Friday, June 27, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl

This film was a real bodice-ripper. It was also a real history-page-ripper.

Oh, God. I can't even pretend to suspend disbelief here. Bad history. Bad acting. Bad dialogue. Nice costumes.

You'd think with Eric Bana, Scarlett Johansson, and Natalie Portman, you'd get something a little edgier. I'm so sorry. They all called it in on some 16th-century version of a cell phone.

There's nothing really wrong with the film, at least on the surface. The pacing is a bit slow but not ponderous. I suppose we should be caught up in the court intrigue, as the Boleyn men try to set up one daughter, and then the other, with the king known for his voracious appetites. But we're not. The set is wonderfully constructed, but in murky browns there's nothing here to hold the eye. Perhaps the most beautiful thing in the movie is Natalie Portman's outfits, or Johansson's hair. But it's not enough.

Bana is a king who's a brooder, who has a temper, but he doesn't look like the red-haired king, and doesn't have the extra weight one presumed Henry carried around. He was more convincing in the Hulk, and much more colorful.

This was supposed to be the duelling sisters, and I guess it is that. But there's no caring for either one of them when the whole thing is through, history or not.

Do yourself a favor and pass this one up.

Thumb's down.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Visitor

We find out almost immediately who this man is: he's a college professor who professes no love or even like for his students; he's a man who plods slowly towards his next class, the same class he's been giving for over 20 years now; he moves less toward anything and more away. To be honest, if he even made an effort to be good at his craft, or interesting in the eyes of his colleagues or students, he'd be irritating. He's not even that.

Against his will, Professor Walter Vale travels to New York for a conference, goes to the apartment he used to share with his wife, and discovers two people living there. He lets them stay for a few days once he finds out that they have no place to go, and finds that he likes them. Their circumstances reveal themselves, he steps in to act, and thus begins his metamorphosis.

As you can guess from the opening, it's a slow-moving film, almost languorous, but effectively so. The action takes place slowly, so slowly that we are convinced of it, for we know that Walt never does anything quickly. He never just reacts. But when his young friends find themselves in difficulty, events which bring about a surprise visit from the young man's mother, he almost can't control what comes tumbling out.

I have to say that this film represented my metamorphosis as well. I was not prepared to care so much for the young couple, and especially for Walt, especially upon seeing how cruelly he reacts to his students. And yet I enjoyed watching Walt fight off his inhumanity and start a series of actions that will inexorably change him.

The acting is wonderful, from the oft-recognized Richard Jenkins to new actors Haaz Sleiman as energetic and youthful Tarek, and Danai Jekesai Gurira as the deep-feeling young woman Zainab. And Hiam Abbass as the mother is spell-binding, really easy to watch and surprising in her every move.

Who is the visitor? He is, visiting his own life, visiting others, visiting new friends in an immigration center hidden deep within Queens.

I found the film delightful, opening slowly to reveal itself as a budding flower.

Thumb's up.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

He doesn't look like a fighter. He's overweight, he moves rather effortfully and slowly, and his priority is always food. He's a white-and-black, furry Jack Black. And that's the best thing about this Panda who's set to be the next Kung Fu master.

Most of the publicity for this movie is set around all the actors voicing the characters in this movie, people like Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu. However, you rarely hear most of these actors -- when you do see the characters, most of whom comprise the Furious Five -- tigress (Jolie), crane (David Cross), mantis (Seth Rogen), viper (Liu), and monkey (Chan) -- they're involved in fighting rather than conversing. You do hear a lot from Hoffman, but he's a guru who's ineffectual, especially faced with a project like Po the Panda.

Po works all day in his father's noodle shop but dreams of being a kung fu fighter. When he is unexpectedly chosen by the ancient master to defeat villain Tai Lung (voiced menacingly by Ian McShane), he hopes to learn everything kung fu from Master Shifu (Hoffman).

This is a comedy with lessons of family, loyalty and camarderie.... and esprit de corps where you "never give up." Or at least it seeks to be. I doubt if any kid got any of those lessons from this film. They were all busy in the theatre I attended throwing popcorn until the fight scenes came up, all too infrequently for their taste.

The story is too trite and there's nothing really new here. Well, except for the animation, which is brilliant, and the fight scenes, which are choreographed much like the Hong Kong kung fu movies I used to watch in the '60's, complete with slow-motion scene captures as the foot (or hoof or claw, in this instance) hit the jaw with exploding action.

The art is incredibly done in Kung Fu Panda. The initial dream sequence where our panda is the hero is wonderfully drawn with explosions of color. I just wish the story was up to the art direction.

This movie failed to impress. I would even say Kung Phooey to this kung fu.

Thumb's down.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Get Smart

Would you believe.... I liked it?

I was all set to hate it. Like many a proto-lesbian in the 1960's, I watched "Get Smart" in order to watch Barbara Feldon's Agent 99, she of the wry punchline and the legs that went on forever. She one-upped Diana Rigg's Mrs. Peel by being beautiful, mysterious, clever, wicked in a fight -- and funny.

Anne Hathaway is sweet, I thought, but could she stand up to the legend? She did, by wisely leaving the legend alone. She was not an imitation 99: instead of cleaning up after Smart with a wisecrack, she announced with the entitlement of a capable millenial woman that she wasn't going to be partnered with an incompetent rookie. (She was, anyway, which only goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same.)

Steve Carell, alas, is no Maxwell Smart, but the fault lies mostly with the writing. The joke on TV was that the man named Smart was an idiot, working for a poorly controlled organization named CONTROL. This Smart is, indeed, super-smart, a nerdy guy who loses 100 lbs because his dream is to be a field agent. So we, the hapless viewers, never know whether Smart is going to be smart in this scene, or stupid -- we're not in on the joke. Bad move. The fun on the TV show was that we were in on the joke, that Smart was the joke. Oh, well.

Still, I laughed out loud more than once, and so did Catattack (whether she will admit it or not.) I was pleased to see a film use the magnificent Disney Music Hall as a setting, although they didn't exploit the interesting possibilities in the building. There are no right angles, many reflective surfaces, and it is utterly disorienting to walk or sit in the place. There is a chase scene yet to be made, somewhere in the fun house.

Thumb's up, mostly as summertime dumb fun.

Get Smart

"Get Smart" seems an odd title for a movie that's not about a dumb guy. Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart is an accomplished analyst who wants desperately to become an agent, so desperate, in fact, that he lost over a hundred pounds to get himself in shape.

Get Smart, of course, is based on the highly successful and popular '60's sitcom starring Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. Adams' Smart was not terribly, and Feldon's 99 filled in the blanks for him. The problem with the 2008 version is not only that Smart's smart, but that -- worse -- he's not funny.

But most people around him are. I really enjoyed Dwayne (Rock) Johnson's caricature of a super-agent. And Alan Arkin as the Chief, a feisty old guy who's not acting so old. There are little bits that are terribly funny -- Max's dance with a large woman, for instance. But these little bits don't make for a whole movie. And what little bits that are funny, like Johnson's agent, aren't played out long enough. There's no real sense of timing, comic rhythm.

I must admit that I dreaded seeing the movie because 99 wouldn't be, well, 99. Barbara Feldon was so wonderful as the agent-without-a-name, the foil to Maxwell Smart, and I knew that I'd miss her. The good thing here is that 99 is a completely different character, a woman who's taken a backseat to men before, but who is skilled in her own right, and doesn't want to drag along a newbie who is constantly getting her into more difficulty. Anne Hathaway is her own woman, not Maxwell Smart's woman, and is a lot of fun to watch in the new version.

So, what do we have? We have an action movie that doesn't succeed as an action movie. We have a comedy that's not terribly funny. We have a leading man who is trying to be more a leading man, less a foil to others, and is just plain not funny. We have funny little bits and pieces interspersed among longer, boring scenes.

We have a movie that just doesn't work. Thumb's down.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Into the Wild

Into the Wind is Sean Penn’s vision of the true story of Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch), a man who, right after graduating from college, gives all the money he has to charity, leaves his middle class life, and heads out for Alaska. He spends 20 months traveling through America, and eventually ends up getting to what constitutes his Walden. The story is very much about the relationships he forms along the way, as well as his physical struggle to survive.

It’s both beautifully and starkly filmed. Penn seems to want to paint McCandless as a newly-born hippie who’s discovering himself in the grandeur of nature, and he carries us along into the gorgeous but treacherous Alaskan wilderness.

The question we ask, we will always ask, is: why would anyone do this? Why would a young American give up a bright future for a homeless life? More to the point, the question is, who is this young man? And that’s the goal of the film: to answer this question. Penn almost pulls it off.

We go in and out of the timeline, as we start off in Alaska, the end of his almost two-year journey, and then flash back often to scenes south of there, as McCandless treks across the U.S. Along the way, he meets people for whom he depends upon sustenance – remember, he has no money – or a job, or a kind word. These people are drawn in reality, and the casting is quite remarkable as we see Vince Vaughn as a combine operator, Hal Holbrook as a lonely old man who gives McCandless a hand, and several others who really inhabit their roles. Some inhabit their roles because they’re real people, like Alaskan Jim Gallien, whom we see in an early scene when he gives the boy some boots to protect his feet.

The parents don’t come off as well. This story seems more about what this young man is running from rather than to. When asked about “oppressive” forces in nature, he says, with disdain, “parents.” Marcia Gay Harden seems a little to caricaturish in her portrayal as his mother, but William Hurt is starkly true. His eyebrows tell the entire story in a restaurant after graduation when some young revelers walk in.

So who is this young man? He’s someone who thinks he can survive even though life hasn’t given him any training. He doesn’t really seek risk as much as stumble upon it, and we watch, grimacing, as he makes one stupid mistake after another: abandoning his wool cap on a tree, shooting a moose with a .22 rifle, unable to preserve the meat long enough to eat it, ignoring the local sheriff's advice and taking his kayak onto a raging river.

He’s stupid, ignorant, unprepared, and proud of it. It’s hard to have respect for a man who blunders into situations repeatedly for which he has no way to cope. And yet, director/screenwriter Penn asks us to feel for this man, over and over, as the camera and dialogue set him up almost as a Jesus figure, and certainly as a newfound hippie seeking answers in the unspoiled wilderness.

But I was constantly reminded that this is a man who accepts no responsibility in life. In truth, I didn’t feel any sympathy at all for McCandless and his life of blunders. I feel sorry for those people who aided him, gave him a job even when he was unskilled, government workers who bent the rules a little bit to help him out, those who gave him food and shelter when they had little to spare. And he paid each of them back by leaving them. The most heart-wrenching of these moments takes place when the old man (played wonderfully by best actor nominee Hal Holbrook) gives him his heart only to have it handed back to him abruptly. People keep knocking at his emotional door, but there's nobody home.

They say the most selfish of humans is one who commits suicide. Add to that list a young man who seeks his dream of living in the wild but who sucks the life out of those around him so that he can achieve that dream.

The story is riveting. The fact that it’s true make it even moreso. The cinematography is breaktaking. The narration switches between McCandless and his sister, a brilliant device for bringing us into the story, and underlining the tragedy that is about to happen. While I question the motives of a young man who goes “into the wild,” the movie and the character's choices certainly make for interesting discussion.

Thumb’s up.

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Monday, June 16, 2008


I go out of my way to watch most Diane Lane films, at least since she reached the age of 40. No more Cotton Club for her. Most of the dramas or romantic comedies she's in are raised to a decent level by her performances. Very true in this case as well.

Lane plays a beautiful (but not afraid to show her age) FBI detective who specializes in cyberspace crimes. She and her crew try to track down a serial killer who kills his victims slowly but surely on the internet, and the more people who log onto the website and watch, the faster they die.

There is gruesome detail in the killing. These scenes are not for the faint-of-heart. However, there's a certain panache in how it's done, very cleverly, as the killer utilizes his computer and mechanical skills in enticing watchers.

This kind of filmic approach brings up the question: would people watch? Oh, hell, yes. I hate the sound of that, the finality. The internet has changed everything, and not just for the good.

Diane Lane is steely, determined, computer-smart in this well-written drama. The movie is tagged as a Silence of the Lambs for the internet, but I think a comparison to Seven is closer. It's not as well done, not as well written, and a bit too formulaic to be ground-breaking in this arena, but it's still damn good.

If it weren't for the ending, which I could see from a cinematic mile away, the movie would have been even better. But we knew there would be a showdown, didn't we? How our detective didn't see that one coming.... well, blame the screenwriter.

Good acting by Lane and Billy Burke, the other detective assigned to the case, as well as Colin Hanks who plays her computer assistant, really lift this drama and give it its emotional base. This one's a real thriller.

Thumb's up.

Friday, June 13, 2008


Believe it or not, I am not in the habit of reviewing one good film, then one rotten one. It just seems that way.

And I must admit I expected this one to be in the "lousy" category. In truth, I found it to have moments of brilliance scattered among the lousy. The movie has a real energy about it, sometimes approaching frenetic. There are also a few, maybe a lot of, moments of the illogical thrown in.

David discovers he's a jumper during an accident where he falls into the ice in his hometown. Faced with an oppressive home environment -- a mother who left when he was 5 and a father who thinks with his backhand -- he leaves home. We cut to David 10 years later to discover a man who watches people suffering on television but does nothing to help them with his gift. He has honed his skill so that he can jump in and out of vaults, stealing the money (but leaving hand-written IOU's), and entertaining himself by "flying" off to London to romance a British girl in a bar, hanging out on top of the Sphinx to eat his lunch, any number of unimaginative ways of spending his time. Alone.

However, along the way, he remeets the girl who thought he was dead when she saw him go under the ice. He also meets a group of people, headed by actor Samuel L. Jackson, who are determined to kill the jumpers.

One wonders why Hayden Christiansen would go for a sci fi romp after playing in the Daddy of sci fi romps, but he acquits himself well here, acting stupid and occasionally wise when he learns things about himself during the drama.

I have a lot of problems with this movie. Regardless of the fine cinematography and the beautiful landscapes, it's not fun watching a soulless human being walk (or jump) around, thinking the only way to live is to do it hedonistically, not caring for anyone. There is some enlightenment, but not a hell of a lot. It's hard to care for someone like that. Only through Hayden's character's interaction with the people around him, people for whom he begins to care, do we feel for him emotionally.

In addition, some of the characters don't quite act with full conviction (or sense). The Samuel Jackson character, for instance, is a stick figure. The storyline seems needlessly complicated, especially toward the end.

The ending, while it doesn't explain everything, is a bit more satisfying than the latest M. Night Shyamalan film. All in all, it's a good action story, beautifully bookended by views of the world, with a sci fi shading. You just have to be willing to jump to conclusions now and then.

Thumb's up, minimally.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


It is said that Michael Caine was terrified that Laurence Olivier would upstage him in the 1972 version of Sleuth. Some 35 years later Caine starred in the second Sleuth, and, we presume, had no such worries.

In case you missed either, here's the synopsis: Andrew Wyke, an aging but prolific and famous author invites Milo Tindle, the struggling actor who cuckolded him, to his mansion for a little cat-and-mouse game. Things turn ugly when nothing and no one is as they seem.

It was terribly shocking when Laurence Olivier says to the young Michael Caine, "You're fucking my wife." It's not as shocking so many years later when an older Caine, reversing roles, utters that line to Jude Law's Milo. After all, that was the great Olivier, playing opposite Alfie, whose swearing is not so traumatic to us. And so the screenplay seems a bit dated. Still, the whole thing is about the two men, even the two actors. There seems to be a third character in the play: the house. It's teched up here, as only a house in the new millennium could be. And perhaps there's even a third: director Kenneth Branagh. His tricky camera angles were distracting at first, but even so, achieved the backstory of explaining the motion detector system before any dialogue has been exchanged. Unfortunately, Branagh still spends an inordinate amount of time letting Wyke wield a home security remote control. It's a bit boring, but it's still a necessary set up.

I remembered the first half of the original as I was watching this film. I was surprised how easily it all came back even though there are new faces to watch. The second half, however, was as surprising as ever, and as shocking.

Even if you remember the whole screenplay, watch Caine and Law. Law, who with Branagh, produced the film, may have been shaking in his boots at the thought of re-creating this award-winning play, but he doesn't show it. He's equal to the task. Just watching the two of them is worth the set-up time and, certainly, the pay off.

Thumb's up.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem

In looking up Aliens vs. Predator Requiem in IMDB, I saw that the film was nominated for two awards: Best Fight, and Worst Excuse for a Horror Film. I vote for the latter.

The first five minutes claim more lives than the early Rambo films. The film is either too dark, where you can’t tell what the hell is going on, or too bright, where you can tell too much what’s going on. If I get to vote again, I’d go for the former.

This movie is in love with the severed arm and all kinds of gory effects. The usually charming aspect of Alien life, that of the young Alien bursting through the chest, having nurtured itself on whatever creature the facehugger planted a seed, is totally characterized, almost animated. Rough translation: really cheesy effects.

AVP followers are really into the alien vs. predator thing, which is almost its own franchise. I've certainly been fascinated ever since Ellen Ripley and Jones fought off the alien in that last scene. And, in a parallel universe, ever since Arnold Schwarzenegger's soldier battled the original Predator. The alien is perhaps the most complete biological organism ever constructed, at least by imagination. And the predator is the coolest hunter ever: invisibility with dreadlocks. Wow.

It’s almost an interesting story. A small Colorado town is the site of a Predator spaceship gone down, its pilot a victim to an Alien attack. Before another Predator from the home world can get there, lots of little Aliens have escaped. Oh – and one other really crazy addition to the story: the Alien taking over the Predator pilot has produced a hybrid alien. Which is capable of…well…I can’t imagine anything more formidable than an alien who bleeds acid, so this new hybrid doesn’t offer much more. There’s nothing new here.

And that pretty much sums up the picture. AVPR is DOA in this one, and this film is probably the requiem for the whole AvP series.

Thumb’s down.