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Surprisingly effective and smart
Chronicle follows the story of three high-schoolers, popular Steve (Michael B. Jordan, who was so exquisite in The Wire), brainy Matt (Alex Russell), and his withdrawn cousin Andrew (Dane DeHaan, looking occasionally like a young, angry Leonardo DiCaprio). Andrew starts going through his phase where he films everything, and we are treated to his lonely, abuse-filled existence for the first fifteen minutes of the movie until Matt prevails upon him to join him at a party. While Andrew films the rave, the story is interrupted by Steve's discovery of a sinkhole nearby, which the three boys investigate, only to find some weird glowing artifact buried within (intentionally shaky camera-work obscures just exactly what the McGuffin is). Whatever it is, it imbues them with psychic powers, predominantly telekinesis, which starts off small – Andrew builds a replica of the Space Needle out of Legos using just the power of his mind – but graduates to larger stunts, namely the moving of someone's car while she's shopping in the mall, and then fatefully, Andrew casually tosses a pick-up truck off the road when the driver following them becomes too aggressive for his liking.
The film does cover some familiar super-hero ground – newfound powers and how to deal with them – but it's immeasurably smarter than the average journey down this lane. You don't even know it will be a sci-fi movie until about twenty minutes in (it seems like an indie flick about teens), and where Chronicle really stands out is that finally, finally, someone understands that story stems from character (okay, Joss Whedon demonstrated that in The Avengers, but that was a rare exception). Each character is smartly thought-out and more importantly stays consistent when his powers develop into a great deal more than any of them imagined (special mention must be made of the initial flying scene, which was the most innovative of its type since we first saw Chris Reeve do it thirty-five years ago – the sheer joy these kids feel when they learn to break the earth's bonds is infections and terrifically captured).
The performances all around are aces. All three young leads stand out – it's hard to prefer one over the other. Michael B. Jordan shines here – with the right projects, he could be a huge box office sensation. Alex Russell is strong throughout, and Dane DeHaan – who gets the lion's share of screen time and the darker role – is simply superb.
The movie's just plain clever as well; it's just smartly thought-out and feels satisfyingly realistic (especially compared to tripe like the Tobey Maguire Spider-man films). The use of faked surveillance footage also adds to the realism as it's so adroitly done (and probably saved quite a few pennies on special effects). The few showy effects – Andrew splits apart a spider into its component pieces – are so well realized they feel eminently natural. From every angle this movie surprised me.
It was only toward the very end, when (naturally in a super-powered movie) things get out of hand that the light bulb went on over my head and I saw an additional shading of genius in this movie: it is, for all intents and purposes, a live-action Akira, except that it's really well done and doesn't have a crappy let down of an ending. There is no longer any need for anyone else to even attempt this, for Josh Trank (director) and Max Landis (screenplay) have already achieved it, far better than any adaptation of Otomo's work could (and indeed, more satisfyingly than Otomo's original version).
I've gushed enough. This movie brilliantly exceeded all my expectations and deserves a lot more exposure than it's gotten. It's smart, engrossing, sharp, and best of all, it didn't cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make. It just goes to show if you have good ideas and a good, well-told story that you don't have to break the bank. I'll be anxious to see what these guys do next, but honestly, it would be hard to top this.
Serviceable, but not great
I remain a fan of the original Planet of the Apes movies, which, aside from the first one, were slightly cheesy, but remain one of the most inventive franchises yet. I loathed Tim Burton's abortion from several years ago, and had washed my hands of any further attempts to revive the franchise, thinking perhaps the films were, and perhaps ought to remain, firmly rooted in their sociological place in time. But I kept hearing murmurs that this was a good film (one friend called it "the best movie he'd seen all summer") and, well, okay, when it came out I broke down and checked out a copy.
They changed the story little; this is really a revamp of the third movie, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, explaining the genesis of how intelligent apes came to be among us (the original version features a delightfully impossible cause-and-effect loop where intelligent apes sprang from a pair of intelligent apes who traveled back in time). In a nutshell, Dr. Rodman (James Franco) is working on a cure for Alzheimer's when he discovers a concoction that heightens cognitive functions in chimps. When he tests it on his ailing father (John Lithgow), it displays enormous promise, but not as much as it does with little Caeser, a chimp born of their most promising test case. The original batch of super-goo proves unstable, however, and Franco is sacked. Fast-forward a few years (and throw in Frieda Pinto as a love interest, because, hey, she is really really beautiful), and Caesar is now adolescent sized, and incredibly smart. An incident with a snotty neighbor lands him in what is essentially an ape jail (run by Brian Cox and the dude who played Draco Malfoy, so you know it's a bad joint), and Caesar, by dint of his intelligence, takes over the place. From there it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to the apes running the planet, although we'll be saving that for future installments (watch the credits, you'll see what I'm referring to).
The Apes movies in their initial run were really more about what humans feared, and apparently in the Seventies what we feared is that we would screw things up and wreck the world and someone else would take our place at the top of the evolutionary ladder. Now that most of that has come to pass (save for the top of the ladder bit), it turns out what we are most afraid of now is that in trying to avert some horrible disease, we will screw things up and wreck the world and someone else will take our place at the top of the evolutionary ladder (well, again, in the next movie they will portray the actual taking our place bit). Whereas in the earlier version of the saga we shot ourselves in the foot with nuclear weapons, here we shoot ourselves in the foot because of greed and big pharma, which again, is a tad more realistic (though nuclear Armageddon was not so far-fetched in 1970). The story approach is different, but the underlying fears remain.
Much like in the original, the human actors are almost completely disposable; we spend a lot of time with Franco, but he could be any well-meaning shmuck, and Lithgow, while he's very good, is merely a maguffin to create the super-ape serum (the rest of the humans, even the radiant Pinto, are utterly forgettable). The take on the apes is different – here they look much more ape-like, and less like humans in prosthetics, although honestly I loved the 60s/70s apes (and so did Oscar, they won an award for inventive make-up). The guy who played Gollum played Caesar as an adult, and of course he's crazy good and convincing in his movements; that helps sell the believability of the film. But even with flawless effects, I felt there was something missing from this version of the story, some element that sold me on the other, admittedly lower-tech and cheesier version, that did not sell me here. Maybe it was the casually boring treatment of man being mean to lower animals, or maybe it was just that it took way the hell too long to get things going; but this movie, while technologically impressive, has no heart. We don't bond with Caesar the way we bonded with Roddy McDowall's version of him; he seems a cold and cunning conqueror, almost more of a villain than a hero (while he rejects the evil humans, naturally, he also rejects the embrace of the one who loves him, which I understood from a plot point but nonetheless found curious). Caesar is less a protagonist to root for than a warning that it will likely be some innocent bystander we hardly give a second thought to who will eventually topple our way of life. He was far too callous for me to embrace. I also didn't care for the slapdash ending, where the apes find temporary sanctuary after besting a squad of policemen. So? The next day they'd simply be gassed, end of story (or it would be if not for the financial allure of potential sequels, which is why they keep trying to revive this franchise).
I didn't find it a bad film, but I did find it an oddly cold and sterile one, and admit to being a tad perplexed as to why, technological achievements aside, everyone seemed so taken with it; granted, we humans are simply living high on the hog in an epoch between glacial periods (most likely), but I don't really find the notion that we will be displaced one that deserves much cheering. I find the whole premise kind of creepy, myself. Maybe without McDowall's humanity underneath it all there's some spark lacking in these new apes – one I would label empathy. You'll certainly be impressed by the effects in this film, but I was left cold by the story.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
Sadly no better than the first one
See, when you start to get older, you forget some things, like sometimes what you thought of a movie. Not a major crime, but it can lead to little mistakes, like renting this film. For some reason (Angelina Jolie's voice acting? Encroaching senility?) I recalled, incorrectly, liking the first KFP. I got my hands on this, queued it up, and then read my review of the first one (maybe I should have performed those tasks in a different order). When I recalled how kind of flat I thought the first one was, I thought, well, maybe this one will be better.
It's not. It's not a terrible film, but it's flat and lazy like the first one. Here big fat Po (Jack Black, the titular panda), now a member of the legendary Dragon Warriors, has two dilemmas; he and the other Dragons must take back a remote city from the new bad guy, a crane (really? a zillion animals in Chinese folklore and the bad guy is a bird?) and also has to find out his true heritage, as it's really blanking obvious his father cannot biologically be a duck. The two plots progress slowly, and of course are tied together, and naturally we have to stop every dozen minutes or so to let the cartoon characters duke it out.
The design work is fine, and executed very sharply – it's a pretty pseudo-Chinese pastoral world, and we have the requisite gorgeous scenery paired with the evil, red-lit infernal machine factory of the crane (in a plot that felt wholly stolen from Detective Dee). KFP character design tends more toward the cartoony – and for some reason flashbacks are done in traditional animation, to help separate them from the CGI stuff – and that doesn't change here (I liked the addition of the rhino, even though he does nothing but stand around).
The problem here is, once again, a lazy script full of fat/eating jokes and some uninspired voice work. How is it that Jolie could make a fish seem sexy in Shark Tale, and yet fails to do anything but a straight reading with the most eroticized of animals, a big cat? Maybe that's direction, but it seems like she's sort of phoning it in, as does everyone, excepting of course James Hong, who once again is amusing as Po's duck daddy.
I'm sure the kids enjoyed this film (it did depressingly well at the box office), but unlike, say, Despicable Me or almost any of the Pixar films, there is nothing here for anyone over the age of ten. I tend to prefer family films that work on at least two levels, so the poor parents aren't bored stiff for eighty-five minutes, but the only other consideration other than cranking out a requisite sequel for this film seems to be to sell more action figures. Much like the first one, you could give this uninspired flick a pass and not miss much. My only subtextual giggle was seeing all the flashbacks with the panda village, which reminded me of the next expansion for Warcraft. But I doubt many of you would make that connection.
The Debt (2010)
Sharp first two-thirds let down by the end of the film
I knew almost nothing about this film other than it had some good buzz and Helen Mirren was in it. No idea of the plot, setting, etc., which is rare, so I went in about as blindly as one can.
The Debt, in case you are as ill-informed as I, is about a trio of Israeli agents in the mid-60s who infiltrate East Berlin to track down a former Nazi concentration camp doctor and bring him to justice. The team consists of Stephen (the great Marton Csokas), David (Sam Worthington), and Rachel (Jessica Chastain), and they have their own inner tensions – there's a semi-love triangle, David is overly secretive, and so on. Interspersed with this plot are scenes where the three of them are older (and except for Rachel, look totally different), looking back on the incident, as Rachel's daughter has written a book about it (older Rachel is, of course, Mirren).
Sometimes this kind of crosscutting works in a film, but here it is somewhat confusing because older David (Ciaran Hinds) and older Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) look nothing like their younger counterparts, so you have to sort of play 'who's who' for a while until it sorts itself out. Also, they seem to show you the climax of the 60s plot in the beginning, so some of the tension seems to be missing from that thread until the big twist in the middle of the film, which catapults the action into the modern day. This is where the movie really grinds to a crawl; the older counterparts are so different from their younger versions that it's almost like starting a second movie an hour and ten minutes in. I had a hard time caring about the older characters, and they dominate completely the last third of the film.
Mirren of course is good, and Hinds plays older David with a wonderfully haunted mien (he's not in the movie enough to make any deeper impression). All three of the young leads are excellent –Worthington can sometimes come off as flat, but here he underplays David, and he's excellent (his final scene with Rachel is subtle and exceptional). Chastain, whom I'm not familiar with, is stellar here; we bond with Rachel instantly, and she's an intriguing character. Obviously I like Csokas and he's in his comfort zone here, playing a confident, intelligent prick, but he's magnetic.
It's probably because the young leads are so good that the older ones come off so dull and unappealing (even Mirren), and frankly the storyline in the present day (well, the late 90s, their present day) seems trite and silly next to the danger of East Berlin and an ex-Nazi gynecologist. That shift, which may have worked well in a novel (or perhaps in the original Israeli version of the movie), stops the film dead in its tracks, and while we're following the present, flashbacks to the past only drag down the current action more. It's a risky proposition to split a plot between younger and older versions of characters anyway, though it's been done well elsewhere; but here the schism is too jarring, too great to be overcome, and you're left wishing they would have just stayed in the Sixties when the movie was interesting.
Overall it's a mediocre film, with some parts very well done and others irritatingly flat. Had the present day plot line been anywhere near as compelling, this would have been a standout film; as it is, it's a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Some parts are definitely worth a look, but the parts don't add up to a satisfying whole, and with the talent involved, I can't shake the nagging feeling they should have.
I've never been a big fan of Sherlock Holmes; I don't find it particularly engaging to be talked down to by someone who is smarter than I am, and the stories mostly felt that way to me (I have bigger issues with mystery as a genre, but that's a different conversation). I did manage to catch Guy Ritchie's revision of the character and found that mostly amusing, but that's not really orthodox Sherlock Holmes; but my neighbor Bob talked up this series so strongly (and, as she stingingly reminded me, so had my friend Nancy), so I decided to give it a try mainly because, well, it's British, and I've had remarkable luck with British series lately.
Here the creators have erased the historical Sherlock and replaced him with a modern-day counterpart (Benedict Cumberbatch) – a "high functioning sociopath," by his own description, a man whose only joy seems to be challenging his incredible brain to solve a puzzle. When he encounters Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) – they are introduced by a mutual friend as both of them require roommates to be able to afford to live in London – Sherlock allows Watson within his orbit, and Watson – who is no dope himself – has to try to avoid looking like an idiot.
Obviously the entrée to the series is Watson, a man we sympathize with almost immediately; Freeman has that sort of everyman quality, and while we learn that Watson is a cut above, he's still human, still mortal, still relatable. Not so Holmes; while he's indisputably brilliant, he's also emotionally thoughtless and needlessly, though not intentionally, cruel and disrespectful to others. Sherlock simply operates on a different wavelength than the rest of us, and if you can't keep up, he has no use for you. By making such a genius so difficult – as would likely be the case in real life – the writers have hit upon the core of an interesting relationship.
Another masterstroke is the series' length. Rather than give us a dozen or two episodes, we are treated to three ninety-minute films. While, yes, this emphasizes quality over quantity, it allows the writers to spool out the stories and develop the characters better, as you're not being relentlessly driven by the needs to fitting all that plotting into forty minutes. The series greatly benefits from this breathing room, and it does play with your expectations as a viewer. I kept expecting a solution at the hour (or so) mark, and this is used to great effect in the third episode, where Holmes indeed seems to have solved the crime, only to have the carpet drawn out from under him. Despite their length the shows move along at a brisk pace. I'm not sure every series would benefit from this format, but this one certainly does.
Cumberbatch is simply riveting as Holmes; it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role, or at the very least anyone else being half as effective. It's a joy simply to watch him, and to try to keep up with him. He could almost become overbearing, but Freeman's Watson balances him out perfectly. Watson is one of the most engaging characters I've seen in a while – smart, capable, flawed, sympathetic, utterly human – and yet, like the viewer, both drawn to and irritated by Holmes. As good as Cumberbatch is, the show simply wouldn't work without this character being so perfectly written and performed; points to Freeman.
The show is smart, funny, interesting, and keeps you guessing; there's really nothing more you could ask from any mystery, or any representation of the Holmes character. His older brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), who works for the government, is like Sherlock but with more polish, and their relationship is amusing. The show is written exceptionally well, and hits on every cylinder except one – an unexpected misstep all the more jarring because the rest of the series is so artfully conceived. The depiction of Moriarty, to put it simply and inelegantly, sucks. Moriarty is not the Joker (not even Heath Ledger's amazing version), and yet here he is played like a fey clown prince of crime. I understand they wanted to go in a different direction from Holmes, but they went directly the wrong one here. It's a colossal letdown when we finally come face to face with the man who might possibly be smarter than Holmes and he's a raving goofball.
That somewhat important nitpick aside, though, this is an impressive and well-done series, even for those of you (like me) who abhor mystery. Unless you just can't stand all things British (and if so, by now, why are you reading my reviews?), then by all means take the time to track these down – Netflix has 'em – and give them a spin. Time exceptionally well spent.
December 16, 2011
Cedar Rapids (2011)
Manages to rise above familiar material
I got caught up reading one of those end-of-year retrospectives the other day, and I ran across a column about the ten movies you probably should have seen in 2011 but didn't. Cedar Rapids was listed as one of them, and while I didn't know much about the film I had shied away from it largely because it looked like a typical fish-out-of-water comedy, and I'm leery of most comedy movies these days. But, obviously, I bit the bullet and took a chance.
Cedar Rapids follows one Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a stereotypical man-child so common in American comedies these days. Tim is of the kindly boy mold; he's in awe of superstar rep Roger (Thomas Lennon), and is suddenly picked to go to an insurance award convention upon Roger's untimely death. Tim has never left his tiny hometown, and to him even Cedar Rapids is "the big city." As expected, Tim displays the usual naiveté once away from home, not recognizing a hooker who loiters around the hotel as a lady of the night and so on; you've seen it before, small town = rube. Tim is thrown together in a room with two other insurance men, Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock), who, like Tim, is nerdy, but is far more successful at his job, and Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), who is basically everyone's drunken uncle, with his double entendres, smut talk, and wild behavior ill-suited to someone pushing fifty. Rounding out the little group is Joan (Ann Heche), who treats the yearly awards meeting as her version of Las Vegas, where whatever she does never leaves the city. All pretty much by the book for this sort of thing.
However, the performances are all so well done that the movie manages to rise above its middling material and engage the viewer. While Helms' shtick as Lippe is nothing new, and no real stretch for him, the other three leads are all really sharp. Whitlock manages to make the slightly stuffy Wilkes incredibly likable, and Heche, while delivering pretty much the same performance as Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air, nonetheless is excellent as Joan, possibly the only character in the film who actually achieves three dimensions. Reilly is, naturally, spot-on; this kind of role is not a challenge for him, but he makes the character funnier as the movie progresses, turning in a strong performance (and getting the best line of the film and of the year, one that made me laugh so hard I had to stop the disc for several minutes to recover). Sigourney Weaver has a small role as Tim's girlfriend, but she's very sharp, just perfect.
The movie gets better as it proceeds, as the leads are allowed more free reign to try and overcome the somewhat hackneyed set-up. Cedar Rapids succeeds despite its shortcomings, and ends much better than it begins, which is certainly better than the other way round. It's certainly worth a look for an evening's diversion.
Inspired, sublime parody
The concept is genius; the film takes the form of a mockumentary about a Japanese superhero, Big Man Japan (Hitoshi Matsumoto), an ordinary man who can transform, via a massive electrical shock, into a hundred-foot tall warrior. Apparently this trait is hereditary; his father and grandfather could also do this (in fact his grandfather was a popular hero, shown briefly in doctored WWII clips milling with the troops), and Big Man wonders in the film if the trait has been passed down to his daughter. But the tone of the documentary is what really makes the film; it's exceptionally dry and somewhat dull, like following an average man of little financial means would be. Big Man leads a wholly uninteresting life, until called upon to defend Japan from a marauding giant monster; then he rushes to the nearest electrical station to do his thing and fight whatever freakish thing is attacking (usually the other monsters are grotesque and stupid, more comic than scary). It's a spoof of the giant monster genre in Japan, but it's also a very clever social satire as well, because most people hate Big Man; they graffiti the walls outside his house and leave angry messages on placards on the road to the electrical station (once or twice sitting around his house just talking for the documentary, windows behind Big Man break as people throw bricks through them).
The humor is exceptionally clever – and, aside from the scenes with the monsters battling, very low-key. Big Man's wife – no longer living with him – is somewhat ashamed of him, and insists that their daughter's face be pixelated on film. His manager is obviously conning him, and most people treat him with mild disdain. It's an interesting switch from the hero-worship we often see in superhero movies, and it's both more realistic and sublimely comic at the same time. The movie maintains its subtle and gently mocking tone right up until the end, when the final scenes turn to outright parody and we're not entirely sure what happened (did he die? Is this heaven?); it's more quizzical than disappointing, and it's hardly enough of a departure to spoil what is otherwise an inspired parody, probably the best fake documentary since Spinal Tap (and I would argue a better one). This film might not be for everyone – it can move slowly, and it is very Japanese – but it is so astonishingly clever and funny that I was deeply impressed. The film is absurd in all the right ways, and is far, far better than any of the 'straight' superhero movies you'll see any time soon.
Nothing But the Truth (2008)
Effectively acted and told story
Beckinsale stars as Rachel Armstrong, a reporter for a DC newspaper who writes a story revealing that the wife of an ambassador is actually a deep cover CIA agent. Sparks fly, and the government gets upset that one of their own was compromised so publicly. A special prosecutor is appointed, Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon), whose sole goal is to find out who leaked the classified information to Rachel. To do so, he leans hard on Rachel, even though she is defended by top-flight attorney Alan Burnside (Alan Alda); Rachel refuses to budge and so goes to jail.
The story touches upon First Amendment rights vs. the needs of the government to protect its covert operatives, and some nice speeches are made on both topics; but really the film is more interested in the personal choices Rachel has to make, whether her principles are worth going to jail and possibly sacrificing her family for. The larger issues loom, but they take a backseat to the personal through most of the film.
Most of the performances are very strong. Vera Farmiga is excellent as Erica, the CIA agent who is revealed to the world; she shows us both the human and the steely side of the woman, a textured turn. Noah Wyle is the paper's legal counsel, giving a very energetic turn as a lawyer who grows increasingly outraged with the government's use of power against Rachel. David Schwimmer plays Rachel's husband, Ray, not the most sympathetic role, but he delivers. Alda is excellent as the high-powered attorney whose humanity walks hand in hand with his ego; he's strong throughout and gets a very nice speech toward the end.
But the film really belongs to Beckinsale, who gives probably her best performance to date as the principled Rachel, and especially to Matt Dillon, whose Dubois is sketched perfectly (I've read Dillon played the role not as an antagonist but as a man who sees himself as the good guy, and that approach worked terrifically). Both Beckinsale and Dillon are sharp, strong, and understated, and both make effective arguments for their points of view, although naturally as the victim our sympathies lie with Beckinsale. Her scenes with her son are particularly effective, even as he begins to distance himself from her as her jail sentence begins to unexpectedly stretch on; but she balances the strength a person must have to stand up for one's principles nicely with the all-too-human weaknesses in the face of having what we cherish threatened.
The film doesn't give any easy answers, and there is a nice plot twist at the end that I felt effectively highlights Rachel's humanity; we like her throughout the film but even moreso when we know the whole story. This is certainly a film worth checking out, for Dillon's deft performance alone if nothing else; but I think most people will find this a compelling, well-told story.
Not your standard western but better because of it
Appaloosa is set in the 1880s and follows the story of 'peacekeepers' Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) as they are hired by the leading citizens of the eponymous town to protect their interests from Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), whose men more or less bully the townspeople at will. Virgil and Everett have worked together for years and know each other very well; they're a very effective team, but they are thrown off-balance by the arrival of Allison French (Renee Zellweger), who takes an immediate liking to Virgil.
At first look the movie seems like a straightforward western – good guys have to find a way to restore law and order and capture the bad guy – but I realized, when the 'story' climaxed somewhere in the middle of the film, that I had been fooled (or that I fooled myself); Appaloosa is really about the friendship between Virgil and Everett. There's an external plot, of course, and it is important, but it takes a back seat – not obviously, mind you – to the larger picture of the two men. In lesser hands I think this could have been a major backfire, but here, it makes the movie special.
Harris is very sharp as Virgil, a man who understands his shortcomings and flaws as well as his strengths. But the movie really belongs to Viggo Mortensen, who is so good here he should have been nominated for an Oscar. Viggo plays Everett with such subtlety and intelligence that he steals the spotlight, and the sidekick ends up seeming like the main character – and possibly he is, by design. The craft that these two display – aided by a crafty, witty, smart script – is impressive; the rest of the cast is very good too (Irons is thankfully restrained), but none of them can compete with the two leads.
Appaloosa is a smart, well-done movie. It's not a standard western, but it's far better because of it. It was obviously a labor of love for Harris, and that shows through in every scene. I was deeply impressed with and pleased by this movie; unless you just can't abide westerns (or one of the leads), do yourself a favor and check out this unfairly overlooked film.
Not bad but we have seen this before
The story follows one James Ray Steam, a young boy of maybe 12 whose father and grandfather are scientists in Victorian England circa 1866. They of course work with steam power, and when they make a discovery that will greatly revolutionize the amount of power one can draw from steam, well, everyone wants to get their hands on it, from the weapons manufacturer company O'Hara to an English scientist named Stephenson. O'Hara has already kidnapped the elder Steams, so it's up to James to try to set things aright. Along the way he encounters the spoiled young heiress Scarlett, who is the sole member of the O'Hara family present and who sort of cottons to him because he's apparently the only other person in the world her age. James displays the family knack for ingenuity, and, during a violent showdown at the London Exhibition, O'Hara's new steam-powered weapons duke it out with Her Majesty's Royal Navy while James tries to rescue his grandpa.
It's all very nicely designed and drawn and the attention to the Victorian setting, from clothes to architecture to the extension of plausible steam powered uses into a sci-fi realm, everything looks marvelous even London managed to look good. There's just one glaring problem with the movie; it's merely a retread of Hiyao Miyazaki's masterpiece Laputa, from plucky boy hero to girl princess companion to a stern lesson about the excesses of technology to the Victorian design to the creepy secret agents to ah hell, it's just a straight re-do, pretty much, omitting only the delightful Dola gang pirates. Steamboy rarely varies from the script, save that the "technology run amok" rant is more stridently but less effectively articulated (Laputa featured a chilling, thrilling sequence with a giant robot waking up and laying waste to the countryside to protect his charge; Steamboy actually has Grandpa stand there and recite the message that technology is bad in the wrong hands (and no, I didn't watch the dubbed version, I never do).
Steamboy is not an awful film, but it beggars the question of why in the hell you would try to steal from (what I feel is) the greatest animated movie ever made. On its own merits Steamboy is okay, maybe worth a rental, but it could never ever hope to emerge from the shadow of its far greater predecessor; if you're at all curious about the genre or just good anime, do yourself a favor and track down a copy of Laputa; why have a Big Mac when you can have a porterhouse?
The Alphabet Killer (2008)
Effective thriller with good performances
Sometimes this film plays like a by-the-numbers serial killer movie, and at times the pacing is a little slow. But 'Killer' is buoyed up by several good performances. Hutton is low key but very good, and a number of small, supporting roles are very well cast and acted as well. Elwes is almost unrecognizable due to some weight gain, and he doesn't come off as strongly as some of the others. As for Dushku, well, this is probably the finest performance she's ever attempted. It doesn't always work she's not especially convincing when she has to descend into madness but most of the time she's a cut and a half above her usual fare; it's as if she finally decided to take a role where her looks aren't a factor and actually act, and it was nice to see for the most part she could pull it off (hey, they aren't going to see her as an 'adult' actress in Hollywood as long as she plays cheerleaders and works for Joss Whedon). This is the type of role you would have associated with a younger Sandra Bullock or Angelina Jolie (i.e., pre-skeletal), and Dushku compares favorably.
It's not a particularly happy or comforting movie; it's not quite creepy enough to be unsettling, and the director undercuts Megan's madness by showing us what she is hallucinating (showing off, by the way, some really terrific make-up effects); so the viewer is never really sure if, like Haley Joel Osment, she really can see dead people or if she's just going bonkers, or possibly both, the latter caused by the former. But Dushku is interesting to watch here (and not for any of the usual reasons) and shows promise she never has before.
Night Tide (1961)
Possibly justfiably forgotten
This 1961 low key thriller is more low key than thriller, and likely would have been relegated to the dustbin of forgotten films had not Dennis Hopper starred in it. Hopper plays a Navy midshipman named Johnny who just happens to have the bad luck to fall for a mermaid (maybe) named Mora (Linda Lawson). It unspools not unlike Splash, save that there's precious little intentional comedy in here -- if anything, it takes itself a tad too seriously given the weak script and scattershot performances. But it's an effectively moody piece, much of it shot at night in and around the Santa Monica pier, which makes it a nice time capsule of certain parts of Southern California circa the very early 60s.
Hopper is his usual semi-wooden self, and Lawson, while a gorgeous creature, isn't that much better. A relatively weak ending helps sink the picture, unfortunately. Really this is a curio piece more than anything else; in the right hands it could have been a neat little movie, but as is, eh, not really worth your while unless you just love the period (like I do).
Of Mice and Men (1992)
A brilliant vision
Most of you are probably familiar with the plot from when this book was forced upon you in high school; George and Lenny are wandering laborers in the 20s/30s. George is a pretty sharp guy, but Lenny is mentally handicapped; a giant of a man, he is a phenomenal worker, but his mental and emotional shortcomings continually land the two men in hot water. When they end up at a particular ranch in Salinas, the men encounter trouble that no amount of running away will solve.
Steinbeck's book is particularly depressing (as I find the works of many early 20th century American authors to be), and the movie captures that exceptionally, without making it a depressing experience to view. Steinbeck's themes of loneliness, of the harshness of life, of how unfair things can be, are all carried over into the film adroitly; but Sinise manages to capture the beautiful California landscape, and in particular that golden sunlight, to at least add a veneer of beauty to the disheartening proceedings.
The acting is uniformly excellent here. Sinise's George is world-weary, cautious, and protective of Lenny; he understands his burden fully and as in the book curses his relationship with Lenny even while we know it is an obligation he will never willingly forsake. The bit parts are all fine as well, with Sherilyn Fenn playing Curley's Wife to perfection; Ray Walston is wonderfully low-key as the lonely, used-up Candy; and Joe Morton as Crook only gets one scene, but he runs the gamut from anger to fear to camaraderie and loneliness, shifting effortlessly in the space of a few minutes. But really, even with all the fine performances, the movie is Malkovitch's. I've never been a huge fan of his work, but he is perfect here as Lenny; he captures the man's childlike worldview, his instant joy in small things, his fear of being stranded by George, and even Lenny's anger just perfectly. Watching Malkovich in this movie is watching a master at the top of his craft; Lenny instantly catches the viewer's sympathy, and Malkovich makes it obvious why George is both irritated by and yet loves the big lunk.
The last scene (I won't spoil it, in case you have forgotten or never read it) is one of the classics of cinema, I feel. The emotion is so powerful, yet so subtly played by both actors; you know what must happen, what George must do, and yet, even as he steels himself to the task, we can see how difficult it is for him. At one point Senise bows his head, eyes screwed shut, on Malkovich's shoulder; this small gesture speaks volumes about the bond between the two men, about everything that Steinbeck was trying to say about love and friendship, and loneliness. It sums up the whole book, the whole film, in an instant. Simply put, this is a brilliant adaptation, well worth your time to investigate.
Singularly bad but nonetheless amusing
I rented this film solely because Robert Shaw starred in it. I've yet to see him in anything where I didn't like him (even if the movie was crap), and I thought I couldn't go too far wrong with a movie where he plays a pirate.
The Shaw stars as Ned Lynch, a vermilion-clad pirate who sails around basically haranguing Jamaica. Lynch has to rescue his first mate Nick Debrett (James Earl Jones, no doubt preparing for a similar role in the similarly bad King Solomon's Mines) from the clutches of the evil Lord Durant (Peter Boyle), and in the midst of doing so runs into Jane Barnet (Genevieve Bujold), the daughter of the real governor of Jamaica. It seems that Durant has usurped power and is killing people right and left on a whim, and Lynch is "a man of the people" (from the long-winded intro) who naturally opposes tyranny, megalomania, etc. While there's a lot of mucking around on the island, there's actually very little sailing, and after about a half-hour Ned agrees to help Jane because he's getting soft on her (she offers him money to kill Durant, but that's hardly his real incentive). The pirates make a hasty alliance with almost everyone on the island, brokered chiefly by the oddball Cudjo (Geoffrey Holder, known to those of you old enough as "the 7-up guy" from the 70s, or alternately as Baron Samedhi from Live and Let Die). So basically all of Jamaica storms the fortress, which leads to a showdown between Durant and Lynch. Guess who wins? The movie's fun to watch because it's so irredeemably bad. Beau Bridges has a role as the expectedly useless henchman, Major Folly; he's Dumb and Dumberer stupid, so dim only several generations of inbreeding could explain it. Shaw mostly seems to be having fun in a nice warm location, and Jones gives it a game try with a Jamaican accent, but no one's taking things very seriously. You can tell they thought the script was bad because right in the middle for absolutely no reason Bujold strips naked and dives off the ship into the water. The Shaw gallantly rows out to retrieve her, so we don't actually see anything except for the long shot, but it's telling that the producers thought that a pirate movie would need a little T&A to shake you awake. Also, for reasons unknown, Avery Schreiber tags along as a Polish pirate with no lines who is merely there to be made fun of.
But far exceeding every other aspect of the film in craptacularosity is Peter Boyle's 'performance' as Lord Durant. Granted, the writing sinks to particularly hokey depths where the villain is concerned; but Boyle plays the man so outrageously, so grandstandingly, that one is reminded of Clancy Brown's infamous turn as the Kurgan in the first Highlander film, or any of Tim Curry's overacted roles, or even Jeremy Irons in D&D. Boyle is that over-the-top, so stupefyingly bad, that he carves a niche for himself in the list of cinema's all time worst villains (anyone who cries out, "Lower the curtains, the farce has ended!" as he plummets to his death deserves some kind of recognition. It's hard to be that bad).
Swashbuckler never tries to take itself seriously, and nor should you. It has been justly forgotten, and certainly I never would have bothered had not The Shaw graced the film with his presence. The only real question is, is this film worse than Cutthroat Island? No. But it's close.
The Italian Job (1969)
Stands up well even years later
No, no, not the new one from four years ago with Seth Green, Jason Statham, and Mos Def (and a couple of lackluster leads), this is the film that inspired that one, although really the only similarities are that both movies feature heists that involve using Mini Coopers as the getaway vehicles.
This version is a fun piece of British propaganda and is very heavy on the "us vs. them" bit. Michael Caine stars as Charlie Croker, a ne'er do well who is just getting out of prison and is already involved in setting up his next scheme, the hi-jacking of $4 million in gold from Turin, Italy. Charlie's partially doing it for the money and partly for revenge for the mafia killing one of his friends, who thought up the daring heist in the first place. Unlike the re-make, none of Charlie's cohorts are anything more than filler; even Benny Hill as a computer expert (!!!) is given very little to do. Only Noel Coward stands out as a prison kingpin named Mr. Bridger; actually, he's the best part of the film, an oddball inmate whom even the guards address respectfully, and who has an odd fetish for Queen Elizabeth II (he even has his own butler in jail). Bridger is delightfully funny, in that quirky offbeat English sort of way, and he steals the show. Caine himself is good, full of high spirits, but in a way he comes off like sort of a straight Austin Powers, played too far but not really realizing he's almost a joke.
The heist is again complicated and features snarling up traffic, only this time instead of Ed Norton the villain is the mafia, who is dead-set against seeing the English steal their gold. Once again the highly enjoyable and lengthy chase scenes are terrifically well staged (including a jump across buildings that you know they actually did live), and the Mini Coopers create all sorts of mayhem on their escape from the scene of the crime. The movie is light-hearted and fun, moreso than its remake (though again, it isn't weighted down with Walberg and Theron), but its Monty Python and the Holy Grail-esquire non-ending brings the movie to a crashing halt; you can see the writers pen themselves into a corner and then, rather than find a way out, just give up, walk out of the room, and roll the credits, possibly in an attempt to be modern or absurd, but it really, really doesn't work. Which is a shame, because otherwise the movie is a great bit of oddball fun, certainly worth a look.
Powerful and moving film
Bobby is an Altman-esquire look at a score of people who happened to populate the Ambassador Hotel on the last day of RFK's life. The cast listing reads like a who's who of Hollywood: Martin Sheen, Anthony Hopkins, Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, William H. Macy, Christian Slater, Heather Graham, Elijah Wood, Lindsay Lohan, Ashton Kutcher, Shia LeBeouf, etc. etc. The story flits around between all these people: Hopkins plays John Casey, who had been the doorman at the Ambassador for years and had only recently retired; Graham plays a switchboard operator who is having an affair with the married Macy, who in turn is married to Sharon Stone, who plays the hairdresser who takes care of both Lohan (a wedding to Wood) and Moore (a just over-the-hill performer) and so on. There are some subplots with some RFK recruiters (led by Josh Jackson and featuring LeBeouf), one which involves drug dealer Kutcher and an acid trip that's wholly unnecessary; but most of the movie revolves around RFK's planned visit, even though Kennedy is in the film very little (and never as an actor; when he is shown, it's through archive footage). A few times there are obvious body doubles used, but director (and writer) Emilio Estevez wisely never tries to imitate Bobby, instead letting the man speak for himself.
Estevez divulges the intimate details of everyone's lives with both pathos and humor, and yet manages to paint exceedingly skillful portraits of almost everyone in the movie. Laurence Fishburne get two small but strong scenes, one explaining to a fellow kitchen worker why his angry approach will win him no sympathy, and another with a different worker who graciously gives him tickets to see the Dodgers that night. Stone and Moore commiserate over how awful it is to age ungracefully; Nick Cannon skillfully portrays the hope that RFK gave to the black community, and artfully articulates the keen sense of loss. But underneath every story is a sense of foreboding of the awful event that you know will unfold at the end. You know that, despite the trappings of hope and youth and vigor that this will not end well. And yet when it happens, when Sirhan Sirhan fires, it's still an awful moment, even with foreknowledge. Estevez manages to wholly capture the wretched moment and the tragic sense of lost possibility it represents. We obviously will never know what impact on history RFK would have made as president; but Bobby imparts upon us just how much a loss it was that he was killed before he had a chance.
The end, which features a voice-over taken from one of Kennedy's speeches, tends to linger a bit too long, and again, the drug subplot goes nowhere (though it does spawn one of the great lines of cinema: "Planet of the Apes on acid, man, you gotta check it out."). But the rest of the film is sharply done, and is not only a tribute to Kennedy's memory, it's just a really well done film. Estevez obviously reveres RFK, and this film is a stirring tribute to the man and his dream. This was easily the best movie I've seen that came out last year; it's captivating, engrossing, and stays with you long after you've seen it, returning to your consciousness again and again. I couldn't possibly recommend it highly enough; it just came out on DVD, and you'd be doing yourself a disservice not to rent it.
As a fan of films set in the 70s (well, most, anyway) and seeing Sean Penn in the lead, I was interested in this film from the get-go. The story follows several months in the life of one Samuel Bicke (Penn), as his world slowly falls apart and he ends up aiming his anger and grief at the President.
While Bicke's slow dissolution is the main thread, there's also some commentary on seventies America that is intended to speak to today's situation. Bicke is presented as an honest man who is frustrated by society's turn for the worse, and who is both unwilling and unable to transform himself into what he calls a 'liar' someone who will say anything to get money. This leads to tensions on his job, tensions with his ex-wife (Naomi Watts), and even prickly disagreements with his best friend (an extended cameo by Don Cheadle).
The problem is, Penn never makes Bicke sympathetic. Early complaints about his job that his co-workers lie, that his boss wants him to shave off his mustache so he seems more family-oriented well, while they don't come off as wrong, they do come off as whiny. Bicke is understandably frustrated by the changing times of the seventies, and he rails that the American dream is dying; but we see early on, as do the other characters in the movie, that Bicke himself is part of the problem. He's unwilling to bend or flex at all. Essentially he lives in a fantasy world that, while preferable to the crappy, gritty real one, ends up putting him at odds with nearly everyone. I was reminded of Michael Douglas' character in Falling Down, a guy who snaps and takes matters into his own hands, but Penn fails even to create that spark of anger and vengeance. Bicke comes off as just an unhappy, lonely guy, and it takes forever for him to turn the emotional corner to do something about it; most of the movie is watching a basically decent shmuck suffer, and that's not a hell of a lot of fun.
The ending is tight and suspenseful, and interwoven nicely with news stories about the event (which apparently was real); and while Penn gives a consistent performance, I can't really say it's enjoyable. The film runs only 95 minutes but it felt more like two and a half hours. In theory an interesting character study, you could give this one a pass and not miss much.
Bland almost unto dullness
Despite the fact that he worked for the worst government of the 20th century, Erwin Rommel is generally well-regarded by historians and World War II buffs as a gentleman, a soldier's soldier, and a brilliant tactician in the field of mechanized warfare. If only Hitler had given him the troops and materiel he had desired in Africa, the argument goes, things would have gone very differently. And that's probably true. Rommel was, in fact, a military genius, and by all accounts an upstanding, honest man.
But this film goes out of its way to portray him as a near-saint. He does his job, trying to win the war for Hitler, but constantly the Fuhrer interferes and gives him ridiculous orders, which Rommel (James Mason) expresses amazement with but rarely actually questions and never, ever disobeys. Only when it's patently obvious that Hitler is leading Germany to ruin does Rommel think of treason against him; this dilemma plays out as the main theme of the film, a good man in bad circumstances trying to do the right thing.
Mason is fine as Rommel, but it's hardly a memorable performance along the lines of, say, George C. Scott as Patton. Of course, Rommel wasn't as colorful as Patton, but this film is so intent on making him look like a decent human being that it forgets to make him interesting. He occasionally lapses into some warmth when with his wife Lucie (a young Jessica Tandy, well-cast), but usually Mason is called upon to give a stiff British performance as if the Brits were trying to claim Rommel for themselves (though in all fairness all the Nazis have English accents except Hitler).
Done on the cheap, with any battle scenes swiping stock footage, and the beaches of southern California doubling for Tunisia, there's nothing to particularly recommend this film. A remake could be interesting (I'd pick Ed Harris only because of a slight physical resemblance and, well, Harris can act) were it spiced up a little, but this movie mostly demonstrated to me how much more demanding we as viewers have become in the last fifty years; a biography this bland would never cut it any more.
Ghost Rider (2007)
I didn't go to this movie expecting much, really; it looked dopey in the trailers, but that never stopped me before (Torque, etc.). Mostly I went because I read a piece on Friday where Nic Cage ripped Entertainment Weekly a new one, and that made me want to spend $6 to support him regardless of the vehicle he was in.
Ghost Rider is yet another film that owes its existence to the baffling success of the lunk-headed Spiderman films; without Spidey's grotesque box office returns, many superhero movies wouldn't have been greenlighted (greenlit?), and this one probably would have been one of them. Would the world be much worse off for its absence? Not really.
GR follows the story of Johnny Blaze (Cage), a young man who sells his soul to the Devil (Peter Fonda) to save the life of his dad. When the Devil comes to collect years later, he transforms Blaze into the Ghost Rider, a bounty hunter, to hunt down the Devil's enemies, in this case one Blackheart (Wes Bentley), who happens to be the Devil's son. Oh, and thrown in for good measure and eye candy is Johnny's long lost love Roxanne (Eva Mendes).
It's a dopey movie. While nowhere near as mind-numbingly stupid as, say, Ultraviolet, GR seems to understand that it's not Shakespeare (unlike Batman Begins) and wisely never even tries to be anything more than a popcorn flick. Cage is a good choice for an admittedly oddball one-note superhero; his own natural quirkiness makes Blaze a lot more likable (even if the romance with Mendes seems a stretch). Cage walks the line between playing it goofy and playing it too goofy he never makes fun of the material, and indeed, he seems to embrace it, enjoying himself with it and plainly hoping you'll do the same.
The rest of the casting is fine. Fonda growls and seethes as the devil, and Bentley is acceptable as his even more evil, rebellious son. Donal Logue is well cast as Mack, Blaze's buddy and partner, and Sam Elliot is perfect as a sort of old west mentor to Cage's Ghost Rider. Rounding out (literally) the cast is Eva Mendes, who strikes the same note of bemused sincerity as Cage (she gets the best laugh in the film), and whose cleavage is the source of constant camera attention.
Ghost Rider is dopey fun. I've often said if I have to turn my brain off to enjoy something it's not worth it, but this movie proves a little mindless fun is sometimes just what the doctor ordered. It's only a notch or two above a cartoon, but GR knows that, and revels in it, and because of that, it works. Certainly worth a rental if the weather is prohibiting you from hitting the theaters just now.
February 19, 2007
Ah, curse you, Crouching Tiger. Your excellence and grace kicked open the doors to finer Hong Kong cinema in the US for many of us, creating an audience for intelligent, well-done films from a foreign culture whose timeless storytelling would appeal to anyone even jaded Americans. And for the past six years, we've been thrashing ourselves to get to the theaters to see most of your new releases, at least the more heavily promoted ones, to see if there would be another such film to greet us. Most of them fell noticeably short, and the closest, House of Flying Daggers, while strong, wasn't in the same league. But Curse had everything going for it in the trailers, even the presence of Tiger's lead, Chow-Yun Fat. So there was reason to hope.
Perhaps comparisons are unfair; maybe comparing other HK period pieces to Crouching Tiger is like comparing current dramas to Citizen Kane. But the fact remains that for many of us, Tiger is a benchmark, albeit a high one, and the hope remains that we'll once again see such an enchanting and absorbing film.
Curse follows the personal lives of the Emperor of China (Chow Yun-Fat), and his wife (Gong Li) and their three sons as they struggle against one another in palace intrigue. At first I was reminded of The Lion in Winter, which starts with the same premise, but Curse quickly moves away from that film (sadly). There's all sorts of intrigue: the Empress is having an affair with her step-son; the Emperor is trying to poison his wife slowly; the sons jockey for position to be next in line for the throne; and so on. Everyone has their secrets, everyone has an agenda, and they're all playing for power.
So, Chinese Shakespeare, right? No. More like Chinese opera, because everything in Curse is blown up huge, from the costumes to the emotions to the sets to, well, everything. Curse never once tries for realism, instead immediately depositing us in a gaudy fantasy world where everything is super-technicolor, from the sumptuous robes to the brilliant colored walls to, well, everything. At first the lushness of setting is intriguing, but after a while it's the visual equivalent of a seven-course meal comprised of nothing but candy. You want to scream enough already! By the time we reach the final action sequence, it's more than you can bear.
The acting is expansive, but I'm betting that's by design (you'd almost have to go over the top if you wanted to compete with all that scenery). Chow Yun-Fat plays it slyly villainous, and Gong Li cannot help but elicit your sympathies as the ill-fated Empress. But it's all in wide, wide brushstrokes, as if the audience all sat very far away and could barely see the action. When we reach the climax of the story a long, drawn out, hyperbolic battle scene we're on overload, from too much scenery, too much frenetic action, and too much emotion; you're simply glad the movie's ended, it's so exhausting. Even more disappointing to western audiences, the movie has an unsatisfying conclusion, at least to our tastes in drama.
To me, this movie wasn't as bad as Jet Li's Hero, with which it shared a great many flaws, mostly because something actually happens here (that, and I've always disliked Rashomon copies, as the original is pretty overrated). But it was in most ways a pretty big letdown. Maybe some cultural messages simply don't translate, or maybe, like I said at the top, the quest for the next Crouching Tiger simply got in the way. In any case I left the theater disappointed that this movie wasn't more, and in some cases less, than it was; maybe on DVD the over-ripeness will be toned down, but somehow I doubt it.
The United States of Leland (2003)
Very, very strong film
Leland follows the story of Leland P. Fitzgerald (Ryan Gosling), a disaffected teenager who has apparently murdered a severely retarded peer, the brother of a girl he was dating. The issue is not whether he did it or not Leland admits to it, straight away but rather, why. Interestingly, rather than a crime drama, Leland becomes a character story, examining why people do what they do not necessarily the easiest ground to till.
And Leland features the required indie group of screwed-up people. Aside from the title character, there's also Pearl (Don Cheadle), who is his teacher at the juvenile correctional facility and who sees straight off that Leland is different. We meet Leland's distant and egotistical father (Kevin Spacey in an extended cameo), who never seems emotionally stirred in any way by what his son did. But the real flavorings come out when we immerse ourselves in the Pollards, the family of the retarded child. First, there's Leland's girlfriend Becky (Jena Malone), a drug addict who can't keep herself clean; her sister Julie (Michelle Williams), perhaps the most normal person in the film, who merely seeks to get away from it all; and Allen Harris (Chris Klein), a young man who lives with the Pollards and is Julie's boyfriend. Lastly, there's Ryan (Michael Welch), whom all the others call goofball, who cannot communicate and seems barely aware of his surroundings.
Leland focuses primarily on its eponymous protagonist, but the movie slowly occasionally too slowly burrows into everyone's lives, asking the chief question, why do people do what they do? While Leland discusses it openly in a journal Pearl allows him to keep, examining notions of good and bad and personal responsibility, all the characters at some point in the film face a moment where they must make the fundamental choice of their own happiness or another's, perhaps the most basic choice any human can make. And the movie takes a good look at what goes into those choices, and the consequences of them.
In the beginning of the film, you're simply struck by the depth of the cast. Spacey. Cheadle. Gosling. Michelle Williams. Even Chris Klein these are people who for the most part tend to elevate any film they are in, and putting them all together makes for a heady brew. For a space in the middle the film seems to stall, sputtering along as it unfolds; it looks for a while as if it will be content merely to ask questions and not supply any answers. But when we arrive at the home stretch and the movie starts to hit its stride and come together, Leland becomes a quietly powerful piece of film-making. Leland's explanation of the world and his actions, in the end, bring every story into focus, and all the investment you've made in the film pays off.
Saying Ryan Gosling is excellent is like saying a sunny day is nice. At this point in his career it's redundant this is one of the finest young actors working today, and it is a pleasure to watch him craft what could have been an unlikable character into a thought-provoking protagonist. Gosling employs such subtlety here that it hardly seems like acting; he has to face off most of the film opposite Don Cheadle, whom we know has the goods, and he not only holds his own, he elevates Cheadle's game as well. Cheadle himself is in top notch form, imbuing Pearl with a fully-rounded humanity for good and bad. Spacey is kind of one-note, but that's the character, and he handles it excellently. I was surprised by Chris Klein; with this level of acting, I thought he would be buried in the mix, but he gives probably the turn of his career so far. Terrific work all around.
Leland is a bit of a downer, and again, it's draggy in spots. But it finishes strongly and leaves a lasting impact on the viewer (on this one, anyway). There's also a subtle commentary on racism in the film (in Leland's first day in juvenile hall class, he's the only white person in the room) that, like much of the movie, is very effectively handled. I wouldn't go so far as to call this required viewing some might find it too slow or too odd but I thought it was one of the better films I've seen in a while, far stronger and more satisfying than most fare out there. I'd recommend it with the above caveats if for no other reason than to watch Gosling further perfect his craft.
The Last Kiss (2006)
A disappointing outing
Last Kiss follows, tangentially, the stories of four buddies approaching thirty, and attempts to address the issues raised when they are forced to confront the gulf between their youthful dreams for their futures and the reality that they will really have to live in. Braff's Michael is the main story, and when we meet him he is panicking because his life feels very much planned out his longtime girlfriend is pregnant, he's about to turn thirty and he wonders what life will be like now that there are no surprises left. As Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) tries to draw him closer, we see him balk in subtle ways, until temptation reveals itself to him in the form of a college girl named Kim (Rachel Bilson, looking remarkably like a younger Katie Holmes). Kim is everything Jenna is not, and Michael finds himself attracted to this younger woman. The other stories interweave with his; another friend is only into one night stands and thinks he's found the perfect partner until she springs her parents on him at a surprise dinner. A second friend just can't get over his ex-girlfriend, and the last one is in a marriage that's falling apart, partially over their baby. So Michael at least has a lot of options to consider when he's mulling over his own situation.
Last Kiss moves very slowly in spots, sometimes so slowly you find yourself reaching for the remote. While it purports to be an examination of relationships, the lesson that it teaches is that they are all hard work and compromise and little joy in fact, the only time anyone in the movie is having any fun at all is when they are fooling around on someone, an odd message in a relationship film. It can sometimes be difficult to understand why Michael wants to be with Jenna when every other relationship in the movie is portrayed as a confining trap.
It doesn't help that Braff and Bennett have no chemistry in fact, Jenna is so thoroughly unlikable that it's hard to see what Michael sees in her other than stability, which, I can tell you from experience, is not that attractive to most 30-year old men. Another problem is that Braff has no chemistry with Bilson, either, so they never click as a couple. You don't really understand why he's with one girl over another, or why he'd choose to cheat with Kim, other than the fact that she's young and pretty and practically throws herself at him. Kim is meant to represent the promise of fading youth to Michael, another path which is merely fun and parties and fooling around, but the two are such a mismatch Michael seems forty when he's around Kim, not thirty that it's almost painful to watch, and the shallowness of that relationship is laid bare in five minutes. You can tell quite clearly that whatever Michael wants Kim can't give it to him, and you can see he's self-aware enough to realize that, and yet, there he is, fooling around with her.
I wouldn't say the movie doesn't make sense, but the plot and characters bent to serve the message, which is, relationships are hard work, not fun, but compromising who you are is better than being alone. Since I fundamentally disagree with such a pessimistic view of love and relationships (and feel, frankly, that it is better to be alone than with the wrong person), I had a lot of trouble with this film, and the weakly sketched characters and situations didn't help. The performances were uneven as well Bilson injects Kim with a youthful vitality, but she's so shallow (her idea of a romantic gift is a mix-CD) it's hard to really like her. And Braff is all over here, never finding the character's center, always allowing himself to float along with the current. Only at the end, when Michael makes a firm decision about his life, is his character or the movie any good; but a strong five minutes at the end of a lackluster story can't save the movie. The Last Kiss is one you could easily do without, in this case.
Rumor Has It... (2005)
There's an old Saturday Night Live sketch from the 70s when Buck Henry used to hang around the studio a lot where he's pitching a sequel to The Graduate. They milked it for laughs almost thirty years ago because then, Henry and co. knew such an idea was dreadful. Unfortunately, Hollywood has never heard an idea so awful that it had to say no (Kazaam, anyone?), and thus, we have this movie.
Rumor Has It purports to tell the true story of the Robinson family from The Graduate, telling us up front that the book was based on a real life event, and that all of Pasadena always wanted to know who it really was about. We fast forward thirty years (from the movie) to 1997, where obit writer Sarah (Jennifer Aniston) begins to suspect that the family in question might be hers. Joining her for this ride into nostalgia is Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner), allegedly the 'Dustin Hoffman' character, and Aunt Mitzi (Shirley MacLaine), supposedly 'Mrs. Robinson.' One of my cardinal rules about cinema is that you never invoke a better movie during your own, because the audience will invariably begin to make comparisons, and unless you're really good, your film will come up short. Well, Rumor Has It isn't very good; it's more very confused. When Sarah starts getting interested in Beau, we have the unlikely scenario of a third generation of a woman in the same family shtupping the same guy, and frankly well, the whole damn thing plays like some adolescent Graduate fanfic, where a girl who was young at the time of the movie finally gets to consummate her schoolgirl crush on Dustin Hoffman. Sure, there's some pablum thrown in about relationships, and the typical Hollywood happy ending (come on, it's a Rob Reiner film, you know how it will end anyway), but most of the film just comes off as a) weird and b) obsessed, like any fanfic, with its source material, in this case, again, The Graduate.
Costner actually does a decent job here in a thoroughly thankless role, having to play the older, grayer version of a beloved cinematic character (he gets one great line, "I dropped out of college, but I don't think The Drop Out would have been as good a title."). Costner displays enough charm that you can believe a woman looking like Jennifer Aniston could fall for him, and he does the best one can with, as I said, a thankless role. Shirley MacLaine is extremely funny as the acerbic old aunt who's still mad at him three decades later, and whenever she's around, the movie gets a lot more fun. But a lot of the weight of this mess rests on Aniston's shoulders, and while I find her to be a good actress, she can't salvage this mess. It doesn't help that she's playing a minor variation of her usual 'confused woman who just can't quite get her life sorted out' an extended riff on Rachel Green, really which is a shame, because when she deviates from formula she's usually pretty good. Here she's more impressive as set dressing than as an actor, and for someone with her chops (The Good Girl, Bruce Almighty, etc.), that's a shame.
Obviously you can give this one a pass, unless you just really love one of the leads (and I like Costner about as much as anyone anymore, seeing how all of Hollywood pretty much reviles him for no good reason). Rumor Has It is just a big old mess, and you have to be very forgiving or as enraptured by The Graduate as the filmmakers were to really enjoy it.
Visually stunning treat
Apocalypto follows the story of a young hunter named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and his travails as his village is invaded by an Aztec raiding party. He and his mates are captured and taken to the Aztec capital, where the real battle to stay alive begins. There's actually not that much plot Gibson takes his time establishing the world setting and letting us get to know Jaguar Paw and his family. As soon as that's comfortably accomplished, bam, here come the Aztecs, accurately, as history informs us, portrayed as a pretty rough bunch of guys (the casting of the leader of the war-band is just tremendous; the actor just exudes arrogance, experience, and power). We linger for a while on the road to the Aztec capital, a lengthy and unpleasant experience for Jaguar Paw and his pals, but all this slow pacing pays off terrifically when we reach the city. Up until now, it's been all rivers and jungle, but when you step into the Aztec city it's a whole different world, and brilliantly, little of it is explained. Given that the Aztecs had very different aesthetic ideals than we do, a lot of Aztec culture just comes off as weird and lurid. It should that's the whole point here, and the fact that none of it is explained makes it even more terrifying.
The performances are all strong throughout the film. It hits all the right notes we find it very easy to like Jaguar Paw, and his nemesis, Zero Wolf, is a cocky, arrogant jerk; you're pleased and relieved when their showdown comes. For the most part, though, Apocalypto is interested less in straightforward drama than it is in submersing you in another world, one we don't often see, and there it succeeds marvelously. It should be noted that that world is cruel, violent, and bloody, but then the world of the Aztecs was all those things. There are a few nitpicky details that sort of get washed over how can Jaguar Paw return so quickly to his village when it took so long to get to the capital on the way in? but these are minor concerns overall, and easily overlooked amidst all the spectacle. Apocalypto probably isn't for everyone it gets a little rough in spots but it is a visual treat, and the story satisfies well enough. If you have any interest you'd probably better go while it's on the big screen, as this would lose something on the smaller home screen.
Casino Royale (2006)
A decent film but this is not Bond
Casino Royale is based on, by far, the most boring of Fleming's novels; though it serves as the introduction to Bond the character, in effect our hero does little but sit around smoking and playing cards. This movie remains painstakingly true to the book, for the most part, which is both a good and a bad thing in the long run. But Royale isn't trying to be a Bond film; in fact, it tries so hard to be an anti-Bond film that it hurts. The object behind this film, much like with Batman Begins, is to show you where the hero came from and who he was before he became so mythic.
At least in BB, Bruce Wayne gets to be Batman. Here, such is not the case. Daniel Craig plays a real hard-ass killer, one who drinks, plays cards, and is both quick-witted and fast on his feet. He's a pretty cool guy but make no mistake, he is not James Bond. Bond, even going back to Connery, is supposed to have a touch of the larger than life about him (though maybe not so much as Roger Moore gave him), and here, the filmmakers are strenuously determined that, outside of the action sequences, that not be so. Bond, as well as being a ruthless agent, is supposed to be a little suave, a little dashing (again, even going back to Connery); but Craig has (or was directed to have) none of that charm. He comes off as an intelligent, intuitive assassin, but not the super-spy that, frankly, most fans of the Bond series want to see.
It doesn't help that he has no real villains to fight against. Le Chiffre (Mad Mikkelsen) is an international banker who launders black market funds, which isn't the same as a Chinese mastermind taking over an island in the Bahamas or a former Russian general stealing a laser satellite. Some people complained that these elaborate villains and schemes were what weakened the franchise, but look at an excellent barometer of what it is to be Bond, the Austin Powers movies. Mike Myers understands better than the Broccoli estate that what helps to make Bond Bond is pitting him against a worthy adversary. Granted, Le Chiffre is the villain in the novel as well, and in staying faithful to the book, they didn't have much choice but to use him. But even in the novel, when Bond beats Le Chiffre at baccarat (here dumbed down to poker), there is a sharp sense of relief and triumph. Here, when Bond wins, it's like a foregone conclusion, and the moment carries no impact at all.
When Bond is running around trying to catch or kill someone, Royale is great. The extended pre-credits action sequence is really well done, but the problem is, it's pretty much the entire action for the whole movie. Again, this is merely following the book, but the filmmakers failed to realize that what passed for exotic in 1954 doesn't any more. Just having a sequence set in the Bahamas in the 1950s was exciting (still true of Dr. No in the early 60s). But with the shrunken world of the 21st century, we're not impressed with Carribbean locations or Montenegro's casinos. We've seen this all before.
Royale is in and of itself an okay film. It's too long, and the twists and turns at the end are rather obvious (and they take waaaaaay too long to get to). The first hour and a half move along reasonably well, but the last 45 minutes drag. Craig is engaging enough as the lead, gruffer than Bond should be but ultimately he's an acceptable spy. The real problem with the film (aside from length) is the intent; the filmmakers try far too hard to remake Bond for a new century, when really, there was nothing wrong with the old Bond. By going back to the beginning of the saga, they were consciously trying to erase 40 years of cinematic history; a tall (and unwanted) order, and frankly, one that this movie is not up to. It's a little like the recent King Arthur movie with Clive Owen not a bad movie at all, but not a particularly good representation of that iconic character. Sadly, since this film is doing well (the theater was the most crowded I have seen since Star Wars last summer), we'll be stuck not only with this actor but this version of Bond for the next few years. Here's hoping the next fella gets it right.