Sunday, June 04, 2006

The SIX-MONTH Lighning Round (Part One)

Stuff piles up, especially when you go festival-crazy and then give those movies priority. So, to clean out my notebook, it's time to give capsules to six months of movies that fell between the cracks. I really wish I could give some of them more time, but they're just not fresh enough in my mind for me to do them justice.

Gads, there's a DVD link available on Amazon for all of these. Where does the time go?

First-Run Films

The Ice Harvest

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 November 2005 at Loews Boston Common #9 (first-run)

A fun crime movie promoted as a caper comedy - sure, the director did Groundhog Day, but that's not particularly relevant. I don't know how well that sort of marketing works - it gets the first guy in the door, but does he then give it bad word-of-mouth because it's not really a comedy? Dunno. What I liked about it was how it was a bleak, noir-ish thriller with opportunistic comedy. John Cusack gives a thoroughly enjoyable performance as the (mostly) down-on-his-luck guy at the center, and Billy Bob Thornton is good as his partner in crime, and Oliver Platt steals every scene he's in as he is wont to do.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 December 2005 at AMC Fenway #1 (first-run)

This does a pretty nifty job of showing the insanity of military service during the first Gulf War. I've often read that the American military's unofficial motto is "hurry up and wait", and that's what's going on here, as directionless young men wind up in a service that provides them with structure but little direction, even when they're sent to war. Jake Gyllenhaal is as good as usual, and the director captures the right kind of smart-assery, something I think Mendes failed to do with American Beauty (which just annoyed the heck out of me).

Aeon Flux

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 December 2005 at Loews Boston Common #17 (first-run)

Here is something that could have been a great movie. I love so many things about it, from the funky visuals and tech to the far-out sci-fi concept that serves as its underpinning. The central idea of who the guys running the city are is basically swiped from C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen, but it's a good idea to swipe and the focus is different. I'll even forgive that it uses idea of clones being connected to their predecessors' lives by more than their DNA, even though the story could really do without it.

Unfortunately, despite having more cool ideas than about ten typical sci-fi movies put together, it doesn't execute in a cool way. It's like the actors and director can't really relate to that kind of thing, and thus can't invest any emotion in it. It's why I half suspect that really great science fiction will remain the sole province of the written word for a long time - it just requires the writer and the reader to grasp the concepts, rather than the writer, audience, and an entire cast and crew.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 December 2005 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

Did I really mark this down as near-perfect six months ago. Huh. A lot of details have escaped me since then, but what I remember, I like a lot: George Clooney gaining weight to make his matter-of-fact delivery seem less charismatic and more beaten down. Alexander Siddig being one of the few Star Trek supporting characters to ever have a great role after his series ended. Jeffery Wright, who is rapidly becoming recognized as an enormously valuable supporting actor, finding his ethics in conflict with his greed. The stark pessimism about where the world's dependence on oil is leading us. The only issue I had was that there were a lot of characters who would occasionally disappear for a bit; you might need a scorecard to keep track of how some of the characters are connected.

Playing at the Brattle with Why We Fight this coming week (7-8 June), and worth checking out.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2005 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

The Narnia books are some of the last books I remember being read to me; the early ones, at least, were read alound by my fifth-grade teacher after lunchtimes. The story is as good as I remembered it, and the adaptation is very nice. Tilda Swinton is a fantastic White Witch, and the talking animals and mythological creatures are fanciful, but not cartoony or overly childish. It's material that could easily be juvenile, but manages to be kid-friendly without being kid-exclusive.

The way the end is written kind of bugs me. It hinges on the kids being pure of heart and honest at the like, but Aslan is kind of skating on technicalities and misleading his friends and rivals alike. But, hey, that's the sort of thing most Christian allegories leave out, right?

Fun With Dick & Jane

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2005 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

I like Jim Carrey. I like Alec Baldwin. Heck, I even like Tea Leoni, and they all seem to be doing the right thing in this movie. And yet, it doesn't quite come together. It's funny more often than not, and enjoyable absurd at times, but even though Carrey is really trying so hard, it's not nearly as funny as it should be. Maybe he's being too zany while the rest of the cast is going for deadpan; or maybe it's just a disconnect between the larger-than-life comedy and the way it rails against corporate excess and greed.

Especially when you see a whole screenful of credits about Mr. Carrey's assistants, hairdressers, drivers, trainers, etc. I mean, way to miss the point, Mr. Carrey.

The Family Stone

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2006 at AMC Fenway #1 (first-run)

Nice cast. Good sentiment. Most of the funny bits work, at least a little. But, when I got out of it, it was just sort of time spent. I think it tries to force the family's quirkiness on the audience a little, like they're being aggressively eccentric. I guess you need to do that to make Sarah Jessica Parker's character sympathetic, because otherwise she's just unlikably standoffish. That does introduce Clare Danes into the picture, though, which is a Good Thing, as she's as easily charming as the rest of the cast is trying to be.

I kind of question the ending, though. It's awfully tidy. What are the chances of brothers or sisters (let alone both) changing parties that smoothly?


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2006 at AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run)

Steven Spielberg has been on one of the more incredible rolls in modern film history over the past few years, setting projects up and knocking them out with an efficiency few other modern-day directors can match. And not little movies, either - big, elaborate productions. Munich continues this string; it's tense and despairing, demonstrating just what a toll the missions are taking on the characters. It starts out as a thriller and darkens until it's a pit that seems impossible to climb out of.

It's not quite that dark; this is a Spielberg film, after all, but one where the optimism is tempered. It never compromises and makes the targets sympathetic, but slowly reveals the taking of vengeance and the rage that leads to it as being just as destructive as the original assassination of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

Spielberg's good. He's been good for a long time, but this is the type of movie that makes everyone realize how good he is - even the people who think themselves too sophiticated for Steven Spielberg movies.

Match Point

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 January 2006 at Landmark Kenall Square #2 (first-run)

Eh. This is what lowered expectations get you.

Match Point isn't a bad movie at all. If it had been a British film produced by a small English company with a director that had been working for the BBC, it would have popped up in a few theaters in the U.S. and barely been noticed. But, it's Woody Allen's new one, and since Woody's movies have been so bad for so long, this looks pretty good. Heck, just the fact that it's got a significantly different feel from his other recent movies makes it feel fresher than it is.

But when you get right down to it, it's a familiar movie about the attempts to break into English gentility that's unusal only in the auteur making it and being set in the here and now, rather than the early part of the twentieth century. The big negative is that it doesn't display any of the wit that Allen at his best is capable of and traditionally leavens this cold genre.

The Matador

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 January 2006 at AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run)

Pierce Brosnan wasn't my favorite James Bond, but he handled the role competently enough, given how uninspiring the movies surrounding him were. But he's been enormously successful deconstructing the character, first with the amoral, corrupt spy of The Tailor of Panama and now with this movie's hit man on the verge of a breakdown.

It's a funny movie, as Brosnan's role of international assassin is a life many in the audience would dream about and he can do and say anything he feels, whether it be hedonistic or callous, because who is someone like that accountable to? No-one. But he lives up to the script's declarations of how toxic that life is. Greg Kinnear makes a darn good straight man for him, jealous of the freedom but ultimately better than that. The two have great chemistry with each other, and make it a fun movie to watch, even when it turns serious.

The Producers

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 January 2006 at AMC Fenway #4 (first-run)

As much as it may surprise people who've talked to me, I don't have anything against the musical as a form. I just really think it's got no room for error. Failure to live up to potential that would only hurt a regular film (or play) will make a musical unwatchable. Fortunately, the film of The Producers never takes that kind of hit. It accepts its artifice and works with it.

What problems it has really have nothing to do with being a musical. If this had just been a straight remake of the original movie, it would have worked with the same issues: It abandons its cynicism in the last act, and Matthew Broderick just doesn't quite grab the audience the way the rest of the cast does.

Still, the rest of the cast is good enough to make up for it. Nathan Lane is a guy who can ham his way through anything and have it work, and his exuberance is exactly what the film needs from him. And Uma Thurman is fantastic - she throws every ounce of her considerable sex appeal on-screen, plays dizzy-blonde without being alienating. Expanding her role seems to have been a great choice.

The New World

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 January 2006 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

Terrence Malick does beautiful well. This film chronicalling the arrival of English sailors on the untamed Virginia coast and their early encounters with the local people is lush and gorgeously shot; several sequences were captured in 65mm and it's a crying shame it wasn't projected that way in very many places (including Boston). As with his last film, The Thin Blue Line, Malick leads the audience through his world without much reliance on dialogue.

One thing I really liked is that Malick doesn't play this as simply "cruel Europeans destroy beautiful nature-loving native people". John Smith encountering the unspoiled Americas is only half the story; we also get to see Pocahontas coming to England and being astonished by cities and the hectic, crowded life there. It doesn't make the history any less tragic, but does make the story more nuanced.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2006 at Landmark Kendall Square #2 (first-run)

Art films that pick up genre trappings are among the most frustrating type of movie for me to watch. I love mystery stories, and when the filmmakers set up a mystery only to be more interested in subverting it, avoiding resolution and enjoying the feeling of paranoia. I want a bloody resolution, and I don't find being denied it particularly clever or enjoyable.

Which is the point, of course. Doesn't mean I have to like it.

But maybe I'll give it another chance; it's playing at the Brattle June 14-15.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2006 at AMC Fenway #4 (first-run)

Takashi Miike makes a cameo in this movie, and I always imagined him watching the dailies with Eli Roth, saying "yes, that's kind of fucked up. But have you considered slicing off her nipples?"

Hostel brings the exploitation, but that's about it. The violence and mutilation of the human body makes one uncomfortable, but never really takes it to the next level, where it's disturbing, even to someone who's been desensitized by years of horror movies.

A Good Woman

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2006 at AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run)

Not really a terrible movie, but it didn't do a whole lot for me. My ears pricked up at "Scarlett Johansson in a film based on an Oscar Wilde play", but Johansson doesn't really have a lot to do until the end other than look pretty. Helen Hunt is well-cast as a beautiful but aging woman who has come to Italy after wearing out her welcome in New York, setting her sights on Johansson's character's husband. The movie's smooth and not unpleasant, and some of the casting is spot-on. It just should be a lot better.


* * (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2006 at AMC Fenway #1 (first-run)

Ugh. I know, we all like to say that you can make a good movie without much of a budget, but there are times when a little money spent would be much appreciated. Take Hoodwinked, which actually gets some mileage out of its kind of played-out premise (a fairy-tale world where folks talk in modern vernacular and have present-day attitudes) by doing a nice multiple-perspective thing and having a few good voices (Patrick Warburton, for instance). It's got a better song from Ben Folds than anything he did for Over The Hedge.

But, man, is it cheap-looking. We're talking video-game quaity computer animation, and not even during the cut scenes. It's just a thoroughly unimpressive movie visually, mostly bland but with the occasional strong element, thoroughly undercut by the low-quality animation.

Why We Fight

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2006 at Landmark Kendall Square #8 (first-run)

It's almost a lecture delivered on film, but it's a well-delivered one. Why We Fight has a strong opinion, but it manages to avoid being insulting to those with a different one. It feels well-sourced, with ego checked at the door. It constructs its argument methodically, with information that may seem familiar from high school social-studies class but which you haven't likely heard put together so well in this long.

Playing at the Brattle this week (7-8 June) with Syriana.

The World's Fastest Indian

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2006 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

This has a flat-out fantastic trailer, and the movie isn't the straight-ahead adrenaline rush that that is. It's still a whole bunch of fun. Anthony Hopkins is all laid-back charm as Burt Munro, a New Zealand engineer spending his retirement customizing his classic Indian motorcycle. He goes to America to test-run it on the Utah salt flats, and it's a fun road movie as Munro encounters a crop of American eccentrics. Then he gets there and the speed freak stuff begins.

And that's the super-fun stuff, though everything coming before is a blast, too.

Tristam Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2006 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

This sucker's playing at the Brattle the next couple days (5-6 June, with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), and if the Red Sox weren't playing the Yankees, I'd be tempted to give it a second chance. The metahumor is fun, if on the dry side, and maybe a little excessive. It really, really seemed to drag while I was watching it, and I don't know if a second chance is going to make it better.

Pity. I've liked Steve Coogan before, and him playing a weird, snotty Steve Coogan is almost always a kick. Gillian Anderson has an extended cameo type role.

Maybe I'll give it another try. Sometime. When it doesn't interfere with Sox-Yankees.


* * (out of four)
Seen 18 February 2006 at AMC Fenway #8 (first-run)

This is a pretty bad movie, dull and full of "thriller" clichés. Harrison Ford is capable of so much better, and it just makes me sad to see the most consistently good movie star of my lifetime reduced to something that is, at its best, competent. I think I had more fun waiting for Mary Lynn Rajskub to do something Chloe-esque, and then enjoying it when it happened.

Although, I have to admit that I did enjoy finding a glitch in the AMC MovieWatcher system through watching a movie about security holes. It works like this: The system at the theater downloads your MovieWatcher points from a master database every morning, so if you have, say, 88 points on the morning of 18 February, you can go to Tristam Shandy in Harvard Square and have it say "90 points! You get a free movie ticket!", then hike to Fenway to see Firewall and have it say "90 points! You get a free movie ticket!" Then, when you see another movie the next day, it has sent all that information back and added it up so that you have 92 points to start with. I'd feel bad about exploiting this, but, hey, I first discovered it when I was denied a free soda because it though I reached 48 points twice, rather than 50.

16 Blocks

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2006 at AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

It's distressingly easy to forget that Bruce Willis can be a darn good actor when properly motivated, especially if he's in a run of uninspiring crap. Working with a name director like Richard Donner can bring out good Willis, as will having co-stars like Mos Def and Barry Morse. It's the Sean Connery syndrome: Coast when you can, but don't let the audience leave the theater talking about how much they like the other guys.

I think he's also enjoying the idea of showing his age. Here he plays an aging cop limping to retirement, when this sudden attack of conscience motivates him to do the right thing, even if it means facing down the crooked cops who have allowed him to be lazy for the past few years. The cast and crew wind up making a movie that works like the best westerns and action dramas of yore - not wall-to-wall pyrotechnics, but a quest that has room for some good set pieces but also focuses the audience on the imperfect hero.


* ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2006 at AMC Fenway #7 (first-run)

The first five minutes or so of Kurt Wimmer's follow-up to the spiffy Equilibrium have such potential - mocked-up comic book covers from the industry's best artists, a crazy-fun over-the-top special-effects sequence, and some decent action. And then it all goes to hell. The fight between human-types and vampire-types becomes arbitrary, the action choreography seems to get worse as the film goes on (often, Milla Jovovich seems to be posing rather than fighting), and Cameron Bright shows up (I'm guessing directors like him because he's very professional and grown-up on the set, because he's sure not a likable presence).

By the end, it's just loud and stupid, completely failing to live up to that early promise.

The Pink Panther '06

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2006 at AMC Fenway #8 (first-run)

As much as I feared this being a disaster, it's really not. The idea to mostly refocus "The Pink Panther" it as a kid-oriented franchise is not exactly ideal, but it gives Steve Martin the chance to make his character less a completely slavish imitation of Peter Sellers and more another take on the character. The slapstick works at a reasonable rate, Kevin Kline does a very nice frustrated slow burn, and the Clive Owen "guest appearance" is extremely funny. As is Jean Reno dancing, after being so reserved for the rest of the movie.

Do I necessarily want to see a new Steve Martin Pink Panther movie every couple of years? I could do without it, easily. It's not the horrifying prospect it was when this movie was being made and its release was being delayed, though.

The Three Burials of Meliques Estrada

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 March 2006 at the Coolidge Corner Theater #1 (first-run)

Tommy Lee Jones is a guy we really don't see often enough. He makes every movie he's in better, and his combination of keen intelligence and down-home straightforwardness is on display here as he makes his directing debut as well as starring in the picture. We're given a picture of a couple people having a hard time dealing with the world the live in: One, Jones's ranch-hand, is angry over the lack of justice and concern for his friend; the other, January Jones's Lou Ann, is going stir-crazy because her husband has put her in a position where she's nothing but a wife.

The film is beautiful, with Jones encountering a number of interesting characters as he brings his friend's body back to his home in Mexico to be laid to rest, and Jones knows and understands the land like a Wester director of old.

Winter Passing

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2006 at the AMC Harvard Square #4 (first-run)

Gads, another "writers are so friggin' tortured, and they mess up their loved ones, too" movie. In this case, the writer is Ed Harris, the messed-up daughter is Zooey Deschanel, and they are re-united because a book publisher wants Zooey's character to retrieve her parents' love letters. Mom is deceased, which is apparently what set Harris's character all the way around the bend.

There's also Amelia Warner as the former grad student who is calm and devoted enough to make the rest of the cast seem extra-special dysfunctional, and Will Ferrell to annoy people. They're all very sad in their own ways, because writers think that makes them sound even more interesting.

Gah. Enough already.

Failure to Launch

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 March 2006 at the AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

I sometimes get the impression that Matthew McConaughey isn't a big star because he chooses movies based on how much fun they look like, as opposed to whether they'll wind up particularly good or benefit his career. Failure to Launch probably looked like a lot of fun - kiss Sarah Jessica Parker, be laid-back and charming, shoot on boats and other nifty places, have some outright silly scenes where otherwise peaceful animals attack him.

And there are probably worse criteria for choosing a project. This is by no means a great movie, but it's a somewhat above-average way to pass a couple hours. It's got what initially seems like a mean premise but turns out to be populated by softies. McConaughey really should be a big star, the way he can breeze through this sort of movie and make you overlook the flaws. Terry Bradshaw and Kathy Bates are fun as his parents who want him out of the house but are still fiercely protective of him, and Justin Bartha and Bradley Cooper are fine foils as his other still-at-home friends. And, hey, Zooey Deschanel is Sarah Jessica Parker's quirky roommate. She's at her best when being funny with a sardonic edge like she is here (especially compared to the drag she was in the other movie I saw that day).

Lucky Number Slevin

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 8 April 2006 at the AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

Aw, man... There is a whole metric ton of folks I like in this movie, and the best thing I can think of to say about it is that I really wish Lucy Liu would play funny and charming more often, because she's unexpectedly good at it, considering all the ice queens she's played. Seriously, the lady needs to re-evaluate her choices.

This is a movie that takes a sharp turn that doesn't really please me - it goes from "guy caught up in bizarre and dangerous situation" to "elaborate revenge plot", and that's not nearly as much fun; it sucks the playfulness right out of the movie. It's also got Bruce Willis sort of coasting, along with Morgan Freeman and Sir Ben Kingsley in supporting roles that aren't nearly as amusing as they should be. And once Josh Hartnett isn't just a guy in over his head and incapable of panicking, all there is to really watch is Liu.

Next up: Brattle (and the like) catch-up.

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