Reel Opinions

Friday, October 31, 2008


Ever since her nine-year-old son Walter Collins (Gattlin Griffith) disappeared, single mother Christine (Angelina Jolie) has not been certain of a lot of things. But there is one thing she is certain of when police Captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) informs her they have found her son five months after he disappeared, and presents him to her at the train station in front of an anxious media and photographers. The child he shows her is not her son. Jones is adamant, however, and insists that Christine is simply under stress and not thinking clearly. With time, she will come to accept this child as Walter. Christine poses with the child for the cameras and brings him home, but there is something wrong. This, she is certain.

Clint Eastwood's Changeling is based on a true story that occurred in 1928. It's one I have not heard of before seeing this movie, but one that completely engaged and engulfed me for almost its entire running time. At the time, the L.A.P.D. was under intense scrutiny. There were wide spread reports and rumors of corruption, murder, and cover ups to hide their illegal actions. It doesn't take us or Christine long to realize that the police were never serious in finding Walter, and merely treated it as a publicity stunt to improve their image to the media. They find a lost child abandoned by a drifter that resembles the description of Walter in Illinois, and consider the case closed. The signs signaling something is not right are immediate to Christine. The child the police have given her is three inches shorter than her son was the last time she measured him. Also, she undresses him for his nightly bath, and discovers the child has been circumcised. She gets the opinions of her son's former teacher and dentist, who both confirm her belief that the child she has is not Walter. When she presents this evidence to the police, the Captain accuses her of twisting the facts, and presents some official people of his own to counter her case, including a doctor who tries to convince Christine with scientific "evidence" that the trauma the child experienced during his time away caused his spine to shrink, thus explaining why this boy is shorter. He throws "facts" and "proof" to the world that Christine is an unfit mother who did not want her son back in the first place.

Manipulation plays a big part in Changeling. Emotions are manipulated, as are facts and evidence that challenges the police's statement that the child returned to Christine is her son. The main person Christine has in her corner is Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich), a local pastor who is more than familiar with the shady dealings going on in the police department and has a weekly radio show where he brings them to light. He convinces Christine to keep on fighting this, and fight she does. She takes her story to the media, trying to convince more people that the police only want this to go away so they can be seen as heroes, even though they did not do their job. They go to such extremes to make this go away that Christine finds herself locked away in a mental hospital under the orders of the Captain. She finds several other women there who have also been sent into captivity after experiencing the cruelty of the L.A.P.D., and trying to fight back. Even there, she finds manipulation. The doctor who examines her there twists her words around, almost convincing Christine herself that she is crazy. He does, however, offer her a chance for freedom. Sign a form that states she lied about the boy not being her son, and he will consider her "cured", and she be able to leave.

If it sounds like I'm revealing too much about the movie, I'm glad to say I am not. This is a complex and rewarding story, and Eastwood, along with screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (creator of the sci-fi TV series Babylon 5), makes good use of the film's nearly two and a half hour running time to tell it. After a somewhat slow opening 10 or 15 minutes, the story picks up and never lets go. I was captivated as the story built, and was so interested in where it was going to go next, I was almost afraid to walk out of the theater for a quick refill on my soda, fear that I would miss some important detail. This is the rare emotional movie where we not only feel emotion for the main character, we feel many of the same ones that she is experiencing. I found myself angry, terrified, and hopeful right along with Christine. Some critics have accused the movie of being too overloaded with plot and lacking a clear focus, but I did not find this to be an issue. The plight of Christine's search for the truth is always kept in the center, and a subplot concerning what seems at first to be an unrelated investigation is completely captivating. The movie juggles both of these plots effortlessly until they come together to a complete whole. This is a rewarding story that is fleshed out, and allows us to be drawn in slowly but surely.

Complementing the engaging tale is a fine cast, especially Jolie, who approaches Christine as a simple woman who is forced to rely on strength she probably didn't know she had. She does not dramatize the character, or make her seem larger than life. This is important in a movie where she is surrounded by people who emotionally, mentally, and sometimes physically try to manipulate her into believing something she knows in her heart is not true. Another performance that should be pointed out is Jason Butler Harner as Gordon Northcott, the man at the center of the film's main investigation subplot. His character is odd, with various physical and verbal ticks and quirks that could have easily gone into the realm of self-parody in lesser hands, but here comes across as dangerous and terrifying in its simplicity. All of the performances aim for realism here, and achieve it. The movie wisely never plays up the melodrama too much, and the music score (also by Eastwood) is quiet and understated, allowing the emotion of the scene and the characters to speak for themselves.

Changeling is a movie that works on so many levels, it's hard to pick exactly one area that it does best. The production and art design recreates its era perfectly, and puts us directly into its setting without sparing any details. There are also a lot of great moments in this movie. Some of my favorite scenes involve Christine's meetings with her doctor at the mental hospital, which play out as a fascinating psychological war of words, with Christine trying to choose her words carefully, and the doctor still finding ways to twist them around and make her doubt herself. None of the scenes seem rushed, nor do any characters seem underdeveloped or unnecessary. Eastwood crafts the story in a realistic way, and then allows that story to play out. We feel like we're getting the full story here. It's been stated that the movie is pretty accurate to the actual events, and it's obvious with the way the movie lets everything flow naturally.

Over the years, Eastwood has proven himself to be a master filmmaker, and I think this is one of his finer recent efforts. The movie is more terrifying than the recent Saw V could ever hope to be, more emotional than just about any drama I can think of this year, and just an all around great movie. I see a lot of films obviously, and a lot of them start to fade from my mind hours after viewing them. Changeling stuck with me, and this in itself is an accomplishment. The fact that it succeeds at almost everything it tries is an even greater one.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

I almost feel like a cynic writing this review. High School Musical 3: Senior Year is so gosh-darn perky, energetic, and eager to please that it almost prevents anyone from applying logical thought to it. Of course, you're not supposed to. The movie is relentlessly cheerful and sunny, unapologetically cornball, and takes place in a fantasy high school world where everyone has perfect bodies and hair, and scholarships to expensive and prestigious colleges like Juilliard are handed out like pieces of candy. The movie sure is pleasant and doesn't really do anything to offend, but at nearly two hours, it starts to get to be a bit much.

Allow me to explain my thoughts during the course of this film. The movie opens at a basketball game between the Wildcats (our heroes), and a nameless rival team who are obviously evil because they like to push the good team around right there on the court. (Those fiends...) The Wildcats are behind on the scoreboard, and there's only 16 minutes left in the game. Star player Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) starts to lead his fellow players in a rousing pop song about how they have to work together, and that this is their last chance to make their mark on the basketball court, since they graduate in a few months. The cheerleaders join in the song, the audience seems to be clapping along, hell even the team mascot seems to join in. The only ones in the game not singing is the other team, because they are evil, and hail from some dark high school where singing your feelings is forbidden by punishment of having your toe nails ripped out by rabid dogs. At least that's the conclusion I reached as to why they weren't singing...

Corny as it all was, I had to admit, the energy in this sequence was through the roof. Series director and head choreographer Kenny Ortega (who was the choreographer on 1987's Dirty Dancing) knows how to work his audience, and makes the opening number into quite a showstopper in its own way. I was admiring Zac Efron, who I first noticed in last year's musical film of Hairspray, since I had never seen the previous two High School Musical films that had aired on the Disney Channel. He had a good voice, had a lot of energy, and seemed to have a lot of screen presence. Then, his girlfriend, Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) stands up in the stands to sing and cheer her boyfriend on, saying that she believes in him. My heart sunk a little when I realized Gabriella was going to be the female lead. She's attractive and all, but Hudgens is so blandly sweet from the word go, and her singing voice sometimes resembles that of a teenage Smurf. Because of the rousing song, and the heroic team's ability to believe in themselves while singing, they pull off a victory over their rivals and win the championship. All is right with the world.

Or, is it? We quickly learn that Gabriella has been accepted to Stanford University, which is over 1,000 miles away from where Troy's going to be. Bummer. As for Troy, he's torn as to whether he wants to pursue basketball (which is what his dad wants) or musical theater. Double bummer. In a subplot, the entire drama club is going to be writing and putting on their own Spring Musical about their thoughts and fears of life beyond high school. The spoiled diva rich girl, Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale), is scheming behind the scenes to try to get the final production number with Troy, and start herself on a career path to being famous, which she sings about in an energetic and surprisingly satirical number called "I Want It All". As for poor Gabriella, she's been granted the opportunity to start Stanford early, which means she won't be there for the big musical, the prom, or to graduate. These are the kind of problems you want to have when you're in high school. Don't worry, though. It all works out thanks to Troy's magical truck that, even though it looks like the kind of thing Redd Foxx used to drive on Sanford and Son, can travel over a thousand miles in less than two days to pick up Gabriella at Stanford, and get her back in time for the final production number, so that no-good scheming Sharpay doesn't get to go on in her place. Sorry if I spoiled it for anyone, and you thought the movie was going to end with Troy and Gabriella dead in a ditch.

The High School Musical films have been a phenomenon with teens and "tweens", and it's easy to see why in this movie. It's bright and cheerful to a ridiculous degree, it's loaded top to bottom with an attractive young cast to make the girls swoon, and the songs are so perky and deceptively catchy that they drill themselves into your brain to the point that you'll require surgery in order to remove them. It's the energy that sells it. The energy of the cast, the choreography, the musical numbers, and the fact that the movie never once slows down long enough for us to complain how ridiculous it all is, even though it's constantly in the back of our minds. The talented young cast are more than capable to meet whatever the movie throws at it when it comes to singing and dancing. I may have been turned off by Gabriella, due to the fact she pretty much does nothing but smile and look dreamily into Troy's eyes (even when she's singing), but the rest of the cast each get their moment to shine in either a musical number or a dance sequence.

If High School Musical 3 had maybe been an hour long TV special or something, I'd probably label it as being cute but ultimately silly. Unfortunately, this is a feature length film. A feature length film that runs for nearly two hours. The movie's total lack of substance starts to show through by about the one hour mark, and it didn't take long until the whole thing was getting to be a bit too much. At least the previous entries were made for TV, so there were commercial breaks that brought you back to reality. Here, you're being bombarded by nonstop happiness and sunshine for two hours straight. I understand that the movie is supposed to be mindless fluff for the young audience, and I'm obviously not the audience it's looking for. Even so, this movie wore me out. Any parent taken to this movie by their kid would be wise to plan strategic bathroom or drink/popcorn refill breaks, or risk losing their sanity to the full-frontal assault of Weapons of Mass Perkiness.

I'm not recommending High School Musical 3, but I probably would if I was the right age and mind set that the movie is targeting. It's at least made with some degree of skill, which makes it watchable to those who don't have posters of the cast on their wall. The Disney company plans to continue the series with a new cast for the next film, which supposedly will be going back to television. I can't imagine what kind of troubles the new cast will face. Maybe one of them will break a nail right before their big song. I won't know, because I most likely won't be watching. Regardless, I wish them the best of luck, and hope their years of high school are as gosh-darn incredibly wonderful as Troy and Gabriella's were.

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In Religulous, stand up comic and TV host Bill Maher goes around the world, asking people of different faith a very powerful question. - "Why"? Why do they believe in what they do? Why do they cling to stories about magical gardens and talking snakes, which Maher personally sees as fairy tales, but the Christian faithful view as scripture? If God does talk to people, why doesn't He just go and make a public appearance, instead of using one person to spread His message? It's a powerful question that's sure to divide any audience who watches it. And although Maher doesn't probe deep enough during most of this documentary, the results are still highly entertaining and often hilariously funny.

The title itself (a combination of the words "religion" and "ridiculous") pretty much explains Maher's personal view on the topic. He was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, and was raised as a Catholic until he was 13. His family stopped going to church, and when Maher asks his mom why, she thinks it had something to do with the church's view on birth control. These days, Maher feels that religion is a dangerous thing. In an impassioned monologue that closes the film, he thinks that if Armageddon does come, it won't be because of a Second Coming, but because of religious Fundamentalists who won't do anything to try to stop the end of the world. He doesn't see how people can believe in the stories in religion if there is no documented or physical proof that cannot be challenged with another way of thinking. His targets in the film cover a wide range of religious views, although Christianity gets the most screen time. He also questions Judaism, Mormons, Scientology, and even a bizarre little religion that seems to be built around finding faith through smoking pot just to name a few. With a running time of only about 100 minutes, Maher obviously can't hit them all, and leaves out some religions. He has to save something for the sequel, you know.

During the course of Religulous, Maher travels the world, visiting holy places in Rome and Egypt. He also visits some smaller places, such as when he visits a tiny makeshift chapel for truck drivers which is located inside a truck trailer early on. He then interviews both important people (a U.S. Senator who is very devout in his faith), and even some not-so important people (a guy who plays Jesus at a Christian amusement park in Orlando, Florida), and questions them in their faith. He asks a lot of good questions. How could a guy survive for three days in the belly of a whale (or big fish), as the story of Jonah wants us to believe? If God's going to come down and destroy the Devil, what's He waiting for? The answers he gets have obviously been edited to either fit Maher's views, or to entertain the audience. Director Larry Charles (Borat) edits and splices the interviews with funny archival film clips, or witty subtitles that either question what the interviewee is saying while Maher listens patiently, or points out the inconsistencies in what the person is saying to him.

To me, Maher isn't really seeking answers to the questions he's asking, but simply wants to spark discussion and thought with his audience. The way he constantly interrupts and says sarcastic little zingers to the people he's supposed to be interviewing pretty much shows that these people could say anything to him, and he wouldn't believe them unless they somehow were able to call God down to talk to him. Half the time, I expected his subjects to get a lot angrier with him than they appear, but only once in the film does a person walk out on him. (He is thrown out of a couple places, though, before he can get too far in his interview.) A lot of the comments he makes are actually funny. When some Mormons tell him that they believe Missouri will be the location of Paradise, Maher quips that he hopes it's Branson. When someone tries to tell him that people are not born gay, Maher questions that notion by using Little Richard as evidence for his personal view. There are some people Maher talks to that actually share a lot of his own questions, such as a Roman Catholic priest who dismisses a lot of their personal teachings, such as the existence of Hell and the Devil himself. Here, Maher has very little to say, and mainly just lets the person talk.

One of the more fascinating interviews to me is when Maher talks to a man who actually believes that he is the Second Coming, and is actually Jesus resurrected. He is Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, and he has 100,000 followers. He explains how the holy bloodline of Jesus went from the Holy Land to France to Spain to Puerto Rico. Maher lets the guy know that while it's convenient he has Jesus in his name, his last name hints that he could also be the resurrection of Carmen Miranda. To say that this movie is preaching to its own choir would be an understatement. It's an entirely one-sided film, yes, and I would have liked some more deeper and probing interviewing on Maher's part. But, I cannot deny that I was engaged and very entertained throughout the film. Some of the people he's found in this movie are astonishing, such as a guy who has invented things to sidestep bans on Sabbath activity. His take on the telephone has to be seen to be believed.

Will Religulous offend you? The answer lies with you. Maher comes across as a guy who just doesn't understand why people cling to these beliefs, and he just wants to know what makes them do so. Why do they believe what they believe? Why does one guy he talk to laugh down the notion of the existence of Santa Claus, but thinks someone talking to a burning bush is plausible? The movie merely skims the surface of its own questions, and that's expected. The main question to me is was I entertained, and did it spark a lot of thought within me. It did, so I recommending it. You can probably tell by reading this review whether you will enjoy this movie, or find it completely offensive. I leave you to make up your own mind.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Saw V

"You won't believe how it ends" - The poster tagline for Saw V.

There's something to be said for truth in advertising, but in this case, I don't think the filmmakers should be advertising the film's ending. Yes, it sets up great expectations, and yes, I did not believe how the movie ended. Unfortunately, it was probably not for reasons the filmmakers intended. Saw V has an insignificant little nothing of an ending, one that doesn't really wrap things up, but rather seems like director David Hackl either ran out of film, or just didn't have a lot of respect for his audience. It's one of those endings where the credits feel like a slap in the face, because you're still waiting for the shock and the surprise.

The Saw franchise began back in 2004 quite humbly. It was a low budget but well done thriller about a demented man who called himself Jigsaw kidnapping people who did not appreciate their lives or what they had, and then forcing them to endure deadly games and puzzles where they would have to face their own problems or sins in order to survive. Jigsaw turned out to be a terminally ill man named John Kramer (Tobin Bell), who was disgusted by how people ignore or waste the gifts they are given or receive in life, and wanted people to open their eyes in his own twisted way. It was an intriguing idea, and the first few sequels successfully built upon that idea. 2006's Saw III wrapped up the story quite well, and saw Jigsaw's reign of terror come to an end. However, Lionsgate studio wasn't about to let their most successful franchise just end there. They decided to continue the story with Saw IV last year, and it had all the markings of a desperate attempt to milk more money out of something that was past its prime.

The money-grubbing nature of the recent films continues with Saw V, a trite and substandard thriller that never manages to thrill or even come close to scaring its audience. The movie is actually surprisingly timid. It doesn't even seem to try to raise the tension of the audience. The devious and fiendish traps that the series is known for take a back seat this time around to a dull story involving a police detective named Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) carrying on the work of Jigsaw. We see in flashbacks how he came to be associated with Kramer, and how he worked behind the scenes in the earlier films. To the public, Jigsaw is dead and Hoffman is being rewarded as a hero. But there's one survivor he didn't count on, one who wonders how Mark was able to escape the final standoff almost completely unharmed. Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) survived the trap that was supposed to end his life, and begins digging into Mark's past. Meanwhile, in a parallel plot, five total strangers who have all abused the power and privileges that they enjoy are the latest people who have to endure a series of Jigsaw's latest morality-based death traps.

So, the deadly games and hard-R violence that have long driven the franchise have been pushed aside in a forgettable subplot that the movie seems to throw in simply because the other films had them. As if that weren't enough, the traps seem to be somewhat toned down and not quite as inspired in their wickedness as past entries. So, what does that leave fans and gorehounds looking for their fix? Not much, I'm afraid, other than a story about Agent Strahm digging for clues, and Detective Hoffman trying to stay one step ahead. The movie never gives us reason enough to care about either one of them, nor does it know how to make the story interesting in the slightest. We actually seem to watch them do the same things over and over. Strahm keeps on going through files and looking at photos, which cue flashbacks (sometimes flashbacks that have flashbacks within them), and Hoffman keeps on looking dark and sinister, and not really doing much of anything else. Everything's so tepid and uninspired here, you wonder how the filmmakers can get away with calling it a thriller when nothing thrilling actually happens.

If the audience has a hard time staying awake or interested, at least they're in good company here. The actors sleepwalk through their roles, and not a single performance registers or grabs our attention. They mainly stand around reciting dull dialogue in dimly lit or dank rooms. This is a terrible movie to look at, where absolutely nothing catches the eyes, and scenes have such little lighting, you'd almost think the filmmakers didn't want us to see what was going on. Maybe after five movies, the series is just losing its edge, and it seems everyone knows it. Saw V doesn't try to do anything new, doesn't want to explore any new ideas, and simply regurgitates the same images and ideas over and over to the point of self parody. The creepy little puppet who represents Jigsaw to his victims and the public doesn't even resonate anymore. We're so used to it, we just stare at it and don't feel anything. We're immune, and the new Jigsaw just isn't enough to generate any excitement.

So, where does that leave Saw V in the end? This is one of those movies that didn't need to be made, and fades away from your mind like vapor almost the second you walk out of the cinema. Whatever inspiration these movies once held has long fled, and it is now merely a soulless cash cow for the studio to squeeze every Halloween. Saw VI is already planned for next year, and there's even a reality TV show where the winner gets a role in that movie. So, whoever wins gets a part in a movie that exists simply to carry on something that should have ended three years ago. Can that really be considered a prize?

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Pride and Glory

When you know you're walking into a movie that's been sitting on the studio shelf for two years, like a dirty secret the studio owners have been keeping to themselves, and when you know that the film has been shuffled through various release dates over the year or so, the best you can probably hope for is that the movie in question is watchable. Pride and Glory is indeed very watchable, and actually has some good performances going for it. With a cast including Edward Norton, Colin Farrell and Noah Emmerich, that much is a given. It's almost a shame that the script itself is so workmanlike. You keep on waiting for the movie to break free from the restraints of its well worn cliches, and it never does.

Pride and Glory is a movie about family, brotherhood, crooked cops, loyalty, and all the expected material that comes with the genre. There's the good cop, Ray (Edward Norton), and his brother-in-law Jimmy (Colin Farrell), who is the bad cop. And no, I'm not spoiling anything. The film and even its ad campaign makes this abundantly clear, so it's not a who done it. Noah Emmerich plays Ray's brother, Francis, the one caught in the middle and questioning his own loyalties. To top it all off, their dad is a retired police chief played by Jon Voight, who only wants to see the family situation caused peacefully and swept under the rug, though that's obviously not an option. Just by hearing those character descriptions, you can probably plan the course of the plot out in your mind before you see the film, and you wouldn't be too far off. The movie adds to the drama, by exploring the family situations of each individual brother. Ray's brother, for example, has a wife who is dying of Cancer (Jennifer Ehle), and he is conflicted by being a decent man around his wife and trying to help her survive, and the dirty dealings he knows is going on in his own family and in his own police department.

The plot kicks off when Ray is convinced by his father to get back into crime investigating when four cops are killed in a shootout with some drug dealers. Something happened in Ray's past, and he's been working in Missing Persons before his father convinces him to get involved, since the men killed were connected to his brother. Ray begins to search for information, and eventually starts to realize that there's a lot of corruption underneath within the force. We learn early on that Jimmy and some members of his squad have been taking money from drug dealers to kill rival drug dealers. Jimmy sees it as part of the job, since he's only getting rid of lowlifes, but when Ray starts snooping around and information about his operation starts to leak out, it threatens to tear the closely knit family bonds apart. Everyone takes different sides, loyalties are called into question, and the movie settles into a comfortable rut that so many just like it have used before.

That's not to say there isn't anything to recommend in Pride and Glory. As mentioned, the performances are pretty much first rate, and almost make us forget that the movie is offering us nothing new. Norton and Farrell bring a lot of intensity to their respective characters, and Jon Voight (an actor who has been cashing one too many easy paychecks these days) gives one of his better performances as the father dealing both with what is happening with his family and with his alcoholism. Part of the reason I wanted the movie to throw off the shackles of its conventions is because these are good characters, and I liked what I saw of them outside of the formula. The movie's brief views into their family life are powerful on their own, but not nearly enough is done with them. We never truly get the reaction of Jimmy's wife to what he's been doing, and the subplot concerning Francis' dying wife comes across as a tease, since it's introduced and then never resolved. It's almost as if director and co-writer Gavin O'Connor (2004's Miracle) had a good idea, but never went all the way through with it.

Despite all this, Pride and Glory manages not to make too many wrong moves and mainly keeps the melodrama in check...Until the final moments, that is. And what a couple of final moments they are. The movie keeps on building and building until we throw our hands up in defeat, and just wait for the credits to come. You can almost picture the writers sitting at their word processor, desperately looking for a way to end all of this the right way. If this is the best they could do, they should have kept on looking. It takes the easy way out with outbursts of violence, contrived conveniences of the script, and a general feel of ham-fisted drama. The actors do what they can with the material they're given, but it doesn't make it feel like any less of a cop out. Here is a movie that should have ended with quiet reflection and maybe some honesty, and instead it gives us an overblown and overstuffed ending that explodes right there on the screen and never quite recovers.

Pride and Glory is nowhere near as good as it should have been, but it's not a complete lost cause. All it needed was a better ending, and some more attention paid to its intriguing subplots that are left hanging and underdeveloped. You almost wish you could be in the room when the script was being written, and convince them to go just a little bit further, veer off the expected path just a little bit more. The movie did not deserve to be hidden away from the public for so long, but it probably could have stood another rewrite or two before it went before the cameras.

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Monday, October 20, 2008


In Fireproof, a control freak firefighter named Caleb (played by former 80s teen heartthrob Kirk Cameron) learns how to love and respect his wife more, thanks to something called The Love Dare. It's a 40-day experiment his father gives him that's supposed to test the bonds and limits of his love to his long-suffering wife, Catherine (Erin Bethea). Along the way, he also learns to accept God and Jesus into his life, which is expected since this movie was released independently by a production company with ties to a church. There's one thing Caleb does not receive during the film which he seriously needs, however - Some basic anger management training.

To say that Caleb is a hothead would be an understatement. Whenever something upsets him in this movie, he grabs a baseball bat, and starts smashing any inanimate object that may be close by. His wife has been nagging him about not supporting her enough? Caleb steps outside, and kicks the stuffing out of his garbage can before he puts it out to the curb. His computer tries to tempt him with a pop up ad for a porn site? Out comes the baseball bat, and he smashes the heck out of the evil thing before he gives in to the temptation of internet porn. Watching that scene, I had to ask myself wouldn't a pop-up blocker been just as effective? Yes, it's true, our hero does indeed find the Lord and become a born-again Christian, and he also finds a second chance with his wife. Now all he needs to find is a bit of common sense, and maybe I'd start to believe this guy was someone I could root for.

I have no problem with the film's message of faith and love. My problem lies with the way filmmaking duo Alex and Stephen Kendrick approach the material with such a heavy hand that it makes many of the film's serious moments unintentionally laughable. Whenever Caleb turns to his father, dad takes him out to a wooden cross that just happens to be standing in the middle of a field, and give him (and us, the audience) a sermon about God's high standards, and how we don't match up to them. The scene comes across as being about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the privates, and seems to stop the entire movie so the screenplay can preach to us for about five minutes. This is a movie that routinely stops itself. Whether its to watch a montage of firefighters training while a Christian rock song plays on the soundtrack (though what firefighters going through basic training has to do with a song about loving God, I have no idea), or to have Caleb be preached at by his father or the wise black guy at his fire station, the movie slows to a crawl whenever it tries to deliver its message, and never quite finds a way to insert it into the film in a natural way.

So, just what is the problem for Caleb and Catherine? They don't communicate anymore. He comes home tired from work, asks if she picked up any food at the grocery store, she says he could have done it during his day off, and he explodes at her. Like I said, some anger management would do wonders for this boy. He doesn't listen to her anymore, doesn't help out around the house, and spends most of his days looking at porn sites and dreaming about buying a boat. She's had enough, and is seriously contemplating having an affair with the sleazy doctor at the hospital she works at who keeps on hitting on her. That's when Caleb's dad steps in, and tells his son to try the Love Dare, which is a handwritten book that lists 40 challenges that he must meet each day in order to save his relationship and discover Christ. He also seeks guidance from his best friend at work, and I couldn't help but think he's lucky to have this friend, as everyone else who works at Caleb's fire station are morons who are mainly used in the screenplay for comic relief. His friend uses a lot of ways to talk about relationships and how important they are to keep, even resorting to visual aids by gluing some salt and pepper shakers together.

Caleb tries the different challenges in his book, but at first his wife ignores them, since she thinks he's just making a desperate attempt to get more out of their impending divorce by "proving" he's not that bad of a guy. The thing is, if it weren't for the fact that Caleb saves lives for a living, I'd have a hard time believing he was a decent guy too. He's verbally abusive, violent, sexist (he doesn't seem to respect any women, not even his mother, whom he routinely screams at whenever she tries to offer help), and routinely flies off the edge. He apologizes to his mom eventually, but none of the rest of his behavior is ever brought into question. We're supposed to cheer for him because he figures out how important Catherine is, and because he accepts Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Yet, the movie seems to have no problem with the scene where he finds out about his wife's possible affair with the doctor, and he busts into the guy's office, threatening to beat the life out of him. (Oddly enough, the two never talk about Catherine's feelings for the doctor, not even after Caleb finds a hidden note she received from him.) For all of Caleb's progress, I still found him to be a jerk when the movie was over, so what's the point?

Aside from this fact, Fireproof is amateurishly made, which I guess is not a surprise given its limited budget. Still, that's no excuse for the all-around performances of the cast, which veer from being mediocre to below local community theater level. The performances and the emotions are frequently as ham-fisted as the screenplay, which is quite an accomplishment. If the movie wants us to take a second look at our faith and our relationships, they should have tried for a more natural and even-handed tone than the one that's been applied here.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Secret Life of Bees

The first thing we learn about 14-year-old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) is that she accidentally shot and killed her mother when she was four. This is the main memory she has of her mother, and her frequently drunk and abusive father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany) wants to keep it that way. He tells her that her mother left them both, and was only home the day she died to gather some things she forgot. Lily is a thoughtful and intelligent child, however, and wants to believe her mom loved her. Her only friend seems to be her black caretaker, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), who is excited about the cultural changes going on in the world. The year is 1964, and Civil Rights are on everyone's mind. When Rosaleen is beaten by a white man after she insults him, Lily decides she's had enough, helps Rosaleen escape from the hospital, and decides to hit the road for a better life.

This is the set up for The Secret Life of Bees, a sweet and sentimental story that gets a lot of milage from a talented cast and a screenplay by director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) that does not dumb down its racially-charged subject matter. The film is based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, but manages to stand well enough on its own thanks to a powerful and nuanced performance by young Fanning. Her Lily is someone we immediately sympathize with, and more than that, she's a realistic child. She's obviously had a hard life, but doesn't let it show. She runs away early on mainly out of fear for the safety of Rosaleen, as she's afraid the man she insulted will come back and kill her. While wondering where they could possibly stay, a jar of honey catches her eye which depicts the image of a black Virgin Mary. Lily learns from a local grocer the address of the woman who produces the honey, and it turns out to be the home of the three Boatright sisters - August (Queen Latifah), May (Sophie Okonedo), and June (Alicia Keys). And yes, before you ask, when she hears their names, Rosaleen does wonder out loud to herself where "September" and "October" are. The three sisters welcome the two into their home, and Lily begins a journey of personal discovery where she learns more about her mother than she ever imagined.

Here is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways. If it had been more manipulative, or tried harder to tug on the heartstrings, we'd have a made-for-TV Lifetime movie up there on the big screen. Fortunately, The Secret Life of Bees keeps its heart in check, while at the same time exploring the darker and scarier aspects of its setting. Although equal rights seems to be on the mind of everyone, there are many closed-minded individuals in the towns that Lily encounters along the way. These are not cartoonish racist caricatures, but rather realistic portrayals of the thinking at the time. What impressed me the most about the film is the relationship that Lily develops with the Boatright sisters. Although Lily remains the central focal point, everyone is fleshed out to a certain degree so that it never seems like anyone is being pushed into the background. We also get the sense that the lessons she learns are not just from those she lives with, but by everything around her. It shapes her from a girl who accepts her own unhappiness as being inevitable, into someone who has the strength to try for something better in her own life.

Most of all, the movie works in a sentimental way. It knows what buttons to push, doesn't push too hard, and creates characters we not only like but are interesting to begin with. I particularly liked August, who shows a lot of wisdom, without coming across as a "mystic" or someone who speaks like her dialogue was written on a fortune cookie. May, an extremely sentimental young woman who has been traumatized since the death of her twin sister and is prone to fits of crying, is simple minded but caring. British actress Sophie Okonedo finds the right tone for the character, so she never comes across as an unintentional parody. And recording artist Alicia Keys, as the independent-minded June, brings a certain strength and honesty to her character. Of the cast, only Jennifer Hudson disappoints, as she seems to disappear from the story for long periods of time, and never truly gets to live up to her promise in the film's early scenes.

And then there is Dakota Fanning, who has always been a wonderful child actress, and this movie marks a coming of age point for her. Should her career continue into her adult years (and hopefully it will), this will probably be seen as a turning point in her career. She's absolutely wonderful here, and more than capable of carrying almost the entire movie on her own. Her Lily is a surprisingly complex character for a 14-year-old, and the way Fanning tackles each side of her character and makes her into a real person. She shows more screen presence and talent than most starts twice her age in other movies, and I can only hope that this performance will be recognized come award time.

The Secret Life of Bees should please the legions of readers who fell in love with the original novel, and most of all, will most likely please any regular filmgoer who finds themselves watching it. The movie is sweet and laid back on the surface, but has enough going on under the surface to grab onto so that it's not just enjoyable fluff. It even works as an occasional tear-jerker, as I found my heart aching for the characters at certain times. This is a movie that aims for the right emotions, and earns them. Trust me when I say it's not as easy as it seems.

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Max Payne

I can almost picture director John Moore (2006's remake of The Omen) grinning ear-to-ear as the MPAA handed back his Max Payne with a teen-friendly PG-13. Here is a movie that contains multiple shootings, more deaths than most R-rated slashers hold, and frequent instances of drug use, both by the villains and by the hero during the film's climax. And yet, because the "f-bomb" is only dropped once in the dialogue and what little nudity there is in the movie has been carefully edited, Hollywood has deemed this movie okay for teens to see. Good to know someone out there is looking out for our kids.

Max Payne is based on a series of video games. I have not played any of them, and the movie doesn't really spark any desire to. However, I do know that the games were intended for mature audiences. Despite the rating, so is the movie. The title character is an angry police detective played by Mark Wahlberg. Yes, his character is really named Max Payne. With a name like that, of course he's going to be a grizzled and angry cop. That, or a professional wrestler. In a year where we already saw Wahlberg slip up with The Happening, I don't think a video game movie was the wisest of choices to act as a follow up. Back to the plot: Max is a dark and brooding figure who now works at the cold case films department. He hasn't been the same ever since he came home from work one day, saw some men had broken into his house, and found his wife and baby murdered. To show his grief, he dresses almost entirely in leather, and sulks around the dark streets of New York (actually Toronto, standing in for New York), where it is constantly raining, snowing, or overcast. It's as if the weather somehow shares his pain.

Max is searching for the slime who was behind the murder of his family, and almost everything leads to a dead end. That's when his former partner Alex (Donal Logue) notices a tattoo that was on the arm of Max's wife in a crime scene photo that seems to be connected to other recent victims, who have the same tattoo as her. Before he can figure out the connection, he's murdered in Max's apartment, making Max the prime suspect. As if that wasn't enough, a girl who visited his apartment the night before named Natasha (Olga Kurylenko) turns up dismembered in an alley nearby. Natasha's sister, a gun-toting femme fatale named Mona Sax (a miscast Mila Kunis), initially thinks Max is her killer, but he soon convinces her that Natasha's murderer also killed his wife, and they're looking for the same man. So now Max has company as he sulks around the city, looking tortured. Oh, and there are supposedly demons flying about the city, snatching up paranoid junkies and drug addicts. Or maybe not...

You see, part of the film's plot has to do with a drug that supposedly gives whoever takes it enhanced abilities. Unfortunately, it also causes the user to hallucinate that demons from hell are after them. The hallucinations seem to have been written into the script so that the movie could at least claim to have some interesting visuals, since the dialogue and plotting are third rate. They look impressive, and certainly do provide some striking and interesting images. Unfortunately, they're just computer generated effects, and have very little to do with anything going on in the movie itself. The first time I saw the creatures, I was intrigued. The second time, a little less so. By the time they made their final appearance, I had long realized they were just there for show, and was tired of them. When it's not fooling us with intriguing supernatural undertones that don't go anywhere, the movie is a tepid crime noir drama that's just too generic to inspire any sort of response. We've seen it before, we've seen it done better, and we'll most likely see it again when the sequel comes around. (Sit through the end credits for a final scene afterward that hints at a franchise.) The characters race from Point A to B through a convoluted plot we care little about, never really saying anything of interest or showing any real personality.

The actors at least seem to be making the best of a bad situation, even if they often look like they wish they were somewhere else. Mark Wahlberg growls his way through every line of dialogue, and looks pissed off when he's killing hundreds of faceless gunmen, so I guess he gets the job done in the lead. As the female lead, Mila Kunis doesn't look comfortable at all as her character, and it just makes you want to re-watch her likable and funny performance in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where she seemed a whole lot happier. The rest of the cast includes such actors as Beau Bridges (as a close friend of Max), Chris O'Donnell (who shows up as a nervous guy who might know more about the murder of Max's wife than he lets on), and even rapper-turned actor Ludacris turns up as a cop investigating Max's connection to all these bodies that seem to follow wherever he goes. Like Wahlberg, they get the job done, but don't exactly seem very interested in the story they're trying to tell. Probably because the story gives them so little to do, they'd be better off staying in bed.

Max Payne is surprisingly leisurely in its pacing until the climax, which plays like a massive shootout crossed with an explosion at the special effects factory. And I haven't even gotten to the part where the hero decides to use the deadly hallucinating drug in order to give him strength to kill all the bad guys. Yes, that's right, the hero only wins in this movie because he takes the drug the bad guys have been pushing to junkies on the street. Talk about your mixed signals. I'd ask the filmmakers what they were thinking when they threw that in the script, but something tells me thinking was the last thing on anyone's mind when it came to this movie's script.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sex Drive

I would like to offer a simple piece of advice to anyone currently writing a teen sex comedy, or maybe thinking of writing one. See Sex Drive. Study it. Learn from it. Not only will your movie be better, your audience will be happier. With uninspired imitations like College out there, it's easy to forget that there's laughs still to be found in the genre. There are certainly a lot of big laughs in Sex Drive, as well as a surprising amount of heart and characters who have been written as real people. It was surprising how much I cared about these characters by the end of the film.

What writer-director Sean Anders, along with his co-writer John Morris, do here is take the standard formula for the teen sex road trip comedy, and then turn it on its head with a strong sense of absurd humor, and an underlying level of sweetness. The characters also are not arch types that follow the rules. The lead character is Ian (Josh Zuckerman), an 18-year-old virgin who is tired of seeing his best friend Lance (Clark Duke) get all the girls, and his 14-year-old brother score with the girl he likes at work. When he's not facing humiliation at the hands of his psychotic older brother Rex (James Marsden), he faces humiliation on a daily basis at his fast food job, where he has to walk around the mall in a foam costume of the restaurant's mascot, Senor Donut, and hand out coupons to uninterested customers. He has another best friend named Felicia (Amanda Crew), who likes Ian, but doesn't know how to admit her feelings. Ian, meanwhile, has been carrying on an on line relationship with a girl who calls herself "Ms. Tasty" (Katrina Bowden) for a while now. When she suggests they meet in person, Ian is encouraged by Lance to swipe Rex's classic '69 GTO car, and go on a road trip to Knoxville, TN. where the girl waits. Felicia comes along for the ride as well, under the impression that Ian and Lance are going to visit Ian's grandmother.

As the old saying goes, it's not the destination, it's the journey that makes Sex Drive work. This is a movie that starts predictably, and then builds into something else all together. When the three friends stumble upon an Amish community that is heavily into drunken rave parties, I knew the filmmakers were onto something. And let me tell you, if you don't laugh at the sight of two drunken Amish women kissing in the middle of a mosh pit, you've lost your sense of the absurd. The sequence is topped off with a winning performance by Seth Green as Ezekiel, an Amish farmer who knows a surprising amount about sports cars, and who peppers every line of dialogue with verbal slaps of sarcasm. There are so many inventive little gags that caught me off guard in this movie. The climax, in particular, is a work of genius in the way it not only brings everything together into one hilarious finale, but also in the way it manages to throw everything at once without falling into chaos. You can almost picture writers Anders and Morris sweating it out as they tried to piece the scene together. Their effort pays off, and the final 15 minutes of the movie deliver some of the biggest laughs since Tropic Thunder.

And while the movie never quite forgets what it's supposed to be (there are a couple gross out shots, but compared to most recent comedies of its type, this movie seems pretty tame), there is some genuine emotion going through these characters. Ian is not played as the typical "loser" type who usually populates these movies. He's a sensitive guy who's tired of being overlooked by everyone and playing it safe, and wants to do something crazy and spontaneous for once. Rising young star Josh Zuckerman (previously seen in Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs) has a nice everyman quality to him, and makes Ian into a character we can relate with as well as laugh at. The male best friend character in these movies is usually a boorish sex-crazed lout, but Clark Duke brings a surprising amount of humanity to Lance. There's a scene where the two actually talk about Ian's complicated relationship with Felicia, and they talk like...well, people who've been friends for years and understand each other. And while on the subject, Amanda Crew is a real find as Felicia, creating an instant chemistry with Zuckerman, and really grabbing the viewer's attention.

In lesser hands, I can easily imagine this movie being a total disaster. After all, it's a daunting challenge to balance human emotion, outlandish over-the-top humor, and crude sex farce in the same movie. Sex Drive pulls it off by know just how far to push, and when to pull back. It certainly shows intelligence on the side of the filmmakers, and quickly clues you in that this is not your typical "dumb" teen comedy. It's also nice in this day and age to see a movie that actually knows how to build up to gags, and make them work without dragging them out. The movie actually at times seems to be self-aware of the jokes that don't work, and quickly cuts away from them, or doesn't waste a lot of time on them. (A scene where Ian has an unfortunate encounter with a gay man in a public restroom probably should have been left on the cutting room floor.) Still, like any good comedy, there's always a scene around the corner to bring the movie back into our favor whenever it takes an occasional wrong step.

With Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and now this, October has been a good month for surprisingly intelligent teen movies built on simple or cliched premises. Sex Drive is not exactly great or skillful filmmaking, and it doesn't pretend to be. It just wants to make us laugh, and given some of the recent comedies to come out of Hollywood, that's harder than expected. This is a movie with a surprising amount of laughs, an equally surprising amount of heart, and more brain than you might first expect.

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Friday, October 17, 2008


Make no mistake, W. is a sometimes entertaining and surprisingly even-handed look at our current President. Given the fact that this film was rushed into production to be released just in time for the elections, I was expecting much worse. However, this film also gives strength to another argument - Oliver Stone, once one of the most controversial and outspoken filmmakers, is losing his edge. The movie never quite delves deep enough into the man or into his political legacy, and pretty much tries to sum up everything in one simple phrase - George W. Bush has daddy issues.

This is not the hard-hitting or critical look at Bush that many expected. The movie completely glosses over or skips entirely certain important events, like the 2000 election fiasco. It is a Cliffs' Notes version, only hitting some major notes, and jumping through them without any in-between or lead in. The movie skims over his notorious hard drinking early years, equally skims over his years trying to find a place in the world, and then pretty much jumps into his decision to run for political office. Faces fade in and out of the narrative, and we never once feel like we're getting the whole story. Maybe Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who previously collaborated with the director on 1987's Wall Street) became intimidated about going into too much detail. This marks the second time in a row Stone has lost his nerve with his subject matter, as his previous film about the World Trade Center crisis on September 11th took a simplified "made for TV movie of the week" approach.

And yet, for all its obvious flaws, I cannot deny that W. intrigued me in a lot of ways. I may have been left wanting more, but at least I was liking what I was seeing enough to want more in the first place. Although I do think the movie puts too much weight into it, and pretty much uses it as its single answer to almost every question it presents, I did enjoy the relationship between Bush and his father. In the film, George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) is presented as a man forever in the shadow of his dad (James Cromwell). It's something that is stressed from the beginning, such as the scene when Bush is called into his father's office, pretty much only so that his dad can say he's a real disappointment to him, since he can't seem to hold down a job. When his father runs for President in the 88 election and asks for his son's support, George is hurt by the fact that his dad turned to him only after his brother, Jeb Bush (Jason Ritter), turned him down to concentrate on his own work. And when George starts to make strides toward his own political career, his father cannot say he is proud of his son, and simply hands him a note saying he's proud.

This antagonistic father-son relationship is pretty much what drives the entirety of the film. Brolin portrays our President as a man constantly trying to please everyone around him, though he never quite seems to know how. He's faced with the legacy of his father, his brother, and those he respects. All he seems to really want is recognition, and maybe some appreciation, but that becomes continuously out of grasp as the situation in Iraq spirals out of his control. Josh Brolin certainly does a great job at capturing Bush's mannerisms and speech, without turning it into a Saturday Night Live-style parody. It's a performance that takes a little while to get used to (seeing him try to pass himself off as a 19-year-old fraternity pledge is a bit of a stretch), but he grows into the role quite quickly, and before long we forget we're watching an impersonation. As the elder Bush, Cromwell does not even try to mimic the appearance or talk of him, which is most likely for the best, as it probably would have ended up going into Dana Carvey territory. He simply gives a strong performance as an emotionally closed-off father who doesn't know how to react when his son succeeds or fails.

Stone has cast the movie with a sharp eye, and it's amazing how many of the actors resemble their real life counterparts. Of special note are Richard Dreyfus as Vice President Dick Cheney, and Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice. Like Brolin, they have the speech, the mannerisms and definitely the look down. What bothered me is that's about all they do have. The movie doesn't give a lot of the supporting cast a chance to stand out, aside from a few meeting scenes as they discuss the war situation. Unlike Brolin's Bush, they come across as imitations rather than genuine characters. In a way, it's understandable. There are so many people who played a part in the story that Stone tries to tell that it's impossible to fit them all and give them due credit in a movie that runs just a little over two hours. But at the same time, I felt like I was watching a bunch of talented actors dressed up as recent political figures, and not much else beyond that.

I think in the end, the main problem with W. is that it's not time to tell the story. We need more distance, more reflection before we can start to truly understand him, or his Presidency. It's interesting that one of the final scenes of the film is Bush being asked by a reporter how he thinks history will remember him, and he becomes tongue-tied right there in front of the cameras. Oliver Stone often seems equally confused with this film. This is a well made movie that contains some good performances and a number of very good stand-alone scenes. Those scenes just never come together to form a completely satisfying film.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Duchess

Whenever I'm about to sit down and watch a British costume drama, I always feel a sense of unease. It's not that I haven't enjoyed such films in the past or that I don't look forward to them. It's just that when they're done wrong, they can be the most frightfully dull films imaginable. But when they are done right, they can lift my spirits like few films can. The Duchess, fortunately, falls under the second category. There is no denying that the film is wonderfully produced and holds a number of wonderful performances. But more than that, I was captivated by the story of the Duchess of Devonshire.

In the film's marketing campaign, much has been made of the fact that the Duchess was an ancestor to Princess Diana. Indeed, it's impossible not to think of the "People's Princess" while watching the film. Both were women brought into royalty at a young age. Both were married to men whose interests fell to another woman. Most of all, both seemed determined to change the way things were done. Fortunately, the story of the film can be enjoyed on its own, and not without any modern references. The film covers the early years of Georgina, who is married off by her mother to William Cavendish, the fifth Duke of Devonshire, when she was just 16-years-old. Keira Knightly plays Georgina (or "G", as she is known to those close to her) with a certain strength. She is brought into a world of high society that does not have a high view of women in general. The Duke, portrayed wonderfully here by Ralph Fiennes, marries Georgina not out of love, but because he is desperate for a male heir to carry on his title.

He has tried once before with another woman, but she gave him a daughter, and died before he could try again. Georgina discovers this when the daughter is sent to live with them when the mother dies. She did not know about this other woman in his life, and it is the first of many things she will learn about her husband. Much of the drama in The Duchess comes from the distant and cold relationship the two shared. To William, Georgina was just a means to produce a son, and frequently treated his beloved pet dogs with more love. He frequently forced sex upon her, one time even going so far as to rape her. And yet, Georgina hid her personal anguish, and became a very visible and popular woman in social and political circles throughout England. She became an outspoken woman, speaking out about American and French revolutions, and was an important asset to the campaign of a man vying for the position of Prime Minister. That man was Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper), a man whom she truly loved, but could not marry. Because she could not have a public relationship with him, she assisted his career by using her personality and presence to draw people to his causes.

The Duke carried many private and often not-so private affairs, often right in front of Georgina, and she could do nothing about it. Even her sole friend, a woman by the name Bess Foster (Hayley Atwell) is drawn into an affair, not out of lust, but because Bess' greedy and powerful husband is preventing her from seeing her own sons, and Duke William has an equal amount of power to change it. Georgina's lack of power, despite her title, is what drives most of the story, and it effectively turns The Duchess into a captivating story that holds our attention throughout. Georgina is a woman who knows her place, and even does her best to accept it, but finds it harder to hold onto that acceptance as the film goes on. She is forced many times to choose between her title and what she truly wants for herself. The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen and director Saul Dibb is honest with the details, but keeps things moving at a brisk pace. It opens a door into the world of these people, without lingering over dwelling upon it.

As is often the case with these kind of films, the production values could not be better, and truly transport us to the time the story is set in. But it is the performances above all else that draw us in. Keira Knightly is truly coming out on her own as a young actress, and despite having a fairly young career, is quickly turning into an actress who can make me sit up and take attention. She demands our attention in every scene, which is important, since she is in every scene of this film. As her husband, Ralph Fiennes is a flat-out proper gentleman bastard, and I mean that as a complement. His William is a cold man who sees himself as a noble person, but is really quite childish and scared underneath his stern exterior. He is afraid of not getting what he wants, and doesn't know what to do with this woman he is supposed to love, but does not. During the rare moments he is open with her, it seems like it is the hardest thing in the world for him. It's a wonderful performance, and one that I hope will be remembered come award time.

The Duchess isn't going to change anyone's mind when it comes to "powdered wig dramas", nor will it blow the minds of anyone who is fond of such films. But I have to give it credit for being a supremely well done example of its kind. I found myself deeply involved, and very interested in the story, even if I had heard it before. If anything, the movie made me want to know more about the real story of the Duchess of Devonshire, and that I believe is the standard that all historical dramas should strive for.

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You know those haunted house attractions you always find around Halloween? The ones were you walk down dark hallways, only to have people with fake blood and gore dripping from their faces jump out at you from the shadows, or come running at you out of the darkness screaming like a banshee? Take a camcorder along with you the next time you go to one of those, and film everything you see. The film that you shoot probably won't be too different from Quarantine, and best of all, you won't have to pay to watch it.

The movie is actually a remake of a Spanish horror film called REC., which according to the IMDB, came out just about a year ago in November 2007. My guess is that the people at Screen Gems studio saw the opening weekend grosses for Cloverfield back in January, and sped this US version into production. Like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project before it, Quarantine is shot entirely through the lens of a handheld camera. It works a little bit better here than in some of the past films, since I didn't feel sick to my stomach at times watching the camera bounce and shake around. The camerawork here is fairly steady, at least until the last half, when the entire thing collapses into chaos and it becomes hard to tell what's going on and who is currently running at the camera and screaming at the cameraman and us. For the most part, the movie is competently made, despite its obvious low budget, and the sometimes questionable talent of certain cast members. It's actually effective and effectively creepy for its first 40 minutes or so. Then the movie keeps on doing the same thing over and over again, and we start to realize that the movie's already shown us everything it's going to show us, and we still have about an hour left to go.

The set up centers on a TV journalist named Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter), who is doing an in-depth report on the lives of L.A. fire fighters for a TV program called "Night Shift". Along with her mostly off screen cameraman Scott (Steve Harris), she tours the firehouse and is introduced to certain members, such as Jake (Jay Hernandez) and Fletcher (Johnathon Schaech), who give her a personal tour of the building and walks her through a typical night at the station. An emergency call eventually comes in late that night, and Angela gets to follow the men to a job set at an apartment complex. They've received a 911 call from the building about one of the residents, Ms. Espinoza (Jeannie Epper), having health problems. When the firemen break down the apartment door, they find her extremely disoriented and making strange croaking sounds. She then proceeds to attack one of the men, biting him ferociously like an animal. As the firemen, police officers, and camera crew try to figure out what to do, they quickly discover that all exits of the building are starting to be sealed off by government officials who are surrounding the building and refusing to let anyone leave. A strange disease is starting to spread throughout the building, and as the number of infected begins to increase, all Angela and the few sane survivors can do is pray to find a way out.

Quarantine builds up a lot of promise during its first hour or so. The early scenes at the firehouse do a good job of building the characters and their relationships, and when they initially enter the apartment building, the movie builds a certain amount of dread. Though I was never actually scared, I did find my eyes darting about the screen, trying to find anyone who might be hiding in the shadows. We're interested, and as the first early bits of information about what's going on begins to filter in, I found myself intrigued. It's right about this point that the movie runs out of things to do or say, and basically devotes most of its time to the "infected" actors running at the camera from out of the shadows, screaming. It gets to the point that we expect it, so we're no longer interested or frightened. The repetitive nature of the movie begins to show itself, and never quite makes an exit. Worse still, the camera work becomes increasingly hard to follow, almost to the point that I couldn't tell which character was currently infected and attacking the camera at that moment.

The "documentary" approach of the film is supposed to put us right there in the action and probably make us feel closer to the characters, but oddly enough, it made me feel more distant. The movie never quite lets us get very close to these people to begin with, so they quickly turn into faceless victims and monsters. There's a scene about midway through where Angela interviews one of the tenants of the building, leading me to think the script would start taking a human approach, but it never bothers to do so again, nor are the tenants developed beyond any basic initial feature. (One's a drunk, one can't speak English, one's a mother with a sick little girl, etc.) I could clearly see that things were starting to go downhill, but even that couldn't prepare me for the climax, where things pretty much bottom out with a somewhat confusing and underdeveloped discovery that's supposed to provide some answers, but only left me with more questions. The worst part of it all? The film's poster and ad campaign literally gives away the final shot of the film. I'd love to know what Screen Gems was thinking there.
Quarantine just never manages to build to anything beyond its initial promise and central gimmick. There's one or two effective jump scares, but given the number of times it tries to make us jump in its roughly 90 minute running time, that's nowhere near enough. The characters eventually get lost in the chaos of the movie, so we're left to just sit there and try to make sense out of the chaos. Too bad we never get enough to do so. While I don't think Quarantine is quite bad enough that the studio had to hide it from critics this weekend, this is still a highly disappointing movie that makes me hope this handheld camera horror craze will be over soon enough.

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The Express

I will admit up front that I am probably not the biggest fan of inspirational sports movies, and it's not just the fact that I'm not much into sports to begin with. They all seem to follow a rigid formula, and seem to be on a single-minded quest to overly glorify whatever historical sports figure or coach who broke the rules the film is covering. The Express, which tells the uplifting and ultimately tragic story of Ernie "The Elmira Express" Davis, is not really all that different from the many that have come before it. And yet, this movie is better made than most of them, and actually managed to hold my interest. This was a big surprise to me, considering the studio's ad campaign seems determined to tell his life story in a two minute trailer, leading me to think I had seen the movie before I actually saw it.

Ernie Davis (portrayed in this film by Rob Brown from Stop-Loss) is famous for being the first African American athlete to win the Heisman Trophy after leading his Syracuse, New York college football team through many championship games and undefeated seasons. He faced prejudice and a changing nation of the late 50s and early 60s. He was met by hatred and racism in some of the cities his team played in, but he never let it obscure or side track his personal goals. Tragically, his budding career was cut short just as he was drafted to play professional football for the Cleveland Browns after college. He was struck with leukemia, and never actually got to play a single professional game. He lost his life to the disease at only the age of 23, but is still remembered for not just his talent for the game he played, but also for the racial barriers he helped knock down.

This is the kind of life story a Hollywood screenwriter dreams of. Right there, you have all the elements of human triumph and tragedy, and it can easily be squeezed into a typical Hollywood formula. And yet, screenwriter Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) does something most of these films usually don't do, in that he doesn't completely white wash over the harder aspects of the story. A lot of this has to do with the character of Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), who beat out a lot of competitive colleges (including Notre Dame) to have Ernie play for his school team. Schwartzwalder was one of the early coaches who adopted the idea of using both white and African American players on the same team, and at the time the story begins, was famous for previously having Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) on his team, who had just been drafted by the NFL when Ernie enters the team. Even though Ben Schwartzwalder was open to having a mixed team of players, we still get a sense that there are times when he is uncomfortable around Ernie Davis. The movie does not turn him into a saint. The relationship that develops between Ernie and Ben is a complex one that holds a lot of respect, but also a hint of fear between the two men. They sometimes don't even seem to know how to talk to each other.

What I liked about The Express is that it is confident in its own story, and doesn't feel the need to hit us over the head with its racially-charged message. It doesn't pretend that its audience has never heard it before, so it hits all the right notes without ever hitting them too hard. The movie is mainly focused on his football career anyway, so it's a good thing that a lot of the game scenes are well shot and set up. The movie spends enough time off the field as well, so we get to meet some of the other people in Ernie's life, such as his friend on the team, Jack Buckley (Omar Benson Miller from Miracle at St. Anna), and his budding relationship with another student on campus, Sarah Ward (Nicole Behaire). But it is the relationship between Ernie and Schwartzwalder that gets the most attention, and mainly won me over. It's not just the complex relationship I mentioned earlier that they have, but both Rob Brown and Dennis Quaid give fantastic performances here, and play off of each other very well.

If there's any problem I did have with the film, it's that I wanted the movie to spend as much time with his outside life as his life on the field. Since his football career takes up much of the film's two hour+ running time, we never quite get as close to the people around him in quite the same way we do with the Coach. His relationship with Sarah is pretty underdeveloped to the point that she probably could have been written out of the film with little consequence. We also don't get to see enough of Ernie's family life, particularly Willie "Pops" Davis (Charles S. Dutton), Ernie's grandfather, who obviously played a large role in shaping him into the man he grew up to be. And yet, just as I would start to grow restless, the movie would turn around and make another right move. I particularly liked the way the movie handles his illness near the end, and does not allow itself to turn heavy handed or emotional. There is no weepy bedside scene or anything like that, but there is a very powerful scene where Ernie talks about his disease to the public for the first time in a press conference that is well done and honest.

The Express is not quite good enough to make you forget you've seen this movie many times before, but it is good enough to make you not care that you're sitting through it again. I found myself captivated by the story, the performances, and the way that director Gary Fleder (2003's Runaway Jury) keeps everything moving at a brisk pace and doesn't get bogged down in details. We learn enough about Ernie Davis to realize his importance in football history, the hardships he went through in his short time, and when the movie is over we're glad we took the time to learn about him.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

City of Ember

This is going to be a hard movie to review. City of Ember is the most visually exciting film I've seen this year since Hellboy II. I don't think there was a scene in this movie where I wasn't interested or captivated by what I was seeing on the screen. The movie also features a strong cast including Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Martin Landau, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. And yet, I must admit that while my eyes and senses were completely captivated, my heart and my brain was less so. One more draft of the screenplay, and this movie would have been perfect.

It's hard not to gush about the film's production design. The movie is set in a massive underground city that is a triumph of set and visual design. There were a lot of times looking at the film that I was reminded of the sci-fi works of Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys). Maybe a little bit of Tim Burton was in there, too. This is a movie that gives us something new to look at in just about every scene. The first time I saw the underground city of Ember, I instantly became excited. I became even more excited when I heard the story behind this city. Apparently, the end of the world happened some 200 years ago. How this came about, the movie never goes into detail, but from the flashback sequence early on, I assume it was a war of some sort. The few survivors were forced to go underground, since the surface was no longer inhabitable. The plan was that after 200 years, the people would return above ground, since by then it would be safe to start a new life on Earth. An electronically sealed box set to open at that time was entrusted to the people, which held detailed instructions on how to leave the underground city and return to Earth. But over time, that box became lost and forgotten, and the people are still living beneath the surface, where the city around them is rapidly starting to die and fall apart.

Did I mention this is a family film? Something about a family movie set in a post-apocalyptic dying world just fascinates me. So, the underground city of Ember is dying. Blackouts and power outages are becoming more frequent, and lasting longer than ever before. The city's power generator is on its last legs. Not only that, food is starting to become scarce for the people. Why don't the people leave? They're afraid of what lies beyond Ember's limits, least of which includes giant man-eating mutated rodents that look like moles crossed with a sea monster that are about the size of a semi truck. Not only that, the city's corrupt Mayor (Bill Murray) is keeping the people there, giving them false hope for survival, all the while hoarding most of the good food for himself in a secret room. The heroes of the story are two teens who think there is life beyond their dying city. There is a young man named Doon (Harry Treadaway), whose father (Tim Robbins) once tried to escape from Ember years ago, but failed. Doon still thinks there's a way, though. His best friend is a girl named Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan, who recently played the young girl in Atonement). Her ancestor was a previous Mayor of Ember, and so she holds onto that electronically sealed box that holds the plans to return to the surface, though she doesn't know what it does since the instructions within have long started to wither and fade to the point that they're almost unreadable.

The film is based on a series of young adult novels by Jeanne Duprau, and while it most likely matches the novels in terms of imagination and wonder (I haven't read them), there's something a little hollow about the narrative underneath. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House) and screenwriter Caroline Thompson (The Corpse Bride) constantly show us incredible sights, but we never truly get to learn about them or savor them as much as we should. I wanted to know more about the creatures of Ember, which besides the giant rodents I mentioned earlier, also include oversized friendly insects that we see precious little of, and play no actual part in the story itself. They're just there to grab our attention and spark our imagination, which they do. Then why doesn't the movie do anything with them? That's the question that I kept on asking. I was enjoying the movie in a sense, but I also found myself unfulfilled in a lot of other ways. I also wanted to know more about Ember itself. The production design and little details of the city are so fascinating, but it never goes into any details about how these people live, or the crude technology we see them using throughout the film. This movie is one giant tease. The script kind of rushes through the story, not even slowing down to ask the most obvious question, which is why is there so much child labor in Ember, since we see so many teens and preteens working dangerous jobs throughout the city?

The characters get the same treatment. We never get to know them as much as we should. The two young heroes are likable enough (mostly due to the fine young actors playing them), but they mainly exist to run around these expensive looking sets and move the story along. We never get a true sense of their relationship, even though they are familiar enough to trade jobs with each other in an early scene. (In this movie's world, as soon as a kid graduates from school, they draw a job from the Mayor's hat, which they do for the rest of their lives.) The supporting cast is also disappointing, despite the talent on display. Bill Murray never truly gets to stand out as the evil Mayor, because the movie never uses him enough. Tim Robbins gets a few good early scenes, then the movie kind of forgets about him. And poor Martin Landau literally sleeps through most of his role. Just because his character is a narcoleptic doesn't give you an excuse to just give him nothing to do. The characters in this movie are never given a chance to grow, and that's a shame, because I wanted to know more about everyone.

Although I cannot fully recommend City of Ember, I do think it is a movie that deserves to be seen. The stuff that is good may not be enough to take your mind off of what doesn't work, but there's just so much about this movie that fascinated me. Despite my reservations, I'd recommend this over its current family film competition, the brain dead Beverly Hills Chihuahua, any day of the week. At least this movie forces its audience to think and be engaged somewhat. If the plot and the characters were as fleshed out as the world surrounding it was, this movie would have been a real find.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Body of Lies

There are a few signs I use to know that fall is on the way. There's a crisp chill in the air. I have to put an extra blanket on my bed. The leaves turn colors. And Hollywood starts rolling out the big dramas featuring big name stars that are based around current political or wartime events. Ridley Scott's Body of Lies is the first of these kind of films this year, and fortunately for its audience, it's a pretty good one. The movie veers dangerously close to being a bit too complex and convoluted for its own good, but is engaging enough throughout to hold our attention.

Based on a 2007 novel by David Ignatius, Body of Lies tells the story of Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio), an undercover CIA agent working in the Middle East to capture a Bin Laden-wannabe named Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul), who has been responsible for various terrorist bombings in the US, Europe, and other places around the world. He's spent so much time behind enemy lines, Ferris has started to grow disillusioned with some of his superiors back in the US, particularly the man he constantly keeps in contact with via a headset, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who usually watches Ferris' actions via various spy cameras that patrol the skies. Roger's current mission to trap Al-Saleem is to form an alliance with the head of Jordan covert operations, Hani Saalam (Mark Strong), and ultimately lure the terrorist out of hiding by targeting an architect by the name of Omar Sadiki (Ali Suliman), and setting him up as a radical Jihadist.

While there have been a lot of recent films covering the situation in the Middle East, this movie sets itself apart somewhat by having its lead hero actually sympathizing more with the foreigners around him, rather than the government he's working for. When we first meet Roger Ferris, he's been at this job for years now, and has obviously seen it all. He's tired of his superiors, especially Ed Hoffman, going against his decisions, and messing up his perfectly laid plans by instituting their own plan without his knowledge. He also strikes up a shy relationship with a pretty young local nurse named Aisha (Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani in her first English-speaking role), whom he first meets after she treats him for bites he received from some wild dogs while chasing down a suspect. Their relationship is obviously a guarded one, due to the way many of her people (including her sister) view Americans, but the movie does not dwell so heavily on this aspect that it ruins the sweetness of their relationship. In fact, their scenes together bring some much-needed lightness and even some humor to the film.

What stood out the most about Body of Lies for me is that it's not just a "message movie", here to show us the horrors of the Middle East. While there are certainly a lot of scenes that do just that (including a wince-inducing torture sequence late in the film), the movie makes sure to never lose sight of the humanity of its characters. I found myself drawn in, not only because of the capable performances of DiCaprio, Crowe and the rest of the cast, but also because I found myself generally interested in these people. So many movies like this sacrifice character personality for the message, but screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) never lets the potential heavy handedness of the material overshadow those who are at the center of it. His script also expertly balances the complexities as more characters, more far off locations, and more plot revelations are piled on to the point that we think the whole thing might be reaching a breaking point. The movie expertly juggles everything and everyone within it so that while it may be complex, it is never confusing, nor do we ever find ourselves having to play catch up with the storyline.

And yet, as much as I found myself enjoying the film, I must also admit I have some reservations as well, particularly the lead performances by DiCaprio and Crowe. Don't get me wrong, they're quite fine, and as I mentioned earlier, very capable. But at the same time, these are not exactly memorable performances from either actor. The two actors come across the best during their more human scenes, when they are face to face with each other (rather than speaking to each other over a headset telephone-like device), or when DiCaprio's Ferris is spending time with Aisha. These moments with her allow DiCaprio to do something he doesn't get to do much in this movie, or something he hasn't done in a lot of his recent roles - Smile. While I admire him as an actor, I think he's starting to dig himself into a bit of a rut by only taking these very serious, heavy films. I'm not asking for the guy to rush out and sign on to the next Adam Sandler comedy or something, but I would really like to see him tackle some material that's a little bit lighter. The romantic moments he shares with Farahani are the most memorable in his performance, because he's the most open and charming during these scenes.

I'm not really complaining too much, though. Body of Lies works a lot better than I expected walking in, and is surprisingly free of a preachy attitude and heavy handedness. This is a thinking man's thriller that builds to a logical conclusion, and rewards the viewer for thinking all the way through, rather than having everything spelled out. Director Ridley Scott has looked past the message and the self-importance of the film, and given us something that are surprisingly rare in the many films just like it - Characters we can enjoy and get behind.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

An American Carol

Why is it that parody movies fail so badly at hitting their mark? It's easy to see when hacks like Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans) are behind the camera, since they don't really have a point to begin with, other than to skewer anything and everything that's in pop culture. But An American Carol surprised me, because it comes from the mind of David Zucker, the unofficial father of the modern parody movie thanks to films like Airplane and The Naked Gun. His latest movie misses the point so badly, it's almost embarrassing to watch it unfold upon the screen.

The film is a not-so thinly veiled political statement disguised as a goofy comedy, where liberals, anti-war activists, and infamous documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore, supposedly get their due. As the title suggests, it is a patriotic reworking of the famed Charles Dickens Christmas tale. This time, the Scrooge of the story is the Michael Moore character, called Michael Malone here. He's played by Kevin Farley, brother of late comic actor Chris. Michael Malone hates America, and he especially hates the 4th of July. That's why he's leading a cause to abolish the holiday, while also leading protest rallies against the war. His latest documentary film, "Die You American Pig", has flopped, and his agent (James Woods) informs him that only feature films are making money these days. Michael has an idea for his first non-documentary film, a drama called "Fascist America", but he can't get any studios interested in the title. That's when he's approached by some radical Islamist terrorists, who agree to pony up the money for his dream project, if he will shoot a new terrorist training video for them, and help them with their plan to blow up Madison Square Garden during a 4th of July concert being held by country star, Trace Adkins (himself).

Enter the ghosts, who try to turn Michael's view of America around before it's too late. He's first visited by the ghost of John F. Kennedy (Chriss Anglin), who serves as the "Jacob Marley" of the story, informing Michael that he'll be visited by three spirits. The first is the spirit of General George Patton (Kelsey Grammer), who shows him what the world would be like if the US never fought and won their wars in the past. Therefore, we get to see slavery alive well in the present day (in this alternate present, Michael Malone lives on a plantation with Gary Coleman tending his fields), since America never fought the Civil War. Next, George Washington (Jon Voight) gives him a sobering tour of Ground Zero, and a lecture about September 11th. (Remember, this is supposed to be a comedy.) Finally, the "Angel of Death" (Trace Adkins again) shows him an alternate future Hollywood ruled by Bin Laden, due to Malone aiding the terrorists and protesting the war.

An American Carol starts off by taking a deceptively light tone. The film opens with a patriotic picnic, where a goofy grandpa (Zucker regular, Leslie Nielsen) tells the kids gathered at his table the story of Michael Malone. Even the early moments where we see the problems the Islamist radicals have recruiting new suicide bombers has a sharp wit, and actually made me chuckle. From there, the movie takes an overly heavy-handed tone, and slaps its message across the face of its viewers pretty much every chance it gets. From ACLU lawyers, who are depicted in this movie as mindless zombies, to narrow-minded college professors who give a rousing musical number to their students forcing them to think exactly like they do, the movie hits its topics broad and head-on. And yet, I kept on wondering why it didn't try to go even deeper. It makes its point, then doesn't bother to do anything beyond that. It often feels like we're getting only half the punchline.

Even its potshots at Michael Moore with its Michael Malone character seem strangely undeveloped, due to the fact that the movie never properly ridicules him. It simply turns him into a half-wit doofus who is led through the plot, until he is forced to see the light. Why couldn't the movie actually make fun of the guy? Why not take some hits over how overly edited his films can be in order for the clips to fit his personal views? Why not have some fun with some of his more famous clashes with journalists and conservative-minded talk show hosts? TV personality Bill O'Reilly, someone who has feuded with Moore many times in the past, makes a cameo in the film, but it comes across as a wasted opportunity, because the movie never quite draws its claws into the material. It's content to state the obvious, and then move on. And yet, the film seems to think its daring simply for doing what its doing, and continues to bash us over the head repeatedly with its own message. It gives the comedy an annoying aspect of superiority, as if it's talking down to us.

What annoyed me the most about An American Carol is how the movie eventually stops trying to hide its intentions, and pretty much turns into an all-out propaganda film for its political intentions. It's like an angry right wing rant in the guise of a goofy and lighthearted comedy. The two halves don't work, and makes the viewer feel very uncomfortable, unless you are 100% in the boat with the filmmakers. In the world of satire, there has to be some equal opportunity skewering. With it's one-sided view, the movie is not so much a parody, rather it is a soap box for Zucker and his co-writers to scream at us, while throwing the occasional pie in the face. As the movie went on, and its tone turned more heavy-handed, I found myself more annoyed than amused. And I think the same will go for just about anyone, regardless of their political association.

The behind the scenes struggle to get An American Carol made has been widely reported, due to the fact that none of the major studios wanted to produce the film, and it ultimately had to be made on the personal dime of the filmmakers. Maybe they thought they were pursuing a noble cause, but this narrow-minded and heavy handed film misses the target completely. It's not enough just to scream your point at us, you have to actually have a real point in the first place. If your point in the end is "if you don't agree with us, you're wrong", then you probably shouldn't be charging people $6 or more to hear it.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

It takes a movie like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist to help me realize that there is still some life in the teen comedy genre. After sitting through recent dogs like College and Drillbit Taylor, here is a movie that not only knows how to speak to its intended audience, but also entertain adults of just about any age who may find themselves watching it. The movie is charming, funny, and is filled with wonderful performances. Of course, this means it will probably be missed by the masses, only to be discovered on DVD far too late. As long as it finds its audience.

One of the film's stars is Michael Cera, a young actor who has come out onto his own this past year with Superbad, Juno, and now this. I don't know if the guy's got a really good eye for scripts, or if he has one of the best agents in the business, but he's definitely onto something here. It could be argued that Cera is essentially playing the same guy in each film - The somewhat laid back and quiet "nice guy" type. And yet, it never feels like he's giving the same performance. I've actually grown to appreciate him a lot more in each film. He takes center stage more here than he did in Superbad, and he has more to do than in Juno. His co-star is a rising young female actress named Katt Dennings, who appeared recently in The House Bunny, but I honestly don't remember her being in it. (Then again, I remember very little about that forgettable film, and it's only been two months since I saw it.) I'll certainly remember her from now on, as she is absolutely wonderful here. Funny and charming, plus smart without being sarcastic. Her Norah is the kind of character I love - Someone who I wouldn't mind having a conversation with in real life. It's rare one finds such a character in a movie, and she does a wonderful job bringing her to life.

The plot that brings Nick and Norah together concerns their search for an elusive indie band called What's Fuzzy, who is supposed to be playing a secret gig somewhere in New York City. It's Friday night, and Nick is being dragged out by his friends so he can forget his recent break up with his former girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dziena), whom he still makes mix CDs for and hopes will take him back. As for Norah, she's come to the city searching for the band as well with Tris and Norah's best friend, Caroline (Ari Graynor). The two meet when Tris begins ridiculing Norah for not having a boyfriend, and Norah desperately grabs the closest guy she finds nearby to share a kiss with, who just happens to be Nick. This obviously rekindles Tris' interest in Nick, who spends the rest of the night trying to win him away from Norah, despite the fact she cheated on him and left him. As Nick and Norah begin to grow closer together, speeding around the city in Nick's car searching for their favorite band, the night takes an additional turn when Caroline gets drunk and wanders around the city lost, with the two friends trying to track her down.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is a simple romantic comedy, and works as such. The characters are smart, and do not fall victims to the infamous Idiot Plot. Most importantly, they have wonderful chemistry, and we want to see the two characters get together by the end credits. It's amazing how few films in the genre understand that important aspect, but this movie has a winning combination. It's not just the wonderful performances of Cera and Dennings, but also the dialogue and the characters themselves. Here are two characters who have an actual connection, and they're not just falling in love because the screenplay requires them to. During the course of the night, Nick's friends who are accompanying him try to manipulate the situation so that he's alone with Norah as much as possible (they want him to forget about Tris), and for once, I actually agreed with the characters. Despite the 90 minute run time, this is a tightly edited movie, so that not a single moment is lost or wasted. There are some individually wonderful moments, such as when Nick and Norah visit a recording studio her father owns, and share their first romantic moment together. It's a very tender and honest scene, and one of the more truthful depictions of young love I've seen in a film in a while.

As the title would suggest, music plays a big part in the film, and the soundtrack does not disappoint. Showcasing a number of new and rising bands, as well as some classic songs, it seems that each scene in the film is set to some piece of music to the point that the soundtrack becomes a character itself in the story. It never becomes a distraction, or simply an excuse to sell a soundtrack album. It underscores the movie perfectly, and was obviously chosen with care by the filmmakers. That same level of care seems to have been put to just about every aspect of the production. The performances and the writing are at a level above the norm for the genre, and that includes both teenage and adult-themed romantic comedies. I guess if I had to find something to complain about, I could do without the film's sole gross out gag, which concerns a toilet in Penn Station and a wad of chewing gum. I'll leave that up to your imagination, and it's probably better off that way.

This is the kind of movie that people usually describe as a "sleeper hit". It won't rattle any cages or break any box office records, but those who do see it are almost certain to be surprised and delighted. This is a small and wonderfully heartfelt movie that has more than enough laughs to entertain, and some actual brains behind it so it sticks with you after it's over. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is not just a rare small movie, it's a rare movie in itself - One that never talks down to its young audience, and never insults the older audience.

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How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Can you blame me for wanting a bit more bite from a movie called How to Lose Friends and Alienate People? Can you blame me for wanting a bit more edge when the film's star is Simon Pegg, best known for his over the top British film parodies like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz? Though not without its moments of inspiration, this film is a surprising mix of toothless satire, and standard romantic comedy. Pegg seems to be trying to make himself more into a leading man type with this film and his last one, another romantic comedy called Run, Fatboy, Run, which was not well received by a lot of viewers, but I personally liked. I'm all for it, as long as the material doesn't completely rob him of his edge, which this film almost succeeds at doing.

The movie is inspired by an autobiographical novel of the same name by Toby Young, where he wrote about his experiences working for Vanity Fair magazine. But to be fair, the movie seems more inspired by Hollywood conventions. Every time it tries to be just a little smart, or throw in some elements of sharp satire, the film reigns itself in, and goes right back to the romantic subplot that seems to have been added by Hollywood executives. It's like the filmmakers are afraid to offend, and that's not the approach you want to take with a title like How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. The movie seems to want to do for magazines and celebrity journalism what The Devil Wears Prada did for the fashion industry a few years ago. The problem is, there's no real villain, like Meryl Streep's character in Prada. There's nothing that truly seems shocking, and never any sense that the lid is being blown off. The novel apparently was very open and candid, while the film adaptation has been sanitized for our protection.

Despite being based on a true story, all the names in the film have been changed. As it opens, Sidney Young (Simon Pegg) is a writer for a struggling self-published independent magazine that takes a satiric and biting look at the world of celebrities. We see his tricks on the red carpet for getting into the celebrity parties, such as showing up with a pig, and telling the guard at the velvet rope that it's the star of the Babe movies. He gets a call from Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), the publisher of Sharps magazine, a leading New York celebrity periodical. He sees something in Sidney's work that reminds Clayton of his early years of journalism, and asks him to fly out to New York and join his staff. When Sidney arrives, he finds the staff not very welcoming to his brand of humor or his style of writing. He wants to expose Hollywood celebrities for the pompous and spoiled twits he believes they really are, whereas everyone on the staff is more interested in kissing ass and keeping up appearances. He makes a lot of enemies on the job, including the boss of his department (Danny Huston), who treats him as if he has no talent despite the fact his boss steals his ideas for upcoming articles, and a publicist (Gillian Anderson) for one of the biggest rising celebrities in Hollywood - a sexy young starlet named Sophie Maes (Megan Fox).

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't seem as interested as it should in offending Hollywood or the writers who are paid to gush or gossip about them. There are some fleeting moments that hint at that kind of movie, such as when Sidney sees an ad on TV for Sophie Maes' next film project - An Oscar bait epic drama about the life of Mother Theresa, with Sophie in the title role. Even when it tries to step on some toes, it's not for very long, almost like the film is apologizing for its own rude behavior. Much of this apology comes from a romantic subplot, which unfortunately takes center stage much more frequently as it goes on. The only person at Sharps who respects or even talks to Sidney is a girl in his department named Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst). She initially hates Sidney and his often boorish behavior as much as everyone else on the staff, but she soon starts to warm up to him. The subplot is riddled with cliches, and seems to have been written straight from a textbook from a "Romantic Comedy 101" course. There should be no surprises to anyone when the movie starts to ask the question will Sidney embrace the shallow lifestyle of Hollywood celebrities, or will he board that plane to fly off and be with Alison?

Even if the film isn't as sharp as it should have been, at least the performances make it watchable. While I wouldn't exactly call him "leading man material", Simon Pegg does have a very rough charm that makes him suitable for Sidney. I just wish the film had let him use his wit more often, rather than shoehorning him into the role of a romantic lead. Kirsten Dunst has more experience with romantic comedies, and she's just fine here, even if none of her scenes truly stand out. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges, Danny Huston, and Gillian Anderson are never given enough screen time to develop their characters. The movie probably needed more of them, and the edge that their characters could have brought it. The performance that ended up surprising me the most is Megan Fox, who up until now has mainly been known for her sex appeal and her role in last year's Transformers movie. She shows quite a bit of comic timing in her role as a shallow and sexy rising young actress, and it gives me hope that she could advance into something special.

Before I close this review, I don't want to give the impression that I hated this movie. There's actually a couple funny moments, though they brought out more of a mild chuckle than a genuine laugh. The film just never seems that sure of itself, and I kept on thinking about what it could have been if director Robert B. Weide had taken the gloves off. I guess if I want to hear the untampered and unsanitized version of the story, I'll have to pick up the novel, which isn't that bad of a thing when you think about it.

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Beverly Hills Chihuahua

Chihuahuas are very cute dogs, and I'm sure there's a cute movie that could be made about them. Beverly Hills Chihuahua is not that movie. It is a cynical and soulless experience, and is an all around very bad movie. How bad is it? Whenever I'm watching a children's movie, I look around the audience once in a while to try to see how kids are reacting, or I try to listen to their reactions. The kids at my mostly full screening were not reacting at all. They weren't laughing, weren't smiling, and certainly weren't engaged. No matter how many cute dogs this movie throws up on the screen, there's no hiding that there's very little entertainment to be found here.

The movie wants to give us an inside look at the world of dogs, specifically the pampered and spoiled variety that celebrities carry around in their handbags. It's amazing how quickly the screenwriters drop this potential bit of satire, and give us an uninspired road trip and chase picture. The dogs talk in this movie, but it is not convincing. The animation when the dogs' mouths are moving looks like the editor has put the film on a continuous loop, in an effort to make them look like they're talking. Compare the much more sophisticated special effects work in the Babe movies (which are over 10 years old) to the stuff found here. Then again, in those films, the animals actually talked about interesting things. In this movie, the dogs talk endlessly, but never say anything remotely special. If animals could actually talk, I would hope they would have more to say than "talk to the paw".

The title dog is a pampered pooch named Chloe (voice by Drew Barrymore), who lives a privileged existence of designer doggie outfits and diamond collars with her owner, an entrepreneur named Viv (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a minor role that barely registers as a cameo). Viv has to go off on a business trip, and leaves her irresponsible adult niece, Rachel (Piper Perabo), behind to housesit and take care of Chloe. When some of Rachel's friends invite her on a road trip to Mexico, she jumps at the chance, and takes Chloe along. The spoiled dog doesn't like being around Rachel or her friends, so she decides to head off on her own. While wandering the streets of Mexico, little Chloe is kidnapped by a criminal named Vazquez (Jose Maria Yazpik), who specializes in illegal dog fights. Chloe eventually escapes with the help of a German Shepard named Delgado (voice by Andy Garcia), a former police dog who was kicked off the force when he lost his sense of smell in a fight. As the two dogs make their way across Mexico to get back home, Rachel has figured out that Chloe has gone missing, and enlists the help of Viv's gardener Sam (Manolo Cardona) and Sam's Chihuahua Papi (voice by George Lopez) to find her before Viv comes back home and realizes her prized dog is gone.

I follow the belief that any idea for a film can work as long as the right approach is taken. Even as kids' entertainment, Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a dead zone conceptually, at its screenplay level, and especially with its humor. The human characters act as if they've never experienced anything resembling a thought or even an idea, while the dogs yammer on needlessly about nothing in particular. We're just supposed to be amused by the fact that the dogs are talking. I admit, I smiled when I saw little Papi jumping up on his hind legs, trying to see over a fence to look at Chloe, who he is smitten with. That smile came more from the dog itself, than what was coming out of his mouth. The movie assembles a talented voice cast for its animal cast. Cheech Marin is a rat who gets wrapped up in the search for Chloe. Edward James Olmos is Diablo, a rottweiler who works for the villain. While I'm on the subject, why do villains in these kind of movies always have rottweilers? It's like a bizarre form of canine stereotyping. Just once, I'd like to see a dog movie where the rottweiler is the hero.

The movie was directed by Raja Gosnell, who has more than his share of bland family films under his belt. He kicked off his career with the awful Home Alone 3, and went on to stuff like Big Momma's House and Yours, Mine, and Ours. He even has experience with movies about talking dogs, as he directed both of the live action Scooby-Doo films. My guess is those films were why he was hired to do this one, as he brings absolutely no visual style to the story. He simply points and shoots the whole way through. At least he's in good company, as nothing else stands out about this movie either. It's something that will keep kids quiet for 90 minutes or so, that's it. It doesn't want to engage their minds, or make them think about anything. I personally feel that kids are smarter than most adults take them for, and they deserve better than this. I'm going to go so far to say that this is probably the worst film Gosnell has done, which is saying something when your past credits include a movie built around Martin Lawrence in drag and a fat suit.

As each scene and gag subsequently fell flat in Beverly Hills Chihuahua, I found myself thinking back on the film's famous trailer, which features a large group of singing Chihuahuas dancing and partying around an Aztec temple. Not only is that sequence not even featured in the movie (even though the dogs do visit an Aztec temple at one point), it's much more lively than anything that actually appears in the movie itself. Whoever made that trailer knew how to grab kids' attention, as it got them talking about this movie. What a shame that all that excitement it generated was for this tired and generic movie that suffers from a complete lack of imagination and purpose.

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Friday, October 03, 2008


In Blindness, a mysterious and unexplained airborne disease causes an entire society to go blind and fall apart over a matter of time. The movie itself takes considerable less time to fall apart. Here is a movie that's been stripped of all emotion and almost all characterization. We don't feel anything for what's going on up on the screen, so we're left to stare at the film's ugly visuals. I'm told that the movie is based on a highly regarded novel by a Nobel Prize-winning author. If so, something got lost in the translation from the page to the screen.

The disease that strikes this unnamed city is not explained, which is probably for the best. I can understand that. Here are some things I don't understand about this movie. Why does no one have a name? Watching the film, I couldn't remember anyone being identified as anything, and sure enough when the credits come, the characters are not named, but rather described. ("Woman with Dark Glasses", "Man with Eye Patch", etc.) Not only does this put us at a curious distance with the entire cast, it prevents them from having any real personality. People infected with the disease are placed in quarantine camps, and separated into groups. Each group acts with a pack mentality. There's a good one, and an evil one, and no one in either group is allowed to have an individual personality from anyone else. Not even the hero of the story (a woman who somehow is immune to the disease) manages to stand out much from those around her. We spent most of the film's time watching the cast stumble about the sets, and the screenplay ignore any potential the idea may have.

At the very least, Blindness manages to hold our attention for the first half. As soon as the opening titles fade, a Japanese man in a car (Yusuke Iseya) is struck by the disease in the middle of traffic. His wife (Yoshino Kimura) takes him to an eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo), but the doctor sees nothing wrong with the man. The next day, the doctor himself awakens to discover that he is blind, though his wife (Julianne Moore) is not infected. She pretends she's been blinded anyway, so that she can follow her husband to the quarantine camp and be with him. The disease spreads, and the number of people in the quarantine camp increases to the point that people are choosing sides, and turning against each other. When food rations start running low, the more greedy people in the camp band together to horde the food from the others, and force them to pay with valuables or forced sex for meager food rations. You'd think since one side has a woman who actually can see, they'd have the advantage. But no, she keeps on pretending that she's blind, and even agrees to be raped by the more evil patients so that the people in her ward can get food.

The same ideas keep on being repeated over and over. We watch people struggling to adjust to their blindness, we see them suffer and starve, and we see them stumble around as they try to figure out why this is happening to them. I was trying to figure out why this is supposed to be entertaining. It's not that I don't think an entertaining movie could be made out of this idea. With the right approach, this could have been highly engaging. But the movie loses its way fairly quickly. For a long time, it never shows us what's going on outside the quarantine camp. We're stuck entirely within its walls, giving the film a claustrophobic feel I'm sure this was intentional, but I was more interested in what was going on outside the walls. How was the government reacting to this? Is this epidemic contained only to this city, or is it on a more global scale? There is one scene where a patient talks about stuff he's heard about what's going on outside the quarantine shelter, and we see some images of the outside world falling into chaos as the disease spreads, but it's never elaborated on. After this brief tease, we go right back to watching the same people suffer needlessly and endlessly.

Blindness isn't just an ugly movie at its core, it's ugly to look at as well. Director Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardner) shoots his scenes one of two ways - Either extremely over exposed, so that the actors appear to be standing in the middle of a vast, empty, white background, or in such deep shadows and murky colors that you almost want to spray window cleaner on the screen. This was obviously an artistic choice, but it is one I quickly grew tired of. I think a more realistic style would have fit this movie more. Shooting the backgrounds in such a glowing milk-white color gives the movie a distracting dream-like quality. Not that it would matter much, anyway. The visuals are about the only thing worthy of the audience's attention. Without them, there would not be a lot to say about the movie, since it keeps us at a constant distance from its characters, almost any sort of feeling, and very little motivation.

I won't give away the ending to Blindness, but let's just say that it's highly anti-climactic, and not worth the two hours it takes to get there. This is an ugly, meandering movie that doesn't explore its own ideas deep enough, nor does it give us any reason to care one way or another. There's a lot of symbolism in this film, and it just never really connects or hits as hard as it should. The opening moments of Blindness promise a lot, but what it gives us is a lot less than I was hoping for.

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