Saturday, October 30, 2004

Napoleon Dynamite - Whether it's dynamite or not depends on your patience...

It looks like an Indie. It smells and tastes like an Indie. But "Napoleon Dynamite" seems to be playing in every multiplex. So how can it be an indie?

I think that, unfortunately, whenever movies are in the multiplex, we audiences have this American notion that the film must be a very exciting, thrilling movie. You know, lots of car chases, some sex, recognizable movie stars. If the movie doesn't follow this script, we're bored after the first 15 minutes. If it's a video, we push the "eject" button and will never visit it again.

Which would be a shame with Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon is a teenager living in Idaho. Probably because of his overwhelming geekiness, he has this overinflated sense of worth. He tends to pick up strange people as friends. (He might as well, since he doesn't have any others.) For amusement at home, he goes out and watches the family llama grow and practices his karate kicks. There's not much to do in Idaho, apparently, for the average teenager.

If this tale were just about Napoleon, we'd be bored. However, enter Uncle Rico, whose best year was in 1982 when he was on the high school football team. Rico is now a sleazy salesman, available to pitch anything to the little old lady down the street, just to make a few bucks and to make life a little interesting. Napoleon's brother is out of high school, but has no life outside the internet. He almost outdoes Napoleon for geekiness, but the two do not communicate outside of yelling at each other about things like tying up the telephone line. You know, like how you talked with your siblings when you were growing up.

Enter Pedro. Pedro is the only Hispanic kid in school, and his claim to fame is the ability to grow a mustache. Pedro becomes Napoleon's fast friend because, well, nobody else will talk to Pedro, and Pedro's willing to give anybody an even break. Pedro's real problem is that he's just too normal, perhaps too intelligent for this group of kids, but he's stuck here, and he's trying to make the best of it. Everything heats up when Pedro runs for student body president against the most popular girl in high school, with Napoleon as his manager.

I did not laugh at all throughout the movie. As one of my younger friends told me, high school was bad enough without seeing it on a slow-moving screen. However, afterwards I laughed about it all the way home, especially in discussing the movie with friends. Upon reflection, it's hilarious. But it's not for everyone.

If you can sit through slow movies while waiting for punch lines to sink in, while waiting for characters to take hold in the storyline, you will probably love this movie. However, if watching kids endure the pain of adolescence and boredom could not remotely strike you as funny, do what Uncle Rico should have done as the high school quarterback in the big game in '82: Pass.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Movie Magic

"First star on the right, and straight on till morning!"

Oh, I loved the Mary Martin version of that story! In case there is a reader young enough that this "Mary Martin" stuff is a mystery, take a look at this link .

Via a particularly twisted bit of logic, my siblings and I decided that since it was Mary Martin playing Peter Pan, and she could fly like Pan, we must be able to fly if we just believed hard enough. I remember spending several days climbing up on furniture, trying to generate enough faith, and then leaping, only to thud on the ground each time. I think -- er, hope -- it was a long while before we found out about wires and harnesses and stage "magic."

I still love the magic of the movies so much that I get really annoyed and cranky if someone "explains" the special effects to me.

You made that one sound like so much fun, Linda, I think I'm going to have to find a theater and go see it!

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Peter Pan - You can fly!

The beauty of the old “Peter Pan” play was a flying Mary Martin, a woman playing a boy. It worked wonderfully. However, it wasn’t the true Peter Pan. We all knew it was Mary Martin’s tour de force. It wasn’t about a boy who never wanted to grow up.

Imagine a modern Peter Pan, where you’d actually see kids playing the parts -- live action, not animated. Not only that, but with modern special effects (presuming a healthy budget), you would see a lush Neverland and Captain Hook the way he should be, obsessed with ending all things wonderful in paradise.

“Hook,” right? Wrong. “Hook” wasn’t fun. It was stupid. The movie talked down to its audience. The casting was so wrong. The screenplay didn’t follow the book closely enough, mostly because it was consumed with star power that you couldn’t tell the other stories. Okay, so let’s add in another “must”: The movie must be as faithful to the book as possible, and fun. Fun for all ages.

Then take a look at 2003’s Peter Pan, featuring an all-British cast (except for American Jeremy Sumpter, who played Peter). It’s mostly a no-name cast, at least for viewers in the States, but we do recognize Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) in a dual role as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, and he is absolutely stunning. Lynn Redgrave is an aunt, although we’re not sure why they need an aunt. The rest of the cast is perfectly placed. Rachel Hurd-Wood is wonderful as Wendy. Our Peter Pan in this adaptation is a simple boy, with simple pleasures. Don’t ask him to think too much or he’ll get into trouble. Jeremy fulfills this requirement with a great, dull stare. Other than that, he flies and fights really well.

Just in case you were in a closet when Peter Pan and Wizard of Oz adaptations made their way onto your television screen, the story goes something like this: Young Wendy Darling spends evenings telling stories to her two brothers in their London house, but her parents are pressuring her to enter adulthood and forget the ways of a child. Her father in particular is a cold, bespectacled accountant who doesn’t understand whimsy at all. One night, Peter Pan flies into Wendy’s room and loses his shadow. Wendy helps him regain it with her cleverness, and he talks the Darling children into accompanying him back to Neverland where they will never have to grow up, face problems and become boring. Once in Neverland, however, Wendy and the boys find that they’re facing graver problems than they could ever imagine with a bloodthirsty pirate and a jealous pixie. Wendy as a preadolescent has to also deal with feelings for Peter, feelings which he can never return, and a bunch of homeless boys looking to her for guidance.

This new Peter Pan creates a Neverland so enchanting, all of us would love to visit. This Neverland features lush green jungles, beautiful blue lagoons with pirate ships and enchanting (and dangerous) sea life, and much more. However, this new take on the old story lets you know that pirates aren’t the Disney buffoons you’re used to, Peter Pan is an innocent but is also a bit dimwitted, and Tinkerbell is too emotional to be anything but a thorn in everybody’s side. And watch out for that crocodile -- he’s waiting for you when you walk off that plank. Those who know the story realize that for every marvelous, hug-everybody moment, there is a dangerous one close behind. The fact that Hook actually uses that hook may be frightening to young children who watch this movie, but such a realization makes the story stronger in the telling.

The story you see here is delightful that, even though you know the ending, you wonder how all the characters will get there. The journey is amazing, but the ending, the growing up, must come sooner or later. Unlike any version of this story you’ve ever seen, you understand why Wendy must go back and why Peter does not go back with her. If the film is sometimes slow and the characters irritating at times, it’s probably because this reviewer left Neverland long ago. But she still enjoys visiting every once in awhile, just as long as she doesn’t have to walk the plank.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Went looking for a sure thing, and I found Strange Love

Sometimes I just want a sure thing, a movie that I know will deliver the goods. So I rented a copy of a Barbara Stanwyck noir classic I'd never seen: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. It's an elegant concoction of the standard noir elements: a doomed, double-dealing dame, a squared-jawed hero caught in her web, a dark perverse melodrama of a script, twisted and classy, taking the worst in human nature and making it into entertainment. Noir is a carnival ride through the dark heart of the soul.

The movie didn't disappoint. Stanwyck was her beautiful, lethal self, this time with a backstory that made her deeds plausible. Van Helfin played the square-jawed lead, a noble savage in a suit and tie. It was Kirk Douglas' debut in films, as a good boy gone rotten (for the love of Barbara, of course.) A good (and deadly) time was had by all, just as expected. The screenplay, by Robert Rossen, was nominated for an Oscar, and it was that good and then some.

But there was a bonus on this "sure thing," an actress I'd never heard of before and whom I'll never forget. Lizabeth Scott played a supporting role and stole every scene she appeared in. Any woman who can wrest a scene from Stanwyck has a remarkable screen presence, and this was only her second film. Imagine a woman with Veronica Lake hair, with Kathleen Turner's voice, and with the ability to tell you her backstory with the slightest curl of a lip. So now you'll pardon me while I slip back to Netflix to see if they've got any more of her small filmography...

Best line: "Go ahead and hit me, Sam, I got it comin'."

Oh, yeah. Sure thing. Thumb's up.

Friday, October 22, 2004

The Motorcycle Diaries - A Spiritual Ride

Do you remember the old T.V. show, Route 66, where the two young guys and their red M.G. traveled along the highway and got emotionally involved in the lives of the people they met every week?

Well, life doesn’t happen like that. If you’re over the age of 30, you know that. You know that as soon as you go on the road, the only people you’re apt to talk to are waitresses and gas station attendants, and most likely their lives don’t need saving.

However, every young man’s dream is to set out with friend(s) to see the world. And so it was in Argentina, when Ernesto Guevara de la Serna and his friend Alberto Granada took some time out of their student lives, climbed aboard a very shaky motorcycle, and set across South America.

In case we have forgotten, there is another America , south of here, and it’s beautiful. There are no unbelievable stories here for Ernesto and Alberto, just an honest telling of some of the events along the way, bookended by the people’s struggles around them.

The director stops the camera at several points, willing the camera to stay still. The people face the camera, and the audience, telling us a little of their story in their silence as we stare at these “living pictures.” They’re terribly compelling.

The movie, although not a documentary, is told like one but without that usual stilted feeling of a docudrama, based upon Ernesto’s diary. Ernesto, of course, became “Che,” the revolutionary. If you didn’t know that when you sat down to watch this journey, you certainly know it by the end. The route on how Ernesto travels from young man, medical student, to revolutionary is fascinating and illuminating. But even if you didn’t know the end result, the journey would still be fascinating, in part because these two young actors -- Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna -- are so engaging. They urge us to feel their pain, to laugh with them, to go on the journey with them.

I would much rather hop aboard Alberto's hapless motorcycle than Route 66's fantasy M.G., and share the journey with these two very real men. This film succeeds in so many ways, on so many levels, I can truly recommend this film as one of the best you’ll see in 2004.

Bad Santa, Not Your Typical Christmas Movie

Ho, Ho, Ho, Ruth. I totally disagree with your Bah Humbug. “Bad Santa” is the funniest movie I’ve seen in years, and is now my favorite Christmas movie.

I don’t know from Billy Bob Thornton. I had never seen a movie with Billy Bob before. All I knew about him was (1) he broke up with Angelina Jolie, and (2) he liked weird tattoos. I might be able to forgive the latter but never the former. I was hoping his bad judgment wouldn’t extend to his movie, Bad Santa.

Billy Bob's character is the poorest excuse for Santa you would ever want to meet. When you meet him, he’s absolutely horrible to the kids, totally irresponsible, sloppy drunk, and held together by his partner (in crime, it turns out), Marcus, played by actor Tony Cox. There are a few surprises in the plot, but frankly, I was beginning to think it was a one-note play until The Kid showed up.

The Kid is one of the most unusual characters you’ll ever meet in a movie. His father went to prison for a white collar crime (a small but funny role by Ethan Phillips), so he left his mother and his son to fend for themselves in their nice upper middle-class house. Unfortunately, Grandma is on the cruel side of Alzheimer’s, offering everyone sandwiches every few seconds, and The Kid has to figure out adolescence by himself. He is not doing well. He is clueless.

The changes Billy Bob’s Santa undergoes towards the end of the film wouldn’t be believable if it weren’t for his interaction with this totally serious but helpless boy, played with such great intensity by newcomer Brett Kelly.

This movie was such a laughfest for me that I watched the DVD highlights immediately afterwards. Watching Billy Bob and the Round Table pizza guy do the same scene over and over, Santa sparring with the store’s security officer, was double-over belly-laugh funny. And Tony Cox is even funnier in outtakes, once he doesn’t have to be the short straight man.

Ruth, I wish you could have seen the same film I saw, a very funny film that escapes predictability once Santa becomes once again emotionally engaged with the human race. This film is definitely a thumb’s up.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Bad, Bad Santa

Two of my favorite movie reviewers have raved to me for some time about Bad Santa, so I moved it to the top of my Netflix queue and watched it for my Thursday night movie night.

Ever met a little kid who says or does something naughty, and all the grownups laugh, so he does it again and again and again? Remember how annoyed you were by that kid?

That's how I felt about Bad Santa. Yup, lots of reviewers liked it. Yup, my two favorite reviewers liked it. But I was so bored that I stopped the DVD half way through and seriously considered whether this thing was worth another hour. I watched the rest, in case it got better. It didn't.

The central gag of Bad Santa is that the guy who plays Santa is a late-stage alcoholic who has completely lost control of his life, except for his considerable talent as a safecracker. There's shock value the first couple of times that Billy Bob Thornton does or says something you don't expect from a guy in a Santa suit, but after that, it's all downhill. There are some moments of inspired craziness, but they aren't most of the movie. Lauren Graham is wonderful as Sue, the barkeep with a Santa fetish-- for a little while I thought she was going to save the movie, but then she became a running joke that went nowhere.

So call me a Grinch, but I give Bad Santa a big thumb's down.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Wimbledon's a winner

I learned something interesting when I went to see Wimbledon (the movie, not the tournament.) Even if I know exactly where a movie is going, it can still be a good movie if it persuades me to care about the characters and their destination. This movie has the most predictable plot imaginable -- the trailer was a yawner -- and I went only because I was curious about Paul Bettany, who plays the lead. The plot never varied from its map -- I was never surprised by the story, not even once! -- but the characters were so beautifully drawn, and the moviemakers went such interesting places with that threadbare little plot, that I had a very good time. Nice illustration of the fact that there are not really new stories to tell, but an infinite number of interesting ways to tell them.

Oh, and Bettany's good, very good. Nice to know he can act so well with Russell Crowe nowhere in sight. Thumb's up.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

(P)Resident Evil and the Fifth Element

Linda, your review of Resident Evil reminded me of a news item in the Sept. 10 issue of the LA Weekly. The movie figured in some interesting billboard art about a month ago: someone doctored up a Resident Evil billboard to change it to PResident Evil, and changed Milla Jovovich's face to George W. Bush's mug. Whatever one's politics, I think we could probably all agree that Milla is prettier.

Your review reminded me of a movie from my of list of All Time Stupid Fun Movies: The Fifth Element. It was a gorgeous, ridiculous confection of a science fiction movie, with several twists that made it more enteratining that I ever expected. I think I originally saw it because the kids wanted to go, and in the process broke my rule against Bruce Willis movies. I stopped grumbling only a few minutes into the film: I am a fool for romanticised archaeology (see the Bubba Ho-Tep review) and that's where The Fifth Element started. It combined some pretty standard sci-fi baloney (creepy evil spaceships threaten the earth, clownish politicians and military can't cope, oh no oh no what shall we do) with New Age baloney, supermodels, digs at organized religion, bureaucracy, marketing, globalization.... oh, it was a blast.

Luc Besson wrote and directed it, starring Willis, Gary Oldman, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Luke Perry and Chris Tucker. There was eye-candy galore, dinged-up spaceships, gorgeous weird costumes, and futuristic folderol, but what made the movie work for me was the collision of characters. The story was thin and rather predictable, but the characters inhabiting it more than made up the difference.

The twist, of course, was that the superman come to save the earth was a Supermodel. She had brains and heart and could put ol' Bruce in his place with a swat. There's an amusing bit of commentary on religion,which was fun. And the Bad Guy hit precisely the right note of buffoonery and menace: Gary Oldman did a satisfying job of chewing up every bit of scenery within his reach.

A great film? I don't think so. An entertaining couple of hours? You bet. Add this one to the Stupid Fun Hall of Fame. Thumbs up!

I reactivated my Netflix subscription so I can keep up with your movie-going -- more soon!

Resident Evil: Apocalypse - No Life After Death

Zombies. They’re wandering into everybody’s lawns, like stray cats, making it impossible to enjoy the simpler things in life, like a brewski....oh, sorry. Wrong review.

Resident Evil (the sequel) is still a movie about zombies. Only this is a pure evil play, definitely a thumb’s down. Don’t get me wrong. I think there’s a proper place for zombies (read my “Shaun of the Dead” review). But there’s more to this abomination than zombies. Like a poorly written, poorly directed movie with no intent, no cleverness, no joy in Zombieville.

You know, I used to have an attention span. Even after MTV, I could hold my focus for at least 30 seconds, maybe even more with really good material. But the Resident Evil people don’t think anyone’s got an attention span of more than 1 or 2 seconds, the average take in their movie. I realize the brain’s gestalt is supposed to put the pieces together as if they were a whole, but there’s either something wrong with my brain or with this movie (and I suspect it’s the latter). A million pieces of tiny little scenes stitched together still looks like a Frankenstein patchwork.

And the volume level is absurd. This movie’s idea of suspense is to blast a noise at the audience, let your wits catch up to you, then show you the visual. That may work once, but not for lengthy sequences. I can just imagine that the projectionist at Loew’s got the message from the producer: “Listen, buddy -- turn up the volume to about 300% and there’ll be a little extra in the Christmas bonus for you.” My entire body was aching for silence at the end of the film. Better the suspense build from the script, with proper sequencing, a story that progresses, and characters you care about.

Milla Jovovich is the star of this movie, a monster within a monster. They tried to make a star out of Milla several years ago (“Fifth Dimension,” “Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc”), but now she’s doing Resident Evil films. She does as well as she can with such merciless, staccato dialogue. She truly does have a presence that transcends film. The camera adores her.

The rest of the cast ambles on well enough, although I wonder why so many of them have Eastern European accents. The other lead character, a female cop, has a dynamite entrance, with guns blazing. However, dressed in a tube top and a short skirt, her gunbelt lashed to her naked thigh, it’s hard to take her seriously as a law enforcement officer.

There are one or two fantastic stunts, but they only last a few seconds. You could just imagine at the end of the scene where Milla drives her motorcycle through the church stained-glass window, the director yells, “Cut! Okay! We’ve shot our budget! Let’s bring back the bad dialogue, the bottle scenes for the next two hours, and the zombies!”

The proper punishment for the director and writer of this film would be to dump them in the backyard where the zombies roam, where their very creations can feast upon their uncreative bones. But we’d better smash their kneecaps while they wait for the carnage, so they can't get away. Those zombies are awfully slow.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

"What the Bleep?" was a mystery to me

“What the #$*! Do We Know?” (aka "What the Bleep?") is a small film that, in USA Today’s words, “mixes quantum physics, animation and documentary filmmaking.” The film is obviously a small-budget film but is spreading quickly in moviehouses from state to state, and so far has taken in over $4 million, cracking the top 25 in current movies, but it looks like it’s going to make much more in repeat business. (The budget of the film was $5 million.)

The movie mixes interviews with scientists and philosophers, physicians and seers, talking about the meaning of life. Mix in a little mathematics, and follow actress Marlee Matlin around and apparently you have a movie that some people have repeatedly viewed in an effort to understand life.

I have to admit that I thought it was a snooze. I never really figured out what the film was trying to say. I was terribly bored, especially throughout most of the documentary section. The movie does much better when the actors come back to the smallish story. Dig through all that rhetorical pseudo-scientific graffitti to the emotional core of the film, which is in Marlee Matlin’s admirable response to the film's vital Alfie-esque question of what's it all about. Marlee does an extraordinary job with very little material. Her nude scene should be a real thrill, but instead, you'll find it difficult to watch once you're drawn into her maelstrom of depression and self-doubt.

In spite of the actors' efforts, however, I still found myself saying as I walked out, "What the bleep did I just watch?"