Friday, November 26, 2010

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) * * * 1/2

Planes, Trains and Automobiles Movie Review

Directed by: John Hughes

Starring: Steve Martin, John Candy

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is not only a road/buddy movie, but it's sort of an unofficial Thanksgiving classic. Its stars play road warriors who want to get home for Thanksgiving, but yet the weather and the aforementioned modes of travel have other ideas.   However, this movie is not only very funny, but also very moving, especially in how it deals with John Candy's Del Griffith.

Del is a traveling salesman who says, "I haven't been home in years."   One can actually believe that when you see the gigantic trunk he lugs with him when he travels.   During a trip from New York to Chicago two days before Thanksgiving, he encounters Neil Page (Martin), who is the opposite of Del in virtually every way.  Del is a large bundle of energy dressed in multiple layers of clothing.   He is friendly, perhaps overly so, to the point in which Neil dresses him down in a classic motel room scene.   How much does Del talk?   Neil says, "I can tolerate any insurance seminar. I can let them go on and on with a huge smile on my face.   They'll ask me how I can stand it. I'd say because I've been with Del Griffith, I can take anything."   However, you can sense that the years of road travel have left Del as a lonely soul who only wants to please and find someone to talk to.

Martin's Neil is a well-to-do advertisting executive who dresses sharply and is neatly groomed.  He would rather be left alone.   Pleasing people is certainly not on his agenda.   It's almost fitting that he would stuck in bad travel situations with Del and maybe even poetic justice.   No matter what, he can't seem to shake Del and that may turn out to be good thing.   He needs someone like Del to show him that he too needs others, more than he even realizes.

I suppose these underlying themes are what makes Planes, Trains and Automobiles better than the average road/buddy picture.   Make no mistake, this movie has plenty of funny scenes and many of them grow out of personalities rather than contrivances.   For instance, the scene in which Neil and Del wind up driving on the wrong side of the highway and ignore warnings from another driver.   It wouldn't have been funny if they simply went the wrong way and encountered trouble.   Instead, the scene builds on a series of misunderstandings and even a bit of arrogance from Del and Neil. "He's drunk," says Del, "How does he know where we're going?" Neil agrees, which may be one of the few times he agrees with Del and he may regret that he did.

The movie was released in 1987 and it comes before the age of cell phones and the Internet.   I don't think the movie would work if it is remade and set in today's world.  Because there are no cell phones or Internet, guys like Del and Neil have to communicate more and thus learn about each other and themselves.   Martin and Candy prove not only to be talented comedians, but also actors with range and depth to handle not only the comedy but the underlying drama.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Zombieland (2009) * *

Zombieland Movie Review

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin

It seems that when dealing with zombies in these types of films, whether the filmmakers are trying to be straight, parody the material, or make an action comedy, everything comes down to a climactic fight with the undead. That means lots of zombies are killed (again), lots of stuff gets blown up, and lots of rounds of ammunition fired. Truth be told, there is only so much one can do with zombies. Usually, they are ambling along while their intended prey is running away at full speed, but the prey becomes outnumbered by sheer numbers. They make uninteresting villains and watching a movie in which the heroes kill them by the dozens starts to feel like watching a very high-tech video game.

Zombieland begins well enough, with a loner nicknamed Columbus (Eisenberg) trying to stay alive in a world overrun by zombies. He has numerous rules he lives by which keep him alive, such as "Don't Be A Hero" and "Don't Use Public Restrooms". He has good reasons not to do these things. Along the way, he hooks up with another loner who drives a black Escalade named Tallahassee (Harrelson). Harrelson's on a quest not just to kill zombies, but to find Twinkies. This gets them into more trouble than they counted on, but Harrelson is really adamant about his need for Twinkies.

Once the two hook up with a pair of con-artist sisters (Breslin and Stone), the film goes quite some time without much action. When there is action, the foursome shoot a few zombies in the head and go about their merry way. Zombieland loses a lot of steam in the middle and since you know the last 20 minutes or so will involve a colossal fight with hundreds of zombies, there isn't a lot of hope that the film will end satisfactorily. The energy created in the opening scenes simply can't be sustained because, again, there is only so much a filmmaker can do with zombies. Although there is a funny cameo involving a major comic actor once the foursome hits Beverly Hills.

I don't know. The actors here do what they can and make convincing action heroes, but it becomes clear soon enough that yet another zombie movie has been made with pretty much the same results. A few years ago, Shaun Of The Dead came out and started off as an interesting spoof of zombie movies, but wound up just being another one in which heroes are trapped in a building fighting them off. OK, it's true that the final fight takes place in an amusement park, but the rules of killing zombies still apply.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Yes Man (2008) * *

Yes Man Movie Review

Directed by: Peyton Reed

Starring: Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, Terence Stamp

Just like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey is fine when he's not playing "Jim Carrey". You know, the guy who expends countless amounts of energy mugging and shticking it up for the camera. His attempts to try and create something funny borders on desperation, as if he's throwing stuff at the wall praying that something sticks.

Carrey needs strong material so he doesn't have to try and carry the whole show. The Truman Show, Dumb And Dumber, and Man On The Moon are three examples of Carrey's movies in which he can actually play a character and not a "character". He's effective in that type of environment. Yes Man, however, is not a film with strong comic material, so it's up to Carrey to save it. Ugh.

Yes Man is similar to Carrey's 1997 Liar, Liar, in which he is unable to lie during a 24-hour spell. Here, he plays Carl Allen, a bank loan officer with a very negative view on life. His wife left him three years ago, which has left him gun shy. As a result, he becomes more of a shut-in who avoids his friends and opportunities for promotion at work. As a bank loan officer, saying no makes his life easy. In terms of his relationships with his friends, it becomes much more of a burden.

One day, an old friend visits him and talks him into attending a "YES" seminar, in which a motivational speaker (Stamp) manages to convince Carrey to say yes to everything instead of saying no. The idea of motivational speakers remains baffling to me. Like George Carlin said, "You either want to do something or you don't. What's the big mystery?" As a result, Carrey begins to say yes to everything, including pop-up ads on his computer, telemarketing calls, a lascivious old lady, and giving his pocket money to the homeless. He also meets and falls in love with Allison (Deschanel), a wannabe singer and artist whose free spirit seems in tune with Carl's newfound lust for life.

I won't go much further into the plot, but things get pretty predictable. You know Allison will find out about Carl "having" to say yes to everything and won't speak to him. You also can guess that the motivational speaker will not be as he seems and that everything will be resolved neatly. The biggest problem with Yes Man is that there isn't much here. It's very thin soup. Having a guy who always said no become a guy who always says yes isn't a plot that is full of inspired comic possibilities. There is a chuckle or two, but that's about it. It's not as if Yes Man takes a good idea and goes nowhere with it. The idea is only so-so to begin with and goes nowhere with it.

The actors try hard here to make it work. Carrey has scenes with shtick that merely draws attention to how hard he'll try for a laugh. To me, the harder you have to work means the less funny you actually are. Yes Man is a comedy that ultimately produces innocuous results, no matter how many faces Carrey makes. Isn't he getting a little old for that shit?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Social Network (2010) * * * *

The Social Network Movie Review

Directed by: David Fincher

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake

Like most movies "based on a true story", The Social Network probably takes a few liberties, especially with its vision of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.   Real life can be boring.  Movie dramatizations are more fun.   Anyone who doubts that can look at the CBS Apollo 13 landing footage on YouTube and compare that with the ending of Ron Howard's Apollo 13.

I know next to nothing about Zuckerberg, but The Social Network tells a fascinating and cinematic story about how and why he founded Facebook, which has made him the world's youngest billionaire.   If the film is to believed, Zuckerberg is brilliant, condescending, paranoid, socially ignorant, awkward, and a genius: all in one.   If Zuckerberg were depicted as a warm, friendly guy who is being wrongly sued by envious golddiggers, then The Social Network would lose its trump card.  

Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) founded Facebook at Harvard in 2003 after a particularly bad night.  His girlfriend dumps him due to his obvious lack of conversation ability.  It's not that he can't speak.  He chooses to speak like, well, as his girlfriend succinctly puts it, "an asshole."  The opening dialogue of Aaron Sorkin's screenplay plays like an ADD version of Who's On First?    After the dumping, Zuckerberg gets drunk, blasts his ex with nasty blog entries, and hacks into the Harvard academic club directories he so wants to be a part of.    He creates a simple program in which users can match club girls against each other to determine which is the hottest.   This causes a system crash hours later, starting the chain of events.

His actions gain the attention of both the right and wrong people. He is brought before Harvard's administration, which echoes two other depositions he appears for later as former partners or wannabe partners sue him for their share of Facebook's rapidly growing pie.   The wannabe partners I mentioned are the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer).

They want Zuckerberg to help them form a master directory called "The Harvard Connection"
which Zuckerberg agrees to do, but then quickly ditches them to form Facebook.
This outrages the twins, who feel he stole their "intellectual property".   What's so compelling about the deposition scenes that are dispersed throughout the film is that the plaintiffs seem to have a case, but do they really?

Facebook is funded by its "co-founder and CFO" Eduardo Saverin (Garfield), who puts up the funds to get the project off the ground.   This partnership works out well locally, but once Facebook begins to expand, Saverin is clearly out of his league in trying to keep up with the expansion.   He lacks the boldness and confidence of Sean Parker (Timberlake), who stumbles across Facebook as it hits the west coast.   Parker is the founder of Napster, which was shut down due to court injunctions, but made Parker rich and a player.   Zuckerberg idolizes him.   In fact, Parker is the only person Zuckerberg seems to respect and admire.   Timberlake plays Parker with a whole lot of energy and superficial likability.   He comes across as the right guy to know in order to grow the company.   He is able to gain wealthy investors, but may be doing so with smoke and mirrors.  It's to Timberlake's credit that he is able to create a "waiting for the other shoe to drop" feeling from me with his performance.

The performances here are strong.   Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is tricky acting.  He plays everything close to the vest which one can attribute to inept social skills mixed with the burden of genius. His reason for the creation of Facebook is murky at first.  He doesn't appear to want to drive in the fast lane like Parker and the money doesn't seem to matter.  However, the powerful last scene of the movie provides the answer which can explain, but not excuse, his behavior and motives.  I also liked Garfield's naivete and he comes as close to being a hero in this film as one could expect.   He is a business major, but simply doesn't have the teeth or drive to excel. 

The Social Network's biggest strength is Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, which takes what seems to be unfilmable material and makes it cohesive and understandable.  You understand the music even if you don't always understand the words.   Watching someone program a computer isn't the most cinematic of events, but since director Fincher and Sorkin make it clear that Zuckerberg is using this to create his ultimate revenge against rejection, it is absorbing.

David Fincher has made some strong films in recent years that work outside of convention and formula: Seven, The Game, Zodiac, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, and now The Social Network.  Fight Club is among his well-known films, but I have mixed feelings about it despite its following.   Each film above is one which can't be pigeonholed into a typical plot and outcome. Fincher's film examine the atypical aspects of human nature and specializes in creating complex movie characters. The Social Network is about an unusual protagonist who creates a revolutionary social network and is among the most fascinating films I've seen in a while.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Karate Kid (2010) * * *

The Karate Kid Movie Review

Directed by: Harald Zwart

Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson

The Karate Kid is very similar to the plot of the 1984 film in which it was remade, but it's also remarkably different.   Similar because the plotlines and the outcome are the same, but different because the characters are fresher and deeper this time.  Subtle changes such as having the hero as a 12-year-old Detroit kid moving to China make the hero a little more sympathetic. He is truly a stranger in a strange land. Although I must say from personal experience that moving to a far away place is something that takes a lot of adjustment, if you ever can adjust.   But enough about me.

I suppose, though, it is this life experience that allowed me to sympathize with Smith's Dre Parker. His single mother takes a job in China and moves halfway across the world with Dre. Almost as soon as he arrives, Dre tries making friends but is pounded by toughs when trying to befriend a young girl who appears to like him. These kids are sadistic and ruthless, which comes as no surprise when we meet their kung fu teacher later in the film. The teacher uses his students as weapons almost and it's a wonder he's not brought up on charges for something.

Jaden Smith is not a very big kid and is rather slight, which makes it very believable that he would be unable to outfight these thugs. After witnessing Dre take one beating too many, the maintenance man at Dre's apartment complex (Chan) intervenes and fights off the thugs. How he does this is very different than in the original. Chan finds a way to choreograph the fight so that the thugs wind up beating each other up.   You'll have to see it to know what I mean.

Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi from the 1984 version was an original performance which earned Morita an Oscar nomination. Chan, however, plays Mr. Han, who is only similar to Miyagi in that he teaches the kid martial arts. Plus, Miyagi is Japanese while Han is Chinese, but the contrasts don't end there. Chan's Mr. Han is a solemn figure. He brings along a lot of emotional baggage which is revealed in a powerful scene later. It is in this scene that Dre can finally teach something to Mr. Han which gives their relationship an added dimension. I think this idea is handled better in this film than in the original.

I also liked the energy Taraji P. Henson brings to the table as Dre's mother. She is spunky and outspoken, trying to very hard to assimilate her family into Eastern culture while dealing the same issues her son is going through. She strikes up a friendship with Mr. Han and sees him as a surrogate father for Dre, although no romance develops.

Everything boils down to the tournament finale in which Dre and the thugs compete. There are some CGI effects here added to the kids' moves. After all, can a 12-year old really deliver kicks like that? Can anyone for that matter? Because I saw the original, the outcome is determined, but it's still fun to watch. Just like the original.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Pirates Of The Carribean: At World's End (2007) * *

Directed by: Gore Verbinski

Pirates-At World's End is the third installment of this lucrative series that is only slightly more intelligible than "Dead Man's Chest", which was a whirlwind of breakneck-paced action sequences that still managed to put me down for a 10-15 minute nap. Sometimes it's just as boring to have everything happening in a movie as it is to have nothing happen. At World's End, however, has action, but it is so caught up in its confusing story that I simply gave up trying to figure it out.

I normally have fairly good comprehension of movie plots. But like The Lord Of The Rings series, the Pirates series throws so many characters, names, places, and subplots at you that juggling them all becomes a burden. It becomes obvious that there really are no rules to govern anything that's going on. Characters can do just about anything at any given time to be of service to the plot. The very nasty looking Davy Jones, who is still looking for people to send to his Locker, can change faces and shapes inexplicably. Other characters who are seemingly human can have their hearts carved out of their chests and still live to tell about it. Oh, and let's not forget the returning Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush), who was brought back to life at the end of the last installment. His allegiances and personalities seem to switch on a dime and another newcomer to the plot, Captain Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat) undergoes so many quick transformations that it's a wonder he doesn't give himself whiplash. I wouldn't dream of giving away plot secrets, mostly because I'm not even sure I know any.

I thought the first Pirates Of The Caribbean film "The Curse Of The Black Pearl" could've been a pretty good film, but it overstayed its welcome by a half-hour. By the end of this film, you realize that the whole series has overstayed its welcome. I admired Johnny Depp's performance in the first film, which garnered him an Oscar nomination, but by this installment he almost seems like an afterthought. Sure he's hanging around, but he doesn't seem to serve much purpose, except to continue his goofy act from the first two films. The idea that he seems to go about things without plans (or seemingly so) was unique in the first film. By now, however, everyone else is doing the same thing.

Oh, and Keith Richards makes an appearance as Depp's long-lost father, but in the pirate makeup, Keith actually looks much better than he does in real life. Maybe he should've lobbied to keep the film's makeup artist on his personal staff. Nonetheless, even his character inexplicably turns up on a ship long after you figure he disappeared from the scene. This film runs about 3 hours and it appears that there may be enough plot left over for a fourth installment, which I hope doesn't come to fruition.

At World's End, like the first two, is technically sound. There are plenty of icky creatures and undead people around to give it color. Kudos to the editor for at least attempting to make sense out of a senseless story and even more unpredictable characters, but his efforts are for naught. At World's End plays more like an explosion at the screenplay factory than anything else.

The Filth and The Fury (2000) * * *

Directed by: Julien Temple

"We broke up at the right time for all the wrong reasons," says Johnny Rotten, the Sex Pistols' lead "singer". Actually, if you think about it, the Sex Pistols weren't a band that was formed with staying power in mind. Could you imagine a 40-year-old Rotten and company continuing to try and keep ahead of the pack in the punk rock movement? Punk rock is more or less a young man's game. It's easier to be rebellious & obnoxious as a young man who doesn't know much else. Seeing a man over 30 spitting on cameras & dressing in rags would be rather scary. You would wonder when he would go out and get a real job.

The Sex Pistols were indeed a necessary band at a time in 1970's England when there was a long trash strike, the poor stayed poor, and hopelessness was abundant. The Pistols were an angry alternative voice to the establishment that couldn't have cared less about what was going on. In the working class districts, the dissidence formed in the persons of The Sex Pistols. They became popular and infamous at the same time, their act wore thin with the establishment while being embraced by the disenfranchised. I liked the footage showing the band holding a benefit for the families of striking workers. It is unusual to see the band serving cake and ice cream to kids, but in reality the band was about raising its voice for the unheard middle class. Rotten himself says that God Save The Queen was written as a love poem for England and his disgust about what was happening to it. "God Save The Queen" was a #1 hit in the UK, but the charts refused to print that fact, which only amused the Sex Pistols. The media's refusal to embrace the Pistols only helped to further their cause more. It's odd that while the single was a big hit, it caused Rotten to be attacked and fear for his life & the Pistols needed to be booked in small clubs under assumed names to avoid more scutiny.

The so-called "decent" Englishmen began acting in the same manner they seemingly hated the Sex Pistols for. For all of history, patriotism meant that you speak nothing but good about your country or else. The film makes that point very well. Make no mistake, the Sex Pistols were involved in many a fight and criminal act in their day. When the band toured America, they all had trouble getting visas due to their criminal backgrounds. Bassist Sid Vicious attacked a rowdy fan with his bass guitar, but oddly enough, since he could barely play the thing and it was unplugged during some shows, I guess he felt he had to do something with it. Never mind that the fan was attempting to attack Sid for calling the crowd names. But by the time the group began touring America, its discontent with themselves was obvious. Vicious was headlong into a deadly heroin addiction that Rotten attempted to get him out of.

Guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook were traveling more with the band's manager Malcolm McLaren and becoming mere pawns in the ongoing battle between himself and the band. The band's last concert was revealing. They were disgusted with each other. The band only played one encore because Rotten says, "I'm a lazy bastard." They were defeated and deflated, not just by each other, but by their puppetmaster manager McLaren. You could read the surrender on their faces during the final song. Their separation after only two years was inevitable. Regardless of whether you like the Sex Pistols music, the documentary is well made and intriguing.

I didn't really care for the music. The songs, while forceful and angry, were shapeless and kind of began to blend into one another, indistinguishable. But the film is more about why the music needed to be played than anything else. Johnny Rotten by his own admission couldn't sing, but he wondered why he had to be able to anyway. The music was more about the rebellion than sounding good. Actually, the band, other than Rotten, didn't look like the punks that came later. I always had a question about punk rock that the film answered for me. If punk rock was supposed to be about being anti-conformity, why did its groups and fans begin to all wear the same thing and look the same? Isn't that conformity too? The band members believed that as well. They were rather appalled that the punk rock movement became yet another type of conformity. Whether one is a follower of the establishment or anti-establishment and doesn't think or act for himself, then what is the difference?

It was different to see the band's members as talking heads without actually being able to see their faces. The band members were backlit so their faces were obscured while McLaren talked from behind a bondage mask, more as a puppet than a puppeteer. Rotten reminded me a little of John Lennon in terms of how the years seemed to have given him wisdom. He wishes he had that wisdom when trying to deal with Sid and Nancy Spungen, whom everyone in the group to a man hated. Rotten says, "I could take on all of England, but couldn't take on one heroin addict."   His hatred for heroin is told in no uncertain terms as was his love for the younger, dumber Vicious.

Steve Jones and Paul Cook (as well as original bass player Glen Matlock) also come across as thoughtful and knowing, while regretting that things ended the way they did.   But, in reality, the breakup probably was the best thing for them.   They would've become passe and overlooked, taken for granted, and ultimately become part of the establishment they rebelled against.   Punk is and was a young man's game.

Sid & Nancy (1986) * * *

Sid and Nancy Movie Review

Directed by: Alex Cox

Starring: Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb

I simply can't imagine why someone would ever want to even try heroin, especially after watching the depths in which Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen sank to in Sid & Nancy. By the end, their lives were but an existence. They were dead, but just forgot to stop breathing. The second half of the film is devoted to the quick downward spiral the two lovers were in. Whole days drifted out of focus and sometimes the drugs left them without even the energy to extinguish a fire that threatened to destroy their fleabag hotel room. Sid Vicious, as played by Gary Oldman, is a study in unusual celebrity. He had no real talent and became the face and personality of The Sex Pistols in the public eye, mostly because he was such a fuckup. He was told in no uncertain terms by the band's management that he was only in the band because his fucking up created publicity and cash. He was the train wreck that, while horrifying, you couldn't turn away from. While he was The Sex Pistols bass player, his abilities were nil and at times the band would unplug his bass.

His attempts at a post-Sex Pistols career included a version of My Way that is painful to hear. Through all this, he and Nancy were clinging to each other as their lives turned into nothing. Nancy's role in Sid's life is that of a driving force. She does what she can to get him paid more than he's worth. Part of this is because she believes in him and part of it is to feed their drug habit. But, according to this film, it seems Sid and Nancy might've been able to live happily together under different circumstances. To listen to the remaining members of The Sex Pistols talk, she was the devil incarnate. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. To say that Sid would've been OK if he never met Nancy would be inaccurate. His mother isn't brought up in the movie, but she was a heroin addict herself and played a key role in his death. He would've found other ways to stay messed up because that was the only way he felt he could be accepted.

The second half of Sid & Nancy is better than the first because of its unrelenting images of a hermitic existence. The first half kind of hits key points in the budding Sid & Nancy relationship, but overall The Sex Pistols were hardly used at all. Cox chose to focus more on the destruction that heroin had on two lost souls. If I sound a bit sympathetic, well it's because how could you not be? It's difficult not to feel sorry for people whose lives are not worth living. By the time Nancy was stabbed to death (the movie claims it was an accident, but in reality it may have been more deliberate), death must've been a welcome relief.

If you judge by the end in which Sid gets into a cab ride with his dearly departed, death must've been very welcomed by Sid also. That scene is quite powerful because Nancy is dressed in all white, almost as an angel, which is maybe how Sid saw her even during the worst of times.

Gary Oldman's career has been pretty steady since this film. He has played villains, creeps, heroes, and oddballs. Here, he is playing someone who earns sympathy without even trying. Would Sid have wanted sympathy? Probably not, but Oldman's portrayal of an inarticulate addict is genuine and engrossing. Where has Chloe Webb gone? After this and Twins, she has pretty much fallen off the face of the Earth, but in Sid & Nancy she creates a person who may have been a decent agent if her life didn't get destroyed by heroin. She's pushy, plucky, but also loves Sid even if the rest of the world doesn't.

Both actors are courageous in their portrayals of two people made for each other, even if the results were tragic.

Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan (2006) * * *

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Movie Review

Directed by: Larry Charles

Sacha Baron Cohen created the character of Borat on his TV show Da Ali G Show. I wasn't wholly familiar with the character and the movie does introduces him to the people who are unfamiliar, which is probably many. He is a TV reporter in Kazakhstan, a country which is very unlikely to have many TVs or even much electricity. Borat is married and has a son, but doesn't seem to mind leaving them behind to go to America and film a documentary of what he learns. I don't know where in Kazakhstan one would view the finished product, but I digress.

Borat is very friendly, maybe so much so that he is naively inappropriate with his language, views, and behavior. To him, going #2 in a paper bag and bringing it to a dinner table full of guests is no cause for alarm. Neither is fighting his sidekick Azamat (Ken Davitian) naked all over a posh hotel. Neither is showing off pictures of him and his son in which the son's arm may not necessarily be his longest limb. Through it all, Borat horrifies and angers many he comes in contact with. Those he doesn't wound up trying to sue him later in real life.

Cohen is engulfed in this character; to the point in which Borat becomes unique and memorable without the slightest idea that an actor is playing him. He is cheerfully unaware of his impropriety in various ways, kind of like Archie Bunker. Borat, like Bunker, spouts off at the mouth and completely believes his own bullshit without the slightest idea that he is the joke. Listen to him discuss his Jewish innkeepers during an overnight stay. However, the film, which only runs about 85 minutes before the credits, starts to feel lengthy once Borat stops wanting to learn about America and begins a single-minded quest to marry Pamela Anderson, who he sees on a Baywatch rerun on TV. The buildup and payoff here is the weakest part of the movie. Pamela Anderson was never someone who interested me and Borat pretty much lets me know why.

Despite this, Borat is a funny film that shows a tendency of some Americans to be racist, dumb, stuck up, smart, and even find a way to stay cool in the face of rude behavior. It's no wonder the filmmakers were being sued (albeit unsuccessfully) by some of the people in this film. Borat allowed them to let their guards down and show us all what they were, even if someone's looking.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) * * * *

Slumdog Millionaire Movie Review

Directed by: Danny Boyle

This movie recently swept the Academy Awards with 8 wins and it is a sad, harrowing, exhilarating, and ultimately joyous film. It tells the story of a poor Indian slum kid named Jamal who faces down challenge after challenge in his young life only to be one question away from winning millions on an Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Even then, he is faced with moral dilemmas and life-and- death decisions concerning the love of his life, a woman named Latika (Freida Pinto) and his brother Salim, both of whom have fallen into the dangerous employ of a local gangster.

Slumdog Millionaire juggles a love story, a crime tale, and a biography of this slum kid who is able to make chicken salad out of chicken shit almost daily using his wits and street-smarts. It does so effortlessly and without straining for any payoff or effect, which is something of a masterstroke by director Boyle. By combining contemporary cinematic storytelling with an undertow of timeless movie traditions, Slumdog Millionaire is engrossing every step of the way. I won't give away any plot points. There are no secrets or plot twists in this film like those that have been bombarding movies these days. Quite frankly, I've grown rather weary of movies that bamboozle me with a plot twist ending that essentially renders the whole movie senseless.

Slumdog Millionaire relies on the strength of its rags to almost riches plot and its interesting characters to keep it humming along. The last thing I needed was an ending in which I find out it was all a dream or that Jamal has multiple personalities. Without giving away specifics, it is difficult to undertake this emotional journey and not come away rooting for this guy at the end. It's amazing how much Jamal had to endure in this film, but then I realize that there are millions like him growing up in slums around the world who never get out and never even have remote hopes of escape. Slumdog Millionaire provides those hopes for Jamal because the movie takes place in Mumbai, India, where corporations are building luxury skyscrapers and creating jobs in the very slums where Jamal and his brother roamed.

It's quite unusual to see the modern world on one side of a river and the third world on the other side, but that is happening in many parts of what used to be the third world. Slumdog Millionaire is not a high budget film, but it doesn't have the look or feel of a lower budget film. It is told with strength and purpose and doesn't even try to cheapen the material with schlocky and shaky camera angles and excursions into goofiness. The movie doesn't step wrong and how rare it is to see a movie I can say that about these days.

The Ladykillers (2004) * *

Directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Starring: Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, JK Simmons, Marlon Wayans

What a missed opportunity.   Having never seen 1955 Ladykillers which starred Alec Guiness and Peter Sellers, I entered into this film with fresh eyes and an open mind.    But despite being well-acted, the script and pacing ultimately make this version less than it should've been.

The film is awfully laid-back for a crime caper comedy.   Usually, these types of films, like Ocean's Eleven (2001) are amped up, but the tone here is rather subdued.  It doesn't have any real urgency, as if it cares about going somewhere in particular.    Much of the dialogue Hanks' Professor Dorr has to utter is long and meandering, allowing me to lose my train of thought.   The film is much the same way.

The Ladykillers starts out well enough, with Hanks' shady Professor Goldthwait Higginson Dorr showing up at Marva Munson's (Hall) front door wishing to rent a room.   She is an elderly, church-going, God-fearing black lady who complains a lot to the police about neighbors blasting hip-hop music.   Professor Dorr is a Southern gentleman with funny teeth and an even goofier laugh, but he really wishes to rent the room and have access to her basement.   Why?  So he and his four cronies can dig a tunnel from her home to a nearby casino and rob it, all under the unsuspecting nose of Ms. Munson.    His alibi for having his friends over is that they play "church music", which gets on Ms. Munson's good side.   Dorr and his cronies have instruments, but they play a boombox to drown out the digging noise. 

Professor Dorr is the type of man who says five words when he only needs to say two.   He is a flim-flammer, dazing the listener with seventy five cent words.   Hanks has a ball with this character, who uses so many big words that it amazes me when little ones come out also.   But the problem here is that the Coen brothers, who also wrote the adaptation, give Dorr so much to say that I found my mind wandering during his drawn-out speeches.   The Coens kill the point early and often.  But Hanks delivers spectacularly after he and Ms. Munson are outside as an explosion occurs in the basement. Ms. Munson asks what the noise was and Dorr replies, "I can't say with any absolute certainty that I heard anything at all."   Naturally, almost every word out of Professor Dorr's mouth is a lie, but Hanks has a florid delivery.

But the rest of the film lacks energy.   It is as laid back as Professor Dorr's demeanor.   Somehow, the goofballs assembled here lack the memorable qualities of the goofballs in Ocean's Eleven.  The film is not a complete loss, due mostly to the effort expended by the actors.   However, it doesn't quite work.  

Cold Mountain (2003) * * *

Directed by: Anthony Minghella

Starring: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Kathy Baker, Donald Sutherland

For the second time in three months, I saw a four-star movie that ended up being a three-star movie. Mona Lisa Smile starring Julia Roberts was a terrific film I saw back in April that went flat at the end. Cold Mountain went the same route. For all of the time and caring I put into the film, I expected an ending which was less anti-climactic in its execution and actually a proper ending. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that apparently writer-director Anthony Minghella didn't think his characters suffered enough.

Cold Mountain runs about two and a half hours, but for 3/4 of it, it was a beautifully filmed and sweeping Civil War romance. I enjoyed the quirky supporting characters immensely and it had a wonderful sense of time and place. But the ending should've been overwhelmingly emotional and worthy of what came before it. Enough about the ending though, let's talk about the rest.

Cold Mountain is part Homer's The Odyssey and part Gone With The Wind in terms of its story and romantic notions. The leads are Inman (Law) and Ada (Kidman), who live in Cold Mountain, North Carolina in the days before the Civil War. Inman is a quiet handyman. Ada moves to Cold Mountain with her reverend father (Sutherland) from Charleston, S.C. She doesn't expect to be thunderstruck with love upon seeing Inman for the first time, but she is. He, is in own less articulate way, is also smitten with Ada. They meet a few other times, speaking elliptically and dancing around the attraction between them until one day as war breaks out, Inman snatches Ada up in his arms for a long, perhaps last, kiss. They part ways, with Ada promising to wait for him. At the time, the war was expected to be over in a month, but as history shows, years will pass before he would hope to see her again.

She writes him almost weekly without hearing from Inman, but possesses great faith in the idea that he will return. Will he return as the same man she fell in love with and vice versa? Judging by the battle scenes in the film, probably not. But here the two may be dealing with the idea of a perfect love as opposed to the reality. This is what gets them through the lonely nights and the horror of war. Law and Kidman do what needs to be done to make a sweeping romantic epic work. They are convincingly and all-encompassingly in love and they are both noble and passionate. Plus they are both interesting as individuals and not just together. Thus, when Inman deserts the Confederate army and heads for his epic journey home, I held my breath in hopes he would get there OK.

Law and Kidman play the material as straight romantic leads. But the supporting cast led by Renee Zellweger (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this film) are a pure contrast and all the more fun to watch. Zellweger is Ruby, who comes to Ada's aid in helping her clean up her home and life. She is a lovable loudmouth who speaks her mind fearlessly, throwing in colorful colloquialisms and swears to boot. Her role is the juiciest of the bunch and Zellweger excels in pushing the boundaries of this character. She is more than just the best friend. Also great here is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as a wayward clergyman Law stumbles across as he attempts to get home to Cold Mountain. Hoffman is laconic but cheerfully corrupt. I also enjoyed the whole subplot involving The Home Guard, led by a monster named Teague (Ray Winstone), whose job it is to watch over Cold Mountain and protect its people from Union forces, but instead use the authority as an excuse to lord over the town.

Much of the film was shot in Romania and the snowy winter scenery and lush spring scenery makes Cold Mountain a memorable place visually. The battle scenes are also bloody but easy to follow, so we know what's happening to whom and why. But as much as I enjoyed the first two hours of the film, I was puzzled by the tone and outcome of the final thirty minutes. With all of the emotional buildup, I expected more and wanted more. But the feeling came over me that the movie was determined to end the wrong way and it did. Perhaps the alternate ending, if there is one, is better. Although it must be said that the film didn't take a complete nosedive like Gangs Of New York or Full Metal Jacket.

Anthony Minghella is a talented director and an Oscar winner for The English Patient and I've liked every one of his films, but in this film as well as The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, he seems to hedge his bets and hold back on the endings, thus making the experience of watching his films all the more frustrating. He'll have to prove that he can close the deal and make a completely satisfying movie, rather than a film with a promise of greatness that isn't lived up to.

Punch Drunk Love (2003) * * *

Punch-Drunk Love Movie Review

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman

After Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson used up all of the goodwill he had with me that he earned with Boogie Nights (1997). After all, the ending consisted of thousands of frogs inexplicably raining down on its hapless characters. With the exception of two movies, Adam Sandler is pretty much a guy who grates on my nerves. But the good news about Punch-Drunk Love is that frogs don't fall from the sky and Adam Sandler is more interesting in drama.

I never really found Sandler funny when he's playing Adam Sandler. He joins Jim Carrey and Robin Williams in the category of actors who are better when not playing themselves or roles "fitting them to a tee." I never understood why people found Adam Sandler funny. He talks in a stupid, babyish voice and his humor stems from hostility and screaming at others when he gets mad. But here, in a toned down and insightful way, he explores the Adam Sandler persona. And essentially, he's not attempting to pass off fits of rage and hostility as funny. He's showing them as what they are in all of their ugliness. What fails to work in comedy works well in drama, especially this one.

Sandler plays Barry Egan, an owner of a business that sells glass toilet plungers among other odd items. He is reserved and doesn't speak much.  He's filled with pent-up rage, mainly because he has seven sisters, all of which stress him out in different ways. They sure don't treat him right and a few even refer to him as "gayboy", which sends him into a coniption. But to his sisters, this reaction is their punchline while making a joke of Barry. Barry also experiences moments of sudden sobbing, which also seems to stem from inability to healthfully express his anger over his shitty job and even shittier personal life. He is pleasant and low-key to an outside eye, but we all seem to know better.

Longing for distractions from life, he tries a phone-sex chat line in which the girl talks dirty then starts asking to borrow money. When he refuses, her boss (Hoffman) sends goons after him to shake him down. He even buys Healthy Choice pudding cups in order to cash in millions of frequent flyer miles, but explodes when he finds out he can't use them right away. The only thing which may be able to change his life for the better is a budding romance with Lena (Watson), who seems to drop into his life unexpectedly just when he needs her the most.  She likes him regardless of his faults and in fact may be the only person who can handle him right.   

Punch-Drunk Love is more or less of study of Egan and the things that drive him crazy. Is he insane? I don't know, but he sure has lots of issues. He tries to ask his brother-in-law for the name of a shrink, but the brother-in-law tells his wife and more family drama occurs. But Egan does grow in satisfying ways. His final showdown with Hoffman is fun to watch, mainly because Egan has come so far. Watson's Lena isn't really given much of a personality, but she is more of a symbol of what Egan can attain if he is able to change and grow.

Anderson's film is certainly not boring.   Is it entirely successful, like Boogie Nights? No, because it doesn't present a lucid and compelling view of a period in history, even if it is porno history. But instead it concentrates on its main character, allowing Sandler to play with type and against type all at once. Hopefully, Sandler will realize he can play someone other than himself.

The Butterfly Effect (2004) * * * 1/2

Directed by: Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber

Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Amy Smart, Melora Walters, Eric Stoltz, Ethan Suplee

I may reflect on this movie years from now and realize that it may not hold up under scrutiny. But for now, I respected it for seeing its story through to its chilling and inevitable ending. There are no surprise endings or split personalities which serve to change the nature of the story in one fell swoop. It has the courage to be what it is. I like some movies with trick endings (i.e. Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, etc.), but these days they have become so common that I sit through most films wondering where the surprise will be thrust upon me.

The Butterfly Effect derives its title from the theory that a butterfly flapping its wings somewhere in the world has effects on the weather thousands of miles away. Hey, I didn't make the theory up so don't blame me. But the point driven home here is that one minute detail can have an everlasting effect on your life. Its hero, Evan Trabor (Kutcher), seems to believe that he can change the big picture of his life and the lives of his loved ones, but continually trips over small details that change things for the worse.

I won't reveal too much plot, since much of the film contains alternate timelines, but I'll start off by saying that the film opens with Evan and his friends as children. Evan seems to encounter one damaging situation after another, but he can't remember what happened because he blacked out through most of it. For example, a dog is killed, but he only sees the dead dog in the aftermath and not how it was killed. He asks his friends to fill in the details for him, but they are reluctant to relive the various traumas that occur. By the time he reaches college, Evan and his friends are damaged goods in more ways than one.

It is here that Evan realizes he has the power to "fill in the blanks" so to speak when it comes to his blackouts. Since he blacked out, he didn't truly experience what happened and thus he can go back through his mind and through time itself to fix the traumatic situations and make life better for himself. However, with every "fix", other serious consequences occur. Sometimes to Evan and sometimes to his friends. The film is like the cinematic equivalent of the arcade game "Whack A Mole", where a mole pops up and you hit it with a mallet, only to see another mole pop up somewhere else.

I won't reveal any more plotwise, but I did like some of the touches thrown in. Ethan Suplee is a fat actor who plays Evan's college roommate. He has a weird hairdo, wears gothic clothes, and makeup. In another film, he would be an outcast, but here he gets laid with various beautiful women constantly. The performances also work, especially Kutcher's. He is a solid, likable, and believable protagonist. When this film came out, the media buzz of his romance with Demi Moore was on the downswing and the backlash was starting. Many critics bashed this film I think strictly because of something visceral against Kutcher. I have no such problems with the guy, and I believe his performance displays an acute ability to handle difficult material. For the most part, The Butterfly Effect is not a lighthearted or fun film. Kutcher lends gravity to it and allows it to work when it really shouldn't.

The Last Samurai (2003) * *

Directed by: Edward Zwick

Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, Timothy Spall, Tony Goldwyn

This epic set in 1870's Japan is similar to Dances With Wolves in almost every way. But unlike the 1990 Best Picture, the inevitable switch of allegiances by the hero is rather uncompelling and unconvincing. I'll explain why later, but we're left with here is a lush looking film with good performances but no real soul. It's odd how a film with such impressive production values can also be so by the numbers.

If you saw Dances With Wolves, you remember the story. A disillusioned Civil War vet finds himself in a distant, strange land surrounded by people he intially perceives as enemies. But after spending time in their company, he grows to admire and love the strangers, going so far as to align with them when the Americans attack their homes. The story here is pretty much the same in The Last Samurai, although the land in question in Japan and not the West. Also, here the hero is taken prisoner while in Dances With Wolves the hero was not a prisoner of the strangers but a visitor. Many movies tell the same stories but do so differently and in their own way. But I think here the screenwriters faulted by making the hero hateful and an alcoholic. He despises the American army so much that if he were taken prisoner by a group of Eskimos, he'd be living in an igloo without much fuss. Here, he is a prisoner of Katsumoto, the leader of the vanishing Samurai (Watanabe), but he doesn't seem to mind all that much. When he states, "here I've have the first peaceful sleep I've had in years," somehow I get the feeling that he would have to be dragged away from the place kicking and screaming.

Cruise's character, Nathan Algren, is hired by Japanese businessmen looking to bring Japan into the modern era. Actually, he's hired to train the woefully underprepared Japanese army to combat the Samurai. The Samurai wish to stay with tradition, believing they represent the emperor's wishes. But in fact, the Emperor is but a pawn in the game being played by the Japanese businessmen and their financial interests. Algren is strictly doing this for monetary gain and his heart is certainly not into it, so this robs the conflict out of the scenes in which he is under the watch of Katsumoto. Oh, the argue briefly and in the usual way, but there's no real juice. Wouldn't it be better if Algren were solidly behind the cause and thus making his switch more emotionally satisfying for the audience?

As I stated, I admired the performances here. Cruise is asked to play a disillusioned drunk and he handles it well. Watanabe exemplifies honor, strength, and dedication to his cause. He is a true warrior and perhaps he takes Cruise prisoner because he admires his skills as a warrior as well. But ultimately I just didn't care about the goings on in The Last Samurai. Without much conviction in the story, I found myself admiring the mountainside, which is not something I normally do.

The Village (2004) * 1/2

The Village Movie Review

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver

It's safe to say now that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has used up all of the goodwill he had built up with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.     His last two films, including this one, have been absolute clunkers.    The Village has a threadbare plot to say the least. It treads dangerously into Blair Witch Project territory with its silliness and simplicity.    I wonder if Shyamalan referred to this film as "Blair Witch meets Signs" when pitching it.   The fact that Blair Witch and Signs are two of the worst movies of recent years isn't good, but my guess would be that the studio simply threw him a pile of money because of his last three hits.

I won't delve too much into the plot to be helpful to those who haven't seen the film and still wish to, even after I do everything in my power to dissuade you from seeing it.   You'll thank me one day.  But I digress,    The Village takes place in circa the late 19th century in what seems to be rural Pennsylvania.   A funeral opens the film and the gravestone of the soon-to-be-buried body reads "died 1897", so you can draw your own conclusions from that.    The village inhabited by about a hundred people is adjacent to ominous-looking woods.     These woods are allegedly inhabited by "Those We Do Not Speak Of.." (this is exactly how they are described by the villagefolk).   Are they monsters, people, or aliens?   That is not known.   But apparently there is a truce between the village and woodspeople in which the villagers stay in the village and the woodspeople stay in the woods.

William Hurt plays the village leader, both spiritual and otherwise. His blind daughter and a young man named Lucious (Phoenix) are in love and wish to be married.   He doesn't say much, so the blind girl really doesn't have much to go on while believing she's in love with the guy.    But soon, a bad thing happens.   Phoenix is stabbed by the jealous village idiot (Brody), who also loves the blind girl. He will die unless someone can enter the forbidden woods and reach "the towns", which have the necessary modern medicines needed.

So the plot is in motion figuratively but certainly not literally.   The Village is as plodding and serious as Signs and thus had me checking my watch often.  I was also rather offput by the dialogue these actors had to utter.   Their sentences seem to contain way too many words.   They speak eight words when three will do, adding lots of prepositions at the end.    Also, if you keep bringing up "Those We Do Not Speak Of" often enough, shouldn't they stop being "Those We Do Not Speak Of?"

I will not be specific about the ending, except I believe it brings about more questions than answers. The original plot was thin to begin with.   Throwing in that ending made me ask whether the whole thing is really worth the trouble.   What do the principal parties have to gain by what they are doing? Why did they do it? What drove them to it?   In many surprise endings, the shocker fills in the blanks and fits within the story.  The one in The Village only creates more blanks to be filled in. 

Kill Bill Volume 2 * * * (2004)

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Uma Thurman, Michael Madsen, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah

When I reviewed the first Kill Bill, I said Tarantino should get out of his own way and not appear to be trying to steal the show from his actors. Kill Bill Volume 1 was simply too ridiculous for its own good. But Kill Bill Volume 2 is a quieter, more introspective film. Yes it has action and lots of butt-kicking, but even in those scenes, Tarantino dials down so his characters take center stage.
It's hard to believe that Volumes 1 and 2 were once one big movie. They are so different in tone and style. Volume 1 overkills on the style, while Volume 2 concentrates on the story of it all.

If you recall, Volume 1 outlines the story of The Bride (Thurman), who is attacked on her wedding day by her boss Bill (Carradine) and his four henchmen (although some are women). She was left for dead and spent four years in a coma. When she awakes, she vows vengeance. The Bride disposed of two of the baddies in the first one. Here, she is up against Bill's brother Budd (Madsen) and the patch-eyed Elle Driver (Hannah). She must destroy them before going after her main target, Bill.

I won't give away any plot secrets here. Heaven knows, I heard enough crap about giving away the plot of The Village, to which I plead innocent. The plot in that movie was so thin that I couldn't help myself. But here, there is a theme of relief vs. regret. How do certain characters feel about their actions and having to live with them? This idea is even stated out loud by Budd as he questions Elle Driver about the possibility of facing The Bride in a showdown. Elle Driver is a wicked monster and incapable of regret, but the same can't be said for Bill.

In the first Kill Bill, David Carradine is heard but not seen, but I commented on how reasonable he sounds for a cold-blooded killer. In Volume 2, that idea is fleshed out. He is seen and looks worn and tired from years of killing and crime. But he is smart and feels things. As played by Carradine, he is thoughtful and full of conflicting emotions about what he did to The Bride. I loved this performance by Carradine and I hope he receives an Oscar nomination for his work here. He evokes a quiet dignity for a character who we didn't think had much of that at all. As a result, the final showdown between he and the Bride is not a showy, chop-socky brawl, but one which suggests a love-hate conflict within the two parties. The ending here is much more satisfying than if Carradine were simply a smart-ass, wisecracking villain who gets his ass handed to him.

When Tarantino allows his characters to develop and surprise us, like in Pulp Fiction, he is very good. When he becomes too enraptured with his style and dialogue to care about his characters, he isn't nearly as successful. (See Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, and Kill Bill Volume 1). Maybe he will stay out of the way completely next time. We can only hope.

The Three Stooges * 1/2 (2000-TV Movie)

Directed by: James Frawley

Starring: Paul Ben-Victor, Michael Chiklis, Evan Handler

I rarely look at TV movies, much less review them. But I saw this one on Friday night on American Movie Classics and I watched. Why not? I love the Stooges and I thought this movie would provide me with insight into their lives and careers. Well, I still love the Stooges. And I can't help but notice that American Movie Classics has really stretched its definiton of "classic". When you start showing Halloween 5 along with The Godfather, well, something odd is going on at that network.

This was a made-for-TV movie first shown in 2000 and I heard about it, but I didn't go out of my way to see it.  Now I know why.  This movie tries to cram everything about the Stooges into a two-hour running time.  As a result, important things get short shrift, if any shrift at all. This movie finds a way to cram Curly's death and Shemp's death into one funeral scene.  Would it have killed the TV network (which I believe was ABC) to give the filmmakers one more hour of running time?  By the way, Curly and Shemp died three years apart, in case any Wisenheimer wants to dispute why I didn't like the idea of one funeral scene for two guys.

The movie is also strange in its depiction of Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, et al. They behave like they were making a Stooge movie. Moe says, "Why I oughta..." a lot.  Larry is Larry. Curly actually finds way to throw "Nyuk, Nyuk" and "Soitainly" into his normal, everyday conversations.   Also strange is that the stage and screen performances of the Stooges do not display why they were funny and why everyone was offering them movie deals left and right.

As if there weren't enough goofy things about this movie, there is one more. After Shemp's death, Joe Besser and Joe DeRita are in a total of one scene each! In fact, I didn't see Joe DeRita until the final shot, but there was plenty of conversation about him. Perhaps more of his scenes were edited out because the inevitable two-hour running time was in jeopardy.

Blade II * * * (2002)

Blade II Movie Review

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Starring: Wesley Snipes, Kris Kristofferson, Ron Perlman

Just like the original Blade, Blade II takes place in a dark world of vicious vampires who, unlike movie vampires from the 30's and 40's, would rather suck all of the blood out of you in one shot rather than come back for more and adding to their workload. If you got the person there already, you may as well finish the job. The creatures in Blade II don't just bite your neck. Their faces come apart and resemble a Venus Flytrap as they add a new meaning to "sucking face."

Blade himself is a pretty interesting hero. He is half-human and half-vampire. He is immune to the weaknesses that befall other vampires. Daylight, steel, and garlic don't bother him, but he has to inject himself daily with serum to control the bloodlust which obviously comes from the vampire side of the family. He has an unsatiable desire to destroy vampires, but here the vampires come to him with a truce. The vampires themselves are being hunted by a new superior race more powerful than your average vampire. Blade is convinced to join them because the race plans to wipe out humans and vampires alike. Can Blade trust those he has fought against all of these years? They don't make it easy on him, especially Reinhardt (Perlman-from Hellboy), who takes an antagonistic approach to Blade.

The film is filled with caves and darkness, punctuated by long fistfights and killings. Sometimes fistfights and killings in movies tend to go on and on. Soon enough, you find your mind wandering. Blade's fight scenes are pretty much the same, but I did enjoy the witty dialogue, especially coming from crusty Whistler (Kristofferson, who I thought was dead in the first one but apparently not). Also, I enjoy the fact that Blade does what he does in a businesslike manner; not tortured by the meaning of it all like Batman or Daredevil. Director Del Toro also made Hellboy and both movies were saved by convincing and likable heroes. Without people to root for and against, action scenes don't mean a whole hell of a lot.

Last week I reviewed The Passion Of The Christ and vilified it. Why? Because it was all brutality and nothing else. Not even a hint of drama. There is plenty of blood and gore here, but it stops occasionally to keep the story moving along. It also drops a few soap operatic types of surprises as well. If The Passion Of The Christ had even a hint of drama, I would've liked it better. Enough to give it one star at least.

The Terminal * * * (2004)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci, Catherine Zeta-Jones

The Terminal is cute without being too cute and light without being too light. It also doesn't play for easy laughs or overdone sentimentality. It strikes just the right balance which means it doesn't cross over into greatness. But it's entertaining and gets the job done, kind of like Spielberg's last film, Catch Me If You Can.

The story is as follows: A man named Viktor Navorski (Hanks) lands in a New York Airport to find that his visa and passport are no longer valid. Why? Because his homeland, an Eastern European country named Krakozia is involved in a civil war and has invalidated all international travel to and from the country. But he is not seeking political asylum or applying for a green card, so according to the airport director, Frank Dixon (Tucci), the only place he can legally stay is within the airport terminal. He is literally a man without a country, but he learns that fast despite his very limited English. As he stays in the terminal, his English improves and he learns to live off the land, so to speak. In this case, he lives off of the kindness of the airport staff, who are kind to him in return for favors. (No, not those kind).

But Dixon is in a pickle. He knows Navorski is living in the terminal, but can't legally do anything about it. He is rigid about the rules, because being so will help in his possible promotion. Tucci is terrific playing a man who displays career-mindedness over compassion, at least on the outside. He tries a ruse to allow Navorski to leave the terminal legally, but Navorski doesn't play along. So he's stuck with him, even with an inspection by the FAA coming up which will cement his promotion.

I especially enjoyed Hanks because he doesn't reach for effect. Most actors would overdo the inability to speak English or panic at the situation, but Hanks doesn't mind being patient with his character and playing him as if he is learning things as soon as we do. He is smart and resourceful. Such a situation would require many to be that way. He is also patient beyond words, mostly because of a plot point that surfaces later on.

The Terminal is well made for a film with such light material. It could've stepped wrong in so many ways. I could picture Adam Sandler starring in it and yelling at everyone in a think foreign accent or Jim Carrey starring and flailing his arms about in exaggerated desperation. But Hanks uses his endless charm and likability. I think back to Cast Away, which was a movie in which an actor other than Tom Hanks would've sunk the film. The same thing applies here.

Purple Rain (1984) * *

Directed by: Albert Magnoli

Starring: Prince, Morris Day, Appollonia.

This movie was first released in 1984 and I saw it in the theater. I enjoyed it then, but sometimes movies just flat out don't hold up. This is one of them. Is it terrible? No, but it's not really all that compelling and Prince is a lot less interesting than I thought back then. Some of the songs are very good, but I'll save that for later in the review.

The movie has a semi-autobiographical feel to it as Prince's character, The Kid, struggles with daily life as a Minneapolis club musician. His band is revolting against him. He lives in the basement of his parents' house, where his dad abuses his mom almost daily. The club owner where he works thinks his songs have gone south in quality. (The fact that Prince's Darling Nikki is being performed while the owner shakes his head in disgust is proof enough that this is true).

Oh, and there's Morris Day, leader of a rival band The Time, who has no qualms about trying to steal The Kid's new girlfriend, Appollonia, played by, well Appollonia. Why is it that Morris Day plays Morris Day, Appollonia plays Appollonia, yet Prince plays The Kid? Other than Morris Day, no one in this movie seems to have a last name either. Kid's abusive dad is referred to as Francis L.

As if The Kid didn't have enough to put up with, the club owner threatens his job by saying, "No one digs your music but yourself. If you don't kick ass tomorrow night, you're out." By my recollection, this isn't exactly fair.  The Time performs only two songs in the whole movie and are on stage for all of two minutes of screen time.   Appollonia's fledgling group appears only once.  Dez Dickerson, a former real-life Prince band member, sings a song in the beginning and is never seen again.   Yet, The Kid, who plays every night, is the odd-man out.   He should at least complain that the other acts are slackers.  

But Prince hardly inspires sympathy. He has a scowl on his face for much of the movie. Why Appollonia would have any interest in him is beyond me.   He has enough problems without adding a girlfriend to treat poorly, although she has some kind of kick-ass body.   The film really believes that The Kid is likable, but the opposite is true.

Many of the songs in the film are pop classics, but when performed live I'm afraid they are simply too good. The sound quality is so good that the realism of them being played in a club goes out the window. The songs sound like they're being lip-synched from a soundtrack. And when Purple Rain is performed, The Kid bolts the scene and paces backstage, thinking the crowd hated the song. As this is going on, the strings which make up the end of the song are heard, as if the band is really playing them. But there are no violins present, so who's playing them? The soundtrack obviously.

When the songs sound that good, how come these bands were still toiling in a club, albeit a huge one? Don't talent scouts make it up to Minneapolis? You would think they'd be tripping over each other to give these guys recording contracts. And what about the ending? Essentially, The Kid performs Purple Rain, I Would Die 4 U, and Baby, I'm A Star, the crowd loves it and the movie's over.   With all of the drama going on, couldn't they resolve the movie better than that?

Then again, that might be asking a lot of a movie in which The Kid doesn't have a first name, let alone a last name.

Super Size Me (2004) * 1/2

Super Size Me Movie Review

Directed by: Morgan Spurlock

A lawsuit was filed a couple of years back in which several fat people sued McDonald's because they said the food, and only the food, contributed to their obesity and poor health. McDonald's approach to the lawsuit was indeed the correct one. They admitted that eating their food constantly may not be good for you, but everyone knows that. Which is true: everyone knows that. No one eats at McDonald's expecting great nutrition. McDonald's is what it is; fast, cheap food that tastes great, but it is way fattening. If you cut out every food that is "bad for you", you'll be reduced to eating salads for the rest of your life. And I have news for those who want to try that: Even if you never touch McDonald's again, you'll still die someday. Sad, but also true.

Documentarian Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me is a look at the fast food industry and Spurlock himself experiments on what a fast-food diet can do to you. He eats McDonald's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for 30 days, with no exercise except for walking (and a limited amount at that).
The film itself is rather boring. Seeing Spurlock order meal after meal at McDonald's and then going to doctors to confirm that his health is getting worse is repetitious and proceeds to beat you over the head with its message. Watching Super Size Me is like having someone berate you for a mistake long after you've apologized for it.

Yet, Spurlock, who looks way too much like Metallica's James Hetfield, glosses over the idea of personal responsibility while taking dead aim at the fast food companies. The way the movie is skewed, you can exercise as much personal responsibility as you want, but evil McDonald's lures you back like a Svengali. One doctor suggests that eating McDonald's is on par with heroin use.
If one was to argue that McDonald's thrives because parents sometimes are tired and lazy and want to quickly feed themselves and their children at low cost, then I would agree. I'm guilty as charged in that regard. And who among us isn't? Super Size Me touches on that briefly, but it is dead set on proving that McDonald's is more to blame.

I'm quite tired of documentaries "exposing" that large corporations are interested in making money at the expense of their customers. In this film, Spurlock hires four doctors to monitor his health and travels all over the U.S. buying McDonald's and interviewing subjects. How do you think he afforded that to make his crummy film? Right, a film company, one of those "corporations". So, it's OK for him to be in bed with a corporation to make a film, which is supposed to make money, but not OK for McDonald's to make money?

Maybe if we all just accepted that corporations are here to stay then we'll all be happier. Is it right that corporations pretty much run everything? No. But that's the way things are and we should all move on with our lives. By the way, Super Size Me also shows Spurlock vomiting on the ground and gives us a shot of the vomit. His girlfriend also talks about how their sex life has gotten real bad since he started the McDonald's diet. Corporate dollars at work.

Sideways (2004) * * * 1/2

Sideways Movie Review

Directed by: Alexander Payne

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

Sideways is the story of Miles and Jack, two friends who spend a week in California's wine country. It is supposed to be a bachelor party of sorts for Jack (Church), who is getting married in a week.   But clearly Miles and Jack have two different agendas here. Giamatti's Miles is a failed writer trying to get over a divorce.   He uses the daily tours of wineries as an excuse to keep a buzz going that will keep him from thinking about his reality.   If Miles isn't an alcoholic yet, he is just this side of alcoholism.

Jack is an actor with credits that aren't instantly recognizable.    He was on Days Of Our Lives years ago and does voiceover work in commercials that aren't exactly famous either.    He wants to use this last week of freedom as an excuse to get laid.     Of course, he tells Miles he wants to get him laid also, but Miles' needs come in a distant second.

What occurs here is a moving comedy.   Jack and Miles are guys with addictions they can't seem to shake, even in the presence of two women who respectively love them both.    They are Maya (Madsen), a waitress in a local restaurant fresh from a divorce herself and Stephanie (Oh), a clerk at a winery.   Maya likes Miles and likes the fact that Miles is a writer.    When Maya asks the title of his book, Miles shows his creative bankruptcy by calling it, "The Day After Yesterday."   Maya asks, "So you mean today?"

Stephanie and Jack commence a hot and heavy love affair of their own.   Stephanie falls for Jack, and Jack even convinces himself that he loves her, but for a lecher like Jack, love is just a means to an end.     He is quite shameless in his efforts to get in as much poon as possible before he weds.

Director Payne co-wrote the screenplay with Jim Taylor, with whom he collaborated on the funny Election (1997) and About Schmidt (2002).     Here, they create characters that are interesting without being quirky. Miles is a guy who can't seem to get it together. Jack is a cad.   Maya is literate and thoughtful.   Stephanie is a woman who thinks she found the right guy, but doesn't realize his secret. Movies these days like to pile on the wackiness in characters until they collapse under the weight of the quirks.    Sideways abandons this philosophy by showing rather ordinary people at the mercy of their desires and hungers.

The performances are all the more memorable for not being showy.     All four leads ground their characters quite nicely, so we're not tired of their act by the movie's end.    We wonder where they go from here and we want to know more about them.     That's when you know a movie is a good one.

Oh, and thank God Sideways isn't a talk-a-thon.    There are numerous situations which occur as ways to show where the characters' respective behaviors lead them.    Let's just say that Jack's wallet winds up at a place where it shouldn't be two days before his wedding.     And Stephanie's reaction to the news of Jack's impending marriage would remind some of a UFC cage match.    And the fact that some characters seem to get away with murder while more virtuous ones seem to get the shaft.    Sideways combines all of that in an introspective, thoughtful, passionate way.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fahrenheit 9/11 (the original 2004 review)

Footnote: This is the original review I wrote back when I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 the first time in 2004. Not one word has been changed. Compare it to what I've written recently upon second viewing and it would seem as if I've seen two different films.

Fahrenheit 9/11

* * (two stars)
Directed by: Michael Moore

Let's get some thoughts you may have out of the way:

* I don't like George W. Bush
* I am not a closet or any other type of conservative
* I'm not giving this movie a negative review because everyone else seemed to have liked it.
* I have nothing visceral against Michael Moore or what he represents.

With all of that being true, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a meandering film that failed to invoke a passionate response in me to the material. To me, Moore wasn't as concise and passionate with this material as he was in Bowling For Columbine. Was the fault mine or his? I don't know, but I certainly know what I wasn't feeling during the film. In Columbine, the idea of an NRA member like Moore questioning this country's bizarre dependence on guns is much more compelling. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not as personal a film to Moore. He is attacking a presidency which certainly deserves to be attacked, but perhaps such a broad subject doesn't suit Moore as well. He sees all, but doesn't see through.

The election of 2000 will forever be marred by its controversial outcome and Moore is clearly able to state that Bush stole the election. Who would disagree? And of course Bush's abnormal amount of vacationing is lampooned. But be honest, what do you expect in a country in which most of the federal government gets a free day off because of Ronald Reagan's funeral? But then Moore depicts the Bush family's ties with the Saudis, which to me represents a stretch in attempting to imply wrongdoing.

Yes, the Bush family has financial ties with powerful Saudi bigwigs. And yes, members of the Bin Laden family were flown out of the country only days after 9/11. But these Bin Ladens had no real ties with the most infamous Bin Laden except the name. There is a reference to them all attending a wedding, but how many of us have to attend a wedding with people we don't like or talk to for the sake of the family? Come on, be honest. And yet, Moore clearly tries to make A + B= C, stating that the Saudis funded Al-Qaeda but because of Bush's business interests, he overlooked them. Actually, he states that 15 out of 19 hijackers were Saudis and that Bin Laden himself is a Saudi. Fine. But Bin Laden was hiding out in Afghanistan, as stated later in the film. His base of operations was in Afghanistan, as also stated later. The Saudi ties to 9/11 were indirect at best. There is no proof or attribution that Saudi Arabia funded Al-Qaeda. I would love to totally believe the scenario, but the evidence of wrongdoing is circumstantial. As much as I would like to buy it, I couldn't.

Moore also talks about the way the media promotes fear as a way of keeping people behind the war on terror. He discussed this as well in Bowling For Columbine. But in Columbine, he also takes us to Canada, where the news isn't slanted so negatively. The episodes depicted here aren't likely to get anyone to stop the presses. But if there is one thing I would've liked to have seen more of, it's the studying of the idea that Bush promotes the cause of freedom, but here in the U.S., he promotes almost a dictatorial rule over those who oppose him verbally or otherwise. There is some of that here with the Patriot Act footage, but to me that is more interesting than even the study of a war based on a lie.

Yes, the war in Iraq is the ultimate effect of Bush's presidency. He wanted Hussein out due to a family vendetta, but it is here where the film is at its longest in terms of feel and content. Moore tends to show footage which allows the subjects to talk on and on. There is so much Moore wants to say along with his subjects, but he doesn't present it in a concise way which hammers the point home. It's here where I got the feeling that Moore didn't want to leave anything out for fear that you may miss his point. I feel this was a filmmaking error more than anything else. Moore's belief seems to be that the idea is so gripping that you won't care if the images thrown out at you don't flow or unfold evenly.

But I guess the thing I didn't like the most was the subconscious effort by Moore to depict Saddam Hussein as a harmless victim. Early in the film, Moore states that despite "evidence" that other parties had to do with 9/11, the focus was on someone else. The film then cuts to footage of Saddam Hussein dancing and for some reason, people in the theater laughed. The film also shows kids playing on the playground in Iraq before the planes started dropping bombs on Baghdad in 2003. Many kids and civilians were killed needlessly, but let's not forget that Hussein is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his own people. Moore points out that Iraq was a sovereign nation which never killed a single American civilian. Hussein has been painted as an innocent victim of Bush, but he is not innocent. Before 1942, Hitler had not killed a single American civilian either, but that didn't make him any less dangerous to those he had killed.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) * * * 1/2

Fahrenheit 9/11 Movie Review

Directed by: Michael Moore

Time has an interesting way of allowing you to see the forest for the trees. I saw this Michael Moore film back in 2004 and it didn't sit well with me then. I felt at the time that Moore was "throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what would stick" in terms of his subject, President George W. Bush.  (I think that's a quote from my original review)   Because of that, I didn't think Fahrenheit 9/11 was an effective documentary. I felt that the film was too much unproven conjecture and coincidences. He hated his subject so much that it crippled the film's effectiveness, or at least I thought so at the time.

I watched it again and anger was the overriding emotion in me. Anger not only at Bush and his staff, but also at the Americans who voted for him again in 2004, and at myself for my naivete that a President couldn't commit actions we condemn dictators for. Bush and company flat out lied about the reasons we invaded Iraq, thousands of soldiers and civilians needlessly died, and only recently did the U.S. decide to leave Iraq. (And it took a different President to do this).

At the beginning of the Iraq invasion, I admit that I was for it, even though I didn't like Bush and didn't vote for him. I was naively convinced that a President wouldn't be so reckless with the lives of others for the financial gain of his friends and his family.    I couldn't have been more wrong.

Fahrenheit 9/11 examines the idea that Bush's presidency was really just one big payback for favors he owed to friends who backed him on his failed companies. His actions as President were directly influenced by the money Saudis and other companies put in his coffers. Halliburton's contract in Iraq was a result of Dick Cheney's ties with the company. Meanwhile, in the film's most grueling and eye-opening scenes, soldiers suffered and died because of this. I was especially moved by the plight of Lila Lipscomb, a Flint, Michigan native who at first supported her son fighting the Iraq War because she believed it to be just. It's heartbreaking what happens after her son is killed in action and her beliefs are crushed around her.

As a film, Fahrenheit 9/11 simply worked much better for me this time around. I suppose time had a big impact on that, but also I have to think that since this film, Bush oversaw a war that sucked our economy dry and presided over the start of a terrible economic crisis. It's amazing to think that President Obama is under such scrutiny for not being able to clean up this mess "fast enough" and may only be a one-term President as a result. If Bush can be a two-term President, anyone should and can be. "Mess" may not be a strong enough word to describe the impact that Bush's eight years in office has had on this nation.

Michael Moore's approach in this film is different than in previous films. He is more somber and thoughtful, mostly because the stakes were and still are so high. Bush's callous actions started right when the 2000 election ended so controversially. It seemed that he continually upped the ante with each action after that. First, Afghanistan, then Iraq, then the domestic troubles.

I know this is supposed to be a film review, but Michael Moore has a unique effect on me and many others. His films allow you to not only examine the film's entertainment value, but the strength of its message. Moore's films are for analysis of the subject in detail. He hopes you dig like he does and come up with a correct conclusion. Six years ago, my conclusion was incorrect. Now, it is much different.