Saturday, June 25, 2005

Sin, definitely. But Original? -- no.

In a recent article on, Angelina Jolie's Hollywood Exile, Allen Barra wrote:

One of the best examples of the jujitsu Jolie can do on our attitudes toward movie sexuality was her performance in the elegant thriller "Original Sin," released in 2001. Instantly dismissed by critics -- the fate of almost any film done in an odd style by an unknown director -- "Original Sin" deserves a second look, particularly for the performances of Jolie and the sweetly reticent Antonio Banderas. Directed by Michael Cristofer, the playwright ("Shadow Box") who had previously directed Jolie in "Gia," "Original Sin" is a wonderful piece of stylish trash ("I loved it," [Pauline] Kael wrote on the envelope when she returned the copy I loaned her) made from the noir mystery "Waltz Into Darkness," by the cult favorite Cornell Woolrich (best known as the author of the story that became Hitchcock's "Rear Window"). "Waltz Into Darkness" had been filmed before, most notably by François Truffaut in 1969 under the title "Mississippi Mermaid," starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve. Woolrich's novel, set in late 19th century New Orleans, is about a widower who takes a chance on a mail-order bride who turns out to be an enigmatic adventuress -- like all men in these kinds of stories, he is pulled into a web of deceit and murder.

I thought, gee, how did I miss that film? I promptly added it to my list on (have you encountered them yet? Inexpensive high-quality movie downloads -- nothing to return, no monthly fee -- and no, they didn't pay me to write this.)

Barra may describe it as an "erotic thriller" but I'd call it "improbable soft porn." For noir, the evildoers need to be intelligent, and Julia (Jolie) and Thomas (Walter Downs) are stupid beyond belief. There's a massive glitch in the "plot" -- all the plotting is unnecessary once Luis (Banderas) marries Julia: if they want all his money, all they have to do is kill him and Julia will inherit. Thomas mentions this about 2/3 of the way through the film, (in case the audience has either not noticed or decided to be forgiving) just as they go back to manipulating and plotting and carrying on.

And erotic? No. Eroticism requires the tantalizing veil that draws the audience in, that allows for identification. The fault in this film lies squarely with its director, Michael Christofer, who seems to confuse explicit content with eroticism. He's responsible for the screenplay as well. (The best known of his other screenplays were The Witches of Eastwick, and Bonfire of the Vanities, one reasonably entertaining, and the other one a massive bomb made from a much better novel.)

I agree with Mr. Barra: the film that properly makes use of the gifts of Angelina Jolie hasn't happened yet. In my opinion, though, one of the best things that could happen to her career is for this icky thing to be soon forgotten.

Thumb's down.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Being Julia, Wanting Better

I wanted to like Being Julia. I hoped to catch it in the theater, and that never happened. Instead I rented it to watch at home. Sometimes things work out the way they should.

Annette Bening's performance is lovely to watch -- so good that it was a shame it came in the same year as Hillary Swank's equally good performance in a much better movie. Unfortunately, her performance is the only memorable thing about a pretentious, forgettable little film.

It's a film for "thinking people," a film with a great role for a fine over-40 actress in it. I liked that bit. I just wish that I had cared about anyone in it. Bening's Julia is fun to watch, but I never felt concern for her, and I felt none at all for any of her associates. I felt a twinge of concern for one character, but she was portrayed in such a way that I couldn't even manage that.

I'm hungry for stories about women in the second half of their lives, women who are strong and clever and talented and wonderful -- but I have no appetite for cat fights, and that's what I saw at the end of this film. Worse yet, it wasn't even a fair fight, more of a mauling.

Thumb's down on this one. I hope that Ms. Bening gets the part that her great gifts deserve; I don't think Julia was it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Desert Island Movies - Counterpoint

I liked what George Lucas had to say at the AFI Award dinner, that his whole life is about movies. While my whole life isn't about movies, I certainly see its reflection in the movies I love.

This is my list. That desert island had better have an electric socket for the DVD player, that's all I have to say.

1. Lord of the Rings trilogy - If the entire trilogy isn't “allowed” on this particular desert island, I would go with Part Two, The Two Towers, which really gets into the personalities of the evil and the righteous.

2. Superman - Although this story has been around for more than 50 years, it’s never been told as well, with a super man quite human.

3. Groundhog Day - A great tale of a selfish weatherman who lives the same day over and over, until he gets it right.

4. Starship Troopers - Verhoeven’s violent rendition, without apologies, of Robert Heinlein’s masterpiece, including commercials. It’s a how-to on turning a bunch of individuals into unthinking fighting teams who hate the enemy (and don’t look too closely), made more poignant with young, beautiful talent.

5. Forbidden Planet - The original epic that lassoed me into my love of sci fi movies. This movie creates all the icons used shamelessly by so many later films.

6. Pillow Talk - While I was a Doris Day long before Pillow Talk came out, this one put it all together for this great star. A singer, a dancer, yes, but nobody knew about her incredible comic timing.

7. Alien - Nothing could be more frightening.

8. War and Peace (Voyna i mi) - the 1968 Russian version, the edited one of 6 hours. Tolstoy was all about individuals who could change the world, and zeitgeist, living in a world that could accept the change.

9. Fried Green Tomatoes - An emotional story -- no, two -- about what family is all about, even a family that isn't easily recognizable.

10. Star Wars - The movie that changed the world and changed me. I could finally come out of the closet as a sci fi fan.

Desert Island Movies

Cat, I agree with you about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, with one caveat. There was a movie in there I really wanted to see: I didn't give a hoot about the story in the movie, but the backstory about Frankie was tantalizing, and I felt cheated when I left the theater. Sometimes an incomplete backstory can add a lot to a movie (Fried Green Tomatoes comes to mind) but not in that dawg.

Recently we had a conversation about "desert island movies" -- that is, if we were to spend a year on a desert island with no Internet access (horrors!), what DVD's would we take with us, if we could only take ten? I scribbled a list on a napkin and promptly lost it. I share my new list here and throw down a gauntlet -- er, flipflop? -- what would one throw down on a desert island? -- anyway, I invite you to post your list, too.

And to those of you who read this blog and never comment -- use the comment function to leave YOUR lists! Or to tell me what you'd do if you were trapped on a desert isle with my list! Ha!


In no particular order, ten movies for my desert island. These aren't my Ten Greatest Movies, they are the ten movies I wouldn't mind watching again and again and again:

1. Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb

2. The Apartment

3. Double Indemnity

4. Broken Blossoms

5. The African Queen

6. Nashville

7. Giant

8. American Graffiti

9. Jezebel

10. The Frisco Kid

[hI didn't provide links -- if you don't know these movies, I recommend you Google them and rent a copy.]

Bring on the comments and replies!

Monday, June 20, 2005

On Second Thought...

I’ve had second thoughts about some movies that I’ve seen, even those I’ve reviewed. Most are those I publicly said were dandy and had second thoughts in the morning. You know, like when you wake up and think, “What could I have been thinking?” in unmitigated horror.

1. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I must’ve been blinded by the beauty of the robots. This movie has very few surprises, a script that doesn’t evoke nostalgia but an understanding of why we evolved from the forties, and dialogue that must have embarrassed the three talented leads. And to steal the voice of the greatest actor who ever lived, Laurence Olivier, well, that’s beyond arrogance. This film is a thumb’s down even though I loved it even after seeing it twice. I must’ve had two of Frankie’s eye patches on.

2. Shall We Dance? I gave it a thumb’s up, but upon more thought, think it a mundane film brought up to a higher level by the wonderful actors within. Still, they couldn’t overcome a morose plot and not-very-imaginatively-filmed whole. Unfortunately, even with the stars, it’s pretty boring going.

3. Titanic. When I first saw this Jim Cameron film, I was blown away. On second thought, the first half of the film should be pitched down a cinematic dark hole. But the second half, with real-time imaginings of what the last hour on the Titanic must’ve been like, still sends thrills down my spine. That is, if you can possibly remove the image of the beetle-browed Billy Zane from your mind as he floats from lifeboat to lifeboat, trying to bribe his way aboard. But the story lags, the dialogue is stilted, and the love story sucks.

4. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I’ve seen this movie twice, as my dark despair, I thought, must’ve been a terrible mistake. Nope. The plot is so terribly truncated -- something about fitting a 500-page book into a 2-hour movie -- that all the fun is sucked out. You know, like the Dementors took over the entire audience, sucking out our good thoughts, but only with the able help of the director and editor. God help the following books.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the yada yada yada. What a big mistake. Oh, and horrible, confusing plotline. Oh, and stupid casting. Except for one brilliant casting move, one that rises distinctly above the mundane and boring plot (how can you have a boring plot about pirates? Go figure.), this movie should be on everybody’s ah-but-look-what-it-could-have-been list. But Johnny Depp is tremendous. Imagine, if you will, that the producers thought his performance was too “nancy”. Outrageous! Depp brightens any movie he's ever graced.

6. The Matrix Reloaded & The Matrix Revolutions. I didn’t care for either film upon seeing them in the theatre some six months apart. But, after some time to reflect upon the meaning of The Matrix, I accept each of these films as a continuation of the story, a story that leads to a conclusion, one that’s depressing but that was indeed inevitable. I think once we all recognize that movies 2 and 3 couldn’t give us the “whoa!” factor, we can come to accept them as great films. Revolutions, especially, gives us the huge payoff we deserved.

7. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. When I first saw the second of the LOTR films, I walked out of the film thoroughly depressed, wondering if I would even go to the theatre (a full year away!) to see the third edition. Of course I did. Looking back at TT on DVD, I recognize this film as the greatest of the trilogy. It dares to film TWO spectacular battles with fearsome and seemingly undefeatable villains, and in doing so, shows us what a hero figure Aragorn is developing into, and leads with our hearts held in the hands of the hobbit characters. Spectacular, and only improves upon multiple viewings of multiple variations (thanks to Peter Jackson, the director).

Batman Begins: A Darker, Stormier Knight

Batman, the Tim Burton movie in 1989, introduced us to Michael Keaton's Batman, a troubled soul with a quick wit. Michael Keaton made us happily forget the comical Batman of the '60's, and took us back to roots. We tried not to worry about the fact that Keaton's physique didn't stand close inspection. Then we were treated to Val Kilmer and George Clooney, who did all but destroy the fascinating Batman story of a man who competes with super heroes even though he has no super powers.

Thank God for director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale, who reintroduce us in a proper way to the Dark Knight.

Batman Begins tells us the story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman. The first third of the movie is almost wholly internal, showing us a man imploding with guilt and anger over his parents' murder in the streets of Gotham, a murder he witnessed as a young boy. His inner search for peace is guided by the mysterious Ducard, played by Liam Neeson in another wonderful role, in a top-of-the-snowy-mountain Tibetan setting. Wayne proceeds to learn how to tackle dozens of attackers, how to be invisible in his stealth, etc., from the inhabitants of a strange cult. How many times have we seen this, where heroes learn ninja-like moves from old and wise Asian mentors? While this sounds like the set-up to a bad Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, there are twists and turns here that are delightfully unpredictable.

Director Nolan has made some interesting choices. Much of Batman Begins is cinematically black and white, and he relies on the close-up over and over. You rarely see a long shot or even a two-shot. Because of this, and the darkness in which the bat man works, the movie is a series of fast cuts of the action scenes in the dark sewn together, and this makes it hard to discern exactly what is happening. However, the editing is skillful, and the gestalt of the shots tells you the gist of the action even if you can't exactly see the details. This technique makes for a chilling effect.

Christian Bale strikes exactly the right balance between angry/vengeful and righteous/vigilante. He IS a vigilante, and yet has a code of honor and a sense of justice beyond vigilante-ism. We see, step by step, how Bruce Wayne matures, learns his craft, and eventually dons the cowl.

The cast is plentiful. There are many, many identified characters in this movie, and you're called upon to remember each one of them. Nobody is used as a castaway figure, as each is important to the plot in some way. The use of recognized character actors (and in some cases, stars in their own right) helps us recognize these characters and their roles when they come around again. Each is effective, although each actor seems a weird choice for the role he or she inhabits: Michael Caine as butler Alfred, Gary Oldman as good cop Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman as scientist Lucius Fox, and Rutger Hauer as the chairman of Wayne Enterprises.

Katie Holmes, another interesting choice (read: I probably would have gone with somebody older and stronger), plays Bruce's childhood friend. She acts as his conscience, holding him to a higher standard at different times of his life. As such, she's a useful tool for the story even though she really doesn't have much else to do. On the other side of this cinematic coin is Cillian Murphy, a man who might be your accountant, as a psychiatrist with a truly pathological mind. Can you imagine anything more frightening? He is really something to watch.

Batman Begins takes its time with the story. Every piece of film, every actor, helps propel us toward the movie's conclusion, the birth of Batman. As a whole, it's phenomenal.

Christan Bale is Batman. The Dark Knight has returned.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Cinderella Man - More Seabiscuit than Raging Bull

Cinderella Man is a miraculous find, the kind of movie that takes you back into time into a perilous world we have only heard about from our parents or grandparents. It isn’t a world we enter willingly.

Although Cinderella Man has been compared to Seabiscuit in its portrayal of The Great Depression and the people caught in its maelstrom, Cinderella Man goes deeper, painting with a broader brush. Director Ron Howard's re-creation of Hooverville, although brief, delivers a solar plexus punch of what conditions must’ve been like for millions.

Russell Crowe has, again, delivered a portrayal outside his body. He somehow has a gift for altering his body, morphing it to fit his idea of what his role should be. He becomes a three-dimensional James J. Braddock.

Braddock seems a likeable enough man, swept by the tide of America’s misfortune in the ‘30’s. Unlike many, however, Braddock had measured success in his early career as a boxer. But when he started losing fights, he is forced to seek work on the docks, like so many others, just to feed his family. We see the day-to-day wrenching struggle to pay the light bill, put food in his babies’ mouths.

Renee Zellwegger, certainly one of the finest actors of our day, almost disappears into the woodwork of this film. Ah, but what fine woodwork. She is the fabric of her family -- brave, true, fighting with herself in an ethical battle to provide for her kids and keep her family together. Together she and the New Jersey Everyman Braddock are a team, a damn fine one. We’re pulling for them, the American family, to survive this apparition, one that certainly could come back to overtake us. Howard’s film reminds us that we are not that far from the Braddock family.

Crowe’s Braddock isn’t the most forceful entity on the screen, so Howard needed a sparring partner to show off his integrity and valor. That’s when we meet Paul Giamatti in another role that he masterfully defines. Giamatti is Joe Gould, Braddock’s promoter and champion. He is brash where America’s hero can’t be.

Perhaps unnecessary, however, is a counterpoint portrayal of “Mike,” a friend of Braddock’s who deals with his troubles by turning to alcoholic binges instead of his family. Other performances, however, sparkle, like actor Craig Bierko’s Max Baer, at once a monster and a showboat. He truly lights up the screen with his bravado.

Ron Howard tackles big themes in Cinderella Man: the resilience of the American spirit, family values. Did I mention this is a boxing story? That’s because it really isn’t. It’s an American story, and it succeeds brilliantly. This is easily the best movie so far in 2005. Thumb’s up.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith: Two Beautiful People Make a Fun Movie

Mr. and Mrs. Smith: Two pretty people get together and try to kill each other.

You would think, not a pretty sight. Ah, but it is.

I was thinking as I went into this movie, oh, God....not another War of the Roses. Remember that 1989 film? It starred Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. They really did whomp on each other. Divorce would have been simpler. You know, you get the dog, I get the cat? Instead, the humans didn't come out well and the animals even worse. The whole film was a dismal affair, with just despair at the end of a short tunnel full of flying debris.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a war, but not like Roses. It's actually a comedy, a dark one to be sure, but one we can follow. They met under the most romantic and mysterious circumstances. But each is so deep under cover -- a lot like our own real relationships -- and neither is willing to trust the other. Not one bit.

When they both have the same hit target, they end up warring with the sole purpose of ending the threat. They're each so used to winning and have never met defeat. A small injury or two, but the stuff upon which arrogance is easily built. But when they come home each night ("Dinner at 7?" "Sure, like always."), they each walk into defeat. An out-and-out war seems a relief. Until they find out that each really cares about the other.

This isn't a laugh a minute, but Brad and Angelina play their lines cleverly. They do "bored" really well, and they really shine when they strap on the weapons: eerily confident, gorgeous even with a scratch or two above the eye. It's fun, it's clever, and deep within, there might be a lesson or two about relationships, about hanging on, about trust and getting to know one another.

Oh, stop it. This is not deep stuff. This is fun stuff. Enjoy!

Friday, June 03, 2005

Ladies in Lavender - A Lovely Cornwall Afternoon

My friend Bruce called me up this morning and asked me if I wanted to see a film starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. "It didn't get very good reviews," he warned, but I stopped listening. He had me at "Judi Dench and Maggie Smith."

I read a summation of the plot before I went. Something about two sisters befriend a mysterious young man who washes up on the beach. These two sisters live quietly in their Cornwall house on the ocean, and apparently have enough left over from their inheritance to have a housekeeper/cook.

The drama occurs when sister Ursula, played heartbreakingly by Judi Dench, becomes a little too attached to the young stranger. She takes up his cause, worries about him as he heals from his wounds, much to the consternation of her sister Janet, played staunchly but in a charmingly understated manner by Maggie Smith. If this part had been played by any actress of lesser means, we would be moved, perhaps, to laughter as Dame Dench takes one step, then another and another, to seeming humiliation. On the contrary. We feel her plight, we even understand it, a miracle of empathy.

One shouldn't, however, pity poor Maggie Smith when faced with such fine acting. Ms. Smith is an artist at scene-stealing, or at least holding her own, with a look, a certain posture. These are both very fine actresses, and it's such a pleasure to see them in fine material.

Throughout the drama which unfolds slowly in front of us, director Charles Dance introduces various townspeople so that we get a glimpse of a typical English hamlet, very smallish in attitudes and exposure, but a snapshot which seems very true. Of particular note is the housekeeper Dorcas, played broadly by Miriam Margolyes, whose entrance is trumpeted by a wailing bassoon. There is a particularly nice and humorous bit where she's teaching the young man about spuds: how to peel 'em, where to put 'em, how to pronounce 'em.

I absolutely adored this little film. I was brought into its emotional core, and stayed there, content. Thumb's up.