You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2007.

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Director Joel Schumacher can go from great (Tigerland), to very good (Falling Down), to classic nostalgia (The Lost Boys), to utter garbage (Batman & Robin). When I hear that he has directed something new, I usually begin with a cringe before checking out the new trailer. The Number 23, however, started its advertisement with an interesting premise, great cast, and finally the Schumacher stamp of unknowingness. I didn’t care that much, thinking that this could definitely go in the great category and cement a change for the better in his oeuvre, starting with his trilogy of Colin Farrell films to 2004’s rock-infused Phantom of the Opera. Unfortunately the film ended up falling flat in many instances. I’m not sure though, how much of that fault lies in the director’s hands. The acting is top-notch, the visuals are stunning, and the change in mood from present, fiction, and reality is deftly handled. Maybe the trouble is the average script used, which includes the oldest twist in the book, that couldn’t be saved even is Kubrick came back from the dead to take a stab at it.

The Number 23 is about a man that becomes obsessed with a book about a detective and his descent into the world of coincidence the number creates. Walter Sparrow, (Jim Carrey), is confused by the many parallels to his own life that the nightcrawler Fingerling has, soon believing the novel was written specifically about him. Sparrow falls deeper and deeper into the number’s grasp until he must find out who the author is and see how the story really ends before he becomes Fingerling himself. Schumacher tells the story through three intertwining plotlines: Sparrow’s life and reading of the novel, Fingerling’s journey through the starkly contrasted film noir world, and the reality of what these two paths crossing means. The transformations our three principle actors make between the environments are stunning and well constructed. Carrey and Virginia Madsen are completely two different people when playing Walter/Fingerling and Agatha/Fabrizia respectively. Besides the lighting and filtering of the film stock (the film noir world is stunning to look at with its over-exposed aesthetic and hard-boiled detective undertones), the performances are complete opposites of each other. Whereas Walter and Agatha live a perfect suburban life, normal jobs and good parenting, Fingerling and Fabrizia are creatures of debauchery and self-confidence, slithering through a land of crime and darkness with one another’s sexual company as an escape from it all. Madsen’s entrance to a She Wants Revenge song (which I learned was picked by music connoisseur Carrey) is remarkably bold and sets the tone for how different the two worlds really are.

While the film had this darkness to it, and you wanted there to be a tragic ending fitting to the mood that had been built up to, you end up getting an exposition scene explaining all the events that transpired along with the most obvious plot twist Hollywood uses almost once a month. It is a real shame that the ending had to be such a whimper compared to the fast-paced, paranoia-infused beginning and middle. The script just didn’t seem polished enough or smart enough to take a chance on a conclusion that stuck to what the film as a whole was trying to accomplish, in my opinion at least. You also had the character of Isaac French, (the great Danny Huston), become wasted space. There was so much that could have been done with him to create more tension between the Sparrows with his “is he cheating with the wife or isn’t he?” thread. The alter ego Dr. Phoenix was, however, a delight, no matter how brief he was actually on screen. With a little more time and fine-tuning, this film could have been very enjoyable, but instead it ultimately ends up being a nicely acted and shot, mediocre thriller.

The Number 23 6/10

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[1] Virginia Madsen (left) stars as “Fabrizia” and Jim Carrey (right) stars as “Fingerling” in New Line Cinema’s release of Joel Schumacher’s THE NUMBER 23. Photo Credit: ©2007 Christine Loss/New Line Cinema

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There is a new internet only show being developed in Astoria New York called The New Adventures of Captain S, produced by PBC Productions. This production company is made up of a few 20-somethings stationed in NYC trying to make a name for themselves in the acting/directing industry. One of the members is Tonawanda’s own Brett Vanderbrook, who plays the titular Captain S, aka Chad Williams, in the show. Brett has been making headway in the field, most recently doing stand-in work for Michael Haneke’s remake of his own spectacular film Funny Games.

Captain S revolves around a group of high schoolers trying to get through the years before advanced education. S is a true gamer and connoisseur of the Sega Genesis. After being recruited by the Video-Land Gods to fight for the prosperity of the world’s code, S finds his life being integrated into the games he plays as he has to not only save the sanctity of his gaming lifestyle, but also his friends who get mixed up in the battles. With great villainy, show writer Devon Riley plays the enemy Nes, complete with powerglove, trying to prove that the Nintendo Entertainment System is the superior to Genesis.

This show is a complete callback to the early/mid 90’s “rad” aesthetic, the time when the systems were in their prime. Maybe you have to be Brett’s and my age to appreciate what they are doing, but I believe it can resonant with anyone who had lived and experienced the birth of video games as we know them today. Sure the show is pure cheese, filled with overacting and corny TGIF sitcom final moral lessons, yet I think they know this and are attempting to hone that feel to get their message out. Captain S is an enjoyable way to spend some free time and get a good laugh in the process, remembering the time when you could just sit back and play a good game of Altered Beast. Besides the shows themselves, with their homage to 90-nostalgia (the final scenes harkening back to “Inspector Gadget” and Dr. Claw sitting at his computer screen), we are treated to extra features as well. These extras provide the biggest laughs of the bunch, and with the “Full House” serenade and Connect Four commercial, the laughs are big.

Hopefully S can keep thwarting Nes’s plan to steal Video-Land’s code for Game Genie, eventually making all gaming safe once again. The site has the first 4 episodes ready to be viewed. So, next time you have a little time to kill, check out the 12 minute episodes and remember back to the good ol’ times. I’ve always been a huge supporter of Nintendo, but in honor of the show will say…SEGA!!!

The New Adventures of Captain S

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Here is a little known film that never reached theatres in Buffalo, despite its all-star cast of talented actors. When you have guys like Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Peter Stormare, and Joe Pantoliano, with Jeremy Sisto and Bridget Moynahan thrown in, and an intriguing trailer about five men waking up with amnesia in an abandoned warehouse, not knowing which side of good they are on, (a couple people are hurt and/or tied up), how could this film not be raking in the cash? It seems as though the Weinsteins have shelved the project and released it on DVD just to recoup some semblance of a profit. With no marketing at all, except the obligatory internet site banners of the home video release, I would almost think the film could have done better if the ex-Miramax producers never bought it. Maybe an independent release would have been in the future, but it is too late for all that now.

Unknown, no matter how much it seems to have been left for dead, is a really entertaining thriller. The premise is solid, with these men trapped in a warehouse trying to wrap their heads around who could possibly be the kidnappers and who the kidnapped, while also figuring out a truce to agree to work together and eventually walk their separate ways once they are freed. The inevitable recall of memory slowly occurs and it becomes a race against time to try and get out before the bad guys remember who is who and are faced with the decision to honor their gentlemen’s agreement or to become the criminal they were before. Tensions flare constantly, and flashes of their pasts crop up and cloud their judgment as they find out they might not be as clean as they think they are. During the confusion in the warehouse, we are also treated to the outside world where a wife makes a ransom drop to get her husband back and the cops attempt to trail the kidnappers and find the hostage. All the story threads eventually converge into a surprising yet believable series of twists at the conclusion. I generally don’t like twist endings, but the build-up of the film is so good and the recognition of each character of themselves allow me to push the fact that the twist really was just thrown in without any foreshadowing. In other words, where the twist would generally take me out of the film because it is so random, the acting and progression of each person gives the audience the ability to look past the ruse and accept it for what it is, a cleverly orchestrated, final mystery uncovered.

The stars of the show are by far Pepper and Caviezel. These guys are probably two of the best young actors working today and continue to surprise me with their performances. The way they are able to act confused with no recollection of who they are, yet still believably maintain the honor and bravery they know in their hearts, is amazing. Both roles are difficult to play yet they both do so deftly and successfully. Especially Caviezel, whose character changes constantly as he remembers fractured moments from his past at every look into a mirror. It is this role that solidifies the decisions made at the end and leave the audience with a smile on their faces rather than feeling cheated by the contrived change of pace thrown at them. Kinnear, Pantoliano, and Stormare are their usual solid selves, and Jeremy Sisto makes me wonder why we don’t see more of him in film. It was also a pleasure seeing Chris Mulkey in a small role—I always like to see old cast members of “Twin Peaks” still working in the biz.

Unknown is first and foremost a character study, heavy on the dialogue and storyline. However, there is a lot of action and intrigue allowing the events to never become boring or monotonous. The writer and director seem to know what they were going for and continue the trip at a brisk pace, never looking back to further explain events. We as an audience uncover every secret along with the character. Knowing at all times that no person knows more than us is refreshing and a joy because we can sit back and watch it all unfold without the guessing game of wondering who has an ulterior motive. No one does here; they have all awoken with a clean slate and only by their actions today can they define who they really are.

Unknown 8/10

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Anticipating the release of Hot Fuzz has made me want to see the Simon Pegg/Edgar Wright career works. Having heard how great the UK series “Spaced” was, I bought an import from Britain and just recently finished it. The show was great, pop culture abounds, hilarity from start to finish, and much like “The Office,” they knew when to stop and not let the show take a fall with filler and repetition…cough…US “The Office”…cough. What better segway from those two seasons then to go right on to the crew’s first feature film, Shaun of the Dead. Now, I own a lot of movies on DVD, and as a result don’t get to watch them often, and in some instances have never seen them yet. However, I must have watched Shaun four or five times in the past three years. I find the humor great and the characters well fleshed out and just having a blast with each other. It never gets tiring for me.

Director Edgar Wright shows the ability to appropriate camera shots from other films, like he did with the numerous homage moments in “Spaced,” and also a deft handling of the medium, especially with the long one take of Shaun walking into the convenience store, (both times). The way he was able to recreate shots and moments from the beginning of the film, to later on is effective and funny. It’s good to see that he has kept a working relationship with writer/actor Simon Pegg because the two go together brilliantly. Pegg co-wrote and starred in “Spaced” with Jessica Stevenson, (included in Shaun with a small role). Pegg is naturally charismatic and has perfect comedic timing throughout—helped I’m sure by the fact he is usually playing against, best friend in real life, Nick Frost. The thing with Simon Pegg is that he isn’t your usual comedian trying to show range; the guy really can act. He plays the serious moments with the right amount of emotion and reality, and his expressions are always true to the moment. Sure the physical comedy is there, but his characters always work so well without the gimmicks, that when the slapstick comes, it actually works.

Wright and Pegg have definitely stamped themselves all over this film. Using their influences and love of the horror and comic genres, they have created a monster that stands all on its own. Equal parts spoof and real zombie scare-er, Shaun of the Dead is a genre masterpiece, breathing new life into a type of film which has been stale and redundant for the past decade or so, (besides the great 28 Days Later, which has a shot taken at it here). Besides the need for survival amongst the living dead, though, we also have Shaun’s quest to become a man and sort out his priorities, the most important being getting his girlfriend Liz back. The fusion of this common romantic comedy plot device and its polar opposite, with horror, works surprisingly well both in the script and the acting. Whereas most horror films just make you bide time as each character is taken out one by one, we are treated here with a group of friends that truly care for each other and meet fate together rather than alone. These people know the genre and never stupidly go into a situation to conveniently be killed.

The humor could never have been as successful as it was without some spectacular actors. Kate Ashfield, as Shaun’s girlfriend Liz really adds depth to the film, playing the straight character to the many goofballs running around. I’m not familiar with anything else she has done, but I would assume it is mostly serious stuff as she is one of the few here not playing for laughs. Penelope Wilton is perfect as Shaun’s mother and Peter Serafinowicz once again shows how he excels at playing pricks, (like his “Spaced” character). Also, like so many films of this ilk, we need to have the token serious actor to give it some credibility. Bill Nighy is that person here and he definitely adds professionalism while fitting in naturally with the crazy cast.

While this is Wright and Pegg’s film, they never could have done it without the help of Nick Frost. For being a regular guy and best bud to Pegg while he was starting out in the industry, Frost landed an integral role in “Spaced” on the behest of his friend. Pegg wrote into the series a character based on one of Frost’s personas that he would do to get laughs. Knowing no one could do the role better, he got Nick into the show despite him having no acting background whatsoever. It was a fantastic move, because he is a natural and in Shaun shows the maturity and growth he has undergone. The guy is a full-fledged actor now and steals every scene he is in, while never being just a copy of his TV role. Frost has range and one of the best deliveries for comedic gems. The few times when the film started to lull, Frost was always there to save the day. Having a familiar rapport with Pegg also helps us believe their relationship and understand the two and where they are coming from. I can’t wait to see what the Wright/Pegg/Frost trio can do to the buddy cop genre with this year’s Hot Fuzz. If the trailers have anything to say about it, it should be on par with “Spaced” and Shaun, if not exceed them both.

Shaun of the Dead 9/10

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The trailers for this adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs, Running with Scissors, looked like an offbeat, quirky comedy. I had heard good things about the novel and the cast looked amazing. However, I am very happy I didn’t spend the money to see it in theatres. This film ended up being a sprawling series of uncomfortable events with no real narrative thread to be building towards a satisfying conclusion. If Burroughs himself came up to me and said just half of this film actually happened to him, I would laugh in his face and call him a liar. If we were to believe this is what he went through as a 15-year-old kid, all these people involved would be arrested or committed, never to see the sun again. Also, it seems the filmmakers wanted to make it cool by adding music and splicing it over the script, adding that indie-staple emotional resonance cliché, (the Garden State scream anyone?). When it works it works, and maybe if this movie had been shorter and less of the same thing happening—mother goes crazy, son gets sad and acts out with the shrink’s kids, mother gets better, all is forgiven, repeat—it would have worked better instead of seeming contrived and a cover-up to kill time without needing words to be spoken, (I did like the “Blinded by the Light” moment, however, and the soundtrack was fantastic). In the end, I really could care less for all the characters involved; they were all self-absorbed people without many redeemable qualities between them.

No matter how disappointed I was in the film though, I still would like to read the book. Maybe the gags would seem funnier with a backstory description preceding them. As it is in the movie, the parts that may try to play for laughs fall flat because of the disgust you feel for the oppressive forces involved. True there are some nice bits, but there are more moments where you feel utterly sorry for what is transpiring, as the occurrences aren’t happening to crack a smile, they are results of mental instability and not knowing any better. I feel that the film would have worked better as a full-blown drama, because the acting truly is superb. It is this professionalism and believability in the characters that make you take every situation so seriously, subverting any humor that was trying to be achieved.

Annette Bening is amazing as the mentally corrupt mother. When she is on medication, in a state of misguided bliss, or her true biting cynical self, she is in top form. You feel sorry for what is happening to her and the dream she is reaching for to hopefully gain credibility and be able to stop thinking of herself as crazy. Joseph Cross and Evan Rachel Wood are very believable as well, portraying the two sane people in this crazy world, attempting to make the best of their screwed up situations and keep everything together until the chance to break free finally arrives. The final scene between the two characters over the phone is heartbreakingly real and a long time coming revelation. Brian Cox is also wonderful as Dr. Finch, the patriarch to everyone that comes into his sphere of life. At times his eccentric ways are genius, and at others just prove that he must be insane himself. You never really can get a handle on whether he is truly helping those around him or if he is just making everything worse. The real standouts, though, are Joseph Fiennes and Jill Clayburgh. They are really the only two people in the entire film that I felt sad for. I have never seen Fiennes act this well, usually he is doing straight shots at Shakespearean roles, but here he really encompasses the schizophrenic, soft-spoken Bookman. He is afraid of himself and what he thinks he may be capable of doing, but his love for Augusten is beautiful and heartfelt. As for Clayburgh, she is the heart and soul of the movie. While going through the motions, very zombie-like throughout, she is the only one who truly comprehends what is going on around her, and is desperately trying to keep it all from falling apart.

It is a real shame that all these great performances have been trapped in such a meandering and convoluted film. If only it took itself more seriously, because when the hard moments of reflection came, they were very effective and emotionally real. I wish the script had been tightened into a stronger narrative in which we as an audience cared and wanted to know what would result, rather than filming a page by page reenactment of a journal. There was a great story buried beneath the camera tricks and attempt at humor in a very serious world, but this film did not succeed in telling it. Hopefully the book is a bit more focused and decipherable as a memoir, something that film isn’t really meant to be.

Running with Scissors 5/10

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[1] Augusten Burroughs (Joseph Cross) and Natalie (Evan Rachel Wood) in Sony Pictures’ Running With Scissors – 2006
[2] A scene from Running with Scissors – 2006

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Here is the reason for which I got an All-Region DVD player. Night Watch was released in Russia in 2004. It became so popular there that it was inevitable that the other two parts of the literary trilogy would be made into film. Fox saw this as a great opportunity to bring a Russian film to America that could have a huge following. They started advertising shortly after purchase, but the release stateside kept getting pushed back to the verge of maybe never happening. Finally the film was shown in a select number of cities, thankfully Buffalo was one of those, and we got to see what had taken so long. In Fox’s transition to make the movie subtitled in English, they actually animated each line of text to be integrated into the story. This was an amazing effect, and I will say I’m sorry to miss it on my Russian import copy. However, besides this improvement, Fox also made significant edits to the original version, even cutting out an entire character. I hate when companies do this and needed to see director Timur Bekmambetov’s vision. After seeing it, I am awestruck to see that this character really didn’t make the film any better or more comprehensible, I took from it exactly what I took from the US release. It angers me that Fox cut the scenes, but it angers me more when they cut scenes for no reason—to make the film shorter? Why bother? I understand if they cut it because of censorship, but that is totally not the case. All they did was make more work for themselves because, since this character does not die, he will be in the second and maybe third. Now they will have to either cut him out there too, where he might have a bigger role, or reedit completely. Maybe this conundrum is the reason why Fox has had to wait another year before releasing the sequel here as well. It’s a shame that they became involved, as the Russian DVD for Day Watch does not have English subtitles, knowing that an American release will be forthcoming. Looks like I will either have to wait for the theatrical release, or buy the import and read the translations on paper.

With all that background aside, Night Watch is an amazing feat of cinema. The acting is top-notch; the special effects are magnificent, especially under the somewhat small budget; and the set pieces elaborate and well shot. We are thrown into the midst of a war between the forces of Light and Dark. The two butted heads long ago, and seeing how equal they were and the path to destruction the future held, they made a truce to live in peace. The Night Watch is a group of Lights out surveying the Dark and the Day Watch the opposite. These forces of vampires have survived centuries and move through the gloom on our world so as not to be seen when not needed to be. A series of bureaucratic rules governs them and when broken, could spell the reformation of war. After the Light side allows a Dark to turn his girlfriend and then track a human boy for food, all hell breaks loose. The boy ends up being an Other, a human able to see through the gloom and choose a side to fight with. Our hero, another Other, Anton, kills the vampire and begins a series of events that will shape how the fight will proceed. Besides this story thread, however, is also the looming funnel of darkness forming over a woman’s apartment building. She has been cursed and the dark forces are threatening to cause a rift destroying everything in its path.

Many things I have read speak of how confusing the plot is in this film. I would beg to differ and respond that if you pay attention to every detail, it is all explained. Also, this is the first part of a trilogy, so more will be explained as the story goes on. Unfortunately the missteps of Fox are causing years to go between releases so we don’t get to experience what happens next until much later. The fact that our hero, Anton, played with nice naïveté and yet also moral conviction by Konstantin Khabensky, is new to the world like us, we get to have things explained during the course of the film. His character is still adjusting to his role as a Light Other and Night Watch is his initiation into fieldwork. The other cast of characters are unique and interesting on their own. Galina Tyunina is fascinating as Olga the sorceress, and it should be intriguing to find out what she did to be imprisoned as an owl for so many years. Also, our leaders on both sides have the air of authority about them like that of a police chief and crime boss. Boris/Geser, played by Vladimir Menshov, is the head of the Light and the originator of the truce. Zavulon, Viktor Verzhbitsky, is the Dark side’s general whose menacing looks hide behind them a plan to finally break free and shroud the world in darkness. The one to watch though is young Yegor, portrayed by Dmitry Martynov. His character has been written about in the prophecies as the Great One who will hold the world’s fate in his hands by which side he chooses.

Suffice it to say, I can’t wait to continue my journey through vampire-ridden Moscow. I would even like to read the trilogy of novels in which the films are based, but who knows how good the translations will be or if you can even find them in English. Hopefully the success of this film will cause the next two to have bigger budgets and therefore even better special effects, although the ones here are spectacular—except for the crows sometimes seeming a bit too cartoony. Bekmambetov has started it off great so far, lets hope he can finish it on a high point as well…with as little interference from Fox as possible.

Night Watch 9/10

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I really wasn’t sure what I’d be getting with the new film from Robert Zemeckis, utilizing his technology from the enjoyable Polar Express. I have been intrigued by the buzz I heard saying that Monster House was a bit darker and scarier than parents initially thought when taking their children. Also, being nominated for the animation Oscar, along with the wonderful Cars and utter garbage Happy Feet, I put the dvd in with some nice anticipation. Thankfully the animation is leaps and bounds better than the oddly shaped characters from Express—can’t wait to see where they go with Beowulf—and the plotline has just the right mix of off-the-wall humor, moments of pure terror, and good old-fashioned family fun. True, while I wouldn’t recommend taking children much younger than 10 or so, if that, I would still urge you all to check out this gem of a film.

When you have a plot involving a house that eats whatever lands on its lawn, whether it toys or even humans, you expect to leave all sense of reality at the door. Surprisingly, the writers and director never delve into a true fantasy world, but actually personify this house into a character in and of itself. There is no Disney-like cuteness or fantastical magic; this house truly is a beast to be reckoned with. The adults, and their lack of imagination to believe what their children tell them, leave the job of saving the neighborhood to the three misfit kids—nerdy dorks DJ and Chowder and their new overachieving prep-school friend Jenny. What the film results in is the best tale of kids against supernatural odds adventure since the classic 80s movies The Goonies and Monster Squad. I really had a lot more fun than I ever would have expected.

Definitely notice the amazing talent pulled together for the voices. Although only on screen briefly, Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard are absolutely hilarious as DJ’s parents. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they improv’d their whole role much like they do in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries. While the kids were great, especially the goofball Chowder voiced by Sam Lerner, it was really the supporting players that made the film. Maggie Gyllenhaal is perfect as the dual-image babysitter and Steve Buscemi as the misunderstood cantankerous old man who owns the titular house. The ones who really shine, though, are Kevin James as the corny cop trying to do his job with a twitchy rookie partner, Jason Lee as the babysitter’s boyfriend (why did he look like he was 40 years old though?), and Jon Heder as the video game/comic book guru Skull. Heder’s short scene is pure gold.

How can you not love a film that succeeds on all levels, from children to adult situations, with lines like Chowder’s, knowing Jenny was in the room and that he had just hung up on his father, yelling for his dad to shut-up, slamming the phone down, and asking DJ if he had a beer? There were priceless moments like this throughout, and they truly made this a worthwhile viewing for the older crowd, while maybe a bit too risqué for its target audience.

Monster House 8/10

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[1] DJ keeps a watchful eye on the strange house across the street in the CG feature “Monster House,” from Columbia Pictures and executive producers Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. Digital animation is by Sony Pictures Imageworks. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Imageworks

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Empire of the Sun is definitely a Steven Spielberg film. It has the epic scenery and action, the sentimental underlying tale of survival, and tragedy made the best of. Sure, like all Spielberg films, this one has the eventual happy ending, however, it really can be taken many ways. Most of his recent films have gone too far into the area of sap and/or ending happier than one would expect the context of the film to have gone to—see AI, Minority Report, and Catch Me If You Can. Thankfully, like he went back to with Munich last year, Empire of the Sun has a conclusion that fits it perfectly, a mix of melancholy and hope for the future that never forgets the arduous path taken to finally get back home.

Looking at the star Hollywood players today, you see Christian Bale as a chameleon that is the best leading man character actor out there. With the kind of history the film industry has, in that child stars never end up doing anything career-wise later on, it is amazing to see how good Bale was even as a kid. There is such a control over his facial expressions and emotions that you can’t believe he is only 13 years old here. The internal workings and intelligence is there, as well as that infectious smile which lights up his face, the guy has not changed one bit. A couple times I actually thought he might go Patrick Bateman on someone or retort back, “don’t you know I’m Batman?” Bale carries this film completely as Jim, not only because it is his story of becoming a man during a time of war, where his aristocratic upbringing literally saves his life a few times, but because he outperforms the pros and entraps you fully into the tale onscreen.

During his journey through China, trying to stay alive amongst the Japanese troops and the other POWs of both British and American nationalism, he comes across a wonderful cast of characters. You have the great performances from Nigel Havers as the prison camp doctor and Miranda Richardson as a sickly British upper class woman, as the father and mother figures in Jim’s life. Havers had seen to it to help keep up the boy’s education and Richardson has given him a home with her husband and someone to care for him when everyone else really just looked after themselves. Another major role came from the great John Malkovich, playing the kind of character he does best—Basie, a man who survives and whose intelligence is higher than his social standing yet helps him keep his life of “crime” successful. Malkovich definitely is a friend to Jim, but one who will never sacrifice his own wellbeing for the boy. He keeps close to the child when it is needed and has no trouble severing ties when necessary. It is a great showing of character development when Jim realizes who it was that really cared for him, staying with Richardson at the end instead of going to the next camp and finally being able to stand up to Basie. Notice must also be made for Takatoro Kataoka as the young kamikaze pilot. His relationship with Bale across the prison camp’s barbwire fence showed a glimpse into humanity and the breaking of barriers that can happen when politics are thrown out. Theirs was a truly bonding friendship amongst the carnage and a nice contrast to it. I also can’t finish speaking about the cast without mention of a very young Ben Stiller; talk about an amusing surprise in a bit role at the start of his career.

Empire of the Sun reminded me of what Spielberg is capable of doing with the medium. Along with Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and Munich, among others, he can really tell an emotional story that lends itself well to the historical context of what is happening in its environment. Yes, this is a story about the ruthlessness of the Japanese in China during WWII, but it is also a tale of a boy’s survival by use of his kind heart, proper manners, and stunning smarts. While knowing what to do in situations by way of living in China his entire life, he is able to help those around him, but never seems unnatural as he delivers his advice like that of a child, almost as a game in many instances. He speaks a mile a minute and continues his life of making friends with everyone and never taking a break. The moment in which we find out why, when the doctor tells Jim to stop thinking for once and we finally get to see the emotion flow from him completely uninhibited, it is truly heartbreaking and at the same time a joy to see because that is exactly how a child in the same situation would have reacted. Phenomenal job all around and I really hope Spielberg has a few more of these left up his sleeve.

Empire of the Sun 9/10

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I’ve been on a bit of a British kick lately after getting an all-region dvd player and some UK Region 2 discs. At the moment I have been checking out the hilarious series “Spaced” from the guys behind the hilarious Shaun of the Dead. One thing I love about British comedy is the use of many of the same actors/friends in a variety of projects; for instance, two of the stars from “Spaced” are in last year’s brilliant mockumentary Confetti. Much like Christopher Guest does here in America, director/conceiver Debbie Isitt has compiled a who’s who of actors from England for an almost totally improvised film. Like Guest’s earlier work Best in Show, Confetti relies on a clash of disparate personalities on their quest to win a competition, here a house by having the most original wedding. This film has all the comedy and heart that I had hoped For Your Consideration would have and didn’t. I thoroughly enjoyed the story progression and laughed right on through to the end.

The fantastic Martin Freeman and Jessica Stevenson (along with a bit part from Mark Heap make up the duo from “Spaced”) really carry the film with their natural comedic instincts and ability to drive a sequence of events forward. Much of the bottled up emotion and facial expressions that were such a great success in “The Office” make Freeman the most realistic character here as he and Stevenson attempt their musical wedding. Rounding out the other wedding contestants are the tennis pros Meredith MacNeill and Stephen Mangan (the attitude and destructive personalities remind me of Parker Posey and her husband role in Best in Show) and the naturalists Olivia Colman and Robert Webb (with impressive comfortability being nude almost the entire duration). The three couples have their moments with the quirky cast of characters included in their back-story, but also in their dealings with the wedding planners. Played perfectly by Vincent Franklin and Jason Watkins, these two really steal the show with their professionalism being brought to the edge of insanity at every turn. How they deal with the egos of the contestants and how they try to stay diplomatic with everyone is priceless.

At the conclusion of the film, I really found myself enjoying all that went on. True, while the nudity was a bit off-putting, as I didn’t realize how abundant it would be, it still worked in the context of the story; they needed to be nude in order for the audience to buy into their lifestyle and characters. The little things, like that, are done right here and make me think of what could be in these types of movies in America. All the players are improvising yet none are checking the realism of their words at the door, they swear and demean others as their characters believably would in those situations. There is no stipulation that would most likely be included in Hollywood of cleaning up your language for a PG13 rating. Also, I give the filmmakers kudos for not cheating the audience by having the whole film build up to the weddings and only showing us bit parts with reactions being more prominent. Thankfully we get to see the entirety of each wedding and that payoff really makes the ride completely worth it.

Confetti 7/10

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photography:
[1] L-R: Martin Freeman and Jessica Stevenson in CONFETTI. Photo Credit: Robert Goldstein

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Special sneak previews are always a good time. No matter what movie it is you are seeing, people will always pack the theatre who have been awaiting the film, like free stuff, thought it’d be something to do, or just got lost. Either way, no matter how good or bad the film, the audience alone will make it enjoyable. Now when said movie is a PG-13 pseudo-horror film (can you really delve into horror when the MPAA is on your back censoring everything?) you know there will be chatter, laughing, and breath holding. With The Messengers, the crowd did not disappoint giving numerous outbursts and warnings to the characters onscreen. As for the actual movie, I feel sorry for those involved because it really could have been much better had it been paced right and allowed to stretch its legs beyond the scare/fade-to-black/show aftermath progression these films have. In the end we are shown a boring, plodding story with no surprises and few moments of actual suspense.

The story is a common one. A family moves from the big city to the country after a traumatic event to try and rebuild their relationship with each other. Once settled in, the spirits of the house come out to the reformed troublemaker child whose past makes it even easier for the parents to disbelieve everything told to them. Of course the child is not crying wolf and those around only find out when it is too late. I will credit the Pang Brothers, (directors of the acclaimed The Eye that I would like to watch more than before to see what they can do without Hollywood interference—supposedly reshoots on The Messengers were done by someone else, but the brothers retained credit; it’s a shame what our studio system does to foreigners especially when it was creative independence which made the films that brings them in and not bottomline interference), for really having a fitting style and for keeping the tired plotline somewhat fresh. Unfortunately, though, I also must give them credit for the almost unbearable slowness. Similar to why I disliked What Lies Beneath, I couldn’t stand the drawn out suspense, which goes so far as to make it laughable. When our heroine and her brother stand in a hallway with a ghost behind them, the scene lasts about eight minutes with just static, oddly composed close-ups and depth of field focus changes to end up culminating to absolutely nothing. For being only 84 minutes, I almost think it would have worked better even shorter.

Besides a very effective opening sequence, featuring the fantastic Jodelle Ferland, (strangely playing a boy), and a great atmospheric credit sequence, the only thing that saves the film from utter garbage is the acting. Except for Penelope Ann Miller, who first made me wonder what ever happened to her and then, after a few scenes, made me understand why I never asked that question in the years she was absent, and Dustin Milligan, completely lacking in credibility, the acting is very strong. Dyan McDermott does a nice job as the father trying to keep his family together through all the tough times. He has many little moments of light comedy to counteract his serious, dramatic role. William B. Davis (everyone’s favorite Cancerman) is used effectively as an almost foreboding character, sadly not utilized more. Our true stars are Kristen Stewart and John Corbett. Stewart plays the emotion very well and shows some promise as an actress with this and Panic Room on her resume. As for Corbett, if he didn’t pull off his role, the entire movie would have unraveled completely. I do wish he would be given more work as I’ve enjoyed him since the underappreciated series “The Visitor”—I still need to check out his first role in “Northern Exposure,” a show I haven’t yet been able to catch up on. It’s a shame he will probably be most recognizable for the overrated My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

If anything, The Messengers gave me a nice introduction to the Pang Brothers’ work and reinvigorated my desire to check out their Chinese horror catalog. The mood and performances were there; it was just the simple and vacant story that needed way too much padding to make a feature film. If they delved more into other characters, rather than just Stewart’s, it could have been more effective while also having something more to show then ten minute scenes of nothing. If our protagonist is the only one being attacked, there is no suspense as to how far the creatures will go to harm her. The moments of danger had no gravity to them and until the ending really just stood in as filler. I am excited, however, for the free comic book given away after the special screening, as hopefully the medium will allow for a faster paced story that engrosses before it tries to surprise.

The Messengers 3/10

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photography:
[1] Kristen Stewart and Evan/Theo Turner star in Columbia Pictures, Screen Gems and Ghost House Pictures’ new thriller THE MESSENGERS. Photo by: Takashi Seida
[2] John Corbett stars in Columbia Pictures, Screen Gems and Ghost House Pictures’ new thriller THE MESSENGERS. Photo by: Takashi Seida

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