Sunday, January 30, 2005

Busy week - Purple Butterfly, Hide & Seek, Ray, Monsieur N.

But, hey, at least my employers know that I've been working rather than writing movie reviews on the laptop, right?

So, anyway, seeing Ray doesn't change my Oscar hopes/predictions much; I think it's got a shot at Best Editing, but I don't know if it would bump anything else. I was worried before that Jamie Foxx would take some attention of Don Cheadle, and now I'm sure of it. Of course, the voters will probably just go Aviator-stupid anyway.

So, I'll keep it brief and leave the jokes in the Amazon links (if they don't make me money, they may as well amuse me, right?).

Purple Butterfly (Zi hudie)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 January 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

Yes, America, Zhang Ziyi does in fact do movies other than art-house martial arts flicks. Take, for instance, Purple Butterfly, the new film from Lou Ye (director of the well-regarded Shinzou River), which features no kung fu at all. It may not quite reach the heights of Shakespearean tragedy to which it aspires, but if it's a failure, it's an interesting, ambitious one.

The movie opens in 1928 Manchuria, where Ziying's Cynthia is a pigtailed student. There's some tension with her brother and his friends associates because of her Japanese boyfriend, Hidehiko Itami (Toru Nakamura); they publish a newsletter urging people to boycott Japanese goods. When Itami returns home, the ice thaws a bit, right before she witnesses her brother accosted by an angry Japanese man with a knife, as well as something worse.

Read the rest at HBS.

Hide and Seek

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 January 2005 at Loews Boston Common #14 (sneak preview)

Are they serious? All that hype about shipping the last reel seperately and numbering them so that they could track down where any leaks of the film's ending came from, the frisking we had to go through to make sure none of us had camera phones... For this ending?

Hide and Seek doesn't quite suck enough to displace White Noise as the worst movie of the young year - it's not quite so aggressively stupid - but it's pretty awful. It does the one thing that is unforgivable in a thriller - the thing which earns a negative mark from me on principle, meaning that even if the plot weren't full of holes and a talented cast didn't all manage to simultaneously give some of the worst performances of their careers, I'd still have walked out of the theater angry: It lies to its audience.

Read the rest at HBS.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2005 at Somerville Theatre #2 (second-run) (Oscar catch-up)

Ray doesn't quite avoid the pitfall that destroys most biopics; it's quite willing to reduce a complicated life to a simple theme. In this case, that theme is Ray Charles's mother told him not to let anything make him a cripple, but he eventually had to overcome heroin addiction in order to make good on that. It's still an enjoyable movie, though, because around the life lesson we're expected to extract from the subject's life, there's a bunch of little details.

Little things like name-dropping Tom Dowd. Only a small group of music experts and what meager group of us saw Tom Dowd and the Language of Music would likely notice if they got the name of Atlantic's recording engineer wrong, but they get it right. Would that more movies realized that paying attention to details has no downside, and the upside that the people in the audience who care about these details look upon the movie more favorably.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monsieur N.

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 January 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-opener) (projected video)

Yep, you know it's January when not just the major studios, but the smaller indie distributors are dumping their less-than-stellar works, in hopes of getting some business from the people who saw everything in December and maybe, just maybe, a favorable blurb to put on the DVD cover a couple months down the road. The latter, at least, they will not be getting here.

Napoleon Bonaparte is a figure whose stature very soon became bigger than mere history and entered the realm of the mythological. As Ivy Moylun, the leader of our post-film discussion at the Brattle Theater's Sunday Eye-Opener series pointed out, he's rather like Elvis Presley in America, in that many preferred to invent a more fitting last act to their lives than what they had; a man whose armies marched from the Atlantic to Moscow deserves not to die in ignominious exile. Even if they don't have a grand finale, surely there should be one final, lost adventure, akin to Bruce Campbell as Elvis in Bubba Ho-Tep. Sadly, Monsieur N is no Bubba Ho-Tep.

(And though that comparison is nerdy enough to be mine, it's Ivy's. Credit/blame where it's due.)

Read the rest at HBS.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

REVIEW: Blackmail

(No entry on HBS for Blackmail yet, so the whole thing will be posted here)

* * * ½ (out of four) (silent version)
Seen 22 January 2005 at Somerville Theater #1 (CRASHarts presents the Alloy Orcestra)

Alfred Hitchcock is known best as "the Master of Suspense", and justifiably so. That title doesn't capture the totality of his genius, of course. For example, he also was adept at handling new technology - this picture was originally shot as a silent, with parts later re-shot for sound. But perhaps the thing that best defines Hitchcock aside from his work as a director of thrillers is his skill at black, mordant comedy.

Blackmail isn't really a comedy, but it benefits from Hitchcock's skills in that area. It's a fairly simple, straightforward story, but it demonstrates that the skills which would make Hitchcock arguably the twentieth century's greatest filmmaker were present and refined from the very beginning.

As the movie opens, we meet Alice White (Anny Ondra) and Frank Webber (John Longden), a young couple who have been dating for a while. Webber is a dedicated detective at Scotland Yard; Alice's parents own a newsstand in Chelsea. Work makes Frank late for the night's date, which gets Alice snippy; at the restaurant, she catches the eye of an artist. They return to his studio, he attempts to have his way with her, and she kills him in self-defense. When Webber is sent to investigate the next morning, he finds her glove. Fortunately, there are witness reports of a prowler, and the artist had an appointment with a man with a criminal record... who later shows up at the Whites' newsstand with extortion on his mind.

It's not surprising that this movie later became a talkie; even in this original, silent version, the performances are relatively low-key, not as full of the histrionics and theatricality that often characterized silents. Ms. Ondra makes Alice more than a bit of a brat, initially, but is convincingly frightened and guilty later on. Longden is kind of stiff as Webber; we're led to believe he's an extremely dedicated police officer, but never seems terribly conflicted about his desire to cover Alice's involvement up. Donald Calthrop is delightfully unctuous as Tracy, the petty crook attempting to blackmail the couple, and Cyril Ritchard is quite good as the artist, smoothly moving from charm to malevolence. Hitchcock has an amusing cameo as a man on the subway being pestered by an unruly child.

The story, adapted by Hitchcock from a play by Charles Bennett, is told in a straightforward, linear fashion, but is, at its heart, delightfully perverse: It encourages the audience to cheer for a police officer attempting to frame an innocent man for the murder his girlfriend committed. Certainly, we are told that Tracy has a long criminal record, and has perhaps escaped justice for previous crimes, and there can be little doubt that Alice acted in self-defense, but still, one can't help but ask oneself if the deception was really necessary, if perhaps this could all have been avoided by simply telling the truth from the get-go. It's a tribute to the movie that this doesn't feel like an idiot plot, but instead the believable actions of young people trying to avoid a scandal. (Then again, that's me in 2005 saying this. In 1928, a young woman in the apartment of someone other than her boyfriend might be viewed as getting what's coming to her; "no means no" wasn't nearly as pervsive an attitude as it is now.)

Hitchcock's direction is rock-solid, even so early in his career. He manipulates mood perfectly, bringing us from one extreme to the other with lightning dispatch without it ever feeling jarring. Take, for instance, Alice in the artist's apartment. The mood is initially playful, but evolves into violence rather quickly. Hitchcock is able to imply a great deal of brutality even as the actual assault happens behind a curtain. It's one of three well-done set pieces Hitchcock gives us in under an hour and a half; the others involve Webber: Closing in on a criminal whose mirror provides him a view of the approaching policemen, and chasing Tracy through the British Museum.

It's not just the action that is well-done, though - the scenes in the restaurant are blessed with almost perfect comic timing, broken up only by the need for intertitles, and the post-chase sequence is darkly funny, loaded with double and triple meanings. And though the later addition of sound is the movie's most well-known technical innovation, there is one scene in a stairwell, following Alice and the artist in a continuous side-view as they climb the stairs, that is remarkably distinctive. The vertical motion is unusual, and this one scene must have required the construction of a tall set along with a sort of elevator apparatus so that the camera could follow the actors. It's a reminder that Hitchcock could have been an engineer as well as an artist if he hadn't broken into the movie business.

The film's history is a little fuzzy; before introducing the Alloy Orchestra, the host claimed that Blackmail was released as a silent in 1928 before being partially reshot and expanded to include sound, although I couldn't find any other evidence of this initial silent release. Still, silent prints were made, and it is that cut that the Alloy Orchestra accompanied. Their score is, as always, highly enjoyable - it's a subtler, less percussive score than some of the others I've seen them perform (I'm thinking of The General and The Black Pirate here), but it works for the movie. They're creating the movie's entire soundtrack, so in addition to a straight score and obvious sound effects like a ringing bell, they also have to creat the illusion of ambient noise. It winds up working remarkably well, and it's something not many other groups do so well (or even at all).

I've got one of those quasi-legal Laserlight DVDs of the sound version of Blackmail on my shelf, though it's got a few other movies stacked up in front of it. It'll be interesting to compare it to this version sometime; at least I know it'll be good.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

So, the Oscar nominees have been announced - what does that mean to ME?

A quick handicapping of this morning's announcements (which happened while I was trying to get the supermarket to take a personal check because Citizens Bank's ATM ate my card last week and their claims that "I could pick it up the next day" and "we'll express you a new one right away" were, apparently, lies):

Best Actor
I've seen all except Ray; if I had a vote, it would be for Don Cheadle. They're all good performances, although I personally wish there was a place for Jim Carrey here. It can be for Eternal Sunshine, or someone could go out on a limb and say, yes, A Series of Unfortunate Events was a hilarious movie because Jim Carrey was painfully funny. So was Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic.

Best Supporting Actor
Seen all but Closer; I'd vote for Thomas Haden Church, which astounds me. He's Lowell from Wings, for crying out loud. Jamie Foxx is a lead, Alan Alda was hamming it up as much as anyone in The Aviator, and Freeman was pretty good.

Best Actress
I haven't seen either Being Julia or Vera Drake, and I suspect the latter might be this year's Chicago for me - the one I see because it's up for awards, but have no enthusiasm for and thus dislike more than I should. All three reamining actresses were great; I'm pulling for Ms. Moreno right now.

Best Supporting Actress
Even if I see Kinsey and Closer, I can't see anyone being better than Virginia Madsen. She got one of the year's best roles and ran with it. Kind of surprised there's no place for Téa Leoni here, unless the rest of the actors couldn't get past her being Téa Leoni.

Best Animated Feature
Uh, it's The Incredibles. It's not even close. It's a sign of the weakness of the category that Shark Take is even in the picture - I'd replace it with Ghost In The Shell 2 or even Kaena: The Prophecy, but I wouldn't vote for either of them.

Best Art Direction
For all it's many, many, many, many faults, The Aviator was beautiful. I wasn't terribly impressed with with the look of A Series of Unfortunate Events (hey, it's another movie that wants to look like Dark City, only this time for kids!), and there is no way I go to see Phantom of the Opera. Really, the academy shouldn't be encouraging Joel Schumacher like this. Finding Neverland is pretty, though. I will talk more about the most glaring omission under "Visual Effects".

Another note: I'd love to see an animated film get nominated here sometime. There's more creativity in the design work for something like The Incredibles or even Shark Tale than in most live-action features, but I imagine they'll never be nominated because the people involved aren't in the same guild.

Best Cinematography
Haven't seen The Passion or The Phatnom. The other three all impressed me in different ways; my gut says I want House of Flying Daggers to win because I enjoyed the movie the most.

Best Costume Design
Haven't seen Ray or Troy. Both The Aviator and Neverland looked spiffy, but it's also "just" photo-referenceable period dress. On the other hand, Unfortunate Events's costumes were creative but off-putting. I'll have to see the others.

Best Director
Still need to see Ray and Vera Drake. For right now, I'm pulling for Clint - The Aviator was a mess, and Sideways, while quite good, isn't quite as accomplished a job as Million Dollar Baby.

Although, pardon me while I fly my geek flag, but... Sam Raimi. If he can be nominated for A Simple Plan, why not for something just as good (if not better) and even more technically demanding? It's as if the voters assume that all the decisions involving visual effects really are handled by a computer, and the people involved just do what the computer tells them. I know it make me sound like an incredible fanboy to say that Sam Raimi deserves Martin Scorcese's nomination, but what did Scorcese do with The Aviator that Raimi didn't do better making Spider-Man 2?

Best Documentary Feature/Short Subject
Haven't seen any of 'em, not even Super Size Me (documentarians pointing the camera at themselves a la Michael Moore doesn't strike me as a positive trend at all). These categories are usually decided by subject matter, anyway... Which makes me wonder why Control Room wasn't nominated.

Best Film Editing
It's tough to notice when this is good, unless it's done in a way that is wholly unique, like The Hulk or Pulp Fiction. Or, you know, Kill Bill Volume 2. I'd go with Collateral, because thrillers have to do more with their editing - they have to crank up suspense and establish geography better than non-genre films.

Best Foreign Language Film
Haven't seen any of these. Now that a significant number of foreign movies are getting released in the US, the special voting rules need to go. I'll basically be rooting against The Sea Inside, just because I strongly disagree with its premise in principle.

Best Makeup
I've only seen A Series of Unfortunate Events. Yeah, they did good.

Best Musical Score
I haven't seen The Passion, but more importantly... Where the hell is The Incredibles? They can't seriously have nominated John Williams repeating themes and reverting to predictability after his last couple of nifty Spielberg scores over The Incredibles, could they?

Best Original Song
Okay, I've only seen Shrek 2, and wasn't impressed with that song. And I've made my peace with "The Montage Song" from Team America being ineligible. But there were other great songs in that movie, too. Wusses.

Best Short Film, Animated/Live Action
Goose eggs here, too. And it looks like the Coolidge's "We've got Oscar's Shorts" program is a no-show this year. Dangit.

Best Sound Editing/Mixing
Haven't seen The Polar Express or Ray, and I've got a completely useless "ear".

Best Visual Effects
This list can't be right, you see, because Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow isn't on it. Seriously, guys - does anyone remember anything exceptionally cool in Harry Potter? No, not really. Spidey 2 was nice and well-integrated, and well-worthy of a nomination. The Will Smith Robot Movie was okay, but it did nothing that Sky Captain didn't do a thousand times over.

That Sky Captain has managed to more or less come and go without being huge astounds me. It's a fun movie, with love and attention to detail painstakingly applied to every frame. It's the next huge leap forward, just as The Phantom Menace was five years earlier, and the lack of love for it is similarly galling. The only explanation is that the Academy thinks of it as an animated picture that live-action characters have been inserted into, and in that case, it should definitely be displacing Shark Tale.

Also - The Life Aquatic. Pretty darn seemless for its style, and among the year's most beautiful. What's this award supposed to celebrate if neither Sky Captain nor The Life Aquatic gets nominated - not innovation, not creativity, not just being outstanding. What?

Best Adapted Screenplay
These are trick categories, because few of the voters have actually read the screenplay, and just see the finished product which has had scenes rearranged in the editing room, been improvised over, etc. Of what I've seen, I'd give the nod to Finding Neverland. I'm also very skeptical about Before Sunset belonging here - where, I ask, was the story it was based on previously published, produced, or performed?

Best Original Screenplay
Okay, maybe I dislike The Aviator more than most, but that's just not a good movie... My first, second, and third thoughts are that if something other than Eternal Sunshine wins, there should be an investigation.

What I need to do
Well, obviously, seeing Ray is at the top of the list; I'll probably hit the Somerville sometime this week even though it comes out on DVD next Tuesday.

There are four movies with three nominations that I haven't seen. I've been intending to see The Polar Express just for the "pretty 3-D" aspect, although I'm not sure if the Aquarium will have it past Thursday since James Cameron's new IMAX 3-D picture actually has something to do with marine life. Vera Drake is a maybe; I just haven't been able to muster any enthusiasm. Both The Phantom of the Opera and The Passion of the Christ are in the "hell, no" category for different reasons - I had enough of Phantom when my brother Dan and I shared a room back in Junior High, and religion and me just don't mix.

There are two movies with two nominations that I haven't seen. Both Closer and The Motorcycle Diaries have looked good, but haven't drawn me in.

Of the singles, I'm most likely to see Kinsey and Being Julia. I'm hoping that there's an opportunity to see the shorts and documentaries - there have been in previous years (Coolidge's program and a set of screenings that hopped from the Coolidge to Harvard to who knows where for the docs).

Of the stuff that is not nominated... Well, you've got to figure Bad Education won't be hanging around much longer now.

So, guess I've got some movies to see if I want to complain with authority.

Monday, January 24, 2005

When have you really seen a movie: Dark Journey and Nothing Sacred

Topic for discussion, as I horrify my little brother in the IM window with tales of what life was like before DVD: When does it count that you've seen a movie?

As I mention below, for some unknown reason, WGBH aired Nothing Sacred in black and white. I can't think of why, honestly; I suppose I can imagine some B&W prints being struck of a Technicolor film because studios are as cheap as any business, and I didn't see a Turner logo after this one like will occasionally happen with old films on GBH/GBX, so I imagine it's some old print the station picked up.

But, anyway, it begs the question - this is a color film, so can I really say I've seen it if I've only seen it in B&W? What about seeing a widescreen film in crop-o-vision, or a non-English film dubbed? How about seeing it on network TV?

And even if I can say I've seen it, with caveats, do I really have any business reviewing it? I'm missing a crucial component, and even if I say flat-out that the movie was messed with before I saw it, is my review useful?

Dunno. Anyway, on to the reviews:

Dark Journey

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2005 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

Spy stories are a little like time travel stories in that if they aren't a little confusing, they're either not doing their job right or are highly simplified. Espionage is a complicated game whose best players specific skill is in not letting the other teams know which side their on or even that they're anything other than spectators. It's especially tough when a present-day audience is watching a movie made in 1937 which takes place in 1918.

One of the reasons that [i]Dark Journey[/i] becomes more confusing than it truly needs to be is because, despite taking place in Stockholm and featuring British, Swiss, French, German, Swedish, and Dutch characters, everyone in the cast except Conrad Veidt is from the UK and pretty much retains their English accents. And while in many cases that's praiseworthy - no serious movie wants to be laid low by silly-sounding accents - here, it doesn't work. There's no way to tell that Madeline Godard, the proprietrix of a dress shop who uses her business trips to Paris to smuggle information to British Intelligence, is anything but English until we're told she's Swiss.

Read the rest at HBS

Nothing Sacred

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2005 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH - shown in black & white)

What is the minimum standard of reproductive faithfulness that should be met when you see (and, especially, review) a movie? I ask this because when Nothing Sacred was recently used as late-night filler on a Boston public TV station, it was in black-and-white, despite the prominent credits for Technicolor. Even in monochrome, it's still an eminently watchable, funny screwball comedy. I can certainly recommend it on that count, but that raises the question as to whether the movie I'm recommending is the movie you'd be seeing.

The story comes through clear enough - after his most recent story as exposed as a fake, journalist Wally Cook (Fredric March) seeks to rehabilitate his career with a story on a woman in Vermont dying of radium poisoning. Just as he arrives, though, Miss Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard) learns that her diagnosis was, in fact, a mistake, and she's in perfect health. But when the newsman offers to take her to New York City, she plays along, as does her doctor, who has his own grudge against this newspaper. But when New York pours its heart out to her, Hazel starts to feel a little guilty, while Wally starts to feel a little smitten.

Read the rest at HBS

Friday, January 21, 2005

Anyone speak Taiwanese?

I'm not terribly upset that some website in Taiwan decided to reprint my revew of Vanity Fair (here, for now), since it's not like I'm getting paid anyway, but you'd think they'd have the good manners to ask.

So, did they at least print it in its entirety? It looks like I'm only credited as "Jay", so if any of the people responsible for the pilfery are reading this - it's "Jason Seaver".

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Sky Blue, and a discussion starter

Arg. I wanted to hit the Brattle to see Peau d'Ane tonight, but despite giving Ivy cash for a new membership on Sunday, it hasn't arrived yet. I'd bite the bullet and spend the $9, but Monday night, the ATM swallowed my card. The bank couldn't give it back to me the next morning, since even though the machine is actually part of the bank, it's handled by an outside contractor, so it would have been destroyed in the morning. Still haven't gotten a new one, so I've got $2 in my pocket until it comes, or I can cash a check on Saturday. Annoying.

I hope like heck it doesn't prevent me from getting a ticket to The Alloy Orchestra accompanying Blackmail on Saturday. If it is sold out... I'll trade anyone with a ticket a pass for SF/30 ($40-45 value) straight up.

Anyway, I wrote in my review of Sky Blue (below) that certain factors increase the probability and extent American distributors will mess with a foreign movie. Feel free to use the comments section to suggest what those factors may be.

Sky Blue (aka Wonderful Days)

* * ½ (out of four) (English-dubbed version)
Seen 19 January 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (first-run)

As Japanese animation became more prominent in American pop-culture during the nineties, people stopped making jokes about it, but the jokes didn't go away; they instead began referring to Korean production houses. The logical next step would be for Korea to start producing some impressive work, becoming the new Japan and deflecting all the jokes onto some other country (the Philippenes, perhaps). Sky Blue was a major undertaking for everyone involved, and it's an admirable effort, but if this is the Korean animation's big showcase piece, then they're not ready to be the new Japan yet.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Biographies of crazy people: The Aviator and In the Realms of the Unreal

A few brief notes: I have to go to more movies, in particular more bad movies, with my brother, because I love the "conversation with Matt" format. Aside from it being easy, since I basically have to transcribe it after he does half the talking, it's distinctive and often funny. I think The Matrix Revolutions is still my favorite review.

For what it's worth, that which you see in the header below is about all we said; I go on to hammer at the movie on my own for a while at HBS. But I'd like to do more, so, Matt, as soon as you've got a spare moment with your play being finished and such, let's rent Catwoman or something.

As to the other movie, In the Realms of the Unreal is downright fascinating. Ivy made a comment about Darger's rich internal life compared to his almost non-existant external life reminding her of some of the Brattle's patrons. I don't think she was looking at me when she said it, but hey... Got me thinking about my relationship with the protagonist of my other, fictional blog, Transplanted Life. If you haven't read it, take some time to surf on over later. The chronological "backstory" links are current until July '04 (honest, I intend to update the rest soon).

Anyway, the protagonist of that blog is a guy who, for reasons initially unknown to him, wakes up in a woman's body and living her life. It's a daily blog, with a lot of sci-fi and soap opera elements and occasionally "journal" entries thrown in, with my opinions on pop culture and politics coming in pretty much unfiltered. It does speak to the seductiveness of this kind of internal world, though - I can create a group of friends, girlfriends/boyfriends, excitement... But I also kind of feel it intruding onto my real life. I'll do stuff and think about what Marti's take on it is just as fast as my own. Part of the reason why I cut down to roughly every other day rather than every day. Gotta reclaim some of my own life.

The Aviator

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2005 at AMC Fenway #9 (first-run)

Brief snippet of conversation my brother Matt and I had as "A Martin Scorcese Film" appeared on the screen:

"Well, he was one crazy m-f-er."

"Howard Hughes or Martin Scorcese?"


Read the rest at HBS.

In the Realms of the Unreal

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 January 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Art has many sources, and many kinds of sources. There are the other artists who serve as influences, there are the events in one's life that change his world view, and there are the intrinsic, often inborn, qualities of one's personality. Jessica Yu's documentary on Henry Darger shows this in an intelligent, elegant manner.

Read the rest at HBS

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Ocean's 12 and Spanglish

Finally finished up with the reviews of Sunday's movies, but I don't have much of an intro - I'm still trying to figure out what I'm supposed to do in this "The Conversation" thing that the cinetrix seems to think I should contribute to.

Which I will, eventually. After I've gotten my HBS reviews done, and actually updated Transplanted Life, and maybe actually watched another movie or two (I missed a sneak of The Assassination of Richard Nixon last night, but I'll be damned if I miss Sky Blue Wonderful Days this weekend).

I will say I'm kind of surprised how much I enjoyed Spanglish, though. The family and friends who likely form most of this blog's readership know my opinion of Adam Sandler, and I was pretty sure that a PG-13 American movie wouldn't feature nearly as much of Paz Vega as her Spanish movies do, if you catch my drift. But, then I remembered it's an immigrant movie, and I love the heck out of those.

Okay... On with the reviewing:

Ocean's Twelve

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2005 at Loews Boston Common #7 (first-run)

It's almost pointless to try and dissect Ocean's Twelve, because contradiction is inevitable. It's overstuffed, with too many characters and plot points and goofy cameos, but at the same time, it's one of the most fluffy, airy movies you'll ever see. It's loose and silly but never quite carefree. It's one of the most cleverly self-aware movies you'll ever see, but doesn't quite make that pay off as much as it perhaps should.

Read the rest at HBS


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2005 at AMC Fenway #8 (first-run)

A little over year ago, Jason Whyte and I were chatting on Instant Messager about the worst movies of 2003. I arrived at Anger Management pretty quickly, but was puzzled by the number of otherwise respected actors who has supporting or cameo roles in that typical Adam Sandler turd. Either Hollywood is even more cynical and opportunistic than I had previously believed, or he's one of the nicest people in the world and people just like working with him. My fellow Jason said he was pretty sure it was the latter. "Well, for crying out loud," I said, "can't he be nice to writers, too?"

Read the rest at HBS

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Oscar contenders - Hotel Rwanda and Million Dollar Baby

I must say, I heartily approve of the whole "Oscars in late February thing". It seems like relatively few movies are straddling the years on a platform release, and even the ones that do are making it to Boston fast. Resulting in good moviegoing experiences like today, although that just includes the time actually in theaters. Otherwise - sleet. Ugh. We've had snow, wind, slush, and sleet this week. My "bad weather bingo" card is a winner with either hail or freezing rain.

One thing I can't help but notice is how quiet Miramax is this year. The only year-end Oscar contender coming from them seems to be Finding Neverland, and even that doesn't seem to be getting a hard push. I'm not sure whether that's because of the department's budget allgedly being cut, or people simply choosing not to deal with the Weinsteins when options such as Fox Searchlight, Focus, Paramount Classics, United Artists, Warner Independent, Sony Pictures Classics, and Lion's Gate are available. Have they completely burned their bridges with talent or is this just a fluke thing?

Hotel Rwanda

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 8 January 2005 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

There can be no denying that Paul Rusesabagina, as played by Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, is a hero. Some may dismiss the movie's worthiness based on that. I've had many conversations with people who say that heroes are boring characters, that strength isn't as interesting as weakness. They say, give me a protagonist seeking redemption for some past misdeed, or one with a dark side in opposition to their heroics, and that's an interesting character.

Read the rest at HBS.

Million Dollar Baby

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 January 2005 at Loews Boston Common #14 (first-run)

I don't like Million Dollar Baby's subject matter. Others may find some sort of romance or nobility in a generally corrupt sport that involves little more than pummelling ones opponent until he or she can't get back up, but I cannot. I recognize the skill and dedication, but can't help but think it could be better applied elsewhere. Despite all that, Million Dollar Baby is an excellent movie.

Read the rest at HBS

Friday, January 07, 2005

Michael Keaton in White Noise and something even scarier

I honestly don't remember signing up on the Boston Phoenix's movie preview page for passes to White Noise. The "free movie" thing is almost a reflex with me, so I don't doubt that I did it. It did lead to some IMDB surfing while chatting with my brother (and, you know, working) that pointed out interesting information.

First, we couldn't quite figure out how Keaton's career sunk to the point where he was doing crappy "supernatural thrillers" that get dumped the first week of January. One minute, he's Batman, then he's doing Shakespeare, and then he's in a series of good movies that catch a bad break or something (for example, the very funny Multiplicity opened the week that the 1996 Summer Olympics started. I was working in a theater, and that killed The Frighteners, too. Then, I guess, Jack Frost nuked it.

Second, he's been talking about wanting to return to Beetlejuice. Not that I think that's a good idea, but if ever there was a cast that needed and deserved a career-boosting sequel, it's Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, and Winona Ryder. (This also leads to the reminder that Ms. Davis is just five years younger than our mom. We shall debate whether finding her or Audrey Hepburn attractive is freakier later)

Third, though, we see that his next movie is something called Game 6, about a playwright skipping a premiere to watch the sixth game of the 1986 World Series.

Someone made a movie about watching That Game. And since it's premiering at Sundance, they must have made it before the joyous events of October 2004. What sort of mean-spirited, sadistic sons of bitches would do that? Aside from New Yorkers, that is.

It's just another reason to be glad the Red Sox won the World Series. Otherwise, I still would have gone to see it, and the inevitable shot of Mookie Wilson poking a ground ball through Bill Buckner blown up larger-than-life would have just been immense, raw pain. Now, it'll just be remembered sadness.

But, that's not what I saw Tuesday night. I saw...

White Noise

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 January 2005 at Loews Boston Common #16 (preview)

When a movie starts with by quoting Thomas Edison, the audience can be forgiven for expecting a certain sort of rationality. Eidson, as a billboard near my apartment reminds me, founded the respected academic journal Science, and contributed enormously to science and engineering. I suspect the quote, about a machine that allows the dead to communicate with the living, referenced the phonograph rather than the radio.

Read the rest at HBS.

(Ironically, the writer of Game 6 wrote a book named White Noise which is supposedly in production with Barry Sonnenfeld directing. I doubt it will see the light of day now, at least under that name)

Monday, January 03, 2005

Family Film Trailers, A Very Long Engagement, and A Series of Unfortunate Events

So, I was reading the reviewers' board on Hollywood Bitch-Slap, and I saw that apparently we're not supposed to be posting our reviews elsewhere. Oops. So, I'm going to change the format up a little, and start using this for more blog-like comments and non-review things, while putting the links to new reviews (along with the four-star rating and when/where info) at the bottom. Felt weird not typing "Jay's Movie Blog" when entering the link into the IMDB, though, and I wonder if I'll hit that 100 number on the counter again.

In the last two days, I've seen two PG-rated movies, which means I got myself a decent overview on what the studios are marketing toward kids in 2005. I've always tended to like family movies (it takes more skill to make a really good movie with swearing, gore, and sex taken out of the toolbox, leading to more all-around effort), but this looks like sort of a mixed bag.

In front of Finding Neverland:

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith - Still not thrilled by the name - it doesn't quite jump off a pulp cover when you stick a bang on the end the way "Attack of the Clones" does - but whatever faults you may find with Lucas's last few movies... The guy can cut a heck of a trailer, can't he?

Pooh's Heffalump Movie - Looks fine for kids up to eight, I guess. It's disappointing to see Disney shut down Feature Animation in favor of an all-CGI approach and then try to fill a gap on the schedule (February Vacation) by blowing something designed for TV up so that it doesn't look good at all.

Because of Winn-Dixie - What the heck is going on with Wayne Wang? Lots of arty, boutique movies, and then stuff like Maid In Manhattan and this? Does he have a kid who just turned five, is he salting money away for something else? What makes a man's career just change completely overnight? I was really blown away when the trailer seemed to say "written by John Singleton", but, no, it's Joan Singleton, not the guy who did Boyz In Tha Hood.

As to the movie itself... Looks like a cutish "magic dog" movie that's trying too hard. The CGI to make the dog smile is kind of creepy-looking, and cutting the trailer as about ten consecutive "something amazing happens near the dog, complete with chime noises to indicate magic" probably makes it look much worse than it is. I hope those chimes aren't in the movie.

Racing Stripes - What Babe hath wrought. Fifteen years ago, this is a movie about a girl, her zebra, and her dad, and it's cute and sweet and sort of disposable. Now, there's a baker's dozen of celebrity voices coming out of the animals, telling jokes aimed at the adults in the audience, and sort of distracting from a simple kids' story. I think it's good for kids to use their imaginations to decipher what the animals think in stories like these, making this look eminently disposable.

In Front of A Series of Unfortunate Events:

War of the Worlds - Probably won't get a PG, but DreamWorks/Paramount has to attach something. Looks great, though. There will be an eventual entry on why it seems like a waste for Spielberg to do something other than sci-fi.

Ice Princess - Anyone else find it weird for Michelle Trachtenberg to be doing a tween-oriented Disney movie after flashing passing cars in Eurotrip? Okay, maybe that's just me.

Madagascar - This looks like it could be a huge mess. However, it does have a couple things going for it - director Eric Darnell worked on DreamWorks's best animated feature, Antz, for one... And psychotic penguins. Penguins are just hilarious in general, and the character animation on those guys is perfect.

Robots - Zowie. I mean, I love robots anyway, it's by the same team of directors that did the highly enjoyable Ice Age, and it brings the pretty. It's got zany Robin Williams, Ewan McGregor a a likable everybot, and looks very willing to build its own crazy world. Some adult without imagination will probably gripe about it not having much of a story, but, geez, look at it!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - I'd been feeling kind of down about this movie, actually, because it was one of my favorite books as a kid, and not seeing Scott Frank's name on the poster (after all he'd talked about doing a faithful adaptation of Charlie being a labor of love) was disappointing, especially John August's track record is spotty at best (kind of downhill after Go), and Tim Burton has had a pretty hit-and-miss decade. But, the trailer is colorful and joyous, Burton always works well with Johnny Depp, and Depp brought the great kid from Finding Neverland with him. Fairly optimistic here.

The Pink Panther - Hmm; never really thought of these as kids' movies, although that seems to be the direction MGM's going here. Steve Martin had a hand in the screenplay, so that's good, and it looks like a somewhat brighter, more kid-friendly movie than the Edwards series. And a pretty nice cast. I don't really mind that; if you're going to do a new Panther series, you might as well do it differently. Maybe a little more ham-fisted than the original, but OK.

So, what's it all mean? Not sure; there's some good movies coming, but I get the impression that people making these movies are only seeing the huge hits that cross over to adult audiences, or don't know how to just make a smart, simple kids' movie anymore. But then, those sort of sneak up on you, anyway.

The New Reviews:

A Very Long Engagement (Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles)

* * (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2005 at Loews Harvard Square #3 (first-run)

I think I have the same ill-founded hatred for Audrey Tautou that regular film snobs have for the likes of Tom Cruise. I know it's pretty irrational, especially since we probably only get to see a fraction of her work in the US. But, on the other hand, if you consider that what foreign films we do get are generally top-tier... Anyway, all the complaints that people seem to throw at American stars seem to hold for her. Always playing the same sort of role, and not necessarily very well. And yet, people seem to go for it.

... and read the rest at HBS.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2005 at AMC Fenway #7 (first-run)

Adapting Daniel Handler's "Unfortunate Events" books (written under the pen name "Lemony Snicket"), at least initially, presents rather the opposite problem that adapting the Harry Potter novels does - they are slim volumes with large text and page counts that are padded by illustration. The writing style is elliptical, filled with the types of digressions and exposition that fall away naturally when translated to a screenplay.

... read the rest at HBS.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Finding Neverland

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2005 at AMC Fenway #2 (first-run)

A couple seats down, a child was laughing. A few rows back, a woman was sobbing like I can't remember hearing at a movie in recent memory. Yeah, I figured, that's about right.

This is, after all, a movie about a man who, at least this once, was able to see the world as a child sees it, and created a story that could bridge the gap between adults and children. It would be easy to say that playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) is the real Peter Pan, and not entirely inaccurate. That description sells Barrie short, though, as he is an adult who tries to act responsibly but makes mistakes. He does share the character's confidence.

Finding Neverland, as you may deduce, tracks the creation of Peter Pan, the play. As the film opens, we see his most recent creation, Little Mary, open disastrously (note that Barrie's wife is also named Mary; this is obvious but clever foreshadowing). However, the producer (Dustin Hoffman) has booked the theater and contracted the cast for an extended run, so when the Little Mary closes quickly, he needs a new play. As Barrie attempts to write one while walking his dog in the park, he meets the four Llewelyn-Davies children and their mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet). He's particularly concerned with Peter, an eight-year-old who has had the joy of childhood stolen from him by his father's recent death.

It is difficult to make a film about the creative process; in my experience, "the creative process" has two steps, neither terribly interesting to watch: First, you grab a pencil/keyboard/instrument and exercise your will; after that comes revision. The film gets around it by having Barrie play with the children and thus improvising his ideas. Through this process, we can see the elements that will become part of Peter Pan emerge - the pirates, the Indians, the children taking flight out a window, the concept of "lost boys". It is a great relief that writers Allan Knee (the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan) and David Magee (screenplay) never succumb to the cutesy ploy of having one of the children actually generate what is credited to Barrie; they merely serve as muses, children for him to observe and interact with. Their games are richly and fantastically detailed, all detailed but unrealistic stage costumes and wooden scenery - until some comment by Peter jolts them back to reality.

The cast is top-notch. Depp turns in yet another fine performance, not only managing a Scottish accent that sounds pretty good to my ears (said ears, admittedly, have never actually been to Scotland), but also capturing the whimsy and innocence that makes him believably not a threat to the children. It's especially impressive because director Marc Forster does give us brief glimpses of Barrie as something other than asexual, sharing moments with his wife that indicate that yes, there was physical attraction and passion there at one point, though they now sleep in separate bedrooms. Many of Depp's best scenes come opposite Freddie Highmore, the young actor playing Peter Llewelyn-Davies. Highmore gives a great performance, projecting more sadness and anger than should be able to come out of one so small. I was impressed by him in Five Children and It, and I see that Depp persuaded Tim Burton to cast him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's title role. At only twelve years old, he is staring to build an impressive career.

Speaking of an impressive career, Kate Winslet bookends 2004 with another great performance as the ailing Sylvia. It's not quite as impressive as how she started the year (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), but is equal parts joie de vivre and denial. Sylvia initially seems flighty and indulgent, especially for her time, but that is gradually revealed as conscious, borne of the desire to make what time she and her children have as happy as possible; because of this, she clashes with her domineering but pragmatic mother-in-law, played by Julie Christie.

The other woman in Barrie's life is his wife, Mary, played by Radha Mitchell. Someday, I'll come up with an explanation as to why her career hasn't taken off; she's talented and beautiful and made a strong impression in Pitch Black, but since then seems to get thankless wife roles in movies like Phone Booth and Man on Fire. Here, the role is at least a bit meatier, as the dissatisfied wife who understands her husband all too well. She could be made a villain, but isn't; her social ambitions just wind up being incompatible with Barrie's childlike outlook. Dustin Hoffman is a small gem in his role as the producer who commiserates with Barrie on how critics take the theater too seriously, but still focuses on the dollars-and-cents aspect. Another adult friend of Barrie's is played by Ian Hart. Amusingly, I didn't realize he was playing Arthur Conan Doyle until looking the movie up on the IMDB. I now know that in addition to writing mysteries, historical romances, and science fiction, training as a medical doctor, and feuding with Harry Houdini on matters paranormal, Doyle was also an avid and skilled cricketer.

A quick internet search will also show the liberties this movie takes with real life - there were five Davies boys, for instance, and their father was a long-time friend of Barrie's who was still alive during the summer of 1903. Mary Ansell Barrie left her husband several years after Peter Pan was first staged, though the movie suggests a different timeline. These changes take Finding Neverland out of the category of biography and into that of fiction, and while none may be necessary, the end result is very strong as drama. Very strong.

Finding Neverland is a tear-jerker without question, but even as it deals with marriages failing and parents dying, it also highlights the human drive to create, to create something immortal and glorious from that which is real and sad. It is also very even-handed; even though Barrie often takes "silly" as a compliment, and Depp makes him young-at-heart, the movie is never juvenile.

So, maybe childish, but in a good way. Perhaps the greatest wisdom an adult can have is knowing when and how to look at the world as a child does.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 December 2004 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

The Life Aquatic flaunts its artifice. Even as it offers up rounded, three-dimensional characters, it does so in such a way that you can't necessarily believe in their world. A long shot will show the whole of Zissou's ship, the Belafonte, as a cross-section, and the sea creatures are just as obviously artificial as CGI, but are also readily identifiable as the work of a specific artist. It's like writer-director Wes Anderson is challenging you to feel for his characters, even though he will continuously remind you that they are nothing more than parts played by actors in an occasionally surreal movie.

But, of course, that's part of the point. Bill Murray plays Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-style nature documentarian with a carefully built reputation. Not just a reputation, but a persona that has been so carefully constructed over the past three decades that it's almost impossible to tell where what is staged ends and what is real begins where he is concerned. It's difficult to see what his particular talents are - he's not much of a marine biologist, and his filmmaking isn't so hot. A tour of the Belafonte reveals just how far he's drifted from any scientific ambitions he may once have had (especially a funny contrast of the amounts of care lavished the ship's sauna and lab space). When Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) enters his life, he tries to control this man who may be his son - not maliciously, but in accordance with the dictates of his profession. He's trying to make something as out of his control as the natural world give him a specific shot.

It may make you wonder, as an audience member, what the story behind certain scenes are. Pirates attack the Belafonte in one sequence, and the way they are fought off seems so improbable that one can't help but think that it may be a set-up. But there's nothing except the improbability to suggest that it's not real. Heck, the set-up, with Zissou's dive partner (Seymour Cassel) being eaten by what Zissou describes as a "jaguar shark" and Zissou calmly vowing revenge certainly could be a hoax. You just can't tell, and this seems to weigh on Zissou. He senses that his life has become a parody of itself, but what's a man to do in that situation? How does he tell his life to stop being absurd?

Bill Murray owns this movie. It's probably the best performance by an actor this year, and not just because Murray communicates all that angst, sadness, and strangeness without much oration. That would be enough, but Murray is also funny. He dresses up in silly costumes, delivers his lines with deadpan perfection, and throws himself into the action sequences with manic abandon. It's astounding, really - after Touchstone spiked Murray's Oscar chances with the bizarre release pattern for Rushmore, I figured that was it, his big chance to get an award while still being true to his comic roots. Then came Lost In Translation, and I thought, that's the culmination of his career, right there. Well, either his career just culminated again, or he's established an extraordinary position for himself in the ranks of comic actors. It may be time to just expect brilliance.

Anderson assembles a nifty cast around his star. Jeff Goldblum, for instance, adds a layer of malevolence to his standard dorky scientist persona (which, come to think of it, worked for him in Igby Goes Down, too). Anjelica Huston, as his wife and the reputed brains of his operation, is a formidable but human aristocrat. Willem Dafoe is almost disturbing in how his character worships Zissou. Cate Blanchett's reporter and Owen Wilson's pilot are long-time fans of Zissou, too, but have their own strength. Michael Gambon and Bud Cort have highly amusing roles as the financers of Zissou's new film. And Seu Jorge (Knockout Ned from City of God) sings David Bowie in Portugese to set the scene for the strange.

Worth special mention are the animated sequences created by Henry Selick. Selick's stop-motion creations are uniquely his own, immediately recognizable as the product of the man who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. His sea creatures have sharp, angular designs, and move in unexpected directions. They look like nothing of this earth, but somehow inspire a sense of wonder anyway. It's notable that these fantastic creatures bring out what's real and human is Zissou; somewhere underneath his own artifice and need for nature to follow a script, he still loves them, finding delight in a garishly-colored seahorse he's presented at an otherwise dreadful party.

Even in our world, sea life can be stranger than many people are capable of imagining; what Anderson and Selick create is often just on the same level as what you can see in an IMAX underwater doc. So it makes sense that just as aquatic life is strange but amazing, so is The Life Aquatic. As with the types of films real-life Steve Zissous make, it'll leave you thinking that it was a little stranger than you expected, but that it stretched the imagination and mind in a good way.