Thursday, May 24, 2007

Catching up to... A month ago.

Some of these films, especially All Through The Night and probably Wristcutters, will be getting full reviews now that I've finished up with the Independent Film Festival of Boston, but a lot of them have slipped far enough out the back of my head that I can't properly give details. The only ones where I'm off HBS/EFC's rating by more than a whole star are Shooter and Diggers, and life's too short to spend too much more time thinking about Shooter, anyway.

The Lookout

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2007 at AMC Boston Common #11 (First-run)

Writers don't generally get fan clubs in Hollywood, so Scott Frank's name probably isn't as familiar as it should be. That's a real shame, because he's contributed to some films that I've liked a lot - Dead Again, Out of Sight, Minority Report, and Get Shorty. The man can flat-out write, and he shows some real skills in the director's chair, too.

One thing I really liked was the way he simultaneously subverted and fulfilled my expectations - based upon that list of credits and the title, I expected something more straightforwardly focused on the crime/caper aspects of it. Instead, for the first two or three acts, it's an examination of Joshua Gordon-Leavitt's character, both in terms of how the process he uses to make in through the day, living with a certain amount of brain damage, and how it feels to have been a Big Deal in high school but now the recipient of pity and charity. Godon-Leavitt is great, and he's supported by a cast full of people I like: Jeff Bridges, Isla Fisher, Bruce McGill.

And it makes the last act, where we finally do get to see the crimes and double-crosses in action, extra delicious: Here's a guy who can't keep tasks in order without notes, and who has trouble with short-term memory, trying to outwit a gang of crooks who know his witness. It's an extra level of suspense when things are up in the air and it makes every little victory especially sweet..

Meet The Robinsons

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 March 2007 at Regal Fenway #10 (First-run) (Digital 3-D)

I'll admit - not a movie that particularly appealed to me at first sight (the initial trailers were, if I recall my reaction correctly, awful). But I'm a sucker for animation and 3-D besides, so I went. Despite the slight headache I had which the 3-D glasses didn't help with. And the sucker won me over.

Seeing John Lasseter's name in the opening credits helped perk things up a little - if he had some input, then it was probably at least a step up from the at-best mediocre job Disney's non-Pixar animated features had been lately. Then it gave me fun banter between its young characters that was neither a string of pop culture references or insults. Then it did some time travel and gave me a retro-futuristic world on a par with Robots without leaning too hard on the "retro". I liked the sign that said "Todayland" outside a shot that looked like Disney World's Tomorrowland. I liked that it didn't deliver quite the time-travel twist I was expecting. I liked the change to a landscape both post-apocalyptic and whimsical. I liked ending it on a quote from Walt Disney.

This doesn't all add up to a great, Pixar-quality film - but it's better than anything Disney has done by itself in a long, long time. It looks like they might finally getting things right again in the House of Mouse.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 April 2007 at AMC Boston Common #12 (First-run)

There is a lot to love in Grindhouse. It's also easy to forgive its faults, because the movie is clearly a labor of love for everybody involved. Only Rodriguez, I think, really goes overboard - Planet Terror could have been even more fun if he hadn't been trying to crap up the picture with digital faux-wear and just looked at it as a chance to make a seventy-minute balls-out action movie. Although maybe with fewer balls actually out. That was gross.

I think he had the best fake trailer of the bunch, too - "Machete" was a riot, although I don't know if the actual film in pre-production can deliver on the insanity promised by that clip. My next-favorite was "Werewolf Women of the SS", which was out of step with the rest but still damn amusing - the Nicolas Cage cameo worked for me even though it turned a lot of folks off. Conversely, I wasn't quite as amused by "Don't" as some; I could see the joke it was grasping for but not quite reaching. "Thanksgiving" was good at being in bad taste.

"Death Proof" was the jewel, though, and I loved it. I liked the opening half that seems more than a little like padding, but authentically so - many grindhouse pictures did a lot of nothing before getting to the good stuff, and Tarantino's nothing is at least enjoyable to watch and listen to. It also goes on long enough that when he kills his characters, it's something that maybe angers the audience a little as well as establishing the killer's bona fides.

Then he gives us Zoe Bell, and makes it perfectly clear to even the folks who didn't see Double Dare just how cool this stuntwoman is. He name-drops Vanishing Point before giving us a pair of fantastic car chases. Note that all the digital crapification to simulate an old, beat-up print is gone during these scenes - Tarantino wants us to have a good look at what's going on. Normally, when someone is holding onto the hood of a speeding car, they're grabbing the wipers or the back side of the hood, face planted in the windshield so that they can easily be doubled with any shots of the face from inside so that the speeding background can be added with rear projection or matte work. Not the deal with Zoe; she's flying all over the place and giving us a real good look at the fear on her face at eighty miles an hour.

I also love how Tarantino shreds the slasher mystique; although Kurt Russell's Stuntman Mike is set up to look cool and fearsome, his attack on Zoe and her friends displays just how pathetic and cowardly he and his ilk are. They only attack people weaker than them, generally after their good and stoned and/or drunk, on terrain they've scouted and made, well, death-proof. When Mike tries to tackle women as competent as these, he's really screwed.

All Through the Night

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 April 2007 at The Brattle Theatre (World War II)

When this movie was made, America hadn't quite gotten involved in WWII - not officially, that is. A wacky caper comedy seems like an odd choice if the aim is propaganda, and it's unlikely many people would have their opinions swayed by this film. As it turns out, Pearl Harbor was attacked about a week after this film's premiere, and that obviously prompted a lot more calls for action than a funny Bogart flick ever could.

In the movie, Bogart plays Alfred "Gloves" Donahue, a friendly neighborhood racketeer who buys candy for kids, loves his mother (Jane Darwell), and doesn't seem to be involved in anything much worse than gambling. He's got no interest in the wars in Europe or Asia or, really, anything in the paper aside from the sports pages. What he does care about is that his favorite baker (Ludwig Stossel) didn't deliver his cheesecake in the morning. Ma has a bad feeling about it, so he investigates, only to find the baker dead. His only lead is Leda Hamilton (Kaaren Verne), a nightclub singer who has ties to Franz Ebbing (Conrad Veidt), whose auction house and toy factories are actually a front for Nazi saboteurs!

The story is, at a basic level, more than a little ridiculous, and the execution is more than a bit silly, too: There's a running gag about Gloves's newlywed driver Barney (Frank McHugh) continually trying to break away from the action to consummate his marriage. The obligatory scene in a nightclub where the title song is sung comes early, and a climactic scene where Gloves and his buddy Sunshine (William Demarest) infiltrate a gathering of Nazi spies is played for broad comedy. It seems a bit incongruous now, but you know what? In 1941, these people weren't the Greatest Generation yet; there was no reason to be overly sentimental. All Through the Night's politics aren't sophisticated - far from it - but it avoids easy soapboxing: It doesn't demonize all German immigrants, and it doesn't have a big moment where Gloves waxes poetic on how he should have been more concerned about more than the sports scores, but from now on... That's the message the film is trying to send, along with how America can make quick work of the Nazis once they set their minds to it, but it doesn't quite just come out and say it.

Full review at HBS.

The Hoax

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 April 2007 at AMC Harvard Square #4 (First-run)

I'm no fan of Richard Gere, as a rule, but he does have the occasional good performance in him. Here, it's in the service of a story I've seen references to before, most notably in Orson Welles's F For Fake. The whole idea of faking Howard Hughes's autobiography actually does fall believably into the category of "so crazy it just might work", and it's fascinating to watch the steps that the participants took to make it happen.

I particularly like Alfred Molina as Gere's researcher friend/partner; as good as Gere is at playing the charismatic schemer who can convince people who should know better that his hogwash is the truth, Molina's character is often the lynchpin on which the scheme depends. It's always a race to see whether he'll break before the enterprise is taken down by the hubris of its leader.


* * (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2007 at Regal Fenway #6 (First-run)

I was reminded, while watching this movie, of why I didn't particularly like Tom Clancy's last non-licensed book: They're stories that try to justify their violence with moral outrage, but they go too far. They answer blood with blood so enthusiastically that they halfway convince the audience that the supposed heroes are monsters too. Shooter ends with a bloodbath the audience has already been specifically told won't change anything, and as such feels more like an act of sadism than catharsis.

Ticks me off, because I like this kind of detail-laden thriller. I wonder how much more I'd like it if it starred someone other than Mark Wahlberg, who's a complete blank here. I wish Kate Mara, whom I'd liked a lot on Jack & Bobby and 24, was given better material for her first starring role. And I wish I'd been able to come out of the end feeling a rush, rather than somewhat dirty.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2007 at AMC Boston Common #7 (First-run)

You put Ryan Gosling, Anthony Hopkins, David Strathairn, and Rosamund Pike in a crime film together, the result should be more interesting than this. It really should.

Hot Fuzz

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2007 at AMC Boston Common #2 (First-run)

Throughout most of this movie, I have to admit, I didn't quite feel the love. It was funny, all right, but not quite Shaun of the Dead funny, and certainly not Spaced funny. And then Simon Pegg flies through the air to kick a granny in the face and I completely lose it.

Pegg's Nicholas Angel becomes more than a bit of a cartoon character at this point, but I don't mind, because the rest of the movie is one funny big-action set piece after another. It just assaults the audience with funny bits, more than making up for any perceived slowness in the middle, when Timothy Dalton is arguably carrying the movie with his hilariously suspicious behavior.

This, folks, is how a parody film should be done - fully aware of the genre's silliness but willing to overcome them even as it mocks. Hot Fuzz is a funny movie, but Simon Pegg and Nick Frost aren't just placeholders to work the jokes around; we care what happens to them, specifically.

Wristcutters: A Love Story

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 April 2007 at The Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

I talked to the local rep theater's programmer the day after it ran Wristcutters: A Love Story, and he was glad to hear that at least some of us in the audience liked it, and weren't just clapping to be polite to the special guest. He'd been trying to book the movie for about a year, and had loved it himself, but recognized that he was drawn to this type of dark romantic fantasy than a general audience might be.

The idea is extremely high-concept: There's a purgatory, we're told, where the souls of suicides wind up, and in a cruel irony, it's just like the world they left, only worse: It's impossible to smile, there's nothing other than the cast-off and lost objects of the living world to be found, there aren't any stars in the sky. Zia (Patrick Fugit) works in a pizzeria there, and is just passing his days until he finds out that his girlfriend Desiree (Leslie Bibb) also killed herself. He enlists the help of his friend Eugene (Shea Whigham) - who has a car, ableit one with a black hole under the passenger's seat) - to look for her. While on the road, they'll pick up Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), a hitch-hiker who thinks she's in the wrong place, and find two very different settlements - a commune run by a friendly sort named Kneller (Tom Waits), and a cult compound run by a would-be Messiah (Will Arnett).

Wristcutters is a road movie, one whose afterlife setting hearkens back to one of the original great road stories, Dante's Divine Comedy. There's also a certain element of The Wizard of Oz in Mikal's quest to find the P.I.C.s (People in Charge) and somehow get back home. Writer/director Goran Dukic doesn't hew too close to those influences, though, nor to the story he adapts (Etgar Keret's "Kneller's Happy Campers"). In some ways, he's not that ambitious: He just wants to illustrate that suicide doesn't solve anything, the same issues will persist whether one is alive or not, and that the possibility of happiness and purpose exists even when they seem impossible.

Full review at HBS.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2007 at The Brattle Theatre (Sunday Eye-Opener)

Diggers is a nice little movie with a pretty decent cast, and I bet that it's peppered with memories from writer Ken Marino's childhood. It's a fairly well-done working man's drama that will resonate with a big chunk of its audience, and even those that don't love it will at least like it.

The diggers of the title are Long Island clammers, and in 1976 things weren't going so well for the individual clamdigger whose family had been doing it for generations: Money is tight, yields are down, and a corporation has purchased exclusive rights to the best waters. It's little wonder Hunt (Paul Rudd) is only doing it because he's known little else; he certainly doesn't want to die on his boat like his father just has. It's a harsh blow to Hunt and his sister Gina (Maura Tierney), but life goes on. For Hunt, that means taking Polaroids of the man-made landscape and meeting Zoey (Lauren Ambrose), a pretty summer resident. For Gina, it's making a connection with Hunt's friend Jack (Ron Eldard) when he comes to help her with repairs on her now-empty house. Then there's Lozo (Ken Marino), whose wife Julie (Sarah Paulson) tells him she is pregnant again just as vandals rip the motor from his boat.

It's easy to be cynical about having seen every bit of this movie before, especially since there aren't that many new twists to it. The corporation is bad in principle and callous in action, Hunt's father will have always gruffly said he should leave photography to the photographers but keep one of his son's pictures for Hunt to find after the old man's death, and a blow-up is almost inevitable once Hunt makes the discover that Jack is sleeping with a thirty-six year-old woman who is perfectly capable of making of making her own decisions. That's all expected, and there's nothing particularly wrong with doing what's expected, if it does that well.

Full review at HBS.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 April 2007 at Regal Fenway #7 (First-run)

Vacancy is a pretty darn good horror movie, serial-killer category. It does just about everything I might want it to do right from the moment that it kics off with opening credits that draw the audience in. I like the director (he did Kontroll); I like the cast (Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, Frank Whaley). I like the straightforward story, both in terms of the couple that can only see the worst in each other rediscovering what they love and the relatively uncomplicated nature of the suspense plot. And I really like how the audience is encouraged to think along with the characters: We see everything they see, so we hunt around the screen for the same clues and try to figure out the safe path out of the hotel.

It's also short, which is fine - you really don't need more than eighty minutes or so for a horror movie. Even with that economy, though, it manages to feel a little slow on the ramp-up. I know that the idea is to get the audience thinking "enough with the bickering already!", but it may do that a little too well. And it's got no really new twists to it, substituting solid execution for innovation.

But that's okay. It's a darn good example of its genre, benefitting greatly from all the talent involved.

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