Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

She's a bit overweight. Smokes too much. Dresses in not quite the latest fashion, or within 10 years of it. Finds herself in the most ridiculous situations, like when she tells her new boyfriend how wonderful he was in bed last night....only to find that he's on speaker phone. With the Mexican ambassador in the room. And his staff.

This is Bridget's second romp for us, a more slapsticky farce than the hilariously internal one we saw first time around. So it's not as polished as the original, perhaps not as true to the original book, but it's still a good, funny film.

It is rather sad that the director decided to include silly little interludes on the slapstick side, like Bridget falling down a mountain on skis. Or falling from the skies. None of these scenes makes any sense. Still, these ridiculous choices don't detract from the wonderful situation of, let's break it down for you: girl wins boy, girl loses boy, girl wins boy back. We know what the ending will look like. We know Mark Darcy, the wonderful Colin Firth, and Hugh Grant in his best raconteur role yet, will wind up in the silliest namby-pamby fight you've ever seen. But that's just fine.

And you actually understand why Darcy and Bridget have problems. He's stiff-upper-lip Brit, she's more doing-things-spontaneously Brit. He would like things predictable, she can't be. Yet you know that's exactly what attracts them to each other. And each actor -- Renee Zellweger in a role that was sculpted for her, provided she puts on a few pounds, and Colin Firth, with that great double-take, slow burn of his -- is perfect. Add smart-ass Hugh Grant as Daniel Cleaver, a clever, double-talking T.V. personality who would never take himself seriously, and you have, well, you have the the first film. This one, however, adds a non-sequitur in the form of a femme fatale played by Jacinda Barrett, a red herring, if you will, and that just adds to the fun.

A lot of the pieces don't quite add up to the Edge of Reason by which Darcy would like us to live, but that's Bridget's life. It's not exactly according to Hoyle, but it's with feeling. And it's this feeling to which Darcy finally surrenders. And so do we.

Thumb's up.

Friday, December 23, 2005

King Kong

The 2005 King Kong isn't just an action film. It's a love story. Certainly a love story between the Beauty and the Beast, but more than that, a loving tribute to the original 1933 film. Kong fans will spot many homages to the original, including some of the actual props from the original, part of Peter Jackson's personal collection.

I first saw King Kong from the backseat of my parents' car in 1952, when I was four years old. I say "saw," but I really didn't see much. I was hiding, and that seat became a lifesaver for a small child. Still, the image of Kong caring for Fay Wray stuck with me for many years. That movie started my love affair with science fiction/horror movies that has lasted a lifetime.

The love story survives because of the skills of two actors. You probably think I'm going to type the name of "Adrien Brody" here, but I'm not. Brody is effective, is more than a hero than anyone else on this ship which fills the screen for the first half of the film, but he's just an afterthought. The two actors who deserve all the praise are Naomi Watts, who makes us believe she's looking at a flesh-and-blood ape, and Andy Serkis, who, yes, makes us believe we're looking at a flesh-and-blood ape.

The one big criticism I have of Peter Jackson's paean to King Kong is that it's not much of an action film when he had a chance to make it so. The director wastes so much of our time in setting up the drama. We don't need the set-up. We take one look at Naomi's eyes, and we see what she sees. We don't need slide after slide of the Depression to know the stage is set in desperate times. Yet Jackson spends an inordinate amount of time showing us sad scenes, explaining too much about Jack Black's desperation to make a film about....what was that film about? We're needlessly introduced to characters who disappear later. It's a full hour before we get to the scene of all the action, Skull Island. But, oh, what action it is!

We finally get what we paid for when the scenes with Kong start rolling. We instantly feel in our hearts that Kong is the last of his species, the last of the Silverback gorillas, giant-sized, and supposedly king of this prehistoric island. Except that no other critter on this island recognizes his supremacy, and fights him every step of the way, from dinosaurs to insects to bats. These scenes are adrenaline-pumpers; you'll find yourself gulping for air during every scene with huge, menacing dinosaurs trying in their own way to survive. In one sequence, Jackson takes the original 1933 scene of Kong fighting a T-Rex, and amazingly makes it more exciting, bigger. It's a constant battle for the big ape, and he's tired. And angry. We're angry, too, for wasting a good hour to get to the best part of this movie, the reason we came. Kong is exceptional. Kong is an amazing technical achievement. There is nothing in film to this date that can compare with the fact that Kong lives in front of us. Lifting Ann to his face, fighting for her. We see every emotion that wanders across his face. And all of this is due to the superb acting of Andy Serkis.

Andy didn't get enough credit for his "shadowing" of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Jackson gives Serkis full credit in this movie. And, in addition, Andy gets another role as an emotional cook, Lumpy. His character really lights up the screen, and seems the emotional center of the crewmen in spite of an inspired-yet-enigmatic performance by our ship's captain played by Thomas Krestchmann. But it's in Kong that Serkis gives his greatest gift to us. He IS Kong. The scenes between Kong and Ann are so touching that they touch us in surprising ways. So when the love story winds its way towards the inevitable denouement on the top of the Empire State Building, it's Andy and Naomi, and we're pulling for them even though we know the heartbreaking ending.

This is not the film I caught glimpses of behind the backseat of our family Lincoln. It's a different film totally, yet with the same characters and eventual end. We forgive Peter Jackson and his indulgences in setting up the film. The time we spend with Kong is well worth the wait. Kong is King. Thumb's up.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good Luck, a sliver in the life of reporter and newscaster Edward R. Murrow, is the perfect little film. Director George Clooney employs a couple of clever and effective "tricks" to take the years away and put us into the mood of this somber period when Murrow faced down Senator Joe McCarthy.

1. Senator McCarthy is shown only on film, film showing him at the senatorial hearings for unAmerican activities. What a clever device -- showing McCarthy's failings by the truth we see with our own eyes, the lies we hear with our own ears. McCarthy's rebuttal to Murrow's accusations is shown documentary-style as well. No actor could be as powerful as the real deal.

2. There's only one set: the CBS newsroom. But there's one exception. We follow a couple, portrayed subtly by Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as reporters who are secretly married but also facing a crackdown on the rules of proper moral behavior within the station. This couple shows us the inner workings of the small circle of reporters, those who put together a daunting, live-action production on a weekly basis. Using this technique, we never get too close to Edward R. Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly. But we get to watch, closely.

We're effectively transported back to the '50's, first by the pervasive cigarette smoke that seems like an additional character in the film. The screenplay is tight, effective, showing only those elements that tell this story. It's a story that shows us what a powerful effect broadcasters like Murrow had on the American people in the developing age of television, and how one of those broadcasters used his power for good.

Brilliant casting helps, too. Frank Langella is most magnificent as the all-powerful Oz in those days, William Paley from the ivory tower. But Paley is not shown as the villain here. We see him caught in between other powerful forces -- advertiser Alcoa, for instance -- but he's clearly the one with the hammer. If there's a villain besides McCarthy, it has to be network hatchetman Jeff Daniels, who does Paley's dirty work by making sure all the rules are followed.

George Clooney directs himself into dropping those affectations he has always been fond of, and, as a result, we get a crisp, clean performance from George. Of course, it should be said that the real acting performance in this film is David Straitharn, positively brilliant as Murrow. This character shows no fear, is utter confidence, until one second after Friendly announces "we're clear;" you then see a collapse of form as doubt crawls across his face, quickly gone before he faces his comrades once again. This is the type of performance that shapes one's career. Straitharn worked in the shadows for his entire career. That phase appears to be over.

This is an incredible slice of history, one that amazingly hasn't been told to this date. It has now been told perfectly in this not-to-be-missed academy-award-deserving film. Thumb's up!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I remember the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film quite vividly. I thought Willy Wonka was really strange. I had no idea.

In the 2005 version, Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka is stranger-than-strange, much more over the top than Gene Wilder's vision. Wilder's chocolatier was majestic, perfect, a Brit dressed as an Edwardian gentleman, possessing a sardonic sense of humor as the children meet their fates. Johnny's is the child who never grew up, dressed in a weird mixture of Michael Jackson styles. He laughs to himself, but we never get the joke.

Roald Dahl's surreal story is unveiled in the newest version much more fully. However, something happens along the way. This is a short story, and so we surmise that director Tim Burton felt he had to pad the movie to make its full-length requirement. As a result, we get a movie that's a mishmash of several themes and visuals, most of which don't work. The musical portion is silly. The psychedelics are tiresome. The Oompah-Loompahs are not only uninteresting, they're creepy. The children are merely an afterthought in the movie, while their stories should be center stage. There is very little charm in this movie, except for the little boy Charlie. However, Charlie is thrown to the sharks here, and is mostly invisible until the end, when the moral story is revealed.

The best thing about the 2005 version is that you see the backstory of how Willy Wonka became who and what he is. We get to see him in this version as a young man, as he's shown leaving his father, a dentist (the wonderful Christopher Lee), in search of making candy. He becomes world famous, his candies sought by children around the globe, until one day, he opens his factory to five kids who find his golden tickets, each hidden inside his chocolate bars. You get to see the kids' lives before the golden ticket changes them, and a rich confection that is Charlie's family, wonderful British actors who shine. Oh, and there's a neat scene with animatronic squirrels that attack a little girl because she -- well, because she's bad. Most of the kids are, except for Charlie. And the real difference is, you get to find out why Willy Wonka planted those tickets after all.

But that's not enough to rescue this stilllife movie. And the ending is simply unfathomable, leaping from Charlie's visit with his father to the next scene with Charlie's family.

We love chocolate. But we don't love this movie, a bittersweet, nutty nougat that's best left in the wrapper. Thumb's down.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Just Friends

The movie Just Friends, directed by Roger Kumble, proves that you can take the boy out of the small town, but you can't take the small town out of the boy.

The premise in this no-name romantic comedy is that Chris, a big fat boy in high school, professes his love for his longtime friend Jamie in her yearbook, but is only met with a broken heart and degrading humiliation when Jamie's ex-boyfriend Tim reads the passage to everybody at the party. Chris leaves. For 10 years.

We next see Chris as an up-and-coming record producer, explaining how he gets all the lovely ladies he wants. His message to his buddies is, don't fall for the best friend crap. Don't take her out to lunch. In fact, don't do anything during the day. If you fall into that friend role trap, you'll be there forever. He's learned his lesson, stealing girlfriends right and left and leaving them where he found them moments later. He's done such a good job of keeping everybody at a distance that he really has no friends, women or men.

But when his boss tells him to get on contract Brittany Spears-wannabe Samantha James (played deliciously by Anna Faris, she of four Scary Movies), things really get moving when she blows up the microwave in a private jet (using aluminum foil to heat up the salmon), and they're stuck in Jersey, next to Chris' old hometown. The same hometown he hasn't visited in 10 years.

He has never wanted to go home, and yet here he is, and events cleverly laid out show us that he might've shed 100 pounds but he never really left. He meets old love Jamie again, scheming on how to achieve the ultimate revenge. But along the way he falls into instant sibling war with younger brother Mike, as old habits never die. Julie Hagerty plays Chris' Mom, and seems just the same as when she vamped in Airplane! It's the same ditsy, laugh-a-minute Julie, only 30 years older. She's a scream, as is the younger brother who thinks he's died and gone to heaven when Ms. James comes to Smallville.

This is the most hilarious comedy I've seen in ages. I laughed, literally, every few seconds. It's a fast-paced, cleverly written comedy with just the right actors, those who can play physical comedy very well. Ryan Reynolds as Chris is perfect, perfect in a fat suit singing to DeBarge, perfect as the egotistical older Chris, still looking for himself in a thinner body. And he's brilliant at slapstick. His co-star Amy Smart doesn't have much to do here, but she seems nice enough -- it's her job to play straight woman among the many comedians in this cast.

Not many people will go to this small movie because they don't recognize the stars. That would be a big mistake. You think you've seen this movie before when events start to unfold, but you haven't seen THIS one. Thumb's up for Just Friends.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire

Darnit, Cat, I was looking forward to disagreeing with you, and I think we agree on almost everything about this movie. Yes, it's the best yet. Yes, the special effects are so good the movie is terrifying in spots, definitely not for the faint of heart.

I loved many of the aspects of the novel that were lost in the process of writing a screenplay. I don't mourn them, though: the first film in this series was a marvelous examplar of the reasons that novels and film are different media, and movement between the two requires adjustment.
I like it, too, that moviegoers will hear that there is more in the book.

Thumb's up and a bag of Dumbledore's licorice snap candies!