Saturday, December 17, 2005

Movie Review: "Cronicas"

Starring John Leguizamo, Leonor Watling, Damian Alcazar, Jose Maria Yazpik

Combining a compelling story idea in Latin American settings rarely seen in movies had the potential to be an outstanding examination of crime and the television media's role in reporting it. But "Cronicas," while featuring a standout performance from star John Leguizamo, is an inconsistent affair that audiences will likely stay one step in front of through most of its running time.
Leguizamo, in his first Spanish speaking role (noteworthy because he is not fluent in the language), plays Manolo Bonilla, a young, rising star of a Miami-based Spanish language television network. Known for his aggressive investigative style, Bonilla finds himself in Ecuador on the hunt of a serial killer, known as the "Monster of Babahoyo." One would have to think any similarity to investigative TV reporters like Geraldo Rivera is purely intentional – although credit Leguizamo for refraining from doing any impersonations.
While conducting an interview with a family member of one of the killer's victims, Bonilla and his crew, cameraman Ivan (Jose Maria Yazpik) and producer Marisa (Leonor Watling) witness a mob scene after a man accidentally runs over a child crossing the road. The mob, believing the man intended to flee the scene, nearly beat him unconscious, then douse him with gasoline in an intense sequence of events. But Bonilla uses this moment to step in and quell the mob before they kill the man – all of which is, of course, caught on camera.
The rescued man, named Vinicio (Damian Alcazar), is imprisoned for crashing into the child, but is desperate to have Bonilla visit him, as he says he has important information about the identity of the Monster. Skeptical, yet intrigued, Bonilla visits and receives information about the whereabouts of a body the police are yet to uncover. The tip turns out to be correct, but Bonilla decides to keep the police at bay about what he's discovered, in order to extract more information from Vinicio.
However, he quickly suspects there's a logical reason why Vinicio knows what he does, even as Bonilla's putting together a sympathetic story about him.
Writer/director Sebastian Cordero employs multiple scenes featuring Bonilla and Vinicio in a kind of cat and mouse game, where neither one is being completely honest with one another. Those scenes, while well acted, become a bit redundant after a while, as it becomes more apparent where the story is headed. Cordero does take a critical look at television media and the drive for breaking the big story – in particularly with Bonilla's increasingly unethical decisions. But the observations are not that surprising and the film's leisurely pace drains some of the dramatic impact they could have had.
However, filming on location in Ecuador gives the film some gritty realism, while conveying poverty-stricken villages filled with residents full of fear from a killer that has already taken 150 lives of children in their country. The story just doesn't quite match up to its locale, as when the killer's identity is finally revealed (an unsurprising development), the dramatic tension is absent.
By the film's conclusion, Cordero is clearly aiming for audiences to feel outrage at what has taken place. But it's even more likely that the feeling will be indifference.
Grade: C
(Rated R for violence, a scene of sexuality, and language.)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Spinning the 'Globes'

Generally considered the most significant bellwether of nominations for the Academy Awards, last week’s Golden Globe nominations had an intriguing mix of selections – some bold, some predictable and others serving as head scratchers.
The annual awards show, to be held Jan. 16 on NBC, is an offering by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association that has only seen two of the last 13 Academy Award-winning pictures not also pick up a Golden Globe. Last year happened to serve as one of those two times, as “Million Dollar Baby” lost out to “The Aviator” at the Globes, only to turn the tables at the Oscars.
To me, it's rather amazing that this group of international journalists can seemingly wield so much influence, as it only numbers 90 members in size. The cornucopia of awards shows that pop out of the woodwork at this time of year can be staggering, but none bring the worlds of movies and television together like the Globes. Stars tend to show up in droves to the awards show, no doubt tempted by the free dinner and booze offered at the soirée. They even let the cast and crews of the various shows and movies sit together at the same table, where they can make fun of people at other tables. (Take that, Academy Awards!)
But does some of their nomination process have to seem so apparently random? This awards show makes it a point to have separate categories of drama and musical/comedy, in both movies and television, as if the genres have no connections. It means every year that two winners in each category emerge for best picture and best TV show. Granted, TV awards shows do tend to split up genres, but how many TV shows qualify as a musical?
While the Globes split up lead acting nominations in these respective genres, the supporting actor and actress nominations seem to fall in a catchall category. For example, George Clooney, Paul Giamatti and Matt Dillon have all been nominated this year for strong work as a CIA agent, boxing trainer and policeman, respectively. In that same category is Will Ferrell, playing a Nazi-loving playwright in the wacky musical-comedy, “The Producers.” Now, I’m not saying Ferrell’s work isn’t nomination-worthy. However, if he was nominated while playing the lead in that movie, such as Nathan Lane was, he would be grouped only with other comedic performances. A little consistency would be nice, Golden Globes.
TV supporting players have it even worse, as their categories throw together series, mini-series and made for TV movies. In 2003, for example, nine (yes, nine) nominees crammed into the supporting actor category, with Donald Sutherland beating out no fewer than six TV series regulars for his work in a TV movie. With that many included in the category, who didn’t get nominated that year?
The nominations in the television categories are always interesting to me, as you can have shows and actors going against one another based on different seasons of work. Case in point, the best actor in a comedy/musical category this year includes Zach Braff from “Scrubs,” along with fellow nominees Larry David, Charlie Sheen, Jason Lee and Steve Carrell. The new season of “Scrubs” doesn’t even start until next month, while all the others have had their seasons going on for months. The same situation exists with Kiefer Sutherland in the best actor - drama category.
As an aside, where have all the comedic TV actresses gone? The entire best television actress in a comedy/musical category is filled with the four main stars of “Desperate Housewives,” with Mary-Louise Parker of the Showtime series “Weeds” thrown in for good measure. How can one show dominate a category so much?
While the Globes have some definite problems with the selection process, the nominees this year have definitely skirted towards independent films, as the five best picture hopefuls in the drama category will probably make less money put together as “King Kong” (which only snagged two nominations overall) did in its opening weekend.
So some kudos should go towards the HFPA for not letting box-office and popularity dictate what gets nominated. Still, I find it hard to believe that the Oscar nominations will follow so confidently in their footsteps.
– MC

Friday, December 09, 2005

Movie Review: "Mysterious Skin"

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg and Elisabeth Shue
Directed by Gregg Araki

On the whole, movies try to stay far away from risqué subject matter, lest it affect the bottom line of profitability. But a select few, such as writer-director Gregg Araki's sensitive, yet potent examination of the psychological impact sexual abuse can have on children, remain uncompromising in telling a story.
Based on a novel by Scott Heim, "Mysterious Skin" follows the stories of two troubled teenagers in the midst of identity crises – both of which can be tied to what happened to them as 8-year-olds. Or to be more precise, it's tied to what was done to them.
The two teens were each molested by their Little League baseball coach (Bill Sage) on one summer night that sends them on wildly divergent paths. Brian (Brady Corbet) suffers from chronic nosebleeds, bedwetting, and social awkwardness in subsequent years. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) heads more towards juvenile delinquency, even while he turns towards a life of a gay hustler.
Brian's memories of that night as an 8-year-old and another incident several years later are a mystery to him, as he has blocked them from his subconscious. His mission becomes trying to find out what happened – a journey that leads him to seek out Neil, whom he hasn't seen since that night.
Catching a program on TV one night, Brian becomes convinced that his memory loss of those hours of his life are the result of an alien abduction. He seeks out Ayalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a person featured in the program, who only strengthens his conviction in believing what we already know not to be the truth.
Neil's memories of his summer on the Little League team are definitely intact, as he quickly becomes the favorite player of the coach, who on the surface, would seem perfectly normal. With the lure of video games, candy and more importantly to Neil, attention from an adult (his father is long gone and his mother works a lot), he spends a lot of time with the coach in his home. In a thankfully restrained but no less disturbing scene, Neil is sexually seduced into believing what his coach is doing is acceptable.
As he grows up, Neil takes unwarranted risks in what has quickly become a sexually promiscuous lifestyle. But horribly bored with his life in his small Kansas hometown, Neil heads to stay with a friend in New York City, a place where his risky behavior leads to increasingly dangerous encounters.
If any of the above description doesn't spell it out, I'll be blunt – this is at times, a very difficult movie to watch. Nudity is kept to a minimum, but the subject matter certainly doesn't leave a lot to the imagination. However, the story itself is quite compelling as it skillfully juggles two separate threads between the two teens that don't intersect until a powerful finale.
And the acting, particularly from Corbet and Gordon-Levitt is outstanding. Viewers might recognize Gordon-Levitt from his role on the former NBC sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun," but nothing on that show can possibly prepare you for the devastating emotional and physical performance he puts on in this film. In the less showy role, as it were, Corbet also gives a very effective performance, as he slowly begins to assemble the pieces of a troubled childhood.
Far from a fun experience, "Mysterious Skin" is still an important piece of filmmaking. It attempts to shine a light where others won't look, for fear of what will be found. But as long as heinous crimes such as pedophilia continue to plague society, it's important that films such as this exist. Whether viewers choose to acknowledge them is clearly another matter.
Grade: A-
(This film is not rated, but contains strong sexual content and language.)

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Movie Review: "Walk the Line"

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dallas Roberts and Robert Patrick
Directed by James Mangold

Much like 2004's "Ray," which featured an Oscar-winning performance from Jamie Foxx, "Walk the Line" centers around a musical trailblazer who had to fight off personal demons during the course of a long and illustrious career. Both Ray Charles and Johnny Cash had to overcome early childhood tragedies involving a sibling, drug addictions and skeptics of their style of music.
But "Walk the Line" isn't merely a biopic that focuses on the full career path of Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) – although it does hit on a number of the highlights and lowlights in his early years. It becomes clear once the story introduces June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) that we're also dealing with a love story – and a pretty good one at that.
Cash's formative years in near poverty in rural Arkansas were spent working in the fields with his parents and older brother, occasionally fishing and listening to country and gospel music on the radio, featuring little June Carter, among others. At this point, a music career was merely a pipe dream for Cash, who would eventually leave home to join the Air Force, writing music in his free time.
After leaving the service, he marries and gets a job, but jumps at the opportunity to audition for Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) of Sun Records. Initially, the audition is going badly, leading to a great speech from Phillips that seems to awaken something in Cash. In this scene, the musical career of Johnny Cash is born.
Taking to the road performing at shows along with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and some guy named Elvis Presley, Cash begins to find his signature sound that will serve him for the next 40-plus years. Even those who aren't big Johnny Cash fans can recognize a song of his when they hear it.
It's at one of those shows that Johnny literally runs into June backstage and is instantly in love, even as she's effortlessly making comical banter with the onstage announcer to stall her pending performance. June later explains that she learned to be a good comedian, because she knew she could always fall back on that if the singing career didn't pan out.
While Johnny has the look of a man who would be willing to marry June right away, the problem in the early years would be that both were married to other people. Then, when Johnny divorced his wife, he turned more and more to drug dependency, which served as another roadblock to get to June. In fact, for a long time, taking the stage would be the one place the two could be together to genuinely express their feelings for one another – even if it was in front of thousands of people.
Phoenix gives a great performance as Cash, capturing his stage moves, demeanor and internal struggles, even while lacking the real Cash's physically imposing appearance. He's matched, if not surpassed by Witherspoon, in easily the best performance of her career. Watching the two of them together on stage, singing and playing their instruments themselves, shows some genuine chemistry that frequently brings the movie to vibrant life.
Director James Mangold keeps the story moving swiftly, wisely choosing to focus the movie on the unconventional, but undeniably powerful romance between Johnny and June. Plus, he gets a lot of great performance footage, including a rousing recreation of Cash’s hugely popular performance at Folsom Prison in California. Credit has to be given to music producer T Bone Burnett (himself a Grammy winner for his soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") for his work on the soundtrack, which included a lot of musical training with both Phoenix and Witherspoon.
Still, in just a few scenes, the script by Mangold and Gill Dennis manages to step away from the music and romance to clearly depict a very strained relationship between Johnny and his seemingly impossible to please father (Robert Patrick), who clearly favored his older son. Even upon achieving success, Johnny would look to gain the approval of his father. Much like his T-1000 character in "Terminator 2," Patrick achieves an icy disposition that has him at one family Thanksgiving showing more concern over a tractor stuck in the mud than his son's well being and new home.
Some characters, such as Cash’s first wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) and his mother, are rather underdeveloped, and the script doesn't cover any of the twists and turns that his career would take in his final 30-something years. But at a running time of well over two hours, they could have easily filmed two movies to fit all of that in.
One thing about biopics is that they generally follow a predictable pattern. After all, we usually will know about the principle people involved and the major events in their career/life before the movie starts. That leaves the performances and details, along with how well the movie adheres to them as the primary litmus test. On that front, "Walk the Line" would seem to acquit itself fairly well, with the occasional exception.
One surprising way for me that it maintained accuracy was in Johnny's final marriage proposal to June (he had a lot of them). It actually did take place on stage during a concert. In the movie, it plays as an emotional and rousing scene that would appear to a screenwriter's concoction. Then again, for a couple who appeared to have such a great partnership on stage, could there have been a more appropriate time and place for him to pop the question?
Grade: B+
(Rated PG-13 for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency.)

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Movie Review: "Fever Pitch"

Starring Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, Lenny Clarke, Jessamy Finet
Directed by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly

After starring in the noisy, laugh-free flop "Taxi" in 2004, it's good to know Jimmy Fallon actually has some acting talent, displayed in the infinitely better written movie "Fever Pitch."
Of course, the material he has to work with is a significant upgrade, as the story is based on a novel by British author Nick Hornby, who previously saw "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy" made into movies. The screenplay, adapted by longtime writing partners Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, moves the story from the soccer field to the baseball diamond – a wise move for wider appeal to American audiences.
School teacher and Boston Red Sox fan Ben Wrightman loves his team with a passion. His wardrobe is largely Red Sox uniforms and ballcaps, while he has enough memorabilia inside his home to start his own museum. Having been left season tickets by his late uncle, who took him to his first game at age 7, Ben's life during baseball season revolves around his beloved Red Sox.
But a field trip he takes a few of his students on introduces him to Lindsey, a career-driven woman he is instantly smitten with. This leads to the start of a relationship, in which he knows his Red Sox obsession will soon reveal itself. However, much to his surprise, Lindsey is OK with having to share him with the Red Sox – a decision that she eventually realizes is leading to problems.
To the story's credit, Ben is not just painted as a baseball obsessed fan, but a genuinely good guy who really cares for Lindsey. He just struggles to find the right balance between his two most important relationships.
While not asked to delve deep into his emotions, Fallon gives a winning and believable performance as a superfan who has to decide how far he's willing to go for love. Barrymore is equally good as a sweet-natured woman who is by turns charmed, horrified and embarrassed by the fanaticism that Ben has for his team.
Less successful are the supporting cast, most of whom make little to no impact in the movie. Perhaps some of their best stuff was on the cutting room floor, but the scenes involving them usually end up flat. Thankfully, we're largely spared any acting attempts from the Red Sox players, who occasionally make brief appearances in scenes.
As directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly, gone is any of the scatological humor that has almost become the brothers' calling card in movies such as "Dumb and Dumber," "There's Something About Mary" and "Kingpin." They demonstrate in this movie that they can convey sweetness without being gross. And with Boston's unexpected success during the 2004 season, the brothers were also forced to do some last minute rewrites and fast filming to capture the team's historic World Series victory.
That point turns out to be more of an interesting footnote to the movie's conclusion, as by then the filmmakers are obviously hoping that audiences will be more invested in the turnout of Ben and Lindsey's relationship, rather than a baseball game. Then again, try to explain that to the Red Sox Nation.
Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for rude and sexual humor, and some sensuality.)

Handicapping Oscar, Part II

Having previously covered some of the possible award-worthy movies that could have its director hoisting up the Academy Award, shouting “I’m the king of the world!,” (Thank you, James Cameron) let’s move into the always dignified and ego-free world of actors. As usual, there’s clearly more possible candidates than available nominee slots.
Of course, that means every year there are examples of actors getting nominated that make you scratch your head, while other potential nominees are left out in the cold. (Well, as cold as winter in southern California can get.)
The following is an analysis of the two lead acting categories and some of the possible nominees heading into Oscar night, March 6, 2006. Keep in mind, unpredictability often reigns in these categories, whether it’s with an out of left field nominee or possibly an unexpected winner. Hence, the reason I’m staying away from the supporting acting races – just too many possibilities right now.
Best Actor
• Phillip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”) - For those of you not familiar with this great actor, he is no relation to Dustin Hoffman. Usually, any movie featuring him is better for his presence and with “Capote,” he has his first high-profile starring role. Portraying the eccentric author Truman Capote, early word is that it would be a major surprise if Hoffman doesn’t garner a nomination.
• Joaquin Phoenix (“Walk the Line”) - Another near sure thing to be nominated, Phoenix is getting a lot of great publicity for his performance as music icon Johnny Cash. Academy Award voters loves strong performances featuring real-life musicians (Jamie Foxx won portraying Ray Charles and Gary Busey was nominated for his role as Buddy Holly), so Phoenix (himself a previous nominee for “Gladiator”) has an excellent shot.
• David Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) - Strathairn has been in countless movies over the years, including a number directed by Walter Sayles, but hasn’t ever really broken out of the good “character actor” category. That is, until now. The George Clooney-directed movie stars Strathairn as respected broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, as he decides to take on Senator Joseph McCartney during his obsession with uncovering Communists in America. While the film has been fairly low-profile, it remains to be seen if that will hinder Strathairn’s chances.
• Johnny Depp (“The Libertine”) - Having been nominated two years in a row, Depp is quickly becoming an Oscar favorite, yet is still waiting to get his first award. A nomination is possible with this role as famed 17th century poet, the Earl of Rochester, as its supposedly a meaty role. However, his character is also supposed to be quite unlikable and notorious, having died from syphilis at a fairly young age.
• Bill Murray (“Broken Flowers”) - Like his role in “Lost in Translation,” Murray dials it down for a critically-acclaimed performance in this Jim Jarmusch-directed release. But the movie was released several months ago and may be off Oscar radars by the time votes are due.
• Russell Crowe (“Cinderella Man”) - A three-time nominee and one-time winner (“Gladiator”), Crowe gives a very strong performance as boxer Jim Braddock in the Depression-era movie directed by Ron Howard. Despite its June release, a nomination is definitely a possibility. But might Oscar voters punish Crowe for his bad boy behavior away from the cameras?
Other possibilities: Viggo Mortensen (“A History of Violence”), Ralph Fiennes (“The Constant Gardener”), Nathan Lane (“The Producers”), Jake Gyllenhaal (“Jarhead” or “Brokeback Mountain”), Heath Ledger (“Brokeback Mountain”), Tommy Lee Jones (“The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”) and Eric Bana (“Munich”).
Best Actress
• Charlize Theron (“North Country”) - An Oscar-winner in 2003 (“Monster”), Theron could be staring at her second nomination as a mine worker in Minnesota who files a major sexual harassment suit against the company for whom she is employed. Roles like this are frequently honored by the Academy, so she would seem to be a front-runner.
• Gwyneth Paltrow (“Proof”) - Another former Oscar-winner (“Shakespeare in Love”), Paltrow has gotten solid marks for her role in the big-screen adaptation of a theater production, of which she also starred. The film hasn’t really been swept up by critics as some thought, and its box-office has been meager, so those factors could work against her.
• Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line”) - Having been one of a handful of bankable female stars in Hollywood, Witherspoon has finally gotten the chance to sink her teeth into a substantive role, as June Carter Cash. And like her co-star, Joaquin Phoenix, early reviews have been glowing. So this may be her time.
• Joan Allen (“The Upside of Anger”) - A three-time Oscar nominee, Allen is a real force of nature in her role as a wife forced to run a household with three teenage daughters after her husband unexpectedly disappears. Being a smaller film that was released in the early part of 2005 could hurt her chances, but the performance is certainly a memorable one for those who have seen it.
Other possibilities: Claire Danes (“Shopgirl”), Ziyi Zhang (“Memoirs of a Geisha”), Radha Mitchell (“Melinda and Melinda”), Julianne Moore (“The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio”), and Felicity Huffman (“Transamerica”).

Sunday, November 13, 2005

DVD Releases - Week of Nov. 14

As a new feature of this site, I'll plan on offering a rundown of some of the more notable DVD releases to be coming out every week. So keep checking back to find what new items you can blow your hard earned money on.
Without further adieu, here's this coming week's highlights:
"Cheers: Season 7" – This release contains all of the season's 22 episodes with Sam, Rebecca and company, but like all of the seasons before it, contains no major extras.
"Fantasy Island: Season 1" – Mr. Roarke and Tattoo welcome you to their first DVD release, which contains 14 episodes (it was initially a mid-season replacement) and a TV movie. Extras include a couple of featurettes.
"Frazier: Season 7" – All 23 episodes of the "Cheers" spin-off are included on this four-disc release, with no notable extras included.
"Friends: Season 10" – The DVD run of this successful sitcom should be wrapping up here with the release of its final season, including all 18 episodes. Among the extras are commentary on select episodes, a Friends Final Thoughts featurette, a gag reel and a Matt LeBlanc music video (whatever that is).
"Happy Endings" (R) – Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Tom Arnold, Lisa Kudrow, and Jason Ritter. From Don Roos, the director of "The Opposite of Sex" comes this comedy/drama that weaves multiple stories to create a witty look at love, family and the sheer unpredictability of life itself. Features a commentary with Roos, a making of featurette, deleted scenes and outtakes.
"Madagascar" (PG) – Featuring the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, David Schwimmer and Sacha Baron Cohen. Spoiled by their upbringing with no idea what wild life is really like, four animals from New York Central Zoo escape in search of their friend and find themselves on route to Madagascar. Includes behind the scenes documentaries, a "penguin" commentary and various games.
"Oklahoma: 50th Anniversary Edition" (G) – Starring Shirley Jones, Gordon McRae and Rod Steiger. The first Rodgers/Hammerstein collaboration centers around a budding romance between a farmer's daughter and a ranch hand. The film won an Academy Award for best musical score and is one of the most successful musicals of all time. The two-disc release features a couple of commentaries, sing-along subtitle tracks, featurettes and more.
"Scrubs: Season 2" – The second season of the mostly comedic happenings in a hospital includes 21 episodes on three discs. Several include commentaries, along with outtakes, deleted scenes and cast interviews.
"The Skeleton Key" (PG-13) – Starring Kate Hudson, Gena Rowlands, John Hurt and Peter Sarsgaard. A woman (Hudson) takes a job as a caretaker for a man (Hurt) in the Louisiana bayou, only to discover scary and mysterious occurrences in the home. Includes deleted scenes with commentary, several featurettes and more.
"The Sound of Music: 40th Anniversary Edition" – Starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker and Richard Hayden. Getting at least its third different DVD release, this hugely popular Rodgers/Hammerstein musical includes commentary with Andrews and Plummer, commentary with director Robert Wise, an on location featurette, screen tests and much more.
"Stealth: Special Edition" (PG-13) – Starring Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, Sam Shephard and Jamie Foxx. A group of outstanding fighter pilots are teamed up with a state-of-the-art machine that can fly stealth missions. But things go awry and the pilots are then faced with trying to destroy the malfunctioning team member at any cost. Featurettes, a music video, documentary and more are included in this release, which stunk it up at the box-office this summer.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Handicapping Oscar, Part I

As you might have noticed at movie theaters in recent weeks, more films considered award-worthy have started lighting up movie screens in preparation for the annual awards season in Hollywood. Yes, it's the time of year when Hollywood takes a step back to admire its body of work over the entire year and hand out award after award after award.
Next thing you know, we'll be in early March and the back patting, hugs and congratulatory handshakes will still be going on, culminating in the Academy Awards, to be hosted in 2006 by (insert comedian here).
Prognosticators begin making Oscar nominee lists in the summer, continuing the speculation all the way until the morning of the announcement in February, at which time the names go up on the board in Las Vegas for your gambling enjoyment. But if you'd like to do some gambling on the subject now, there's a Web site of an offshore gaming company based in St. John's, Antigua that already has odds posted on some of the races. (And no, I'm not kidding.)
Certainly, I'm no expert in award picking, but compiling a list of possible nominees now could help demonstrate a bit of the absolute predictability (and occasionally, randomness) of the selection process.
So here's a look, in no particular order, at Oscar hopefuls in the best picture race heading into the big night March 6, 2006:
"Crash" – Starring Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard and Ryan Phillippe. Featuring probably the best ensemble cast of the year, critics absolutely fell in love with writer-director Paul Haggis' vision of 24 hours in present-day Los Angeles. Being an early release in the year could hurt its chances. But then again, most who have seen it have little trouble remembering it. (Now on video/DVD)
"Cinderella Man" – Starring Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Bruce McGill and Paul Giamatti. Based on the true life story of boxer Jim Braddock, who served as a inspiration for people as they lived through the Great Depression. Could it be two years in a row for boxing movies to be shown Oscar love? This film didn't do as well as expected at the box-office, but Crowe, Zellweger and director Ron Howard have all earned awards before. (On video/DVD Dec. 6)
"Jarhead" – Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Lucas Black and Jamie Foxx. An adaptation of the best-selling book of the same name by Anthony Swofford, Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") directs this story of a Marine sniper squad during the 1991 Gulf War. As the current war in Iraq continues, this hot-topic movie could be carried all the way to the Oscars. However, reviews from critics have been decidedly and surprisingly mixed. (Now in theaters)
"Walk the Line" – Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin and Robert Patrick. After the success of another biopic centered around a well respected musical talent ("Ray"), there should be some good vibes coming for the Johnny Cash story, starring Phoenix as the Man in Black. Witherspoon portrays longtime wife June Carter. Cash saw a resurgence late in his music career before his death in 2003, so that could bode well for this pic. (Nov. 18)
"Syriana" – Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Michelle Monaghan, Chris Cooper and Jeffrey Wright. Featuring interweaving storylines in the style of "Traffic," that film's Oscar-winning screenwriter, Stephen Gaghan, is the writer and director of this film based on a 2002 book from a former government operative. Focused on the Middle Eastern oil industry, the film takes a critical look at the CIA's role in the war on terrorism, among other plot points. Can you say topical? (In limited release Nov. 23, wide Dec. 9)
"Memoirs of a Geisha" – Starring Zhang Ziyi, Ken Watanabe and Michelle Yeoh. Set during World War II, director Rob Marshall ("Chicago") brings the bestselling novel from Arthur Golden to the big screen, following the life of a woman as she rises from an impoverished childhood into a highly desired geisha in Japan. The movie has a lot of elements that Oscar loves, but will it have box-office legs – another trait that Oscar covets? (Dec. 9)
"Brokeback Mountain" – Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway and Randy Quaid. Two young men meet in the summer of 1963, forging a powerful connection that impacts their lives, for good and bad, as the years pass. Ang Lee directs this tale that has picked up a lot of buzz at various film festivals, but will the subject matter be too controversial to overcome for a generally conservative Academy? (Dec. 9)
"King Kong" – Starring Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Jack Black and Andy Serkis. Assuming you already know this story, the big ape makes his triumphant return to theaters, under the guidance of Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings"). It would be easy to dismiss this film as more summer-worthy escapist popcorn-fare, if not for the talent involved. There were certainly skeptics when Jackson started the "LOTR" trilogy, but those films turned out successful in just about every way imaginable. (Dec. 14)
"Munich" – Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Geoffrey Rush. Another movie based on actual events, "Munich" tells the story of a secret Israeli squad sent to dispose of 11 Palestinians who killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Director Steven Spielberg helms his second film of the year (after this summer's "War of the Worlds"), with the credentials to make a very gripping and respectful movie, much like he did for Holocaust survivors in "Schindler's List" and World War II veterans in "Saving Private Ryan." (Dec. 23)
Part II (coming soon): A peek at the contenders for Oscar's major acting races.
– MC

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Movie Review: "Kicking & Screaming"

Starring Will Ferrell, Robert Duvall, Kate Walsh and Mike Ditka
Directed by Jesse Dylan

Anyone that has seen the trailer to Will Ferrell's comedy "Kicking & Screaming" can probably figure out not only the entire storyline, but the way the movie plays out. Unfortunately, the trailer also reveals most of the funny parts of the movie, which are ultimately too few and far between.
That's not to say that the movie is inherently a failure. It's certainly watchable and Ferrell throws himself into his role – albeit maybe too much. But like a poor soccer player, it kind of runs aimlessly around the field, occasionally getting off shots on the goal that are infrequently on target.
Ferrell stars as Phil Weston, who takes over his son's soccer team after his dad Buck (Robert Duvall) trades the boy from the team he coaches. Phil has long repressed issues with his dad, feeling that nothing he has done in his life has ever been good enough for him. In general, Buck would agree with that assessment, and feels that Phil is just in for more disappointment and failure by coaching soccer – something he has no knowledge of.
In the same vein as "The Bad News Bears," Phil's team is painted as a ragtag group of losers, but little is done to develop any of the children's characters beyond the simplest of brushstrokes. Although to be fair, the film doesn't really seem to take much of an interest in the children in the first place, as the relationship between Phil and Buck is the central focus. All other characters, including Phil's wife (Kate Walsh) and son (Dylan McLaughlin) are thrown into the background.
The only other character who makes any kind of an impact is not really a character at all, but rather an actual person. Well, kind of. NFL Hall of Fame player/coach Mike Ditka shows up in the film playing himself, and agrees to help Phil as an assistant coach. His reasons are completely selfish, as he is a neighbor of Buck's and makes it a point to get under his skin at every opportunity.
Clearly, Ditka is not a polished actor by any stretch of the imagination. But his exchanges with Ferrell are more interesting than most of the action in the movie. The movie actually could have used a bit more of these scenes to break up the plot as it headed towards its predictable and pat conclusion.
If anything, I think there's a better and maybe less family-friendly movie struggling to get out here. There's a hint of it here and there, with Ferrell becoming a coffee junkie who becomes obsessed with winning no matter whose feelings he hurts. That even includes Ditka, who he begins to boss around, calling him "the juice box guy." Anyone who's ever attended children's sporting events knows there are some people, be it coaches, parents, or just other crowd members who have some definite anger management issues. These are the types of people who deserved to be humorously skewered in a movie.
Some laughs are to be had in "Kicking & Screaming," but much like the sport of soccer itself, it's a low-scoring affair.
Grade: C
(Rated PG for thematic elements, language and some crude humor.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Horror! The Horror!

In recognition of Halloween, I thought I'd throw my two cents in for some of the best horror movies of all time. Before piping in on what films aren't on this list, I'll mention up front that I've never been an avid horror movie fan. That's not to say I haven't seen my fair share over the years. I'm just far from what you could call an afficionado. For example, I'm still yet to see John Carpenter's original "Halloween," which from what I've heard, is one that would surely be on the following list.
Some of these movies may venture between horror/thriller/sci-fi, but are generally what I would classify as horror movies. With that out of the way, here are some of my picks for best horror movies (scares are optional, but preferred).
In alphabetical order ...
"Alien" (1979) - Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto.
It's a rather simple premise for a movie and one that's been done many times before. A killer is on the loose, picking off victims one by one, as they're trapped in a single location with no way to call for help. But this one involves an alien creature on board a spaceship, with the characters (and subsequently, the audience) having no real idea of what they're dealing with. Stylishly directed by Scott, with a solid ensemble cast on board, the film takes its time racheting up the suspense to great effect. The scene with John Hurt at the dinner table remains one of the most memorable moments in horror movie history.

"Aliens" (1986) - Directed by James Cameron. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn and Bill Paxton.
The follow-up to "Alien" is the rare example of a sequel being superior to the original, with a fearless performance from Weaver as Ripley, the lone survivor from the first film. She returns to the alien planet with a group of Marines to try and eradicate the vile species. Naturally, things don't go as planned, with Cameron turning the sequel into one of the most action-packed horror movies ever. It's an intense movie that can make you physically exhausted simply by just watching it.

"Dawn of the Dead" (1978) - Directed by George A. Romero. Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross.
Despite an effective remake of it in 2004, this is still the superior version of a small group of survivors taking refuge in a shopping mall, as the living dead walk the earth. While the cast is hardly notable, the real stars are the zombies, brought to life, if you will, by Romero and make-up artist Tom Savini. Played for both scares and laughs, these zombies are nothing if not persistent. Some of the violence seems a bit tame compared to what movies are allowed to get away with now, but the film still packs a solid satirical punch.

"The Exorcist" (1973) - Directed by William Friedken. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair and Max Von Sydow.
Based on the book by William Peter Blatty, this movie still has the ability to shock more than 30 years later. The demon possession of young Regan (Blair) and subsequent attempts to rid her of the evil spirit have been copied and spoofed to death, with none coming close to the creepy impact of this film.

"The Fly" (1986) - Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz.
A remake of the 1950's film starring Vincent Price, Cronenberg amps up the violence and gross out factor, but also invests more emotion into the story, thanks to good performances from Goldblum and Davis. Establishing a blossoming love story between the two (who were in love for real during filming) only intensifies the tragic string of events to follow. Won the Academy Award for best makeup.

"Misery"(1990) - Directed by Rob Reiner. Starring James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth.
As far as big screen adaptations of Stephen King novels go, this one ranks right up with "Stand By Me" as easily the best of the bunch. Kathy Bates' Oscar-winning performance as the deranged "fan" of romance author Paul Sheldon (Caan) drives this movie to another level. The scene with the block of wood and sledgehammer will still make most people cringe today – even if they haven't seen the movie for years.

"Poltergeist" (1982) - Directed by Tobe Hooper. Starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O'Rourke.
Proof that you can make a truly scary PG movie (although I'm not sure it would still be able to garner that rating today), the story of the Freeling family and their experiences with the supernatural delivers thrills and chills in pretty equal measure. While the role of director Hooper's role in the making of the movie has been disputed over the years, there's no denying a familiar style and influence on the picture from co-writer and co-producer Steven Spielberg.

"Psycho" (1960) - Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam.
Basically, every aspect of this movie works together to deliver some genuine scares for the uninitiated. For those who have seen it, the movie still delivers the goods, even though you know what's coming. That's thanks in large part to the flawless direction from Hitchcock, a memorably creepy performance from Perkins and a fantastic music score from Bernard Herrmann. This one's generally credited with creating the horror movie genre.

"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) - Directed by Tobe Hooper. Starring Marilyn Burns, Allen Danzinger, Paul A. Partain.
Filmed by a then-unknown Hooper with a cast of no-name actors, this low-budget movie is based on actual events. Because no one is recognizable in the film and it makes next to no use of music, there's a feeling that you're watching a documentary more than a movie. This works to its advantage, as Hooper doesn't really tip his hand on what will happen next, leaving you with a strong sense of unease. This film spawned several sequels of lesser regard (including one with Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey!) as well as an unnecessary 2003 remake.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Movie Review: "Flightplan"

Starring Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Erika Christensen and Sean Bean
Directed by Robert Schwentke

More often than not, big-budget thrillers tend to play it dumb and predictable, undermining the very thrills they're supposed to provide audiences. Then again, most thrillers don't have the pleasure of a two-time Oscar winner at its disposal.
But that's exactly the genre that Jodie Foster has chosen for her last two starring roles, in 2002 for director David Fincher in "Panic Room" and now "Flightplan," helmed by Robert Schwentke, making his major film debut. In both, she plays a protective mother who finds herself in nerve-wracking situations involving her daughter, with most of the action taking place in one location.
In "Flightplan," Foster portrays Kyle Pratt, a jet propulsion engineer who boards a huge double decker plane (one that she helped design) on flight from Germany to New York. She's newly widowed, following the death of her husband and is almost numb with grief, while still trying to maintain a calm exterior for her young daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston). On the flight, the two decide to take a nap, but when Kyle wakes up, Julia is gone.
Concerned about her daughter's well being from the get go, Kyle quickly enlists the aid of the plane's crew to help find her. However, after initial attempts fail to produce results, Kyle demands that the captain (Sean Bean) order a more thorough search of the plane. The main problem he sees with the idea is that no one remembers seeing the girl in the first place, nor was she counted among the passenger list.
This is clearly not welcome news for Kyle, who becomes increasingly frustrated and anxious to understand how someone can simply disappear from a plane at 37,000 feet. Meanwhile, some of the crew harbors skepticism of her mental state, enlisting the aid of an onboard air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard) to keep her under control.
Going into "Flightplan" knowing as little as possible can only enhance the enjoyment of the remainder of the film, so I'll say no more about the story. Just be aware that there are at least two main paths the film could travel down, and while it's disappointing it chooses the more well traveled one, the film is still fairly effective.
Much of the credit has to go to Foster, who has made a career of playing women with steely resolve that is in stark contrast to her relatively petite physical appearance. She brings an intense presence to her role that likely exceeds what the script by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray calls for, but the film is better for it, as it helps better ground the story in realism. Well, at least until the third act, which doesn't really provide the payoff it had been laying the foundation for up until then. While "Flightplan" is a solid heavily Hitchcock-influenced thriller that makes very good use of its seemingly limited space, don't ask too many questions about it afterwards. Otherwise, you might come upon plot holes big enough to fly a plane through.
Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for violence and some intense plot material.)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Where Are They Now ... Dana Carvey

As one of the funniest cast members to ever emerge from "Saturday Night Live," the transition into movies would have seemed a simple one for Dana Carvey. Having been a part of the mostly standout cast of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Carvey was consistently funny on the show, with characters such as Garth, Church Lady and Hans from Hans and Franz among his repertoire. Plus, during the 1992 presidential election, he hit the jackpot, portraying George H.W. Bush and candidate Ross Perot. The sketch where he plays Perot as he takes running mate Admiral James Stockdale (Phil Hartman) out into the country, with plans to desert him there, is one of my all-time favorites.
But back to the topic at hand, Carvey left the show in 1992, where he quickly found success with "Wayne's World" and "Wayne's World 2" both big hits at the box-office. But the real test would be how Carvey would fare once out from under the shadow of SNL-related success. That's where things started to go south.
Subsequent movies "Trapped in Paradise," "The Road to Wellville" and "Clean Slate" all were panned by critics and were DOA at the box-office. That led up to around 1998 when Carvey's movie career – and life – were put into jeopardy by double bypass heart surgery that was botched by his surgeon. Amazingly, the doctor operated on the wrong artery, leading to an eventual and justifiable lawsuit that netted Carvey $7.5 million. In the meantime, his acting career came to a complete halt as it took him several years to fully recover from additional surgeries that had to be performed.
So there's a perfectly understandable reason for why the comedian seemingly fell off the face of the earth in the late 1990s.
Less understandable is why he would choose "The Master of Disguise" in 2002 as his first (and only) starring vehicle he's had since then. Personally, I haven't seen it, but heard it was so awful that I can't bring myself to do so. I mean, his character's name is Pistachio Disguisey. Is that supposed to be funny or clever??? And he really doesn't have anyone else to blame for its failure, as he co-wrote the script.
At any rate, he hasn't appeared in another movie since then, and has only made sporadic appearances on TV as a guest star on some shows and a guest host on "Live with Regis and Kelly." He still makes occasional stand-up comedy performances around the U.S., but his star unfortunately seems to be one that will never burn as bright as it did when on SNL. Then again, there are so many former cast members from that show of which the same thing can be said, to almost render the observation meaningless. But if former SNL-er Rob Schneider can actually star in two (count em', two) movies about a male prostitute, there's got to be something worthwhile out there that can get Dana Carvey back on the big screen.
– MC

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Movie Review: "Crash"

Starring Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe
Directed by Paul Haggis

As America is often referred to as a melting pot, "Crash" examines the modern-day prejudices, racism and communication breakdowns that can occur when so many diverse cultures and backgrounds come together.
With a good script and even better cast on hand, the film unfolds over a 36-hour period, tracking the interweaving stories of more than a dozen people living in Los Angeles. Co-written and directed by Paul Haggis, who wrote the Oscar-winning script of "Million Dollar Baby," "Crash" is remarkably well-paced for a first time director. Juggling multiple storylines while still maintaining the viewer's interest is no easy task, but Haggis is no doubt helped by the fact that these characters act and sound real. Some are angry, some are scared, and most are unhappy – either with the direction their life is heading or with society as a whole.
District Attorney Rick Cameron (Brendan Fraser) and wife Jean (Sandra Bullock) fall victim to a carjacking, with each handling the incident in quite different ways. Rick worries how this could impact his career, while Jean pushes everyone away as she is consumed by anger and fear.
Along with his Latina partner (Jennifer Esposito), police detective Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) investigates a potentially racially-motivated killing. Waters runs into some interference during the investigation, which forces him into an ethical dilemma, involving his troublesome younger brother (Larenz Tate).
A successful TV director (Terrence Howard) and his wife (Thandie Newton) are pulled over by a LAPD officer Jack Ryan (Matt Dillon) leading to the wife being groped by Ryan, while her husband and Ryan's partner (Ryan Phillippe) helplessly watch. Again, those impacted by the incident all deal with the aftermath differently.
But it's to the credit of Haggis and co-writer Robert Moresco that the script doesn't paint the characters with stereotypical strokes. For example, Dillon's character could have been a one-note racist dirty cop. But he's also a devoted son, frustrated by the hurdles of the health care system, as he cares for his ailing father.
In "Crash," many of the characters are morally complex people, neither good nor bad. Some make decisions that are worthy of praise, while others make ones that make you shake your head in disappointment.
True, some of the situations are a bit coincidental and overwrought, as the script seemingly does gymnastics to make some characters' lives intersect. But the actors make you believe in the choices they make, leaving you to examine your own shortcomings. It would be quite a stretch to call "Crash" educational, but it does seem to aspire to have people actually talk about sometimes uncomfortable subjects, such as racism. Hopefully, the real education comes out of those conversations.
Grade: B+
(Rated R for language, sexual content and some violence.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Where Are They Now ... Judd Nelson

Do you ever find yourself watching an old movie on TV and see an actor or actress come on screen that you haven't seen in a long time? Wonder what they're up to nowadays? Are they still in the movie business? Are they working at your local Burger King? Are they six feet under?
These are questions I stay up late at night thinking about. (Well, I could in theory...) But I felt it would be good, if only for my own curiosity, to follow up on these burning questions.
So therefore, I will attempt on a semi-weekly basis to provide a brief career rundown of an actor or actress who has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth, and give an update on the latest news I can find about the poor schlemiels. Some of these people you may have never heard of in the first place, while others you'll exclaim, "Yeah, whatever did happen to that poor SOB?" Hopefully, I'll be able to offer some answers.
And then maybe, just maybe, we can all sleep a little better at night.
If you've got an actor/actress you're curious about, drop a line on this site and I'll see if I can't fit them into a future edition of "Where Are They Now."
Without further adieu, the first name out of the bag is Judd Nelson. For those of you who were fans of the John Hughes films in the 1980s, I'm sure you'll remember his role as Bender in "The Breakfast Club." Most any fan of that film could quote tons of dialogue, much of it coming from his character. He also had the fortune (at the time, it seemed like good) to be one of the stars of "St. Elmo's Fire," which pays tribute to the passion of the highly popular "Sesame Street" character. (I could be wrong on that. I've actually never watched the whole thing, nor been able to sit through a John Parr song. But that's another subject.)
At any rate, as a member of the creative media-derived group, "The Brat Pack," Nelson was able to get into lots of parties, date a lot of attractive and thought-challenged women and start trendy drug habits. However, the big film roles didn't really follow on the heels of his 1985 success. Unless you consider providing the voice of Rodimus Prime in "Transformers: The Movie" as a big film role.
He did get a couple of decent acting jobs in subsequent years, starring in 1987's TV-movie "Billionaire Boys Club" and 1991's "New Jack City," portraying a cop only slightly more believable than Chris Rock in "Lethal Weapon 4."
In 1996-99, he was on the cast of the Brooke Shields TV vehicle "Suddenly Susan," which I'm not sure should be listed as a career highlight. At any rate, little seen movies have followed since then, mostly direct-to-DVD/video or ones for TV. But the intrepid 45-year-old actor soldiers on, with movies such as "Lethal Eviction," "Black Hole," and "Three Wise Guys" all current or future releases for 2005. He is an avid golfer and a big fan of the Boston sports scene, although he lives in L.A.
And in recognition of the 20th anniversary of "The Breakfast Club," Nelson was expected to join fellow cast members Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy and Paul Gleason on stage at the MTV Movie Awards in June. (What, Emilio Estevez was too busy?) However, he never showed on stage, yet was reportedly at pre-show festivities. Did anybody think to check above the theater's ceiling? He might have been crawling around up there, causing a ruckus.
So now you know ...
– MC

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Movie Review: "Dark Water"

Starring Jennifer Connelly, Ariel Gade, John C. Reilly, Tim Roth, Dougray Scott and Pete Postlethwaite
Directed by Walter Salles

Improperly marketed this summer as a horror movie, "Dark Water" admittedly is almost completely scare-free. Then again, I don't think director Walter Salles and his cast set out to make a horror movie. Instead, the film is much more effective as a psychological thriller that deals with elements such as abandonment and depression.
At the beginning of the film, Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly) has seen her marriage collapse and is struggling to maintain custody of her young daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade). She knows she must find a new home, but tight finances force her to look in less-than-desired locales, such as a run-down apartment complex on New York's Roosevelt Island. It's there that she runs into Murray (John C. Reilly), a sociable real estate agent who believes a fresh coat of paint is an actual answer to some of the building's many shortcomings. One of those shortcomings is Mr. Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite), the building superintendent, a surly and humorless sort that you know has clearly been there too long.
More out of desperation than actual desire, Dahlia takes the apartment (for a bargain price of only $900 a month), but almost immediately a leaky ceiling emerges. Starting as a simple water stain on the ceiling, it quickly spreads, dripping an oily substance that looks a bit beyond a normal plumbing job. Veeck explains to Dahlia that the apartment above her has been abandoned, but troublesome teens have been managing to break into it and create mischief by flooding it. But how reliable is Veeck, Dahlia wonders. Her daughter certainly has no misconceptions about him, calling him a liar to his face.
While Dahlia tries to put on a happy face for her daughter – who begins having problems at school with her "imaginary friend" (in this case, a ghost) – she begins to feel overwhelmed with the new direction in her life. Suffering from migraines, Dahlia regularly takes medication, which at one point, causes her to fall asleep for a full day. At the same time, her husband Kyle (Dougray Scott) begins angling to have her declared as an unfit mother. The seriousness of the situation is explained to her by her lawyer (Tim Roth, making the most of his small screen time) in a very good scene featuring the two sitting in his car amidst a heavy downpour.
Actually, rain is constantly falling in "Dark Water," which only enhances its overall mood. And the apartment complex, with such features as malfunctioning washing machines and a leaky elevator, is probably the film's most important character.
The uncertainty of Dahlia's mental state becomes a more interesting storyline to follow, with her unhappy childhood feeding into her adulthood insecurities. Connelly, having taken on other flawed characters in movies such as "Requiem for a Dream" and "House of Sand and Fog" is very good at bringing deeper dimensions to her characters. But the movie, a remake of a Japanese film by Hideo Nakata, employs yet another young female ghost whose past is enshrouded in secret. Naturally, that secret gets revealed as the movie presses on, reaching a somewhat logical, but still not very satisfying conclusion.
The ghost storyline is actually the weakest part of the movie, but the one that it's being sold on. But taking it as more of a character study, filled with some standout supporting performances, "Dark Water" floats by.
Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, frightening sequences, disturbing images and brief language.)

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Movie Review: "The Ring Two"

Starring Naomi Watts, David Dorfman, Simon Baker, Elizabeth Perkins
Directed by Hideo Nakata

Following up on the somewhat surprising success of "The Ring," an American remake of the Japanese film "Ringu," comes the unsurprising sequel, "The Ring Two." Oddly enough, the director, Hideo Nakata, directed "Ringu" and its sequel "Ringu 2." But "The Ring Two" is not a remake of "Ringu 2." Are you following all of this? More importantly, does anybody care?
Employing Nakata would seem to have been an intelligent move, allowing him to build upon the creepy and fairly effective 2002 hit, starring Naomi Watts. He shows a good visual sense and gets the look of the film, set in the Pacific Northwest, just right. Too bad the script by Ehren Kruger left him with so little to work with.
The movie picks up about six months after the end of "The Ring," with Rachel (Watts) and her son Aidan (David Dorfman) moving to Oregon after the traumatic events in Seattle. But it soon becomes apparent that Samara, the spooky young ghost from the first movie, has followed them and wants to possess her son. The remainder of the film involves Rachel's desperate (and somewhat silly) attempts to stop her – evidently making use of as little competent assistance as possible.
The first film's main hook, that of a videotape that leads to a viewer's death within seven days of watching it, is brought back for the opening sequence, then promptly dropped for the remainder of the film. Perhaps everyone in Oregon only uses DVD players now.
Although credit has to be given for avoiding the temptation of running what worked well in the first film straight into the ground, there's still not much here that generates scares, much less suspense. Case in point, Rachel and Aidan are inexplicably attacked in their car by a bunch of deer. I think the killer rabbit in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" was a bit more frightening, actually.
Watts is game in her performance, but her character has seemed to drop IQ since the first film, making a series of dumb and implausible decisions. Plus, she's certainly not helped by a near comatose performance from Dorfman. Maybe I didn't pay close enough attention in the first movie, but was her son always so creepy? And I'm talking about before he gets possessed. Refusing to address his mother as anything other than Rachel (real cute, kid), you might be tempted to root for the ghost to keep possession of him. At least then he has a personality.
There are a couple of genuine spooky moments and the visual and sound effects are generally solid, but "The Ring Two" mostly feels like a script in search of a compelling story. In one scene, Rachel throws a copy of the cursed videotape into a fire and watches it burn. You might be tempted to do the same with this movie.
Grade: D+
(Rated PG-13 for violence/terror, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language.)

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Movie Review: "Sin City"

Starring Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Benicio Del Toro, Clive Owen
Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez

Unabashedly violent with attitude to spare, "Sin City" could easily be seen as the most visually dazzling film released from Hollywood in years. If only Hollywood could take credit for it.
No, credit for this tough-talking, hard-boiled picture rests solely in the hands of co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (with a guest directing assist from Quentin Tarantino), with the script a faithful adaptation of Miller's graphic novels. Rodriguez shot and edited the entire film in his own Austin, Texas studio – even choosing to resign his membership with the Director's Guild of America after the DGA refused to allow Miller to be listed as co-director.
It has to say something about the attraction of the material and working with Rodriguez himself when such a remarkable cast can be assembled. With some of the cast playing less-than-desirable characters (OK, most of them), there is certainly a sense of a team effort involved. Heck, Elijah Wood doesn't even speak a word as his character and he just finished playing the lead role in the three "Lord of the Rings" films.
Filmed with the actors playing against a green-screen that meant that all backgrounds would be filled in later via CGI, Rodriguez did a remarkable job in bringing Miller's black-and-white comic series to vibrant life. Most of the movie is in black-and-white, with color strategically placed in certain scenes, such as bringing attention to a character's blond hair or a woman's red lipstick.
Utilizing interrelated stories that have characters crossing over, "Sin City" feels like a more stylish, yet very violent film noir movie. The three main stories star Bruce Willis as Hartigan, an honest cop looking to save a stripper (Jessica Alba) from a murderous pedophile named Yellow Bastard (a completely unrecognizable Nick Stahl); Mickey Rourke as Marv, a very rough looking ex-con who vows to avenge the murder of a hooker (Jaime King), for which he has been framed; and Clive Owen as Dwight, a mysterious man who finds himself right in the middle of an oncoming war for a part of the city after the death of a cop (Benicio Del Toro).
With a violent streak that lands the movie a heavy R rating, "Sin City" is by no means a family film. And with storylines that weave in criminals, prostitutes, corrupt politicians and ethically-challenged police officers, its appeal is clearly not widespread. While there are some interesting female characters that generate good performances from Alba and Rosario Dawson, among others, women may find the movie too testosterone-filled for its own good.
Indeed, so much attention has been given to the look of the movie, that the story sometimes feels like a bit of an afterthought. The cast is certainly game for whatever Rodriguez and Miller throw at them, but some of them seem underutilized, if not completely wasted in their brief screen time.
Still, if you've got a tolerance for violence and being in the company of a few unsavory characters for a couple of hours, "Sin City" can certainly provide you with some sights heretofore unseen. It's a feast for the eyes – if you can bear to watch.
Grade: B+
(Rated R for sustained, strong stylized violence, nudity and sexual content.)

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Movie Review: "The Upside of Anger"

Starring Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt and Mike Binder
Directed by Mike Binder

Playing a wounded, bitter and yes, angry wife and mother of four daughters, Joan Allen takes on her role as Terry Wolfmeyer with gusto. It's an almost force of nature performance that lays down a solid formation for the rest of the cast to work from in writer-director Mike Binder's "The Upside of Anger."
As the movie opens, Terry is struggling to deal with the collapse of her marriage and the subsequent disappearance of her husband to Sweden with his secretary – with whom he had been having an affair. Terry seems to be as disgusted with the cliché of having an affair with a secretary as the act itself.
Left behind to continue as head of the household, Terry also has difficulties maintaining strong relationships with her daughters, particularly Emily (Keri Russell), who desires to pursue a dancing career in spite of her mother's lack of support. Choosing to deal with her personal problems through a near constant haze of booze, Terry finds some solace from neighbor Denny Davies (Kevin Costner), an ex-pro baseball player who is also less-than-thrilled with how his life has been going lately.
It would have been easy here for the movie to tread down a predictable path, with each character filling a void in each other's life and falling deeply in love. But thankfully, Binder's script adds some needed depth to Terry and Denny's relationship, with neither character exactly sure what the next step should be. At first, they're simply just drinking buddies, with Denny the family's new frequent dinner guest, much to the bemusement of the daughters. Denny's just thrilled to have the company and a chance at a free meal.
As time passes, their relationship deepens, but Terry continues to hold onto her anger at her husband, as well as with some of her children's choices – such as daughter Andy's (Erika Christensen) relationship with Denny's radio talk show producer (Binder). While generally tolerant and even sometimes amused at Terry's emotional rants, Denny's patience begins to wear thin, leading to an explosive confrontation in her bathroom. Costner, in his best performance in years, is pretty close to matching Allen note for note, as a former athlete who is willing to talk about anything on his talk show except for baseball. He shows a light comic touch and charm that demonstrates why he became a movie star in the first place.
But the success of the movie largely rests on Allen's shoulders, in a role that Binder said he wrote with her in mind. It's a role that requires a lot of emotional range and the willingness to not necessarily come off as likable. Allen somehow keeps from chewing scenery in her scenes, although the temptation had to be there, especially in the second and third act, as some curveballs are thrown her way.
With so many storylines of the daughters and overlapping family relationships, the movie seems to stretch itself a little too thin overall. And a late plot development plays off as a bit unnecessary, yet is still well acted.
There is a certain intelligence and wit portrayed in "The Upside of Anger" that almost feels fresh. Still, that may seem like a bit of a backhanded compliment based on the lack of intelligence that frequents a lot of films coming out of Hollywood these days.
Grade: B
(Rated R for language, sexual situations, brief comic violence and some drug use.)

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Fall 2005 Movie Preview

OK, as we sweat through the remaining dog days of summer, kids are headed back to school and we're reminded that fall is just around the corner. Along with the season comes a new slate of movies headed to theaters. These are typically the ones that are a bit more highbrow than the summer movie fare of gigantic budgeted sequels and bombastic action pictures. This is the season that generally contains more thoughtful and Oscar-worthy pictures to the big screen. (Undoubtedly, there will be some stinkers mixed in for good measure.)
But for the benefit of those lucky people (small in number as they may be) who read on, the following is a brief rundown of some of the more notable films set for release in the fall (September-November). So get a writing utensil in hand and prepare to mark your calendars, as I'm sure you all do regularly. Keep in mind, release dates are subject to change. For example, one movie, "V for Vendetta," starring Natalie Portman was just moved this past week from November to March 2006.
So here we go ...

"The Exorcism of Emily Rose"
Starring Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Jennifer Carpenter, Campbell Scott and Colm Feore
Coming on the heels of a couple of "Exorcist" prequels tanking at the box-office, comes another exorcism movie – this one based on a true story. Starring Oscar-nominees Tom Wilkinson as a priest on trial for the death of a teenage girl and Laura Linney as the lawyer defending him, I'm willing to give this the benefit of the doubt. But I better not see any head spinning or green pea soup spitting going on. (Sept. 9)

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal and Hope Davis

Reteaming "Shakespeare in Love" star Paltrow with director John Madden, "Proof" centers on a daughter coming home to care for her noted mathematician father (Hopkins), who is suffering from mental illness. Paltrow previously played the role in a London theater production in 2002, under the direction of Madden. Hmm, if this movie has the same star and director, couldn't somebody have just set up a camcorder in the theater a few years ago to save time and money? (Sept. 16)

"Lord of War"
Starring Nicolas Cage, Jared Leto, Bridget Moynahan, Eamonn Walker and Ethan Hawke
Cage and Leto play brothers who start out small selling weapons, but eventually find themselves as major arms dealers to all sorts of morally questionable people in foreign countries. Hawke is an Interpol agent determined to bring them to justice. Good thing the U.S. doesn't participate in any such nefarious activities, or else this story could hit a bit too close to home. Well, come to think of it ... (Sept. 16)

"Just Like Heaven"
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Donal Logue and Jon Heder

Witherspoon plays a workaholic doctor with no time for romance, who is helpfully killed in the early part of the movie. Oh, well she does return as a ghost, only to find her apartment occupied by a new tenant (Ruffalo), who is the only person who can see her. The two hate each other at first, then slowly fall in love and eventually have ghost babies. OK, that last part I made up, but it's gotta be something like that. The film also stars "Napoleon Dynamite" himself, Jon Heder, which the trailer helpfully points out. As if putting Witherspoon in a romantic comedy isn't enough of a box-office draw. (Sept. 16)

"Tim Burton's Corpse Bride"
Starring the voices of Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson and Albert Finney

Just a mere two months after the release of box-office hit "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" Tim Burton returns with another film, this one a stop-motion puppetry feature (in the same vein as "The Nightmare Before Christmas"). Depp stars once again, giving voice to a young groom about to marry one woman (Watson), only to discover another very dead one (Bonham Carter) wanting to tie the knot with him. Not the quintessential kiddie flick, methinks. And as Burton is actually married to Bonham Carter, does he really need to refer to her in his movie title? Personally, I think she's way more attractive than a corpse. (Sept. 23)

Starring Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Erika Christensen and Sean Bean

Foster is a mom who loses her young daughter on a transatlantic flight, but seemingly encounters a plane full of people who question whether the little girl was ever onboard. Did anybody check those overhead compartments? You could totally fit little kids in them. Not that I'm suggesting that as a wise decision when it comes time to put away your carry on luggage. (Sept. 23)

"Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit"
Starring the voices of Peter Sallis, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter and Peter Kay

Already carrying multiple Oscar wins under his belt for animated shorts, "Wallace & Gromit" creator Nick Park brings his cheese loving inventor Wallace and intelligent dog Gromit to the big screen. Park has proven he can make a hit out of clay animation ("Chicken Run"), but can he do the same for his dynamic duo? (Oct. 7)

"Two for the Money"
Starring Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey, Rene Russo, Jeremy Piven and Armand Assante

A former college football star (McConaughey) shows he's got a great knack for picking sports winners, which lands him a powerful position in a New York City sports-betting agency, run by Walter Abraham (Pacino). Let's see ... Pacino playing the head of an agency involved in high stakes gambling. Any bets on Pacino playing the role quiet and understated? I thought not. (Oct. 7)

Starring Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Paul Schneider and Alec Baldwin

For a change, Bloom actually plays a character set in present day, and even better, he does so for writer-director Cameron Crowe in a comedy/drama about a young man dealing with a professional failure as well as the death of his father. Crowe has regularly proven to be a real actor's director, writing complex and interesting characters. But does he have to take so long in between projects? (His last was 2001's "Vanilla Sky.") Local area plug: The movie was partially filmed in Eureka Springs, Ark., and Oklahoma City, Okla. (Oct. 14)

Starring Steve Martin, Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman

Adopting his own novella of the same name, Martin stars as a businessman who falls in love with a Saks Fifth Avenue counter clerk (Danes). Problem is, she's also being courted by a bit of a slacker (Schwartzman), who's also much closer to her age. Let the romantic competition begin! Martin has had success starring in his own script before ("Roxanne"), so there's hope that he can do it again. (Oct. 21)

"The Legend of Zorro"
Starring Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rufus Sewell

After hitting box-office gold in 1998, it seems quite surprising that it took seven years to put together a sequel, which reunites the director (Martin Campbell) with two of the original's stars (Anthony Hopkins is MIA). But when you pair lookers like Banderas and Zeta-Jones together, who cares what the plot is? Just prepare for lots of smoldering looks, swordplay and other derring-do. Just don't count on a mariachi band to provide musical entertainment. (Oct. 28)

"The Weather Man"
Starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Caine and Hope Davis

Heading up his second movie in as many months, Cage stars as Dave Spritz, a weather man (sorry, meteorologist) who is finally seeing a break come in his career. However, his personal life is a bit of a mess, with a divorce, ill dad and trouble with his kids to deal with. This movie was delayed from a spring release, but has a solid cast and good trailer working for it. (Oct. 28)

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Chris Cooper, Lucas Black and Jamie Foxx

An adaptation of the best-selling book of the same name by Anthony Swofford, Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") directs this story of a Marine sniper squad during the 1991 Gulf War. A war movie that features no prominent roles for women in a time of ever-growing dissent of the war in Iraq could require some interesting marketing strategies from Universal, the studio distributing the film. But it's got Oscar-calibre written all over it. (Nov. 4)

"Chicken Little"
Starring the voices of Zach Braff, Garry Marshall, Joan Cusack, Amy Sedaris and Steve Zahn

As the infamous chicken that thought the sky was falling, Braff gives voice to the title character, who now believes that an alien invasion is in the works and recruits other animals to help save the day. This marks Disney's first all-CG film after years of leaning on the great films from Pixar. But now that the two are divorced with only "Cars" still to come from their collaboration, Disney's animation division needs a hit now more than ever. Not to put any pressure on this 'Chicken' or anything. (Nov. 4)

Starring Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp and Tracie Thoms

When you want to make an adaptation of a Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Broadway musical about New Yorkers dealing with the outbreak of AIDS, it's only natural for writer-director Chris Columbus' name to come up. The director of "Home Alone" and the first two "Harry Potter" movies is clearly not an expected choice, but stranger things have happened. The fact that most of the cast also starred in the Broadway production is a nice security blanket. (Nov. 11)

"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon and Brendan Gleeson

Speaking of the young wizard, he returns to the big screen in the fourth adaptation of the J.K. Rowling series of books. Admittedly, I've been missing out on the adventures at Hogwarts, so I'll assume fans already know the basic storyline. Now their main concern will be to see what things get left out from the book. Oh, and to see how much more the three main characters have grown since their last outing. (Damn you puberty!) By the way, Warner Bros. has already fast-tracked "Order of the Phoenix" for 2007. (Nov. 18)

"Walk the Line"
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Ginnifer Goodwin and Robert Patrick

After the success of another biopic centered around a well respected musical talent ("Ray"), there should be some good vibes coming for the Johnny Cash story, starring Phoenix as the Man in Black. Witherspoon portrays longtime wife June Carter. Cash saw a resurgence late in his music career before his death in 2003, so that could bode well for this pic. (Nov. 18)

Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet, Michelle Monaghan, Chris Cooper and Jeffrey Wright

Featuring interweaving storylines in the style of "Traffic," that film's Oscar-winning screenwriter, Stephen Gaghan, is the writer and director of this film based on a 2002 book from a former government operative. Focused on the Middle Eastern oil industry, the film takes a critical look at the CIA's role in the war on terrorism, among other plot points. Can you say topical? (Nov. 23)

Movie Review: "Stander"

Starring Tom Jane, Deborah Kara Unger, Dexter Fletcher, David Patrick O'Hara, Ashley Taylor
Directed by Bronwen Hughes

A relatively little known film of a little known story, "Stander" tells the strange but true tale of Andre Stander, a respected policeman who would later become one of South Africa's most notorious criminals.
Thomas Jane, in a fairly effective performance, plays Stander as a fun-loving, but slightly reckless cop, who sees those character traits serve him well in his new career as a bank robber. Stander seemingly turns to crime as a response to his anger and disgust at his government's policies on apartheid. A tense, but well filmed early scene shows Stander and a large group of police assembled to quell a gathering of Africans in a run-down village in Soweto – by any means necessary. That inevitably leads to violence, with the police (including Stander, much to his disgust) shooting a number of the unarmed protesters.
Stander begins to rob banks as an unfocused protest to what he sees as a corrupted government, and is incredibly brazen with his crimes initially, choosing to steal without a disguise. Amazingly, in a few instances, he would return to the scene of the crime as the investigating officer. But suspicions from his partner (Ashley Taylor) lead to his arrest and incarceration.
However, Stander manages to break out of prison with the help of two accomplices (Dexter Fletcher and David Patrick O'Hara), who then quickly form their own bank robbery gang. The thefts then continue, with Stander seemingly unable or unwilling to stop, despite the pain and embarrassment he has brought to his family, including wife Bekkie (Deborah Kara Unger). After a while, the film seems to be spinning its wheels, showing one bank robbery after another, long after the point that this gang is good has been made. Still, the sequence in which the gang decides to rob a bank next door to a temporary police headquarters is pretty entertaining. One of the gang even stops to compare his appearance to a photo of himself on a "wanted" flyer outside the headquarters.
Despite the film's stylish appeal during the robberies, it never clearly defines Stander's decision to turn to crime. As a longtime and well-liked policeman, his turn to a criminal life seems too rapid and unrealistic. Taking into account that the events are based on a true story, it would certainly seem like director and co-writer Bronwen Hughes has take some liberties with the story.
As the film heads into the final act of the film, the story seems a bit lacking and less than satisfying, with an anticlimactic wrap-up. If anything, the film leaves you wondering who Stander really was and why he did what he did. But then maybe he would ask himself the same questions.

Grade: C+
(Rated R for for violence, language, some sexuality and nudity.)

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Movie Review: "Beyond the Sea"

Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn
Directed by Kevin Spacey

While lots of popular musicians have had biopics made of them over the years (Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, to name just a few), I don't recall a clamoring from Hollywood to have the Bobby Darin story put to film. But credit Kevin Spacey, who directed, starred, co-wrote and co-produced "Beyond the Sea," for bringing a passion to his longtime pet project. Then again, some may call it an ego trip.
Spacey, a lifelong fan of Darin, portrays the entertainer, who hit it big as a teen idol and managed to parlay that good fortune into a fairly successful, but short lived career. Having suffered through rheumatic fever at age 7, Darin was expected to be dead by 15. With the support of his family, Darin defied the odds, pushing himself hard over the years to attain his dreams of stardom. While passing away at 37, Darin managed to record numerous hits over the years ("Splish Splash," "Beyond the Sea," "Dream Lover," and "Mack the Knife" were among his biggest). Yet for younger generations, his name and body of work likely remains unknown.
"Beyond the Sea" isn't fully successful in giving a complete picture of Darin, as some aspects of his life, including the recording of his hit songs are completely skipped. Yet the film is still generally entertaining, as Spacey gives a strong performance in a difficult role that required a lot of singing and dancing. And the Oscar-winning actor acquits himself quite nicely in that regard, as he manages to be a rather impressive singer.
Played in a film within a film style, the opening scene shows Darin as a boy arguing with the older version of himself of how to start the movie. This allows the older Darin the chance to return to his boyhood home, providing the film a little flexibility with the obvious age difference between Spacey and Darin. (Spacey is already older than Darin was at the time of his death.)
Having achieved success in the music business at a young age, Darin also finds a passion for acting, even managing to pick up an Oscar nomination along the way. On one of his early films, he falls in love with one of his co-stars, Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth). While the scenes of him wooing her are obviously fictionalized for the sake of the movie, they're among the most entertaining, as Darin breaks into a well choreographed performance of the title track.
The two quickly marry, but run into expected bumps along the way, including the stress of maintaining successful, but separate careers. It would have been nice to see more scenes between the couple, as the relationship seems underdeveloped. But with most biopics, it's simply a matter of so much life to cover, so little time.
While "Beyond the Sea" may not inspire those without much or any knowledge of Darin to rush out and buy his music, the fact that his story has been told at all is an accomplishment in itself.

Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for some language and a scene of sensuality.)

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Movie Review: "A Very Long Engagement"

Starring Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Jean-Pierre Becker, Dominique Bettenfeld
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Following up on the success of 2001's "Amélie," director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and star Audrey Tautou have reteamed for a World War I-era romance that is not entirely the sum of its parts.
"A Very Long Engagement" is an adaptation of the novel by Sébastien Japrisot that centers around Mathilde (Tautou), a young woman who lives in the French countryside with her aunt and uncle and is engaged to her childhood sweetheart Manech (Gaspard Ulliel). Despite receiving word early in the film that her fiancé has been killed fighting for native France in World War I, Mathilde refuses to accept the news, rationalizing that if he were truly dead, she would know.
She sets out to conduct her own investigation into what happened to Manech, leading to the discovery of his unfortunate link with four other soldiers. All five are sentenced to death for intentionally wounding themselves in an attempt to get discharged. Instead of being executed by their army, the five are sent out of the trenches to allow the Germans to do the dirty work, as it were.
And dirty is an apt description of the combat scenes, as the battles take place in rain drenched and cold conditions, with mud enshrouding the landscape as far as the eye can see. Jeunet certainly doesn't shy away from the violence in the trenches – a truly stark contrast to the poetic, beautiful shots he achieves in many of the scenes that follow Mathilde's investigation throughout France. In this respect, he's helped by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who was Oscar-nominated for his work.
The character of Mathilde is a fascinating one, filled with determination and stubbornness, probably built out of her rough childhood. Her parents died when she was very young, followed by a bout with polio that left her with a bad limp. But while Tautou does a good job bringing those persistent qualities of Mathilde to the surface, there is still a sense of distance between her and the audience that doesn't fully engage the emotion of her quest. The fact that her romance with Manech feels half-baked and uninspired certainly doesn't help.
As her investigation deepens, the film turns into a rather engrossing mystery, filled with a multitude of characters that help her fill in various pieces of the puzzle along the way. However, having so many characters come into and out of focus (including an effective small supporting role from Jodie Foster), makes it difficult to keep everyone straight. But much like Mathilde, you feel compelled to follow the quest to its end – no matter what the end result may bring.
While it seemed to be pointing to a truly emotional and possibly overwrought conclusion, its quiet grace seems an appropriate counterpoint for a movie that begins with the horrors of war.
Grade: B
(Rated R for violence and sexuality.)

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Movie Review: "Hostage"

Starring Bruce Willis, Kevin Pollack, Jonathan Tucker, Ben Foster
Directed by Florent Siri

Playing another in a long line of hard-nosed cops, the tendency is to take Bruce Willis' portrayal of Jeff Talley in "Hostage" as a variation on John McClane from the "Die Hard" films. But clearly, Talley's a more tortured character and one who could probably stand to find a new line of work.
That's not to say he's a bad cop, but as the LAPD's lead negotiator in a hostage situation that goes terribly awry in the gripping, yet violent opening portion of the film, Talley shoulders much of the blame. Cut to a year later and Talley has sought refuge in a much quieter post as police chief in Bristo Camino, a small town in California. But happiness has not really come with the new surroundings, as he finds his marriage on the verge of collapse, while he battles depression over the previous year's failure.
However, leave it to a crisis to put the problems of his personal life on hold. That comes in the form of a group of young carjackers who decide to obtain a particularly expensive vehicle belonging to an accountant (Kevin Pollack) at his security-laden house. Complications initially occur when a police officer shows up on the scene and is shot, leading to more police involvement and a subsequent hostage situation involving the accountant and his two children.
Early on, Talley takes control of the scene, but gladly turns over the reins when the sheriff's department arrives. However, unbeknownst to him, the accountant has possession of incriminating evidence inside the house that leads a masked group of criminals to kidnap Talley's family. Their demand: Talley must reassume command and get in the house to retrieve said evidence or his family dies.
The shadowy group of criminals, while effective in a well acted initial face-to-face meeting with Talley, grow tiresome, as their identity or who they represent is never established. Plus, their demands on Talley seem more stretched machinations of the story, rather than the necessary means to achieve their objective. Later scenes inside the house only go to prove this point.
That's not to say that Willis isn't game for the demands of the role. He's always been effective at portraying characters seeking redemption and is in solid form in this film. His ability to play grounded characters is usually invaluable in helping to reign in movies that stretch plausibility (see any of the "Die Hard" films for examples).
He's aided by director Florent Siri, making his American movie debut, as the movie has a distinct visual style that is especially apparent in its opening third (including an appealing opening credit sequence, which is a rarity anymore in today's movies to even have one).
Just an observation – it would be nice to see more action movies find ways out of their stories beyond tons of gunfire where most of the characters die in overly violent ways. This film, unfortunately, isn't one of them.
Grade: C
(Rated R for strong graphic violence, language and some drug use.)