Wednesday, December 31, 2003

REVIEW(s): My Favorite Brunette and The Kennel Murder Case

Brunette: * * ¾ (out of four)
Kennel: * * ½ (out of four)

Seen 22 December 2003 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

I'm pairing these movies not just because I watched them back to back, cleaning out the ReplayTV, which recorded them in the wee hours of a morning earlier this month. I was doing some thinking and realized that both were the type of movie that was made somewhat obsolete by television. That's not a bad thing; there are some things that television just does better than films, especially once studio contracts went the way of the dodo. I don't have much to say about these particluar movies themselves, but how they illustrate the relationship between film and television is interesting.

In My Favorite Brunette, for instance, it's easy to see Bob Hope as a TV star waiting for the invention of TV. He's playing Ronnie Jackson, baby photographer, but there's not much to distinguish Ronnie from Bob Hope. His jokes are of the one-liner variety, and though Hope did a lot of movies, he still performs as if he's used to working with an audience, leaving plenty of room between lines for the laugh track and occasionally addressing the audience directly. The movie breaks up into four or five seperate pieces, each of which might work as a sketch or the basis for a sitcom episode. His leading lady is Dorothy Lamour, with whom he'd co-starred in many (all?) of the Road To... movies. Bing Crosby has a cameo. These actors were doing two or three movies a year together, for the same studio; in many ways, you could look at Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr. as "guest stars"

It's an enjoyable, if mannered, comedy. The writing is about on a par of what I'd expect from a sitcom nowadays, and the performances are adequate, with Lorre engaging in a nice bit of self-parody. One or two jokes even took me by surprise.

The Kennel Murder Case, on the other hand, is of a genre that not only fled the movies for television, but now seems to only even exist as a niche there - the mystery series. William Powell played Philo Vance five times between 1929 and 1933. Different studios seemed to acquire different books in the series, so Vance was played by a number of different actors, though Powell appears to have played the part most often. Judging from this movie, he doesn't seem to have made the character as distinctive as he later would Nick Charles in the Thin Man mysteries.

Time was, adaptations of a series of mysteries could make for a valuable franchise. However, with actors no longer under contract to studios, maintaining a consistent cast is more difficult; it became more suited to television. Then American television wound up becoming attached to the 22-plus-episode season, and few series of stories can sustain such a TV series very long. Now, this species seems to have been "banished" to PBS and A&E, where new Poirot and Inspector Lynley mysteries can be imported from England as they become available. Indeed, even this type of mystery seems to have vanished from mainstream television; "cozy" mysteries (which I've heard defined as one where at least one person is killed ever week but no-one is ever hurt) used to be a network staple - think Matlock, Murder She Wrote, or Diagnosis Murder - but probably the closest thing to them on American TV now is Crossing Jordan, which is certainly on the gritty side.

Film-wise, the last attempt at a mystery series I can recall is Devil In A Blue Dress, with Denzel Washington signed on for sequels that never materialized; Morgan Freeman did play the same role in both Kiss The Girls and Along Came A Spider, but four years apart and as seperate projects.

But, at the time The Kennel Murder Case was made, actors were under contract and television didn't exist; the movies were how stories like this got told. And Kennel is told meticulously; it's a locked-room murder, which plays scrupulously fair with the audience, requiring a great deal of exposition and detail so that the audience can see just exactly how everything could or could not happen. As a result, it comes off rather dry, with the characters of the suspects and victims barely more fleshed out than the detective, who comes off as sort of a generic wealthy amateur sleuth. It's interesting to watch as an anachronism, as police allow this amateur who knew the victims to participate in the investigation, crime scene evidence is discovered an almost random way, as opposed to the systematic forensics we have today (put some gloves on!), and, of course, it's years until the Miranda Warning is in place.

The history of the character on film is interesting - Vance was clearly a popular character in his day, though the character didn't have the staying power of Agatha Christie's creations - the IMDB shows a 55 year gap between 1947's Philo Vance Returns and a 2002 Czech TV adapation of The Greene Murder Case, but the character appeared on film 27 times between 1929 and 1947. Somehow, he never made the jump to television before '02. And though Powell is the definitive Philo Vance by default, playing the character 5 times, he's better known for other roles, making Vance something of a footnote in movie history.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

REVIEW: Looney Tunes: Back In Action

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2003 at the Arlington Captiol #1 (second-run)

There are some obnoxious parts to Looney Tunes: Back In Action. The Wal-Mart product placement gag, for instance is belabored and not nearly as subversive as it would like to be; it doesn't come close to blowing up in the advertiser's face the way the product placement in Minority Report did. And even for a movie which is definitely being aimed (at least in part) at a ten-and-under audience, some characters come off as flat and undeveloped. I'm not sure what, exactly, Heather Locklear is doing in the movie, either.

But... Much of the rest is inspired. It's the kind of movie that in today's world could be homogenized into something painfully bland, but somehow writer Larry Doyle and director Joe Dante kept that from happening. Just the very fact that only one writer is credited is something, and it's also great that Dante was allowed to indulge himself. He loves these characters, especially the Chuck Jones versions, which is mostly what's presented here. He also likes old sci-fi movies, as the scene in "Area 52" with Joan Cusack will attest (Daleks... There are Daleks in this movie!). And, hey, it's intensely gratifying for me to see him cast Timothy Dalton as the world's greatest super-spy on-screen and off, him being my favorite Bond and all (of course, he's also the one who would be most believable as both Brendan Fraser's father and young enough to still be active).

Dalton playing Damian Drake, whose life on-screen is the same as it is off-screen, is kind of a tribute to the way the Looney Tunes characters operate. Since the beginning, they've broken the fourth wall or gone completely meta, doing cartoons about them as actors in cartoon movies, but even in those, their personality remained constant. Here, Bugs and Daffy show that their relationship off-screen is just as contentious as it is on-screen, and it drives the plot, as Daffy seeks to strike out on his own and Bugs realizes he needs Daffy.

The human characters are passable. This movie will do nothing to help Brendan Fraser's case when arguing that he's actually a really good actor and not just a goofy slapstick guy, but he is a good slapstick guy. It's a gift, really, to be able to handle screwball dialogue with Daffy Duck, considering the duck isn't actually on set. Jenna Elfman (paired with Bugs) doesn't seem as comfortable as Fraser, but she doesn't quite have the practice. Also a bit out of practice is Steve Martin, who hasn't been able to cut loose and play a total spazz like he does here for almost twenty years.

The big fun of the movie, though, is watching it as a scavenger hunt. Cartoon, pop culture, and cult movie references are tossed around in the foreground and background approximately once a second - aside from the "Area 52" scene, check out the titles of the VPs at the Acme Corporation, for instance, or who's directing the new Batmovie (hey, he can't be worse than Schumacher). Spot Dante favorites Robert Picardo and Dick Allen. Be ready to freeze-frame when the DVD comes out.

In addition, this is one of the few times I can remember most of the Looney Tune voices really sounding right. June Foray as Granny is a given, and Joe Alaskey may, in fact, be a better Daffy than Mel Blanc, but I never figured Alaskey for doing such a good Bugs. Or Billy West as Elmer. Or, heck, Brendan Fraser doing Taz. The only one that really seems off is Eric Goldberg as Marvin the Martian.

In short: Much more right than wrong here. And when "wrong" happens, well, give them a couple seconds. It gets back on track.

REVIEW: The Missing

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 December 2003 at AMC Fenway #7 (first-run)

This is an odd throwback of a Western, featuring vicious, slave-trading Indians (aided and abetted by other, white, Army deserters), but also strong, heroic women. The chase across New Mexico is gorgeously filmed, and the danger both nature and civilization present is realistically presented, but there's also an undercurrent of the supernatural that undercuts a lot of the movie's believability.

A good chunk of that believability comes from star Cate Blanchett. As a single mother of two trying to run a ranch, Blanchett displays the kind of strength that is expected from her. Her character is intelligent, stubborn, and fiercely protective of her children; her anger toward the father who abandoned her and the rest of her family as a child (Tommy Lee Jones) simmers, wholly justified but still powerful enough to destroy her.

Tommy Lee Jones is more problematic. He left his family thirty years earlier to live with the Apache, and director Ron Howard makes great use of Jones's wrinkled, weatherbeaten face. His tendency to not so much overact but be larger than life doesn't quite mesh with the other characters in the early going, though. Even for someone who is supposed to be somewhat alien, not part of the same world as the other characters, he seems too different. His other "great white hunter" role this year, in The Hunted, just seemed to fit the rest of the movie better.

The actresses playing the daughters do well. Evan Rachel Wood already has a decent resume, but she plays a character I like - although her disdain for frontier life may rub some audience members the wrong way, it later becomes clear that although she doesn't want to live like her mother, she has inherited the same sort of strength of will and ability to survive. Ten-year-old Jenna Boyd, as the younger daughter, takes a part that could be very annoying, but emerges likable and believable. Maybe she owes someting to Ron Howard, who by now probably has more experience both directing child actors and being directed as a child actor than anyone else out there.

Howard probably deserves more credit than he gets for directing spectacle, too. The Missing features several big set-pieces, all brought off fairly well. He also directed Backdraft and Apollo 13, and other technically demanding pictures, yet his name isn't mentioned when dream directors for big movies come up (for instance, I think he'd do a great Superman). The picture as a whole isn't his best work - it could be shorter, among other things - but it's still pretty good.

The biggest issue is the film's main villain. Played by Eric Schweig, this Apache "witch" is a caricatured monster - hulking, scarred, playing with snakes, dabbling with supernatural, selling nubile young girls into slavery. He barely speaks, further dehumanizing him. He's so undeveloped relative to the other characters, character-wise, that the writers seem to try to make up for it with viciousness. An odd choice, as well as a politically incorrect one.

REVIEW: Devil Fetus (Mo tai)

* * (out of four)

Seen 17 December 2003 at Allston Cinema #2 (Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kicking)

This just ain't a good movie.

Go ahead; try and find a plot. Try and find some sort of underlying theme, or some sort of idea of the monster's motives, or method to its madness. You can't. From the time it's released from some sort of jade vase as a vapor to when it is finally defeated, it's a kind of generic monster that does whatever the writer and/or director needs it to do that moment. The movie is also hilariously dated.

As bad, no-budget horror movies go, though, it's done relatively well. With a simple goal of grossing the audience out, it does that. There's vomited worms, people eating dog entrails, and icky green monsters having sex with pretty young women. The movie careens haphazardly between these events like a pinball, its cast never seeming to understand what's going on but also never seeming to be terribly disturbed by it. Indeed, it's like they're not aware much of the time, until the plot requires it. This may be the single most arbitrary movie ever made.

At least it's enthusaistic. There's something kind of admirable about the way it just charges ahead with its nastiness, leaving plot details behind, like "we could explain this, but isn't the unknown scarier, anyway, and, besides, it would waste valuable time that could be spent revolting you." In that way, this Hong Kong horror movie is like its kung fu cousins, knowing which bits of the movie the audience responds to on a visceral level, and not wasting much time with the other stuff.

REVIEW: Topper Returns

* * ¾ (our of four)
Seen 13 December 2003 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

The screwball murder mystery is a genre that seems to have more or less died out nowadays; only the Coens, with movies like The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn't There, seem to be in the general ballpark. I imagine it's a casualty of the growing push toward realism films have made over the past thirty or so years - you could combine elements as dissimilar as a premeditated murder and goofy comedy when the artifice of a movie was clearly on display, with sets that unashamedly looked like movie sets and actors who hadn't yet developed the naturalistic technique of today's film and television performers. We're more sophisticated today, and like our cross of humor and tragedy served up with a heavy dose of irony.

So maybe a movie like Topper Returns, which throws a little murder, a little romance, and a fair amount of comedy together without winking at the audience, wouldn't work today. And, indeed, it doesn't necessarily work for its time (1941). At times, the Toppers only seem to be included so that the film doesn't have to spend much time explaining why Gail Richards (Joan Blondell) comes back as a ghost. Indeed, the film never explains why Gail allows Topper to see her but nobody else, and the plot mechanics become more convoluted and elaborate as the film goes on. It's an idiot plot, really. And Eddie "Rochester" Anderson's performance as Topper's chauffeur is awfully Steppin Fetchit for a modern-day audience.

The film is not without its charms, though. Joan Blondell and Carole Landis go on my list of actresses I'd really rather not be reminded would be old enough to be my grandparents if they weren't dead; they're pretty and likable here. The movie has a knack for escalating comic scenes, as well; it's good lightweight fluff.

REVIEW: The Triumph Of Sherlock Holmes

* * ½ (out of four)

Seen 12 December 2003 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

I confess, I've never seen a Rathbone & Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie. I grew up on the Jeremy Brett TV series, and read the books enthusiastically; I cherish my gigantic "Complete Sherlock Holmes" volume, with its Sidney Paget illustrations. From what I've heard of them, with Watson acting like a bumbling idiot and Holmes transplanted to the "present day" and fighting Nazis, I can't help but feel they'd strike me like the James Bond movies (entertaining on their own, but having little to do with the character from the books).

1935's Triumph came out four years before the first Rathbone/Bruce movie, and is part of another series, featuring Arthur Wontner as Holmes and Ian Fleming (not the one who created James Bond) as Watson. It is based upon "The Valley Of Fear", although it does incorporate characters and dialogue from other stories. It's a mostly faithful translation, with Watson happily not being played as incompetent, though he does tend to function as comic relief. Lyn Harding is nicely reptillian as Moriarty.

Indeed, if not for Moriarty's presence, this might have been one of the most faithful translations of a Holmes story ever made. It's because of movies like this that the general public tends to overestimate his importance to the Canon. Moriarty only appears in one story ("The Final Problem") and is only directly referenced in one other ("The Adventure Of The Empty House"). The existence of someone like Moriarty is hinted at in "The Adventure Of The Red-Headed League" and one or two other stories leading up to "The Final Problem". Yet he appears in almost every Holmes film and many pastiches. Here, he serves only to make an already-complicated plot more convoluted.

That said, it is fun to see Harding reciting lines from "The Final Problem" when he makes his first visit to Holmes; it game me the impression that the screenwriter was a fan, forced to add Moriarty in by studio executives. Indeed, the rest of the movie is very faithful to the source material - perhaps too faithful. It matches the original work by cutting away from Holmes and Watson for an extended flashback in the middle, for backstory that's set in America (much like "A Study In Scarlet" - Conan Doyle wasn't afraid to re-use devices). This middle section is necessary, but not as interesting as the rest.

For the most part, though, the good outweighs the bad. The movie is somewhat stiff - as if the people involved were much more used to silents or the stage than talkies - but the story is good and Wontner plays a good Holmes, one who is basically annoying and does a lot of the forensic detection that made Holmes a character ahead of its time. I'd be interesting to see other movies in this series.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

REVIEW: Robotrix

* * ¾ (out of four)

Seen 10 December 2003 at Allston Cinema #1 (Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kicking)

That's more like it. The last couple entries in this series have been pretty lackluster, but this Robocop-inspired kung-fu T&A-fest was fun. I'll readily admit, a good chunk of what makes it enjoyable is the same thing that make Swimming Pool enjoyable - there's plenty of bare flesh on display, along with enough going on that the audience can say they're watching it for more than just nudity.

Indeed, as B-movies go, Robotrix is downright competent. The story makes just enough sense to prevent a whole lot of "yeah, right"s, it's structured not to require a lot of special effects that would either blow the budget or look incredibly fake, and the action sequences pass muster. The places it falls short - clunky exposition, goofy subtitles, and a "high-tech" android research lab that appears to be running on leftover MSX or C64 computers from the 1980s (and, indeed, robots that look a lot less sophisticated once the human skin is off) - were at least "good camp", as far as I was concerned.

The movie's biggest problem is that the action storyline is on the grim and grisly side - the evil robot tortures a kidnap victim with a drill, and is said to rape and kill several women (though only a couple are shown on-screen) - but at the same time, there's a lot of goofy, slapsticky comedy. A murdered pimp has a cartoonish dent in his chest, for instance, and you have to wonder about the way grown men become drooling 12-year-olds around Amy Yip's naive robot-girl character. A western remake would probably tone one of the sides down for fear of appearing to be two similar movies sewn together.

Robotrix is unapolagetic exploitation - sex and violence with a bit of comedy in the mix. It's livelier than the average direct-to-video (at least in the US) effort, though, and in an audience like that at the WWAK, can be a fairly enjoyable couple hours.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

REVIEW: Portrait Of Jennie

* * ½ (out of four)

Seen 7 December 2003 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

Every few months, WGBH-2 has a month where they fill their overnight hours with old movies instead of airing them Sunday afternoon/evening on channel 44. They're not necessarily taken from great prints, the start and end times listed are of the +/- 10 minutes variety, and they can really fill up the ReplayTV's hard drive if you're like me and treat them like free DVDs - well, I may not want to watch it tonight, but maybe later...

They're doing it again, but there's precious little room to maneuver on my Replay because of the other old movies I've recorded and forgotten (that, and the complete runs of Big Guy And Rusty The Boy Robot and Strange World I really intend to save on tape). So, time to start clearing some space. First up - Portait Of Jennie.

The movie can perhaps be best described as a ghost story which isn't a horror movie. Painter Eben Adams is uninspired until he meets a young girl by the name of Jennie Appleton. The girl seems curiously out of place, speaks of her family working at a theater that's no longer in existence, and the second time Eben sees her, has aged quite a bit.

There's the core of a good story here, but it's also kind of frustrating - Adams never seems to have any curiosity about why or how someone from years ago is appearing to him, nor does he try to track her down in his present day after he realizes there's something odd about her (granted, this was a more daunting challenge back in those pre-internet days). There's also a ton of narration and stilted dialog - it's clearly an old adaptation of an even older book. And there's something creepy about the romantic feelings Adams develops toward a girl who, from his perspective, was something like ten years old scant weeks earlier.

If you overlook that, though, the romance is kind of interesting, and the movie plays with color tints in an interesting way toward the end, having previously been entirely in black-and-white (or the print WGBH used really, really sucked). Portrait Of Jennie is an interesting curiosity, but not a classic.

REVIEW: The Last Samurai

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 December 2003 at Loews Harvard Square (first-run)

In a just world, this would be Ken Watanabe's movie. It would focus on the final, doomed resistance of the samurai against the westernization of Japan, and what this process meant for the Japanese, whether they be samurai, emperor, or peasant.

That sort of movie has probably been made several times in Japan. The Last Samurai, however, is an American movie being made by Americans for an American audience. So enter Tom Cruise as an ex-Army captain haunted by his service in the Civil and Indian Wars, on a self-destructive path but admittedly not good for much other than soldiering. Hired to train Japanese soldiers in the methods of Western warfare, it is through his eyes that we see this battle.

And that's not entirely a bad thing. The connection in his eyes between American Indians and the people of rural Japan is an interesting one, and the chance to atone for his sins toward the former with the latter gives the movie a nice dramatic arc. The downside is that any active role assigned to Capt. Algren, as there must be for the story to be satisfying, must diminish (if only slightly) the role of the Japanese in determining their fate.

But that's history; putting it aside, how is the movie as entertainment? Pretty good. Cruise doesn't submerge himself into his role quite so well here as he did in, say, Minority Report or Magnolia - he's a bit further to one end of the Movie Star/Actor spectrum - but he's chosen a good Tom Cruise role. He's supported ably by both the English- and Japanese-speaking actors, and develops a camaraderie and respect with Watanabe that is very pleasant to watch.

And the movie looks great; only very rarely does anything seem fake, and the battle scenes are well-staged. And unlike, say, Dances With Wolves (a film I've seen The Last Samurai compared to), it doesn't draw itself out by continuing on past three-plus logical ending points (one at most).

If you can get past a defining event in Japanese history being told from the perspective of a fictional(?) white guy, there's quite a bit to enjoy about this movie. If you can't, though, you might be well-advised to stay away.

REVIEW: Love Actually

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 December 2003 at Loews Boston Common #6 (first-run)

It's becoming increasingly difficult to figure out how the Richard Curtis who writes Working Title's Hugh Grant romantic comedies like Love Actually (see also: Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill) with the one who co-wrote every episode of Blackadder a decade or so ago. Where's the bite, the willingness to make the audience laugh at something they may find uncomfortable? The occasional meanness that we Americans find so thrilling about British comedy?

In Love Actually, most of that is supplied by Bill Nighy, playing "Billy Mac", who would be the kind of aging pop star Randy Newman skewered so well in "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" except that he's fully aware how past his prime he is, and walks around being horrible to his manager, his friends, his audience, and various other pop stars. He's spending December promoting his truly awful holiday cover of "Love Is All Around" ("Christmas Is All Around"), showing up on the televisions and radios of the characters in the other interconnected love stories.

In some ways, Love Actually is like a happy Magnolia. Some of the stories are obviously connected, whereas others barely pass by each other. Most are fairly upbeat, and few could sustain an entire movie on their own. All are well-performed, though, even by the kid. It's to be expected from a cast including Nighy, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Laura Linney, Keira Knightly, and Hugh Grant. The movie also has a real knack for cameo casting, as well - Rowan Atkinson is in the advertising, but the real surprise is the actor playing the US President. I won't say who he is, but the temptation for him in particular to play the part as an obnoxious redneck (especially with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in everyone's minds) must have been immense, but he instead plays it cool and reptillian, a complete departure from his roles in two other recent comedies. Most of the American Girls in the end are recognizable, and I suspect Brits caught a lot more.

Love Actually is a crowd pleaser; it knows its aim and is never far off-target. It's not a hit-and-miss affair like many overlapping-story films; the tone is fairly consistent throughout, so that if you like part of it, you should enjoy all of it.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

REVIEW: Peacock King

Seen 3 December 2003 at Allston Cinema #2 (Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kickings)
* ¾ (out of four)

On the surface, this looks like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of a movie - kung fu action and stop-motion monsters being the two great tastes that taste great together. Unfortunately, there's not close to enough of either one, leaving this short movie (in the 85-minute range) feeling not so much padded or boring as just lightweight and under acheiving.

The plot is thoroughly silly - some two thousand years ago, there was a battle between good and evil which resulted in the Hell King being imprisoned, but now his servant Kaga, the Hell Witch, and daughter Ashura, the Hell Virgin, are somehow going to bring him back by opening four Holes. Destined to oppose them are two martial artist monks, the Chinese mercenary Peacock and the Japanese esthete Lucky Fruit, who pick up a pretty sidekick along the way.

Goofy, but so are other examples of this genre; you tolerate the goofy because it gets you to the action sequences. But there's only one good martial-arts sequence, and the monsters are pretty disappointing. Indeed, it cruelly teases the audience with dinosaurs, but the promise is never fulfilled. The final sequence is in some ways torturous - it offers up a giant who always seems to be moving but never seems to get much closer to the heroes, and relies too much on battle auras and power emanating from hands, and not enough of people punching and kicking each other.

I believe this movie was based upon a manga, and I can't help but think animation might have been the way to go here. That, or a Hollywood-sized special effects budget.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

REVIEW: Bad Santa

Seen 30 November 2003 at AMC Fenway #9 (first-run)
* * * (out of four)

First, a rant about AMC Fenway's pricing - $7.50 for a matinee? $3 for a small soda? (which, to be fair, seems to be about the same size as a Loews medium). That's something like $1.25 more than at Boston Common, and the presentation isn't that much better. The reports that AMC and Loews are considering a merger should scare all of us, especially if it means the good things about Loews (Weekday Escape tickets, vs., spiffy indie programs like Shooting Gallery and Sundance) fall by the wayside along with semi-reasonable pricing.

OK... The movie itself. It's one I'd been looking forward to, what with it being produced by the Coen Brothers, directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World), and starring funny people like Billy Bob Thornton, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, and Alex Cox. Thornton playing Willy, an alcoholic department store Santa who robs his place of employ along with an elf accomplice every year, is a funny notion. It's a sort of variation on his character from The Man Who Wasn't There, only with his contempt for himself this time eclipsing his contempt for the rest of the world.

This year, though, he runs into a couple of people who inexplicably like him. One's a bartender (Lauren Graham) with a Santa fetish; the other is a fat kid who may just be the retard that other kids taunt him for being. Indeed, none of the characters aside from Cox's (who can get into small places while Willy cracks the safes) are really that bright, but this isn't really a moron movie. It's more about how basically selfish people and basically decent people handle each other.

Don't look for anyone to learn the true meaning of Christmas - Zwigoff isn't the kind of hypocrite who would serve something sanctimonious up after letting the audience revel in bad taste for an hour and a half. A good deal of the fun of this movie is watching Willy do things you would secretly want to do in his situation, but you never feel jealous because he's so pathetic; that would feel hollow if Willy were to suddenly feel bad about what he does. This movie's cynical to the end, although it manages that without being completely heartless.

Still, leave the kids at home. There's sex, swearing, and just about every form of depravity and bad behavior you can think of, most committed while wearing a Santa suit.

REVIEW: Pieces Of April

Seen 30 November 2003 at Kendall Square #8 (first-run)
* * ¾ (out of four)

There are only a few prodcuers who are a better indication of what a movie will be like than the director. Jerry Bruckheimer, for instance, will give you a glossy movie with a fine cast all playing well below their capabilities in a story that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but which has some memorable bits. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Gary Winick's InDigEnt (Independent Digital Entertainment) will generally deliver a grainy, flat-looking movie with a surprisingly good cast that talks a lot but doesn't say as much as they think they do.

Just as Bruckheimer sometimes lucks into a good movie every once in a while (The Rock, Pirates Of The Carribean), so here does Winick. Pieces Of April looks nicer than the other InDigEnt films I've seen (Sam The Man, Tape), which may just be a factor of better technology, but also seems to be the result of better lighting. Which is good, because what use are the fine performances by Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, et al., if you can't see them?

The story itself is simple; April (Holmes) is the black sheep of her family. Neither her parents (Clarkson and Platt) or siblings can think of any happy memories involving her, and since leaving home, her life has been one disaster after another. As this Thanksgiving starts, though, she seems to have turned a corner - her boyfriend (Derek Luke) seems like a nice enough guy, and she's offered to host the family's holiday dinner.

There's a likable desperation to April - though at times she seems too nice to have been the nightmare her family describes, she has lapses where she's rude or inconsiderate, and there's a subplot with her boyfriend that indicates she may still be quite capable of bad judgment. But her mother has cancer, and it's quite clear that this may be April's last chance to prove to her family that she's not a total screw-up.

There's a fair amount of padding - Sean Hayes has a character who is little more than obnoxious, and it occasionally seems that about twice as much time is spent on April's family in the car as needs to be. But there is one magical moment, where April is trying to explain Thanksgiving to a Korean family that knows little English - she stumbles over the sugar-coated version I learned in first grade, then the politically-correct rebuke, before finally cutting right to the heart of it. There's been lots of "true meaning of Christmas" movies, but a "true meaning of Thanksgiving" one is rarer, and interesting because of that.

Monday, December 01, 2003

REVIEW: School Of Rock

Seen 29 November 2003 at Somerville Theater #3 (second-run)
* * * ¾ (out of four)

I was amused by the Boston Phoenix review of this movie when it appeared a couple of months ago. The author of said review seemed flummoxed by how much he or she enjoyed a broad, PG-rated comedy that features a group of kids and an unlikely mentor forming a team/band and, at the climax, entering a competition. He seized upon Richard Linklater directing and Mike White writing the thing, and decided that it was, like the rock and roll that inspired it, actually subversive and adult - an independant film cleverly disguised as a mainstream comedy.

Bollocks. School Of Rock is a mainstream, kid-friendly comedy. It's an exceptionally entertaining one, not because it does different things, but because it does the usual things better. It gives us the ethnically diverse group of kids, each of whom is dominated by one personality trait, but it is also gifted with an ear for how kids really speak and a great ensemble of young actors to bring them to life.

And, of course, the movie has Jack Black. This is a perfect role for him; it lets him throw dignity to the wind while at the same time show off things he's really good at. The music is the obvious one, but he's also great with the kids; they seem as at ease with him, and he's able to play off them, to an extent that brings Bill Cosby to mind. He's able to give his character a mix of slacker lethargy and burning passion for music that only needs the slightest push to become a complete person.

It's funny, period, but the filmmakers are able to make even obvious bits like a "learning montage" work in different ways at the same time - you get the outrageousness of the video clips Black's character shows the class in and of themselves, him mugging for the camera, and the class of gifted children reacting so seriously. It's brilliant in a way, a clinic in how to cut across age groups and make the same part of the movie funny for everybody in the audience. And the music is legitimately good rock - the kids have talent, it's stuff parents will like, but also speaks to the elementary-schoolers in the audience.

Right now, School Of Rock is vying with Finding Nemo and Intolerable Cruelty for the title of "Year's Best Comedy". It's a gem.