Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Testify!: The Notorious Bettie Page and Thank You For Smoking

The unexpected theme for this week's films is "congressional hearings". I say "unexpected" because I was figuring on getting into Inside Man last Thursday, but a slow bus and folks at the box office just yakking instead of BUYING TICKETS bumped me to the next show. Drat; I really feel like I missed out.

I'm trying to remember the last movie I saw with Congressional hearings where they were a good thing. In both of these films, it's about grandstanding and trying to impose one's morality on people, and even if you agree with that morality, it's still arrogance in action.

(yawns) Not really much to say about these. Bettie Page is good, making me really fond of its subject and giving me unexpected Sarah Paulson (I thought I was getting unexpected Enrico Colantoni too, but it wound up being Chris Bauer). Thank You is slicker, but ultimately pretty hollow. And it gives you Cameron Bright. I normally don't like saying I dislike child actors, because I have images in my head of them reading it and crying, but he's thirteen and has amassed a body of work that is not just truly unpleasant, but snobbish. I eagerly await his first projected emotion.

I doubt that either movie quite manages to drive home the point that it would like to. Bettie Page refused to become a symbol and Thank You For Smoking isn't cynical enough to be shocking in this day and age. Bettie, at least, is entertaining, which is the most important thing.

The Notorious Bettie Page

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 May 2006 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (First-run)

Up until a few years ago, I didn't realize Bettie Page was a real person. I'd seen Bettie Page comic books, action figures, and other assorted merchandise; even when I saw a photograph of her, I thought it was just some random model portraying the Bettie Page character. So this film about her is interesting to me, as it makes this brand name that has persisted for decades beyond her heyday far more human while still allowing the audience to assign what qualities to her that they see fit - much like they did during her career.

Bettie Page was a pin-up model in the 1950s. Born to a conservative Nashville family, she moved to New York City for a new start, got noticed by an amateur photographer on a local beach, and quickly made other contacts, eventually working primarily for Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer), whose movie stills business is something of a front for racier things. This eventually leads them be called before Congress as a purveyor of unwholesome material, raising the question of how this sweet southern girl can be a threat to the country's morality.

Read the rest at HBS.

Thank You for Smoking

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 May 2006 at AMC Fenway #1 (First-run)

Thank You for Smoking is just too glib for me to really enjoy. There's funny bits and occasionally energetic direction and performances, and they add up to a good movie, but the vital spark is missing. The creature that Jason Reitman has built from a good novel, an outstanding cast, and an abundance of style never leaps to life and moves about under its own power.

The plot, taken from Christopher Buckley's novel, follows Nick Naylor, Tobacco Industry Lobbyist (Aaron Eckhart), on his quest to keep cigarette legal and unregulated. He reports to BR (J.K. Simmons), the domineering head of the Institute for the Study of Tobacco, and "Captain" Doak Boykin (Robert Duvall), a courtly but steel-willed tobacco magnate. His nemesis is crusading Vermont senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy). In the meantime, he tries to be a good weekend dad to his son Joey (Cameron Bright), co-operate (and then some) with a pretty newspaper reporter (Katie Holmes), and hangs out with his fellow "Merchants of Death": Alcohol lobbyist Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) and gun-industry spokesman Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner). His world is turned upside down when he is kidnapped and plastered with a hugely excessive amount of nicotine patches: He survives, but is told that his next cigarette could kill him.

Read the rest at HBS.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

All Wet: Poseidon in IMAX

So, next time Matt and I head out to see a movie at (deep breath) the Comcast IMAX 3-D Theater at Jordan's Furniture Reading, we'll do a few things different:

(1) We will do it on a sunny day. Heading out to Reading in the middle of a rainstorm that was at times about as nasty as could be without there being actual thunder, lightning, or hail is not particularly wise, since there's a half-mile walk between the train station and the furniture store. This was exacerbated by...

(2) We will not trust the directions we've gotten from Google. Google Maps gave us directions to 50 John Street. John Street sort of becomes Walker's Point Drive, but we're talking two completely different #50s. For those in the Boston area looking to make this trip: At the Reading commuter rail/bus station, orient yourself so that you're facing northeast. Turn right, and then left onto Washington. Follow that until it sort of dead-ends in a T-shaped intersection, and turn right. That gets you onto Village, which gets you onto Walker's Brook. Unlike the Jordan's in Natick, a pedestrian can get there, although the sidewalks sort of jump from one side of the street to the other at points. And there are puddles on a rainy day.

(3) We will go without time contraints, so we can hang around Jordan's looking at furniture we can't afford and other seemingly random stuff: There's a jellybean shop, a Fuddrucker's, and a trapeze in there. It's crazy. And we even saw one of the brothers from the store's commercials (Elliot, I think. The one with the ponytail), which counts as nifty celebrity-sighting in Massachusetts.

(4) We'll see something better than Poseidon. I don't know that that was an $18 movie, even with the beautiful 3-D IMAX Happy Feet teaser.

Still, I did have ample opportunity to joke about how while everyone else in the audience just got great picture and sound from the IMAX experience, we had the tactile "soaked to the skin" sensation. I said this to Matt, I said it to the young lady at the box office, I said it to our mom when I called to wish her a happy Mother's Day, and now that I'm using it here, it's going out everywhere. So I'm done with that bit. I got far more use out of it than it likely merits.

The next IMAX Hollywood movie on the schedule is Superman Returns, with twenty minutes of 3-D goodness. I may wind up seeing that some morning/afternoon in Montreal, what with holiday weekend stuff being planned up in Maine and plans to head to Fantasia on the 6th. So the next time I'm out to Reading will probably be in August for The Ant Bully.

Unless I wind up seeing Superman in French and want to know what people are actually saying. Which could happen; my French isn't so hot (as in, I haven't used any of my three years of high-school French in a decade) and I didn't hit a multiplex before checking into my hotel last year because I didn't know what language they'd be speaking.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 May 2006 at Jordan's Furniture Reading (The IMAX Experience)

There's no fat on Warner Brothers' new adaptation of The Poseidon Adventure. It establishes the setting and sketches its characters out quickly before getting to the meat of the picture, the action. The problem with there not being much fat on the picture is what anybody who has gone for the low-cal version of anything knows: You lose the fat, you lose half the flavor.

It takes maybe ten minutes to introduce us to the double handful of people on the ocean liner Poseidon during its New Year's Eve voyage that will turn out to be significant. Robert Ramsey (Kurt Russell) is a former mayor of New York, traveling with his daughter Jennifer (Emmy Rossum) and her boyfriend Christian (Mike Vogel); he's uncomfortable with her being all grown up and having girl parts. Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas) is a professional gambler (or so he says!); he hits on Maggie James (Jacinda Barrett) and isn't scared off by her ten-year-old son Conor (Jimmy Bennett). Ramsey and Johns are playing poker with "Lucky Larry" (Kevin Dillon), while on the other side of the ballroom, Richard Nelson (Richard Dreyfuss) is getting ready to jump off the side of the ship because his partner stood him up at the dock. Elena Gonzalez (Mia Maestro) has stowed away with galley mate Marco Valentin (Freddy Rodriguez). Shortly after the captain (Andre Braugher) announces that midnight has passed, an enormous rogue tidal wave hits, leaving the ship upside down. Johns decides he's not going to wait for rescue in the ballroom, the others fall in, and the group sets off to climb up to the bottom of the ship.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Blackballed and Black Orpheus at the Brattle

Huh, Black Orpheus isn't in the HBS database. Go figure. Must write Scott.

That's the end of the last Brattle schedule, which wasn't bad at all. I'm a little less psyched about the current one; we're about to hit Gene Kelly & Fred Astaire and then Ken Russell, which will be fun, although not really must-sees for me.

The July/August schedule will be the vertical one, which scares/reassures me a little - it means I likely won't miss a whole great series while off at Fantasia for a week and a half. But it'll probably mean missing a chunk of a couple good series.

Planning for that is kind of crazy. You now need a passport as opposed to just a birth certificate and an ID to cross the border into Canada now, so there's that paperwork to fill out. Of course, I appear to have lost the copy of my birth certificate while moving earlier this year, so I had to order one from Worcester, which is disturbingly easy on one hand but needlessly difficult on the other, since the city's website choked on Firefox while collecting a little data and eleven dollars. I should be able to get everything in line before July. I'm looking forward to it; it was the highlight of my moviegoing year last year, and hope to make it an annual thing.

So, anyway, these two movies ran consecuitve weeks at the Brattle and both have "black" in their title. Otherwise, they're night and day: One's a colorful, lush drama shot in Brazil by a French director; the other is a washed-out mockumentary that couldn't have cost more than a few bucks to make. I prefer the first, not there are many situations where anybody will face an either/or decision between Blackballed and Black Orpheus. Still, Black Orpheus does several things well enough that every moment has some worth, where Blackballed just sort of flails when any of the jokes falls flat.

Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro, aka Orfeu do Carnival)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

The idea of a setting being an integral part of a story, to the point where it's called a character in the movie, is particularly apt where Black Orpheus is concerned. The Orpheus myth, like so many, can be removed form its setting and be relevant to anyone; that's what myths are for. It can be related in a few seconds, so by transplanting it to Rio de Janeiro, and portraying Rio so vividly, filmmaker Marcel Camus is not just retelling a classic, but using it as a pretext to explore.

After all, everybody knows the story of Orpheus, here Orfeo, a streetcar conductor with a passion for the guitar played by soccer star Breno Mello. When he applies for a marriage license, the clerk says "this must be Eurydice, because everyone knows that Orpheus loves Eurydice". The thing is, Orfeo was with Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), who is a bit on the jealous side. Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) has just arrived to visit her cousin Serafina (Lea Garcia). Serafina lives in Orfeo's neighborhood, and it's not long before they're formally introduced. But Mira isn't the only obstacle between them; Eurydice is fleeing a death-masked stalker.

The story takes place in the days leading up to Carnival, which gives the characters an excellent opportunity to participate in intrigues involving disguise: As much fun as they are in classical theater and literature, masked balls are far from common these days. Carnival, with its elaborate costumes, throngs of people, and masks which cover the whole face, offers a chance to use this plot device in a modern setting without it seeming odd. It also makes the film as stunning as Carnival itself, as every square inch of the big screen fills with a riot of colorful clothing, dancers parade in awesome syncopation, and joyous calypso plays on the soundtrack. It would be a complete showstopper, if it weren't half the reason to have the show in the first place.

It's not just by showing Carnival that Camus immerses us in Rio. The entire film is shot on location, and not always in the clean, touristy areas. Ofeo and Serafina live in a hillside shantytown with stray animals wandering in and out. There's trash strewn everywhere, with it becoming a natural part of the landscape. The two kids who follow Orfeo around wear the same ripped clothes throughout the entire film. We don't dwell on poverty, though, since we're given nothing to place them in another context; the characters get by, what they want is generally within reach, they're planning an elaborate celebration, and even wealthy Mira seems familiar with pawn shops. It's not just the vibrant, beautiful parts of Rio we see, though - the bureaucratic offices, morgue, and spooky spirituals that represent the underworld in the last act are chillingly atmospheric.

Much as the film is shot on real locations, it also features a cast of non-professional locals - or at least, people who started acting with this movie. Mello gives Orfeo a roguish charm; the man has obviously been free with his attentions to the fair sex, and he's pretty quick to shift his attention from the woman he allegedly wishes to marry, often finding her a nuisance. But he remains likeable; it's like he's been able to coast and now he's figuring out how to be serious. Miss Dawn is perfectly sweet as Eurydice; we initially see her amazed at the big city and we're as charmed as we were by Mello; it makes them a good pair. Lourdes de Oliveira drips sex as Mira, and not entirely because of her skintight outfits; she's primal, direct and not someone you'd want to cross. Lea Garcia is arguably the glue that holds the film together; her Serafina is the common point of reference for all the other characters and she not only has to have all the mechanics of plot bounce off her, but gets her own comic story with a soldier boyfriend just in town for the weekend. None of them give perfect, polished performances - we occasionally see the effort to recite memorized lines, let alone create the illusion that they arise naturally - but we get the feeling, and have a handle on the characters.

The story is mythic, both in source material and in execution. Orfeo doesn't have a literal underworld to search, but characters are aware of the myth being re-enacted. Indeed, toward the end, there's references to this being a cyclic process, with Orfeo not being the first Orpheus and an implication that others will follow him. That Camus was able to make that point while also handling what must have been a tremendously difficult shoot, with amateur actors and huge crowd scenes, is no small accomplishment.

Black Orpheus may not be the best-ever retelling of the Orpheus myth, but it's as beautiful and charming as any. As it stands, it's worth seeing just as a travel movie; it's a delightful capsule time capsue of Rio in the late 1950s and the joyful madness of Carnival. That there's a fine narrative to go along with it is almost a bonus.

Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 May 2006 at the Brattle Theater (First-run)

The film festival circuit is kind of like awards season: Both generally tends to recognize and spotlight good films, but from a skewed sample. One area where both tend to fall down is comedies; awards shows either separate them from the "important" movies or maybe recognize supporting players, and lately it seems that the only way a comedy can crack a festival line-up is by being a "mockumentary". So movies like Blackballed play festivals and maybe even win awards despite not really being that funny.

Oh, Blackballed has its moments, and more than a few come about as a result of using the documentary format. It also has a lot of moments where the format is an obvious crutch, leaning hard on "hey, isn't this conversation awkward and weird and thus real?" The format also calls attention to the scale of the movie: Do people make "real" documentaries about local legends? Well, of course, but there's usually some acknowledgment that this is a guy that you probably wouldn't have heard of if you haven't been within fifty miles of the setting in that case. Blackballed seems to avoid putting that bit in, so we're never really sure of the level of fame/infamy Bobby Dukes (Rob Corddry) achieved before his fall from grace. Was he a guy with national renown among paintballers now trying to work his way back to that, or is he trying to regain the respect of this small town because he's nothing outside it? The film kind of plays coy, almost as if it wants to imply the first case even though the second is all they can really afford to present.

Read the rest at HBS.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Made In China: The Promise and Mission: Impossible III

Before an unfortunate shrimp-related stomach problem last weekend, I got in two movies at least partially made in China and whose releases caused some controversy.

Mission: Impossible III played nice with the People's Republic, which only lets a few foreign films play in theaters each year, shooting on location with a local and not making evil Communists the bad guys. For this they're getting screwed over, bumped from their release date until a good two months after release in the rest of the world because part of June and July are apparently "no foreigners allowed" month. Which means it'll be good and bootlegged by the time it gets there. It's tempting to laugh, because the victims are Viacom and Tom Cruise, and that's like feeling bad about Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees getting a raw deal on something, but it's still a kind of a jerk move.

Meanwhile, coming the other direction, The Promise originally had its distribution rights purchased by the Weinstein Company, who promptly showed that it wasn't Disney demanding cuts by getting out the scissors. The Chinese studio balked, the rights reverted, and Warner Independant picked up the rights. And, by the time it got released in the U.S., half an hour was cut out anyway.

This drive me nuts. When Mission: Impossible opens in China, will it have fifteen or twenty minutes cut out? Does Warner really make enough in extra ticket sales to justify what it costs to hire an uncredited editor to do this, especially when they also have to be losing ticket sales from people who will just get it off YesAsia or the like if they can't see it uncut?

Now, The Promise probably wouldn't have become a good movie with another twenty-five or so minutes, although there were spots where it could, perhaps, use some airing out. Of course, I've read reviews of the full-lenth version on festival and Asian film blogs saying it could use cutting. But when you consider that this didn't add an extra showtime, what good does it do, commercially?

One other thing that's interesting is that the two films have complementary weaknesses. The Promise is lush and out there, while Mission: Impossible is kind of businesslike. They're both big time action movies, but I think I'd prefer the crazy to the professional. I like M:I 3, but there were times when I didn't think I was liking it as much as I was expected to, whereas The Promise dropped my jaw on a regular basis. Sure, sometimes it was in disbelief, but it at least had the ability to surprise me at any moment.

Mission: Impossible III

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 May 2006 at AMC Boston Common #14 (First-run)

Three is the dangerous number in franchises. It's where the audience sort of knows what to expect and starts wondering why they should watch the new one which may not be any good when they've got the ones they know they like on DVD. Producers Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner knew this going in, and sought to forestall it by making each Mission Impossible entry a fresh start with new co-stars, writers, directors, etc. It's a dangerous game, especially since they chose a guy with no feature experience to follow two very big names for the director's chair. Choosing a guy on his way up rather than guys whose best work may be behind them seems to work out, though, as J.J. Abrams turns in a solidly enjoyable movie.

Fans of Abrams's spy series Alias will recognize the gimmick he uses to open the movie right off: The hero in deep trouble - here, Cruise's Ethan Hunt is chained to a chair while Philip Seymour Hoffman's Owen Davian threatens a woman who clearly means a lot to him. One shocking denouement later, we jump back in time to examine how Hunt got himself into this situation: He was pulled out of the party celebrating his engagement to Julia (Michelle Monaghan), by a mission to rescue Lindsey Ferris (Keri Russell), an agent he'd trained. Accompanying him on the mission is old friend Luther Strickell (Ving Rhames), along with pilot/driver Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and infiltration specialist Zhen (Maggie Q). The mission leads to a suspected mole, an off-the-books mission, and Davian swearing revenge, all of which involve people and things being shot at and blowing up.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Promise (Wu Ji)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 May 2006 at AMC Harvard Square #1 (First-run)

The Promise is crazy, but it is for the most part the good kind of crazy. It's big, fantastical and epic, combining grand scale with individual passion. It's absolutely gorgeous to look at. It's also utterly ridiculous, with action that leaps from exaggerated to cartoonish, a plot driven by trivial things, and special effects that occasionally fall well short of the cinematography that surrounds them. The film careens back and forth across the line between glorious excess and excessive excess.

Back in the time of myth and legend, there was a kingdom where gods and men lived alongside each other. It was not a peaceful place, though - when we first meet Qingcheng, she's a girl of about five, scavenging among the dead soldiers for food and clothes. As she flees the scene, she meets the goddess Manshen (Hong Chen), who offers her the chance to grow up a beauty among beauties, rich, and wanting for nothing, except that she will lose every man she loves. Being five, hungry, and not able to comprehend what it means to be in love, she accepts the bargain.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Monsters: Slither, Gamera 3, Silent Hill

Matt and I went to Silent Hill after failing to spend a bunch of money in Cambridge SoundWorks - I had a coupon, but they didn't have the Sony DVR that was hooked up to a TV in the demo room for sale, and they wouldn't allow a coupon to be used on a Creative MP3 player. And that wound up being a sort of unsatisfying experience, as well.

I've generally stopped participating in the "that's it, I'm not going to theaters any more" on the HTF because it's kind of hopeless. The folks who complain on those threads either have much thinner skins than me, are looking to justify the money they spent on their home systems, or just live in less pleasant places to go out for a movie. I still figure that it's a pretty good value for money, but sometimes even my patience is tested.

Silent Hill was just filled with people apparently unable to just sit down and watch a movie and respect that the other people in the theater did not come to listen to them. I've got no problem with laughing, gasping, applauding, or even the rare comment that just comes out because, hey, it can't be held in. But keeping up a running commentary that I can hear four rows in front of you is not cool, and the miscreant to our left... If you say "this sucks, I'm leaving", do the lot of us a favor and actually do so.

At least it was during an awful movie. Even more annoying was the just plain sparse attendance for Slither, a thoroughly enjoyable horror with comedy that completely tanked at the box office despite a likable cast, working both the scary and the funny well, and some cool effects. It got crushed under Ice Age 2 and deserved much, much better.

As to Gamera 3... It actually stands alone pretty well - I haven't seen any previous Gamera movies, though I may seek the others out. Not a great movie, and it sort of bites off more than it can chew, but it's better to see a movie aspire to something big and not quite make it than go overboard on something small.

Speaking of which... Next week's Eye-Opener at the Brattle is Mutual Appreciation, which will likely drive me nuts if director Andrew Bujalski's last film, Funny Ha Ha is any indication. Bujalski is also appearing with the film tomorrow night at the Harvard Film Archive; it's not clear whether or not he'll be at the Brattle Sunday morning.

Not like I'd have the stones to ask why he opts to waste people's time by chronicling the mundane, anyway. I talk big online but in a genuine Q&A...


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 April 2006 at the AMC Fenway #9 (First-run)

At some point during the pre-production of Slither, I imagine James Gunn getting lost walking through the Universal office building. He's supposed to get someone from Rogue Pictures to sign off on his micro-budgeted direct to video horror movie. But, instead, he winds up with the main studio guys, who see his paperwork and absently sign off on it, since it looks legit. Suddenly, he's got a whole bunch of extra money and a decent cast, and he decides to make the most of it.

The story is standard B-movie stuff: Meteor falls to Earth near a small southern town. A couple people off in the woods get killed, and the little slugs that emerge from it wind up inside a local (Michael Rooker), who starts acting weird. Well, weirder; anyone with a name like Grant Grant is going to be unusual to start with. Soon, people and livestock are disappearing, and local sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) is on the case, along with mayor Jack MacReady(Gregg Henry), the wife of the possessed man, Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks), whom Bill has had a crush on since elementary school. They track Grant to the woods behind the Strutemyer farm, where they realize that their problems are decidedly not of this Earth.

Read the rest at HBS.

Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (Gamera 3: Iris Kakusei)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2006 at the Harvard Film Archive (Modern Japanese Film)

Shusuke Kaneko realizes something that a lot of other kaiju directors often ignore: Giant monsters kill. And not just other giant monsters, either - those buildings they knock over on their way to fight other monsters are occupied. Where most movies portray a kaiju rampage as mostly a tragedy to historic preservationists and insurance companies (but a boon to the Japanese construction industry!), a skyscraper-sized flying turtle plowing through the city is going to leave widows and orphans.

Such is the message at the beginning of the movie, where pretty scientist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) is investigating a Gyaos attack in a remote Micronesian village. Gamera had foiled the Gyaos four years earlier, destroying a good deal of Tokyo in the process - with the fatalities including (then) eight-year-old Ayana's mother and father. Now living with cousins in the country, Ayana (Ai Maeda) doesn't have much patience for those who say Gamera is their friend. As it would happen, her classmate Tatsunari Moribe (Yuu Koyama) has been given the responsibility to guard a rocky egg by his grandfather. No worries - this egg hasn't done anything in centuries; no-one can move it. Except, apparently, Ayana. It hatches, Ayana names it "Iris" after her cat that Gamera killed, and they bond over their mutual dislike of the giant turtle. Those who don't anticipate a Gamera-Iris smackdown clearly entered the theater without noting the name of the movie.

Read the rest at HBS.

Silent Hill

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 April 2006 at AMC Boston Common #1 (First-run)

At the turn of the century, a French filmmaker named Christophe Gans made one of the best action/adventure films in recent memory, The Brotherhood of the Wolf. Since that time, he's been attached to other promising-sounding projects, but they all seemed to get stuck in development hell somewhere along the line. His name being attached to the Silent Hill movie was a surprise, but one which perhaps said good things about a film derived from a video game than rather than bad things about his career. The good news is, that turned out to be the case. The bad news is, it's not nearly enough.

Gans is a talented director, and he and his crew throw some great, creepy visuals up on screen. He's good at using special effects, he can stage a heck of an action scene, and he's not bad at building tension at all. When the movie finally got to its big ending set piece, it kicked into pretty high gear, delivering a whole raft of nasty/fun gross-out bits and a suitably cataclysmic finale. I'd be pretty willing to absolve him of blame for all the parts that aren't up to snuff - not reasonable, I know, but I loved Brotherhood so much - except that the thing could probably stand to lose twenty minutes, and his name did pop up when the writing credits appeared on screen. Sure, Roger Avary is credited with the screenplay, but screwing things up this bad takes a team effort.

Read the rest at HBS.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Found just lying around: Old capsules

Just Friends

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2005 at the AMC Boston Common #11 (First-run)

I like Ryan Reynolds and Amy Smart. Reynolds has a fun, relaxed persona that constantly threatens to be snide and off-putting but almost always pulls up just short; Smart is pretty and looks like she has the Cameron Diaz thing going on, where she seems like she'd be most comfortable in a sports bar, having fun as just one of the guys. They're both kind of minor talents, when you get down to it, but a lot of folks have had more success with less ability.

So why does it seem like everything they're in sucks? Come on, it's not like like you can't tell what their strengths are by now. So why are you putting Reynolds in a fat suit in half the scenes and making him flat-out unpleasant in most of the rest? Why aren't you giving Smart any sort of personality she can exaggerate into goofy lovability? Shouldn't one of the first goals of any romantic comedy be to make the main characters interesting and appealling? Instead, we get a pairing that is bland at best; it's lucky the film has Anna Faris as an over-the-top pop star trapped in a small town and Chris Marquette as Reynolds's obnoxious little brother.

This shouldn't be that hard; everyone in the cast is a known quantity. Maybe you won't get a great movie out of them, but an entertaining hour and a half doesn't seem like too much to ask.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 November 2005 at the AMC Boston Common #13 (First-run)

Harry Potter is a complete tool.

When you get right down to it, he's got to be one of the least impressive chosen ones ever. Through the first few movies, he's mostly spent his time getting his butt kicked, only to have his friends or the ghost of his dead mother pull him out. Here, he winds up literally being Voldermort's tool, easily manipulated without ever really getting a handle on what's going on.

Also, maybe I'm expecting a little much from my children's-entertainment-with-appeal-to-adults, but some things in the story just don't scan: The whole tri-wizard tournament thing. I'm trying to imagine the permission slip that parents have to sign for this. "Why, yes, I'm totally okay with my child participating in potentially lethal bloodsports. Don't let down the side, son!" Maybe it makes more sense in the original novel; the series has progressed to the point where it's adapting giant-size books, and I seem to remember a fan telling me that the Quiddich tournament briefly glipsed in the opening is a major subplot in the book, providing comic relief in terms of how it stays hidden from the mundane humans. I imagine other things which are treated as important in the end are actually built up: A character dies in a way that I gather is supposed to be shocking, but he wasn't used enough in the film for it to really have an effect, and Hermione makes a comment about how the schools must work together rather than against each other wihch doesn't really seem to reference the events of the film.

But, to a certain extent, that's just me being cranky. To say that the film does make up for its thin script with a few exceptional set pieces is putting it mildly; all the tasks in the Tri-Wizard Tournament are suitably grand scale, and the effects guys have had enough experience with specific visuals and the general look of the series that the whole thing looks much smoother, without the occasional unevenness the first film displayed. Director Mike Newell picks up right where Alfonso Caroun left off, using mostly "civilian" costumes and putting more sinister corners in Hogwarts. The cast, by now, is familiar and comfortable in their roles, working together with the apparent ease of that of a long-running television series.

I don't find the Harry Potter series magical; as I've said, Harry's a tool and I really don't like the way it sets up its world - the idea of escaping to a secret world where you're the chosen one despite your parents' apparent disdain is great for kids, but as an adult I wonder why, if these magicians can do so freaking much, they feeding the hungry or ending war (really, they're self-absorbed jerks who think they're above us poor muggles). But they're fun annual diversions.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 November 2005 at the Landmark Embassy #3 (First-run)

Movies like this one are why I've moved to just playing quick catch-up when I've alread reviewed the last movie I've seen. Back in November, I had some strong feelings on this movie, and how, even though it remained fairly faithful to the text of the book, the tone and feel struck me as far, far off. But now, it's almost four months later, and it's just not cohering as well.

What it comes down to, I think, is that in bringing his novella to the screen, Steve Martin has downgraded Ray Porter, the wealthy middle-aged man he plays from a co-lead on his onw sort of journey of discovery to a supporting player, and given Jason Schwartzman's Jeremy more screen time. Claire Danes's Mirabelle remains about the same, but the result is that her story becomes more conclusive - where in the book, Jeremy seems more like The Next Step, in the movie he's well-rounded enough to possibly be The One. Maybe making a movie made Martin more squeamish about ending it on Ray and Mirabelle having a sort of father-daughter relationship (considering the earlier, you know, sex) and he opted to make their relationship more clearly exploitive on Ray's part.

The end result, though, mostly works. Martin and director Anand Tucker find the proper amount to preserve the novel's relative austerity without making the film a chore to get through. A big part of that is Schwartzman, whose stumbling awkwardness is out there for all to see rather than tightly reined in like the other characters'. There's a real sense of the aimlessness of their lives, and one can see how the characters might even feel they're almost pointless. Danes, especially, is able to breathe life into her character and make her feel far more solid than the Mirabelle we always viewed from a remove in the book.

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006, Day 6: The Proposition

And we close the book on another IFFB. I started the night out with short package 1 at the Coolidge, having more than a few good laughs. It contained a couple repeats from ones playing with other films at the fest. Then it was onto the T and up to Davis Square, where the line for The Proposition (and the other closing night shows) literally reached around the block, if you allow that the building housing the Somerville Theater, Someday Café and assorted other businesses is about the size of a city block. When they finally let pass-holders in for the movie, I got a much better seat than my place in line probably merited because I had come to rest near the entrance to the theater and I was much closer than the people technically ahead of me but on the other side of the building.

Pretty darn great movie, though. My only irritation was that I was supposed to get back home and let Matt in before 11 or so and it started almost 45 minutes later than scheduled, and was followed by one of those Q&A sessions that fall into control of people who love to hear themselves talk. I probably harp on this a lot, but I feel very strongly about this: None of the other four hundred people in the theater came to hear you run on about the actor's past works, or basically answer your own question. Getting Danny Huston to say "I think you've summed it up nicely" is not a personal victory for you.

Ah, well. That's enough festival-ing until Fantasia, when I will thankfully be trying to balance three-plus movies a day with vacation, rather than work.

The Proposition

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 April 2006 at Somerville Theater #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

Just when you think the Western has been completely de-romanticized, someone goes and makes a movie that shows you that there was still, in fact, a little rose coloring left in those glasses. For The Proposition, director John Hilcoat and writer Nick Cave manage this by packing the whole works up and shipping it to a hot, insect-ridden corner of the Australian Outback. There they drop a nasty moral dilemma on us, with the only way to the other side through a violent path of blood. It's fantastic.

The proposition of the title is a simple one - two of the three notorious Burns brothers have been captured. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), in charge of the local garrison, makes Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) a terrible offer: He will hang youngest brother Mike (Richard Wilson) in seven days unless Charlie brings back the corpse of their oldest brother, Arthur (Danny Huston). It's a terrible deal, but Charlie takes it - Mikey is a little slow and decent-hearted, and Arthur is a sociopath; if Stanley keeps his word, Charlie and Mike will go free. But a lot can happen in a week: The Burns gang is all being held responsible for the brutal slaughter of a local family, and don't take kindly to the idea of any of them getting off scott-free - even Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson) disagrees with this tactic. The natives are stirred up and ready to kill any white man. And as much as Charlie has come to hate his older brother and took Mike away from his influence, he's going to try to find a way to save both.

Read the rest at HBS.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006, Day 5: Hitting the Wall (Thin)

There was supposed to be more than one review here, but I bit off far more than I could chew. I wanted to get a review of Abduction up in time for the second showing, so that kept me up until four, then there was a certain minimum amount of cleaning to do before Matt could get moved in. Then an hour and a half of sleep, a shower, and helping Mom & Bill dump all the stuff I left in their basement seven years ago in our kitchen, emptying out Matt's Northeastern dorm room, dumping that in our living room, and then taking them to Fire & Ice for breakfast because, really, it had to be a sort of crappy trip for them - load up the van with stuff, leave North Yarmouth at about six in the morning, help move stuff, and then head back North because I had film festival stuff I wanted to do and Matt had to help his girlfriend move, too. By the time we finished eating, I'd missed out on the start of Red, White, Black, and Blue.

The thing about Fire & Ice is that you get unlimited trips to the grill. So after the first trip which involved a big ol' pancake with coconut, raspberries, and chocolate chips, I felt like I had a little room left, and I might not eat again until late, so why not get an omelette, too? Answer: Because between the time I picked out my ingredients and the time I arrive back at the table, the pancake had sort of settled. By the time I finished the omelette, I was overstuffed to the point of lethargy. I wound up watching most of the baseball game before heading out to Coolidge Corner.

For a film about anorexics. Man, there is nothing so odd as watching a movie about eating disorders with a big lump of food in your gut. It's humbling, though, just because it puts me in a place where I can't really feel any superiority towad the extreme cases on screen. After all, my own relationship with food isn't exactly perfect, at least not on that day.

Q&A afterward was handled by Amanda Micheli, who served as cinematographer and producer and came to the festival a couple years earlier with her own film, Double Dare.

So, after, that, it's a rush to Somerville to see The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. It's the new one by the Brothers Quay, whom I make a real effort to like. See, they've got uncanny skills with visuals - if you've seen Frida, they did the surreal puppet sequence - but they can't make a story exciting. Now, certainly, I was not in the best position to see the movie - two hours of sleep all day, a big breakfast pushing me toward a food coma, and seats toward the front of the theater where I really would have to crane my head up to see. I think I can safely say that I saw about fifteen minutes of the film's 100, more or less randomly scattered throughout. I truly hope there wasn't anybody in the "rush" line who was denied a ticket so that I could nap there.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 April 2006 at Coolidge Corner Theater #2 (Independent Film Festival of Boston 2006)

Thin is difficult to watch. Eating disorders are an uncomfortable subject under any circumstances, but Lauren Greenfield's film steps it up a notch by being exactly what we say we want documentaries to be - clearheaded, objective, and non-judgmental. That's a rough deal, since there will likely be a number of times during the film's running time when the audience will want to yell at the camerawoman to do something, even if they're not sure what.

Greenfield sets her cameras up in the Renfrew Center, a residential clinic for women with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders. Mainly, we follow four women: 15-year-old Brittany, who learned her bad habits young; 25-year-old Shelly, who has been fed with a surgically implanted tube for the last two years but learned that it provides, as she puts it, "direct access to [her] stomach", making purging with a syringe much less unpleasant than the usual methods; 29-year-old Polly, who becomes Shelly's best friend at the clinic; and 30-year-old Alisa, a mother of two worried that she won't be able to see her kids grow up. We follow them through morning and evening weigh-ins, precisely monitored meals, group therapy, one-on-one psychological, medical, and nutritional examination. We see them receive visitors, and watch them break the facilities every rule.

Read the rest at HBS.