Joe's Movie Reviews

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Back From The Shadows Again

It's obviously been longer than I thought it was going to be, and there are so many films to cover I can't possibly do them all and not have another of those "one paragraph summary" columns, so I'm going to have to pick and choose some highlights (some I liked, some I didn't) and just go with those. Don't worry that you're missing reviews of "A Lot Like Love" or "The Longest Yard"... I haven't seen those aqnd have no plans to do so. Though I don't know why I'm even writing this... it's not as if anyone is actually reading these things. But anyhow...

1. "Crash". This film opens with one car crash and concludes with another, and in between we see citizens of L.A. crashing into each other in a more metaphoric sense, because they're so desperate for any for of human contact and just need to feel something.

For a movie from a Hollywood studio, "Crash" explores some surprisingly dark and uncomfortable truths about human nature on its way to an ending that is ultimately hopeful but not thousand-and-one-strings-pie-in-the-sky, kind of like Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" (not that it's THAT good, understand... very few films are). But it does explore the ways in which even the best of us have some dark edges and can't be entirely trusted, while sometimes the ones we despise may not be nearly as "inhuman" as we thought they were. We also get a strong dose of the ridiculous ways in which people distrust and fear others who don't happen to be of the same race, age or gender as themselves, and the disasters that can lead to. But, like Lee's modern classic, we also see how we don't have to follow the path of hate. You don't get any easy outs in this film, but you will feel better for having seen it.

The script is so strong that many cast members I haven't much cared for of late turn in performances stronger than I thought they had in them... people like Thandie Newton, Brendan Fraser, and even, of all people, Sandra Bullock. OF course, we also have old reliables like Don Cheadle and Matt Dillon.

"Crash" is not an easy movie to watch, but is more than worth your time. And it's almost as amazing seeing a film like this come from a major studio as it is to see Bright Eyes singing "When The President Talks To God" on the Jay Leno show. So check it out... you'll be very glad you did. Incidentally, this film has gotten mostly mixed reviews, but I found it to be the best movie I've seen in a commercial theatre so far this year. That just goes to show you... you can't trust movie critics.

2. "Weapons Of Mass Destruction". Major news outlets like NBC, CBS and ABC have given us hour upon hour of coverage of the war in Iraq, incredibly detailed material that might leave some thinking they've seen everything there is to see. But in reality, we've seen very little of what's really going on. This film aims to correct that situation.

"Weapons of Mass Deception" is not really a film about the war in Iraq as such, but rather one about the mass media coverage of that war... or, more properly, how the media has settled for not really COVERING the war at all, but simply parroting the government line about what's going on, and ignoring anything that doesn't match that line. The classic myth of the so-called "Liberal media" is blown to bits quite memorably in this very informative, and highly entertaining, film.

And for anyone who happens to agree with what Michael Moore says but thinks that his way of saying it is rather off-putting, this film should be right up your alley.

Unfortunately, it's not playing theatrically in the Twin Cities any more (it ran for a week at the U. Film Society), so I have to go against my usual policy and urge you to get to a video store and rent it. If you have to stand in line to do so, I'm guessing that Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilley and Ann Coulter... and for that matter, Dan Rather... won't be in that line.

3. "Monster-In-Law." After fifteen years away from the big screen, Jane Fonda returns. Any movie she felt was worth breaking a silence that long MUST be great, right? Ha ha ha ha ... what a wacky sense of humor you have.

"Monster-In-Law" is the kind of film that the Jane Fonda of 25 years ago (or for that matter ten) would have panned unmercifully, and rightly so... it's pure prime time sitcom territory, with no significant laughs at all and an attitude about women that would have fit comfortably into the typical sitcom of the 1950's. Not to mention the fact that it's rather racist.

Jennifer Lopez and Michael Vartan (the latter of TV's "Alias") are about to get married, and the only thing standing in the way of their wedded bliss is Vartan's mother, played by Fonda... a rently "forcibly retired" TV newswoman who feels that nobody is good enough for her son and will stop at no dirty trick to sabotage the wedding of her son. She does this by trotting out all the old "harpy" stereotypes for our entertainment pleasure, even though they haven;'t been funny since back in the stone age when they were new, and a few of the same kinds of black "Mammy" maid stereotypes that make so many movies of the thrities and forties so uncomfortable to watch now, the latter courtesy of the normally very funny stand-up comic Wanda Sykes.

Maybe it's just the lame material, but you'd never know that Fonda is a two-time Oscar winner from her performance here, which mostly consists of screaming her lines so they'll seem funny (it doesn't work). And Lopez is about as amusing in this movie as she was in "Gigli".

It's hard to know who the producers thought their target audience was going to be. Young people? They won't know Jane Fonda. Older Fonda fans? They'll have too much respect for her to want to see her in this. Fans of good comedy? Not even close. I suppose that if this movie makes Jane Fonda want to return to films permanently and do some actual good work, it will have surved a good purpose. But that doesn't mean you have to actually see it.

4. "Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith." Now, you knew it wouldn't be as good as any of the original three films in the first trilogy, didn't you? And you were right. But you might have also hoped it would be better than the first two turkeys in the prequel series. ANd thankfully you'd be right there as well.

How does Anakin Skywalker finally become James Earl Jones (oops, I mean Darth Vader)? How do Luke and Leia wind up with their respective adoptive parents on their respective worlds? How does everything fall into place so that the events of the original "Star Wars" can proceed? All of those questions and more are answered in this final "Star Wars" epic.

Of course, the dialogue is every bit as lame as it was in Episodes One and Two. And hayden Christensen still can't act. But on the other hand, Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor finally get some material to ACT with, the film takes a tentative step into the dark lands that made "Empire Strikes Back" the best film of the original three, and Jar Jar Binks is limited to one single crowd scene with no audible dialogue. Unfortunately, he isn't killed, but you can't have everything.

There's also that political sub-text you may have heard about. Some people say that when Darth Vader exclaims "If you're not with me, you're with my enemies" there's no parallel there to any recent news events of currents presidents, but it's hard to ignore... just like Portman's line "So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause." That definitely makes this film considerably more interesting.

There was no way this movie was ever going to be equal to the original trilogy, but considering everything going against it, it's not bad at all. Maybe not a classic, but certainly a major relief.

5. "Funny Ha Ha." A genuinely low-budget indie movie of the kind becoming icnreasingly rare in the age of Miramax, the ghost of John Cassavetes should be miughtily pleased by "Funny Ha Ha."

Like Cassavetes' films, "Funny Ha Ha" is a look at ordinary life as it is lived by some ordinary people without a lot of artificial plot twists. The ordinary people in this case are a young temp worker (Kate Dollenmayer), who wanders about from one potential suitor to another trying to find something real and permanent, but not realizing some facts she might rather not face about the assortment of crazies that make up her suitors.

THe movie is hardly what could be called a comedy (the title is ironic), but there is a fair amount of dark humor in this story, and the film is hardly as aimless and drifting as you might think it would be... it proceeds at a brisk but natural pace. You probably won't even mind not having heard of anyone in the cast... after you see this film, you'll be watching for them again in the future.

And as far as the film's realism, well... for those of you out there who actually HAVE a life, you might find the heroine's not all that different from your own. If you don't mind watching something like that when you go to the movies. I certainly didn't...

6. "It's All Gone Pete Tong." The title is Cockney rhyming sland for "It's All Gone Wrong", and that's certainly happened int he life of this film's hero, Frankie Wylde. Frankie is a legendary, superstar club DJ who draws huge crowds everywhere he appears, and lives the high life to the hilt... until the day he begins to go totally deaf.

If you think I'm giving too much away, well... the story doesn't even really begin until that point. And what happens after that is something very few will be predicting.

The film manages a rare blend of comedy and drama that will have anyone ready for something a little different thankful that they stumbled into the theatre it was showing at (which, in Minneapolis, is the Lagoon). Frankie Wylde might not be another Beethoven, but you won't forget him anytime soon.

7. "Madagascar". Dreamworks Pictires' latest attempt to ape the success of "Shrek" may not be equally magical, but it's still a very fun picture. The story of a group of zoo animals, grown accustomed to the easy life in the city, who wind up in the wilds of Madagascar, this really is one of those rare movies that has laughs for both young and old (I'm guessing the kids won't get the "American Beauty" references, though they laughed at that scene all the same at the show I saw).

Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith and David Schwimmer are not exactly Mike Meyers and company either, but they're still having a grand time and conveying that sense of fun to the audience.

Just to be totally honest about this, I should admit that there are a bunch of penguins with a large supporting role in this film, the leader of whom is named "Joe Penguin"... so for a penguin fanatic such as myself, that's all a movie needs for a thumbs up. It does happen to be a genuinely funny film in its own right, though. Not every movie has to be stirring and brilliant... there's nothing wrong with "pleasant" and "amusing." See "Madagascar" and you'll see what I mean.

8. "Layer Cake". There have been a lot of hard-edged gangster movies from the British Isles in the past few years, taking up screen space at the Lagoon (and theatres like it in other cities). A number of them have been directed by Guy Ritchie, such as "Lock, Stoick and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch". Now the producer of those two films is making his directing debut on a similar effort? Is it an improvement? Not really.

The protagonist of this movie is a drug dealer... cocaine is his specialty...
but he clearly sets himself apart from the gans and mobsters. "I'm a businessman whose product is cocaine", he claims. And he has made enough at his business that he's just about to retire. But do you REALLY think it's going to be that easy?

The same graphic, bloody brutality (yes, yes, I know these characters really act like that... the problem is you've seen them act like that in how many other movies?, plus you expect a PLOT in a film, not just endless beatings), the same pseudo-tough dialogue, the same virtual total absence of any female characters (it's a man's world, you know)... it all adds up to some very major deja vu. If you haven't seen any of the other movies that this ones is trying to copy, then "Layer Cake" (the title of which refers to the many layers of society) might do something for you. Actually, it did something for me, too... but I don't think it was what the film makers had in mind.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Way Tyoo Many Movies, Conclusion

Or at any rate I certainly hope this is the last column like this. Now that MSPIFF is over, I'm sincerely hoping to be able to get back to reviews every few days at regular length. For this one last time (for now) though, a column filled with not much more than couple-of-line comments about, yes, way too many movies.

1. "Dog Nail Clipper." A MSPIFF film from Finland, this is the story of a veteran returned from war a bit brain-damaged and unable to remember any of his past, including his beloved fiance, who is not sure if he's still alive. The typically deadpan Finnish style isn't too well suited for a film the subject of which would seem more naturally French (as in the recent "A Very Long Engagement"). Not bad, but not quite the right approach for the material.

2. "Czech Dream." A wonderful documentary from MSPIFF. Two phony entrepreneurs announce they're opening a new "Hypermarket" and through a fake advertising campaign make the public believe it will be the fulfillment of the Czech Dream. The basic phonyness of the Czech Dream and, by extension, much of the American Dream as well are exposed in a very witty, perceptive and biting satire that happens to be 100 percent real.

3. "Head-On." A suicidal man who didn't quite succeed meets and falls in love with a similarly inclinced woman who asks him to participate in a marriage of convenience that turns into something more, at least on the part of the man. This film ought to have more impact than it does, and it does still have a fair amount... but there are a few too many cliches about suicidal and emotionally unstable people that make you wonder how many... if any... the film makers have ever actually met.

4. "Off The Map." Campbell Scott directs this comedy/drama about an eccentric family headed by Joan Allen and Sam Elliott who live out in the desert, "off the map," and their life-changing encounter with an IRS agent. The film is filled with fascinating characters and performances, but the script doesn't give us much of a story. At the end of the film, I found myself saying "That's it?"

5. "Winter Solstice." Anthony Lapaglia plays a widower still in mourning and trying to raise his two teenage sons, and the family's encounter with a new life-affirming neighbor played by "The West Wing"'s Allison Janney. Emotionally distant character meets life-affirming member of opposite sex... if you don't know what happens, you haven't seen many movies. In which case, you're probably the target audience for this film.

6. "The Interpreter." Well, after all these disappointing art films, a totally commercial release that I quite enjoyed (and I'm ob viously more of an art-film guy, usually). Nicole Kidman plays a U.N. interpreter who overhears two would-be assassins plotting the murder of her nation's ambassador, who must then make secret service agent Sean Penn believe her before it's too late. This is absolutely a total commercial popcorn movie, but director Sidney Pollack knows how to push all the right buttons, and the result is a fine example of Hollywood suspense done better than it is usually done. A fun thriller.

7. "Kung Fu Hustle." Writer/director/star Stephen Chow's likely breakthrough film, in which he plays a would-be gangster who doesn't find taking over the slum of Pigsty Alley nearly as easy as he'd expected. A pure Chow movie generally has more in the way of jokes (verbal ones) than this and not as much action, so this may not give you the best idea of what his films are typically like. But there are still plenty of laughs, and the action IS amazing (if a bit too obviously CGI at times), so it's safe to say you'll likely have a very amusing time if you don't have a problem with sub-titles.

8. "Look At Me." French import about a teenage girl who has problems dealing with her emotionally distant father, a famous author, as well as other people's expectations of her because she's the daughter of a celebrity. It's a comedy, by the way. At least it's supposed to be. I didn't find myself laughing all that much, and there aren't enough original insights for effective drama. Most of the press loved this one, but I wasn't so impressed.

9. "The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy." Probably best appreciated by those who have actually read Douglas Adams' original books, this VERY long-awaited film version might disappoint some readers too, as Adams' humor does tend to be more effective in print. But a surprising amount of it does make the transition to the screen successfully, and the film is quite faithful to the source material. Also featuring outstanding performances, especially Allan Rickman as the voice of Marvin, the depressed, paranoid android. Maybe it's not quite the book(s), but it's still a lot of fun.

10. "Millions." Director Danny Boyle gets as far away as he possibly could from his previous release, the zombie film "28 Days Later," in this family film about two young British brothers who find a stash of stolen money and try to decide what to do about it in a kind of kid version of "A Simple Plan." Nice and harmless, but a little too self-consciously arty for its own good, especially with one brother's constant obessession with and visions of various saints. Much to like, nonetheless, but in his attempt to make a film in dramatic contrast to his previous one, Boyle seems to have strayed into a genre that doesn't isn't really his greatest strength.

11. "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room." A startling documentary that will enlighten everyone who THOUGHT they knew all the details of the Enron collapse. By no means the standard "talking head" documentary, this very cleverly-made film has a lot of significant points to make about not just Enron specifically, but the culture that gave birth to such corruption and how deeply the tentacles of organizations like Enron have extended into government and other fields. It also raises the unsettling question of whether we've learned enough to prevent it happening all over again. It manages the difficult feat of being both highly entertaining and highly informative. Essential

12. "Oldboy." A South Korean drama (with subtitles) that Hitchcock would have been proud of, though he wouldn't have made it quite so bloody. A man is captured and imprisoned not in a jail but an apartment for fifteen years, and finally released without his knowing why or who his captor was. But he's not exactly free, because he's still being watched by his captor, who still has plans for him. A sinister, brooding atmosphere and genuinely surprising plot twists make this far eastern film noir one of the better suspense efforts to hit U.S. theatres in a while. Audiences should probably be warned that it does get rather bloody in the last 15/20 minutes or so, but if you can handle that (it earns its R rating) and are in the mood for some dark entertainment, this will fill the bill quite well. Playing as a Twin Cities exclusive not at any art theatre, but, strangely enough, at the highly commercial 15-screen Crown Theatres multiplex at Block E.

Okay, now hopefully next time I'll be back to more extended reviews of only a few films at a time, and sooner than two weeks from now, too.
I think I can, I think I can...