Archive for the ‘2-Star Movies’ Category

366 – Cloverfield

January 19, 2008

Some people may remember the heady days of 1999, when there was slow Internet hype of a low-budget first offering by two unknown filmmakers named Sanchez and Myrick. When it first hit theaters, The Blair Witch Project was a welcome change from the almost-antiseptic approach that directors were taking to movies; most scary action movies seemed almost too stagy, too unreal, too implausible. Blair Witch used a handheld camera and was marketed as lost, recovered footage of an experience in the woods gone awry.

Here in 2008, though, the anarchic, subversive idea of handheld, intentionally amateur cinematography is almost passe’, isn’t it? Since 1999, audiences have seen reality television shows and gritty, dirt-in-your-face movies that aim for an ultrareal effect; consequently, the novelty has worn off. We’re no longer amused by footage we could have shot ourselves, and we’re no longer automatically terrified when something scary is filmed with a camcorder.

In Cloverfield, a group of young people is throwing a going-away party in New York City for one of their own; Rob, who is assuming a high-paying job in Japan. Naturally, one of his best friends, Hud, videotapes the party, asking various guests to offer testimonials to Rob, sort of as one would do at a wedding reception. Then BOOM, there’s a loud explosion, and the guests flip on the TV – looks like a giant something or other is attacking the city.

Because everything is seen through the camcorder that Hud is lugging around, we’re supposed to feel a kinship with these pretty twentysomethings, although to be frank they look and act a little more like teenagers. Using Hud’s camera, director Matt Reeves introduces us to a few characters who may or may not make it through to the end of the film. We’re told very little about them, but it’s quickly evident that the people on whom the camera does linger will be characters we’ll follow after the tragedy strikes.

On the plus side, the monster is hardly seen at all, really just in shadows and the like, until near the very end of the movie, and no explanation is offered as to where it came from. The result of this, though, is that the focus is shifted to the game effort put forth by our survivors as they attempt an inexplicably dumb quest. The instant they decide that’s what they’re gonna do, you start guessing which of them will be killed off.

At any rate, such a focus means that it’s pretty important that the actors themselves turn in strong, evocative performances, and no one here does. The impression one gets is that the actors were hired mainly because they weren’t supertalented thespians, that producer J.J. Abrams was going for amateur-looking acting to go along with the amateur-looking camerawork. I get that, I really do, it’s just that watching a 90-minute home movie isn’t all that interesting when you can tell a lot of the special effects were done with CGI.

This movie represents some of the worst aspects of cinema verite. The haphazard, slapdash camerawork is, of course, how you or I might use a camcorder, so it’s realistic; on the other hand, most people don’t want to watch a homemade film to which they have no connection. If my friends had made this, I might have been into it a bit more, but the film never engages its audience. (The party is an obvious contrivance to attempt to engage us, but it just shows me a bunch of pretty young people acting like doofuses.) And because there are all of these zooms to the left and right and up and down and whoops here we go, falling and gasping, it’s tough to make sense of what’s going on. Sure, I know, that’s how the characters feel, too – what’s attacking us? Where should we go? What should we do? – but I am not the characters, and in this case, seeing things through their eyes just makes me dizzy and not care about them much at all.

And that, dear friends, is the crux of the problem. The movie wants you to be right down there in the trenches with the characters, but to do that it’s got to make you like the characters, root for them in some way, and it just plain fails to do so. Instead, we’re treated to nearly 90 minutes of people running here and there and getting attacked by who knows what, and so forth (there are a LOT of shots of feet, as Hud’s camera is pointed straight down a lot of the time). To put it simply, it’s like watching any other loud, dumb action movie, only instead of excellent camera angles and world-class cinematography that grabs you by the throat and never lets go, you get some brain-damaged diphthong toting a home video camera like it’s 1990 and he’s at his first no-adults party.

Need more? Here in 2008, it’s a scant six-and-a-half years or so since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001; one of the more unforgettable images of those attacks was that of people running down the street as a huge billow of smoke, dust, and debris chased after them, with the damaged towers in the background, ready to collapse. That image – as well as the image of one building leaning against another – is revisited in Cloverfield, and instead of being wowed and amazed, you’re somewhat chagrined and uneasy. I wasn’t even in New York on that day, and yet my reaction to those images here was just horror, not wonderment.

I initially thought that the long buildup to the monster attack itself was a bad idea in itself; we get endless shots of the party and the people in it, merely for exposition and empathy. “Bring on the monster!” I shouted, internally. And then the attack comes, and for the rest of the film you feel like you’re on a roller coaster ride after having eaten fourteen hot dogs.

Cloverfield isn’t worth the endless, smug, metahype it generated for itself leading up to its release. It means to be edgy and groundbreaking but winds up being tired and played out. The monster does look pretty cool, and some of the stunts are worth watching, and there are some genuine scares, but overall it misses its mark by quite a bit. The rolling head of the Statue of Liberty is clever, but that’s about it for wit.

**

Long Day’s Boring into Suck

November 17, 2007

Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962)

This movie is very dated. Whoopie, the mom’s a drug addict and the son’s an alky, whee – you see worse on TV every day now. Well, you would if there wasn’t a writers’ strike, but still. The performances are at turns overwrought and hammy – even Ralph Richardson’s, and he’s PLAYING a hammy actor. The dialog comes off as stilted at best, and it’s extremely obvious that it’s basically a filmed play. Plays need to rely on the dialog to tell the audience what’s happening, for the most part, because a typical stage will have exactly one scene in the background – and you can’t use camera angles, or really any kind of special effects that enhance the storyline, rather than detract from it. As a result, when the play is performed in front of camera, most of the time it’s going to come off as if the actors are merely reading off cue cards.

Katherine Hepburn got a crapload of plaudits for her work here as the Tyrone family matriarch, but her performance struck me as just all over the map. She’s literally climbing the walls in some scenes. Okay, so she’s playing a woman addicted to morphine, but honestly, how tough is it to overact? Her performance made me laugh, it didn’t make me feel any sympathy. The rest of the cast (Richardson, Jason Robards, and Dean Stockwell), by comparison, is mostly good, with Robards really turning in the best work of the bunch.

In all, though, it’s a huge, long bore. Can you believe it’s almost three hours long? Felt more like six. I know it’s based on a classic play and all, but this is one play that probably belongs solely on the stage.

353 – Knocked Up

November 7, 2007

Knocked Up is one of those movies that seems to get instant cult status, based partly on its pedigree (guys from The 40 Year Old Virgin and recent Will Ferrell movies) and its appeal to twentysomething stoner/slackers. But although some of the jokes are pretty good, and the performances are mostly spot-on, the film’s pretty uneven; the funny parts are mostly funny, but the so-called sincere parts come off as maudlin or treacly.

Ben (Seth Rogen) is the slacker/stoner in question here. He and his not-all-there buds (ha! check out the double meaning) are in the process of launching a website dedicated to finding nudity in mainstream movies. If you immediately said, “What, like Mr. Skin?” you’re in the target audience. So basically, Ben has no job, and neither do the rest of the man-children in his posse.

Contrary to that is Alison (Katherine Heigl of Grey’s Anatomy), an E! entertainment producer-type who’s just been given a shot at working in front of the camera. So she heads out to a club with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and winds up hooking up with Ben. Of course, she was drunk at the time – Heigl is a pinup model and Rogen is a fat slob. So you know it’s sort of true to life in that sense.

Fast forward eight weeks later, and Alison’s preggers. Whoopsie daisy. Now how will these two lustbirds reconcile the fact that they don’t really know each other with this impending birth? Or, for that matter, the fact that while sober neither has anything in common with the other?

As I said, scenes that are supposed to be funny usually work, because Rogen is just doofy enough to pull it off; the film works when it pokes fun at Ben’s slacker proclivities or the idiosyncrasies of his friends. It doesn’t work so much in the way the women are portrayed, however. Look, we’ve all enjoyed movies in which women are mere objects, right? Porky’s, I’m looking at you! Done right, that sort of approach can be raucously entertaining. But in this movie, the womenfolk alternately come off as wildly bitchy or just humorless. Alison was never really shown to have much of a sense of humor (although there’s one scene in which she helps the boys spot nude scenes in films for their website).

That’s all well and good regardless, because some movies can manage to have “bad” female characters off of which the males can play. But that’s where the schizophrenia of this movie comes into play; is it a low-brow, misogynistic comedy or a relationship movie? Too often, it opted for the latter, and if you’re trying to show the trials and tribulations of two crazy kids who aren’t even in love with each other, you shouldn’t make one of them unlikable and irrational. Even if, you know, that’s how it’d be in real life.

Judd Apatow, who brought us similarly flawed The 40 Year Old Virgin, compares the burgeoning Ben-Alison relationship to the marriage of Debbie and Pete. Oops, looks like Pete’s an inconsiderate jerk! Looks like Debbie’s an overreacting, hyperactive nitwit! Of course, Apatow’s not saying theirs is the ideal relationship for which Ben and Alison should strive, but he makes it seem as if just having an relationship is a bad idea.

And I know I might be in the minority here, but I’ve never liked humor that serves only to humiliate someone. So when Ben or Alison launches a profanity-laced attack on the other, that’s not funny. It’s not even entertaining. It’s annoying.

(Another recurring theme was that Debbie feels unappreciated. Check out the scene in which she and Alison are turned away from a club – Alison because she’s pregnant and Debbie because she’s, um, old. Leslie Mann is two years younger than me, it should be noted; anyway, the scene is presumably supposed to show the sisters bonding over their respective rejections, but all it did was show Debbie as whiny.)

One plus, though – good to see Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly) getting some work; here, he’s Alison’s boss. His rotten-bitch-sycophant assisant has to go, though. She, like some of the other secondary and tertiary characters, was just thoroughly obnoxious and useless – not funny in the biting, sarcastic way, just caustic and off-putting.

**

347 – Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters

October 21, 2007

Let’s be frank. If you don’t like this late-night Cartoon Network series (or if you’ve never even watched it), you’ll likely find this movie to be a huge bore, veering from frat-house humor to incomprehensibility. The characters are bizarre, and the premises are bizarrer. More bizarrererer. Or something. It’s absurdist comedy that makes sense only within a certain context, and that context is “Oh my god I am so stoned is that a talking milkshake woo.”

I’m generalizing a bit, but yeah. Basically, you have to accept the idea that a Happy Meal – a giant milkshake, an order of fries that can fly, and an shape-shifting meatball – lives in New Jersey. It’s not worth considering how they pay for groceries or how, you know, they even exist, you just have to buy into that premise above all else. Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad inhabit a run-down craphole of a house somewhere up in north Jersey; they interact with mainly just their next-door neighbor Carl, a sterotypical Joisey bastard with a lot of chest hair, medallions, and no Inner Voice. Oh, and then there are the eight-bit aliens, and a robot bird..thing,

Now, most episodes of the show end with someone or something (usually the Teens’ house) blowing up. And then in the next show, all is well. It’d be a mighty quick series otherwise. Frylock is the wisest of them all, and he has superpowers – he can fly! he can shoot lasers out of his fries! – and he spends much of each episode trying to keep the other two out of trouble – or yoinking them away from it. Master Shake is callous, egotistic, heartless, and not terribly bright. But he’s smarter than Meatwad, who’s simply a ball o’ meat. Meatwad’s also terribly gullible, a trait that shows up roughly every episode, as Shake takes advantage of him all the time.

This movie does make a stab at not being a simple extended episode, which many ‘toons wind up doing (I’m looking at you, Mister Squarepants!). You know the drill. Hey, this show is pretty funny for 30 minutes, so naturally it’ll be three times as hilarious if it’s 90 minutes long! Am I right or am I right? Am I working hard or hardly working? Woo! But in this case, the decision was made to explore the origins of the Teens, since it’s never really explained in the series how they came to be. Seems our boys were the creations of Dr. Weird, who has a lab out on the Jersey shore. To be fair, this is covered a little bit in the series, but the movie goes into much more detail about who begat whom and why and what this all means.

In addition to the where’d-they-come-from angle, the plot centers around a kick-ass new exercise machine owned by Carl and borrowed by Shake, called the Insaneoflex. Yeah, you’d think with a name like that, it’d have you ripped in no time, right? Yeah, well, it does, only not in the good way. It’s a bad machine. And it’s up to our boys (well, mostly Frylock) to save Carl from its evil clutches!

And there’s your threadbare plot right there. Now, again, if you’re not a fan of the series, you won’t buy into any of this. The jokes are sometimes very subtle and completely off the wall. And they often don’t make a whit of sense, even if you have indeed seen the show. So what I’m saying is this: If you’re in the right frame of mind (that is, chemically enhanced or some facsimile thereof), you might find this entertaining. It’s not as bad as many mainstream critics claim it is, mainly because it’s perfect for the audience it’s aiming at. That said, such audience is probably a small focus group, and since the movie doesn’t (perhaps nobly so) attempt to move outside its mien, I’m not going to give it a particularly good rating.

**

Three oldies not all goodies

September 24, 2007

First up, we have 1962’s Days of Wine and Roses, starring Jack Lemmon as an alkie who marries Lee Remick and draws her into the disease as well. I’m sure that in 1962 this was cutting-edge, gritty stuff, but now it feels dated and flat as hell. Here’s problem #1 I had with it: Lemmon’s Joe Clay, a PR guy, berates the secretary of one of his clients merely because she had the audacity to sniff at his chosen profession (which is, to be blunt, to be a pimp for his clients). After he’s done berating her, she leaves, and so does he. And then, seconds later, she’s asking him why he’s not asking her to dinner. The guy who just got done yelling at her, yes, he’s an appealing fella. Nasty son of a bitch, more like. Were women dumber in 1962? The rest of the movie is the two of them sinking further and further into full-blown alkiness, with Lemmon finally being saved by AA. The ending’s good – not trite, not pat – but the movie wallows so much in self-pity and morosity that you don’t feel any better when it’s all over and done with. And since Clay is despicable from the moment we see him, we don’t see a huge change in his personality as the disease overtakes him (and he loses his job and self-respect). **

Then we have Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), directed by Frank Capra, about a small-town tuba player who inherits $30 million from a distant relative and ultimately decides to give it all away once he realizes how many vultures want a piece of it. And that’s when they arrest him for being completely out of his mind. Gary Cooper is Deeds, and Jean Arthur plays the cynical reporter who plays him like, well, a tuba in order to sell papers and get a free vacation. It’s pretty awesome. And hey, it was the movie that introduced the terms “doodling” and “pixelated” to the masses! True story. ***1/2

And then we come to an early Alfred Hitchcock movie, 1931’s The Skin Game, about the shenanigans between two moneyed families in England, the Hornblowers and the Hillcrists. Seems Mr. Hornblower wants to moderize the neighborhood with his new-fangled chimneys, and the old-money Hillcrists want nothing to do with it, so they spend most of the movie trying to outmaneuver each other. That doesn’t sound bad, but the movie is very poorly shot and recorded, and the dialog is atrocious. Sometimes, Hitch would have a shot of a door – for several seconds – as we wait for someone to walk through it. Or he’ll focus on someone while someone else speaks to them off camera. It all looks inept, all the more so because it’s Alfred Freaking Hitchcock. **

345 – Balls of Fury

September 5, 2007

Balls of Fury is amiable to the point of being gregarious, but many of its jokes – verbal and visual – either just miss or misfire completely, and when it’s over you start thinking of better ways you could have spent the previous ninety minutes. Highlights include Christopher Walken’s waaaaay over the top performance as Feng, a mysterious, rich, eccentric ping pong fan; Thomas Lennon as an ubermean German Olympian; the luxuriant Maggie Q as a table tennis champion who dresses in skimpy short-shorts; and comically terrified male sex slaves.

Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) was once a promising young ping ponger. Back in 1988, he made the U.S. Olympic team and was all set (at age 12) to win against Lennon’s Karl Wolfschtagg when he slipped and fell and couldn’t return a serve, thus not only losing his chance at a medal but also sealing his father’s fate, as the elder Daytona had bet heavily on the match. Years later, the adult Randy is approached by FBI Agent Rodriguez (George Lopez) to help the government  nail the guy who had Randy’s pop iced – a mysterious man named Feng, whose face no one’s photographed or even seen. The feds know Feng’s up to evil plans, but they need Randy to enter a private, super-secret ping pong tournament run by Feng at his undisclosed lair so they can get the goods on him.

Randy sucks at ping pong now, though, so he must undergo Karate Kid-like training under the wise tutelage of the blind Master Wong (James Hong). To make sure no stereotypes are left alone, Wong also runs a Chinese restaurant. Oh well, at least he doesn’t say the whole training bit is an ancient Chinese secret. Anyway, Wong’s got a niece, or daughter, I’ve already forgotten which, who is superdupercrazygood at competitive ping pong. She can even fend off four players while taking orders over the phone at the restaurant, she’s that darn good. Of course, it falls to her – that would be Maggie Q playing (get this) a woman named Maggie – to train the living bejeezus out of Randy. It should be pointed out here that while Maggie is sensual, gorgeous, and overall wonderful, Randy is fat, slovenly, a little sarcastic. In other words, it’s a typical movie love-match, isn’t it? From the moment Maggie puts Randy’s arm in a chicken wing, you know they’re gonna hook up.

But the real fun comes at Feng’s tournament. For one thing, Walken’s Feng is wearing a different outfit every time you see him, seemingly; he’s sort of like Ming the Merciless, only not as bland. Walken vamps like only Walken can vamp, but it’s sort of easy to steal a movie from guys like Fogler and Lopez. Even so, it’s hard to overstate how much Walken overacts, even for Walken. If you’re not a Walken fan, that is to say, you’ll find nothing to like about this movie. Sure, some may call it hammy acting, but it’s acting… nonetheless… isn’t it?

Then there’s the tourney itself – it’s sudden death, you see, and that’s meant literally. Lose, and you get a blowdart to the neck, courtesy of Feng’s right-hand chica, played by Aisha Tyler. And of course, along the way the underdog Randy must face his old enemy Karl, who so gleefully ended Daytona’s amateur – and professional – career nearly twenty years earlier. But Randy’s not even sure he wants to stick around, seeing as how everyone’s getting killed. He’s funny like that.

Balls of Fury, brought to you by the guys behind Reno 911 and A Night at the Museum, does have its moments of funny, but by and large it suffers from a scattershot script and haphazard directing – it looks almost like it’s some film student’s final thesis project thingy. It’s not quite as good as it should have been, and it’s not nearly funny enough to be worth a theater ticket.

**

344 – The Number 23

August 27, 2007

The Number 23 is a stylish thriller about a man who reads a screwy book and becomes obsessed with the titular number. Sounds intriguing, but there’s simply not enough substance behind the style (perpetrated by director Joel Schumacher and cinematographer Matthew Libatique) to justify the ominousness. The movie feels like a conspiracy theory spouted off by a aged wino, although Jim Carrey, as the suddenly changed protagonist, is appropriately grim and unhinged throughout.

Carrey is Walter Sparrow, a pet-control officer (i.e., dog catcher) who begins reading a self-published, self-printed book called “The Number 23” by a pseudonymous author, Topsy Kretz, that seems to eerily mirror Walter’s own life and that points to 23 as a number steeped in meaning. As Walter reads, he becomes more and more attuned to the number’s presence, even creating grand stretches of truth to make it fit (such as sometimes adding the digits of numbers to get 23, and other times adding the combined numbers, anything to reach the goal). In between reading the book – which most of us would probably finish in an evening but that Walter takes many days to complete – Walter has vivid nightmares that end with his killing his wife Agatha (Virginia Madsen).

The question isn’t really whether Walter’s insane, because clearly he’s a bit not sane. The question is, as posited by the movie, whether the number 23 has any kind of particular hold over certain people. The movie doesn’t address why some people who read the book don’t get all bent out of shape over it, or why this particular number is more powerful than any other number. It simply tells us that the number 23 Means Something, and that Something is never a good thing.

Walter’s desperate attempts at retaining his sanity and solving the mystery of the unknown author draw both Agatha and their thirteen-year-old (what, not 23?) son into the situation, which is good, because it gives Carrey something to react to other than mood lighting and creepy basements. Carrey leaves most of the shameless, doofus mugging aside for a more “serious” – scare quotes totally necessary – acting here, opting instead for a mostly constant eye-lolling hysteria and paranoia.

If the movie had wound up being a stark psychological thriller with no easy ending, it might have been servicable, but instead it’s wrapped up way too neatly for such a plot based in mysticism and conspiracies. At the end, you kind of expect someone to remove a rubber mask and say they would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for that meddling thirteen-year-old kid, his bookstore-owning milf-like mom, and his wacko dad. In short, the ending is trite and utterly predictable, a little too realistic and believable in a movie that could have used a shot of imagination adrenaline.

**

Don’t step in pig slop, and don’t snort my cocaine. Not yours

August 9, 2007

Every now and then, I take a break from New movies and delve into my ever-expanding Netflix queue to check out an older film. Sometimes it’s a certifiable classic that I’ve managed to miss; other times, it’s a fairly new movie that seems appealing; other, other times it’s a hidden gem that I’ve heard much ado about.

The other day, a couple movies showed up in my mailbox – Babe: Pig in the City and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The former is a sequel to the 1995 surprise hit, and the latter was the second pairing of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the London sleuth and his portly, comic-relief friend.

Babe isn’t a bad movie, but it has very little of the charm that the first one had. Which is odd, because the director (George Miller) was the producer the first time around, so it’s not like he was bringing a wholly new approach to the story. Oh, and the story? Well, Farmer Hogget (James Cromwell) is seriously injured on the farm (with the help of Babe, yay Babe), and the nefarious, well-dressed men from the bank are going to foreclose on the farm, so it’s up to Mrs. Hogget to travel to the Big City with Babe to capitalize on their sheep-pig’s newfound fame. Only stuff happens, as any traveler can confirm – to start things off, Babe’s impounded by the luggage guys when a dog, showing off his olfactory moxie, barks his fool head off. Then officials force Mrs. Hogget to be strip searched, and then they’ve missed their shuttle, and finally they wind up at a hotel for people with pets. At the hotel, Babe meets orangutans and chimps from a travelling show (run by Mickey Rooney, who barely speaks in the movie), plus dogs and cats and those ubiquitous singing mice from the original movie. The calamaties never stop, of course, leading to one contrived happenstance after another, culminating in a frenetic, acrobatic pig chase at a haughty charity ball.

I suppose that if you decided that none of the story had to make any sense at all, if you viewed it as purely absurdist theater, you might be somewhat satisfied with the results. But although I thought Babe was cute and endearing in the first movie, here the character is a little less charming and seems no different than any other underdog character in the history of movies.

I will say this, though – the set designs were pretty nifty; it reminded me of the 1990 Dick Tracy film. Nothing’s too dirty or unusual. There’s a hint of a criminal element, but even that comes off as surreal. When Mrs. Hogget and Babe arrive in the city, we get a panoramic view of its skyline, which includes the Hollywood sign, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Rio de Janeiro statue of Christ, the World Trade Center, and the Empire State Buiding, among others. So The City is basically an amalgam of many big cities, which makes some sense, since Babe and Mrs. Hogget probably have never been to one, and this makes it easier to show the vast chasm of difference between city life and farm life.

Other than that, though, the movie just wasn’t much fun. Cromwell shows up for a few minutes at the beginning and at the end, which is a shame, because he’s an excellent actor. I guess the writers felt some contrivance was needed to get a Hogget to the Big City, and who would care if Mrs. Hogget was the one who couldn’t make it?

Of course, if you’re watching this hoping for a strong, unpredictable ending, you have to know you’ll be disappointed. I mean, really, do you think Babe won’t save the farm? Bah ram ewe, indeed.

**

And then we have Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone and Bruce teamed up for the second time, following Hound of the Baskervilles, released the same year. This time, Holmes is asked by a young woman (the wonderful Ida Lupino) to watch over her, because she fears the imminent demise of her brother after receiving a malicious note. Meanwhile, Holmes has also agreed to help guarantee the safe passage of a precious stone arriving from India, to be stored with the crown jewels. And behind every move, it seems, is the diabolical Professor Moriarty (George Zucco), who’s out to break Holmes and then retire from a life of crime.

Somehow, all of these storylines are related, although it takes Holmes quite a while to deduce this. Could there be misdirection involved? Oh, perhaps. And just maybe Holmes will figure it all out but not tell anyone how he’s come to those conclusions until after the bad guys have been rounded up, like glibly mention it to Watson while puffing his crack pipe and plinking his violin. I think that if Holmes were played here by a lesser actor than Rathbone, one might not be able to stifle the urge to slap the smugness right off his face. I also found it interesting that the only way to come up with a good villain was to make the villain even more pompous and irritating. By contrast to Moriarty, Holmes is Pollyanna.

It’s an entertaining movie, still, mostly because of the great chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce; Lupino proves she’s more than a gun-moll kinda actress; Bruce himself is perfectly cast as the comic relief, which is sorely necessary in this film. Not quite a classic most remember, but a lot of fun anyway.

***

328 – Venus

July 5, 2007

It’s true, Peter O’Toole is not quite dead yet, and neither is his wonderful career. In an Oscar-nominated performance, O’Toole plays Maurice Russell, a veteran of stage and screen in the twilight of his existence who unexpectedly finds himself falling for a woman fifty years younger than him. It’s a classic romance.

Every day, Maurice comes ’round to visit his friend Ian, also a longtime actor, who is convalescing. Ian has procured for himself someone to take care of him, the daughter of his niece. Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) is in her early twenties and is aimless, jobless, and even somewhat expressionless, and it’s not long before she and Ian are locking horns. From the moment Maurice sets eyes on the girl, she’s either stuffing her face or guzzling some of Ian’s booze. Oh, and she wants to be a model.

Maurice becomes quite taken with the girl, although the feeling certainly doesn’t seem to be mutual. But really, how could it be? Maurice is supposed to be in his seventies (although here O’Toole looks about 95), and Jessie is in her twenties. When you were in your twenties, didn’t anyone at least old enough to be your father seem, you know, kind of decrepit in your mind? There’s simply no realistic scenario that would have Jessie falling madly in love with Maurice, and thankfully that never really happens.

But then what exactly does Jessie see in Maurice? Well, for one thing, as Ian dislikes her on sight, Maurice is kind and giving – he even attempts to find a modeling job for her, albeit as a nude model. He calls Jessie “Venus” because of a painting they see depicting the goddess. (Hey, it’s as good a reason as any.) So there’s sort of a symbiotic relationship going on – Jessie gets support from Maurice, because Ian is better able to put up with her if Maurice is on her side, and Maurice gets to leer at her with a crooked grin. That might have been appealing, say, twenty years ago, but Peter O’Toole looks wan and about to keel over. I know, that’s how the character was supposed to look anyway, but the whole relationship felt a little creepy, to be honest. Perhaps that’s why Jessie isn’t painted as a complete innocent but rather as a young woman reveling in her many flaws.

This was O’Toole’s eighth Oscar nomination (he’s never won), and he did deserve it – his Maurice is elegant, whimsical, charming, and lecherous, all traits associated with O’Toole in real life. O’Toole brings quite a bit of gravitas and wit to an otherwise lightweight, pedestrian role, and his mere presence livened up every scene. Whittaker, surprisingly, is certainly his equal, matching her famous costar in even their most intimate, lowest-key scenes.

Speaking of which, I had to fuss with the volume several times. Some of the scenes are SO low key that you can’t hear what anyone’s saying, and yet in other scenes the volume’s at normal level. It’s as if the director thought that merely having his fine actors recite serious lines in a serious setting was not enough, so he made them mumble them, too. A little irritating.

All in all, this is a slow movie that strives to find great, deep meaning in Relationships, Aging, and Death but fails to completely deliver on any of them.

**

326 – The Good German

July 1, 2007

This slop, about the adventures of an American journalist, and the woman he once loved, in almost-postwar Germany, isn’t terribly enjoyable – unless one looks at it in a wholly ironic life. If you think of The Good German as one of those cheesy propaganda cheapies made in the forties and fifties, the stench of overwrought schlock might be a bit more palatable. Well, maybe – if you also downed some cheap scotch in the process.

Jacob (George Clooney) is a writer for the fledgling New Republic who zips over to Berlin to cover the close of The Big One. Tully (Tobey Maguire) is Jacob’s driver, an opportunistic ne’er-do-well who’s deeply involved in the black market, the little scamp. Tully’s girlfriend is Lena (Cate Blanchett), a prostitute who sees Tully as a way out of Germany forever. Might a romantic triangle, full of lust and intrigue, develop? Maybe not. Soon, Tully’s face down in the river, and everyone’s trying to find Lena’s presumed-dead husband, including the Russian and American military.

I can appreciate what Steven Soderbergh was trying to do here – he wanted to recreate that ultracool 1940s cinema atmosphere, one in which everyone’s attitude and demeanor are as black and white as the cinematography itself, and everyone chainsmokes. But in a weird concession to the present day, there’s a ton of profanity. Why would you go to all of the trouble of creating this throwback atmosphere and then screw it up by tossing in anachronistic cursing? Did Soderbergh feel he needed to sex up the movie a little? What, German prostitutes aren’t enough?

And I can also appreciate casting decisions as much as the next guy – Clooney as Hero isn’t really a stretch for him, though – but who the heck thought Tobey Maguire belonged in this movie? Put it this way – when the woman has a deeper, more masculine voice than the man, Something Is Wrong. Maguire’s voice sounds like it’s going to crack at any moment. He’s in way over his head, since this is a movie that requires some range. See how good you are without a mask on, Mr. Spider-Man!

Much of the movie involves Jacob running around Berlin, trying to piece together everything, while being thwarted by, well, everyone, including Lena, who lies constantly. It got to the point where I half-expected her to say she wasn’t much of a smoker. But regardless of the endless lies, Jake fervently believes Lena’s pure and innocent and just a goshdarn victim of circumstances. Which means, of course, that she’s not.

The movie tries shamelessly to ape Casablanca, but Clooney is no Bogie. He’s always been compared to Cary Grant, a suave good guy who’s in a little over his head, but that’s not what this movie needed; it needed an oily, morally ambiguous bastard. Someone who might indeed screw over other people to further his own gains, or not. For some reason Steve Buscemi’s name kept popping into my head. At any rate, Clooney’s just not the man for the job here – he looks too pretty.

On the other hand, Blanchett is about as perfect as you can get. Not hammy, not too understated, just fantastic. I liked her – mysterious, callous, believable. She reminds one of Ingrid Bergman, and it’s quite a favorable comparison.

Perhaps if Soderbergh had not decided to rip off (er, I mean, pay homage to) the cloak-and-dagger postwar films of the olden days, concentrating on filming a believable, cohesive plot; or maybe going all the way with his homage and not having profanity laced throughout, this might have made more sense. It does pick up a bit about halfway through, but everyone seems so intent on being Grand Actors that the result isn’t very entertaining. I mean, heck, when Tobey Maguire kicks George Clooney not once, your movie has some serious credibility problems.

**

317 – Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

May 29, 2007

The third Pirates movie is a bloated carcass that seems to consist solely of people running (or sailing) from Action Scene to Action Scene, with only a convoluted plot to keep them afloat. It doesn’t always work.

Clocking in at 165 minutes, “At World’s End” contains several endings too many. “Ah,” you think, “that’s the end!” and then more stuff happens, and you fall asleep. It’s as if the producer (Jerry Bruckheimer, of course) looked at the clock, noticed that a mere two hours had elapsed, and ordered his writing minions to crank out more implausibles to stretch the running time for no apparent reason.

So. Did I like the movie, you wonder? Well, I sat through nearly three hours of it, so I suppose I should find something positive to say. Things blew up, and that was awesome. Plus, I decided that Keira Knightley was far manlier than Orlando Bloom, who I’m told is actually a man. (No, seriously!) And that Johnny Depp wears mascara better than Knightley, who’s apparently not a little boy.

All kidding aside, the biggest problem with the movie is that it’s overplotted. We make fun of dumb action movies that have minimal plot and are basically excuses for explosions, but here’s the mirror image – there’s so much going on that the typical viewer will be confused and disoriented. Which is good, I suppose, in that it’ll distract him or her from the actual storyline problems.

When we last left the Good Guys, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) had been claimed by Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and imprisoned in (believe it or not) Davy Jones’ Locker. The resurrected Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Will Turner (Bloom), and Elizabeth Swann (Knightley) must rescue him. To do so, they have to team up with or defeat or betray Singapore’s own legendary pirate, Sao Feng (the wonderful Chow Yun-Fat), as well as various Pirate Lords, the British navy, and so on.

The biggest problem facing Barbossa is that the one force that can help him and the other Pirate Lords against the likes of Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) is that of an ancient goddess, who has been bound to a human body for years and years. Barbossa wants to unleash the goddess in hopes that she’ll aid them all, but clear thinkers around him are more of the mind that she’ll instead beat the snot out of them for imprisoning her in the first place. Of course, this being a loud action movie, there’s no way in heck she’s going to stay bound in a human body, right? Hilarity ensues.

The cast is game, but typically wooden performances by Bloom and Knightley are countered by an equally typically nuanced and often hysterical one by Depp – not to mention a bombastic, scene-stealing turn by Rush. But plot oddities abound. Elizabeth seems awash in makeup that never, ever comes off or smudges in the teeniest, despite one protracted scene taking place in a torrential downpour. I also liked the time Elizabeth was ambushed by British soldiers, one of whom puts her in a headlock; when she recognizes one of the other soldiers, Elizabeth merely throws off her captor’s arm and escapes. Why she didn’t do this throughout the movie, when she was in constant peril or capture, is a mystery. Or how the entire British navy, upon seeing one of their own ships decimated by pirates, says, “the hell with this,” and sails away.

As I implied, though, the movie’s murky plot is its ultimate downfall. Who’s on whose side? You know going in that there will be treachery, but when a movie has every character essentially turning on every other character, the whole novelty of the doublecross is long since vanished. After a while, you come to expect someone doing someone else wrong, all the more so if those two characters sort of were on the same side at one point earlier in the series. Once you tune out important details like who’s on which side, the movie’s sort of lost its way.

And here’s more bad news. The conventional wisdom in Hollywood now is that franchise films should be three movies long, no more, that three’s about the limit for the typical moviegoer. But the ending very strongly hints that there will be a fourth Pirates movie. This might wind up being wishful thinking on the part of Bruckenheimer and director Gore Verbinski (who have done all three movies), rather than reality, as the second and third movies were filmed simultaneously.

All in all, this is a butt-numbing disappointment. If you gotta make it long, make it worth my while. If you’re gonna have crap blow up, make it interesting. If you’re gonna have double and triple crosses, make me care.

**

316 – The Pursuit of Happyness

May 23, 2007

There are undoubtedly two camps of people who watched this film: those who start to tear up at the very hint of a Very Special Movie, and those who rely a little on logic and, I dunno, sense; those who, that is, want the movie to work a little to earn tears, not the other way around.

Guess which group I’m in.

Chis Gardner (Will Smith) is a salesman of sorts – he sells scanners to medical professionals that are supposed to be more detailed than x-ray machines, and much more expensive. He bought a whole bunch of them years ago and has been selling them to doctors and hospitals ever since, only sales have stagnated somewhat, and he’s struggling bigtime. Now, me, in this situation, might, perhaps, get another job, one that paid something, anything to keep food on the table for my wife (Thandie Newton) and son (Jaden Smith).

But Chris isn’t like me. Instead, after bumping into a rich-looking white dude, he decides he wants to be a stockbroker and applies (after many contrivances) for an internship at Dean Witter. Only, oops! It’s not a paying internship! But Chris doesn’t know that, and neither does wife Linda, who works double shifts at a hospital. Are you seeing the picture here? The mother works her hands to the bone, the dad is a shiftless loser who can’t sell crappy scanners that no one needs, and what’s the wise papa do? Why, chases a dream. Because if there’s any time that’s just made for chasing dreams, it’s when you have a wife and kids and are a couple months behind in your rent and haven’t paid your taxes yet for the year.

Naturally, after Chris makes this decision and when the scanner sales slow down even more, Linda has enough and bolts for some nebulous waitressing job on the other side of the country. Up until this point, she was eassily the stronger, more viable, and more responsible of the parents. But then we wouldn’t get this touching plot of a father bonding with his son, so out goes Linda. (Yes, I know this is based on a true story, but I imagine some of these plot devices are fictions from the screenwriter.)

Speaking of plot devices, as Chris blows off landlord after landlord, he and young Christopher are kicked out of their home, and then a motel, and they sleep on buses, in bathrooms, anywhere. This is supposed to show how Chris will suffer for his son, that he loves him so much and is trying so hard to make his life better. The trouble is, nearly all of Chris’s problems were caused by… you guessed it, Chris himself. We can all relate, I’m sure, to The Man keeping us down; we struggle and make a little progress, only to be pushed back down by creditors, Johnny Law, our bosses, and so on. Sometimes fate does conspire against us. But it didn’t feel like that was wholly the case here. Chris is outraged to get a notice from the IRS placing a lien on his bank account. Why is he outraged? Linda even reminded him to take care of the taxes, and Chris actively said he’d just keep filing extensions. This is no one’s fault but Chris Gardner’s.

The trouble is, you really want to feel for Chris. He knows that if he works hard and is fortunate, he can emerge from the unpaid internship with a paid job as a broker at Dean Witter. A great goal to have, of course. It just seems strange that he felt that the most viable option to him was to work as a stockbroker. He couldn’t take a menial job or two to scrape up enough money to pay taxes or, heck, rent a room? God forbid. In a telling scene, Chris explodes outside a mission that had just announced it had no more room. I’m paraphrasing, but as Chris argued with a man who’d cut in front of him in line (thus denying him entrance to the mission), he mentions that he had to run from his job to get to the line in time. Whoa, wait, hold up a sec there, Chris. You’re in a line of homeless people. You might not wanna mention that you have a JOB. Most of the rest of these folks, you see, don’t have a job. That is why they are homeless. You came off as a major jerk. Again, not someone worthy of our pity.

So who is? Christopher, the young’un, surely is. What’s he done to deserve this crappy parenting? His mom basically abandons him with no fight at all, and his dad chooses a tenuous unpaid job over a paycheck. Jaden Smith was critically lauded for his wonderful work here, and he was much more deserving of an Oscar nomination than his old man, who seemed to be praised merely for not playing Will Smith. At least we didn’t get yet another rendition of Smith’s “Oh, HELL no!” exclamations. But the kid was very good, and adorable to boot.

The rest of the cast isn’t onscreen enough to make much of an impression; they’re all just window dressing to the relationship between father and son. James Karen is unintentionally amusing as the Great White Father to Smith’s broker, needlessly upping the smarm factor. Because, you know, brokerage firms never seem to have enough smarm.

All in all, a disappointment unless you just treat it as a low-grade TV movie about someone persevering against long odds, cheerfully ignoring the fact that those odd were made long by that same person. Bear in mind, though, that the movie is merely based on a true story, that many liberties were taken to accentuate the supposed struggles of Chris and Christopher.

**

313 – 28 Weeks Later

May 13, 2007

It’s seven months after the outbreak of the rage virus in London, and it appears that the disease has been eradicated. American troops are stationed throughout the city, which is now being repopulated. Among the new/old citizens are two children, the first minors to reenter the city. London is now a dystopia, much as it was in the similarly themed Children of Men, in which mistrust runs high and the government and military seem more antagonistic than beneficial.

It’s all safe, say the American soldiers. Mission accomplished, and all that. It’s safe to come back in. A dedicated military doctor wonders why the newest repatriates include children – “What if it comes back?” she wonders. “Then we kill it,” she’s told. I immediately felt safer.

Of course, the virus IS back, else there’d be no movie. In a prologue, a small band of survivors holes up in a secluded country cottage. When one answers the door to find an uninfected child, all hell breaks loose, culminating in one man’s decision to abandon his wife to the clutches of a rage-infested undead mob.

That man, Don (Robert Carlyle), is the father of the two new young arrivals to London, and now he has to explain how their mother died. Being the kind to spare his kids nightmares and to avoid probing questions, he fudges the truth a bit. Next thing you know, the kids are scampering across the Thames to visit their old home, against the express orders of the military, which deems most of London to be very unsafe, rife with disease and pestilence and the like. These are not smart kids.

You can see where this is going. The rage virus makes its return, spreading extremely quickly from person to person, and suddenly it’s a race against time to get the kids out of London. Now, in all honesty, there’s a good reason they have to make it out of the city, other than preserving their own lives, but I won’t spoil it here – I point this out merely to show that there is, indeed, a logical reason to hold their lives as more valuable than those of the adults around them.

But the trouble with 28 Weeks Later is that it’s largely uninvolving, boring crap. The people, except for that Army doctor (Rose Byrne) and an intrepid, ethical soldier (Jeremy Renner), are largely stupid. And I don’t mean just that they’re all one-dimensional characters, it’s that they do dumb things that cause all sorts of mayhem to rain upon them. Things like hugging a woman who may carry the rage disease. Or kissing a woman who may carry the rage disease. Breaking into a security facility to do the latter. That sort of thing. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

The second problem with the movie is that there aren’t nearly enough zombie attacks. There are some, sure, but they’re isolated and feel mighty stagy. Compare the scene in which the doctor and her charges attempt to get out of the city by car with the one in Children of Men in which Clive Owen attempts to escort the first pregnant woman in a generation out of the city. In one, you know the characters will run into a series of obstacles that they’ll likely overcome, but in the other, there’s no certainty at all – anything could happen.

The third problem is that much of the movie’s action scenes feel as if they’re part of a really bad music video. I’m talking choppy editing with quick, dizzying cuts – this is not a movie for those suffering from vertigo or epilepsy. The action moves so quickly that I literally could not tell what was happening, which can hardly be the point. It reminded me of being in the middle of Space Mountain at Walt Disney World. I saw flashing lights and heard screams, but that was about it. Just poor, poor editing and cinematography.

If this was supposed to be a commentary on the dangers of a having the military run a city, whoopee doo – we’ve seen this kind of junk before. I get it: military bad, citizens good. This movie ups the ante a little bit by actually firebombing London, a sort of Blitz II, but the effect would be the same if I were playing the old Nintendo video game Contra. Because the outbreak’s so bad, you see, the soldiers are ordered to waste everyone they see. Everyone’s a target. Including, apparently, the audience.

28 Weeks Later isn’t just bad in the sense that most sequels are bad, it’s bad in the sense that it manages to replay all cliches about dystopian societies, and End Days plagues, and so forth without giving us the goods of zombie attacks, which is what we came for.

**

Things to catch up on . . .

May 12, 2007

Ok, you’re thinking, I’ve added the RSS feed of this site to my reader, but you never ever update the thing, so why should I keep it? It’s a good question, really, and I don’t blame you for wondering. The best blogs update not only every day, but many times a day.

One thing that prevents me from doing so is laziness. I admit it – I just don’t have the energy to do it. Then there’s the fact that for the most part I put movie reviews on this blog, and watching movies takes time. And then there’s the fact that when the weather turns nice – usually May in the Washington area – I don’t watch as many movies anyway.

Plus, when I do go to the movies, I go alone, and I don’t have anyone encuraging me to go (with them or not). It’s all on me, and frankly I’m not always very good at persuading myself.

Anyway! Enough of the half-assed excuses, right? Let me get you caught up on some movies I’ve recently seen through the wonderful gift of Netflix.

The Body Snatcher (1945): Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s eponymous short story, this is about a doctor (Henry Daniell) who uses newly buried corpses for medical experiments. Then the supply begins to dry up, so the doctor’s supplier (Boris Karloff) kills people to ensure his income. Produced by the inestimable Val Lewton, The Body Snatcher is soaked in turn-of-the-century London atmopshere, with stark black-and-white photography and mood lighting to send chills down the spine. Karloff is sensational, and it’s one of his all-time best. Bela Lugosi shows up as well. ***1/2

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) The movie-musical version of George M. Cohan’s life is highly entertaining, of course. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of it. There’s singing and dancing and stuff, because Cohan was a bigshot singer/dancer/playwright back in the day. Well, as long as “the day” was 60-70 years ago, but still, it’s a timeless flick of pomp and patriotism. Or jingoism, depending. Cringe moment, though, when the Cohan family dresses in blackface. Even with that, it’s a classic. ***1/2

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) is retiring from the US Cavalry, but he’s gonna help his troop against them darn Indians one last time before he goes. Unluckily for him, though, there’s a wagon o’ womenfolk who need to tag along for the purposes of the plot. Can Nathan scout out the evil Indians while protecting the frail, helpless women? I love the sensibilities of the old movies. You try getting a manly man movie like this made in this day and age. I’m sure it could be done, but the Indians would be a lot more benevolent and open to compromise – if we even saw them. And there’d be one uppity girl who stood up to Nathan, who’d be played by Kevin Costner. ***1/2

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) Yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title – I didn’t add it. This is from infamous bad-movie auteur Herschell Gordon Lewis, and it’s about this funky town in the Deep South that lures Yankee tourists in order to slaughter them in meaningful and varied ways, all on the centennial of the town’s razing and pillaging by a stampeding Union army during the Civil War. So they get these six disparate people (well, all lily white, of course, none of those troublesome black folk) and tell ’em they’re the guests of honor for the centennial, and then they kill the heck out of them. Sounds interesting, at least from a horror standpoint, but it’s technically terrible; sometimes the dialog is virtually inaudible, the camera shots are awkward, the pacing is nonexistant, and so on. Not terribly gruesome, either, and there’s no acting to speak of. Bad, bad movie. *

Jackass: The Movie (2002) and Jackass Number Two (2006) I’m combining these two because they’re basically the same movie. It’s not as if Two was more intense or wacky than One. The movies aren’t going to win any conservative, uptight people over, of course. If these stunts aren’t your cup of tea, you won’t get into the movie, and if they are, you won’t be overwowed, a word I just coined. Me, I like the stunts where the guys do things to themselves, but I’m not a big fan of the sketches in which they humiliate or mess with innocent people. There are some funny scenes, to be sure, and any time you shoot someone into the air strapped to a rocket, you got a winner. But overall, the movies didn’t do too much for me. ** for both.

On the Town (1949) Another sprightly MGM musical, this one about three sailors on leave in the Big Apple for 24 hours. What shenanigans will they find? Not many, as it turns out, because this is a musical from the forties. It’s not as if they’ll wander from whorehouse to bar and back for the day. No, one of them (Frank Sinatra) is a nerdy tourist doof, while his pals (Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin) want to find girls. Girls to go to dinner with, not shack up with. The forties were so quaint. Anyway, Kelly sees a poster in a subway with a pinup, and he wants to find that girl in particular, and soon the boys are searching New York with the help of a wisecracking female cabbie. High comedy. As musicals go, it’s a real treat – I mean, you get to hear Kelly and Sinatra sing, so that’s something. ***1/2

The Night Listener (2006) Robin Williams is a gay late-night talk-show host who is contacted by a teenager who recently wrote a book about his traumatic past. But then questions arise about the boy’s identity – is he real, or is he a clever ploy by the boy’s adoptive mother (Toni Collette) to hype the book? And it’s based on a true story, apparently. Sandra Oh and Joe Morton costar and do a lot with the little screen time they get, but this is Williams’ show, and he’s really quite good. For all of the times in which he’s played a maudlin, sappy character, this one makes up for ’em. ***

For Your Consideration (2006) Christopher Guest, who excels in improv-style behind-the-scenes type movies, turns in somewhat subdued product this time, about the making of a feel-good family film called Home for Purim. Before you know it, there’s Oscar buzz on the Interwebnet about the elder leading lady (Catherine O’Hara), then about the elder leading man (Harry Shearer). Then the studio wants to broaden the appeal of the movie so it’s not a Jewish movie, and there’s cattiness, and unctuous agents and producers, and it all culimates with the announcement of the Oscar nominations. It’s mostly good, with the leads doing a fine job as always, but it’s missing some of the soul of Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. It might be that there’s too much focus on the characters of O’Hara and Shearer, but the whole thing just feels a little too antiseptic. **1/2

311 – Rocky Balboa

March 24, 2007

I was all prepared to buy into this new Rocky movie. I was ready, because it’d been 16 years since the last one, a movie Stallone himself said was kind of the worst of the bunch. Yeah, kind of. I was ready for Rock to come back against all odds and persevere, beating some rip-snortin’ champeen of the world to reclaim his dignity. But although this sixth Rocky film has most of the elements that a winning sports movie will have (underdog story, friends/relatives who don’t want him to do it, theme song), the result is flat, coming to life only during the requisite big fight at the end of the movie.

It’s been a long time since Rocky fought Tommy Morrison. Since then, wife Adrian has died and son Robert is now all grown up working at some highfalutin job. I can’t remember what the job was, but it was some kind of white-collar Important job, the better to juxtapose it with Rocky’s self-made lifestyle. But Paulie (But Young) is still around and, as it turns out, so is Duke (Tony Burton), who’s been Rocky’s cut man in all of the films thus far. But wait, with no Adrian there must be some kind of romance, right? Someone who can push Rocky a little, make him really want to succeed? So enter bartender Marie (Geraldine Hughes), who’s from Rocky’s old Philly neighborhood and has a son of her own. Sure, the son’s a teen who looks more like a twentysomething, and he’s a tall, gangly dude instead of an adorable waif, but you takes what you can gets.

Anyway, at this point in his life Rocky’s settled down. He has a restaurant, at which he spends a lot of time reminiscing and schmoozing with boxing fans. Trouble is, Rocky lives in the past. Several times we see him visiting Adrian’s grave or standing in front of old gyms or bars or other haunts, just trying to soak in some of what used to be. If there was an Olympics for wistfulness, ol’ Rock would surely win the gold each time out. He’s had much success, and yet here he is, living in the past. Paulie’s not of the same mind – he asks Rocky to change the channel, stop living backwards, and any other cliche he can come up with.

Meanwhile, the current champeen of the world is one Mason Dixon, who’s something like 35 and 0 with 33 knock outs. The slam on him is that he’s not really fighting anyone of any caliber – he’s just beating up bums. Sort of the same knock against Mike Tyson back in the day (Tyson even shows up in a ringside cameo), and Dixon gets roundly booed at his bouts. Then a computer simulation is run pitting Dixon against an in-his-prime Balboa. When the results give the edge to Rocky, brother, it is ON! Promoters figure here’s their change – people hate Dixon and aren’t coming to his fights, so taking on a sentimental fave like Rocky in an exhibition should spike sales.

So after some deliberation, Rocky decides to go for it, because that’s what Rocky would do. His son, who’s had to spend his life in the wide shadow of his father, is wholly against the idea, but naturally he comes around in time. Paulie’s against it to, sort of, and even so, he notes he can’t really help Rocky train, what with his job and all. But fret not, because that plot complication is handled easily enough, too.

I’d almost be able to forgive Stallone (who also wrote and directed) for the exponential schmaltz factor if there’d been more actual boxing, but the final battle with Dixon is it. There are no prelim bouts, no fights to get Rocky in shape, nothing. So he basically moves from the gym to the ring for his big fight. In reality, if he pulled that crap in his fifties, he’d be splattered by Dixon within one minute of round one. I won’t tell you precisely how it ends, to preserve that air of mystery, but I’ll note that the ending adds nothing different to the massive oeuvre of sports movies. Seriously, if you can’t figure out how this one’ll end, you’ve probably never watched a movie before.

About the only time the movie’s worth caring about is that final fight, though, because it’s pretty well done. Fight of the century, even. A lot of traded blows; it’s well orchestrated without being unbelievable. I mean, it’s not as if Rock is bleeding profusely from the eyes, mouth, nose, and neck and still manages to land a lucky punch to win it all at the last second. That would be stupid. But really, that’s the shred of credibility to which this movie clings.

Most egregiously, we don’t get to hear the awesome, iconic theme song in its entirety until the movie’s mostly over. On the other hand, a movie without the screeching ineptitude of Talia Shire can’t be too awful.

Hopefully, this will bury the ghost of Rocky Balboa for good. It’s not a terrible way to go out, but it’s by no means a knockout.

**

310 – Blood Diamond

March 23, 2007

Blood diamonds are pinkish in nature, and the term “blood diamond” refers to the blood spilled by those who were killed during its mining or transfer from the heart of Africa to stores around the world. That much I learned from the movie of the same name, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an amoral smuggler who teams up with a native fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) and an American journalist (Jennifer Connelly). I also learned that huge multinational companies control the diamond market by hoarding all the diamonds. Actually, I knew that part already.

Denny Archer (DiCaprio) sells guns to rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds, which he then turns over to a diamond cartel. Pretty nice gig, really, especially since apparently everyone in Sierra Leone is in on it except for the poor souls who have to mine the stuff. The revolutionaries rampage through villages, killing most of the citizens, including the women and children, and taking the men to work in the diamond mines. Some of the male children are taken to be “baby killers” among the rebels. So you see, everyone has a nice job.

Until the day that Solomon (Hounsou), mining in a creek for the rebels against his will, comes across a pink stone described as being about the size of a bird’s egg. (It’s never mentioned which bird, though.) As the rebels are being bombed by the government, Solomon buries the stone. But of course he’s been spotted, and the rest of the movie is spent by everyone trying to get his or her hands on it to get out of Africa in one piece.

One of those people is Archer. At first you get the impression that he’s sort of a summa-cum-Indy, an adventurer who looks like he’s out for himself but deep down is a right respectable bastard who’ll save a pretty girl and prevent an innocent man from being stabbed. Well, he’s sort of that person, in that he’ll save the pretty girl (Connelly), as long as he still gets his money. Kind of a low-rent Han Solo, really, only without the cool ride. At any rate, while in jail in Sierra Leone, Archer overhears a captured rebel commander accuse the also-imprisoned Solomon of hiding a big ol’ diamond. And that, apparently, is all Archer needs to know, as he gets Solomon bailed out for the sole purpose of getting him to lead Archer to the diamond.

To accomplish this, Archer joins forces with Maddy (Connelly), a journalist looking for the real story of the rape of the African continent. She knows the diamond cartels are behind all the mayhem but can’t print anything without anyone willing to go on the record with names and dates and other information. Of course, the swaggering Archer might be that person. Might they strike a deal? Oh, even better yet – perhaps they’ll fall in love with each other, running through the jungles and plains?

Leonardo DiCaprio could wear a four-foot beard and still look about sixteen years old. He can’t disguise his youthfulness with a somewhat-acceptable Afrikaans accent (Archer is supposed to be from Rhodesia, aka Zimbabwe). And were we supposed to root for him or against him? In the hands of a skilled actor, ambiguous intentions can lend an air of mystery to a character, but it’s a delicate chore; otherwise, you wind up not really caring if the guy’s supposed to be good or bad. Such it is with Archer. I got it. He’s in it for himself. Okay, I wondered, now what? Give me a reason why I should care if he dies, if all he’s after is the diamond, no matter the cost of human life.

On the other hand, Hounsou is exceptional as a man who’s quiet life has been incontrovertibly rent asunder by the invading rebel forces, which kidnap his son and turn him against his own people, and the government itself, which quarantines all refugees with the idea that it’s too tough to tell which refugees are with the rebels and which are not. Having lost nearly everything save his own dignity, Solomon does not break, but bends when he must. His urgent need is to reunite with his family and restore order to their lives. Nothing else matters; he sees his diamond as a way out of everything.

Completing the troika is Connelly, who offers a somewhat distaff performance as the naive, unlikeable journo Maddy. Why would Maddy feel compelled to help Archer? Oh, that’s right, he’s Leonardo DiCaprio. The blunt sexual tension gets to be a bit too much at times; try to avoid screaming “oh, just get on with it, already!” at the screen. Connelly’s done much better work than here, of course. It’s just that she seems so listless, almost bored at times by the proceedings, like she can’t quite believe she’s in this junky, pseudoaction movie.

We’re supposed to take away from this movie the central message that Diamonds Are Bad, at least if people died in order for them to make it to us. As soon as the movie came out, various diamond companies announced they were  upstanding companies who’d never, ever do anything like this. I don’t know what I should believe, because I’ve always sort of thought that buying shiny rocks was a dumb thing to do, anyway. But overall, the impression one gets is that this is just another dumb Hollywood message/action movie. A lot of the time, the scenes are basically people running from one explosion to another; luckily, the fine acting of Hounsou allows the audience to track what’s going on rather effectively. And of course, in the end Things Are Solved, as I’m sure they are in real life.

**

298 – All the King’s Men (2006)

January 23, 2007

Willie Stark, a man of the people, is elected governor of the great state of Louisiana only to engage in the same underhanded maneuvers against which he railed in his ascension to the highest elected office in the state. That’s essentially the story behind All the King’s Men, a reportedly faithful adaptation of the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name (also adapted in 1949), with Sean Penn as Stark and Jude Law as Jack Burden, the journalist who helped propel Stark to fame and fortune.

Told from Burden’s point of view, the story is supposed to show us that although power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, or something like that. Burden meets Stark before the latter even enters politics, trying to get a new elementary school built to code. Instead, local cronyism allows the school to be built on the cheap, setting the scene for a fire escape to break and kill three children. Stark decides to try to run things his own dang way, but it’s not until he’s energized by Burden and by his aide/lover Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson, who’s excellent here) that he transforms himself from just another white dude trying for some power into a galvanized, vibrant, gesticulating lightning rod for the have-nots in the state. Stark jumps from parish to swampland to hovel pledging to rid state government of fat cats and to work for the people. Somewhere along the way, though, he changes into the very thing he’d vowed to eradicate, all in the name of protecting those who could not protect themselves.

Penn is good as Stark, although his accent (along with that of most characters in the film) takes some getting used to, thick as it is. If you’ve ever seen the 1949 version starring Broderick Crawford, though, you might have had in mind someone a bit …larger, perhaps, more substantial. Penn’s a pipsqueak, but he’s a damn fine actor, so he’s somehow able to essay strength, conviction, and tenacity into a larger-than-life character. Were it not for the frequent incomprehensibility of his diction, Penn’s performance might be termed a powerhouse show. But I never got a feeling I knew why Stark changed. One minute he’s gladhandling, the next minute he’s applying pressure to a retired judge who won’t support him (Anthony Hopkins). Where was his motivation? Was it pure greed, lust for power, what? Warren’s novel probably elaborated a bit more than Steve Zaillian’s screenplay did.

At least Penn has a strong supporting cast around him, but Law still didn’t feel quite right as the reporter/columnist. Why did he join up with Stark in the first place? (Stark tells him it wasn’t for money or because Burden believed in Stark but because Stark was what he was and Burden was what HE was, whatever that means.) Essentially, the character of Burden was just a vehicle to tell the story of Stark’s rise and ultimate fall. In fact, that’s basically how the other characters come off as well, just window dressing to whatever scene the bombastic (and iconoclastic) Penn chews up and spits out.

There’s even a contrived romantic subplot – along with the ever-present specter of Buried Secrets – involving Burden and Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet). It’s fun to see Winslet and Law, both of whom have done excellent work elsewhere, but the relationship feels forced, as does the character of Anne’s brother Adam, played by Mark Ruffalo. Such wonderful, youthful talent, wasted! The twists involving these characters are pretty obvious, leading to hamfisted direction and over-the-top acting.

Ultimately, his remake fails to really grab the viewer, leaving one to watch it dispassionately when we should be rooting for Burden (and Stark, at least at the beginning). It should be a story of manipulation and coersion on both psychological and physical fronts. But it is fun, at least, to see Jackie Earle Haley (remember? The Bad News Bears’ Kelly Leak) as Stark’s sharpshooter bodygard.

**

Revenge of the Blurbs

January 15, 2007

(Originally published in The Gleaner of Rutgers University-Camden.)

The Flintstones
**1/2

It seems that every popular TV show of the sixties has made it in one form or another to the entertainment world in the eighties and nineties. I Dream of Jeannie? Perry Mason? TV reunion movies. The Beverly Hillbillies? The Fugitive? Theatrical releases. What’s next, The Mod Squad? Even the Smothers Brothers attempted a comeback with a variety show not too long ago. And now, having seemingly exhausted our supply of live-action shows, we scrape the bottom of the proverbial barrel and come up with a full-length, live-action, feature film based on a cartoon from the sixties.

The film does about as well as one might expect from anything with cartoon ancestry, which is a thinly veiled way of saying that if one lowers one’s expectations accordingly, one will not be overly disappointed. Which is to say that The Flintstones is no Fugitive, but it beats The Beverly Hillbillies by a ton.

If you’re concerned about a semblance of a plot, it goes something like this: Fred Flinstone (played by the indomitable John Goodman) finds himself promoted from low-man-at-the-quarry to a bigshot position upstairs as an executive of some sort. He’s put there as a patsy by slimy no-account Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks), who, along with his alluring secretary Sharon Stone (Halle Berry), plans to dupe poor ol’ Fred into firing the quarryworkers and replacing them with machines. Naturally, it’s up to Fred to save the day. Ho-hum.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the main focus of this film is not its deep plotline. The endearing performances (including a flavorful one by Elizabeth Taylor as Fred’s shrewish mother-in-law), the meticulous set design (which comes very close to the old show’s detailed work, and adds such modern conveniences as a ATM), and a general feeling of let’s-all-have-some-fun-here all make for some good solid entertainment, especially for kids.

Little Big League
**1/2

An 11-year-old boy inherits the Minnesota Twins from his grandfather (Jason Robards), and names himself manager to the perennial losers. Of course, the team is loath to have him as their new skipper, but don’t fret; they all come around eventually.

Similar in plot to last year’s Rookie of the Year, Little Big League has a few things going for it, such as excellent baseball scenes (with real-life players in their real-life uniforms), and fine character support. Timothy Busfield (Thirtysomething) is warm and funny as the team’s thirdbaseman, who has a crush on the boy’s mother. Jonathan Silverman is a young, chatty (read: obnoxious) pitcher with heart and verve.

The problem lies in the central casting of Luke Edwards as the boy owner/manager. Edwards, unlike Thomas Ian Nicholas’ Henry in Rookie, is morose and way too serious for the role. You’ll strain looking for a sustained instance in which Edwards smiles. There is no carefree atmosphere, no boyish enthusiasm, just depressing adult-talk — from a kid! This is good for the little ones, but nothing magical; it’s nothing that we haven’t seen in Rookie or in 1994’s Angels in the Outfield.

With Honors
**

 

You don’t know how badly I wanted to give this film another star. I mean, look at the cast. Joe Pesci. Brendan Fraser. Moira Kelly. Patrick Dempsey. These are certified appealing actors, with fine resumes all. And the plot seems entertaining enough, with bum Pesci (who lives in the boiler room at Harvard University) ransoming Fraser’s senior thesis for food and shelter. And with Fraser, Kelly, and Dempsey (along with Josh Hamilton) co-existing in an apartment, you’d have to figure there’d be some romance there somewhere.

But the problem with the film is that there’s no there there. It’s a one-dimensional look at the situation of the homeless, with a dollop of asbestos controversy tossed in like croutons on a salad. The actors all do their jobs well, but there is little cohesion and fewer laughs in what could have been uproarious. In fact, Dempsey, who hosts a radio show on campus, gets some of the movie’s best lines. Pesci tries to teach his new friends about life, but ends up teaching the audience a new method for curing insomnia.

Play Blurby for Me

January 15, 2007

(Originally published in The Gleaner of Rutgers University-Camden.)

Speed
***1/2

 

Forget about all other action films. Somewhere there is a blueprint on how to successfully make an action film; how to film just the right amount of death-defying stunts; how to mix in a romance, and how much of that romance to mix; and how to weave a plot that is neither too intrusive nor too generic.
Speed has accomplished all of this, and to perfection. This is really a three-part actioner: you’ve got imminent danger in an elevator, on a bus, and on a subway train. The stunts never cease; just when you think ace SWAT-teamer Keanu Reeves has saved the day for all humanity, up comes another awful disaster to test his mettle.

Reeves, at first, seems an odd choice to play the chest-thumping, macho, heroic protagonist here. He’s played dumb teenagers (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, River’s Edge) and stuffed shirts (Dangerous Liasons, Much Ado About Nothing). He’s been labeled a Brat Packer and an iconoclastic auteur, taking the sort of roles River Phoenix loved: the off-beat, oddball parts found in movies made by the likes of Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Little Buddha). He’s not the kind of actor you’d expect to be like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. However, surprisingly, Reeves is, like, totally excellent in his gritty portrayal of the hero. He wears the magic “S” on his shirt throughout the movie, too; you don’t really get to see any frailities within Reeves’ character (although he does fall for the heroine, thus making him “wimpy” in the eyes of manly men everywhere). But, character development aside, Reeves is fantastic. He may have finally found himself a niche in Hollywood.

Dennis Hopper plays Reeves’ adversary, a Mad Bomber intent on taking out Reeves and any innocents in the vicinity. Hopper has wired a metro bus with a mega-bomb which will detonate if the bus travels at a speed below 50 MPH. It’s up to Reeves to figure out how to dismantle the bomb and get the passengers off. (Think he can do it? Maybe.) Hopper is deviously crazy in his work; it’s a role he can play in his sleep. Hopper breathes extra life into the film, and his flippant personality allows something for Reeves to play off verbally. He is the perfect foil, a knowledgeable bomber with a rapier-sharp wit.

Sandra Bullock is the love interest. Reeves meets her on the bus that has the bomb wired to it; Bullock is the driver, panic-stricken but steady enough to hold the wheel steady. She is oozing with charisma, a picture-perfect heroine who is not wimpy but who is smart enough to follow cop Reeves’ instructions and maintain her composure against fearsome odds.

Speed is the most on-target action film of the year, and should garner itself an Oscar nomination for special effects or something. Pulse-pounding, in-your-face, heart-racing atmosphere that will send the frail-of-heart screaming from the room is precedent. Do not miss it!

Wyatt Earp

**

Another long Western from Kevin Costner, and fresh on the heels of last year’s Tombstone, which covered the same territory. Costner gives us a three-hour movie which was actually edited down from over six hours. The result is not epic, but still very well done.

Costner is Earp, the lawman who tries to leave peacekeeping behind and start a new life but finds himself in a feud with a band known as the Cowboys. Earp, his brothers, and the dying Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid) meet the Cowboys in a showdown in good ol’ Tombstone after much murder on both sides. Unlike Tombstone, which had too many endings, Wyatt Earp ends with Wyatt finally avenging his brothers’ deaths and living his final years in peace.

There are plenty of gunfights, but the focus is on the character change of Earp. He opens the film a conscientous, intelligent person; one who values life but who isn’t cowed by men with guns. He ends the film bent on revenge, cold-hearted, willing and able to cut down a man in cold blood for the sake of killing. In this sense, Costner is his usual low-key self, which ultimately hurts the film. Wyatt Earp the character needed to be more volatile, more combustible, more outspoken. With Costner, however, Earp is…well, boring. He’s almost nondescript. Quaid is much more colorful as Holliday, though he’s nearly unrecognizable at first. Gene Hackman also shows up as Earp’s father early in the film, and many other familiar faces are sprinkled throughout.

All in all, this is a fine film, though slow-moving at times. It does have remarkable photagraphy and good storytelling, but this Lawrence Kasdan-directed movie misses the mark with the casting of its one-dimensional title character.

When a Man Loves a Woman
**1/2

Rarely does Hollywood examine a tragic, heart-rending disease such as alcoholism and make a feature-length film about it. Sure, TV does this all the time for its movies-of-the-week, but rarely does the cinematic world take the chance of showing unhappy endings.

This is not a happy film. This is a bona fide, four-hankie weeper, much in the vein of 1992’s Sleepless in Seattle or last year’s My Life. Meg Ryan stars as a mother of two, married to the charming Andy Garcia. She drinks in the morning. She drinks at night. She drinks all the time. She realizes her problem when she hits her youngest daughter while guzzling vodka from the bottle.

Garcia plays the understanding husband, but, in a welcomed dose of reality, is not all hugs and kisses throughout Ryan’s ordeal. Does she blame him? Does she care about him? Can he handle the pressure of caring for a recovering alcoholic?

This is one of the most intelligent approaches to this dreaded disease; it is starkly produced, bleak in tone but full of hope. Ryan is mesmerizing and very credible in the lead; Garcia fares only slightly below her; his Latino accent shows up whenever he gets angry.

Rent this movie if you want a good, hard cry; sniffle and suffer along with Garcia and Ryan. Just don’t do it while depressed; it could be fatal.

Silence of the Blurbians

January 15, 2007

(Originally published in The Gleaner of Rutgers University-Camden.)

Little Buddha
**1/2

Last week, in Speed, we saw Keanu Reeves as a hyperactive SWAT-teamer saving the day for all dudekind from a deranged bomber. This week, he shows us his more emotional side and portrays Buddha as a young man. Now that’s range.

Tibetan monks travel to San Francisco to find a boy who they believe is the reincarnation of their spiritual leader, Buddha. When they locate the boy, they inform him of his supposed spiritual dominance and implore him to return with them to Tibet to enjoy a lifetime of freedom and paradise. This is an easy sell for the boy; his parents, however, are another story. Mom (Bridget Fonda) wants her young charge to grow up normal; Dad (Chris Isaak) is steadfast at first, but is easily persuaded by the effervescent brothers.
Reeves shows up in flashback, telling the story of Buddha and how he came to symbolize peace and understanding for the Tibetan people. His joyful, childlike depiction of the immotral spiritual leader is at once intelligent and endearing. Unfortunately, we don’t see enough of Reeves; most of the screen time is devoted to the monks and their pursuit of the boy.

Although wonderfully photographed, Little Buddha is sunk by a sometimes-convuluted plot and an over-reliance on the flashback to tell the tale. Reeves is excellent, but the movie leaves the viewer with a sense of dispassionate confusion.

Getting Even With Dad
**

Macaulay Culkin is growing up rather quickly. Wasn’t only a few years ago he was playing charming cherubs in Uncle Buck (1989), Home Alone (1990), and My Girl (1991)? Now that he’s maturing (at least physically), Mac is playing nerdier, scruffier characters that are even more obnoxious than the ain’t-I-cute portrayals of his early career.

In Dad, Culkin is an 11-year-old who, seemingly, no one wants. He’s been dumped off by his aunt, with whom he’s lived for most of his life, to his erstwhile, small-time crook dad (Ted Danson), who’s not exactly overjoyed at the prospect of babysitting his estranged kid while he (Danson) plots a major robbery. Naturally, our man Mac hides the loot from Danson and his cohorts in crime, and blackmails Danson into spending a little Quality Time with him. Poor Danson, sporting a comical ponytail which simply doesn’t work here, is stuck schlepping his super-smart offspring to baseball games, movies, museums, zoos, et cetera. You can easily guess what happens here. Culkin won’t divulge the whereabouts of the cash until he’s sure Danson wants him on a more permanent basis and gives up his life of crime.

There are some scattered laughs throughout, but they’re hard to find without a compass. Danson tries (a little too hard), and Culkin is just trying. This movie is a waste of money unless you have some young kids who have nothing else to do.