Sunday, December 27, 2009

DVD Views: 35 Shots of Rum

35 Shots of Rum *** ½
Directed By:
Claire Denis.
Written By: Claire Denis & Jean-Pol Fargeau.
Starring: Alex Descas (Lionel), Mati Diop (Joséphine), Nicole Dogue (Gabrielle), Grégoire Colin (Noé), Jean-Christophe Folly (Ruben).

Claire Denis is one of those foreign filmmakers who is admired by critics and cinephiles, but has never really broken through with general audiences. Whereas a filmmaker like Pedro Almodovar has a large following in North America, Denis has never really had a big audience hit, and is virtually ignored come Oscar time. That she is one of the best filmmakers in the world is undeniable, but I also understand why her films have never really broken through. They are quiet and introspective more than anything else. It takes a long time for the film to reveal what it is really after.

Lionel (Alex Descas) works as a driver on the Paris subways. He lives in a working class neighborhood with his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) who is in university, and one the verge of moving on with her own life, independent of him. This scares Lionel, whose wife died years ago, but also scares Josephine. Although she wants free of the neighborhood and of her responsibilities - she has essentially become more of a wife surrogate for Lionel - but cannot let go.,

There are other characters who circle around these two. Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) has been in love with Lionel for years, and cannot seem to let go of him even though it is clear that they will never be together. She is a cab driver who lives in the same building as Lionel and Josephine, and continually tries to insert herself into Lionel’s life. Lionel provides just enough tenderness to her to string her along. Then there is Noe (Gregoire Colin), a young man who makes enough money to live somewhere else, but cannot quite seem to let go of the apartment that his parents lived in for years. These characters are, in there own messed up way, a family. They certainly more like a family than a group of friends, as they cannot seem to let each other go. They are stuck with each other, for better or worse.

35 Shots of Rum is a methodically paced movie. It only gradually reveals its secrets, and then simply sits back and allows the characters to behave like really people, instead of just pawns in a game played by the filmmakers. There are many great filmmaking moments in the film. Denis is one of the most gifted visual filmmakers out there right now, and 35 Shots of Rum continues this tradition. There are haunting images throughout the film, and her sound design is also excellent. A truly interesting technical film.

Denis’ films have as much in common with music then it does with movies themselves. They move along with the effortless grace of a jazz piece, where nothing is ever spelled out but everything is clear. The films best sequences takes place in a café, where the four main characters take refuge from a rainstorm. There is hardly any dialogue in this sequence, and yet it is the scene where all the relationships in the film are most sharply defined. The way the characters move toward, or away, from each other, tells us more than dialogue ever would. This is fine, because the story itself is the same type of thing that we have seen before - it was a favorite theme of Ozu for example - so Denis does not feel the need to hit ever plot point over the head. She simply allows the characters to move with each other. It is quietly beautiful in its own way.

I’m sure that much like Denis’ other recent films - including Beau Travail, Friday Night and The Intruder, that the critics are going to be the only ones who go nuts for the film. The film has not made a lot of money at the theaters, and I wonder if many more people are going to discover the film on DVD, like I did. That’s a shame, but at least I understand it. In a world where the movies seem to have to move quicker and faster than ever before, films like 35 Shots of Rum seem almost alien. To those adventuresome filmgoers, 35 Shots of Rum is a must see. I’m sure you know who you are.

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes ***
Directed By:
Guy Ritchie.
Written By: Michael Robert Johnson & Anthony Peckham & Simon Kinberg based on the books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes), Jude Law (Dr. John Watson), Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler), Mark Strong (Lord Blackwood), Eddie Marsan (Inspector Lestrade), Robert Maillet (Dredger), Geraldine James (Mrs. Hudson), Kelly Reilly (Mary Morstan), William Houston (Constable Clark), Hans Matheson (Lord Coward), James Fox (Sir Thomas).

I’ve known for a while now that the TV show House was inspired greatly by Sherlock Holmes. I bring this up because watching Guy Ritchie’s version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed detective, the interaction between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) reminded me more than anything of the interaction between House and Wilson on that TV show. It has been a while since I read any of Doyle’s books (I read almost all of them as a child) I cannot tell if House just does a great job of adapting Doyle’s books, or if this version of Sherlock Holmes does an excellent job of adapting House for the big screen, or neither.

The interaction between Holmes and Watson is the heart of the movie, and the reason to see it. Downey has made a career of late playing egomaniacal assholes who are geniuses, but rub everyone around him the wrong way. Holmes is another of those characters, the biggest difference this time being that he has a British accent as he acts like an asshole. But Downey plays these roles better than anyone. And, as always, in Sherlock Holmes, he is great. Jude Law is excellent as Watson. He loves Holmes in his own way, but is tired of being at his beck and call at all hours. He is moving out of their shared flat, and moving his office away from Holmes, He wants to get engaged, and move on with his life. But Holmes has a hold on him, and won’t let go. Much like House and Wilson, Holmes cannot let Watson go, because if he does his one connection with humanity will be gone, and Holmes may not be able to find his way back.

The case at the center of the movie didn’t really interest me very much. The thing I always liked about the Holmes stories was how there was a central mystery, and we were never sure until the final scenes who was behind all the wickedness in the story. In the movie, we know from the first scene that the bad guy is Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), even though he is supposedly hung early in the story. We also know that Holmes’ former love Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is not completely on the up and up. All of Holmes deductive powers are not really used in the movie, unless its to figure out how best to beat someone up.

That’s right, there’s a lot of action in this movie. Lots of chase sequences and fights between Holmes and various bad guys. Yes, director Guy Ritchie will tell you that in the books Holmes liked to box and he studied martial arts. All this is true, but it was never really as much of a part of the story as it is here. But, what did you expect really? Times have changed, and films need non stop action these days to draw in and audience, and has Guy Ritchie has proven in the past, that if a movie doesn’t contain action, then he doesn’t know how to direct it. And Ritchie does a fine job with the direction in the film (even if he is overly fond of slow motion), but it is easily Ritchie’s best film since Snatch almost a decade ago. Perhaps Ritchie is finally back making the type of movies he should be making.
Sherlock Holmes plays like the first movie in a series. In it, the filmmakers seem more interesting in setting up the characters than telling a real story. True, they jam one in, and because Mark Strong is such a strong actor, he turns the obvious storyline into something more intense with his villainous turn. But I am looking forward to seeing what comes next. By the end of this film, they have introduced at least the idea of Holmes arch nemesis Professor Moriaty. Now that’s the Sherlock Holmes movie I want to see.

DVD Views: Seraphine

Seraphine ***
Directed By:
Martin Provost
Written By: Marc Abdelnour & Martin Provost.
Starring: Yolande Moreau (Séraphine Louis), Ulrich Tukur (Wilhelm Uhde), Anne Bennent (Anne-Marie Uhde), Geneviève Mnich (Mme Duphot), Nico Rogner (Helmut Kolle), Adélaïde Leroux (Minouche).

Seraphine (Yolande Moreau) is a maid who lives in the French countryside. She saves all of her coins and places them aside. She works almost constantly, and there is something not quite right about her. She doesn’t seem to understand normal social interactions with anyone. She used to live with the nuns, but has recently left. She is good at what she does, but most of the people she works for look down on her, like they look down on most of their help. When she tells them that she left the nuns because the Virgin Mary told her to paint, they mock her.

One man is different though. Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) has recently come to the area to work on his writing. He is a famous art critic and collector. One day she sees one of Seraphine’s painting almost by accident, and he is moved by the work, He cannot believe that it was painted by the woman who has been mopping his floors for the past few months. He encourages her to continue to paint, and explain her horizons. She does. But then, when WWI breaks out, he has to leave, and Seraphine is stuck going back to her old life. In the late 1920s, Uhde returns, and is shocked to discover that Seraphine has continued to grow as an artist, and the work she is doing now moves him dramatically. He becomes her patron, and for the first time, Seraphine has real money. Then the stock market crashes, and Seraphine once again is left with nothing. This time, her fragile psyche cannot take it.

Martin Provost’s Seraphine is a quiet, beautiful little film. Seraphine is played in an excellent performance by Yolande Moreau. She is a woman who cannot quite see the reality all around her. She knows she has to work hard, but is clueless when it comes to dealing with people. She knows when she is being mocked, and doesn’t trust anyone, but with Uhde, she lets her guard down. She is content painting by herself, but when Uhde sees her paintings, and encourages her, she allows herself to be swept up in his world. She doesn’t even understand it when he looks at her and tells her that he will never marry a woman, ever. She thinks it is a profession of love to her. It’s not. It is a brilliant performance of a woman with a mental illness.

Moreau, and the beautiful imagery of the movie, is reason enough to see it. What isn’t as good are the performances surrounding Moreau’s. Tukur is fine as Uhde, but the film doesn’t spend enough time with him to become a truly memorable character. The film tries to get us to feel for him in its second half, but since we are not attached to him, his pain seems somewhat remote. I also never really understood why if Seraphine’s work was so brilliant, only Uhde seemed to realize it. The painting themselves are interesting, yet after a while, they all blended together. The film never really lets us soak in any of the art work.

But what remains in Seraphine, what makes it a good movie, is the portrait of the artist as a woman with a mental disease. She eventually is put where perhaps she belongs. It is a tragic end to a great artist. The film is good, but it could have been better.

Movie Review: Nine


Nine *** ½
Directed By:
Rob Marshall.
Written By: Michael Tolkin & Anthony Minghella based on the play by Arthur Kopi & Maury Yeston & Mario Fratti.
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis (Guido Contini), Marion Cotillard (Luisa Contini), Penélope Cruz (Carla), Nicole Kidman (Claudia), Judi Dench (Lilli), Kate Hudson (Stephanie), Sophia Loren (Mamma), Stacy Ferguson (Saraghina).

Nine is a movie made up of great moments. In fact, there is hardly a scene in Nine that in itself is not wonderful. Based on a Broadway musical, which itself was based on Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, one of the greatest films of all time, Nine is a portrait of a movie director in crisis. While Fellini’s film is a masterpiece, and the best film ever made about a filmmaker, Nine is content to simply tell the story in the broadest of terms. The songs are wonderful, the visual look great, the performances entertaining, but there just seems to be something missing from the movie that prevents it from becoming truly great.

Daniel Day-Lewis is Guido Contini, once the biggest name in Italian cinema, whose last two films have bombed. Now he is 10 days away from starting production on his next film with one major problem - he hasn’t even started the script yet and has no idea what to write. They have already cast Claudia Jensen (Nicole Kidman), one of the biggest stars in the world, and titled the movie Italia. The sets are being constructed, the costume being designed, although no one even knows what time period the movie will take place in. Guido is stuck going to press conferences, dealing with his producers, his costume designer (Judi Dench) and everything else involved in the movie, but he doesn’t want to. Not only that, but his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) is getting fed up of being ignored, and his mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz) wants more attention as well. Then there is Stephanie (Kate Hudson) an air headed American reporter from Vogue who seems to have no idea what his films mean, but loves them for all the style.

All of these characters have at least one song, where they bare their soul, and various body parts. Day-Lewis is probably the weakest singer of the group, his voice sometimes sounded more like Count Dracula than Italian. But in the scenes where he isn’t singing, and there are a lot of them, he is wonderful as a man in crisis, who doesn’t know what he wants. Cruz is sexy and seductive as Carla - her number “A Call from the Vatican” is one of the sexiest musical numbers I have ever seen. But as the movie progresses, she becomes more than just tits and ass. Kidman’s role is tiny, but her number “Unusual Way” is perfection. She captures her Brigitte Bardot role just about perfectly. Hudson has another time role, but she again does it wonderfully well. Best in show is obviously Cotillard as Luisa. Her two musical numbers, the sad lament “My Husband Makes Movies” and the angry, burlesque number “Take It All” are the heart of the movie. She takes the role of the wronged wife, and breathes new life into it. She is utterly perfect.

Directed by Rob Marshall, in the same style of his earlier Chicago (musical numbers on stage, the rest in “actual” locations, the film has a distinct look and feel. Dion Bebee’s excellent cinematographer creates a number of iconic images. The film is an ode to the movies of Fellini, and they at least some of the visuals right.
Overall, I enjoyed Nine from beginning to end. Every scene works unto itself. I don’t think the movie ever really coheres into an overall artistic statement. It is a movie of moments, not of a complete picture. When the moments are this good, it’s hard to complain.

Movie Review: The Imaganiraium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaganiraium of Doctor Parnassus ***
Directed By:
Terry Gilliam.
Written By: Terry Gilliam & Charles McKeown.
Starring: Christopher Plummer (Doctor Parnassus), Heath Ledger (Tony), Lily Cole (Valentina), Andrew Garfield (Anton), Tom Waits (Mr. Nick), Verne Troyer (Percy), Johnny Depp (Imaginarium Tony #1), Jude Law (Imaginarium Tony #2), Colin Farrell (Imaginarium Tony #3).

Terry Gilliam is one of the most visually imaginative filmmakers in the world right now. This is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because every time you walk into a Gilliam movie, you have no idea what weird images you are going to see. He puts things on screen that most other filmmakers would not even attempt. It’s bad because I think he spends so much time on the visuals, that he doesn’t concentrate so much on the story. His last two films - The Brothers Grimm and Tideland - were as visually imagative as anything he has ever done - but both were still terrible movies. They never came together to make a cohesive statement on anything. He is such a perfectionist, and difficult, that some of his films never get off the ground. The documentary Lost in La Mancha documents his failed attempt to make a Man of La Mancha movie where everything that could go wrong did, until the whole thing was scrapped. His films are so hit and miss, that I both anticipate and dread each new Gilliam film in equal measure.

His latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is his best in quite some time. No, it does not quite rank with the Brazil, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas his truly great films, but it is certainly among the most interesting of his films.

Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) made a deal with the devil, known as Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) thousands of years ago. Parnassus gets immortality and strange mind powers, while Mr. Nick gets the souls of any children he fathers when they turn 16. It is now modern day, and Parnassus has become a traveling carnival act where they try and get people to enter his “imaginarium”, a strange mirror where they end up in their own imagination, where they will have to make a choice. They can either take the hard road to enlightenment, i.e. Parnassus’ way, or the easy way which leads them to Mr. Nick. Parnassus doesn’t win often.

His daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) is on the cusp of her 16 birthday, but she doesn’t know that soon she will belong to the devil. This is when Tony (Heath Ledger) shows up. They find him hanging from the bottom of a bridge, and save his life. Parnassus and Valentina take a liking to Tony, who is charming and able to convince more and more people to enter the imaginarium. Not only that, they seem to pick Parnassus’s way, not Mr. Nicks when they do. But Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer), the other “employees” of Doctor Parnassus are not so sure. They sense something not quite right about him.

From beginning to end, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus puts interesting visuals on the screen. Particularly when people enter their own imaginations, Gilliam goes all out with the special effects. These are not just CGI effects like Cameron uses in Avatar, but visually inventive little effects. Gilliam has a much smaller budget than Cameron does, yet it seems that he leaves it all on the screen.

I am still not 100% sure what exactly happens in this movie. But unlike his last few movies, I get the feeling that with another viewing or two, I’d be able to piece everything together. Gilliam is still not the best storyteller, but this time for the most part the story works. It helps that he has a wonderful cast who makes their characters believable, even when they probably shouldn’t be. Plummer is perfect as the ancient Parnassus - drunken, depressed, resigned to the fact that he will always lose to Mr. Nick. For his part, Waits is one of the best Satan’s I have ever seen in a movie. With his trademark gravelly voice, along with a bowler hat, pencil thin mustache and a cigarette dangling from his holder. Lily Cole is beautiful and touching as Valentina. Best of all is Ledger, demented as Tony, who throws himself into the role with all he has. Because he died before the film was finished shooting, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all have sequences inside Parnassus’ Imaginarium as Ledger’s Tony. Although it may not be what they had planned, it works remarkably well. I’m not quite sure Farrell quite captures the essence of Tony, but Depp and particularly Law are great substitutes for Ledger.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is mainly a visual experience. In that regard it is one of the most interesting films of the year. The acting elevates the story, but it still could have used some work in the writing department. But if you’re looking for something quite different this holiday season, you can certainly do worse.

DVD Views: The Headless Woman

The Headless Woman *** ½
Directed By:
Lucrecia Martel.
Written By: Lucrecia Martel.
Starring: María Onetto (Verónica), Claudia Cantero (Josefina), César Bordón (Marcos), Daniel Genoud (Juan Manuel), Guillermo Arengo (Marcelo), Inés Efron (Candita), María Vaner (Tía Lala).

Veronica (Maria Onetto) is driving down a deserted street when her cell phone rings. In her rush to answer it, she takes her eyes off the road, and hits something. She bumps her head, and is shaken up, but after a moment she drives on. We see something in the middle of the road in her rearview mirror. But she doesn’t seem to notice. She continues on with her day, meets up with her lover in a hotel, goes to the hospital to get the bump on her head looked at, and then tries to forget what happened. But she cannot forget, even though she seems to have amnesia. She becomes convinced that she did not hit a dog on the road, but rather a small native boy in the street. Although all the men in her life look into what happened, and cannot find any record of an accident that day that matches the description, she is still convinced. She allows them to take over for her. The cover her tracks, pulling strings to get the hotel and hospital records to disappear. They fix the car on the down low. They get her to dye her hair black. They cover her tracks excellently. It doesn’t matter to them if she hit a dog or a little boy. Because they are upper class, and the boy, if she indeed hit a boym is one of the poverty stricken people in Argentina, he might as well be a dog.

The Headless Woman is a difficult movie to wrap your head around. Having seen it once, I feel that I have just begun to scratch the surface of its mysteries. It has a distinctive look and feel to it. It is somewhere between David Lynch and Roman Polanski in terms of its style. What happens in the movie may not have really happened at all. Or perhaps it does. I’m not really sure. What I am sure of, is that while I was watching the movie, I felt like I was in the hands of a master filmmaker. Lucrecia Martel follows up her wonderful film The Holy Girl with an even more dense, interesting mystery.

At the heart of the movie is a wonderful performance by Maria Onetto as the woman. It is one of the more passive performances I have seen in a central role in a film in a while. She at first denies that anything happened at all, then she hides behind her supposed amnesia, and lets the men in her life take over. Her lover, her uncle, her husband, all of them has power, and all of them pull strings to protect her. If she did kill a poor kid, his family won’t stand a chance. The movie really is a family movie at heart - a movie about a dysfunctional, bourgeois family in crisis. The line between rich and poor is obvious from the outset. Often we see poor people in the background, cooking, cleaning and doing other menial chores. Or in one scene when Onetto goes into slums herself they seem to surround her, but she hardly notices. She hardly notices anything. She is almost like an observer in her own life.

I am sure that some people are going to be frustrated by the ambiguous nature of the ending. Martel does not bother to spell everything out for the audience. But in a very real way, it does not matter if she killed a dog, killed a poor kid or killed nothing. That’s not really the point of the film. The point is how Onetto reacts when she thinks she has killed someone. That nightmare feeling of paranoia and doubt creeping into her mind. It is also about the corrupt society run by men that can seem to get away with anything they want, and how the poor die all the time and no one really notices. After one viewing of The Headless Woman, I am still trying to figure it all out. Perhaps this film is the masterpiece - that many critics seem to be claiming it is - or perhaps it really does deserve to be booed like it was upon its debut at Cannes in 2008. I’m not really sure. What I am sure of is that The Headless Woman is like no other film I have seen this year.

DVD Views: Everlasting Moments

Everlasting Moments *** ½
Directed By: Jan Troell.
Written By: Niklas Rådström & Jan Troell & Agneta Ulfsäter-Troell.
Starring: Maria Heiskanen (Maria Larsson), Mikael Persbrandt (Sigfrid Larsson), Jesper Christensen (Sebastian Pedersen), Callin Öhrvall (Maja Larsson - age 15-22), Nellie Almgren (Maja Larsson - age 8-10).

Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments is the type of film that doesn’t get made much anymore. It is a movie that spans years in the early 20th century Sweden, where political upheaval affects one family. The mother preserves, despite having a drunken lout of a husband who can sometimes get violent and has trouble holding a job to support her and their seven children. She wins a camera and starts taking pictures. Slowly, she because a real artist with that camera, and her love for that camera gets her through all the tough times.

Troell is one of the best filmmakers to ever come out of Sweden - trailing behind Ingmar Bergman and few others. He is still probably best known for his twin immigrant epics - The Emigrants and The New Land - about a Swedish family who move to America. Everlasting Moments is similar in that it concentrates on one family through many years.

Maria Larrson (Maria Heiskanen) is married to Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt), and there is love there even if there seems to be days, weeks even months where it doesn’t really show up. He works on the docks in Sweden until the communists start making trouble. They want to go on strike to win better terms for themselves, and Sigfrid goes along. With all the spare time on his hands, he starts drinking more and more, and begins an affair. Maria is not stupid, and knows what is going on, but she doesn’t really have time to deal with it. At this point, they have five kids, all of whom have their own dreams. Sigfrid wants the oldest ones to go to work, but they dream of studying. Despite their money problems, Maria does everything she can to try and make them happen.

Maria is one of those women who keeps her head down and does work, takes care of the family and never complains about anything. She never takes time for herself. During one of their many bouts of poverty, she takes a camera she won years ago and never used to the camera shop to see what she can get for it. The photo shop attendant, Sebastian (Jesper Christensen), takes an immediate liking to her. He encourages her to use the camera, and helps her out by giving her all the chemicals and paper she needs to have her own dark room. Their relationship, although it never becomes sexual, goes on for years and is as much of an affair than what Sigfrid has.

Everlasting Moments is a quiet movie. It is about nothing less than life and its infinite, never ending struggle, and how Maria is stuck with her lot in life, even if it isn’t what she really wants. She does not hate Sigfird, at least not at all times, but she doesn’t want to be with him. But this is a time when women could not just pack up and leave their husbands. She sacrifices everything for her family, only holding unto photography to get her through her life. Everlasting Moments is a film full of moments - good moments, bad moments, all kinds of moments that make up life.

Movie Review: Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel **
Directed By:
Betty Thomas.
Written By: Jon Vitti and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger based on the characters created by Ross Bagdasarian.
Starring: Zachary Levi (Toby), David Cross (Ian), Jason Lee (Dave), Wendie Malick (Dr. Rubin), Justin Long (Alvin), Matthew Gray Gubler (Simon), Jesse McCartney (Theodore), Christina Applegate (Brittany), Anna Faris (Jeanette), Amy Poehler (Eleanor).

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel is much better than any movie about singing chipmunks has any right to be. No, it’s not a new classic kid’s movie or anything like that. Most of the adults who end up seeing the movie are going to go with their children, and they will probably enjoy the film a lot more than they expect they will. Most other adults will never see the movie anyway. I believe you have to judge a movie based on what it aims to achieve. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel does pretty much what it wants to do - be a funny, entertaining movie for kids.

I grew up watching the TV show, loving every minute of minute. Trouble making Alvin, smarty pants Simon and my favorite, sweet chubby Theodore. They were rock stars who always got their “dad” Dave Seville mad at them. The two movies based on the TV show have pretty much kept the story in tact. Jason Lee is Dave, and he yells “Alvin” at the top of his longs as well as anyone could expect him to. Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler and Jesse McCartney provide the voices for the chipmunks, and although their voices have obviously been changed, you can still tell it’s them under their (especially Gubler, who I watch every week in Criminal Minds, and keeps his unique delivery in tact).

In this movie, Dave is hurt because of an accident caused by Alvin, and has to stay in Paris recovering. His cousin Toby (Zachary Levi, from another of my favorite shows, Chuck), has to watch the chipmunks. He is a 30 year old slacker who plays video games all days. To make matters worse, the chipmunks are starting high school. The girls love them, but they run afoul of the jocks, who torment them.

Not only that, but they meet the Chipettes -Brittany (Christina Applegate), Jeanette (Anna Faris) and Eleanor (Amy Poehler), who also come to the school and challenge their singing supremacy. Before they get to the school though, Ian (David Cross), the villain from the first movie gets his hands on them, and sees them as their ticket back to the big time. Of course, along the way, everyone learns some valuable lessons about loyalty, friendship and family, and everything works out for the best.

The movie goes quickly enough, and the time passes pleasantly. There is nothing in the movie that gets you to forget that you are watching a movie about singing chipmunks. No it doesn’t transcend its genre or anything, and most of the jokes are aimed at five year olds (although there is a Dutch oven joke, that although of course it is a fart joke, still made me laugh). I still loved poor Theodore, who in this movie becomes depressed and is just too cute for his own good. The film is what it is. If you have kids, they will love it. If you don’t, you weren’t going to see this movie anyway - so why the hell are you reading this review?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Movie Review: Skin

Skin ***
Directed by:
Anthony Fabian.
Written By: Helen Crawley & Anthony Fabian & Jessie Keyt & Helena Kriel.
Starring: Sophie Okonedo (Sandra Laing), Sam Neill (Abraham Laing), Alice Krige (Sannie Laing), Hannes Brummer (Leon Laing), Terri Ann Eckstein (Elsie Laing), Tony Kgoroge (Petrus Zwane), Bongani Masondo (Henry Laing), Ella Ramangwane (Young Sandra).

The case of Sandra Laing in South Africa is fascinating. She was born and raised there during Apartheid. Both her mother and father were white, but she looks an awful lot life a “colored”. There is a scene in the movie where she has been reclassified from white to colored, and her father Abraham (Sam Neill) is enraged and want to get her classified back. They take to a government agency that look at her, and perform tests – like putting a pen and her hair and having her shake her head to see if it comes out. Even though they win the fight, it is a hollow victory. It doesn’t really matter what it says on her ID card, she still looks black.

Anthony Fabian’s film Skin tells this story. At the heart is a wonderful performance by Sophie Okenedo who plays Sandra from the time she is a teenager until well into middle age. She loves her mother and father, and wants to please them. She goes on dates with white boys, who are either dull and clueless, or else sexually aroused by her and want to know if she’s black “all the way down”. She will never be truly excepted by the white community, many of whom suspect that her mother simply cheated on her husband with a black man – and in the years before DNA testing, there really was nothing they could do to prove it.

Then she falls in love with Petrus (Tony Kgoroge), and things seem to get better. He is a black man, but he is kind to her, and sees her for who she is. Her father is enraged, and wants nothing more to do with her. But for her, it’s easier this way. Although the government considers her white, no one else really does. It is easier to blend in the black community. But when things go wrong in the marriage, Petrus becomes violent, and blames it on the fact that he married a “white woman”. She takes her two kids and leaves. She is now alienated from both the black and white communities in South Africa. There is nothing else really out there.

Skin is a fascinating little movie that tells her story. Because Okenedo is so good in the lead role, it also becomes an emotional story that gets under your skin. Sam Neill is also quite good as the father who loves his daughter, but really does not know what to do. I do wish that director Anthony Fabian had made more the characters in the film as deep as these two are. Most of the characters are one note, or in the case of Petrus one note until he suddenly flashes and becomes another note, but never a full, complete person. Skin is a good film. But it could have been great.

Movie Review: Collapse

Collapse *** ½
Directed By:
Chris Smith.
Featuring: Michael Ruppert.

Michael Ruppert has been called everything from a “visionary” to “batshit insane”. The one thing you cannot deny no matter where you come down on Ruppert, and believe me if you see Collapse you will form an opinion of some sort, is that Ruppert is a fascinating man, with fascinating ideas. I do share his pessimism, but damn if for the running time of the movie he doesn’t sell it to the hilt. In a way, he reminded me of a less insane, more rational, and more left wing version of Glenn Beck, that nutcase on Fox News, who recently revealed his three G’s plan for when the country collapses. The three G’s are God, Guns and Gold (because when you’re starving apparently that’s all you need – who needs food?).

Ruppert was a LAPD officer in the 1970s, but was drummed out during the 1980s. He says it is because he discovered that the CIA was smuggling drugs into the country and selling on the streets of LA, and when he refused to go along with it, the CIA tried to kill him, and then ruined his career. Since then, he has made his modest living being a writer and investigative reporter. He distrusts the mainstream media, but knows how to read it. The big stories are never on the front page, and the real meaning is always hidden, but it’s there.

For Ruppert, he believes that the world is going to collapse soon. Fossil fuels are running out, and there is no alternative fuel source that could possibly take its place. He runs through all the alternatives, and tells you why they won’t work. He takes about reserves in the Middle East, the Alberta Tar Sands and in the Wildlife preserves, and explains why they won’t last very long. The population is booming out of control, and soon, the bubble will burst and millions, if not billions will die. It sounds like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Chris Smith’s documentary pretty much allows Ruppert to explain his views for nearly 90 minutes. The film reminded me of the work of Errol Morris, as it essentially just mixes together one interview with archival footage and a musical score. We hear Smith ask questions in the background occasionally – he doesn’t seem as convinced as Ruppert is at the inevitable onslaught, but Ruppert isn’t much interested in listening to him question his views. He knows what he knows, and dammit, he’s going to tell you about it.

Some of what Ruppert says makes a lot of sense. At times he just seems like a very passionate conversationalist espousing his theories to get people to be more in tune with the earth. At other times, he really does seem like a paranoid lunatic. But I find too often that people go to movies, particularly documentaries, to have their views celebrated and congratulated. Perhaps the reason why Michael Moore’s films have never had the true impact outside of his fan base that he wanted them to is because he is essentially preaching to the choir. No one else is listening. Ruppert has a much smaller choir than Moore does, but he preaches just the same. Whether you agree with him or not, and I did quite a lot of both in Collapse, you cannot deny that he is one fascinating person – and a great subject for a documentary.

Movie Review: Broken Embraces

Broken Embraces *** ½
Directed By:
Pedro Almodovar.
Written By: Pedro Almodovar.
Starring: Penélope Cruz (Lena), Lluís Homar (Mateo Blanco / Harry Caine), Blanca Portillo (Judit García), José Luis Gómez (Ernesto Martel), Rubén Ochandiano (Ray X), Tamar Novas (Diego).

Pedro Almodovar is one of those directors who is in love with movies from the past. In the past decade he has made five films – Broken Embraces being the fifth – in all of them in a way call to mind the films of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock. The plots are all complex, and loop around themselves, gradually wrapping the audience in their intrigue and melodrama. While I would say that Broken Embraces is probably his weakest film this decade, it is still much better than most films we see.

The movie opens in 2009 Spain, where Harry Caine (Lluis Homar) makes his living writing screenplays. He informs us that at one point he was known as Mateo Blanco and was a filmmaker, but in the past years he has lost his sight, and so he has buried Mateo, and become his alter ego – the screenwriter. Two things bring Harry back into the past. The first is a newspaper article about the death of wealthy financier Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez), the second is an unexpected visit from a would be filmmaker who calls himself Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who Harry recognizes immediately from his voice. His agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo) tells him to forget all about it, but he cannot. When he is alone with Judit’s son Diego (Tamar Novas), he tells his story of what happened 15 years ago, on the set of his last film as a director. There he met Lena (Penelope Cruz), the mistress of Martel, cast her in the lead, and then the two fell in love. Ray X, then Ernesto Jr., is making a “Making of” documentary about the movie, and catches everything on his camera. Ernesto Sr., used to getting his own way, is enraged by the footage.

I loved the part of the movie set in 1994. This is classic Almodovar melodrama. His camera caresses the sexy, voluptuous body of Penelope Cruz. Those eyes, that face, those beautiful breasts – Cruz is a beauty to behold, and she never looks better than she does in an Almodovar film (it’s a tossup as to whether she’s sexier here or in Volver). She is also much more natural speaking in her native language than she ever is speaking English. Here she is the classic female victim. She becomes Martel’s mistress not out of love or lust (he is an old man even in 1994), but because he has money, and if she wants to save her father’s life, she needs that money. When she meets Mateo, she is instantly drawn to him. At first, it appears to be pure lust, but a deeper bond develops between the two of them. She risks everything for Mateo. It is one of Cruz’s finest performances.

The framing device for the movie set in 2009 was for me, less successful. It does allow Almodovar to bring back buried secrets, and show the effect on people after the main events of the movie, but these scenes drag for me a little bit. Particularly when we get to parts about re-editing his final movie. It’s fascinating in a cinephile kind of way, watching filmmakers craft movies, but overall, it doesn’t do much but drag the story down.

But that’s a minor gripe about the movie. Almodovar has not lost his flair for visual dramatics, and here he creates some of his most memorable images (and no, Penelope Cruz isn’t in all of them, but yes, she is in most of them). I love the sweeping camera work, the darkness around the edges, the flair for the dramatic, and slow motion shots. Alberto Ingeleasis’ score is classic old school Hollywood in a way that I haven’t heard in years. In short, while I do not think that Broken Embraces is quite the triumph that most of Almodovar’s recent work has been, it is impossible to deny that it is not still tremendously entertaining and well made.

DVD Views: Anvil: The Story of Anvil

Anvil: The Story of Anvil ***
Directed By:
Sacha Gervasi.
Featuring: Steve “Lips” Kudlow, Robb Reiner.

I cannot decide if the two people at the heart of documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil are inspiring or pathetic. In the early 1980s, Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner, two Jewish kids from Toronto, were on the verge of making it big in the music industry with their heavy metal band Anvil. Their album, Metal on Metal, inspired bands like Metallica, Megadeath, Pantera and a host of other heavy metal superstars. They even toured Japan with White Snake, Slayer and Bon Jovi. But somehow all those bands ended up hugely successful, and Anvil was left behind. Now 25 years later Kudlow and Reiner still dream of being rock stars, even though they are now in their 50s, and have to work other jobs to support themselves and their families.

Anvil tells their stories. After the music world passed them by in the 1980s, they never stopped, and from the sound of things, they never really changed their musical style either. Even Metallica has softened in the past 25 years, but Anvil rocks it out just like it was 1984. They have a small but devoted following, who show up to watch their gigs, and buy their albums (there have been 13 in all, most handled by a very small record label, who Kudlow and Reiner insist don’t know what they are doing).

The movie follows them on an ill fated European Tour, that they are convinced will be their ticket back to the big time. It doesn’t happen. Then they borrow money from their family to hire a good producer for their 13th album, which again they are convinced will be their big break. That doesn’t happen either. Finally, they travel to Japan to take part in a huge heavy metal show that again they think will be their break. As each of these things pass, and it becomes clear that it will not be their big break, they make excuses, and just keep on trucking. They are rock stars, even if they don’t really have any fans.

Part of me admires these two guys. They have been beaten down by life constantly throughout their careers, but they never say die. They just keep going, following their dreams, even if no one but them really believes that it is going to happen for them at this point.

But another part of me just wants to tell these two guys to grow up. There is nothing wrong with still being in a rock band at the age of 50. If they have fun performing for their small fan base, then go for it. And record your albums and sell them to those same fans. But stop thinking that you’re going to make it and become huge stars. The music industry has changed dramatically since 1984. With the exception of Metallica, all the other bands of that era that are still together mainly subsist on nostalgia of their fans. If fans don’t have those memories of you, you cannot expect to break through now. I am a heavy metal fan, and what I heard of Anvil during the course of this movie was okay, but did not inspire me to go and track down an album. At some point, everyone needs to grow up.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

DVD Views: The Other Man

The Other Man ** ½
Directed by:
Richard Eyre.
Written By: Richard Eyre & Charles Wood based on the short story by Bernhard Schlink.
Starring: Liam Neeson (Peter), Antonio Banderas (Ralph), Laura Linney (Lisa), Romola Garai (Abigail).

The Other Man is an uncommonly quiet film. While the film is about adultery, it does not contain the usual blowups and flying accusations that most other films on the subject do. Instead, it is about a quiet man who finds out his wife was unfaithful to him, and although he is filled with rage, he wants to discover the reason why she did, instead of just getting revenge.

We meet Peter (Liam Neeson) and Lisa (Laura) one night as they go out to dinner. He is a stuffy business executive, and she is a shoe designer, and although he doesn’t really fit into her world, but is loving and supportive. At dinner, they have a strange conversation, where Lisa wants to know if Peter every wanted to sleep with someone else. We flash forward an undetermined length of time, and Lisa is gone. Peter hacks into her computer and discovers a series of e-mails from someone named Ralph, and a file marked Love, which makes it clear that at one point at least, Lisa had an affair. Peter tracks down Ralph (Antonio Banderas), and goes to see him. But instead of confronting him about the affair, he befriends Ralph, and gradually draws out details about what Ralph and Lisa shared.

The performances in the movie are its primary virtue. Neeson is very still in the film, his performance incredibly subtle. Often he is seething with rage, yet he keeps a straight face while talking to Ralph as to not give himself away, We catch the occasional flicker of that pain coming to the surface, and when he talks to his daughter (Romola Garai) he lets some of that pain out, but mainly its all internal. There is a danger in this type of acting - if the actor does not know what she’s doing, it can come across as stiff and emotionless. But Neeson is a master at it, and it makes Peter all the more fascinating. But Antonio Banderas could be even better. On the surface, Ralph is all flash and charm, yet gradually the movie, and Banderas, show the kind of person he really is. He is a hero, a lothario, only in his own mind, and he has blown the affair with Lisa out of proportion. But Banderas makes Ralph into an almost sympathetic character. Linney’s role is much smaller - mainly there for the key dinner sequence at the beginning of the film, and several flashbacks, but its still a gut fine role.

Yet despite yet the films strength could also be its weakness – if that makes any sense at all. While I appreciated the fact that the film is quiet and subtle – and never overplays it hand – it also makes the film dull at times. We want Neesom to get angry, and he never does. We want some sort of closure, but the film is unwilling, or unable, to give this movie a satisfactory ending. What’s worse, is the movie plays hide and seek with us, only gradually revealing where exactly it is that Lisa has gone. When he we find out – what is supposed to be an emotional wallop does not come through. We figure it out long before then.

Director Richard Eyre (Iris, Notes on a Scandal) is a talented director, and The Other Man is certainly not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. But it is a rather lifeless one.

DVD Releases: December 15 & December 22

I forgot to do this one last week, so I will include the releases from then as well. Some of the year’s best films are finding their way to DVD just in time for Christmas. In addition to the titles listed below, you may want to check out It Might Get Loud and The Headless Woman which supposedly hit DVD this week – I know I will since I missed both in theaters.

All About Steve ½ *
Sandra Bullock had a career year, with The Proposal and The Blind Side both being popular audience hits, and it looks like she’ll get her first Oscar nomination for the later movie. I think she is hoping that everyone will simply forget about this horrid turd of a movie, where she plays a lunatic who stalks Hangover star Bradley Cooper. Oh, this isn’t a thriller, but rather a pathetic romantic comedy! Thomas Haden Church co-stars, apparently because he needs money. This is a terrible movie, and it will surely wind up on my ten worst list of 2009 in a few weeks. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/09/movie-review-all-about-steve.html

District 9 ****
Some films evaporate in your mind as soon as they are over. District 9 is a film that keeps expanding in my mind as time passes (which is why though I originally gave the film 3 ½ stars, I have now upped that to 4, which is what I should have given it in the first place). First time director Neil Bloomkamp has made an intelligent science fiction movie that begins with an examination of Apartheid in South Africa, with aliens in the place of blacks, and turns it into not only a spectacular action movie (the last act is all action, brilliantly done), but also a tragedy as the main character (the great Sharlto Copley in his first major role) slowly transforms. The special effects and make-up in the movie are utterly brilliant, but Bloomkamp never overdoes it. If you missed this one in the theaters, don’t make the same mistake on DVD. For my original review please see:
http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/08/movie-review-district-9.html

Extract ** ½
In my mind, Mike Judge is a comic genius. Any man who came up with Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill, Office Space and Idiocracy can be nothing less. But Extract is the least successful of all of his work. It concentrates on a factory owner (Jason Bateman) who finds out his wife (Kirsten Wiig) is cheating on him, right when he meets a gorgeous young woman (Mila Kunis), and things at his factory are going haywire. What should have been an hilarious comedy, instead is just mediocre. I smiled more than I laughed, and the characters (particularly Ben Affleck as Bateman’s bartender buddy) have none of the depth of even Judge’s cartoon characters. I’m sure Judge will do something great again in the future – this just isn’t it. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/09/movie-review-extract.html

500 Days Of Summer ****
The year’s best romantic comedy is this indie starring Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as two people who are almost meant to be together. Gordon Levitt continues his string of brilliant performances, here playing a would be architect slumming it writing greeting cards, and Deschanel is the free spirited new secretary who he falls for hard. The movie juggles time brilliant, and first time director Marc Webb shows a visual flair. Not your typical romantic comedy, but something much richer and deeper. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/07/movie-review-500-days-of-summer.html

The Hangover *** ½
Todd Philips The Hangover is one of the funniest, most enjoyable comedies of the year. Four guys head to Vegas for a Bachelor party. Three of them wake up the next day with no memory of what happened, and what’s worse, the groom is missing. Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifankis and Ed Helms are great as the three men trying to put the pieces back together, and the supporting cast is full of great performances. Yes, this is juvenile cinema, but it is juvenile cinema at its finest. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/06/movie-review-hangover.html

Inglourious Basterds ****
The year’s best film is Quentin Tarantino’s WWII farce/men on a mission/revisionist history/tribute to cinema past. This is a mind bogglingly entertaining film. Violent, witty, funny, disturbing and downright brilliant. The film is about the power of film, the importance of language, and like all of Tarantino’s films it is balls to the wall filmmaking. Christoph Waltz delivers by far the best performance of the year as the “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa, but the entire cast is brilliant. Brad Pitt shows up the flair for comedy as he did in the Coen’s Burn After Reading last year (this time Roger Ebert compared him to a Marx brother, and that is not far off), Melanie Laurent is great as the vengeful Shosanna, Diane Kruger wonderful as a German film star and double agent, and Michael Fassbender is marvelous as a British soldier. In total, this is THE must see film of the year. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/08/movie-review-inglorious-basterds.html

Lorna's Silence *** ½
Perhaps the least successful of all of the Dardenne brothers films, Lorna’s Silence is a still a fascinating little movie. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is a immigrant for Eastern Europe into Belgium. In order to get her citizenship, she marries a drug addict (Jeremie Renier) in a business arrangement, so she can do the same for someone else. But things get more complicated than her simple plan will allow. A wonderful slice of life film, that may take a few too many leaps of logic, but is still great. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/09/movie-review-lornas-silence.html

Taking Woodstock **
Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock is for me one of the most disappointing films of the year. What should have been an interesting, fun look at Woodstock becomes a jumbled mess of a movie that never really goes anywhere. All the performances are one note, and in the films second half, Lee concentrates more on making a head trip than a movie. This would be fine if it worked. It doesn’t. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/08/movie-review-taking-woodstock.html

Weekly Top Tens: Christmas Movies

I love Christmas, and god help me, I love Christmas movies. I recently watched the awful Four Christmases, and it got me thinking of some truly great Christmas movies. These are my favorites. I want to also mention The Ref, which I really wanted to put on this list, but just did not have room. Sorry Denis Leary!

10. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (Jeremiah S. Chechik, 1989)
No one is going to mistake this film for an actual classic piece of moviemaking. It is, it must be said, a rather poorly directed film, and entirely stupid. It is also downright hilarious, so even though the movie snob in me turns my nose up at the film, I must say that I find myself watching at least part of this movie every year. Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswald goes through one frustrating event after another, the entire time trying to pull off the perfect Christmas. Many series are hilarious – the lights that blind the neighbors, the excursion for the Christmas etc, but the two involving the animals – first the cat who is electrocuted than the rabid squirrel who jumps out of the family Christmas tree are my favorite. No National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is not a great movie – but I never fail to have a great time watching it.

9. A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)
Now that TBS has made a holiday tradition out of playing this movie for 24 straight hours over Christmas Eve and into Christmas day, I doubt there are few people who haven’t seen the movie numerous times. Like Christmas Vacation, I find myself watching at least part of this movie every year (and also like Christmas Vacation, I don’t really consider it to be a great movie, but it is great fun to watch). All Ralphie Parker wants for Christmas is a BB Gun, but everyone tells him he can’t have one because “You’ll put your eye out!”You cannot help my laugh at poor Ralphie as he tries to make his case, and the underlining nostalgia for childhood is quite endearing as well and I love Darren McGavin as the father. I quite like this film, despite its short comings.

8. A Christmas Carol (Brian Desmond-Hurst, 1951)
For classic film fans, there is no doubt that this is the most beloved of all the adaptations of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol over the years. Alastair Sim is certainly the best Ebenezer Scrooge in film history, a mean crotchety old man who learns the true meaning of Christmas through the course of one night when he is visited by ghosts. The filmmaking is impeccable – dark and moody lighting in the bedchambers, eerily ghosts and a bright and cheery finale. For me, this is the most faithful adaptation ever, and also the best film made out of the story. But as you will see by the next film on my list, it still isn’t my favorite adaptation.

7. A Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Hensen, 1992)
Yes, I know that many of my fellow serious film fans will tear me to shreds for ranking this above the 1951 version of the film, but I cannot help it. I love this movie to death. Michael Caine is wonderfully cranky and hilarious as Ebenezer Scrooge, and how can you not love Rizzo the Rat and Gonzo as our narrators, Kermit as Bob Crachit, Miss Piggy as his wife, Statler and Waldorf as the Marley Brothers and Fozzy as the appropriately Fozzywig. The songs are endlessly catchy, and the film just makes me feel good. My wife “makes” me watch this one every year, and I don’t care. I love it.

6. Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988)
It’s Christmas eve and Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) has arrived in LA from New York to try and work things out with his estranged wife. What he finds when he arrives at his wife’s high rise office is that a group of terrorists, lead by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) has taken over the building and is holding everyone hostage. It does up to McClane to single handedly take them all down. One of the great action movies of all time, Die Hard is endlessly re-watchable and fun, and has just enough Christmas material to make it a real Christmas movie for the men of the world. How you can watch this film and not love it, I have no idea.

5. A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008)
Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale is not your typical merry Christmas story of a family get together. Instead, it is about the final Christmas an extremely dysfunctional family will spend together as a whole. And this family is not just regular movie dysfunctional – they are fucked up! Catherine Denueve plays the matriarch of the family, who finds out she is dying, and wants one more Christmas together with her whole family. The problem is that Anne Consigny, their oldest child, has refused to see Mathieu Almanac, the middle child, for years because of his irresponsibility. Poor Jean-Paul Rousslin and Melvil Poupaud, and the patriarch and youngest child respectively, who simply try and keep the peace – that is until their own issues come to the surface. A Christmas Tale is not really a feel good movie, but nor is it depressing. It is vibrant and alive, and a reminder that although we sometimes hate our families, they are the only ones in the world who are forced to stick by you no matter what.

4. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)
Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan play co-workers in a Budapest store who hate each other in real life, but fall in love with each other via the letters they send to their pen pals, not realizing that they are the same person. Director Ernst Lubitsch was a master at comedy, and this is one of his sweetest, most charming creations. Taking place during the Christmas rush, this is a movie that anyone who ever worked in retail will appreciate, but is also funny, sweet and touching. A wonderful concoction from the golden days of Hollywood.

3. Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2003)
Let’s face facts – sometimes we all hate Christmas. All that damn shopping, spending time with family members we don’t really like, driving in the snow, etc. No wonder that Christmas time has the highest suicide rate of any time of the year. But instead of suicide, this year try watching Terry Zwigoff’s gloriously demented Bad Santa instead. Billy Bob Thornton has perhaps his finest role as Willie Stokes, a thief who every December teams up with his partner Marcus (Tony Cox), and gets a job as a department store Santa and elf, and then robs the store on Christmas eve when it is packed with cash. This allows Stokes to live the rest of the year in alcoholic bliss. Bad Santa is a hilarious, profane, perverted Christmas movie with some killer one liners (“You not gonna shit right for a week”, “Is granny spry?”, “Look, I've boned a lot of fat chicks in my time, sure. But, as far back as I can remember, I've never fornicated anybody”, “Things are fucked up at the North Pole. Mrs. Claus caught me fucking her sister, now I'm out on my ass.”, and of course my personal favorite “Fuck me Santa, Fuck me Santa, Fuck me Santa!”). Bad Santa is the perfect cure for the Christmas blues.

2. It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
Yes, I know that Frank Capra’s movie is a little bit cheesy. But I don’t care – I love it just the same. Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is one of the most lovable characters in cinema history. When everything in his life seems to have gone to shit, he decides to jump off a bridge and kill himself, until a kindly angel comes down and shows him what life would be like if he had never been born. Yes, the movie starts off dark, but the end of the movie, with Stewart running through the town yelling “Merry Christmas Bedford Falls”, before heading home and realizing that he has friends and family who love him to death, makes me well up with tears every year. If you don’t love this movie, you have no heart.

1. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry J. Selick, 1993)
How can you not absolutely love this stop motion animated classic? The story of Jack the Pumpkin King, leader of Halloween town, becoming bored and dissatisfied with his life, so he decides to expand his operation. He kidnaps Santa Claus, and gets all of Halloween town to make toys for all the boys and girls in the world, which he himself will deliver. The songs are touching and catchy, the animated distinct and memorable – amazing images that stay in your mind. This is a film that no matter how many times I have see it – and I have long since lost count – reels me in every time. The best Christmas movie ever made? For me, yes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

Avatar ****
Directed By:
James Cameron.
Written By: James Cameron.
Starring: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine), Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch), Michelle Rodriguez (Trudy Chacon), Giovanni Ribisi (Parker Selfridge), Joel Moore (Norm Spellman), CCH Pounder (Moat), Wes Studi (Eytukan), Laz Alonso (Tsu'tey), Dileep Rao (Dr. Max Patel).

James Cameron’s Avatar is the type of big, bold, beautiful mainstream filmmaking that we hardly ever see. It is a film that pushes visual effects and 3-D into a new generation, and is quite simply one of the most wondrous visual experiences you are likely to ever have at the movies. If you thought that Peter Jackson did a wonderful job at making Gollum feel real, or that George Lucas pushed the boundaries of what visual effects could do in Revenge of the Sith, then to put it quite simply, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Cameron’s Avatar is hugely ambitious in terms of its visual approach. He has created an entirely new world, one of bold, original creatures and locations. The deep forest that surrounds the characters in every scene is the most detailed digital environment I have ever seen in a movie. The creatures that populate it are scary and fully integrated into their surroundings. The native population, known as the Na’vi, are the most expressive digital “people” in movie history. In short, Cameron has taken huge leaps in pushing the technology used to make movies to an entirely new level. The commercials are not exaggerating much when they say that “movies will never be the same”. Filmmakers who can afford to use special effects in this way will be fighting to see who can top Cameron.

Cameron’s movie takes place in the future, where humans have travelled to a planet known as Pandora, where they have conflicted with the Na’vi, the primitive culture that lives on the planet. Pandora is full of a rock that humans now use as their energy source back at earth, which has become desolate and cold in the intervening years. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) was a Marine who is now paralyzed from the waist down. He is sent to Pandora because his twin brother was supposed to go, but got killed. They have spent a lot of money and years building his twin an “avatar”, which allows him to control a body of the Na’vi that has been tailored to him, so he can fit in on Pandora. Since they have identical DNA, Jake is the only other person who can use the body. Waste not, want not.

So Jake goes to Pandora, and quickly gets into his Avatar body, and he loves it. He is finally able to run and jump again, and for the first time in years, he feels free. Although he is supposed to report to Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), he is quickly tapped by Colonel Miles Quarritch (Stephen Lang), the head of the military operation there, to give him intelligence reports. If the Na’vi will not move willingly, than Quarritch wants to destroy them and force them to move. At first, Jake thinks this is fine. But as he starts to spend more time with the Na’vi, particularly the beautiful Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), he starts to love and respect them too much. This sets up an inevitable conflict, which is basically the third act of the film, where Jake has to choose sides.

For most of Avatar, I was too amazed by the visuals to pay all that much attention to the story. Nearly every shot in the film is awe-inspiring in its own way. The look, sound and feel of the film is utterly brilliant.

I do wish that Cameron had put as much effort into the writing as he did into the visuals. There is nothing really wrong with the story – it is a futuristic version of Dances with Wolves, with a healthy dose of guilt for mistreatment of the Natives, as well as an Iraq war allegory should you choose to read that much into the plot. It’s fine, and most of the dialogue, while perfunctory, works fine as well. There are a few lines that are a little too on the nose, but that’s to be expected. The acting is for the most part good. Sam Worthington is never going to win an Oscar, but in this kind of manly man role, he’s good. Zoe Saldana is much better, ironically much more human, covered in CGI magic as his love interest. Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi are in fine form as two executives butting heads. The best performance is undoubtedly by Stephen Lang as the head of the military, barking out orders, and trying his best to channel R. Lee Ermey. He is a truly memorable villain.

No matter what you think of the story however, the visuals are the star of the show. Cameron has set a new standard in terms of digital effects, and he has proven that 3-D can be more than just a gimmick. He doesn’t hurl things at the audience like most 3-D movies; instead, he simply uses 3-D to create interesting, special environments. Avatar is a landmark movie.

Friday, December 18, 2009

DVD Views: The Accidental Husband

The Accidental Husband *
Directed By:
Griffin Dunne.
Written By: Mimi Hare & Claire Naylor and Bonnie Sikowitz.
Starring: Uma Thurman (Dr. Emma Lloyd), Colin Firth (Richard Bratton), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Patrick Sullivan), Sam Shepard (Wilder), Lindsay Sloane (Marcy), Justina Machado (Sofia), Isabella Rossellini (Mrs. Bollenbecker), Keir Dullea (Mr. Bollenbecker).

Uma Thurman should not make romantic comedies. She is a talented actress, who excels at playing strong, complex women, but something about the romantic comedy and her just doesn’t mesh. I think perhaps she seems to too smart to be saddled with these insipid plots.

In The Accidental Husband, Thurman plays Dr. Emma Lloyd, a relationship expert who advises women on the kind of man they should be with. She has written a book called REAL Love. The REAL stands for Responsible, Equal, Adult, Love. She is annoyed by women who fall for the Bad Boy – men who they are sexually attracted to, but have no real substance. She has a talk show, where daily she gives out advice to anyone who calls in.

One day, a woman named Sophia calls in and describes her fiancée. To Emma, this sounds like exactly the type of man who women should be staying away from. Sophia takes Emma’s advice and dumps her fireman fiancé, Patrick (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Patrick is furious, and with the help of his computer hacker neighbor, breaks into the New York State files, and fixes it so that he and Emma are actually married. His plan is to get even with Emma.

This becomes an issue because Emma is engaged to Richard (Colin Firth), a responsible adult who Emma loves dearly. There isn’t any real passion in their relationship, but love, respect and companionship. When they go down to get their marriage license, she is informed that she is already married, and in order to get a new marriage license, she and her current husband will have to fill out a load of paperwork. Thinking that it’s just a clerical error, this is exactly what Emma does, bringing all the papers to Patrick. Through a series of miscommunications and mix-ups, Patrick ends up spending more and more time with Emma, and starts to see the real woman underneath the façade. She gets confused, because she may actually start to be falling for exactly the type of man she advises other women against.

Now perhaps this sounds to you like a good set-up for a romantic comedy. I’ll admit that a good one probably could be made out of this premise, which really is no more ridiculous than most romantic comedy plots. The problem with this one is that is painfully unfunny and false. Thurman does not do a good job at playing Emma at the beginning when she is a stuck up snob, and doesn’t really get any better as the movie progresses and she starts to let her guard down. Thurman looks lost in the movie, like she has no real idea of who her character really is. Colin Firth is on autopilot here. I’m sure he’s just as tired of playing the responsible man in the romantic triangle as we are of seeing him in the role, but he looks incredibly bored, and delivers most of his lines in a flat monotone. He cannot even work up anger when he thinks his fiancée is cheating on him. The less said about the supporting cast, including Sam Shepard, Isabella Rossellini and Keir Dullea, the better. The only one who looks in his element here is Jeffrey Dean Morgan (probably still best know from his stint as Denny on Grey’s Anatomy). He can probably play the romantic leading man well, if he was given a script that required him to do more than smile and crack lame jokes.

Another problem is the direction by Griffin Dunne. Like his previous films – Addicted to Love, Practical Magic and Fierce People – The Accidental Husband struggles to maintain the proper tone and pacing that the story requires. He doesn’t seem to know how to work with actors (surprising since he is quite good actor himself), and the whole movie is sloppily assembled.

Admittedly, romantic comedies are not one of my favorite genres. And yet, when a good one comes along, I have no problem giving myself over to the contrivances and coincidences that are inherent in the genre. But The Accidental Husband is nowhere near a good movie on any level. It is simply a waste of time for everyone involved.

Movie Review: The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria ***
Directed By:
Jean-Marc Vallee.
Written By: Julian Fellowes.
Starring: Emily Blunt (Young Victoria), Rupert Friend (Prince Albert), Paul Bettany (Lord Melbourne), Miranda Richardson (Duchess of Kent), Jim Broadbent (King William), Thomas Kretschmann (King Leopold of Belgium), Mark Strong (Sir John Conroy), Harriet Walter (Queen Adelaide), Michael Maloney (Sir Robert Peel), Genevieve O'Reilly (Lady Flora Hastings).

So many costume dramas ignore political concerns, and simply like to dwell on the art direction and costume design, as if what the characters are wearing, and the gorgeousness of the décor is more important than what the characters are thinking and feeling. The Young Victoria is different. It follows Queen Victoria and her raise from a sheltered teenager, through her coronation, her marriage and the birth of her first child. It is a movie that focuses on the political implications of her every decision.

Emily Blunt plays Victoria, and finds the right notes to play a naïve and playful teenager, tired of being treated like a prisoner by her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and her servant, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). Her Uncle William (Jim Broadbent), is the King, and because she is the only child of her royal generation, she will become Queen when he dies. Conroy is hoping that Victoria is going to appoint her mother regent, effectively giving her power until she becomes older, and can perform her duties, and as such he can pull the strings from behind the scenes. But Victoria hates him, and has no plans to turn over her power, either to him or anyone else.

The King of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) is the related of the Duchess, and wants to have control over England himself. He has planned to put his nephew, Albert (Rupert Friend), into Victoria’s heart, so he can influence her politics himself. In addition, the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany), uses Victoria for his own purposes. He knows that she is politically sympathetic to his cause. She uses this, and his natural charm, to integrate himself into her life. He becomes her closest adviser once she becomes Queen, and manipulates her to his own purposes. No matter how unpopular her decisions are, or her relationship with him is, she refuses to listen to anyone else. Even when she marries Albert, she keeps him at a distance politically.

I’m sure that many people will find The Young Victoria rather dull. Costume dramas have traditionally been more romantic in nature, and although the movie does tell the love story between Victoria and Albert (and Blunt and Friend are excellent at showing this love on screen), it is much more concerned with the political maneuverings of the people in question. There are multiple references to chess pieces in this movie, and director Jean Marc Vallee and writer Julien Fellowes treat their characters much the same way.

Speaking of Vallee, this is a curious choice for him. His first film was the great Quebecois film C.R.A.Z.Y. a movie about gay teenager in 1970s Quebec and his trouble growing up. Why he decided to go from that to a story of the British monarchy is interesting. He does do a fine job with things like the costume design and art direction, and he keeps the movie going along at a leisurely, but assured pace. But unlike C.R.A.Z.Y. he doesn’t really internalize the drama of the characters. He keeps his distance, and as such we remain at a distance from them as well.

Yet the performance keep us interested. Not just Blunt and Friend, both excellent, but Paul Bettany who is charming and devious, without becoming scummy. He really is a good guy, even if he uses Victoria for his own game. Jim Broadbent gives a brief, yet boisterous performance, as King William, drunkenly yelling at his sister in law, while doting on his beloved niece. Mark Strong adds yet another bad guy role to his resume as Sir John Conroy, so cold and calculating, and he can not believe that he has lost his chess game, and wasted his life.

The Young Victoria is well made and entertaining, without ever becoming quite engrossing. I admired the film, and its focus on politics, much more than I was swept away with it. It is a fine film, but could have been better.