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.)