Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Counselor  (IMDB)

Cormac McCarthy as screenwriter. Ridley Scott as director. Michael Fassbinder, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt as actors. What could go wrong?

Well, for most reviewers, a lot. This is McCarthy's first screenplay, and he doesn't always follow the rules. There's not much plot, a lot of dialogue and a fair amount of Matrix-esque philosophizing. So I get it, it's a bit of work to keep up.

Which I don't mind, not one bit. Every actor brings his or her A-game, for the material and for each other. And the material is dense, fatalistic and unremitting. When the scheme goes bad, everybody involved is screwed, no matter that they've been betrayed by a third party. How they deal with their pending fate makes up the second part of the movie, and why you stay involved.

So, roll with it. And be rewarded.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

No Country for Old Men (IMDB) (Netflix)
The blog is back, maybe. The latest Coen brothers' effort is worth at least a temporary resurrection, with first-rate source material (Cormac McCarthy's book) and ruthless execution by brothers Ethan and Joel, house cinematographer Roger Deakins, and and a terrific cast quartet of Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Woody Harrelson, and Tommy Lee Jones.

It's a West Texas crime drama set in the 1970's. Brolin's character comes across a business transaction that has gone spectacularly awry, and finds the quid for someone else's quo. Bad idea, and soon a hit man (Javier Bardem) sporting a pageboy haircut and a unique weapon is on him with Terminator-like determination. Because it's the Coen brothers, it's bloody, gripping and sometimes funny, often all at the same time. If you've seen Fargo, Blood Simple or The Man Who Wasn't There, you know what I mean.

Safety tips--pay attention to Jones's discussion of his dreams well into the movie. It may seem like the movie is taking a breather, but it's not. And if a guy walks up to you with a compressed gas cylinder attached to with a hose, put the car back in Drive and floor it.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck (IMDB) (Netflix)
Before Brokaw, there was Cronkite, and before him was Edward R. Murrow, trenchcoat and constant cigarette, but reeking of gravitas. When Senator Joseph McCarthy started accusing everyone of being a Communist through his hearings, Murrow (played by David Strathairn) and his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney, who also co-wrote and directed) had to decide whether to be "fair and balanced" or expose his abuses.

By combining black-and-white photography, old footage and lots of cigarette smoke, Clooney creates a confined, atmosphere-laden little gem—there's not an exterior shot to be seen, with almost all the action taking place in the CBS offices, and no score other than a few well-placed bumpers from a CBS studio torch singer. Strathairn does the iconic Murrow proud, but Clooney deliberately undersells Friendly, who later became the strongest proponent of TV journalism ever seen in the business, and created the gripping, enlightening format that bears his name and is occasionally seen on PBS. Through archival footage, Joe McCarthy plays himself (and was accused of over-acting by the test audiences). The repartee between Murrow and Friendly keeps this well away from becoming a diatribe, and the (true) scene where Murrow has to ask Liberace about his marriage plans is priceless.

Ultimately, "Good Night" is an compelling indictment of the past four years, where fear-mongering and gutless journalism combined to lethal effect. There's also gold in this movie's future, in the form of Golden Globes from the foreign press and Oscars from the lefties in Hollywood nursing homes. I think I just talked myself into seeing this movie again.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Great Raid (IMDB) (Netflix)
Based closely on the true story of a WWII raid to free over 500 U.S. prisoners of war in the Philippines. Benjamin Bratt is the crusty Colonel leading the Rangers, James Franco is the young Captain who hatched the plan, Joseph Fiennes is the sickly ranking officer of the prisoners, and Connie Nielsen is, yes indeed, the woman who loves him.

It's a truly great story, but unfortunately not writer-, director- or actor-proof. As with so many of these films, the desire to honor the characters' heroism overwhelms any other consideration, like depth, pace or interesting dialogue. The under-rated "A Bridge Too Far" was criticized because some parts (the huge number of mistakes, the daylight river crossing, the flip British response to the Germans' demands for surrender) were so outrageous that no one believed them, but they were in fact all true. Here, however, the truth is turned into cliche, and soon, to boredom.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

War of the Worlds (IMDB) (Netflix)
The Steven Spielberg movie of the Orson Welles radio play of the H.G. Wells book—a content reuse trifecta. Or just think of this as "Close Encounters: This Time They're Quite Upset." Tom Cruise is the slightly irresponsible (but oh-so charming) divorced father of two, including the kid actor who makes Shirley Temple look like a dullard, Dakota Fanning (see Man on Fire with Denzel Washington for her breakthrough performance). The death rays hit the fan in Tom's New Jersey, and apparently salvation is to be found in Boston, where Mom lives, so off we go, encountering the entire range of humanity and inhumanity along the way. The movie is really about how people respond to extreme stress—some folks, like tennis hustler Bobby Riggs, just got better as the stress grew (until Billie Jean King), and many lose it.

The tension builds pretty continuously for the first two thirds of the movie--just as you think the nightmare is ending, something else happens to raise the tension. The aliens are nicely menacing (no ET here) and there's no time wasted on their motivation. The family dynamics get a little wearisome, but in all, a great summer entertainment.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Million Dollar Baby (IMDB) (Netflix)
Clint Eastwood produces, directs, scores and co-stars in this tale of an aging boxing trainer who reluctantly takes on female wannabe Hillary Swank. Morgan Freeman is the long-retired contender that Eastwood's character managed back in the day. Both men have baggage that would require a team of porters, and Swank unknowingly brings it all to the surface—she just sees boxing as her way out of waiting tables and to helping her (undeserving) family.

The recent accolades, however, are deserved. This is Eastwood's best film since "Unforgiven", Freeman is Mr. Automatic and Swank gets it completely right—persistant, desperate, naive, ruthless in the ring. The going gets a little tough toward the end, with some of the audience's sniffles not cold- and flue-related, but they're well-earned, and there are plenty of up-beats throughout to sustain the momentum.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Finding Neverland (IMDB) (Netflix)
The story, more or less, of how J.M. Barrie was inspired to create "Peter Pan," starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslett and Julie Christie (the years have been kind to her, but still, them's a lot of years). Barrie was a struggling playwright who befriended the widow Sylvia Davies and her four boys in a Platonic-but-still scandalous manner (he was married), but the relationship bore fruit of another kind — the classic play.

This is the most gentle of melodramas (if it can be called that); despite the many conflicts created by Barrie's unusual relationship, the only shouting comes from the children. Barrie's imagination is integrated nicely into scenes, and Depp is naturalistic and affectation-free, which is almost a pity, since his affectations are usually pretty entertaining. And while I respect the restraint employed, I could have used a bit more edge — everyone's so terribly British, except for Barrie, who was a Scot, and he's pretty British, too.

Because of the subject matter and noble tone, this has "Oscar Nominee!" oozing from its pores.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Ocean's Twelve (IMDB) (Netflix)

The Ocean's Eleven follow-on, with Catherine Zeta-Jones rounding out the dozen. Casino magnate Andy Garcia has found George Clooney, Brad Pitt and the rest of the boys, and wants his money back—with interest. OK, the States are still too hot, lets try Europe.

Where Eleven had a casual tautness, Twelve is looser and self-referencing. While Eleven was about competence, Twelve is about fallibility. Where Eleven was—OK, enough of that. Give credit to writer George Nolfi and director Steven Soderbergh for taking some different paths here, although one of them feels like a farcical detour (you'll know what I mean when you see it). Also, there's too much hidden from the viewer and the lesser characters get fairly short thrift (Bernie Mac's car-buying scene in Eleven is a classic). It even stood up to a second viewing (the first was marred by a poorly focused image), with a very pleased audience. Great score—I'm off to get the CD.

Comfortable, old-sneaker movie-going.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

National Treasure (IMDB) (Netflix)
A nephew pick, and a secular rip-off of the Da Vinci Code (am I telegraphing my judgment here?) Nicholas Cage is the youngest in a line of eccentric believers in a Free Masons + American Revolution = Buried Treasure story. To find it, he needs a trusty sidekick, a newfound nemesis (the only partially phonetic Sean Bean) and the best-looking archivist (Diane Kruger, straight from her Helen of Troy role) since they began wearing skirts.

Using the "one for show, one for dough" approach used by actors suffering both pretensions and a serious mortgage (and perfected by Michael Caine), Cage is clearly going for the money on this one. It's so formulaic that you can almost see the template on the screen ("initial sequence where the hero is humiliated — check ... girl initially hates him — check ... sympathetic detective—check" and grinds through the plot points with verveless precision. The nephew liked it, though so there’s a market for this movie—boys 10-13.

The Machinist (IMDB) (Netflix)
If you've heard of this movie, you know that actor Christian Bale lost sixty-three pounds for his role, and it's not like he had many of them to spare. He is beyond gaunt, completely unable to sleep, and yes, it's getting to him. As life becomes all-the-more bewildering, he finds partial solace in two women, a waitress with a heart of gold (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) a similarly equipped hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh, for at least the third time in her career). Even without the private detective, this could not be noir-er.

One thing about losing sixty-three pounds, the skeleton does all the acting for you. But Bale's specialty is the intense character study (American Psycho), which will serve him well as he becomes the next Batman, so it's a double treat. Yet the pacing calls for dragline buckets of patience as Bale tries to make sense of what's happening to him and why. Some similarities to Memento, but with less inventiveness and verve. Go for the performance, not the story.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

After the Sunset (IMDB) (Netflix)
Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayak are two retired jewel thieves learning to enjoy the good life on a Caribbean island (Hayak is doing a better job of it than Brosnan), and Woody Harrelson is the FBI agent they humiliated on their last job. Lo and behold, the third of a series of mega-diamonds arrives on a cruise ship, and so does Harrelson, taunting Brosnan to try for it so that Harrelson can catch him. It's touted as a caper/romance/buddy flick.

Maybe so, but the pieces don't quite blend together, so the sum is less than the parts, which aren't so great in the first place. It's not hard to guess what's going on pretty quickly (my idea turned out to be more sophisticated than the script's), and the journey to the finish feels like, well, a journey. A nice bit part from Don Cheadle as the hyper-rationalizing gangster isn't enough to raise this one above stale popcorn level.

Ray (IMDB) (Netflix)
The Ray Charles bio-pic, starring Jamie Foxx as the entertainer who once got banned from playing the state of Georgia, then was later honored by having "Georgia on My Mind" selected as its anthem. Although this project had the full cooperation of the recently late Mr. Charles, it doesn't gloss over the drugs, the women and the paranoia that were a big part of his life.

And picking Jamie Foxx to play him was a coup—this guy studied piano at Julliard and is a gifted mimic—you realize that his talent has been under-exploited through most of his acting career. Many biographies do a poor job of explaining why people are they way they are, but here we bounce back and forth between the adult Charles and the little boy growing up with a sharecropper mother, which makes the connections very clear (almost too clear). The themes mentioned above get a little repetitive and tip more to the cliche than the archetype, but then again, this was one of those people who created those cliches.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Sideways (IMDB) (Netflix)
Paul Giamatti (American Splendor) is Miles, an Everyschlub wine snob still binding his wounds after a divorce and dying a slow creative death as he tries to get his novel published, and Thomas Haden Church (yes, Lowell Mather from Wings) is his bad-boy actor buddy about to get married for the first time. They head up to the Santa Barbara wine country for a last bachelor go-around of wine-tasting and golf. Comedic and transformational situations ensue.

And they're extremely enjoyable situations—I can't remember an audience having a better time at the movies. There's something about the bi-play between these two incompatible guys that's irresistable, with juicy, funny dialog ("if the girls want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot") giving two natural comedic actors ample, high-quality material. Along the way, they meet Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen, and Madsen in particular gives the movie some essential grounding, and a fine performance in the bargain.

"Sideways" will be on many, many top 10 lists this year.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Team America: World Police (IMDB) (Netflix)
Imagine a Jerry Bruckheimer movie (Pearl Harbor, Flashdance, Con Air, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State) where the characters are all puppets, like the old Thunderbirds TV show. Then throw the subversive creators of the South Park comedy ("They killed Kenny!"). I like the possibilities.

Most of which are realized. Besides over-produced mini-epics, targets include Islamic terrorists, Kim Jong Il and Hollywood peaceniks, giving everyone something to laugh at or be offended by. There's even a hilarious puppet love scene that originally got an NC-17 rating, which is pretty funny in itself. And for you foreign policy buffs, it offers a, um, biology-based model that could replace the Monroe Doctrine. A puppet show that's absolutely not for the kids.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

I (heart) Huckabees (IMDB) (Netflix)
During the production of Three Kings, George Clooney punched out director David O. Russell, ostensibly for mis-treating the extras. Now that I've seen "Huckabees", I'm not sure Clooney needed that excuse—this guy is annoying in the extreme. On the other hand, Three Kings was a pretty good movie.

Here, Jason Schwartzman hires two "existential detectives" in the form of Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman to understand a series of coincidences. He's also befriended—then betrayed—by Jude Law, an ambitious executive with Huckabees, a department store whose ad campaigns feature an under-dressed Naomi Watts.

It's a manic, screwball-comedy-on-nitrous mess with redeeming qualities. There's enough fast-paced conflict-laden dialogue for three movies, and I think I pulled an ear muscle trying to keep up. There's a larger message inside this New Age ratatouille, but I was too exhausted to retain it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Manchurian Candidate (IMDB) (Netflix)

A remake of the John Frankenheimer classic that starred Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Harvey and Angela Landsbury (long before her Murder, She Wrote turned her into America’s sweetheart). Here the story’s been re-structured, highlighting Denzel Washington (in the Sinatra role) as he tries to understand what’s been done to him and the new vice-presidential candidate, played by Liev Schreiber, with the ultimate stage mother, Meryl Streep as a U.S. Senator. Directed by Jonathan Demme, of Silence of the Lambs fame.

While the original was chilling in its matter-of-factness, this version’s emotion comes from Washington’s discovery process—is he nuts, or is he just part of a crazy scheme to manipulate the election—and here Washington is less the leading man than guy trying to find his sanity. Streep is as always terrific as the hyper-ambitious politician, but the character and performance that impresses is that of Schreiber, who is by turn convivial and cold-hearted, articulate and vulnerable, as he also begins to see what’s happening to him. Being a political thriller, Manchurian Candidate doesn’t have the sheer horror factor of Lambs, but there are some great moments of tension that will remind you of the earlier film.

Collateral (IMDB) (Netflix)

Two actors playing against type—Jamie Foxx as a meticulous taxi driver leading a life of un-enacted ambition and Tom Cruise as a professional assassin, in LA for an evening’s work. Cruise sees Foxx as a brother craftsman, and hires him for the night to help him make his appointed rounds. From the producer and director who gave us Manhunter, Miami Vice, Crime Story, Heat, Last of the Mohicans and Ali, Michael Mann.

His films are known for their masculine grit and style, and “Collateral” has that Michael Mann feeling in spades. Cruise is as cold-blooded and charming as they come, knowing how to keep Foxx cooperating once his secret is out, while Foxx tries equally hard to get inside Cruise’s head. The dialogue, soundtrack and pacing are first-rate, and though the ending might not be the most imaginative, it’s realized with such care that it makes the sale. An enterprise of high quality.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (IMDB) (Netflix)
A unique blend of live action and computer-generated effects that's either a stroke of genius or a maddening compromise. Maybe both are true. It's inspired by the serials of the late 30s, where there was little confusion on gender roles and good vs. evil—evil in the form of giant robots and birdlike flying machines created by a mad scientist with an apocalyptic view of the world. Gwyneth Paltrow is the plucky reporter/photographer and Jude Law is Sky Captain, with trusty gum-chewing sidekick Giovanni Ribisi as his ur-Q.

The patter is fairly snappy, the story reasonably engaging if thin, and the artistic vision was certainly vast, but I'm not sure it will make anyone forget the Indian Jones series or Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. The integration of the live actors with the digital, well, almost everything else, is achieved by by coloring them and fuzzing them up to look slightly digital themselves. It works and is oh-so arty, but the net effect is that whole movie seems shot through fine cheesecloth, and the urge to cry out to the projectionist—"Focus!" was at times overwhelming. A yes-but recommendation.

Cellular (IMDB) (Netflix)
Cell phone technology is the bane of an action movie screenwriter's existence—communication solves too many problems too easily. So somehow they have to be written out of the script through a variety of devices—breakage and weak signals being the favorites. Here, the phone is a central character—a not particularly reliable character, but that just makes it more interesting. With Kim Basinger as the lady in distress, Chris Evans (nope, never heard of him either) getting his big break as the guy who answers his phone once too often and William H. Macy as the ready-to-retire cop.

Evans's character starts out a callow, irresponsible youth, and will probably be an instant recidivist once this is all over, but during the movie he eventually and fairly entertainingly rises to the challenge. Basinger pulls off that tricky balance between victim and resourceful woman (apparently it pays to be a biology teacher in these situations), and Macy is his usual hang-dog charmer self. One of those B movies that knows it's a B movie, and the better for it.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Riding Giants (IMDB) (Netflix)
A history of big-wave surfing, beginning with a brief nod to King Kamehameha and culminating with current stud Laird Hamilton, by Stacy Peralta, who also documented the birth of professional skateboarding in Dogtown and Z-Boys. Like Dogtown, this is a mix of old photos and film, plus current footage and interviews with past and current greats, from the big board era to today's tow-in techniques that are needed to catch the truly big ones.

And it's a successful combination--the old guys realizing how foolhardy they once were, and the younger crop seeming like mature, sober professionals (which many of them are). With apologies to Tony Hawk, surfing has far more of an epic quality than skateboarding ever will, and makes for truly awe-inspiring images.

Saturday, July 17, 2004

I, Robot (IMDB) (Netflix)
Suggested by Isaac Asimov's, classic sci-fi collection. It's Chicago in 2035, and Will Smith is a detective who's not fond of the ever-growing population of robots who—to his mind—are taking over the world. Of course, everyone else thinks he's nuts, even when the premier robotics scientist dies under mysterious circumstances.

Strip away the effects created by the dozen or so special effects houses (I lost count), and you have a pretty basic plot: rugged individualist suspects conspiracy even though everyone doubts him, and enlists the aid of an attractive sidekick (Bridget Moynahan) to fight evil. Even Smith's boss is a skeptical-but-sympathetic beefy black guy. But enjoyment is in the selling, and Will can sell. The reveal of how Smith came to his beliefs is nicely paced and the "am I machine or being" thread is reasonably portrayed. Mix in some inventive action scenes, and you have a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie with intellectual aspirations.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Fahrenheit 9/11 (IMDB) (Netflix)
The Fourth of July. A good day to see Michael Moore's controversial documentary dealing with how the Bush administration has responded to the most devasting day in modern U.S. history. Hundreds of others seemed to agree and the art house cineplex, and the shopping mall that housed it, were overrun by fellow travelers waiting in line for the next showing, or maybe the one after that.

While my politics are not so disimilar from Moore's, I've resisted seeing his films ever since the 1989 "Roger and Me", which seemed to take cheap shots and set up the little guy, like security guards just doing their job. I don't even like the way he looks, with a style-free unkemptness that the "Queer Eye" guys would take a pass on. I do know, however, that documentaries aren't objective, and for all the harping on the right about Moore's two-hour diatribe, it can't compare to Rush Limbaugh's or Sean Hannity's three hours of demagoguery every weekday. So why don't we talk about how it works as a film?

Compared to "Roger", this is a much more mature effort, with targets that get paid to be accountable, and lets them do much of their own self-destructing. There are the ambushes of pro-war Congressmen, there are gruesome scenes of civilian casualties in Iraq, and there's a painful moment from a mother who lost her son in Iraq going to the White House. What was most effective, however, were interviews with disillusioned soldiers. There are also enough light moments to relieve the anger and frustration. But reviews won't matter much; liberals will be satisfied seeing their worst opinions of the administration confirmed, and conservatives understandably won't want to subject themselves to this powerful assault on their beliefs.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Shrek 2 (IMDB) (Netflix)
The continuation of the trilogy-in-progress (Shrek 3 is coming in 2006), where Shrek (Mike Myers), Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) meet the parents (Fiona's, voiced by John Cleese and Jule Andrews). Antonio Banderas has been added as a would-be buccaneer-cum-assassin-cat and comic relief pitcher.

I didn't see the first one, so we'll skip the comparative bit, but Shrek 2 fits the classic animated film formula; create a story easy enough for kids to understand and add jokes with the following mixture—two parts low-brow kid comedy, one part adult reference humor ("hey, there's a Starbuck's"), which throws a bone to the parents and gives them the added satisfaction of getting one their kids don't.
The Stepford Wives (IMDB) (Netflix)
A remake of the 1975 drama/thriller that's gotten campier over the years. This time out, director Frank Oz goes straight for the comedy, with Nicole Kidman as hyper-ambitious TV executive of a reality show that goes too far (were that possible), Matthew Broderick as her under-masculated husband and Christoper Walken as the mayor of a town where all the husbands are nerds, wives are blondes in sundresses and gay guys are Republicans. Kidman quickly decides something's terribly wrong here, but Broderick thinks everything is just the way it should be.

After seeing stories of a deeply troubled production and a massive editing effort, my expectations were well-dampened, and worked to the movie's favor. The story was coherent and the humor seemingly intentional, but an odd balance–too broad for satire, underdone for parody. It also tries too hard to be a "message" film about the emasculation of the American male and living with another's imperfections, but it's not—in the words of adolescent sitting behind me—"retarded."

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Troy (IMDB) (Netflix)
Brad Pitt is Achilles the warrior, Orlando Bloom is Paris the callow loverboy, and Diane Kruger is Helen, the face that launched a thousand CGI server farms. With Peter O'Toole as King Priam and Eric Bana as his other son Hector, one of the few characters that come off well in this story of beefcake and senseless tragedy.

As with most tragic tales, especially mythic ones, the characters make any number of bad choices, some of which challenge the viewer's credulity and make it difficult to go along with the program, and the one-on-one fight scenes are more compelling than the major battles. As mentioned, most of the characters lose your respect as the film progresses (Achilles is mostly looking out for his own glory), but Bana's Hector is the true mensch, taking the hard road at every turn. He should have had a better publicist.
Van Helsing (IMDB) (Netflix)
Hugh Jackman is a 19th century 007 working for an inter-denominational religious group fighting evil, which includes Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, werewolves, flying witches and of course, Count Dracula. Wasn't there an Abbott & Costello episode like this? Joining Hugh is unrecognizable Kate Beckinsale, her usual sunny goddess-next-door persona traded in for an Eastern European accent, Transylvania chic leather corset and proto-Spandex.

The theme of this picture seems to be more — more monsters, more special effects, more action, more time — giving it a sequel's I-must-have-missed-the-first-one feel. As with most sequels, more is less, so you're left somewhat drained by the experience rather than energized. The comic relief provided by The Friar is a bright spot, but maybe not enough to make this work for anyone over 30.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

I'm Not Scared (IMDB) (Netflix)
The golden fields of 1978 Sicily seem an idyllic place for a 10-year-old boy to grow up, and they are, at least until he makes a series of discoveries that test his courage and ultimately, his morality. It's difficult to say more without spoiling the first surprise, so I'll just say that it's been nominated for a slew of European film awards, and won several.

This is a good story told simply, with little hyping from music cues or anguished close-ups. The photography and even the film stock seems to come from that period, giving it the feel of an instant classic. On that score, time will tell, but this was pretty engrossing cinema. Calling it a thriller might be stretching things--it's fairly easy to get a few minutes ahead of the story in key places--it's more of a boy's struggle to do the right thing when the world around him has forgotten how.
Shaolin Soccer (IMDB) (Netflix)
A soccer squad called "Team Evil" is just begging to be taken down, and it's going to take a rag-tag band of brothers to come together, win the big prize and get the girl. They've never played the sport before, and their coach is a cripple who's been cast off by the slimy team owner, but they have their Shaolin Kung Fu skills to serve as their superpowers. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets The Magnificent Seven meets Stripes.

This is a lot of fun (and if I had forgotten for even a moment, there was a woman sitting a few rows back whose cackle constantly reminded me). It's not high art, and the acting has that distinctive martial arts film lack of subtlety, but its good-natured sensibility and heart are irresistible. Rated PG, so youngsters can take their first crack at reading sub-titles.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Man on Fire (IMDB) (Netflix)
This revenge flick follows The Punisher and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 in a harmonic genre convergence, but unlike "Bill", isn't pressure-treated with references to a few dozen other movies and genres, so you won't see this at the local snob-o-plex. Denzel Washington is a former counter-insurgency operative/assassin who's circling the emotional drain and has taken up housekeeping with a bottomless bottle of Jack Daniels. Christopher Walken, a former brother in arms, gets him a mercy gig as a bodyguard in Mexico City, where there's been a spate of kidnappings. His charge is a precocious Dakota Fanning, who can't be more than 10, but it's the most fulfilling relationship he's had in years. Of course, the inevitable happens, and Denzel goes after the bad guys, which span petty hoods to corrupt cops to — well, that's enough to get the concept.

Director Tony Scott is a master of the visual; every frame has something extra, and it's cut like a commercial. For a 2-1/2 hour movie, that's a lot of editing. I enjoyed the interplay between Denzel and Dakota, who is a force of acting nature, and while the story is amply stocked with typical revenge/redemption flick elements (the drinking, the trip to the gun superstore), they were presented in a fresh and stylish way that climbed beyond the cliché zone apparently occupied by The Punisher, but didn't match Kill Bill's artistry.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (IMDB) (Netflix)
Quentin Tarantino's second installment of the revenge/action/comedy. This isn't a sequel, but a planned continuation of the Volume 1 that was shot at the same time. Uma Thurman didn't kill Bill (David Carradine) in the first movie, but is determined to succeed this go-around. First, though, she has to get through "Sidewinder" (Michael Madsen) and "California Mountain Snake" (Darryl Hannah), former colleagues who killed her fiance, friends and unborn child and left her in a coma.

This movie has less action (who could top the orgy of violence in the first one?) but more heart, and it's still packed with movie references that will best the most avid movie-goer (I might have gotten 10% of them). But unlike Starsky & Hutch (below), this movie can stand on its own merits and if it weren't so violent, be a commercial for female empowerment. Uma maintains her winning persona, and David Carradine talks more here than in his first season on Kung Fu, but has comedic gravitas to spare. The third act accomplishes both two goals for a successful ending, that it be both surprising and satisfying, and it adds a dimension not often seen in a Tarantino film.
Starsky & Hutch (IMDB) (Netflix)
Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson send up the 70s TV series about two police detectives and their bellbottom jeans, with Snoop Dogg as Huggy Bear and Vince Vaughn as a Jewish gangster (it's nice when a group of people can break into areas previously denied them).

It seemed to work for a broad range of the audience, but less so for me. While the movie version of Dragnet had the TV show's deadpan tone to play off of, S&H was already a bit jokey, and the characters fairly likeable, forcing the movie to head into farcical territory that's not particularly inventive, and without much insightful commentary. But mainly it's because I didn't watch much of the TV version, and see most of 70s fashion as an embarrassment to run from rather than to parody. For fans of home version, but it's still 6 to 5 and pick 'em.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

The Alamo (IMDB) (Netflix)
They gave away the ending right at the beginning of the film--what's with these people? OK, so we (and particularly Texans) know all about what happened at the Alamo from the history books and the dozen or so Alamo films that have been made. This one has a huge set and Billy Bob Thornton leading a cast of Dennis Quaid, Jason Patric and the hordes of Santa Anna's army, and claims to be the most historically accurate.

I'm not sure that devotion to detail was much help. Reality is rarely as good as the legend, and the actors seem to be so freighted with the desire to respect the history and their real-life characters that they become archetypes, not flesh-and-blood people. There's actually not that much action (Santa Anna was trying to suck in more American reinforcements to get the most out of his intended massacre), and few of the pre-battle scenes, where everybody is coming to grips with their impending demise, don't hit nearly as hard as you would think. Visually, there's exactly one shot that's actually stirring, and it lasts about three seconds. Thornton has gotten some kudos for his performance as Davy Crockett, but to me it's just Billy Bob being affable; I liked Patric's Jim Bowie a mite more. It's not a disaster, but certainly a missed opportunity.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Hellboy (IMDB) (Netflix)
The trailer was strong: lots of action, snappy dialog and an improbable hero in the form of Hellboy, a large red man with chopped-off horns growing out of his forehead.

Ron Perlman is the big ugly guy and he's got a crush on Selma Blair, who likes to burst into flames (Hellboy is conveniently flame-retardent). They, the FBI and an Aqua Man retread collaborate to fight an odd assemblage of evil-doers that are a mix of Nazis warmed over from 1944, Rasputin ("I'm still not dead") and scary monsters of unknown origin.

It's a confusing stew of ideas and characters that rarely gets off the ground, and that's usually when Hellboy is being jealous of Blair or cheeky with everyone else. Unfortunately for this save-the-world pic, there's little sense of mortal danger, generating mostly an "evil, schmeevil" indifference in the viewers, one of whom said, "well, that's one DVD I won't have to buy."

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (IMDB) (Netflix)
The idea that inspired this movie came from a French conceptual artist. Uh oh. Fortunately, it was turned into a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malcovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), who, if not script-for-script the best screenwriter around, is easily the most inventive. Here, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are lovers who quickly learn how to hurt each other, irreparably it seems, and when Carrey tries to fix things, Winslet doesn't even remember him. In real life, we're cursed by poorly functioning Delete keys, particularly when it comes to failed romances, but in Kaufman's world you can do something about it and it might even be covered by your health insurance. Were it only so.

This is complex stuff and you're going to have to pay attention. We're moving back-and-forth in time, and between reality and Carrey's directed dream state, and it's a full thirty minutes before you'll think that you have a handle on this film. Once you do, don't let your guard down, because it's going to get more involved. The intricacies, however, don't get in the way of the emotional resonance that's created as Carrey tries to save the relationship, or at least his memory of it. With important supporting performances by Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood. For elastic minds.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

The Lady Killers (IMDB) (Netflix)
A remake of the 1955 Alec Guiness and Peter Sellers version, with re-writing and direction from the Coen brothers and a cast led by Tom Hanks as Professor G.H. Dorr, Ph.D. and minor criminal mastermind who's spent too much time with his Thesaurus. Irma P. Hall is the naive-yet-formidable lady who may or may not get killed. Hanks and his coterie of petty criminals use Hall's cellar as their base camp for robbing a riverfront casino, but because everyone is pretty much a first class screw-up, very little goes according to plan. Hence the funny.

Those who've seen the many trailers for the movie know that Hanks was given the green light to make his performance as colorful as he liked, and the other actors had equal license, with richly—if broadly—drawn comic characters. The plot couldn't be much simpler—it's sortof an anti-Ocean's Eleven—just enough to let the actors do their thing. The Coens aren't movie makers who work to impress anyone other than themselves, particularly the many critics who weren't bowled over, but the smallish audience in my theater was clearly entertained throughout, as was I. With rousing Gospel music that, like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, will spawn another successful soundtrack.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Secret Window (IMDB) (Netflix)
I went for Johnny Depp, who is always fun to watch, and apparently so did the couple dozen young women that made up most of the audience. Hmmm, must reflect on that. A psychological thriller from Stephen King, with Depp as a writer licking his marital wounds after a painful breakup. A looney John Turturro shows up claiming that Depp has plagiarized one of his stories, and the confrontation gets increasingly out of control. With Maria Bello (The Cooler) as the estranged wife and Timothy Hutton as the guy she took up with.

This is one of those films that starts out promising; Depp talking to himself is more interesting than dialog between just about any two other actors, the camera angles are fresh without being showy, and even Turturro in a Southern accent isn't too jarring. Things get tedious, though, as Depp tries unsuccessfully to calm an ever-angrier and more brazen Turturro, then toward the end, as the big twist is revealed and the climactic scene unfolds, there's a sense of being cheated, or at least let down.

Depp took a big risk with the hugely successful Pirates of the Carribean ("we're going to make a movie based on a theme park ride, whaddya say?"), and might have placed too much faith in his ability to sell this one to the audience.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Spartan (IMDB) (Netflix)
For those whose belief in the villainy of politicians and their handlers is rarely shaken, here's your film. The president's daughter is missing, and Val Kilmer is the just-tell-me-what-to-do operative who tries to find her. While this might seem like a straight-ahead mystery/thriller, this is a David Mamet production, and there's little that's typical here.

Unless you're a Mamet aficionado, of course. Except for Kilmer, casting came directly from Mamet's speed-dial, the dialog is clipped and hard-ass and direction is, well, spartan. The story is by no means predictable, unfolding tantalizingly slowly through the first act, and with an expository spareness that will generate lots of questions among the non-cognoscenti (choose your movie neighbors with care). Kilmer does a nice job of adapting to—or at least overcoming—Mamet's rhythms (not every actor has succeeded) and there's a minor chord of conspiratorial menace and John Carré-like futility that brings depth to the proceedings. To be sure, the plot has a couple of rough spots, and many will find the stripped-down style less absorbing than the usual explosion fest, but this film is for people who listen more closely to the voice that whispers.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Hidalgo (IMDB) (Netflix)
Viggo Mortenson has a new horse to ride, as yet another post-Civil War soldier ravaged by guilt about the treatment of Native Americans, and therefore driven to drink (the Last Samurai had the same backstory for Tom Cruise). At this rate of expiation by cinema, Hollywood might make things right by, say, next month. OK, maybe not.

He finds some sense of purpose in a 3,000 mile race across the searing deserts of what now are Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately the movie seems shot in real time, and that’s a lot of sand to cover. The story lacks pace, and most of its many beats (self-loathing, lack of identity, redemption, forbidden love and women’s lib are just few) are struck ham-handedly and with little impact. Nice surprises are Omar Sharif as the “sheik of sheiks” and father to the tomboy princess who just can’t keep that veil on, and the horse has a few nice “takes.” They go to that well far too often, however, and by the end even the horse seems like he’s mugging for the camera.

This will likely work for the 12 year olds in the house, or adults who want some regression therapy.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Dreamers (IMDB) (Netflix)
From Bernardo Bertolucci, whose cinematic credentials are pretty much unimpeachable (The Last Emperor, 1900, The Conformist), as is his ability to create controversial films (Last Tango in Paris). It's 1968, in Paris, where the lefties have decided that everyone else is a fascist and challenging social conventions is a moral imperative. An American exchange student (Michael Pitt) meets up with a brother (Louis Garrel) and twin sister (Eva Green), who befriend him, and — before their parents can say "Don't have any wild parties while we're on holiday" — invite him to stay over. Three hormonally flooded teenagers, including siblings who are a bit closer than is decent, and revolution in the air— it's a heady, dangerous mix.

And a polarizing one for the critics, apparently. Put me on the unenchanted side. Green's physical charms are considerable and almost continously on display, and the guys are equally unencumbered throughout the film. Garrel and Green have that special twin thing going, they're precocious, willful teenagers, and on top of that, they're Parisians; it's all a bit much, or at least silly. Maybe that was what Bertolucci was going for (I doubt it), but it doesn't make the characters particularly sympathetic. You'll go for the sex, you'll stay for ... more sex.