Monday, March 26, 2007

Suspect Zero (2004)

Director E. Elias Merhige had everything he needed to make a great thriller: A great cast which included an Academy award winner and one other coming off a great franchise, plus funding from the state of New Mexico as an interest-free loan in return for part of the box office. The only thing he didn't have that he should've had was a good script that made sense.

Dallas FBI agent Tom Mackelway (Aaron Eckhart) investigates the murder of a traveling salesman, which turns out to be the first of three seemingly random killings. When the killings are revealed to be not random at all, the assignment consumes Mackelway, and he begins to think the suspect they're trailing (Ben Kingsley) is not exactly who or what he seems.

See? Even the summary was hard to write.

Ben Kingsley? Aaron Eckhart (later of Thank You for Smoking)? Carrie-Anne Moss (from the Matrix films)? I'm there....but then they lost me. All the actors are quite adequate in their jobs, and Kingsley is better than that, but the morass in which they act is incomprehensible.

The film has an interesting premise, and here I'm going to dump a spoiler on you: The original suspect, played by Kingsley, turns out to be trailing serial killers. So, he's a serial killer of serial killers. But along the way we have symbols that don't quite mean anything, visions that don't add up, and a hero (Eckhart) who definitely has his own issues. It's a confusing mess.

It's also a violent mess. The violence is beyond necessary, and the viewer could get really tired of seeing eyes of dead victims with the lids cut off. Over and over. Ick.

Pass this one up in a big way. Thumb's down.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Namesake

A friend suggested we see The Namesake, but I hesitated. After all, I had seen Mira Nair’s last project, Vanity Fair, and was severely disappointed. But the friend won out, as well as my curiosity about whether Kal Penn can turn it around from his disastrous last movie.

The Namesake concerns the American-born son of Indian immigrants who wants to fit in among his fellow New Yorkers despite his family’s unwillingness to let go of their traditional ways.

We’re not quite sure, though, what the focus of the movie is when we begin. We’re immediately thrust into an evocative scene of Ashoke (played by Irfan Khan), who has come with his parents to bid for a wife, the beautiful Ashima (played by Tabu). She’s not sure what she’s getting herself into, but she has a slight fascination with his shoes, which have been left by the door. It’s a really revealing scene, and it makes us like Ashima immediately.

The two wed in Calcutta, and leave immediately for New York, where Ashoke has a job waiting. The film neatly tells us how lost Ashima is when Ashoke leaves her every day, as she's a stranger in a strange land. It’s no wonder that they find other Bengali, as they call themselves, to lessen the loneliness of the strangeness of language and custom.

The film cuts to a later period where son and daughter are teenagers. The insolence is written on the kids' faces. A riveting storyline is built around why the son was named “Gogol,” and the topic keeps surfacing. You can imagine his anger at having to face the questions and jokes from his schoolmates, so we learn a lot about Gogol by these scenes.

The film cuts again to a Gogol as a young man in his 20’s, putting together the duality of his life – one with his girlfriend’s family and friends, and the other with his family. And never the twain shall meet. The rest of the story is about how Gogol deals with these two worlds, and the decisions he makes concerning them.

This film is obviously a much more personal film for Ms. Nair. Even though the screenplay is based on a novel, it’s obvious that she found much to relate to, having spent the first part of her life in Calcutta and the last in New York. She hits all the right notes in this family drama.

There are some brilliant scenes, ones that lift the movie out of the ordinary. There’s a scene where Gogol reveals his attraction to a young woman he’s dating by staring at her neck, and it’s really quite charming. The acting is superb, particularly as we watch father and mother age. I was really quite taken with the actress Tabu, as we watch the young bride with her struggles grow into a caring mother and wife. And Kal Penn finally shows us what he can be.

The theme of family vs. the search for our individuality is universal and wonderfully handled in this film. Thumb’s up.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine

I avoided seeing this movie as long as I could. The title gave me cavities. The premise sounded tired. No one in the cast could lure me into the theater. The last good road movie I saw was Thelma and Louise.

Then I heard an interview on NPR on February 9 with Jonathan Dayton, one of the directors of Little Miss Sunshine. I heard him talk about the reasons he and his directing partner Valerie Faris were captivated by the script by Michael Arendt, and suddenly I had to see it. I don't recall the detail, I only know that by then it was no longer in any theater near me, and I finally wound up renting it. Tonight I had time to watch it. The credits rolled only 15 minutes ago; now I'm writing this review, because now I understand all the awards and the fuss. Little Miss Sunshine is a wonderful, wonderful movie.

Greg Kinnear plays the paterfamilias of a wreck of a family. His first line in the film offers us its premise: "There are two kinds of people in this world, winners and losers." The film is an examination of winning and losing, of love and loss. His family is populated by aspiring winners: he plans to be the next Tony Robbins, his brother-in-law plans to be the world's foremost Proust scholar, his son plans to be a fighter pilot (in a beautifully restrained performance by Paul Dano), his daughter (Abigail Breslin) plans to be Miss America. Only his wife (played by Toni Collette) and Grampa (Alan Arkin) lack high ambition, and they plant their feet firmly in reality: hers the reality of careworn, exhausted motherhood and his an audacious ,tomorrow-we-die recklessness of old age.

At the center of the film stands a yellow Volkswagon bus, a loser of a vehicle if ever there was one. Like the Starship Enterprise, our heroes travel upon it to strange planets; surely nowhere visited by Kirk or Picard was any weirder than the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant pictured in the film. The detail in the Dayton interview that caught my attention was the fact that all the beauty pageant people are real: those are not actors on the screen, but real mamas and papas and tiny kabuki creatures from Pageant Land.

That's the key to the pleasure in this film: it may be fiction, but it stays very close to the real. The pageant is over the top, but only in the way that pageants are over the top. The bus is a disaster, but only in the ways that ancient VW buses are often disasters. The script never went for the quick laugh; laughs build slowly in Little Miss Sunshine, building and building until it's laugh or die.

This film describes the humor and the awfulness of everyday life. Real family life often feels like a bad trip, and our choices are laugh or cry. Little Miss Sunshine pursues the zen of loserness, the triumph of defeat.

Go. Laugh. Thumb's up.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

300 - Greece is the Word

300, or Frank Miller's 300, is an example of how to use CG in a way that will revolutionize the industry. Bluescreen and greenscreen were used in every shot. There was only one day of location shooting (the scene with the horses). Almost all of the photography was shot in a warehouse in Montreal. The film was shot over 60 days, but postproduction (putting in the visual effects) took a year. The film cost $60 million to make, and has made that up in only two weeks of release. It shouldn't be hard for studios to figure out that they needn't spend $100 million on a film that will barely bring in that much.

It's an affecting story as well. The movie is loosely based on Frank Miller's 1998 graphic novel, "loosely" because the novel didn't present the director with enough material, so more was added. 300 tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, when the King of Sparta led his small army against the invading Persians.

The Spartans have never been a people to embrace and love, at least from what I remember from History 101. Spartans are the ones who left their infants out to die if they were in the least disfigured or not perfect. Their children were taught to fight at an early age. And when they reached a certain age, they were to spend a determined time in the wilderness to fend for themselves.

What 300 does, however, is humanize the Spartans. We see how a mother (Queen Gorgo, played with sensitivity and strength by Lena Headey) can send her son to do this, how necessary she views this in his upbringing. And we see the tenderness of Spartans towards their children.

And I'm sure you'll agree that the best thing a movie can do is to deliver you into the heart of a time and country you couldn't visit. 300 does this with ease. We're there with the Greeks, fighting against the Persians with their conscripted armies and mutant beasts.

It's unnerving to see the violence, and disturbing to recognize that all that blood squirting everywhere never rises to cartoon violence, but seems ghastly each time you're forced to watch it. Director Zach Snyder doesn't apologize for showing the ravages of war, and such scenes mirror Frank Miller's graphic novel to the letter.

Yet Snyder employs several techniques that tell the discerning viewer that he or she is not rewatching history. The scenes have a real washed-out feeling to them. There are several scenes, many, that are slowed down for you so that you can appreciate exactly how far that spear has penetrated. It's stylized violence, not actual minute-per-minute mayhem. Yet pieces of reality seep in: King Leonidas' cape gets slowly frayed over time, his helmet sports gashes, his shield arrow holes.

Leonidas is portrayed by Gerard Butler ("Phantom of the Opera") as a lion. His voice carries great authority, his beard juts out as far as his pecs, and you think you'd follow him anywhere. You learn to care about this king, the sacrifices he makes, and his brave Spartan warriors.

Just a bit of warning, though (besides the warning about the violence): this is not history. Many liberties have been taken, from Frank Miller's ideas about how the Spartans defended their territory, to director and screenwriter Snyder's implementation of Asian fighting styles and formations, all of which was done for a better visual effect. This is a fictionalized version of the reason, many say, that the Greeks banded together to turn back the Persians once and for all.

300 is forceful, epic, surprisingly affecting, and way cool. Thumb's up.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Infamous - A Different Capote

A lot has been written in movie review land about the new Infamous, released more than a year after Capote. It's rather amazing that the new film uses exactly the same slice of Capote's life to tell. And what's even more interesting is that it's a different film entirely.

Comparisons with the other film are inevitable, if only because Capote was a stellar achievement in screenplay as well as acting. If Capote is the intellectual, subtle approach, then one could only describe Infamous as the gutsy, more physical approach. The latter film took chances by spelling out what the screenplay writer and director Douglas McGrath imagined what happened, particularly behind prison walls in the scenes between Truman and Perry. In Capote we wonder about his attraction to Perry, but in Infamous, we don't wonder; it's there, and definitely a physical relationship. It's a different film, certainly, one that goes for the gut.

And that works, perhaps not for the historians among us but for those of us who wonder how Truman Capote wasted his talent after In Cold Blood. Infamous attempts to explain that lapse in terms we understand.

Toby Jones inhabits the role easily and is certainly a more dimunitive character than Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar-winning portrayal. The voice is at once hilarious, almost a parody of itself, and is the point of humor early on in the film. In fact, sometimes Jones' characterization is more parody than substance, but the actor rises above such nonsense during the dramatic scenes later on in the film.

The relationship between Capote and Nelle Harper Lee seemed very real in Infamous, a feat ascribed to Sandra Bullock's acting, clearly one of the best dramatic roles she's ever attempted, and a screenplay that shows a real relationship where two friends can squabble and yet come back together, knowing old friendships never die. Nelle is the grounding point for Truman's wild ventures, and, as in the other film, helps midwesterners adapt to this wild, alien creature.

Infamous, I must admit, is easier to watch than Capote, mostly because the humor in Truman Capote's circumstances is never far away. And if you like to star watch, you'll have a ball here. The first scene lights on Gwynyth Paltrow as a singer -- who disappears and never returns -- and we're treated to fine scenes with Sigourney Weaver and Isabella Rossellini as part of Truman's band of fans, there always because he elevates gossip to an art form. And Daniel Craig (the new James Bond) as Perry Smith is far more dangerous than any such apparition in that other film.

If you're not sick of the Truman Capote story, and want a look at a carefully crafted and fascinating tale, take a look at Infamous for another take on what actually happened. Thumb's up.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Which Spelling Bee to Watch?

I’ve always enjoyed a good spelling bee, but I must admit, I thought it might be boring on film. That’s true of one of these movies: Akeelah and the Bee vs. Bee Season. One is, indeed, rather boring, not to mention confusing, but the other is an uplifting, fun ride.

Bee Season came out in 2005, and involves 12-year-old Eliza, who enters a school spelling bee and magically wins. She keeps entering bees, going up level after level, and watches her family dysfunctionally spin off her success. Richard Gere and Juliette Binoche star.

It’s actually fun watching Richard Gere as the intense father, a professor who intellectualizes with the best of them, one who thinks he’s doing the best for his family when he barely communicates at all with them. This is the kind of role Gere was meant to play, so very earnest but slightly creepy with a smile that burns intensely as he expects his family to be what he wants them to be. I wish the same could be said of Binoche, the award-winning actress, but she’s really caught in a maelstrom of confusing plotlines.

Actually, besides Gere’s performance, the best thing that can be said about this movie is that it was filmed in Oakland, and if you can see past the fog of the family's depression, you'll see how beautiful parts of the city truly are. Unfortunately, the family’s problems with each other aren’t clearly explained, and it’s hard to follow the progression of the plot.

Akeelah and the Bee (2006), despite being made for far less money (the first that Starbucks has produced), is the far more enjoyable film. 11-year-old Keke still feels the death of her father, and seeks advice from Dr. Larabee, played by Laurence Fishburne, when she decides she’s going to enter a spelling bee. The movie is about the development of her relationship with this professor, who has had his own losses, and how their relationship affects her family and even her community. The marvelous Angela Bassett co-stars.

Akeelah and the Bee is a wonderful movie, full of realistic, feel-good moments that come out of real relationships. The tension in the spelling bee scenes is palpable, and dramatically filmed so that we viewers feel that tension.

Truth be told, Bee Season had the toughest of challenges: converting a well-read book into a movie, and making sense of internal stories. The project meant well, but falls rather flat. So, if you have a choice, I would recommend that you see the uplifting and engaging Akeelah and the Bee rather than the edgy but slow Bee Season.

Thumb's up for Akeelah and the Bee, but Thumb's Down for Bee Season.