Joe's Movie Reviews

Monday, July 18, 2005

Joe And The Movie Factory

1. "Happy Endings". Writer/director Don Roos has shown himself in his previous films, "The Opposite Of Sex" and (to a lesser extent) "Bounce", to be an original, creative talent with a tendency to go for wrapping up plotlines too neatly and not always making all of his characters as fully rounded as all the others. Those same traits are in evidence in "Happy Endings", but this film is certainly a major step ahead of "Bounce", and the good parts of "Happy Endings" are SO inventive that I didn't really care about what was lacking.

This is another of those ever-more-popular multi-character films, in which a bunch of characters each interact in their seemingly separate story archs, until the connections they have with each other become apparent and they each begin turning up in each others' stories, all of them coming together for the big finale. In this case we have: a counselor at an abortion clinic (Lisa Kudrow), who is seeking information about the baby she gave up for adoption more than 15 years ago, her step-brother (Steve Coogan), part of a gay couple who is convinced that a lesbian couple they know used his partner's sperm to conceive their son, a conniving gold-digger (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who sets her sites on a lonely, wealthy widower (Tom Arnold), and a number of others.

A lot of reviews of this one have complained about the story-telling device in which the screen often splits and is filled on the right-hand side with Roos' comments on the action or information about the past and/or future of a given character. It must say something about my peculiar tastes that I found it very entertaining and thought it often added a nice touch of sarcastic humor to the proceedings. I was just as surprised as most to see what a genuinely touching dramatic performance Tom Arnold turned in, and I thought that Maggie Gyllenhaal (who has yet to disappoint even in her lesser films) took what could have been a stereotypical, one-dimensional character and gave her real heart and soul. Sharp dialogue, too.

Then there's that ending. Or, I should say, THOSE endings. With the number of characters whose stories this film tells, you'd think it wouldn't be possible to bring all of them to the same place (literally) and wrap allof them up neatly in just a few minutes, but Roos does it... and it comes off so utterly artificial that I wanted to groan, following the sharply-observed plotlines we'd been following up until then... this is even beyond the old sitcom "Everything is solved in a half-hour" formula. And the gay and lesbian characters, let's face it, are a bit more cartoonish that the others... especially surprising considering that Roos himself is out of the closet and proud of it.

But I found myself so wrapped up in so many of these characters and their dilemmas that I came away from the film glad that I had spent a couple of hours with them and their stories. Even if the resolutions are too simple, you genuinely like these charactes, even the ones who are much less than perfect, and you want to know how they wind up and hope for the best for them. That happens so rarely that I'm willing to cut the film some slack on its less satisfying elements. I'd still like to see where Roos goes next, and all of that is enough to earn "Happy Endings" a thumbs up from me.

2. "Wedding Crashers". No thumbs up HERE, folks. I've liked Vince Vaughn a lot inother films (he was just about the only thing worth watching in "Mr. And Mrs. Smith"), and Owen Wilson pretty well co-starring with Jackie Chan and in the Wes ANderson films (not to mention Christopher Walken in just about anything he's done), but this movie overpowers their best efforts.

This is the story of two divorce lawyers who use their off-hours mostly to crash weddings of total strangers in order to pick up women who will be especially vulnerable emotionally to their games. When they crash a wedding at the home of a prominent politician (Christopher Walken), though, they may have met the two women who could make them reconsider their ways and actually settle down.

Not the worst of plot concepts, and if the movie had taken the road of mocking the title characters and their emotional inadequacies it could have been a sharp little satire. But this is essentially one more slob comedy about a couple of low-lifes whose low-life ways are actually CELEBRATED right up until the moment they suddenly decide they need to change, and who even THEN never actually REGRET the shallow lives they've led or the emotional pain they've caused. And aside from Rachel ("The Notebook") Macadams as Wilson's love interest, there'snot a female in the case who isn't depicted as the kind of brainless ditz that could make the dimmest male look like ALbert Einstein. The deck is a bit stacked here, folks.

Vaughn and Wilson aren't nearly at their best, and even Walken seems to be operating on a lower voltage than usual. The dialogue is rarely funny, the "plot" is predictable to the extent that you'll know everything that will happen in the second half of the movie after the first 15 minutes, and there's something else fatal for a light comedy... it's way too long. No light comedy, as far as I'm concerned, should be very much longer than 90 minutes, and "Wedding Crashers" is just two minutes short of two hours.

Of course, if you were to cut everything out of "Wedding Crashers" that kept it from being a really funny film, you'd wind up with about 20 minutes' worth of a quite amusing short film about the incredibly eccentric members of Walken's family, who can actually make HIM seem normal. It's too bad there's no market for that kind of thing any more. It would really have been something. "Wedding Crashers" as is, is something too... something dull and not very much fun.

3. "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory". I enjoyed "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory" (which I didn't actually see for the first time until it played a revival engagement at the Riverview in 2002), but I was fully aware of how much it diverged from Roal Dahl's orginal book, and have never had any problem with the idea of a more faithful remake. And it seems to me that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, along with Burton's usual composer, Danny Elfman, would be just the guys to do it. Turns out I was right... at least as I look at it, for what it's worth (which may not be much).

In case you didn't know the story: the mysterious, reclusive candy tycoon Willy Wonka holds a contest in which five children and one gues each are awarded a tour of his wonderland-like candy factory, with one of them getting a prize beyond their wildest imagination. The result is a children's story that's genuinely surreal, at times creepy and at times sweet (and I'm not referring to the candy). Burton makes a few false steps on the way, but not enough to fatally damage his film.

As likeable as the wonderful Gene Wilder was in the original film, Depp's strange, sometimes frightening oddball is much closer to the Willy Wonka of Dahl's novel, and the tone is closer to Dahl's usual "let's make the kids a little uneasy before we give them their happy ending" style than "WIlly Wonka". The children (except for Charlie himself) are even more clearly despicable, and you get the feeling that Dahl would have enjoyed this version much more.

What mistakes did Burton make? Chiefly, I think, in trying to supplu backstories for a number of the characters that never appeared in either the book or the original film. In particular, it got a little hard to take to watch Burton once again try to work through his issues about being abandoned by his father when he gives Wonka a similar family background... it worked well enough in "Big Fish", which was based on a novel ABOUT that subject, but it just doesn't fit into Willy Wonka's story. Of course, I probably shouldn't complain about any story element that allows Christopher Lee (as Wonka's father) to steal a few scenes.

Overall, though, this is a movie with a magical sense of fun that doesn't feel obliged to always present children with a rose-tinted view of the world. Tim Burton has always been at his best in strange, colorful worlds that might slightly resemble our own, but are definitely NOT ours... and that are populated by characters who are definitely un like any we know. In "Charlie & The Chocolate Factory", he's found a world created by someone else in which he seem totally at home, and manages to make his audience feel at home there for a couple of hours as well.

Monday, July 11, 2005

"A Catchy Title Should Go Here, Too"

Sorry for the two-part column... this computer was going nuts and I had to shut it off and restart. As I was saying...

The Fantastic Four actually appeared in an extremely low-budget movie back in 1994 that was made strictly for contractual reasons and never got an official release. I have the feeling, though, that aside from the higher-class effects, there may not have been that much difference.

As fans know, the Four were a group of family and friends who got zapped by the rays of a "cosmic storm" while on a scientific mission into space and turned into a group of super-powered characters, along with their future nemesis, Victor Von Doom (soon to become "Doctor Doom"). The fact that the characters acted like real people, didn't always get along, and had the same everyday problems that "normal" people have was pretty radical stuff back in 1961. But other characters have done it better since then... most notably Spider-man... and the characters don't have all that much unique to differentiate them from your basic, standard super-characters.

The acting isn't much help, either... half the cast is unknown and never lets you forget WHY, and the other consists of TV performers who are clearly out of their depth on the big screen. The dialog isn't cring-inducing awful like in some comics adaptations I won't name ("Elektra"), but it never rises above "Look out, Ben! Von Doom's behind you!" and similar lines. And unlike "Spider-Man", the Four never really become realistic, believable people.

Mind you, "Fantastic Four" LOOKS great, and there are some scenes that sweep you away in spite of yourself. And it rarely is a genuinely bad film. But there's nothing in it that tons of other similar films haven't done as well, or that a number of others have actually done BETTER. It's neither bad or good enough to make me work up much enthusiasm one way or the other about it. If you're a major fan of the comic, you might want to check it out.Or, you might just prefer to catch one of the "Spider-Man" movies again instead.

6. "Dark Water". Based on a novel by the author of the book that inspired the original Japanese film "Ringu" (basis for "The Ring"), this is yet another Americanized version of a recent Japanese horror film. It has its moments, but they don't ultimately add up to much.

In this movie, a young divorced single mom, still fighting her ex-husband for custody of their daughter, moves into a run-down new building in which too many strange things appear to be happening, particularly in the apartment directly above her, with its mysterious leaking water and strange sounds when nobody is supposed to be in the apartment.

I greatly admire a really good scare film (like "The Blair Witch Project") that achieves its scares without ever showing you what the menace is, and aI like that "Dark Water" attempts that... but there are only just so many ways to make tubs and sinks overflowing look sinister and menacing. It doesn't take long before you just want to go "So, just call the plumber already!" And faucets spouting ominous dark liquid haven't been scary since at least back when the original "Amityville Horror" over-used that gimmick back in 1979.

The film definitely has a great cast and crew... class actors like Jennifer Connelly, John C. Riley ("Chicago"), Pete Poselthwaite ("The Usual Subjects") and Tim Roth ("Reservoir Dogs"), a script by Rafael Iglesias, who gave Jeff Bridges possiblty the best role of his career in "Fearless", and featuring the American debut of director Walter Salles of "Central Station" and "The Motorcycle Diaries". But for all the high pedigrees of its creators, the movie comes across as every horror movie cliche that could be dug up out of the Movie Maker's Guide To Genre Formulas. If ever there was an over-qualified group of folks to be working on a movie like this, this is that group.

So... one again, we have a group of creative people working on material that's beneath them. Do you really want to go to a theatre and pay even matinee prices to see that? That's what I'm here for...

7. "March Of The Penguins." OKAY... anyone who knows me personally at all knows that there's no way I'm going to give this documentary anything less than a rave. There was never any chance of anything else. I've been a fanatic about penguins for just over twenty years, I collect anything penguin-related, I go see them in zoos. So a documentary about a year in the life of a colony of Emperor penguins in the Antarctic is my kind of film.

Therefore, this will be a shorter review, but I will say that the crowd at the screening I saw was made up of a very diverse bunch of adults, kids, families, solo moviegoers such as myself... and I'm pretty sure they weren't all penguin fanatics. After 80 minutes of watching the funny, endearing, and amazingly tough birds survive and even thrive in one of the most incredibly harsh environments on the face of the planet, they applauded at the end of the film and from the overheard conversations on the way out clearly were enthralled by the film. The Emperor penguin shouldn't be able to survive, much less raise its family and achieve any kind of real life in this environment, and watching how they accomplish the seemingly impossible will likely be as fascinating an experience to you as it was to the audience I saw this film with. And if it isn't, you'll at least know a little more about me and what I find fascinating. Not that I'd recomment the movie just on that basis, certainly. But I definitely WOULD recomment it for the penguins.

"A Catchy Title Should Go Here"

1. "Bewitched". I suppose you can't really say you didn't know what you were getting into when you go to a movie version of "Bewitched" from the director of "Sleepless In Seattle". But there have been some cases of subversive, sarcastic with making their way into a few of the recent film versions of old TV chestnuts, and there was reason to hope that might have happened again in this instance. HOWEVER...

In case you didn't know, this is not a straight-ahead adaptation of the 60's TV series. Rather, it's about a TV network that decides to remake the show for the new millenium, and the actors who play Samantha (Nicole Kidman) and Darren (Will Farrell) who sign on as the leads and fall in a rather combative love, without Farrell ever knowing that Kidman actually IS a REAL witch. That's not a bad way to approach the subject, but it's about as far as the cleverness goes.

Kidman has played some of the most dynamic, forceful female roles around, and it's rather disconcerting to see her reduced to a simpering ditz that would have been embarassing to watch back in the sixties. The huge popularity of Will Farrell in the past few years is a mystery whose solution has eluded me, and I didn't get an answer in this film. And it was REALLY depressing to see performers of the caliber of Michael Caine and Shirley McLaine in such trivial roles. Michael, I KNOW you don't need the money THAT badly.

The dialogue is third-rate Ryan/Hanks stuff, and once you've seen Kidman and Ferrell's first break-up over her Witchy status and tentative reunion, you've seen the whole movie... it'll happen about a half dozen more times, but there won't be anything you haven't seen already at that point.

If you want to see a good Kidman film, there are many others to choose from. If you want to see a good contemporary story about a witch, check out any of the "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" episodes centering around Alyson Hannigan as Willow. And if you want to see a great Will Ferrell movie... well, I can't help you there. I can, however, help you by suggesting that you don't see "Bewitched."

2. "War Of The Worlds". Confession up front: I'm no great Tom Cruise fan. There are some movies of his that I like in spite of him, but I've actually liked his performance in only three films: "Born On The Fourth Of July", "Magnolia" and "Collateral". This film is definitely not part of that select group: once again, Cruise sleepwalks through yet another role as a self-centered boy in a man's body, who gradually learns to be a good man, this time in the midst of an alien invasion. But it IS, perhaps surprisingly, an addition to the list of Cruise films I like in spite of him. Slowly but surely, this picture won me over.

The old H. G. Wells classic gets an update in more ways than one: not only set in the present in the U.S., we also get that modern classic: the distant, uncaring father whose love for his family is brought to the surface by an earth-shaking (literally, in this case) crisis. Doesn't sound much like the Wells original. But the general outline is still there, even down to some specific scenes and characters clearly taken from Wells' book (the strange character played by Tim Robbins even has a connection to the novel). The opening and closing narration (by Morgan Freeman), and the ultimate fate of the invaders, is straight from the novel, and surprisingly, the rather old-fashioned tripod look of the aliens' machines is retained from the original. None of this would have mattered if the movie wasn't gripping, and well-made... but Spielberg succeeds here where it counts.

In a wise move, he keeps the aliens off-screen for most of the movie, making them all the more ominous and frightening. There are plenty of sequences of alien menace that involve nothing more than creative camera angles, strange sounds and unusual lighting... no special effects at all... and they had me riveted. Even the actual special effects spectaculars aren't monotonous and repetitive the way they almost invariably are in most big budget blow-em-ups... Spielberg knows his craft.

Which brings up the thing that keeps "War Of The Worlds" from being a great movie (of its type): it really is a masterpiece of craftsmanship more than it is one of emotion and feeling. So no, I didn't love this film. But on a pure, adrenaline-fueled, alien invading level, it works quite well. This one won't win any Oscars other than perhaps some technical awards, but I will admit I had fun in spite of myself (and in spite of Cruise).

3. "Land Of The Dead". After 20 years, George A. Romero returns to the modern zombie genre he more or less created with "Night Of The Living Dead". But he does so after there have been quite a string of rather imaginative zombie films over the past few years. Has he equalled the work of the contemporary film-makers who have followed in his footsteps. Well, sometimes. But not often enough.

Romero always went for social commentary as much as horror: racism, military madness, consumerism... they all took their hits in his earlier films. In this movie, Dennis Hopper stars as a far-removed-from-his-constituents politician lording over the residents of a walled-off, zombie free community, not really concerned over what fate befalls "his people" as long as he and his crew can survive. I'm not saying he's based ONLY on George W. ... but if you see a few similarities there, I wouldn't say you were wrong. But ultimately he's really George and far too many others of his ilk. The zombies, however, are beginning to actually be able to reason, and learn how to use guns... even to communicate with each other. The walls of this city may soon come tumbling down.

Romero's attempts at wit are nowhere in the same league as "Shaun Of The Dead" or "Return Of The Living Dead", and the zingers that do come across tend to be because of Hopper's deadpan delivery. "Zombies, man... they creep me out" doesn't read like much on the page, but wait until you hear Hopper SAY the line. The social commentary is sharp and cogent in the first half of the film, but as the story proceeds to the point of the big climactic invasion the film loses track of itself and becomes just scene after scene of "Look, here come the zombies! Shoot them in the head!" And brilliant as Hopper is in the lead, none of the other stars (not even the normally very good John Leguizamo) make much of an impact.

So check out "Shaun Of The Dead", or "28 Days Later", or pretty much any of the other recent films of this genre, if you have a taste for these kinds of chills. As far as Romero is concerned, if he retired now, he could still get an honored place in horror movie history. Too many more films like "Land Of The Dead", however, and all bets are off.

4. "Intimate Stories". This is a genuinely sweet and charming movie. I might add that it's also not a Hollywood film, so the words "sweet and charming" don't automatically equally sticky-sweet or fomulaic.

An Agrentinian dramedy, it tells the stories of several sets of characters from a small town who all wind up having their own various reasons to travel to the big city at the same time... one woman has won a prize from a quiz show and has to go there to claim it, a lonely elderly man hears that his long-missing dog has been seen there and has to go see for himself, a businessman has both personal and professional reasons for the trip. On the way, they sometimes cross paths for short periods of time, learn a little from each other, and complete their journeys. yes, it is indeed that staple of both American and World cinema: the road movie.

It's also a film that manages to be in turns both hilariously funny, somber and dramatic, and strongly sentimental without ever descending into diabetes-inducing territory the way your typical Hollywood movie would, given the same kind of material.

The "Feel-Good" movie has gotten a bad name over the years as a result of far too many sappy pieces of fluff with no characterization and attempts at persuading the audience that life is always wonderful and always works out for the best. You don't have to follow that predictable formula to get a REAL feel-good movie, the kind that will have you leaving the theatre with a GENUINE warm feeling that will stay with you instead of fading as soon as you're out of the auditorium. "Intimate Stories" is a fine example of exactly what I mean.

5. "Fantastic Four". The 3,000th movie adaptation of a Marvel comic this year (what? It's not that many? Well, it seemed like it) brings Marvel's first big superhero TEAM to the screen at last. Was it worth the wait? Well, I'm not the fan I used to be (I haven't read the comic in several decades), so maybe I'm not the best judge. But I thought the two "Spider-Man" movies were terriffic, and "Batman Begins" (yes, I know Batman isn't Marvel) was pretty decent. "Fantastic Four", on the other hand... well, can a movie be called "aggressively average"?