and Neil Gaiman, has actually come up with a cinematic adaptation worthy of praise. While it may share characters and plot elements, the motion picture Beowulf is thankfully not nearly as dull as the text it’s based on. (And let’s face it, the original epic poem is so dreadful that even the author doesn’t want to admit he wrote it).

There are really only one or two reasons you want to see this animated epic. First off it is appearing on over 1000 digitally rendered screens in handsome, eye-popping 3D. And then there’s the nudity. Male nudity! Female nudity! Everyone gets a piece. But honestly the main draw here is the visual element. Yes, the film is nice to look at, but that’s not all. The animation really draws you in and the 3D effects help immerse you in the world of Beowulf. It’s really all about the experience. Zemeckis really wants you to get off your butts and go to theater to see this. This isn’t something you should be downloading illegally or buying on DVD from the sketchy guy on the street corner.

I did “read” the original story way back in 8th grade, which not coincidentally is the year I discovered Cliffs Notes. All I remember is it being about a hero who slays the big scary creature. And that’s basically what the movie’s about. Beowulf (voice by Ray Winstone; body by Aaron Stephens who didn’t get final credit for loaning Ray his six pack) is a heroic warrior. He’s practically a Swedish Superman. He can swim very far and slay monstrous sea creatures. He barely seems human though he is. He is enlisted by the drunken King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) to slay the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) who happens to be terrorizing his kingdom’s habitants.

Beowulf agrees to find this creature and so he strips down ready to face the beast on the same playing field with no weapons. This leads to an exciting nude fight between our hero (whose un-PG-13 friendly naughty bits are obscured Austin Powers-style) and Grendel. After defeating the beast, Beowulf sets out to even the score with Grendel’s even more evil mother (voice and nudity by Angelina Jolie). Grendel’s mother isn’t your typical monster. She changes form and uses her slinky tail and naked booty to seduce our hero. She seductively rubs his sword and it melts (paging Dr. Freud) and he promises not to kill her. And then he goes back to the village, pretends that he killed her, and then Hrothgar throws himself off his castle and Beowulf becomes the new king, only to realize that being king comes with a price…

I’m sure English teachers will be scratching their heads and ranting at the screen but you know what? This is Beowulf for people who didn’t like to read Beowulf. Therefore making movie vs. text references is kind of inapplicable. Anyone hoping that they could catch the flick instead of reading those confusing words will enjoy this fun and impressive movie from start to finish. And like I said, there’s naked people in it. Take that, stuffy lit professors! And although the film has a PG-13 rating, it tends to be surprisingly intense with creative use of violent images. I guess you can get away with a lot more when a movie is “animated.”

Beowulf is a technical achievement and it is a wonder to behold and it’s certainly more entertaining than last year’s epic snooze-fest “300.” It has some great voice work and the animation is impressive. Most of the fun is due to the 3D, so I guess the gimmick worked on me. It’s fun and briskly paced. If you’re looking for an entertaining time at the movies (or fleeting rear nudity) you need look no further than Beowulf. GRADE: B+

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Racketeer: Denzel Washington is an “American Gangster”

Many consider “The Godfather” one of the best movies of all time. I enjoy it, but unlike most people it’s far from being one of my favorite movies ever. Therefore you can’t really blame me for finding “American Gangster” less than amazing. It has plenty of good things about it, but as entertainment I’d rather see something else. The acting is good, the directing is good and the story is good. Many will love it, but I just liked it. I make the direct comparison to The Godfather, because it seems to be most like it. I wants to be as good, but it really just succeeds as being a gritty, 70s era drug and mob fest.

Director Ridley Scott has about as varied a career as you can possible imagine. He’s directed science fiction, romantic comedy and period epics. Although he’s never one an Academy Award, “American Gangster” might help him out just a bit. And I can honestly say that after seeing American Gangster it really feels like a film that seems guaranteed to be nominated for Best Picture next spring. I’m not saying that it doesn’t deserve awards attention, but there are so many more astounding films out there that probably won’t get the awards chance. Scott’s work here is very good, but he honestly doesn’t do anything that he hasn’t done before. If you ask me, he should have won years ago for “Thelma & Louise,” heck even “Alien.”

“American Gangster” follows the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington, another likely nominee) who became the one of the most prominent Black “gangsters” back in 1970s Harlem. He actually had drugs importing into the country using dead American soldiers’ coffins coming back from Vietnam. He was able to rise up and no one could really stop him, until we’re introduced to Russell Crowe’s detective character Richie Roberts The film sort of cross cuts between Frank and Riche until finally Richie begins investigating Frank. And Frank is so powerful that he can shoot a man in the head on the street and no one can seem to touch him.

Where the film succeeds the most is in its feel. It really feels as though it came from the 1970s New American Wave of gritty crime dramas. The script by Steven Zaillian is competent but I can’t say that it fully engaged me as much as I would have liked. Yes this isn’t my favorite film genre but I know a good crime drama when I see one. Last year’s “The Departed” was my favorite of 2006, but American Gangster just seems alright in comparison. I also liked Frank’s brothers and cousins, I believe, who all had businesses that were fronts for their drug trade.

What is most interesting about this story is what comes towards the end. Without spoiling too much, we learn that there is really much more crime involved with those who are supposed to be the protectors. Yes, I’m talking about dirty cops (one of which is Josh Brolin in a great sleazy role). Frank becomes an informant and actually ends up helping bring sleazy cops to justice. Sort of the way Frank Abagnale Jr. went on to help out the police at the end of “Catch Me If You Can.” While Frank doesn’t exactly start a job with the NY police department, it is interesting to note the good and bad that lies within the Frank Lucas character. The moral ambiguity is something that Washington brings strongly to his role.

“American Gangster” is a movie that many will love but I think it’s just alright. It’s possible I could learn to love it, but like “The Godfather” it seems more appropriate to admire it than to actually love it. GRADE: B-

Friday, November 09, 2007

Blouse Trap: Beware the Psycho Security Guard in “P2”

The thriller “P2” does for parking garages what “Psycho” did for showers. How cliché did that just sound? Yeah, a little, but the biggest surprise is that P2, which many will find silly and stupid, is actually quite an efficient and enjoyable suspense film. When you compare it to other crappy so-called thrillers out there P2 actually has plenty to offer. It actually has plenty of elements that I enjoy in these types of films. And in fact I would compare it to the likes of “Misery,” “Red Eye” and “Panic Room.” While those films are all very much superior works of art, “P2”seems to be the neglected stepchild: the one that is just as good but doesn’t the get the respect it deserves.

I liked the small cast: we get two main leads, in fact we really only get two characters. Rachel (Angela Bridges) is working late in her high-rise Manhattan office building on Christmas Eve. She’s really late for her family’s holiday celebration and she’s just had some sort of bad confrontation with a male co-worker. Thomas (Wes Bentley) is the simultaneously helpful and creepy overnight security guard in the building who helps Rachel when she discovers her car won’t start in the underground parking garage. Turns out that creepy trumps helpful because before she knows it, Rachel is chained to a table in Thomas’s office. It seems as though he fancies her and would rather Rachael stay and spend the holidays with him.

I liked the interaction between the leads. Rachel is a good woman in distress. We care for her quickly and she doesn’t do anything too stupid. Bentley (who was also creepy as the bag-loving voeyer in American Beauty) plays up his sinister character with real camp value. He’s obviously insane and he’s not afraid to show it. It doesn’t really seem as though Thomas wants to kill Racheal, he just really has an inappropriate crush on her. He has a surveillance video of her male co-worker getting sexually harassing her and Thomas feels that she is a victim. He just so happens to have this guy tied up on a lower level of the garage. And he proves he’s psychotic by savagely murdering him in front of Rachel. He just sees this as getting vengeance.

Of course since this is a full-length film other stuff has to happen. Therefore, Rachel gets away from Thomas and most of the film is a cat and mouse game of suspenseful scene after another as she attempts to escape from the garage. A scene involving an elevator is equally tense and ridiculous but always enjoyable. I like these types of movies because it all takes place over one night and in one location. With a film like that the director is completely responsible for making it interesting for the audience. Franck Khaloun (who co-wrote the film with his “High Tension” buddies Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur) takes a mundane place where we’ve all been and makes it scary. We’ve all had creepy feelings while walking through a parking garage and this film is the epitome of that fear.

Casual fans of the suspense genre will find something here to enjoy. The film is brisk, scary and intelligent. There are genuine scenes of tension and although there are really two main characters, the filmmakers have surprisingly found ways to put some gore in there as well. The focus here is more on atmosphere than blood and guts but anyone who enjoys a scary ride will want to park it here. GRADE: B