Monday, October 29, 2007

The Break-Up

Like most romantic comedies where boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and then boy... Wait a minute. This one doesn't quite follow the formula.

And kudos to the screenwriters for that. This one's a little different for sure, especially when you consider Vince Vaughn is the "boy." Laugh-a-minute, right? No, not at all. And that's the charm, and, alas, the bane of this movie.

It sure looks like a date movie, though, doesn't it? Vince Vaughn plus the face on every tabloid, Jennifer Aniston. The set-up is a great scene in the beginning of the film where Vince's Gary is trying to meet Jennifer's character, Brooke, by buying everybody in their row in the stands hot dogs. It's very Vaughnish repartee, very quick-thinking, funny, rapid-fire stuff. I'm still not quite sure why she dated him after this, because obviously she thought he was looney tunes, but we cut suddenly to modern times. The two have a pretty nice life, living as a couple in a luxurious Chicago condo. They entertain nightly, it seems, and both enjoy that. So it's a bit of a shock when, after Gary refuses to go out and get more lemons, and then to clean up after one dinner party, Brooke screams, "It's over!"

Brooke is a driven art dealer who is very good at what she does, but who has to tippie-toe around her intense boss at work. She obviously pulls in most of the money in this relationship, as Gary is a tour guide in the Windy City. To be fair, Gary and his brother (played nebbishly by CSI guy Vincent D'Onofrio) have big plans for the tour company, but Gary is a tired man at the end of every day. All he wants to do is sit in front of his bigscreen T.V. and watch the game, or play a video game with his friends. Is that too much to ask? Yes, counters Brooke, as she, too, is exhausted after a day of work, and has to pick up after Gary, plan the night's festivities, carry them out, and then clean up. Most of the movie is after they break up, showing how each reacts to that. They have to stay together during this trying period because they don't want to sell the condo into which each has sunk a fortune. Neither one could handle the mortgage alone.

This is billed as a comedy, but it's not a comedy. It's a little too real to be a comedy. There's a lot of angst here, and each of us has starred in that movie.

The ending is what people are talking about, mostly in a negative way, as it doesn't really resolve the issues brought up in the movie in any way. So, at the end, we're wondering, do they get back together? You can picture audience members saying to their friends as they saunter out of the moviehouse: No, he's too lazy! No, she's too controlling! But knowing that they like both Vince and Jennifer, it's a tough decision for them. And maybe that's the point.

Thumb's down for the disappointing way the story ends, but thumb's up for showing us the not-so-sweet side of the Break-Up.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

High School Musical

Let me just state the obvious before getting into the review: I'm not the obvious Disney fan, or at least the audience Disney was going for when they put High School Musical out on The Disney Channel in 2006. But there's been so much hoopla about HSM that I just had to see what the roar was all about.

The plot is your basic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. To a musical score. Think Grease 3, only without any hint of sex.

And the kids are a lot younger. I'm not sure how old Travolta was when he played a high schooler in Grease, but he looked a lot older than any kid in HSM, something Disney did right. If the prepubescent female is their audience, they at least give them something to look at, actors closer to their own ages. Zac Efron and Vanessa Anne Hudgens are very watchable, both in looks and talent. And those who surround them are full of talent as well.

Troy and Gabriella meet over winter break when they're both thrust into the spotlight in a ski lodge party, told to sing a duet. They do so magically, but figure they'll never see each other again. But they do when Gabriella's family moves to New Mexico, and she starts attending the same school as Troy. Both feel rather typecast, he as the basketball hero who can do nothing else, and she as the science wiz. Both are anxious to break that image but have to battle everyone in the school to do it.

As you would expect in a musical, this one has plenty of musical numbers, a lot of dancing, and some really colorful, almost day-glo, sets. Your attention never wavers because it's constantly fun to watch.

It's enchanting to see a Latina character portrayed as the talented and smart student. Not a lot is made of her backstory, and not a lot of attention paid to the fact that she's Hispanic, and maybe that's the way it should be. And there's a diversity of faces in the background, most of whom have a few seconds of camera time and dialogue. The idea that each is trying to break free of a stereotype is an important one for this audience, and it's great to see that even the "fat girl" has her moment. (There only seems to be one overweight girl in the school, however. One step at a time, I guess...)

It's easy to see why Zac Ephron is already a star at the age of 20 (18 when he made HSM). He has one of the most photogenic faces on the screen in the last 20 years. I just found myself wishing he'd cut his hair just a bit, but I guess that's my problem.

It's easy to get hung up in talking about the actors and the characters. But the truth is, the movie succeeds also because of the zippy pacing and the bouncy, singable tunes. The songs aren't perhaps on the same level as found in other Disney movies (e.g., Lion King), but they worked well enough to move the plot along, snap your fingers to, and, as often as they were repeated, I'm sure that every 12-year-old girl in this country knows the entire soundtrack by now. The usual fabulous Disney arrangements made more out of these songs than they probably looked on the songsheet.

Disney has found a favorable formula, one likely to be repeated.

High School Musical isn't too deep, but it's fun entertainment, and the production made stars of its talented participants. Thumb's up.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

In Cate Blanchett's 1998 Elizabeth, the poignant film established a young woman trying to stay alive while wondering what lay in the future for her monarchy. Elizabeth: The Golden Age is the murky successor to that film.

Much of the problem with The Golden Age is that it can't decide what story it wants to tell, and so flits between politics, Elizabeth's singleness, and her friendship with Raleigh. Oh, and also her dealings with Mary, Queen of Scots. And the war with Spain, fought in the English Channel.

There is much to admire here. There are several stirring scenes in this film, ones that sharply illuminate Elizabeth. For instance, this passage of dialogue between Elizabeth and her cabinet:

Queen Elizabeth: "How many Catholics are there in England, sir?"
Cabinet Minister #1: "Immense numbers, Majesty."
Cabinet Minister #2: "Half the nation cling to the old superstitions."
Queen Elizabeth: "What would you have me do? Hang half the people in England, or just imprison them?"

When the dialogue explains more about Elizabeth's inner struggle, it sings. However, much too often, the dialogue would sink into sound bites. However, I must admit, they're the type of sound bites we enjoy so much from our favorite queen, arguably the most powerful woman to have ever lived.

Queen Elizabeth: "By God, England will not fail while I am Queen!"

The camera angles drove me crazy. First the fog, the out-of-focus blur, then slowly into focus on a face. Over and over. Weird camera angles. Those stylistic changes were jarring.

Much of the time in the film is spent with the lead characters, Elizabeth and Raleigh, standing still in a pose in fantastic garments, being used almost as a model as the camera moves in closer to adore them all the more. It's just as well -- I have no idea how Cate Blanchett was going to move in those stiff costumes.

And then there's the bending of history. Do you really mean to tell me that Elizabeth stood on a hillside near Dover, dressed only in her nightgown? I mean, maybe she did, but never without the wig!

Speaking of wigs, the number of wigs used in this movie probably numbered more than in Dreamgirls. And we're just talking about Elizabeth. In my own opinion, however, the wigs in The Golden Age are the ugliest wigs I've ever seen.

It's opulent, it's grand, it's epic. But the pacing is slow, the story is all over the place, there's continual warping of time and events, and you think you're watching through a kaleidoscope. Oh, and by the way - Sir Walter Raleigh won the battle against the Spanish Armada. Francis Drake was a mere sidekick.

Watch for Cate. Watch Geoffrey Rush's Walsingham. Enjoy the costumes and gorgeous sets. But don't take this film as history.

Thumb's up, but only marginally.

Diamonds and Guns

My friend, George, keeps telling me I need to see more independent films. Well, if they're anything like Diamonds and Guns, I'd rather slit my cinematic wrists.

Diamonds and Guns follows best friends Ashley and Bria as they set off to Las Vegas to change their luck, caused mostly by ineptitude and a habit of picking the wrong men. In a comedy of errors, they find themselves involved with the mob, chased by a hitman, and falling in love, again with the unlikeliest guys.

Ah, if only what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas. But, unfortunately, it ended up on DVD after two years of trying to get financing to finish the darn thing. Renee O'Connor, she of Xena fortune, got involved in production to help it along.

The biggest problem, other than the fact that the film looks rather cheaply made, is that the writing is lackluster and there's no plot here. We're not really sure why the girls go to Vegas. The playout of what does pass for a plot is visually boring. Well, except for the part where Renee's character is throwing up, and that's quite often. Still, even that's not visually arresting. It's'd think there'd be gambling. Nope. Just mob guys who don't seem to have anything to do with gambling. Or prostitution. Or, really, anything. But then again, we must realize this is romantic comedy. It's not DeNiro in Casino.

Good parts, and there are a few. There are some interesting-looking people here even if they don't have much to work with. Renee is very good in a comedy role, but that shouldn't be a surprise to Xena fans. Renee had 6 years to hone her skills in that direction. And there's a neat but too short cameo by Ted Raimi (Joxer in Xena), who is terribly funny in anything he touches.

I admire these folks for getting together to make a movie, a la Judy and Mickey, but on the most shoestring of budgets. Still, at an hour and 11 minutes, it's 'way too long. About one hour too long.

Place your bets that Diamonds and Guns doesn't make it into major distribution. Xena fans, however, are giving it 18 stars and buying it off Renee's personal website. Their loyalty is famous.

Thumb's down.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises follows the mysterious and seemingly ruthless Nikolai (played by Viggo Mortensen), a driver for one of London's most notorious organized crime families. His stoic existence is interrupted when he crosses paths with Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who's trying to find the family of a recently born but motherless girl.

This movie is about murder, deceit, double-crossing, retribution, heavy and unrelenting violence. And, rather Hickokian in its approach to family secrets, who is who. Who is this baby girl, and who is her mother? Who is Anna, who reaches out to the baby, and insists, on great peril to her family, on finding out these secrets? And who is Nikolai, who is "just the driver," but who is pulled into the family's unnerving family business.

What I like about this movie is that it rains all the time in London, because it rains all the time in London. It's a dreary place, often, and the violence that takes place on the city streets, and within the Russian mafia, is a perfect place for it. I also like the fact that Nikolai's character is built slowly. You can see why everyone confides in him. He's steady, he's a calming influence, especially when compared to the ever-present Kirill, the son of the family patriarch, always drunk and always lashing out. And we also see little pieces of Nikolai's character in his dealings with Kirill, especially when Nikolai chooses among the sex slaves. It's a telling moment.

We see the action through either Nikolai or Anna, and the movie almost explodes when the two plotlines mesh. But the real voice behind the title is Tatiana, a Russian woman, a girl, who came to America hoping to escape the degradation and poverty of Russia, but finds herself in a parallel universe, this time surrounded by freedom and choice, but without any way for her to reach it. Tatiana is the baby's mother, and her pregnancy was her final death sentence. But as her much-sought-after diary states, she was dead long before that event.

There has been more than a little print about Viggo Mortensen's naked battle with two mafia assailants in a bathhouse. The actor must've realized he had to honestly portray Nikolai's fight in the nude in order to show how vulnerable the character is at this point in the story. It's not there for prurient interest. Although the camera displays all, it doesn't linger. The audience is leaning back as flesh meets sharpened steel, not leaning forward.

Eastern Promises almost seems a natural continuation of director Cronenberg's last film with Viggo, A History of Violence. Eastern Promises is more direct, more visceral, than the intellectual and mysterious History. Its value is nothing less. Promises delivers what it promises, a fascinating view into the life of the Russian mafia, desperation of young girls who have nothing to sell but themselves, and the fact that not everything or everyone is as they seem. Life is complicated in that world. Life is violent.

Thumb's up.

Monday, October 08, 2007


I went with a friend to see Stardust recently. She told me on the way that she did not like violence. She hates Tim Burton, as his movies are prone towards violence. Oh, this isn't Tim Burton, I replied. It's Neil Gaiman, whose graphic novels and movies are prone towards...

And let me just say right here and now: there are many ways to die in this movie. Just ask any prince. Falling. Drowning. Stabbing. Being zapped by a witch. Many ways. Most of them funny.

A young man named Tristan (played winningly by Charlie Cox) tries to win the heart of his rather cold but beautiful girl in the 'hood (played by Sienna Miller) by finding and bringing her a fallen star. The fallen star is actually a girl (played by Claire Danes), and whomever retrieves her has much to win.

The plot sounds simple, but it's actually several threads that, due to excellent writing, come together at the end in a most satisfying way.

The actors are all charming, and the big actors are even moreso. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the bad witch, Lamia, who seeks the star to make her and her evil sisters young again. She plays comedy so well in this movie -- who knew? And she is still stunningly beautiful, which makes it altogether bewitching that she should choose to look so old and ugly in many of the scenes.

You've never seen Robert DeNiro like this! He plays Captain Shakespeare, captain of an airship and its pirates. And he has to maintain a certain ne'er-do-well reputation that is getting harder and harder to achieve.

And all the princes who die come back to life. Well, not life, really, but an in-between zone, looking gray and how they actually died -- sometimes with an ax still in the head -- waiting for the last heir to ascend the throne vacated by that old king, Peter O'Toole. The princes are our chorus, commenting on what's going on. And they are hilarious.

The characters are wonderfuly drawn, truthfully acted, and the film is a wonder to behold.

My friend had a wonderful time. It's a fable, she said to me before the movie started. How much violence could there be? Well, a lot. But even the dead characters in this one have a good time.

Thumb's up.