Thursday, December 25, 2008


“What made you exceptional, they said, was that you were a person who had achieved great fame without possessing any discernible quality.”

Sometimes it takes David to bring down Goliath. David Frost (Michael Sheen) was a likable talk-show host who mortgaged his future and career with an interview with former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Nixon, in need of money and a change in his public perception, agreed to the interview with the man whom his aide (Kevin Bacon) stated simply “isn’t in your league.”

After an intial montage summing up the Watergate scandal, the film follows Frost on his journey to land, finance, and prepare for the interviews which would almost break him, all while the rest of the world looked on and laughed.

Sheen (The Queen, Music Within) once again gives a great performance on which the film rests. Over the last two years he’s become one of my favorite actors working today.

Director Ron Howard‘s choice to give us Frost through his own eyes, as well as seen from his compatriots (Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Matthew Macfadyen) and the Nixon camp, allows us to see the character as he was, and how the world viewed him.

Cut in throughout the film are remembrances of the characters years later. One of the best of these happens during Frost’s first interview on-camera with Nixon and involves an analogy about an eager young fighter who finds himself outclassed by a wily veteran. For most of the film Nixon plays with Frost as a cat does a mouse, controlling the interviews and using the situation to his advantage in an attempt to rebuild his reputation.

Ron Howard has a knack for taking stories about which we already know the outcome and still keeping us on our seats until the final scene. We know Apollo 13 landed safely, yet we become so caught-up in the story we begin to doubt the outcome, if only slightly. Much the same way the director infuses this tale with tension, increasing pressure, and gnawing doubt to the point, though we root for him, we’re still a bit unsure if this talk show host, this entertainer, is up to the task. As one of his confidants points out after that initial interview, the only solution when you’re so remarkably outmatched is to grow six inches. What makes the film work so well is we believe it’s possible for Frost to do so; we’re just not sure that he can.

I’ve mentioned Sheen’s performance, let me get to Langella. Nixon has been portrayed as everything from a villain to a buffoon in films over the years. Langella’s Nixon is presented as an incredibly smart, if flawed, individual with a large ego, and very much a man of his time. I was also taken with the dry humor with which he infuses the camera which knocks everyone, even sometimes his own entourage, off-guard.

The supporting cast is all top notch and imbue the film with some needed humor and a sense of perspective to the events as they unfold. Rebecca Hall is lovely in her small role as Caroline Cushing, and Rockwell and Platt are immensely enjoyable as “Crack 1” and “Deep Crack.” And yes, that’s how I’m going to refer to them from now on.

The film was adapted from the stage play (in which both Sheen and Langella starred). I haven’t seen it on stage, but if it works half as well as it does on screen I may have to check it out. From beginning to end I was engaged, entranced, and completely connected to the story which was unfolding in front of my eyes. The unlikely pair of an entertainer and a former President makes for some great storytelling (think Jimmy Kimmel attempting to illicit a confession of wrongdoing from Dick Chaney) and gives us more than simply a hero to root for or a villain to rail against.

Here is the struggle get to the truth and come to terms with the mistakes made during, at least until that time, the biggest scandal in Washington. I would recommend the film wholeheartedly to all fans of cinema as well as those wanting to relive an unusual event in the history of this country and one of the most unexpected events in the history of television.

Marley & Me

Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston star as John and Jennifer Grogan. She’s a well-known feature writer, while he tackles the small local stories which barely earn him a byline.

The couple’s lives are changed by two events. The first is the adoption of a cute, but troublesome puppy named Marley, and the second is John accepting a job as a columnist instead of a reporter. Although separate they intertwine as the more stories from misadventures with Marley wind-up in Grogan’s columns the more popular they become.

From the trailer you’d expect this to be your typical doggie misadventure film with praftalls, embarrassing situations and the like. Although there are plenty of those here, the film also takes us on a journey of growth from both John and his family. It’s the troubles with the dog which lead him to become ready for fatherhood. And its often love of Marley and that brings the pair back together after arguments.

In terms of tone the film jumps around quite a bit, probably more than necessary. And at nearly two-hours in length its story begins to wear thin long before Marley’s tale is wrapped-up. Performance-wise both Aniston and Wilson are fine and there are a couple of nice small roles for Eric Dane and Alan Arkin. I was less impressed with the over-the-top dog trainer played by Kathleen Turner.

For dog lovers Marley & Me might be a nice couple hours in the theater. For me it was about 30 minutes too long. I would caution those taking young children that the film goes to the end of the dog’s long life so be prepared to answer questions from inquisitive children about what happens to dogs after they die.


“God promised Abraham that he would not destroy Sodom if he could find ten righteous men. I have a feeling that for Germany it may come down to one.”

Tom Cruise stars as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg one of many Nazis loyal to the fatherland, but disatisfied with the Fuhrer’s running of the country. After getting blown-up in the early scenes the now eye-patched Stauffenberg joins a resistance group and begins planning the assassination of Adolf Hitler (David Bamber).

The film, written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander and directed by Bryan Singer has so many issues not even Superman’s return could save it from disaster.

Let’s start with the Nazi’s themselves. A more honest good-natured group you’d be lucky to find anywhere outside a Hogan’s Heroes re-run. All the the conspirators are presented as noble, self-sacrificing men who might be handing out money to the poor and donating their time to work with the elderly if it weren’t for that Hitler guy. Were all these men tricked into joining the Nazi party?

Also at issue is the explanation of the noble cause everyone is fighting for. We get no context about Hitler other than that he’s a crappy leader. Now I’m far from George W. Bush’s biggest supporter, but I’m not spending my time on an assassination plot (I’m too busy with trying to get rid of Ron Marz). I think you might want to show Adolf as more than just an incompetent leader. It doesn’t help that he’s only seen briefly in two scenes as an elderly gentleman hunched over a table. I know that people walking in are supposed to know Hitler = Evil, but how about a little effort or context? Any at all? Instead I began to wonder why the eye-patched Tom Cruise was trying to kill that nice old man in the bunker.

Even those loyal to Hitler, what little we see of them, come off mostly as bland officers diligently doing their duty. The film lacks anything resembling conflict, moral ambiguity, hard decisions, or tough choices. It’s a film about good Nazis (in this movie that’s not an oxymoron) versus bland Nazis. Even the SS is turned into nothing more than faceless background officers on a Star Destroyer. And if all these bad Nazis are so lame why is Maverick so insistent they must to be stopped? Have they lost that loving feeling? Is it gone, gone, gone?

Story isn’t the only issue. Singer wastes a strong cast in throwaway roles better suited to unknowns. These include Kenneth Branaugh (who disappears for the middle two-thirds of the film and doesn’t have much to do when he’s on-screen), Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp, and Eddie Izzard, just to name a few. I do like how the film plays on the divergence inside the group and layers of distust and inaction which lead to the plan’s failure. But I would like to know more about this group, and not just Cruise’s character. At least they’re all beautifully shot and have a few nice shiny new clips for their promo reels.

In a movie about Hitler’s evils and an assassination attempt to wrest control of the country from him phrases like “Jews” and “concentration camps” are hardly mentioned (if at all) let alone explored. After everything is said and done we have a film glorifying a small group of men who tried to kill the leader of their country without acknowledging the fact that these same men swore an oath to Hitler and have been carrying out his policies for years. Nor does it explore or develop the mixed feelings these men must have had in attempting to kill the leader of their country and stage a coup. Cruise and his fellow plotters instead are all presented as noble heroes, almost mythical in stature, above such petty concerns or doubts.

The script also fails to address the fact that the film’s hero is a bit of a coward. At least twice in the film he gets face to face with Hitler and has the opportunity to blow his brains out, stab him in the throat, or break his neck. This is in sharp contrast to the man we see in all the other scenes, pushing for the assassination and demanding action. Why doesn’t he take his chance when he is given easy access and direct contact to Hitler? The reasons (cowardice? fear? bad eyesight?) for his inaction in these moments if explored might have added another layer to the story. As they are ignored they simply become one misstep in a marathon of errors .

Monday, December 22, 2008

Death Race on DVD

“What we trained to do, very hard in the film, we tried to ground it in reality as much as possible”
—producer Jeremy Bolt

I was less than impressed with Paul W.S. Anderson’s remake of Death Race 2000. The film follows a group of convicts who race around the prison yard in armored suped-up cars with machine guns, all for the camera. For more on the plot of the film itself read the original review.

The film is available in both a one-disc DVD and Blu-ray. The regular DVD includes a commentary from director Paul W.S. Anderson and producer Timothy Bolt. There’s some interesting stuff here including the 14 year path taken to make the film and the fact that Harvey Corman was onboard with the attempt (which does nothing to improve my opinion of Corman). Thought there’s some interesting tidbits about the prison itself and how different aspects of the race were filmed separately and cut-together, there’s nothing here which explains or apologizes for the sheer absurdity of the entire enterprise.

Also included are a trailer and two featurettes. The first, “Start Your Engines: Making of Death Race,” is your basic behind the scenes look with interviews cut between clips. The second, “Behind the Wheel: Dissecting the Stunts” you think would be more interesting as its geared to the one aspect of the film which really works. You’d be wrong. Although it shows a little behind the scenes on the making of the cars it doesn’t go into detail on any of the stunts themselves specifically, which is disappointing.

The other extra here is the ability to watch both the theatrical version of the film and the slightly longer “Unrated” version which includes a few deleted and extended scenes added back into the film. Do these unrated scenes make much of a difference or improvment to the film? No, not really.

The Blu-ray version also includes your basic BD-Live features including the ability to chat, create and share your own commentary for the film (here you might have fun with this in a MST3000 style), and tech-spces on the cars and races of the film.

Reading the review and watching the film and features show you just how large the disconnect was with the people involved in making the film and the final result. “Grounded in reality as much as possible.” Yeah, like Hancock. Death Race isn’t a total waste but it’s more of a cable flick to check out a 2am than something you’re going to want to put money down for - unless you simply want a mindless action flick you can get wasted to with your friends and laugh at, stare at the tame T&A, and enjoy the stunts. I think that’s actually the target audience for the film.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Yes Man

Carl Allen (Jim Carey) is a selfish bastard who never wants to get involved, often ignores his friends (Bradley Cooper, Danny Masterson), and still mourns the loss of his ex-girlfriend (Molly Sims).

One day he runs into a former co-worker (John Michael Higgins) who convinces Carl to check out a Yes seminar run by a guru (Terrence Stamp) who teaches his followers to say yes to everything. Carl agrees and finds his life suddenly awesome. He parties with his friends, meets a new girl (Zooey Deschanel), improves his relationship with his boss (Rhys Darby), and generally gets a more positive outlook on life.

Of course this covenant of “Yes” also leads our protagonist down some bad roads (though not as numerous, nor humorous, as you’d might expect). These include accepting sex from a senior citizen, attending a Harry Potter theme party, and throwing his best friend’s fiancee (Sasha Alexander) a bridal shower. All of this leads to the eventual revelation and understanding you’d expect (after the trademark romcom third act break-up).

Yes Man is your basic romcom with an extra dose of Jim Carey zaniness thrown in. The romance itself works alright, until the film falls back on basic romantic comedy conventions, though the age differences do lead you to think of Carl as a bit of a cradle-robbing perv. The funniest moment in the film, however, does not come from Carey but from Stamp who runs barefoot full-speed down an aisle during a seminar giving us one of the few unexpected laughs of the film.

Is it worth the $10 ticket price? For die-hard fans of Carey’s, yes. The rest of you may want to wait to check it out DVD, or even better yet, cable.

The Tale of Despereaux

“Reader, you must know that an interesting fate awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.”

There is a skill to adapting a book into a movie. The rise and fall of action in a series of chapters often doesn’t translate directly to screen and the necessary beats of a feature film.

The Tale of Despereaux isn’t a bad film. It’s got an all-star cast, sharp animation, and a lovable protagonist. It also has too many characters, a convoluted plot, and a less than satisfying ending.

It’s 20+ minutes into the film before we even meet young Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), a small mouse with a big heart who takes instantly the notion of chivalry. Despereaux doesn’t fit into a society that wants mice to cower and run; he dreams of adventure, and even doodles drawings of cats.

Events involving a rat named Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) years before have led to the banishment of both rats and soup in the kingdom. It is into this darker world Despereaux discovers a sad young princess (Emma Watson) and pledges to bring light back to the kingdom.

Now, there’s more than enough there to weave a plot for an animated film. Sadly the writers aren’t willing to let go of subplots from the book which keep getting in the way. There’s a dungeon guard, there’s a creepy Single White Female serving maid (Tracey Ullman), and there’s the on-again off-again narration by Sigourney Weaver making the whole enterprise feel more like someone is reading us a hastily condensed abridged version of the tale than showing us a finished feature film.

Fans of the book may also be a bit dispointed at changes to some of the characters. Roscuro is taken from the antagonist of the piece to a flawed but ultimately redeemable character and Botticelli, instrumental in the final act of the book, is one of the few characters not included here.

I also must discuss two important ideas which are presented but, sadly, neither developed nor resolved. The first is the conflict between individuality and conformity to societal norms (Desperaux’s ideals vs. those of the mouse community). And the second is a rather sly line about the absurdity of consensual crimes (after the King declares soup illegal). I applaud the film for including two high concepts like these (and coming out on the right side of each) but neither is adequately explored as the adventure and plodding plot take over instead. It’s too bad we don’t get more development along these lines instead of repeated scenes involving a rat gladiator arena and a crazy maid.

Young children, like those in the audience of the screening I attended, might grow bored with the somewhat unfocused tale (as will some adults), though older and more patient children may have an enjoyable enough time. It’s an okay animated action-adventure which feels like it should have been much more. The Tale of Despereaux may be a great book, but this movie isn’t good enough to make me want to find out

Vicky Christina Barcelona

“I was in love with the most incredible woman, and she put a knife into me.”
“That’s terrible!”
“Well, maybe you did something to deserve it.”

Two American women find themselves in Barcelona for the summer with friends (Patricia Clarkson, Kevin Dunn). Our leading ladies, as our narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) informs us, are as different as friends can be.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is responsible and rational, always making the smart call and against silly flights of fancy or taking chances. She is engaged to be married to a nice stable man (Chris Messina) back home in the States.

Christina (Scarlett Johansson) is a free spirit and dreamer unsure about life or her career (she recently wrote, directed, and starred in a a short film about the meaning of love which, by the time she finished, she hated).

One night the pair are approached by a local artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), still in love with his unstable ex-wife (Penélope Cruz), who propositions them both. Although Vicky balks at his offer Christina finds him charming and accepts. Separately both women’s lives will be turned upside down by Juan Antonio as they begin to look at life and love in an entirely new way.

Rather than the big murder mysteries he’s given us lately, such as the dramatic Match Point (read the review) and Cassandra’s Dream (read the review) and the humorous Scoop (read the review), writer/director Woody Allen creates this wonderful tale of love and provides opportunities for each of his stars to shine. Johansson gives her best performance since Lost in Translation, Rebecca Hall provides the quick dry wit so well-suited for Allen’s dialogue, and Penélope Cruz takes control of the screen as a force of nature. Longtime RF fans will remember I’ve been less than impressed with much of Cruz’s work in American films, but here she’s simply marvelous! Although she doesn’t make an appearance until well past the half-way point it’s impossible to discuss the film without praising her performance. And don’t forget Bardem who, in not an easy task, holds his own with each of these women in an understated performance.

Not forgetting his supporting cast Allen provides some great moments for Clarkson, Dunn, and Messina. And our unseen narator provides many of the films early laughs. But it’s Barcelona and the surrounding countryside which gives the film its feel and tone. From Gaudi to the Spanish guitar, to the rolling countryside, here is a location to inspire the types of love our characters yearn for, discover, and struggle against.

In another director’s hands this tale of love and lust could easily have become lurid or comical in the wrong way. Allen presents us with real characters dealing with choices and open to ideas not the norm. There’s a scene in the film between Johansson, Hall, and Messina in which Christina describes the life she’s chosen much to the shock of Vicky’s fiance. Such scenes can be found in countless B-movies dealing with the taboo subject matter, but here Allen adds a touch of class, humor, and thought, which makes all the difference.

Allen’s film is filled with many small, but important, choices. As Christina flees to Barcelona only to escape one reality for another, Vicky is there for a purpose, researching Catalan culture. It is in both Christina’s directionless search for direction and love of art, and the unexpected depth of Vicky’s love of the region and culture, that provides vastly different connections and relationships with Juan Antonio and his world. He is not a gigolo and they are neither saints nor tarts, but flesh and blood characters searching for love. What so easily could have been tawdry becomes romantic, even with some of the absurdities of its results.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself with this unexpected little film which is one of the year’s best. Allen breathes new life into his career and for the first time in years doesn’t feel like he’s plagiarizing himself or struggling with past themes. The Bohemian feel of the film mixed with the lush backdrop of Barcelona is an intoxicating mixture. Here he has provided something worth savoring with a film full of terrific performances and memorable moments.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

The film takes place over a period of many years through a series of flashbacks. In the present we see Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) interrogated for supposed cheating on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire by a Police Investigator (Irfan Khan) and his subordinate (Saurabh Shukla) who simply can’t believe an uneducated street kid like Jamal could actually know the answers.

In his attempts to prove his innocence we are granted glimpses at Jamal’s early life as a child (played by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) with his older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) through his performance on the show the night before.

What director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy give us is a thoroughly engaging and slowly unfolding tale as Jamal relates his story and the events which led to him learning the answers to the trivia questions he was given. Along the way we learn more about his life, his first love, and his tempestuous relationship with his brother

In many ways Ifran Khan (often cast in cop roles like this) is the eyes and ears of the audience. We discover Jamal’s story through his interrogation, and, like the Police Inspector, aren’t always given the answers we expect. The reveal of the truth behind Jamal’s appearance on the show, and his reasons for wanting to appear, give us more than we have any right to expect from a movie based on a multiple choice game show.

Given the darker turns taken through Jamal’s past it’s strange that the film’s one constant is a sense of hope. Jamal has been beaten down, disappointed, and had the one good thing in his life taken away, but he’s still standing. I can’t quite bring myself to call it a “feel-good movie,” but, even with its rougher story elements, the film has a life-affirming message of perseverance and faith which so many attempted “feel-good films” never deliver.

Slumdog Millionaire is a sweet, brutal story. In many ways it earns it’s R-rating, but at the same time it’s one of the most believable and heartfelt love stories of the year. I’m not always a fan of multiple time-frame flashbacks, but here they provide the proper structure to display the story, and still hold back one or two surprises as well. Filled from top to bottom with strong performances and well-paced engaging narrative Slumdog Millionaire is one of the best films of 2008.


“You haven’t the slightest proof of anything!”
“But I have my certainty.”

At the heart of the film written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who adapted his play for the screen, is the issue of change vs. the status quo. Set in the Bronx during the 1960’s the film deals with the conflict between the more liberal priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the older Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep).

Set between the pair is the good-natured Sister James (Amy Adams) who is the catalyst for the story when her observance of events causes Sister Aloysius to believe, with certainty, that Father Flynn has taken improper advances with a young black student (Joseph Foster).

Is the accusation real, or is it simply an excuse for the traditional nun to get rid of the crazy priest and his new-fangled ideas? Is there room, for doubt?

What the film attempts to do over the course of its running time is to present both sides, Sister Aloysius’ suspicions and Father Flynn’s insistent innocence, without proof either way. Had the film done this I, no doubt, would be giving it higher marks.

The problem is both arguments are not presented equally. Streep’s nun is is full of righteous furor and certainty but lacks anything resembling conscious thought or a single shred of something more substantial than idle gossip. Although the events shown in the film do suggest the possibility of such a relationship taking place there is nothing shown, or even suggested, to give equal weight to Sister’s Aloysius’ position.

Just as she questions Father Flynn, the film also puts Sister Aloysius’ faith itself on trial, which, in almost every single way, comes out more guilty than the priest. The final scene, which I won’t spoil here, would have been more powerful if equal credence, aside from her cocksuredness, of Father Flynn’s impropriety, had been demonstrated. Instead we are given the choice between an old crone who cares nothing for facts and a kind priest who cares about his flock. Who are you going to believe?

Of all the performances here Streep is getting the most acclaim, which I find a bit funny since it’s the most one-note, though still strong, performance of the piece. Personally I was more impressed with Amy Adams who was given the harder role to deal with increasing doubt on all sides, and Hoffman as an increasingly desperate man who sees his life attacked by a woman who feels her belief is more important than facts. The nun’s personal dislike solely fuels her crusade when a little more evidence might have helped. Had the film been able to remain a bit more balanced (and if sister Alosius was just a little less self-obsessed) I, no doubt, would have enjoyed the film more. I’m still recommending it for some fine performances and some nice and subtle camera work, but I’m certain it’s not the film it should have been.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Punisher: War Zone

“Who punishes you?”

Let’s start with the good, shall we? Ray Steveson is the third, and best cast, actor to take on the role of Frank Castle. In this latest version Frank is a former military officer whose family was gunned down when they witnessed a mob hit. Only Frank survived. Now, as the Punisher, Castle hunts down all members of organized crime in his never-ending quest for vengeance.

The latest name of his hitlist (Dominic West) gets himself thrown in a big vat-like glass recycler (Joker, anyone?) and is reborn as the tattered faced Jigsaw.

When the film plays it straight it works okay, although the scenes where the Punisher takes down rooms (or buildings) full of baddies who stand around waiting for him to first kill the guy next to him before taking action gets a bid old. I also liked the conflict within Frank over accidentally widowing the wife of an undercover agent (Julie Benz). There are pieces here which in better hands could have given us a halfway decent film.

The problems begin when the film tries to lighten the mood with mostly way over the top violence and simply ridiculous villains. Director Lexi Alexander can’t seem to decide what kind of film he’s making. You can be First Blood or Shoot ‘Em Up, but you can’t be both at the same time. We get meth-head jumping Jamaicans, the crazy Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchinson), and Jigsaw himself who is the worst on-screen comic book villain since Bane in Batman and Robin.

West’s Jigsaw seems to be a rather obvious homage to Jack Nicholson‘s Joker, but he’s simply not able to give the character the edge necessary for us to take him seriously. And when the bogeyman is little more than comic relief no conflict develops and a film like this simply doesn’t work.

Stevenson is well-cast in the role and with a better script he might have been able to carry the film. I do like how the script makes the local cops the Punisher’s complacent accomplices, and the action scenes, except with they get too cartoonish (such as punching through a guy’s head), are mostly well done. The film piles up the body count but it can’t decide whether it wants to be a fun shoot ‘em up or a tragic action drama. The result may be the best Punisher movie made yet, but it’s also the worst comic book movie of 2008.

Cadillac Records

“That mother fucker!”

The film, written and directed by Darnell Martin, tells the tale of Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and the creation, tribulations, and successes of Chess Records which boasted now legendary artists Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), all of whom are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Given these figures you might expect something more than your basic paint-by-number music biopic. If so, like me, you’ll be disappointed.

We get the basic stories - the cheater, the drug addict, the crazy one, etc. What we don’t get is any historical context about who these people were or their lasting effect on music.

The script overreaches in an attempt to tell multiple stories about the lives of each person involved in Chess Records. The end result tells us very little about anything. It might work as a primer for young kids, except it’s Rated-R for profanity and adult content.

There are some nice performances wasted here. I’m most impressed with Beyonce who is beginning to show some acting ability, even if she’s badly miscast. And everyone does a fair job performing the many musical numbers in the film, but once again there’s no stand-out performance or number which would make this film more than the sum of its parts. Plus you have to deal with the fact as passable as these performers are you’d rather be listening to the real musicians they are portraying than the attempts to cover their songs.

I’m not sure who the audience is for this film other than rabid fans of Def or Beyonce (neither of whom appear until half-way through the movie). Although Cadillac Records isn’t a hard movie to watch it is hard to discuss in terms of filmmaking because of its bland nature and unwillingness to create anything more than a collection of mildly amusing events and tunes. It’s like trying to critique the color toupe; you can do it, but what’s the point?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Where to begin? Director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann gives us an epic (in time though not scope) tale about Australia. Over the course of nearly 3 hours we follow the troubles and tribulations of our main characters, plus many side tales, until finally it all mercifully comes to an end.

The film begins and ends with a message about the Lost Generations of Australia, Aboriginal children who were taken from their families and “re-educated” as servants for whites. This would seem like a story worthy of being told. Too bad Australia is busy telling so many stories it gets crushed under the sheer weight of the plot.

The film begins, in tone much like the old-style live-action Disney films (at times I half-expected the Apple Dumpling Gang to show up), with the arrival of an aristocrat, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), into the backwaters of her family owned land. Hijinks ensue with the rough stockman, cutely named Dover (Hugh Jackman), and a young mixed-race Aboriginal boy named Nulla (Brandon Walters).

Over the course of nearly 3 hours this unlikely team, aided by an alcoholic accountant (Jack Thompson) and Nulla’s mystical grandfather (David Gulpilil), will take on the evil cattle baron (Bryan Brown) who owns the rest of the territory and wants to run Faraway Downs out of business. They’ll also fight off the villainous Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), take part in a cattle drive, have a wedding, build a new life, join the war effort, cross the Never-Never, look for something Over the Rainbow, get separated, fight social conventions, and struggle to make their lives mean something.

The film attempts to distill events better suited for a 12 hour mini-series into a single film, and badly. There’s no central story here, so the film continues on perpetually in search of one. When one story begins to lose steam they simply jump to another. Here’s a film where money seemed to thrown at every problem, without results. Also disturbing is how each of these chapters seem to have been filmed with different directors, often at cross purposes.

Tonally the film is a nightmare. The film shifts randomly from tongue-in-cheek G-Rated style Disney to stark drama, to a message film, to romance, to action, to war, and back again with all the finesse of Michael Bay. There’s even a huge Pearl Harbor-style battle scene. Had the filmmakers chosen to take one or two of these stories and flesh them out into a film that might have worked. Instead they simply did everything, or attempted to.

The Diagnosis
There are pieces here which could have made for a good film, or even better a not too shabby mini-series, but what we’re given is an unfocused collection of separate stories which go on forever. Australia isn’t a horrible film. It’s simply a mediocre one with delusions of grandeur which bites off more than it can chew.


“I’m Harvey Milk and I’m here to recruit you.”

Sean Penn stars as Harvey Milk, a businessman from New York who would struggle for years in an attempt to become San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official.

The film follows the failed campaigns and the process of organizing and entire community into public activism. Director Gus Van Sant also spends considerable time on Harvey’s friendships and love life, giving us a complete picture of the man from his days before politics to his untimely end.

Penn is terrific as the lead. Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Diego Luna, and Alison Pill all put in strong performances as the constellations which revolve around Hervey’s world.

Van Sant does a good job in showing us how Harvey related to the rest of the world. Although the big public moments are meant to get your attention, its the quieter and more intimate ones that are more memorable. Though those uncomfortable with gay relationships might want to steer clear of this one.

The film is quite strong in Harvey’s struggle to gain office but begins to lose steam after he is elected. Part of the problem is Van Sant has deliberately chosen to be vague about the reasons for his death. Josh Brolin puts in a fine performance as Dan White, but we aren’t given a plausible reason for his downward spiral and eventual murder. They disliked each other? Harvey decided not to vote for White’s pet project? Animosity appears between the two in the film, but is neither explained nor explored. At one point we learn Harvey wants him fired and is prepared to use his considerable influence to make sure White isn’t reinstated after his resignation, but, once again, we aren’t shown why.

What begins as honest disagreements over policy issues somehow creates a bitter disagreement that completely unhinges White. As history is unsure, given the Twinkie Defense, Van Sant chooses to go with the uncertainty rather than try to reason out events (other than a throwaway closeted gay joke). The end result is a film which becomes confusing in what should be its strongest act. Too much unfolds off camera, and by the time we catch up to the story if feels as if we’ve dozed off and missed important plot points.

I don’t want to call a film as good as this disappointing, but in some ways it is. Penn will no doubt get a deserved nomination for the role. But, had Van Sant chosen a harder stand on the later events of Harvey Milk’s life this might have turned this very good film into one of the best of the year. Even with this flaw it’s an easy recommendation to make and a film worthy of discussion.

Friday, November 21, 2008


It’s been quite awhile since I’ve used the word impressed to describe a Disney animated film.  Bolt proves two things: 1) Disney bringing Pixar into the fold was a very smart move and is starting to bear fruit, and 2) the Magic Kingdom may still have a little fairy dust left after all.  Bolt is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

Bolt (John Travolta) is a super-dog whose powers include laserbeams which shoot out of his eyes and a super-bark which can take out an entire army of Dr. Calico’s (Malcom McDowell) evil agents.  There’s just one thing, none of it is real.

Bolt is the star of a television show and believes the special effects done during the scenes are his own doing.  When the script calls for his owner Penny (Miley Cyrus) to be abducted Bolt breaks out of the studio and finds himself in a world which he is ill-prepared for.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is a normal 8 year-old boy with a loving mother (Vera Farmiga), a protective older sister (Amber Beattie), and a father (David Thewlis) who he is proud of. Oh, did I forget to mention that the film is set in Germany during WWII and Bruno’s father is an SS officer?

When his father takes a promotion the family moves from Berlin to a fortified house in the country, near what Bruno takes for a farm filled with strange people in striped pajamas. When he inquires about the new neighbors Bruno is ordered to stay far away, which, for a inquisitive, curious 8 year-old, is the perfect temptation.

Through the fence of the camp Bruno begins a friendship with a young boy named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). It is through this relationship Bruno begins to question his father and the world around him which will lead him onto a path neither his family nor his new friend could have foreseen.

Although the film is overly simplistic in many ways, it still works. Obviously at least one of the guards would have noticed the children spending time together, and movement in and around the camp resembles Hogan’s Heroes more than reality.

Also troubling to me is the odd choice of casting British and American actors as Germans, all doing their natural accents. In this film about Germans no German is spoken and no hint of a German accent is anywhere to be found. If the people themselves don’t feel at times like Germans the film does make clever use of German propaganda films of the time and the teaching of Bruno’s Nazi tutor which only add to the young boy’s confusion and help lay the groundwork for the film’s final act.

Even with its issues the film works very well and ends as you’d expect in tragedy. There’s even an “oh, shit” moment which begins the final act which sets events in motion which leads into a strong, if a bit too foreseeable, climax.

I would have preferred this done as a German film but director Mark Herman and his crew make due with the cast they are given, who perform quite well even if its hard at the beginning to buy them in these roles. I wouldn’t recommend the film for young children, but for tweens and up this is a good introduction to the Holocaust through the eyes of characters their own age.


“Knowing that you don’t know is the first essential step to knowing, you know?”

Caden (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater director dealing with a myriad of problems, both physical and emotional which includes his inability to understand the passage of time (he can’t tell the difference between a few weeks and a few years), postules, eye and teeth issues, and his unsuccessful relationships with women (Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Samantha Morton, and others).

Into this dysfunctional existence comes a MacArthur genius grant (seemingly funded until the end of time) which allows Caden to create his own masterpiece. Decades later the project takes up several square blocks, employs hundreds, has become a mirror to Caden’s failures (complete with extras who begin playing the extras, who have now themselves become characters in the play), and is no closer to being finished.

That’s about all I can tell you about the plot since its dreamlike nature makes it hard to say how much, or how little, is reality or Caden’s wild imaginings.

Writer, and now first-time director, Charlie Kaufman, who has been known for his reality-bending tales (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich), allows his imagination to go wild. The film is filled with the bizarre including a house, where on character chooses to live, perpetually on fire for decades, a barage of strange events, and in the end a story which we can’t take all that seriously. Although the strangeness itself is somewhat fascinating, Caden himself is not.

There’s a moment in Adaptation where Nicholas Cage‘s character, realizing that he has written himself into his own script admits his self-indulgence and failure. That’s pittance compared to the levels of Caden reaches, but here no one, not even those who want to hurt him emotionally, seem to be able to make this rather obvious realization.

The Diagnosis
I give Kaufman all the credit in the world for creating something different, even if it doesn’t work. However a second voice is needed if only to tell him just because he can think of something doesn’t mean it belongs in the film. At the heart I think there’s a good movie buried deep down, but I’m not sure its worth the effort to try and find it. I have many issues with Synecdoche and can’t quite recommend it, though it earns points for strong performances and the sheer imagination of the undertaking. I just wish it amounted to more.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Quantum of Solace

“There is something horribly deficient about you.”

The film picks up immeadiately after the events of Casino Royale (read that review). After the worst car chase montage ever shown in a Bond film, more on that later, 007 (Daniel Craig) delivers Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) to M (Judi Dench) for interrogation.

Before escaping, with relative ease (and a confusing moment where no one, including the director or the four screenwriters it seems, are sure if M is shot), White informs MI:6 that they are hopelessly outmatched by his secret origination with its hands in intelligence organizations worldwide.

Bond is sent to follow up one lead after another only to quickly kill everyone in his path who could offer information, much to dismay of British Intelligence.

Believing 007 has let his anger get the better of him, M treats him like a shop-a-holic by cutting off his credit and ordering him to be brought in, forcing Bond to go rogue to continue the investigation which leads him to an environmentalist (Mathieu Amalric) and his evil plans for taking all the oil (or is it water?) out of Bolivia.

The film has many flaws aside from the revenge plot which doesn’t play well in a Bond film. The opening stunt sequence, all shot on shaky hand cam by cinematographers who thought The Blair Witch Project wasn’t nausea-inducing enough, is cut together so haphazardly you can’t even tell what you are seeing. Thankfully the other action sequences are at least slightly easier to follow.

Also perplexing is the oil/water swindle. It’s not needed here and feels almost like an afterthought and an attempt to throw in a Bond villain-like evil plan (complete with a secret base made to explode) to make the story feel more a part of the franchise. But since Bond’s revenge, the main emphasis of the tale, has already put him on Greene’s tail what’s the point with this half-hearted plot-point which is never adequately explained?

I like Craig as a rougher Bond, but here all the fun of the character (which was shown in the first film) is missing. This Bond is without his swagger, his dry wit, and his theme song (the Bond theme doesn’t make an appearance, once again, until the closing credits - ditto for the gun barrel sequence). Instead we get a gritty hand-held action flick with a renegade spy where we’re not sure what is happening half of the time. Is this supposed to be Bond or Bourne?

We do get several locales including Chile, Austira, Itlay, and Panama City. However, there are no Bond gadgets this time around (except for the kick ass computer in Intelligence HQ which is, by far, the coolest thing in the film). There are two Bond Girls, the revenge focused Camille (Olga Kurylenko) who helps 007 on his quest, and the smaller role of a fellow agent (Gemma Arterton) who Bond seduces for her assistance. Well, at least one piece of the character, 007’s libido, is recognizable.

Quantum of Solace isn’t the worst Bond film, but if you divide the 22 films into thirds (the best, the mediocre, and the worst) then I’d place this one at the top of the least column over films like The World is Not Enough, Octopussy and A View to a Kill, but far below the best, or even the more mediocre, of the franchise.

Sadly Camille’s tongue-in-cheek comment about Bond’s deficiency (quoted at the top of this review) is all too telling of the film itself. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, and make us watch. We’ve seen Bond on the run and out for revenge in License to Kill (which even with its stupid drug dealer storyline was more fun than this), and Diamonds of Forever (probably the worst Bond flick ever made); it didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. By making revenge the primary force behind the film it moves further and further from the formula which makes a James Bond movie work and more indistinguishable from any other action flick.

Although I don’t mind the continuation of the story from Casino Royale, though starting it immediately after the end of the first film wouldn’t have been my first choice, the plot isn’t handled well. With Casino Royale the new Bond franchise could lean on Ian Fleming’s original tale. Here the four screenwriters (never a good sign) are asked to create a Bond story from scratch, at which they fail miserably. I don’t know where the franchise goes from here; one or two more entries like this and I might not care.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Casino Royale

Feeling some disconnect with James Bond and the movie going audience a new direction for the franchise was decided on. Bond would be reborn. The producers decided the series would relaunch the character in the present day still new to the game, snubbing their nose at 42 years of continuity and character development and removing him out of the crucible of the Cold War which formed him.

MI6 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) is promoted to 00-status and given a license to kill, but gets in trouble on his first mission, which creates a PR nightmare. M (Judi Dench) sends him on vacation only to discover Bond is continuing his mission in the Bahamas, tracking down a banker, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), who launders money for many of the world’s terrorist organizations.

When Le Chiffre travels to Casino Royale, MI6 sends Bond to enter the poker tournament to bankrupt his opponent and leaving him open to take whatever deal the British Government is willing to give him. On hand to assist Bond are Vesper Lind (Eva Green), more accountant than agent, and the CIA’s man in Montenegro Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright).

The film differs from many recent entries as the special effects are thrown out in favor of action sequences only. It works quite well, for the most part, but an early sequence at a construction site seems over-the-top and cartoonish, and less believable than Moonraker.

The character is re-molded into a trained killer who has appeal, but has yet to develop the suave and sophisticated facade which he will show to the world. This type of Bond fits Craig perfectly, who I think would be more out of place as the conventional Bond. The film also mixes in quite a few humorous moments, which work very well, to balance this meaner Bond.

In terms of the Bond franchise we do get two Bond girls, Eva Green and Caterino Murino who plays the iconic doomed Bond girl (in the Shirley Eaton mold). We aren’t given a Q however, and the movie lacks the gadgets which have become common place in the series. The film also replaces Baccarat, which was used in the novel, with Texas Hold ‘Em, cashing in on the current popularity of the game.

In terms of negatives, the opening sequence fits the style but seems to be lacking the punch of the usual Bond film (the fact that the title track flounders doesn’t help). The film also has an unbearably long epilogue that takes up the last 20 to 30 minutes of the film (are we sure Peter Jackson didn’t direct?). And most horrendous of all - the film includes a scene of Bond driving a Ford!

Though I would have preferred the series to be relaunched in the Cold War era casting Bond in the world Fleming intended, the film’s choice to start his career works well enough (though it does raise the question who was that guy in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s?). Continuity doesn’t seem to be a major concern and the lack of it, though it does detract, didn’t hurt the character as badly as I feared it might. Craig’s first entry is a good one, though not a classic.

A final note for families: Although the film is rated PG-13 it is a brutal a film to ever be given that rating, and while watching I naturally assumed it was Rated-R. The action and killing scenes are close-up and bloody. I’m not saying kids shouldn’t see the film, but if the main character had be named anything but James Bond I think the chance of this film getting a PG-13 would roughly be the same as Tara Reid and Tom Green winning Oscars the same year.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

“Hurry up before we all come to our senses.”

An attempt to fly back to New York in a plane rebuilt by the penguins (Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon) gets the gang off the island of Madagascar, but soon crashes them into the nearby continent of Africa.

There’s much happening here including Alex (Ben Stiller) reuniting with his long lost mother (Sherri Shepherd) and father (Bernie Mac), the mechanations of a lion (Alec Baldwin) who wants to be King of the jungle, Marty (Chris Rock) finally living out his dream as part of a herd, the penguins attempt to rebuild the plane with the help of some local grease monkeys, the return of that mean old granny (Elisa Gabrielli), and Melman (David Schwimmer) dealing with feelings for Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith).

In style, humor, and story the film feels much like the first Madagascar. There’s plenty of fun including crazy moments with King Julien (Sacha Baron Cohen), Alex rediscovering his old blankey, Melman’s short stint as a witch doctor, and the zaniness of those penguins. Not all the humor works, the granny is given a little too much to do here for my tastes, but enough does to make it an enjoyable time at the movies.

If you enjoyed the first film you should have a good time with this sequel. It might not knock your socks off, but you’ll have some fun.

Rachel Getting Married

“I am Shiva the Destroyer and your harbinger of doom for this evening.”

Kym (Anne Hathaway) is released from rehab for her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. Although sober, Kym is still a bit shaky with deep unresolved issues which will be brought into sharp focus over the course of the weekend.

Director Jonathan Demme, having learned much from his time making documentaries, gives us a chance to view the action as if we are one of the other guests attending the wedding. The natural low-key approach gives the film a loook at feel more like a documentary than a feature film. There are several moments including the rehearsal dinner where the events unfold so naturally I wonder how much, if anything, was scripted.

Inter-cut throughout these moments is Kym’s story. Early on these don’t fit perfectly with the more natural scenes, but Demme finds a way to slowly weave them into the fabric of the film. Hathaway shines as the tough but extremely fragile young woman searching for a forgiveness from others she can’t give herself. Her current condition and the root of Kym’s issues all stem from a past tragedy which is slowly revealed over the course of the film, in mostly dysfunctional ways.

What makes this performance, and film, work so much better than something like Margot at the Wedding (which I hated) is Hathaway’s innate charm and vulnerability she gives to the character. In Margot the film conspired to give us events for the main character to act petty. Over the course of 114 minutes Kym will make several bad decisions but we never grow to hate her. She’s simply wants love and forgiveness and isn’t sure that she deserves either one.

There are some nice family dynamics on display here. I enjoyed the relationship between Kym and her overprotective father (Bill Irwin) and the dynamic between Rachel, Kym, and Rachel’s distrusting best friend Emma (Anisa George). And then there’s the complicated relationship between Rachel and her mother (Debra Winger) which boils over in one of the film’s most compelling scenes.

From time to time I attack many big budget Hollywood films for the use of shaky hand-held cameras. Part of the problem is the very nature distracts the viewer and part of the problem is it doesn’t feel natural to the glossy big budget event you are watching. Here however the documentary feel allows the use of hand-held cameras because they are our eyes walking through the events surrounding the weekend and not simply a way to save a few bucks or make something look cool. At times there’s a little too much shakiness for me, but thankfully, it never becomes distracting.

Although the more scripted scenes don’t alwasy mesh perfectly with the more documentary feel of the film, it’s filled with style, great performances, and a story that you might not enjoy but will certainly appreciate. I think everyone knows someone like Kym and the film makes great effort is showcasing her flaws, and the flaws of those around her, without judging anyone or attempting to make us feel one way or another about the characters and circumstances of the story. It’s one of the most memorable films of 2008.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

“Sometimes you need someone else to show you the things you can’t see.”

The latest from writer/director Kevin Smith focuses on two lifelong friends and roommates who find themselves under a mountain of debt with no money to pay off rising expenses.

Out of other, more conventional, options Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) decide to make a porno together in hopes of raising enough money to get their water and heat turned back on.

Those familiar with Smith’s films will feel right at home here with the vulgar humor tinged with some sweetness. There’s also some Star Wars references thrown in, and I would like to know what George Lucas thought of Zack and Miri’s first porno idea.

You’ll also notice some staples of the View Askew universe in small roles including Jason Mewes, Jennifer Schwalbach, and Jeff Anderson as those who chip in to help on the film.

Although it’s nice to see the familiar faces its the newcomers who fair best here. Banks and Rogen have a nice chemistry and are well-cast as friends who could be more, Katie Morgan and Traci Lords (wait until you learn why she is called Bubbles) provide some memorable moments, Brandon Routh has a funny cameo during the high school reunion (though Justin Long‘s performance is too over-the-top for me), and Craig Robinson, who’s given the best line of the film, nearly steals the show.

There aren’t too many surprises here and you can guess where the story and characters will end up. For a film about making a porno there’s not as much sex as you would expect in the film (which was initially branded NC-17 by the MPAA), and I like how it’s used mostly as a vehicle for humor and to develop the relationship between the two leads.

Zack and Miri won’t knock your socks off but it’s a fun potty-mouth filled film (at times litrally) with a nice message of friendship and love mixed in. I’m happy to see Smith put on a film which doesn’t star Ben Affleck or the center around the Clerks duo, but now I hope he branches out even more with his next project and tries something a little different.


“Miss Collins, if that’s your son I’ll eat my yardstick.”

Based on a true story the film, set in Los Angeles of the 1920’s, tells the tale of Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) and her missing son.

When the police reunite her with who they believe to be her son Collins quickly finds plenty of evidence to support her own feelings that this boy is not Walter. Attempts to get the police to acknowledge their mistakes fall on deaf ears and eventually Collins is thrown into an asylum for her “irrational” behavior. Cue the inevitable electro-shock scene.

Director Clint Eastwood gives us a terrific looking picture filled with crazy and bizarre events. However the film’s mood is never quite right and many of the disturbing events, such as the inane explanations in the change of Walter by the officer in charge (Jeffrey Donovan) and a doctor (Peter Gerety), come off silly rather than menacing.

The film is broken into different sections which don’t necessarily cut well together. The first feels like a lame Twilight Zone episode, then there’s the story about the corruption of the Los Angeles Police Department, Collins stay in the madhouse, a courtroom drama, and the darker horror elements which take place in a farm in the middle of nowhere. In this story about a missing child the child whose missing is lost for long periods of time due to all the other storylines in play and giving the film an unfocused feel.

At more than two-hours the movie is also too long and filled with extra scenes, five and ten years later. The presence of these epilogues is to show Collins’ over the years; the effect is to create in the viewer a growing desperation that the film will never end.

There are also a few too many applause moments for me, especially in the film’s third act, scenes designed solely for the audience to cheer. These types of scenes work well in sports movies, but in a drama, if not handled carefully, they come off cheesy. And overall the film seems to be playing up to an Oscar audience rather then to simply telling its story, which should, though isn’t, compelling enough on its own.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the film. Although story is a problem the movie is filled with good performances from Jason Bulter Harner, Amy Ryan, Jolie herself, and John Malkovich as a preacher with a blood feud against the LAPD who helps in Collins’ struggle. And Eastwood provides some of his trademark movie magic moments over the course of the film, though not quite enough to overcome its flaws.

The look and style of the film, along with the acting, is quite good, but the unfocused storytelling and unintentional humor of the film make it a story which is almost impossible to take seriously. If I had been able to buy into the highly unusual tale I’m sure my reaction would have been more positive, and there will be those who might not find the situations, as they are presented, as laughable as I did, but in the end Changeling feels like a miscalculation on Eastwood’s part and a bit of a head-scratcher as to what movie he actually wanted to tell.


There is no honor among thieves.

The latest from writer/director Guy Ritchie is a bit of a convoluted tale of real-estate scams in London. Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson) runs an under the table service of getting property rights quickly passed through red tape for an exorbitant fee. Anyone needing business done quickly has no other option than to go through Cole.

After bilking two tough guys (Gerard Bulter, Idris Elba) out of their dream, and getting them to owe him money, Cole moves onto business with a Russian (Karel Roden). Here’s where things get complicated.

In need of some fast cash One Two (Butler) and Mumbles (Elba) take a job from an associate (Thandie Newton) to rob a large supply of money coming into London. Unknown to the pair the money is the payoff the Russian is bringing to Cole, and its theft jeopardizes the business deal.

Events are further complicated by Cole’s son-in-law (Toby Kebbell), a minor rock star and junkie, who faked his own death and stole a painting from Cole’s home - a gift from the Russian who wants it back.

The script relies too much on coincidence. The inter-connectedness of the plot could easily have been tweaked to be a bit more believable, but instead the series of events piles higher and higher like a house of cards, and eventually collapses. The film also culminates in a large revelation, which although it works, doesn’t really have the impact Ritchie hoped for.

Still, there’s quite a bit that works here including some fine performances, one of the best sex scenes in recent memory, the humorous fall-out from an admission of one of One Two’s gang, and the return of the seedy gruff style which Ritchie pulls off so well.

RocknRolla is the type of movie which will play well to Ritchie’s fans but probably won’t win him over many new ones. It’s an okay film about gangsters, thieves, and murder, but it doesn’t add much new to the genre. If you’re a fan of his work, or you like your action rough and sleazy, it might, might, be worth a couple hours of your time.

Friday, October 24, 2008

High School Musical 3

“You may be ready to say goodbye to East High, but East High’s not ready to say goodbye to you.”

I missed the first two made-for-TV High School Musical films, but even coming late to the party it didn’t take me long to get the lay of the land. It’s senior year at East High in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That means one last musical for the gang, and fears about future college plans and long-distance romance for Troy (Zac Efron) and Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens).

Although the storylines are quite simple. the sets, costumes, and choreography make stand-out performances. The film, tongue firmly in cheek, makes homage to everything from Busby Berkley to Madonna’s “Material Girl” video.

In terms of acting most of this cast belongs on television, and, aside from some big-hearted musical numbers, they don’t do much to distinguish themselves. Hudgens proves she has a voice for the big screen, but not, at least yet, the acting chops to hold down a lead. Ashely Tisdale is hurt by the limitations of her role as the blonde bitch, and Efron’s everyman character tries to be so many things I’m still not sure who exactly Troy Bolton really is. The two performances I was most impressed with were Lucas Grabeel and Olesya Rulin, who I look forward to seeing in other projects in the future..

Without much of a plot, and some limited performances, the film is saved only by the amount of energy and eagreness on display here which finally crescendos at the climax of the film in the school’s senior year musical.

The film knows it’s target audience and goes after it. Here’s a chance for fans to see these characters once more, this time on the big screen, and say goodbye. It won’t pull in many new viewers, and shows many of the limitations of its genre, and probably belongs more on television than the big screen, but if your a fan of the series there might be enough here to have a fun, though not that memorable, time at the movies.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Max Payne

“I don’t believe in heaven.”

The film is based on the Max Payne video game, so stay with me as I attempt to explain the plot.

Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg) is a police detective assigned as a file clerk to the Cold Case room in the bowels of the department. Mostly Max looks angry/constipated as he sits at his desk going over files and in his spare time tries to solve the murder of his wife (Marianthi Evans) and daughter.

A new lead kills his former partner (Donal Logue) and a young woman who Max was pumping for information (Olga Kurylenko), who it turns out is the sister of a nefarious assassin (Mila Kunis). Max is framed for both murders and goes on the run to discover the truth.

His quest will take him on a byzantine journey through his wife’s former job, an old friend of his father’s (Beau Bridges), and a secret drug called Valkyr.

The look of the film is quite good and the production value is high. The snowfall, use of shadow, and the effects of the Valyries themselves are all well done. It seems no expense was spared into making this look like a good movie; too bad nobody spent some cash on the story.

The film is mired in a plot which makes little to no sense. The drug itself creates either A) super soldiers who feel no pain or B) delusional junkies who are attacked by harpy looking Valkyries. The film never decides whether the Valkyries are real or hallucination. If they are real where do they come from, and if they are simply figments why does everyone who takes the drug see the exact same thing? And how are tattoos (don’t ask) supposed to stop them?

The plot borrows loosely from Norse mythology in a way that makes me believe somebody was writing a cop/drug movie and his kid brought home a beginner’s book on the subject which he only briefly skimmed and added to the mix. The result is ridiculous at best (as in the tattoo artist who gives us a brief history lesson on the subject) and mind-numbingly retarded at worst (as in the name for the baddies secret base).

Speaking of ridiculous, there’s also the insanely bad casting decision of Mila Kunis as an assassin. I like Kunis, who was quite good in Finding Sarah Marshall (read the DVD review), but no matter how much she scowls it was impossible for me to take her seriously as a bad ass chick who could actually kill anyone. And I’m supposed to buy she runs an entire organization with nothing but her looks and a few guns? Yes she’s got a great ass but that’s not all you need to play an assassin.

There’s also a problem with Payne’s innocence. The cops, led by an Internal Affairs agent (Ludacris), are a little too quick to buy his guilt, and even quicker to believe his innocence later, without much evidence. It doesn’t help that the plot calls for Payne to consistently make worse and worse decisions which only serve to feed the plot’s need to make him look guilty.

Save me from movies based off video games. The film is a mess. It may be a step up from complete disasters like Doom (read that review), but so is a sharp kick to the groin. If you have to see it I’d recommend waiting for DVD and watching it with the sound off, creating you own plot to go with the impressive look of the film. You could hardly do worse.


“Any kind of government will do, as long as it’s a democracy.”

Oliver Stone‘s biopic on George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) is a bit of a mixed bag. On one side you have a terrific lead performance by Brolin and strong performances by Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush and James Cromwell as Geroge Herbert Walker Bush. On the other hand you’ve got a group of caricatures from the likes of Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn, Ioan Gruffudd, Toby Jones, and Jeffrey Wright, among others, all of which seem to belong more on a parody sketch from MADtv than a feature film.

Also, and perhaps more surprising, is that Oliver Stone, the guy who gave us an epic conspiracy in JFK and the foibles which brought down a president in Nixon, doesn’t have much to say about W.

Stone’s basic premise is George is a dumbshit with a daddy complex better suited to be a used car salesman who became president. That’s not exactly breaking news. And although there are some good scenes throughout the film, Stone doesn’t really offer much insight into the character as he’s too busy poking fun at everyone involved.

The film moves through various flashbacks from Bush’s life including his troubled college years, his struggle to find a career, his animosity with his father, his early forays into politics, his love of baseball, and the US entering into the Iraq War. There are quite a few moments which aren’t covered however. His first presidential run is barely mentioned (and Al Gore’s name is missing completely) and his run at a second term isn’t even given a footnote. And although the some of the decisions made after 9/11 are discussed the attack itself isn’t a part of the film.

Bush-haters will love the film, the Christian Right will hate it, and the rest of will simply be disappointed. Stone delivers an okay, though mostly empty, comedy with a subject ripe for ridicule, but I guess I expected more. The film is still worth seeing for Brolin’s terrific performance of Bush’s natural buffoonery and mangling of the English language, but it won’t tell you anything you didn’t already know.

Sex Drive

“What smells like jizz?”

Ian (Josh Zuckerman) is a senior in high school and still a virgin much to the dismay of his best bud Lance (Clark Duke) and his over-agressive brother Chet, I mean Rex (James Marsden doing a spot-on imitation of Bill Paxton from Weird Science).

Ian’s life is complicated in his hidden feelings for his best friend Felicia (Amanda Crew) who has a crush on Lance. The threesome pile in Chet’s car for a road trip together to get Ian hooked up with a girl he met online (Katrina Bowden) and hilarity, or vague resemblance to it, ensues.

The film is exactly what you expect it to be, no more and no less. It’s a braindead teenage love story filled with odd humor (Ian dressed up as a donut), the inevitable trip to jail, embarrassing situations, some hot chicks (Alice Greczyn, Jessica Just), crazy people met on the road (David Koeschner, Dave Sheridan, Seth Green), and a slow realization from all the characters about who they are and who they truly belong with. Awwww…

And the film (in one of its better scenes) finds a way to bring all the characters together and wrap up each story at once.

You’ve seen this before, and you’ve seen it better. There’s nothing really wrong with Sex Drive other than its lack of originality, and there are some funny and outrageous bits throughout the film. Seth Green is kinda funny (and I would love to hear the Amish reaction to the film’s take on Rumspriga as Spring Break mixed with a frat party), Crew is well-cast as the cool and cute (but not too sexy) best friend, and those end credits are sort of interesting. In the end however Sex Drive spends most of its time in neutral.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Body of Lies

“Ferris didn’t give much thought then to the complexity that lay beyond this vision; the maze that was so perfectly constructed you didn’t think to ask whether it was perhaps inside a larger maze.”

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as CIA agent Roger Ferris who is sent to the Middle East by his superior Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) to find and stop an emerging terrorist leader.

When the film focuses on the relationships between Hoffman, Ferris and the head of the Jordanian Intelligence (Mark Strong) it works quite well. Trust and partnerships are very fragile things in the region where anyone could just as easily be your enemy or ally.

Ferris must deal with the ego of his boss while trying to create trust with the officials in whose country he is operating. It doesn’t help that Hoffman’s idea of diplomacy is deception and the end of the knife. Hoffman’s only concerns are completing the mission and keeping American interests prioritized over of all others.

Although DiCaprio gets the bigger role it’s Crowe who steals the film. As Hoffman he portrays an intelligence and American arrogance which is infuriating as he turns out to be right most of the time. Strong also puts in another nice supporting performance here.

I also like Ferris’ plan for catching the terrorist leader, though it, like much of the film, feels a little too much like a lesser version of Traitor (read that review), without the character study to balance the action and terrorism plot.

The film makes a few missteps. For some reason a love story is hamfistedly pushed into the tale, simply to allow for unfortunate events in the plot to be played out later. And although I like how the audience is thrown into the story without much explanation, the film also has a bit of a pacing problem as it rushes important ideas and set-ups to larger themes at times and slows to a crawl at others.

Body of Lies may not be all that you hope for with the talent involved. It’s not as good as Traitor, but it is an engaging film with a strong performance by Crowe which alone is worth the price of admission.

City of Ember

“In the city of Ember, the sky was always dark. The city of Ember was old, and everything in it, including the power lines, was in need of repair.”

For more than 200 years the city of Ember has substained life. Now the generator which keeps the underground city lit has begun to fail and it falls to two young tweens (Saorise Ronan, Harry Treadway) to save the day.

Like most films about kids saving the world the film is a bit of a mixed bag. The story, adapted from the Jeanne DuPrau novel, allows for some imaginative set design teen adventure, but doesn’t offer much more than an amusing ride.

Over the course of the tale we learn that children pick their life-long professions out of a sack at the age of 12, the mayor (Bill Murray) knows more about the increasing power losses than he’s saying, and that most adults (as in most films of this vein) have absolutely no idea what is going on.

Rated PG the film is geared more to kids and teens than adults, although a couple of monster sequences spaced throughout the film seem more geared to a horror movie than a family picture and could very easily frighten young children.

The cast includes many familiar faces including Tim Robbins, Martin Landau, and Toby Jones, but its the two teenage leads who do the majority of the work in carrying the film. The script doesn’t ask them to do too much, and fills the screen with a fantasy world and some elaborate stunt sequences which seem to suggest the strong possibility of a theme park ride inspired by the film.

Although the film only has a running time of 95 minutes it seems longer. Adults may grow bored, but older children and teens may find the adventure and the small spark of imagination enough to keep their interest.

The Express

“And I won’t tell him he’ll be the next Ernie Davis, because there’ll never be another Ernie Davis.”

The film follows the college career of young Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) who follows in the footsteps of his hero Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) to play football for Syracuse University.

After the early scenes involving Ernie’s recruitment by Brown and head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), the film moves to Syracuse, the short scenes involving Davis’ freshman season on the bench, and his break-out sophomore year.

In terms of sports movies many of the regular clichés are on hand here. Quaid is the gruff coach with a heart who learns to love and trust his players, and the film showcases the racial issues of the time in a mostly family friendly PG kinda way. However the film also strays from the pat formula in some interesting ways.

Davis isn’t the headcase, the star with the ego, the brain, or the fool. He’s just a good guy with a talent for playing football and a drive to prove something to himself, as well as his detractors, on the field. Rob Brown gives a strong performance that will either make or break the movie, and he succeeds.

I also like the urging of Ernie’s brother (Nelsan Ellis) who chastises him into understanding how important his role is off the field as well as on and to think not only about football. Although I was expecting the racism on the field and in the towns the team traveled (as in Remember the Titans and other films), here was something with a new slant which added to the palette of the film and made Davis a more contemplative and complete character.

Most of the film deals with Davis and his sophomore season leading Syracuse to the National Championship. The later scenes involving the season for which he won the Heisman and his ill-fated pro career are only vaguely touched on in comparison.

The football scenes are well shot and the film has a nice pacing in terms of how the film and Davis’ career at Syracuse are cut together. I would have liked a little more after that sophomore year, but understand the need of the sports movie genre to give us the big climax before moving quickly through later events. I do wonder, however, if those months after his diagnosis which are only glimpsed at here might have made for a more stirring and compelling film.

The Diagnosis
The life of Ernie Davis, like so many sports figures is both a sad and glorious one. Director Gary Fleder and screenwriter Charles Leavitt do justice to adapting Robert Gallagher‘s biography and sharing with us the college career which won Davis the Heisman, and the story of the man under the helmet who was the first African-American athlete to achieve the honor.

I Served the King of England

“It was my luck to run into bad luck.”

The story follows the remembrances of Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser) who, recently released in prison after almost 15 years, begins a new life and thinks back of the experiences of his younger self (Ivan Barnev).

We follow the young waiter’s experiences as he works himself up the ladder at various restaurants and hotels over the years. Dite’s slow rise takes some unexpected, and often humorous, turns over the years.

His emotional journey also takes him through the arms (and out of the beds) of beautiful women before falling hopelessly in love with a card carrying Nazi (Julia Jentsch).

I Served the King of England is about many things, and about nothing. Writer/director Jiri Menzel gives us a winding tale about the finicky nature of life, money, love, regret, and politics. The film is at its best when it mixes its sly humor with a deep melancholy in moments when reality hits Dite’s dreams right in the face (such as his understanding of Liza’s fervor and duties to the Nazi party).

I’ll stop for a second to commend the entire cast. Barnev is terrifc and carries this oddball role with a grace that is mystifying. Kaiser is well cast as the older Dite and from his eyes we glimpse both the humor and pain he has lived through. The women of the film are beautiful, and Jentsch is just about the sweetest little Nazi you’ve seen in the movies (even if she does stare at the painting of Hitler when she makes love to Dite). The film is also filled with good supporting roles, too many to list here.

The film has a look, feel, and energy which seems more in tune with the silent films of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton than to modern cinema of any genre. As such it comes off as fresh, different, a little odd, and unexpected.

Through the eyes of Dite, which the story is presented, everything takes on a sweet innocence, even Nazis! Filled with an excess of beautiful nude women the film never looses its inherent goodness nor becomes vulgar. In the eyes of Dite a beautiful woman isn’t a sex object as much as a piece of the divine.

In many ways the story feels like a story or fairy tale one might tell a small child before bedtime.

Dite’s childlike state is honestly confused by events which don’t fall into his dreams of owning his own hotel. The trouble and hostility he finds are baffling to him, even when he begins dating a Nazi. This creates bittersweet moments filled with an abundance of both joy and pain.

Dite’s life is a tragedy, but one which will make you laugh. Through the later scenes of his life we see his misadventures have not left him bitter. He’s lived his life and achieved his dreams if only for a few fleeting moments, how many of us can honesty saw we’ve accomplished that?

Throughout the course of the film Dite has the habit of taking his loose change and throwing it to the ground. Inevitably, no matter how far he has risen or the wealth of those he is serving, those around him begin scrounging around for a few loose coins. In this simple act you begin to understand the childlike wonder of Dite which may be slightly diminished by the tragedies of his life but never extinguished. A funny movie tinged with tragedy and loss, I Served the King of England is amusing, captivating, and thought provoking. You’ll likely have to hunt down local art houses to find this one or wait until the film makes its way to DVD, but it’s worth the effort.