Sunday, January 29, 2006

Movie Review: "The Brothers Grimm"

Starring Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Lena Headey, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Pryce and Monica Bellucci
Directed by Terry Gilliam

Long considered a great visual director with films such as "12 Monkeys," "The Fisher King" and "Brazil" among his credits, Terry Gilliam's movies often walk the line between creativity and chaos. Unfortunately, his latest concoction, "The Brothers Grimm," falls closer to the latter.
There's certainly plenty to admire in this interesting spin on the early lives of the Brothers Grimm, who would go on to great notoriety for their twisted takes on fairy tales. But so many ideas and visuals on are display here that the narrative thrust of the movie never fully takes hold. Numerous scenes work on their own, but just as many seemingly go nowhere.
The story's concept is a clever idea, as brothers Will (Matt Damon) and Jacob (Heath Ledger) are 19th-century con artists who are able to "eliminate" evil spooks and spirits from German villages – for the right price. Never mind the fact that they are also responsible for the hauntings in the first place.
Problems arise when General Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce), a egotistical head of the French military during his country's occupation of Germany, discovers the brothers' ruse. Having received reports of disappearing children from Marbaden, Delatombe dispatches them to flush out the people he believes are now conning that village. Accompanying them is Cavaldi (Peter Stormare, hamming it up without mercy), an Italian torture expert who is also a notable coward.
With the assistance of Angelika (Lena Headey), an attractive huntress with a sour disposition, the brothers discover an enchanted forest that is by no means the work of con artists. Rather, it's the work of a 500-year-old queen (Monica Bellucci) looking to break a curse and the aging process. Jacob, a believer in magic from childhood, is eager to finally get the chance to be a hero for real. Will, a longtime skeptic, is more interested in self-preservation, but feels compelled to help his brother.
The cast is very much game for the proceedings (one could argue too much so, in the case of Pryce and Stormare), but the screenplay by Ehren Kruger doesn't seem to settle on what kind of a movie it should be. As with most Gilliam movies, there's an undercurrent of dark humor present along with wild visuals, but seemingly too much reliance on inconsistent CG effects.
Despite authentic recreations of early 19th-century life (shot entirely on location in the Czech Republic), the movie doesn't seem to follow much of a realistic outline for the characters themselves. In the lead parts, you have an American (Damon) and an Australian (Ledger) playing Germans with English accents. Still, even with their wavering accents, Damon and Ledger give amiable performances as the heroes, leaving the overacting to the villains.
This is an example where the individual pieces don't quite add up to a satisfying whole. But as far as scattershot films go, a Terry Gilliam one is worth more than most.
Grade: C+
(Rated PG-13 for violence, frightening sequences and brief suggestive material.)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Movie Review: "The Constant Gardener"

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Danny Huston, Bill Nighy and Pete Postlethwaite
Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Making terrific use of on location shooting in Kenya and the surrounding area, "The Constant Gardener" achieves a gritty realism to its story involving the murder of a British diplomat's wife and the husband's persistent efforts to discover whodunit.
That said, the plot isn't based on fact, but a John Le Carré novel that tracks the amateur sleuthing of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a relatively low-level diplomat sent to work for the British government in Africa. His wife Tessa, (Golden Globe winner Rachel Weisz) a headstrong and outspoken political activist, has been found murdered in the African countryside. Early thoughts are perhaps bandits are responsible for the murder, but Justin suspects otherwise, and rightfully so.
Director Fernando Meirelles (a previous Oscar-nominee for the outstanding drama "City of God") proves to be a great match for the material, by keeping the story and its underlying mystery moving at a steady pace. Yet, he's not afraid to use a wide variety of color schemes and camera angles to keep things just left of conventional.
Not that the story itself can be considered conventional, although it does incorporate some standard elements of thrillers, such as government conspiracies and hidden agendas of characters. But while the movie works very well on the thriller level, at its heart beats a love story about a husband falling even more in love with his wife after her death.
The couple's relationship is effectively weaved into the story through a series of flashbacks, choosing to depend on the audience to pick up some of the details of their live along the way. The well structured and intelligent screenplay by Jeffrey Caine allows the audience to make its own discoveries right along with Justin, instead of choosing to spell everything out.
On the surface, Justin and Tessa would appear to be complete opposites. He's a quiet, mild-mannered person, more at ease in his garden than at social and business functions. She's brash and doggedly persistent, yet big-hearted and passionate. In short, they are both attracted to those character traits that the other possesses.
As Justin begins to dig deeper into Tessa's death, he realizes she had uncovered a pharmaceutical company involved in testing products on African residents. She had chosen to keep her findings secret from him, a fact he struggles to understand. Still, he feels compelled to finish the investigation she started, even though he is well aware of the risks involved.
Fiennes is a dependably good actor, and gives his best performance since "Schindler's List." He has to play two diverse sides to his character and serve as the film's centerpiece. Though she has much less screen time, Weisz also does great work here, crafting a lively performance that resonates through the entire movie.
Some of the supporting parts, while probably more fleshed out in Le Carré's book, are rather undercooked here, but still mostly serve their purpose.
With its topical storyline portraying influence and possible corruption in the world of pharmaceuticals, "The Constant Gardener" shows the power such an industry can have. But it also demonstrates that the power of love can be even stronger.
Grade: A-
(Rated R for language, some violent images and sexual content/nudity.)

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Movie Review: "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan, Corbin Bernsen
Directed by Shane Black

Poking fun at some of the action movie conventions that he helped create with his scripts for "Lethal Weapon" and "The Last Boy Scout," writer Shane Black has returned to the Hollywood scene in a rousing way, with the fast-paced confection, "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang."
In doing so, he also manages to give Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, both among their generation's best actors, their meatiest role in years.
"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is a movie that asks (and practically encourages) audiences to not take the proceedings too seriously. Downey stars as Harry Lockhart, a two-bit criminal and the movie's admittedly inconsistent narrator. Early on, it becomes clear that the movie is willing to jump all over the map, as Harry recounts the tale of how he got to Hollywood, only to struggle to remain on a single train of thought. He's not a particularly good narrator, he says, but he's the only one we've got.
When a store break-in goes bad, Harry hides from the police where an acting audition is taking place. The producers are impressed by Harry's intensity and cast him in the role of a private eye. Next thing he knows, he's rubbing elbows with the bold and the beautiful at parties and clubs in Los Angeles. It's at these locations that he meets the story's other main characters, including private investigator Perry van Shrike, better known as Gay Perry, and Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan), a childhood friend of his and down-on-her-luck actress.
Perry, who casually mentions that he's not gay (he is), but just likes the nickname he was given, also acts as a movie consultant and is employed to teach Harry about private eyes. In doing so, the pair stumble on an apparent murder, which may or may not be connected to another dead body that is later discovered. Harmony enlists the aid of Harry, who she believes to be a private eye. Harry, thrilled to find a familiar face in L.A., plays along and eventually manages to pull a reluctant Perry into the mystery.
As the characters struggle to wrap their heads around the quickly developing plot, audiences will be tempted to do the same. But make no mistake, this is a story built on style and attitude, with the seeming intent of trying to stay a couple of steps ahead of viewers at all time. The fast pace of the movie, Black's first as director, definitely works in its favor as you're much less inclined during slower periods to think just how illogical some of the situations seem to be.
The movie, which throws in accidental killings, an unfortunate end to a severed finger and more witty dialogue than can be followed in a single viewing, works best if you simply give in to the sometimes frustrating machinations of the plot and just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Downey brings just the right spark of wit and attitude to his role as a guy who's not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. He's matched by Kilmer as the stylish Perry, who's clearly annoyed by Harry's frequent screw-ups, yet feels compelled to get to the bottom of the developing mystery. They're a truly odd couple that ultimately work great together in this environment.
Anyone who has seen Downey and Kilmer in '80s comedies such as "Back to School" and "Real Genius" know the two are capable of producing laughs. So after years of the two tackling much more serious roles, it's a real joy to see them actually having fun on screen.
Monaghan, who has only had small roles in movies up until now, makes the most of her screen time here, producing a sexy, yet vulnerable performance as an actress whose only claim to fame is co-starring with a bear in a beer commercial. Monaghan would seem to be one to watch for in future roles, one of which includes next summer's "Mission: Impossible 3."
Even accounting for the energetic performances, it's a credit to Black that the whole enterprise holds itself together, as it careens towards a big violent finale. But leave it to these characters to even find a clever way to make fun of that genre's cliché. By its conclusion, the movie's probably a bit too pleased with itself. However, in a genre that nowadays shows sparse amounts of imagination, "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" feels like a breath of fresh air.
Grade: B+
(Rated R for language, violence and sexuality/nudity.)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Movie Review: "Munich"

Starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Cirian Hinds, Matieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler and Geoffrey Rush
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Offering various moments of pensive examination into the worth of retribution as well as the violence associated with its pursuit, "Munich" is a brutal, yet conscientious movie. After assaulting the senses with last summer's box-office hit "War of the Worlds," director Steven Spielberg puts his serious artiste cap back on with this dramatization of the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and the violent response from Israel.
Wasting no time with a buildup, Spielberg opens the film in Munich, as the Palestinian terrorist faction that calls itself Black September gains entry into the Olympic village and proceeds to take the Israeli athletes hostage. With merely a handful of scenes, weaving in actual and recreated moments from the tragedy, Spielberg is able to quickly build tension and uneasiness about the series of events that unfold.
But he also makes it clear that the incident itself will not be a primary focus of the film, as he swiftly gets to the ABC footage of when broadcaster Jim McKay relays the tragic information that "they're all gone." The tragedy is revisited through flashback at various points in the movie, as a series of harrowing and at times, shockingly violent scenes.
Israel's decision for retribution is what makes up the nucleus of the screenplay, written by Eric Roth and noted playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America"). (To get a much more thorough examination of the the 1972 incident, see the excellent and enlightening documentary, "One Day in September.")
The story specifically focuses on the creation of a covert squad given one central purpose: kill those responsible for Black September. A total of 11 people are targeted by the group's handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush, giving a strong, focused performance), with Avner (Eric Bana), an ex-Mossad agent, serving as the leader of the group of five. Rounding out the squad is a driver (Daniel Craig), a cleanup man (Cirian Hinds), a bomb maker (Mathieu Kassovitz) and a document forger (Hanns Zischler). Ephraim explains to Avner that bombs are the preferred killing method, as they are likely to generate publicity in the press. He also makes it clear that while the group will be receiving financial assistance in their mission, for all intents and purposes, they don't exist.
Thus, the stage is set, as the group begins to track down and attempt to eliminate their list of targets. The squad, far from ice-cold killers, finds their early efforts a bit of a struggle, as various unexpected developments crop up. One particularly great scene involves the realization that the young daughter of one of their targets is in the very apartment they are moments away from blowing up. It's in scenes like this that "Munich" works not only as a strong historical drama, but an effective and tightly wound thriller.
In between targets, some of the squad members begin to be weighed down by their conscience and uncertainty of the effectiveness of their mission. Avner, the only character whose private life is developed in the movie, also begins to be plagued by nightmares and fear for the safety of his wife and newborn child.
Although he is Jewish and sympathizes with Israelis, Spielberg doesn't aim for "Munich" to choose sides in the conflict. But it does effectively question the worthiness of revenge. Is killing people responsible for terrorism, as Israel chooses to do in this film, a morally acceptable response? After all, as some of the characters point out in the film, those terrorists killed will only be replaced by someone else – and possibly someone even more ruthless. In one of the movie's best scenes, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen) finds what she believes to be justification for violence, by stating, "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values."
On those grounds, "Munich" plays out as a film that would seem to be headed towards the literal result of "an eye for an eye" – leaving both sides blind. The debate over such actions and their acceptability rages on today.
Grade: A
(Rated R for strong graphic violence, some sexual content, nudity and language.)

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Movie Review: "Murderball"

Featuring Mark Zupan, Joe Soares, Keith Cavill, Andy Cohn, Bob Lujano, Scott Hogstett
Directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro

The eye-opening documentary "Murderball" takes an intriguing idea of introducing people to the sport of quad rugby, only to find even more drama and action taking place off the court.
That's largely because filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro had the good fortune to find a group of men that are as passionate about their sport as they are about life. Nicknamed Murderball, quad rugby is quickly, but effectively explained by the documentary as a fast-paced contest featuring teams of quadriplegics working to score goals, while attempting to avoid violent collisions from opponents. All competitors participate while riding in wheelchairs reinforced by metal, making them more like battering rams with wheels.
The players are quick to dispel a somewhat popular misconception of quadriplegics as people with no use of their limbs. They all have sustained neck and/or spinal cord fractures, but there are varying degrees of limb disabilities for them, with those serving as ratings for the purpose of the sport. For example, someone who has little impairment in their limbs would rate a 3.0, while a 0.5 would be given to a player with little or next to no use of their limbs. Those ratings are then applied during the game, with no team allowed to have the players exceed 8.0 on the court at one time.
By the first time the sport is shown on camera, viewers are given a quick introduction into its excitement, with frequent shots of wheelchairs crashing into each other, occasionally knocking competitors over. But far from being intimidated by the sport's physical nature, these players thrive on it. They want to leave no doubt that they are not handicapped – they are athletes who just happen to compete in a wheelchair.
Away from the competition, the film largely focuses on the U.S. quad rugby team, as they compete in a pair of world championships (yes, this sport has participants from many countries) and the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece. But it also looks at the life of one of the team's former players, Joe Soares, who, bitter at being cut from the U.S. squad, decides to coach the Canadian national team. Soares, a fiercely competitive man, is seen by the U.S. team as a traitor, but is clearly a driving force in making the Canadian team a serious threat to the Americans longtime dominance in the sport. The fact that U.S. team leader Mark Zupan and Soares clearly dislike each other is played up to good dramatic and comic effect by the film.
Many of the players recollect how they came to be in a wheelchair and what their life is like today. Among the more compelling people is Zupan, arguably one of the world's best quad rugby players, who details how a late night of drinking at 18, led to him breaking his neck after being thrown from the back of his best friend's truck into a ditch, where he would remain for more than 13 hours before being rescued. More than 10 years removed from that day, Zupan looks back on the incident with no anger or bitterness, simply seeing it as the end of one chapter in his life.
Many of the other players interviewed have similar feelings about their lives, displaying an admirably positive attitude about situations that could easily have had lesser people mired in depression and anger. Not that those feelings didn't ever surface, as one describes his initial withdrawal from society, even being against going out to get the mail, for fear of people staring at him.
Many years removed from the accidents that changed their lives, their stories are mixed in with the rehab of Keith Cavill, a young man who is only months removed from the accident that led to him becoming a quadriplegic. The uncertainty and fear of his new life is given a genuine jolt of excitement when Zupan comes to the rehab center to introduce the residents to quad rugby.
Much like the superior documentary "Hoop Dreams," "Murderball" is more focused on the players and their lives rather that the sport itself. In actuality, the film moves by a bit too quickly, as it would have been nice to have seen the team in more off the court interaction. But with this many people occupying screen time, perhaps the directors felt less is more.
Sure, the collisions of the armored wheelchairs in "Murderball" are impactful, resulting in numerous metal dents. But it's the personalities of the people in the chairs that will leave the real lasting impression.
(Rated R for language and some sexual content.)