Saturday, February 25, 2006

Spring 2006 Movie Preview

Well, the winter season (an unusually mild one in this neck of the woods) is just about done, meaning the flowers, birds (and yes, bugs) will be back as the warmer weather of spring pushes to the forefront. That also means that Hollywood will be gearing up for its next slate of films – typically a build up to the big summer movie season. Spring films usually fall into holes in studios schedules (not quite summer blockbuster possibilities, but also not typically seen as Oscar fodder). Of course, the audiences generally have the last word. Some gems usually crop up at this time period (last spring’s “Crash” is a perfect example).
So here’s a look at the next couple of months worth of some of the big and little films expected to hit a theater near you. Naturally, release dates are subject to change.

“Inside Man”
Starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Plummer.
A terrific cast heads up this New York crime drama about a standoff between a bank robber (Owen) and police, led by a driven detective (Washington). Director Spike Lee might just have his biggest commercial hit on his hands here, teaming up with Washington for the fourth time. This also marks the first screen pairing of Washington and Foster, both two-time Oscar winners. (March 24)

“V for Vendetta”
Starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea and John Hurt.
Pushed back from its original November release, due to its terrorist themes, this movie’s script comes from Larry and Andy Wachowski, the creators of “The Matrix” trilogy. A totalitarian society is undermined by a freedom fighter only known as “V” (Weaving), who enlists the aid of a young woman (Portman) to take down the government. (March 17)

“16 Blocks”
Starring Bruce Willis, Mos Def, David Morse.
Bruce Willis plays (surprise) a burned-out New York cop forced to escort a prosecution witness (Mos Def) for a court trial. Complications ensue when he realizes this case involves the witness testifying against cops and is forced to protect him from his own department. Clearly, Willis is in his comfort zone with this pic, and with director Richard Donner (“Lethal Weapon” series) at the helm, this one might exceed expectations. (March 3)

“Failure to Launch”
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Sarah Jessica Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates.
In some casting creativity, Bates and Bradshaw are parents of McConaughey, looking to get their slacker son out of their home by enlisting the aid of a woman (Parker). Naturally, sparks fly between the cute couple. This seemingly quintessential date movie should work well for both men and women – provided it’s halfway decent. (March 10)

“The Shaggy Dog”
Starring Tim Allen, Kristin Davis, Robert Downey Jr., Danny Glover, Spencer Breslin, Zena Grey.
Yet another remake of a Disney film, Allen plays a constantly busy district attorney with too little time for his family, who then has to deal with being infected by a top-secret serem that occasionally turns him into a dog. It’s a family-oriented comedy and if you’ve seen any of the ads, you can figure out what you’re getting. (March 10)

“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party”
Starring Dave Chappelle, Kanye West, Lauren Hill, Pras, Wyclef Jean.
It’s like “Chappelle’s Show,” only you have to pay to see it now. Actually, this mix of sketch and standup comedy, along with music from West and the reunited Fugees, has the potential to be a breakout hit for Chappelle and director Michel Gondry. One only needs to look at DVD sales for “Chappelle’s Show” to know his popularity. (March 3, limited)

“American Dreamz”
Starring Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Mandy Moore, Marcia Gay Harden, Willem Dafoe.
Reuniting with Paul Weitz, his director from “About a Boy,” Grant stars as the host of a hugely popular TV singing competition show, with Quaid as a less-than-brilliant President of the United States asked to serve as a judge. Farfetched? Sure, but this satirical film has a cast worth watching and is pretty topical to boot. (April 21)

“The Benchwarmers”
Starring Rob Schneider, David Spade, Jon Heder, Jon Lovitz, Tim Meadows.
With a large contingent of former “SNL”-ers, most of whom have starred in a lot of lowbrow comedies, you should know what you’re getting with this one. For the record, a trio of nerds, played by Schneider, Spade and Heder, are picked to participate in a highly competitive Little League tournament. OK, reality and logic are probably not strong suits of this particular movie. (April 7)

“The Wild”
Featuring the voices of James Belushi, Kiefer Sutherland, Eddie Izzard and William Shatner.
On the heels of last year’s “Madagascar” comes another animated movie centering around a group of animals having to work together to solve a problem – this one involving a teenage lion being accidentally shipped from a New York zoo to Africa. With not a lot of family-oriented films clogging up the release schedule in April, this one might be poised for success. (April 14)

Starring Robin Williams, Cheryl Hines, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Chenoweth.
Williams and Hines are a married couple who take their kids on an R.V. trip, hoping to bond as a family. Naturally, things don’t quite go according to schedule. It’s been a while since Williams has been in a truly funny film. Not sure if this one’s going to be it, either. (April 28)

“The Sentinel”
Starring Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland, Eva Longoria and Kim Basinger.
A longtime and highly trained Secret Service agent (Douglas) attempts to foil a plot to assassinate the U.S. President. But when he’s framed for the murder of another agent, he’s forced to elude authorities, including his protégé (Sutherland). (April 14)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Movie Review: "Capote"

Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban and Chris Cooper
Directed by Bennett Miller

With popular, early literary works such as "The Grass Harp" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" to his credit, author Truman Capote stumbled upon an article in the New York Times in 1959 that would lead to writing "In Cold Blood," largely considered one of the great pieces of non-fiction in the 20th century. It would also forever change his life – for the worse.
Focused on the several years that would go into researching, writing and finally finishing the book, "Capote" is powered by a sensational and detailed lead performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. His portrayal of Capote is less of an exact duplication of the diminutive author (Hoffman stands nearly six inches taller), but an uncanny channeling of his spirit. The mannerisms, flamboyance and lisp are all there, to be sure, but Hoffman takes care to avoid the temptation of making the man a caricature. His confident take on Capote is evident from his opening scene, as he holds court in the New York social scene, by enrapturing a group of friends with his storytelling prowess.
One morning, he sees an article about a Kansas farm family brutally killed in their home. While one would have to imagine that murders were not that unusual in New York, Capote took a particular fascination with the death of the Clutter family. After selling William Shawn (Bob Balaban), editor of the New Yorker, on doing a story of his own about how the small town of Holcomb, Kan., was dealing with the tragedy, he quickly finds himself in a completely different world from the Big Apple. To help him in the jarring transition, he enlists the aid of longtime friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who would go onto success of her own upon writing "To Kill a Mockingbird." Lee proves to be invaluable during his early research, as she is much more approachable and less of an outside presence than Capote.
Eventually making headway with many of the town's residents, including the case's chief investigator, Alvin Dewey, Capote soon realizes he has material beyond just a magazine story. Instead, he decides to approach the story as a reporter would, with the intent of crafting his material into a full-fledged book, "a non-fiction novel," as he repeatedly tells people. His story truly comes into focus once Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, the two killers, are apprehended. He quickly takes a strong, some would say unhealthy interest in Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), a quiet, sullen young man, who shows more of an interest in doodling on a notepad than paying attention to his trial.
When both men are found guilty and sentenced to death, Capote almost recklessly intercedes on their behalf to find them better lawyers. They didn't get sufficient representation, he reasons, managing to help draw out the legal process. But, as the film makes perfectly clear, Capote has ulterior motives for his early involvement in their case. After all, he needs them to stay alive long enough for him to get the full story of the case.
Through his repeated visits in Smith's jail cell, Capote begins to understand what makes the young criminal tick. In doing so, he realizes that he and Smith aren't too different. Both came from broken homes with neglectful mothers, and Capote soon feels empathy for how Smith's life has turned out.
"It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he went out the back door and I went out the front," he tells Lee.
Of course, even as he learns more about Smith, he grows frustrated at the man's unwillingness to share with him what happened that fateful night in 1959. Gaining confidence from Capote's involvement in the case, the two criminals begin a long appeal process that is a form of torture for the author. Without their execution, he has no end to his book.
Always a regular social drinker, Capote begins drinking more, falling into a deep depression over his inability to finish his book. In the process, he keeps Smith at bay by claiming he's not even come up with its name, let alone made any real progress in writing it. The scenes between Hoffman and Collins (who gives a very effective performance of his own) are pretty riveting stuff, with each character seemingly opening up his heart, even as both hold back pertinent information from each other.
Obviously, Capote eventually got his ending and finished his book. But the experience, which included being a witness to the execution, left him a shell of his former self. At the end of his five and a half year journey to create a great literary work, it would seem that the Clutters weren't the only victims.
In his desire to craft a masterful piece of non-fiction, Capote (who never took notes during his interviews, claiming to have a 94 percent retention rate) disregarded an important and generally followed rule of journalism: don't get too close.
Grade: A-
(Rated R for some violent images and brief strong language.)

Movie Review: "A History of Violence"

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes and William Hurt
Directed by David Cronenberg

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) would seem to be your average, everyday soul residing in Small Town, USA. With two kids, his lawyer wife Edie (Maria Bello), a house out in the country and a respectable job running a coffee shop in the heart of quiet Millbrook, Ind., life's good for Tom.
Still, this is a David Cronenberg film, so you just know things aren't quite what they seem. Having helmed dark movies such as the 1986 remake of "The Fly" and "Dead Ringers," Cronenberg has never been one to shy away from a little violence. After all, violence is in this film's title.
But with many of his movies also skewing towards the bizarre, "A History of Violence" is probably Cronenberg's most conventional and accessible movie yet. Clearly, some of that credit has to go to Josh Olsen's Oscar-nominated screenplay, an adaptation of a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke.
The cast also helps considerably at drawing in the viewer, by carving out memorable performances, some in very limited screen time (Oscar nominee William Hurt dazzles in a true departure from previous roles in his mere 10 minutes on camera).
Mortensen gives a quietly intense, but understated performance as Tom, a man who would seemingly love nothing more than his life to maintain status quo. That hope is swiftly interrupted as a couple of gun toting thugs come riding into town looking for money and target Tom's diner. But when Tom realizes they also intend to do harm to the employees and customers, he takes matters into his own hands and makes quick work of the criminals.
Recognized as a hero, Tom quickly becomes a media darling, bringing a whole lot of attention he could care less about. Shortly thereafter, mobster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris, appropriately creepy) comes to town, convinced that Tom is a very familiar and disliked face from his past.
Despite warnings from the law to get out of town, Fogarty expands his harassment of Tom by following his family around. Fogarty's confrontation in a shopping mall with Edie is unsettling for her, yet plants a seed of just how far he is willing to go with his strong conviction. "You should ask Tom how come he's so good at killing people," Fogarty suggests.
Edie and Tom begin to fear how this volatile scenario will play out, with Fogarty continuing to press the issue by paying a visit to the family's home. Where the story goes from there is best left to be revealed upon viewing, so I'll say no more about it.
While the actors do a good job at showing different shades of their characters, as well as the impact of violence on this particular family, the movie suffers from a sluggish pace at times. Plus, the realization that violence begets violence is hardly a revelation. That's not to say that the violence in the film isn't occasionally shocking in its swiftness. It's just that some of the scenes lack an underlying credibility.
Still, carrying a number of violent confrontations during the movie's running time, Cronenberg strikes just the right chord with its concluding scene. It also ranks as the film's quietest, as nary a word is spoken. But what it says in silence speaks volumes.
Grade: B
(Rated R for brutal violence, graphic sexuality, nudity, language and some drug use.)