November 26, 2007

REVIEW: Beowulf - 3D (B-)

Background: The latest adaptation of the English legend of the Danish warrior Beowulf is the second film done using motion-capture ("mo-cap") technology, the first being The Polar Express. The actors - Ray Winstone (The Departed, Breaking and Entering), Anthony Hopkins (The World's Fastest Indian), John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich), Robin Wright Penn (Breaking and Entering), and Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart) - wore skintight suits with hundreds of sensors on their face and body while filming. Beowulf was directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, and The Polar Express), who is deservedly regarded as a master of visual effects, and is the only director who has used mocap. There are two versions of Beowulf in current release, but if you're going to go you might as well see the 3D version - yep, you have to wear those awesome-looking glasses.

Synopsis: Hrothgar (Hopkins) is king of a mountainous medieval Danish village. Helpless in stopping the devilish monster Grendel (Crispin Glover - yes, George McFly) that is terrorizing his town, he sends out word that the slayer of the monster will receive a rich bounty of gold. Beowulf (Winstone) shows up and talks a good game, in the process wooing Hrothgar's lonely wife Wealthow (Penn) and irritating town spokesman Unferth (Malkovich). Grendel soon arrives and Beowulf tears off his arm, a fatal wound that Grendel succumbs to in his home cave under the mourning eye of his mother, the nude water demon (Jolie). By this time we've figured out that Hrothgar was seduced by Grendel's mother, and thus Grendel was his son. Of course Beowulf doesn't know this, so he is oblivious when Hrothgar tells him to go kill her as well. Not surprisingly, Beowulf falls under her spell, but returns to the village claiming he has rid the village of her curse forever. Hrothgar sees through the lie and crowns Beowful king before throwing himself off the castle tower. Years later, Beowulf's illegitimate son, who is a dragon, predictably returns to wreak havoc on the village. A long chase and battle scene ensues before Beowulf rips out the dragon's heart. To do so, however, he has to cut off his arm, and consequently dies a martyr. We're left with Beowulf's right-hand man, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson from Harry Potter...), facing the temptation of the water demon once again.

I Loved:
+ The animation - the detail was dazzling.

I Liked:
+ The 3D gimmick - it didn't always work, but it was kind of cool and helped draw you further into the movie.

I Disliked:
- Robin Wright Penn's face - it looked porcelain.
- Angelina Jolie's voice - creepy, not seductive.
- The cloudy ending.

I Hated:
- Grendel, one of the most disgusting creatures I've seen in a while.

Grade:
Writing - 7
Acting - N/A
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 32/40= 80% = B-

Last Word: I haven't read the legend of Beowulf, but I can't imagine it's much more vivid than the film. That being said, I've heard that it also isn't faithful to the story. Most obviously, I would expect Beowulf to actual kill Grendel's mother. If not, what has he accomplished? Call me crazy, but doesn't the point of the story hinge on that simple fact? Otherwise the cycle just continues, and Beowulf is one in a hundred weak-willed men. I have a hunch that I missed something and she actually was killed, but it wasn't obvious to me. Somebody fill me in, please. That plot point aside, the animation in Beowulf is certainly eye-popping, even if you don't see the 3-D version. Robert Zemeckis is creating a brave new world of filmmaking with these mocap movies - literally half live action, half animation - and nothing else looks like it. Was Beowulf the best story to bring to life using mocap? I don't know, I guess you couldn't really do Grendel without it, but otherwise it didn't seem necessary. Fans of legendary fantasies or experimental animation will enjoy Beowulf, but I can't recommend it as a great example of storytelling, as it lacks substance behind all of the slickness.

November 23, 2007

REVIEW: Love in the Time of Cholera (C-)

Background: Many people recognize the title of Nobel prize winner Gabriel García Márquez's classic novel from the film Serendipity. Who knows whether that spawned the idea for a film adaptation, but it took several years to receive permission from García Márquez before director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) took the helm. The two main characters are played by Spaniard Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Italian Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Facing Windows - she looked SO familiar! I completely forgot about that movie). John Leguizamo (The Pest) and Benjamin Bratt (TV's "Law & Order) offer supporting performances and easily recognizable faces for the public. Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) also appears, adding the only authentic Colombian influence to the cast (Leguizamo is Colombian, too, but...).

Synopsis: In cholera-stricken, late-19th century Cartagena, Colombia, Florentino Ariza (Bardem) is a kind-hearted telegram delivery boy who lives with his mother. When a delivery brings him to the home of rich mule-owner Lorenzo Daza (Leguizamo), Florentino is lovestruck by Daza's daughter Fermina (Mezzogiorno). The two secretly and then publicly profess their love for each other until Daza, embarrassed to have his daughter courted by a telegram boy, moves with her to live with relatives in the countryside, where we meet Fermina's cousin Hildebranda (Sandino Moreno). When Fermina returns to Cartagena years later, the still-in-love Florentino is waiting with excitement, only to have his heart completely crushed when rejects him and their love as an "illusion." She is soon courted by and then somewhat reluctantly married to Juvenal Urbino (Bratt), a handsome doctor with a knack for diagnosing cholera. Over the course of the next 40 years, Florentino tries to get over his lost love by writing love letters and sleeping with as many (600+) women as possible, while Fermina tragically realizes she'll never experience the happiness she once had with Florentino. By the time her husband dies, she and Florentino have little time to regain their lost love.

I Loved:
+ The on location filming in Colombia - some beautiful shots.
+ Javier Bardem's performance when Fermina turns him away in the marketplace.

I Liked:
+ Catalina Sandino Moreno, though she was underutilized - it's a shame this Oscar nominee hasn't received more significant roles lately.
+ The undistracting original music by Shakira - she's Colombian, it fit.

I Disliked:
- Liev Schreiber in a bizarre cameo.
- The obligatory, unnecessary flash-forward/time warp at the beginning - can we not just see a simple story in chronological order?

I Hated:
- The unbelievably awful make-up.
- The awkward, uncomfortable final sex scene.
- John Leguizamo's impression of Marlon Brando in the scene on the patio with Bardem.

Grade:
Writing - 8
Acting - 7
Production - 4
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 5
Significance - 4

Total: 35/50= 70% = C-

Last Word: If you can get through Love in the Time of Cholera without being completely distracted by the make-up, you must have the concentration of a brain surgeon. It seemed every character was at times suffering from sunburn, psoriasis, a botched rhinoplasty, or death. Add some terrible accents (Leguizamo had 3 by my count) and mediocre acting (though Bardem was predictably good), and you're left quite disappointed. Despite Mike Newell's failure, however, the ability of García Márquez to show the joy and pain of love somehow shines through. I haven't read the book, but I'm tempted to, if only to get the bad taste of the movie out of my head. Had Love in the Time of Cholera been adapted in Spanish, firstly, and with different actors for different ages, secondly, this could have been a romantic classic. Instead we're left with a made-for-TV-quality disaster that evokes cringing and scoffing more than anything else.

November 18, 2007

REVIEW: Southland Tales (D)

Background: Director Richard Kelly’s breakthrough film, at age 26, was also his first feature: the cult classic Donnie Darko, which made a star out of Jake Gyllenhaal. As he also did for Darko, Kelly wrote his long-awaited second film, Southland Tales, which is part of a six-chapter story – the first three chapters in graphic novel form, the last three chapters in the movie. Kelly has moved away from a character-driven story this time, as seen by the sheer numbers of stars in the cast. And by stars I mean pop stars, not necessarily actors – consider Mandy Moore, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Justin Timberlake, and SNL’s Cheri Oteri and Amy Poehler. You'll recognize almost every single character from something - seriously, everybody from Jon Laroquette to Vizzini from The Princess Bride to Booger from Revenge of the Nerds to Christopher Lambert, none other than Highlander himself. Despite the high wattage names and cult favorite director, however, Southland Tales was totally and unabashedly rejected at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, drawing boos, jeers, and the lowest scores given by voters. Despite this, Sony picked it up and reworked it with Kelly for what they hope is a better popular reception from his devoted fans.

Synopsis: (First, know that this movie has deservedly been labeled "unsynopsizable." I'll do my best.) In July 2005, Abilene, TX is the site of the first nuclear attack on America. Timberlake's character narrates a montage of what happens in the post-apocalyptic U.S. over the next three years - security crackdowns, closed borders, government surveillance, etc. The story picks up in July 2008 in what used to be L.A. but is now called the "Southland." As the country is preparing for the 2008 presidential election, a famous actor (The Rock) has been kidnapped and is cavorting around Venice Beach with "neo-Marxists" (Oteri, Poehler) and a porn star (Gellar). Two Iraq veteran buddies (Timberlake and Seann William Scott, a.k.a., Stifler) are dealing with their own issues - psychosis/drug addiction and amnesia, respectively. A weird German doctor has developed a new form of energy called Liquid Karma off the Santa Monica pier, and the U.S. government has some kind of Big Brother surveillance program monitoring everything. A corrupt police officer (Jon Lovitz), a crazed ice cream truck driver (Lambert), and a bald pimp (Mad TV's Will Sasso) float in and out. Throw in about 20 more characters and 20 more storylines, and you're about there, but don't forget a lot of cryptic dialogue about the end of the world. The finale brings us to election day on July 4th (uh?) in downtown L.A., where the inaugural launch of a Liquid Karma-fueled blimp is threatened by a do-rag-wearing white kid with a rocket launcher standing on top of the supernaturally floating ice cream truck, inside of which the neo-Marxist/Iraq veteran/Hermosa Beach cop (Scott) is trying to talk his clone (from another dimension) out of committing suicide. Have I left anything out? Yes, a lot.

I Loved:
+ Richard Kelly's ambition - it was kind of a cool idea, and it looked real slick.

I Liked:
+ The delayed reflection in the mirror scene.

I Disliked:
- Lou Taylor Pucci (from Thumbsucker) as a bizarre wannabe gangster/army recruit.
- The predictable opening explosion - hmm, idyllic neighborhood home video...what could possibly happen?
- Bai Ling as...I don't even know what her character was supposed to be. Same goes for Kevin Smith and about 10 other people.

I Hated:
- Mandy Moore's screen time.
- The outrageously misplaced music video for The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done."
- The Rock's finger fiddling - drove...me...crazy.
- Justin Timberlake's smirk - why was he always on the news, anyway?
- So much more, but what I've listed is what comes to mind first.

Grade:
Writing - 5
Acting - 6
Production - 5
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 5
Significance - 4

Total: 33/50= 66% = D

Last Word: Uggh. Southland Tales was just a complete mess, and a huge disappointment. It was ambitious, yes, unique, sure. Does that alone deserve my praise? I'm afraid not. I can't believe Richard Kelly was so surprised at the boos he received at Cannes. It just proves that he thought his outrageous plot and absurd characters were going to be unconditionally loved - just because they were outrageous and absurd! Sorry, bud. Parading around a bunch of D-list stars with ridiculous character names and no plot may have sounded like a good idea, but whatever he had in his mind completely got away from him. I don't think I "didn't get it," and I don't think the director's cut will tie any loose ends, but probably create more. If he was trying to be David Lynch he should have been a lot darker and creepier. Otherwise, stick with your strength - a character-driven story. Yes, Donnie Darko was completely bizarre as well, but at least the focus was on one person in one place at (almost) one time. And it was great. Unfortunately, Kelly bit off a lot more than he could chew with Southland Tales, and he's now officially 1/2. I'll see his next film only because he's proven he can make a great one, but I'm going to be reeaaly wary.

REVIEW: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (B-)

Background: At the young age of 33, Sidney Lumet was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for 12 Angry Men, his directorial debut. That was in 1957. Think. 1957. 50 YEARS LATER, Lumet is still hard at work in the director's chair - this time for Kelly Masterson's writing debut, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, which supposedly takes its title from an Irish toast. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Ethan Hawke (Before Sunset), Albert Finney (Big Fish), and Marisa Tomei (Factotum). Lumet (who also directed Network, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon) received an honorary Academy Award several years ago, and he may not make another feature. If for no other reason than to pay respect to a Hollywood legend, you should probably see Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.

Synopsis: (Full disclosure here: I was inexcusably late, but I know the first few scenes didn't make the movie.) Andy (Hoffman) is a successful NYC payroll executive and is unhappily married to Gina (Tomei), who is having an affair with Andy's down-on-his-luck brother Hank (Hawke). Andy hates his job and secretly uses cocaine and heroine; Hank is a deadbeat dad who can never afford to meet his daughter's needs. After returning from a trip to Rio with Gina, Andy makes a proposition to Hank: rob their parent's jewelry store in Westchester County on a Saturday morning. Incredibly, Hank agrees even when Andy tells Hank he's not going to actually be involved. Hank convinces his criminal friend to accompany him, the robbery goes sour, and both Hank's mother - who was unexpectedly working at the time - and Hank's friend are killed by each other's bullets. Hank, who was waiting the car, takes off without a trace. Almost immediately, Hank and Andy's lives unravel. Their father (Finney) is obviously in distress, they've killed their mother, they don't have any money, Hank's friend's wife knows what happened, and Andy is about to go off the deep end. Eventually their father wises to the situation, but by that time things are out of control, and several lives are lost in the disturbing finale.

I Loved:
+ The scenes featuring both Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman, even when just on the phone.
+ The supporting performances by Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney.

I Liked:
+ The musical score, equal parts chilling and comforting.
+ That nobody got away with anything.
+ The long take during Andy's first visit to the drug dealer's apartment.

I Disliked:
- The predictability of the last shootout.
- The time shifting between days and weeks before and after - didn't seem necessary to the story for me since everything was already laid out. A more straightforward approach would have been more powerful.
- Andy's proposition - how exactly is he earning any of the money from the heist if Hank does all the work?

I Hated:
- The unnervingly loud flash frame cutting between story lines.
- The creepy, silk robe-wearing drug dealer.

Grade:
Writing - 8
Acting - 9
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 41/50= 82% = B-

Last Word: What should have been a really interesting (albeit disturbing) story about family betrayal was for me weakened by the fact that I just really didn't care about the characters. This is not to say that Before the Devil Knows Your Dead is a bad movie. On the contrary, it's well made (for the most part) and acted - but when the story isn't strong the movie suffers. I didn't know enough about Andy or Hank to really care what happened to them, and frankly, they both just turned me off. Some people may say it's better to leave their inner demons hidden, but in this case they were too surprising. Andy just comes out and starts shooting people in the head? In that case I would also have to assume he has done some pretty dirty deeds in his past, but that's not what we're led to believe. I don't know, it just didn't seem like the most realistic good-person-turned-bad movie. I think Sidney Lumet does an excellent job in extracting believable flip-outs from his actors (e.g., Dog Day Afternoon and Network), but there is character development lacking in that aspect in Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. Add some unnecessary flashbacks and bizarre, momentum-stopping editing, and what's left is a movie that just doesn't reach its full potential.

November 15, 2007

Give Thanks for Thanksgiving Movies?

I started thinking about this with just one movie in mind, then did a little research to jog my memory. Plains, Trains, & Automobiles is, of course, considered the best Thanksgiving movie there is, and I would challenge anyone to argue otherwise. It's a perfect blend of family drama and odd couple-turned-buddy comedy, with underrated performances by Steve Martin and especially John Candy. The scene in which they argue at the first motel ("It's like going on a date with a Chatty Cathy doll...") is certifiably classic.

What did my research find? Well, it seems that there really aren't that many Thanksgiving movies to begin with. The number doesn't matter, but relative to Christmas, for example, it's not even close. You could probably name 10 animated Christmas movies if you had a few minutes to think about it. But Thanksgiving? There are a bunch of movies where a Thanksgiving dinner happens to occur (most recently American Gangster), but it's usually not a central piece of the plot. Here are some where it actually is:

Home for the Holidays (1995) - Starring Holly Hunter, Claire Danes, Robert Downey, Jr., directed by Jodie Foster (?!)

The House of Yes (1997) - Parker Posey, Freddie Prinze, Jr., Tori Spelling

Pieces of April (2003) - Katie Holmes, Oliver Platt, Patricia Clarkson

Tadpole (2002) - Aaron Stanford, John Ritter, Sigourney Weaver

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) - Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Michael Caine, written & directed by Woody Allen

The Ice Storm (1997) - Kevin Kline, Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, Sigourney Weaver, Joan Allen, directed by Ang Lee

What's Cooking? (2000) - Dennis Haysbert, Kyra Sedgwick, Julianna Margulies, Joan Chen

The answer is no, I haven't seen all of them. In fact, I haven't seen any of them (yes, I've missed Home for the Holidays on USA/TBS every year). It turns out that the only other Thanksgiving-themed movie I've seen is Garfield's Thanksgiving, which is not even a movie. What gives?

Maybe Thanksgiving is just a really boring subject to make a movie about. If it's going to be a family relationship drama/comedy/tragedy, you might as well just wait and make it about Christmas. Otherwise what happens on Thanksgiving - you eat until you're sick, watch football and fall asleep? Doesn't make for a very good movie. However, I wouldn't mind seeing a movie about the "first" Thanksgiving, as controversial as it might be. That's something worth exploring...

November 12, 2007

Ready for the Red Carpet

I have achieved, truthfully, one of my lifelong goals - vain as it may be: a listing in the Internet Movie Database.

Daniel Getahun ... Restaurant Extra

While my now-swamped-with-calls agent updates my bio, here's the brief summary of my explosion onto the Hollywood scene:

When I moved to San Diego I subscribed to the (now defunct?) seatfiller.com email list, and every few months I would receive invitations to attend D-list events like the Kid's Choice Awards or Latin Billboard Awards. One day there was an invitation for unpaid extras for an American Film Institute short called "The One" that was shooting in Hollywood the next week. I had couple phone exchanges with the producers, called Beav and told him to get some nice clothes ready, and we drove to the Kodak Theatre on a Monday afternoon after work, not knowing what to expect from the 6:00 PM - 6:00 AM shoot.

The next 12 hours were a surreal experience, and the early morning drive from L.A. straight to work back in San Diego was an incredible feat on my part, no thanks to Beav catching up on sleep, ahem. Anyway, here are some lessons I learned (I know you experienced film industry people will laugh):

1.) "Craft services" are the bomb. This was a short film with a minuscule budget, and we still had a full spread of snacks, drinks, and a 2:00 AM catered meal. I can't imagine what the food is like on the set of a $200 million blockbuster.

2.) Background acting is really hard. Anytime you've seen a busy restaurant/bar scene in a movie, it's absolutely silent on the set. As the bartender, I had to deftly pretend I was busy making drinks, joking with customers and cleaning behind the bar, all while avoiding the slightest hint of noise that could be picked up by the boom mike over the main characters three feet away. You almost couldn't breathe. The microphones are so sensitive we had to stop shooting for a while because a helicopter was flying somewhere near the building.

3.) Getting the "perfect shot" takes hours, hours, hours. I would say less than a minute of the final cut came from our 12 hour shoot. It was just repeating takes over and over and over from different angles, then you get a set-up shot, then you get close-ups, etc. Directing is the ultimate perfectionist job. Now I can understand how Jackie Chan completed 329 takes for one scene in The Young Master.

4.) Assistant directors actually do a lot. So do production assistants. Come to think of it, I bet the assistants do most of the work. Just like in real life!

5.) Being on the set of a movie is a lot of fun. Sure there are long shoots and stressful takes, but it's got to be a good time to act out with your friends for a living. Especially if you're with your friends. What do you think it was like on the set of the Ocean's movies? A great time. I have limited experience in stage productions and now film production, but the cooperative effort toward a dynamic goal has been an enjoyable experience every time.

By the way, unless you're Deborah Read (the director), you've seen as much of "The One" as Beav or I have...

November 10, 2007

REVIEW: No Country for Old Men (A)

Background: Writer/director brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are back on the scene with No Country for Old Men, their much-anticipated adaptation of Cormac McCarthey's 2005 novel by the same name. After achieving indie-darling status in the early 90's and then mainstream success with Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O, Brother Where Are Thou?, the Coen brothers have made three flops in a row - most recently 2004's The Ladykillers. They return to their strongest genre with No Country for Old Men, which stars Spaniard Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls, The Sea Inside), Josh Brolin (recently in American Gangster), and Tommy Lee Jones (recently in In the Valley of Elah). You're not going to believe it, but Jones plays totally against type as a scraggly, suffering old sheriff with a drawl. No Country for Old Men was filmed in Texas and New Mexico and was very well received at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

Synopsis: Texas/Mexico border, 1980. Retired welder Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is out on a desert hunt when he comes across a grisly body-strewn, bullet-riddled scene - the remnants of a drug deal gone sour. Ignoring the wounded lone survivor, and the stash of drugs, Moss soon finds the case full of payment money, which he casually takes back to his trailer park and nagging wife. Elsewhere, Anton Chigurh (Bardem) is escaping police custody and killing anyone in his way (with weapons that you've never seen before). And, as it turns out, the drug money is his. Moss returns to the crime scene to aid the wounded survivor - a foolish decision since he has to abandon his truck and barely escapes with his life. Now on the run with the money and some guns, Moss is alone and a target. Meanwhile, soon-to-retire Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones) is yawningly trying to track down both Moss (to save him) and Chigurh (to arrest him). The rest of the movie is a cat-and-mouse chase with some additional interesting characters (Woody Harrelson plays a private gumshoe) and a number of unexpected twists. Plenty of lives are lost along the way before the incomplete yet satisfying end.

I Loved:
+ The outstanding ensemble acting - across the board, perfect in every way.
+ The early scene at the gas station with the conversation between Bardem and the owner - wow, was I scared.
+ That not every murder was shown, but rather just inferred.

I Liked:
+ The dusty, haunting landscapes through which the characters traveled, and the excellent 1980's production design.

I Disliked:
- The obligatory self-surgery scenes where someone pulls up their shirt in the middle of the street to inspect a bubbling wound and then later extracts bullets or dresses the wound for the first and last time.

I Hated:
- The most predictable car accident in years.

Grade:
Writing - 10
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 47/50= 94% = A

Last Word: There are few movies that require a lot of work in searching for weaknesses, but No Country for Old Men is one of them. It's a gripping, spellbinding, tightly wound production with characters that you can't stand, but also can't help watch.
I was extremely impressed with this movie, though I should say I haven't read the book. Matt says the Coen brothers were very faithful to it. Javier Bardem is a menacing figure - one of the scariest movie characters in a long time. Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones are simply excellent in their roles, with memorable scenes and nuanced performances. Even Woody Harrelson makes the most of his limited screen time. Speaking of which, I don't remember even a minute of the film that didn't add significance to the story. It was just a top-to-bottom well-made movie. Even the minor criticisms I listed above don't take anything away from No Country for Old Men. Count me in as back on the Coen brothers bandwagon.

November 9, 2007

Underrated MOTM: Back to the Future Part II (1989)

This Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) is likely to stir some controversy. Let me first say that the original Back to the Future is better than both of if its sequels, and deserves its status as a contemporary classic.

Released in 1989, four years after its prequel, Back to the Future Part II was brilliantly written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, who did both for all three in the trilogy. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd once again play Marty McFly and Doc Brown, respectively, but Elizabeth Shue is Jennifer Parker in this sequel (and in
Part III). The original Jennifer Parker (Claudia Wells), by the way, did not act again until 1996 after having to care for her ill mother. Anyway, Back to the Future Part II picks up where the original left off - "Where we're going, we don't need roads!" Great teaser.

Probably because I was young, and definitely because I saw it in the theater, Back to the Future was a lot of fun to watch. Turns out though, I still smile and put down the remote when I come across it on TV. Marty McFly and Doc Emmett Brown are a great on-screen duo, and play off each other perfectly. Biff Tannen is one of the most despicable characters ever, but you just can't wait to see what's going to happen to him next. That guy, Thomas F. Wilson, did a great job in all three movies - and then became a successful TV actor. And Lea Thompson of course never received enough credit for her ageless acting as Lorraine Baines McFly.

Aside from the acting, Back to the Future II is really well-written, and it's a crying shame that Robert Zemeckis never really wrote anything else. All of the complex plot pieces fall into place, and we're presented with a future that is amusing to fantasize about. It's shocking, and funny, to think that in 1989 we were still seriously dreaming about flying cars, hoverboards, hydrowave pizzas and the Cubs winning the World Series by 2015. That's...in a few years. Still, the imaginative details were awesome, despite the product tie-ins for Nike, Pepsi, and USA Today. Oh, and the frightening bizarro future, or past I guess it would be, or...whatever, the Hill Valley that is lorded over by evil Biff is a great addition to the story.

You can imagine that it would have been a lot of fun to be part of this movie - cast, crew, or catering. It was ahead of its time and a rare excellent sequel to a classic original. While Back to the Future III is entertaining enough, its kind of a weak finale and it doesn't really capture the imagination or whim of Part II, where the characters get to explore an unknown world and its wild implications. Convince me otherwise...

November 4, 2007

REVIEW: Bee Movie (B)

Background: By now most movie fans know that a dinner joke several years ago between Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Spielberg led to the eventual production of Bee Movie, Seinfeld's first foray into filmmaking (he was only the subject of his autobiographical Comedian). Written by Seinfeld and directed by Steve Hickner (The Prince of Egypt), Bee Movie features the voices of Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Matthew Broderick (Election), Renee Zellweger (Jerry Maguire), Patrick Warburton (Puddy from "Seinfeld"), and numerous other actors and celebrities. Jerry Seinfeld reportedly oversaw every last detail of the movie, including the animation, and even had a satellite video feed set up in New York to supervise what was going on in L.A. during production. Bee Movie was obviously distributed by Spielberg's Dreamworks, whose animation department is desperate for a hit outside of the Shrek and Madagascar series.

Synopsis: Barry B. Benson (Seinfeld) is graduating from college with his friend Adam Flayman (Broderick). Their graduation ceremony turns into a tour of their future employer, Honex, which is of course the Central Park beehive in which they live. Unsatisfied with his job options in the hive (e.g., stirring honey), Barry joins up with the pollen jocks - the bees who get to leave the hive and pollinate the flowers throughout New York City. On his adventure outside the hive, Barry meets and falls in love with Vanessa Bloome (Zellweger), a human florist who is dating Ken (Warburton), an outrageously obnoxious tennis coach. Barry and Vanessa enjoy an awkwardly normal relationship before Barry sees honey being sold in a store, decides it constitutes theft from bees around the world, and decides to sue the American honey industry. In collecting evidence he meets some new characters, like Mooseblood the mosquito (Rock). The trial arrives, the humans are found guilty of stealing honey, and the bees are left with nothing to do now that nobody is using the honey. Additionally, the non-honey-producing bees are not pollinating flowers anymore, and all of Central Park goes brown. Barry hatches a plan to save the world: he flies (in a plane) to Pasadena, steals a float full of roses from the final Rose Parade, flies back (in a plane) to NYC, and leads all of the bees in repollinating Central Park. Then he opens a law office inside Vanessa's floral shop. That's it.

I Loved:
+ The classic Seinfeldian humor
- "Why do humans wear rings on their toes? Isn't that like wearing a hat on your knee?"
+ The beautiful animation of
the initial tour of Honex, and when Barry first flies out of the hive and through Central Park.

I Liked:
+ The Ray Liotta cameo.

I Disliked:
- That the story really fell apart in the second half.
- The Sting cameo.
- The bizarre dream sequence where Vanessa dies in a fiery crash - that reference went from The Graduate to...?

I Hated:
- That the unbearable Ken (Warburton) was just Puddy on steroids - literally and figuratively.

Grade:
Writing - 8
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 33/40= 83% = B

Last Word: Following the story in Bee Movie was almost like riding on the back of a bee. It went in all directions, hovered, went back, sideways, etc. Nevertheless, I had a fun time watching it, almost entirely because it was like a lost episode of "Seinfeld." Maybe his magic is only in 22 minute episodes, and extending it to 90 minutes is too difficult. I thought the voices were well matched to the characters, and the animation was fantastic, though you don't have to do much to impress me. I'm still amazed at how dazzling computer animation can be. As Bee Movie proves, though, a meaningful story is vital, and Dreamworks has struggled with all of its projects except the Shreks. Pixar, in the meantime, has collected Oscars and reeled off 8 straight hits, from Toy Story to Ratatouille. If Jerry Seinfeld could have developed a better story in they style of Pixar, Bee Movie could have been a hit for the ages, appealing to both kids and their parents. Instead, it will likely soon fade away as another experiment in his career, and another misfire in the political animated movie group (Happy Feet, The Wild). I give Seinfeld credit for trying his hand, however, and I will say that I learned something new about what life could be like as a bee. Look for Bee Movie to be nominated for Best Animated Feature but lose to Ratatouille, which simply has a richer, more meaningful story.

November 3, 2007

REVIEW: American Gangster (B)

Background: Ridley Scott’s (Blade Runner, Gladiator) new film, American Gangster, is based on Mark Jacobson’s New York Magazine article “The Return of Superfly,” which is in turn based on the true story of Frank Lucas, notorious drug kingpin (and king) of 1970’s Harlem. Both Lucas (played by Denzel Washington - Deja Vu) and his former NJ police rival Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe - 3:10 to Yuma) were consultants during production, helping with accuracy and accents. The messy pre-production of the film took several years and scripts, and at different points involved director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), screenwriter Terry George (Reservation Road), and actors Don Cheadle, Joaquin Phoenix, Ray Liotta, John C. Reilly, and Benicio Del Toro. Of course none of these people ended up working on American Gangster, but Del Toro actually collected a $5 million paycheck before production was shut down the first time. One other interesting piece of trivia - a number of the Thai extras were actually involved in Frank Lucas's real drug-running operation. Must be a statute of limitations for drug-related crimes in Thailand.

Synopsis: Harlem, late 60's. Frank Lucas (Washington) is the successor to local druglord/crimeboss Bumby Johnson. Richie Roberts (Crowe) is a divorced New Jersey cop who is too honest for his line of work. Lucas is committed to monopolizing the booming heroin market in Harlem, and he actually visits the source in Thailand before moving his entire family (including 5 brothers) to Harlem for assistance in the new venture. Before long, junkies all over New York are hooked on his "Blue Magic," and the corrupt NYPD, led by Detective Trupo (Brolin), look the other way while stuffing their pockets. After losing the trust of his fellow officers, Roberts is picked to head a federal taskforce whose only goal is to stop the drug trade at its source. By this time, Lucas has wealth, power, influence, and the reputation as the baddest dude in Harlem. Despite his low profile (quiet suits, simple routines, weekly church-going, etc.), Lucas (and Det. Trupo) eventually attract the attention of Robert and his team. Their surveillance pays off when they learn of one final, massive heroin shipment coming in from Thailand, and a major raid ensues. Lucas is dramatically arrested on his way out of church and forced to either take life in prison or rat out all of his NYPD bedfellows.

I Loved:
+ The production design - great sets, on-location filming
, and a believable 70's look to it all.

I Liked:
+ Denzel Washington's ice-cold performance - better and more believable than his silly turn in Training Day.
+ T.I. - he was good in a limited role and shows as much potential as he did in ATL.
+ The RZA - outacting professionals and showing off a Wu-Tang tattoo.

I Disliked:
- Josh Brolin's exaggerated bullying, Russell Crowe's dull indifference, Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s typical spasticity, and Common's boring coolness.
- Chiwetel Ejiofor being miscast as an African-American again (as in Talk to Me and Inside Man) - he's British and excels in roles where he doesn't have to fake an accent or an attitude, like in Dirty Pretty Things and Children of Men.
- Not seeing images/interviews with the real Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts - I know, I know, wait for the DVD. Well I never see DVD's so I'll miss it.

I Hated:
- Nothing, really.

Grade:
Writing - 9
Acting - 7
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 4

Total: 42/50= 84% = B

Last Word: With all of the mess in getting this made, where was Spike Lee? I have to believe he would have made a better movie, though he may not have extracted better performances from the cast. American Gangster is not a bad movie, it's just not a very likable one. Basically, it's another shoulder-shrugger. Aside from showing that Denzel Washington can legitimately play a ruthless criminal, not much is accomplished. I didn't know anything about Frank Lucas, and still I have to read the original article and look for more information about him and Roberts. The corruption in the story, from the military to the police, is incredible and should have played a larger role. Although it kept my interest, some scenes could have been trimmed, mostly those involving Roberts' family matters. Speaking of Roberts, I have to stick up for Crowe here regarding his accent. I'm not from North Jersey, but I think Crowe probably got closer than the others (Del Toro, Phoenix) who would have played Roberts. He did fine with the accent, but just didn't seem very passionate about what he was doing. Maybe that's the real Roberts, though. American Gangster was the right idea for an old-school gangster movie, but the final product isn't as dark or as revealing as you'd hope for. Or am I just that desensitized by this point?

REVIEW: Lions for Lambs (C)

Background: The week after I posted my review of Rendition and mentioned the challenge of making these as-it's-happening "War on Terror" movies, A.O. Scott wrote this piece in the New York Times. You might call it plagiarism; I call it much more articulate than my drivel. In any case, Lions for Lambs has arrived as the next chapter in the Fall 2007 Iraq War series. It stars now-established Hollywood legends Robert Redford (recently in An Unfinished Life), Meryl Streep (also in Rendition), and Tom Cruise (last in MI:3), with supporting performances by Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher, Catch a Fire) and Michael Peña (Crash, World Trade Center). It's directed by Redford and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, whose first screenplay was, sadly, The Kingdom. Lions for Lambs also marks the first film produced by Tom Cruise, or starring him, since his "termination" from Paramount Pictures in 2006 for "bad behavior." His new contract with United Artists begins with this film.

Synopsis: In Washington, D.C., Senator Jasper Irving (Cruise) is being interviewed in his office by reporter Janine Roth (Streep) about a new military strategy in Afghanistan. At the same time, said military strategy is beginning with complications, as best friends and soldiers Ernest Rodriguez (Peña) and Arian Finch (Luke) are stranded atop a snowy mountain, wounded and vulnerable to the approaching "enemy." Meanwhile, their idealistic college professor, Stephen Malley (Redford), is acting out Good Will Hunting scenes with a disillusioned but brilliant student named Todd Hayes at "a university in California." The three stories are happening simultaneously, and we hear different perspectives and typical talking points about the war, politics, America, apathy, and journalism. We learn about how Irving rose as a Republican star, how Malley fought in Vietnam, and how Rodriguez and Finch ended up in Afghanistan. At the end, there is a meltdown and argument between Roth and her editor about responsible journalism, a final firefight on the snowy mountaintop, and an abrupt send-off of Hayes by Malley.

I Loved:
+ The idea of comparing real time, simultaneously occurring discussions.


I Liked:
+ Tom Cruise, as always. Yes, I am a huge Tom Cruise movie fan. Not necessarily a Tom Cruise fan, but a Tom Cruise movie fan. Get the difference?
+ The final scene with Luke and
Peña - I thought that was moving.

I Disliked:
- The loudly placed Hurricane Katrina footage on the TV throughout the entire conversation between Janine Roth and her editor in the newsroom - if you want to make a movie about that, make a movie about that. Otherwise it's just an immature slight.
- Meryl Streep's naive facial expressions and general sensitivity throughout the interview - this is a D.C. reporter with 40 years of experience, including Vietnam, and she is surprised by blunt war talk? She looked like she was about to cry the whole time, and then she finally did.
- The poor special effects in "Afghanistan," especially involving the military chopper.

I Hated:
- Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) - a self-absorbed, jaded, know-it-all college student that I've seen in the mirror before. A true character if there ever was one, but still hard to watch.
- That the usual talking points were about as far as the discussions went.

Grade:
Writing - 6
Acting - 7
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 4
Significance - 5

Total: 37/50= 74% = C

Last Word: Though it doesn't effectively deliver its ambiguous challenge to America, Lions for Lambs is extraordinarily better than Rendition or The Kingdom, if only because it at least attempts to offer differing perspectives, even if they are the same extremely liberal CNN talking points vs. the same extremely conservative FOX News talking points. We hear a lot of people talking, but nobody is saying anything. In between witty banter by Cruise and Streep, we're lectured by Redford about civic engagement, and at one point even presented with an alternative to the military draft: a mandatory civil service requirement for all high school juniors. This is the only somewhat fresh idea in the whole movie, but it's rightly left alone as it has little to do with our current international dilemmas.
Lions for Lambs does a good job in reflecting the current confusion facing all Americans, and perhaps that's enough, but it doesn't even effectively present either side of the war debate. Clearly, Tom Cruise had to do some character research to play a Republican Senator, so that side is poorly developed (and heavily reliant on admission of mistakes). But even the anti-war argument is sloppily delivered - is it just about the troops? And what about the underlying jabs at journalism, students, political science, etc.? Obviously, I can't expect provocative or astute foreign policy analysis from a Hollywood movie, and besides, what could I expect from the writer of The Kingdom?
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