Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I had to go to the movie just to see what this intriguing title was all about in Woody Allen's latest movie.

Vicky and Cristina are two friends who go on vacation to Barcelona. They couldn’t be more different. Vicky, who is totally prepared to be married, settle down and have kids, and Cristina, who in another life and time would have been a hippy. Vicky and Cristina get different things out of Barcelona, but the one thing they share is Juan Antonio, a Spanish artist.

Juan Antonio kicks things off when he goes up to both of them at a café and offers them an evening of fun and lovemaking in Oviedo. Vicky would rather throw wine in his face than go, while Cristina quickly downs hers so that she can be ready to go. Both women end up going on this adventure.

Juan Antonio is so much the stereotypical Latin lover, at least for the first five minutes, but his ability to listen to each woman and to treat his own situation with humor lifts him above all that. Vicky, played by Rebeccca Hall in a stilting but honest way, and Cristina, played by the not-so-effective Scarlett Johannson, don’t enjoy a similar fate. We figure them out in the cab drive from the airport, and they stay pretty much true to their flavor. Javier Bardem is a wonder to watch as Juan Antonio, and gets even more complex when his ex shows up.

Enter Penelope Cruz as his fiery ex-wife Maria Elena, and just in the nick of time to liven things up for us. A knife incident ended the relationship, but the relationship can never end, and both of them recognize that. Maria Elena is a bit crazy, a bit jealous but still pragmatic, and recognizes that while she can’t have her Juan Antonio, other women will. Still, Maria Elena sizes up Cristina to make sure she’s worthy, and ends up in a brief ménage a trios with Juan Antonio and Cristina just to make sure. It’s a brief encounter, much to our disappointment.

In the end, I don’t know what you have. Vicky, whose brief affair with Juan Antonio shook her out of her staid life a little too much. Cristina, whose shallowness doesn’t seem altered at all. And Juan Antonio, who does what he does. It’s still interesting to watch and with Spain in the background a rather pretty picture.

So, two-thirds of the title isn’t the intriguing part of the movie, but Barcelona, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena are. And that makes it worth seeing.

Thumb’s up.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Speed Racer

My roommate on the base used to come off her night shift at 7 o’clock in the morning, walk in briskly to the shared lounge, turn on the T.V. while simultaneously tossing her jacket to any nearby couch, plop down and start watching Speed Racer cartoons. Every single morning.

I never watched them with her, never understood the allure, because I had to get to my day job. But I did find myself wondering why Speed Racer looked more Caucasian and less Japanese, and why he wore that “M” on his helmet when his initials were “SR?”

The character was originally known as Mach GoGoGo, and the English adaptation was “Speed Racer” and his image Anglicized for western audiences. As Wikipedia tells us, “The series is an early example of an anime becoming a successful franchise in the United States.”

The movie is a day-glo telling of a story where business tries to take over the sport of racing. The sets, especially the racetracks, are gorgeously painted, and the constant motion of subjects within the frame gives the movie movement where the plot does not. So, what you have in Speed Racer is style over substance. And while the style is cool, it doesn’t sustain interest without a good story.

There are some good lines by the villain, Roger Allam, an English actor I’ve never seen before. “That’s what racing is about. It has nothing to do with cars or drivers. All that matters is power. And the unassailable might of money.” This little speech told to Speed in the corporate bosom reminds one of Gordon Gekko from "Wall Street," where greed is good and you’d better get out of the way. We are very intimidated.

Perhaps in order to make up for the lack of story, there are a lot of colorful (literally) characters thrown at you, usually in stupid subplots that don’t go anywhere, and cool stunt cars that defy the borders of reality and animation. They’re all beautifully created red herrings, and don’t add to the story at all.

I expected more from a cast that boasts Emile Hirsch (right after a stunning portrayal in “Into the Wild”), Susan Sarandon, Cristina Ricci. Ricci, I fear, is watching her career go down the animated drain in this one. And the Wachowski Brothers…my God. They’ve done nothing worthy of the fanboy’s attention since The Matrix.

I don’t know where my friend from the Navy base is right now, but I can imagine she’s shaking her head at Speed Racer, mumbling something about, “Boy, it sure isn’t the same.”

Thumb’s down.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass (2007) has a real epic feel to it, from the golden look of its lavish sets to the range of its story. If there's a problem at all, it's that it leaves you short of a satisfying conclusion at the end.

Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan girl who lives in an alternate world that is similar to ours, but where people's souls exist outside their bodies in the shape of animals (daemons). The people are ruled by an oppressive council known as the Magisterium, and the mysterious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) appears to be working for them. The Magisterium and Mrs. Coulter are adamant that Lyra and her uncle, Asriel (Daniel Craig) find out nothing about Dust, which exists in our universe but not in theirs.

Oh, my. My fingers are hurting already from typing that, and I'm not nearly finished with the story. Simply put, it's good vs. evil. But, as you can see, the story isn't simple at all, but includes races you've never heard of, and when you're introduced to them, you wonder if they're on the good side or the bad side. Mostly those questions are answered quickly enough, and you can go back to enjoying the story, at least for another minute or two when we meet someone else.

The whole story, and our comfort with it, rests on the very capable young shoulders of Dakota Blue Richards, who is stunning in this role of a feisty young girl who can definitely recognize good and evil. Nicole Kidman is also a very formidable foe. Those gorgeous gowns she wears from time to time are really something. She's no dowdy enemy, that's for sure.

The effects are just stupendous in this film, and add much to the storytelling instead of the usual fx taking away from it. The daemons accompanying each of their humans, as you can imagine, were no small feat to create, but the most stunning effect is the armored bears. Our favorite is voiced ferociously by Sir Ian McKellen, and his name is Iorek Byrnison, and he's urged by young Lyra to join her cause. There were several effects, over and over, which took my breath away.

The abrupt end, I guess, is a good clue that we have part 2 coming at us sometime in the not-so-near future. I, for one, will want to continue the story. It's a compelling story told by an excellent cast.

Thumb's up.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

We have a marvelous cast -- Amy Adams and Frances McDormand as well as Lee Pace (from the new T.V. show "Pushing Daisies") -- in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and gorgeous 1930's sets of lavish apartments and nightclubs. Plus the promise of nostalgic music. But the thinnest of story lines. And that's why, unfortunately, I have to pass on Miss Pettigrew.

We find out soon enough that Miss Pettigrew is a nanny who has been tossed out of the best homes in London, mostly due to a moralistic disagreement with one employer, then another. But soon she's facing homelessness. She steals an introduction to a woman who has called for a social secretary, and blunders into a scene that is totally out of control, namely, Amy Adams' character, Delysia, who has three beaus. Arriving at the same time. So, Miss Pettigrew, despite herself, goes into doing what only she can do, and saves the day. In the meantime, she has decided who is right for Delysia after all, and even seems to have picked out a beau for herself. All in the space of one day.

Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous costumes, furniture, Amy Adams and all the other young lovelies decorating the sets. But gorgeous does not a film make. And when I finally think I'm going to hear Amy Adams sing, they trot out that old chestnut, "If I Didn't Care," and she does a wonderful job with it, but it's just not enough, I said, stamping my foot.

If sheer personality could will this film into shape, you'd think we had something. But no. Lee Pace is charming. Amy is everso. Frances McDormand is, well, she's great, but it's just not enough -- if Miss Pettigrew were wearing this storyline, she'd freeze from the cold.

Thumb's down.

Monday, September 01, 2008


After I read Beat the Dealer, a very popular book that gave a system for playing blackjack, in the 1970's, I tried several counting systems in Las Vegas. The favorite was counting 10's, with the theory that the higher the ratio of 10's left in the deck, the more you should bet and the more you should win. It's thought that casinos went to 6-deck shoes to counter this system, although I believe they went to the shoe to speed up play and, thus, players' losses.

I found it hard to keep up the count, though, very hard. And even when I could, I wasn't winning. I then went to counting fives, which seemed easier especially with 6 decks, but that didn't really seem to work either. I then went back to where I am today when I play blackjack: try to play smart, lessening the odds.

So, you can imagine my interest in a movie like 21, based on a magazine article which followed publication of the book recounting the escapades of the 6 MIT students who "beat the bank" for five years. 21, however, is a fictional account of that story. Characters have been changed totally. For instance, the main character in the movie is not Asian. A love story has been forced into the story. The idea that gambling could pay for this student's med school tuition was added. Also inserted into the story was retribution by the casinos, far worse than what actually happened.

Ben is a very smart undergraduate student at MIT who has nerdy buddies, none of which can pay for a beer, let alone a car or grad school tuition. Ben has just been accepted into medical school, but obviously can't pay for it. His math prof, played by scene-stealer Kevin Spacey, invites him to join a group he's put together to play blackjack under his team system. The blonde he's been eyeing, played by Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns), presses the issue, and Ben seems to join, not for the money, but for her.

Their time in Las Vegas is fascinating. The director employs all of his tricks, like slowing down the cards, neon flashing, the lights of the Strip, everything except money floating in mid-air. And he even employs that shot later. What's intriguing to me is that this is a team system, and they live and die by the team. The spotters spread out, play at a table, continue to count cards until the deck is exactly right, and then use signals to entice the big players of the team to come over and then tell them what the count is. There is no ego involved, and presumably there's no fun for the player who is counting continually. And there's the weakness of the system.

Spacey is perfect for this role. He's a producer as well, having bought the original property and nursed it into a film, but as the professor who's looking to pad his pockets, he's wonderful: a father figure at some moments, but fiercely punitive if someone steps out of line. Newcomer Sturgess caught American eyes in Across the Universe, and does a wonderful job as the new guy, or, basically, the viewer as if we were brought into this group. Kate Bosworth is adequate, although her story isn't revealed enough. And I wish someone would lay off the eyeliner when they dress her up.

I also wish they hadn't changed the facts of the original true story. I mean, THAT's a fascinating story, and nobody had any money stolen from them or were beaten within an inch of their lives. However, I think as entertainment value this movie works rather well, all the pieces fit together to entice you into the game, make you play it, with a few surprises along the way.

Thumb's up.

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