You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2008.

Bookmark and Share

Pixar is where it is at for me animation-wise in Hollywood. Maybe that makes me a snob, but something about their films resonant on a level that the others can’t even begin to touch. Sure Shrek and Madagascar are funny, but besides the off-belly laugh, they are kind of shallow and hollow. With that said, I went to check out Dreamworks new foray into computer graphic cinema, Kung Fu Panda. Admittedly, I knew very little about this thing other than the fact that Jack Black and Angelina Jolie voiced characters. It could possibly be due to the fact that I don’t watch much tv, but I’ve seen sparse promotion at best until walking into the theatre and seeing a giant 3D panda in the lobby. On the whole, the film plays out much like you’d want a family/kid friendly picture to. We are given examples of friendship, belief in oneself, and humility—all life lessons we hope to inspire our youth with. With a good backbone such as that, along with some humorous bits and stunning action choreography, this panda definitely packs a punch doing his job: entertaining the audience right until the final frame.

Credit the producers for compiling a top-notch roster of vocal talent to enhance the somewhat ho-hum script. These types of movies are never very original, so it takes a bit of extra panache to really draw me in. Black is actually quite good in the role and Po the panda plays right into his schtick. When arriving at the hall of warriors, he goes to every artifact and does his thing, screaming his excitement at all the cool stuff like it’s his JB character from Tenacious D eying Jimi Hendrix’s first guitar. The Kung Fu arm mannerisms even recall his air guitar/rock n’ roll motions. Black is somewhat restrained and his manic energy is reigned in to be effective on the comedic and dramatic levels. This guy is, after all, our entrance into the story and the character we are supposed to relate to. An outcast and an original, we all can see a bit of ourselves, always dreaming but never taking the leap to achieve those goals. We watch his evolution and start to believe that it could happen to us too.

It is a fine line for the supporting roles. A Panda with historical knowledge of the ancient art yet without any actual experience has been proclaimed the savior of the valley against a monster of a foe. He is truly the ugly duckling and all those around him must straddle the division of chiding him and the absurdity of the situation, but not be too mean—there are kids watching. In order to keep a good grasp on this tenuous situation, the filmmakers cast a group of affable people with the ability to work in serious moments, but never relinquish the humorous edge to their voice. Guys like David Cross, Seth Rogen, and Jackie Chan are perfect for the roles of the true warriors attempting to reconcile their preconceptions of this screw-up swooping in and taking their thunder. Moments like the acupuncture scene really show this to be true. Jolie is good as Tigress, another fighter and prize student, but the role ends up being pretty forgettable and by the books. She never really gets the range to go crazy. Neither does Dustin Hoffman as the master and teacher to them all, yet he is a still a success. My favorite supporter was the great Ian McShane as Tai Lung, the villain of the tale. No one has a better voice for nefarious deeds than this guy and he delivers continuously.

As far as the story goes, it is a nice tale to teach the kids about faith and comradery. For us older folk, however, we are treated with some spectacular action/battle sequences to satisfy our want for more than just preaching. The chopstick fight between Hoffman and Black is fantastic, having comedy and tenacity with some nice artwork and fast paced movement. The battle on a rope bridge towards the end, as well as the final confrontation, is also highly enjoyable. Credit the entertainment to the acting and a gimmick that at first made me cringe. Throughout the film we are treated with slow-motion insertions during the action. A nod to old Kung Fu films and the satirical spoofs created as a result, I was thinking I’d grow tired of the maneuver very fast. Fortunately, as the movie continues on, the moments become sprinkled in with perfect timing. The escape from Rhino prison wouldn’t have been half as fun without the speed changes in the action and the slow-mo facial expressions of those getting thrown around. Even towards the end, the filmmakers began to use it as an original comedic device. Capturing Po’s reaction to a charging Tai Lung is absolutely priceless.

Kung Fu Panda is by no means a masterpiece, but for a cartoon that really flew under my radar, I had a lot of fun taking part in the experience. Right from the beginning, with a stylized 2D rendered sequence as an introduction, I saw that this wouldn’t be quite the run-of-the-mill work I was anticipating. Always staying fresh and funny I can fully endorse anyone wanting to check it out as a nice appetizer to what could be a fantastic main course in Pixar’s Wall-E come this summer.

Kung Fu Panda 7/10

Bookmark and Share

photography:
Copyright © 2008 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.

Advertisements

Bookmark and Share

I am all for the torture porn genre—the Saw films are entertaining, yes even the fourth, and I thoroughly enjoyed Hostel. First time writer/director Bryan Bertino has decided to throw his cap into the ring with the new film The Strangers. Supposedly based on true events, the movie ends up running similarly to Haneke’s Funny Games, except without the social commentary and instead more contemporary scare tactics with masks, (I’ll admit that seeing the faces of the killers as human beings is far scarier because you can relate to them on some level, rather than the monsters behind a disguise, thus this film doesn’t live up to the comparison). However, Bertino gives us a very well done piece of cinema that engages us by being as unsettling as humanly possible. With almost every frame being an extreme close-up, the creepiness of old-time Woody Guthrie era country tunes on the record player, and long stretches of complete silence, The Strangers will most definitely get you unhinged. My question, then, is whether that is enough to make a work good. I don’t quite think so, because despite the artistry and the effectiveness of mood, I just don’t find watching a 90 minute double homicide all that fun, especially when there is no reason for it. Haneke definitely was on the ball in that regard, having meaning behind the torture, (oh and I’m a film fan, so I reference the original Austrian version of Funny Games, not the rehashed American-remake).

Much like last year’s Vacancy, we are shown our heroes at a time where their relationship is strained. This is not a happy couple going to a summer home for some rest and relaxation, no they are pretty much together because they have to be under the circumstances. Our entry point to them is a tear-streaked Liv Tyler and a stoic, repressed anger mixed with embarrassment faced Scott Speedman. A lot is going on between these two, and the film does let us in on the trouble, mostly before the “fun” begins, but also a bit during the activities. Maybe it just seems like we as an audience find it necessary for our lead characters to overcome an emotional struggle on top of the physical one being inflicted on them. I just find it to be overkill; the story is about the people coming in and partaking in their random crime, not whether the torture can bring love back to a pair who has seemingly lost it. It is nice to see a more fleshed out victim than just a two-dimensional punching bag, so I can’t quite blame Bertino for trying. We are given this background to relate to them and feel for their plight; maybe I just would have liked more. Rather than glossing over the relationship to get to the strangers’ arrival, a more Hostel-like introduction would have worked better, allowing a slow burn to the inevitable terror.

Is the film scary though? This is the all-important question. I may not be the best to answer, as I don’t generally get scared at movies. However, I was definitely uncomfortable during the proceedings. Not just with the cat and mouse chase, but with every aspect of the film. Bertino deserves full marks for this as he really makes us delve farther into the frame than we probably want to. Almost the entire work is shot in close-ups, putting the static details in our faces along with the emotionally wrought expressions on the actors’ faces. Knives scraping, things burning in the fireplace, blood splatters on the wall, and even the record player’s arm are shown as close as possible, assaulting our sight at the same time our ears are barraged with the sounds singled out above the background so that we experience every second. The creepy factor is most definitely enhanced once our trio of mask wearing freaks enters the stage. Their slow, methodical movements and sheer confidence in what they are doing is relayed very effectively.

And the acting is quite good—a major complement since Tyler and Speedman have never been two people I rave about acting-wise. The repressed emotions at the start slowly peek their way out once the games commence, they both are realistic in the portrayals and despite what my friend says she saw through sunglasses and fingers covering her eyes, I don’t think they fell into too many horror cliché traps. Yes, you shouldn’t open the door when you hear banging at four in the morning, however, they also think it’s just a youngish girl looking for her friend. I gave them the benefit of the doubt in that regard; when you’re fighting for your life, you may not think clearly. I do have to also mention Glenn Howerton as Mike. Does he get much screentime? No. Does he do a decent job? For sure. However, I only mention him because of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and how this role reminded me of his character in that show. I believe I was the only one in the theatre chuckling at his entrance…Oh Dennis Reynolds.

Again, though, while expertly crafted and meticulously shot, what was the true purpose of this film? It’s definitely creepy, but as a horror, I don’t think it succeeds in the scares. Instead it is basically an exercise in torture and survival against a group of people out to cause pain. I also I had some trouble with the ending and the final confrontation. The almost ritualistic activities at the conclusion seem out of place from what had preceded it, however, I did really enjoy the encounter with two young Bible-pushers on the street. It was a nice bookend to the tale and gave some closure, whether it was necessary or not.

The Strangers 5/10

Bookmark and Share

photography:
[1] LIV TYLER as Kristen McKay in Rogue Pictures’ The Strangers (2008). Copyright © Rogue Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
[2] SCOTT SPEEDMAN as James Hoyt in Rogue Pictures’ The Strangers (2008). Copyright © Rogue Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Bookmark and Share

When I first saw the trailer for the new film The Visitor I knew I wanted to see it solely on the basis that Richard Jenkins was going to be the star. I’ve loved this guy in everything he has done, mostly small to medium supporting work; it’s great to see him get the chance to carry an entire movie. Of course there was more to like: the music seemed fantastic, the storyline something with some dramatic weight, and the fact that it was written/directed by the same guy who did The Station Agent, Thomas McCarthy, couldn’t hurt. Now, granted, I have not seen that film, but I really, really want to…Peter Dinklage is the man. However, it only had good press and I will not be surprised if this one carries on that torch, because besides some heavy-handed diatribe about immigration in the US, McCarthy has crafted a pretty solid piece of cinema.

What we have is a story about a college professor who has become so accustomed to his life, and so ingrained with routine that any change is unacceptable; he hides behind past achievements in order to exist with as little work as necessary. Teaching one class, supposedly working on his new book, (we never see him even touch a computer), and drinking wine with every meal, (yes there’s a glass of red next to his Cheerios bowl), Walter Vale is in desperate need of a change-up. After his excuse to not go to NYC—because he didn’t actually write the paper he is given credit for at the conference being held there—is disregarded, Vale receives that alteration in the form of two illegal squatters staying at his apartment. Conned into thinking the place was for rent, the couple is as scared of Vale as he is of them, the plight of having no place to stay thaws the professor’s heart as he lets them spend the night. Between seminars, Tarek begins to train his new housemate in the art of the African drum, infusing music back into Vale’s life after the passing of his classically trained pianist wife. Through the drumbeats and the sheer kindness of these two souls, Walter finally finds a purpose to life once again.

This in and of itself would have made an interesting film, music bringing these disparate creatures together—a white, upper class intellectual with his new Syrian and Senegalese friends. In order to add a bit of drama is the wrench of imprisonment for Tarek after a fluke incident in the subway and his cash card malfunctioning. While incarcerated, Vale decides to do whatever he can to help free him, visiting whenever possible, neglecting his students back in Connecticut, and putting a lawyer on retainer to do what is necessary. The emotional evolution from Jenkins is very well performed, as is Danai Jekesai Gurira playing Tarek’s girlfriend slowly finding trust in this stranger all of a sudden doing what he can to help them out.

Through the emotional tension and the burgeoning relationship between all involved, including Tarek’s newly arrived mother from Michigan, comes the not so subtle inclusion of commentary on America’s immigration policy. Does it suck that the people living a good life get deported and the terrorists do not? Yes. Is Tarek correct when saying that no one in the detention facility is a terrorist because they have financial backers? Yes. Does any of that excuse the fact that they are illegal, they have been notified that they can’t achieve asylum and must go back? No. I’m sorry but it doesn’t matter how nice you are, you must go through the right channels. But this is a conversation for a different forum. I just wish McCarthy wouldn’t have used a sweet little film about life and love to get those issues out there, especially with blatant moments like the American flag fade towards the end. I did however enjoy the line from Jenkins’ Vale of, “we aren’t all just helpless children.” It’s a true statement, unfortunately it falls on deaf ears because there is a little something called domestic safety that needs to be upheld to its fullest. Once you start making exceptions, no good can result.

Despite the immigration law issues, I really had a good time with The Visitor. The character studies are fantastic and every performance genuine. Haaz Sleiman is great as Tarek, spreading his exuberance for life with all he encounters. Not even the sick of life Vale can resist laughing when around him. Hiam Abbass, as Tarek’s mother is also very good. An illegal herself, she refuses to be anywhere but by her son’s side until the situation is rectified, either way. With many parallels to the life of Vale, the two forge a deep bond for the young man on the cusp of being sent away forever, back to Syria. One his actual flesh and blood, the other someone who has put upon himself a position of fatherly love, and both having lost their spouses—an event that changed their worlds as a result—they slowly begin to start living again with the excitement of uncertainty. The music is great, I’d love to check out the soundtrack, and while some moments seem to linger too long, one cannot fault the final image. A perfect ending, realistic in every way, McCarthy doesn’t compromise a thing.

The Visitor 8/10

Bookmark and Share

photography:
[1] Danai Gurira and Haaz Sleiman in “The Visitor.” 2008 Overture Films.
[2] Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in “The Visitor.” 2008 Overture Films.

Bookmark and Share

Considering my only entry point into the history of England during the reign of King Henry VIII comes from the first season of Showtime’s “The Tudors,” (a quality program, perhaps a tad too salacious than absolutely necessary), I was more than obliged to take a friend up on his offer to watch the Oscar-winning A Man for All Seasons. The world is full of coincidence and having this film come up now seemed perfect. I have been awaiting the conclusion of season two before viewing “The Tudors” this year, recently wondered about actor Paul Scofield’s death being as big news as it was, (being the first I’ve seen of him, I can already understand, he is fantastic), and then I had just seen the new Indiana Jones with an elderly John Hurt, included here, among a pretty big name cast, in one of his first roles. It seemed the stars had aligned for a bit of period drama, something that director Fred Zimmemann does not skimp on, nor does he push back the historical facts brought in by playwright and screenwriter Robert Bolt. If nothing else, all involved gave me a new man to idolize—Sir Thomas More. The man had pride, moral scruples, and an unrivaled intelligence. This is his story, a tale of a man caught in the middle of right and wrong, and choosing what was easy or correct.

The plot begins at the point where Cardinal Wolsey, (a bombastic Orson Welles—when is he not—in a role much smaller than anticipated), has failed to persuade the Pope to grant Henry VIII his divorce. Henry is attempting to relinquish the bond so that he may marry Anne Boleyn, (a very young Vanessa Redgrave, perhaps included due to her brother’s involvement in the film?), and produce the heir that has been eluding him. Having married his dead brother’s wife, in order to keep the country together, he is saying that the union was created in sin, and thus not true in the eyes of God. Being that the Pope himself was asked to allow that first marriage to occur, there was little chance he’d reverse his own decision by granting the divorce.

In comes Sir Thomas More, a lawyer and old trusted friend to the King. He is a man of principle and thus a man for whom Henry takes a large stake in his opinions. Himself a man of slight conviction, Henry knows he can have the divorce and be done with it; however, he needs his friend More’s approval for his own piece of mind. Because he knows he won’t receive it, he feigns acceptance and his word that More would be left out of the proceedings so as not to be looked upon as a traitor to the crown. Unfortunately, a young fellow, Richard Rich, trying to make his start in the world of the royal court, once rebuked by More, is working with Thomas Cromwell, a man looking to take the lawyer down. More must sever ties with his friends and family, taking an ironclad stance of silence on the subject of the King’s divorce. If he never tells anyone his true opinion verbally—although the entire country knew it anyways—no one could blow him in, even when swearing on the Bible. A shrewd man, More continues to live his life with the knowledge that he will never give in to temptation, never sacrifice his convictions, yet also never see freedom again.

There is absolute superb acting throughout. Scofield is magnificent as More, showing the multifaceted construct of his core self. A family man above all else and a man strictly loyal to his King and country, despite the turmoil and scandal happening around him, Scofield portrays even the harsh moments with a sense of dignity and honor. When it is brought to his attention that a Lutheran has asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he declines with an airtight case as to why, despite how much he enjoys the young suitor calling. He will raise his voice, he will give orders as his status deems he is able to as a man and member of the court, however, he will only do so if it is for a just reason. Always respected, even his friend the Duke of Norfolk, (a nice turn from Nigel Davenport), can’t get angry with him when More begins a barrage of insults. Eventually, of course, the Duke must walk away before things get too out of hand, but even then he does so because he couldn’t bare hurting his peer. The whole sequence between these two is my favorite: More laying a trap with words in order for Norfolk to fall into and see his side of the situation. Expertly written and executed, that scene right after Scofield gives up the title recently given to him barely eclipses the courtroom encounter and final diatribe from the man, aimed at the lemmings set before him to judge and pass sentence.

Never feeling overlong, or confusing, the film spans a number of years, from the beginning of More’s unswayed, steady tongue to the final breath he takes. Everyone gets older and the world changes around them as one by one they all sign their names over to the King, agreeing to his divorce and second marriage. Watching Scofield get older and the vermin Rich, (expertly played by the aforementioned Hurt), get more and more affluent with the years shows how unjust the world can be. A man with moral fortitude gets thrown to the wolves while one that can be bought and sold at the toss of a hat prospers endlessly. If I have one complaint at all, it is with the fact that Robert Shaw’s Henry VIII doesn’t come back into the fold after his brief appearance at the center of the film. His manic mood swings and infectious smile are endearing and a joy to watch. Henry must have been the first true Attention Deficit Disorder patient.

A Man for All Seasons 9/10

Bookmark and Share

Bookmark and Share

I’ll tell you, nothing gets one’s heart pounding more than a nostalgic theme song score playing during a film. Nothing is more iconic than John Williams’ music when it comes to Indiana Jones, unless you count the humor, the adventure, the whip, and the hat. Steven Spielberg even goes out of his way to show the silhouetted professor place said hat upon his head before we even catch a glimpse of the man himself. From the start, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull transports you back to the 80’s when the series had its run. It is pretty much as though no one involved had missed a beat during the 19-year layoff from Jones’ “Last Crusade.” We are thrust into the action, unknowing how we got there and how he has been captured. None of it matters, though, the Russians need him to find an artifact and he complies until his moment of escape presents itself. Jones’ incorrigible demeanor and never say die attitude is still hiding behind the aged wrinkles, finding release every chance it gets right to the end of what turns out to be a faithful new installment to a classic series of cinema. What problems it has in trying to be a bit too extraordinary it more than makes up for in tone and overall sheer enjoyment.

Harrison Ford is pretty astonishing here, showing that age means nothing when it comes to breathing life into a role that he made famous and vice versa. His delivery of cynical, stubborn wit coupled with the geeky wonder at discovering the answers to clues and puzzles hasn’t missed a single beat. Just look to the “dry sand” sequence and see what I mean…this is one college professor that truly dives into his work. All the prerequisites are included for his character to keep continuity. We receive mention of Henry Sr., (Sean Connery is sorely missed here, but hey, the first two films succeeded without him), and Marcus Brody, while also being treated to some physical humor involving none other than a mammoth snake—every hero needs a mortal fear. Callbacks abound, including a fantastic glimpse at the ever-elusive ark, and it doesn’t take long to get caught up in the action and really start pulling for these adventurers to come out victorious.

The story at hand includes much of the series’ trademark mysticism, leading all those involved on a quest to return the mysterious crystal skull to its rightful place, theoretically opening the doors to a treasure trove of gold. All the old stories about how the pyramids were created come into play with this quartz artifact, sculpted against the grain in a process that would destroy the whole if ever attempted by man. With its impossible magnetic pulse and draw of the mind to its eyes, no one quite knows what to make of it, except the fact that it must be returned. Of course, Indy and his band of misfits are on the journey to restore equilibrium and maybe uncover a mystery that the history books will never forget. Hot on his heels, though, are the Russians being led by the ruthless Irina Spalko, (an interesting Cate Blanchett), trekking across the world for the wealth hidden within the skull—knowledge and power the likes no gold could compare to.

I really must thank Spielberg et al for stepping up to the plate and making this film, for the most part, in the style of the originals. Worries were definitely setting in from the badly blue-screened trailer and the CGI rodent popping up from the underground in the very first frame. However, the oldstyle font and glorious film grain of real live film stock brought me back to ease into the proceedings with faith it what could occur. All the action hijinks are here—car chases, crawling though cobwebbed tunnels, running against time down ancient architectural structures, and some good old fist fights complete with way too loud sound effects just a hair off timing-wise (vintage Jones). My favorite sequence is probably the motorcycle chase towards the beginning. Commencing with a brilliantly orchestrated soda shop brawl, continuing through town with screeching starts and stops, and finishing in the college library after a sliding entrance under tables, one couldn’t ask for a better payoff than a student asking his professor a question as he rises from the floor like this happens everyday.

I give tons of credit for the bringing back of Karen Allen as Marion and even the inclusion of Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt—I don’t care what anyone says, the kid is good. And the addition of two favorites of mine, Ray Winstone and John Hurt can only help any film. Why am I just heaping praise right now? Oh, right, it’s because the hammer is about to drop. I have not read Frank Darabont’s rejected script, so who knows what he had up his sleeve, but this one falls apart completely at the end for me; I had a blast for the entire thing until the end climax. I can handle the supernatural and the questioning of alien life as a possible answer to the unanswerable questions in life, but David Koepp takes it too far. I laughed at the badly animated sword fight, I shook my head at the Tarzan sequence, but what happens at the end only made me think, why? Why did you have to go there when everything was so splendidly steeped in wonder while still grounded in reality? I guess you can’t have perfection bringing back a saga like Indiana Jones from the dead, but I applaud them for the attempt and almost getting it right.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 7/10
As comparison: Raiders of the Lost Ark 9/10; Temple of Doom 8/10; Last Crusade 8/10

Bookmark and Share

Bookmark and Share

It is quite interesting that I have been privy to three movies dealing with amateur filmmaking within a very short span this year. While Be Kind Rewind and Son of Rambow utilized the form for comedic purposes, the German film from 2003, Good Bye Lenin! differs slightly, even though humor is the main result. With a pretty creative premise, a pro-East German woman falls into a coma during the eight months of the fall of the Berlin Wall and her son and daughter must try to keep her calm by pretending the delineation still exists, director Wolfgang Becker lets his characters make up their own news in order to explain some of the craziness that is occurring, (the Coke banner being the funniest cause we all know the drink was created by the Communists). The plot is very unique and never feels like a gimmick, but instead a way to show the evolution of this broken and politically divided family. All that they have grown to know, the freedoms that the fall has brought, must be pushed aside in order to keep the matriarch from slipping back into a coma or worse. It is a painstaking process and one that needs the entire neighborhood’s help. What could have become a farce or depressing melodrama actually straddles the line perfectly, creating a heartwarming piece of work about understanding one another and the power of love.

I guess beginning this review with the fact of amateur filmmaking is a tad misleading. The process is a very small part of the proceedings, however, those moments are my favorite. Florian Lukas, a West German young man who is paired with the East German lead, Alex, played by Daniel Brühl, in their satellite TV job, is brilliant as the burgeoning filmmaker. He even says how the fake news is the best stuff he has ever cut and Alex’s mother is the only person who will ever see it. The laughs are big during the sequences of videos as live news, but I think the final scene is the true masterpiece. While watching the last news segment at the end of the film, knowing what every character knows and doesn’t know pertaining to each other, we as an audience are treated to the most powerful non-verbal moment of the entire work. Seeing his mother look at Alex holds so much meaning and emotion, those short glances are a culmination of everything that has happened previously.

Despite the laughs sprinkled throughout, this film is really a drama containing many political ideas both on the governmental scale and in the home. You don’t learn at the start about how much strife was caused by Christiane’s, (Alex’s mother portrayed by Katrin Sass), political slant. Raising her son and daughter after her husband has run off to the West becomes her mission only after her petitions and work for the Republic are done. She doesn’t realize that her own son starts harboring opposite ideals nor that her country is holding back any source of progression. Her political affiliation has caused a lot of hardship in the Kerner family and her coma actually began to relieve some of it. Her daughter Ariane, (Maria Simon), finds a new boyfriend from the West, a job at Burger King, and the energy to live rather than stew in college when she didn’t want to. Alex spends his days at her bedside, much like he did during her breakdown after their father left, finding a relationship with her nurse, a new job for a Western company, and a friendship with his crazy filmmaking partner. When she wakes up—commencing the meticulous system of hiding everything Western—is where the wheels fall off, everyone needing to stop their lives to keep her healthy. But, in the end, it is this standstill that allows each one to stop and take a look at where they are in life, and to decide what to do with what’s left.

While the acting is superb across the board and the story is intriguing, the visuals definitely add a layer of expertise. A lot of coincidence is infused in the story, allowing different things to be in the background so that they can eventually be found. From Alex’s girlfriend, first seen at a protest and then again at his mother’s hospital bed; the jar of pickles being searched for throughout to finally be seen as a water jar for painting; and the subtle moments like a red dot sticker and the last time to convert Eastern currency coming back later on, Becker really makes you pay attention to all that happens on the periphery. And some sequences are just shot beautifully, like the aforementioned Coke banner drop and the helicopter moving of a Lenin statue through the sky…fantastic to watch, very surreal.

Good Bye Lenin! 9/10

Bookmark and Share

photography:
[1] Daniel Bruhl as Alex, Katrin Sass as Alex’s Mother (Christiane Kerner), Maria Simon as Ariane. Photo by Conny Klein. ©2003 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.
[2] Florian Lukas as Dennis.

Bookmark and Share

After three years, Andrew Adamson returns the world of Narnia to film fans everywhere with Prince Caspian. Shot out of order from the stories themselves, this is the obvious second choice cinematically. With the ever-looming challenge of young actors aging at such a fast pace, he needs to get all the tales concerning these kings and queens done before they become way too old. As it is, both Edmund and Lucy appear much older than the previous work, but it never detracts from the proceedings. This is because Adamson has done something here that few have the guts to do. He decided not to treat the novel as scripture, but instead as a blueprint. While the backbone and important story points stay precise, the connections and interwoven threads reaching each checkstop have been liberated from the printed word. The filmmakers have definitely taken a somewhat slight book, (only 100 pages in the edition I own), and have crafted an epic of war, survival, and faith. A true movie that dares to stand apart from its source, Adamson and company have improved upon the series, bettering their debut effort and creating their own Two Towers type narrative.

C.S. Lewis’ novel has a story structure that makes it difficult for viewing. We learn about the titular prince through a long tale of his exploits from a dwarf to the Pevensie children. In movie form, this would be pretty boring stuff while we await the action to finally begin. As a result, the film jumbles things around in order to keep the fight fresh, slowly revealing the prince’s past and origins while the children search to join him. Characters crop up in different ways; Aslan is pushed to the background much more than the book, (something I think improves the tale greatly), and events change to add more emotional and dramatic weight. While the novel shares the same progression, it does so in a much more matter-of-fact way, whereas this work allows us as viewers to dive right in and see higher stakes and a greater toll when it comes to the battles—even adding a battle that does not exist in the book at all. Relationships are more fleshed out and rather than be a bridge piece inside an epic history of Narnia, this film becomes a more complete tale, raising the level in all facets.

The major difference, I feel, is the lack of blind faith in a Telmarine prince by the forgotten fantastical Narnian creatures. This prince, the rightful heir to the throne who has been compromised by his uncle finally bearing a son, means well, but comes from a line of brutal men that have all but wiped out the mystical powers of the land. Due to this fact, it would be rather silly for those being wiped out to take this boy at his word and join him to overthrow his own uncle, the self proclaimed king. We now, instead, get a more skeptical group of creatures not so quick to give their lives over to Caspian. The dwarf Trumpkin, who never bats an eye in the book to join his cause, is changed into a being that is unsure of everything going on. The fact that he is captured much earlier here then in the novel, (this ruins nothing for you), helps keep these feelings longer and makes him more realistic as he slowly converts into a believer. Even the centaurs and woodland creatures need some persuading before they enlist, something they don’t even ask for, but instead throw a huge party, in the text.

As stated before, this entry has many similarities to the adaptation of Tolkien’s Two Towers. A battle between good and evil is on display and the fight is tense and well orchestrated. Due to the duel aspect of the final battle, the writers decided to add a more straightforward siege to compensate for the mono y mono warfare at the conclusion. The scene adds some nice weight and action, allowing the plot to progress a tad faster and be more interesting than without. By utilizing it as a chance to show the fallibilities of both Caspian and Peter, it lends more credibility to the idea of resurrecting a former evil to “help” in the fight against the tyrant Miraz. Also, it gives the supporting roles a bit more to do, especially Edmund and Susan who are more or less tertiary characters in the novel, (although extending their screentime added in a romantic bent for Susan that is not only glaringly unnecessary, but the one Hollywood cliché taking you out of the story ever so slightly).

Fighting to save Narnia from extinction and to put a deserving man in the throne brings out the edge in these kids. The four Pevensies show some nice evolution from their roles in the first film, especially William Moseley who takes the duty of High King seriously. Anna Popplewell and Georgie Henley do their roles justice and Skandar Keynes adds some well-placed humor throughout as Edmund, the one who was the butt of most jokes previously. Ben Barnes, as Caspian, is kind of hit and miss. When he is on and natural, he succeeds very well, however, when he is given too much to do, Barnes shows some chinks in the armor. The accent the least of his problems, some moments just show his inexperience, but nothing too major to take away from the film overall. The real gems, though, are Warwick Davis as Nikabrik and Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin. While it’s great to see Willow return to a meaty role in the fantasy realm, it is Dinklage’s first foray into the genre that stands out. His acting is superb, his skill exact in both moments of candor and graveness.

Succeeding across the board; improving upon the novel, not in substance, but in cinematic scope; and besting the original to be a bigger and better sequel, Prince Caspian definitely impresses. We see a side of Narnia that was missing in the first film as it set-up the rules and fantasy. With all that out of the way, we are treated to the inhabitants and lore of the land, the sincere need to keep their civilization thriving despite the usurpers who have taken control. Even the comedic side finds some elevation with my favorite role in the book translating brilliantly to screen. Tiny Reepicheep the mouse, wonderfully voiced by Eddie Izzard, steals the show and exudes the pride in one’s country that you can see behind the eyes of every warrior ready to give their lives for it.

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian 8/10
As comparison: Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 8/10

Bookmark and Share

Bookmark and Share

If you are in the mood for a story from the heart, about friendship and identity, growing up in a world foreign from your sensibilities and against what it is you want to be, despite the need to conform, Son of Rambow is just the thing. Be aware, however, that this is a British film with story at its core. There are slow moments throughout, but only in a bid to enhance the overall work. People walked out of my screening saying that they were bored—this is what happens when you get a free movie pass and go without knowing anything about what you are about to see. I had been anticipating Garth Jennings’ follow-up to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with baited breath, ready to be taken into an original world straight from his mind. Being one part of the dynamic duo Hammer & Tongs, I knew he’d have something up his sleeve, a la Michel Gondry, by watching his inventive music videos. This film allows him to step out and put his imagination out there for all to experience. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Everything is authentic here, from the time period of the 80’s complete with soundtrack, dress, and VHS camcorders, to the homemade quality of the amateur film young Will and Lee are crafting. When the kids go behind the lens and start filming, you won’t be able to remove the smile from your face. The two act like they are best of friends and go through the good and bad times that the stigma of “blood-brothers” brings with it. Their interactions make the film succeed completely because the bond they share is strong. When two outsiders find each other amidst the carnage that is Middle School, even if they are polar opposites, it is a hard thing to break. Finally able to live life knowing there is someone else to share in the fun is a drug that won’t be kicked easily, no matter what family and school tells you. The more people that want you to separate, the more you will see that what you have together is the true reality; no one has the right to end it but you.

Just the setup of having a boy from an Amish-like upbringing in the “Brethren” mix with the class miscreant and bully is ripe for laughter and fun. From the onset we are privy to the clash of their two cultures. Lee Carter is a mischievous delinquent attempting to use Will Proudfoot as his slave and stunt man for the movie he is trying to enter into a contest inspired by First Blood. With his parents gone and only a brother who uses him as a servant, Lee needs this in order to compensate for the life he is leading. Only someone who is bullied becomes a bully himself; it is the only life he knows. Blackmailing Will into being his actor for some really crazy stunts, (complete with wonderful montage), may play to his needs, but it plays to the sheltered boy’s as well. Will finally has an excuse to let his imagination run free from the pages of his drawing books and the walls of the bathroom stall. In a culture that is not allowed to watch tv, making a movie himself can be a very strong temptation. When he shows up at Carter’s door in full Rambo garb, you know how the rest of the film will go. Lee curses under his breath because he sees he doesn’t know what he has gotten himself into. Never in a million years does he think this boy would end up being the one person on earth he could count on.

At the core of the story is the fact that these outsiders are able to find that being themselves is ok. Outcasts for their entire lives, being who they are finally makes them into those kids the others want to hang out with. The popularity gets to their heads and crazy characters come into the fold risking destroying all they have built, but it is the strength within them that will win out in the end. Their rapport with each other is crucial and Bill Milner, (Will), and Will Poulter, (Lee), hit it out of the park. I don’t know how much of it is acting or them just intuitively going where the script takes them, but it is fantastic. The fact that they are so young and able to be so natural when behind the camera, yet so self-conscious and hammy in front of it—despite being in front of the real camera every second—just blows my mind. Milner is the naïve boy raised to be weary of the outside world, always cheery and completely gullible. When he gets a taste of fame he doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Poulter, on the other hand, is the smart-mouthed kid building up a stone façade to hide what is really going on inside. His delivery of one-liners is priceless, definitely helping to make him the shining star of the movie.

I’d be remiss to not mention the wonderful supporting cast and creativity of director Jennings. His use of animation is integrated perfectly and the mix of watching what is happening along with how it filmed on the boys’ camera is well orchestrated. As for the support, a lot is going on around these burgeoning filmmakers. Between the cliques at the school and the arrival of French exchange students, the small world is ever-changing around them. Jules Sitruk as Didier is absolutely amazing, oozing exotic chic and French confidence despite what we find out about his true nature at the end. This kid is Michael Jackson here, (that is a good thing, we are in the 80’s after all), and everyone, girls and boys flock to him. The teachers and the old folks and even Lee’s brother help add to the aesthetic going on, but what truly leaves its indelible mark is the culmination of all the hard work, seeing the finished short filmed displayed. The movie encompasses all that has been going on, permanently etching the bonds that have been forged and those that have been repaired to video.

Feel good movie of the year? Quite possibly hands down.

Son of Rambow 9/10

Bookmark and Share

photography:
[1] Bill Milner stars as WILL PROUDFOOT in Garth Jennings’ and Nick Goldsmith’s SON OF RAMBOW. (c) 2008 Paramount Vantage, A PARAMOUNT PICTURES corporation. All rights reserved. Photo by Maggie Ferreira
[2] Will Poulter as “Lee Carter” stars in “Son of Rambow”, a Paramount Vantage release. © 2008 by PARAMOUNT VANTAGE, a Division of PARAMOUNT PICTURES. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Maggie Ferreira

Bookmark and Share

I remember the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis very fondly from my elementary school days. Never having read the Lord of Rings until college, once the films began to be made, Narnia was my one outlet into fantasy. Yes, there were a couple BBC productions that our librarian showed us while reading the epic saga, but being over a decade ago, having a reboot seemed like a perfect idea. Piggybacking on the fantasy train during the mid-2000’s was a no-brainer and who better to direct than family friendly man Andrew Adamson? While, I guess there were probably a few that could come to mind considering he had never helmed a live action feature, (his two previous films were Shrek and Shrek 2). However, after viewing the film—theatrical or extended as I viewed most recently for this review—you can’t fault anything that goes on. The direction is great, the acting natural when dealing with leads of the age they are at here, special effects superb, and one can’t fault the source material. Whether you take offense to the blatant Christian metaphors and Jesus-like events or not, don’t let those preconceptions hold you back from watching the very well done piece of escapism cinema for the whole family that is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The story is a tale of duty, courage, trust, and forgiveness. With World War II going on outside their house in Britain, the Pevensie children are escorted out of the city to the country home of Professor Kirke, (a wonderfully eclectic Jim Broadbent). While cooped up in his mansion, the kids decide to play games in order to stay sane, one of which is hide and seek. During the excursion, the youngest child, Lucy, discovers an old wardrobe, a perfect place to hide. Once inside, however, she discovers it is a pathway into a mythical land called Narnia. She meets a faun named Tumnus and learns about the White Witch who has taken over as Queen and shrouded the country in 100 years of winter. Only the true king, Aslan, can save them all from her medusa-like penchant to turn all enemies into stone and her utter disregard for anything good. As one would expect, upon her return, (hours in Narnian time, but only seconds in ours), the other children don’t believe her tale at all. This dissention only adds to the rough relationships slowly burgeoning between the siblings, causing a rift in their solidarity and a way for the White Witch to work on young Edmund, (once all four kids arrive), he with the most anger and jealousy towards the others, to get the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve to be destroyed once and for all.

Being a children’s film above all else could hinder the emotional toll trying to be portrayed. Fortunately, this never becomes a problem. When there is battle and death, no blood is to be seen—this is not a Tolkien adaptation full of decapitations and gore. The warring sides contain talking forest creatures and mythical beings like dwarves, centaurs, and phoenixes. Each is very well fleshed out and a true part of the proceedings, never appearing as more prop than character. They add to the immense accessibility for young children to find themselves drawn into the world and fight against the villains. The environment is handled deftly, winter is a luscious white and the transformation to spring is subtle and effective. Each detail is cared for, as there is not one instance for you to take a too close look and find yourself watching craft rather then story.

Sure there is some great voice work from the likes of Liam Neeson and Ray Winstone, but it is the live actors that shine, whether in human form or fantastical. One of my favorite aspects of the film is Mr. Tumnus the faun played by James McAvoy. Not only is it mentioned for his real portrayal of all the emotions and inner wrestling with his heart and his fear, but also for the special effect work. Making his legs disappear into the hooves of a faun is very impressive and seamlessly done. Then you have Tilda Swinton as the White Witch—a performance that I will admit could scare many a young child, and possibly a few adults too. She takes cold-blooded to new levels and her icy stare mixed with the false smile she uses to brainwash Edmund is great. Devious and purely evil, she carries each scene she is a part of.

So, while Adamson has crafted winner, allowing all the pieces to fall together and be successful, he is not the last line in getting the rest of these books adapted to film. A lot must be put upon the four principal roles of the Pevensie children. If they are not believable, no one will take the time to see the rest that contain them, let alone the ones where people will have to be introduced to all new characters. Thankfully, these kids do the job and I can’t wait to see how they handle the work in Prince Caspian, being that they will all be knowledgeable in the fact they were kings and queens, victorious in battle. This story is where they discover their heroism; the next is where they use it to battle evil once again. William Moseley and Anna Popplewell are the elder two, Peter and Susan, and while they can be a tad stiff at times, they do the job when needed. Skandar Keynes and Georgie Henley, as Edmund and Lucy, are the true finds. Both are natural and endearing, young children holding grudges and not thinking through their actions to their possible conclusions. They are fallible creatures and act as catalysts for much of the film. Never sticking out, nor showing their inexperience, these kids carry the film on their shoulders and prove that this franchise has only begun.

Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 8/10

Bookmark and Share

Bookmark and Share

David Mamet is back with his new film Redbelt. After four years away from Hollywood, producing the television show “The Unit,” Mamet has followed up his solid thriller Spartan with a drama of intelligence that only he can capture. Complete with the trademark, metered language—every word timed and delivered with precision—this tale may be billed as a mixed martial arts actioner, but it is so much more. The sport itself lends heavily to the plot for sure, but rather than with its moves and choreography, it is the underlying sense of honor that becomes the central focus. Beginning as a straight-forward drama of faith and morality, culminating into what appears to be this Jiu-Jitsu instructor’s big chance at success and wealth to keep his fledgling gym in business, Mamet’s story soon gets the rug pulled out from under it, fast and hard. I will admit to not having expected the sharp turn of events halfway through as everything Mike Terry has built his life upon ends up leading to his demise, eventually finding him on the edge of throwing all he believes in away forever. A film of respect and sacrifice, greed and deceit, Redbelt goes places you will not be ready for, yet it is handled deftly, causing all the machinations to fall into place and show their true worth in the progression of the story. It all happens for a reason; life sometimes deals you pain and leaves you in a choke hold about to lose air, but as Terry tells his students, there is always an escape.

I don’t want to ruin anything with this film, because truthfully it caught me off-guard. Maybe the turn was hinted in the trailer, I don’t remember, but it is better to go in following the plot threads and watching it all unravel. With that said, I do have a problem with the ending. Not so much the tone and end result, but in the way it all transpires. I believe it is a perfect conclusion if not played out too easily without explaining the motivations behind two Jiu-Jitsu champions and their actions. To do what they do, it would almost mean they knew what was going on with the tournament, that they knew what Terry was about to tell the world before he spoke…I just don’t see how that can be true. Maybe Mamet just wanted to stick to a minimalist approach and allow it all to occur in sequence, and it is a powerful progression, it’s just filled with that one problem which could have possibly been rectified, but maybe it was and I missed it. I don’t want to accuse the filmmaker of a plot-hole if he actually did cover it up, I just can’t remember it happening. It’s the one blight on an otherwise stellar film.

The script is a huge part of the success and really that is where Mamet either flourishes or fails. At times he can be too cute or too overwrought, but at other instances he can be at the top of the industry. I generally find his smaller works, based off his own plays, as his best work, but this one is definitely on par. The ability to take us on this journey with two halves of good times and the fall from them is a feat that usually fails due to contrivances and blatant tells. Maybe I was tired or just too caught up in the acting and fight sequences, but it really surprised me in a good way; I didn’t see it coming at all.

Credit should go to the performers too for keeping their end of the game high quality. You believe all involved just as Mike Terry does throughout and when it hits him, the revelation is astounding. I believe that is due to the brilliant turn from Chiwetel Ejiofor in this lead role. Supposedly he had never had any formal martial arts training beforehand, but when you see him encompass Terry, you won’t believe that. He really pulls off the realism and the energy and the stoic calm of being in control at all times, not competing because that forum only weakens you. Eijiofor carries the film on his back as he enters the world of Hollywood business and behind closed-door deals before attempting to claw his way out. Despite the opportunity presented him, he never falters from the passion he has in the sport and the willingness to help anyone in need. A true hero, Mike Terry continues on his path of righteousness, pushing the anger away and clearing his mind to prevail.

The rest of the cast—consisting of many Mamet regulars like wife Rebecca Pidgeon, David Paymer, and Ricky Jay in small roles—take the words and nail each reading. Max Martini stands out as Terry’s star pupil and backbone emotionally to the story; Alice Braga is good as the wife finding that standing by her man may not be the way to succeed financially in life; Emily Mortimer is fantastic as the troubled attorney who’s accidental introduction to the gym puts everything into motion; and Tim Allen shows that maybe he still has some good serious turns in him if only he can get some time off from children’s fare. Along with the acting comes some amazing choreography fight-wise too. The camera usually stays in close-up, but there aren’t too many sharp cuts, allowing the full fight to play out as realistically as possible. Sure we get the one man fighting a gang and winning, but he never prevails unscathed, allowing us to believe what we are seeing.

So, in conclusion, don’t hear all the martial arts noise and think Mamet has gone off the deep-end. Redbelt is first and foremost his film, steeped in dialogue, quiet moments, and orchestrated sequences adding up all the pieces to be placed exactly where he wants them. Entertaining throughout, the film delivers on the promises of multiple genres and gives us a taste of this famous writer again, bringing him back into our consciousness to realize that he hasn’t thrown the towel in yet.

Redbelt 8/10

Bookmark and Share

photography:
[1] Left: Emily Moriter as Laura Black. Right: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry. Photo by Lorey Sebastian, © The Redbelt Company, LLC, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Left: Tim Allen as Chet Frank. Right: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry. Photo by Lorey Sebastian, © The Redbelt Company, LLC, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.

Categories

Bookmark and Share

jared’s tweets