Tuesday, December 27, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Especially the poor one."

"Oh, yes, especially the poor one."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That's a lot of elves."

"Well, Santa is planning to attack Mordor."

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

"He's also Santa Claus."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3-D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharks 3-D

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

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

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

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

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

Chicken Little

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

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

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

Read the rest at HBS.

The Polar Express

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

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

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

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

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, December 19, 2005

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

You know the holidays are approaching when what's playing at the boutique places and what's playing at the multiplex start to run together. I get Pride & Prejudice playing at the mall - folks know Keira Knightley's name and like her being English and spunky - but why does Landmark Kendall Square pick up The Ice Harvest? I suppose noir-ish stuff doesn't play so well in mainstream theaters, but, still, that's not really a terribly artsy movie (and promoting it as the new film by the maker of Caddyshack and Groundhog Day doesn't do it many favors, as it's not really a comedy and doesn't have Bill Murray). In good news: The Brattle has evidently raised enough money to extend its schedule just a little bit into the new year, and the first week of showings there in 2006 are Muppet movies. I'll feel better when I see a schedule for January and February, and much better when I see one for March/April, but I'm taking what I can get. Keane * * * ½ (out of four) Seen 22 November 2005 at The Brattle Theater (Recent Raves) William Keane has problems. At first we think, well, sure, of course - his seven-year-old daughter is missing, which is enough to set anybody on edge. But his daughter's been missing for months, and as he searches the bus station where she vanished, he seems to lose track of things. Sometimes he seems to be talking about the disappearance like it happened months ago, other times like it just happens. He impulsively jumps on a bus out of town when he thinks that that is the key to finding her, and creates a disturbance to get off when his thinking shifts. That's our first look at Keane's title character, and he never gets less disturbing. We soon learn that he's receiving disability checks and spending chunks of them on drugs and booze. He seems to be pulling himself together, and then Lynn and Kira Bedick enter his life. The question is, will this mother and her seven-year-old girl stabilize William, or send him off the deep end? Keane is played by Damian Lewis, who gives a frighteningly naturalistic performance. There's no excess theatricality to his technique, despite the fact that he's playing a character who may be completely off his nut. He perfectly replicates the guy a couple seats away on the bus, chattering to himself, not immediately threatening, but not someone you want to get close to. Even in his more friendly, lucid moments, Lewis makes Keane a man on edge; you can practically hear him ticking. The question, of course, is whether that ticking is counting down to an explosion, a collapse, or something else. Amy Ryan is great as Lynn Bendik, fragile and angry in her own way. She's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and in some ways doesn't seem to be holding it together even as well as William. It's a very real performance, cringe-worthy at times, but nothing ever rings false. Just as good is young Abigail Breslin, perfectly guileless as Kira. There's nothing over-precious about her. Which, from what I gather, is sort of writer/director Lodge Kerrigan's stock in trade. This is his third film, and like his first (Clean, Shaven), it deals with disturbed and desperate people without romanticizing or flinching. It makes for an uncomfortable watch, but also a spectacle that it's difficult to look away from. Things can go terribly wrong, especially once we start to think that William is starting to get his crap together, even though his growing calmness always seems to come hand in hand with questions about his grip on reality. Unnerving to watch, but very satisfying. Likely-dead EFC link Touch the Sound * * * * (out of four) Seen 23 November 2005 at The Brattle Theater (Recent Raves) The promo copy sums this movie up: Evelyn Glennie is one of the world's most talented and renowned percussionists, despite the fact that she is profoundly deaf. It's a natural, immediate hook that would make for an immensely frustrating movie if Glennie was a less charismatic screen presence. Fortunately, she holds up her end of the movie while director Thomas Riedelsheimer documents her with both great appreciation and his own artist's touch. Ostensibly, this is meant to be a document of Evelyn Glennie and Fred Frith recording a new, totally improvised album in a German building set for demolition. That's only a small part of what we see, though - Ms. Glennie spends time performing on the streets of New York, teaching drums to a deaf teenager in a Glasgow school, giving a concert in Fuji City, Japan, and visiting with her brother at the family farm back in Scotland. You can tell by the changing hair colors that the movie was filmed over a considerable amount of time, and then pieced together in a non-linear manner. Well, not quite non-linear; the scenes of Fred and Evelyn in their "studio" start with their arrival and seem to continue more or less in order. But since this is a documentary about the here and now, rather than the progression of Evelyn's life or even the evolution of her work, Riedelsheimer mixes things up, not giving us any hints about the order in which these threads occur. He's not trying to tell us a story, but trying to give us a snapshot, so the question of where Evelyn is at point A and point B or how her life changed in between is irrelevant. So, he finds which moments work when placed adjacent to each other and stitches them together that way, even if it means jumping halfway around the globe and back again. He is extremely good at shooting good-looking footage, too. Riedelsheimer serves as both his own cinematographer and editor, and what's really striking is how well he integrates chaotic and decidedly un-photogenic environments into an absolutely gorgeous film. It helps that this is probably not the sort of documentary whose storyline and focus evolves during filming and editing; Reidelsheimer probably knew from the beginning what sort of movie he would wind up making. It lets him frame shots off-center or with a distant focal point to create striking images, or poke around to find them. This is no small achievement; it takes a concerted effort to find beauty in a fish market, a run-down farm, and a hollowed-out industrial building. A great deal of this comes from Evelyn Glennie's enthusiasm for her art. The only moments during the movie where she does not appear outright enthusiastic are the interview segments, where she becomes a mere talking head trying to describe indescribable things - how turning off her hearing aid allows her to "hear" better with her entire body, for instance, or briefly dropping into the sort of artist-speak that can make a general audience feel stupid. But when we get to watch her, we get it. We see her demonstrating the method of listening with one's skin and hands to a deaf student. We see her open a box full of different objects to try on a type of Japanese drum she apparently wasn't familiar with. But mostly, we see her play, in both senses. She's a performer, and her music is both lively and skilled; she applies great technique to the most basic way we have of making music. But it's her way of playing in the other way that unleashes the most delight. Every chaotic place she goes has new things just laying around, items of different shapes and sizes and materials, that will make new and different sounds when you hit them with a stick, or bow, or brush. Parts of the building in which she and Fred Frith are recording have strong echoes, but where other musicians may shudder at the idea of introducing that kind of randomness and distortion into their work, these two find that echo to be just one more exciting toy to play with in order to make music. Watching this movie didn't really make me truly understand how Evelyn Glennie hears differently than I do; my brain's too hard-wired to get auditory data from the eardrums to process all but the crudest sympathetic vibrations coming from the rest of my body. I envy her ability to perceive the world in a way I can't. Still, I think I understand her delight in finding a new sound: I felt something I imagine must be very similar watching this movie. Likely-dead EFC link Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic * * ½ (out of four) Seen 26 November 2005 at Kendall Square #1 (first-run) Someday, hopefully someday soon, somebody in Hollywood is going to figure out how to use Sarah Silverman. Whenever she shows up on a talk show or other event where she's not playing a character, she comes across as smart, sexy, playful, and funny. Whenever she tries to play a part, though, I always get the nagging feeling that she should be better than what we're seeing on-screen. Such is the case with Jesus Is Magic, a short concert film with skits and musical numbers interspersed. Here, her character is an exaggeratedly self-centered comedienne who jokes about grim or controversial subjects but has all the capability for understanding and empathy of a spoiled brat of fourteen. The humor comes from the audience recognizing that it's an act, or the realization that deep down inside, we all look at the world from a perspective of "how does this affect me?" Or at least, it does about half the time. Ms. Silverman's got good comic timing, and some of the bits where she gets off the stage and does a skit or number have a sort of exuberant absurdity. It's a good thing, because a brief post-credits scene demonstrates very clearly that it's not just what you say, but how you say it. Indeed, for material that involves casual racism, callousness, and vanity, it's mostly how you tell it, because the joke itself isn't very funny. And that's okay, I suppose. I suspect an audience member's reaction to this movie depends heavily on how much the meta-joke, or whatever you call it, works for him or her. Once you get past "oh my god, she's making jokes about 9/11" to "it's funny because a self-absorbed character like her would feel harder hit by finding out something's not low-carb than a massive terrorist attack", several later bits are kind of just re-iterations: "Oh my god, she's making jokes about AIDS, but it's kind of funny because..." And so on. She's not a complete one-trick pony, but she does go to trick number one quite a bit. Not a bad movie, and it walks its tightrope well - not the one between being disrespectful and being funny, but the one between courting controversy and recognizing that doing so can be a cheap trick. The Constant Gardener * * * ½ (out of four) Seen 26 November 2005 at Kendall Square #9 (first-run) City of God knocked me on my ass, in part because it was so unexpected - I generally don't expect to find amazing films at the secondary venue of a second-rate film festival. So, when I saw director Fernando Meirelles's name attached to The Constant Gardener, I was more than a little excited. I was also a more than little nervous, though - he wouldn't be the first talented director to make a great movie in his backyard but stumble when suddenly working on different continents, in new languages, with more money than was available in Brazil but also many more expenses. Fortunately, these added challenges only mean that Meirelles makes a movie that is more likely than not the best film playing at the multiplex rather than a debut masterpiece. That's all the more remarkable to me considering that the source material is a novel by John le CarrĂ©; what I've read of him has always struck me as pretty dry. Besides, it means he'll be spending a lot of time working with upper-class English characters, who have a reputation for displaying less emotion than Brazilian street kids. Take Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes). A proper English gentleman he is, pursuing a career in the foreign service, his life is totally in control until he meets Tessa (Rachel Weisz). A fiery activist, Tessa doesn't quite awaken Justin's slumbering idealism, and given all the time she spends with handsome African doctor Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde), it may seem that their marriage is one of convenience - a beautiful wife to accompany him to formal events and a diplomat husband to provide cover and access for her investigations. And maybe, at times, that's how it works; marriages can fall into patterns where there's little visible passion. The film opens with an event sure to clear out the cobwebs, though: Justin identifying Tessa's body. The official explanation is bandits, but Justin's not stupid; he knows about the drug company Tessa was investigating, and he's not going to let her death be for nothing. I wonder at what point the disjointed timeline was introduced in the filmmaking process - was it in the original novel, Jeffrey Caine's script, or was it Meirelles's idea? It's an interesting choice, because it makes the flashback segments almost wholly emotional rather than informational. We know what Tessa is investigating fairly early on, and we know where it's going to lead her. When we see those segments, we see them as they must be in Justin's memory - full of missed opportunities to say "I love you", to get out of the garden he meticulously tends to assist Tessa with her passions, etc. What's interesting about Ralph Fiennes's performance in the "second half" - the portions that take place after Tessa is killed - is how he manages to to simultaneously increase Justin's determination and despair. They're not two emotions one normally thinks of as re-enforcing each other (an inverse relationship is more typical), but it makes him a much more interesting character than the reserved, protocol-following man of the "first half". It's beautifully tragic, really - as Justin becomes more admirable, he simultaneously becomes more an object of the audience's pity. Rachel Weisz and Hubert Kounde have simpler roles, as idealists out to do The Right Thing for Africa, but that doesn't make them less important; we have to believe in them, Tessa especially, for Justin's quest to hit home. Ms. Weisz, especially, does a nice job of being Fiennes's opposite in terms of outspokenness but at the same time being his equivalent emotionally. In terms of how she really feels about Justin and, maybe, Arnold, though, she can be just as reserved as Fiennes, and that makes the quiet moments when this is revealed more quietly powerful. After them, though, the cast falls more into the realm of quietly competent, with Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Gerald McSorley et al doing the shady-but-unfailingly-proper thing (it actually takes a while to sort out which characters are which). Pete Postlethwaite turns in a nice performance as a doctor with a great weight on his conscience. It occurs to me that I've been able to get nearly to the end of the review and only tangentially touch on the film's ostensible plot - investigating a drug company that is using Africa as a laboratory and dumping ground for spoiled drugs. Although it's not as important an element as Justin's emotional journey, The Constant Gardener does okay as a get-angry movie. Another cast and crew could remake it as such with a love story in the background and wind up with a movie just as good. It's actually kind of a negative; there's a line in the credits about how the story is fictional, but what really goes on would turn your stomach. I wonder if, perhaps, the producers meant to make a more overtly political movie, and wound up sacrificing that intention for a more romantic drama. If so, at least they created good drama. There's plenty of movies that try to be both idealistic and dramatic but manage neither. That, at least, is a trap The Constant Gardener never falls into. Likely-dead EFC link Pride & Prejudice * * * ½ (out of four) Seen 26 November 2005 at AMC Fenway #8 (first-run) There's just too much Pride & Prejudice around. That modernized, transcontinental version with Aishwarya Rai was just in theaters, what, six months ago? One of my former roommates left behind a DVD of an A&E mini-series that can't be too many years old. The IMDB shows a few others. I've got no particular issue with remakes and new adaptations per se, but does it really need to be done more than once or twice a generation? Ah, well. At least this is a nice iteration of the story. That story, of course, is that the five Bennet sisters need to find husbands, but can't afford much of a dowry. New neighbors and their wealthy friend may provide an answer for oldest sisters Jane (Rosamund Pike) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), but there's also the chance of intrigue and heartbreak. Jane is quickly taken with one Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), and he seems to reciprocate, while a more antagonistic chemistry appears between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), Bingley's dour friend. In the meantime, a distant cousin arrives looking for a wife, as does an old friend of Darcy's - though Darcy is far from pleased to see him. If I had to guess what made this story so appealing that it has been adapted so many times since Jane Austen first wrote it, I would guess that it's how the Bennet sisters collectively present all the various traits a young girl may find within herself in a more or less positive way: Elizabeth is highly intelligent and independent-minded. Jane is a romantic, overflowing with love to give to the right person. Lydia and Kitty are excitable, impulsive, and boy-crazy, while Mary is awkward and unsure of where her strength will lie, though confident she'll have one. It's a story that can hook young women early, with the strong craft needed to stay appealing after the teen years. Keira Knightley's protagonist is strong-willed and independent enough to not come across as too passive for a modern audience to identify with but still a believable product of her time. Screenwriter Deborah Moggach and director Joe Wright pace things pretty well. It's an adaptation of a novel with a whole bunch of characters, but manages to spread things out so that almost everyone makes a solid impression. I'm not sure exactly why you need both Lydia and Kitty Bennet, but the book's got five sisters, so... The various threads connect well enough, although the movie does at times feel rather episodic, occasionally making little jumps in time and location that sometimes seems anything but the most reasonable course of action. Then again, it may have seemed reasonable two hundred years ago. The trick, I think, is striking the right balance between ritual and romance. The courtship process may sometimes seem devoid of passion, but it also lacks lies, pretending to something you're not, or uncertainty as to what the next step should be; it's like the grand, screen-filling dances scattered throughout the film, engaging despite how precisely choreographed they are. Still, the story is about matches that get made for reasons other than expediency - the quick attraction between Bingley and Jane and the more reluctant, negotiated respect that forms between Darcy and Elizabeth. Their mating game has rules, but they are rules where one can win as well as lose. The cast is agreeable. Keira Knightley's Elizabeth could very easily be a teenager in today's world, smart enough to recognize the world's unfairness but not nearly experienced enough for that sort of cynicism to have made a permanent home in her heart and frightened off any romantic notions she may have. Jane, meanwhile, is made pleasant and admirable by Rosamund Pike despite not being as ambitious or modern as her sister. MacFadyen is handsome yet grumpy as Darcy, while Simon Woods has an easy, laid-back charisma as Bingley. Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn give good support as the Bennet parents - Sutherland is just a big, slobby hulk of a guy who would refuse his daughters nothing if he had anything to give, while Blethyn makes Mrs. Bennet the type who must run a household with specific goals. Also having very specific ideas is Dame Judi Dench as a rather imperious noble who can't quite see the worth of the Bennet girls beyond their humble station. Pride & Prejudice is an oft-told story, but for good reason: It holds up better than a lot of other two-hundred-year-old novels about young women. Stick a cast this good in it, and you're in business. Likely-dead EFC link

Thursday, December 08, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and I also wrote a review for Capote.


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

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

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

Read the rest at HBS.

"Tennis, Anyone...?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 04, 2005

And it's official

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, Here's that link again.

Friday, December 02, 2005

I'm running out of movies to see.

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

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

The Movie Watch-a-Thon Recap:

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

The Latest Reviews:

A History of Violence

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

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

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

Read the rest at HBS.

Walk the Line

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

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

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

Read the rest at HBS.


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

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

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

Read the rest at HBS.