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.