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.)