Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

I had always wanted to see this film, even when it was in the theatres. Most of that was because of Winona Ryder's reputation then. Now it's because the film has become a reference. In fact, I heard someone mention it just the other day, which drove me to finally see it.

The film is based on writer Susanna Kaysen's account of her 18-month stay at a mental hospital in the '60's.

We don't really know much about Susanna (Ryder) when we meet her, just that she's signing herself into this home for what she believes will be a brief stay, all at the insistence of her parents. She finds herself a stranger there, as they all seem to know each other, and most of them seem normal. However, she quickly discovers that their backstories are not hidden well: Polly, who burned half her face right off; Daisy, who will only eat her father's roasted chickens, and who keeps the carcasses under her bed when she's finished; her roommate Georgina, who is a pathological liar. The most normal-seeming of them all is Angelina Jolie's Lisa, who rules this roost with the sheer force of her personality and charisma, and with whom Susanna becomes beguiled.

There's no Nurse Ratched here, although you'll look for one. Instead we find Whoopi Goldberg in a serious role, Nurse Valerie, one that employs her empathic sense well. When Susanna runs from the idiot psychiatrists on staff, she knows that at least Valerie will tell her the truth, a truth Susanna doesn't always want to hear.

We figure out rather quickly that Susanna isn't "borderline personality disorder" at all, as she's been diagnosed, but just a mixed-up, directionless and sometimes depressed teenager. She is clearly not in the same sinking boat as many of her housemates. But, as Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave in a surprisingly stellar role) tells her, she has to want to leave this place and its familiar traps and join the rest of the world.

I can't in my recent memory remember better performances from Ryder or Jolie. Ryder, perhaps with this film, hit the apex of her performing career, while Jolie was just getting started (and won an academy award for this performance). However, while we haven't seen Ryder in anything, really, since then, we've certainly seen Jolie in what seem like really bad choices.

This is a hard-hitting drama that doesn't go down the melodramatic path even though some of the situations seem to land in that territory. The screenplay is brilliant, and the dialogue is right-on and often funny in a deadly sort of way. And its outstanding performances by Ryder and Jolie make it a very moving film, one I highly recommend.

Thumb's up for Girl, Interrupted.

Monday, April 23, 2007


A film called "Fracture" is a teen slayer flick, right? with chain saws and lots of nudity? Wrong. This is actually a terrific adult thriller that probably should have been called something like, "Enemy in the Courtroom." The title might cause this film to lose viewers. And that would be a shame.

An assistant district attorney (played by Ryan Gosling, right off his brilliant performance in "Half Nelson") goes up against a man (Anthony Hopkins) who tries to murder his wife, and the young man finds himself entangled in a cat-and-mouse game with the suspect.

It would be tempting to say that Anthony Hopkins' character is another side of Hannibal Lecter, the most famous role in Hopkins' career, and the one to which every other role is compared, but that would be false. Ted Crawford is a successful engineer who doesn't like stupid people or fools, and prides himself on exploiting the weaknesses in opponents. He should've been a lawyer.

A lawyer is exactly what young Willy Beachum is (Ryan Gosling), but we see immediately he's a guy who hopes to go beyond the D.A.'s office, and quickly. There's a lot of hubris here. We see it in the way he struts around the office, saying hi in a smug way to everyone he meets. We see his false modesty. We even see it in the sideburns he wears. And Gosling plays it perfectly.

David Strathairn is solid as the D.A. who watches his young charge vault over the lesser-paid, the elder statesman who has paid his dues. And Rosamund Pike is intriguing as the boss in the new job. The fact that I wanted more scenes with her and her family tells me I enjoyed even the quieter, slower scenes. This movie builds its relationships carefully, sometimes repetitively, yet we feel starved because the camera has to return to its two stars, and justifiably so.

It is pure moviegoing joy to watch Hopkins do what he does best, which is to cause fear and doubt in the hearts of his enemies and the viewers. And Gosling is a worthy opponent.

Thumb's up.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Happy Feet

If you've ever missed those wonderful dancing movies, like the ones starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, this just may be your movie. However, I must warn you: In this movie, Fred and Ginger have big, webbed feet.

Despite the cute dancing and singing scenes by these Emperor penguins, there's so much wrong with this movie. This is more an adult film than a kids' film. There's some real peril here, where awesomely-drawn but mean-looking seals and gulls chase young penguins. And the beginning of the film takes some focus because the first half an hour concerns how Mumble's parents got together. It takes a bit to get into the heart of the movie...

...which is teenager Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), who finds that he just doesn't fit into the penguin population. He dances rather than sings. Singing is how these penguins find their soul-mates. There's a charming sequence in the beginning of the film where Hugh Jackman, who is channeling Elvis, meets Nicole Kidman, who is channeling Marilyn Monroe, and they do an outstanding version of Prince's "Kiss." However, again, not many seven-year-olds are going to appreciate that.

A good 45 minutes lapses before Mumble gets to be a meaningful age -- another pacing problem. At that point, the film becomes an adventure, a good thing as far as the kids are concerned, and we enjoyed it, too, as his adventures out beyond his home are breathtakingly beautiful, and take you to a place animation has never gone. You can see every hair on that penguin's body, and the motion in the action sequences seems real, and the figures more than two-dimensional.

Mumble meets some amusing characters along the way, many of whom are voiced by Robin Williams in a very funny way.

However -- and this is a big "however" -- all of the smaller penguins (especially the main one played by Williams) are stereotypically Hispanic in voice and look. All are dimunitive, all are English-as-a-second language, and they sing mambo-type songs. The group of five call themselves The Amigos, to make the point very clear. They're very funny supporting characters, but I abhor the idea that little kids are taking this misinformation as gospel.

Another negative is the environmentally-heavy "lessons" this movie wants to convey. In fact, the DVD has included a short documentary on the subject of fishing the world dry. However, neither the movie nor the documentary offers any solutions. So, when your child refuses the salmon on her plate after seeing this movie, what can your answer be? Become a vegetarian because Mumble might starve?

The dancing is stunning. I understand that dancer Savion Glover was the motion-captured model for the animation. Happy Feet will rewrite how animation is done.

However, the flawed story and the impact of its messages need work.

Thumb's up for adults who can see through this fowl play, but thumb's down for children, who might be scared and take its lessons literally.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Stranger than Fiction

One day Will Ferrell woke up to find that he was a cockroach.

Okay, Will Ferrell doesn't exactly look and talk like Gregor Samsa, but if Franz Kafka were writing Metamorphosis today, it would look like Stranger than Fiction.

One day IRS auditor Harold Crick wakes up to find out that only he can hear a narration of his life. The narration begins to affect everything, even screwing up how many steps and minutes it takes to get to the bus, and how many exact strokes it takes to brush his teeth. He connects with no one, either at home or at work. In other words, Harold has no life, and somebody is taking note of it.

This is a quiet yet compelling movie, and -- yes, it has to be said -- Will Ferrell isn't over-the-top goofy here. People walking into the movie theatre expecting histrionics might get a few when Harold comes to a few realizations, but mostly it's an internal journey, only broken up by (uncredited) Dustin Hoffman, who is very funny as a literary professor who is an expert on the overused phrase in pop literature, "Little did he know..."

For me, the movie was a little slow, but picked up tremendously when Harold meets Ana, an anti-establishment baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal in her best role yet) who begins to see the Harold under the Crick.

There are a lot of little fun jokes here, like when Harold brings Ana flours (instead of flowers). There's not a lot of there there to the plot, however, and not a lot of Emma Thompson, who is top-billed but almost invisible in a subplot about writer's block. Still, it's a good lesson for each of us to sit down occasionally, look at our armor, and wonder if we've turned into an insect.

Thumb's up.