Friday, September 30, 2005


So, I did, in fact, get to see Serenity Tuesday night. Met up with Laurel at the theater, after a bizarre confrontation with a bus driver in Waltham - guy spoke so quietly I couldn't hear him, and told me to get off the bus despite my trying to pay the fare, since I'd tried to get on the 505 bus with a mere bus pas. Always works on the 553/554/556/558, but apparently not that one, even though they all go to the same destination. I would write a letter to the MBTA, but I was able to get on a 553 about ten seconds after being ejected from this one, and I saw a free movie I'd been anticipating therafter, so I wasn't in an angry mood afterward. Still - weird.

I liked the movie. Laurel liked the movie. I own the Firefly box set and Laurel's never seen the show, so take the small sample size for what it's worth, but I still look at that as a good sign that the movie will appeal to a diverse crowd, maybe do well enough for a sequel. I hope so, if only so that we can see more of the things I really liked about Firefly.

Firefly as always a dark show, but it frequently had moments, or entire episodes, built around whimsey. By the last act, it was pretty often life-threatening whimsey, but the fun came from more than the one-liners. Serenity is also more conventional than Firefly; the creepy men wearing blue gloves and carrying a device that makes everyone around them bleed out have been replaced with a sword-weilding assassin. We get a canonical explanation of the Reavers, which fits a plot but doesn't convey the existential dread of them simply being people who went mad when confronted with the vastness of space. The Western trappings are almost completely dispensed with, aside from Mal & Kaylee's manner of speech.

Of course, we also get Sarah Paulson, if only as a hologram recording for one scene. That makes me happy. And the final act is pretty darn great, incorporating Twilight Zone and Night of the Living Dead trappings to pretty good effect.

All the "better than Star Wars" people can just shut up, though. It's not up to any of those movies, either in terms of big ideas or big visuals. Whedon can write better dialogue, but Lucas can direct a better space battle, and build a more complete world. And, just out of curiosity: Where are all the Chinese people in Whedon's world where everyone speaks Mandarin and all the signage is dual-language?

So, I'll recommend this for most everyone, but the really great stuff was done in the series. The EFC/HBS review:


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #2 (preview)

Universal Studios wants the Star Wars money. Or at least the Star Trek money. And who can blame them? Those franchises have been making their owners money for decades, spread across multiple media and company divisions, even when longtime fans were loudly complaining that the last good entry came twenty years earlier. Highly disappointed that Van Helsing and Chronicles of Riddick did not become juggernauts, their next move was to acquire a property that already had a rabid fanbase that could be mobilized, and thus Serenity was (re)born.

That franchise was Firefly, a high-quality but under-watched television series from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that sold a truly impressive number of DVDs for a show cancelled for lack of viewers. The movie picks up some months after the end of the series, quickly recapitulating its setting (500 years in the future, in a solar system with dozens of terraformed planets and moons), backstory (brilliant young doctor Simon Tam broke his sister River out of a top-secret government facility and they join up with cargo ship Serenity's crew of former rebels and thieves), and relationships (young ship's engineer Kaylee is sweet on Simon; captain Malcolm Reynolds and former passenger Inara couldn't get past their disdain for each other's work to act on their attraction). Even before that's out of the way, the story kicks off, with the Alliance sending a new top-secret operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to bring River (Summer Glau) in. Meanwhile, River is growing ever more unstable, predicting an attack by Reavers (think cannibal pirates) and suddenly snapping and wiping the floor with an entire bar full of people before uttering the name "Miranda". From that point forward, the chase is on - both to evade capture, and to learn who or what Miranda is..

There's more than a bit of Han Solo to Nathan Fillion's "Mal" - both are smugglers with no love for the present regime (but no immediate intent to fight it) and penchants for sarcasm who carry torches for women above their station. A one-time soldier on the losing side of a civil war, he's full of bitterness and mistrust; there's plenty of shattered ideals hiding behind his simple, homespun speech. Fillion's task is to make Mal easy to underestimate, even after we've seen him take the hero's role. His accent is somewhere between Irish and Southern, he stumbles in his speech, and isn't physically imposing, so even as the audience learns more about him, we're not certain he'll step up until he is.

Ejiofor, on the other hand, plays a relatively simple man of action, but he's still one of the more convincing examples of his character type - the intelligent man willing to commit atrocities for his cause. He's good in his action scenes, looking trained and focused compared to his opponents, and he radiates a calm professionalism compared to Mal's excitability. Even more impressive is Summer Glau as as River. Her dance training likely helps during the fight scenes, and her face is tremendously expressive, especially when called upon to be frightened or haunted. This is a girl whose brain has been severely traumatized to give her her abilities, and Ms. Glau shows us both her damage and some hints of who and what she used to be

The rest of the cast is... plentiful. Serenity suffers a bit from a syndrome that has plagued the last couple Star Trek series, where a ship requires certain jobs be filled, but filling them all leads to a crowded cast, many of whom wind up underused. The pilot (Alan Tudyk), first officer (Gina Torres), doctor (Sean Maher), engineer (Jewel Staite) and weapons guy (Adam Baldwin) are very much support staff, only intermittently important because of how they relate to Mal and River as opposed to what work they can do. Certainly, they get some fun lines - especially Baldwin and Staite, who play iterations of the blunt-but-not-bright type and sweet/cute/nerdy girl that writer/director Joss Whedon includes in every project (so he'd better get them right by now) - but one can't help but think the ship's crew could be streamlined a little. Also present are Morena Baccarin and Ron Glass as former passengers/crewmates to be used as hostages or sanctuary (as the need arises) and David Krumholtz as eccentric information broker "Mr. Universe".

Having all these characters and backstory makes the film a bit sluggish in the early going, as we're filled, though more amid plentiful action than obvious exposition dumps. Ironically, his compositions for a 'scope movie are much more cramped than what he's shot for television, and the color palette is relatively muted, as well. Whedon he proves to be no George Lucas in terms of setting up a space battle (though Lucas is no Whedon in terms of putting amusing words in his characters' mouths). But the story picks up a good head of steam as it goes along, and by the end, there's no doubt it has the audience hooked. The final act has a great "last stand" feel to it, with Mal having earned the ire of two fleets and the crew incredibly outnumbered and outgunned, and it looking very much like they could all perish, Universal's hopes for a franchise be damned.

If it sounds like I'm down on the movie, it's because I was a fan of Firefly and occasionally found myself noticing what was missing. A friend who had never seen that series and isn't necessarily a one for sci-fi had an absolute blast with it, and I'll be all over the DVD when it comes out. It looks pretty darn good for a limited budget, too.

It's good stuff, and I hope it connects with an audience enough for us to get another movie in a couple year's time.

Monday, September 26, 2005

I may get to see Serenity early

Which is exciting, because I am looking forward to it, if not quite so much as I was looking forward to Revenge of the Sith. Hey, I'm old-school. Since this is a potentially packed weekend, what with the films of Alex de la Iglesia at the Brattle, the return of the Midnight Ass-Kickings at the Coolidge, WizardWorld Boston, the frightening monthly need to extract rent from my roommate, and, of course, an exciting birthday (I turn 100,000 in binary!), it's a potentially packed weekend for this movie-loving nerd. I'm kind of surprised that there don't appear to be any Serenity guests at WWB, actually - you'd think they could get someone for opening weekend. Unless it's supposed to be a surprise.

I liked Firefly, quite a bit, even if I didn't get all angry and take it personally when Fox canceled it: The show was a longshot, neither pilot/premiere was quite perfect, and people were turning away even before baseball started. I was happy to get the DVDs when they came out and liked seeing Whedon & Minear re-use the cast whenever they got the chance. Sometimes it worked (Gina Torres on Angel), sometimes it didn't (Nathan Fillion on Buffy), and I feel terribly foolish for not having watched the Jewel Statie episodes of Wonderfalls yet (I mean, I traded my copy of Serenity #2 with someone else in the comic shop so I could get the Jo Duffy cover featuring the lovely Ms. Staite).

Oh, what is Serenity, you ask? Well, here's a synopsis helpfully provided by the Universal/Grace Hill Media PR people that are apparently in charge of deciding which bloggers get to watch the movie early and which of go home to watch the Red Sox game and fight the crowds during the weekend:
Joss Whedon, the Oscar® - and Emmy - nominated writer/director responsible for the worldwide television phenomena of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE, ANGEL and FIREFLY, now applies his trademark compassion and wit to a small band of galactic outcasts 500 years in the future in his feature film directorial debut, Serenity. The film centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family –squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal.

More, of course, at The Official Website.

I'm expecting a good movie, but - and this probably marks me as a bad fan - none of the trailers have blown me away. The uniformly deadpan delivery worries me, since one of Whedon's occasional weaknesses is making characters sound the same, and the "second pilot" for Firefly initially didn't impress me not because I thought it was confusing without the original pilot being aired first (a hugely overplayed complaint), but because everyone seemed to have the same wiseass voice.

But, I won't know if I've gotten in until tomorrow night. Since the consolation price is coming back home to watch the Sox, I can deal.

B-Movies: Man with the Screaming Brain, Stealth, Cobra Woman

I don't know if any of these are actually "B Movies", which I gather were sort of like B-sides to singles, stuff used by theaters to pad out a double feature, especially when included with newsreels, cartoons, and other shorts. It's simply become code for "cheap, generally not very good genre movie", whether that movie is meant for theaters, television, or video.

I see Man with the Screaming Brain comes out on DVD next week, along with Alien Apocalypse, which has been sitting on my Replay since February, since I planned to watch it with Matt. I think I'll clear some space, buy the DVD, and await the inevitable borrowing the next time he comes over.

Also, I see Stealth has a 2-disc edition, which shocks me - they had to spend money on those extras, and is that really going to increase demand that much, unless it's "all the raw footage we shot of Jessica Biel in a bikini"? I re-iterate that that may be a fun one to rent and watch en espanol, enjoying the full force of the pretty pictures without the stupid words.

And, since it looks like HBS is still a little behind in my weird titles being added to the DB, more full-text reviews in the blog. Hey, makes me look more like a genuine blogger, right?

Man with the Screaming Brain

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2005 at Coolidge Corner #2 (Midnight Madness)

There are a lot of screenplays that don't get made, and not just because the writers don't have the proper connections. Consider the case of Man with the Screaming Brain, which writer/director/producer/star Bruce Campbell has had kicking around for nearly twenty years, roughly since Evil Dead 2. In that time, he's done a lot of decent work on television and film while friends and collaborators Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert have gained power and influence in Hollywood. Campbell built something of a fanbase, too, but it wasn't until last year, when he signed a two-picture deal with the Sci-Fi Channel, that he finally got to make this movie. And although many fans were excited to see Screaming Brain finally get made, the truth is that it languished in development hell so long for a reason: It's not very good.

Sure, expect this story to be good is probably asking a little much. Campbell plays William Cole, an American business man in Sofia, looking to invest in the city's infrastructure. Along for the ride is his spendthrift wife Jackie (Antoinette Byron). Their ex-KGB cabbie Yegor (Vladimir Kolev) takes them through the gypsy section of Sofia, where they run afoul of Tatoya (Tamara Gorski), and ex-girlfriend of Yegor's who attempts to seduce William - and, when that doesn't work out, kills him. And Yegor, for good measure. But wait! Doctor Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov (Stacy Keach) has a theoretical process to combine two brains in one body! And his assistant Pavel (Ted Raimi) has built a primitive, shambling robot that a human brain could be transplanted into!

I like Bruce Campbell, and had reason to hope for good things here: He's a funny guy, more likely to err on the side of overacting than woodenness, and the plot of the film plays into one of his strengths. I imagine most people who have seen Evil Dead 2 would agree that Campbell is, in fact, quite good at the slapstick bit where two different minds are attempting to control his body, leading to a spirited fight with his own hand. He was also pulling in some decent talent - Ted Raimi won't make anybody's A List anytime soon, but he's got the same "good B-Movie guy" rep as Campbell, and Stacy Keach has some decent credits as well. Joseph LoDuca was part of the Renaissance Pictures gang with Campbell and the Raimis, and though Sam Raimi has mostly worked with Danny Elfman on recent films, I'd generally take LoDuca's scores over Elfman's recent work.

So you'd think, with a group of people who know B-movies inside out and have shown the talent to do higher-profile work, Campbell would be able to target what makes for a fun, rather than tiresome, B-movie and do it. This, sadly, doesn't happen. Part of it, I think, is that this material has been with him for twenty years, and perhaps he's too attached to the fairly primitive story that he wrote when he was young and inexperienced, just changing names when the filming location changed from expensive Los Angeles to eoncomical Bulgaria when it could have used a major overhaul. But that's not all; too often, the movie seems to be missing the excitement that can make an objectively sub-par movie into a guilty pleasure, the "if we don't put our all into this, we may never get a chance to make a movie again" energy. It's like watching a AAA baseball team which is filled with guys who have bounced around the minors or who just didn't make the cut for the big-league team. You can't really accuse anybody of dogging it, but you'd almost rather watch the AA team: They may be raw, but they're enthusiastic.

Not many raw but enthusiastic folks here. Campbell is playing a sarcastic, difficult-to-like ugly-American type, and the audience can't ever really get behind him. Kolev's Yegor isn't interesting, either, so we're never terribly interested in who's going to gain control of Cole's body. Jackie's a pretty standard character type, too, and Ms. Byron doesn't infuse her with a whole lot of individuality. On the plus side, Tamara Gorski is at least lively in her character's psychosis. Ted Raimi adds a goofy Eastern European accent to the combination doofus/put-upon assistant character, which is sort of his specialty. Stacy Keach, meanwhile, gives a clinic on how to properly mail in a performance - he puts what seems like zero effort into it, but his lines are generally entertaining, at the very least.

This isn't the first time Campbell has been in the director's chair, although his previous efforts have mostly been episodes of television series. And this looks like TV; it's very workmanlike direction, keeping the focus squarely on the action in the middle of the screen, not doing anything particularly interesting with composition, and a lot of the banter - whether it be Cole talking to Yegor's disembodied voice or with other characters - seems stiff. To be fair, Man with the Screaming Brain is made for TV, having received a brief theatrical run courtesy of Anchor Bay figuring his fans are good for some midnight show money. Still, made-for-television and direct-to-video movies have gotten better since this was first conceived. If Campbell had made this in the 1980s, it might have seemed like enjoyable campy cheese; now, it's just sub-standard.

I wanted to like Man with the Screaming Brain, I really did. And I still kind of enjoyed it, but I couldn't ever shake the feeling that I should have been enjoying it more.


* * (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2005 at Flagship Cinemas Quincy #3 (second-run)

W.D. Richter's got a lot of uninspiring stuff in his filmography. I didn't realize this; I, like I imagine most people who noted his name as the writer of Stealth, immediately thought of him as the screenwriter for the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or his involvement with quirky films Buckaroo Banzai (director) and Big Trouble in Little China (writer). But check out IMDB; he's got plenty of credits that will indicate that yes, he does have a movie as unimpressive as Stealth in him.

Stop me if you've heard this one: The pilots of the U.S. Navy's next-generation stealth aircraft find themselves potentially out of a job when the next-next-generation plane is revealed to be flown not by a pilot, but by an artificially intelligent computer capable of learning and going thoroughly haywire when struck by lightning. Since "EDI", left to its own initiative, will start World War III, pilots Ben Gannon (Josh Lucas), Kara Wade (Jessica Biel), and Henry Purcell (Jamie Foxx) are forced to intercept. Unfortunately, the lightning strike that scrambled its priorities didn't erase what it had learned, so it's going to be a tough one to stop. And, of course, this doesn't take into account the inevitable people who find it more imperative to safeguard the program and secret than protect the pilots.

Read the rest at HBS.

Cobra Woman

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 September 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

It's heartening to see new 35mm prints struck and distributed for movies that are not classics. It's important to remember that name-your-favorite-decade wasn't some sort of Golden Age of Film from which the art form has devolved, but a time period that had good flicks and bad; it's just that the best ones are the ones we remember, restore, buy on video and book at rep houses. At the same time, though, if we're going to preserve some of these less-than-shining moments in American film history, they might as well be entertaining in their tackiness like Cobra Woman.

As the movie starts, it's a joyous time on Harbor Island - Ramu (Jon Hall) and Tollea (Maria Montez) are to be married the next day. At first, it's not seen as a big deal when curious youngster Kado (Sabu) encounters a blind and mute merchant (Lon Chaney), but the next morning he is gone, having taken Tellea. That's when her adopted father (Moroni Olsen) tells Ramu where he found Tollea - the infant girl had been hidden on his boat when he was mysteriously sprung from prison on Cobra Island, where the law says all outsiders must be put to death, even if they arrived accidentally. Ramu, of course, decides to sail to Cobra Island and rescue her. Kado stows away. On the island itself, the Queen (Mary Nash) tells Tollea that she is Tollea's grandmother, and Tollea must take the position as the High Priestess, for her twins sister Naja (Montez again) and the High Priest Martok (Edgar Barrier) are bleeding the people dry with their religious fanatacism.

This is basic pulp adventure stuff, and that description leaves out the volcano, into which the natives are sacrified, and the chimpanzee sidekick. We encounter all of it in a compact seventy-five minute running time. Writers Scott Darling, Gene Lewis, and Richard Brooks throw every South Seas adventure trapping into the mix - Kado and Ramu even find their escape briefly delayed by quicksand - and they're lucky to have a director as good as Robert Siodmak and pretty Technicolor photography. The way I figure it, something doesn't become a camp classic (which Cobra Woman arguably is) by simply being so awful that folks laugh at it; it's badness that sticks out like a sore thumb among competence, tempered by the realization that these folks are, in fact, doing the very best they can, and are blissfully unaware that their project, by most objective measures, stinks.

Take leading lady Maria Montez. The "Caribbean Cyclone" had a fantastic body and no issues with showing it off within the limits of the Hayes Code. She was not only a bad actress, though, but she was a bad actress with a thick accent that doesn't match anyone else on the island where her character supposedly gew up and makes her dialog hilarious when it's comprehensible. And this movie's producers decided to cast her in a dual role! And to see her dance... It's awful, but since nobody seems to have any concept of her limitations, it's worth some jaw-dropping disbelief.

Frequent co-stars Jon Hall and Sabu (they did a series of Technicolor adventure movies for Universal during WWII) aren't quite so flamboyantly awful, but they (like Chaney) have pretty thoroughly physical parts - running, jumping, punching, climbing, swinging on ropes, that sort of thing. Sabu, unfortunately, gets stuck speaking broken English, sounding like a simpleton. He has a sleepwalking scene where I managed to completely miss the point; I thought Kado was supposed to be just fooling around, not really having a prophetic dream.

Uncredited is the chimpanzee who demonstrates unusual sewing ability, at least for a chimpanzee. Which is indicative of the sort of pure escapism this movie has. Oh, sure, there may be a line in there about how dangerous religious fanaticism can be, but don't read too much into that: It seems to apply more to people climbing the Thousand Steps to throw themselves into the volcano as opposed to, say, killing every outsider who comes to the island. But it does have an exploding volcano, pretty royal handmaidens in tube tops and high heels, people swinging over pits filled with sharp metal obects, and costumes that are minimal enough for both men and women to enjoy the scenery.

Sure, there's also a truly lame cobra puppet and a nonsensical plot. But I was entertained. They were trying hard enough for me to forgive the flaws and enjoy what was, in fact, enjoyable.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Documentaries: March of the Penguins and A State of Mind

PENGUINS! Everybody loves penguins!

March of the Penguins (La Marche de l'Empereur)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2005 at Loews Harvard Square #3 (first-run)

A few weeks ago, a message board I frequent spawned a topic along the lines of "why are people spending money on a nature documentary? Don't they know that they can get this sort of thing for free on cable?" One of the interesting points of view in this discussion was that held by the people who said they would watch it for free on Animal Planet, and they'd spend more money to see a version half as long on an IMAX screen, but couldn't see the point of just seeing it as a regular movie. This saddens me, because it's well worth the ticket price, and all that seems to be keeping people out is genre prejudice.

The source of the film's appeal is so simple that one wonders why there aren't more high-profile nature documentaries - giving people a chance to see something extraordinary in an immersive environment. Sure, IMAX would be more immersive, but those gigantic cameras would be a real pain to haul around Antarctica and might be more likely to spook the birds. And while this type of film is more frequently seen on television than in multiplexes, that's a shame, because nature documentaries are among the types of films that benefit most from being seen on the big screen: You may be seeing the same pictures and hearing the same sounds, but it is a different experience to have the theater be a secondary presence around the edges of the film than to see the film through a portal in one's own living room.

Read the rest at HBS.

A State of Mind

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 September 2005 in the Coolidge Corner Theater's Screening Room (Coolidge Selects) (projected video)

Watching A State of Mind, two contradictory impressions of the people of North Korea went through my head. The first was that they were people like any other, and the ones we see are intelligent, hard-working, warm, and friendly. For the most part, they are exactly the kind of people one would desire as neighbors. The second impression is that they are part of some kind of quasi-religious cult, with the entire country serving as the planet's largest cult compound.

Scant few films have been made about North Korea, at least compared to films that use it as a generic villain, and this one initially purports to be less about the country itself than about one of its newer traditions, the Mass Games. The Games are a stunning pageant, combining music, gymnastics, and animated mosaics in a display that celebrates Communist principles. We follow two young Pyongyang girls, 13-year-old Pak Hyon-sun and 11-year-old Kim Song-yun, who spend hours after school each afternoon training for the Games, an event which happens once or twice a year, and carries great prestige because president Kim Jong-Il may be in attendance. The training is intense, and may all be for nothing if the school's group is not selected to participate in the pageant. But being selected is a great honor, and one the girls will work hard to merit.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Boston Film Festival, Day Five: Swimmers

Missed Day Four, since even bailing out of work at 4:20,I couldn't get to Boston Common in time for Long Distance (grumble gumble one show Monday at 5:30 grumble grumble), and I figured Prime would play for < $10 within a few months; after all, it's a Universal picture with Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. Of course, this was the line of reasoning that led me to skip Miramax's Fifth Wheel with Ben Affleck and Denise Richards a few years ago in favor of the astonishingly awful Edges of the Lord, but I was tired.

One thing about the cast of Swimmers: I ♥ Sarah Paulson and wish Warner would release Jack & Jill on DVD. That's all.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival)

There's a neat question not quite articulated in Swimmers but which is at the heart and tone of the story: When is the worst time to lose the thing you do best and perhaps love most?

For 11-year-old Emma Tyler (Tara Devon Gallagher), that thing is swimming, Her narration describes how swimming is like flying through the water, and it's immediately obvious that this is her thing, which is why it's like a knife in the gut when midway through a meet she just suddenly sinks, having to be pulled out of the water and rushed to a hospital, where we find out that a blood vessel in her ear has burst, and she'll need expensive surgery to retain her hearing, let alone be able to swim again. That could be trouble, since her father Will (Robert Knott) has just run his oyster-and-crab fishing boat aground, cutting off the family's main source of income and leaving Will with a lot of unaccustomed time on her hands. Soon after, a troubled young woman returns to town after a long absence: Merrill (Sarah Paulson) draws the attention of Emma's policeman brother Clyde (Shawn Hatosy) when he thinks he's caught her trespassing, though it is in fact her house.

Movies with young protagonists invite additional scrutiny because their central performance has to display a level of skill normally associated with adults, or at least experienced actors, but also communicate the innocence and confusion of childhood - which the obtaining of experience tends to obliterate. The filmmakers appear to be lucky to have found that in Miss Gallagher, who is new enough to merit an "introducing" credit (though she is also one of the students in Mad Hot Ballroom, filmed after this picture), but appears to be capable enough to carry much of this film on her shoulders. It helps that she's not called upon to replicate stereotypical wide-eyed joyful innocence, which often comes off as saccharine; instead, she makes Emma sort of dour and observant, but not always capable of comprehending what she sees. She doesn't smile often; she's more likely to have that look of intense concentration that kids sometimes get when faced with a tricky task (or the need to ignore adults).

Robert Knott and Cherry Jones are very good as her parents. It's a somewhat familiar set-up: Father Will loses his livelihood and has a hard time adjusting; mother Julia holds the family together when he doesn't bounce back very quickly. There is, of course, drinking involved in Will's inability to cope, but Knott doesn't make him into a lush or someone who is gaining any kind of obvious escape by it. Rather, he's using it to fill time, and when we see him buying another 24-pack of beer, our reaction isn't necessarily that he's becoming a danger to himself or his family, but that that's money that could go toward his daughter's surgery. Julia, meanwhile, is practical about choosing her spots for confrontations. They play a believable older couple, one that has long catalogued and adapted to each other's faults and moods.

The other major player is Sarah Paulson's Merrill. She's a fairly screwed-up young woman, appearing half-crazy when we first meet her. But Clyde remembers her from high school (she was a senior when he was a freshman) and Emma's a nosy kid with too much time on her hands now that she can't swim. Merrill's pretty and mysterious and kind of scary, and for people who have spent their whole life in the same small town, that's a heck of a draw. It's nice to see Ms. Paulson in a more meaty role than the romantic comedy she's spent most of her career doing, and it's a nice performance - even though, in many ways, her character is the film's darkest and most despairing, she can't be too scary. This would be a different movie if we worried too much about Emma when the younger girl comes to visit; instead, we worry about Clyde. Shawn Hatosy plays the middle Tyler child as the sort of guy who can be cut down by his 11-year-old sister and is going to be in way over his head with a woman of Merrill's baggage. He's a simple man, disappointed that Will taught oldest brother Mike (Michael Mosley) the trade instead of him. Mike is Clyde's opposite; when he and Clyde go out looking for their father one night, we see Clyde's quiet sense of duty while Mike's cynicism irks us, even if it's partially justified.

The film is set in Oxford, Maryland, where writer/director Doug Sadler spent his youth, and all the details feel right. This isn't a film about a fishing community feeling the pinch, but it's an important component: We feel the family's quiet despair when there don't seem to be other options, or Will doesn't know much else. There's something very alien and off-center about the scene where Will's working in a hardware store. I like how he shoots the waterfront with affection but doesn't romanticize the blue-collar environment. The empty swimming pool in Merrill's back yard is a constant reminder of what both she and Emma have lost. And I particularly like a dinner scene where Emma is inexpertly using her hammer to crack open her crab, and it's an amusing thing going on in the background until the situation gets a bit more contentious, we see her get that look of concentration until she's pounding away angry. It's a nifty sequence, full of good character stuff from the adults and Miss Gallagher. The only really big misstep Sadler makes, I think, is the narration; Tara Gallagher's accent feels off and it seems to undercut how she doesn't totally understand what's going on.

The narration's just a few minutes out of the movie, though, and I like most of the rest. The local color adds to the realism without making the story feel only relevant to these people.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Boston Film Festival, Day Three: Four Lane Highway and Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits

None of the Boston film festivals seem to attract much interest outside the area. That's not necessarily a bad thing - showing a local audience movies they wouldn't otherwise see - but it's tough to guage reactions when the crowds often seem entirely composed of family and friends. Sure, Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits sold out, but not because of any particular buzz, other than "I know someone in that movie!". There were a lot of local connections for Touched, too. Wannabe was nearly deserted, and a good chunk of the audience for When Do We Eat? were Roswell fans excited about seeing Shiri Appleby. Four Lane Highway wasn't exactly packed, nor was Swimmers.

Boston probably won't ever be an influential film festival - it runs concurrently with Toronto, although Slamdance has gained some notereity as an alternative to Sundance - but the audiences for these films suggest that not only is Boston not drawing outside audiences, but the locals are only seeing studio previews or things of local interest.

Four Lane Highway

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival)

Four Lane Highway is the kind of independent film that appeals to the independent film fans as a clique. Its characters are almost all artists of some sort; it's all about relationships and personal weakness rather than about facing some challenge from without. Part of it takes place against the backdrop of a New York "scene" (in this case, the art scene, but the specifics aren't terribly important). It's the kind of film that gets most of its audience at festivals, after which the audience falls all over themselves to say how great it is that there are true artists out there making smart films about people. And they're right; it is nice for this kind of film to get made, even if this particular example is not exactly exceptional.

Sean (Frederick Weller) and Lyle (Reg Rogers) are educated, articulate men of around thirty who live in a small Maine college town and mostly put their brains to use chatting up college girls. As Sean is leaving making his way off campus one morning, he sees a sign about a former faculty member's gallery show in New York. This artist is his former girlfriend Molly (Greer Goodman), who left him two years ago. He decides to drive to New York to confront her, or see her work, or something. Lyle tags along, and we flash back to how the relationship started and how it fell apart.

This is, for the most part, an actors' movie, and leads Weller and Goodman are excellent choices for their roles. They're good-looking, of course, but not model-pretty; a fair amount of Goodman's expressiveness is derived from the lines around her eyes. She's often a better actress than she at first appears, with her early line readings seeming sort of flat, or a little bit more heartfelt than they need to be. It's the style of acting one might associate with the theater, but also somewhat appropriate because we first see her in Sean's flashbacks, and I imagine that in those we're often seeing an idealized version of her - or at least an idealized pest, when she tries to convince him to start writing again. She becomes much more nuanced and natural when we meet her in the present day.

Weller (not the one in Robocop) plays the character we spend the most time following, and Sean's an interesting enough specimen. Sean is a blue-collar guy partly by choice and partly by default, and he hits the combination pretty much spot-on, projecting an uncomplicated image but able to pull out the intellect when necessary (and even then, when he explains why he doesn't particularly like sculpture to a snotty art writer, it's not using big words, but making a strong argument). He makes a perfectly miserable drunk, which is appropriate. He communicates feelings well, which is the most important part of the job for this role.

Decent, but somewhat less impressive, are Reg Rogers and Elizabeth Rodriguez as the roommates. These are characters that exist mostly to give the principals someone to talk to (or, more often, lectured by), although they also serve as surrogates by which director writer/director Dylan McCormick can talk about addictions. Rogers's Lyle is an alcoholic, constantly with a drink in his hand, and though he's usually the cheerful, friendly type of drunk, he's a pathetic figure. Too much of the last act of the movie, when we really should be concentrating on what's going on with Sean and Molly, is spent on him being taken to task, hitting bottom, trying to get help, etc. Indeed, Drink seems to be the root of all evil in the film's latter half, as Lyle crashes, we see that Sean was drinking during most of the times things went wrong with Molly, we're told his no-good father was a drunk, and the bartender who has kicked the habit solemnly tells us that it isn't the solution to one's problems. There's nothing wrong with a pro-sobriety message, but if Sean's drinking was the main problem in the relationship, that's not very interesting; and if not, then that's a lot of late-movie time spent on a secondary issue. In contrast, the promiscuity of Rodriguez's Sasha is hit just often enough to be distracting, but never amounts to much other than her looking at a passed-out Lyle with a look on her face that says "wow, in my own way I'm as pathetic as him!"

So if the conflict doesn't arise from the drinking, what is its source? Apparently, Molly's conviction that Sean isn't reaching his potential because he hasn't written in years, because he fears being unable to live up to his famous-writer father (who told Sean that his first story was only published as a curiosity, since he's the son of the man who wrote "Four Lane Highway"). The trouble is - we are never given any reason to believe that Sean is any kind of gifted writer. We don't read his writing, or hear it read; we just see him freeze up when asked to tell his nieces a story. So, if the audience is thinking "damn, woman, just accept that not everybody is some kind of artist and leave him alone! No wonder he feels driven to drink!", isn't it kind of pathetic that he's crawling back to her two years later? What should be evidence of growth and maturation looks a bit like spinelessness. Perhaps even worse, it's not Molly's confidence that spurs him to change, but something which, if he really had matured, wouldn't have so much of an effect.

As much chemistry as Weller and Goodman may have - and one does get a warm fuzzy when seeing them together during the good times - it's not really a relationship worth rooting for. It should be, but the fairly major miscalculation of spending more time on drinking than writing sabotages a potentially very good movie. It's a shame, because it's well-shot and acted, with both the New York and "Maine" (actually Chatham, NY) locations nicely chosen. McCormick has a knack for showing how fine the border between homey & comfortable and run-down can be, both in the New York trendy lofts hidden behind grafitti and how Sean's house looks when he's with Molly compared to after she leaves.

So, it's not a particularly good movie about relationships and people, but it doesn't outright stink.

Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival)

Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits gives the appearance of being a sketch of some sort stretched to feature length. The credits include mention that star John Fiore created the character of Johnny Slade, although Larry Blamire is credited with the screenplay. Watching it, I could imagine how it worked - Fiore comes out as Slade, sings a silly song, banters with the audience a little, and so on. It's kind of a good bit, especially since the songs aren't bad at all. Once you get Johnny off the stage, he's out of his element a bit, but he's also likable enough that the movie actually does a bit better than avoiding being a chore.

Johnny Slade (Fiore) is a Boston-area lounge singer who refuses to sing anything but his own compositions, which are eccentric. He plays to empty houses and occasionally cuts an album on a vanity label, and is considering hanging it up. Then, one day, he's offered a new job out of the blue - headlining at a classy new club. The only hitch is that he has to sing a song written by the reclusive Mr. Samantha (Vincent Curatola) every night - songs which don't make any sense, but seem to correspond to the next morning's crime news. Soon, he figures out what's going on, but he can't just get out: Samantha's men, the Irish mob, the FBI, and sexy club owner Charlie Payne (Dolores Sirianni) all know what's up, and stopping could be hazardous to his health.

It's a thoroughly preposterous story, of course; the plot has as many holes as a thing with a great many holes. The characters are all, initially, sort of obnoxious, but they soften as the movie continues - a little fear does wonders for Johnny's cockiness; Samantha comes to enjoy writing his goofy lyrics (although Johnny doesn't like the idea of being considered a joke); and Charlie takes a shine to Johnny. We learn a little more about them, and hearing that Johnny works blue-collar jobs between gigs softens him a little. He's just trying to chase dreams, as is his agent Jerry (Richard Portnow), who would really like Johnny to hit it big so that he can get rid of the used car lot.

What makes Slade work as well as it does, I think, is that unlike most expansions of a character bit (if that's what this is), the title character plays the straight man most of the time. Sure, his songs are silly, along with the album covers we see in the opening credit montage - "The Soda Fountain of Love" is especially double entendre-rific. When he's dealing with the mobsters and feds, he tends more toward "last sane man in the city". It's not a great performance, but Fiore also writes most of his own songs, and is a surprisingly appealing leading man. Not bad for a guy who has made a career out guest-starring on Law & Order and The Sopranos.

The rest of the cast seems to be mostly composed of New York's B-list and local Boston guys. Portnow gets more than a few funny moments, as does Curatola as the oily, bad-tempered mob boss hiding out in a ridiculously small office (it's nigh-impossible for Fiore's Slade to fit into the chair on the other side of Samantha's desk, since there's no room to pull it out). Dolores Sirianni makes both an entertaining foil and love interest for Slade. Also amusing is Jennifer Blaire as Angela, a textbook mix of sex appeal and psychosis working for the Irish mob.

Ms. Blaire is undoubtedly in the movie in part because she is married to the film's writter director, Larry Blamire. Blamire's IMDB biography lists him as primarily being a playwright, but he's worked in film before. Unfortunately, his previous film is The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, a painful failure to recreate the campy atmosphere of 1950s monster movies. In a way, Johnny Slade is another attempt to do deliberate camp, with Slade's songs being corny by design, much of the plot being composed of bad clichés, and a thug's deliberate attempt to create a catchphrase (although I admit, the idea of a guy atually making an effort to end every sentence with the phrase "like a f---ing monkey" is a good parody of characters who beat a phrase to death). As with Skeleton, though, the jokes and plotlines are all fairly obvious and straightforward, stuff a clever twelve-year-old with the right pop-culture background could have come up with. It works better here, since everyone involved is trying to make a good movie, as opposed to trying to get you to laugh at how bad it is, but the double meaning of the title is about as clever as the movie gets.

That doesn't count against it; there's some genuine talent in its cast of character actors given larger roles, and they execute fairly well. I wonder, though, whether I'd love it in a regular screening, as opposed to a packed house that included a lot of family and friends of the local cast and crew. Laughter is contagious, after all, and this is a crowd well-predisposed to like the film.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Boston Film Festival, Day Two: Wannabe and When Do We Eat?

Before getting to the actual reviews, let me discuss my main frustration with the BFF this year, compared to previous years: It is impossible to see every movie. Now, this is true for most festivals, but what makes this year's really frustrating is that there's no apparent need for this. They have two theaters rented out, but during much of the festival, only one had actual movies playing on the screen (unless there were private critic/industry screenings I wasn't invited to). And then, during the weekend, the times were staggered so that what was on screen #17 overlapped with what was on screen #18.

In fact, on Saturday, I originally bought tickets for three movies, but Love, Ludlow was rescheduled from 5:30pm to 6:30pm, meaning I had to choose between it and When Do We Eat?, which started at 7:30pm. This is in no-one's best interests: It doesn't serve me, as I get to see fewer movies I might not otherwise get a chance to see; it doesn't serve the filmmakers, who don't have me talking up their movie (even if I didn't have the HBS/EFC forum and could just provide word of mouth); it doesn't serve the festival, since they don't get my $10 and I carry away this irritation in addition to how much I enjoyed the movies.

Now, the way I figure it, the job of a festival - its very purpose - is to connect movies with audiences who might not otherwise have a chance to see them, or see them this soon, or interact with the filmmakers. The audience should have the chance to see as many films that interest them as possible. Staggering start times is good theater management, because it means that there's a constant, manageable flow at the concession stands and in the hallways, and most people are only coming to the theater to see one movie anyway. For a festival, I would think you'd want TV-style timeslots, so that the person seeing the movie in theater #17 at 7pm can choose either the movie in theater #17 or #18 at 9:30pm, depending on their preference. And if their tastes are eclectic enough to want to see both, there should be opportunities to do so.

One of the things the old management for the festival did well was to use its five theaters so that you could, theoretically, see everything at the festival: See the three playing at Copley Place in the afternoon, and the two at Boston Common in the evening, and repeat. I can understand why Warner might want you to only have one preview screening of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang rather than four or five, but what's a small independant film got to lose? OK, so the festival is only using two screens this year, but the first one was dark all afternoon Saturday, so I went off to do something else between these two movies. Compare this to Fantasia, where I was seeing movies all day, jumping between theaters as necessary and able to catch second showings of movies I missed, and the BFF is tremendously frustrating.

Anyway, on to the reviews:


* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival) (projected video)

One of the earliest pieces of advice given to any writer just getting started is "write what you know". Now, the world would be a somewhat dire place if people didn't grow out of that advice, or when what they know is not particularly interesting (my early attempts at blogging are all the evidence one needs to see to believe that). Thankfully, the makers of Wannabe have accumulated enough interesting anecdotes about trying to get one's start in Hollywood to fill an eighty-minute film.

Like Craig Robert Young, the actor who plays him, Steve Williams is a young actor from Nottingham who was in a boy band five years earlier, scoring a couple of English top ten hits before moving to Los Angeles because what he really wants to do is act. A few scenes come from experience, though with some embellishment - both actor and character are deaf in one ear, and were hounded out of an audition for a "disabled actors' showcase" by other hopefuls who felt he wasn't disabled enough (or so we were told in the Q&A afterward); both at one point made up a fictitious manager to be taken more seriously in auditions. And even the stuff that is completely fictional has the ring of truth; it's easy to see these characters pin their hopes on Jerry Bruckheimer being aware of their short film.

The film is presented as a "where are they now?" documentary about Williams, complete with opening narration, flashbacks to stock footage, and the inevitable looking over one's shoulder to talk directly to the camera. The specific story that evolves is Steve's battle with Paul Stannard (Adam Huss), which is as trivial to the world at large as it is desperately important to him. Paul was once in a different group, and though they each say it's water under the bridge, Steve tenses up at Paul's claim that he won "Best Dancer" on a "battle of the boy bands" TV special, and things only get worse when both Steve's agent (Elizabeth Warner) and Steve's roommate Molly (Anna Becker), whom he is rather smitten with, both take an immediate shine to Paul.

That Steve is the sane one in this film serves as a perfect example of how insane Hollywood is, at least the way Young and director Richard Keith (who wrote the screenplay along with Young) see it. Steve is not exempted from seeming childish or insane - not by a long shot. The fight over the award is ridiculous, and the lengths he goes to to find work are sometimes kind of sad. Still, he's generally a decent guy who tries to maintain some level of professionalism, isn't to proud to find honest work, and tends to be caught flat-footed when something crazy happens next to him. It would be easy to portray this character as stupid or just terribly naïve; instead, Young takes the route of having him not quite be as far over his head as he first appears, and, besides, we've all been in his situation before, where no-one else seems to be able to see that some person isn't nice but is, in fact, Satan.

The rest of the cast of unknowns is fairly entertaining, too. Huss plays Paul as sort of the opposite of Steve, not really willing to work for success, but initially seems industrious because he likes to clean. Most of the other characters have their own brand of insanity - the casting director who won't shake hands, the vicious disabled people, the dancer/bowler, the director who manages to be an out-of-control egomaniac despite only directing a zero-budget short film. None of these are really fully fleshed-out characters, but one does have to give the actors credit for looking straight into the camera and saying some of this stuff with a straight face.

Richard Keith shows some promise with his first feature. Shooting documentary-style prevents him from getting too fancy - there's only so many angles you can get inside a car, and knocking out a wall to get a better setup isn't an option. There are a couple of moments when the documentary illusion is broken, and the same scene is apparently shot from different angles, but they're rare. The film is fairly episodic, with about eight or nine titled chapters, and while I don't necessarily think that's a rookie mistake, it has a tendency to highlight when a segment is a digression from the Steven-Paul storyline. Still, give credit where credit is due for how naturally that storyline emerges, spits out jokes, and resolves, even if it does lean on the mockumentary staple of a "six months later" epilogue.

Wannabe will probably feel famliar, even to those of us who haven't been actors trying to get their start. After all, Young and Keith aren't the first people to make a movie set against the less-glamorous part of the Hollywood machine (lots of undiscovered actors, writers, and directors have "written what they know") and won't be the last (there's a never-ending supply). They do it well enough, though, and make the familiar jokes funny. Now the challenge is to do something a little more creative.

When Do We Eat?

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #18 (Boston Film Festival)

During the Q&A after the film, director Salvador Litvak joked that When Do We Eat? was the most Jewish movie ever made. I don't know what makes something more or less Jewish, but I can't recall a comedy with such mainstream sensibilities that was this specifically Jewish. Happily, having an insane family is univeral enough that we Gentiles can enjoy this movie even if we don't really know what, exactly, a seder is.

Which is a good thing, because Litvak is no more interested in explaining it to us than the average Catholic filmmaker is in describing communion or confession to the laity. There is one character who could be used for that purpose, but not only do the other characters not spend much time explaining Jewish ritual to the outsider, she's assumed to know the relationships and some of the past history of the Stuckman family already. So it's not immediately obvious that Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn)) is a half-sister to the other children at the table, or where exactly Vanessa (Mili Avital) fits on the family tree. There's no solemn moment to reveal that grandfather Artur (Jack Klugman) is a Holocaust survivor, since this is something everyone in the family would know and, to a certain extent, take for granted - we initially infer it because Ira Stuckman makes an offhand comment that he manufactures Christmas ornaments because the family that hid him gave him one as a gift.

The story involves the Stuckman family coming together for their Passover seder with the best of intentions. Ira (Michael Lerner) and Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren) have four children: The youngest, Lionel (Adam Lamberg) is autistic; Zeke (Ben Feldman) is skipping school to score ecstasy when we first see him; Nikki (Shiri Appleby) works as a "sexual surrogate"; and the oldest, Ethan (Max Greenfield), has become much more observant (Hasidic, even) seince his tech company went under. Also in attendence are Vanessa, a cousin far enough removed that her trysts with Ethan are in "a grey area"; Jennifer and her girlfriend Grace (Cynda Williams); grandfather Artur; and Rafi (Mark Ivanir), the Israeli handyman who erected their tent, whom Peggy invited to stay for dinner and Ira thus suspects of being her lover. Everyone means well - they're doing it more by the book than usual to accomodate Ethan, whom Ira hope to bring into the family business - until Ira's temper flares, and Zeke responds by dropping some E in his father's drink.

Balancing emotion and raunch is tricky work; for the most part Litvak and his wife/co-writer Nina Davidovich manage it. There are bits that many will find in poor taste - what's really funny about cousins sleeping with each other, other than the hypocrisy it exposes in Ethan? And while I, personally, find the idea that after sixty years in America, Artur still always has a packed suitcase with him in case he has to run or hide again sort of funny, it's the sort of thing that could have gone horribly wrong and winds up pretty close to "not funny at all" as is. Part of the point of the movie is that one can laugh at even the most awful things, and in fact must, because otherwise you're just angry and making everyone else around you miserable. The jokes work, but like a lot of R-rated comedy, they can rub someone the wrong way.

It's an ensemble piece, and the performances vary somewhat. Lerner bellows well, though he's perhaps given more opportunity to do so than is strictly necessary. He's at his best when playing his character between the extremes - not yelling, but also not obviously under the effect of the drug. Ms. Warren is nice enough, but doesn't really get much chance to be funny. The funniest is probably Mili Avital, who gets to say some of the most outrageous things with the most blasé look on her face (her character is a celebrity publicist, so, she says, she knows about drug overdoses). She's delightfully wicked as she flirts with and torments Ethan. Greenfield sqiurms well, and gives the kind of performance that occasionally makes one wonder how sincere his decision to turn to God in a time of adversity is. It's a good performance, especially since the superior attitude of the newly religious is only one component, when it could have been the whole thing.

The staging of the film is fairly nice, too. Costs add up on an indie, and even after the cast is taken into account (none are box-office draws on their own, but many are familiar faces), there's still budget left over to clear music rights, shoot in and around New York, and throw in some CGI effects for ira's hallucinations. The result is a film that doesn't look like a play, even though it easily could have taken place entirely within the tent and some other nearby location. The jokes come quickly and work more often than not, and if the end's a little on the sappy side, well, that is the nature of the family-dinner genre.

I'm not sure how a wide audience will react to When Do We Eat?; the mix of family-dinner mush and frequently crude humor may be off-putting for some, while others may overlook it for its overt Jewishness (it wouldn't quite work as a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner movie). That's something of a shame, because uneven as it is, it is funny and relatively big-hearted, which is what it's going for.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Boston Film Festival, Day One: Touched

In a departure from recent form, the entire review for Touched will go here, since it's not actually in HBS's database yet. I'm guessing that's because it hasn't played any other festivals and hasn't gotten on any release schedules yet (I kind of think it's got "Lifetime TV-movie" written all over it), and there wasn't enough time to put BFF info onto that site before the festival actually started. Hey, when you don't announce your schedule until the week before (or how drastically the festival has been cut down), that's what's going to happen.

This got the sole premiere-night slot, which says something. Probably mostly because the filmmaker is local (from Newton), as I believe was one of the actors - Randall Batinkoff shouted out to a whole bunch of people in the audience. It's quite possible that not only was the festival's opening night film projected video (which looked pretty bad when it came time for long shots), but the audience might have been primarily made up of Close Personal Friends of the Cast & Filmmakers.

Speaking of which, the same thing happened tonight (or yesterday night, given that I'm posting this at 2am), only it wasn't just friends of the director. When Do We Eat? had Shiri Appleby as a co-star, and there were a bunch of young female Roswell fans in front of me. Ms. Appleby was pretty cool with them, and if they didn't take her repeated use of the word "cute" to describe them as patronizing, I guess it wasn't. They weirded me out a little, but, hey - I know I'll be acting just like them if Sarah Paulson shows up on Tuesday, even if I never set up a Jack & Jill web shrine.


* * (out of four)
Seen 9 September 2005 at Loews Boston Common #17 (Boston Film Festival) (projected DV)

Timothy Scott Bogart wants you to cry, and he is determined to make it happen. To that end, he supplies dead children, dead parents, brain damage, sad children, multi-year comas, mysterious aliments and miraculous recoveries. People of fragile constitutions should probably be very glad that none of the characters in this movie owns a dog.

The movie's not sad when it starts, of course; we see Scott Davis (Randall Batinkoff) happily about to bring his adorable five-year-old Kyle (Charlie Lea) to Kyle's mother's house for the weekend, but there's a terrible accident, and the next time we see him, he's been in a coma for two years, and is stuck in a long-term care facility, getting special attention from nurse Angela Martin (Jenna Elfman). Angela has problems of her own, mostly involving her older brother Thomas (Frederick Koehler), who has the mind of a ten-year-old and lives in a special needs facility. After Scott wakes up during a thunderstorm one night, his wealthy parents (Bruce Davison and Diane Verona) decide to bring him home to recover, despite the worrisome fact that he's having hallucinations of his son and that he has completely lost his sense of touch. Naturally, Angela is hired as the live-in nurse, so they naturally fall in love.

The loss of the ability to feel is, of course, a metaphor. It has to be, since the film doesn't spend much time dwelling on what it must be like to live without the literal ability to feel. Scott seems to be close to fully functional relatively quickly; I noticed he didn't look at his feet while climbing stairs, which strikes me as something of a necessity without tactile sensation. It is a useful metaphor for his inability to interact with the world as he emerges from his coma, literally numb to the situation. The trouble is twofold: It's an affliction that is difficult to visually illustrate without doing something obvious, like having him accidentally rest his hand on a stovetop, and it's also so unusual, that when there are are inevitable issues in the third act, the audience can't help but wonder why the hell he didn't have an MRI or a CT scan or any of the dozens of diagnostic tests Davis Sr. can afford. There's a flimsy rationale given, but it is, well, flimsy.

That's a sign of Bogart's relative inexperience. Another is the heavy reliance on cigarettes as a prop. Directors make characters smokers because it puts some motion on the screen during dialogue-heavy scenes, giving the actors something to do with their hands. They can fidget with it to indicate nervousness, let it smolder off to the side, or what have you. Even if an audience member isn't aware of this convention, it would be tough to miss considering how the smoking gets brought up in conversation. It calls attention to the technique, which is fine in moderation, but comes off as a crutch in regular use. At least they don't go to "I haven't had one of these in years".

The cast is nice, though. Jenna Elfman is mostly known for comedy, and it's easy to see why television networks have been trying to cast her in a new sitcom since [i]Dharma & Greg[/i] ended - she establishes a personality quickly, and it's an open, friendly one; it's easy for the audience to like her despite her flaws. She handles the heavier parts well, and is willing to let the audience find her interest in the coma patient a little creepy. Randall Batinkoff may not quite have convinced me in terms of portraying his infirmity, but his character work is solid. He reminds me of Mark Ruffalo before the mainstream found him; he does good big-hearted but hurt. Davison and Verona are solid as the parents; I particularly liked Davison's portrayal of being pulled in different directions trying to please everyone. Koehler does the mentally disabled schtick, and Samantha Mathis is almost invisible as Angela's co-worker and best friend.

There's an audience for weepers like this, and they'll probably be able to overlook its flaws. It pushes its buttons at the right times, and so what if they're mashed? It's a movie without villains - even the doctor who suspends Angela from her job recommends her to the Davises - featuring little in the way of gratuitous (or even non-gratuitous) sex, violence, or harsh language. It's got a likable, good-looking couple at its center who will end the movie in a heart-string-tugging way. It's got a lot of people crying at bedsides. There is a crowd - predominantly older and female - that responds to that in the same instinctive manner that many young men respond to things going up in flames.

But just as the presence of an exploding helicopter isn't necessarily indicative of the quality of a movie, neither is someone being nobly ill or emotionally damaged. Touched isn't an awful movie, but it's a formulaic one with frequently ham-handed execution.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Big & Loud: Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Island, Brothers Grimm, A Sound of Thunder, Transporter 2

This hasn't been a really great summer for action movies, has it? Certainly, you won't find much better than Revenge of the Sith, and War of the Worlds was pretty sweet, but after that, it was kind of thin. The comic book movies were OK, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith has its charms, but that July/August time period was pretty barren. If we hadn't gotten Godzilla: Final Wars in Cambridge, it would have been even more dire.

I find it interesting that producer Luc Besson and director Louis Leterrier wound up bookending the season - Danny the Dog (aka Unleashed) back in May, and Transporter 2 Labor Day weekend. I wish more folks made action movies like Besson and company - straightforward good and evil with just enough detail to keep it interesting, and slick, exciting action. These movies are pure fun, and as such can get away with things that a Michael Bay, perhaps, can't.

And A Sound of Thunder? Still sucks and sucks hard.

Speaking of sucking and sucking hard, the next few updates will include dispatches from the Boston Film Festival. Man, has the IFFB rendered that festival moot.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 June 2005 at AMC Fenway #11 (first-run)

Slick. There's no other word for this movie. Most of its pleasures are thoroughly superficial ones, and nothing that happens would likely hold up to much scrutiny. But it's tough to slice up; director Doug Liman applies a coat of teflon to everything, so complaints just sort of slide off, and one is left looking at how pretty the movie and its stars are, and at least enjoying it on that level.

The premise is ridiculous, of course - John and Jane Smith (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) have been married five or six years, all the while unaware that the other is an assassin. Their marriage is having conventional difficulties as the movie starts, and things get much worse when they're both assigned the same target. They get in each other's way, the target escapes, and when each figures out that the other is responsible, the only way to stay in good with their mysterious employers is to take out their spouses. Gunplay and black comedy ensues.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Island

* * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2005 at AMC Fenway #9 (first-run)

I'm peculiarly loath to blame Michael Bay for The Island not being as good or successful a movie as it could and, perhaps, should have been. I've got no particular fondness for the man, as anyone who ever asked me my opinion of Armageddon will attest. But when you get right down to it, even though a great deal of this films many shortcomings can be reduced to "the director didn't do the job he should have"... I mean, come on, shouldn't the producers know better by now?

I mean, they've seen his films. Anyone who pays attention to the director's name should know Bay's strengths and weaknesses by now. The man does a damn good hero shot and has a real talent for composing the individual frames of a motion picture. He trusts his actors, sometimes too much (so Bruce Willis could sleepwalk through Armageddon), but he'll stay out of the way when he's getting a relatively solid performance. But he is absolutely, totally, completely inept at fast action. The Island is structured as a chase movie, and it is being steered by a director who simply does not have the necessary skills to direct a good chase scene. He shakes the camera too much, he jumps too fast, he doesn't let the audience follow the action. He's so bad at it - and always has been - that one wonders why, somewhere along the line, the money people didn't try to steer it toward a different director, or have a specialist brought in for the case scenes. After all, movies with martial arts action bring Yuen Woo-ping or Sammo Hung in to choreograph and shoot those scenes; why shouldn't Bay have a "chase specialist"?

Read the rest at HBS.

The Brothers Grimm

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 August 2005 at Circle Cinema #1 (first-run)

You look at The Brothers Grimm, and you know what the producers were thinking. They've got this Ehren Kruger script, and it's set in pre-industrial times and kind of off-kilter. "Let's get Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam on this", they think. "They've got experience and their fans love this sort of thing. Guaranteed ticket sales!" So they hire Gilliam, and then freak out when he starts acting like Terry Gilliam - making things up as he goes along, making changes during shooting, and the like. It's as though they wanted Terry Gilliam's name and visual style, but not the sometimes torturous process that goes with it.

So there's a whole mess that happens - it becomes a "troubled" production, is rescued by a new studio whose heads decide to give a few more notes to a director who was hired for his quirky, individual track record. By the time everything is said and done, Terry Gilliam has made a decent enough film, a passable couple hours of late-summer entertainment. It's identifiable as his work, both on the surface and underneath. But even though it's not a completely hollow piece of studio product, it's also not his best work; it's not touched by the sheer mad genius that distinguishes 12 Monkeys or Brazil. It's a professional Terry Gilliam rather than a passionate one; despite the occasional bits of dark whimsy, one gets the sense that he's trying to repair any damage the collapse of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote did to his reputation, even as he'd really rather be making Tideland.

Read the rest at HBS.

A Sound of Thunder

* (out of four)
Seen 31 August 2005 at Loews Boston Common #14 (preview)

A Sound of Thunder is a deeply stupid movie. It is the kind of stupid where an educated man holds a spherical object in his hand and calls it a "disc". It's also cheap-looking - I swear the computer model the special effects used for the allosaurus was Toy Story's Rex - but I might be able to forgive that, if not for the stupidity. The people who wrote the screenplay seemed to have learned everything they know about causality, biology, and physics from watching Star Trek (the bad years). It's the kind of movie where particle accelerators have chairs inside. It's the type of movie that forces anyone talking about it to make up words like "gorillasaur".

Right now, a certain portion of the people reading this review are thinking something along the lines of "gorillasaur... I am so there!" I can't stop the people whoo have that sort of instinctive reaction; I admit, I might have a hard time resisting it myself. I can only remind you that Ray Bradbury's original story didn't include such beasts, and a group of writers that includes a man whose credits include a fair amount of porn written under the name "Hugh Jorgan" is unlikely to have improved upon the work of one of the twentieth century's most celebrated writers. Not that it takes such an obvious group of hacks to butcher a classic story; Robert Silverberg, a respected author in his own right, took much the same route when expanding three classic stories by Isaac Asimov to novel length.

Read the rest at HBS.

Transporter 2

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 September 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

"The Transporter" is the kind of concept that is really ideal for a movie franchise: Frank Martin (Jason Statham) is a mercenary driver who is in a new city each film, where his job of taking things from point A to point B no questions asked is interrupted by pesky moral qualms, requiring him to chase people in cars and beat them up hand to hand to keep his conscience clear. A few years ago, he was in the South of France rescuing a pretty Chinese girl; now, he's in Miami protecting a ten-year-old boy. The important thing is that there is plentiful high-quality vehicular mayhem and martial arts, with Statham serving as an appealing center for the action.

This would, perhaps, get old as a weekly TV show; it's one thing to trot out the same formula for an hour and a half every couple years, but today, the audience expects some sort of supporting cast and continuing storylines and complexity from their action/adventure TV shows, and the budget probably wouldn't be there for the big action set pieces. Animation might work, but mainstream America doesn't yet go for teen/adult-oriented action in that medium; besides, the "how'd they do that?" on a car chase is the same as the "how'd they do that?" on two people talking when you're dealing with ink and paint or RenderMan files.

Read the rest at HBS.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Because sometimes, people just need to be warned

A Sound of Thunder is going to be in the next group of reviews I do ("Big & Loud"), but sometimes you see something so astonishingly awful, you feel the need to warn people. Such is the case with this bit of rubbish, supposedly costing $80M (though you'll never see it on screen) and being held back for a year and a half - which I don't get; a movie with awful effects isn't going to look more charming by delaying it so that the audience has already seen Sky Captain, Revenge of the Sith, and War of the Worlds beforehand.

So avoid this piece of junk. But don't hold it against Ray Bradbury. He's one of the greats, and deserves much better.

A Sound of Thunder

* (out of four)
Seen 31 August 2005 at Loews Boston Common #14 (preview)

A Sound of Thunder is a deeply stupid movie. It is the kind of stupid where an educated man holds a spherical object in his hand and calls it a "disc". It's also cheap-looking - I swear the computer model the special effects used for the allosaurus was Toy Story's Rex - but I might be able to forgive that, if not for the stupidity. The people who wrote the screenplay seemed to have learned everything they know about causality, biology, and physics from watching Star Trek (the bad years). It's the kind of movie where particle accelerators have chairs inside. It's the type of movie that forces anyone talking about it to make up words like "gorillasaur".

Right now, a certain portion of the people reading this review are thinking something along the lines of "gorillasaur... I am so there!" I can't stop the people whoo have that sort of instinctive reaction; I admit, I might have a hard time resisting it myself. I can only remind you that Ray Bradbury's original story didn't include such beasts, and a group of writers that includes a man whose credits include a fair amount of porn written under the name "Hugh Jorgan" is unlikely to have improved upon the work of one of the twentieth century's most celebrated writers. Not that it takes such an obvious group of hacks to butcher a classic story; Robert Silverberg, a respected author in his own right, took much the same route when expanding three classic stories by Isaac Asimov to novel length.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Summer Re-runs: Bewitched, War of the Worlds, Herbie

Too late to talk much about these remakes other than to say that War of the Worlds is the only one really worth it. But, we knew that last year, didn't we?


* * (out of four)
Seen 24 June 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

Movies like Bewitched get critics riled up, because you only have to hear "a movie based upon an old sitcom" in order to start railing about how Hollywood has no creativity and is strip-mining pop culture rather than coming up with something new and so on. I think that's just prejudice against television as a medium; you don't hear that so much when a movie is an adaptation of a novel or a play. Besides, one doesn't need that attitude to find Bewitched to be a soul-deadening experience.

For some, just seeing the Ephron name in the credits is enough. The Ephron sisters aren't inherently bad writers, I don't think, but I wonder if they've lost touch with their audience. This is a movie that displays no familiarity with the world outside their own circle. Everyone, it seems, is either in the entertainment industry or a witch/warlock able to make the world do his or her bidding at the snap of a finger. Only one or two characters in the film seems like anybody to whom an audience member might have some sort of point of reference, and while it's not strictly necessary for the audience to identify with the characters, those characters should be much more interesting than they are. Of course, that may not be an immediately apparent problem in Hollywood - after all, I'm sure Nora & Delia Ephron can relate to arrogant actors, pushy agents, and put-upon personal assistants just fine.

Read the rest at HBS.

War of the Worlds

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2005 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

I was of two minds when I heard Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise were doing an adaptation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds set in the present day. The first was excited, because there aren't many directors around as good at science fiction as Spielberg is, but the second was kind of cranky. Orson Welles and George Pal had each updated the story, and doing it as a period piece might have been an interesting, different angle. Or, why not use more modern source material (Niven & Pournelle's Footfall has been begging to be adapted for nearly two decades now)? But War of the Worlds is what they did, and they did it very well indeed, hitting only one or two false notes along the way.

The script by Josh Friedman and David Koepp tackles the story not from the perspective of those fighting the war, but instead of a family caught in its path. Ray Ferrier (Cruise) has custody of his kids for the weekend, but it's contentious: Teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is openly hostile, while ten-year-old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is developing tastes and attitudes that don't quite mesh with Ray's working-class sensibilities. Everything's just starting to feel good and uncomfortable when a freakish lightning storm hits. When Ray goes to investigate, he and a crowd of onlookers find that the bolts have blasted a hole in the ground. A gigantic three-legged machine climbs outand starts vaporizing people, few of whom act as decisively - and sensibly - as Ray in running away. They decide to head from New York to Boston, because that's where the kids' mother (Miranda Otto) is, and, well, you've got to have a destination, even if it's really no safer than where you're leaving.

Read the rest at HBS.

Herbie: Fully Loaded

* * (out of four)
Seen 7 August 2005 at Arlington Capitol #5 (second-run)

I'm naturally inclined to like Herbie: Fully Loaded. I like most of the cast, some quite a bit, and the franchise itself is on my good side, even if I can't actually remember watching any of the movies except for the made-for-TV entry Peyton Reed did for The Wonderful World of Disney around eight years ago. I like that Angela Robinson and her screenwriters made a G-rated movie, rather than throwing in a swearword or something to bump the rating up a notch because looking too wholesome is uncommercial. But just because the audience may be inclined to like a movie doesn't mean the filmmakers shouldn't make some sort of effort.

The folks making Herbie don't make many false steps, but they also don't take many steps very far off the beaten path. Maggie Payton (Linsday Lohan) has just graduated from college and will be moving cross-country to start a job in New York in a few weeks. She's the first in her family to go to college, as the family business is racing cars - her grandfather was a legend, her father Ray (Michael Keaton) runs the team, and brother Ray Jr. (Breckin Meyer) is the team's driver, though not as good a driver as Maggie (who, of course, promised Ray she wouldn't race again after an accident in high school). When she finds Herbie at a junkyard, she's initially not impressed, but as we all know, the car has a mind of its own, and not only does Herbie love to race, he's also unable to resist nudging Maggie and Kevin (Justin Long), the mechanic she brings the car to for a tune-up (and a high-school friend), together. And, of course, there's a condescending rival driver (Matt Dillon) to contend with.

Read the rest at HBS.