Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bedtime Stories

Bedtime Stories, the new movie driven by Adam Sandler's presence, is pretty much a disaster.

The story is that Adam Sandler's character, Skeeter, who is a maintenance man with the local hotel, is asked to babysit his sister's (Courtney Cox) kids, kids he hasn't seen much of in 4 years. To entertain them, he tells them fantastical stories at bedtime, stories that seem to come true the next day. He tries to figure out a way to get this phenomenon to win him a job as the hotel manager in the face of heavy competition (Guy Pearce). In the meantime, he gets the girl (Keri Russell).

My first problem with the film is that Skeeter is a jerk. He slams the door in the face of Keri Russell's character (twice!), and then we're expected to believe he's winning her over. He wants to be hotel manager, but doesn't show any inkling that he knows anything about hotel management. We have to like Skeeter to believe that the kids would like him, and that Russell would fall for him.

My second problem is that, while I definitely enjoyed the fantasy parts of the program, they don't run long enough to really wring the enjoyment out of them. Or maybe it was that the return to reality is so flat. This script should've been so much livelier, so much funnier, but as it was, every punchline landed like a lead balloon.

There are some fun parts. Rob Schneider gets his usual cameo in a rather offensive bit, and I just laugh when I see him onscreen; he mugs so well. Lucy Lawless is the anal hotel clerk who has the hots for Guy Pearce.

But what a waste of talent for this stellar cast, whom all deserve better -- for Courtney Cox, Lucy Lawless, Guy Pearce, Keri Russell, and even Adam Sandler. I loved Sandler's "50 First Dates," but it had a wonderful premise with a different twist, and a script that step-by-step brought it all together. I keep hoping Sandler's films will do as well, and, so far, they're a big disappointment in the last few years.

Thumb's down.

Seraphim Falls

The western is back. There may not be a lot of choice out there, but Seraphim Falls makes an argument to bring the genre back into our consciousness.

We first see Gideon when he's camping in the snowy mountains. Suddenly a shot rings out, and he's wounded in the arm. He starts to run.

The entire movie is his attempted escape from his killers, four men led by the dour Carver, and we don't know why one man is hunting the other until the end.

The most fascinating part of this movie is how Gideon survives. We see him build dozens of fires, in several different ways, which is a mean feat if your hands are shaking from the cold and you're trying to whack the bullet into discharging into the gunpowder. How he hides, how he escapes countless times, and who he meets along the way -- some treacherous, some helpful -- are compelling.

This movie is truly a tour-de-force for actors Pierce Brosnan (Gideon) and Liam Neeson (Carver). If you're a fan of Brosnan, you have to see this movie. If you're a Neeson fan, you should.

But if you're not a fan of either, and find the western an outdated mode of storytelling, you may be bored by the fact that it's a long drawn-out chase. I think the end, and actually the struggle, is worth it. And you also have that gorgeously filmed snowy countryside, and a nifty cameo by Anjelica Houston.

Thumb's up.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Planet Terror

Planet Terror is writer/director Robert Rodriguez' paean to the old horror films of the early '60's, you know, the bad badass and cheap Universal-International films.

Planet Terror displays things you've always wanted to see in a horror film. You know, like beautiful women being dismembered. Zombies being killed over and over with their guts hanging out. One bullet producing a gallon of blood when it hits its fleshy target.

Yeah, I can tell you: these are the things I've always yearned for.

The movie is too bloody even for my taste, even though a lot of it is comically done and dramatically overdone. Ick.

There is a script here, but it never really mattered and everybody knows it. There are some notables here, including Michael Biehn as the dumbfounded sheriff, and Josh Brolin as a doctor who encounters boils on all of his patients. Biehn is getting a little too old for this stuff, but Brolin's appearance is perfectly understandable. After all, he's in every movie in 2008.

There are some really neat things here, like a grainy picture, and "prevues" that feature the movie "Machete," a mock trailer for a film that will never exist. Plus some eye-popping special effects to show you those "things" you'd always wanted to see in a horror movie. And there is an often understated and then sometimes blatant and silly sense of humor about the whole thing. But unless your taste runs to bloody and bitter BBQ, skip this one.

Thumb's down.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008


"All Mongols do is kill and steal." These words are uttered near the end of the film Mongol by our hero's wife, Borte, played by Khulan Chuluun. By that point, all the moviegoer can do is gasp, "No kidding."

This is a movie about people who "don't kill children" -- but who will enslave and torture the offspring of dead enemies until they grow up so that then they can kill them. If you are looking for a romantic trip to empires past, this is not the film for you.

Some of us, though, might find it refreshing to see a film that portrays the childhood of Genghis Kahn as it may well have been: grubby, violent, and painful amidst the magnificent landscape of Mongolia. The plot would be improbable were it not for the fact that it is based in the legends about Temudjin, later known as Genghis Khan: that he was the son of a minor chieftan whose father was poisoned not long after he arranged for the marriage of his son. Many misadventures follow, which you will have to see for yourself, but suffice it to say that what little moral this film has to offer is summed up in the words of Temudgin's father: "choose carefully" when it comes to marriage-- or perhaps, pay attention when a good woman chooses you.

"Choice" is the unifying theme of the film: choice and the lack of choice, the contrast between being loved and unloved, free and slave. There is a strong sense throughout the film that indeed, this young man has been chosen for great things: chosen by the god, chosen by a good woman, ultimately chosen by the people of the steppes.

Most refreshing is the sense that we are seeing history as it might have happened. It is in Mongolian, with subtitles. People are not pretty by Western standards (well, maybe except for Borte and the child Temudjin) and the violence is definitely not pretty. People get sick in disgusting ways, they get and stay dirty, and after a while one is grateful that there is no high-tech arrangment for smelling the action.

One is equally grateful, however, that one can see: the cinematography by Rogier Stoffers and Sergei Trofimov is utterly breathtaking. The soundtrack is remarkable in that it retains a distinctly un-Western feel without resorting to cliche: the Finn, Tuomas Kantelinen has made a remarkable accomplishment.

There are gaps in the narrative that may frustrate some: we see Temudjin get into scrapes from which he mysteriously escapes, but that is in keeping with the mythic quality of the story. The film's primary source is the The Secret History of the Mongols, a 13th century Mongolian account of the life of Genghis Khan written shortly after his death. According to an interview with Sergei Bodrov, the filmmaker, his interest in making the film comes from his dislike of stereotypes: the Khan has been generally vilified by historians, whether Soviet, Chinese, or European, and that is not the way he is understood by Mongolians. This is the Mongolian account of his life, and it is certainly fascinating.

Thumb's up for Mongol.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Black Book (Zwartboek)

The Black Book is the best movie of the year.... of 2006. I know I'm a little late in stating that, but surely it's better than Crash (even though Black Book wasn't American-made).

In 1956 In Israel, Rachel unexpectedly meets an old friend at a kibbutz she's working at as a teacher. The chance meeting brings back memories of her escapades in World War II.

A young Jewish girl (Rachel, played by actress Carice van Houten) is hiding from the Nazis in the Netherlands. After her hiding place is blown away, she escapes with a young sailor, and, upon sailing away, end up working for the resistance. Most of the film deals with Rachel's change to alias "Ellis," and her romantic dealings with an SS official from whom she gets information to aid the cause.

This movie is engrossing from the first minute until the last during its lengthy two-and-a-half hours. I only found it because a local movie reviewer was talking about the latest Paul Verhoeven film. Verhoeven directed some of my favorite films, RoboCop and Starship Troopers, very capable with special effects but not willing to sacrifice the story. I heard that The Black Book was a totally different film for him, and a rather personal one.

Van Houten is a miracle to watch, and I predict a huge career for her. The movie allows Van Houten to show off her acting abilities in different facets of the same character. And the film gives us a picture of what Holland-occupied life must've been like back then, and shows us the victims and those who refused to be victims.

This is the kind of rarely encountered film where you don't quite know what to expect next. That person over there may not be who or what they seem, and you can't automatically assume where loyalties lie. The well-written screenplay is like a snail's shell, and you find yourself entering the cavern not knowing how it will twist and turn. Spellbinding it certainly is. And definitely haunting.

Thumb's up.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Wanted is based on a graphic novel about a nebbish who has everything going wrong in his life finding his true calling when his father dies.

He's clumsy. He's ridden constantly by his hellish boss, so much so that he's on anti-anxiety pills. Just when you think you're watching a rerun of Joe Vs. The Volcano, something awesome happens. Young Wesley Gibson is shopping in his local 7-11 when a beautiful woman named Fox, played by Angelina Jolie, starts making eyes at him. Suddenly a man in the store starts shooting, she returns fire while trying to keep him out of bullets' way, and the adventure truly begins.

It turns out that Wesley's father, who left his family when he was 7 days' old, was a member of an organization called The Fraternity. The man hunting him, he is told, is the hitman that betrayed the Fraternity and killed his father just days before. Morgan Freeman's character, Sloan, recruits him into the Fraternity and teaches him that he has all the latent abilities and instincts of a natural assassin.

I found Wanted one of the most inventive action movies of the last decade. It's powerful, fast-paced, and yet everything makes perfect sense in the exposition. James McAvoy portrays perfectly the abused office clerk, and even inserts a bit of humor along the way through sheer reaction to his circumstances. Angelina Jolie doesn't have many lines here, but she's very powerful as his teacher and fellow assasin. I had to struggle with disbelief, however, when her skinny arms hoisted a huge AK-something in the 7-11 store, but, hey, it's a small price to pay for a pure adrenaline rush.

I have never seen special effects combined with action like this. There's one scene early where Jolie's doorless muscle car scoops Wesley up as he's crouching down, hoping to avoid being killed. And that's just the beginning.

Director Timur Bekmambetov has truly risen above his promising but dreary sci-fi Russian dramas. Thumb's up.


We all want the return of the epic movie. Some huge, spectacular film that shows us another land, in perhaps another time, that shows the growth of an era and its characters. Maybe one so long that has to have the intermission that marked truly remarkable films of the 1950's. Unfortunately, Australia isn't that movie.

Oh, it's long enough, clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes. But most of our characters are very thin -- and I'm not talking about Nicole Kidman's physique. And we see just an iota of the gorgeous and varied Australian country.

In northern Australia at the beginning of World War II, an English aristocrat (Lady Sarah Ashley, played by Nicole Kidman) comes to Austalia to find her errant husband, finds him dead, and thereby inherits a cattle station the size of Maryland. When an English cattle baron (King Carney, played by Bryan Brown) plots to take her land, she reluctantly joins forces with the Drover (Hugh Jackman) to drive 2,000 head of cattle across hundreds of miles of the country's most unforgiving land, only to still face the bombing of Darwin, Australia, by the Japanese forces that had attacked Pearl Harbor only months earlier.

The characters are truly hackneyed, from the stick-in-the-mud Lady Ashley to the rough-hewn Drover to the evil Neil Fletcher (played by Lord of the Ring's David Wenham), Carney's henchman. However, the one unique character in the whole bunch is a godsend to the project: Nullah (played by newcomer Brandon Walters) is a half-Aboriginal child who tugs on everybody's hearts, including our own. Nullah confers over many miles with his grandfather, an Aboriginal magic man, and deals with the challenges that confront him with quiet strength gained from this relationship. The little boy is a wonder to watch in spite of all of the action-stopping explanations of outdated and bigoted Australian law.

The sets are incredible, vast and, when the Japanese bomb Darwin, truly eye-popping. But the true drama is in how the characters survive and what they learn, and that's never at question. It's all very predictable, but in a feel-good kind of way.

I was rarely bored, as the film survives on the intensity of the actors' personalities. Kidman is badly lit, looks terribly thin and pasty, and is hard to believe in her part. Jackman is the real star here, and the camera (and apparently director Luhrmann) loves him. Every movement of his seems to be in slow-motion or lovingly lingering. And the guy can truly ride a horse; watching him ride is like watching a ballet of man and horse.

And it's wonderful to see Australian actor Bryan Brown again, having discovered him in Thornbirds and Breaker Morant.

It's not a bad film, but it's not a great, epic film either. It's an interesting story only because it's from the point of view of the Aborigine boy and because of the power of these actors.

If this sounds to you like something you'd enjoy, Thumb's up. If you're still waiting for the next epic film, skip it.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008


It's hard, very hard, to review a film when you're crying all the way through it.

Milk had such an emotional impact on me. And it's hard to explain why. It's not really Milk's personal story that is so personal to me. It's our struggle.

I was in my 20's when Dianne Feinstein's mayoral career began, when she was thrust into the spotlight announcing that Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone had been shot and killed. I was in laid-back San Diego at the time, just trying to get my life together. That part of my life wasn't even a part of getting it together; my gay life was hidden in the shadows. I knew it was there, but I just couldn't pay attention to it at the time. So I really didn't know much about Harvey Milk in his time. It's really Feinstein's name I remember from the press.

This is such an eloquently carved movie, from the exquisite screenplay to the bevy of fine performances. Leading that list, of course, is actor Sean Penn, who just inhabits the role. The way he moves his hands, his arms, the way his body swayed. While I don't know Harvey Milk, I feel this is Harvey Milk. Penn is a revelation.

But it doesn't stop there. James Franco as Milk's lover has put in his finest performance in a career that is still just beginning. Emile Hirsch continues to amaze as young political activist Cleve Jones. Is there any role Josh Brolin can't flesh out for us? While we'd like to know more about Dan White and what drove him, we get enough glimpses to make this performance work. And the list goes on for the entire cast list.

The best part about this screenplay is that it puts us in the life and times of the 1970's, when the Castro was just coming into its own. It shows us the flow of that neighborhood, and we meet the Castro's denizens. The movie makes no apologies that these men are constantly staring at the new boys in town. Indeed, Harvey Milk is staring. Milk is no saint. But he's definitely a hero.

And, contrary to much criticism, it's my opinion that the movie starts at just the right spot, which is when Milk reaches the age of 40 and decides to change. And it's a cinematic thrill to watch that change, watch him develop into the persistent politician he became.

What hit me so hard is that this film shows not just the struggle of the men and women in San Francisco some 30 years ago, but a struggle that's very personal to us that continues to this day. The passing of Proposition 8 in California just one month ago brings the issue back to the forefront. As if we could ever believe it left. Milk's work will be remembered as we walk with his banner.

This is one of the best movies of 2008. This is one of the most important movies of my life.

Thumb's up.

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The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

I've thought about it and thought about it, and I can't quite put my finger on why the new Chronicles of Narnia film, Prince Caspian, doesn't work. I think the real reason is that there is more than one reason.

First of all, there's Prince Caspian. He awakes with a start one morning at the prompting of his teacher to find that he had better escape the castle. A male heir has been born to his uncle, and his uncle wants him to have the throne. As he's escaping through the woods, he meets the Narnians, who, after getting over the shock that they're helping him escape, befriend him and he agrees to help them overcome their enemy, his own species.

In the middle of all of this, the four Pevensie children, after a year of being imprisoned in a boring world -- ours -- are whisked back to Narnia, only to find out that they're a bit late. 1,300 years late. The Narnians are gone. The palace has crumbled. And Aslan, the magnificent lion, is nowhere in sight.

Caspian and the children clash, and nobody seems to be in charge here. And, on top of that, several bad decisions are made, decisions which lead to death of many Narnians. We had met some really cute swashbuckling mice in the forest, and the idea that some of them are suffering is just too hard for a child to take.

In fact, I wouldn't recommend this film at all to children, and only to adults who can appreciate the sets and the kind of special effect that could mold a man to a horse to make a centaur. Otherwise, it's too dark, it's too gruesome, and it's too heartbreaking. The moments in the first film where we marvelled at this new world, we giggled at the silliness of some of it, are gone.

Pass on this Part 2 of the Chronicles of Narnia. Thumb's down.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Cadillac Records

I love it when a movie can take you right into a slice of time and set you down. Milk did that for me, and the movie I saw today, Cadillac Records, did it again. This review is about the latter film.

This movie could've been about Muddy Waters. Or Chuck Berry. Or Etta James. Or, for that matter, Beyonce Knowles, who in her own right is a superstar and executive producer of this film. But to her credit, everybody's credit, it's really about Chess Records and how it brought these incredible musicians together under one recording label.

Leonard Chess (with his brother, Phil Chess) founded the label. The film opens when we meet Chess, the son of a Polish immigrant, who has an ear for blues music. Chess opens up a club that appeals to the African-American community, but finds out when he tries to promote his new find, Muddy Waters, that success takes payola and control. So he opens Chess Records.

We spend a little more time on Muddy Waters than the others, who, along with Chess, acts as the background of the film. Waters came from a Mississippi plantation, and there's a brief but spectacular scene when some men come through wanting to record some "folk music." When Waters hears his voice on the recording he says, "It's like meeting myself for the first time." The look on his face tells us immediately that we're in for an acting treat from actor Jeffrey Wright.

But he's not the only one who keeps us mesmerized. Eamonn Walker as Howling Wolf gives us just a tantalizing taste of the power and maybe the mayhem that accompanies this blues singer. Little Walter, who made "My Babe" a crossover hit, is played by actor Columbus Short. A lot of these singers have their demons, but none more than Walter, who is hell-bent toward destruction in a big way. The movie wisely allows us to spend a little time with Walter, Muddy Waters' best friend until their feeling of "family" couldn't measure up.

And then there's Mos Def as the reincarnation of Chuck Berry. The script shows us the sarcasm, the wit, and the paranoia (often completely justified) that was Berry. Plus his one vice, the one that landed him in prison.

But everything comes to a halt when Etta James comes onto the scene. When she starts to sing, "At Last," I got goosebumps. She's talented. She's also possessed. It would be a breakout role for Beyonce Knowles if she hadn't already done so in Dreamgirls. This role is something, and she's truly something in it.

All of these characters are held together by the calm of Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess.

Cadillac Records is a fascinating story. I don't really care for blues, but it's the background of all the music I grew up with and grew to love. I only discovered Chess Records when Chuck Berry came on the label and made his indelible impression on rock and roll.

Thumb's up.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008


John Hancock is the superhero of your nightmare. He never does anything right, even when he's trying to. He creates more damage than he repairs. And that doesn't even get into his personal habits. I'm willing to bet he smells upon close encounter.

He's a mess. And so is this movie.

Hancock, the movie I mean, can't decide whether it's a drama or a comedy. Or somewhere in between. The first half of the movie acts like a comedy. We find Hancock on a park bench after consuming two bottles of whiskey. Some kid walks up to him, tugs at him, points to a T.V. screen at a nearly store to indicate Hancock should be somewhere else saving people, and then says to him, "Asshole." It's a funny bit.

Hancock follows the advice of Ray, a public relations executive who can't seem to get any other project off the ground, turns himself in to the authorities because of all the warrants that have been issued for him. It seems that all he wants is for people to appreciate him.

However, right there in the story, something surprising happens. I can't reveal what it is, but it changes everything. Unfortunately, the story that was Hancock's is no longer his because of this change. And the change doesn't lead us to enlightenment.

I can't recommend this film for any other reason to see it than a few funny bits. And you get to see Will Smith jump around all Superman-like. It's not nearly enough. The movie has no whole, no purpose.

Thumb's down.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The last time I saw this film, I thought it was a thrilling story with engaging characters. The 1959 version had Pat Boone in it, which I found to be a distracting cast choice, but otherwise was a fine, exciting film. Unfortunately, the 2008 version has simplified the story and dumbed it down for us.

This Journey does have the added help of modern special effects, and that gives you a moment or two of ah! I have to add that I was watching the movie with its special 3D glasses, from a blu-ray DVD. It takes some getting used to wearing the glasses, and I just don't think it was worth the result, which was second-rate 3D and washed out colors. I don't recommend seeing this version of the film.

Brendan Fraser (as Trevor, a scientist) is his usual goofy-but-heroic self here, a character he's honed from his Mummy days. He's likeable but not terribly good. I recognize young actor Josh Hutcherson (who plays Trevor's nephew) from Bridge to Terabithia, and he's a fine young actor who does well in this part.

The script takes awhile to get going. I must admit that I'm usually the person who's screaming for set-up time, time to get to know the characters. But in this case, it's mostly dead time, exposition, and will put any kids watching this to sleep. (We wish we could join them.) It's just plain boring. As a consequence, the time we spend in the middle of the earth is much more exciting but shortened by the set-up time.

The second half of the film, therefore, is much better than the first half, as things really get rolling. But on a whole, it's still pretty much a dud.

Thumb's down.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Quantum of Solace

It's a beat-up Bond we meet in Daniel Craig's second 007 picture. And he has 3 women with him: the irrepressible M (Judi Dench), Bolivian beauty Camille (Olga Kurylenko), and British Consulate administrator Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton).

The plot is a little loose (which translates to, we didn't know what the hell was happening half the time). But, if you must know -- sandwiched in between the car chases, the motorcycle chases, the foot chases, and the boat chases, not to mention the air chases -- we catch up with Bond right after his love Vesper has been killed. She betrayed him, but that doesn't stop him from chasing down her killer. In his pursuit of uncovering the truth, he discovers Dominic Greene, a ruthless businessman within the mysterious group known only as 'Quantum.' Greene is suspected of taking over the world's supply of oil by substituting his own dictator in Bolivia. Somehow Bond's pursuit of Greene gets personal, and M orders him back in....only to find out that 007 isn't exactly following her orders any more.

Dench's M has a really meaty part this time around, as the film explores her relationship with Bond a little more, a relationship we find really intriguing. And she has the best lines.

M: "If you could avoid killing every possible lead, it would be deeply appreciated."

The second woman, Olga, is interesting. It's not a love relationship she has with Bond, which is surprising. Her own motives are in hiding until the end. Miss Fields, however, is just an eye-candy waste of time; however, her demise gives a slight nod to Goldfinger.

Bond is damaged goods, something everyone else except Bond is keenly aware. Bond's answer to that is to go straight at whatever is in front of him, no finesse required. He bounces off walls; he flies over cars. Quantum is an amazing action film as a result. Some of the scenes are so quickly edited that it's hard to figure out what exactly is going on. The first car chase is like that. Still, you get the sense that he lives on adrenaline, that there's really nothing else. And that's the story here.

There really isn't another story. The plot is thinly written, unlike Casino Royale, where layers were put on and shed, puzzles slowly revealed. The villain Greene (actor Mathieu Amalric) is just plain boring. Imagine a Bond villain without a cat or iron teeth. Something. Anything would help.

But in the end, we have Daniel Craig as Bond, the best Bond in my opinion. And we have his growing relationship with M. We also have the best action scenes in the business. And that's enough for this Bond fan.

Thumb's up.

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