Joe's Movie Reviews

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Two For The Price Of none

1. "Up For Grabs." Showing at one of the Twin Cities' truly independent theatres, the Parkway, this documentary is genuinely not for a wide, mass audience. But it is also about a lot more than it seems to be on the surface, and of interest to a lot of people who don't think they could care about a film dealing with this picture's nominal "topic".

What is that topic, you might ask? Baseball, he responded. Specifically, it's about the ball that Barry Bonds hit to get his record-setting, season ending 73rd home run several years back. Two different men both claimed to have caught it and therefore have the right to it, and they took each other to court, employing a small army of lawyers to fight a small war that nearly destroyed an unbelievable number of lives. And by the way, it's one of the funniest documentaries this side of the MOCumentaries of Christopher Guest.

What the movie is ultimately about is how the country has changed over the past decades, a former selfless, giving attitude gradually giving way to a greedy, "looking out for number one" philosophy. As illustrated by baseball, of course. Just watch the film of the 19-year-old who caught Roger Maris' record-setting home run in 1961 as he tells an interviewer he plans to return the ball to Maris, then is taken aback when maris tells him to keep the ball and make some money from it... contrasted to the "every man for himself" attitude of the case this film is about. Something has definitely changed about this nation in the past 45 years, and not for the better.

This doesn't mean that the movie is somber and downbeat. On the contrary, it's possibly the greatest example of satire you'll ever see that wasn't deliberately written as such. And you'll be shaking your head in stunned amazement when you're not laughing.

Every time a sports movie comes out somebody will say something about it "isn't really about (fill in the name of the sport)". "Up For Grabs" definitely IS about baseball, but it's also about so much more than that, that anyone missing out on it will be missing out on a film they'll prob654ably find highly entertaining on several levels. You should check it out 654if you can. (The Parkway is located at 48th Street and Chicago Avenue South in Minneapolis.)

2. "Batman Begins". For the first time in a theatrical film, the origins of Batman are shown, and the tone is darker by far than any of the previous films in the series. Is that enough to make "Batman Begins" a great film? No, not really. Is it enough to make it so superior to the previous films that it's still worth checking out, especially for the comics die-hards? Definitely.

Batman's primary villain here, Ras Al Ghul, was a magnificent figure in the original comics, a character of powerful nobility you had to admire and hate at the same time. As depicted in this film by Ken "Last Samurai" Watanabe, he's more of an afterthought, a character seemingly tamed down so that the villain won't outshine Batman himself the way the villains always have before. The second villain, the Scarecrow, is wonderfully played by Cillian Murphy of "28 Days Later", but doesn't show up until far too late in the movie. And even at 2 and a quarter hours, the film zips by too fast to pay as much attention to some of the significant events in Batman's life that it should.

AND YET... Christian Bale is undoubtedly the perfect actor for this role, his barely surpressed madness and fury deolishing all memories of George Clooney's and Val Kilmer's performances in the role (he's also better than Michael Keaton, but Keaton at least was OK in the part). Class acts Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson and Michael Caine as Alfred lend the film some welcome touches of dignity, and it's especially nice to see the character of Alfred rescued from the "You rang, sir?" cliches of the TV series and the previous films, and given a real depth. The atmosphere is every bit as brooding and the visuals (filmed in both Hong Kong and Chicago, among other places) are spectacular, easily the equal of anything in the Tim Burton films. Aznd like I said, the darker tone is very, very welcome... I happen to think that it's almost impossible to make a "Batman" movie that's too dark.

So yes, it's not perfect, and maybe even a little further from perfect than some of the critical raves it's received might lead you to believe. But I happen to be a long-time fan of the original comics who still very nearly gets ill whenever I even THINK about the TV show or the Joel Shumaker films... and this is one that I quite enjoyed. If there is sixth movie, I can only hope that Christopher Nolan writes and directs that one, too.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Quintet, Part Two

Sorry about that. I don't know what key I pressed there. I REALLY didn't mean to post only a partial version of that column. Anyhow, as I was saying...

This is still a totally Japanese film and very typical of Miyazaki's gentle, magical style, and it takes you to the same mystical realm you expect to go to in one of his films, with a somewhat lower key approach. The characters are as fully-developed as usual (that is to say, far more than in most live action films) and even the English dubbing doesn't damage the film, as actors such as Emily Mortimer (young Sophie), Jean Simmons (old Sophie), new Batman Christian Bale (Howl) and Lauren Bacall (the Witch of the Wastes) contribute expert voice work. It's too bad that American studios don't seem to be able to give us the kind of amazing animated films that Studio Ghibli does (only Pixar even comes close), but we can all at least be thankful that every couple of years, a new Miyazaki release will be distributed by Disney. It's almost enough to make you forgive Disney for everything else. ALMOST.

5. "Mr. and Mrs. Smith". Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie star as a husband and wife, who, unknown to each other, are both assassins in the employ a secret government agencies. One day, each gets the assignment of eliminating the other. Then the fun REALLY begins.

This movie cleaned up ath the box office this past weekend, but AI can't help but suspect that this was because of all the tabloid publicity Pitt and Jolie have been getting. It certainly can't be because of Pitt's smug non-performance, or Jolie's blank semi-acting. It also doesn't seem likely to be because of the movie's patchwork blend of elements from both "The War of the Roses" and "Prizzi's Honor" (both much better movies) or the way the film drags on a good 20 minutes longer than is good for it.

If Vince Vaughn's role as Pitt's mama's-boy best friend were larger, I might be tempted to credit the film's success to that... he really is a hoot... but it's actuallyjust a small supporting role. And the way the film abandons any attempt at wit or characterization as it goes on and degenerates into an endless series of car crashes and chases (which probably contributes to that excess length) doesn't help either. I had to check the end credits to make sure that Jerry Bruckheimer had nothing to do with this movie. In case you're wondering, that's not a compliment.

So in the end I really can't think of anything else to account for the success of this movie than the cheesy publicity its stars have gotten. behold: the power of the tabloids. Now, if only they could have given some cheesy publicity to the stars of "Crash"...


1. "Cinderella Man." The ads have been trumpeting this as "The best movie of the year". Well, it's certainly not bad, and some of it is very good indeed, but best of the year? Let's just say it's no "Crash".

James J. Braddock was the real-life "Rocky" of the depression era, whose improbably rise to the championship is said to have given people all over the country new hope in troubled times. Certainly there's story material there, even if "Seabiscuit" (a better film overall)more or less got there first.
But for the film to be equal to its potential it would have helped if it had avoided more boxing movie cliches, and some dubious political observations.

Braddock is presented as a veritable saint of a man, with no real flaws or personal demons. This may well have been true, but it doesn't make for a very interesting movie character. It also necessitates turning his chief opponent, Max Baer, into an inhuman demon from hell in order to have dramatic contrast. Even apart from the questionable historical accuracy of this, Baer comes across as every foaming-at-the-mouth psycho you've ever seen on film. You can't really hate a character who's barely presented as human.

Then there's the film's take on the great depression... which, they would have you believe, had NOTHING AT ALL to do with big business, big banking, and greed. No, it was just plain bad luck that any American could overcome if they just buckled down to it. Braddock's best friend, played by the wonderful Paddy Considine of "In America", is used to depict the radical anti-government forces of the time as fools who rebelled against a government that only had their best interests at heart. Yeah, that's right...

So was there anything good about the film? Well, the acting is pretty uniformly outstanding, though Mr. Telephone-thrower isn't the highlight of the movie. THAT would be the perpetually overlooked Paul Giamatti as Braddock's manager, giving a performance of remarkable understated strength. He had BETTER get the Oscar for this that he should have gotten for "Sideways" (and "American Splendor", for that matter). And Ron Howard has never failed to come up with a TECHNICALLY well-made film.

But "Cinderella Man" is definitely not the movie of the year, or a personal best for anyone involved in it. It's the kind of movie that screams "Give Me The Oscar", though, and will probably get several instead of more deserving efforts. Did I mention "Crash" already?

2. "The Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants". Talk about a movie for which I am definitely not in the intended target audience! So this commentary will be brief. A quartet of high school girls, close friends, stay in touch over the summer by means of a shared pair of pants which magically fit all of them in spite of differing physiques, mailed from one of them to the other. It's basically an anthology film, and the stories involving the typically boy-hungry "vamp" is dull and cliched, with the segment starring "Gilmore Girls"'s Alexis Bledel is like a junior version of a romance novel. But America Ferrara's segment has some real power in it, and the section with Amber Tamblyn as an angry "goth" type documenting her boring life in a Walmart-type superstar manages to be genuinely touching. The movie doesn't say as much about the power of friendship as it seems to be trying to do, and a couple of the stories go nowhere, but there are still enough moments to make it worth a lower-priced matinee showing... or you could wait for the discount houses (you KNOW I would never recommend waiting for the video!). Especially if you're in, or know someone who IS in, the film's target age range.

3. "Save The Green Planet". There will have to be some MIGHTY strange films between now and December to unseat this movie's position as the flat-out weirdest movie of the year. In this Korean import, a mentally impaired man has come to believe that all the trouble in the world is being caused by aliens from Andromeda who live among us, only appearing to be human. He has somehow managed to figure out who they are, and will do whatever he has to do in order to... well, you can figure that from the title.

This film is a deeply disturbing, grimly violent drama. It also happens to be an often very funny and twisted satire of all sorts of things, political and social. And whatever it may happen to be at any given time, it is ALWAYS very seriously weird.

Those who are sensitive about violent content... and I certain ly respect that... will probably want to avoid "Save The Green Planet" (and those who ENJOY ultra-violent content, I don;t want to even know about you). But for those with an interest in the totally off-center science fiction of writers like Philip K. Dick (who would have loved this movie's exploration of what exactly constitutes "reality"), and doesn't expect conventional story telling techniques or conventional endings, this will be one fascinating experience that will have you alternating laughing and gasping, and leave you with more than a little to talk about afterward. It's another reason to be grateful that the Twin Cities has a theatre like the Oak Street Cinema (which old-timers will remember as The Campus): you know that THIS film would never have played at the same theatre showing the latest Ashton Kutcher flick.

4. "Howl's Moving Castle". The latest film from Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away") might be relatively minor Miayazaki... it's certainly not on the epic scale of his last few films... but even minor Miyazaki beats virtually anything American animation produces these days. And yes, I'm even including Pixar in that statement.

It's the story of Sophie, a teenage girl who becomes cursed by a witch and turned into a 90-year old woman. Seeking help to remove this curse, she encounters and befriends the mysterious wizard Howl, who lives in the moving castle of the title. Together with his friends and magical aides, they will eventually battle not only the witch, but the forces of society that insist on fighting meaningless wars that help the government but harm the country's people. Nothing relevant there, nope.

Although based on a novel by British children's author Dianne Wynn Jones, this is a totally