Monday, December 24, 2007

Sweeney Todd

I love musicals but not Tim Burton. His movies tend to be too weird or strange for me. Therefore I had mixed feelings when I found out that Tim Burton was directing a musical. In order to stop this battle going on inside I decided to go see the movie to see once and for all if it was good or bad.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a classic musical that many Broadway aficionados have loved throughout the years. In the film, we are first introduced to Sweeney Todd after he has escaped from a wrongful imprisonment which he was sentenced to years ago by a corrupt judge whose motives were and are in no way pure. We see through a flashback that before his arrest he was a happy, upper-middle-class barber who loved his wife and baby daughter Joanna. However we are quickly brought back to the present to a changed man sailing back to his home and hopefully his wife and child. What happens next is full of interconnected stories that all lead to Sweeney Todd’s door while he delves deeper and deeper into his own madness.
I was surprised by my enjoyment of this movie. True it is a musical, which I love, but it is also a Tim Burton movie, which I am not such a big fan of. However, I was pleasantly surprised by my enjoyment of this movie. I think one of the strongest aspects of this film was casting. I thought the casting was extremely well done. Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd steps away from Captain Jack Sparrow and convinces the audience that he is a haunted man who is looking for revenge, and--he can sing. Helena Bonham Carter is also an excellent fit for Sweeney’s equally disturbed partner, Mrs. Lovett. Although some may claim that her singing was not up to snuff I think that is a very unfair judgment. I would like to see those people sing in a cockney accent and see if they end up sounding like Charlotte Church. Alan Rickman turns in a disturbing performance as Judge Turpin, the judge who is responsible for Sweeney’s current lot in life. Timothy Spall, who some may recognize as Wormtail from the world of Harry Potter, gives us a spot-on performance as a corrupt man who only takes the commands of Judge Turpin. Overall, the casting job was great.
This was an extremely bloody movie. Since this is a tale of man who goes mad with thoughts of revenge, I don’t think anyone should expect it to be a lovely little stroll in the park. If you can’t stand blood this is not the film for you. I am not that squeamish when it comes to movie gore sometimes, so I was able to handle this movie. The amount of blood that was shown to be spilt still diminished it in my eyes somewhat, but not too much.
This was a good movie. The actors did an excellent job, Tim Burton did not seem to go too crazy as I feel he does with most of his movies, and it was faithful the story. I never thought I would give a Tim Burton movie anything higher than a 2, but I give Sweeney Todd a 13. I did have to subtract some points for the bloody violence, which was a bit gross, but necessary for the story.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Beowulf (In 3D!!!)

It just hasn't been the same for me since the winter of 2003. For the few years prior to that, we had been getting a steady diet of high-quality fantasy in the form for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Harry Potter movies....well, sorta high quality in the case of the Columbus HPs. I began to equate fantasy at Christmastime the way some people equate stab wounds with trips to Spanish Harlem. At any rate, it seemed like every year after Sam couldn't carry the ring for him, but could carry Frodo was going to be a letdown. Part of this could be because Return of the King is one of the best movies ever made, but I digress. Enter Fantasy Contestant #1 of 2007, Beowulf. Is it a contender? The short answer is no, but despite my hatred of Robert Zemeckis, it came a hell of a lot closer than I ever would have given it credit for.
Zemeckis has always, to me, made films that are either good ideas that aren't quite classic (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Cast Away), too cute for their own good (Forrest Gump), or something else (What Lies Beneath....I'll tell you what lies beneath.....the sound of Alfred Hitchcock turning in his grave. Ahem.) So it's the law of lowered expectations that helped me enjoy Beowulf with the proper frame of mind. It doesn't hurt that the film was written by Roger Avery (Pulp Fiction) and fantasy legend Neil Gaiman (DC/Vertigo's Sandman comics, American Gods). The basic story is thus: King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is plagued by the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover)'s constant attacking of his noisy mead hall. After a particularly brutal slaughter, the hall is closed and Hrothgar sends out for a hero. The call is answered by Beowulf (Ray Winstone), his right-hand man Wiglaf (a rock-solid Brendan Gleeson), and Beowulf's thanes. After being greeted by the king, insulted by the king's wormy advisor Unferth (John Malkovich), Beowulf attracts the attention of Grendel and Pwns him. But further violence occurs late the next night which raises questions. Is Grendel really dead? No, Hrothgar says, it was Grendel's mother. Beowulf goes into the hills into Grendel's cave to confront the monster, and makes a very foolish decision......
I could talk about differences between poem and film, but I've been typing for the last two hours, so no. I will say that I found Beowulf pretty darn enjoyable. I liked the performances a lot, and was impressed with Ray Winstone's commanding presence. I liked how even though he stretched the truth (a lot), Beowulf was still really badass. I liked the themes of being haunted by past decisions, and the how the past catches up with one. It's not terribly deep, but there's more to the film than pretty pictures.....though those pictures are pretty indeed. The motion capture CGI used for Beowulf has come a long, long way since The Polar Express, and there are some shots in the movie that are almost photorealistic. And the 3D?
I saw Beowulf twice: once in Digital 3D at the Loew's Boston Common, and once in 3D IMAX at the Jordan's Furniture in Natick. The picture was nice and clear at BC, and there was only minor blurring in certain 3D effects. I suspect that some of the imperfections result not from the technology, but what the human eye can process in the span of seconds. The glasses for the real 3D were comfortable, and covered my eyes completely. I was, however, disappointed by the IMAX experience. Bulky glasses were passed out that couldn't comfortably be pushed up one's nose so that the lens completely covers the eyes, and it takes some concentration to block out the frames of the glasses, and concentrate on the film. In addition, the Natick theater had a surprisingly small IMAX screen, and the lights in the aisle floors are too close to the ends, and anybody not sitting at least 5 seats in is going to get some pretty distracting glare. I had to lean to the right to compensate for this. The sound system at the IMAX is vastly superior to that of the Boston theater, with a massive subwoofer underneath the floor. The 3D is very immersive, and greatly enhances the viewing enjoyment. If I was watching, say, The Spitfire Grill, in 3D, it would probably get a higher rating than I would otherwise give it. I give Zemeckis a lot of credit for being at the forefront of exciting new technology that will be increasingly more common, I hope.
Overall, Beowulf is a very solid, but not amazing, film. There's lots of eye candy, solid performances, some decent uses of irony and foreshadowing in the story (Has this been THE dumbest year for movies or what?), and fun battle sequences. I would encourage you to see Beowulf in 3D, not 35mm, due to the immersive nature of the format. I give Beowulf an 9(14) out of 22 on the 22 scale (The number in parentheses is for 3D).

Totally Awesome Quotes:

Beowulf: "I am Ripper... Tearer... Slasher... Gouger. I am the Teeth in the Darkness, the Talons in the Night. Mine is Strength... and Lust... and Power! I AM BEOWULF!"

Grendel: (dying in his cave) "He wasth stho strong..........stho strong..."

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

I was not particularly excited to see Ocean's Thirteen. I can sum up the reason for this in two words: Ocean's Twelve.

The Ocean's movies are fairly featherweight affairs, and any sudden jerk away from the charisma-fueled semi-camp really only reminds the audience that they're watching something substance-free. I know this will displease my colleague Particle Man, but the Julia Roberts-playing-someone-else-playing-Julia-Roberts gig was ill-advised. I can understand the whimsical intentions behind such a move, but the same logic that leads the characters to say, "Hey, doesn't Tess look like Julia Roberts?" should also lead them to say, "And don't I look like Brad Pitt?" That and an ending that rendered the rest of the movie irrelevant combined to make for one unhappy reviewer.

So it was with that mindset that I sat down for Ocean's Thirteen, completely ready to skewer it. To my surprise, however, (and, admittedly, chagrin), there wasn't much skewer-worthy here. There wasn't much praiseworthy, but at least there wasn't much skewer-worthy.

At this point, you should be aware what's going to happen: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Shaobo Qin, Bernie Mac, and Carl Reiner get together to perform a heist. The odds seem completely stacked against them, but they pull it off anyway. The end.

There are a few specific differences in this film: The Ocean's gang teams up this time to steal stuff from Al Pacino, who's opening a new casino, and who screwed over Oceanite Elliott Gould in the process. Gould suffered a myocardial infarction as a result of the screw-over, so it's a revenge-job propelled by guilt over Gould's shaky health.

They do neat stuff en route to this goal, I guess, but it's all becoming pretty old hat by this point. In fact, the moments that stand out as great are the moments peripheral to the plot (Clooney and Pitt watching Oprah, for example).

But you know what you're getting from these movies at this point: a cavalcade of stars, some nifty stunts, a bit of inspired whimsy, and a fairly forgettable plot. And because Thirteen nimbly avoided the pitfalls that plagued Twelve, it comes out of the deal with a 5.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Cursed

About two years ago a close friend tricked me into seeing a scary movie. I hate seeing any kind of scary movie, so the trick was actually necessary to get me to the theater (my friend also paid for my ticket). I sat there ready to be the one wimp in the audience who screamed, jumped, and clung to her friend because I was sure everyone else was not such a coward as I was. Then Cursed began.
Let me set it up for you. Christina Ricci portrays a young woman who has become a caretaker for her younger brother after both of their parents died, and is dealing with a boyfriend who is being cold and distant at this time. One night they are involved in a car crash and attacked by some animal. After this attack they both figure they are fine and just try to move on with their lives. However, in the days that follow both of them start experiencing strange things that they can’t explain. The brother, after doing some research, realizes that a werewolf attacked them and the only way to save them is to kill the werewolf that infected them.
Actually, now that I have written that out the movie doesn’t even sound that scary. However, I have heard that Wes Craven is good at scaring people and, as he was the director of this movie, I thought I had just cause to be nervous. Yet soon after the film started my friend and I both realized that the scary thing about this movie was the fact that they actually thought it would be scary. It was funny in a very bad kind of way, but not scary. Sure there were parts that made you jump, but it did not scare you. They even had the typical scary movie things going, e.g. ominous music that crescendos at the point you are supposed to get scared, but I think they left out the part that was supposed to scare you.
One really scary thing was the horrible plot of the movie. I was scared that this script actually got optioned. I still have nightmares sometimes thinking that if they made that into a movie what is going to come next? Joshua Jackson, who plays the distant boyfriend, is described as having been a ladies man, until very recently. He shows up here and there in the movie but just gets through the scene other than acting in it. The plot was so contrived that it was ridiculous. Of course the werewolf is going to be someone who the brother and sister trusted and would never suspect in a million years. I mean that was just ridiculous and I actually felt insulted that there was NO ORIGINALITY in the plot. They must have thought that I was like a lot of moviegoers who doesn’t really think about what they are watching. Guess what? THEY WERE WRONG!!!!!!
One thing that usually angers me about going to see bad movies is the fact that I actually spent money to see it. However, in this case that did not happen, but I still ended up liking some bad movies that I paid to see more than this one.
Normally at this point in my review I would try to sum things up and give you my rating in a clever way. This movie does not deserve it. -16. Shame on Wes Craven! Yeah, that’s right you don’t even deserve a proper conclusion.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Boondock Saints

This review is fairly spoiler-ish, so be warned.

We live in a day and age that doesn’t deal very well with moral absolutes. In general, we are just concerned with ourselves, and all the things we have to do in order to preserve ourselves. This attitude means we don’t step on anyone’s toes, and don’t impede anyone else’s freedom, which is a good thing. However, some people are very irresponsible with that freedom, and choose to impede other people’s freedoms even though they themselves are not being bothered. The attitude of “none of my business” fosters that, unfortunately, and allows it to continue unchecked. So where do you draw the line between letting other people go on their own way and stepping in to say “that’s wrong”?

Boondock Saints deals with that question by presenting a fantastic situation, and carrying one viewpoint to an extreme. However, it pulls off a neat trick in that even carried to that extreme, it doesn’t seem wrong or off-the-mark.

The story involves two Irish twin brothers in South Boston, who through not-so-simple twists of fate, end up becoming symbols of justice and near-superheroes. Connor and Murphy MacManus (Sean Patrick Flannery and Norman Reedus) seem like something out of a comic book at the start of the film; dressed in identical blue jeans, black pea coats and sunglasses, praying side-by-side in Catholic mass. A little girl in their pew can’t help but stare at them. Then, despite the fact that the priest is speaking, they go up to the altar to kiss the feet of the statue of Jesus, as though they were clergy instead of lay persons. With the help of a package boy for the Italian mafia (David Della Rocco, whose character is actually named Rocco) who’s tired of being a peon for evil men, they embark on a crusade to rid Boston of its criminal element. They begin killing mobsters, assassins, and criminal lowlifes. More than that, they bring religion and faith into the equation, by proclaiming themselves to be the holy hammer of God.

At first glance, these guys seem like psychotic and dangerous freaks. The only thing worse than a psycho is a psycho who believes he has God on his side. However, a public outcry for the Saints to be apprehended and the killings to stop is nonexistent, since they are only preying on predators of the innocent. From a certain perspective, they are making the world safe for good, upstanding citizens. The fact of the matter, though, is that the “good upstanding citizen” group does not seem to include them. They live in illegal Irish housing in the worst part of town, work in a meat packing plant, drink, smoke, swear like sailors, and get in fights at the drop of a hat. But those superficial things don’t have any bearing on what makes a person truly good, as the Saints certainly are. “Unsavory” and “unholy” are definitely not the same thing. This is one of the major themes of the movie for me.

The Saints’ activities have not escaped the notice of the law, and they are being tracked by FBI agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe). But even he gets frustrated with how working within the confines of the police system entails wading through miles of red tape and a slow crawl towards justice. He realizes that the Saints are hunting the bad guys, too, and decides to help their cause. On an unrelated note, Smecker is gay, but seems to reject everything about being gay except having sex with men.

About half-way through the film, we are introduced to Il Duce (Billy Connolly), a very efficient and brutal assassin. After initially hunting down the Saints to kill them, Il Duce joins their cause, and indeed becomes a Saint. The fact that there are always three Saints (first the brothers and Rocco, and then the brothers and Il Duce) is very significant. The obvious reference is the Trinity, being the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The invocation of the Trinity is the final part of the prayer the brothers say before killing someone. Continuing the Trinity theme, Il Duce can be seen as the Father (he is actually the originator of the prayer the Saints commonly recite), Rocco as the Son (his entire purpose in the film is to die), and the brothers as the Holy Spirit (they carry their philosophy and belief system into action).

Besides the numerous philosophical questions and issues the movie raises, it’s also a competent action film. It’s low budget, granted, but director Troy Duffy makes the most of what he’s got. The pacing is a little off, and the visual style is a little over-the-top in places, but the writing is top-notch, and Willem Dafoe brings oceans of depth and skill to his part. Boondock Saints is a dual-purpose movie, much like The Matrix and Jurassic Park, and it’s quickly becoming a cult classic.

Iconic Lines:
“The laws of God are higher than the laws of man.”
“Shut your fat mouth! I can’t buy a pack of smokes without running into 9 guys you f***ed!”
“What a fag.”

22 Rating: 14

Particle Man

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Warriors

There are cult movies, and then there are cult movies. Films that have been included as part of the cultural zeitgeist, and have stayed there. One such film is Walter Hill's 1979 classic The Warriors. The Warriors, which was (very loosely) adapted from a novel by Sol Yurick, is the story of The Warriors (of course), a gang from Coney Island. In the opening moments of the film, we see discussions among The Warriors of a summit they are attending at midnight, a summit called by Cyrus, the charismatic leader of the Grammercy Riffs. Interspersed with those scenes are other scenes of wonderfully colorful gangs going to the summit. Gangs dressed like mimes, pimps, etc. Each gang sends 9 unarmed representatives to Central Park. There, Cyrus delivers a speech about how there are SO MANY gang members, and so few police, and how they could own the city if they were to unite. However, Cyrus is shot by Luther (David Patrick Kelly, probably best known as T-Bird from The Crow), leader of the Rogues. Luther blames it on The Warriors, when he notices that one of them saw him commit the act, leaving The Warriors to try and make it all the way home to Coney Island.....with every gang in New York City looking for them.
I mentioned The Crow earlier, which is not just significant as a film that features David Patrick Kelly as a scenery-chewing heavy, but another film I love for some of the same reasons that I love The Warriors. For one thing, there are a lot of very competent performances from very obscure actors. The biggest "stars" in the film are probably Kelly and James Remar (Who? Yeah, exactly....). The fact that the performances make an impression is significant because they do so against such a strange, surreal version of New York, much like The Crow does with its ultraviolent, almost gothic Detroit. It should seem ridiculous that there is a gang that dresses up as baseball players with quasi KISS makeup, says nothing, and whales on people with baseball bats, but it works here. The film also has going for it a good length, good pacing, and great cinematography by Andrew Laszlo (Shogun, Newsies, First Blood).
As great as The Warriors is, it has several drawbacks. One is that the film flirts with violence against women a little too closely, though it doesn't cross that line. Another is is that it might seem aged to some, something that the "Directors Cut" DVD doesn't help. Though there are some good added scenes, there are ill-advised framing sequences made to look like comic-book panels to help the (very dumb, apparently) viewer understand the comic-book feel that the movie is supposed to have. Ummm, thanks. I really didn't get that from the KISS/baseball gang, or any of the other flamboyant gangs in the film, for that matter. I saw this on the big screen at midnight at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline a few months ago, and they projected the DVD, instead of showing an actual film print of it. Booooooooo.
All the above bitching aside, The Warriors is a really fun film. The strange feel of the film has kept it from aging too much, and I'm sure it feels very much the same way now that it did back in 1979. I give the Warriors a 16 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

Memorable Lines:

Mercy: "Yeah, that's right, Warriors. Just keep walkin'. Real tough muthas, ain't ya? You guys don't show me much. Why don't you dickheads just walk all the way back home, huh?"

Ajax: "I'll shove that bat up your @$$ and turn you into a popsicle."

Sully, Leader of The Orphans: "You see what you get, Warriors? You see what you get when you mess with the Orphans?"

Luther: "Waaaarrrrrriiiorsss, come out to pla-ay!"

Monday, October 29, 2007

Across the Universe

Across the Universe is an ambitious project: A musical in which every single song was originally recorded by The Beatles. That ambition allows director Julie Taymor to create some particularly memorable moments, but it also ends up being her undoing.

Here's the story, set in the late sixties: An English lad named Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels from Liverpool to America (Princeton, specifically) to find his biological father, who he has never met. While on the Princeton premises, he meets Max (Joe Anderson) a lovable scamp who's part Ferris Bueller and part Zach Morris. Max brings Jude home with him for Thanksgiving, where two momentous things happen: 1. Max announces to his family his intention drop out of Princeton and move to New York City (his parents are understandably nonplussed), and 2. Jude meets and falls for Max's li'l sis, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Max and Jude move to the Big Apple, followed shortly thereafter by Lucy, where they meet Bohemians Sadie, Jo-Jo, and Prudence. Trouble ensues when Max gets drafted, and their differing reactions to this unpleasant reality drive a wedge between Jude and Lucy.

It all sounds pretty well put-together, but it's actually kind of a underdeveloped mess. It's underdeveloped because of the framework Taymor imposed on herself, and it's a mess because of some of the choices she made. We'll deal with each of these in turn.

First of all, there's the problem that, in a musical, most of the dialogue is lyrics, and in this musical, most of the lyrics are Beatles songs. This is not to disparage The Beatles, whom I hold in the highest esteem, but a lot of their early songs weren't that deep and a lot of their later songs weren't that comprehensible. Add to that the fact that some songs just don't perfectly fit, and Taymor is left trying to build a structure out of some combination of Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and melted Legos.

I'll give a case in point for each. First, the early songs actually work the best (and it's probably telling that the musical loses focus part way through, when Taymor eschews everything pre-Revolver). And while "I Want To Hold Your Hand" looks and sounds beautiful when sung by Prudence (T.V. Carpio), it soon becomes apparent that the person she's singing it about will not appear again in the film. At that point, the song can only act as exposition for the character of Prudence, so--while Taymor does manage to add a bit of context through her visuals--all we really get is the fact that Prudence likes to hold hands.

The later Beatles corpus (post-Sgt. Pepper) does not hold up as well. The general abstractness of the lyrics of these songs is effective in evoking a mood or painting a picture, but does very little to move a story along, and the audience is just left scratching their heads as to why one of the characters is singing about, for example, "a soap impression of his wife which he ate and donated to the National Trust."

And then there are songs that work in part but not in whole. When Jim goes to confront a communist-leaning mentor/friend of Lucy's, the choice of the song "Revolution" seems perfectly apt. The verses do work beautifully at building the tension, but then Jim gets to the chorus and has to sing "Don't you know it's going to be all right" when he clearly does not believe this to be the case, and the whole thing just falls apart.

I don't want to give the impression that each and every musical number is an unmitigated failure, however. Lucy singing "It Won't Be Long" as she waits for her boyfriend's return works brilliantly, as does Jim's "I've Just Seen A Face" upon meeting (and falling for) Lucy. The greatest feather in Taymor's cap, however, is her handling of the song "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Since the song has very few lyrics that go beyond the title, Taymor doesn't have too much directorial gymnastics to do, but she lands the small backflip she does perfectly: The "I Want You" of the song is sung to the just-drafted Max by posters of the finger-pointing Uncle Sam bearing the same three-word slogan, and the "She's So Heavy" is mournfully wailed by Max and his fellow new recruits as they carry the Statue of Liberty through the jungles of Vietnam. It's heady and symbolic and a bit trippy and somewhat reminiscent of Moulin Rouge, but it works.

The same cannot be said about the absolute nadir of this film, a two-song montage tag-teamed by Bono and Eddie Izzard. For reasons never adequately explained, the gang gets onto a very Magical-Mystery-Tour-looking bus driven by Dr. Robert (Bono). Dr. Robert is on a mission to meet with a fellow counter-culture shaman, and he takes the gang along with him, stopping along the way to sing "I Am the Walrus" (which sounds cool, but adds nothing to the story). When Dr. Bono actually makes it to his destination, however, the person who is the entire reason he took this freaking trip won't meet with him. So Bono, inexplicably, just turns his bus around and drives away, leaving the main characters wherever they are. Wherever they are turns out to be the domain of Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard), who shows the gang what I suppose could be construed as a circus performance set to the song "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." This number, however, is both trippy and dull. It's musically somewhat cacophonous ("Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" is far from the Beatles' best work, and Eddie Izzard pretty much just craps all over it). And on top of that, the entire episode is even more pointless than Bono's pointless "I Am the Walrus" episode.

For all this mess, however, Across the Universe is still a memorable movie, and still a rewatchable movie (provided that the rewatching is done with the knowledge that you'll be viewing a series of Beatles' covers music videos, and not a totally coherent film). The numerical result of this unevenness is a 2, but it's not a 2 borne out of apathy. Rather, it's an averaging of the very good with a very bad, with a couple bonus points thrown on for the ambition of the project and its usefulness as an intro to the Beatles for those few human souls who don't know much of their work (as it was for my colleague, Wicked Little Critta).

Monday, October 22, 2007

Igby Goes Down

Initial Reaction: "Oh right! I have ice cream in the freezer..."

I'm what some might call a kind of movie purist. As some of you already know, I avoid watching a movie if I'm not in the mood for it. It must be completed from beginning to end in one sitting. Talking or any kind of discussion should not be taking place. Laugh at funny parts, cry at sad parts, but don't interchange the two (unless the movie is notably bad). If I watch a film that I've heard too much about before seeing it, it's been tainted.

Igby Goes Down was sitting on my kitchen table for weeks, waiting for my roommate to watch it before returning it to a friend. I'd never heard of it, but the cast caught my eye. The movie stars Kieran Culkin, Susan Sarandon, Claire Danes, Jeff Goldblum, Ryan Phillippe, Bill Pullman, and Amanda Peet. It was enough to make me want to watch, but not enough to make me carve out a chunk of time in my busy schedule. So I did the unthinkable: I watched it in pieces. Three pieces to be exact, and I'm not sure if this ruined the movie for me. But something did.

It's the story of Igby, the youngest of two sons in a rich yet highly dysfunctional family. He flunks out of schools, gets thrown into military school to teach him a lesson, and things start going, well, down. He's assumed the mantle of "problem child," and doesn't seem to be too upset about it. Igby is played by Kieran Culkin, and I'm not sure that was such a good idea. I can see what they were trying to do, Culkin definitely displays apathy well, but that's really all he's got. I'm not really sure what else there's supposed to be. At a couple of points it seemed as though he was torn or upset or something, but the two sides (indifference and despair) didn't gel. And there's something about him--not sure what it is--but it's like he should be screaming...hands on his face...pulling pranks on burglars...

The rest of the cast really surprised me. So much talent and quality to deliver so little. Susan Sarandon plays Igby's demanding, drunk, cold mother Mimi who seems more concerned with keeping up appearances (and keeping medicated) than dealing with the family problems. She, along with Bill Pullman grant us some quite good performances as Igby's parents. Pullman almost succeeds at breaking the heart of the viewer in his role of the frustrated, desperate father who eventually loses his mind (some of the best scenes include him). But, since we really have no idea what's going on with him, he elicits more pity than anything else.

Ryan Phillippe is Igby's brother, Oliver, and I think the best way to sum up his character is: bastard. He isn't the rebel in the family that Igby is, but he's far from being the good one. He treats Igby in some awful ways, and yet somehow you get the (small) sense that he cares. Just a little, though. I think Claire Danes as Sookie stands out to me the most, and seemed to be the most promising. She and Igby become friends and then lovers, and she starts off as the bright spot in the film. Then more crap happens, and she falls into the dumpster with all the rest of the characters. Oh well, she tried.

I'm really not sure what else to say. I felt like I was being baited numerous times throughout Igby Goes Down, but with nothing to sink my teeth into. While the acting is great, character development is poor in all cases, and the result is a crappy main character in crappy situations stuck with crappy peripheral characters in his life. My initial reaction isn't an exaggeration: the movie is completely forgettable, because there's nothing to keep with you after you walk away from it. There was a lot of potential, though. There were so many times when I was thinking "Finally! we're getting somewhere. Tell me about this story. Show me this person." But it never actually happens. We're kept on the surface of things, and I cannot name one character from this large, talented cast with a distinguishable motivation.

This is surprising, because it's this type of coming-of-age tale that usually dives into the substance and persona of its main character. And so much happened to Igby, it's still hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that I still don't really know who he was or why he did what he did. There were two, maybe three times that I think the director thought he was showing us the real Igby, but really, they were just disconnected emotional scenes.

Rating: -1

As much as I was disappointed by the film, I felt that the performances salvage it from complete failure. So much potential, so little substance, this colorful story with a jarring plot surprisingly delivers apathy at its most apathetic, so that's what it gets from me. Apparently, Igby goes down. Too bad.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Nativity Story

Given Mel Gibson’s success with The Passion of The Christ, it was only a matter of time before they turned another beloved Bible story into a major motion picture. I can just see the studio executives sitting around the table going “C’mon those Christians eat this stuff up, we’ll make a killing.” I can kinda see their logic, there were no good movies coming out and no new ideas for movies were being presented. Christians were guaranteed to see this movie (although I am sure that is not the only reason that it was made) to make up for falling movie profits. So New Line Cinemas came out with The Nativity Story in 2006. This was to be the classic story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
I must say I was rather excited to see this movie because of how often I had heard and read this story. However, as I began to watch the movie my excitement rapidly started to a nosedive. I did not believe any of the actors in the film. Keisha Castle Hughes presented us with a stoic and forgettable Mary. She played her not as brave or weak but just as not showing emotion. Oscar Isaac gave us a forgettable Joseph. Maybe they met on set and decided to be forgettable together. The rest of the actors were just bleh. I could see that they were trying to make this movie believable but I wanted to see the emotion, not the effort behind it (to paraphrase Center Stage). Given that this was such a classic story, I had high expectations for the acting, but I was sorely disappointed. In the previews it looked as though Mary’s parents were ashamed of their daughter’s pregnancy and confronted her about it. In the movie it just seemed like any old fight. I would expect more from people acting as parents whose unmarried daughter became pregnant at a young age.
Another problem I had with the movie were the three wise men. They served as the comic relief for the movie. While I have no problem with interjecting comic relief in to a drama, it wasn’t even that good! They weren’t that comical.
Overall, I was just sorely disappointed in the movie. The acting could have been better or at least less robotic and I think the dialogue could have been written better. This movie is definitely not up there with my favorite Christmas movies, if you are going to tell one of the oldest and widest known stories in the world, at least put some effort into it. Bad job New Line, you get a -14.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Knocked Up

Judd Apatow rules. As far as I’ve seen, he hasn’t taken a wrong step. The Ben Stiller Show, which he wrote for and co-created, was great, if short-lived. Freaks and Geeks remains one of my favorite shows, despite the fact that it was egregiously overlooked. I haven’t seen Undeclared, but I hear it’s excellent. Then there is The 40-Years Old Virgin, a hilarious movie with a supremely positive message, which is a feat nigh-unachievable by a comedy. And finally, there is Knocked Up, which Apatow again hits out of the park. The secret to Apatow’s success is his approach; he combines the bawdy, raunchy and crude with the uplifting, positive, and life-affirming. His movies have messages that my parents would thoroughly enjoy, but content (including foul language, nudity, and the uncommented use of illegal drugs) that they absolutely would not. It’s a shame that those things will stop certain people from seeing a movie that, unlike so many other movies, is actually beneficial to the world at large.

Knocked Up’s main character is Ben (Seth Rogan), a 23-year old loser who doesn’t have a job, smokes a lot of pot, and is trying to start a website with his four loser roommates. Simultaneously, there is Allison (Katherine Heigl), responsible and smokin’ hot AP for the E! channel. She gets a promotion to on-screen personality, and goes to a club with her sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) to celebrate, where she meets Ben. After imbibing copious amounts of alcohol, they have sex. Ben doesn’t use a condom, and nature takes its course. Allison only realizes what happened eight weeks later, when it’s too late.

Actually, it’s not, as Allison’s mother points out. The A word is presented as an option to both characters, and they both reject it. This simple thing is what makes the movie so great and amazing, and elevates it above “funny movie.” If abortion weren’t talked about as an idea, and then rejected, this movie would have no reason to exist. That it was made my rating of this movie go up about 10 points. It's what makes me call this movie "life-affirming." Ben and Allison have their ups and downs, then their way-downs, and then their daughter is born, and the movie ends on a way-up for them. Knocked Up is very vulgar and crude, but also very honest in its approach. Rather than gloss over the bad things in life, and deny that people like Ben and his roommates exist, it revels in the comedy of the fact that they do exist.

Judd Apatow is one of those directors who likes to use the same people in all his movies. Nearly everyone in Knocked Up is also in Freaks and Geeks, The 40-Year Old Virgin, Undeclared, Superbad, or a combination of those. Since I’ve seen most things Apatow has done, I have a sense of familiarity with these actors, so I can buy into their characters without much difficulty. I feel the movie could have been more lean and focused had some of the subplots been excised, like the one about Martin’s beard or Debbie’s realization that she is, in fact, old. On the other hand, the subplot about Debbie and her husband Pete’s marital problems was important to Allison’s doubts about (insert spoiler here). On the other other hand, a deleted scene about Ben trying to present another idea about the website to his roommates was important to Ben’s (insert ‘nutha spoiler here). So I guess it balances out.

The roommates (Jason Segal, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and Martin Starr, all using their first names) are the funniest thing about this movie, so funny it hurts. Seth Rogan demonstrates great range and ability with Ben, who was so natural and real. Apatow newcomer Katherine Heigl is a lot more than just a pretty face, but the face (and rest of her) was quite a distraction. Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are believable as a struggling married couple. There are also great cameos from Firefly alum Alan Tudyk and SNL alum Kristen Wiig as good cop/bad cop TV people, and also from Steve Carell as himself.

Knocked Up is a solid addition to Apatow’s filmography, and I can’t find a lot wrong with it. For a comedy, it has surprisingly few laughs, mostly at the expense of minor characters, and the meat of the movie isn’t all that funny. That’s definitely not a problem, though. It’s a little more serious that Virgin, and less sweet, but presents a more applicable message. Apatow is a rare talent, because he presents values we can all agree with in a forum we can all relate to, whether or not we like to admit it.

Iconic Lines:
“Don’t let the door hit you in the vagina on your way out.”
“Marriage is a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn’t last 22 minutes; it lasts forever.”
“If any of us get laid tonight, it’s because of Eric Bana in Munich."

22 Rating: 16

Particle Man

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

A man sits at a bus stop in a sleazy part of town, eating a carrot. A hysterical pregnant woman runs past him, followed by a man with a gun. The mysterious stranger follows the two of them into a warehouse, where he dispatches the man in a manner I've never before seen in cinema, and the woman goes into labor. Thugs dash into the warehouse, Nirvana's "Breed" starts playing on the soundtrack, and what happens for the next 84 minutes turns the gun-fu genre upside down.
Shoot 'Em Up is the film I've been waiting for all year. It was nice to see a movie so irreverent, so violent, so kickass, so much more dangerous than the crap like Pirates 3 that we've been force-fed virtually all summer long. The plot is simple, to the point where it makes The Bourne Ultimatum look like The Big Sleep. Mysterious Stranger (Clive Owen) comes into the possession of a baby born to the aforementioned pregnant women, who dies in labor. MS & baby are being pursued by sadistic hitman Hertz (a scenery-devouring Paul Giamatti), and MS enlists the aid of D.Q. (Monica Belluci), a hooker who specializes in lactating/baby fantasies to help him care for the child while he gets to the bottom of the mystery of the child.
Shoot 'Em Up is the first film I think I've ever seen where the plot served as some kind of uber-MacGuffin, and it works. There is a lot of stuff in this film that works, that almost shouldn't, or definitely wouldn't in lesser hands. First of all, the film is well-written and well-directed, with snappy dialogue and sight gags that the like of Tarantino should be PAYING ATTENTION TO, SO THEY CAN MAKE GOOD STUFF LIKE THIS INSTEAD OF BLOATED CRAP LIKE DEATHPROOF. Ahem. The actors also take a lot of credit. One would think that Clive Owen would shy away from roles like this, which would almost seem like a parody of his performance in Sin City, but he didn't, and good for him. Mr. Smith plays like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name crossed with American Splendor writer Harvey Pekar, with a dash of Bugs Bunny thrown in for good measure. I feel that with this role, Owen has cemented his place as this generation's Humphrey Bogart. Monica Belluci holds her own with Owen competently, and Paul Giamatti owns the ridiculous and disgusting Hertz. The music in this film is also great, with AN ENTIRE SHOOTOUT set to Motorhead's "Ace Of Spades." AC/DC is also represented, and the score is an apropros mix of modern influences, with a hint of Morricone thrown in. But director Michael Davis has plenty of action sequences in which the impossible happens, and you find it 100% believable anyway. This is in contrast to "realistic" movies with absurd (not absurd enough?) set pieces (looking at you, Transporter 2....) that just don't work. Shoot 'Em Up works. It also works as a discourse on bad and annoying habits, via Owen's "Mr. Smith."
Did I talk about gunfights? This movie has the most insane gunfights I've ever seen. And yet, the language never seemed pervasive to me (think Scorcesee), and the violence never seemed excessive. It might sound to some people like SEU is just a send-up of films like Hard-Boiled or Die Hard.....and it is in some ways. Giamatti has more than one line of dialogue in the film where he says something that audiences have been thinking throughout countless action movies. This is not a dumb film. But SEU is also a love letter to those movies, and revels in the glorious excess of the action genre more successfully than any movie I've ever seen. There were a lot of critics that trashed the hell out of it......I think A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it a "worthless piece of garbage." Then again, I don't think that Davis made this film for genteel types like Scott.
Out of all the films I've reviewed for TMBC, I had the hardest time trying to rate this movie. I thought, and thought, and thought, and I couldn't find much fault with it. I guess they could have made the characters a little bit cooler, but maybe that would have been trying too hard. Shoot 'Em Up is perfect the way it is......or close to perfect. I give Shoot 'Em Up an unprecedented 21 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

Memorable Quotes:

Mr. Smith: I hate it when parents hit their children.
Woman in Museum: Let go of my arm!
Mr. Smith: Not until you stop hitting your kid.
Woman in Museum: I will discipline my child as I see fit.
Mr. Smith: How would you like it if I spank you?
[Smith spanks the mother]
Mr. Smith: See? It doesn't feel so good, does it?

Mr. Hertz: Does anyone know what a Jimmy Cagney love scene is? It's when Cagney lets the good guy live.
[lobby of henchmen laugh]
Mr. Hertz: [growing serious] And if that happens in this show, I will do a lot more than ask for my money back.

Mr. Smith: Do you know what I hate?
Baby's Mother: [in pain] No!
Mr. Smith: I hate these fourteen year old jack-holes wearing ponytails. That pony tail doesn't make you look hip, young, or cool.
[Smith shoots a ponytail henchmen in the head]

Mr. Hertz: Guns don't kill people! But they sure help.

Mr. Hertz: My god. Do we really suck or is this guy really that good?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hero

About nine months ago, my fellow reviewer Particle Man began a review of Fearless with the sentence: "I don't like martial arts movies." He then went on to explain how he could hold this view and yet like the movie Fearless by saying, "Fearless is not a martial arts movie. It’s a movie with martial arts in it."

I'd like to do that one better. Hero is not just a martial arts movie. It's also not just a movie with martial arts. It's a beautiful, timeless, epic tale that just so happens to be a movie and just so happens to contain martial arts. And it's the best martial arts movie I've ever seen.

Epic. I guess that's the best place to begin. There are a number of words you can use to try (and fail) to accurately describe the movie Hero, but I'll try to do my best with the word "epic."

At the risk of sounding like a reluctant high school student writing a term paper, the American Heritage dictionary defines "epic" as "an extended narrative poem in elevated or dignified language, celebrating the feats of a legendary or traditional hero." Perhaps by explaining how the definition of this term fits the movie Hero, I can give you, the reader, a better understanding of the film.

I'll start from the end, with the word that the definition shares with the movie's title: Hero. To look merely at the poster, you'd assume that Jet Li's character is the eponymous hero, and that his martial arts wizardry and derring-do lead to the saving of someone or something. But that only begins to tell the story. In an odd way, every person in this film is a hero. Each makes a decision to give up something very valuable--in several cases, their own life--in pursuit of a loftier goal.

Moving backward from there, the next section of the definition reads "legendary or traditional." The story here isn't traditional to us, but (as I understand it) it is to the Chinese people--it's the origin story of their nation. As such, legend is an appropriate accompanying word. As a legend, the events chronicled in Hero are based upon actual events, but the events have been embellished over the course of time so as to contain and correspond to the values of the people who cherish it.

As far as "celebrating the feats" goes, that's an easy one to see. As one might expect, the movie spends a fair chunk of it's running time displaying Jet Li's nameless character's many feats of physical prowess. Hero, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, employs magic realism to show off the skills of its warriors. As such, characters float through the air, dance along treetops, and even stage an entire fight sequence on the surface of a lake. The fact that the film is working within the framework of a legend allows an audience to suspend their incredulity at these impossible acts.

Working ever backward through our definition, we next come across "elevated or dignified language." Well, the film is in Chinese, but that's not at all what I mean. No, the film's visual language, more than its dialogue, is what is elevated or dignified. The cinematography is absolutely breathtaking--art on the level of any of the great masters--and the filmmakers make very interesting, very purposeful, and very conspicuous decisions regarding color to add to the language of the film.

Finally, we reach the phrase "an extended narrative poem." It's a narrative extended over ninety-nine minutes that is told in a poetic style--both visually and orally. The framework for the narrative is one of a series of unfolding flashbacks, as Nameless wins an audience with the king of the Chinese province of Qin and explains to him how he managed to dispatch three dangerous assassins. Rather than being simply a vehicle for the story, however, the discussion between Nameless and the king is an important element of the plot, and is given extra levels of subtlety and nuance as the king senses that Nameless' stories are not completely on the level.

I'd tell you more, but I'd much rather allow your viewing of this film unfold naturally, unfettered by the clues given away by the careless critic.

In any case, it's not really possible to adequately describe a film like Hero. As a reviewer, the best I can hope to do is evoke it. It's foreign, yet familiar. It's confusing but rewarding. It's specific and universal. But perhaps most importantly, it's a bona-fide work of art.

So what of a rating? Well, directly after finishing the film, the number 11 seemed most appropriate to me. It's an unfamiliar story told in unfamiliar style, and I think the challenges of seeing through the film's caveats caused me to underestimate it. In the twenty-four or so hours since I watched the film, however, its themes and scenes have flitted intermittently through my mind, and each time I'm struck anew by the masterpiece of it all. So I'm upping my rating an unprecedented six points to 17, and it may yet rise from there.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Jesus Camp

Initial Reaction: Oy Vey.

Religion is a word that for many of us either elicits an "old time" feel, one that provides an image of masses packed into ornate buildings going through motions that are required by a belief system, or of charismatic Bible-belters who practically load their guns with scripture-inscribed bullets.

Faith is a word that for most gives us a very different sense than that of religion. Faith is warm and comforting. It's acknowledged as positive and beneficial by religious and non-religious alike. It's there even when many think it shouldn't be, and can be a great hope and encouragement to those trying to make their way through a difficult, unpredictable and unfair world.

Regardless of what my own opinions are of religion and faith, or the statistical truth of my above statements, religion and faith are often seen hand in hand, but occasionally as adversaries. The documentary Jesus Camp deals with a cross-section of evangelical Christians in the United States and, for me, wrestled with these two ideas. It didn't separate the two as I've done here, but for the purpose of this review, I felt it might be helpful. You'll have to excuse me, since it's difficult to objectively review a documentary in the first place, especially without throwing in one's own opinion on the topic.

Pastor Becky Fischer ran a camp for children in 2005 called "Kids on Fire." (Ironically, the location of the camp was Devil's Lake in North Dakota.) At first we are introduced to a few of the children that the cameras follow throughout the film: Levi, Rachel, and Tory. We see these kids at home with their families, attending church, and then throughout the duration of the camp. They tell us about their beliefs and experiences, and we get to see them in the midst of prayer, worship and evangelism. In addition to these kids, we also hear from their parents and Pastor Fischer.

As a documentary, Jesus Camp was quite good. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady made it very even-handed, which I immediately noticed. I knew that some people could see it and be horrified, while others I know would love it and praise the efforts of Fischer and her church. I liked the addition of the radio show commentary by Mike Papantonio. This man admits to being a Christian, but he strongly questions the ideas and methods of Becky Fischer and her camp and he issues challenges to our country's religious right. Since most of the documentary is spent listening to the evangelicals promoting things like Kids on Fire, I felt like comments from Papantonio throughout the film were very helpful and a wise move on the part of the filmmakers. Instead of interviewing democrats and the non-religious in the U.S. (who would have basically just said "those fanatics belong in the nut house"), I think it was more effective to listen to another Christian with a differing view.

As a look at the evangelical movement in the United States, Jesus Camp is just a taste of the issue. It focuses on one church hosting one camp in one location in the United States. It mainly followed three children in this camp. But this does not mean Jesus Camp doesn't have a place in raising some issues. The scary part, to me, is when Fischer compares their camp to nations who are indoctrinating their children with Islam and training them with guns and grenades rather than prayer and preaching. She makes the claim that the "Jesus Camp" type of indoctrination is acceptable. Now, whether you're an evangelical Christian, Muslim, or atheist, this is a pertinent question. Throughout Jesus Camp, the children are spouting off phrases like "at 5 I got saved, because I wanted more out of life" and "when I dance, I have to make sure that that's God, because people will notice when I'm just dancing for the flesh." I mean, are these the voices of 9-year-olds talking here? (Personal response: If you ask me, at 5 you wanted more out of life probably because your parents told you there was more to get, but that the only way to get it is to pray this prayer and live this way.)

I appreciate the question it raises, especially for parents. Do you teach your children to believe what you believe? If not, then how do you guide them? If so, then how much differing thought do you allow them to see and hear?

As a side note, you should know that Jesus Camp also includes a visit to the mega-church of former pastor Ted Haggard in Colorado. We get an inside look at one of their services, and also a short interview with him. The interesting thing is that Haggard is one of the few noteworthy evangelicals who withdrew his support of the film after Jesus Camp came out. (No pun intended)

Rating: 15

A very well-rounded, honest look at a specific population in the United States. In my opinion, whether you're religious or not, Jesus Camp is an interesting film that can challenge you in a number of ways. It was an eye-opening experience, especially for a person who has had experiences like those of the children in the film. My conclusions? Personally, I'd rather have the religion of Martin Luther King, Jr. over that of Pastor Becky Fischer. Show me the doubting yet committed faith of Mother Theresa instead of that of Ted Haggard. But you make your own decision, it's a free country.

Favorite Scene: During an emotional high at one of the camp services, children are speaking in tongues and on their knees crying. A little girl (can't be older than 4) carries a tissue box and hands out tissues to the crying children in a very business-like manner. She is overlooked by the other kids and interviewees of Jesus Camp, but in my opinion is the most real person in the movie, as well as the best role model.

Iconic Lines:

A homeschooling mom says, "If you look at creationism, you realize it's the only possible answer to all the questions."

Ted Haggard says to the TV camera, "I think I know what you did last night. If you send me $1,000, I won't tell your wife."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Anna and The King

In the primitive country of Siam, an English schoolteacher has arrived to serve as tutor for the children of the King of Siam. Anna Leonowens (Jodie Foster) arrives with the hope that she will be able to move on without her husband in this new country. Through several arguments with King Mongkut (Chow Yun-Fat) and his advisors, the two begin to admire each other but refuse to give into their feelings. Also, a concubine of the King is forced to choose between her loyalties to the King and being with the man she loves.
This is the plot of the 1999 film Anna and The King. Some of you may think that this plot seems familiar. Well, it is. This story has been told a few different times, most famously in the musical The King and I starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. Now, most people who know me, and know my love for musicals, would assume that this film is a musical update, if you will, of the 1956 classic. But it's not. This is a straight adaptation of the tale of the love between a king and a woman who considered herself to be “the equal of a king.”
Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat are both great in this movie. Foster is wonderful as Anna, and shows every bit the independence and protective walls that the character calls for. Chow Yun-Fat also is spot on as a king who is dealing with the modernization of his country and how to bring “enlightened” ways to his realm. These are just two of the great performers in this movie. The King’s children are adorable, his concubines beautiful, his advisers old and crotchety, and his generals battle-ready but not exactly trustworthy.
Anna and the King was a great movie. The scenery was beautiful, the score was entrancing, and the acting wonderful. I found myself just lost in the story. Although I also loved the 1956 version, I found it easier to lose myself in what seemed to be a more realistic interpretation of the story. Perhaps it was that no one was stopping to express his or her feelings in song.
Surprisingly, I originally had no intention of seeing this movie, but a friend of mine convinced me to watch it with her and I was hooked. About a week later I bought both the CD so I could listen to enchanting music again and the DVD so I could see it whenever I wanted--and so I could see Chow Yun-Fat whenever I wanted to (He’s hot!). What regal rating would I give a movie that had this kind of effect on me? 16.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Return to Me

Everybody has their guilty pleasures, and mine’s probably among the guiltiest of them all: romantic comedies. Every so often, I let go of my high-and-mighty ways when it comes to film, and I forget about all the grandiose notions I have about what a movie should be and how it should be done. At the same time, I let my sentimentality, optimism and romanticism get the better of me, for just a little while. It was in one of these moments that I watched Return to Me, and I’m glad those moments come up from time to time, because if they didn’t, I probably would have let slip by a movie that I wouldn’t have enjoyed otherwise.

Return to Me is a pretty simple movie without all the bells and whistles of big blockbusters, but instead has all the trimmings and trappings of rom-coms. I can hear WLC groaning even as I type this, but it was actually a pretty fun and likable movie, one that didn’t fall into the normal pitfalls rom-coms can fall into. WLC and DW are working on a theory that romantic comedies are responsible for this country’s astronomical divorce rate, for a variety of reasons. I agree with their reasoning for the most part, but Return to Me is unique among its stock. It doesn’t have any of the malignant tendencies that Serendipity, Forces of Nature, or Sleepless in Seattle have in spades, being that if you are unhappy at all in your relationship, it’s because you’re with the wrong person, and you should be with your “true love”. In Return to Me, the main character actually gets to be with his true love twice.

Bob Rueland (David Duchovny) is a mild-mannered and happy architect, with a lovely wife named Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) who works with gorillas at the local zoo, teaching one of them sign language. The night of a banquet where they announce the building of a new wing of the zoo, there is a car accident, and Elizabeth is tragically killed, and Bob is devastated. At the same exact time, Grace Briggs (Minnie Driver) is close to death and eagerly awaiting a new heart, and finds the godsend she needs in Elizabeth’s death. One year later, Grace is working as a waitress at the Italian/Irish restaurant run by her grandfather (the hilarious Carroll O’Connor), and is self-conscious about the ten-inch scar down the center of her chest. Meanwhile, Bob is being prodded by his friend Charlie (David Alan Grier) to start dating again, but is reluctant, as the specter of Elizabeth is not completely gone. Through a series of coincidences, Grace and Bob meet each other, like each other, and indeed start dating each other. The conflict enters from the fact that Bob feels as though he’s betraying Elizabeth’s memory, and Grace is nervous about telling him she’s had a heart transplant, wearing scarves and high-necked sweaters to hide her scar.

Things get very interesting when the characters learn that when Elizabeth died, her heart was transplanted into Grace’s body, saving her life. The fact that Grace ended up with Bob, and Bob found the last living piece of his wife in Grace, says very intriguing things about love and destiny, and also about our inability as humans to derail fate or God’s plan or whatever. In addition, it suggests that the heart contains a piece of the true self (as, presumably, does any organ), and even if it’s put into another body, the self will remain. This has special resonance with me, because I am a transplant survivor. As such, I already knew that a small piece of my donor lived inside of me, and Return to Me confirmed it.

The movie itself is a little over-done, and will no doubt induce the girly-girls to reach for the tissue box, and make manly-men gag on their pork rinds. But writer/director/supporting cast member Bonnie Hunt appears to know her way around a good romantic comedy, despite that this is her first film. I call this a good romantic comedy because it contains none of what I consider to be the two biggest killers of rom-coms: the protagonist ditching their fiancĂ© to be with their “true love,” and the central couple lying to each other for no reason. Return to Me deftly avoids those pit traps.

The rest of the movie is okay, but what makes it worth it is the ridiculously endearing supporting cast, especially the four Italian/Irish old men discussing the singing and acting chops of the Rat Pack. But in general, Return to Me is just a harmless, inoffensive and safe movie that will not push you in any way, though it may make you see love in a slightly different light. It really connects with me, as does the character of Grace, because of the transplant thing. But it wasn’t an earth-shaking movie for me, even having that connection, so I imagine it won’t be for you.

Iconic Lines:
“Pray in Rome; God can hear you better.”
“Elizabeth and I were married by the time we were twenty, and we'd been going out since we were fifteen, so this may sound a bit juvenile, but... can I hold your hand?”
“All the times I prayed that Gracie would have a second chance at life, I always knew that if God blessed us, the heart she got would have to be from a very special person, if it were going to be at home in Grace. When she met you, her heart beat truly for the first time. Perhaps it was meant to be with you always.”

22 Rating: 6

Particle Man

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

In a year or two of mostly meh films, and an overwhelmingly meh, it's nice to see a film break apart from the pack and excel. It's even nicer when you don't expect that film to be as good as it actually is. But, that certainly couldn't happen this summer, right? With all the dreadful threequels? Wrong. Ready for a third installment of a trilogy that not only doesn't suck, but blows away the first two installments?
Say hello to The Bourne Ultimatum.
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is still on the run. At the opening of the movie, he is wounded and evading capture in Russia, continuing the story directly from the end of the second film. This time, he is focused on finding out who he was, and how he got to where he is. Meanwhile, the CIA is heavily tracking him, under the watchful eye of Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), providing a calculating counterpoint to Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). Will Bourne evade his captors? Will he find out the truth? Will the truth leave him more broken than before?
Although you obviously get the answers to all of the above questions, it doesn't really matter.....but in a good way. TBU features one of the most skeletal plots in recent memory, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. TBU is a tour-de-force of action and suspense, like Ronin on an adrenaline dump. I wasn't expecting all that much from TBU after the 2nd movie, but my expectations were dashed apart not long in. There's an extended sequence of suspense where we see Bourne using the business of London to stay one step ahead of his CIA pursuers. A chase through the streets of Tangier that keeps the raised bar from Ronin and The Transporter. A jaw-dropping (that modifier comes from somebody whose martial arts films viewings is somewhere in triple-digits, BTW) fight scene with Bourne and one of his opposite numbers in the CIA, that features new and innovative uses for books (sorry, Eve.....) and towels. A harrowing car chase/crash in the streets of New York. All this followed by an ending that makes you want to hold your breath, but lets you breathe again by the time the credits roll.
Paul Greengrass puts himself squarely on the map as a great director with the one-two punch of United 93 and this film, but credit must be shared. The "less is more" script by Tony Gilroy, George Nolfi and Scott Burns maintains a consistent tone throughout, and veteran cinematographer Oliver Wood furthers that tone with a shaky, verite feel to the filming that greatly heightens the realism. Might wanna pack some Dramamine with the popcorn if you're the seasick type, though.
Let's also not forget the performances. After watching Matt Damon in this film, I'm convinced he's sufficiently badass to fill the boots of Captain America, so I hope Marvel takes note. David Strathairn also doesn't disappoint as the villain of the piece, minus the mustache-twirling.
The Bourne Ultimatum gets a 19 out of 22 on the 22 scale, and deserves every point of it.

Memorable Quotes:

Pamela Landy (briefing her team on Bourne): "This is Jason Bourne, the toughest target that you have ever tracked. He is really good at staying alive, and trying to kill him and failing... just pisses him off....."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Superbad

Judd Apatow comedies are a lot like sex. With sex, there's quite a lot of disgusting things happening--sweat pouring out, inappropriate body parts being utilized, unspeakable bodily fluids spraying everywhere. In the end, everyone agrees it's worth it, but you still feel like you need a shower afterward.

Superbad is not an exception; if anything, it's even more crass than Apatow's previous offerings. (Apatow produced rather than directed this one, but his fingerprints are still all over it.) However, like Apatow's previous films, it's still pretty worthwhile.

Superbad is the story of two high school seniors: Seth (Jonah Hill, one of Seth Rogen's buds in Knocked Up) and Evan (Michael Cera, who played George Michael in Arrested Development). Seth and Evan are high school seniors with two weeks left until graduation, so it should come as no surprise that much of this movie is the Quest for the Holy Vagina. A co-pursuant in this quest is Seth's and Evan's marginal friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who becomes infinitely more useful once he obtains a fake ID. Seth mentions the fake ID to a popular classmate named Jules, who happens to be having a party that night. Jules enlists Seth and friends to obtain the booze for the party, and this quest--which Seth in particular believes will allow them to complete the Quest for the Holy Vagina--makes up a large portion of the movie.

The first question you should be asking is: How is this any different from American Pie? Thematically, it's not really that different, but where Superbad crushes American Pie is with characters. Both movies have characters that are a little out-of-this world, but Superbad's are more real, more three dimensional, fleshier. And not just the main characters, either: One of the hallmarks of Apatow's films is that almost every person who appears on the screen seems to be a complete person.

The movie also shares some of Apatow's problems, however, most prominently that of a schlubbish guy somehow getting together with an implausibly hot girl. This wasn't a problem in The 40 Year Old Virgin, as Steve Carrell and Catherine Keener seemed well-matched. It was a bit of a problem in Knocked Up, as Katherine Heigl is clearly too hot for Seth Rogen, but their situation and Rogen's easy charisma made the match seem plausible. In Superbad, however, Jules inexplicably finds herself interested in Seth, who is frequently depicted as an uncool member of his class and who's not much of a looker to begin with.

Superbad is also plagued by a bit of unApatowesque sloppiness. Certain events are more coincidental than really good screenwriting allows for. Certain plot elements are not given the resolution that their significant build-up warrants. It's a comedy, so you can usually get away with things like this if your audience is laughing.

And they are here, largely thanks to the charisma of the three stars. Jonah Hill gets a bronze medal: He's perfectly cast as a particularly crass, sex-obsessed, selfish loser, and his lines get a lot of shock laughs. His character, however, is almost too depraved to root for. Almost. Christopher Mintz-Plasse gets a silver medal as Fogell--self-rechristened as "McLovin." His skinny geek with the tongue of a pimp is mostly comic relief, but one can't help but cheering for Fogell and all of geekdom with every success he has in the film. The gold medal goes to Michael Cera, however. He doesn't quite live up to his stellar turn in Arrested Development, but he still rocks the house. Compared to his friends, Cera's Evan is fairly normal and well-adjusted, but still has to deal with every bit of awkwardness that a normal teen does. And no one squeezes more joy from awkwardness than Michael Cera. Also, unlike Hill, Cera's character is one we can root for--and the very fact that Cera likes Hill makes the audience like Hill a bit more.

Superbad lands at an 8 on the 22 scale. There's certainly more good than bad here, but it's not nearly as excellent as Virgin or Knocked Up. So perhaps Apatow's films are like sex in another way: There's nothing quite like your first.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Stardust

I figured I’d keep up the fantasy/magic trend for another week. Plus, I know how all of you are simply dying to hear about the new fantasy movie out in theaters entitled Stardust.

Stardust takes place initially in the village of Wall which we quickly learn is named so after the large stone wall that separates it from a magical world. The people of Wall know very little about this other world because no one ever crosses the wall. Well, that is, until now.

A young man in Wall named Tristan is in love with Victoria, a beautiful girl who doesn’t seem to notice Tristan because she has eyes for Humphrey, a more dashing, mature, and frankly, mean person. When given the chance to proclaim his love for her, Tristan promises to bring her back a star that they see falling from the sky. She tells him she’ll wait one week for him to do so before she commits herself to Humphrey forever.

In the meantime, the King of Stormhold is dying, and his sons all want the throne. On his deathbed the King tells them that the son who regains his jewel pendant and once again makes it shine red will take his place. They quickly set out to do so, and they’ll do anything to get it.

Lastly, there are three powerful sister witches who have heard of the fallen star. A fallen star to a witch is like the fountain of youth, and these three sisters could use some beautifying. One of them, Lamia, sets out to find it and, like the princes, will stop at nothing!

When Tristan gets to the star, he is quite surprised to find that the star is actually a person! It's a girl, more specifically, whose name is Yvaine. He plans to take her to Victoria so she will marry him, while the witches are after her so they can cut out her heart, and the princes end up chasing her because somehow, she ended up with the jewel pendant they want. It isn’t easy being a fallen star.

Stardust has a lot of good things about it. It’s a wonderfully sweet love story, not lacking in comedy, with a compelling plot of impending doom. There are some definite Princess Bride-like moments throughout the film, when the filmmakers are clearly poking fun at the genre. Stardust takes itself much more seriously than Princess Bride, however, and relies more on special effects and typical gags than on the wit of its characters. Also, there are a number of points throughout the movie when we really don’t know why what’s happening is happening, as though we’re out of the loop. It’s a bit like when you’re playing a game with a 6-year-old, and he decides partway through the game that some of the rules no longer apply, but then don’t forget these new rules that (unbeknownst to you, of course) allow the child to instantly win. The director and screenwriter made up the rules for their fantasy world as they went along, and we’re expected to just accept it without asking any questions. I had a slight problem with this at times, but since it was a fairytale, it wasn’t too hard to let it go.

Charlie Cox as Tristan was charming. Michelle Pfeiffer as the old witch Lamia was as convincing as you’d imagine her to be. She does haughty and evil pretty well. Claire Danes was OK as the spunky-yet-sweet Yvaine, the fallen star, but I had a difficult time totally buying her character. Plus, she has this annoying neck craning tendency that bothered me. Robert DeNiro also makes an appearance as a pirate, Captain Shakespeare, with a secret identity. He’s fabulous. (But I won’t spoil it for you.) Other notable actors are Peter O'Toole as the King, Ricky Gervais as Ferdy the Fence, and Mark Strong as Septimus.

Rating: 11

Stardust was a very enjoyable movie, complete with love, magic, swordfights, pirates, wit, style, humor, and romance. The characters are satisfactory, even while the plot is a bit convoluted. While it shares some similarities with The Princess Bride, I wouldn’t compare the two on the same level. If you don’t like fairytales, you shouldn’t rush to see this movie, but I think that most people would find something redeemable in it. I’ll definitely be seeing it again!

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Princess Bride

In 1987, Rob Reiner of "All in the Family" fame decided to bring to life a cinematic masterpiece called The Princess Bride. Being only 5 at the time of its release, I was not able to enjoy this wonder until 1992. It was on that day that one of my friends and I were looking for entertainment during our weekly sleepover. She suggested The Princess Bride and my cinematic life has not been the same since. And now, 15 years after my original viewing, I am still enthralled by the movie.

The movie introduces us to Westley (Cary Elwes), a servant boy, and the woman he loves, Buttercup (Robin Wright). Although Buttercup gets her joy originally from ordering Wesley around, she soon realizes his feelings for her and also discovers that she has the same feelings for him. In order to begin their life together properly, Wesley sets out to make money. However, he is soon captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts and presumed dead. Buttercup is then forced to accept a proposal from Prince Humperdink, who is not as good as he may seem at first. We are also treated to a thrilling and sometimes comedic tale of revenge. Along the way we meet some great characters such as Fezzik, Inigo Montoya, Vizzini, Count Rougen (the six-fingered man), and Miracle Max and his wife, Valerie. All of these characters have vital roles to play as we find that “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for awhile.”

The Princess Bride came out in the late 80s, so there is a certain cheesiness factor about it. However, in watching the movie, all thoughts of cheesiness are forgotten. There is a reason this movie is classic: because it's freaking awesome. What girl does not dream of being loved so deeply that nothing can stop her love from getting to her? And what boy does not wish to be the strongest guy, able to beat every other guy he comes across? Rob Reiner takes us into this magical world and shows us a thrilling adventure which makes you laugh and also warms your heart. It's the kind of story you want someone to read to you when you are sick--which is how the movie begins. Peter Falk plays a grandfather who decides to visit his sick grandson (Fred Savage) and read him this story.

As I analyze this movie more and more, I am bursting with all the quotes in the movie. However, I will refrain from that in case someone out in Cyber world has not seen this wonderful movie. I love this movie and I have since the first time I watched it. I think anyone could quote the whole movie and still never be tired of it. That is indeed a rare feat! Thank you Princess Bride, please come to the podium and receive your well deserved 19.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Potter lovers everywhere, prick up your ears and raise your wands, because a pivotal moment in Harry’s story is here. Book 5 is probably the most important section of the story, with the exception of Book 7. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the filmed version of that book, does not lose even a hint of that import or urgency. What could have been a dreadful but required affair turns instead into an action-packed and tension-filled movie, and one that gets many things right and very few wrong.

Once again, I am amazed by the screenwriter’s ability to take a book that’s absolutely jam-packed (not to mention huge), and make it seem like nothing was cut out. Granted, with my book-knowledgeable eyes, I could see that there was a lot cut out, and even that many of the things that were left in were hurried over. But looking at the movie from a strictly formalist perspective, not even thinking that there was a book connected to it, one wouldn’t even know that what was in the movie didn’t constitute the whole story.

Book 5 is probably my least favorite of the seven books, mostly because in it, Harry is a complete and total prig. I don’t like him, I don’t like his attitude, and all that time spent in the previous four books building sympathy and endearment for him went away pretty quickly. Daniel Radcliffe deserves a standing ovation, because by pulling way back and directing his performance inward, he took a character that could have been a complete crapbag and made him sympathetic once again. In the book, I took his audible discontent for his circumstances as mere whining; in the movie, I saw it for what it really was.

My biggest disappointment with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was that it went over everything so fast. As a movie-watcher, I barely had time to catch my breath. As with the Quidditch Cup in Goblet of Fire, the first part of the movie was given only the barest of consideration. Tonks wasn’t given her due screen time; the Order of the Phoenix wasn’t completely explained; Umbridge isn’t quite evil enough; it completely skipped Snape goading Sirius into taking a more active role, to his peril; the fact that Dumbledore didn’t look at Harry and largely ignored him, and the reason behind that, was given too subtle a treatment. Of course, I already know the book, so I was able to fill in the gaps, most of the time without even knowing I was doing it. But for someone without that advantage, I can see how it would be quite confusing. It’s not until Harry gets to the Ministry of Magic that things start to coalesce.

This movie wins a ton of points because it did something no Harry Potter movie has been able to do since the first one: it put the wonder back into it. The wonder and magic of the Harry Potter experience was different this time, though, as it should be. With the first movie, there was a child-like newness to everything that engendered a fascination. With this one, there is a darkness to the wonder, an element of danger that makes it fascinating in a different but equally splendid way. It also wins points because it is the most faithful adaptation of its book of the five movies, even surpassing the first. Never did I feel like the movie was going in a different direction than the book, only a few things that were in the book weren’t in the movie (yeah, not crying over the lack of Quidditch), and only once or twice were things in the movie that weren’t in the book, and they were totally understandable.

The performances from the literal bevy of British talent (by this I mean the Gambon-Rickman-Smith-Thompson-Oldman camp) were not as highlighted, but the movie tried to compensate by giving the young blood lots of screen time. They do alright, especially Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood. She is splendidly off-kilter, and pitch-perfect for her role, though a little prettier than I pictured. The sets are gorgeous, as well as the cinematography, which goes for a richer and more medieval feel that recent Harry Potter films, to great effect.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is cause for adulation among Harry fans, and is a bright spot among a pretty dismal summer of three-quals and big-dumb-action flicks. Leave it to the movie incarnation of the biggest book craze of the new century to show the other summer movies how it’s done. A word to the wise, though: parents of six year old children, for the love of GOD, don’t take your kid to see this. It’s rated PG-13 for a reason.

Iconic Lines:
“You will lose everything.”
“Don’t worry… I’ll go easy on you.”
“My Mum always said things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end, if not always in the way we expect.”

22 Rating: 13

Particle Man