Saturday, December 31, 2005

End of the year housecleaning

As usual the end of the year has arrived before I'm ready for it. I prefer to slow down during the transition between years, but with a trip home for Christmas and keeping stats for eight basketball games over two days, that plan went out the window this year. So be it.

The year-end crush has kept me from one of the things I enjoy a lot: scouring top ten/best of lists. It's a good way to find what I might have missed in music and books. (I think I have a good handle on the year in movies, although there are always some I've missed or haven't given year-end consideration.) There certainly isn't a shortage of these lists. I'd grouse about how now they pop up too early--any time before Christmas--but there's no use fighting it. I'll get my own lists up here early in January and make any necessary tweaks to the best in film list in preparation for our special edition of NOW PLAYING.

Anyway, this post is all about catching up with posting brief thoughts and links that I meant to post earlier and never got around to doing. Here goes...

I'm halfway through Zadie Smith's novel ON BEAUTY. So far, so good. I like to read but don't do it as often as I should, so it's gratifying to sink into a book as all-encompassing and absorbing as this. Serendipitously I came across an NPR interview with Smith while returning from my parents'. It's from The Diane Rehm Show. If you can get past the host's voice--she sounds like she's two hundred eighty years old, and it drives me crazy--it's worth a listen. Just ignore the caller non-questions, which are an inevitable part when the public is invited to ask writers, filmmakers, etc. questions.

I picked up Herman Melville's MOBY-DICK again this year. While I haven't been able to make it through all of it yet, I'm amazed how funny and entertaining the book is.

Santa didn't bring an iPod for yours truly this Christmas, not that I expected it, but my brother Philip gave me his lower capacity MP3 player since he has purchased one that stores more. I've been using it to listen to the podcasts with Ricky Gervais, Steve Merchant, and Karl Pilkington. Gervais and Merchant, the creative engines behind THE OFFICE and EXTRAS, are a hoot as they pick on British comedian Pilkington. Of course, you can listen to it on your computer. You don't need a portable device.

Back in my Kentucky blogging entry, I failed to include a link to Donna Bowman's blog. Oversight corrected.

I'll be posting my 2005 film list soon enough, although my failure to keep on top of it is going to have me doing a lot of work to remember what I saw. I'm capping my 2005 filmgoing with RUMOR HAS IT this afternoon. Rumor has it that it isn't very good.

OK, so there are photos and other things I'm not going to get up here before the year changes, but this hodgepodge has been rattling around my brain for awhile. Now I can start the new year not feeling like I have a backlog of clutter to bore you with. All boring entries will be fresh.

So, have a happy new year, and I'll see you again in 2006.

The Producers

THE PRODUCERS (Susan Stroman, 2005)

A boisterous Broadway producer and a meek accountant scheme to launch a flop and pocket the money they raise in THE PRODUCERS. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick reprise their lauded turns on the stage as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom. In examining Max’s books, Leo discovers that more money can be made on a failed play than a success. Their search for the perfect dud leads them to the can’t-miss musical SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER, penned by Nazi-loving Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrell).

THE PRODUCERS began as a highly admired 1968 Mel Brooks film and in recent years was developed into a smash Broadway musical. This new film of THE PRODUCERS recreates the play, both of which were directed by Susan Stroman. What won acclaim for her and the stage production doesn’t translate to the cinema, though. Shot and edited as though it were made forty years ago, THE PRODUCERS is a creaky relic of the musical’s heyday. Lane’s hammy performance could have been dialed down for the intimacy of film, but his energy is appreciated in this otherwise static film. Broderick’s acting choices, his dialogue delivery in particular, don’t fare as well. He seems better suited for the stage.

There’s a perfunctory feeling coursing through THE PRODUCERS, as if it has been made out of obligation to the success of the play than any passion on the participants’ behalf. The movie plods along until the cast mounts SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER. Here THE PRODUCERS shakes off its showbiz corniness and finds the spark it has lacked. Gary Beach’s queeny interpretation of Hitler is uproariously funny. It also highlights comedy’s power to puncture serious matters. Still, there’s too much to slog through for such inspired moments. Lucky for moviegoers, Brooks’ original film is available and 46 minutes shorter.

Grade: C-


SYRIANA (Stephen Gaghan, 2005)

Stephen Gaghan wrote the complicated tour of the drug trade in TRAFFIC. Now he takes on the global oil industry as writer and director of SYRIANA. The film is a complex web of princes, lawyers, secret agents, and businessmen who are trying to keep the upper hand in controlling the precious natural resource. SYRIANA’S characters include Bob Barnes (George Clooney), an undercover CIA operative in the Middle East; Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon), an energy analyst who becomes an economic advisor to a prince who can grant access to drilling rights in one of the region's key spots; and Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a corporate lawyer vetting the merger of two oil companies.

In SYRIANA the Chinese get the drilling rights to a hotly contested spot in the Persian Gulf, beating out American energy behemoth Connex. Meanwhile, small U.S. oil company Killen wins the rights for some highly desired Kazakhstan fields. In need of more wells, Connex plans to merge with Killen pending Justice Department approval.

In granting the rights to the Chinese, Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig) departed from the royal family's longtime favor shown toward American businesses. As an economic decision, the Chinese bid brings in more money, but Prince Nasir's willingness in this instance to break prior relationships upsets the Americans and will have worldwide political consequences. Prince Nasir is expected to be heir to the throne, but his younger brother, Prince Meshal Al-Subaai (Akbar Kurtha), also wants to succeed their father. Since Prince Meshal is more bendable to U.S. interests, people are at work to have him ascend, whether it involves convincing Emir Hamed Al-Subaai (Nadim Sawalha) to choose him or having Prince Nasir assassinated.

Gaghan dives headlong into the murky waters of SYRIANA, a choice that is likely to leave the most astute viewers bewildered. This is a challenging film to follow and one that is probably not fully comprehensible in one or two viewings. SYRIANA demands patience to see how the pieces come together in a fascinating mosaic of politics, capitalism, and corruption. The head-spinning nature of the subject, in addition to the stakes, helps explain why dishonesty and amorality thrive in the industry.

Gaghan’s skillful formal design, aided by Robert Elswit’s breathtaking cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s score, brings aesthetic beauty to this work of intellectual rigor. The performances are excellent across the board, including Clooney as a tight-lipped agent who does the dirty work without any questions, Damon’s no-nonsense advisor, Alexander Siddig as the politically savvy Prince Nasir, and Tim Blake Nelson’s straight-shooting Texas oilman. SYRIANA’S comprehensive view of the oil industry is its strength and its weakness, an information overload compacted into an enlightening and elusive exposé.

Grade: B

The Thing About My Folks

THE THING ABOUT MY FOLKS (Raymond De Felitta, 2005)

Father and son Sam and Ben Kleinman (Peter Falk and Paul Reiser) reconnect during a difficult patch in Sam’s life in THE THING ABOUT MY FOLKS. Sam’s longtime wife Muriel (Olympia Dukakis) leaves him unexpectedly. The whole family is surprised, and with little information as to her whereabouts, they grapple with what may have led to her departure. As a diversion Ben takes his father along on a visit to a country house he is considering buying. Their trip gets stretched into a tour of upstate New York in which the two men reach the understanding and reconciliation they have needed.

Reiser has written observational humor books about married life and new parenthood. He extends such musings to the screen with this likable but bland comedy. THE THING ABOUT MY FOLKS contains more sap than a Vermont maple. Essentially a feature-length sitcom episode with a few TV-unfriendly curse words, the film is as nice and tame as it is boring and unremarkable. Falk’s recurring flatulence is about as ribald as THE THING ABOUT MY FOLKS gets.

Reiser reinforces his amiable mensch persona, and Falk blusters his way through the picture. Both labor intensely to bring life to a film with a faint pulse. The flat, washed out cinematography fails to capture the natural beauty of the upstate New York scenery. Visually this is a hideous film. THE THING ABOUT MY FOLKS is concocted for those seeking inoffensive fare, as long as they don’t choke on its sickly sweetness.

Grade: C-

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe


London is being bombed during World War II, so the Pevensie children are shipped off to a safe haven in the country in C.S. Lewis’s THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE. Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy (William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes, and Georgie Henley) find the spacious estate to be rather humdrum, that is until Lucy discovers a wardrobe that provides a passageway to the fantasy land of Narnia. The children learn that they are key figures in leading the battle against the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) and the chill she has sent across Narnia.

C.S. Lewis’s THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA is a beloved children’s classic, and the film is a delight for kids and adults. Director Andrew Adamson’s adaptation, the first in what is sure to be a series of films, brings it alive with a childlike sense of awe and wonder. It’s a beautifully realized fantasy world, and the story is elegantly told. A bit of a hubbub has bubbled up over NARNIA’S religious content. Since Lewis was a noted theologian the Christian themes should hardly come as any surprise. The allegory is readily apparent, but first and foremost NARNIA is concerned with transporting viewers through a mythic story than converting non-believers. The politicization taking place in the market of ideas regarding NARNIA is absent in the film itself. Swinton is highly effective summoning the seductive face of evil and the horror behind the mask. Lewis is said to have bristled at the idea of a filmed version of NARNIA, but the technology has reached the point where the special effects are nothing short of magnificent.

Grade: B

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Squid and the Whale

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (Noah Baumbach, 2005)

Comedy is often rooted in pain. It’s certainly true in THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, which writer-director Noah Baumbach bases on the acrimonious divorce of his parents. Brooklyn intellectuals Bernard and Joan Berkman (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) decide that the time has come for their marriage to end. As smart, rational people with their boys’ best interests at heart, they work out a plan in which they will share custody and remain civil to one another. They find it’s easier said than done, as Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline) find themselves taking sides in a bitter domestic war.

Like the films of Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, Baumbach’s preferred milieu is the social circles of New York cognoscenti. Although his love for such places and people is palpable, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE savages the writers and professors—in this case, his parents—who are so puffed up by their selfishness and senses of self-worth that they fail to realize the harm they’re causing. In this way it's also related to the adults in Ang Lee's THE ICE STORM.

The laughs are tinged with lacerations. Daniels adeptly conveys Bernard’s tragic and comedic traits. He’s filled with self-absorption, arrogance, and contempt, qualities that show him to be ridiculous, as when he says his new home is “the fillet of the neighborhood”, and unaware of his faults.

In having Frank, the younger son, react to the divorce with extreme gestures, like smearing his semen around the school, Baumbach travels awkwardly into territory better suited to a shockmeister like Todd Solondz. He’s more comfortable showing how Walt, presumably the director’s stand-in, takes on his father’s biases in an attempt to understand the situation. A deeply personal and unsparing film, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE finds humor in the heartache and harpoons the notion that divorce has no casualties.

Grade: B

Yours, Mine and Ours

YOURS, MINE AND OURS (Raja Gosnell, 2005)

Differing parental philosophies, not to mention eighteen kids, clash in a newly fused family in YOURS, MINE AND OURS. Former high school sweethearts Frank Beardsley and Helen North (Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo) are single parents who choose to merge their two broods. The widowed Coast Guard admiral and the widow designer rekindle their relationship at a class reunion and get married in no time flat. Frank has eight kids, Helen has ten, and a lighthouse is the only place that can accommodate such a large family. The kids don’t get along and object to the union. They find common ground in their goal of breaking up Frank and Helen.

A suburban nightmare of screaming, scheming children, YOURS, MINE AND OURS can make the stoutest adults abandon thoughts of becoming parents. The kids, a largely anonymous gaggle of types, engage in the usual antics associated with enormous movie families. It’s safe to say that there will be much wanton destruction--at least one scene must focus on mealtime—as if Frank and Helen are raising feral children.

Even if it is a dramatic convenience, the filmmakers wisely pair up Frank and Helen in a pinch. There’s no need to stretch out the question of whether they’ll get together; however, with little foundation established for their relationship, except for having dated in high school, there’s nothing to make us believe they’re being anything but recklessly spontaneous. Nevertheless, there’s little conflict in the story. Sure, there’s friction between the shipshape, military-disciplined Beardsley clan and the free-spirited North side of the family, but it’s all strictly boilerplate. The kids aren’t adorable, even rambunctiously so, and the parents are dim bulbs who don’t consider what they’ve done or comprehend what’s happening.

Grade: D


RENT (Chris Columbus, 2005)

Jonathan Larson’s Broadway musical RENT gets the big screen treatment courtesy of director Chris Columbus. Most of the original Broadway cast reprise their roles for the filmed RENT, with Rosario Dawson as nightclub dancer Mimi being a major exception.

The contemporary reworking of Puccini’s LA BOHEME follows a year among friends and acquaintances, mostly struggling artists and musicians, who live and love in 1989 East Village New York. All of the characters are affected by AIDS, whether HIV positive themselves or close to those who are. Most live and work in a dilapidated building but cannot afford the rent they owe to Benjamin Coffin III (Taye Diggs), a fellow bohemian who married into money and is now their landlord. Benjamin wants to convert the space into a cyber studio, but he can’t do so unless he evicts his old friends.

Upon its stage debut in 1996, RENT stood out from the pack in featuring characters that covered the GLBT spectrum, a story that dealt with AIDS, and a rock-influenced soundtrack. The play may have felt fresh nearly ten years ago, but the film version is about as edgy as Pat Boone covering Nirvana. The grimy environs and lurid subject matter are tamed by the pretty operetta that sounds less like rock and roll and more like showtunes with electric guitars.

The biggest problem with RENT is characters that embody the worst stereotypes of creative types: smug, shallow, and narcissistic. This comes to a head with the unbearable song “La Vie Boheme”. In the film it is defiantly performed to the suits in a café. The scene reeks of snotty self-indulgence and self-righteousness rather than heartfelt expression of creative independence. The superior attitude dripping from these characters—a disdain for anything bourgeois—might be palatable if they weren’t depicted as mediocre (at best) talents with infantile worldviews. Who cares about selling out when you literally can’t survive?

Trey Parker and Matt Stone eviscerated RENT in TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE with the song parody “Everyone Has AIDS”. It hits upon everything insufferable about how Columbus’ film portrays these proud, codependent nonconformists.

Grade: D+

Just Friends

JUST FRIENDS (Roger Kumble, 2005)

JUST FRIENDS finds Ryan Reynolds' Chris Brander reliving high school insecurities. Chris was an obese teenager who transformed himself into a sleek, hotshot record executive. He wished to be more than friends with Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart), but the popular cheerleader remained oblivious to his romantic interests, keeping things strictly platonic.

Ten years after expressing his affection and being embarrassed in front of practically the whole senior class, Chris makes an unplanned return home at Christmas with bratty pop singer Samantha James (Anna Faris) in tow. Although Chris is now a toned and tanned stud, he reverts to the unsure adolescent when he runs into Jamie again.

In films such as NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VAN WILDER and WAITING.., Reynolds has fashioned himself into a more obnoxious, less funny version of Vince Vaughn. JUST FRIENDS affords Reynolds the chance to soften up, and he takes advantage of it. As Chris, Reynolds is funny confronting the image of himself that everyone else still holds but that he discarded long ago.

Faris has shown that she’s willing to do anything for a laugh in the SCARY MOVIEseries, but here she goes for broke and is actually funny. Faris plays her American idol as part toddler, part socialite slut. It’s a broad performance but one that works, especially when she gobbles a tube of toothpaste. Chris Klein adds some laughs as well. His character, Dusty Dinkelman, was part of the uncool crowd in high school—with a name like that, how could he not be—but the intervening years have cleared up his complexion and given him a ruthless ladykiller streak under the guise of a sensitive, guitar-strumming guy.

While the performances hit their marks, JUST FRIENDS lapses into repetitive, mildly amusing scenarios. Ironically, the audience has a relationship with the film like the teen Chris has with Jamie. JUST FRIENDS is sweet and mostly pleasant to pass the time with, like a diverting thing to watch on cable, but there’s little justification to enter into a serious engagement with it, or bother going to a theater to see it.

Grade: C

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Happy Anniversary

Today marks two years that I've been keeping this blog. At this time last year I mentioned having figured out how I could best use this space. A year later I feel like I've developed a better understanding.

From looking at my site traffic reports, it appears that the majority of visits come from one-timers checking out specific reviews. It's encouraging to see older stuff that I've written getting views, but knowing that gives me ample reason to slack off when life gets busy. Hey, why bother making updates when most aren't looking at the most current item? It matters to me even when I ought to be more on top of it than I am. If you're a regular reader, thanks a lot. Really. I'll try to be more diligent at making regular updates, some of which aren't merely posting my reviews from the TV show.

This blog has been a saving grace when it comes to adding content to reviews that must be shortened due to TV time restrictions. The downside is that I intend to expand reviews and then hold off on posting because I haven't bulked them up.

Anyway, I have eight reviews in reserve--four from today's taping and four from the previous show--that I hope to get up here in the next couple days. There are some other things I'd like to write about, such as Noel Murray's comments on year-end list-making fatigue. Until then, thanks again for reading, and feel free to post a comment or e-mail me, as long as you don't have any amazing deals on software, genital enlargement offers, or a large bank transaction opportunity.

Pride & Prejudice

PRIDE & PREJUDICE (Joe Wright, 2005)

Jane Austen’s PRIDE & PREJUDICE is back for another retelling, this time with Keira Knightley as the headstrong Elizabeth Bennet. She’s one of five sisters for whom her dear mother is trying to find suitable, read wealthy, husbands. A viable prospect appears in the form of Matthew McFadyen’s Mr. Darcy, but Elizabeth believes him to be haughty and meddlesome.

PRIDE & PREJUDICE has been made very familiar to modern audiences in the last few years. BRIDE & PREJUDICE and BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY are Bollywood and contemporary British versions of Austen’s story, and then there’s the comprehensive, much-beloved 1995 BBC miniseries. It makes you wish for a filmed NORTHANGER ABBEY rather than another account of this literary classic.

So it’s all the more remarkable that director Joe Wright has made a splendid film that ranks among the year’s best. PRIDE & PREJUDICE is a lovely production, with spectacular estates and soft, golden hues, but it’s far from a musty affair. Wright favors a classicist’s approach yet also deploys some exhilarating modern touches. The camera conveys the emotion as much as the words, whether via a close-up of Darcy’s hand flexing after he assists Elizabeth into a carriage or with a zoom toward Elizabeth and a quick cut as she leaves after being spotted secretly observing Darcy and his sister.

The ball scenes are masterfully handled in the manner of Visconti’s THE LEOPARD, and one sublime moment finds the crowd vanishing as Darcy and Elizabeth discover one another. The delightful dialogue is quick-witted and, at critical moments, quite moving. Knightley has been a strong presence in other films, but her performance here is something of a revelation. She’s never been better than she is in this glorious film.

Grade: A

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

KISS KISS BANG BANG (Shane Black, 2005)

A first rate entertainment that snaps with humor and style, KISS KISS BANG BANG stars Robert Downey Jr. as a small time criminal who stumbles his way into a possible career as a Hollywood film star. Downey’s Harry Lockhart is running from the New York cops when he mistakenly enters an audition and wins over those casting a detective movie. He’s flown out to California to continue the process and is connected with top notch private eye gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a consultant on the film.

In keeping with the film's title, Harry's trip leads him toward romance and violence. He is thrilled to stumble upon and reunite with Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan). They were childhood friends in a small Indiana town. Naturally, he was crazy about the leggy brunette, but their friendship superseded his young lust, although that was more her doing than his. While still in high school, Harmony departed for fame and fortune as an actress in Los Angeles, but the intervening years have delivered merely a prominent role in a beer commercial. Believing that Harry is a detective, Harmony asks for his help in the death of her sister, one of two possible murder cases he and Perry get mixed up in.

KISS KISS BANG BANG's film noir and dime store paperback elements satisfy, but the murder mystery is secondary to the characters and their quips. The characters spar, equipped with Shane Black’s sharply written wordplay that consistently lands big laughs. Downey’s wink-wink voiceover is sarcasm to perfection.

KISS KISS BANG BANG is as much a treatise on screenwriting conventions as it is a noir mystery. Black’s film isn’t the mindbender that the Charlie Kaufman-penned films are, but it shows a writer-director grappling with limitations and breaking free of them. Black inserts scenes and asides because he wants them and because they seem funny, even if they’re not crucial to the story. The result could have been sloppy and self-indulgent, but it works because he’s right. It is funny.

Downey, Kilmer, and Monaghan give nimble performances that juggle the danger of their situations and the comedy and romance. Downey and Kilmer don’t skip a beat in lobbing verbal grenades at one another, and a playful Monaghan also hits the serious notes necessary to her character.

Black, who has been largely out of the Hollywood scene for almost a decade, makes a splashy return and directorial debut. KISS KISS BANG BANG is full of knowing cinema references—the title may derive from a nickname for James Bond or a collection of film critic Pauline Kael’s writings—but above all else it is a hilarious movie that reinvigorates the modern crime picture.

Grade: A

Monday, December 12, 2005

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire


The return of evil Lord Voldemort is imminent as HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE begins. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has a vision of Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) preparing for his return. The dark master’s followers, known as Death Eaters, terrorize the Quidditch World Cup. Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is under tight security as Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) return for their fourth year. The heightened safety measures are due in part to Hogwarts hosting the Triwizard Tournament, a perilous year-long competition that tests the best students from all schools of magic. Although the Triwizard Tournament is restricted to students at least seventeen-years-old, Harry’s name is mysteriously included among those selected for the challenge.

The third and fourth Harry Potter films are under the command of well-regarded directors, and the differences they make are striking. THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, the third film, is the most artfully directed in the series, and THE GOBLET OF FIRE is the most thrilling. With the Triwizard Tournament as the centerpiece, director Mike Newell fashions an action film for children that may be without any reasonable challengers. The competition scenes are very exciting, putting Harry nose to snout with an angry dragon, deep underwater in search of something he treasures, and overwhelmed in an ominous maze. He also engages in a long-awaited confrontation with Voldemort, a frightening capper to a film full of scares.

THE GOBLET OF FIRE is darker than the previous films, but it’s nicely offset by a mischievous streak of humor that’s been largely missing in the others. Newell has made the funniest film in the series and the most British, aspects that ring true to the tone of the books. Screenwriter Steve Kloves excises many subplots to keep GOBLET OF FIRE moving swiftly. The relationships among the three main characters take a back seat to action, but Newell hints at the adolescent urges starting to surface.

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE keeps the series on the right track. With the third and fourth films, devoted fans of J.K. Rowling's novels couldn't ask for better adaptations. Those visiting her world of magicians and muggles solely through the movies might now understand what all the fuss has been about.

Grade: B+


ZATHURA (Jon Favreau, 2005)

Two squabbling brothers must band together to return home from outer space in ZATHURA. Younger brother Danny (Jonah Bobo) finds an old board game in the basement and tries to get his older sibling Walter (Josh Hutcherson) to play. Danny starts the game and soon finds whatever happens in it also happens to them. Their house travels to Saturn’s rings and beyond, and the boys face off with a defective robot and reptilian invaders.

ZATHURA is unrelated to JUMANJI, another board game film with a funny name, but both have been adapted from books by Chris Van Allsburg. The vintage sci-fi design of the outer space setting and creatures is aesthetically pleasing, not to mention tangible in ways that CGI effects often aren’t. Director Jon Favreau has made a movie for children with children, meaning that the brothers behave according to their ages rather than as wise elders. The boys’ incessant bickering feels especially true to life, although it wears on the nerves after awhile. The screenplay has an ear for how kids talk and throws in some funny, knowing references, such as when the older sister complains to her father about him being overprotective after they watched the adolescent hysteria movie THIRTEEN.

ZATHURA’S story doesn’t advance until each boy takes his turn in the game. It’s a pretty flimsy device that has you shifting in your seat thinking, “Just go already,” mirroring the frustration you might have with a slow-playing younger brother. Ultimately, though, ZATHURA is a fun adventure with a spoonful of medicine regarding familial cooperation.

Grade: B-


JARHEAD (Sam Mendes, 2005)

JARHEAD adapts Anthony Swofford’s memoir of his experiences in the Marines during the first Gulf War. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the author, who goes by Swoff in the film. Swoff is drifting along in life and can’t even tell his superior officer why he ended up in the Marines other than cracking that he got lost on the way to college. Jamie Foxx is Staff Sgt. Sykes, who shapes up a unit that includes Peter Sarsgaard and Lucas Black. Swoff trains as a scout/sniper, but in 1990, when he and his fellow Marines are sent to Saudi Arabia in the lead-up to the Persian Gulf War, they find themselves with nothing to do but hydrate and get an unscratched itch to shoot someone.

Director Sam Mendes’ previous films, AMERICAN BEAUTY and ROAD TO PERDITION, dealt with men stuck in apparently hopeless situations. JARHEAD makes a fitting complement to his prior work. For these Marines, much of their time is occupied with crushing boredom, which lets their minds run amok about their loved ones at home and whether they’ll be there for them when they return. Of course, the alternative to goofing off and fretting about their girlfriends and wives is to be engaged in combat. While some are more eager than others to discharge their weapons, the ambivalence of their situation doesn’t have them ready to lay down their lives, desperate as they are to feel something.

Mendes’ films are notable for striking images (AMERICAN BEAUTY’S rose petals, ROAD TO PERDITION’S incessant rain), and along with cinematographer Roger Deakins, here he captures the surreal nature of the ordeal, from a sky blackened by burning oil wells to a camp set up amid charred human remains.

Considering another war with Iraq is ongoing, JARHEAD remains surprisingly apolitical. A comment or two might question the reasons for going to war, but the film keeps its focus on the burden of the soldiers’ mission instead of grandiloquent statements on current affairs. Instead JARHEAD gives voice to the humor and horror of military service during wartime, the things that those who served will not and cannot convey to civilians.

Grade: B


PRIME (Ben Younger, 2005)

In the romantic comedy PRIME newly divorced Rafi (Uma Thurman) meets a guy who eases her concerns about entering into another relationship. She immediately clicks with David (Bryan Greenberg), an artist who is a little younger than she’d prefer. She’s 37 and he’s 23, although he initially claims to be ten years her junior. Rafi’s therapist Lisa (Meryl Streep) reassures her that it’s perfectly acceptable to be seeing David.

Lisa changes her mind when she unwittingly discovers that Rafi’s boy toy is her son. The age difference bothers her, but the religious divide—he’s Jewish, she’s not—unsettles her more. Lisa tries to keep the personal and professional separate, so she tells neither her client nor her offspring what she knows while encouraging both to break off the affair.

Director Ben Younger’s previous film BOILER ROOM borrowed liberally from David Mamet’s GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. With PRIME he is unmistakably visiting Woody Allen’s turf. The New York setting, the relationship neuroses (not to mention all those analyst visits), and a more mature, yet humorous, exploration of male/female interactions come direct from vintage Allen masterpieces. Plus, as David’s buddy Morris, Jon Abrahams functions as a scene-stealing Tony Roberts.

PRIME isn’t the equal of its inspirations, but it’s a cut above many contemporary romantic comedies. Lisa keeps her secret far longer than might be expected, providing Streep with several funny scenes in which she squirms while listening to Rafi tell the intimate details of her love life with David. Thurman practically glows as she lets loose in a fine comedic performance. To quibble, Thurman doesn’t look significantly older than Greenberg’s David, which undermines one of the main obstacles between them. PRIME hits a dead end when the relationship begins to stall and never quite recovers the momentum of the film’s first hour. Nevertheless, it’s a solid romantic comedy that benefits from its ambition to look at the importance of age and religious differences, even if it could have gone deeper.

Grade: B

Saw II

SAW II (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2005)

The Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell) rounds up a new group of people to play his twisted game in SAW II. As in SAW, the terminal cancer patient puts his potential victims, who he feels take their lives for granted, through what might generously be described as shock therapy. (A more accurate characterization is cruel, unusual, and oftentimes fatal punishment). The selected game players are taken against their wills, placed in an extreme situation and provided with clues to their survival if they are willing to break through the barriers holding them back in life.

In SAW II the chosen are locked in a house where they breathe in a deadly nerve gas. The doors will open in three hours, but they only have two hours to find a way out before succumbing to the lethal inhalant. Police officers, led by a dirty cop Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), find Jigsaw while his latest game is underway, but all they can do is helplessly watch the video feeds tracking the victims. The stakes are raised for Eric when he observes that his son is one of the people stuck in the house.

SAW II is more of the same: more characters to kill, more ingenious deathtraps to catch them in, and definitely more blood. The original film’s problems carry over to the sequel. Tension is broken repeatedly when cutting to scenes outside the claustrophobic house of horrors. The visual aesthetic is limited to the color of necrotizing flesh. Except for Bell’s tranquil embodiment of Jigsaw, the performances are merely variations on rampant hysteria.

The concept holds the potential for a terrifying film, but SAW II is more interested in splatter than scares. SAW II identifies with the killer rather than the anonymous character types. In choosing this point of view, the film has the ability to disgust but not to frighten. It’s an unpleasant film with grotesque imagery, but Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” video is more unsettling than this mostly predictable bloodbath.

Grade: C

Chicken Little

CHICKEN LITTLE (Mark Dindal, 2005)

Contrary to the fable, there is good reason to believe the sky is falling in CHICKEN LITTLE. Zach Braff voices the diminutive title character, a well-meaning but mistaken sort who causes a panic in Oakey Oaks when he gets conked on the head. Chicken Little believes a piece of the sky hit him, but he lacks proof to support his hysterical warning to the town. Chicken Little is mocked for his claim of imminent trouble from above, but a year later, when he again sees something plummet from the sky, his fears are confirmed in the form of alien spaceships that appear to fracture the heavens.

The popularity of computer-animated films has caused the studios to consider abandoning the production of traditionally animated movies. Disney has supposedly made its last in the traditional style. What’s getting lost in the rush toward CG animation, though, is that the story is more important than the technique. Pixar’s string of successes, begun ten years ago with TOY STORY and capped most recently with THE INCREDIBLES, owes as much to the inventive storylines as the groundbreaking animation.

CHICKEN LITTLE is Disney’s first CG-animated film without Pixar’s involvement. Although the animation may not rival Pixar’s best work, it’s very well done; however, CHICKEN LITTLE’S plot and characters are sorely lacking in the creativity department. The wishy-washy self-empowerment tale hinges on the lack of communication between Chicken Little and his single father Buck Cluck, something best reserved for an episode of OPRAH or DR. PHIL.

Occasionally the animators put some nice touches in the background, such as the bull operating a china shop, but that wit is mostly absent in the foreground. Stale pop culture references, from The Spice Girls to the heavily overused disco anthem “I Will Survive”, make CHICKEN LITTLE anything but hip. As a time-filler, parents could do worse than take their kids to CHICKEN LITTLE, but that’s not setting the bar very high, is it?

Grade: C

Friday, December 09, 2005


ELIZABETHTOWN (Cameron Crowe, 2005)

In ELIZABETHTOWN Orlando Bloom plays a shoe designer whose product is such a spectacular failure in the marketplace—it rings up a $972 million loss—that he loses his job, his girlfriend, and his will to live. Drew Baylor is preparing to end it all when a call comes informing him that his father has died unexpectedly while visiting his old hometown. At the behest of his family, Drew flies from Oregon to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to make the necessary funeral arrangements. En route he meets spunky flight attendant Claire (Kirsten Dunst). Neither of them can quite explain the power of their unspoken mutual attraction, but it keeps them in frequent contact while Drew copes with the death of a parent and his secret professional shame.

Faith in humanity and pop music typify Cameron Crowe’s films. With ELIZABETHTOWN the director of JERRY MAGUIRE and ALMOST FAMOUS has made another heartfelt movie shot through with his sensibility. He’s also made a gigantic mess, the first directorial misfire in his six-film oeuvre.

It’s not for lack of ambition. If anything, Crowe has tried to do too much. ELIZABETHTOWN is part screwball comedy, family drama, and romance, which combine for a film that is all off-key. The many tone switches don’t mesh and undermine the characters. Everything to do with Drew’s mother Hollie (Susan Sarandon) wigging out, culminating in an excruciating scene in which she tells a boner joke and does a tap dance at her husband’s farewell party, does not work in the context of her spouse’s death. Bloom’s performance is problematic. He lacks the substantial presence and gravity Drew needs. For someone on the verge of breaking down completely, he seems remarkably laidback.

ELIZABETHTOWN isn’t a disaster, though. Crowe’s acumen for picking rock songs to play in the background and during montages is as spot on as ever. His use of Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun” is tops, and the last twenty minutes or so serve as the avowed rock fan's ultimate mix CD with accompanying visuals. Drew’s arrival in Elizabethtown and reception by relatives locates the right mixture of humor and sadness—and the ring of truth—that the film lacks overall. Bloom and Dunst share some nice moments, although their subplot seems like it belongs in a different film. ELIZABETHTOWN is a frustrating film because Crowe gives us glimpses of what it could have been but mostly leaves the view unfocused.

Grade: C-

Good Night, and Good Luck.

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. (George Clooney, 2005)

Legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow’s part in the takedown of Senator Joseph McCarthy is dramatized in George Clooney’s GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. In the midst of the McCarthy-fueled Red Scare and House of Un-American Activities Committee investigations, Murrow (David Strathairn) uses his program SEE IT NOW to question the government’s hunt for communists.

Shot in stark black and white accented with billowing cigarette smoke, GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. is a well-crafted film assuredly directed by Clooney. He’s assembled a fine roster that includes Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and Jeff Daniels and gives Strathairn a showcase for his crackling embodiment of Murrow.

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. works effectively as a snapshot of the McCarthy era, but the film is undoubtedly meant to play as an allegory for the current state of politics and journalism. Stories have come out about supposed terrorists in our midst who face secret allegations and indefinite confinement, and corporate pressure on the news is as much an issue as ever. Clooney’s film is not a call for the news media to abandon objectivity—a concept becoming increasingly perverted by the relativist notion that there are two equal opinions on every matter—but a plea for journalists to serve as society’s watchdogs. Freedom is threatened when authority goes unquestioned and the system is not transparent.

Murrow has been championed as one of the greats and mourned as a dying breed of television journalist. GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. is a riveting newsroom entertainment that beckons his successors to follow his lead.

Grade: A-


DOMINO (Tony Scott, 2005)

The true story of a model turned bounty hunter gets told, sort of, in DOMINO. Keira Knightley stars as Domino Harvey, the daughter of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE actor Laurence Harvey. Although raised in a life of luxury, Domino prefers the thrill of capturing bail jumpers and other miscreants.

Domino’s slender frame and photogenic looks belie her abilities to bust heads. Upon proving her mettle to Ed Mosbey, a rough and tumble bounty hunter played by Mickey Rourke, she joins his team and quickly rises in her chosen field.

In DOMINO director Tony Scott utilizes a collage technique that has style to burn. He scuttles using one shot when he can do it with five, ideally with lots of cranked up sound effects to complement the acid-washed images. DOMINO looks like what an Avid might vomit up after partially digesting the digitized footage. It’s flashy as hell, but the amphetamine-fueled method is compensating for a distinct lack of substance. The screenplay, penned by DONNIE DARKO director Richard Kelly, jazzes up what should be an absorbing story with postmodern revisionism. As best I can tell, the true part of DOMINO is that Laurence Harvey’s daughter became a bounty hunter, and the rest of the film is mostly fiction.

DOMINO is more about the storytellers than the subject. Scott and Kelly have altered the timeline of events by a decade or so, a move that more easily jibes with their superficial commentary on reality television and the nature of truth. The real Domino Harvey may have been an enigma, but that’s what makes her an interesting character for a film. Her cinematic representation does her no justice. Cast in the glamorous light of nihilism, Domino the character affects the posture of coolness and toughness, a pose that the real woman wouldn't need to fake.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Kentucky blogging

This is another post filed under "and other ephemera", so consider yourself warned if you're looking for a lot of movie-related content. I haven't been to a theater since November 18, which might as well be considered a fast considering it's easily the longest movie-free stretch I've had all year. (If one wants to get all technical, which my brothers would surely insist upon doing, I have seen snatches of the DVDs playing on the team bus, although I've ignored most of those choices except for getting pulled into NAPOLEON DYNAMITE occasionally.)

Yesterday was a long day on the road from Memphis to Lexington. The experience must be akin to being on tour. When I arrive home, I'll have spent seven consecutive nights in seven different cities that span five states.

I've been surprised that all five hotels have provided free high-speed internet connections. Except for the one in Memphis, all of them have been wireless too. I suppose it's a necessity these days if you want to attract customers.

I don't travel a lot, but one thing I've noticed from these stays is that the size of the rooms are inversely proportional to the size of the cities. For instance, my room in Memphis was, at best, half the size of my room in Sulphur Springs, Texas. Biggest city, smallest accommodations. It makes sense, but I'd never given it any thought.

It's always nice to meet people you "know" but have never actually met--people you converse with in discussion groups but might not recognize if they were sitting next to you--and I had the good fortune to do that on Monday. Noel Murray and Donna Bowman are Arkansas-based critics. Both write for the Nashville Scene, and Noel's work can also be found in The Onion's AV Club. They were gracious enough to take me to dinner at a local Mexican place, a nice change of pace from a travel diet mostly consisting of fast food and continental breakfasts. The time we had was too short--I needed to get to Hendrix College to do the radio broadcast of Otterbein's basketball game--but it was my pleasure getting to meet them.

The last game is tonight at Transylvania University. If you must know, I probably won't be able to resist making at least one vampire joke. All this time away has probably been a good purging of all the cinema I've absorbed during 2005, making room for the onslaught that December brings. This year I'm receiving a fair number of "for your consideration" screeners, which are on top of the regular crop of theatrical moviegoing, so a break is good for hunkering down to make it through awards season.

(Addendum: My Otterbein basketball three-game recap is now online, for those so inclined.)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Arkansas blogging

Surprise, I'm not dead, although my virtual disappearance from this space might have led some to think so. I've been on the road for a little more than a week and only now have gathered the time to make some much-needed updates here.

I flew into Dallas-Fort Worth early in the morning on November 20 and was there with family until the day after Thanksgiving. Then I drove to Georgetown, Texas to handle sports information duties and broadcast two basketball games. Being so close to Austin--about 30 miles north--I had to venture into the city on my one night there.

Actually, a more apt description is around the city. The highway system in Texas can be confusing, what with roads seemingly having two or three names yet displaying little signage. My AAA directions didn't quite make the cut when it came to getting me everywhere I needed to be, but I'm not too proud to stop and ask at gas stations if I think I'm lost. (I was off course a couple times. Good job Austin-area gas station attendants knowing how to get me back on track.)

My destination was a Kelly Willis concert at One World Theatre. The unique venue is styled like a Tuscan villa and tucked into the hills of west Austin. The performance area is on the top floor. It's a terrific, intimate space to see live music. Kelly was playing two concerts, an impressive feat considering that she is in the latter stages of pregnancy. I caught the "late" (9:30 p.m.) concert, which will be her last performance until she gives birth. (That sentence sounds kind of strange, but I can't think of any other way to put it, unintended humor notwithstanding.)

I've seen her play live many times but never in her hometown. The concert wasn't significantly different, although the local audience, more accustomed to seeing her, seemed more respectful--in other words, not yelling out requests--than midwestern and eastern concertgoers who may get to see her every two years. The one bonus in seeing Kelly play in Austin is that her husband, Bruce Robison, came out and did a mini-set with her and the band. The country couple have regularly done holiday shows--not this year for obvious reasons--and stirred up a little of the seasonal spirit with a few wintry, Christmastime songs, including a playful "Baby, It's Cold Outside". (As Kelly remarked afterwards, the song works better if you don't think about her being pregnant.)

A One World Theatre usher offered up easier directions to get me back to my hotel, although she qualified such a route as "the long way". Was it ever. I stopped at a 7-11 on Highway 620 about two blocks before the I-35 ramp because I thought I must have missed something. In retrospect, it's a good thing I checked because I didn't see any signs indicating freeway entrance ramps.

After the game on Saturday night, I hopped on the bus with the team and rode to an overnight stay in Sulphur Springs, Texas. We arrived around 2:00 a.m. and had to stand outside while the front desk clerk verified that we were who we claimed to be. I'm assuming it's a necessary safety measure, albeit an irritating one for guests trying to check in. As I've found in my travels, you pay less in the boondocks and get nicer rooms. I had a suite, which was unnecessary since I'd be sleeping for six or seven hours and then leaving. I'm exaggerating when I call it the loneliest hotel room in the world, but considering the hinterland location and the closed restaurant next to the inn (apparently the former location of the adjacent new restaurant), it seemed like the sort of place one might go if running from the law but end up getting shot. Like I said, I'm exaggerating. It would have had to be much, much dingier--this place wasn't dingy at all--and smaller, so indulge my fantasy. Blame it on seeing too many movies.

The trip then led me to Conway, Arkansas, where I sit writing this in the lobby of a Super 8 while the team has practice. I found one of the NFL telecasts to catch up on the day's action and was treated to regular interruptions for updates about the tornado warnings for the area. With my exquisite view of the highway and the foreboding sky, I could see that the weathermen weren't fooling around. It rained cats and dogs. A twister touched down somewhere in these parts, although not especially close to where I am.

I have a raft of reviews to post when I get the chance, and since I know an empty day awaits me in Lexington, they'll probably get here sooner than later. I'll also have some photos to illustrate this entry when I return home.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Kelly Willis in concert at The Ark

Kelly Willis at The Ark in Ann Arbor, MI (Mark Pfeiffer/November 3, 2005)

More comments to come, but for now here are some photos and the setlist...

1. If I Left You
2. Find Another Fool
3. Get Real
4. Wrapped
5. Take Me Down
6. Getting To Me
7. Heaven's Just a Sin Away
8. Easy
9. Heaven Bound
10. Not Forgotten You
11. What Did You Think
12. Take It All Out On You
13. What World Are You Living In
14. River of Love
15. What I Deserve
16. Fading Fast
17. Got a Feeling For Ya
18. I'll Try Again
19. Whatever Way the Wind Blows


20. Reason To Believe

Kelly Willis and band

Kelly Willis

Kelly Willis during the encore

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

An Evening with Steve Buscemi

A view from the top of the post-LONESOME JIM Q&A with Steve Buscemi (Mark Pfeiffer/October 26, 2005)

The Drexel Gateway Theater opened its doors to VIPs and the paying public for the first time tonight. (Proceeds from the event will go to ABATE--American Bikers Aimed Toward Education--and their Firefighters for Kids 18th Annual Toy Run.) The attraction was a screening of LONESOME JIM, the third feature film directed by Steve Buscemi. The noted character actor was also in attendance, a visit aided by the fact that Buscemi's wife hails from Hilliard.

Casey Affleck plays the weary and depressed title character, an aspiring writer in his late twenties who returns to his parents' Indiana home after his time in Manhattan produced nothing more than walking dogs for a living. Buscemi's direction proves him adept at capturing the details of rural midwestern life and finding a dry sense of humor amid the dissatisfaction and disappointment dragging Jim down. LONESOME JIM has a surprisingly light touch despite the heavier emotional tone. Although the film is full of sadness and despair, it still holds out hope that people are decent and all will turn out well in the end. It's a good film and worth looking for when it is released next spring.

The moderator asked a couple questions to kick off the post-film Q&A, but audience members had ample opportunities to ask Buscemi what their hearts desired. He humored the inevitable (and impolite) "why did you do that" question--there's one in every crowd--when asked if he regretted making CON AIR. Buscemi explained that he had fun, got to work with other interesting actors, and could help fund smaller, more personal projects with the payday he gets from appearing in bigger movies. It's worth remembering that very few actors are raking in $20 million a picture, so it's understandable why Buscemi or any other performer below the title would make some films less artistically minded than the indies that garner acclaim but pay squat. If being in CON AIR lets him direct small films he feels passionately about, where's the harm in it?

The new Drexel Gateway Theater (Mark Pfeiffer/October 26, 2005)

My first impression of the new Drexel Gateway is very positive. The seats are very comfortable, and there's plenty of leg room in the aisles. The auditoriums are plusher than I expected. This should be an excellent place to see movies. Parking around the Ohio State campus can be problematic, but a garage directly behind the theater is convenient and cheaper than anywhere else in the area unless you can snag a spot along the street somewhere in the neighborhood and are willing to hoof it.

A History of Violence

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (David Cronenberg, 2005)

Millbrook, Indiana is the picture of idyllic small town America that exists in Norman Rockwell paintings and TV sitcoms of the 1950s. In A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, trouble enters this peaceful burg when two criminal outsiders slink into a diner and try to rob it. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), the soft-spoken diner owner, saves the day when he kills the bad guys in defense of his employees and customers.

Naturally the incident attracts a lot of attention from local media, but it also catches the eye of Philadelphia crime boss Richie Cusack (William Hurt). He believes that Tom is his long-lost brother Joey, a thug renowned for his brutality. Richie sends a crew to Millbrook to confirm that Tom is Joey and, if so, to bring him back to Pennsylvania.

Like a dormant virus, the propensity for violence is hidden until the proper conditions are realized in David Cronenberg’s film. When brought to the surface, the violence is unleashed in rapid bursts of fury. To illustrate the immediacy with which violent impulses are summoned, Cronenberg switches from the film’s restrained pace to quick cuts during the bloodshed.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE posits that such aggressive behavior lurks within everyone but remains masked most of the time. Cronenberg has the characters engage in role-playing in their everyday lives. They behave according to the norms and hierarchy in society, giving the director the chance to explore the purpose artifice and façade serve in personal and community relationships.

Like FAR FROM HEAVEN, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE takes nostalgic ideas of the so-called good old days and exposes the truth of human behavior that such rosy views obscure.

Grade: B+

An Unfinished Life

AN UNFINISHED LIFE (Lasse Hallström, 2005)

Single mother Jean Gilkyson (Jennifer Lopez)runs from an abusive boyfriend in AN UNFINISHED LIFE. With nowhere else to turn, she goes to the Wyoming home of her father-in-law Einar (Robert Redford). He still holds Jean responsible for the accidental death of his son—her husband—that happened more than a decade ago. Their relationship has been so frayed that Einar never knew he had a granddaughter. Also living with Einar is Mitch, a ranch hand played by Morgan Freeman. Mitch was mauled by a bear, and out of friendship and guilt, Einar cares for him. AN UNFINISHED LIFE brings these wounded individuals together with the anticipation of healing.

AN UNFINISHED LIFE is an affecting demonstration of the enormous impact forgiveness can have on oneself and others. Director Lasse Hallström’s Oscar-bait films, such as THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and CHOCOLAT, tend to have sentiment thickly applied, but AN UNFINISHED LIFE’S story of redemption is told with restraint. The film is old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. The characters’ emotional scars are old and deep, and the film grants time for changes to occur gradually. Aside from the abusive boyfriend, who pops up briefly, AN UNFINISHED LIFE is a film without a villain. The forces harming the characters’ lives are internal, not some external figure. Once they come to this realization, their lives are transformed. Jean learns to stand up for herself. Einar lets go of his anger and self-pity.

None of this is especially surprising, but it gains power through the cast’s uniformly solid performances. Lopez again shows that she’s a capable actress when she’s not being a diva. Redford lends great poignancy to the softening of his grizzled farmer’s bitterness. One more time Freeman is the film’s voice of reason, providing a steadying influence in stormy conditions. As Jean’s daughter Griff, Becca Gardner holds her own with these veterans.

Grade: B


PROOF (John Madden, 2005)

In PROOF long-suffering daughter Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) cares for her brilliant, mentally ill father Robert (Anthony Hopkins). Catherine’s dad was a mathematical genius, but his final years have been marked with insanity that left him unable to work. PROOF begins the night before Robert’s funeral, a time that causes Catherine to wonder about her own mental health and if her father’s affliction runs in the family.

Math can confirm many things, but it can’t prove that love exists or how much of it there is. Such is the dilemma in PROOF, an emotionally charged film that throbs like an open wound. Catherine cannot prove the most important things in her life, and it is ripping her apart. Paltrow’s inward performance is of a piece with her stunning work as Sylvia Plath in the biopic SYLVIA. Again she’s an intelligent, depressed woman, but what makes her performance as Catherine different is the physicality of it. She often doesn’t look at others in conversation and wraps her arms around herself, making tangible how wrapped up she is in her own mind. In PROOF Paltrow and her SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE director John Madden reteam for a dynamite actor’s showcase and depiction of the ravages of mental illness on the individual and the family.

(Review first aired in a modified version on the October 11, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Oliver Twist

OLIVER TWIST (Roman Polanski, 2005)

Roman Polanski helms the latest cinematic adaptation of Charles Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST. Barney Clark stars as Oliver, an orphan who falls in with a group of boys who pick pockets on the London streets for their master. Ben Kingsley is Fagin, the devilish rogue who shows the boys kindness in exchange for their thieving.

With its handsome art direction and cinematography, Polanski’s OLIVER TWIST represents a triumph of formal design. It’s an impeccable production on a visual level and undeniably a well-made film, but the narrative often lacks the spark to bring it to life. The social commentary lingering from the source material grants Polanski some well-deserved potshots at those who believe Oliver should be grateful for even their most meager charity. Yet this airless adaptation chokes on its lack of freshness. A more interesting and relevant take on OLIVER TWIST might be to move it to the Brazilian slums in the explosive CITY OF GOD. OLIVER TWIST gradually improves, building to a climax in which Oliver pardons his oppressor, a scene that contains real power. Unfortunately, too much of the film lacks the same resonance.

Grade: C+

(Review first aired on the October 11, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

In Her Shoes

IN HER SHOES (Curtis Hanson, 2005)

Toni Collette’s Rose has a loving but exasperating relationship with her party girl sister Maggie(Cameron Diaz) in IN HER SHOES. Aside from a shared fondness for footwear, the two couldn’t be more different. Rose is the practical one who works hard at the office and struggles to get and keep a man in her life. Maggie can barely hold down any job, choosing instead to exploit her genetic superiority to snag well-heeled men to support her. Eventually Rose has enough of Maggie’s freeloading and throws her out, leaving her to turn to a grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) neither of them know at all.

IN HER SHOES director Curtis Hanson again demonstrates his uncommon touch for storytelling with more of a literary approach. Working from Susannah Grant’s adaptation of Jennifer Weiner’s chick-lit novel, Hanson’s loose direction lets the film meander, to soak up the tone, while still hitting the pivotal yet familiar developments in the plot.

Diaz and Collette are playing types, but they are given room to embody the characters, frequently with surprising results. Diaz’s Maggie proves to be more than just a good-time girl, although discovering her deeper dimensions requires moving into a retirement community. Maggie could have easily been just an object of scorn and ridicule, but Diaz finds the complexity that makes her character relatable. Likewise, Collette doesn’t characterize Rose as a martyr or someone who has all the answers.

IN HER SHOES may not look much different than other female relationship films, but when faced with the choice to follow convention or not, it usually goes the other way. It’s practically a given that such a film will end with a wedding, but it’s a rarity, one found here, that such a scene will feel fresh. A funny, generous film with strong performances, IN HER SHOES redeems the often derogatory "chick flick" label.

Grade: B


DOOM (Andrzej Bartkowiak, 2005)

The Rock leads a tactical fighting unit to a research base on Mars in DOOM. The station is locked down until the squad can locate and eliminate whatever is wreaking havoc. These elite fighters are loaded with weapons capable of dealing with whatever alien predators they may encounter. The compound even has a few extra-lethal guns stashed away for the cleverest to find.

DOOM originated as a first person shooter video game, but what makes such games fun to play does not translate into compelling viewing. The characters are merely slight variations of one another, with Rosamund Pike’s blonde scientist in the mix in to provide relief from all of the raging testosterone. Although the film spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to develop them, the results are the most boring cut scenes a gamer could watch. The Rock is wasted, employed more for his physical stature than his comedic abilities. A film this humorless is in bad need of the charisma he has demonstrated time and again, whether as a lead in THE RUNDOWN or as a supporting player in the dud BE COOL.

Considering that DOOM and other first person shooter games thrive on constant ammunition firing, there’s surprisingly little action for much of the film’s running time. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak, responsible for helming two of Jet Li’s worst American films, repeats scene after scene of the squad creeping around dark, dank corridors that lead only to brief engagements in combat. The action finally gets ratcheted up in the end, which includes the one noteworthy sequence: the game’s first person point of view with the gun bobbing in the lower center of the frame. Gamers would be better off playing DOOM or sitting in front of a blank screen than wasting time with this incredibly dull ALIENS rip-off.

Grade: F

Saturday, October 22, 2005

A Keane Conversation with Lodge Kerrigan

Film critic Kent Jones and director Lodge Kerrigan discuss KEANE at the Wexner Center (Mark Pfeiffer/October 21, 2005)

Lodge Kerrigan

In addition to introducing (and reintroducing) central Ohio cineastes to the best the film world has to offer, the Wexner Center also possesses an enviable record of bringing in the people who make the films. Capping their latest visiting filmmaker program was the area premiere of KEANE followed by Kent Jones' post-film discussion with director Lodge Kerrigan. (His other features, CLEAN, SHAVEN and CLAIRE DOLAN, screened last Friday. Unfortunately I was unable to attend.)

While I wouldn't rank KEANE among the year's best films, Kerrigan's rigorous and empathetic examination of a mentally ill man, intensely played by Damian Lewis, is recommended viewing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Lull

Allow me to make my periodic post apologizing for the lull generated by my lack of posting of late. The reasons aren't anything exotic: no avian flu or blockbuster deal with web portal. Rather, it's a combination of being exceptionally busy and desiring to tinker with reviews I've already written for television. The busy part has interfered with the plan to lengthen what I've already delivered on NOW PLAYING.

I'll get around to posting a few reviews soon, hopefully beginning after returning from the Antonoio Banderas ZORRO sequel that has taken an unusually long amount of time to get to the screen. (Maybe it isn't so unusual. This year has turned up follow-up films arriving several years after their forebears [DEUCE BIGALOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO, MISS CONGENIALITY 2].) Then again, I'm going to have the latest episode of LOST waiting on the DVR when I get home.

This time might as well be as good a time as any for an unscientific study. If you're a regular reader of this blog--and I hope you are--please feel free to let me know you're out there, what brought you here in the first place, what keeps you coming back, and from where you're reading (city, country, etc.--not "in front of the computer"). The comments section is probably the best place, but if you'd prefer to e-mail me, that's fine too. I have a general idea of the readership from looking at the site traffic reports, but I know they're imperfect.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Trailer Tricks

For an object lesson in how editing and music in trailers can make enormous differences in setting expectations, take a look at the clever mock trailers for THE SHINING and WEST SIDE STORY.

THE SHINING has been transformed into a heartwarming domestic comedy while WEST SIDE STORY becomes a horror film. The former is a brilliant piece of work. If I didn't know any better, I wouldn't suspect that it completely perverts what the film is actually like. The rejiggered WEST SIDE STORY trailer is pretty good too, although it "cheats" in adding some well-placed special effects to enhance the illusion.

(Credit to Rob Blackwelder for posting these links on the Online Film Critics Society forum)

Addendum: I found another one linked on the P.S. 260 blog. It applies the horror film template to TITANIC. Not bad but not as inspired as the other two.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On Offensive Film Depictions

(Spoiler warning: Although I'm trying to keep this entry vague, there's really no way to comment without revealing key information about FLIGHTPLAN.)

Is it possible to make a film without offending any special interest group?

From today's Los Angeles Times:
Three flight attendant groups are calling for a boycott of "Flightplan," which debuted at No. 1 last weekend, claiming that the depictions of a flight attendant and air marshal are outrageous and disrespectful.
According to a statement, the groups were also troubled by the depiction of the non-villianous flight attendants, who were "rude, unhelpful and uncaring."

Early in the film, flight attendants are seen rolling their eyes over a family with boisterous children, with one telling another something like: "It's OK to hate the passengers."
So I suppose the Arab passengers should have been the bad guys, right?

I think audiences are capable of distinguishing between fiction and reality, so flight attendants shouldn't worry that air travellers will now suspect them of being terrorists. If you're not a "rude, unhelpful, and uncaring" worker, then such a depiction in FLIGHTPLAN probably isn't going to trigger a sea change in passenger attitudes.

Look, I understand that how people are portrayed in films can affect attitudes and matters to those reflected on screen; however, if you take every complaint like this to its logical, offense-free end, then any less-than-perfect behavior, not to mention villains, must be banished from cinematic depictions. The flight attendants would have a point if there were rampant examples of films showing them to be terrorists. It's hard to make a case that having one flight attendant in one film characterized in such a way causes undue harm.

I can only wonder what the nation's restaurant workers will have to say about WAITING, a toxic "comedy" that paints them in the most unfavorable light possible.

Overall, though, everyone needs to cool down about perceived slights and digs in movies. The most innocuous things are getting overpoliticized. Luckily JUST LIKE HEAVEN wasn't released in the midst of that outrageous Terri Schiavo situation. I'm unaware of any group hijacking the Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy to promote their agenda--a silly tactic since the film is one big flight of fantasy--but in these increasingly hostile and polarized political times, it wouldn't surprise me if an organization did. Conservatives and liberals need to accept that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and not a call for the dismantling of corporate America or the expression of individual choice.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


JUNEBUG (Phil Morrison, 2005)

A cosmopolitan art dealer meets her husband’s family for the first time in JUNEBUG. Embeth Davidtz plays Madeleine, a gallery owner specializing in outsider art. She and new husband George (Alessandro Nivola) travel from Chicago to North Carolina in hopes of securing a deal with an artist whose work incorporates Civil War imagery and phalluses. George hasn’t seen his family for three years, but since the artist lives nearby, he and Madeleine take a side trip to spend time with his folks. Although eager to ingratiate herself to her in-laws, Madeleine finds resistance from George’s resentful mother and hostile brother. On the other hand, George’s pregnant sister-in-law Ashley (Amy Adams) cottons to her immediately.

JUNEBUG does a wonderful job of capturing the regional flavor and finding humor in the people and place without holding the southern characters up for ridicule or scorn. Director Phil Morrison shows respect for simple, quiet lives of close-knit families and church carry-in dinners while also examining the wariness such insularity breeds toward outsiders.

JUNEBUG is seen through Madeleine’s eyes, a natural choice considering her unfamiliarity with this way of life despite her interest in the area’s folk art. Davidtz handles this tricky role quite well, making Madeleine neither the target of vilification nor the model of perfection.

There’s a niggling sense, though, that George should be JUNEBUG’S focus. At times he seems to be eminently comfortable in his old stomping grounds—he sings a hymn for the congregants at the church social, showing a part of himself that Madeleine has likely never witnessed—but he has not seen his family for a long time and spends much of the film avoiding them. It then comes as a big surprise when he takes his wife to task for not placing family above work when Ashley goes into labor at the same time Madeleine faces a crisis in finalizing a deal with the local artist. When they leave for Chicago, George expresses relief at getting away from his family. JUNEBUG would be a more successful film if George weren’t a cipher. As it stands, his contradictions contribute to the film’s mixed message.

What’s abundantly clear is that Adams steals the film as the irrepressible Ashley. She brings warmth and hilarity to a quirky character who never has less than everyone’s best interests at heart.

JUNEBUG has a good feel for its environment and gets many details right, but the major inconsistency (or glaring lack of understanding) regarding George throws the rest out of balance.

Grade: C

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride

TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE (Tim Burton and Mike Johnson, 2005)

A groom practicing his vows unwittingly weds the dead in TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE. For the stop-motion animated film Johnny Depp provides the voice of Victor, a nervous husband-to-be who places a ring on what turns out to be the skeletal finger of a murdered woman. The corpse bride (Helena Bonham Carter) is sweet, but there’s the little matter of their very wrong engagement being contrary to the natural order.

CORPSE BRIDE’S protagonists are kindred spirits with the sensitive, pale, black-clad heroes who populate Burton’s body of work. He and co-director Mike Johnson have made the first film perfect for parents who were teenage goths and their angst-ridden children. After all, in CORPSE BRIDE the after life is where color is found. The world of the living is draped in black, white, and the bluish gray of a dead body. The ghastly elegant visual style and macabre humor are indebted to Edward Gorey’s illustrations.

For all its death fixations, CORPSE BRIDE is a film alive with inventiveness and devil-may-care attitude. Certainly it’s darker than the Burton-produced stop-motion classic THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, enough that it may mortify unsuspecting moms and dads, yet the creepiness should elicit gleeful shudders from children rather than bad dreams.

It’s all in good fun, something in evidence with jokes including a maggot that sounds like Peter Lorre, a secondhand shop that gives new meaning to such a place, and a gag with a skeleton whose reaction to a shocking revelation is a literal jaw-dropper. There’s also a funny, inadvertent warning of the perils of wedding a lass so thin that her ribcage is actually visible. (The corpse bride has select spots where what’s underneath her rotted flesh is exposed.)

CORPSE BRIDE continues a perfect marriage between Burton’s creativity and a technique rarely used for feature films.

Grade: B

Just Like Heaven

JUST LIKE HEAVEN (Mark Waters, 2005)

Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo form a cosmic connection in JUST LIKE HEAVEN. As Elizabeth Masterson, Witherspoon plays a hardworking doctor who can’t find time for anything else, least of all a relationship. On the way to her sister’s house, Elizabeth’s car meets with a semi truck, an accident that leaves her in a coma. Ruffalo’s David Abbott is still deep in mourning for his deceased wife when he sublets Elizabeth’s apartment. Somehow Elizabeth’s soul separates from her body and continues to inhabit her residence, which convinces David that he may have finally cracked.

JUST LIKE HEAVEN’S time-tested and timeworn formula may not require much brain exertion, but it provides celestial stars for the thinking man and woman in the forms of Witherspoon and Ruffalo. Witherspoon projects intelligence even when playing the ditziest of characters. Here she’s quite funny coping with the collision of Elizabeth’s professional practicality and utter befuddlement in personal matters. Seeing her blithe spirit revive the rumpled, brooding David is a primary source of the film’s charms. Ruffalo pulls several laughs reacting to someone no one else can see, particularly when Witherspoon talks him through an emergency surgery. Witherspoon and Ruffalo underplay the broad comedy and their characters’ attraction, which is why their chemistry ultimately proves to be so satisfying.

In addition to the boundless appeal of its stars, JUST LIKE HEAVEN brings in a scene-stealing supporting character and a director with sharp comic timing. Jon Heder follows up his breakthrough NAPOLEON DYNAMITE role with a funny turn as an occult bookstore employee who can commune with spirits. On the heels of the FREAKY FRIDAY remake and MEAN GIRLS, director Mark Waters shows his ability to deliver good mainstream comedies, a talent less common than you might think.

Grade: B

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Upcoming radio appearance

They can't keep me off Columbus radio. They can only hope to contain me...or something like that.

I join John DeSando for this week's It's Movie Time on 90.5 WCBE. (I'm filling in for the vacationing Clay Lowe.) We discuss JUST LIKE HEAVEN and TIM BURTON'S CORPSE BRIDE. The show airs at 3:01 p.m. and 8:01 p.m. on Friday, September 23. Out-of-towners or those not near radios can hear it live via streaming audio. Remember to account for time differences if you're not in the eastern time zone.

I think it turned out well, so make sure to catch it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A Wexner Plug

For those in the Columbus area, I highly encourage you to visit the newly reopened and renovated Wexner Center film and video space this Thursday or Friday. Arnaud Desplechin's KINGS AND QUEEN, which currently sits atop my best films of 2005 list, returns. Circumstances are probably going to prevent me from seeing it again, but I'd go if I could. It's a head-spinning masterpiece that deserves to be seen on a big screen.

Kudos to the Wexner folks for improving their screening room. The new seats are much more comfortable than the old ones, and the clarity of the sound is noticeably better as well.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Trading Faces

Science fiction becomes science fact, sort of, with news of a Cleveland doctor's search for candidates to undergo the first face transplant. It's not quite FACE/OFF territory--Nicolas Cage couldn't swap his face for John Travolta's and look just like him--but it does seem the recipients might have to deal with issues of identity as in the John Woo film.

Here's the most shudder-inducing passage from the story:
But her critics say the operation is way too risky for something that is not a matter of life or death, as organ transplants are. They paint the frighteningly surreal image of a worst-case scenario: a transplanted face being rejected and sloughing away, leaving the patient worse off than before

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Constant Gardener

THE CONSTANT GARDENER (Fernando Meirelles, 2005)

In THE CONSTANT GARDENER a British diplomat stationed in Kenya receives news that his activist wife has been found murdered. Ralph Fiennes stars as Justin Quayle, the husband who diligently digs for the truth about her death. Rachel Weisz plays Tessa, a headstrong woman whose investigation into pharmaceutical corporation malfeasance in Africa may have brought about her demise. Rumors persist, though, that Tessa and her travel companion, a doctor who has gone missing, were having an affair. The conventional wisdom is that Tessa’s murder is nothing more than a crime of passion, but Justin finds indications of a greater conspiracy at work.

As he did with the astonishing CITY OF GOD, director Fernando Meirelles captures intimacy and an authentic sense of place in THE CONSTANT GARDENER. Handheld camerawork has become shorthand for “edgy” filmmaking, but Meirelles utilizes it not as a gimmick but as an essential means for telling the story. THE CONSTANT GARDENER’S power comes in the private, tender scenes between Justin and Tessa and the immediacy of being thrust into crowded locations, places where a roving camera can get with greater ease.

Adapted from a John Le Carré book, the film brims with the intrigue and surprises expected from the espionage novelist. Although the storyline is relatively complicated, Meirelles’ deft direction and Jeffrey Caine’s incisive screenplay delineate the twisty plot. Fiennes and Weisz add the emotional heft to the film’s sociopolitical machinations and message.

In spite of all the thriller elements, THE CONSTANT GARDENER is a love story in which Justin’s affection for his wife intensifies as he discovers the truth about a woman he didn’t know completely. Fiennes, who often plays the tortured lover, comes to life as Justin arrives at revelations that far exceed what he anticipated. Weisz excels as the feisty, conscientious Tessa, playing her with the right mix of bravado and composure.

A brisk, galvanizing journey through the political thicket in Africa, THE CONSTANT GARDENER positions Meirelles as a leading director of electrically charged dramas with social consciences.

Grade: B+

Transporter 2

TRANSPORTER 2 (Louis Leterrier, 2005)

Jason Statham returns as ex-Special Forces operative Frank Martin in TRANSPORTER 2. An elite fighter and driver, his current job shuttling a wealthy family’s son to school and the doctor’s office might seem like an underutilization of his talents. The boy’s father is a top government drug agency official, which means the youngster is a natural target for abduction by bad, bad people. Frank unwittingly enters a trap and loses the kid, which leads to the authorities considering him the prime suspect in the kidnapping. Having promised to protect the boy and wishing to clear his name, Frank hunts for the abductors while dodging the cops.

With this year’s UNLEASHED and TRANSPORTER 2, Louis Leterrier demonstrates that he’s an up-and-coming director of action films. He understands where to put the camera and how long to hold shots so the audience can follow the action. TRANSPORTER 2 uses quick edits but not so quick that the action becomes abstract. A great example is the tour de force fight scene in and around a boat. As in UNLEASHED’S bathroom fight, Leterrier proves himself an expert in depicting hand-to-hand combat in small spaces, in this case using tight camerawork and bone-crunching sound effects editing to heighten the impact.

Corey Yuen, who directed the first TRANSPORTER, choreographs the martial arts again. Like its predecessor, TRANSPORTER 2 boasts creative and witty fight scenes that play like live-action cartoons. Frank makes excellent use of available items. He pursues a bus on a jet ski (on the highway, no less), takes down a room full of thugs with a fire hose, and uses melons as improvised boxing gloves. It’s all pretty silly stuff—look no further than the lingerie clad, raccoon-eyed villainess with a fondness for automatic weapons or a preposterous battle in a tail spinning plane—but as pure action filmmaking, TRANSPORTER 2 is exhilarating.

Statham cuts an imposing figure and exhibits a knack for various fighting styles. His dry, straightforward performance is the perfect anchor for a film so over the top. TRANSPORTER 2 bursts with outrageous driving stunts, sublimely absurd fight scenes, and a sense of humor that ties it together.

Grade: B

Answering the Call: Ground Zero's Volunteers


ANSWERING THE CALL: GROUND ZERO’S VOLUNTEERS shares the stories of those who helped with the World Trade Center rescue mission in the days and weeks following the attack on September 11, 2001. Narrated by Kathleen Turner, the documentary features local and national emergency personnel, relief workers, and citizen volunteers who assisted with the effort to rescue any possible survivors and remove the mountain of debris from the site. Director Lou Angeli is a volunteer firefighter. He’s also a filmmaker who shot footage at Ground Zero, which is being shown for the first time in ANSWERING THE CALL.

Everyone has a story, and ANSWERING THE CALL attempts to fit in as many as possible. The problem with Angeli’s approach is that the dozens of accounts blur as the film skips from person to person. The numerous statements about the incomprehensible devastation and invocations of American resilience have value, but the film would have been better served by focusing on a few exceptional stories or providing a thorough overview of the operation than relying on platitudes. ANSWERING THE CALL is at its best when it details the rescue and recovery teams’ procedures on the pile, such as how to work safely on the rubble and how dogs were used. Although many people speak about their experiences, the sheer volume and unanimity keep any significant personal stories from breaking through the clutter. From a technical standpoint, the film makes beginner’s mistakes in employing unnecessary video effects and including distracting jump cuts. ANSWERING THE CALL’S noble intentions are unquestionable, but the scattershot reporting keeps it from amounting to little more than a string of too-similar witness testimonies.

In addition to honoring the victims and heroes, ANSWERING THE CALL may have a secondary agenda. One interviewee who stands out is a Scientologist. At first I thought he had a novel viewpoint, one which I hadn’t heard reported, and thus worthy of inclusion even if the man in question received undue time. When the issue of sick rescue workers was raised, the film goes in an unusual direction. In addressing respiratory illnesses and other sicknesses afflicting site workers, the film gives an unchallenged assertion on the effectiveness of an L. Ron Hubbard-designed regimen for these people. No medical doctors or conventionally treated patients speak in this section of the film, an odd omission considering the number of physicians who must have been on site and examined ill workers and volunteers after the fact.

Grade: C

The Man

THE MAN (Les Mayfield, 2005)

Wisconsin dental supply salesman Andy Fidler, played by Eugene Levy, happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time in THE MAN. Through what must be the least efficient means of arranging a blind buy, Andy is mistaken for Samuel L. Jackson’s Special Agent Vann, who is trying to catch the seller of guns stolen from the police vault. The criminal’s error makes Andy’s help imperative, so Vann detains him to help crack the case.

On those occasions when I see a really terrible movie, it can feel like the life force has been drained from me. Watching THE MAN left me feeling downright sluggish. THE MAN is a stale mismatched buddy comedy in which not a single interesting thing happens. Far too much time and energy is devoted to the investigation and Vann’s failed personal life, elements which are secondary to the humorous tension that is supposed to exist between Andy and Vann. The only remotely amusing moment is when Vann is required to attest to his subservience to Andy—in other words, proclaiming that he is Andy’s bitch to the gunrunners—but even that isn’t as funny as it sounds. THE MAN delivers not one but two scenes about Andy’s noxious flatulence, one with an elevator full of nuns, a joke so shopworn that it’s amazing it made the cut, so to speak. It’s a strong indication of the screenplay’s lack of originality that even the most overused jokes get repeated. Unsurprisingly, that makes THE MAN one of the year’s worst films.

Grade: F

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Happy Birthday to Me

That's right, it's my birthday. Last year's birthday post lists who else shares the big day with me. What was good enough last year is good enough this year. I did find out, though, that I also share a birthday with ESPN.

It's been slow around these parts the past two weeks because I've been busy on vacation. I'd like to tell you I did something exciting, but the reality was that I spent much of the time straightening up and making improvements to my apartment. The glamorous life of a film critic, right? Posting should be picking up again.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Help for hurricane victims

As you must know by now, Hurricane Katrina has caused unbelievable devastation in New Orleans and other places in the Gulf Coast. Watching the news coverage of the situation is continually shocking and heartrending. If you are able to donate to the Red Cross, please click on the ad in the righthand sidebar of this site.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Red Eye

RED EYE (Wes Craven, 2005)

Lisa (Rachel McAdams) and Jackson (Cillian Murphy) meet in line waiting to catch the night's last flight from Dallas to Miami. They engage in some polite small talk and a little flirtation but nothing more. Fortuitously, they end up seated next to one another on the plane. The seating arrangement is no coincidence, though, and RED EYE is not a romance.

Jackson is involved in a plot to kill Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia), and Lisa's job as a luxury hotel manager puts her in a position to help him fulfill his duty. All he needs Lisa to do is call her hotel, where Keefe is scheduled to stay, and have his room changed. To persuade her, Jackson has a man ready to kill her father (Brian Cox) if she fails to cooperate.

RED EYE is a nimble thriller that doesn't waste an opportunity to ratchet up the tension. Although not staged in real time, the film's immediacy and confined quarters force the characters to react instinctively rather than having the benefit of contemplation and possible escape. Director Wes Craven has crafted a lean film in which everything seen--even as insignificant as a Dr. Phil self-help book or a novelty pen--has a purpose.

RED EYE doesn't depend on deep characterization, but Carl Ellsworth's screenplay provides just enough clues to who these people are to make their behaviors believable in the situation. The leads do a wonderful job of filling in the blanks, McAdams in particular. She has seemed primed for stardom for awhile, although in actuality her rise to prominence has come in less than the past year and a half. If enough people see RED EYE, this could be the film to put her on the path to the predicted Julia Roberts-type stardom, if she chooses to follow that career track. As in WEDDING CRASHERS and THE NOTEBOOK, here she's the embodiment of The Girl Next Door. Pretty, friendly, down to earth, and able to fend for herself, McAdams is immensely likeable and familiar in a way that's rare for movie stars. (She also has a go-for-broke flair for comedy, which isn't on display in RED EYE but has been witnessed in MEAN GIRLS and, of all places, THE HOT CHICK.) McAdams' performance may be most notable for what it isn't. She's neither an action star nor a damsel in distress but a regular, headstrong woman.

Murphy also underplays his part, as unlikely as that sounds considering he's playing a terrorist with the improbable, malevolent name of Jackson Rippner. His character's motivation is to go unnoticed. Using his devilish charm, Murphy's vaguely dangerous portrayal of Jackson is what he makes him all the more seductive, even to someone like Lisa.

RED EYE is a wind-up machine of elegant simplicity, an increasingly uncommon breed among today's bloated genre films. Craven uses today's fears of domestic terrorism and the frustrations borne of it to make something exciting, heroic, and funny.

Grade: B