Thursday, June 22, 2006


Syriana is a hot film about an explosive topic.

It would seem to be impossible to summarize the plot here, but let's just say quickly that it's all about oil. About how we're sucked in. About how it -- and our addictive need for it -- affects everything. Everything.

Some fearsome actors here, doing an incredible job. Clooney, of course. He put on 30 pounds in 30 days to play "Bob," an undercover operative who's seeing the end of his career -- due to cutbacks? due to his increasing awareness of what he's actually getting into?

Chris Cooper. How does Cooper look like an cutthroat killer when he played such a nice guy in Seabiscuit? He's amazing; his every move is a machine-gun burst of American macho.

Totally skipped in the praise is Matt Damon, who does a remarkable job, especially in his scenes with Alexander Siddig (Prince Nasir). Siddig is also outstanding.

It's admirable that the film tries a tricky balance, not blaming any one side, determined to tell the story of oil and its influence. In fact, the producers even employed a Republican to get policy straight.

The only criticism here is criticism oft-heard about Syriana, and that is that information is missing, the film is confusing. The deleted scenes on the DVD really help, as does Clooney's talk about why they made the film in the first place.

Syriana joins An Inconvenient Truth on a list of films that MUST be seen by today's consumer. Thumb's up.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Nacho Libre

The first time I saw an ad for Nacho Libre, I flinched. The photo of Jack Black decked out in sky-blue "stretchy pants" with red overpants was painful to see. Normally, I will go to a Jack Black movie because the man comforts me; he often plays characters whose cluelessness carries them to wise places. He dances through comedy's china shop where less gentle bulls have been known to break things: the man can play out fat jokes in such a way that fat people actually laugh in self recognition (at least, this fat person does.) And there he was, splashed across a movie poster in blue and red tights with his belly hanging out: Ow.

Then the premise for the movie drifted to me from a couple of radio reviews. Black plays an orphan who has become a friar in the Mexican monastery where he grew up. He cooks horrible food and gets no respect at all from his fellow monks. He loves the children, and they love him; he identifies with them because after all, he is one of them. One week his life changes when he develops a crush on the beautiful Sister Incarnacion and he sees a crowd in town fawning over Ramses, the champion luchadore, Mexican masked wrestler. I heard that it was all shot in Mexico, and that except for Jack Black, all of the actors are Mexican, and most are unknown to U.S. audiences. Something in that description dragged me into the theater today to plunk down my money and see the film.

Most critics hate it. My partner in movie reviews said to me that she hoped to avoid seeing it. A few other friends have given me a funny look when I said I was looking forward to seeing it; they are going to give me some more looks when I tell them to go see it.

Nacho Libre is billed as a comedy, and yes, there is plenty to laugh at. There are jokes for every age range and taste: subtle highbrow humor like the Sister's name, unsubtle lowbrow fart jokes, and visual gags that fill even the serious moments. As comedy, it is weird and not quite right, which I think is why most critics have panned it.

I have been trying to think why I love Nacho Libre. It reminds me a lot of another much-maligned (actually, just plain neglected) movie I love, Joe Versus the Volcano. Nobody knew how to take Joe: it was weird and odd and Meg Ryan played three different characters. Some comic bits in it were terribly flawed, but no two people ever seem to agree on which are the flawed bits. Worst of all, it didn't follow Hollywood-movie logic: whenever you figured it out, it wandered somewhere else, and there were some things in it that didn't add up at all. ("Brain Cloud," anyone?)

Like Joe Versus the Volcano, Nacho Libre isn't a comedy, it is a parable, and as a parable, it works magnificently. Nacho, when we first meet him, is an orphan in a miserable job with no improvement in sight: his world is small and cramped, and the only light in it is his love for the children. Temptation enters his life in the form of Sister Incarncion and the glamour of the lucha libre ring. He is seized by his temptations and they propel him along on a disastrous route that promises to take from him the little that he has. He is a terrible fighter. His partner (who entered his life by stealing the day-old corn chips set aside for the orphans) is a worse fighter. If he is discovered moonlighting as a luchadore, the monks will evict him and he will lose the respect and the company of Sister Incarnacion. He will wind up homeless and humiliated.

Along the way, other things happen. Nacho tries out a few things, and the writers clue us in to the parable by having something we expected to be funny fall curiously flat. Comedy is divine in this film, and our laughter lets us know when the Divine is at work. Nacho eventually has insights, and what seems to be at last, a terrible humiliation --- and if I tell you more, I'll ruin it. Suffice it to say that the title is significant.

I can't finish this review without mentioning that the casting is superb, and that I hope we see a lot more of Hector Jimenez, who plays Esqueleto, Nacho's fighting partner.

Go. See it. Don't tell it where to take you, follow it where it directs your soul. Thumb's up, way up: I'm going to see this one again.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Over the Hedge

Bruce asked the tickettaker how long the movie was as we entered the theatre. "90 minutes," Bruce reported. "That long?" I said. "My God. There must be a plot."

And so there was. Scheming raccoon R.J. (voiced by Bruce Willis) has to pay back the bear (Nick Nolte's voice) all the food he stole (and lost) while the bear was hibernating or be killed. He discovers a "family" of gatherers in the forest just waking up from hibernation, and figures he can make good use of their ignorance to help him grab the loot from nearby suburbia within the one-week time limit. Along the way he learns the lessons about what family is really about.

I must admit that in the first ten minutes of the film, while R.J. is deftly stealing food from the bear, I was so captured and awed by the animation that I just stared at the screen, my mouth open. The raccoon's fur is free flowing. His eyebrows move. His mouth moves in perfect concert with Willis' voice. While I began to relax and enjoy the shenanigans of this gang, I still found myself missing dialogue because I was admiring the animation.

There are more things to admire about Hedge. There are little homages to movies throughout. I'm sure I missed a few, but I howled when the more obvious ones came out, like the references to A Streetcar Named Desire or Citizen Kane.

The characters themselves are funny -- each has a little quirk, sometimes just in the subtlety of voicing, that makes each character memorable. The "casting," if you can call matching character to voices, is spot on. Of particular note is Thomas Haden Church, a riot as the pest control guy, Garry Shandling as the meek turtle who heads up the group, Steve Carell as the caffeine-hyped squirrel Hammy -- and, actually, there are too many to note. They're all perfect, and perfectly funny.

And the wry narration describing Suburbia is also hilarious, and the action backs up that assertion.

I'm not quite sure why the film is rated PG. Well, there is one sly joke about nuts, but it's a joke that will most likely fly over the head of most kids who see this film. And then there's that cork....

The film is a joke-a-minute, and even when you don't think there's anything happening in the frame, you're wrong. Kids can enjoy this movie when they look at the cute animals saying cute things, jaded teenagers will love the movie as well, and adults will see the different levels of satire. At any level, it's a lot of fun.

Thumb's up.

Monday, June 05, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand (WARNING! SPOILERS!)

The Producers of X-Men: The Last Stand brought the meeting to order.

“Brett, we’re so glad you could take over from Bryan Singer. This is a very rich franchise for us, and we’re eager to see the last installment be a quality picture.”

Brett: “Thanks, guys. I’m really eager to get started. But you said there was a punch list, stuff we have to include. What did you have in mind?”

Producers: “You’re right. We have a list of things. Let’s see. Um, we need to bring Famke back…”

Brett: “What?! That’s ridiculous. The girl’s dead. Let’s get over it.”

Producers: “No, no, we paid her for three pictures. We have to get our money’s worth. Besides, nobody dies in Star Trek…”

Brett: “I wasn’t aware this was Star Trek, but let’s move on. What else?”

Producers: “You gotta have Wolverine be in a fight. You gotta show Beast in a fight…”

Brett: “Cool! Not a problem with both of those. I looove action.”

Producers: “Halle is asking for more screen time. And a different hair style. And more of a leadership role.”

Brett: “Well, from what I’ve seen from the script, the screen time shouldn’t be a problem.”

Producers: “Oh, and, uh, we have one more request. You have to show Hugh Jackman naked.”

Brett: “What?? Oh, c’mon!”

Producers: “Okay, okay, if not naked, at least shirtless. We’re paying the guy pennies but he’s a really big star now. It would be stupid not to take advantage of his hunkdom. Brett, just this one little thing….whatddya think?"

Brett: “Well, they’re gonna say I’m a sell-out, but why not. Okay, we’ve got to bring the dead back, cool fight scenes, and shirtless Wolverine. Is that it?”

Producers: “Well, just one more thing. This is supposed to be The Last Stand. But let’s be real. If it goes over $200 gross, we’re gonna do number 4. How about you pump up the roles of the smaller X-Men, you know, the kids at the school, and lessen some of the majors. Maybe even kill off somebody like Patrick Stewart and that one-eyed guy. Take away the powers of Romijn and McKellen. They’re getting to be ‘way too expensive. If we go to X4, we can still have the X-Men with the new Angel guy and some of these other kids, and a smaller budget. Whaddya think?”

Brett: “I think you guys are crazy. But….if I don’t do this, I’ll be stuck doing Rush Hour 3. Okay, okay.”

Producers: “Great! See you at the movies!”

Friday, June 02, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand -- standing very tall

Sometimes it doesn't pay to pay too much attention to reviewers. Tonight I saw X-Men: The Last Stand, against the advice of all my favorite reviewers, all of whom hated it, and against the advice of my son, who found it a great disappointment.

I'm sorry they were disappointed; I had a great time. It's not great, serious cinema, it's a cartoon, and while it didn't spend a lot of time pondering the issues it raised, that was OK, because that made it that much more fun to dissect it with my movie-partner after the show.

There are lots of explosions, if you are a fan of them. I was pleased to (finally) see a female mutant with kick-ass powers. I can live without explosions, but if you are gonna have them, by all means, make sure that they are equal-opportunity explosions.

Yes, there were lots of new mutants, and I couldn't keep them straight. So what? Wolverine did his stuff, and Storm did her stuff, and The Phoenix did HER stuff, and Magneto was evil-but-poignantly-so, and Mystique did her stuff (oh, did she ever! but you will have to see the movie to learn the rest of THAT) and a fine time was had by all -- or at least, by me. I could have done with a bit more of Rogue's existential crisis, but hey, most of the audience, myself included, could chat and speculate about that later, which is probably more fun anyway than seeing only one version of it played out on screen.

I am not generally an F-X fan, but there is one bit in this movie, something involving a famous piece of engineering, that was downright breathtaking.

So yeah, I give it a thumb's up, way up. Don't believe everything you read.