Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The latest in 3-D: Magnificent Desolation, Sharks, Chicken Little, The Polar Express

A few random comments from me and my brothers Matt and Dan while watching The Polar Express with our step-nephews Christmas day (and some I made up):

"See, he's thinking there, and reaching conclusions based upon what he's learned and observed. That'll have to stop."

"Remember, Jacob, don't imitate what you see in this movie. I know you love trains, but if a strange train pulls up to your front door in the middle of the night, it is not okay to get on."

"Same goes for if they offer you hot chocolate."

"Is it just me, or does the kid look like George Bush?"

"See, even though all of the kids on this train were invited on personally by the conductor, they're apparently still in big trouble if they don't have their ticket. This teaches kids a valuable lesson about adults being insane and being willing to throw you off a train if you don't follow their rules."

"Apparently, only about a dozen kids a year get to learn Santa is real. The rest of you have to deal with the torture of uncertainty."

"Wow, that was close - the engine just barely got past the ice! But I guess the rest of the kids drowned."

"Especially the poor one."

"Oh, yes, especially the poor one."

"I'm warning you right now, if you pull on my beard like that, you're the one who will be making the funny noises."

"Man, apparently nothing but trouble comes of being nice to the poor kid."

"You know, we should probably dial it back. Jacob may not be ready for our level of sarcasm."

"Really, this movie should be banned for the lessons it teaches kids. Remember, Jacob, even if your mom hasn't specifically told you this, don't try to walk across icy rails a hundred feet in the air in your bare feet at the North Pole."

"No, you won't fall off, but your skin will freeze to the metal, and pulling you off will hurt like... uh, the dickens."

"I so wish we had a pneumatic tube system to get around campus."

"That's a lot of elves."

"Well, Santa is planning to attack Mordor."

"So, let me keep track - Tom Hanks plays the kid, his father, the conductor, and the hobo, right?"

"He's also Santa Claus."

"Well, yeah, I knew that. I mean, have you ever seen the two of them in the same room?"

"Explains why he gets $20M a picture - this operation doesn't look cheap."

"Hey, where'd that other kid come from? He wasn't on the runaway train and pneumatic tube!"

"You know, if this guy doesn't believe in Santa by now, he's the dumbest kid on Earth."

"So, wait - those reindeer, who a couple of elves were able to keep on the ground, are going to life that giant bag."

"Which, by the way, looks like the world's largest meatball."

"Uh, at this point, kid you don't 'believe' - you know."

"All he asked for was the bell, and it fell out his pocket?"

"Right - it's like the aliens in Contact."

"Aw, isn't that heartwarming. That poor kid just made the best friends of his life and he'll never see them again. They don't even know each others' names so they can write to each other."

"What's the note with the bell say? 'Looks like you dropped this, Mr. C."

"AH-HA, so we were half-right: Tom BOSLEY is Santa!"

... um, anyway, on to the reviews:

Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3-D

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2005 at the Aquarium (first-run)

Here's the thing about Magnificent Desolation: It's full of beautiful 3-D images, reminiscences about the Apollo program, information on the history of space travel. It is awesome to see, immersive, and exciting. You can bring kids and watch them be awed and amazed. You'll feel the same way.

And then, after you've left the theater, halfway to the subway, it'll dawn on you: It's all special effects.

It's special effects to be proud of, to be sure: Renedered at a high enough resolution to look good on an IMAX screen. Twice, so that it's in 3-D. The physics of regolith being kicked up and scattering in an airless, one-sixth gee environment look right. I oohed and aaahed shamelessly. It's the next best thing to being there.

Except... Why are we settling for that? I had my thirty-second birthday about a week after seeing this. Men have not walked on the moon in my lifetime. We shouldn't have to use CGI to show kids what it would be like to walk on the moon; we should be able to send a camera crew up on a commercial spacecraft. I don't imagine I'd be able to afford to take my vacation there, but it's frustrating to think how much could have been done in the last three decades but hasn't been.

Kids won't mind; thirty-three years is an inconceivable amount of time to them. And everyone should be able to look at this and see the visual splendor and the astonishing achievement that landing on the moon was. Executive producer and narrator Tom Hanks loves the space program and has full-on hero worship for the people involved, and that shines through. He and the other filmmakers walk a nice line creating a film that is accessible and entertaining to children while also being fairly enjoyable for adults. Many other IMAX films with an aim to educate and advocate as well as entertain hae falled far short of that.

But, man, it's all special effects. I love special effects, and I'm the first to sneer at somebody who dismisses something for being CGI, but when I go to a movie in this sort of environment - a museum of sorts, a place that celebrates science, that shows you real amazing things - having to see a recreation of a place where we were able to send people with cameras over thirty years ago serves as a reminder of how sometimes, things really aren't what they used to be.

Sharks 3-D

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 September 2005 at the Aquarium (first-run)

At some point this year, there was a thread on the HBS/EFC forums that started from a a picture of a gigantic tiger shark being hauled in by some Cape Cod fisherman participating in a contest titled "why do [people] have to kill sharks?" My answer - because they taste delicious - was not popular. I was, in part, being provocative, despite the truthfulness of my answer. Sharks are, in addition to being good eating, magnificent creatures; the ocean's alpha predator and vital parts of the eocsystem for millions of years, and worth preserving.

It's the latter perspective you're going to be getting from this motion picture; it is, after all, presented by the Ocean Futures Society rather than, say, Legal Sea Foods. It is, thankfully, less heavy-handed than it could have been, despite being narrated by a turtle who serves as our guide. It's pitched toward kids, obviously, but is more interested in imparting information than guilt.

And, of course, pretty pictures. IMAX, and 3-D IMAX especially, puts the audience directly in a picture in a way few other media can, and an ocean setting frees the audience from the bounds of gravity so that amazing things can come from any corner of the screen and move in any direction. Director Jean-Jacques Mantello and cinematographer Gavin McKinney make good use of this three-dimensionality, sometimes overloading the eyes with fantastic imagery. They're also not picky about their subjects; if they got good shots of rays, turtles, or sea lions, that makes it into the movie.

IMAX movies of this sort are, once you're aware of the basic information they're trying to get across, all about looking good. One can't deny Sharks does that; it's a strikingly beautiful piece of film.

Chicken Little

* * (out of four) (* * ½ in 3-D)
Seen 5 November 2005 at the Loews Boston Common #16 (first-run) (3-D digital projection)

Disney is following now. It's a sad state of affairs, when you think about it; a bit over a decade ago, other studios were forming animation departments in the hopes of cashing in on the success of Disney features from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King. They didn't succeed until they stopped trying to out-Disney Disney, and now, in the wake of that success, we get Chicken Little - a kind of sad attempt by Disney to beat DreamWorks at their own game.

It's all there - a CGI world designed to mimic present-day America (except with barnyard animals), a celebrity voice cast, a soundtrack that's a mishmash of pop songs from different eras, and a string of pop culture references masquerading as jokes. If you stripped the vanity card off the front, what's the actual difference between this and Robots or SharkTale? Not much. A certain part of me says that's okay, that Disney doesn't have to be special, but if a movie is going to aim to tread familiar ground rather than be different, it should at least tread that familiar ground nimbly, and this is something Chicken Little fails to manage.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Polar Express

* * ¼ (out of four) (* * * in 3-D)
Seen 4 December 2005 at the New Englad Aquarium (re-issue) (3-D IMAX Experience)

When I saw The Polar Express in IMAX 3-D the morning of December 4th (I was trying to cram as many movies into a 36-hour period at the end of a "Movie Watch-a-Thon" fundraiser as possible and it was Boston's only 10am show), I was duly amazed by the 3-D presentation but left rather cold by pretty much everything else. Pretty, I thought, but pointless in another medium. I emended that assessment upon seeing my step-nephew not bounce off the walls for an hour and a half watching his new DVD on Christmas Day, despite the, um, "gentle mockery" of the movie delivered by my brothers and me. Keeping the attention of a six-year-old with a stocking's worth of Christmas candy in his system doesn't make The Polar Express a good movie, but does mark it as potentially useful.

To give the movie its due, when The Polar Express is operating as a roller-coaster ride - much more literally than many of the movies to which this sobriquet is applied - with the titular train zooming through a succession of lovingly-rendered perils on the way to the North Pole, it can be an awesome sight, especially if you're seeing it on a screen six stories high and through a pair of polarized lenses. Unlike with Chicken Little, I strongly suspect director Robert Zemeckis had 3-D presentation in mind when making this movie, although he keeps the throwing things at the audience to a minimum in order to make it palatable for people seeing it in conventional theaters or on DVD. The audience's stomach lurches sympathetically when the train zooms down a hill or skids on a frozen lake, and more than one kid near me in the theater tried to reach out and catch snowflakes. When this is a movie about things, it is an astonishingly staged film whose visuals will be difficult to top.

When it's a movie about people, though, it is one of the creepiest things ever produced as children's entertainment...

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Boutique-y Stuff: Keane, Touch the Sound, Jesus Is Magic, The Constant Gardener, Pride & Prejudice

You know the holidays are approaching when what's playing at the boutique places and what's playing at the multiplex start to run together. I get Pride & Prejudice playing at the mall - folks know Keira Knightley's name and like her being English and spunky - but why does Landmark Kendall Square pick up The Ice Harvest? I suppose noir-ish stuff doesn't play so well in mainstream theaters, but, still, that's not really a terribly artsy movie (and promoting it as the new film by the maker of Caddyshack and Groundhog Day doesn't do it many favors, as it's not really a comedy and doesn't have Bill Murray).

In good news: The Brattle has evidently raised enough money to extend its schedule just a little bit into the new year, and the first week of showings there in 2006 are Muppet movies. I'll feel better when I see a schedule for January and February, and much better when I see one for March/April, but I'm taking what I can get.

Keane

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 November 2005 at The Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

William Keane has problems. At first we think, well, sure, of course - his seven-year-old daughter is missing, which is enough to set anybody on edge. But his daughter's been missing for months, and as he searches the bus station where she vanished, he seems to lose track of things. Sometimes he seems to be talking about the disappearance like it happened months ago, other times like it just happens. He impulsively jumps on a bus out of town when he thinks that that is the key to finding her, and creates a disturbance to get off when his thinking shifts.

That's our first look at Keane's title character, and he never gets less disturbing. We soon learn that he's receiving disability checks and spending chunks of them on drugs and booze. He seems to be pulling himself together, and then Lynn and Kira Bedick enter his life. The question is, will this mother and her seven-year-old girl stabilize William, or send him off the deep end?

Read the rest at HBS.

Touch the Sound

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 23 November 2005 at The Brattle Theater (Recent Raves)

The promo copy sums this movie up: Evelyn Glennie is one of the world's most talented and renowned percussionists, despite the fact that she is profoundly deaf. It's a natural, immediate hook that would make for an immensely frustrating movie if Glennie was a less charismatic screen presence. Fortunately, she holds up her end of the movie while director Thomas Riedelsheimer documents her with both great appreciation and his own artist's touch.

Ostensibly, this is meant to be a document of Evelyn Glennie and Fred Frith recording a new, totally improvised album in a German building set for demolition. That's only a small part of what we see, though - Ms. Glennie spends time performing on the streets of New York, teaching drums to a deaf teenager in a Glasgow school, giving a concert in Fuji City, Japan, and visiting with her brother at the family farm back in Scotland. You can tell by the changing hair colors that the movie was filmed over a considerable amount of time, and then pieced together in a non-linear manner.

Read the rest at HBS.

Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2005 at Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

Someday, hopefully someday soon, somebody in Hollywood is going to figure out how to use Sarah Silverman. Whenever she shows up on a talk show or other event where she's not playing a character, she comes across as smart, sexy, playful, and funny. Whenever she tries to play a part, though, I always get the nagging feeling that she should be better than what we're seeing on-screen.

Such is the case with Jesus Is Magic, a short concert film with skits and musical numbers interspersed. Here, her character is an exaggeratedly self-centered comedienne who jokes about grim or controversial subjects but has all the capability for understanding and empathy of a spoiled brat of fourteen. The humor comes from the audience recognizing that it's an act, or the realization that deep down inside, we all look at the world from a perspective of "how does this affect me?" Or at least, it does about half the time.

Ms. Silverman's got good comic timing, and some of the bits where she gets off the stage and does a skit or number have a sort of exuberant absurdity. It's a good thing, because a brief post-credits scene demonstrates very clearly that it's not just what you say, but how you say it. Indeed, for material that involves casual racism, callousness, and vanity, it's mostly how you tell it, because the joke itself isn't very funny.

And that's okay, I suppose. I suspect an audience member's reaction to this movie depends heavily on how much the meta-joke, or whatever you call it, works for him or her. Once you get past "oh my god, she's making jokes about 9/11" to "it's funny because a self-absorbed character like her would feel harder hit by finding out something's not low-carb than a massive terrorist attack", several later bits are kind of just re-iterations: "Oh my god, she's making jokes about AIDS, but it's kind of funny because..." And so on. She's not a complete one-trick pony, but she does go to trick number one quite a bit.

Not a bad movie, and it walks its tightrope well - not the one between being disrespectful and being funny, but the one between courting controversy and recognizing that doing so can be a cheap trick.

The Constant Gardener

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2005 at Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

City of God knocked me on my ass, in part because it was so unexpected - I generally don't expect to find amazing films at the secondary venue of a second-rate film festival. So, when I saw director Fernando Meirelles's name attached to The Constant Gardener, I was more than a little excited. I was also a more than little nervous, though - he wouldn't be the first talented director to make a great movie in his backyard but stumble when suddenly working on different continents, in new languages, with more money than was available in Brazil but also many more expenses.

Fortunately, these added challenges only mean that Meirelles makes a movie that is more likely than not the best film playing at the multiplex rather than a debut masterpiece. That's all the more remarkable to me considering that the source material is a novel by John le Carré; what I've read of him has always struck me as pretty dry. Besides, it means he'll be spending a lot of time working with upper-class English characters, who have a reputation for displaying less emotion than Brazilian street kids.

Read the rest at HBS.

Pride & Prejudice

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2005 at AMC Fenway #8 (first-run)

There's just too much Pride & Prejudice around. That modernized, transcontinental version with Aishwarya Rai was just in theaters, what, six months ago? One of my former roommates left behind a DVD of an A&E mini-series that can't be too many years old. The IMDB shows a few others. I've got no particular issue with remakes and new adaptations per se, but does it really need to be done more than once or twice a generation?

Ah, well. At least this is a nice iteration of the story. That story, of course, is that the five Bennet sisters need to find husbands, but can't afford much of a dowry. New neighbors and their wealthy friend may provide an answer for oldest sisters Jane (Rosamund Pike) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), but there's also the chance of intrigue and heartbreak. Jane is quickly taken with one Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), and he seems to reciprocate, while a more antagonistic chemistry appears between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), Bingley's dour friend. In the meantime, a distant cousin arrives looking for a wife, as does an old friend of Darcy's - though Darcy is far from pleased to see him.

Red the rest at HBS

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Sort-of-real life: Capote and "Tennis, Anyone..."

Donal Logue & Kirk Fox's Q&A after the Monday fund-raising screening of "Tennis, Anyone...?" at the Brattle may be one of my all-time favorites, if only because no-one asked the "how much did this cost" question. And when Logue brought money up himself, it was in a refreshingly humble way - mentioning that it cost half a mil, and mocking people who said they "only" had $4M to make their movie ("can you get that out of your ATM? No? Then that's a lot of money!"). I wish I'd remembered to bring something to be autographed, since my brother Dan is a big Grounded For Life fan. But, then again, Dan works for the Portland WB affiliate and probably had opportunities before now.

It was cool, though - Logue mentioned that he saw a lot of great movies at the Brattle when he went to Harvard back in the eighties, so he seemed enthused about this being a fund-raising screening, and imploring us to spread good word of mouth on his movie (probably the only time I can remember host Ned Hinkle ever suggesting people go to Kendall Square). He'll be hosting another fundraiser there on Sunday, for one of the charities mentioned in the movie. It's pretty decent, and worth a look.

Independent films like this are why I'm kind of excited at seeing what will happen when HD-quality camcorders start to take off. Logue mentioned that they got the film free, and did a lot of shooting sans permits, but what it costs to make a movie is sort of mind-boggling to me - this shot for just seventeen days, with Jason Isaacs, Stephen Dorff and Danny Trejo the only thing close to name actors who weren't partners in the film's production (Paul Rudd seems to have been doing an uncredited favor for a friend)... And between camera rental and everything else, it still cost five hundred thousand dollars. That's a lot of money, but the day's coming when you'll be able to produce an HDTV-quality movie on consumer equipment. How much will something like this cost then?

Anyway, a cool/not-cool about Rick Fox.

COOL: Not shying away from saying that Jason Isaac's prick of a character was based on Tom Siezemore.

NOT COOL: Hitting on the college girl sitting right behind me. I mean, dude, you just made a movie mocking Hollywood stereotypes here.


Oh, and I also wrote a review for Capote.

Capote

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2005 at Coolidge Corner Theater #2 (first-run)

When we first see Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his popularity seems very odd, even for the crowd he runs with. He's schlubby and self-centered, and his jokes aren't nearly as funny as his voice. Capote the man draws attention less for being attractive or charismatic than for being peculiar and appearing utterly indifferent to his effect on people. Capote the film, being so focused on its title character, has much the same appeal.

As the film opens, Capote has grand plans for his next work, a "nonfiction novel" , though the right story to use as a basis eludes him. He finds inspiration in the story of a gruesome crime in Kansas, with an entire family killed by two intruders. He travels there with childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who serves as a buffer between small-town people and the thoroughly citified Capote, gathering information wherever he can, whether it be from Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the crime's lead investigator, or Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), one of the accused. He finds Smith's personal history quite similar to his own, and helps to fund the killers' appeals - though his motives are more complicated than sympathy for someone with a similar background.

Read the rest at HBS.

"Tennis, Anyone...?"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Special Fundraising Screening)

There's no getting around that a chunk of "Tennis, Anyone..." is autobiographical. The thing that entertainment news addicts will remember as having actually happened doesn't happen until almost the very end of the movie, but even before before then, the film is filled with a number of characters, situations, and digressions that don't really become story-critical at any point. It hands together, though, doling out two funny bits for every philosophical one, and pulling together at the end.

Danny Macklin (Donal Logue) and Gary Morgan (Kirk Fox) are actors who meet up shooting a direct-to-video movie in Mexico. Danny's been at it longer and is at it full-time, while Gary has a day job as a tennis pro, having once been on the tour. Danny mentions that he used to play in high school, and they promise to stay friends after the movie wraps. They don't see each other until a year later, when Danny's got a popular sitcom and a failing marriage, and Gary suggests Danny join him at a celebrity tennis event. One of those leads to another, which leads to another, and another...

Logue and Fox not only star as fictionalized versions of themselves - the characters' backgrounds match those of the actors - but also served as producers, collaborating on the screenplay, with Logue directing. Friends and family show up in small roles. Since they made it well outside the studio system, they dodge the need to conform any specific template, and can leave in scenes that would be the first to hit the cutting room floor (I can see a studio executive yelling "what is all this 'RIA' stuff Gary's talking about his dad saying? And what's with the guy building a mountain?").

It does mean that the leads aren't, perhaps, as sharply defined as they would be in other movies. Logue and Fox are, for the most part, playing themselves, and when you're doing that, the temptation both when writing and acting is to put down what you'd do in real life. Thing is, people in real life are fuzzier than people created for a two-hour movie, so the characters don't necessarily have these very specific behaviors that the audience can identify and use as shorthand. This is a bigger problem with Logue's Danny than with Fox's Gary; Gary is the one who does wacky things like deciding his character should die in a scene, despite already having shot a later scene, or taking Danny to a strip club a week at a rather inopportune time. Danny's the straight man, getting put into ridiculous situations and flailing. Also, Danny's job as a sitcom lead, and thus the work-related stress, is a bit hard for most of us to grasp - fifty thousand dollars and episode probably sounds pretty good to most of us, but the job obviously only middling success in his chosen field. Rick used to be a pro tennis player, but we see him working at a country club and wanting to be an actor. It is, I think, easier to relate to trying to break in than having broken in.

The other characters they encounter on the "celebrity tennis circuit" have clearer purpose within the movie. Jason Isaacs's Johnnie Green is the villain, a hateful and arrogant sitcom star who has made the leap to features and is a little too "on" for the crowds. Kenneth Mitchell is his soap-star double partner. Stephen Dorff and Paul Rudd are tennis-loving stars of country music and pornography, respectively, and Maeve Quinlan is the former pro covering these events for The Tennis Channel. It's a joke on these celebrity charity events that it's always the same people at every event (kind of like John O'Hurley in the real world), and they come off as something between eccentric and pathetic.

It's a funny movie, though, with Danny seeming to find himself in a series of bizarre situations, from a disastrous stand-up bit where Green convinces him to dress in desert gear to tell racist jokes to the inevitable revelation of just who his wife was sleeping with. It's astonishing how grounded this movie is, with its Hollywood setting and string of weird incidents. Credit to Logue and Fox for hitting a nice balance.

And, most amazingly, no-one takes a tennis ball to the groin until the last act. That it happens is predictable, but satisfying.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

And it's official

Thirty-nine movies, seventeen at the Brattle and twenty-two elsewhere. Only guy who filled his card and that's good for the most points (if not the most money). Won myself a new iPod Shuffle.

I'm kind of glad it's over; one more week and I'd have been going to Rent and Yours, Mine & Ours.

Happily, it looks like things are looking up for the Brattle. Ivy said that they expect to have raised $200k by the end of the year, which is short of their original plans/expectations, but they think it's good enough to go to the landlord with. Which is good for everyone.

The Final (?) Movie Watch-a-Thon Recap

Movie seen at the Brattle: (12/3) Darwin's Nightmare.
Movies seen elsewhere: (12/2) Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That, Aruzza (if allowed) (12/3) The Passenger, Ushpizin, Jarhead, (12/4), The Polar Express: The IMAX Experience, Aeon Flux, What's Going on at Circus Beely? (if allowed).
Money pledged so far: $50 entry fee + $64 flat donations + $10 x (17 Brattle Films + .5 * 21 to 23 other films) = $389.00 to $399.00
Why the Brattle Theater Matters
Details on the Movie Watch-a-Thon
Where to send cash in support
Mail me if you'd like to pledge some dollar amount per movie

So, that's the apparent final tally. The wrap-up party is tonight at 5pm, so I'll see how impressive an achievement that is. 38 to 40 movies in three-plus weeks isn't bad, though from what I gather there were folks much more enthused about signing up donees than I was, getting the thousand needed to refund their entry fee a week or two ago.

Now, I'm bushed. The combination of last night's 11pm movie and this morning's 10am one has me juuust a bit worn out. A ten-movie weekend doesn't seem like doing much (even if there is a fair amount of walking involved), but I'll be quite happy to get on a somewhat less intesne schedule. Especially since I've seen a lot of less-than-exciting stuff lately. King Kong can't come soon enough.

EDIT: And, of course, if you've pledged something, it's time to pay up. If you pledged $1/movie, that's $28.00; the multiplication is pretty easy (let's assume Circus Beely counts and Aruzza doesn't. Aruzza is only 72 minutes long (but there were folks in the audience who couldn't take that!) and was kind of an adjunct to Budd Boetticher: A Man Can Do That. And I won't be seeing Circus Beely until 7pm tonight.

Anyway, Here's that link again.

Friday, December 02, 2005

I'm running out of movies to see.

Seriously. At some point this weekend, I will probably see the likes of Rent, Aeon Flux, and The Polar Express in order to try and fill the Movie Watch-a-Thon card. Yours, Mine, and Ours is not out of the realm of possibility.

The big, prestigious Oscar-bait movies really can't come soon enough. I'm dying here. There's a snowboarding documentary opening on two screens in Boston this weekend because there's nothing to see. The AMC MovieWatcher newsletter has information on three movies from India in limited release. You can't tell me that this would be the case if Hollywood or the indies had something more exciting than Aeon Flux coming out this week.

The Movie Watch-a-Thon Recap:

Movie seen at the Brattle: (11/30) Key Largo, (12/1) The Maltese Falcon.
Movies seen elsewhere: (11/29) Aelita, Quen of Mars, (11/30) Shopgirl.
Money pledged so far: $50 entry fee + $50 flat donations + $9 x (16 Brattle Films + .5 * 15 other films) = $311.50
Why the Brattle Theater Matters
Details on the Movie Watch-a-Thon
Where to send cash in support
Mail me if you'd like to pledge some dollar amount per movie

The Latest Reviews:

A History of Violence

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 18 November 2005 at Arlington Capitol #2 (second-run)

There's an temptation, when discussing movies like Ghost World, The Road to Perdition, and now A History of Violence, to deliberately omit references to their "graphic fiction" roots (to use the newest term employed by people who don't want to use the phrase "comic book"). If you like the movie, you don't want to turn people off by having them immediately compare it to Batman & Robin, or even the good examples of the spandex genre. Even if you like comics as a medium, and regularly gobble up as much autobiography and crime as brightly-colored action/adventure, you might just shrug and think, hell, I don't want to fight this battle again. And maybe you shouldn't; looking at the finished product, A History of Violence is an excellent movie regardless of the quality or form of its source material.

But, on closer examination, several of the qualities that make it unique appear to come directly from the graphic medium. Take the strikingly individual character designs, like Ed Harris's ruined eye or the pair of thugs whose hotel robbery opens the movie. Consider the graphic violence, a bit less stylized than what you'd find in Sin City, but still willing to linger on the blood & guts because it makes a striking visual. Notice how some sequences play out without words, while the dialogue is quick and punchy, like it has to share a three-square-inch panel with the action. None of these techniques are unique to comics, of course, but the look and feel does set it apart from other films.

Read the rest at HBS.

Walk the Line

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2005 at Loews Harvard Square #1 (first-run)

My mother and her parents like country music, unlike most of the kids I knew in the Maine suburb where I grew up. Because of this, I tended to dismiss whole swaths of music as boring, because I was a kid and this was stuff old people listened too. So, it wound up taking me far too long to recognize the actual coolness of folks like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.

Cash, as this movie will tell you, grew up a dirt-poor sharecropper in the deep South, put in some time in the Air Force, married his high-school sweetheart (Ginnifer Goodwin), then moved to Memphis hoping to break into the music business. He succeeded, but the time on the road and the drugs he scored there destroyed his marriage. On the plus side, it's there he meets June Carter (Reese Witherspoon), who will become his muse, his on-stage partner, and the love of his life.

Read the rest at HBS.

Derailed

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 November 2005 at AMC Fenway #6 (first-run)

Do so-called thrillers get much more tedious than this? I don't think so. Sure, there are examples of the genre where the production values are worse, or the script is more egregiously stupid, but that variety is more likely to feature uninhibited trashiness, or the type of plot twist that causes jaws to drop in disbelief, rather than simple head-shaking. [i]Derailed[/i] never gets near the sublime, and only briefly manages the ridiculous.

Some Damn Fool (Clive Owen) with a Beautiful Wife (Melissa George) and a Sick Daughter (Addison Timlin) meets cute with a Sexy Lady (Jennifer Aniston) on a train. They flirt, meet up for lunch a few times, and soon find themselves looking for a hotel. Just as they're about to do something their spouses really wouldn't approve of, a Violent Frenchman (Vincent Cassel) bursts in, knocks Some Damn Fool stupid, and has his way with Sexy Lady. She, of course, doesn't want to report it, fearing reprisals from her Unseen Husband, even when the Violent Frenchman opts to blackmail Some Damn Fool, demanding he deliver to him the money he and Beautiful Wife have saved to buy medicine for Sick Daughter. Is Some Damn Fool going to take this? Of course he is. But will he take it twice?

Read the rest at HBS.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Watched more than I wrote over the long weekend, obviously

On the whole, the Thanksgiving weekend let me pile up some movies, but was somewhat disappointing in other ways - I only got to see one of my three brothers, and then the furniture store shuffled their times so that we couldn't easily go out to see Harry Potter IV in IMAX.

With twelve little spaces left on the card, I'm starting to wonder if I can fill it by SundayI think I can, but it's going to take some careful planning, and maybe not so much running from theaters in Cambridge to ones in Boston and back. Although, to be totally honest, I'm running out of stuff to see at th e first-run places without repeating myself.

The Movie Watch-a-Thon Recap:

Movie seen at the Brattle: (11/26) Casablanca, (11/27) Treasure of the Sierra Madre, (11/28) To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep.
Movies seen elsewhere: (11/25) The Ice Harvest, (11/26) Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, The Constant Gardener, Pride & Prejudice, (11/27) Just Friends, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Money pledged so far: $50 entry fee + $50 flat donations + $9 x (14 Brattle Films + .5 * 13 other films) = $284.50
Why the Brattle Theater Matters
Details on the Movie Watch-a-Thon
Where to send you cash in support
Mail me if you'd like to pledge some dollar amount per movie

The Latest Reviews:

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2005 at Loews Boston Common #7 (first-run)

Shane Black is sick, but he's the right kind of sick. He starts his movie off with a nine-year-old doing the sawing-a-woman-in-half trick - with a chainsaw. Because kids taking chainsaws to other kids? Funny. And he follows it up with other sickness - body parts severed, corpses treated without proper respect, torture which inevitably focuses on the genitals. The film has no shame about its pulp fiction roots; indeed, even when it subverts its pulp trappings or gets all self-referential, the love far outweighs the mockery.

Our narrator isn't any sort of traditional tough guy; Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) is a small-time thief from New York who somehow lands in Los Angeles after stumbling into an audition. At a one-time movie star's party, he meets private investigator Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) and wannabe actress Harmony Lane (Michelle Monaghan); it turns out Harmony is his high school sweetheart. The producer who flew Harry out to L.A. asks Perry to give the "actor" P.I. lessons; in the middle of demonstrating how boring most detective work actually is, the pair witness a murder; at the same time, Harmony asks Perry to look into her sister's apparent suicide. In the series of hard-boiled P.I. novels Harmony used to read as a kid, these two threads would be connected, but this is real life, so Perry's desire to steer as clear as possible makes much more sense... right?

Read the rest at HBS.

Zathura

* * (out of four)
Seen 13 November 2005 at AMC Fenway #9 (first-run)

TAKEN FROM "BOARD GAME REVIEW MONTHLY"; REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION: Zathura proudly boasts that it is from the makers of Jumanji, specifically, game designer Chris Van Allsburg. As with his previous creation, Zathura likely will appeal far more to small children than to their parents or older siblings: The serious spieifriek will find much to admire in its hand-crafted workmanship and retro-style design sense, but the play mechanics leave a great deal to be desired.

Like Jumanji, Zathura initially displays all the strategy of Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders, with even less actual effort required from the players. They spin a sort of wheel and the mechanized board itself moves the pieces along a predetermined path. Once they reach their new position on the board, a card is dispensed, and the piece is either directed to to move further up/down the game board, or the game will make an earnest attempt to kill its players.

While one of course frowns upon such a dangerous product being marketed to children, I must admit that trying to dodge the meteors, robots, and alien "Zorgons" that the game throws at the players does at least involve them somewhat in a game that basically plays itself. Otherwise, the only human skill involved would be finding ways to cheat, and there are strong penalties charged for being caught at that! The nature of this game is, in fact, co-operative, despite how the players are initially led to believe it is competitive. Indeed, though the box states that this is a "game for two players", our playtesters eventually found themselves involving their babysitter, Kristen "Lisa" Stewart, and Astronaut Dax Shepard, who showed up to assist midway through.

Our playtesters, young Jonah "Danny" Bobo and older brother Josh "Walter" Hutcherson, handled themselves ably in the game. Watching them play certainly brought back memories of game-playing with my own brothers as a kid, from Walter's indifference which quickly flares into annoyance and anger, to Danny's quick and insincere apologies, to their competition for their father's attention.

Working from Van Allsburg's original template, the team of David Koepp, John Kamps, and Jon Favreau do an adequate job of building the game. One cannot complain too much about the design, which for the most part confronts the players with actual, tactile challenges rather than electronic approximations thereof. Not that there's anything wrong with what comes out of the computer, but it's often a more cohesive experience, especially with young players, when they have to deal with something solid.

The game's biggest problem is that the players often don't seem to be in control of their own destinies; the structure of the game is thoroughly mechanical, with the players always reacting to random events, rather than planning and initiating their own strategies. If the educational goal of the game is to teach co-operation despite the outwardly competitive structure, it's somewhat muted, and poor Lisa found herself on the receiving end of nothing but abuse for no better reason than having been told to watch her brothers. The endgame is fairly unsatisfying, despite the bombastic phase of play that leads up to it.

When push comes to shove, Zathura is much the same game as Jumanji - which, despite having been a holiday sensation several years ago, does not hold up particularly well. Young players who had yet to be born when the previous game appeared will enjoy the frantic action and running around, but seasoned players will want something more sophisticated.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 November 2005 at Flagship Theaters Quincy #4 (second-run)

In my estimation, there are few phrases that can be attached to a horror movie that do it a bigger disservice than "based on a true story". I can accept ghosts and demons in the context of a fantasy, and can find myself shocked and surprised by them when that fantasy is executed especially well, but actually believing and worrying about them? That, I fear, is asking too much.

Though the number of credulous people in the world is larger than I might hope, I'm not alone in this world-view. Fortunately, the courtroom drama structure of Exorcism is not just about allowing the audience to act as jury - if you're already predisposed to one opinion or other, that's not going to be much of a source of tension. Instead, the film functions as an examination on how the spiritual/supernatural and the strictly rational collide in American life. The question the jury must decide is not just whether or not young Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) was actually possessed, but whether her parish priest's sincere belief that she was is enough that her death while under her care can be considered a crime.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Squids, whales, prime numbers, and the Watch-a-Thon recap

Missed a couple days of the Watch-a-thon due to the need to get groceries on Sunday and my head generally being filled with unpleasant mucus on Monday. This also why I didn't do so much of the writing here this week; the review for The Squid and the Whale just sat there half-finished because I was occupying time that would normally be spent on writing with something that made my head spin a little less, like trying to plow through the Pencilwise sections of a backlogged stack of Games magazines.

Speaking of which, if I ever get around to writing a screenplay, I have a conversation about someone not liking Sudoku because they're no good at math, followed by the other person explaining that there is no actual math involved and the numbers could be replaced with letters or shapes - and, in fact, frequently were back when they were known as "Number Place" before they went to Japan and somehow came back popular.

Of course, by the time I finished that screenplay, the Sudoku fad will have passed and it will be laughably dated. But, hey, I figured I showed restraint not having this conversation on the bus.

The Movie Watch-a-Thon Recap:

Movie seen at the Brattle: (11/20) Serenity, (11/22) Keane, (11/23) Touch the Sound.
Movies seen elsewhere: (11/18) A History of Violence, (11/19) Walk the Line, Derailed, Capote.
Money pledged so far: $50 entry fee + $50 flat donations + $9 x (10 Brattle Films + .5 * 7 other films) = $221.50
Why the Brattle Theater Matters
Details on the Movie Watch-a-Thon
Where to send you cash in support
Mail me if you'd like to pledge some dollar amount per movie

The Latest Reviews:

The Squid and The Whale

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 November 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (preview)

By now, that having one's parents get divorced is no fun whatsoever is not really a message that needs getting out; it's a fact of life that most people are at least aware of second-hand. Even in the best-case scenario, where everyone eventually recognizes that it was for the best and the parents remain civil or even friendly, it's a thoroughly trying experience.

The Squid and the Whale does not chronicle a best-case scenario.

Because Noah Baumbach's film is semi-autobiographical, it takes place in 1980s Brooklyn, but it could be set in any relatively contemporary setting with minor changes: Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) are just realizing that their marriage is over, although it's probably been clear to outsiders for a while. Both are writers, though Bernard's star is falling while Joan is newly successful. It doesn't take long for their kids to start choosing sides, with older brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) tending toward his snobbish father and middle-schooler Frank (Owen Kline) favoring his earthier mother. Tensions increase when Joan takes up with Frank's tennis coach (William Baldwin) and one of Bernard's college students (Anna Paquin) rents his spare room.

Read the rest at HBS.

Prime

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 November 2005 at AMC Fenway #9 (first-run)

I saw Prime about a week after Proof, and, still keyed on numbers and a math nerd anyway, immediately glommed onto the fact that the stated ages of Rafi Gardet (Uma Thurman) and David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg) are 37 and 23, respectively - both prime numbers, and spent entirely too much time trying to read something into their indivisibility by other numbers. I also, of course, immediately figured out that they were, in fact, in violation of the half-and-seven rule (37 / 2 + 7 = 25.5), and would be so for another five years.

I bring this up for no particular reason, other than having recently received an email from a man claiming he or she could always tell which reviews were written by failed filmmakers. As you can see, that's silly - I am obviously a failed physicist.

But, back to the movie itself. It's the kind of minor film that rests somewhat precariously between moods. It doesn't quite pop enough to be a light and breezy romantic comedy, though the quick synopsis (a woman, unbeknownst to her, starts dating the son of her therapist) suggests a romance under peculiar but amusing circumstances. The "trouble" is that one of the central obstacles for the pair to overcome is their age difference, and the film takes this rather seriously, pointing out that though both are adults, there are real differences in maturity and ambition; it also points out the quandry that Lisa Metzger (Meryl Streep) finds herself in because while the advice she gives Rafi may be good for her patient's mental health, it may not be something she approves of once she sees the bigger picture. And it doesn't necessarily resolve those bigger issues in a glib way, or necessarily present them as silly.

So Prime doesn't fit neatly into a box. This is a good thing, in principle. The rub is that its desire to be realistic often works against its aim to be funny and even the attempts to make serious points; for instance the issue of Lisa's desire that David only date nice Jewish girls is extraneous, but pushes other, more important things aside. I like that writer/director Ben Younger is able to have his movie express a full, and realistic, range of thoughts and emotions, and that for the most part cancels out any feelings I might have that whatever impression the movie is trying to make, it's not making it as solidly as it perhaps should.

You can do a lot worse than Prime. It's honest, funny, and kind of sweet. It manages to get the audience thinking about just why we get all skeevy about there being too much distance between a couple's ages (even if the older woman looks like Uma Thurman and the pairing isn't freaky-looking) while still having having space for jokes about - I kid you not - people being hit in the face with pies. You just not might feel as strongly as you'd like, afterward.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Not so much the lightning round anymore

I found myself with more to say about Zorro than I expected, so it's back to the full reviews. Which was easier, since I wasn't seeing quite so many movies the last couple days. It sort of balances out: I saw Raja on Wednesday despite not, perhaps, feeling my best - one of the pizzas the office ordered from Bertucci's was bacon & scallops, which I thought is a brilliant idea until the throwing up. I am going to attribute that more to the amount eaten than the toppings and try again next time I'm in Bertucci's. And then, last night, I tried to see In Her Shoes at the Belmont Studio only to find it closed for a private screening. I must say, for a theater that plans to provide wireless access when they open their "cinema café" and has spots to surf the net in the lobby, their website is pretty bad; I really couldn't tell that there were no shows.

The recap:

Movie seen Wednesday at the Brattle: (11/16) Raja.
Movies seen elsewhere: N/A
Money pledged so far: $50 entry fee + $50 flat donations + $9 x (7 Brattle Films + .5 * 3 other films) = $176.50
Why the Brattle Theater Matters
Details on the Movie Watch-a-Thon
Where to send you cash in support
Mail me if you'd like to pledge some dollar amount per movie

And now, yet more capsule/longer reviews:

Good Night, and Good Luck

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2005 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

It's not hard to become a fan of George Clooney, is it? I once read that he took what he got paid for Batman & Robin, used it to pay off his house, and decided that from then on, he'd just do projects that interested him. The latest project to interest him, apparently, is directing a film about Edward R. Murrow's jousts with Senator Joseph McCarthy.

It's a fascinating watch, both for the actual story and how it's told. The style of the movie is clipped and matter-of-fact, feeling very much like the live television or news specials of the 1950s. No excessive sentimentality here; just an attempt to communicate clearly and without embellishment that is so earnest that it becomes its own style. David Strathairn's Murrow is exactly like every clip of him I've ever seen. The script by Clooney and Grant Heslov offers a great deal of procedural detail, while still taking plenty of time for small character moments.

The story is bookended by a speech Murrow would give later, and maybe drives home its present-day relevence a bit more forcefully than necessary. Of course, if one is inclined to agree that the news media (television in particular) is doing a poor job of keeping an eye on the government, it may not seem like enough.

Thumbsucker

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

How do tedious movies like Thumbsucker attract such a noteworthy cast? I notice that Tilda Swinton is credited as a co-executive producer; and I wonder if that's her contribution: Convincing the likes of Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves, and Vincent D'Onofrio that they can squeeze this in between other projects, and then have a chance to look cool at festivals ("yeah, I could have taken a ten million dollar paycheck instead, but I was so excited by the script and want to do more challenging blah blah blah..."). It just seems that there are much better movies in need of big-star boosts every year, and which ones get it seems pretty random.

Anyway, the important part of the previous paragraph is "tedious movies like Thumbsucker". It's the type that makes me wonder "why this guy?" Certainly, Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci) has more of a unique hook than the leads of most teen dramas in that he's still sucking his thumb at the age of seventeen, but once you get past that, it starts to seem pretty standard-issue: He's intimidated by a pretty girl; he's vulgar to cover for it. One parent is too friendly; another can't connect. He's obsessed with seeming normal; perscription and illicit drugs are used to achieve it. Eventually, he'll go off to college and all this high school stuff won't seem like so big a deal in retrospect.

I mean, who cares? What new or at least entertaining things does this have to say about being a teenager? There doesn't seem to be much more to Justin than just alternating "unpleasant" and "insecure" moods. I just don't see much reason to spend time with the likes of him for an hour and a half or more if all I'm getting out of it is that the guy's a jerk.

The Legend of Zorro

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 October 2005 at AMC Fewnway #9 (first-run)

The popular knock on The Legend of Zorro, it seems, has been that it's an "unnecessary" sequel. I get that, especially given the amount of time that has passed since The Mask of Zorro; Columbia and Amblin aren't exactly striking while the iron is hot here. And yet, it seems to me, that for Zorro to be successful and not have follow-ups would be somehow inappropriate; whether in the pulps, on the radio, in comics, or in Saturday morning cartoons, Zorro has always been a vehicle for multiple adventures, not just one. The problem is that if you're only going to do a new one every seven years or so, it would be nice if it were a bit better than this.

The story seems solid enough, and in line with the previous film: Armand (Rufus Sewell), a charming but dastardly member of a European secret society, seeks to stem the growing influence of the United States by sabotaging California's entry as a free state and igniting a civil war (the year is 1850; presumably a civil war ten years earlier would have been even more crippling). To make matters worse, he's romancing Elena de la Vega (Catherine Zeta-Jones), after arguments with husband Alejandro (Antonio Banderas) over how much time he spends as Zorro and how much he spends with their ten-year-old son Joaquin (Adrian Alonso) creates a rift in their marriage.

Read the rest at HBS.

Proof

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 October 2005 at Coolidge Corner Theater #2 (first-run)

I always get a little excited when a movie about mathematicians or scientists comes out and actually seems to display some interest in or affinity for math and science. Proof isn't about the actual nuts and bolts of mathematics, but it gets the terminology and mindset mostly right, and never goes the route of suggesting that knowledge is dangerous or something humanity can't be trusted with. Indeed, it shows characters excited and even giddy at the prospect of learning and discovery, even if their personal stories aren't always so happy.

Take Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow). A potentially brilliant mathematical mind in her own right, she has spent the past few years caring for her father (Anthony Hopkins), who was brilliant in his younger days but who has paid the karmic price that drama demands of genius, and has spent the past twenty years at the mercy of compulsion and dementia. After his death, his former grad student Hal (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes to their house to see if he left anything interesting behind, while older daughter Claire (Hope Davis) arrives to take care of funeral arrangements and look after Claire, whose fragility suggests that she might have inherited their father's instability along with his genius. Catherine points Hal to a notebook containing an extraordinary proof, but also claims that she, rather than her father, had worked it out.

Read the rest at HBS.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lightning Round 3 (mostly Garbo), and Movie Watch-a-Thon update

I meant to go to a lot more of the Greta Garbo pictures when they were at the Brattle, but I had a bunch of late days at work and couldn't fit them in. Ticked me off, because I hate missing silents.

Anyway, the watch-a-thon continues apace, with three more films seen in the last couple of days. I think we've pretty firmly established that Doillon's films are not my thing; La Puritaine was the same kind of talky torture as La Vengence d'une Femme. Okay, "torture" is a strong word, but... Man, these guys can go on. The near-silent slapstick of Jacques Tati afterward was what might be called a huge relief.

Then, yesterday, I joined my brother Matt and his girlfriend Morgan in Quincy to cathch The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which apparently played into a paper he's got for a class. Good courtroom drama, although it set off my cynicism buzzer early with the "Based on a True Story" caption.

The recap:

Movies seen Monday at the Brattle: (11/14) La Puritaine, Mon Oncle.
Movie seen Tuesday at Flagship Quincy: (11/15) The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Money pledged so far: $50 entry fee + $50 flat donations + $6 x (6 Brattle Films + .5 * 3 other films) = $145
Why the Brattle Theater Matters
Details on the Movie Watch-a-Thon
Where to send you cash in support
Mail me if you'd like to pledge some dollar amount per movie

And now, yet more capsule reviews:

MirrorMask

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 October 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

Kids who grow up in the circus dream of running off to join the suburbs; at least, that's the case for 16-year-old Helena (Steaphanie Leonidas). Well, maybe not to the suburbs, but you've got to admit, being part of the failing family business practically since birth has got to have some facets that suck, and she's had just about enough, until her mother falls ill. Then begins an uncomfortable period of forced inactivity, and the inevitable belief that her wayward wish caused it, and then she is somehow whisked away to another world, one of fantastical creatures and impossible environments.

There's a pattern to this sort of movie - characters in one world have doppelgangers in the other, Helena's entrance, at the very least, is the result of her own creativity, things which are figures of speech in our world are rather more literal in theirs. The execution is what matters, and that's pretty above-average here. Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, longtime collaborators in the graphic fiction medium, move to film without too much damage. There are moments which don't seem to quite follow from what we've seen, and perhaps a slight over-reliance on formula. Technically, their reach sometimes seems to exceed their grasp: They produced the film under the aegis of Jim Henson Productions, and while the animatronics and puppetry are superlative, the digital work isn't quite on the same level. The color scheme used is kind of dreary, too.

And despite those failings, this is a film that contains moments of transcendant beauty. Even if the whole thing doesn't quite gel, there's no doubt during those moments that you're getting your money's worth.

Anna Kareninina

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Greta Garbo: A Centennial Tribute)

I hate these people. Even the kid, who is such a whiny lisping mama's boy that I found myself thinking that they had better not try and kill him in order to elicit sympathy, because I would cheer, and then I'd look like the same kind of unpleasant jackass that I despise this film's cast of characters for being. Let's tally them up: A rakish soldier who ignores a perfectly pretty girl who is into him to chase after a married woman; said married woman, who allows herself to be caught by him; and her martinet of a husband, who will only grant Anna a divorce if she gives up her beloved son (which the trollop does), and who then tells the boy that his mother is dead. Then, Anna and her boyfriend leave Russia to live in Venice, where they complain about not being in frigid St. Petersburg while he yearns to get involved in a Balkan war.

Seriously, what is wrong with them? Why should we care what happens to any of them? Now, while I understand that this story was written in a different era and "get a divorce with a reasonable custody arrangement" was not an option on the cultural radar at the time, this still isn't a romantic tragedy; this is a bunch of people who made their bed and are unhappy that they have to lie in it. By the end of the film, my sole rooting interest was in hoping that they somehow wound up in Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908 and could thus be obliterated by an exploding meteorite. (Spoilers: This doesn't happen)

Ninotchka

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Greta Garbo: A Centennial Tribute)

Leslie Nielsen started his career not as a comedian, but as a Great Stone Face guy, clipped and authoritative. This is a large part of why his early expeditions into comedy were so funny - he was being Leslie Nielsen, but that persona was a complete (and occasionally absurd) contrast to the anarchy around him.

What does this have to do with Ninotchka? Despite being one of Garbo's last films, it was her first major comedy, and it derives much of its humor from the fact that she seems completely out of place amid crazy antics. It's a shame, one thinks, that she didn't try this earlier, she's got fantastic deadpan skills and does more than just send up her stern reputation; Ninotchka's softening over the course of the film is smooth, a fine performance even if you've never heard of Garbo as either an actress or personality.

And there's great talent all around her. If you wanted a clever, crisply acted comedy, director Ernest Lubitsch was the go-to guy, and he delivers here in spades. Four people are credited with writing, the most notable being screwball master Billy Wilder; they jab at the Soviet Union with a light wit that might not have worked during the Cold War. Melvyn Douglas is fine as the opposite attracted to Ninotchka, with Sig Rumann, Felix Bressart, and Alexander Granach always good for a laugh as the three less-than-devoted Communists she is sent to reign in. Bela Lugosi is nicely menacing, even though his part isn't nearly as large as his billing. It's one of those movies where everybody winds up firing on all cylinders, truly earning its "classic" label.

Grand Hotel

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 October 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Greta Garbo: A Centennial Tribute)

A couple years ago, I was puzzled when I heard movies (specifically, those of Douglas Sirk) described as "soap opera". How could this be, I thought; isn't one of soap's defining characteristics its serial nature? After seeing Grand Hotel, I see that's not the case; even something as bounded as a two-hour film can be soap opera if it packs the requisite amount of melodrama into relatively minor stories of domestic desperation.

Which is what Grand Hotel does, even if it's not terribly domestic; the characters are relatively transient, living in a Berlin hotel and acting out their little dramas. They are nice little stories, and the cast is top-notch: Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, John and Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone and Wallace Beery. It's well-directed by Edmund Goulding, and fairly well-played, too, although the acting style of the day is a little more theatrical than I'm used to for this type of film.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Lightning Round 2, and Movie-Watch-a-thon update

So, I was going to go into total film festival movde for the MWaT, but this weekend's movies convinced me to just go with categories rather than chronological, because it would just highlight my thoroughly questionable taste. "You gave Jacques Doillion's La Vengence d'une Femme the same ranking as friggin' Zathura?!?! What the heck is wrong with you?" In my defense, though, Zathura did not knock me unconscious, the way most of the Cahiers du Cinema series at the Brattle has thus far - of the four I've seen, the only one I've made it through without resting my eyes was Rendez-Vous. The cynical will note that this film features a great deal of naked young Juliette Binoche in its 87-minute runtime. Truth be told, though, it's the creepiness as opposed to the sexiness that kept me from drifting off.

Also, this series has way too many 9:45pm starts for talky French movies. I'll discuss it more when I get around to full reviews, which these will get, right after the silents and samurai stuff.

And Zathura, because I have an idea for slamming it which amuses me.

So, to recap:

Movies seen this weekend at the Brattle: (11/11) La Vengence d'une Femme, (11/12) A Man Escaped, Day of Wrath, and (11/13)Rendez-Vous.
Movies seen this weekend at other theaters: (11/13) Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Zathura
Money pledged so far: $50 entry fee + $50 flat donations + $5 x (4 Brattle Films + .5 * 2 other films) = $125
Why the Brattle Theater Matters
Details on the Movie Watch-a-Thon
Where to send you cash in support
Mail me if you'd like to pledge some dollar amount per movie

And, now, some more capsule reviews:

Red Eye

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 August 2005 at Loews Boston Common #16 (first-run)

Red Eye is what other thrillers look like when they go on diets and work out, a sleek, no-nonsense bit of filmmaking with nary a wasted second. The only fat on this movie is about two minutes of comic relief and maybe a slightly protracted last act, but that's fine. It's probably one of the best things Wes Craven has done in years.

This is in large part due to its star. There's something a little bit artificial-looking about Rachel McAdams - her eyes and mouth are a bit larger than normal, just short of where the brain stops processing it as "friendly" - but she's got the knack of making an audience like her quickly, and her easy charm is a nice counterpoint to Cillian Murphy's ingratiating cover. The two are able to work a lot of tension in an enclosed space, which keeps the movie humming along for the first hour and makes the larger-scale last act not only a fun string of set pieces, but a relief of the tension that had built up before.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 August 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

Anyone who's seen my apartment will probably tell you that I'm frighteningly close to being Steve Carrell's character, so I found myself rather relieved that the movie doesn't set out to make him the butt of jokes - or at least, not just make him the butt of jokes. Carrell plays a guy whose development is kind of stunted, not just because he hasn't had sex, but because he hasn't tried to move forward in other areas - he's been a contented drone at work, his primary mode of transportation is a bicycle, he collects toys, he doesn't drink, etc. The movie doesn't necessarily tell us that these are bad qualities, but it points up how staying in place from one's early teens doesn't gain anything; there are greater rewards (like, say, Catherine Keener) to moving forward.

Hollywood puts out a lot of raunchy movies every year, but this is the first one I can remember since American Pie that manages to be both bawdy and affectionate. Sex and dating, like every other part of human behavior, are often trying and incomprehensible, but just as often very funny. Carrell's Andy is surrounded by guys who, for all their more extensive experience, get involved in situations just as awkward and peculiar as his, and that really levels the playing field: There are many ways for life to be crazy, but we can laugh at them all, and laugh hard.

The World (Shijie)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 September 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first run)

"The World" of this film's title is an amusement park on the outskirts of Beijing, and it's fun to analyze what the purpose of such a place is in a communist state: Filled with EPCOT-like pavillions, it gives its visitors a look at the world outside their borders, but in a diminished sense; the Eiffel Tower here is just a fraction of its actual size, for instance. It lets people exercise their urge to explore, even if the real thing is discouraged.

That combination of restlessness and confinement is a recurrant them in the movie, which follows not the park's visitors, but its staff. These are, for the most part, kids in their early twenties for whom entertainment is a day's work, and the environment that's exciting for the visitors is just an everyday backdrop to work, lunch, and the occasional flirtation. It's pretty ordinary stuff, but writer/director Zhang Ke Jia stages it well, juxtaposing banal conversations and peculiar environments. The cast of characters isn't quite cynical yet.

It's quite an enjoyable movie up until the ending. There's darkness in the movie, but the finale is so bleak as to make the whole endeavor feel pointless; it leaves a sour taste.

The Tunnel (Der Tunnel)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 5 September 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

This sucker took four years to get its release in the U.S. before quietly spending a few weeks in boutique houses. This is a crying shame, because The Tunnel is a fantastic thriller, chronicling the plans of a group who had already escaped from East Germany to tunnel back in and retrieve their loved ones.

Though writer Johannes Betz and director Roland Richter are working from a true story, but they structure their film as a caper, or a heist picture - after an extended opening where Olympic swimmer Harry Melchoir (Heino Ferch) escapes to the West without his beloved sister, he and a group of others with loved ones on the other side rent a warehouse close to the new Berlin Wall, planning to tunnel 200 meters to a café on the other side while a cohort with a student visa spreads the word on when to be there. Of course, the east German police are trying just as hard to avoid that from happening, including recruiting friends as informants.

The events of The Tunnel are forty years in the past, but still resonate with the audience because they're not about the politics of the Cold War. Although Melchoir's politics are what cause him to flee, the movie is not about capitalism and communism; it's about uniting families that have been seperated by borders drawn in a thoroughly arbitrary fashion. Anybody can get behind that, no matter what their politics.

Of course, without the crisp execution, this would be a bloated but well-meaning mess. Richter introduces us to new characters naturally, and takes his time getty Melchoir out of the DDR. His initial escape is exciting, but it's just set-up; with more than two and a half hours to work with (like Das Boot, this was originally a two-part TV miniseries), he can afford to take his time, letting us get to know the cast, explaining the plan in detail, spending time with the people left behind, periodically reinforcing why you want to be on the west side of the wall, as opposed to the east. It's a slow, but constant, build-up of tension, the kind that gets the audience slowly inching forward in their seats until it's time to start getting people out, and the excitement of a good plan well-executed slowly turns to a potential disaster. The story never jerks the audience from one situation to another, but instead lets us savor the details, watching how exciting it is when things go right, and when they go wrong.

And this just came and went in a couple weeks. What a terrible pity.

The Shining

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 September 2005 at the Brattle Theater (The Complete Kubrick)

I would have loved to see what Stanley Kurbrick could have done with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, based on his version of The Shining. There's a palpable sense of menace from the first frames, with the notes of the soundtrack held far too long and the helicopter shots making Jack Nicholson's automobile look small and fragile amid the snowy, mountainous terrain. This is a guy who could take the concept of monsters so alien and grotesque that their sight drives men insane. It's a creepy, creepy movie.

Is it the ur-creepy movie it's often described as? Maybe, if I'd seen it earlier and hadn't seen it referenced and spoofed in a dozen other movies and TV shows. It also must be just about where Jack Nicholson went from being "Jack Nicholson, extremely talented actor" to "Jack Nicholson, guy who plays the same character over and over again". In 1980, it may not have been self-parody yet, but now? That's hardly fair, but horror movies are visceral things. Once you start detatching enough to overlook outside associations, it's tough to still be scared by them.

Lord of War

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2005 at National Amusements Circle Cinema #1 (First-run)

Andrew Niccol has five movies on his IMDB page, three as director. Given that the first two are Gattaca and The Truman Show, any new project of his gets my immediate attention. As great as some of movies have been, he's got... strong opinions. Both those movies had epilogues meant to hammer those opinions home cut at one point or another during production. Since Lord of War was made independently, it stayed in, and incongruously, too - the story is the rise and fall of private arms dealer Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage) is followed by noting that the world's largest arms dealer is the United States. Which is true and worth getting out there, but kind of serves to undercut the importance of what we'd just seen.

Which is unfortunate, becuase the stuff that comes before that is pretty darn good. Not as brilliant as his more imaginative stories, but a solid study of a relatable character with an unusual life. Orlov is seldom sympathetic, but his life sucks you in anyway, and it's filled with characters both colorful and sadly familiar. The narration is darkly funny, and Cage turns in a good performance in the lead.

The Baxter

* * (out of four)
Seen 22 September 2005 at Landmark Embassy #3 (first-run)

The conceit of The Baxter is, if not brilliant, at least clever: A romantic comedy told from the point of view of the Other Guy, to whom the (usually) female lead is engaged and who must be disposed of for the happy ending where the two we know are destined to be together. Sure, these characters are often villainous (Bradley Cooper in Wedding Crashers being the best recent example), but often they're just "not right for her". Sometimes they can be shuffled off relatively painlessly (think Parker Posey in You've Got Mail), but often they sadly exist for no other reason than to be an obstacle, which has got to be a pretty sad state to be in.

What's frustrating is that this is a concept that could have been Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, but winds up more or less becoming a standard romantic comedy. There's no bite to how writer/director/star Michael Showalter's character is pushed aside, and there's a thoroughly adorable Michelle Williams just waiting for him to lose his conventionally pretty blonde fiancée. And, of course, Williams's Cecil Mills has a boyfriend of her own (Paul Rudd). You can probably see the ironic ending coming a mile away. But, hey, there's some funny stuff in the margins, especially a scene-stealing Peter Dinklage as a wedding planner. I think this is also the first time I've really liked Michelle Williams in something; being a quirky brunette rather than a popular blonde seems to suit her.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Seeking pledges for the Brattle's Movie Watch-a-Thon

I have an article on eFilmCritic (and its sister site, Hollywood Bitch-Slap), about the Brattle theater's financial troubles and why we should all try to save it. Read it, talk on the forums, etc.

To that end, I've signed up for their "Movie Watch-a-thon" fundraiser. Basically, folks pledge a dollar (or so) for every movie I see at the Brattle from 11 November to 4 December (films at other theaters count as a half), and hopefully by the end the Brattle has a bunch of money to stay open.

Anyone who'd like to sponsor me in this, drop me an email; when the time comes, you can make your payment directly to the theater via this page: http://www.justgiving.com/pfp/JaySeaverBrattle.

Sadly, the samurai films I've been seeing there all week don't count toward the total, but I'm pretty sure I can make that up. Anyway, it's a good cause, so I hope to hear from at least some of you soon.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Lightning Round, Part I

I've signed up for the Brattle's Movie-Watch-a-Thon, so look at this first section of the big catch-up post of an indication of just how much money you can help raise for a good cause if you sponsor me. Say, $1 for every movie I see between 11 November and 4 December. It's watching movies for a good cause.

The Dark Hours

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2005 at Salle J.A. de Seve (Fantasia Press Screening)

I hate it when something set up as a mystery lies to me. And The Dark Hours is a "big lie" movie, where the last scene is meant to show what really happened during all those scenes where the movie had lied to you earlier.

Which is a bummer, because the cast is a nice group of unknowns, and the situation writer Wil Zmak creates is tense enough not to need a big revelation to basically tell you the previous hour-plus wasn't what you thought. Director Paul Fox coaxes good performances from the cast, and makes the action sudden and bloody enough to provide genuine shocks. It just seems like a shame to fritter them away like that.

Sabotage

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Summer Double Features)

Hitchcock is just always good. This specimin from 1936 gives us Sylvia Sidney as the wife of a movie theater owner who, unbeknownst to her, moonlights as a Nazi saboteur. Obviously, she's not going to believe it when a handsome young detective takes her into his confidence, but evidence mounts, and when he involves her young brother in his plans...

The screening at the HFA took place soon after this summer's London subway/bus bombings, so there was a little extra tension to this movies about attacks on the city. Hitchcock's skill is incredible, as he cranks up the tension several notches during the pivotal bus bombing scene. The story comes from a novel by Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent), and though the material was decades old, it is easily updated to reflect the then-present time (and could probably be shot today with few changes). But, why do so when there's a perfectly good Hitchcock version?

The Duellists

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2005 at the Harvard Film Archive (Summer Double Features)

The second half of the HFA's Joseph Conrad double bill is Ridley Scott's first feature, The Duellists. Like many of Scott's films, it is beautifully designed and shot but feels somewhat cold. It's not actually the case; there are strong passions running underneath the characters' formal exteriors. Keith Carradine actually becomes fascinating to watch after a while, as he becomes weary of the duels his character and Harvey Keitel's fight over a period of decades, despite feeling trapped by honor.

Keitel never quite rises to the same level; I didn't see why his character was doing this. It might have made for a better movie if there were a little more balance between the two characters. Instead, the film must be - and is - carried by the strong period look, the well-staged swordfights, and the epic scope of how this becomes a lifelong obsession.

Labyrinth

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Tribute to Jim Henson)

Labyrinth is a good film in spite of the many ways in which it is really, really awful. Jim Henson and company create some amazing environments and the puppetry used to bring characters to life is fantastic, but the script is obviously just the barest skeleton on which to hang whatever visual Henson and company can devise and create next, and I imagine anybody watching this would be hard-pressed to predict that Jennifer Connelly had an Oscar in her future. She's rather terrible, giving no indication that she's much more than a pretty face.

To a certain extent, I think Jim Henson was trying to make a movie out of a story that fundamentally wants to be a videogame, but not even the awesome graphic capabilities of the Amiga could keep up with Hensons' imagination back in 1986, and that wasn't his chosen medium, anyway. Fortunately, the film has David Bowie, who doesn't disappear into his character but instead embraces the very unbelievability of the whole production.

And it looks amazing. There are few greater pleasures than immersing oneself in a Jim Henson world for a little while.

The Dark Crystal

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Tribute to Jim Henson)

Of all Jim Henson's projects, this may be the most astounding in terms of sheer creativity and scope. It's a pure fantasy, with even the most human-appearing characters (the Gelflings) appearing rather alien. We're also on our own in terms of scale; these characters could be human-sized or the size of the puppets or something else entirely; we have to place ourselves entirely within their world rather than relying on comparisons with our own.

And that's what makes The Dark Crystal so extraordinary; not just that it creates this other world, but pulls us into it so easily into it. With just a little narration, we understand what is necessary for us to understand, and we see that the world is populated by wonders and monsters and other magical things. I worry about the Hensons' planned sequel, because I think a great deal of the appeal is discovering this new world, and I don't know if that can be replicated in a second film.

Elevator to the Gallows (Acenseur pour l'échafaud)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #3 (re-release)

A murder plot goes awry, trapping the killer in a building elevator, while his car is stolen by a kid looking for a joyride. This could make for a taut, nail-biting thriller, but director Louis Malle is French. Thus, the killer smokes a great many cigarettes, his lover and accomplice mopes around bars wondering why he didn't show up, and the car thieves bicker until they meet a nice older couple.

It's not all bad, of course: There's a score by Miles Davis, which is rare and exciting. The plot twists Come at a leisurely pace, but they do all come together, and there's charm to the characters, even the disreputable ones. The only disappointment comes from the end, where a noirish plot and atmosphere are tied up in too tidy a knot.

Broken Flowers

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2005 at Loews Harvard Square #1 (first-run)

With this movie, Bill Murray demonstrates the essential difference between "mailing it in" and "not challenging oneself". The performance is nothing to be ashamed of at all, but it's the same sort of character he's been playing in his more dramatic recent movies - an older guy feeling out of step with the rest of the world, commenting drily when he says anything at all. We've seen this, whether in Rushmore, Lost in Translation, or The Life Aquatic, and director Jim Jarmusch doesn't give us material that's as interesting as Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola's movies. The storyline is just a set-up for a group of odd encounters.

About the only person in a spiffy cast who doesn't seem wasted is Jeffrey Wright as Winston, a mystery-loving friend of Murray's character, who urges him to hit the road in order to find his potential son both out of concern for his friend and his own love of puzzles. His enthusiasm is infectious - and, frankly, more interesting - than Murray's road trip.

Wedding Crashers

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 August 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

You could probably remove ten minutes from Wedding Crashers without hurting it, but I can't tell you which minutes those would be. Maybe the ones with Will Ferrell. And the movie doesn't really get full use out of Christopher Walken. Still, it's hard to complain too much, because there is a lot of funny stuff going on; grab any random five minute segment and see if you don't laugh hard once or twice. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are very funny guys, given funny things to do, and it's fun because although their actions are kind of crass and mean-spirited, it's stuff we wish we had the guts to do. Weddings are a pain, and it's good to see at least someone getting something out of one.

And, hey, the ladies. Rachel McAdams is utterly perfect as the one who catches Wilson's eye; if she's got any flaws, they're tough to find, but she's not this untouchable ideal, either. Her character is beautiful and smart and kind, but not snotty at all. As her sister, Isla Fisher is just dotty, combining a childlike innocence and enthusiasm with aggressive sexuality. It's an unfortunate truth that women often get the short end of the stick in this sort of zany comedy, like the writers don't know how to make them funny without hitting some stereotype or making them unfeminine. Having both McAdams and Fisher is a big help; Adams's character is smart and grounded enough to deflect any complaints about the filmmakers treating women as nothing more than sex objects, while Fisher keeps the audience away from any impression that girls are no fun.

The movie also features fun bits turned in by Bradley Cooper and Jane Seymour, which is what I think marks it as one of the year's best comedies - it's not just the two guys with their names above the title making the audience laugh; this cast is five or six people deep even before you get to folks just there for one joke. Wedding Crashers has what sports fans call "depth".

November

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 August 2005 at Landmark Embassy #3 (first-run)

This is a bad movie, with uninvolving performances by James LeGros and Courtney Cox, and a plot that plays with time and destiny and potential divergent realities without having anything interesting to say about it.

But what sticks in my mind two years later is not just how bad it is, but how short. The running time is something like seventy-eight minutes, including some painfully elongated credits, as if the filmmaker figured that nothing under an hour and a half would be considered a real movie and was desperately trying to stretch to reach that. If you stay for the credits, this makes the November experience even more agonizing; they were so slow, that not only did I have a chance to read each name and title individually, but I was able to form anagrams for some.

The Great Raid

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2005 at AMC Fenway #7 (first-run)

I gather this was sitting in Miramax's vault for a couple years, finally released because apparently anything in those vaults that wasn't released by a certain would revert to the Weinsteins or would not profit them or something. Sadly, this has not made it any easier for me to see the Asterix movies or "Alien Love Triangle".

It deserves better than being hidden away; it's a solidly procedural war movie, respectful and (probably) accurate to the point of being somewhat dry. The folks who like history will probably be pleased, but folks who are not afficianados of military history in general and WWII specifically probably won't be as excited about approaches, meticulous planning, and impossible-to-meet schedules. It does have a rousing finale, though, which should have people leaving the theater on an upbeat note.

One thing that struck me as distracting: The men in the Japanese POW camp looked relatively healthy, and although I don't expect half the cast to pull what Christian Bale did for [i]The Machinist[/i] (and wouldn't want them too; that's unhealthy), opening the picture with actual footage of the Bataan death march just makes the characters look all the more vital.