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, RenĂ©e 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