Archive for the ‘3.5-Star Movies’ Category

367 – Eastern Promises

January 20, 2008

Any time a new movie is shot in black and white, people use adjectives like “stark” and “realistic” to describe it. Sometimes they’ll combine the two: “stark realism” and so forth. The style is supposed to be evocative of grittier, dirtier times (can anyone imagine a colorized Grapes of Wrath?), times when people kept on keepin’ on as best they could while dealing with the harsh realities of daily life.

The black and white cinematography in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises compares and contrasts the everyday lives of middle-class Londoners with the raw, terror-fueled violence of expatriate Russian gangsters. Additionally, as in other, earlier movies, the truly bloody moments are made all the scarier because of the lack of color; everything feels realer while still seeming authentic. (Not an easy feat; for ultrarealism that seems insincere, try reality television.)

A midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) helps deliver a baby to an unidentified young girl who dies during childbirth; Anna, being a Good Samaritan, decides to try to discover the girl’s family, so that the newborn can live with them instead of slipping away into the red-tape-ridden foster-care system. Aided by a diary found in the girl’s handbag, Anna winds up at a Russian restaurant owned by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who promises to help Anna in her quest by translating the diary from Russian to English.

Meanwhile, a lower-level employee of Semyon named Nikolai (a sensational Viggo Mortensen) is slowly moving his way up the ladder of Semyon’s empire, which is of course not wholly invested in restauranting. Nikolai is one of those marvelously inscrutable figures who knows far more than what he says, which is precious little, in constrast – there’s that word again – with Semyon’s own son, Kirill (an equally wonderful Vincent Cassel), who is boisterous, petulant, and covetous. The film manages to make its audience question Nikolai’s intentions and loyalties; is he merely in this murderous racket for his own gain?

Steven Knight’s screenplay is tight, coarse, and even a bit gruesome; it’s definitely not for the weak of stomach or heart. (A dead man’s fingers are removed in a very early scene, for one thing, and there’s an extended fight scene involving a nude Mortensen in a steam bath.) As with any other suspense thriller worth its salt, there are plenty of plausible twists and turns – but none can be easily foreseen, and they aren’t simply strung together as red herrings designed to just continually shock the audience, which is the sort of thing a younger Cronenberg might have attempted.

All four leads are terrific; Watts is an improvement over Maria Bello, who costarred with Mortensen in Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (maybe he’s got something for cute young blonde actresses). But this isn’t one of those innocent-young-heroine-saves the day movies, either. You know the ones. The girl with seemingly no talents, smarts, or powers somehow defeats a tough, organized opponent using only her womanly wiles and spunkiness. No, not here. Anna is intelligent and resourceful, yes, but the real conflict isn’t between her and the evil Russian mafia, it’s a conflict within the crime family itself. The dichotomy between Nikolai, the outsider becoming the boss’s favorite, and Kirill, the son at war with his own inner demons, is richly detailed with a modicum of dialog (mostly Kirill’s). Cassel and Mortensen are so wonderful together, you almost think that their characters ARE brothers instead of one being naturally superior (by birthright) to the other.

Cronenberg’s come a long way since making slasher pics in Canada (this is, in fact, the first of his movies that was filmed entirely outside of Canada); it’s as if he woke up a few years ago and decided he wasn’t going to make any gross-out pics like The Fly, Rabid, Scanners, or Dead Ringers. Coupled with A History of Violence, Eastern Promises is raw, energetic, and stunningly filmed.

***1/2

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The Hurricane (1937)

January 7, 2008

So I caught this old John Ford film the other day, DVRd off TCM, and I was very impressed with it. Point number one: The titular hurricane doesn’t show up until the final half hour or so of the movie. So that was a bit of a downer, because then you had to wade through predictability and stereotyping and whatnot to get to it. But man, what a payoff!

Marama (Dorothy Lamour) and Terangi (Jon Hall) are natives on a South Seas island; they love each other and wed, and then Terangi has to ship out on a schooner that travels to and from Tahiti. Once in Tahiti he gets into a fight with a Very Important White Man, and Terangi’s subsequently locked up for six months, then longer, as he keeps attempting to escape.

Meanwhile, the governor of his own island, De Laage (Raymond Massey) refuses to intercede on the behalf of his citizen, mostly because he’s a big jerko he insists that the law is the law and there’s nothing he can do and so on. De Laage’s doctor (Thomas Mitchell, who earned an Oscar nomination) and wife (Mary Astor) try to persuade him to see the light, to no avail.

Up to this point, the underlying theme is that islanders should have the same rights as white people. Okay, maybe that wasn’t the theme as intended by the film’s creators, but it’s easy to see here in 2008. Oddly enough, though, the two main natives are played by white folks – Lamour, later famous for the Hope-Crosby Road films, was from New Orleans, while Hall was Californian. In fact, had the point not been explicitly made in the movie that Terangi was, in fact, not white, I wouldn’t have figured it out. That’s one of the few downsides to black-and-white films; it’s perhaps a little harder to see subtle differences. But what’s strange is that everyone else in the movie acts as if Terangi is so, so, so different from the white people, when to the untrained eye (i.e., me) he looks just like them.

Anyway, all this is just filler until we get to the storm. And oh my goodness, what a storm. Apparently $150,000 was spent to create the island village, and $250,000 was spent destroying it. Anyone who’s seen the devastation that Hurricane Katrine wrought can sadly identify with the last reel of this film. A church, made of stone, is destroyed. Trees are uprooted – not saplings, but huge trees with gargantuan trunks. It’s an awesome, jaw-dropping spectacle – a tremendous feat for 1937. Back then, there were no Academy awards for special effects, but clearly The Hurricane would have received at least a nod.

It’s almost a pity the film’s in black and white, too, because the idyllic paradise island simply looks less inviting than it should – the photography makes it look almost stark and barren, not rich and lush as the imagination would have it.

***1/2

359 – No Country for Old Men

December 22, 2007

Mysterious and elusive, provocative and disturbing, No Country for Old Men is the finest Coen Brothers film to date. It’s got the profane violence of Blood Simple, the wry wit of Raising Arizona, and the tight plotting of Fargo – not to mention outstanding performances by Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones. And it culminates in a big finish that’ll either leave you wanting more or simply cold.

The plot is fairly straightforward. A hunter named Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the scene of a drug deal gone really, really sour. Dead bodies, including a dog. Shot up trucks. A huge stash of drugs. And, at the end of a bloody trail, a dead man and a satchel with $2 million in cash. Now, what would you do in that situation? You’re armed, but who knows who’s out there in the wilderness, looking for their lost loot? If you’re Mr. Moss, you amscray the heck out of there.

Of course, someone’s gonna come looking for that money, and that person is a crazy bastard named Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who has a penchant for killing and absolutely no moral compass to speak of. He wants something, he kills you and takes it. Or takes it and kills you. Either way. Chigurh is single minded, but he’s by no means a simple man; he’s whip smart and blindingly fast with his gun and his feet. There’s something about Chigurh that separates him from every other killer who wants his money back; its intangible, and it’s all because Bardem is so perfect in the role. His sad eyes belie an absolutely terrifying, methodically maniacal criminal.

Completing the trifecta is a beleagured, world-weary sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones). Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is to No Country for Old Men as Marge Gunderson was to Fargo; the no-nonsense, superclever, seasoned Johnny Law who tries desperately to piece together the puzzle before every character has been murdered, a la Shakespeare. This is a role Jones was made to play, and I can safely say he turns in the finest, most nuanced and sincere performance of his long career. Jones has the countenance of a leathery cowpoke as it is, and the unique drawl to accompany it, and the beautiful, poignant script (also by the Coen brothers) allows him to really show his stuff.

Make no mistake, though, in spite of its subtleties, this is a very violent movie; many painful, gut-wrenching deaths occur. Still and all, one thing that makes the movie work is that the violence seems real, not comic-book style; it’s not violence without serious repercussions.

Back to the writing. At times during the film, multiple storylines are in motion, a la Pulp Fiction, and everything moves so seamlessly that it’s only later, in retrospect, that you recall certain aspects that tie in one character’s perspective with that of another. A mediocre screenwriter would have trouble with this, and plot holes the size of the Rio Grande itself would emerge. People would laugh about the plot inaccuracies and overall inadequacies.

And then, finally, there’s that ending. Some people will absolutely love the ending, but others will stare at the screen for a few minutes, wondering if there’s more to the story. Simply put, not everything is explicitly resolved, so if you’re the kind of person who must have everything tied up as if in a 30-minute sitcom, you’re going to have an issue or two with the finale. There was a bit of silence in the theater in which I saw this movie, but I didn’t get the impression it was the angry “THAT’S IT??” kind, just the surprised kind.

***1/2

The Satan Bug (1965)

November 13, 2007

The movie’s dated, yes, but the theme isn’t. There’s a supersecret lab in southern California that’s creating viruses and the like in order to study them, sort of like what they do at the CDC in Atlanta. The worst of these is basically a botulism-type virus. Then one night there’s a break in, and flasks are stolen. And it’s discovered that there was an even more advanced virus that the center had created – called the Satan Bug, because it can kill anyone nearby within five seconds. A few weeks after a flask is broken, all life would cease.

The center calls in an expert, played by George Maharis. Some of you old timers might remember him from the old Route 66 show; he left that show in order to pursue a film career. Sadly, this was his best movie. Anyway, it’s up to Barrett (Maharis), Anne Francis from Forbidden Planet, and crusty Dana Andrews to find those flasks! Ed Asner, by the way, plays on of the bad guys.

It’s a gripping thriller – you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. The twists and turns are eminiently plausible, and even 42 years later they don’t seen trite or played out. You honestly feel like the world could end at any moment during the film. It also boasts a wonderful period score by Jerry Goldsmith.

So, apparently it’s NOT about a possessed Volkswagen.

***1/2

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. **

341 – Zodiac

August 22, 2007

The true-crime thriller is one of the toughest kind of movies to make, because so many of the viewing audience will already be familiar with the storyline and can more easily anticipate what happens next. And the toughest true-crime thriller to make is probably one in which the culprit, in real life, was never caught. Then what do you do, hotshot? What do you do?

If you’re director David Fincher, you focus the plot not on the killings or on the resolution of the case but rather on the massive manhunt and intrepid detective work turned in by Inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) as well as the unofficial sleuthing by newspapermen Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Thus humanizing the forces attempting to bring the Zodiac to justice, Fincher is able to not only tell the tale straightforwardly but also scare the bejezus out of his audience, as is his wont. By identifying with the four leads, the audience has no choice but to hope against hope – knowing what it knows of the real story – that somehow good will perserere.

Of the four leads, the weak spot might be assumed to be the callow Gyllenhaal, but as it turns out he’s easily the strongest link in a tough chain of thespians. Graysmith, on whose book the movie is based, doggedly pursued the case as the paper’s cartoonist, much to the chagrin of those around him – his employers, his colleagues, and his wife (Chloe Sevigny) and kids. Graysmith MUST KNOW what happened. He wants to look Zodiac in the eye and somehow determine his culpability. Gyllenhaal – who should change his name to an easier to spell surname – is absolutely aces, which is a phrase I never thought I’d type regarding Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s never impressed me, looking to have exactly one emotion – moroseness – and I’ve always thought he was far too highly rated, But here, young Jake has won me over, just as Josh Hartnett did with Lucky Number Slevin and Kate Winslet did with any number of films after the awful Titanic. Gyllenhaal is superb, believable, and sincere in a commanding performance.

The others aren’t slouches, of course. Downey, Jr., aping Al Pacino from Serpico – except not playing a burned-out cop, just a burned-out reporter – is appreciatively scuzzy as Avery, a man never too far from a dangling cigarette or a murky drop of alcohol. Ruffalo and Edwards (where’s he been?) are a perfect match as two cops as desperate as Graysmith to find out the killer’s identity, all the while trying to coordinate with other jurisdictions, the press, and the public. Ruffalo in particular is a treat to watch, and I’m not going on a limb when I say that someday that young man will have an Oscar nom to his credit.

Fincher creates a edgy atmosphere throughout – you honestly believe Zodiac will leap out from any corner’s shadows to knife or gun you down. He also achieves the tough task of showing the passage of time efficiently – by showing the construction of a San Francisco skyscraper in stop-motion. Nice touches like that can make a film. And of course, Fincher is no stranger to descending to the depths of ourselves, what with movies like Seven, Panic Room, and Fight Club to his credit. With Zodiac, he’s managed to take a riveting story and make it even more compelling – even without a compelling ending in real life.

***1/2

341 – The Invasion

August 18, 2007

Unexpectedly, The Invasion is a jarring, terrifying remake of the 1956 and 1978 versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, managing to update the widespread panic of the 1950s – owing to the Cold War and the looming, constant threat of a sneak attack by those nasty Reds – to a new kind of fear, stylized and customized to fit the crazed paranoia of the 2000s. Nicole Kidman gives a pitch-perfect performance as a mother who must stay away for the sake of her uniquely immune child, added a jolt of adrenalin to an already frantic, uncomposed, and passionate treatise on how people react when things go wrong.

It all starts with the US Space Shuttle exploding over the country during its return trip, scattering debris in a wide swatch from Dallas to Washington about 200 miles wide. People are warned not to touch the wreckage pieces, but do they listen? Not only don’t they listen, but some of the stuff turns up on eBay – the second time this year the online auction service plays a role in a motion picture. But it seems that the debris isn’t entirely benign, anymore, as it the astronauts had unwittingly been carrying an alien parasite on the outside of their craft.

Soon, those who have touched the debris are contaminated. But they’re not killed, no, they’re merely turned into shells of themselves, sort of how a viewer feels after watching too much Fox News. (Hey, I kid because I love freedom fries.) I mean, everyone who’s infected is at the same level of emotion, which is to say, none at all; no one even raises an eyebrow. Meanwhile, the grand ol’ guvmint decides to get ahead of the curve by inoculating the bejeezus out of everyone – for free! Awfully nice of then, really, although perhaps the fact that they had all that serum should have been a warning sign of sorts.

Carol Bennell (Kidman) is a trained psychologist who has a darling little son on whom she dotes; the father (Jeremy Northam) left them years ago but has suddenly shown up to reenter the boy’s life. Coincidentally, he’s also the head of the CDC, which is at the epicenter of this flu pandemic (I wanted so bad to say “epicenter of epidemic” there), so naturally he’s got some of the bad alien crap on him – handed to him, somewhat ham-handedly, by someone who found it at a crash site. Soon there’s a race against, well, not time, but something, as dear ol’ dad and his zombie-like cohorts try their damndest to get to carol and Oliver.

Joining the intrepid shrink is her best bud/wannabe lover Ben (Daniel Craig), who’s a doctor or something and who has a serious case of the yabba-yabba-do-mes for Carol, but the feeling’s not entirely reciprocated, on account of Carol doesn’t want to lose the wonderful friendship they’ve built up (they live next door to each other, the carpool). Groan. Points for plausibility, but negative points for obviousness and needlessness. On top of that, there’s an issue with the romantic chemistry between the slight Brit and the willowy Aussie; they actually SEEM more like they should be best buds and nothing more. When they kiss, the Earth doesn’t tremble, it yawns and asks for another beer.

But forget the romantic angle, and let’s focus on the escaping-from-bad-people-who-look-like-our-friends angle. As with the first two filmings of the Jack Finney novel, people fall victim to the virus when they fall into sleep, as their cells are attacked during the body’s REM cycle. So now you know the plan: Stay Awake. The very first scene in the movie slams this point home, as a raccoon-eyed Kidman scurries around a devastated drugstore, looking to score uppers and caffeine, anything to keep Morpheus or the Sandman from getting her. And she’s damn convincing at it, too, which says a lot about Kidman’s abilities; she’s a tremendous actress who can play a variety of roles, which is in itself tough to believe of someone who’s so elegant and luxuriant in appearance. Kidman’s so good that her acting – I know, go figure – completely distracts you from the fact that she’s gorgeous. Even when she’s dressing down, or when she looks like a crack whore desperate for another fix – she radiates sincerity.

Here’s a question – how come, when people are infected by this alien virus, they gain the speed of, well, zombies? Shouldn’t they be as fast as they were in the Before Time? The people here are one step away from full-on shambling, which makes you think it’d be fairly easy to get away from them – except that there are a LOT of them. In one scene, a good thirty of the mindless bastards jump on Carol’s car to prevent her escape, and off she barely drives, losing more as she veers. Brought to mind the whole clowns-in-a-Volkswagen trick.

The Invasion is spectacular, a realistic-seeming, fervent example of what might happen were the Earth to suffer a colossal pandemic. Remember, they’ve been talking about a flu pandemic for many years! Nicole Kidman is, as usual, awesome; you’re as scared for her and her progeny as Carol is.

***1/2

337 – Little Children

July 30, 2007

“You couldn’t change the past,” the narrator of Little Children tells us at the movie’s close, “but the future could be a different story.” The lives of the men and women who live in the very paragon of bland suburbia appear to be crunchy (and even somewhat unforgiving) on the outside, but inside they break, well, just like a little girl. A veritable sea of emotions, from love, despair, neglect, and hate churns below their pristine, everything-in-its-place veneers.

The placidity of this particular neighborhood is jolted by two things: the arrival of a sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley) and the emergence of a relationship between married-but-not-to-each-other Sarah and Brad; both events, directly and obliquely, are remarked upon by the nattering nabobs of middle-class conservatism in the town, particularly the rather particular hausfraus and soccer moms.

Sarah Pierce (Winslet) is a distant mother and wife; when she and her daughter Lucy visit the neighborhood playground, she sits away from the other mothers. As an indirect result, Lucy doesn’t play with the other boys and girls on the see-saws or merry-go-round – she just plays quietly. Meanwhile, as the empty-headed women babble to each other (but not Sarah), a newcomer enters their midst – a stay-at-home father, Brad, whom they mockingly call (behind his back, of course) “The Prom King.” Sarah’s marriage seems empty and devoid of purpose. Brad, for his part, is married to a breadwinner – his wife Karen (Jennifer Connelly) is a documentary filmmaker who’s completely absorbed with her work. Like Sarah, Brad is a little emotionally distant from his wife and their son, Aaron, so it’s no wonder he and Sarah become constant companions throughout the long, hot suburban summer, spending their days either at the park or at the public pool.

The other main story thread involves the community’s reaction to the presence of Ronnie McGorvey, convicted as a sex offender for flashing a young boy. Soon, there are fliers on telephone poles, and an angry outrage group is formed, led by ex-policeman Larry (Noah Emmerich), who seems to be more upset with Ronnie’s existence than anyone else in the town.

At its core, the movie is about repression and “settling” – staying with someone just because they provide you comfort but no love is no reason at all, the film explains. Committing adultery just might be an okay act, even with children involved, as long as it means a better life for the principals. Brad and Sarah transform from nodding acquaintences to good friends who take care of their kids together (Aaron and Lucy even grow to become friends, although up to that point they’d both been loners.) When the opportunity arises for them to become more, though, they take it – an act that’s not easy to conceal from the prying eyes of the neighbors, let alone their respective spouses and certainly not their children. How long, if at all, can they possibly hope to maintain the charade that they’re just friends? Perhaps the thought that their own, current marriages are charades in their own right gives Sarah and Brad reason to believe they can perpetuate the sham against their spouses.

Meanwhile, Ronnie attempt to cope with living as a sex offender. He lives with his doting mom, who believes there is good in everyone; she realizes that what Ronnie did was wrong, but that it was an accident, and she tries in vain to protect him from the rest of the community, which is by and large out to lynch him. But the brilliant caveat here is that Ronnie is by no means a victim – not only did he do what he was accused of (although he shows remorse and a lot of self-hate), but he shows that he’s capable of more of the same.

In fact, that’s the genius of Todd Field’s film – not only are people flawed, but they’re believably flawed. In Little Children, people make decisions for selfish reasons, and there’s no wondrous epiphany that somehow saves the soul and good standing of the poor decision maker – people live with what they’ve done, or they don’t make the decision in the first place.

Winslet and Haley were nominated for their work here; the first-ever nomination for Haley, who was probably best known as Kelly Leak in the Bad News Bears films. He’s eerie and creepy and utterly human as Ronnie McGorvey. You never really feel sympathy for the deviant, but you might feel a twinge of unease. For Winslet, this was the fifth nomination for the beauteous Briton, and it’s astounding that she hasn’t yet won. Then again, she’s only 31 years old!

Little Children is a stark, seamless, unsettling story that grabs a hold of your psyche and twists it almost to the breaking point, relying on strong performances by Winslet, Haley, Wilson, and Emmerich as well as a tortuous plot that provides quite a jaded look at the tranquility of suburban life.

***1/2

334 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

July 22, 2007

At a little over two hours long, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is tightly plotted, requiring at least an informal acquaintance with the first four movies. But it’s also very well imagined, and what dirctor David Yates did choose to show on the screen was more than sufficient to tell the story of Harry’s fifth year at Hogwarts.

At the end of the fourth movie, Harry emerged from the Triwizard tournament with news that Voldemort had returned, and that Cedric Diggory had been killed by him moments earlier. Of course, this news was met with quite a bit of skepticism by the rest of the magic world, most prominently the Ministry of Magic and the Daily Prophet, the two places to which ordinary wizards look for solid, substantiated information. Even some at Hogwarts are dubious about Harry’s claims, although not the school’s headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.

Because the Minister of Magic believes Dumbledore is out for his job and because he’s jealous of the relationship the great wizard has with Harry, Hogwarts soon is beleagured by a brand-new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Dolores Umbridge, whose lesson plan seems to be to prevent students from learning how to defend themselves against the Dark Arts, an act of repression that stirs Harry to begin to teach his fellow students on his own, away from the watchful eye of Umbridge, whose unctuous demeanor and oleaginous personality get her appointed as Grand Inquisitor of Hogwarts, allowing her to enact decrees of such oppressive, hate-filled magnitude that the students are more determined than ever to fight back.

Meanwhile, poor Harry is having terrible visions and nightmares, as he shares some sort of psychic connection with the Dark Lord. Seems Voldemort desires something, something tangible in the Ministry of Magic – but what? Harry’s burning forehead scar tells him little, but what visions he does get aren’t merely prophetic – they’re of things happening right at that moment.

The denouement comes with a terrible, terrifying battle royale at the Ministry itself. Sadly, one of the Good Guys doesn’t survive.

I enjoyed a lot of things about this fifth movie: the performances of newcomers Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Imelda Staunton (Umbridge), Helena Bonham Carter (a delightfully unhinged Bellatrix Lestrange) as well as the veterans of the series – Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Julie Walters, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, and Michael Gambon; the jaw-dropping special effects, especially those of the ghostly thestrals, which only Luna and Harry can see, among their friends; and the wonderful Room of Requirement and Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place (Sirius’ parents’ home).

Quite a bit of the book’s plot is missing from the movie, of course, including all of the Quidditch scenes and the many scenes in which the students practice for and take their O.W.L. exams; there’s also an important sequence in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione visit St. Mungo’s to see Mr. Weasley and see Neville visiting his comatose mother and father – up until that point, only Harry knew about the Longbottoms’ fate.

About an hour after watching this movie in the theater (a week after it was released), I read the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, making this a true Harry Potter weekend. Really, I’m about Pottered out entirely right now. Reading the book and then writing this review means I may have forgotten a few things from the movie that I wanted to mention; did I hear about such and such via the seventh book or via the fifth movie? Hmm.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is about what it should be – it’s compelling, wildly entertaining, and it keeps in the spirit of the books, if not the preceding movies; the tone continues to darken as we rocket to the the finale of Harry’s life at Hogwarts and as the bonds of friendship and loyalty tighten around our collective inquisitive minds.

***1/2

324 – 1408

June 23, 2007

Prepare to be shocked! 1408, the story of a truly haunted hotel room, is electric and terrifying and not a little bit unsettling.

John Cusack stars as Mike Enslin, a writer who specializes in debunking haunted-whatever myths. He’s stayed in hotels and inns and B&Bs all across the country and has not, he says, ever seen evidence of paranormal behavior. Even so, he’s managed to make a somewhat modest living writing about his experiences. He’s a cynic, as most writers are, but Enslin is not only skeptical about things, he outright doesn’t believe in anything, owing in no small part to an earlier tragedy in his life.

And then one day he finds a postcard in his mail from the Dolphin Hotel in New York. There’s but one sentence on the back: “Don’t go into Room 1408.” Enslin’s research then shows that numerous people have died in that particular hotel room – people jumping to their deaths, people slashing their own throats, gouging their own eyes, and so on. Pretty creepy stuff. But since that’s sort of par for the course in Enslin’s line of work, he doesn’t think much of it and manages to wrangle a reservation in the infamous room.

The hotel’s manager, Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) tries desperately to talk Enslin out of staying in the room overnight. No one lasts more than an hour, he warns. Olin points out that many people have died in 1408 of natural causes, too – bringing the death toll to 56. Olin even offers Enslin a rare bottle of booze and the chance to read up on the history of the room, anything to keep Enslin from actually going into the room. He fails.

And who could blame Enslin for being a wee bit skeptical that 1408 is anything to be scared of? He’s been in so many places just like the Dolphin, from seedy motels to high-rise palaces, and he’s never seen anything all that terrifying, and certainly nothing that couldn’t be explained away easily enough. And then he steps into 1408, and all hell breaks loose.

It appears to be such an ordinary room, a fact that Enslin notes into his dictaphone. But then it gets hot, and the window slams shut on his fingers, and he hears a baby crying, and most importantly, the digital clock radio seems to be counting down from one hour – even after he forcibly yanks it from the wall outlet. Before you know it, ghosts from his own past are appearing in his room alongside the ghosts of those who’d died there themselves.

The greatest part about all of this is that while Enslin’s mind is being tortured, smacked around like a tetherball hooked to a pole of sanity, we’re suffering right along with him. We jump when he jumps – and not before he jumps. He feel like screaming just as he does. We’re right there with him through ever shiver, every shudder, every wide-eyed gulp of terror. Enslin isn’t merely frazzled, he’s undone. Even he can’t explain the happenings inside 1408 as creaky floorboards or bad wiring. The horror in the room is personal, reducing even the cockiest skeptic into a pile of blubbering goo.

Cusack, whom I think is one of the finest actors of his generation, is absolutely aces. His idiom is that he’s an Everyman, not someone to whom superhuman powers have been conveyed. Throw another actor into the movie, and you’d expect him to grit his teeth and wipe out the unseen enemies with a blowtorch and some grenades, but not Cusack. Cusack’s Enslin doesn’t know how to deal with the psychological warfare, because neither would we.

That ripping sound you just heard? It was your sanity departing right after Enslin’s.

***1/2

Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972)

May 25, 2007

Netflix has this new service that allows members to view movies online. Not all of their tens of thousands of movies, but a good chunk of them. The service is included in one’s membership. This is particularly useful for those who don’t want to wait for the movie to be delivered or those who want to see something other than what they have home but don’t want to send anything back yet.

Anyway, the first movie I’ve seen in this way is Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a German-language film from 1972, directed by the iconoclastic Werner Herzog. The fictional story is about a Central American crusade by Francisco Pizarro, a Spanish conquistador, to find the lost city of El Dorado in the sixteenth century. Trapped in the jungle, Pizarro sends some of his men, along with a bunch of Indian slaves, down a mighty river as a scouting party, in hopes that they’ll find a way out of their mess.

Heading the smaller band is Don Ursua (Ruy Guerra), and his second in command is Don Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). Almost immediately, a raft holding some of the men gets caught in an eddy and spins in circles. The rest of the men can offer no help; in the middle of the night, those in the raft are all dead. Ursua wants to return to Pizarro, who’d given them a deadline of two days, but Aguirre wants to continue, so he stages a mutiny, replacing Ursua with another nobleman, Don Guzman, as their leader – and emperor of El Dorado, whenever it may be found.

As the soldiers and slaves move on, they are reduced in number by a variety of things, including starvation, murder by fellow soldiers, attacks by Indians, and so on. Even with his numbers dwindling, Aguirre presses on, becoming more unhinged and divorced from reality with each passing moment.

The movie is spectacular to behold, especially the opening sequence in which scores of men move down a mountainside along a very treacherous pathway. Gorgeously filmed, the movie was shot by Herzog using a small 35-mm camera, but this is apparent only in the verite’ style of the movie. Each scene is sumptuously framed as if a huge crew with a bloated special-effects budget, instead of with eight men and a few dollars. (Okay, I exaggerate.)

It’s not a movie without some wild history, either. Herzog was known for being… well, larger than life. Still is, of course, but even at 30 years old he was arrogant, self-centered, and a bit maniacal. Klaus Kinski, a generation older than Herzog, was similarly driven and crazed, often reaching an intensity level in his performances that was matched only by that of his demeanor off the set. Together, the two worked on five films before their relationship finally combusted; Kinksi died in 1991.

Highly recommended. It’s subtitled, but for once that didn’t bother me much.

315 – Shrek the Third

May 19, 2007

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the third Shrek movie is that it doesn’t stink. It is, after all, not only a sequel but also the third in a series that prides itself in its clever wit and relevance. I was hoping that Shrek the Third would be close to the first two, but I didn’t honestly think it would have enough juice to really slay me in my seat. Er, metaphorically speaking.

But Shrek 3 IS fun. It’s been three years since the second one, and Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, and Cameron Diaz have lower Q ratings nowadays. Were kids going to swarm the theater for the further adventures of the giant green ogre, or was the series played out? You’d assume the latter, given kids’ attention spans and the fact that there’s other kid-oriented stuff coming out.

Had I disliked the movie, I could have called the movie “Dreck”; even better, if there’d been some romance between Shrek and his never-seen mom, I could call it “Oedipus Shrek.” But geez, I liked it. Now what the heck am I supposed to say about it? How about just “What the Shrek is going on here?” Why must they toy with me so?

Shrek (Myers) is tapped to become the new king of Far, Far Away when the king (John Cleese) falls ill. But the Shrek with that, says the green blob. There’s another heir, he learns, so he, Donkey (Murphy), and Puss (Antonio Banderas) set off to find Arthur, a mopey high school misfit voiced by Justin Timberlake. (Note: I knew Timberlake was in the movie, and I thought he was Arthur’s voice, but Artie sounded… well, like a high school kid, maybe even younger.) Meanwhile, Shrek’s absence gives good ol’ Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) the chance to take over Far, Far Away and RULE!

Also aiding Shrek are his pals from other fairy tales, such as the Gingerbread Man, Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf (perpetually in drag and possibly a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, only in reverse), and others. Princess Fiona (Diaz) mobilizes her own galpals (Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty) to help stave off Charming’s army, which is made up of villains from various tales, such as Captain Hook (Ian McShane), the Wicked Witch, Cyclops, and Rumplestiltskin. It sounds like an excuse to shoehorn as many familiar names into the movie as possible, but some of the characters do seem to justify their existences. Oh, and know who else shows up? Eric Idle, voicing Merlin, who here is a half-crazed former teacher at Artie’s school.

There’s excellent use of song, too; one screaming attack by Snow White (Amy Poehler) is accompanied by the opening yowl of Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin’s legendary “Immigrant Song”; this is followed by scorching vocals by Anne Wilson of Heart on “Barracuda.” Sure, this stuff won’t matter to the kidlets, but the adults will get a kick out of cleverly used music from their own childhood.

Here’s why the movie works. None of the leads overdoes things, which is pretty tough to resist when you’re doing a kids’ movie, I imagine. Myers can be awfully hammy, and so can Murphy. But they’re so used to their characters that they didn’t go over the top, instead letting the script provide the laughs. Shrek is obstinate and foolish, and Donkey is boisterous and sassy, but they play neatly off each other without making the movie all about them. The first movie was about Shrek meeting Donkey and then Fiona, and the second was about Not Fitting In with Fiona’s family. This time around, everyone’s saying, “Hey, we know you know us, so let’s concentrate on the story.” It’s a strange and ultimately refreshing approach, and it’s what keeps the franchise from going stale. (They better hope so, because the fourth movie will be out in a few years.)

All in all, the movie succeeds in every way it wanted to. Shrek had me tittering and guffawing at appropriate times, always a good thing. Nothing ruins a movie like laughing at inopportune times, unless the movie’s so bad it’s good. Shrek the Third easy reaches the level of comedy and hijinks as it had in the first two movies, not letting up with the funny. There’s just no real decline in quality here, folks; this is a movie your kids will heart if they enjoyed the first two.

***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

3 Women, Tomorrow

March 20, 2007

Sounds like a porn title, doesn’t it? Ok, maybe a bad porn title, but still. Anyway, these are two older films I saw recently via the good people at Netflix. I can recommend them both, although they’re not for all tastes, definitely.

3 Women (1977) seems, at first glance, to be misnamed, as much of the movie deals with the relationship between Millie (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek). Pinky, new to California, gets a job in a convalescent home. Millie is the seasoned employee who shows her the ropes. But this is much more than a new girl learning how to do things on her own with the help of a mentor, oh yes. You see, Millie fancies herself as quite the social butterfly, but she’s oblivious to the opinions of basically everyone else, that she’s much more pest than paragon of excellence. For example, as the employees file in and out of the home, they’re paired off – except for Millie, who follows them alone and carries on a conversation with the others, even though no one’s listening to her. She also takes her lunches at the hospital across the street, the better to pick up guys, although the scene repeates itself there – she brays on and on about anything and everything while the interns and doctors and residents merely continue their meal, virtually ignoring her.

By contrast, Pinky is terribly shy and naive and sort of idolizes the more-worldly Millie. Looking to latch on to Millie’s brash personality, Pinky moves in as Millie’s roommate. Although the girls do clash on some issues, they more or less get along, although we get some glimpses at Pinky’s more-subversive attitude.

And then tragedy strikes, and everything you know goes out the door. Then the movie really takes off. To tell you more would be a crime, really, but let’s just say the tragedy isn’t something as banal as “girl gets in car accident, gets new outlook on life.” No, some serious stuff goes down in Millie’s and Pinky’s lives.  And the ending – the final fifteen minutes or so – are golden.

Oh, did I mention that Robert Altman directed this little gem? This would be after Nashville (1975) but before Popeye. Altman got the idea for the film from a series of dreams he had. Imagine that; you dream about something, and you go to a Hollywood studio to make a movie about it. They’d laugh at you. They didn’t laugh at Altman, because he’d recently made Nashville and he had a friend in the studio in the person of Alan Ladd, Jr., who cared that Altman the auteur got his vision made into a film. And so it was.

***1/2

Then we have Tomorrow (1972), a verrrrrrrry slow two-character study starring Robert Duvall and Olga Bellin. Duvall is a cotton farmer/handyman who lives a solitary life in a small shack as he waits for his new home to be built. One day, while warshin’ his pans, Jackson Fentry hears moans and groans and comes across a pregnant woman coming to. Seems her husband abandoned her months before when he learned she was expecting, and the other day she decided to just walk and see where she got to. Well, she got as far as Fentry’s home before collapsing. Rather than leave Sarah to fight the bitter cold winter, Jackson takes her in and nurses her to health. She eventually gives birth and they marry, and that’s when things go a little haywire.

Duvall is superb; his accent reminds me a bit of Billy Bob Thornton’s turn as Karl Childers in Sling Blade, although certainly Jackson is a bit more intelligent. Jackson Fentry is a man of few words but myriad emotions; he loves Sarah and wants to protect her and her baby but is helpless to prevent tragedy. By contrast, Bellin’s Sarah is loquacious, friendly, outwardly loving. Both actors do a lot with very little, which happens often in movies adapted from stage presentations. Horton Foote adapted his own play, based on a story by William Faulkner, and this stands as probably the best adaptation of Faulkner’s work to film. It’s slow, but engaging, thanks to wonderful performances by the two leads.

***1/2

306 – Babel

February 21, 2007

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel weaves four disparate and seemingly unrelated tales into a distinct, gritty narrative about the importance of communication – and what can happen when it goes awry. The movie is oftentimes difficult to watch, with ultrarealistic cinematography and gutsy, honest performances from its entire cast, particularly Oscar-nominated actresses Adriana Barraza (Amelia) and Rinko Kikuchi (Chieko).

Told nonlinearly, the movie describes the travails of a troubled married couple with a tour group in Morocco, played by Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Something in their past has driven them apart, and to help deal with the problem they have taken a trip together. Meanwhile, the sons of a shepherd fight over who’s the better shot with their new rifle and fire a blast at the couple’s tour bus, critically wounding Susan (Blanchett). Richard (Pitt) calls home in San Diego to notify the nanny of their children, Amelia; Amelia is in a bit of a bind, because she expected the parents home so she could attend the wedding of her son in Mexico. With Richard and Susan not returning soon, and with no one else available to watch the children, she takes them with her to the wedding.

In Japan, a deaf-mute Japanese girl acts out in reaction to her mother’s suicide, which she discovered; the virginal Chieko becomes a huge sexual flirt, even removing her panties in a crowded restaurant to flash older boys. Chieko craves human contact but feels that the world’s even more shut off to her now than ever before, and she sullenly shuns even her father’s attentions.

It should go without saying that this film really isn’t for everyone. It’s gut-wrenchingly tough to watch at times, especially when Susan’s wound is being treated. You can readily imagine how it’d be if you, an unworldly American, were suddenly in dire need of expert medical attention in a part of the world that wasn’t really famed for it. That’s enough to strike terror in me already, and I haven’t even mentioned how Richard and Susan are awaiting help to arrive in a small, impoverished village with no running water or electricity – and only one person who can speak English to them.

How exactly these stories are commingled becomes evident as the movie progresses, but it’s not all elegantly laid out for the viewer to immediately grasp; this is accomplished in part by the nonlinear storytelling. We see a scene near the end of the movie that is a mirror image of one from the begining, except told from a different character’s perspective. That’s a tribute to the wonderful camerawork and editing by, respectively, Rodrigo Prieto and the team of Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrone.

Barraza turns in a powerful, heart-breaking performance; at one point, she’s stranded in the middle of the Sonoran desert with her two young charges clad in her dress from the wedding. Dazed by the blistering heat, Amelia cannot gain her bearings in the blazing heat, and she despairs. Then she makes a critical decision with devastating consequences.

Kikuchi is absolutely mesmerizing as the silent Chieko. Without uttering one word, she’s able to convey a vast array of emotions, from lonliness to hostility to love to lust to affection. She’s alternately serene and violent, in charge of and captured by her impediment. Chieko resents her father, her volleyball teammates, and most of all every so-called normal person who looks at deaf-mutes as monsters, creatures to be scorned and taken advantage of. Like Barraza, Kikuchi’s role called for a difficult sacrifice: plenty of nudity.

Babel is a spellbinding, multifaceted story with towering, passionate performances by all of the leads. It’s full of moxie and stark realism, and despite some minor plot implausibilities, it’s a true feather in the cap for Inarritu.

***1/2

305 – A Scanner, Darkly

February 20, 2007

In a near-future dystopian society, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) is an undercover cop hooked on an extremely addictive drug called Substance D (for desertion, desolation, depression, death, you name it). Arctor has infiltrated a gang of low-level drug pushers/smugglers, including Donna Hawthorne (Winona Ryder), Charles Freck (Rory Cochrane), James Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), and Ernie Luckman (Woody Harrelson), hoping to find out who their supplier is. At the same time, though, Arctor is falling under the deep spell of Substance D himself and is beginning to hallucinate.

So Bob’s hooked, but he doesn’t want anyone at work to know (it might cost him his job). And his boss at work is leaning on Bob to get more information; the boss knows Bob’s in the gang, but he doesn’t know which of the gang is Bob. Confused? Well, see, here’s a nifty little quirk – every undercover agent wears an intelligent suit and mask that is constantly changing: the face, the body, the clothes, everything. Plus, the voice that comes out of the mask is altered, so no one can tell who’s inside. This goes for Bob’s boss, too. Essentially, the cops know that Bob, known as Officer Fred to his station, is one of the four members of the gang, but they don’t know which one, and they don’t care.

But while Bob’s trying to get the goods on the gang, another of their number snitches – Barris. According to Barris, Bob’s the leader of the pack, the man in charge, the one responsible for pushing all of the dope. Of course, Barris has no idea that Bob is right there in the room when Barris makes this accusation to Bob’s boss. So now Bob’s job becomes one of survival – he can’t let the police know how deep he is, because he could be implicated much worse than anyone else.

I know, I know, this sounds pretty complicated and convuluted, but bear with me – my explaining skills aren’t as swift as those of screenwriter (and director) Richard Linklater and author Phillip K. Dick, on whose story this movie’s based. The movie’s about losing one’s identity – who is Bob? Is he Bob, or is he Fred? Is he the owner of the drug, or the ownee? And, he has to wonder, is anyone else he knows actually as they seem, or are Ernie and Charles also in with the police? Is Bob being set up?

Substance D is bad. Megabad. Anyone here ever see the movie Naked Lunch? In it, Peter Weller hallucinates he’s talking to giant cockroaches. That’s one of the many effects of long-term Substance D use. Other side effects include schizophrenia and paranoia; essentially, the two hemispheres of Bob’s brain are competing for dominance, and it’s messing him up just a teensy bit. People who get to this stage of Substance D use usually wind up in rehab at a place called New Path, which apparently has been very effective in curing what ails ya.

Aside from the gripping plot – and it is gripping, just complex enough to maintain your interest without boring the hell out of you – the main draw here is the filming technique that Linklater uses, rotoscoping. The actors were first filmed performing their scenes; then, the scenes were drawn over and computerized. The result is an eerie, lifelike effect; it’s like watching an extremely well animated film in which every detail is nuanced, every character fully articulated. Rather than being a distraction or a novelty, though, the technique enhances the movie greatly, taking a fairly straightforward plot and ramping it up chillingly. (As an aside, I think it’s the kind of effect Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez wish they’d achieved with Sin City, which feels laughable next to this masterpiece.)

So all in all, this is a wonderful film. Fascinating to watch, riveting, the whole nine yards. There’s plenty of suspense and just enough unanswered questions to leave you satisfied in the end. Reeves is perfect for the role, and Ryder’s never looked more beautiful. Heck, even Harrelson was outstanding. This is a real treat.

***1/2

303 – Monster House

February 12, 2007

As time goes by, we become inured to the magnificence of the cutting-edge techniques found in animation. Remember when Toy Story came out, and we were all “Woo! Awesome animation! It’s so… so lifelike!” And then with each passing year, we were more “Eh, looks nice. It’ll keep the kids entertained.” The resultant ennui with ‘toon films has forced animation studios to be even more innovative.

So for Monster House, images of the actors providing the characters’ voices were captured using 3D motion techniques; then the animated form of the characters was added as a top layer, producing a level of clarity and articulation that approaches that found in live-action films. It’s really pretty neat, but there’s a caveat: Because of the enhanced realism, the movie can be frightening to young children. When Wile E. Coyote attempts to drop an anvil on the Roadrunner, no one’s terrified that a bird’s gonna be splattered all over the place, because everything looks.. well, cartoony. Unrealistic. Taking place in someone’s vivid imagination. But take that terror and multiply it by two or three and then make the whole shebang as realistic looking as possible, and your fright factor is exponential. (Sorry, didn’t mean to involve math there.)

D.J. (Mitchel Musso) is a loner/nerd whose parents Just Don’t Understand. He also keeps tabs on the house across the street, the kind of house every neighborhood seems to have – a spooky-looking old manse with a spotty history buoyed by decades of gossip and innuendo. The house’s sole occupant is Mr. Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi), your standard “Hey you kids, get offa my lawn!” mean old man. (In the opening sequence, he grabs a little girl’s tricycle and destroys it.) Something’s fishy about Old Man Nebbercracker and his house, but D.J. can’t convince his hands-off parents (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara); they in turn hand him off to a virulently nasty babysitter named Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about D.J. or his babblings about mean old men, she just wants to hang out with her boyfriend Bones (Jason Lee) and smooch.

But D.J. is not without backup. His best pal is Chowder (Sam Lerner), a portly, crewcutted lad who acts about forty times faster than he thinks, which makes for high comedy. They’ve been buds for a long while, so when an entreprenurial Girl Scout clone shows up to sell candy, they both compete for her affection. Of course, this subtle story thread takes a back seat to the ominous house across the street, and D.J. and Chowder team up with their new pal Jenny (Spencer Locke) to solve the mystery. But is this an ordinary tale of a crotchety old man who hates kids? Or is there something more sinister at play? The title of the movie might provide a subtle hint.

The characterizations are wonderful, with the troika of Lerner, Musso, and Locke perfectly essaying the dynamics of childhood interactions: the two best buddies, the interloper, the first love. You honestly believe these are real kids acting out real situations and facing their fears of the unknown, older people, even puberty. Such natural-seeming acting isn’t simple for anyone, especially novice actors, even if they’re providing only a voice. Gyllenhaal is sweetly menacing, and I wish I’d seen/heard more of O’Hara and Willard. Kathleen Turner, who provided the voice of Jessica Rabbit once upon a time for producer Robert Zemeckis, shows up as the voice of the titular house, and although we don’t hear a heck of a lot of her, what we hear is choice. Supreme to them all, though, is Buscemi as Old Man Nebbercracker – a huge asset solidfying the film.

As I mentioned before, one issue with the movie is that the violence can get pretty intense at times. I mean, the house is ALIVE and eats people and pets and toys. There’s no blood or dismemberment, certainly, but kids are in constant peril, and it all feels so much more real than your typical cartoon that for really young tots this might be a little too nerve wracking. I actually looked at the screen at one point and said, “This movie is messed up!” the hair-raising, children-in-harm’s-way would make for a decent thriller/horror movie if it were live action. Hey, I’m not saying I was scared, mind you! I’m just looking out for the kids. Yeah, the kids.

Anyway, Monster House is loads of fun. It’s genuine scares and thrills combined with a real ear for how kids interact with each other. A winner.

***1/2

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302 – Notes on a Scandal

January 29, 2007

About two-thirds of the way through Notes on a Scandal, one of the characters appears to go completely berserk with no provocation at all. Just so nice one minute and then BAM! completely loony the next. At first I thought this was a strange lapse on the part of Patrick Marber, the screenwriter; why have someone go around the bend without giving some sort of cause?

But then in the final third of the movie, it all falls into place. And when one does learn what the impetus is behind the seemingly unwarrented outburst, the logical plot points do align, and all is more or less aright with the world. And the way that the apparently loose strand was tied up (although not too neatly) quickly restored my faith in the film.

The stentorial Dame Judi Dench plays Barbara Covett, a self-described battle-axe of a teacher at a London high school, who befriends the school’s new art teacher, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), a willowy tree branch of a woman who appears to be much more style than substance. During an altercation between students, Barbara saves Sheba with some quick thinking and impromptu discipline, and the two become fast friends. Both teachers are outsiders among their coworkers: Barbara the tough-minded contrarian and Sheba the tall, almost flighty blonde, and soon they’re enjoying lunches together and lunches and drinks after work. You know, good bonding.

Until, of course, Barbara learns that Sheba’s been having an affair with one of her underage students. But rather than turn Sheba in to the school authorities, Barbara instead decides to use the information to her advantage, eliciting a promise from Sheba to call off the affair immediately and return (metaphorically) to the loving arms of her older husband, Richard (Bill Nighy, lately seen with appendages on his face in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie), and her two young children. Barbara’s intentions seem pure – why involve the school and police when the two friends can work it out on their own? After all, that’s what friends are for.

But then Stuff Happens, the insane behavior to which I alluded in my first paragraph. And that causes a sea change in the way the friends view each other. Who is doing the right thing for whom, exactly? Is Barbara betraying Sheba’s confidence? Is Sheba half as bad as we’ve seen her made out to be? And a chain of events is set into motion that destroys people’s lives but falls just short of being a bona fide tragedy, since no one has the good grace to die of shame.

Dench is beyond superb. I’m so used to seeing her in regal, all-knowing roles that it’s refreshing to see her as a more vulnerable – and darker – character, allowing her to really plumb its depths. Barbara, who narrates, can be a cold, scheming bitch with a real axe to grind but also the kindest, empathic woman in the room. Well, for the right people, the kind of people she wants to spend the rest of her life with, perhaps. And Blanchett has never looked better, lighting up the screen with her bewitching, haunting eyes; it’s easy to see why her students think Sheba’s so wonderful. Heck, even the male teachers want to knock boots with Mrs. Hart.

As the movie races to its denouement, one’s never sure for whom one should be rooting, which to my mind is a hallmark of well-made thrillers. There aren’t really any winners in this one, just shattered dreams and lost opportunities. Huge kudos to the pitch-perfect cast and the artful direction of Richard Eyre, who directed Dench in Iris (2000).

***1/2
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301 – The Illusionist

January 29, 2007

When the young magician Eisenheim attempts to run away with his true love, the princess Sophie, the imposing wall of class divisions rises between them, and the star-cross’d lovers are separated. Years later, Eisenheim (Edward Norton) has risen to be the most popular – and mysterious – illusionist in Vienna, and Sophie (Jessica Biel) is betrothed to Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), a tyrant-in-training who has designs on his father’s throne as Emperor.

Leopold grows increasingly uneasy about Eisenheim, whose relationship to Sophie is unknown to the Crown Prince, believing that the magician is committing fraud or claiming to possess supernatural powers. What truly irks the prince, though, is that Eisenheim manages to upstage him at the Prince’s own castle with a magical display that enchants his audience of the social elite. And so Leopold orders Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to investigate the illusionist closely to determine his secrets.

Eisenheim performs some truly astounding tricks, including growing an orange tree before the unbelieving eyes of the audience and transporting a handkerchief from a closed box in the audience to the claws of small doves on the stage. But after a truly unfortunate turn of events, his show becomes quite minimalist in scope: The Illusionist merely sits on the stage and conjures – yes, conjures – speaking, reacting ghosts to wow and astound the audience, while Eisenheim mopes about distractedly. What has happened to put him in this state cannot be explained here, unfortunately. But when Eisenheim’s performances go a little too far for the Crown Prince’s liking, Leopold orders Uhl to arrest the magician.

But this is no mere telling of unrequited love followed by the mysteries of a magician. The placid Eisenheim desperately misses his long-lost love, and when he sees her in the company of the overbearing boor Prince Leopold, he uses all of the magic at his disposal to free the beautiful Sophie from the Crown Prince. How this is ultimately accomplished constitutes the great twist in The Illusionist.

Norton is simply – to use a pun shamefully – spellbinding as Eisenheim, a man who uses a paucity of words, every motion calculated well in advance, every emotion kept in check, doled out in spring-loaded moments of unbridled passion. Eisenstein, in the capable hands of Norton, is a romantic, a cipher, an unknowable hero. It’s a shame the movie was released during a year in which many other wonderful performances evolved on the screen, because Norton – twice nominated for Academy awards – turns in a performance that rivals those of his more-lauded roles.

Surprisingly, Biel is pretty good – and, of course, devastatingly sexy – as the aristocrat trapped in a loveless marriage who finally finds someone worth living for and with. Of course, there’s not much to be surprised about, since I haven’t seen her in much, just Ulee’s Gold, when she was a kid, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. Still, she’s hot, and it’s rare that a gorgeous actress can actually show emotional range. It’s a real treat, too, to watch Giamatti, who’s well cast as the intrepid inspector, a role with more than a passing acquaintance with Claude Rains’ Captain Renault of Casablanca, a man not above petty bribery and graft but with his own system of morals.

A lush, dark mystery, The Illusionist relies heavily on the splendid performances of its three youthful leads to weave wonderful threads of mystery, romance, and intrigue.

***1/2

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300 – Little Miss Sunshine

January 25, 2007

You know, a decade or so ago, I had a 1977 Volkswagen minibus. Had a couple hundred thousand miles on it and was a tough drive if one wasn’t used to manual transmissions, but it looked cool in a somewhat-ironic way and was, of course, a viable means of conveyance. You’ll find almost the same exact VW in Little Miss Sunshine, with the same wacky orange exterior and weird off-beige interior, but what sets this one apart from mine is that the Hoover family car has such fun problems as a disappearing clutch, a side door that doesn’t close correctly, and a horn that doesn’t quite stop honking. And yet somehow the vehicle manages to hold itself together long enough to travel from Arizona to California and back for the much-heralded Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant for young girls.

One of the two magnificent aspects of the movie is that the family’s comprised of unlikeable people, that is, normal people to whom you yourself might be related. There’s no hero, exactly (save Olive, the kidlet), because each of the members has some kind of negative vibe going on, whether it’s bankruptcy, smoking, muteness, drug use, or suicide. Oh, sure, they’re a regular Manson Family there, except for the killing bit. Anyway, the family has to shepherd young Olive to the pageant one weekend because she learns at the last minute that she’s become a contestant (she finished fourth in an earlier pageant, but third place got sick) and her usual ride for these pageants is unavailable. So the entire family piles into the microbus (without shovels and rakes and implements of destruction – see if you get that reference), owing to a whole bunch of reasons. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) is going, because he’s responsible for teaching Olive the number she’ll do for the talent portion of the show. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is going because he alone can drive the VW; mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) is going because, well, she wants to. And suicidal uncle Frank (Steve Carell) can’t be left alone, but brother Dwayne (Paul Dano) is perhaps a little young to stay home aloneish.

If this were a typical family movie, you’d expect the dysfunctional clan to grow over the course of their journey, to learn to love each other despite all flaws, to bond and harmonize soulfully behind the dreamy Olive. No way that happens here; these people clearly don’t like each other, except Olive, who’s immune (and/or oblivious) to the negative vibes surrounding her family.

A great deal of the entertainment value of Little Miss Sunshine are the wacky adventures that the group gets into during the ride to Redondo Beach, and it’s not just red herrings that filmmakers toss in to distract you from a crappy plot – you can well imagine these things happening to anyone, such as the aformentioned clutch problem. So the movie automatically feels real to you, not like you’re just watching a bunch of actors going through the motions. And then things REALLY pick up once they get to the pageant.

Like I said, everyone’s sort of dislikable. Grandpa is a drug-using, cranky ol’ coot who’s prone to blunt, profanity-laced tirades. Which makes him several kinds of awesome right there. His son Richard is a controlling goof who completely subscribes to the nine-steps-to-success program that he hawks for a living (“Don’t be a loser!”). Cheryl, who somehow holds the family together, chain smokes and seems the very portrait of crass white trash, while her brother Frank is a gay near-suicide who’s been released into his sister’s care. Oh, and then there’s Dwayne, who’s intentionally mute. Nope, not saying a word, no way, not until he enters the Air Force Academy; it’s some sort of discipline exercise.

And at the center of all this weirdness is little, slightly pudgy Olive, played by the wonderful Abagail Breslin, perhaps best known for playing one of Mel Gibson’s strange kids in Signs. Olive is adorable and real, in contrast to other contestants, who are perhaps adorable but quite artificial. Anyway, Olive seems ignorant of the wacky behavior of her relations except in the most abstract terms, as one might expect from an eight-year-old (meaning she’s not stricken by that Hollywood disease of precociousness). Breslin’s a real treat, and she was rewarded for her excellent performance with an Oscar nomination.

I mentioned two entertaining aspects of the movie; the other is that the denouement isn’t a perfect happy ending. Add that to the realistic – often hysterical, mind you – situations in which the family finds itself, while seemingly not behaving out of character, and you have a gloriously funny film.

***1/2