Friday, August 31, 2007

Rescue Dawn and why I should replace the guy reviewing movies for BostonNOW.

I don't think Rescue Dawn is playing much anywhere, which is a bummer. I caught it on the last day it was in Arlington, and almost missed it there - I'd been doing some work-delay at the office when I noticed that it wasn't on the next day's listings. I'm not sure how I let it slip to a month and a half, other than that it was one that opened while I was in Montreal and then the new releases sort of shouted it down until it was almost too late.

Speaking of Fantasia and new releases... I repurposed my review of Ils (Them) for BostonNOW (link here), and picked one up today to see if they'd used it.

No. And aside form John Black's review being, well, wrong, he goes and blurts out the ending in the second of his three paragraphs. Why do that? Did Mr. Black dislike the movie so much that he had to undercut something the filmmakers clearly didn't want the audience to know, but highlight how they had kept hidden what he chose to blurt out? There's not recommending a movie, and then there's aggressively spoiling the end so that readers might figure there's no point in seeing it.

I kid in the title about how I should replace him - I know I probably wouldn't know the first thing about being an "entertainment editor", but geez - how hard is it to write three short paragraphs without giving away the movie's ending?

(Yeah, I suppose this could be construed as biting the hand that feeds me, but this blog has gotten two hits over the past month from BostonNOW. They don't feed me that much.)

So, in short - don't read the review in that paper. See Ils at Kendall Square. You'll be better off.

Rescue Dawn

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2007 at the Arlington Capitol #6 (second-run)

Werner Herzog has covered this material before, in his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, but let's face it, people don't really watch documentaries. It's easy to see why telling the story that way would not be enough for Herzog; Dieter Dengler's story is the sort of thing that has always fascinated him - and which he's very good at putting on film.

It's man versus jungle, and this time, the jungle is Laos and the men are prisoners of war. Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is the latest, captured after his plane is shot down during a bombing run. He is brought to a secluded camp, where he is thrown in a cell with Phisit (Abhijati Jusakul), Procet (Lek Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat), Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies). They've been there for months and years, but Dieter has no intention of staying that long and having his mind go as seems to be happening to them. He's getting out, even though Duane points out that the jungle itself is as potentially lethal an obstacle as any guard tower would be.

What makes Dieter able to plot and survive an escape when few if any other POWs could? As Christian Bale depicts him, Dieter has both the ingenuity and some of the naïveté of a precocious child, quickly seeing how things might fit together in ways that a more rigid mind might not while at times remaining blithely ignorant of just how hostile everything around him is: There's a definite element of Dieter being too stupid/inexperienced to be scared, at least compared to the other prisoners, along with occasional fits of petulance. Of course, he'll gain that experience over the course of the story, but Bale's performance is so good that I don't recall a specific spot where desperation started to challenge Dieter's confidence. The way he carries himself also shows the physical toll imprisonment takes - I don't think he dropped a lot of weight like he did for The Machinist or Tom Hanks did for Cast Away, but it sometimes seems like he did.

Full review at HBS.

Now, please, announce this sucker on one of the HD formats.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Some people really enjoy when they're the only ones in the theater, and I can dig that, especially for a matinee where you might have come for the specific point of not dealing with the boors who can ruin a good movie. And it makes you feel important - it's almost guaranteed that the movie theater is spending more on rental fees, electricity, and paying the projectionist than your ticket covers - it's the kind of treatment that only the wealthy seem to be afforded.

Still, when you're the only person at the 7:20 show for a movie that's on its fourth day of release, and isn't a bad film at all... Well, that's kind of sad. Duck may not be a great movie, but it's got a good actor in the lead and people either don't know it exists or are choosing lesser, more obviously commercial options instead.

Duck is playing at Landmark Embassy Square in Waltham, and as I post this, the 4:50 show is probably just starting. Since there's no way it will get a second week, that means there are probably about seven screenings left between tonight, tomorrow, and Thursday. It'd be a shame if they went dark.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 August 2007 at the Landmark Embassy Theater #3 (first-run)

You may not know Philip Baker Hall's name, but you know and probably like his work. He's the old guy with the weathered eyes and gravelly voice who shows up in a half-dozen movies and TV shows every year and makes already strong ensembles better. And even if Duck is sometimes maudlin or bizarre, it's got Philip Baker Hall in almost every scene, and that alone makes it worth a look.

Hall plays Arthur Pratt, and a series of photographs at the beginning tells his story - born in 1933, served in the military, married a beautiful woman, loved their son more than anything, and lost him in 1979 at the age of eighteen. Now his wife is gone, too, and his plan is simple: Plant a tree and scatter her ashes next to the one they planted for their son thirty years ago (even though the area is set to be bulldozed to make way for condos and a mall), then take some pills to join them. Before he can do that, though, a motherless duckling shows up. Arthur names him Joe and takes him home, but his wife's care has left him broke, and they're soon camping in the park, and then walking west toward the ocean.

Though Duck is a sort of road movie, with Arthur and Joe encountering new people every few minutes as they cross Los Angeles, there's something especially powerful about its opening scenes - Arthur is initially crushed by grief, and Joe is this tiny yellow thing that won't stay put, a perfectly innocent creature to counter Arthur's despair and disappointment. If the movie had just ended with Arthur taking Joe home, it would have been a perfect little short film, showing how the world always has use for a person like Arthur, even if he feels completely superfluous.

The episodes that follow don't so much drag things down as they introduce a bit of unevenness. Some of the segments are nearly as good as the movie's first act, but others aren't quite so well done. One or two - a Halloween party, for instance - feel as if they were made up on the spot without a clear goal in mind. Just checking out the reactions an old man and his duck get is not necessarily a bad way to make a movie like this, but the scene's got to go somewhere. The people Arthur and Joe meet also tend to fall into one of two types - older and/or down-on-their-luck but basically decent folks who are basically similar to Arthur and inflexible, rule-spouting younger folks.

That sort of drags the film away from just being a story about Arthur and his desire to be needed and loved, but more about how we as a society treat the elderly and otherwise disenfranchised as a whole. Writer/director Nicole Bettauer pointedly sets her film in 2009 - two years after its release, four years after its festival premiere, and six years after it was shot - where Jeb Bush is president, Social Security is completely wiped out, and even recycling programs have ended because they supposedly encourage homelessness. She chooses locations that are particularly garbage-strewn and run-down, showing us a future where people simply don't care enough about each other. That's probably the real point of the movie, and Bettauer does well to make it without much partisan finger-pointing and blame; she probably could have avoided mentioning the Bush family and simply let it play as the way the world is heading.

At the center, of course, is Philip Baker Hall. Hall is probably best known for playing gruff (with an optional good heart), but he doesn't seem at all out of place wearing his heart on his sleeve as he does as Arthur. Arthur's a bit of a chatterbox - as he puts it, his wife always knew what to do, but he always knew what to say - but not the type that needs to fill every quiet moment. He's got knowledge and wisdom and is happy to share, and doesn't know what he'd do without someone to share with. There's a scene late in the movie where he's hugging Joe, crying, saying he doesn't know what he'd do without him, and Hall makes it work because he isn't afraid to look a little silly.

Aside from Hall, French Stewart is probably the most recognizable name, and he's not bad, although his odd voice undercuts his suicidal character's despair a bit. Amy Hill is the one who plays off Hall the best, as a Vietnamese salon worker initially curious about the man with the duck but eventually just happy to talk to someone who looks her in the eye and respects her. Bill Cobbs could play his blind old man role in his sleep, but it's still a pleasure to see him and Hall take to each other like kindred spirits.

The ducks, of course, are delightful just by being ducks, moviedom's funniest and most lovable animals.

Duck is kind of a surreal movie - an old man and his duck wandering across a city that has at times seemed to have been hit by a slow apocalypse. It's got a good heart, though, and gives us a large portion of a talented actor we normally only see in small doses.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Death at a Funeral

Not much to say about this one - it's good, but not great, and I think it's weird that so many reviews seem to be treating it like some sort of big comeback for Frank Oz. I'm all for Frank Oz making a big comeback, and The Stepford Wives was ten sorts of awful, but I just don't see this as that big a deal. I mean, consider Cold Comfort Farm, which is one of my favorite movies of my college years (even beyond "see, I was into Kate Beckinsale before all the rest of you"), but did it herald a big John Schlesinger comeback? Not really. It is nice that a good director like Oz or Schlesinger can get out of the Hollywood system and just make a good movie. It would have been really nice, though, if Death at a Funeral were nearly as funny as Cold Comfort Farm.

Death at a Funeral

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2007 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run)

There's something almost quaint about Death at a Funeral; it could have been made and set up to a hundred years earlier with just a few details being changed. Maybe it would have been better that way; this farce about a dysfunctional English family stiff-upper-lipping their way through a disastrous funeral might occasionally have benefited from having to be a little more restrained, or a little less old-fashioned.

Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) is attempting to run the affair, which is not off to an auspicious start, with the undertakers initially bringing the wrong body. His wife Jane (Keeley Hawes) seems more worried about whether he has delivered the down payment on a flat in the city, so that they can sell the house if Daniel's mother Sandra (Jane Asher) will live with her other son, Robert (Rupert Graves) in New York. Every mourner expects Robert, a successful writer, to deliver the eulogy, which just makes Daniel feel more slighted. Also in attendance are nephew Troy (Kris Marshall), a student chemist; his sister Martha (Daisy Donovan); her nervous fiancé Simon (Alan Tudyk); hypochondriac family friend Howard (Andy Nyman); Justin (Ewen Bremner), who is smitten with Martha; and Uncle Alfie (Peter Vaughan), the requisite cranky wheelchair-bound old man. Also appearing is Peter (Peter Dinklage); no-one else recognizes him but he feels entitled to something, even beyond being there.

This is fairly well-worn ground, but to a certain extent that means that the material is well-tested; most everybody knows their role, and how this kind of comedy works, and as such they don't slip up very often. Writer Dean Craig and director Frank Oz generally balance irreverence with sincerity; they're careful to make sure that their characters aren't too peculiar; otherwise, the movie would just become a grotesquerie about people who are eccentric and stupid for no good reason. They do test the limit of that on occasion - these days, apparently even British comedies about repressed family tension have scatological bits which are momentum-crushingly unfunny, and a recurring bit about the Valium that Martha gives Simon actually being a designer hallucinogen goes on for a very long time before paying off as something other than getting a disconnected laugh out of Alan Tudyk acting crazy every few minutes.

Full review at HBS.

Monday, August 13, 2007

"Virtual" Fantasia: Backwoods and The Last Winter

Well, finally finished all my Fantasia stuff, barring an unexpected care package coming in the mail (which could happen; I don't know how long it was after last year's festival ended that I got one last year). Overall, I had a real blast; the broader selection of movies made it much harder to get burned out. I can't wait to go again next year.

So, here's the last of it. I've also updated the posts for Days Nine and Ten with reviews of The Rage, Puritan, Isabella, and Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater

The Backwoods (Bosque de Sombras)

* * * ¼-ish (out of four)
Seen 11 August 2007 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2007 Screener)

This is a very cool little thriller, with nice performances by a very nice cast (Gary Oldman, Paddy Considide, Virginie Ledoyen, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) I wish I could properly review it, because unfortunately the screener I received from Fantasia was missing English subtitles on the Spanish-language scenes, which I strongly suspect are necessary to understanding just what the deal is with the little girl Oldman's & Considine's characters find locked in an abandoned house. Without that, I just can't figure it out.

So, relationship between English-speaking characters and chase-type stuff: Pretty darn good. Story which drives it? Can't tell you.

The Last Winter

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 August 2007 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2007 Screener)

It would be completely wrong of me spoil the thing in The Last Winter that made me go from thinking it was a nice little "isolated area (and maybe something else) starts messing with people" horror movie to lapping it up like a ten year old boy whose dreams have just been answered. Since I find myself unable to finish writing this until I let it out, allow me one small tease: G____ d________!

It's a slow burn before we get to them. North Industries has just received Congressional approval to start drilling for oil in Alaska; we're ominously informed that an exploratory well was drilled twenty years ago but abandoned. Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) has just flown out to get things on schedule, only to find his ex-girlfriend Abby Sellers (Connie Britton) sleeping with the head environmental impact monitor, James Hoffman (James LeGros). He's warning of environmental catastrophe, of course, but the rising temperature is making it difficult to build the ice road needed to get equipment out there. Also on the base are Hoffman's assistant Elliot Jenkins (Jamie Harrold), "Motor" the mechanic (Kevin Corrigan), Inuit employees Dawn (Joanne Shenandoah) and Lee (Pato Hoffman), along with Maxwell McKinder (Zach Gilford). Maxwell is starting to get "big-eye" from the endless white landscape anyway, but comes back from a trip to see the old test well even more unsteady.

The first half of the movie is set-up, but writer/director Larry Fessenden spends it more on establishing character relationships than anything else. We get to see which characters get along and which don't, for reasons both personal and political. The opening exposition is a little heavy-handed, but it's the quickest way to get us up to speed on what we need to know without wasting a whole lot of time, and it does kind of prime us to treat it like a horror movie: Aside from the ominous depiction of the station's isolation (which would feel right at home in The Thing), the first half hour could seem like it was laying the groundwork for an "evil ex" movie, an issue-oriented drama, or, (shiver!) some terrible combination of the two. A little foreshadowing that the movie might wind up going in a paranormal direction keeps what happens later from being an unwelcome surprise.

Full review at EFC.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


I'm not much of a fan of Neil Gaiman's; I started reading comics at about the time he was moving on to bigger things, and as much as I enjoyed Good Omens, 1602, and Mirrormask, the stuff he's famous for - the "urban fantasy" and "magic realism" stuff - just isn't my usual thing. Still, I did like those things, and the Brattle was having a preview, so why not?

Glad I did, because I can't recommend it highly enough. It's just a whole ton of fun.

Almost done with the Fantasia reviews - Days Seven, Eight, and Nine are updated with links to reviews of The Tripper, Special, Silk, The Unseeable, End of the LIne, and The Fox Family.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2007 at the Brattle Theater (preview)

Stardust is an unprepossessing little fantasy; it takes place in a world literally just next to our own, which is matter-of-factly magical. It doesn't try to oversell an apocalyptic tension or crush the audience with details to show just how hard the creators have worked. Sure, a kingdom hangs in the balance, but that's no excuse to be something other than playful.

There is a wall, and an town called Wall near it, that separates England from the magical kingdom of Stormhold. Tristan (Charlie Cox) was born there, after his father snuck through a gap in the wall and met a pretty slave girl. Now seventeen, he pledges to recover a fallen star for his neighbor Victoria (Sienna Miller), only to find it's more complicated than it seems: The star was knocked out of the sky by a locket thrown by Stormhold's King (Peter O'Toole); whichever son recovers the locket (or kills the others) will inherit the kingdom. Oh, and have we mentioned that stars are people (of a sort), and not only is Yvaine (Claire Danes) rather upset about being knocked out of the sky, but a three witch sisters have sent one of their number, Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) to recover her and cut out her heart, bestowing youth and magical power.

For all the witches and kings and fallen stars, Stardust is basically the classic story of a boy so fixated on one pretty but uninteresting girl that he does not, at first, consider the possibilities with the far cooler lady right under his nose. The three of them play their parts as well as anybody could hope: Charlie Cox is youthfully oblivious, but charming, and manages to capture Tristan's big heart without making him look like a fool. Claire Danes gets to play Yvaine as justifiably cranky when she first comes to earth, but as the movie goes on we get a sense of her enjoying an adventure without coming off as tomboyish or someone who had never fit in in the sky. Her prickly but genuine perfection easily relegates Sienna Miller's Victoria to merely being the best thing Tristan had seen so far, and Miller is just right as the shallow queen bee that might be easy to idolize when the world is just the one village, but pales in comparison to true beauty.

That's a solid base to build on, but it's the embellishments that Neil Gaiman put into the source material and which the filmmakers put on-screen that make it such a complete delight. Take the septet of princes that the king has sired; as the film starts, only Primus (Jason Flemyng), Secundus (Rupert Everett), Tertius (Mark Heap), and Septimus (Mark Strong) are still alive, but whatever spell or curse controls succession in this kingdom keeps the others around as ghosts until only one is left, allowing them to serve as a witty chorus, with no apparent grudges held among the dead. Then there's the elaborate trap Lamia sets for Yvaine, and the chaos that a unicorn's magic-negating horn wreaks on it. Or the flying pirate ship whose nets catch lightning rather than fish, captained by a Robert De Niro whose boistrous imitation of machismo is fooling nobody.

De Niro is just the biggest name of the numerous scene-stealers that have been assembled for this movie's highly entertaining supporting cast, and one of the most memorable: It's a goofy, broad performance that still comes off as relaxed rather than heavy-handedly playing against type (like some comedic De Niro performances). Other familiar faces include David Kelly as the surprisingly spry old man guarding the gap in the wall between worlds; Peter O'Toole as the monstrously bloodthirsty king who, on his deathbed, is disappointed that his sons haven't killed each other (why, he single-handedly eliminated eleven brothers in his day!); Mark Strong, Jason Flemyng, and Rupert Everett, as his (respectively) vicious, noble, and dim sons; Ricky Gervais as a black marketeer; and Nathaniel Parker as Tristan's unusually understanding father. Maybe least familiar but most amusing are Jake Curran, Mark Williams, and Olivia Grant as Lamia's amusingly transformed henchmen.

Then there's Michelle Pfeiffer herself, absent from film these last five years, but back as though she had never left. She makes Lamia a delicious villain, with her tremendous vanity at odds with her delight in having magical power to use, even though it ages her drastically. She's having a great time playing evil, a villain to be taken seriously even if she occasionally makes us chuckle.

Director Matthew Vaughn is good with that - this film will probably get compared to The Princess Bride quite a bit, because it's got the same basic vibe: A fairy tale that's simple and sweet enough for children but smart enough for grown-ups to enjoy even if they don't have kids in tow. He skips the self-referentiality, instead opting to play things relatively straight, getting the jokes from who the characters are and how they react to the absurd situations they find themselves in. He handles the special effects well, too, filling the screen with beautiful images from the crater Yvaine makes when she lands to Captain Shakespeare's blimp-ship. The story moves at a spritely clip, but the on-screen action is never confusing.

There's something fun in just about every minute of Stardust, but it's kind of low-key about it. It manages to be constantly entertaining, but never has to show off.