Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Hairspray, the Musical

OK, before I review this movie, I have to say something: Christopher Walken is a national treasure. Now that that's off my chest, I can think about the rest of the movie.

There are so many good things to say about Hairspray, and scanning the reviews, I can see that other folks have pretty much said them all. Everyone is good: the standouts are Walken (who plays Wilbur Turnblad with charm and an absolutely straight face, the formidable Queen Latifah, and Nikki Blonsky, the sweet caramel center of this confection. The movie practically bounces off the screen with energy, and I danced out of the theater.

I was curious about the casting of John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, and he was the one slightly offkey note in the entire production. Granted, there was only one Divine, (who played Edna in John Waters' original film) but Travolta could have been great: at times he inhabits Edna in a way that transcends makeup, fat suits, and drag. However, he made the poor decision to play Edna with a wink, letting you know that under the fat suit, under the hose, was a Guy who thought it was a great joke to wag his padded fanny and fawn over food. Given that the whole point of the movie is a celebration of the underdog, the winks were out of place: Walken made a much better choice, playing Wilbur with sincerity. (So why the wink, John? Too painful to simply stay in there?)

I finally got it, though, why it had to be Travolta, when I saw Michelle Pfeiffer: the two of them starred in Grease and Grease 2, respectively, the movies that more than anything else sold a glitzy, sugarcoated image of that era to the public. Hairspray is the anti-Grease: happy and bouncy and relentless, yes, but frank in describing a time of casual cruelty and institutionalized segregation. There are homages to the original Hairspray, if you don't blink: John Waters plays a flasher in the opening credits, and near the end, Rikki Lake plays one of a trio of talent agents. Jerry Stiller, the original Wilbur, is back as Mr. Pinky, and even though the script doesn't give him much to do, he's funny anyway.

The film has a wealth of fine performances: I look forward to seeing more of Zac Efron, who managed to get more out of the Link Larkin part than had any right to be there. Nikki Blonsky was marvelous, dancing and bouncing and giving the movie its heart.

Thumbs up! and a bullet on the charts, to Hairspray.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


A depressed housewife learns her husband was killed in a car accident the day previously, awakens the next morning to find him alive and well at home, and then awakens the next day after to a world in which he is still dead.

Premonition is Memento Lite, confusing in a maze of when-did-this-happen vs. how crazy is she? What aids the chronology is Sandra Bullock, who plays this role as if it's her last. If we decide that question on the worth of this project, the answer would be yes.

Yesterday, as I was on a walk around the lake with a friend, we discussed the plot points. "But he died on Wednesday..." "No, he died on Tuesday. She didn't hear about it until Wednesday." "No, I'm pretty sure she didn't hear until Thursday, and the funeral was Saturday..."

The most dramatic scene in the movie is when she whips out a piece of construction paper, and with crayons in hand, draws a calendar. It doesn't help us to understand this mess. What's even more important, she finds the paper on another day, this time BEFORE she had drawn it, a careless continuity error.

Director Mennan Yapo seems more involved with lighting and dramatic effect rather than advancement of the story. In fact, on the DVD extras, he comments incessantly on how the scene looked rather than what they were trying to convey.

At the end we have a story that doesn't go anywhere. If you have a Sixth Sense kind of look and story, you need a great, big payoff at the end. There is no payoff here.

Again, going back to the DVD extras, an alternate ending is shown. That ending might have given us a little wonderment factor -- there is none in the movie's ending -- but still makes no sense.

The acting is fine. It's great to see Julian McMahon (Nip/Tuck, Fantastic Four) in something normal. And the great Kate Nelligan has little to do here; it seems her best scenes, as small as they were, were cut by the director.

This is a dreary suspense film with little suspense. Bullock has had quite a succession of worthy films, but strikes out with this dud. Thumb's down.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Two Children's Films: Bridge to Terabithia vs. The Last Mimzy

One film is a wonderful journey into the pre-teen mind, while the other is a sterile movie where badly behaved children model their behavior. One is highly recommended for the appropriate age group; the other should be avoided by all age groups.

Bridge to Terabithia actually started out by being a disappointment to me, and I've heard from others that this was true for them as well. It was marketed as a modern-day Chronicles of Narnia. In fact, trailers talked about and showed shadows of the monsters the children faced in the film. However, these turned out to be bad special effects featured fleetingly. But, as time went on and I got more engrossed in what was happening and began to care about these kids, I discovered I was really enjoying this film for different reasons.

Parents actually may hail the lack of special effects in this film, finally in any children's film, because this movie is not about effects, but about relationships. It's mainly about a friendship between a boy and a girl at a local middle school. He's been there awhile, and knows how to jockey around the bullies, but she doesn't. So he helps her and a friendship is born, a friendship that takes them to "Terabithia," which is the undeveloped jungle just beyond their houses.

The acting is superb in Terabithia, both from the adults and kids. Young Josh Hutcherson, who plays Jesse, is the typical stoic kid. He doesn't tell you his feelings like movies might make you believe kids do. He's real. His new friend is played by actress Anna Sophia Robb, who has the biggest eyes you've ever seen. They're so expressive, you can't take your own eyes off them.

The Last Mimzy's two child characters are a boy of 10 and his 5-year-old sister. They live in a fairly typical rather well-to-do family who can afford to spend days at their beach house. While playing on the beach, they discover a sphere that has several toys in it. The toys are accompanied by a stuffed bunny, whom young Emma names Mimzy because of the buzzing that seems to come from it. Without giving too much away, the kids are given a task that is far more important than they could ever imagine.

However, in order to achieve this task, they must continually lie to their parents, a disturbing event when you consider how many kids will be watching this film. Cinematically speaking, nobody changes in this movie, and no character's relationships ever change. Things happen, but they're just things. It's a bit of a science fiction movie, but the worst kind, where objects take over the screen and the events that follow do not involve the human condition.

I really enjoyed seeing the adult actors in Last Mimzy, especially Timothy Hutton and Rainn Wilson, and the child actors are fine, too. There is just no journey, nothing that matters, for any of them.

So I would recommend Bridge to Terabithia for any age, or I should say, any age beyond 10 or so, or beyond sensitive children, due to themes involving life and death. In comparison, any age could and should skip The Last Mimzy.

Thumb's up for Bridge to Terabithia. Thumb's down for The Last Mimzy.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

He's called a liar by his classmates. Teachers don't understand him and punish him. Other adults underestimate him. The anger pent-up in him is about to explode. Life is just unfair, UNFAIR I tell you! Typical teenager? Oh, yeah.

Except that, for this teenager, they really ARE out to get him. And when I say "They," I'm not even talking about He Who Must Not Be Named. Or the Deatheaters. There are so many more villains in this piece, they should take a number.

The most delicious of all is a woman dressed in pink: Dolores Umbridge. Working directly for the Ministry of Magic, she's at Hogwarts to make sure things are done right this time. With that little smirk and 'ahem' in a high, squeaky voice comes pure, demented evil, and certainly a force to be reckoned with in our hero's life. Award-winning actress Imelda Staunton wrings every last bit of acerbic nastiness out of the character, and joins her fellow Brits in what could only be called the British Retirement System, as the Harry Potter series has certainly brought together dozens of aging actors in the series.

Poor Harry! The great thing about this, movie #5, is that Harry starts to do something about the evil and injustice that surround him. He grapples with the good and evil within himself, and comes up swingin'. His Dumbledore's Army gets quite a bit of screen time, which is saying a lot when 600 pages have to be crammed into two hours.

Which brings me to the usual gripe about these biannual forays: they're too short. My last movie review moaned about too many cast members and too many minutes in the film. Not this time. We love all the characters, and we know they can't get their just due. So we merely smile when they fleetingly appear, and hope to see them again in the next installment.

Actor Daniel Radcliffe's range has grown with his age, and the trials and terrors of Harry's life play on his face throughout the movie. It's more difficult to judge pals Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, however, as they have so little to do in the film except occasionally utter, "Are you all right, Harry?" Michael Gambon now has a handle on Dumbledore, and the authority in his voice wins out. There are so many others who bring a real richness to the series, and I'm mostly speaking of the veteran actors who play McGonagall, Snape, and so many others.

I enjoyed the pieces of this film immensely, but they are, unfortunately, just pieces. The Order of the Phoenix is a transitional point in the sequence of books and movies. The important thing at the end of this film is to recognize that our boy is getting older and more mature, and that he has people in the magical universe who love him. It's not really enough for a stand-alone film, but it's enough for someone who has followed Harry from the beginning.

Thumb's up.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


A long, long time ago in the 1980's on Earth, a wonderful marketing ploy was invented: A toy that could transform from car to flying machine with weapons, and a television show that promoted the toy to youngsters. Now that the youngsters have grown up and are having children of their own, the audience for Transformers has grown exponentially.

That's not the plot of our movie, but it gives you enough background to plow through. The actual plot is terribly complicated (if you really want the complete background, see here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0418279/plotsummary), and involves something about two alien warrior robot factions going to war with each other on Earth with humans stuck in between.

We walked out of the movie theatre kind of confused and tired. Confused because it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys here (if they're young, they're the good guys), human or robot, and tired because this is a looonnng movie.

It's long mostly because there are too many characters, again human and robot. We lose track of the characters, they come back, we forget why they're there in the first place, etc. I understand there are lot of people in the military, but why do we have to meet them all? There is a lot of time spent on young Sam Witwicky, and that's where the emphasis should be. Actor Shia LaBeouf is a rising star and proves his worth here.

Director Michael Bay interestingly makes choices to go back to the emotional heart of a scene instead of showing the rock-em, sock-em robots. This means, though, that the scenes are longer while he forces you to take an emotional stand.

If you've seen the trailers, you know that the effect showing the transformation of the transformers is just amazing. Quick, awesome, the way it should be. I sometimes found myself thinking about matter changing into smaller objects and the impossibility of all that, but shook the thought off and went back to enjoying the action.

Even though the fight scenes aren't elongated, I think Transformer fans young and old are gonna like this kick-butt movie. Well, there may be the occasional Megatron fans who whine that he doesn't get his just due, but if we talked about that, we'd have to go back to that infernal, complex plot again. Screw that. Bring on the autobots!

Thumb's up.

Night at the Museum

It's such a simple premise, you wonder why no one has used it before.

They probably have. But without today's special effects possibilities, it would probably fall pretty two-dimensionally flat.

At night the museum comes alive. That's it. And in this version of that simple premise, Night at the Museum truly does come alive. It's heartwarmingly funny.

Oh, the screenwriters have added some plot device, something about an ancient curse and then the old night watchmen steal the device....oh, but never mind. Thankfully, the director doesn't stray too far from the museum. That's where all the action is.

Ben Stiller is perfect as the father who's been a failure at almost everything he's done. And he wants to shine for his son. However, after the first night when the T-Rex, bones and all, chases him down the hall, he's not so sure. We know he'll go back, and we urge him to: we want to see what happens the second night!

I loved almost every little bit of nonsense thrown at us. Cowboys who can't get along with Romans, Lewis & Clark arguing incessantly while Sacajawea looks for someone to connect with, an Easter Island sculpture who loves verbal wordplay. And there are famous faces all around: Robin Williams, who is actually given something to do as Teddy Roosevelt. Carla Gugino, Ricky Gervais. The best "cameo" type roles, however, were from Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney, who play, devilishly, the old museum watchmen. Keep watching when the credits roll, and you'll see the two of them dance to the soundtrack.

This is a delight of a movie, good for young and old. Thumb's up.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ghost Rider

Caretaker in voiceover: "It's said that the West was built on legends. Tall tales that help us make sense of things too great or too terrifying to believe. This is the legend of the Ghost Rider."

And this is the point, the first minute in the film, where you should've run screaming from the theatre.

It's bad. Is that enough of a review? Okay, then let's go over the plot, or at least what passes for that in this dreadful comic book tale.

When carnival motorcyclist Johnny Blaze finds that his father has terminal cancer, he accepts a pact with Mephistopheles, giving his soul for the health of his beloved father. But the devil deceives him, and Dad dies in a motorcycle accident immediately after the contract is signed. Johnny leaves the carnival and his girlfriend Roxanne, riding off into the sunset. Years later, Johnny Blaze becomes a famous motorcyclist, who risks his life in his shows, and he meets Roxanne again, now a TV reporter. However, Mephistopheles holds Johnny to his contract, to become the "Ghost Rider" and defeat the devil's son Blackheart, who wants to possess one thousand evil souls and make a hell on earth.

What's sad about this is that it started out promisingly, well, once you got past the voiceover. Young Johnny, played by Matt Long, was interesting to watch in a fairly long set-up which showed him as the typical teenager, loath to follow Dad's advice, and eager to chase after young Roxanne. However, Nicolas Cage's Johnny did not resemble his earlier "self" at all. Cage decided to take on the 'ol Con Air southern drawl, which was more distracting than disarming. And his toupee -- I understand it took 3 hours for makeup technicians to apply it to his head each time -- was even more distracting. Cage lends the movie some credibility -- at least until you see him in the role. His reputation, his mannerisms, are just too big for the screen.

Eva Mendes as the older Roxanne does what she can with the minimalist dialogue. Usually in comic book movies, the love interest doesn't have much to do, but she's given a fair amount of screen time. Her talent, I'm sure, will rise above this movie.

The special effects were termed "cheesy" by a young friend of mine, especially the fiery entrance of Ghost Rider. I would disagree. I actually liked those effects, as well as some of the other effects shown by Blackheart's (Wes Bentley) cronies. And the actual stunts involving the motorcycles were stunning.

But the best effect in the movie, and this is one thumb up for this film, is Peter Fonda's appearance as Mephistopheles. Sheer genius. And his comment regarding Johnny's bike, which resembles one Peter used to ride in '60's film "Easy Rider" was also brilliant: "Nice bike."

Don't bother with this drag-on-your-time of a movie. If you want to see a good comic book movie, see Batman Returns, or Spider-Man 1 or 2. Thumb's down.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

I've waited a long time to see this movie, even before it was scheduled. You see, I know the secret of the Silver Surfer.

I even watched actor/stuntman Doug Jones "explain" how he played the part. He was told not to talk about it, so he mimed how he would get into the suit. The suspense was building.

I finally put aside all of the mundane things in life, like bills, the summer heat, the fact that the city isn't picking up my garbage, etc., and got down to the air-conditioned theatre, walking in during the previews, and took my seat.

I wasn't disappointed. As a reader of the Fantastic Four comics back in the late '60's, I was hoping they'd get it right. You see, FF4 are all about what would happen if Superman didn't have a secret identity. It would be a little hard to put hornrim glasses on, say, The Thing, and pretend he was somebody else. They don't pretend. They are. And they bicker. They had to get those two things right.

And if they're dealing the Silver Surfer story, they have to tell the real story and not sweeten it. And show him in his true gelatinous form. Doug Jones in silver nitrate.

They do all that. If there's anything that disappoints, there's a funny, stupid moment when an Army lieutenant threatens our fab four with a gun. Truly laughable when they feel they have to talk their way out of that one. And I've always had misgivings about Jessica Alba as a blonde; Sue Storm has to be a blonde, I know, I know, but Johnny isn't! But these are small issues.

The first Fantastic Four didn't have a purpose. Origin stories rarely do. But this movie, a super sequel, moves slowly to the menace, and manages to include Dr. Doom, to whom we're slowly warming, cinematically speaking. And manages all of this with a lot of humor and clever dialogue.

Thumb's up!

Monday, July 02, 2007


What kind of husband comes to pick his wife up, blaring his horn all the way until he gets there. Doesn’t get out of his car or greet her, just nods for her to get in. Quick. That gives you a small idea of what Earl is like. There’s much more.

So, what does she do about it? She makes a pie in his “honor.” Jenna is a waitress at a small diner in a small town. She’s the pie-maker, and she’s a genius at it. It’s kind of a Zen thing, making pies.

But besides the I Hate My Husband, she bakes Pregnant Miserable Self Pitying Loser Pie (lumpy oatmeal with fruitcake mashed in), and Earl Murders Me Because I’m Having an Affair pie (smash blackberries and raspberries into a chocolate crust), and dozens of other concoctions. It seems dreaming up pies is the only thing she can do. Until she becomes pregnant one night because her no-good husband got her drunk.

This is a little gem of a film that absolutely should not be missed. Keri Russell of “Felicity” fame has found a vehicle worthy of her talents. Adrienne Shelly is the director and writer of this film, and plays the nebbish “Dawn,” one of two waitress friends who serve as Jenna’s extended family. And it’s wonderful to see actor Nathan Fillion, lately of the sci-fi movie Serenity, who makes nervous seem like charm as Jenna’s doctor attraction.

The script is very clever. When we’re not cringing from Earl’s cruelty, we’re laughing at the dialogue.

Dr. Pomatter: I want to talk to you, somewhere outside of here. Maybe we can have a coffee or something?
Jenna: I can’t have coffee. It’s on the bad food list you gave to me. What kind of doctor are you?

Jenna has to find her way through an untenable situation, through the drama at work and at home and at the doctor’s office, and figure out how to live her life.

Regardless of the pirates and silver surfers that are out there this summer, Waitress is one you should hunt down and see, because you’re going to get so much more out of it. A little lesson on how to be happy. Some information on why women have affairs. And there are all those luscious pies, illustrated for us in living color. It’s a sure recipe for an incredible movie. Thumb’s up.


The movie Ratatouille is the perfect animated film for the Bay Area, with its widespread love of all things cultured, particularly food. It’s a wonderful, wonderfully intricate, layered movie with the themes “anyone can cook!” and “you can do anything you set your mind to,” and I loved it. I’m just not sure it’s a kid’s movie.

I was able – nay, privileged – to attend a charity event at the Pixar facility in Emeryville. I was very calm as I rode with my friend to the event, and, I must say, proud of myself for not screaming the litany that was brewing inside me, something like, “Drive faster!! We’ll miss out on the hors d’oeuvres!” We arrived about 10 minutes into the start of the event, and walked into the modern, cool-looking facility like we worked there every day. With a glass of white wine in one hand, and a little tomato pastry in another, I roamed around, admiring the cafeteria (“That’s where they eat!”) and the posters and figures acknowledging previous Pixar movies.

We watched Ratatouille in the Pixar theatre, which only held about 300. But before that, we were wanded with metal detectors to prevent anyone from coming in with a camera. Amazingly, there were people who showed up with cell phones, even though they were told not to, and those were held for them until they came out of the little room.

Halfway through the movie, I would judge that most of the kids fell asleep, or were nodding in and out. The action in the first half was enough to keep them awake, but I think the second half lagged as far as action as the movie filled in the plot more and explained developments. As an adult, I appreciated the turns the movie took, but I don’t know if the children did.

Remy the rat (as voiced by actor/comedian Patton Oswalt) yearns to use his nose and delicate palate on something other than the garbage the family collects for their daily meals. He goes to the restaurant that his newly-deceased culinary hero used to run, only to find that people don’t take kindly to rats in a kitchen. He befriends a kid in the kitchen, and once they’ve established that the kid can’t cook but the rat can, figure out a way to combine their talents in order to create something worth eating. In the meantime, we get to see how a French restaurant looks and operates, and, I swear, I could almost smell the stew as it was heating on the stove. Watching this movie definitely made me hungry.

Ratatouille, the rather obscure dish, is only seen toward the end, and plays a rather key role. Sort of like “rosebud” in Citizen Kane.

I enjoyed every bit of this movie, found it rousing and fun. But it won’t be for everyone, I fear. There were people in the audience who couldn’t get over seeing a rat touching their food, regardless of the funny fact that it was an animated rat. And kids may eventually see it as a snore. But those of us who love a good story played out, and who adore food, will love it.

Thumb’s up.