Thursday, December 20, 2007


Can it really be? Today marks the fourth anniversary of this site's creation. See the inauspicious start for yourself.

Since this is something I'm doing in my free time and in association with the TV show, the blog has its ups and downs, inconsistencies of posting that I'd like to improve upon and usually vow to do about this time of year. I have hot streaks, when it seems like the writing comes forth as though all I have to do is connect a USB cable to my brain and press the "publish post" button. I have cold streaks too, most notably when the show's production went on hiatus this summer and fall due to the station's move.

Everyone hates deadlines, but I acknowledge their importance in spurring work. Not having those deadlines, save for the throbbing internal pressure of self-expectations, made it really hard to stay on the task of writing while the show was dormant. We still aren't quite back on a normal schedule but should be soon. That should lead to a pick up in activity, or a flurry of it every two weeks at the minimum.

I have new ideas of what I'd like to do in the coming year. They may require more time than I probably have, but we'll see how it goes. If I can commit myself to a schedule, there's a greater likelihood of it happening. (Witness my weekly blogging about ON THE LOT.) The best I can offer is to say that I'll try.

If you're a regular visitor--and I have no clue who you may be or if you exist--thanks for sticking by this site. I write for myself, but I also write to be read in the hope that I have something to add to the conversation. In my mind film criticism has essentially migrated to the internet. No slag intended of my print brethren, but online is where the the best and most vital work is being done.

Fingers crossed, I'm hoping to finish my write-ups of the year's best and worst before the calendar turns to 2008. Top ten lists, even the reviews themselves, are not carved in stone. They are snapshots of moments in time and the fleeting emotions and observations tied to them. As much as I might want to hold off publishing my lists because I haven't seen this film or that film, in truth there is always one more film. It's that kind of optimism about what unviewed films are out there and still to come that gets this critic through the duds and mediocrities and eager to see what's next.

Monday, December 17, 2007

I'm Not There

I'M NOT THERE (Todd Haynes, 2007)

How can someone truly know us as individuals? We are who we say we are. We are who others want and believe us to be. We are more and less than the sum of our dreams, failures, contradictions, consistencies, genetic predispositions, and environmental imprintings. We are our families, friends, and acquaintances. We are our work.

How can we truly know someone else, especially if the person is famous? That question is at the center of I'M NOT THERE. Todd Haynes' masterful portrait of Bob Dylan scrutinizes the musician-poet-actor-artist-husband-father-outlaw and leaves him at once as mysterious as ever and yet somehow knowable.

Jung wrote of archetypes within us all, universal parts of the personality that reside deep inside regardless of if they are visibly manifested. In presenting Dylan the character--none using his name, incidentally--Haynes makes the Jungian concept tangible. Dylan's film biography doesn't put him forward as just a Jewish singer-songwriter from Minnesota. Played by six actors to correspond to different periods of his career, he's also an African-American child, a woman, and Billy the Kid.

It isn't necessary to be steeped in Dylan lore to keep up with the shapeshifting I'M NOT THERE , but let's be honest, it helps to know at least a few things about the man's history. Haynes' challenging film sets out to see how the disparate pieces of Dylan's persona fit together, if they're even part of the same puzzle. Edited like a puzzle worker's trial-and-error method of searching for what goes where, I'M NOT THERE juxtaposes eras in a structure that suggests chronology but avoids hewing to it.

Haynes demands patience from the viewer. Through his bold directorial choices and the film's technical prowess--Edward Lachman's striking cinematography, most notably--it becomes easier to grant it to him. The complex and opaque nature of I'M NOT THERE is in keeping with its subject's body of work. While renowned as a top notch lyricist, Dylan's songs also have a reputation for being difficult to penetrate.

The actors smooth the path through the rough landscape of metaphor. Christian Bale impresses with his earnest and impassioned work as protest singer Jack Rollins turned born-again Pastor John. Heath Ledger lends destructive magnetism to brooding screen idol Robbie Clark. It's Cate Blanchett, though, who outshines everyone as DON'T LOOK BACK Dylan, Jude Quinn. Playing the wisecracking rebel to the hilt, Blanchett has a merry time staggering through the mid-'60s as though the world is his (hers?) for the taking. Like the infamous moment when Dylan went electric, I'M NOT THERE gets an unexpected charge from Blanchett's chameleon-like transformation.

After looking at the many faces of Dylan and failing to pin him down, I'M NOT THERE leaves us with his songs. Perhaps that's the driving factor behind his reinventions. In obscuring who the author or the singer is, the focus turns to the art he creates. Isn't that the point in the first place?

Grade: A-

Sunday, December 16, 2007


ENCHANTED (Kevin Lima, 2007)

For ENCHANTED beauty Giselle (Amy Adams), life truly is a Disney cartoon. The fairy tale's introductory section is realized in the lush, hand-drawn animation that helped build the studio into a trusted name in family entertainment. Like so many Disney heroines before her, Giselle frolics with the creatures of the forest and sings of her prince and their happily ever after.

For every princess-in-waiting, there is also a witch conniving to spoil the beautiful life within reach. Rather than let Giselle marry her son, Prince Edward (James Marsden), Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) tricks the girl and pushes her down a well. Giselle lands in New York City, a place about as far removed from her Andalasian home as possible, and sheds her ink-drawn figure for one of flesh.

Giselle takes the turn of events in good humor and guilelessly wanders around Times Square before Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) comes to her rescue. The single father thinks the pretty redhead is cracked but agrees to put the damsel in distress up for the night. Despite their differences in sensibility--she believes in true love, he's a divorce lawyer--Giselle slowly wins him over. Good thing, too. She needs him to survive. The queen has dispatched her servant Nathaniel (a wonderfully cast Timothy Spall) to kill Giselle. Prince Edward's pursuit of his love brings him to the land of three dimensions, but the dimwitted hunk is clearly out of his element.

ENCHANTED bubbles over with good cheer, due in large part to Adams for the wide-eyed optimism and innocence she brings to her irony-free performance. It's a delight to watch her clean up Robert's apartment with the assistance of rats and cockroaches as she sings "Happy Working Song", Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz's affectionate tweak of SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. To Giselle these pests are just as beautiful as her woodland Andalasian friends. The purity of heart and soul with which Adams imbues Giselle can't help but be infectious.

When even children's movies tend to favor the crass, it's startling to see someone on screen capable of convincing us that every day really is filled with sunshine and rainbows. Adams may not get as much credit for her acting in ENCHANTED because it appears effortless, but I'd wager that this is a taller order than awards bait roles that call for portraying inner torment. And she's funny too. Adams parlays Giselle's blissful ignorance of contemporary cynicism into several laughs.

ENCHANTED is a rarity among today's movies: a film for the whole family. Whether you're taking a little one to the theater for the first time or accompanying a grandparent, it offers good, clean enterainment that shouldn't lead to embarrassment for anyone. There is one scatological joke that probably could have been left out, but it seems that no matter what the age, everyone loves poop humor.

A cynic might look at ENCHANTED as little more than a recycling of Disney's princess stories into a tidy package readymade for Broadway and touring companies. I don't think anyone attuned to the industry at all would be surprised if a stage musical is in the works. OK, the film flags as the fish out of water concept treads water until the conclusion, and the subplot with Robert's girlfriend flatlines from the first moment. Regardless, ENCHANTED provides a pleasing blend of humor and music anchored by a winning lead performance. See, Giselle's sunniness really does rub off on those who come in contact with her.

Grade: B-

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium


243-year-old toy store owner Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) announces that the time has come for him to leave this earthly existence and turn over the business to his protégé Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman). Naturally, the news of his departure is met with less enthusiasm than the eccentric proprietor anticipated.

Molly has been happy to manage the store as a diversion from struggling to find herself as a composer, but she doesn't feel ready to assume control of the shop. Eric Applebaum (Zach Mills), a friendless boy who spends his free time at the emporium, can't imagine the place without him. Even the building and toys go into a funk over the thought of Mr. Magorium leaving. The only one untroubled by the development is Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), a decidely unplayful accountant summoned to determine the worth of the soon-to-be bequeathed business.

MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM jumps headfirst into the tale with the full-blown whimsy its title suggests. Unfortunately writer-director Zach Helm mistakes busyness and unfettered zaniness for the breezy and magical tone he wants to establish, obliterating it from the screen in the process. The aggressive pitching of unbridled joy seems forced, as if everyone is trying too hard.

Broken into storybook-like chapters and narrated by Eric, the film implies that it possesses literary roots; however, MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM comes across as a quickie knockoff attempting to capitalize on a more popular title's success. Roald Dahl's influence is undeniable, especially in the Wonka-esque title character. Helm hasn't stolen ideas but mimicked them, and not in a terribly convincing voice. He's borrowed materials from classic kid lit--no harm in that--but not the spark that brings them to life.

The film even begins as though there are a few books (or cinematic prequels) that precede this particular story. This narrative technique makes for a jagged start and, more critically, undermines the importance of Mr. Magorium's going. Without sufficient time to cotton to the character, his planned exit fails to affect the audience just introduced to him.

For all of its shortcomings--and there are many--it's nice to see a G-rated movie determined to approach young viewers with respect and aspire to cover deep subjects while entertaining. (MR. MAGORIUM'S message is about fulfilling one's purpose in life and how in doing so death is not sorrowful. Heavy stuff, to be sure.) Hopefully next time Helm will make a film more worthy of his ambitions.

Grade: D+

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend

I AM LEGEND (Francis Lawrence, 2007)

In 2012, three years removed from the devastation wreaked by a man-made virus that may have left him the planet's lone human survivor, scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) continues to search for a cure. The basement laboratory experiments give purpose to his days even if there may be no one for him to save except his pet dog Sam. (Canines are immune to airborne strains but susceptible to the virus via contact.) Of course, Sam is a desperately needed companion in I AM LEGEND'S cripplingly lonely New York City. If Robert were to lose her, one senses his will to live would end.

Robert follows a regimented routine of exercise, research, hunting and gathering, and waiting at a post for potential fellow survivors. When the sun sets, he barricades himself in his Washington Square home to keep out the monsters. The dogs and humans not killed by the virus have mutated into bloodthirsty creatures vulnerable to light.

I AM LEGEND is set in a world undone by Babylonian-like folly. The collective human knowledge in science has made practically nothing impossible--even cancer is curable--but such wisdom can also bring about terrible, unintended consequences. Since I AM LEGEND is primarily an atmospheric action film than an exploration of contemporary scientific ethics, the questions it introduces tend to be mere set dressing for the commotion in the foreground. When the climax forces taking a position on the faith versus science debate, the film lays claim to a safe middle ground that would make Presidential candidates proud.

Despite not fulfilling its thematic potential, I AM LEGEND is effective escapist entertainment, albeit something of a somber piece. A desolate and overgrown New York City looks pretty cool if you can put aside the fact that all but one man may be dead. The film boasts four solid action sequences. Director Francis Lawrence manages the obligatory trip into the dark chamber where the beasts live with strong composition and spare use of light to heighten the tension. Robert's race against the setting sun to get to his vehicle crackles with nervous energy as the shadows disintegrate.

As good as the action scenes are, the humanity in Smith's performance is most responsible for I AM LEGEND'S success. Likable as ever, he conveys Robert's deep pain in believing he has outlived everyone else yet still needs to save the lost. His fatherly banter with the dog and shyness in introducing himself to a female mannequin express a longing for human interaction that can't help but break one's heart. Being a savior is all well and good, but what difference does it make if there's no one to rescue?

Grade: B