Monday, June 27, 2005

Movie Review: "Cinderella Man"

Starring Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko and Bruce McGill
Directed by Ron Howard

When thinking of the great boxers of all time, the name of Jim Braddock doesn't come up in most people's minds, especially among casual or non-fans of the sport. For the latter group, it's unlikely they would have even heard of the man.
That's what makes the fact that his story has largely gone untold for so many decades all the more surprising. Leave it to director Ron Howard, producing partner Brian Grazer and star Russell Crowe, the same threesome that collaborated on the Academy Award-winning "A Beautiful Mind," to bring Braddock's story to the big screen.
Crowe portrays the determined boxer and devoted family man, who is on a roll in his career as the movie opens. With his loving wife Mae (Renée Zellweger) and three impossibly cute kids by his side, things are looking good for Braddock. Then, a little thing like the Depression hits, and the movie cuts to several years later when life for the Braddock family, like most families back then, has taken a turn for the worse.
Struggling to make ends meet, Braddock sees his boxing career sinking amidst injuries and poor performances in the ring, which leads to the revoking of his boxing license. He takes jobs, when available, as a dock worker on the New Jersey shoreline. But when the family's utilities are shut off, Mae, fearing for the health of their children, sends them to live with relatives. The sequence of scenes that follows demonstrate the love Braddock has for his family, as he appears with hat literally in hand at a boxing club full of former colleagues, including his former manager Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti). It's a powerful scene that shows what great actors Crowe and Giamatti are.
Soon after, Gould shows up on Braddock's doorstep offering a $250 payday to take on a heavyweight title contender on a mere day's notice. Braddock takes the offer and much to everyone's surprise, including his own, he wins the fight. This leads to the chance to resume his career, much to the concern of Mae, who has never been able to bear to listen to, much less attend one of her husband's fights.
Before long, Braddock is lined up to take on title holder Max Baer (played with relish by Craig Bierko), who had killed two men in the ring, with the so-called experts predicting a similar fate for Braddock. The film takes a few too many liberties with Baer, with the obvious intention of making him into one of the film's villains. But the championship match between the two men, which takes up much of the last quarter of the film, is sensationally filmed by Howard and cinematographer Salvatore Totino. It borrows liberally from Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" in style, but effectively so. You can practically feel the sting of the punches.
Probably no other actor brings more of a physical presence to his roles than Crowe, who is perfectly cast here. Having to show a fierceness in the ring, yet a heart of gold outside of it, Crowe pretty much hits all the right notes. Still, the movie could be seen as guilty of portraying Braddock as too good of a person, with little edge and no darkness within for him to overcome. But doing so certainly feeds into the crowd-pleasing nature of the film, as it takes on the tried and true Hollywood formula of the underdog surpassing all obstacles to become triumphant.
Along the way, Crowe is ably supported by Zellweger and Giamatti, who is overdue for an Oscar nomination.
Howard ably handles the action, balancing the boxing and domestic scenes very well. He also seems to be pretty meticulous in capturing the look of Depression-era New Jersey, while maybe avoiding some of the less desirable depictions of the period. I suspect this is more like Depression-lite.
Still, much like another movie that involved boxing last year, "Cinderella Man" could prove a strong contender when it comes to handing out Oscar gold early next year.
Grade: B+
(Rated PG-13 for intense boxing violence and some language.)

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Movie Review: "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"

Starring Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Vince Vaughn, Kerry Washington, Adam Brody
Directed by Doug Liman

Pulling off a good comedy isn't easy. But pulling off a good black comedy is even tougher, as the film has to typically deal with dark themes and situations and somehow find humor in them. Having seen one bad recent example of one ("Duplex"), I was a bit skeptical of how well "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" would walk that thin line.
The answer is quite well – for the most part.
In case you've been living in a cave, you know that this is the film where paparazzi-faves Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie met. (Although they've maybe been losing a little steam lately with the very public romance of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes making headlines. Plus, Pitt and Jolie are very tight lipped on the nature of their relationship. And with their lips, that's really saying something. But I digress...)
The two highly photogenic stars portray John and Jane Smith, a couple of seemingly normal suburbanites who, as the movie starts, have agreed to enter marriage counseling. Both feel the spark has drifted out of their relationship, with neither realizing what the other truly does for a living. The two work as highly skilled assassins for different agencies – hers is a high-tech, slick-looking operation with a all-female staff; his has a decidedly low-rent feeling to it, complete with an elderly secretary and a high-strung partner (Vince Vaughn, offering good comic relief).
However, each is very good at what they do, concealing a cache of weapons right under one another's noses. But when both receive an assignment to take out the same target, complications ensue, with each feeling they've been compromised. This leads into a well-played dinner scene at home, with each still trying to maintain normal appearances, while suspecting the other might be trying to kill them. John notices a bottle of Drano near the martini Jane has just made for him, while Jane keeps her distance as John cuts the pot roast.
Soon enough, each discovers the truth, leading to high octane scenes of the couple trying to kill one another. Director Doug Liman throws subtlety out the window in these sequences, with gunfire and explosions reigning supreme. Matter of fact, the high-octane action sequences practically overwhelm the humor in the last third of the movie, as the Smiths find competing assassins on their tail. That said, Liman proves he has a good eye for action, as he demonstrated to good effect in "The Bourne Identity." A freeway chase involving a minivan (stolen from a neighbor by the Smiths, with John rationalizing that the neighbor has had his barbecue grill for months) and BMW's strikes a good balance of humor and action, complete with Air Supply on the soundtrack.
This is clearly one of those films that you don't want to break down and analyze for realism too closely. There are plenty of unlikely occurrences, including a drawn out conclusion that was evidently a late reshoot, after a previous ending was found unsatisfactory. But one area of the movie that doesn't feel false is the chemistry between Pitt and Jolie. It's palpable and it drives the movie through most of its weaknesses. They clearly were enjoying themselves while making the film, and that pretty successfully transfers to the audience.
Regardless of what their real relationship is, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" makes me want to see these two together on the screen again soon. But somehow I fear that Hollywood's creative minds may not be able to project anything for the two beyond the seemingly inevitable "Mr. and Mrs. Smith 2."
Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, intense action, sexual content and brief strong language.)

Monday, June 20, 2005

Movie Review: "Batman Begins"

Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson,
Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman
Directed by Christopher Nolan

With the conclusion of 1997's widely criticized and box-office bomb "Batman and Robin," many thought the Batman franchise was dead and buried. The next step looked like taking the caped crusader entirely back into the realm of camp, as popularized by the 1960s TV series.
But thankfully, director Christopher Nolan had other ideas when he agreed to helm "Batman Begins."
Choosing to essentially ignore the four previous films that came before it, Nolan, who co-wrote the script with David Goyer, has created an origin story that is definitely the darkest of the bunch. But it's also the best.
The movie lays out its intentions early on, as it opens in a foreign prison camp, with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as an angry and psychologically damaged young man. Through flashbacks, its revealed that childhood trauma through a bad experience with bats, as well as witnessing the murder of his parents, has left an indelible mark on his life. But with the inability to properly channel his anger and desire for vengeance, he leaves behind his life in Gotham City, eventually landing in jail.
While in prison, he meets Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), a mysterious member of the League of Shadows, an organization formed to fight corruption and evil. Ducard promises to channel Wayne's pent-up aggression and help him become something more than a man in the eyes of his opponents.
When Wayne refuses to follow through on one of the requirements of the organization, he decides to return to Gotham City to put his newfound knowledge and confidence to use. With his hometown now crime-ridden and under the heavy shroud of corruption and fear, Wayne knows he has his work cut out for him.
He finds allies among his loyal family butler Alfred (Michael Caine), police Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), assistant prosecutor and childhood friend Rachel (Katie Holmes), and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), a longtime employee of the family's Wayne Corp. Fox, who works in practical anonymity down in the basement of the office building, has developed numerous inventions over the years that just so happen to fit in with Wayne's strengthening crime-fighting desire.
Demonstrating a steadfast desire to emphasize story and character over action, the first half of the movie has nary a sighting of Batman. This gives Bale plenty of time to put his stamp on the role, which he does very well, showing more depth and physicality than any previous incarnation of the character. It also shows a Batman learning how to become great, making mistakes and taking his lumps along the way.
At times, the forward thrust of Gotham City's developing crisis, involving the poisoning of its water supply, is sluggish, as the movie wants to accomplish so much. Unlike other Batman movies, which seemed to put the focus on the villains, no central evildoer takes the stage for long in this film. This one is pretty much all about the bat – as it should be. There's always future movies that can develop the villains more.
As the second half progresses, the action and excitement picks up, including Batman's daring rescue of Rachel, demonstrating the advantage of having a batmobile that's more akin to a tank than a race car. While the camera seems to be in too tight on some of the film's fight scenes, the action itself is oftentimes thrilling and intense.
There is some good humor to be found here, but this is still largely a brooding and adult Batman movie, more in step with the Dark Knight graphic novels of Frank Miller than anything that has preceded it.
Unlike the Man of Steel (who, incidentally, returns to the movies next year), this superhero is technically not capable of flying. But as a movie, this "Batman" truly soars.
Grade: A-
(Rated PG-13 for intense action violence, disturbing images and some thematic elements.)

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Movie Review: "Undertow"

Starring Jamie Bell, Josh Lucas, Devon Allen and Dermot Mulroney
Directed by David Gordon Green

While possessing some of the characteristics of a straight forward thriller, "Undertow" doesn't move like one. In fact, director David Gordon Green seems intent on keeping his film, which he co-wrote with Joe Conway, off the beaten path.
One way he does so comes through casting, with English actor Jamie Bell, who some might remember as the title character in "Billy Elliot," playing the central character, Chris Munn. Chris is a rebellious teen who has a propensity for getting in trouble, as demonstrated though the attention-grabbing opening credit sequence.
Living in isolation in rural Georgia with his dad John (Dermot Mulroney) and his younger brother Tim (Devon Allen), Chris is growing resentful of the restricted life imposed on him. After the death of his wife several years ago, John moved his family to the country to escape society and his past. But his past returns in the form of his brother Deel (Josh Lucas), who shows up after getting out of prison. Prior to his jail term, the brothers' relationship crumbled and John sees this as an opportunity to heal old wounds. But Deel has other ideas.
Deel seeks what he believes to be his fair share of some gold coins left to John by their late father, which leads to Chris and Tim fleeing for their lives into the woods and swamps of the country.
While Deel does pursue the boys through the remainder of the film, the movie isn't really interested in showing thrilling chase scenes. Instead, Green chooses to keep the focus primarily on the two young brothers, well portrayed by Bell and Allen. Bell is particularly impressive, adopting a convincing southern accent while maintaining a strong screen presence in what had to be a physical role. Lucas is also effective in keeping his character away from a one-note cliché, hinting at the sadness underneath the resentment he harbors towards his brother.
While it couldn't be deemed original, Green does display a unique filming style, making frequent use of freeze frames and scenes fading to black. The film is also well shot, even though this shows a more dilapidated and backwoods south than typically portrayed in movies.
However, the pacing is a bit slack at times, with some scenes tending to linger longer than necessary to make their point. Add to it the fact that the movie doesn't stick to too many conventions, and some people could be turned off from a few of its odd charms.
Although he has made two previous films, "George Washington" and "All the Real Girls," I was not familiar with Green prior to this film. While "Undertow" is a bit rough around the edges and isn't entirely successful in maintaining interest, Green shows he is a name to watch. He possesses some definite filmmaking skills and where he goes from here should be interesting.
Grade: B
(Rated R for violence.)

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Movie Review: "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"

Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Angelica Huston, Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum
Directed by Wes Anderson

Bill Murray has largely avoided the lackluster and laugh-deficient comedies that have struck many of his fellow ex-"Saturday Night Live" compatriots. In fact, he's one that's actually improving with age, with one Oscar nomination under his belt in recent years and several other award-worthy performances in the same span.
As the title character in writer-director Wes Anderson's comedy "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," Murray carves out another memorable performance, portraying an oceanographer who has come to a personal and professional crossroads.
The professional one stems from the fact that funding and public interest for the documentaries he films of his exploits (any similarity to Jacques Cousteau is incidental ... kind of) has mostly dried up. But after his last dive led to the death of his long time associate and friend, Zissou pledges to hunt down and kill the "jaguar shark" that was responsible.
Complicating matters is his eroding marriage with Eleanor (Angelica Huston), who he describes as the "brains of Team Zissou" and the appearance of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a young Air Force pilot, who may or may not be Zissou's son from a brief relationship some 30 years prior.
Zissou adds Ned to his crew, much to the dismay of longtime shipmate Klaus (Willem Dafoe), who has always seen Zissou as a father figure for himself. Throw in a journalist (Cate Blanchett) on board to capture the high seas drama, and a more organized and better funded rival oceanographer (Jeff Goldblum) and the stage is set for a hilarious adventure.
Well, not quite. Anyone that has seen previous offerings from Anderson, such as "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," both featuring Murray, know that the humor in his comedies are more skewed and much less direct than the more mainstream comedies. His films generally avoid memorable one-liners and wacky physical comedy. That's not really a criticism, as he is typically very good at presenting humorous situations and characters with little or no explanation. For example, "Life Aquatic" features a varied assortment of Zissou crew members, including one who is usually topless, another who frequently sings David Bowie songs in Portuguese, and a group of interns, who as expected, get some of the more undesirable jobs on the ship.
The ship itself is a marvel in set design, allowing the camera to seamlessly follow the action as it travels along the various sections, with characters moving to and fro.
However, not all the action on the ship is necessarily worth following, as a budding love triangle between Zissou, Ned and Jane, the reporter, feels forced. And the subplot involving a pair of run-ins with a group of pirates is a bit too jarring on the film's overall tone.
At times, the film seems uncertain of what direction it wants to go, but Murray proves to be a solid anchor at helping the film out, just when it threatens to step into the overly whimsical. His portrayal of Zissou as a man seeking to slowly emerge out of the doldrums of his life is the best reason to take this voyage.
Grade: B
(Rated R for language, some drug use, violence and partial nudity.)

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Movie Review: "The Interpreter"

Starring Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener and Sydney Pollack

Directed by Sydney Pollack

Taking full advantage of its opportunity to be the first film to ever get to film inside the United Nations building, "The Interpreter" works on a couple of levels – as an exciting thriller about a possible assassination attempt and a character examination of two wounded people looking for a way to move forward in their life.
Pairing Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn together for the first time, the movie generally avoids the clichés that tend to bog down some thrillers, particularly those with a political slant. That's not to say "The Interpreter" wears its politics on its sleeve, but with the presentation of the fictional African country of Matobo, there are several discussions weighing the effectiveness of diplomacy versus taking up arms.
Kidman plays Silvia Broome, an interpreter at the U.N., who believes she has overheard a discussion on an assassination attempt against Zuwanie (Earl Cameron), a controversial and largely despised dictator in Matobo. He plans to appear at the U.N. in a matter of days to defend his policies, at which time the incident is expected to take place. Silvia also believes her life is in danger, as she says she was seen while overhearing the conversation.
Enter Secret Service agents Tobin Keller (Penn) and Dot Woods (Catherine Keener), who are assigned to the case. However, upon their initial meeting, Silvia quickly surmises that the agents' top priority is stopping the assassination attempt; her safety is a secondary concern.
For that matter, Keller is skeptical of Silvia's believability, even following an inconclusive lie detector test. He discovers she used to live in Matobo and has some dark secrets involving her family there. Her clear dislike for Zuwamie and his policies seem to strengthen Keller's suspicions.
But as the case develops, Keller and Silvia begin to build up some trust in one another. Both characters come off as a bit cold and reserved, with reasons for this explained as the movie proceeds. Penn and Kidman are both intelligent actors who do a good job here at staying in character, avoiding the temptation to overplay their scenes amidst the tension. The two have numerous scenes together, just the two of them, as their characters find a common bond of tragic loss.
Director Sydney Pollack carefully ratchets up the tension as the movie progresses, having the action unfold naturally through the characters' actions, such as a great sequence interspersing activity on a city bus with Keller and Woods' discovery at a New York City apartment. And while it typically seems a prerequisite for thrillers, "The Interpreter" thankfully avoids a budding romance between its two leads. There does seem to be an apparent attraction between the characters, but it's also clear that Silvia and Keller have too much emotional baggage to go down that road.
As the movie churns towards its conclusion, so many characters become involved that it makes it difficult to keep track of all the story developments. Plus, the climax of the film is a bit too drawn out to maintain its effectiveness. Still, Kidman and Penn have crafted their characters well enough by this point that it's easier to overlook that shortcoming. You're not exactly sure what path their characters will take when the final credits roll, but you do know they're in a better place than when they first met.
Grade: B+
(Rated PG-13 for violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.)

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Movie Review: "Team America: World Police"

Starring a bunch of puppets
Directed by Trey Parker

For fans long awaiting a big-screen marrionette movie, rejoice, for your time has come. The seriously dirty minds behind "South Park" have created the largest, loudest and certainly most violent and foul-mouthed puppet movie ever put to film.
And I'm sure they would view that as a compliment.
For that matter, the film is purposely presented as a satire on the big-budgeted action extravaganzas made popular by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay, such as "Pearl Harbor," "The Rock," and "Armageddon." "Team America" makes a point to skewer those films for their loud and violent nature, by matching them explosion for explosion. Heck, this movie even blows up its opening credit sequence.
Going far beyond the 1960s marionette show, "Thunderbirds," these puppets fight, shoot weapons, curse (a lot), sing, and much to the dismay of the MPAA ratings board, have sex. A ridiculously over the top sequence has two puppets having sex (sans genitalia), which has been restored for DVD, after being cut to secure an R rating in theaters.
Having created and developed "South Park" for several years, including its own movie in 1999, co-writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone are no strangers to controversy and have no qualms about offending people. The fact that the two can write some legitimately funny material is a big reason why they're able to get away with as much as they have.
The problem is that "Team America" is simply not as funny in execution as it is in concept.
The film follows an American group of freedom fighters who tackle terrorism, leaving their own path of destruction in the process. Their latest and biggest threat comes from South Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, who is planning world domination by strategically placing weapons of mass destruction in various locales worldwide. Portrayed as a short-tempered, power-hungry villain, Kim Jong Il is the most entertaining character in the movie, even getting to sing a song of lament, "I'm Lonely."
As it did with the "South Park" movie, music plays a big role in this film, including an obscene team theme song, that admittedly you will struggle to get out of your head. The music sequences are actually where the movie seems to be at its most clever, albeit far from subtle, with one song existing simply to make fun of "Pearl Harbor" and Ben Affleck.
The movie also sets out to lambast outspoken celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Janeane Garofalo. However, most attempts at humor with them are unsuccessful, as the film doesn't seem to have anything original to say about the actors. In fact, the only real laughs I got out of them was with the Matt Damon puppet, who inexplicably is only capable of shouting his own name in his scenes.
Unlike much of the best episodes of "South Park" or its movie, most of the humor in "Team America" seems to depend on vulgarity or gross out gags, as opposed to wit and intelligence. That's not to say there aren't laughs to be had, but there's only so much mileage you can get out of puppets cursing or shooting at each other. Still, it's certainly not for any lack of trying.
Grade: C+
(Rated R for graphic crude and sexual humor, violent images and strong language – all involving puppets.)

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Movie Review: "Primer"

Starring Shane Carruth and David Sullivan
Directed by Shane Carruth

Made for a mere $7,000, "Primer" is the kind of low-budget creation that could have aspiring filmmakers dream of their own big screen debut. But, on the other hand, "Primer" is also a sometimes maddeningly frustrating film that might inspire audiences with little patience to throw things at the screen.
Writer/director Shane Carruth also stars in this quasi-science-fiction film that follows Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), a pair of engineers, who spend all their free time closed up in a garage working on ... something.
Early on in the film, what the two men, along with another pair of friends, are working on is unclear. Filled with lots of technical jargon and overlapping dialogue, the film doesn't take the time to spell things out for the audience. This is typically an appealing aspect of a film, but serves as an almost alienating occurence in this instance.
What does become clear is that some sort of time machine is created by Aaron and Abe, who realizing some of the potential ramifications of such a creation, decide to keep it a secret from everyone. This leads to the two moving the device into a storage building, where they each experiment with time travel.
From this comes the inevitable philosophical discussions of what to do with such a device. Initially, the two agree to gain financially by purchasing stocks, knowing how the day's trading will proceed. But increased concern and uncertainty of what impact the time travel is having on current events begins to fill the pair's heads, including, but not limited to the knowledge that copies of themselves now exist.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at 2004 Sundance Film Festival, the concept of the film, as well as some of the ideas it originates, are admirable, but the execution is certainly less than perfect. Aside from the mental gymnastics the film almost seems to be daring viewers to undertake, the two leads are neither sympathetic, nor interesting characters. With no one to identify with, the interesting dilmema of the two men fails to ignite any real concern for the outcome.
For the aforementioned wannabe filmmakers or enginering lovers out there, "Primer" is certainly capable of sparking some interest. For the others, beware.
Grade: C-
(Rated PG-13 for brief language)

Movie Review: "Hitch"

Starring Will Smith, Eva Mendes, Kevin James, Amber Valletta and Adam Arkin
Directed by Andy Tennant

Displaying a natural comfort in the genre, it seems surprising that "Hitch" marks Will Smith's first foray into romantic comedy. Factoring in Smith's broad appeal to moviegoers, and getting a cushy release date right around Valentine's Day, it should be no surprise that "Hitch" turned into a box-office hit. It just would have been nice if this hit carried more of an impact.
The movie is certainly amiable and amusing, making good use of its New York exteriors. But like many movies in this genre, the story is a bit too predictable and contains one too many plot contrivances.
Smith portrays Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, a "date doctor" who helps men find love – yet is still searching for true love of his own. That possibility comes in the form of Sara (Eva Mendes), a newspaper gossip columnist with whom he becomes smitten. This leads to a tentative relationship between the two, resulting in memorably terrible dates.
While the movie is quick to establish Smith's character as a smooth operator with the ladies, when it comes to dating Sara, Hitch can seemingly do no right. Still, the two become closer in spite of their near debacles – until a story emerges, involving one of Hitch's clients (Kevin James), that threatens to ruin his business.
To be sure, Smith and Mendes definitely make an attractive screen pairing, yet some of the twists thrown their way in the relationship seem like misunderstandings that take place simply because the script says they should. Case in point: One character that appears in the film basically exists for no other purpose than to hold information that drives a wedge between Hitch and Sara.
While the script has some failings, one area the film gets right is the unusual, yet effective pairing of Smith and James. In fact, Smith has a more interesting and comfortable chemistry in the film with James than he does with Mendes. Their scenes together are among the best in the film, as James shows he's capable of holding his own on the big screen, away from his "The King of Queens" sitcom on CBS.
The story takes a bit longer to wrap up than it should, but generates enough laughs along the way to maintain audience interest. Yet don't go in expecting much in the way of surprises, unless you consider James dancing in four (count 'em, four) scenes qualifies.
If nothing else, Smith demonstrates with "Hitch" that he can also do romantic comedies, having already made his mark in music, as well as action and dramatic movies. But then again, that accomplishment should be no surprise either.
Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for language and some strong sexual references.)