Reel Opinions

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Wolf Creek

While watching Wolf Creek, I couldn't help but think that first time writer-director, Greg McLean, was inspired to make this film after a long-term relationship went extremely sour. I mean, how else can you explain it when the movie does not want to terrify or excite us, but simply wants to make us watch two women get raped and tortured for 45 minutes straight. This isn't a horror movie, it's McLean's personal payback on the opposite sex. I know some people have been offended by this film's graphic and relentless depiction of acts of violence to women. (Some people at my screening even walked out early.) I wasn't so much offended as I was bored. This movie has very little to offer unless you like to watch an hour of grainy travel video followed by 45 minutes straight of carnage.

Set near the tail-end of a lengthy vacation in Australia, British tourists Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) are traveling by car with their local friend Ben (Nathan Phillips) to Wolf Creek - a hiking trail that leads to a famous meteor landing site that's now a massive crater in the middle of the Outback. Aside from a run-in with some trouble makers at a rest stop and some bizarre weather, the trip goes without incident. Until they try to leave Wolf's Creek and find that not only have their watches stopped, but their vehicle is dead. Day turns to night, and just as the three friends are settling in for an evening of camping in the car, a mysterious truck pulls up to them. The driver of the vehicle is an almost too-friendly and jovial Outbacker named Mick (John Jarratt) who offers to tow their car to his place and fix their vehicle for free. As is to be expected, old Mick has less pleasant things in mind for the travelers once they arrive. With Ben strangely missing, Liz and Kristy must fight for survival to escape the murderous madman who has trapped them in the middle of nowhere.

Wolf Creek is an overly simple story, and for this genre, that's just fine. What I have a problem with is Mr. McLean's insistence on lingering too long on the little details before he gets the ball rolling and the plot kicks in. The entire first 50 minutes of the film almost plays like an amateur travelogue. It certainly feels like one, as the scenes are shot in a gritty, almost handheld style. We watch our three heroes basically do nothing but drive, smoke, drink, and have crude conversations with one another. I suppose the director was going for realism here, but I think he puts a little bit too much emphasis upon it. Even when the film's villain shows up, it still takes another 15 or 20 minutes for anything to happen, as the movie has to painstakingly detail the journey to Mick's place. By the time the girls find themselves awakening to a living nightmare, the movie had already lulled me into a state of boredom, and I just didn't care anymore.

This wouldn't be so bad if our three travelers were interesting people, but they just did not appeal to me. It's not as if they were underdeveloped or thin characters, they just were not interesting enough for the film to devote its entire first hour to. This fact also makes it kind of hard to root for them when they're fighting back against Mick, as the film has given us very little reason to care up until this point. The screenplay's obviously not interested in the character of Ben, as he disappears for literally the entire second act, and doesn't show up again till almost the end. After all, that would distract us from the non-stop footage of Mick finding increasingly graphic ways to torture and maim the girls. And who would want that? I will give McLean this, however - at least his heroines are not the brainless bimbos who usually frequent these kind of films. Sure, they don't make the smartest of decisions sometimes, but they also don't do anything unbelievably stupid for the sole purpose that the villain can catch up with them. Although, I do have to question how Mick knew which car out of many one of the girls was going to try to steal, so he could hide in the back.

To be fair, the character of Mick is an intriguing and potentially terrifying villain. He's all the more so in that he comes across as an average and even friendly guy, instead of a deformed ax-wielding maniac. As I mentioned, though, he comes in way too late for us to care. John Jarratt gives a creepy performance in that he's calm and rational at almost all times, even when he's at his most twisted and insane. He's been pulling these murders off for so long that it just is second nature to him by now. He's definitely the sole interesting character in the film, and the fact that the movie waits too long to introduce him is its own grave miscalculation.

Wolf Creek is a movie that just plain doesn't work and goes nowhere for the longest time. So long in fact that the somewhat more interesting and intense second half just can't lift it up. I almost wish this was a short film, it would have been much more effective. At 100 minutes, though, Wolf Creek is too long, too tedious, and just too boring to thrill in the way that it wants to. Horror movies are supposed to excite and thrill us. What the filmmakers here seem to fail to understand that even torture and gore gets monotonous if you force us to watch it over and over again. Hopefully the upcoming Hostel can strike that perfect balance between depravity and strong storytelling.

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Cheaper by the Dozen 2

To say that 2003's remake of Cheaper by the Dozen was not my favorite movie of that year would be a vast understatement. The film was a noisy, unfunny slog that wasted and humiliated the talents of Steve Martin, and found its place on my worst film of the year list. This fact, combined with the fact that I had to watch the also terrible Yours, Mine, and Ours remake in November did not exactly put me in good spirits when advertisements for Cheaper by the Dozen 2 started to pop up at my local theater. Imagine my surprise to find that although the film mostly follows the path of tired slapstick and kids running out of control that the first film blazed, director Adam Shankman (The Pacifier) has also given the film some heart in the form of a subplot concerning one of the Baker children discovering love. It's this one element that makes the film almost tolerable from time to time, and certainly better than the first. Not that that's saying much.

As the film opens, Baker family household heads, Tom (Steve Martin) and Kate (Helen Hunt), are trying to deal with the changes that are occurring in their large family. Their eldest daughter (Piper Perabo) is pregnant, another one of their daughters (Hillary Duff) has just graduated from high school and is set to begin a job on a fashion magazine in New York in a couple months, and all of the other children seem to be growing up little by little. Fearful that his family is drifting apart, Tom proposes a vacation where they will all go to the old rental cabin in the woods that they spent past summers in. When they arrive, Tom is met almost immediately by an old rival, Jimmy Murtaugh (Eugene Levy) - a highly competitive man who has a large group of children of his own, a much younger than him trophy wife (Carmen Electra), and enjoys rubbing it in Tom's face that he is better than him in almost everything, from controlling his kids to winning trophies. The competitive spirit is rekindled almost the second the two men are reunited, and they drag both of their individual families into a series of contests against each other, when both families really only want to work together instead of against.

The main plot of Cheaper by the Dozen 2 is woefully tired and worn, and offers plenty of opportunities for the usual standards that we see in these type of comedies aimed at kids such as Daddy Day Care, Rebound, and the recent Yours, Mine, and Ours. We've got plenty of opportunities for the kids to cause mass chaos that if any kid would try to do in real life, they would probably be sent to juvenile prison, but in this movie, they are not punished at all for actions such as shooting off fireworks at a fancy banquet dinner (causing a helpless old man to fall off a ledge, and a boat to explode) or stealing a vehicle and destroying public property. The Baker family dog also gets plenty of chances to cause chaos and destruction of its own. And, of course, we've got Steve Martin cashing a paycheck as he mugs his face and basically does nothing but look exasperated and perform third-rate slapstick and pratfalls that you can see coming from a mile away. Naturally, there is the overly sweet to the point of sappiness conclusion where the two families are forced to work together. All of this I expected, as the original film was built entirely around these traits. I sunk a little in my seat as I began to think that the filmmakers were not going to make any attempt to break from the norm. But then, something happened...

A little subplot came around concerning the tomboyish daughter of the Baker family, Sarah (played by Alyson Stoner), and her budding relationship with one of the Murtaugh kids (Taylor Lautner). Whereas the entire rest of the film felt contrived and similar, the scenes involving these two kids seemed almost sweet and heartfelt. The main reason is that it is during these brief, fleeting moments that the film stops using the kids as instruments of chaos and destruction, and lets them act as, well, kids - specifically kids experiencing love for the first time. These moments work because this part of the story is something that both kids and adults can probably relate to, and the film for the most part treats the subplot with dignity and respect. I say "for the most part", because the screenplay just can't help but throw some inappropriate slapstick into the mix, such as the scene where both kids' fathers spy on them in a movie theater while the children are on a date, and one of the fathers winds up dangling upside down from a balcony. This entire subplot is not enough to save the film, but it does help lift it up a little bit higher than it would if the storyline was not there.

Much like the plot and the predictable comic set pieces that dominate the movie, the performances are about what you would expect. Both Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt are likable as always, but they really do deserve better than this - Martin especially, particularly after seeing his honest and winning performance in Shopgirl just a month or two ago. Eugene Levy continues to waste his talents in forgettable comic roles, though I do admit, this movie is a step up from his last film, The Man. I just am more convinced than ever that the guy doesn't know how to say "no" to a script. Of the children, aside from the previously mentioned Alyson Stoner, none of them make any sort of real impression, and are there to simply cause destruction or react to it. The only one who does stick out in my mind is Hillary Duff, and it's not because of anything she does in this movie, rather it is because the poor girl looks near anorexic and skeletal in this film. Someone give this girl a pizza, we don't need another "idol" for kids to feel ashamed of themselves because they're not as thin as their favorite teen actor/singer. This, combined with the fact that her character seems particularly snobby and just plain unlikable makes her the most hateful character in the film.

Watching Cheaper By the Dozen 2 was a strange experience, as it was about as bad as I expected, but at the same time, it was better. The movie works from time to time, but not enough for me to recommend it. Hollywood really needs to stop churning out these "big name star is surrounded by numerous kids - chaos ensues" movies, because I'm really starting to get burned out on them. Hopefully someone in the business will feel the same way before I have to sit through Cheaper by the Dozen 3. Yes, this movie was better than the original. But isn't that kind of like saying getting a frontal lobotomy is better than getting decapitated?

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Ringer

Here is the most schizophrenic comedy I have seen in quite some time. The Ringer is a movie that wants to shock us, warm our hearts, and make us cheer all at the same time. Unfortunately, the film fails at just about every approach it tries. It would seem that director Barry Blaustein (Beyond the Mat) and screenwriter Ricky Blitt (TV's Family Guy) were facing a major identity crisis while making the film, and even they had no idea what the final result was going to be. The end result is a beyond dumb movie that has no right being on the screen. Judging by the film's telltale 2004 copywrite date, the studio felt the same way as me.

Johnny Knoxville plays Steve Barker, a down on his luck schmuck who, as the film opens, is forced by his boss at the company he works for to fire his friend, Stavi (Luis Avalos) - an immigrant worker with a large family who works as the janitor. Wanting to soften the blow, Steve tells him that he will offer him more money than the company pays him to mow his lawn professionally. Unfortunately, on the first day on the job, Stavi's fingers are cut off by the mower. Now faced with the tremendous medical bills to pay for his friend's operation, Steve is looking for a way to make a lot of money fast. Steve's Uncle Gary (Brian Cox) is also facing money problems of his own, as he's indebted to some violent loan sharks. Fortunately, Uncle Gary knows that the guys like to place big bets on the Special Olympics. He comes up with a scheme where Steve will pass himself off as one of the participants, beat all the other athletes, and with the win they will take all of the loan sharks' money, thus solving both of their financial troubles.

Steve is opposed to the idea at first, but knowing that there's no other way to get the money for Stavi's operation, he eventually gives in. Steve enters the Special Olympics as a mentally challenged person named Jeffy Dahmer (ho ho...), and quickly learns that he's in over his head, as he's out of shape, and his fellow Special Olympians can literally run circles around him. The other participants quickly see through Steve's scam, but agree to help him, because they want him to beat the cocky 6-time event winner, Jimmy, who is as powerful as any regular sports celebrity, and even has endorsement deals. More problems lie ahead for our hero when he meets and starts to fall in love with the beautiful and kind volunteer worker, Lynn (Katherine Heigl). Steve's conscience starts to get the best of him as he gains new respect for the mentally handicapped, and begins to question his own motives.

An uncomfortable mix of shock raunch humor, sappy sweet romantic comedy, and every underdog sports movie cliche in the book, The Ringer is such a curious movie because you don't know how you're supposed to react to it. The first half seems to want to gross you out with toilet humor and violent sight gags, the middle portion wants to inspire and make us cheer, and the last half wants us to root for Steve as he tries to confess his true feelings and identity to the lovely Lynn. Unfortunately, no matter what the film tries to be, it falls flat because the filmmakers just don't know how to work any of its angles successfully. The shock/raunch humor in particular falls with an almost deafening thud. The scenes that were supposed to offend us were met by a rather uninterested silence. Take the scene where we get a montage of Steve trying out different mentally challenged personas in front of a mirror. Not only have we seen this kind of stuff way too many times before (It seems every comedy that features the main character disguising himself as someone else has to have a montage where he or she tries out different "wacky" personalities in front of a mirror.), but the jokes themselves just fall flat. In this scene, Johnny Knoxville is not playing a variety of mentally challenged people, he's just doing silly voices and making faces in a mirror. It's like the movie expects us to be shocked that he's actually doing this. I'd be even more shocked if they could think of something actually funny to do in this scene.

Perhaps more so than the lack of identity, I was also bothered by just how ludicrous and hard to swallow the film itself is altogether. I know, it's a screwball comedy, and I'm not supposed to be thinking too deeply about the plot, but seriously, does anyone really bet on Special Olympic events? Do people really gather in bars in massive numbers to watch the event on TV and bet hundreds of thousands of dollars? Do the Special Olympics get 'round the clock coverage on every sports and news network? I think the movie is trying to parody sports movie cliches, but there's just one tiny problem with this theory - the movie takes its own plot completely seriously. Not once do they poke fun at its own cliches, it simply puts the cliches up there on the screen, and expects us to go along with it. It just gets to be a bit too much as the movie goes on.

A couple critics who defend this movie say that it paints a positive portrait of the mentally handicapped, and point to the fact that the actual Special Olympics cooperated in the making of the film as evidence that behind its somewhat un-PC plot, the film means well. While I do applaud that the script tries to make the athletes the senders of the film's jokes instead of the receivers, I take offense at how they're portrayed as overly cute, one-liner spewing machines that seem to have walked out of some kind of twisted Special Olympics sitcom. Instead of being actual characters with distinctive personalities, they simply stand in the background, and make "clever" comments about what's going on around them. Still, at their worse, these guys are about ten times more interesting than the professional actors that surround them. Johnny Knoxville doesn't seem to know if he's supposed to be playing a slimy lowlife jerk, or a sweet and sensitive romantic lead, so he gives a little of both. I must admit, he does have a couple of cute moments in the film with female lead Heigl, but he just can't make us care enough about him to make us want to see him get the girl and confess the truth to her and everyone. The big embarrassment here is Brian Cox as the sleazy uncle that masterminds the scam. He's completely unfunny from the second he enters the film, trying to be rude and crude, but only coming across as desperate and lame. I admire Cox as an actor, but here, he simply was hard to even watch.

I would like to make it clear that I did not find anything in The Ringer offensive other than the fact that someone thought I would actually be laughing at it. The movie does have a few mild chuckles here and there, but most of the humor is so forced that you almost want to hide your eyes in disbelief that the actors are actually going through with it. Movies like this all but prove why I think 2005 was one of the worst years for movies in a while, and this is far from the worst of the lot I had to sit through this year. Everyone involved with The Ringer would be wise to have a good long talk with their agent. For their sake, I hope the movie comes and goes from the cineplexes quickly.

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Rumor Has It...

Remember when we used to look forward to Rob Reiner movies? There was a time when the guy seemingly could do no wrong as he churned out a string of memorable films that included Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, A Few Good Men, and Misery just to name a small few. But then, along came an infamous little movie called North, and ever since then, he just hasn't been the same. While his latest film, Rumor Has It..., is far from bad and mildly entertaining for what it is, you just can't help but think the film is below his abilities and a far cry from the memorable films that used to hold his name. Compare this film to Reiner's earlier romantic comedy effort, When Harry Met Sally, and you'll see just how far his career has fallen in a fairly short time.

After a brief and unsuccessful attempt at trying her hand at a different kind of role in Derailed, Jennifer Aniston returns to the romantic comedy genre as Sarah Huttinger, a woman who has been an emotional wreck ever since her boyfriend Jeff (Mark Ruffalo) proposed to her recently. Although she said yes, she is beginning to question her true feelings and what she wants out of life. The action starts when Sarah brings Jeff to her family's home in Malibu where her younger sister (Mena Suvari) is getting married. Sarah's family has always made her feel uncomfortable, as she never felt like she fit in with the rest of them. Her suspicions of not fitting in may prove to be more accurate than she ever imagined when she learns that her late mother may or may not have had an affair with another man named Bill Burroughs (Kevin Costner) the week before she married Sarah's father. What's more, the same Bill Burroughs may have also slept with Sarah's feisty, chain-smoking grandmother Katharine (Shirley MacLaine). The deeper Sarah digs into this possible family secret, the more she begins to realize that her family could have been the inspiration for the classic novel and film, The Graduate, as the original author was a college friend of Mr. Burroughs. Her obsession in uncovering the past that no one in her family seems to want to talk about will put both her own family ties and her future relationship with Jeff on the line.

Despite a clever idea that ties the film's plot into that of a classic film, Rumor Has It... is a strictly by-the-numbers romantic comedy that does little to offend, while at the same time doing absolutely nothing to stand out from the crowd. The screenplay by Ted Griffin (who was originally going to direct, but was dropped due to differences with the studio) aims for sitcom-style laughs with dialogue that sometimes sounds a bit too clever to be coming out of a person's mouth. The tone is appropriately light and breezy throughout, but also wants to keep us guessing with continuous plot twists that make us question whether or not Sarah's hunches about her family's past are true or not. I personally felt like the plot was kind of jerking me around at times. One character is introduced solely to fool us into thinking the story is going one way, only to disappear and never be seen or mentioned again when it's revealed he's simply a red herring meant to throw us off. The movie squanders most of its characters in much the same way, using them only as a convenience to move the story along, or never saying what they know about the past, because if they did, everything would be explained right away and the movie would be over.

It's a shame that the film uses the characters frequently as a tool of the plot, because when they're allowed to just be themselves, there are a number of genuinely touching and funny moments. Most of these come during the last half, when Sarah has private talks with different family members about her feelings on everything that's happened to her up until that point. Here, Aniston and the other actors get to truly create real characters that the audience can relate to. That's not to say the entire film is bad up to this point. There are a number of funny lines throughout, most of them given by MacLaine. But I still could not sometimes help but feel I was watching a 100 minute long sitcom projected on the big screen. The film's later, more poignant scenes hint at a movie that could have been even better. Only the film's climax between Sarah and her fiance Jeff rings false and kills the more serious and believable mood that the ending was heading toward. Even by romantic comedy standards, the ending is a bit hard to buy.

Although a script such as this is mostly unworthy of such name talent, there are some good performances here. Jennifer Aniston is immediately likable as Sarah, and brings a good "everywoman" quality to the role that makes her easy to relate to. Kevin Costner is strong too, even if his performance seems a bit too similar to his own in The Upside of Anger. Mark Ruffalo is always a welcome sight in any film, but I really wish he'd start choosing more challenging roles. Anyone who has seen him in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Collateral knows that he is a very fine actor, but he seems content to pretty much play the exact same nice-guy role in romantic comedies like 13 Going on 30 and Just Like Heaven. As mentioned earlier, the film pretty much belongs to Shirley MacLaine. Not only does she get all the good lines, but she brings a much-needed edge and somewhat of a mean streak to a movie where everyone seems way too perfect and nice for their own good sometimes. With October's In Her Shoes and now this, MacLaine is having quite a year when it comes to performances.

I don't want to stress only the negatives of Rumor Has It..., as this is not a bad movie. It's just the film's script does not match the talent that has been connected to it. There are some laughs to be had, but I also wanted more honesty in the storytelling, one where the characters were real people instead of tools used solely to move the plot or throw us off track. Those of you looking for escapism entertainment most likely will not care. To those of you, I say go and have fun. I guess I just remember a time when the words "A Rob Reiner Film" meant a little bit more to me.

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Sunday, December 25, 2005

Memoirs of a Geisha

As a major Christmas movie release, Memoirs of a Geisha can best be described as a strikingly beautiful package wrapped with care, but when you tear apart the beautiful exterior and look within, you find very little. Here is an Oscar Bait movie that seems to have everything going for it. Based on a widely acclaimed novel, an Oscar-winning director (Rob Marshall of Chicago fame), the involvement of Steven Spielberg as Producer (he was even attached to direct at one time), some of the most haunting and memorable visuals captured on film this year...And yet, despite all the prestige trappings, you can't help but feel a little bit underwhelmed. In the end, it's all much out of about nothing, because that's all Memoirs of a Geisha is underneath all its flash - nothing.

Set primarily before, during, and after World War II in Japan, we first meet our heroine, Chiyo (Suzaka Ohgo), as a child, as she is sold to another family, and forcefully torn apart from her beloved sister, Satsu (Samantha Futerman). Sent to live in a geisha house, Chiyo becomes a slave to the house's owner, Mother (Kaori Momoi), and quickly runs afoul of the cruel and domineering geisha, Hatsumoto (Gong Li). It is not until Chiyo grows into her mid-teenage years (now played by Ziyi Zhang from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Rush Hour 2) that her life begins to change after a fateful visit from Hatsumoto's rival geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). Mameha sees great potential in Chiyo, and offers to take her under her wing, and teach her the art of being a geisha.

Given an almost entirely new life, and even the new name of Sayuri, the remainder of the film follows her as she learns the rules of the business. Chiyo/Sayuri quickly becomes a rising star in the geisha world, the desire of every man she meets. She quickly learns, however, that the glamorous life she has been given is not what she wants, as she is forbidden to pursue her own personal desires - namely that of a kindly older man who she has secretly been in love with for years, and goes only by the name of The Chairman (Ken Watanabe from The Last Samurai). With her loyalty divided between the man she loves and the woman who helped raise her from the depths of being a live-in slave, Chiyo begins to question just what she wants out of life, especially when the world around her begins to change as war approaches.

Memoirs of a Geisha has the makings for an intriguing little period piece, but it lacks the heart and the ambition. Merely scratching the surface of the world it inhabits, we feel a curious distance the entire time we watch the film. For a movie that's supposed to be a "memoir", this is pretty bare bones stuff, as we learn so little about its lead character and the world she inhabits. Instead of an in-depth look at the world of a geisha in the early 20th Century, the movie supplies us simply with music montages and random scenes of training that don't even bother to explain what the characters are doing. It's almost like the filmmakers themselves don't even care about the story they are trying to tell. I have not read the novel that inspired this film, but it is supposed to be full of detail and very historically accurate, according to those who praise it. Of course, I can only assume this, as none of this comes through in the screenplay by Robin Swicord and Doug Wright.

Instead of flowing naturally, the story and plotting seems rushed and forced, even with an almost 2 and a half hour running time. Chiyo goes from lowly slave girl to rising geisha in the span of just ten or fifteen minutes. We don't get any sense about the struggle she had to go through to get to where she is, as her entire training is pretty much covered in one montage sequence. Characters, and indeed entire plot elements, seem to come and go as the screenplay sees fit. Perhaps most befuddling of all is the central love story between Chiyo and The Chairman that is supposed to drive the main character's life. We never get a sense of any sort of relationship between the two, as the closest they ever seem to get is a scene early in the film where they meet on the street when Chiyo is just a child, and share food together. Why this one single moment that lasts for only two minutes in the film is enough to make her long for him the rest of her life, the movie fails to explain. In fact, if it were not for the voice-over narration provided by an elderly Chiyo who keeps on reminding us how much she loved him even after all this time, I never would have guessed that there was anything between the two. Their overly shallow relationship makes the all too perfect and tidy ending all the more hard to swallow.

Much attention and controversy has been created over the fact that director Rob Marshall cast mainly Chinese actresses in the roles of Japanese women. Although I can certainly understand why that fact would be upsetting to some people, I certainly can't fault the performances. Ziyi Zhang stands out in her first entirely English-speaking role as the main character, as does young Suzaka Ohgo as the child version of her. Youki Kudoh is also memorable as Pumpkin, a childhood friend of Chiyo who is forced to become her rival in the geisha world, and goes through a drastic change in personality once American soldiers start occupying Japan. But the real star performance in the film belongs to Gong Li as the manipulative, hateful, and cruel geisha, Hatsumoto. Though her character is one-note, she is able to demand our attention every time she is on the screen. Of the lead performances, only Ken Watanabe as The Chairman comes across as unmemorable, as his character and the performance that accompanies it is extremely dry, uninteresting, and lacking in personality.

More so than the strong performances, it is the visuals that keep our interest even when the storytelling is at its worst. The filmmakers have crafted an overly beautiful vision of Japan where cherry blossoms seem to line every corner, and brilliant colors fill even the darkest and seediest alley. Sure, it may not be very realistic, but no one can deny that this is one of the better looking films of the year. There are a number of stunning sequences, the highlight belonging to a performance that Chiyo/Sayuri gives where she dances on stage under falling snow. The end result is mesmerizing, and briefly snaps us out of the near sleep-inducing coma that the film's narrative has put us in by that point. It's quite clear that the filmmakers had visions of Oscar in their eyes when they made this thing. I'd say the cinematography and visuals are the only chance this movie has.

Memoirs of a Geisha is an altogether frustrating film because you can see so much promise. If the movie had just dug a bit deeper, and actually cared about its characters, its world, and its time period, this could have been something special. Instead, the movie just coasts along, giving us candy for the eyes, but nothing to go with it. The movie doesn't even bother to tell us how much time has passed during the story, as there are no subtitles to inform us of the year, and the movie seems to jump from one stage in Chiyo's life to the next with little or no reason. The film's title promises us a deep look into the life a person. All it gives us is a mere passing glance.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Fun with Dick and Jane

Fun with Dick and Jane is a movie that lives up to its title in more ways than one. Like the classic children stories that inspired its name, it is lighter than air, frothy, inoffensive, and simple. It only wants to entertain us for 90 minutes or so and make us laugh. At that, the film is successful, and does indeed offer a lot of fun while you're watching it. This is mostly due to the game and willing performances of its lead actors, Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni. There are some missed opportunities for sharp satire, and the film is almost certain to leave your mind the second you walk out of the theater, but director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) has crafted a fine, if not slight, little piece of holiday escapism.

Set in that "long ago year of 2000", as the film's clever opening sequence states, Dick Harper (Jim Carrey) seems to be a man living the American dream. He's got the standard two story home in the suburbs, he's got a devoted wife in the form of Jane (Tea Leoni), and his job at the massive Globodyne Corporation seems to be on the way up. The company's smooth-talking CEO, Jack McCallister (Alec Baldwin) has just offered Dick his dream job position - Vice President of Communications. Little does he realize that Jack is simply setting him up to take the fall for an Enron-inspired scam where the company goes under, and the CEO escapes blame-free with all of his employees' money, leaving the other higher ups in the company (including Dick) to take the heat from the press.

The months slowly tick by, and Dick finds it harder to get back into the work force. The economy's gone down the toilet, and the entire Globodyne fiasco is still fresh in everyone's mind, so no one will hire him. When it reaches the point that their house is in danger of being foreclosed, Dick can stand no more. He's spent all his life making money honestly, and got punished for it. In order to regain the lifestyle they once enjoyed, the couple decides to start a string of robberies across the area. The jobs start out small and highly disorganized, but as their confidence builds, they build up to bigger heists - including one that could offer them a chance at payback with the man who put them in this situation in the first place.

The above synopsis would lead you to believe that Fun with Dick and Jane is a sharp social and business satire. However, screenwriters Judd Appatow (The 40-Year Old Virgin), Peter Tolan, and Nicolas Stoller have no such ambitions. This is a featherweight comic fantasy that is so fast and frantic that although your watch will say 90 minutes have passed when the end credits roll, it will seem more like only 60 have gone by. The movie wastes little to no time on plot or characterizations. Most supporting characters are either brushed in the background except when needed, or are treated as running gags. (Such as Dick and Jane's young son who spends so much time around the family's Spanish-speaking housekeeper that he speaks the language fluently and uses it more than English.) The film is solely interested in increasingly bizarre comic set-pieces. Fortunately, the film knows how to go over the top in its humor without getting so out of control that we can no longer identify or relate to the lead roles.

This is thanks mostly to the performances of Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni. Not only do they make a surprisingly likable pair and have good chemistry together, they seem to be willing to do just about anything for a laugh and are game for just about every far-fetched situation the script throws at them. Everything from Dick being mistaken for an illegal immigrant worker and getting deported out of his own country (due to circumstances too complex to summerize) to Jane having extreme physical side effects to an experimental drug test that she did for money, you can tell that Carrey and Leoni are having the time of their lives with their roles and the fun comes through in their performances. I was especially impressed with Leoni's comedic performance as she's even able to steal more than her share of scenes from Carrey. Despite how silly the film can get at times, the actors wisely never play the scenes so broad that they don't even seem like the same people we met at the beginning. They're both likeable and easy to root for. Sure, Carrey does his standard face mugging for the camera more than once, but he knows how to hold it in when its required.

Some people have complained that this film glorifies and almost justifies the Harper's crime spree during the course of the film. They believe it sends a negative message, as not once is the couple punished for their actions, nor are the police ever depicted getting involved except in one instance. Normally, I would agree, but I view this film simply as silly escapism. You've got to admit, this movie would be hard to pull off "realistically", and still make the lead characters likeable. As I mentioned before, this is a check your brain at the door movie where you're just supposed to laugh and not think about the implausibility of it all. Really, my main complaint is that although the film's light and frothy tone mostly won me over, I thought there were a lot of missed opportunities at sharp satire that a smarter film would have pounced upon with vicious glee. The film's opening half seems to be one big jab at big and corrupt business, but then it seems to drop that angle and turn into a silly comedic farce about this couple trying to get their life back together by going against the society that wronged them. In a way, I dont think the filmmakers really intended this to be a savage satire so maybe I shouldn't hold it against them. But still, I just couldn't help but dream of a slightly smarter film than the one that was up on the screen.

Is Fun with Dick and Jane a great movie? Far from it. It's slight, it's forgettable, and it's pretty much junk food for your brain. But, like the best junk food, it is a guilty pleasure and left me feeling happy. I'm recommending it because the film made me laugh most of the time. Sure, not all of the jokes hit, but thanks to the film's rapid-fire pace, there's bound to be one that does about a minute or two later. The film could have been more than what it is, but I can't blame the filmmakers for making escapism entertainment. We need those movies as well as the smart ones after all. As long as the escapism is done well, that's all I ask. And for what it is, Fun with Dick and Jane is done very well.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Family Stone

With the arrival of the approaching Christmas holidays, you are almost guaranteed that some Hollywood studio will release a comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family coming together for Christmas. It's as inevitable as death and taxes or the sun setting in the west. This year's entry, The Family Stone, is a most pleasant surprise in that it is quite amusing and a lot smarter than its ad campaign would lead you to think. Writer-director Thomas Bezucha has brought a fine ensemble cast together for a film that is truthful and honest, except for the rare scene where the film takes a sudden awkward dip into slapstick farce territory with people racing around the house and falling over each other. It's far from perfect, but for harmless afternoon killing entertainment, you could do a lot worse.

With the annual Stone family Christmas get together fast approaching, the heads of the household - mother Sybil (Diane Keaton) and mostly laid back father Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) are nervously awaiting the arrival of their eldest son, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), who is bringing home his new girlfriend, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker). We first meet the Stone family and Meredith separately early in the film, and right from the start, we can already tell how this family get together will go south in a hurry. The Stones are a tightly knit liberal-minded family, whereas Meredith is an uptight, twittery woman who makes such a strong and forced effort to please everyone around her that no one buys it for a second. It certainly doesn't help that Stone daughter Amy (Rachel McAdams from Red Eye) already has a less than favorable opinion of Meredith from their one encounter, and has been spreading her opinion of the woman amongst the family prior to the arrival of Everett and Meredith. By the time the couple arrives, the entire clan already has a pre-set opinion of this potential new family member, and Meredith seems to be making no effort to change their minds with her constant throat-clearing tick that she has whenever she's nervous and her ability to completely dominate a conversation.

It does not take Meredith long to realize that she's not exactly putting forth the best first impression, and calls in support in the form of her younger sister, Julie (Claire Danes). During the course of the Christmas weekend, bonds of family and relationships will be tested in various ways, especially when both Meredith and Everett begin to question their own attraction to each other.

The Family Stone is certainly nothing new or groundbreaking in its plotting, and in the wrong hands, this could have turned into an annoying and predictable farce. Yet, writer-director Bezucha looks for realism and humanity in his characters instead of cheap gags and overstuffed sentiment. A lot of the humor comes from the differences in the dysfunctions in both Meredith and the Stones. While Meredith is uptight, constantly nervous, and seemingly always keeping her true emotions bottled up, the Stones are a mostly friendly group who can be vicious if need be. They are open-minded, yet at the same time, closed to the opinions of those who may disagree with them. Since Meredith is not good at expressing how she truly feels, it leads to many misunderstandings that do not cast her in a favorable light, such as when a simple comment made by her at a dinner table about Everett's gay and deaf brother, Thad (Tyrone Giordano), leads to an argument that sends the entire family into an uproar. For all of her best efforts, Meredith just simply cannot express herself well enough or in a way that can convince everyone that she means no harm with what she says or does.

Although Meredith's valiant and vain attempt at acceptance is at the heart of the picture, the film expertly juggles a number of subplots that never seem to bog the film down or out of place. Each member of the Stone family seems to have his or her own addition to the plot, the most important being a secret that parents Sybil and Kelly are intentionally keeping from the children until after the holidays are past. The film handles this rather tricky subplot with style and grace, never calling attention to it, and never getting overly melodramatic or sappy as a lesser film would. In a way, it helps us understand their characters a lot more, and why they are so protective of their family ways, and most importantly, why they want this gathering to be perfect. I admire that the film takes the time to give each character their own story arc, but also felt that some of the plots could have been developed a bit more. The movie goes deeper into some arcs more than others, so those characters seem more developed. It's not a big enough of a problem to sink the movie, but it does sort of leave the impression that there was quite a bit cut out before the film hit the screen, as some potentially important characters and relationships (such as the relationship between the previously mentioned Thad and his boyfriend, and their wanting to adopt a child) seem underdeveloped.

Movies like this about large families coming together mostly rise or fall based on the strength of the casting and how well they come together. Well, this is indeed the film's strong suit, as every actor gives a realistic performance and there's hardly a weak link in the chain. Of particular note are Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson, who not only embody their characters perfectly, but also get to share a few quiet moments together that really make you believe they could be a couple. Sarah Jessica Parker seemed to be in danger of being annoying and one-note in her performance early in the film, but as the story progresses, her character comes out of her shell and so does Parker's performance. Luke Wilson as Everett's younger brother, Ben, is likeably goofy and probably the most free-spirited and understanding of the Stone clan. Although not all of the performances leave as strong of an impression as others (Dermot Mulroney comes across as a bit dry, but I think that was intentional with his character), they are all winning in some way, especially since the film seems to give ample opportunity for everyone to have his or her moment to shine.

The Family Stone ended up surprising me in a lot of ways. What I initially labeled as a fluffy little piece of Christmas schlock based on the ad campaign turned out to have a lot more to say than initially thought. The film is honest and respectful, and I think a lot of people will walk out identifying with at least one of the characters or its themes. The film does not strive for greatness, it just wants to be an entertaining seasonal piece that just about anyone can enjoy on some level. And at that, it is an definite success.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

King Kong

If you're looking for sheer spectacle, you can't do much better than Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. I dare say that this film will probably be remembered for its effects much the same way the original Jurassic Park and Matrix films were for their's. Yet, that's probably all they'll walk away with. Though very entertaining, the film is a highly uneven 3 hour series of extreme highs and middle ground lows. When the movie hits these extreme highs, you feel giddy and excited as few films can make you feel. Unfortunately the middle ground low sticks around for way too long, thanks to Jackson's insistence on making this thing 3 hours, when 2 and a half would have sufficed.

When our heroine, Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), has a chance encounter with film director, Carl Denham (Jack Black), there's no way she could have known what was in store for her. The time is New York in the Depression Era, and work is obviously scarce for an undiscovered actress such as Ann who has up to this point idled her time performing to mostly empty theater houses in a Vaudeville act. What she does not know is that Carl is having hard luck himself. He's on the run from the studio and the authorities after he took his film footage, determined to make the movie on his own when he feared the studio wasn't giving him the support he needs. He wants to shoot his adventure movie on a hidden uncharted island that has yet to be discovered, though he has uncovered an ancient map to. (How he came in contact with said map the film does not explain.) This maverick filmmaker needs to get out of town and on the nearest boat if he wants to shoot his film. When Ann hears that her favorite playwright, Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is writing the screenplay for Carl's film, she agrees, hoping it to be her big break.

Where Carl leads her is not the luxury transportation of the stars that she was expecting, but rather a run down boat run by a shifty crew of rugged sailors. As they voyage across the sea, Ann strikes up a relationship with Jack, never realizing that the ship's crew are starting to have doubts if Carl has their best interest and safety in mind for the voyage. While lost in blinding fog, the ship has a near-collision with mysterious Skull Island - home to savage natives, and a terrifying beast whose roar can be heard echoing over the island. Ann is captured by the natives, sentenced to be a sacrifice for the mighty Kong. Jack and the others start a desperate mission to rescue her, finding that they will have to contend with dinosaurs, inhumanly large insects, and other creature long thought extinct, yet still thrive on this forgotten piece of land. While the men fight for their lives, Ann slowly begins to realize that the giant ape she has been sacrificed to is strangely protective of her, and seems to show emotion and understanding toward her.

One simply cannot exaggerate when talking about the grand scope of King Kong. Peter Jackson has put together a visual masterpiece that contains action sequences that are so high octane that you almost can't believe that the guy who made it was making R-rated Muppet movies just a couple years ago. The entire middle portion of the film, when Jack and the ship's crew are hunting for Ann and the beast that took her, is so thrilling that the movie literally never slows down to allow the audience to catch its breath. It does teeter dangerously close to becoming a live action video game at times, as the action set pieces seem to literally come one after another, but the sequences are put together and filmed so expertly and effortlessly that you won't have time to complain. Jackson allows us both a sense of wonder and horror during these sequences. We awe at the dinosaurs the first time we see them casually making their away across the land, yet we tense up with fright during the film's spectacular stampede scene. And anyone who has a fear of bugs would be best to close their eyes when our heroes find themselves trapped in an underground region, completely covered with giant, venomous insects that kill their pray by swarming all over them and swallowing them whole. (Which Jackson portrays with almost sadistic glee in depicting the fate of one of the more unfortunate crew members.) The action sequences are fast, yet edited in such a way that we never become lost.

But, of course, it is the film's title character that we have come to see, and he is simply a marvel from the moment he steps into the film. King Kong is quite simply the most "human" and believable CGI character ever put on film, and hands down surpasses anything George Lucas pulled off in his newer Star Wars trilogy. Thanks to the talented special effects artists and animators, Kong comes alive in a way that few special effect characters ever have. When you look into his eyes, you can almost tell exactly what he's thinking. A lot of this has to do with actor Andy Serkis, who performed all of Kong's movements and facial expressions via motion capture technology, which the special effects artists then applied to the character. I personally think Serkis deserves some kind of Oscar for his work, as not only does he perfectly capture the movements of a beast, but he is also able to latch onto the humanity of the character. Unlike the more cartoonish animals of Chronicles of Narnia, King Kong is completely believable, and simply a marvel of design, animation and performance all rolled into one. Watch the scene where Kong battles off a pack of hungry dinosaurs, all the while trying to keep Ann safe. He's holding her tightly in his fist as he fights off his attackers, switching her from hand to hand. In this scene, he simultaneously displays his superiority over the other creatures on the island, as well as his desire to protect this mysterious woman that he feels a bond with. Not only is it exciting and emotionally powerful at the same time, but the effects work of blending the live action Naomi Watts and the CGI battle sequence is flawless.

Jackson has also wisely decided to make Kong much more than a giant ape who runs amok and destroys a city. He has given the character much more of a heart which makes him sympathetic to the audience. Even his appearance is somewhat heartbreaking. While he is still king of his domain, you get the feeling almost the first time you see him that his reign will not last long. This is evidenced by the number of scars he displays across his body from past battles. He also has somewhat of a tired look in his eyes, like he knows he's still strong, but does not know how long he will be able to keep up the act. This decision is a wise one, as not only does it make Kong much more than just a "movie monster", but it also makes his already tragic downfall that we're all expecting at the end to be all the more tragic. It is tragic here because you sense a certain bond between beast and woman. Ann almost seems to go with Kong willingly, and they get to share a few tender moments together in the city before the ape's fateful climb up the Empire State Building. It's here that the film is at its best in just about every aspect. The special effects artists make Kong so human we can almost sense his pain (Look at the way he turns away from Ann when he's hurt by the bullets, like he doesn't want her to see him like this.), Naomi Watts' performance is real and genuine (you get the sense she has real feelings, and is not just pretending to stare at an invisible giant ape), and Jackson's direction handles it with care, as in the wrong hands, such a scene could have come off as silly and caused unintentional laughter with the audience. The scenes between Ann and Kong are the film's other highlights besides the jaw-dropping action sequences, and are full of tender emotion.

It's the rest of the film that things begin to drag and make you question if this movie really needed to be 3 hours. The human cast is so underdeveloped, as they're either there simply to move the plot along, or they're their to become monster bait. Heck, Adrien Brody is so forgettable and dry in the film's human male lead role that you almost wonder what Ann sees in him over Kong. Their relationship seems forced and rushed, as if they fell in love because the script requires them to, so you never quite believe that his character would be so desperate to save her that he would be willing to risk his life and the lives of everyone else on the ship. In fact, the only thing noticeable about Mr. Brody's performance is the fact that the man has a rather large nose. The entire rest of the human cast fails to make any kind of impression whatsoever, except for Jack Black as the scheming filmmaker Carl. While I don't think the guy should give up comedy for more serious roles, he certainly wasn't bad, and at least was an interesting character, which is a lot more than I can say for any of the other men on the ship, who were either walking stereotypes, or shoved to the background. Naomi Watts is obviously the human star of the show, and she delivers a wonderful performance in just about every aspect. In each movie she's in, she seems to prove more and more what an amazing talent she is. Her scenes with Kong are the highlights, as she treats them as if she was dealing with another actor. Her performance is so alive in just about every aspect that you once again wonder what she sees in Brody's character.

I'm afraid I must admit that although I liked the film, I was still held back. As I mentioned, the movie is extremely uneven. The first hour or so dealing with introducing the human characters and the journey to the island could have easily been trimmed a little without losing anything. Even when they get to the island, it still takes a little while for the movie to truly amaze us. The film takes its sweet time getting to the good stuff, and unfortunately, it takes quite a bit longer than needed. There's just simply too much set up with characters we care little about for us to remain completely interested for its entire running time. When the film is trying to dazzle us, it is a roaring success in just about every way. It's when the movie takes a step back and lets things quiet down that we start to squirm in our seats. It is a spectacle without enough human element to truly make us care about the plight of its heroes. We care about Kong and Ann, but we don't care about the people looking for them. The film does have a heart, unfortunately it's supplied almost solely by an artificial character generated by a computer.

King Kong is a tough film to review. It's hard not to rave, but at the same time, I can't fully get behind it. If Jackson had made his human characters as relatable and sympathetic as the monkey, this would be one of the best films of the year. Personally, I think the director should just maybe step back from epics, and do a small film. One where he can reconnect with human characters, and not have to put so much emphasis on CG, grand spectacle, and 3 hour running times. With the Lord of the Rings trilogy and now this, he's obviously proven he's mastered the art of the spectacle. However, this movie proves he still needs work in making human characters that are as believable as the non-human ones.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005


For the second time this year, I have come across a movie that made me wish theatrical releases came with an optional writer and/or director's commentary. The first time it was Stay, an overly confusing thriller that was one long riddle without enough answers to its own questions. Now, along comes Syriana - a movie that has been praised to the skies by just about every major critic, and reeks of self-importance. There's no denying that the film's topic is a timely one, especially with oil and gas prices going through the roof this past year alone. But, writer-director Stephen Gaghan (Traffic) has crafted a movie so convoluted, so confusing, and sometimes just plain boring that it's almost a fight to stay interested for its entire just over 2 hour running time. The film does have a few scenes that spark our attention, and fools us into thinking the movie's finally starting to pick up (the most notable being an almost impossible to watch torture scene), but then the movie goes back to its old tricks of boring the audience into an almost sedated state and generally giving us very little to care about.

The film's overly complex plot has something to do with a huge merger between one of the biggest Texas oil companies in America and a smaller competitor. The competitor came across vast amounts of product in a Middle Eastern land, and the big company wants in on it. The nation that both of these companies are after is run by an elderly and ailing Prince (Nadim Sawalha), who has a long-time connection with the United States. The time for the Prince to pick an heir to replace him is fast approaching, and all signs seem to hint that he will be choosing his eldest son, Nasir (Alexander Sidding). Unfortunately for the U.S., Nasir has less friendly relations with the country than his father. In order to keep up relations, the CIA is making plans behind the scenes to assassinate Nasir, so that his younger brother (Akbar Kurtha) - whose rule over the country would mean better things for the U.S., can take over instead.

This plot would be pretty simple and straightforward if it were not for writer-director Gaghan's decision to look at this plot from various points of views that are often so underwritten and underdeveloped, that it sometimes takes the movie much longer than it should to explain to us what role they play. Amongst the characters, we get an aging CIA agent (George Clooney), who is seen as somewhat of a relic of the past, and he pretty much knows it, too. There's also an American energy analyst (Matt Damon), who threatens to tear his family apart by supporting a plan and people that may have led to the accidental death of his young son. We follow a lawyer (Jeffrey Wright) who is investigating the oil merger. And, of course, there's a vast parade of shady oil tycoons (played by a variety of great actors such as Christopher Plummer, Tim Blake Nelson, and Chris Cooper) who are naturally depicted as being over the top greedy and evil, giving these great actors absolutely nothing to latch onto, since their characters are so one-note.

As I mentioned in my introduction, Mr. Gaghan wrote the screenplay to the film Traffic - a much better film that shares a lot of similarities with Syriana. That film too took a look at a timely problem sweeping the nation (drug trafficking), and told the story through a large variety of different points of views. Traffic was a great film, one of the best that year, because despite the large cast of main characters, they were all developed in such a way that we grew to care about many of them very deeply, even the more shady characters in the story. That film expertly juggled its multiple storylines in such a way so that it never seemed gimmicky or confusing to the audience. This is a stark contrast to Syriana, which is so underdeveloped and disjointed that you almost need a road map in order to follow along with the plot's various twists and turns. We get a very little glimpse of the human side of the characters in this one. They're simply "talking heads" who talk way too long about shady dealings behind the scenes in the oil industry. In order for the audience to care about these characters, we need to know more about them. Unfortunately, the film keeps us at a curious distance. Aside from George Clooney's character having a strained relationship with his son, and Matt Damon's character dealing with his moral issues and his family, none of these characters have the slightest shred of humanity or characterization. They just talk endlessly about the world's problems, while giving us very little reason for us to understand their views or their positions.

Because of the film's decision to simply have its big name cast mainly just sit and stand around, doing nothing but talking about the same things over and over, Syriana rapidly becomes deadly boring to all but the most forgiving and open-minded audience member. During the film's seemingly never-ending 126 minute running time, very little happens. The only highlights I can think of are the previously mentioned torture scene, and the climax. And even the ending kind of loses weight when you think back on it since there seems to be no way that George Clooney's character could have been able to know what was going to happen. The trailers for this film (and the mysterious rave reviews) may try to fool you into thinking that this is a riveting suspense drama about shady dealings in the oil industry, but it's really nothing more than big name actors playing characters with no characterization whatsoever just standing around, and talking non-stop about said shady dealings. Very little ever happens, and when it does, it makes us all the more depressed when the movie goes back to its old tricks because we almost think for a little bit that things are starting to pick up. The film's disjointed storyline, which frequently jumps around with little rhyme or reason, helps matters even less. Instead of being just bored, we are bored and confused.

You almost have to wonder why the filmmakers went to such lengths to hire such an A-list cast for this film when they are given so little to do. In fact, some of the actors such as Chris Cooper and William Hurt are used so little that you almost forget that they're even in the movie. Aside from Clooney and Damon, the actors fail to make any impression at all, because their characters are so underwritten as to be almost invisible (Jeffrey Wright), or they are so one-note that they don't even seem human to begin with (pretty much anyone who plays an oil tycoon in this movie). The only reason why Clooney and Damon leave an impression with us is because they are the only ones who we get to see outside of the main plot. They have lives and people not involved with the oil industry, and we get to learn more about them, and way they are the way they are. Everyone else is simply a cog in the massive machine that is this film's plot, and it's quite clear that the script doesn't care about them, so why should we?

Syriana is the worst kind of Oscar bait. It wants you to think it's important, but if you strip away the winding plot, the A-list cast, and the beautiful cinematography, you are left with a lot less than the movie thinks it has. Maybe if the film had a smaller cast, and made more of an effort to get us attached to the characters involved, this could have been a very good movie. As it stands, Syriana is simply a shell of a good movie. It just doesn't know how to get us interested enough for us to be involved. Many critics see this film as one of the most important movie events of the year, and worthy of endless praise. I simply see an Emperor without any clothes.

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Friday, December 09, 2005

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

A series of emotions flooded over me while I was watching Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Wonder, excitement, curiousness, and also slight disappointment. For all of its wondrous settings and fantasy creatures, the film seems strangely small for such an epic film. Perhaps it's because we don't get to see as much of the world of Narnia as I would have liked. (I must remember, this is only the first story, so perhaps more will be revealed if more films are made.) Perhaps it's because the special effects, while convincing, still looked like...well...special effects. I never quite believed that the children were running around with talking beavers, it looked like they were running around with CGI animals. Perhaps it's because despite its nearly 2 and a half hour running time, the movie never seems to go quite as deep as it should. Director Andrew Adamson (the Shrek films) has crafted a fine, yet flawed, epic that has mystery and wonder to spare, and yet also feels curiously empty in the center, leaving at least this filmgoer with mostly positive, yet severely mixed, feelings.

Set during the dark days of England during World War II, the four Pevensie children are sent away to live with a guardian so they can avoid the city bombings. The four siblings, including eldest Peter (William Moseley), logical Susan (Anna Popplewell), difficult Edmund (Skander Keynes), and youngest child Lucy (Georgie Henley) enter the massive mansion of the Professor (Jim Broadbent), who will watch over them, with mixed feelings. They are away from their home and everything they love for the first time, and reports on the radio speak of the war intensifying. The children try to lighten the dour mood of the stuffy mansion with games, including a fateful session of Hide and Seek, which sends little Lucy searching desperately for a place to hide. Stepping within an ancient wardrobe in an abandoned room, she discovers that it is actually a doorway to the fantasy world of Narnia - a world locked in eternal winter, and under the iron fisted control of the cruel and manipulative White Witch (Tilda Swinton from Constantine).

Lucy befriends one of the local creatures - a "fawn" called Tumnus (James McAvoy). After her brief encounter, she returns home by returning through the wardrobe, only to find that time on Earth has seemingly stopped the entire time she was in Narnia, and she's exactly where she was when she left. The other three children are doubtful of Lucy's tales of a fantasy world located just beyond a wardrobe, but soon come to discover the world for their own when they too are forced to hide within the wardrobe after an accident in the mansion occurs. The Pevensie siblings are rightfully awed by the splendor of Narnia, but as they begin to meet the local animals and creatures, they learn of a much greater purpose to their visit, and a prophecy that they are supposed to fulfill. It seems that these children from another world are fated to join forces with the legendary lion, Aslan (voice by Liam Neeson) - the rightful ruler of Narnia, and end the 100-year long reign of the evil White Witch. But, with the Witch attempting to manipulate young Edmund into taking sides with her, the prophecy may not be fulfilled, and Narnia may never return to its rightful form.

It has been quite some time since I read the novel upon which this film is based. Yet, immediately as the movie started, I started to remember why the story worked for me as a child. There is a sense of mystery and wonder to Narnia, especially during the early scenes. The film wisely never explains how a wardrobe can act as a gateway to another world, as any explanation would probably leave the audience rolling their eyes. The first half of the film plays upon the nature of discovery and adventure that is within any and all children, and this is why I think the story has endeared for so long. The film is able to capture this perfectly. It has an appropriately innocent, yet somewhat foreboding tone that is needed to set up the story. When Lucy first sets foot into the frozen land of Narnia, there is beauty, and yet an uneasiness. The uneasiness takes a stronger hold as we learn more about the situation of the land, yet the film wisely never makes Narnia an overly dire or serious place. This is a land that any child (or any person with a sense of wonder) would love to visit.

And yet, Narnia is also a world of danger, and I applaud the filmmakers for not flinching away from the darker side of the world. Numerous acts of violence are depicted - everything from child abuse to casualties of war. It is all done very tastefully, however, and never becomes overbearing or frightening. The makers of this film understand that the best children's stories have a dark edge to them. They do not talk down to children and allow them to become entranced in the tale being told and the world the story and its characters inhabit. The film constantly walks a fine line between light-hearted whimsy, and deadly seriousness. Fortunately, it is able to find a tone that is consistent, so the change in mood does not seem sudden or forced. For this, I commend director Andrew Adamson and the 4 screenwriters credited to the script. However, for all it does right, Narnia also does many things wrong.

As I mentioned earlier, we seem to get to see precious little of the world of Narnia. This is not exactly the filmmakers' fault, as the movie is very faithful to the original source material, but it bothered me then, and it bothers me now. At one point, the camera pans over a map of the world, and I really wish we could have seen some of those places that the camera was whizzing by. We also mainly only get to look at forests and fields the entire time, very few places that could not exist in our world. Aside from a couple brief glimpses at the White Witch's palace, a different castle near the end, and the home of some friendly beavers, the settings of Narnia are depressingly mundane, and well, ordinary. When I watch a fantasy film, I want sights I could never see in this world. When a film only offers us forest and field settings, it kind of feels like a cop out. There is also a depressing lack of drama to the storytelling due to the fact that there never seems to be any danger. Oh sure, the story fools us into thinking that the lives of the characters are in jeopardy, but as we learn while we watch the film, death is not permanent in Narnia as long as you have the right tools at your disposal and the right knowledge. It kind of lessens the drama to know that the heroes can constantly escape death due to the fact that they have a life-restoring mystical lion, and a magical healing potion constantly on hand. It kind of gives the feeling that there can never be any true casualties for the side of good, only evil.

And although the special effects are obviously of the highest quality, they still never seemed quite convincing enough for me. Some characters more than others. The make up effects for the human actors playing half-humans and other monsters is stunning and very believable, but whenever the children were interacting with a CGI animal (like the friendly beaver couple, or a fox), they seemed more like computer animated cartoon characters inserted into a live action movie. The design for the animals is realistic, but there is just something not right or natural about their appearance. It's like the animators tried to give the animals more emotive faces to make them seem more human. I can understand this in a way, but at the same time, it makes the animals seem less convincing. The design for Aslan, however, is excellent, and seems to be the most "real" of all the CGI animals. Perhaps because he acts the most like an actual lion that can talk, instead of an animal imitating a human like a lot of the other creatures.

Now, I don't want to stress only the negatives, as there's a lot to be excited about here. The performances are wonderful all across the board, especially the children. Georgie Henley, who plays youngest daughter Lucy, is a real find, as she is able to convey general emotion and give a strong performance for a child so young. Yes, the children are kind of one note in their personalities (Peter is the "brave" one, Susan is the "smart" one, Edmund is the "trouble maker", and Lucy is the "innocent"), but they are each able to make their roles believable. The actors who play the fantasy creatures of Narnia are also able to give real and emotional performances behind layers of make up, and the vocal performances for the animal characters are strong. But, the real highlight is Tilda Swinton as the villainous White Witch. She is, pardon the pun, chilling, and gives one of the best villain performances I've seen this year. She does not have a single light, or humorous moment. She is truly manipulative, evil, and she is able to bring these traits out beautifully in her performance, making a villain that just about anyone can hate.

There is no doubt this film will be compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as it shares a similar sense of epic warfare and struggle. Yet, Narnia is able to differentiate itself by offering a wonderful world, and a realistic look at it by having it viewed through the eyes of people from our world, instead of Hobbits and wizards. I just wanted more of it, and for the story to go a bit deeper into the characters. Regardless, Chronicles of Narnia is still a film well worth your time. It may not be the sensation that Disney is hyping it up to be, but it is vastly entertaining, expertly made for the most part, and has a sense of wonder that many films are missing. I liked it. I just didn't love it like I wanted to.

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Aeon Flux

How could something so ludicrous take itself so seriously? That's the question that kept on popping up in my mind while watching Aeon Flux. Here is a movie that features killer grass, women who have an extra pair of arms and hands where their legs should be, and a girl whose hair makes her look like the long lost twin sister of comedian Carrot Top, and yet no one cracks a smile, nor is a single light moment to be found. Aeon Flux is a silly movie that takes itself so seriously that you can't help but laugh. The entire cast deserves some kind of award for keeping a straight face the entire time. Maybe it's because the director is Karyn Kusama, a woman who only has one independent film to her credit (Girlfight), and she thought she was making an overly serious indie drama when she was supposed to be making a fun popcorn flick. Whatever the reason, the film ends up being a joyless, tedious mess packed to the brim with every sci-fi cliche in the book.

Set in a utopian future that looks like every sci-fi utopian society cliche crossed with a living modern art painting, this society was crafted by a man named Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) after a fatal disease wiped out nearly the entire population of the Earth in the year 2011. He created a "perfect" society that is heavily patrolled by armed guards who look like they're wearing futuristic bike helmets over their heads, and is run by a government that looks like they took inspiration on the design of their meeting area from the Jedi Council. Despite the seemingly-perfect society, there is a dark underside. People disappear under mysterious circumstances, and anyone who questions the government is immediately made a target. That's where our heroine comes in. Young Aeon (Charlize Theron) is a member of a violent rebel group, bent on bringing down the Goodchild Regime. She takes mental orders from a mysterious woman (Frances McDormand) whose hair is so utterly ridiculous, you wonder how any of the rebels take orders from her without cracking up at the very sight of her, or without asking how Carrot Top's doing. When Aeon Flux's sister, Una (Amelia Warner) is gunned down by the government after being mistaken for a rebel, Aeon swears vengeance.

Aeon is given the priority mission of killing Trevor Goodchild, but when she confronts him, the man seems to recognize her, and addresses her as "Cathrine". The confusion leads to her capture, and during her escape, Aeon comes across evidence that perhaps there is something much deeper at work. She is haunted by mysterious dreams as she sleeps that seem to hint at another life and another time - a time where she was in love with Trevor. The deeper she goes, she begins to question her loyalty to the rebel army, and begins to wonder if perhaps things are what they seem. Her quest for the truth will uncover a vast cloning plan, and a conspiracy set forth by Trevor's brother, Oren (Jonny Lee Miller) to not only take control of the Regime, but to also keep mankind from progressing past its current state.

Aeon Flux's plot is so convoluted and full of needless plot twists, double identities, and betrayals that I felt kind of lost up till about the 50 minute mark when the character of Trevor oh so kindly finally clued us in as to what this movie was supposed to be about. Up till then, I thought it was about people who didn't smile or show any emotion whatsoever (other than anger) who ran around in really bad clothes and hair. The story is complex, but you almost can't concentrate on it due to the filmmakers' insistence of creating one of the most unintentionally hilarious futuristic societies ever put on film. It's not just the god awful clothes and hair, it's the technology, much of which the movie doesn't even bother to explain. In one scene, Aeon is in prison, and is given a glass of water. Thinking the water might be contaminated with something, she tilts her head back. When she shows her face to us again, her eye has suddenly turned into a giant black pupil, and she can see what toxins or poisons the water might contain. No explanation is given as to what gives Miss Flux this ability, nor does she ever use it again. I guess we're just supposed to accept it. Oh, and in this world, people can inject maps of underground tunnels into their arms, so that their skin takes the form of a map. All of this technology is thrown up at the screen without any rhyme, reason, or explanation. They just simply say "Don't worry, your arm can be used as a map to make your way through". Oh, okay.

It's not just the world I had a problem with, it's the people that inhabit it. Not only does everyone dress like they're auditioning for a live action Jetsons movie, everyone is so dire, dour, and serious that you almost think their heads are going to explode if they crack a smile or display any kind of expression other than fear, concern, or "I'm gonna kick your ass"-style anger. I fail to see how this can be a perfect world if a straight man cannot express happiness when making love to Charlize Therron. That's not a future I want to live in. Because of this, everyone comes across as stiff and robotic instead of as humans. It's hard to attach yourself to Aeon's fight to avenge the death of her sister when she reacts to the sight of her sibling's body being wheeled out on a gurney almost like the way you react to a wad of chewing gum lying on the pavement. I don't blame the actors, many of whom have done fine work in the past. I blame it on a director who took the material much too seriously, thought she was making an art film, and had everyone walk around looking tortured and depressed, even during the action sequences that are supposed to be thrilling us, but instead simply make us stare at the screen in quiet disinterest. Now, I'm not saying this movie had to be goofy and packed with one liners. I'm just saying a little bit of fun could have gone a long way with this film.

Aeon Flux is not a terrible movie, just one that was looked at the wrong way. This movie needed to be handled by someone who knows how to thrill an audience and have a good time with a film's subject matter, while not sacrificing the drama of the storyline. The fact that the movie takes itself so seriously yet makes itself look so silly is a grave miscalculation that brought about many unintentional laughs from me. It takes too long to explain itself, it's overblown and melodramatic when it should be light and exciting, and the only amusement comes at thinking how the actors must have been fighting a losing battle over not cracking a smile while shooting some of this stuff. This feels like a movie that should be getting a small release early in the year (January to March) instead of a full blown holiday release. The fact that Paramount isn't screening this film for critics all but rams this point home. With Narnia and King Kong coming up in the next few weeks, this movie's gonna seem like an even bigger joke than it already is.

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