Friday, April 28, 2006

American Dreamz

The biggest surprise in American Dreamz is that there are some genuine surprises in it. Halfway through the film, I was ready to say, gee, what a waste of talent, because all the actors are very good, but the script is a mess: it buries what might have been biting commentary on 21st century America in a pile of cheap shots a la Saturday Night Live.

Paul Weitz almost wrote and directed a really good movie, but not as good as Dr. Strangelove and Wag the Dog, the two films that come to mind when I think of this sort of political satire. It has their savagery but it lacks the detachment of really good satire. It's impressed with itself; it chuckles at its own (sometimes lame) jokes. Where Strangelove and Wag are razor sharp, it gets fuzzy from time to time: who is doing what now? Where are we?

The actors lift the film above its script. Particularly noteworthy are James Wood as Vice President who is eerily like a certain other powerful, balding VP, and Sam Golzari as Omer, the terrorist turned crooner. Marcia Gay Harden is low key but very good as a well-medicated First Lady, and Dennis Quaid pulls off the trick of satirizing George Bush while getting at the qualities that make the Red State folks love the guy so much.

Mandy Moore and her character were a disappointment. I could not help but compare her to a similar character played by Nicole Kidman in To Die For, about a small-town girl with a ruthless wish for stardom. Kidman knocked that one out of the park; her saccharine sociopath was terrifying and hysterical all at once. Sally Kendoo, Moore's character, says things like "I'd put toothpicks through my eyes and eat them to win this contest" but she's not bright enough to be really scary.

I give this film a reluctant thumb's up; the truth is that I had a good time at the movies, but it could have been a lot better. Next time, Weitz, get an editor!

Something Completely Different

Hello, Cat & friends -- I have been doing too much studying and not enough moviewatching! I hope to remedy that this summer.

However, I ran across a fun movie site online that you may enjoy. It is a collection of stills of Alfred Hitchcock's cameos in his movies.

Lovely fun. Not a movie review, but lovely fun.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Phat Girlz

Phat Girlz, talkin' 'bout the Phat Girlz, uh huh....beep beep...

Phat Girlz is a one-note movie, a low budget attempt at telling the story from the other side. The side no one wants to be on, the side most kids and adults alike see as the losing side.

Nnegest Likke is the writer and first-time director of Phat Girlz, and she has a lot to say about this subject, how fat people, especially women, are looked down upon and stepped on. Mo'Nique, the rap artist, saw Likke's screenplay, got the funding together, and, just like Mickey and Judy, got together and got this movie made.

The plot leads us through a couple of days in Jazmin's life. It's obvious from the beginning that her life isn't clicking on any cylinders. The diet she's on is causing her to gain weight, strangely enough but familiar to many of us. The simpleton boss she works for doesn't understand her. She has a personality bigger than this movie, but no man wants a piece of that. All of a sudden, a contest she's won lands her in a resort with her two friends in tow. Her life is suddenly turned around when she meets a Nigerian man who appreciates her weight as extra Jazmin, an event that gives her more confidence to strut her stuff as a fashion designer.

We've been in some of this territory before. The idea that you have to go to another country to find a man who's foreign enough to appreciate you is an odd concept that's been used too frequently. That part of Phat Girlz was tiring. And the technical difficulties of the movie, meaning a cameraman who doesn't have a steady hand, were distracting.

But there are also some beautiful moments in the movie. The scene where Jazmin slugs it out verbally with a Fatass Burger (love that name!) clerk reminds me of a similar scene in Cyrano de Bergerac. "You can't do any better than that? Is that your best insult?" and then she proceeds to one-up him on every level.

This movie has wide release but isn't doing well in the theatres. (Still, it will easily make back its $2 million budget.) IMDB readers gave it an average rating of 1.6 out of a possible 10. Why? Because this is a subject people are uncomfortable with, more uncomfortable than watching any Brokeback Mountain. Fat is not only not in, fat is not acceptable in our society. It's not to be pitied, it's to be hated. And as much of an argument as this movie valiantly tries to make, that a lot of weight doesn't mean weakness, nobody's buying it.

This is a one-note movie, but that one note is that it's okay to be overweight or to look different, and that young girls and women who don't look like models still have a right to lead their lives in the pursuit of their own happiness. And that's a valuable lesson. Let's hope Ms. Likke has many more chances in the industry. Thumb's up.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This is a great adventure picture that spends more time setting up the great adventure than explaining it once you're there.

Four kids are sent away by their mum during World War II when the blitzkriegs threaten all their lives. Their new benefactor is their uncle, who lives in the country away from all the warfare and even sheltered from his nieces and nephews by a domineering housekeeper. One day, while the children are playing hide and seek in this cavernous mansion, little Lucy hides in a wardrobe closet that has no back wall. She stumbles into the snow...and headlong into the land of Narnia. Narnia, however, has its own troubles, as the evil White Witch has taken over the entire land, and every day is winter. A winter, by the way, without Christmas.

Director Andrew Adamson tackles his first live-action film, which he co-adapted, with a firm hand and some tricks up his sleeve. He gets good performances out of the four kids, three of which must turn in convincing portraits to bring us into the story. However, the story itself is a bit stop-and-start, with too much time spent on certain parts of the story and not enough on others. We have no idea why Narnia became the way it is, how it fell into the White Witch's hands, where Aslan came from, ad infinitum. Although it doesn't impede the action of the story not to know the answers to some of these things, it would certainly help us understand the motivation.

Another thing that was hard to understand was: which animals are good and which are evil? I understand that we're watching good vs. evil, and leaving alone the Christian metaphors here, the Nazis vs. the good guys comparison still holds up. But am I supposed to automatically know that tigers and wolves are bad, but foxes and beavers are good? It must be pretty difficult in a full-scale battle to know who is friend or foe. Like in the Lord of the Rings, you can tell in Narnia who to hit when you have an ogre in front of you, but it seems the animals of the realm have aligned themselves in a method we cannot discern.

It's hard to write a review about a fantasy made into a motion picture because the writer is aware of how difficult it must've been to put the whole thing together. I stayed for the whole roll of the credits at the end, and was amazed to see how many special effects companies were listed. It seems that ILM took on Aslan, the great lion messiah, and did a magnificent job, the best animation of a lion I've ever seen. (If you want to see bad lionine animation, take a look at Jumanji.) Liam Neeson's stately voiceover really adds to the character. The makeup artists must also take a bow. As an illustration of how complicated movie-making must've been, the only CGI on Mr. Tumnus, the faun, was his hooves. His ears were controlled by remote control. The makeup was extraordinary, from his fake nose to his body hair. Actor James McAvoy fit effortlessly into his animated feet, and with his charm and worried frown is the first character to warn us of the dual nature of Narnia.

But the best part of Narnia is Jadis, the White Witch. One wonders what roles Tilda Swinton can play, as she's so unusual looking, but one need not wonder with this one. She is a joy to watch as she leads one of the boys into a trap, using only her words and some treats. And her icy stare could freeze you on the spot.

I think I have an innate problem with watching kids go into battle, fighting for their lives. And I would think that parents should be warned when sitting their kids in front of the DVD player that they will see children in danger, and beyond that: kidnapped, tortured, starving, injured. Another problem I had with the story is that the girls have little to do in comparison with the boys, and are resigned to the most part to observing the action that seems reserved for the males. That was very disturbing, and that tendency even extended to the animals!

Despite these misgivings, I did like the story, and I really admired the animation. I liked how the story was set up with the children, and was surprised with how it ended. I'm looking forward to the six possible sequels. Thumb's up.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Inside Man

Spike Lee’s latest effort is Inside Man, a curious look at the old bank robber chestnut. There are enough clues to keep the viewer engrossed in a bank robbery-that-isn’t.

We first see Clive Owen in a close-up, explaining to us that he’s going to pull off the perfect crime. He’s arrogant, that much is for sure, and he’s speaking in the past tense, meaning he survives this crime and must’ve done well. This intrigues us in the very beginning. It’s a good thing we see Clive in this early scene, because his face is covered for most of the film.

We then see the takeover of the bank during normal business hours, with all the customers and bank employees hitting the floor. We see a methodical crew, all named some variation of “Steve,” go about their business separating everyone from their cell phones and from each other. We see some curious things happening in the dark corners of these bank offices, things involving switches of costume, exchanges of criminals for victims, clues for use later.

Then we’re introduced to Detective Keith Frazier, played by Denzel Washington in expert manner. Frazier is a good detective, knows the book but doesn’t always follow it, especially in cases where things don’t add up. And things don’t add up here. We watch him put two-and-two together, often making mistakes, and we’re riding right along with him. Frazier has had his problems with authority, is and has been under investigation for a couple of things that didn’t play out well in his job, and knows with certain reality he won’t be making 1st grade detective any time soon. He also knows he won’t be moving into that larger apartment with his girlfriend, who insists on bringing her no-account drunken brother with her in the deal, because of money problems.

And while we’re trying to figure out why Clive Owen’s character is stalling on the bank robbery, a fact that’s obvious to Frazier and really obvious to us, in walks Jodie Foster as a power broker of sorts. It’s a small role in terms of minutes but a big role in terms of style and panache. This is a maturing Jodie Foster who is different from any we’ve ever seen before – smartly dressed in three-inch heels with a lot of leg to show, serious with the hair pulled back, and absolutely assured in her power. However, her role in this film seems a bit superfluous, but it’s fun while it lasts.

This is a fun twist on an old theme, and the clues given to us throughout the film make it a pleasurable romp. There are a few things – quite a few things – that don’t really add up, such as Jodie Foster’s payment from venerable Christopher Plummer (in another exquisitely crafted role) – that don’t make sense. And there are other external things about the movie that further confuse, all of Spike Lee’s making, such as scenes inserted that don’t belong in the present chronology, clues that don’t quite add up at the end, how a detective with money problems ends up in these Vanity Fair outfits, etc.

But this is a film that works for the most part, and it’s great fun. Thumb’s up.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Thank You For Smoking

Aaron Eckhart has found the role of a lifetime.

He seems perfectly suited to play Nick Naylor, the spinmeister for cigarettes. This satirical comedy pits Big Tobacco's chief spokesman against those afflicted with cancer, medical experts, congressmen, even those who would seek to enact their revenge against a modern-day scourge. Naylor still comes out on top.

At the same time, he's seeking to be a role model for his son while his ex-wife looks on disapprovingly. It's tough, being the promoter of legal Sin while the world frowns. But Eckhart makes it look like fun. The nearest role modeling Nick can do for his son is to teach him how to argue. "If you argue right, you ARE right," he says, with some authority.

The rest of the cast is also marvelous. J.K. Simmons was born to play Naylor's boss, B.R., but....wait. J.K. was also born to play Spider-Man's newspaper boss. Oh, never mind: J.K. is brilliant here as the sarcastic-but-funny boss who's a little too honest. Cameron Bright plays Joey Naylor, Nick's son, and he looks so much like the kid from Star Wars: Episode One that I thought he must've taken some serious acting lessons. And Maria Bello and David Koechner, as the other members of the MOD Squad (Merchants of Death), representing Alcohol and Firearms, respectively, are just hilarious. Rob Lowe, as the smooth movie producer who goes along with putting cigarettes back into movies, is perfect casting.

The director must take huge credit for opening us up with Nick's narration, complete with subtitles, that throw us into the sardonic tone of the movie. We're laughing even before we meet Nick, and we're ready to take him into loving arms, mentally, even though we know he's gotta be evil.

Thumb's up for Thank You for Smoking.