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 exposĂ©.

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 cafĂ©. 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+