Archive for the ‘2.5-Star Movies’ Category

363 – F**k

January 6, 2008

It’s the Queen Mother of curse words, Although it’s been supplanted in some regards by the c-word (ask your parents), eff dash dash dash has far more uses – why, it’s probably the single most useful word in the universe, or at least the English language, since it can be used as a noun, an adjective, an adverb, an interjection, a verb, and so on. Seriously, let’s see your “the” and “thing” do that.

This documentary uses the bomb 857 times, so you know it’s not shying away from its subject matter. Pontificators from all sides of the spectrum weigh in on the word, from its uses in movies and songs to its origins and meanings to its use in the arena of politics (as famously used by the sitting Vice President on the floor of the Senate).

But in the end, it’s not as if anyone is going to be swayed one way or the other here. Those who think the word’s not all that bad (although perhaps shouldn’t be used anywhere, anytime) seem to make reasoned, thoughtful arguments, but the people watching this movie are probably on that side of the fence already, anyway. (By contrast, the more-conservative voices offering opinions come off as uptight jackasses who want to control everything.)

Those interviewed include Janeane Garofolo, Billy Connolly, Bill Maher, Pat Boone, Sam Donaldson, Ice-T, Chuck D, John Crossley, Ron Jeremy, and Tera Patrick. All come off pretty well, doofy conservative arguments notwithstanding. But, man, is it just me, or does Billy Connolly look weirder every year? He looks like the Cowardly Lion on crack. Add in his sometimes unintelligble Scottish accent, and you get something you’d expect to find in the mines of Moria. That’s a Lord of the Rings reference, for you non-nerds out there.

Love Pat Boone, though, even when he comes off as a crusty old bastard. He said that he created a new word that he uses instead of cuss words – “boone.” Yep, he uses his own name. He drops something on his foot – “aw, BOONE!” Awesome. And then Ice-T, learning of this, agrees – he says he’s gonna boone his wife later that night.

It’s not a bad documentary, but it’s no great shakes, either. It actually feels a little tedious and repetitive and redundant after a while, because you’re like, “Okay, I get it! Fuck is a bad word!” There; there’s my gratutious use of the word. I feel so virile!

**1/2

361 – Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

December 29, 2007

The five of you who have read past the title and are here, in the body of the review, I have this to tell you – it ain’t that bad. Sure, this is the sixth or fourth in a rapidly declining series, and as the Law of Sequels tells us, the farther away from the first movie we get, the quality of each film decreases exponentially. Or proportionally. But I don’t want to get all mathy on you.

The film before this showed the long-awaited pairing of the Aliens and the Predator, and for the most part the result was pretty compelling. This time around, in a scene reminiscent of the original Alien movie, an interloping alien emerges from the prone body of a Predator and attacks the crew, causing their spaceship to plummet to a little blue-green planet. Before you know it, alien face-huggers are implanting themselves into a hunter and his son and then birthing chest-bursters near a small, unsuspecting Colorado town.

Meanwhile – and really germane to the plot – the Predators have sent another of their kind down to Earth to destroy any evidence of their crashed (and dead, apparently) and to eradicate the Aliens. Which is a pretty fair fight, since the Predator has a lot of big guns and can turn invisible, and the Aliens can spit acid and slap you about the face and head. Of course, humans get caught in the crossfire, as they did in the movie’s immediate predecessor.

There are a lot of standard structures in this movie, such as the virginal (ahem) high school queen; the bad boy; the bad boy’s older brother, who’s an ex-con, and so on. People routinely wander into unlit areas for no reason other than to get slaughtered, and it’s pretty clear from the git-go that the humans in this story are there merely to give us something to care about.

Because let’s face it. The Predator is in his watery-invisible form for most of the movie, and the Aliens are dark, and they all fight in dark, dark areas. With no humans, no recognizable faces, we might as well be watching polar bears in a snowstorm. Not only that, but – as with the last film – the audience can get someone for whom to root, in this case, the ineffectual, victimized humans who fire what amount to BB guns at a Sherman tank. Remember the tagline from the last movie? “Whoever wins, we lose?”

For the first couple thirds of the movie, the humans act stupid and/or dully, acting as mere befuddled targets than people you’d care about. Except, of course, for the people who would somehow make it to the final third of the movie. Don’t worry, they’re easy to pick out; everyone else is easy to pick off.

And certainly, it wouldn’t be a sci-fi movie without some kind of potential government coverup/conspiracy/meddling; thankfully, that thread isn’t introduced until well into the movie, which means we don’t spend half the film with the specter of the Evil Goverment That’s Out to Destroy Everyone. Good thing, because more enemies just complicates things.

Bottom line is that the final twenty minutes or so definitely make up for the lousy pacing and the lack of tension in the first hour. I mean, things were so bad that you could easily predict what would happen to a character you just met. Death scenes were telegraphed with a giant beacon that said “PERSON DIES HERE. BLOOD SPURTS.” And make no mistake, this is a grisly movie that delights in people getting slaughtered in fun and exciting ways, involving evisceration. Or getting poked in the eye or chest. Or flaying. And no groups are spared – not women, not children, and not even pregnant women. It’s a real windfall for aficionados of equal-opportunity gore.

**1/2

360 – Charlie Wilson’s War

December 23, 2007

Charlie Wilson’s War is based on real-life events, but that doesn’t mean it’s awesomely compelling. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) an almost-invisible Congressman in the 1980s who specializes in drinking and carousing, decides to push for the U.S. to aid the Afghanis, whose country has been invaded by the Soviet Union. Only they had to do it secret-like, you see, because the Cold War was ongoing at the time. Couldn’t have the Russkies knowing we were arming their enemies, because then we’d be directly involved when we wanted to remain indirectly involved. You know, because of the nukes.

Wilson can’t pull this off alone, of course, even if he’s the chairman of the committee that funds the CIA’s covert ops. The cool thing is that if Wilson asks for the budget to be increased, say, twofold, Congress sees only the amount, not the reasons underlying the increase. Even so, Wilson needs to schmooze and raise funds without blowing the cover; he’s pushed and prodded into action by a woman who can help him, wealthy Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts). Herring, a devout Christian, wants to help the Afghani mujahedin to push back against the godless Communist invaders. Rounding out the team is the CIA’s own rogue renegade rebel, Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an iconoclast with the intelligence – if not the social graces – to help Wilson win his war.

Hanks turns in a pretty believable Texas twang and is a pretty good fit for the role, even when he uses profanity. I can’t remember the last time I heard Tom Hanks say the F word or be in a hot tub with naked women. Oh, wait, it might have been Bachelor Party. Somehow, even the older Hanks pulls it off. Then there’s Roberts, who’s also somewhat acceptable in her role as the Texan matron – but who must have had an on-set stylist who absolutely detested her, because she got put in some of the worst wigs known to women. (Men in general have worse wigs, obviously.) I mean, it looked like a blonde muskrat died on her head. I shouldn’t be too unkind, since the movie IS set in the 1980s, a decade infamous for its fashion choices, but the look was really awful for Roberts. And, as I mentioned, she’s somewhat acceptable – if one looks past the fact that she’s 40 playing someone considerably older but still looking like a 40 year old playing dress up.

Outshining everyone, easily, was Hoffman. It’s like the man doesn’t even have to break a sweat to outact people anymore. He’s even better than Hanks, who’s kind of restricted by the type of role that Charlie Wilson is – a fun-lovin’ Man in Charge. Supporting characters, like Hoffman’s Gust, often have more freedom to be wacky, offbeat, lovable curmudgeons. Hoffman’s fantastic, hidden beneath Gust’s bushy mustache and issuing bon mots; he steals the movie from the bigger stars (Oscar win notwithstanding) with a grumpy, energetic performance.

All in all, Charlie Wilson’s war is simply okay, a decent biopic about a man and situation unfamiliar to most people. It’s helped quite a bit by its superstar cast (and direction by Mike Nichols), but it’s not interesting enough to warrant much attention. When Hanks, Roberts, and Hoffman have retired from acting, this movie will appear only as a blip, a footnote in otherwise memorable careers.

**1/2

357 – The Mist

November 25, 2007

Stephen King’s 1983 short story (more of a novella, really) is pretty well realized for the big screen by Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption), although the ending might leave viewers cold, not chilled. The effects are excellent, as Hollywood strangely (and wisely!) decided to ease off the overproduced special effects for a change, and the result is that when we do see the creatures, we’re suitably terrified, especially since the camera never lingers long on any of them.

The basic setup is that a storm of the century has shut down the power in a small New England town, and the next morning a thick mist is rolling across the town’s large lake. Dave Drayton (Thomas Jane) gathers his eight-year-old son and, accompanied by his caustic neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), heads to the supermarket to load up on groceries. When they get there, they find that pretty much everyone else in town has the same idea. And it seems like just the usual bad-weather madness until a local citizen bursts into the store, blood on his chest, screaming about how creature from the mist took his friend, and dadgum it everyone better GET INSIDE CLOSE THE DOOR AAAH THEY’RE COMING, and sure enough, as the doors are closed, the mist comes rolling in, and people stay the heck where they are.

But it soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary mist, and that old man might have been on to something – something IS out there, but the mist is so thick no one can tell what it is. And that’s where the story really gets under your skin. What manner of creature is outside the store’s walls? Is it faster than a man trying to get to his car? Is it small, but vicious? Or is it gigantic? Is it even benign? (No, it’s not.)
In other, less-deft hands, a story like this would have been a typical monster movie, as our Intrepid Hero saves the world from sure destruction. But this isn’t about man versus the monster, it’s about man versus the unknown – and man versus man.

Almost all of the action takes place inside the supermarket. There are level-headed (but scared) people, like Dave, Amanda Dumfries (Laurie Holden), Ollie (Toby Jones), and Irene (Frances Sternhagen), and then there are the so-scared-they’re-irrational people, like Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden, whom I thought was miscast, possibly because I’d always envisioned Kathy Bates in the role) and Jim Grondin (William Sadler), and Norton. In a lesser movie, the theme would be that all of them must work together in order to survive, but that theme isn’t given a chance here, as would be the case in real life. There’s no rousing speech about how everyone’s in this together; people become unhinged and unwilling to listen to reason at the drop of a hat, because the unknown of the mist is too much to bear.

That’s where Mrs. Carmody comes in. She’s a Bible-thumping fanatic of the Old Testament, and she sees the mist and its denizens as a sign from the Almighty, and as the movie progresses she becomes more and more like a seer to the easily swayed – and sees herself as a righteous martyr who will someday sit beside God. In other words, a disaster like the mist gives a kook like Mrs. Carmody the perfect opportunity to save souls, whether they want to be or not, and her zeal gives the lesser-minded individuals something they can hold on to, rather than using their minds for practical survival.

Dave acts as the de facto leader of the survivors, mostly because no one else steps forward, not even the three almost-on-leave soldiers trapped in the store. But not only must he find a way to get out of the store and past the creatures, but he has to deal with the escalating insanity of Mrs. Carmody, whose rantings attract a larger and larger congregation, ending in tragedy.

The only real issue I have with the movie is the ending, which differs wildly from that in King’s original printed story. You would think that a Hollywood ending would be more tangible, thus giving the viewer better closure. Well, we do get some closure, but the result is that you feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach. The finale is so unsatisfying, you wonder what the heck the preceding two hours were supposed to be for.

**1/2

354 – Evan Almighty

November 10, 2007

Evan Baxter is movin’ on up to the capital side of things. Baxter (Steve Carell) has been elected to Congress as a New York representative, leaving Buffalo and his old job as news anchor behind (as we last saw him, in Bruce Almighty). He’s schlepped his prettier-than-he-deserves wife (Lauren Graham) and his three sons down to Washington. Shortly after he arrives there, though, God (Morgan Freeman) appears to him and tells him to build an ark.

Why, you ask? Why, to drive the plot, of course. Back in ye olden times, Noah was told to build an ark so that when God flooded the planet, the humans and the animals could repopulate. That’s not quite the scope of the task at hand here, though we don’t find that out till near the end of the movie.

Building an ark in this day and age is disconcerting enough, but Evan has ancillary problems. He prides himself on his appearance, but lo and behold, once God has Spoken to Evan, he notices he can’t shave in the morning. Or anytime. The beard grows right back. His hair also begins to grow at an alarming rate. And pairs of animals, from gophers to birds, are following him everywhere. Not a good turn of events if you’re a freshman congresscritter.

Naturally, no one believes that God has spoken to Evan, thus making for awkward moments when a powerful congressman (a hammy John Goodman) wants Baxter to cosponsor some kind of land rights bill, and every time he runs into Evan he sees animals and hair. Bad impression!

Not that the movie’s completely lacking in cleverness, however. Evan’s wife is Joan (Joan of Arc, get it?); the Baxters’ realtor is Eve Adams (an annoying Molly Shannon) (Eve, Adam, get it?); God His Own Darn Self wears a name tag when he appears to Joan that says “Al Mighty.” Oh, and the company that drops off the wood that Evan’s supposed to use to build the ark is the “Go 4 Wood” company. Because the original ark was supposedly made of gopher wood.

For the most part, the movie is pretty formulaic. No one believes him, especially his family. Then they sort of do, but no one else does. Then people ridicule him while he builds the arc. Then the flood happens, and suddenly everyone’s a True Believer. Har. Oh, and then there’s the obligatory sideplot of the supposedly nice politco who’s actually up to dirty tricks. In Washington, of all places! I know!

Carell isn’t too bad, and neither is his supporting cast, and that may actually be the problem – they’re just “not bad” instead of “pretty good.” This isn’t a movie you’ll remember in a few years, in other words, except when you think of movies that had pretty good CGI scenes (check out the flood!). Freeman is as smooth as you’d expect Morgan Freeman to be, really, and there’s no one else who could have done a better job than he did. But really, everyone else in the movie was sort of bland and could have been replaced by another, similarly innocuous actor. (Except Wanda Sykes, who plays Evan’s executive assistant – she could be replaced by someone who’s not a major irritant.)

The end does compensate for an otherwise grayscale movie, with a wonderful staging of The Flood. Except, you know, on a much smaller scale, which sort of undermines the whole idea of The Flood in the first place. In Bruce Almighty, God wanted Bruce (and HIS not-understanding girlfriend, Jennifer Aniston) to gain understanding. Here, He’s asking Evan to solve a political/social crisis. Bruce Almighty, it turned out, taught us about free will; Evan Almighty teaches us that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything. Evan Almighty’s overall message just doesn’t feel as all-encompassing or rich as that of Bruce Almighty, which makes it feel a little flat.

**1/2

349 – Saw IV

October 28, 2007

You don’t need me to tell you that the blood and guts in Saw IV is, well, a bit grotesque. After all, the torture series has made evisceration its bread and butter, if you will, and it’s probably a little bit late to slap that sin back into Pandora’s Box. So, Saw = gore. Presumably, if you’ve read even this far, you’re all in for goopy blood and entrails and whatnot. It’s your bread and butter too, you see.

So Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and his faithful companion Amanda (Shawnee Smith) are no longer among the living, but their “work” lives on, in an unending conga line of sequels. In this one, two veteran FBI agents join the local cops to try to figure out who’s killing cops, especially with the supposed mastermind quite sincerely deceased.

As with the first three movies, people are maimed and killed in variously creative ways, all part of some posthumous scheme cooked up by Jigsaw. Or by some accomplice who’s carrying on the evil work. The good news? It’s all interconnected with the events of Saw III. The bad news? Saw III was somewhat confusing, and this one blows it out of the water in terms of murkiness and who the hey is doing what and when. But we do see a lot of the same basic concepts, like a victim wakes to find himself in some sort of diabolical trap, and he must suffer incredible pain if he wants to live. I have to admit that the devices themselves – and the plots they forward – are pretty ingenious. In one scene, a husband and wife wake to find themselves impaled on a series of sharp sticks. That is, a stick enters the woman’s body and exits, and then enters the man’s body. The backstory is that she was physically abused by him for many years, and now she literally holds his life in her hands. She can live, but only if she removes the sticks, and by doing so his vital organs are skewered. Awesome stuff.

But at its heart, this is a revenge movie. Revenge of Jigsaw for the wrongs he’d suffered. In IV, we find out a heck of a lot more about John’s life story, what made him who he is. In fact, we learn he has/had an ex-wife, who makes an extended experience here. Can the ex-wife jokes, you guys out there. She’s actually a good guy in this one. I think. It’s hard to tell, the plot’s so convoluted. You did something wrong to Jigsaw? You die violently. Cut him off at the supermarket? Dinged his car in the parking lot? Littered on his part of the sidewalk? Man, you are so dead.

Meanwhile, all the cops and agents are trying desperately to find out where the actual Jigsaw headquarters is, because the killings continue – and one of their own is missing. Well, more than one, actually; one’s been gone six months. But another just vanished, and for some reason the men in blue think he’s the one behind everything. They may have a point, since as they follow his trail the bodies pile up. And, as I said, each victim has been selected for a specific reason. Man, if Jigsaw put as much effort into saving the world as he did in killing people off, we’d be pretty set.

This ain’t for the squeamish, certainly. First scene is Jigsaw being cut open during an autopsy, and no sight is worse, perhaps, than seeing the skull sawed open, the skin flapped down, the brain removed… Eww. It’s a big fat eww, and it’s not the only one. If I were you, I wouldn’t eat anything sticky or squishy while watching this – parts of it make Hostel seem like Herbie the Love Bug.

The biggest caveat is that the plot is a little tough to follow, since your mind is overwhelmed by all the carnage. At one point during the final ten minutes or so, a character appears whom I swear I didn’t even recognize, and that’s because some of the events of IV run parallel, timewise, to those in III. Saw III was so last year, so I didn’t remember the character.

Overall, though, there is no substantial dropoff in quality from III to IV. Or even, really, from II to IV; the first one still reigns supreme, but that’s partly because it was all fresh for us back then, and the others have had to live up to that film’s standard. IV manages to hold its own; good thing, too, since it’s very likely we’ll see a V and a VI.

**1/2

330 – The Good Shepherd

July 13, 2007

Robert DeNiro’s ambitious, fictionalized account of the creation and early history of the CIA is intelligent and well intentioned, with superb casting. Its most prominent debit is in the casting of Matt Damon as its lead, Edward Wilson, the young man at the crux of the genesis of the counterintelligence agency.

The quiet, unassuming Wilson is a straight-arrow Yale student, part of America’s upper crust, who vows to do good in the world after his father commits suicide, thus making him an easy recruit for a US general (DeNiro) who is planning a new, covert intelligence service after World War II. Wilson is stationed in London, and his cipherlike demeanor allows him to run counterintelligence for the US there, as German and Russian spies (and others) jockey for position in postwar England.

The movie is bookended by the leadup to the infamous Bay of Pigs incident in 1961. There has been a leak on the US side, alerting Fidel Castro to the upcoming invasion, and Wilson must determine the source of the leak. All he has to go by is a hidden-camera film and some murky audio; he doesn’t know where the film was recorded, and he doesn’t know who the speakers on the audio are.

As 1961 Wilson – by now, a seasoned espionage agent – tries to suss out what has happened, we flash back many times to his own early beginnings, how he met a young woman named Clover Russell (Angelina Jolie), how he was found by Phillip Allen (William Hurt) by way of the notorious (if it actually exists) Skull and Bones society at Yale, and how the relationship between Wilson and his son Edward, Jr., progresses over the years, as his dad is rarely home (he’s gone for the first five years of Junior’s life, actually).

The movie works not because of Damon but because of the trenchant, complex plot dreamed up by Eric Roth. This is a movie that takes a driving force of a character’s personality – i.e., Wilson’s patriotism – and turns it around in order to both buoy the character and bring about his downfall. Anyone as single minded as Wilson is in this movie is going to face a rude comeuppance, but at the same time his tenacity at doing the Right Thing for America, his unwavering decency, is held up as a laudable ideal.

The problem with Damon is the same one that’s followed him throughout his career; he constantly looks unable to provide the panache that these meatier roles demand. In a sense, that’s not a terrible thing here, as Wilson’s unreadable countenance is perfect for a superspy: does the lack of expression mask myriad possibilities, or does it simply mean there’s nothing to be seen? A more competent actor can essay a thousand thoughts without uttering a word, but with Damon one just thought there was’t much there to begin with.

He’s surrounded by a very able cast, though, helping matters considerably. Jolie sparkles in the few scenes in which she appears as Wilson’s wife, as do DeNiro, Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Michael Gambon, and Timothy Hutton. Perplexingly cast was the marble-mouthed Eddie Redmayne as Edward Jr., who’s as dull-looking and unintelligible as his onscreen father is hunky and articulate. It’d be easy to ignore this casting faux pas, but Edward Jr. plays a big role in the final twenty minutes of the movie, sadly.

Another caveat: Although the movie covers a couple decades in time, Damon never ages all that realistically. Sure, he has a couple of crow’s feet, but that’s about it; oh, there’s the time where he’s inexplicably wearing what appear to be women’s eyeglasses. (No, he’s not undercover.) It’s kind of funny (unintentionally) when you see the senior and junior Edwards near the end of the movie, and Junior looks about as old as his old man. They couldn’t even pack a few more pounds on Damon? Give him a paunch, a stoop, anything? No, apparently we’re supposed to go by the passage of time to show his aging, although everyone else seems a bit older – and wears it well (see, in particular, Jolie, who’s absolutely wonderful, no matter her character’s age).

The Good Shepherd is a bit too long, although the story itself is well told. A good solid cast and a followable plot make this mostly enjoyable; it loses points for unbelievable casting and the usual so-low-key-he’s-almost-invisible performance by Damon.

***

329 – Transformers

July 8, 2007

The good news is that this formulaic, high-octane action movie from Michael Bay is pretty entertaining stuff; the bad news is that it feels like it was directed by a semi-retarded spider monkey on crack. Jarring visuals, incomprehensible fight scenes, and overblown special effects are at least somewhat mitigated by appealing performances and, of course, state-of-the-art CGI.

In this remake of the 1985 film that was spawned by the cheesy cartoon series, evil robots have arrived on Earth to reunite with their leader, Megatron, who came to the planet a couple of millennia ago in search of the Allspark, a box of something or other that will enable Megatron and the other Decepticons to rule the universe! Only Megatron crashed into the Arctic and froze. Well, as much as a robot can freeze; he was merely paralyzed. Meanwhile, the good-guy robots from the same planet, the Autobots, have tracked Megatron to Earth, also in search of the Allspark.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) is an awkward teen who’s trying to earn money to buy his first car. Of course, since he’s awkward and somewhat smart, we know he’s the hero. And we know who his enemies are, too, because they’re the ones who laugh at him. They’ll all be sorry! They’re not too sorry when Sam’s first car turns out to be a beat-up yellow Camaro, although they might be a little bedeviled when they find out the car’s really an Autobot.

It’s up to Sam, his new galpal Mikaela (Megan Fox), the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight), and the U.S. Army to somehow defeat the Decepticons, who will stop at nothing to find the Allspark, even if it means exterminating all the ant-sized humans. Luckily, Sam and company also have the Autobots on their side, and a showdown of giant robot versus giant robot is ON, brother.

One puzzling problem with the movie is that the Autobots don’t show up until a good half hour into the film. I guess this was to establish the all-important Sam-Mikaela relationship, which naturally will eventually blossom into something bigger. Because, of course, the dorky guy always gets the hot chick, even if he has to defeat giant robots to do it. But it’s true, presenting the backstory of the characters before showing us the Autobots does add a more human aspect to the film; otherwise it would be just a big, violent robot-versus-robot extended fight sequence. Wait, it was that anyway.

Michael Bay movies are not immune to cliches; they revel in them, exploiting them to complement the loud pyrotechnics. Or maybe the loud pyrotechnics are there to distract us from the inane characterizations and dopey plot. In any event, how many movies have we in which an intern/trainee/cadet is the only one, out of literally thousands of experts, to solve the problem? How many have we seen in which someone working for the forces of Good manages to sneak something secret out of an otherwise-secure facility? On the other hand, this was one movie in which the military is actually competent; where the guys with guns know what they’re doing and aren’t the shoot-first, ask-questions-later types? That was surprising, and amusing.

And I realize this will confirm me as a cranky old man, no matter my chronological age, but what was UP with all of the loud music? Every scene was shot as if it were a crappy heavy-metal video, circa 1986. Grating guitars turned up to eleven on the volume control drowned out some dialog and a lot of sound effects, such as robots doing robotic things. Add that to the hyperactive zooming, panning, and scanning, and this is certainly not a movie that an epileptic should ever watch.

Nor is it a movie that young kids should watch, in all honesty. Transformers is rated PG-13, but it’s pretty violent; the only thing that’s lacking is actual blood. People get blown up, smashed, crushed, and shot by robots, and it’s pretty intense stuff. So be careful when bringing little Timmy to this one, unless you want to put up with a week of nightmares and nocturnal enuresis. This ain’t the Transformers you grew up with.

**1/2

323 – The Painted Veil

June 22, 2007

In this period piece, Edward Norton once again plays the smartest guy in the room, as Walter Fane, a dedicated, cold-hearted clinical researcher who travels to the middle of a cholera epidemic in China in the 1920s, with his young wife Kitty (Naomi Watts) in tow. Walter drags Kitty to China partly to punish her for her illicit tryst with a married man (Liev Schrieber). Kitty agrees because facing cholera is somehow better than being divorced and disgraced by Walter.

Now, I like Edward Norton. But having too recently seen him in The Illusionist, I was a little wary of his work here; Walter is not presented as someone who can be fooled, least of not by someone as apparently dumb as Kitty, and sure enough he’s discovered her infidelity. Of course, looking at Walter, one can understand Kitty’s indiscretion; she’s outgoing and adventursome, whereas Walter is dull and lifeless. He snags her after a truly whirlwind courtship and whisks her away from England to foreign lands; she agrees for the adventure and to get away from her sanctimonious, image-conscious mother.

In China, Walter finds that his abilities as a scientist aren’t the cure-all elixir the area needs. As the epidemic spreads, Walter necessarily cuts off the town’s tainted water supply, thus provoking wrath against all Westerners. Meanwhile, Kitty bores of sitting around the house and helps a local orphanage. But can they both keep the cholera at arm’s length? Can their shared experiences save their marriage?

This is, at its heart, a love story, although perhaps not the most exciting one. I can’t honestly say that anything in this movie really bothered me, but neither did it particularly enflame any passions for me. This is not a movie that most guys are going to like. Sure, Naomi Watts is good to look at, and she’s a competent actress, but here she seems like just another pretty face. The story’s focus is on her, but unless you’re in just the right mood you probably won’t be grabbed by it.

Those of you who love romances, though, might swoon. The bored wife has to cheat on her husband! He finds out and takes her to a place where surely she will die of cholera, if not ennui! Can this marriage be saved? That Edward Norton, he’s so dashing and confident! Ok, maybe not so dashing, but he looks good in a suit or a lab coat. He’s like the Superman of nerdy Everymen. The fact that here he basically tries to kill her (i.e., by bringing her into an epidemic of a highly contagious disease) kind of takes some of the shine away.

The Chinese scenery is wonderful, though, and everyone seems earnest enough. But it was all maddening dull for me, up until the final twenty minutes or so, when the chemistry of the two leads really clicked. Overall, not a complete miss by any means, but not to everyone’s taste, particularly those of us who are impatient.

**1/2

321 – Hollywoodland

June 12, 2007

Hollywoodland is one of those neonoir thrillers that harkens back to the poor gumshoes, crooked cops, dark alleys, and sharp angles of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood. It’s the story of George Reeves (Ben Affleck), who played Superman back in the day. Some time after his TV show was cancelled, Reeves was found dead of a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. History and the LAPD would have us believe it was a suicide, but in this movie there are some doubters, like George’s mom (Lois Smith).

On the case is down-on-his-luck investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who sniffs out the case when LAPD closes the book on it. He convinces Reeves’ mom to let him look into it. You half expect the terminally unshaven Simo to chug a bottle of rotgut and pass out in a gutter (he comes close), all the while puffing on a butt he found in the street.

The movie switches from Simo’s investigation in the present (the movie’s present, not ours) to George Reeves’ life and loves in the past. Reeves, it seems, was not particularly proud of being the Man of Steel, even though it brought joy to many children. Like many actors, he wanted to be more. He wanted big roles, he wanted to direct – George Reeves was, essentially, a discontented dreamer. Reeves’ relationship with his wealthy benefactor, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), is also examined at length. Reeves was a struggling actor who couldn’t land a job when he was noticed/picked up by the older Mrs. Mannix in a posh Hollywood restaurant. Even though he’s a little out of her league, George falls for Toni. And yes, I said Mrs. Mannix. Toni is married to the head of MGM, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), who knows full well about Toni and George, because he has his own mistress.

Director Allan Coulter effectively juxtaposes Reeves’ career tribulations with Simo’s sleuthing, such as it is. What made George Reeves tick? Was he despondent at all in his last days, or did he have much to live for? Did he have enemies? And why, above all, did his career stagnate? One possible answer to this last question could be found at the screening of From Here to Eternity, for which Reeves scored a bit part – his first “serious” work after playing Superman. Everyone in the theater is enthralled by the movie… until Reeves shows up. “That’s Superman!” one whispers. “Where’s his cape?” snickers another. Reeves is humiliated.

Brody is earnest as Simo, but he sometimes seems to be reading off cue cards, showing little passion or energy in the role. I’ve liked him in other things, like The Jacket and even King Kong, but he just seemed to be going through the motions at times here. Conversely, Affleck was surprisingly solid as the debonair hunky-hunk Reeves, both cocksure and self-conscious, willing to be led by a moneyed older woman but also to take risks to be his own man. If anything, a role like 1950s Superman is right up Affleck’s metaphorical alley – a pretty boy whose visage seems to evoke truth, justice, and the American way. You know, pompadored Hollywoodism. Affleck does well with the acting part, too, and he has genuine chemistry with Lane – not to mention Robin Tunney, who plays Reeves’ love interest as well.

Another slight debit is a running secondary plot involving Simo’s young son and how he deals with the death of his TV idol (i.e., he acts out). This could have been an interesting sidebar, but the whole thread is treated rather superficially. I mean, I get it – Simo is a lousy dad and husband and doesn’t get the significance of the kid’s hero killing himself. (Although it should be noted that there’s a memorable, unsettling scene in which a kid approaches Reeves after a live Superman show – with a real gun! That scene is very well written and acted. Shame the rest of the theme wasn’t.)

The movie was “inspired” by the real-life circumstances surrounding Reeves’ death, so probably many liberties were taken. Reeves’ death was ruled a suicide, and it’s unclear that anyone’s seriously entertained the notion that he was bumped off. But beyond that, the ending itself is unsatisfying – knowing that it wasn’t necessarily being told as it really happened, I was hoping there would be some kind of closure, a denouement that points to a particular killer. But it’s left pretty open ended – the killer could have been anyone, or George. Nothing’s really resolved, which makes one think that the previous 90 minutes or so were rather pointless.

**1/2

318 – Mr. Brooks

June 2, 2007

At first, when you hear of Kevin Costner playing a serial killer, you think it’s a bit of a stretch, since he’s not known for being, well, any good. But then it hits you: cold, calculating, emotionless.. why, this is what Costner does best! All is saved.

Costner is Earl Brooks, respected community leader, businessman, father, husband, and he’s also the notorious Thumbprint Killer, so called because of his penchant for making his victims leave a thumbprint posthumously. He does this because he’s addicted to killing – yes, the movie almost tries to make Brooks into a victim. I guess it’s the writers’ way of making him seem human, not some random killing machine, but whatever. I can almost buy it. Brooks kinda, sorta doesn’t wanna kill people any more, but his alter ego Marshall (William Hurt) knows otherwise.

A few things complicate Brooks’ addiction. His last killing was witnessed and photographed by a man (Dane Cook) who wants to tag along for the next slaying. Plus, Brooks’ daughter is dropping out of college. And an intrepid detective (Demi Moore) is hot on his trail. And all the while, he has Marshall in his ear, egging him on, acting as some kind of diabolical Jiminy Cricket.

Judging from the trailer and various synopses, I thought this would be a cat-and-mouse game between Brooks and the detective. But it’s not, not really; Moore’s character, Atwood, spends some of her time tracking the Thumbprint Killer, some of her time dealing with her divorce proceedings, some of her time being stalked by a recent prison escapee. It’s almost as if she’s in a different film, one in which she’s the lead character. Oddly enough, Atwood and Brooks don’t even have a scene together.

Through it all, Costner’s pretty effective. Like I said, this role’s really right up his alley. He doesn’t have to be Angry Kevin or Happy Kevin, because his character is supposed to be emotionless – even his “normal” character, the businessman of the year, because, well, he’s a businessman, and all he thinks about are numbers. So, true to the character, right? Sure. A lot of people have criticized Costner for his acting ability, and there’s surely good reason for that, but I think he’s fine as long as he stays within those quiet, unassuming roles. That’s why Dances with Wolves was good – he was a man of few words. And Open Range, and Bull Durham. Those were within ol’ Kevin’s purview.

Demi Moore spends much of the movie trying to look earnest. I had a little more trouble accepting her as a dedicated, decorated cop. Of course, we don’t know much about her character aside from an semi-important plot point revealed late in the movie, but her role was one that required a range of emotions. Atwood isn’t a killing machine, she’s a thinker! She thinks and catches evildoers! But what’s she thinking about? What’s her motivation?

Tell you who I did like for sure, though, William Hurt. Marshall’s not unhinged here, and he’s not totally in command of Mr. Brooks. He and Brooks discuss things, and sometimes one makes more sense than the other, but Marshall is just reined in enough to make him seem like a normal, albeit imaginary, person.

Overall, it’s not a bad movie, just a little long and lacking enough twists to make it an effective thriller, which I guess is what it was aiming for. Apparently Costner has said this is intended to be the first in a trilogy, but I’m having trouble seeing it.

**1/2

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

308 – The Prestige

March 19, 2007

The prestige, we’re told, is the third and final part of a magic act, the one in which the twists and turns occur, the denouement of the act. Bet you didn’t know that, did you? Apparently magicians analyze and study their craft endlessly, trying to improve, compete, excel, and dominate. The Prestige is about two lifelong competing magicians in 1900s London who are constantly trying to discover each other’s secrets. Eventually, as they top each other, there’s death, perhaps murder, placing everyone they know in mortal danger.

Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) is the showman, the magician with a flair for the dramatic. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is the moody technician with the creativity and intelligence to pull off the most remarkable stunts. They would seem to be fine complements for each other, but each is so set on beating the other that all pretense of camaraderie is abandoned.

What follows, of course, is a couple hours of twists and turns, with so and so turning out to not be what he or she was purported to be. One of Angier’s tricks goes horribly awry, and Borden is blamed for the result and is jailed. Is he guilty? How did he accomplish it?

Linking the two masters is the aged Cutter (Michael Caine), who’s been training them both since they were just starting out. A veteran of the gritty, no-holds-barred magic world, Cutter Knows Things. With a glint in his eye and a crusty grin, he reminded me more of Long John Silver, except without the eye path or the walking stick. Nothing like a crusty ol’ sage to keep everyone in check, right?

The heart of the animosity between Angier and Borden is that it’s thought that Borden somehow was responsible for the death of Angier’s wife during their act. Then Borden goes on to fame and fortune while Angier has nothing. Even Borden’s tricks kick the ass of Angier’s tricks, so much so that the latter journeys to, of all places, Boulder, Colorado in the United States to seek out Nicholas Tesla (well played by David Bowie), who’d built a funky device for Borden to use in his own act. All that’s missing is Angier shouting, “Vengeance will be mine!”

Enter Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), a trollop/assistant who joins Angier’s act. They fall in love, surprisingly. (That sentence brought to you by the word “sarcasm.”) Meanwhile, Borden falls in love with HIS assistant and knocks her up. So it’s sort of like real life.

Perhaps where the movie really lost me is in its science – one must suspend quite a bit of disbelief in order for key parts of the film to be acceptable. That’s one of the risks of a story about magic; modern audiences know a lot more about science than did those at the turn of the last century, so there’d be much more skepticism. If Angier’s trick were shown today, people would have myriad guesses as to what really happened, whereas in the 1900s it was all magic and wonder and crap like that. Still and all, the way in which Angier accomplishes his trick seems like a shaggy dog – it’s in the story merely to move the plot along.

I like movies with twists and turns, but when there are so many of them I no longer know what’s right and what’s wrong, I kind of lost interest in the movie. I hate not knowing which way is up, because when the credibility of each character – and, by extension, their own reality – is called into question, then the viewer has nothing to go by, and truly Anything can happen. Which makes me wonder what the point really is.

On the plus side, you have the subtext of Batman (Bale) versus Wolverine (Jackman). Even Alfred from Batman is there (Caine). And both actors are pretty good, but the movie plods along in places. I’ve never really liked Bale, though, who has a giant head.

See The Illusionist instead, a movie covering some of the same ground but more effectively and believably, with scarce, credible turns.

**1/2

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304 – Sherrybaby

February 18, 2007

Here’s what I liked about Sherrybaby:

1. Maggie Gyllenhaal gives an effective, appealing performance and gets somewhat naked.
2. The movie manages to just avoid happily-ever-after cliches.
3. There are subtle hints to the backstory rather than obvious manipulations.

But it’s not really enough. There are plenty of scenes in the movie that just seem to lag a bit as if something might poke through the ennui and stir things up, but not really. So color this one as a half-step above the usual woman-making-it-right-when-she’s-done-so-wrong movie. But only a half-step.

Sherry Swanson (Gyllenhaal) is out of prison after doing a stretch for robbery and drugs and basic slutty, scummy behavior. We first see her arrive at the halfway house at which she’s to spend the rest of her sentence. Ah, she’s finally out, and she’s going to do the right thing this time, you’ll see! You can almost see her eyes twinkle.

Sherry has a daughter she hasn’t seen since she was in stir, named Alexis. Alexis has been cared for lo these many years by Sherry brother Bob and his wife Lynnette. Bob picks Sherry up at the halfway house and brings her to his house for the reunion, and of course Alexis is excited to see a new person who smothers her in attention. But it’s not long before young Alexis is calling her “Sherry” instead of “Mommy,” which Sherry takes as a sign that Bob and Lynnette are trying to take her baby away from her. (As if they needed to try; Sherry’s not gonna get custody anytime soon.)

Sherry also tangles with her parole officer, played with some gusto by Giancarlo Esposito, who isn’t going to cut her much slack. Which is just as well, because pretty much every other guy in the movie somehow succumbs to Sherry’s charms and does what she wants. It’s when she doesn’t get her way that things go all pissy. See, Sherry’s not really what you’d call proactive; she expects things to work out for her without her doing any of the work. So, to speed things along, she takes certain immoral shortcuts. In fact, after watching the first thirty minutes or so, I thought I’d put in a porno by mistake. I mean, I thought I’d been sent the wrong disk by Netflix. Yeah, that. Anyway, the pattern seemed to be: 1) Decide to do something. 2) Approach male who could facilitate that. 3) Have sex with male. 4) Repeat if necessary.

So far, so good – Sherry isn’t a completely new person when she emerges from the clink, and that at least feels realistic, because how often are ex-cons completely rehabilitated and never do anything wrong, ever again? Probably not very many. Forget recidivism, because that includes only those who got caught. At any rate, Sherry’s still a slut. And prone to profanity, as she doesn’t mind dropping f-bombs in front of her kid, who she’s trying to win over.

Then you have the eventual relapse, and visits to a support group, and new friends. But this isn’t a hugs-and-kisses kind of movie – even though Sherry holds hands with everyone in the group and pledges to be free of her demons, we all know she might never, and we question her committment to same. That’s fine, because in reality it’s an extremely difficult undertaking, and to me if she’d overcome everything too easily, all similarity to reality would be out the door. But director Laurie Collyer played it straight, giving the film a good boost of authenticity. To add to the subtleties, there’s this barely hinted at sexual abuse angle; it’s well played and well written and very effectively attempts to explain why Sherry is who she is without beating you over the head with the information.

Movies like this usually aren’t my bag at all. If I wanted to see a movie about a bad girl making her way in the world, I’d turn on Lifetime. Oh, sure, I know there’s an audience for strong, independent women, but clearly I’m not it. So I didn’t expect this to be all that wonderful; I’d just heard that Gyllenhaal was good in it. And I like her. And she was. Plus, she got naked! So, for those positives, it’s not too bad of a movie. A bit grim in spots, and it’s very gritty – drug use, sex, language all make appearances. Still, it IS a well-made film about a strong, independent woman who doesn’t have all of the answers.

**1/2

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Giant (1956)

January 18, 2007

A sprawling epic if there ever was one, Giant is about two generations of a family of cattle ranchers in Texas, led by patriarch Jordan Benedict (Rock Hudson). Benedict travels to Maryland to buy a horse and winds up with Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), whom he takes home to raise a family with.

Back at the ranch, tension sets in between Benedict’s sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) and Leslie; the former feels threatened by the sudden new female presence in the home. Headstrong and full of vigor, Luz is the polar opposite of Leslie. (One neighbor remarks that Luz would rather herd cattle than make love; hmm, an early reference to lesbianism? Maybe, and her name might have been a clumsy clue as well…)

There’s other tension, too, as Leslie doesn’t quite comprehend why certain people (read: Mexican-Americans) are treated so shabbily by the Texans. The issue even threatens to drive a wedge between her and Benedict, and she even returns home (with their three kids, by this point), but Benedict’s able to get her to return. This turns into one of the central themes of Giant, the idea that the manly men of Texas are the only real men out there, and that everyone else – especially anyone from a different country or of a different ethnic background – is well below them in the pecking order.

James Dean, in his final film (he died late during filming), plays a ranch hand turned millionaire with the unlikely name of Jett Rink. Benedict openly dislikes Jett from the git-go and REALLY loathes him when the latter strikes oil on his tiny plot of land and strikes it rich, his wealth soon rivaling (or surpassing) that of Benedicts. Yes, it’s another penis-swinging movie, wherein the two leads try to show the other who is, indeed, The Man. Rink is unsteady, an outcast by nearly everyone else in the film, although it’s Leslie who befriends him shortly before he strikes oil.

Leslie is the one character for whom the audience can root, because she’s basically flawless. She’s the moral compass for the other characters in the film. She rarely raises her voice, but her views are strong. Heck, they’re strong right from the moment she meets Benedict in Maryland, as she somewhat unconsciously derides his prideful state. Leslie is a rarity among Texas women, because she’s an independent thinker (or so the movie instructs us), so naturally her stiff upper lip runs counter to what’s expected of ladies in Texas society.

But all of those tensions are only about half of the story, as the kids of Benedict and Leslie grow and mature and have spouses and kids of their own, and rarely do those choices follow what their father intended. Jordy Benedict, played by a fresh-faced Dennis Hopper, decides not to take over the family ranch and to instead become a doctor; he also marries a Mexican girl, leading to even more tension. And Luz Benedict, named after Jordan Benedict’s sister, falls in love with her dad’s chief rival, Rink. Late in the movie, the specter of racism rears its head, as Jordy’s wife is denied service on the grounds that she’s a “wetback.” Incensed, Jordy takes matters into his own hands, but his pop’s there to help him out.

The film itself is beautiful, with breathtaking shots of the Texas landscape that’ll leave the city folks in the audience pining for wide-open spaces. Without question, the movie should be seen on a big screen, but since it was made in 1956 it’s not terribly likely to show up at any theaters in the near future – watch for revivals or festivals and see it how it was intended.

On the littler screen, leaving aside the size issue entirely, the main problem I have with the film is that it’s a bit dated. Sure, I know there’s still a lot of racial inequality and tension in the world, but I don’t think you’ll hear the word “wetback” bandied about often, and even the way men and women view each other, in terms of respect (even in Texas, yee-ha!), has evolved quite a bit.

Even if one views the movie as a microcosm of 1950s Texas, it’s just not entertaining enough. There’s melodrama, there’s people acting rather predictably, and in the end everyone grows a little. It’s all a little too pat, these lessons of racism and sexism and so forth. Benedict’s such a horse’s ass at the beginning that you openly hope for his death or dismemberment just so he could get some sense knocked into him.

As for the cast, Taylor is magnificent – my GOODNESS, was she well cast! She looks ravishing, with gorgeous wide eyes and a stare that’ll freeze her kidlets from fifty yards. She’s commanding and beautiful. I haven’t seen much of La Liz in her early days, but she’s so fantastic here, I should make it a point to see some others. Hudson and Dean are both okay, although Dean’s Rink is relegated to mumbling and shuffling most of the time and Hudson’s Benedict is stuck with being either a mope or a tyrant. Neither character was particularly appealing, but I never really felt much sympathy toward either, especially for Benedict (although perhaps a little near the end).

In smaller, supporting roles, Hopper is delightful, as is Chill Wills as loyal Uncle Bawley and Carroll Baker (in the same year she did Baby Doll) as Luz Baker II, radiant and luscious and just as independent as her onscreen mom, Taylor.

In all, I found Giant to be a bit of a bore, sad to say, despite Taylor and some great camera work. Watching Giant, despite its length, is sort of like buying a fast-food hamburger; it looks pretty when you see it on the menu, but after you’ve eaten it you still feel kind of empty.

**1/2

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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.

Blurbie Nights

January 15, 2007

(Originally published in 1994 in The Gleaner of Rutgers University-Camden.)

Guarding Tess
**1/2

A by-the-book security man is run ragged guarding a cantankerous, unwilling guardee. Have we seen this scenario before? How about Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard (1992)? Same plot, except that the guardee is not a prima donna singer but a cantankerous, manipulative former First Lady. And the security guy isn’t played by Kevin; this time we’ve got Nicholas Cage in the Secret Service. And Whitney doesn’t even show up; in her place we have the effervescent Shirley Maclaine, her past lives in tow.

Other than those little inequities, trust me, this is the same film. And where that movie may have succeeded (at least commerically), this little copycat movie fails on some fronts.
Now, at this point, some of you might be thinking (to yourself, perhaps even out loud), “Well, gee, Dan, why should I, a valued consumer, pay good money to rent this obvious ripoff of a movie? What can it offer me? What’s in it for me?” As well you should. And I would reply to you that the biggest reason for watching this film is to see a bravura performance by Maclaine as the former First Lady. Here’s a woman who’s gone from sprightly sexpot (see The Trouble with Harry, 1955), to mysterious beauty (see The Apartment, 1960), to off-kilter candidate for the funny farm (see her own autobiography, Out on a Limb). Here she plays the prime role of the widowed First Lady perfectly, allowing us to laugh at and with her in turn, to empathize with her problems, to gawk disdainfully at her manipulations. It’s a fine role for a gracefully aging silver screen star, and Maclaine elicits just the right amount of pathos from her audience.

The main problem, though, lies in the casting of Nicholas Cage as the reserved agent in charge of protecting the recalcitrant Maclaine. Cage, like fellow thespians Sean Penn and James Woods, is at his best when his character is unhinged, mentally unstable, with fire in his eye and in his heart. Here, however, he’s too staid, too downright neat for the role to work for him. He needs more roles like Raising Arizona (1987), where he can play the little psycho-with-a-heart-of-gold in all of us. In this film, he comes off as annoying, the sort of guy who needs a mute button. It’s a one-note performance that does its damnedest to sink the film.

Guarding Tess is enjoyable but uneven film, veering from sentimental drama to comedy several times during its 98-minute run. It is aided immeasurably by the sterling work turned in by Shirley Maclaine and a solid (if somewhat derivative) script. It is impeded by the boring performance of Nicholas Cage and a faceless direction by Hugh Wilson.

The Hudsucker Proxy
***

Joel and Ethan Coen, who brought you such classics as the aforementioned Raising Arizona, Barton Fink (1991), Miller’s Crossing (1990), and Blood Simple (1984), specialize in the weird and goofy when it comes to writing, producing and directing their own films. Hudsucker is no exception. Starring Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Paul Newman, the movie captures the look and feel of business in the old days (you know, before cable TV) with an atmosphere and characters that recall Damon Runyon’s literary exploits in the twenties and thirties.

Hudsucker’s plot goes something like this: the president of Hudsucker, Inc. (Charles Durning), even after hearing how well his company is doing, suddenly leaps to his death. After a moment or two of sensitive reflection, his board members, led by right-hand-man Paul Newman, decide to hire a puppet to be the new president. Enter Tim Robbins, newly hired in the mail department of Hudsucker. While Robbins is presenting a product idea (he’s on a trip to deliver a dreaded “blue letter” to Newman), the right-hand-man takes one look at the product, another at Robbins, and promptly hires him as the new president. And when the proposed product, the Hula-Hoop, catches on, all hell breaks loose, as the public reveres Robbins and the Board loathes him.

Finally, Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as a talky wiseacre of a reporter who attempts to expose but who (surprise!) falls for the good-hearted Robbins. Herein lies the major Achilles’ heel of Hudsucker. Jason Leigh’s portrayal is a blatant ripoff of Katherine Hepburn, with a generous amount of Rosalind Russell’s character from Her Girl Friday (1940). It’s obtrusive, obnoxious, and very, very unfunny. Moreover, the character is not terribly appealing, either; we cannot sympathize with her plight. This may be the fault of the Coen’s, or maybe the actress herself. Who’s to say? It’s a pure garbage role, nevertheless.

This is not a feel-good comedy. This is not a slapstick comedy. It’s…well, it doesn’t fit two well into any comedic category. It’s just a Coen movie. Not as good as Raising Arizona, but far superior to the muddled mess that was Barton Fink. Good rollicking entertainment, provided you don’t exercise too many brain cells while watching it.

Bad Boys

January 15, 2007

Years ago, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer produced some pretty violent action flicks, Beverly Hills Cop among them. Then they decided to prove they could make a little movie for a change, and gave the world Dangerous Minds. But just before succumbing to the notion that a little movie can make boffo box office, the boys dished out Bad Boys, a rock ‘em, sock ‘em, by-the-numbers cop thrilla with two entertaining actors doing battle with a script that has been riddled with cliches instead of bullets.

Marcus (Martin Lawrence) is a family man. He’s got a gorgeous wife and three bouncy kids. You may recognize the character as similar to Danny Glover’s in all the Lethal Weapon films, except Marcus isn’t old. And Mike (Will Smith) is a womanizer, a fast-living, fast-driving, fast-everything cop who often doesn’t do what he’s told. The actors are already playing a bit against type, as Lawrence is normally a profanity-spewing, diatribe-ejecting comedian and Smith is sort of a hip-hop version of the Beaver. To confuse the discerning viewer even more, the duo switches identities in order to protect the obligatory key witness (Tea Leoni). So Marcus becomes Mike (reluctantly) and Mike becomes Marcus (dragging his feet all the way).

In the interests of plot development, this is as compliacted as it gets, folks. So just sit back and enjoy the explosions. The storyline has been cribbed from every cop movie since The French Connection, including that movie’s famous car chase scene. What Bad Boys lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in charisma and action.

Bad Boys: C+