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 CarrĂ© 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.