Joe's Movie Reviews

Thursday, September 07, 2006

It Lives Again!

"Joe's Corner" lives again, that is. Due to the fact that I have a little time to kill after work, I figured I may as well try to fit in some reviews of as many of the films I've seen (free sneak previews, free passes, whatever) at places other than second-run discount houses over the past few months. They'll be shorter than usual so I can fit in as many as possible, and any I don't have time for... well, maybe tomorrow.

1. "The Road To Guantanamo". Michael Winterbottom is one of the most accomplished and versatile directors in the world, with films ranging from "24 Hour Party People" and "Tristram Shandy" to the marvelous drama "Wonderland" and the touching "In This World". But he's never done anything before like "The Road To Guantanamo": a combination of documentary and fictional recreation that tells the story of a couple of British-born & raised citizens of Afghan descent who travel to their ancestral homeland just as war is breaking out and wind up in Guantanamo. The official Bush story that these shameful places "save lives" and are not only necessary but don't pose a threat to innocent people is thoroughly demolished in a highly forceful and extremely emotional manner. It might seem like an unorthodox method of telling the story at first, but by the end of the film it will seem like the only way it could have been told. While this will not win any fans among the Republican National Committee, it's a movie that anybody who's at all concerned about the direction this country is taking needs to see.

2. "Little Miss Sunshine." Talk about your stereotypical "Big studio's indy division idea of what an indepent film is": a family consisting of a heroin-snorting, foul-mouthed grandfather, a suicidal teacher, a failed motivational speaker, a teenage son who never speaks, and a fairly normal mother travel cross-country with their young daughter when she becomes a contestant in the "Little Miss Sunshine" pageant. Gosh, a road trip with a highly colorful bunch of characters. Original, huh? It does take some getting used to, but you eventually begin to realize that the fine cast (Alan Arkin, Steve Carrell, Greg Kinnear, Tony Collette) are beginning to make these stereotypes into real people, and are actually making you laugh at and care about them. They even do get around to dealing with the fact of just how incredibly creepy pre-teen "Beauty Pageants" are. That still doesn't mean that "Little Miss Sunshine" is an Oscar-worthy classic for the ages, but it should have been a complete turkey and it turns out to have quite a bit to recommend it. That ain't too shabby.

3. "Pirates Of The Caribbean; Dead Man's Chest". In this sequel, Johnny Depp runs afoul of the Legendary Davy Jones, to whom he owes a VERY big favor, and Orlando Bloom & Keira Knightly are blackmailed into bringing Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow to justice. The movie is way too long (2 1/2 hours) and drags from time to time accordingly. it also doesn't have quite the same zip and sense of fund the original had... and as is so often the case with the middle installment of a trilogy, it seems at times to be (pardon the expression) treading water, just killing time until the next and concluding installment. But Depp is still a joy as Sparrow, there are some amazing action sequences, and it's hard not to be amazed by Bill Nighy behind a squid-like make-up as Davy Jones. Even if this installment isn't as exciting as the first, it still has me looking forward to Part 3... especially with Chow Yun-Fat as a pirate and Keith Richards as Sparrow's father. Avast!

4. "Loverboy." In a film directed by Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgewick stars as a woman whose extremely dysfunctional upbringing has left her with a desire to have a child... but not a husand... and make that child the absolute center of her world, not letting anyone else come near him. The original novel on which the film was based gave you a much stronger sense of just how much of a victim of her upbringing the character is, and makes you sympathize with her even as you watch in shocked astonishment as her madness begins to destroy her son's life just like her parents did to hers. The film version, however, essentially presents her as just a crazy person... and even seems to imply that her desire to have a child on her own is part of her madness (a woman's got to have a man, right?). Sedgewick is marvelous in the lead, and a string of cameos by people like Marisa Tomei, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock and Bacon himself are on the same level. But great acting can't really overcome a questionable story poorly presented. Read the novel (by Victoria Redel, published by St. Paul's Greywolf Press) instead.

5. ""Lady In The Water". Well, there can't be anyone left who hasn't seen the negative reviews about how M. Night Shyamalan's latest is pretentious and too complicated and how that ruins and overpowers the movie. Well, I can't honestly disagree with most of the comments... it's a film that's a long way from perfect... but these critics talk as if the elements they have problems with are the only thing the movie is about, when in fact this fairly tale about an apartment building caretaker who discovers a water nymph in the building pool and helps her on her mission to find the man who can save the world before evil forces stop her (yes, it IS sometimes silly) still has some important things to say if you can shut off your cynical nature long enough to listen. It's also well acted and told in a very effectively spooky manner. Maybe some of these critics were just upset about the fate of the movie critic played in the film by Bob Balaban... personally, I found that highly amusing. So what if it isn't perfect? Even so, a thumbs up.

6. "The Night Listener". Robin Williams stars in an adaptation of the novel by Armistead Maupin. Loosely based on an incident in Maupin's own life, Williams is a radio story-teller who is befriended (long-distance) by a fan, a 14-year-old boy dying of AIDS, who has written a book about his experience. But when questions begin to arise about the legitimacy of the boy's story... and even his very existence... Williams becomes obsessed with finding out the truth. The film scores points for a very atmospheric story telling style, and top-notch performances by Williams and Collette as the boy's adoptive mother (it's a real shocker to see her as this psycho character shortly after "Little Miss Sunshine"). In the end, though, it just seems as if this story could have been told in a short film... like there just isn't a full feature in all of this. I haven't read the novel... maybe Maupin fleshes it out more interestingly... but at the end I was echoing Peggy Lee and asking "Is that all there is?"

7. "The Great New Wonderful." It's probably true that it's too soon after 9/11 for a movie that really tells the story effectively, and it may even be impossible for an event so complicated to be reduced to a simple two-hour story on film. So "The Great New Wonderful" is probably the most effectiv 9/11 movie we're going to get, largely because it isn't actually a 9/11 movie... not exactly. It takes place exactly one year AFTER 9/11, and tells multiple intertwining stories about a group of New Yorkers who are still reeling from the aftermath of that day and not entirely certain that it might not happen again. By almost never directly dealing with the actual attacks, the film gives us a much better sense of the complex emotions we all felt then (and are still feeling) than any other film is going to do. Not to mention some marvelous performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Edie Falco, Tony Shalhoub, and others. All from the director of "Dude, Where's My Car?" and "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle". Talk about shocking!

8. "World Trade Center". Like I was saying... if you were still wondering if the events of 9/11 could be readily distilled down to a simple story of survival and heroism, here's your answer: nope! At least not by Oliver Stone. The story of two real-life rescue workers who became trapped in the collapse of the tower and had to be rescued themselves, this film does make an honorable attempt to pay tribute to the genuine heroes of that day, the self-sacrificing people who saved so many lives at the risk of their own. But by concentrating so much on just these two guys, the actual PEOPLE who were killed in the attacks almost become an after thought... suddenly at the very end of the movie it's like "Oh, yeah, some other people were involved, too." And it's a little difficult to watch the formerly radical Stone create this piece of warm & fuzzy fluff and try to put a happy, smiley face on the unsettling events of that day... especially after watching "The Great New wonderful" effectively give you a sense of hope without trying to give you a conventional happy ending. Nicholas Cage seems to be be sleepwalking through his role, as is Maria Bello as his wife. On the other hand, Michael Pena as his partner and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Pena's wife are both fantastic... Gyllenhaal may be even better here than she was in "The Great New Wonderful." If you can catch the film cheaply... maybe when it hits the discount houses... it could be worth it for them. But I wouldn't recommend it full price. (And when are we going to get a narrative film about the political implications of that day? Or is that too much to hope for?)

9. "The Illusionist". I'll admit that I am inclined to enjoy a movie that keeps "pulling the rug out from under me" time and again right up until the final scene... that never hides anything from me, but winds up revealing that a lot of what I saw doesn't mean what I think it did. This is possibly the best example of that kind of movie that I've seen, at least the best one that doesn't involve a bunch of con artists. It's the story of master magician and Illusionist Eisenheim (played by Edward Norton), who is surprised to be reunited with his childhood love (played by Jessica Beil)... only she is now engaged to a ruthless, evil nobleman (Rufus Sewell) who is obsessed with learning his secrets, and pursued by a police inspector (Paul Giamatti) who has a grudging admiration for him. A very effective period piece that is wonderfully acted (well, maybe not by Biel, but even she isn't bad) and written, this movie would probably be thoroughly enjoyable even if it wasn't so incredibly good at constantly surprising you with twists that make perfect sense when you look back on them later. If you enjoy a movie that can keep fooling you throughout as much as I do, then this is the film for you.

10. "Edmond." It's David Mamet time again. In this film adaptation of an early Mamet play, William H. Macy... who appears to be contractually obligated to be in every Mamet project... plays the title character, an put-upon businessman who abandons his job and marriage for a night of the kind of wild abandon he's never known before, to very dark consequences. It's not exactly "Glengarry Glen Ross", "Oleana" or even "American Buffalo", but it is at least interesting to see the seeds from which Mamet's more accomplished work sprung, and Macy is positively riveting in the lead, a frustrated blend of helplessness and fury who doesn't make himself at all easy to like (what with his racism, homophobia, misogeny and so on). But "interesting" doesn't necessarily equal greatness, and it's a little frustrating to watch a parade of accomplished actors like Joe Mantegna, Julia styles & George wendt (as well as less accomplished ones like Denise Richards) stroll onscreen barely long enough to introduce themselves and then vanish. "Edmond" is ultimately an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless.

11. "An Inconvenient Truth". It's EXTREMELY hard for me to imagine anyone watching this film with a genuinely open mind (read: not pre-determined to follow the Bush "It's only a theory" agenda) without becoming completely convinced that something needs to be done about the situation, and soon (not to mention becoming very, very frightened). I never would have imagined that watching Al Gore give what is essentially a 2-hour power point presentation about global warming would be a fascinating film, but the message of this movie (presented in as direct and startling a way as you could ever imagine) should leave you stunned and determined to take action. And if you're really reluctant to see it because you think it might be too "partisan": well, it's like Gore says in the film: global warming isn't a political issue, it's a moral one. And it isn't one that's too overshelming to do anything about. But as this film makes perfectly clear, it's also one with too much potential for anyone who cares about the future of this planet to ignore.

12. "Factotum". Charles Bukowski was probably equally noted as a writer and a drunk. But the films that have been based on his work... including Bukowski's own screenplay for "Barfly"... might leave you thinking that he never did anything else with his life other than get plastered every day. "Factotum" doesn't really do anything to change that history. Matt Dillon stars as the Bukowski surrogate, stumbling from one job to another until he inevitably gets fired for his drunken behavior, all the while trying to become a published writer. Dillon is one of the best actors around today, but he's SO wrong for the role of Bukowski that I'm truly mystified as to how he was cast. A top-notch supporting cast including Lily Taylor and Marisa Tomei don't really have much to do, and while I'll admit that it is fun to see a bunch of familiar settings in the movie (it was filmed in Minneapolis and St. Paul) it certainly never for one second makes you think it's Los Angeles. Not that it claims to be, mind you, but it can't really be Bukowski anywhere else but LA. Does watching an argumenative drunk abuse his significant others and act totally self-important sound like a good movie to you? Then you'll probably love "Factotum". Me, I would have preferred a film about what made Bukowski the WRITER that he was.

13. "Trust The Man". Or, this week's entry in the Maggie Gyllenhaal Film Festival.
She stars as one half of a long-time couple (Billie Crudup is the other half) who are at a crossroads: she wants marriage and children, he likes things the way they are. They're contrasted with David Ducovny and Julianne Moore (Moore playing Crudup's sister), a MARRIED couple whose relationship seems to be deteriorating as the result of some seemingly irreconcilable differences. Gyllenhaal and Crudup manage to make their somewhat cliched storyline interesting by making their CHARACTERS interesting, but Moore and (especially) Ducovny just seem to be going through the motions... this film will do nothing to change Ducovny's reputation as a non-acting actor. You just never really care about their selfish, self-absorbed characters, and the predictable, sitcom turns the plot takes don't do them any favors (the conclusion, particularly, is hoky almost beyond belief). You could stay home and watch a typical evening of TV comedies and get almost as much out of it. And while you might not want to miss Gyllenhaal and Crudup, who ARE good, well... the movie will hit the second-run discount houses eventually. Hmmm... I WOULD think of that NOW!

Hey, how about that... I made it through all of the movies!