Joe's Movie Reviews

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Sorry... These Are Both Good, Too

I know it probably isn't as interesting to read so many positive reviews (if reading ANY of these reviews can be called "interesting")... unfortunately, seeing fewer movies these days means taking care that the ones I do see are more likely to be ones I enjoy. That, added to the fact that I don't review movies I see at the second-run discount theatres (which is over half of what I see)... as a result, you get a higher level of recommendations. It just doesn't seem right, I know, that a movie reviewer writes so many positive comments. Well, at least I managed to do "P.S. I Love You" this week. Let's hope for some more turkeys soon. In the meantime, here are two more good ones. And the fact that they both have Minnesota connections has nothing to do with that. Really.

1. "No Country For Old Men". Even long-time Coen Brothers fans could be forgiven for beginning to doubt they still hadvewhat it takes after movies like "Intolerable Cruelty" and "The Ladykillers". But now we have evidence they haven't forgotten how to do it right.

Cormac McCarthy's novel about a man's discovery of a suitcase full of $2 million in cash next to a bloody shoot-out, and what happens when he makes off with it (hint: other men who were looking for it aren't happy and want to find him very badly) has the outlines of a conventional crime thriller, but its strange, poetic style would seem just about impossible to duplicate in a film... you could imagine an adaptation being done accurately and still being a very standard commercial picture. But the Coens have long been among the more literary film makers (and their screenplays READ better than just about anyone's). They actually manage the seemingly insurmountable task of turning McCarthy's twisty narrative into a proper film, while maintaining the unique approach and style that made it so distinctive as a novel.

It should perhaps be stated that this is NOT the Coen Brothers of "Big Lebowski" or "Raising Arizona". Anyone searching for their legendary arch comic outlook will be very surprised. Probably the closest comparison in the Coens' filmography would be "Blood Simple"... this is an uncomfortably close look at the dark, sinister side of life and human nature. Good guys don't always succeed, bad guys aren't always punished, and things don't always work out the way they're supposed to. But movies don't always have to be the equivalent of comfort food to be good, and in the tradition of classic film noir (and some of the darker 1970's dramas) the Coens have given us a fascinating examination of some of the less savory aspects of humanity.

The film makers are considerably aided by the work of a stellar cast, in particularly Javier Bardem as just about the ultimate personification of evil, and Tommy Lee Jones as a dedicated, upstanding sheriff trying desperately to make sense out of the evil and bloodshed he sees more and more of each day. "No Country For Old Men" may not be what most people have in mind when they think of "Holiday Movies", but a good movie is a good movie whatever time of the year it is. And, dark as it is, "No Country For Old Men" is most definitely a very good movie.

2. "Juno". Written by former Twin Cities resident Diablo Cody (whose byline appeared so many times in "City Pages"), "Juno" has been getting so many rave reviews virtually everywhere that I was fully expecting to dislike it... after all, nothing with that much hype could be as good as all that. Just goes to show that as Chuck Berry once said, "You never can tell." For once, all the hype is 100 percent correct.

Juno is a sarcastic, snarky 16-year-old who discovers after her very first sexual experience that she is pregnant, and decides that rather than getting an abortion she'll have the baby and give it up for adoption to a couple who can't can't have children but really want them. This leads to an extended series of comic complications that virtually never take the easy-to-figure-out route... when you think the movie is going to go one way, it turns around and heads off somewhere else. And just when you think you've at least figured out that the movie as all about snappy, quick-paced dialogue and "smart" remarks, it turns out to be ultimately sweetly sentimental... but an HONEST and not overly sappy sentimental.

Cody obviously likes all of her characters, and nobody comes off as the cardboard bad guy deliberately set up to be one because the movie requires it... even Juno's parents (the wonderful J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) are kind and understanding. And Jennifer Garner & Jason Bateman as the baby's prospective adoptive parents turn out to be much more fully-rounded characters than most writers would feel the need to create. But it's Juno herself who is the most memorable character... even just on paper she's a terrific character, but Ellen Page's performance in the role lifts both it and the movie to another entire level.

It's understandable, after seeing so many huge popular favorites turn out to be favorites because they pander to the lowest common denominator, to assume that any film so almost universally well regarded has to be full of stereotyped characters, predictable plot developments, and a minimum of actual creativity. But "Juno" has enough creativity for several regular movies, and makes you all the more eager to see what Diablo Cody will come up with next. And after making his directorial debut with last year's terrific "Thank You For Smoking", director Jason Reitman looks to have an equally promising career ahead. More and more major studio comedies in recent years have become increasingly "by the books" productions, by film makers going through the motions. "Juno" gives us an idea of what genuine fun they can still be with a little originality and enthusiasm thrown into the mix. It's enough to give you hope for the future of Hollywood comedy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

From The Land Of Predictability

It seems that the overwhelming majority of American moviegoers have a deep, burning need to know exactly what is going to happen to every character far in advance, and a need to know exactly how each plot element is going to resolve itself within a few minutes of said element being introduced. I don't happen to be one of those people, which is probably why "P.S. I Love You" was a somewhat less than thrilling experience for me. The rest of you may very well love it.

In case you need to know: Hillary Swank plays a young widow whose late husband (Gerard Butler of "300", seen alive only in the opening scene but frequently in flashback thereafter) has just died of a brain tumor. But he thoughtfully realized how emotionally devastated she was likely to be, so he has written a series of letters and arranged to have them delivered (along with occasional gifts) over the course of the following year, the intention being to help her through her emotional ordeal and learn to enjoy life again. Armed only with this information... not even having seen any of the TV ads or theatrical trailers... my cousin successly summarized the entire plot in every major detail. Anyone who's seen more than two or three romantic comedies (or dramas) in their entire lives ought to be able to do the same.

Anyone reading this who can contradict this idea, feel free to write and do so... but I think it's pretty safe to say that romance in real life is NOT always sweet and predictable and comforting and all of the rest of that warm and fuzzy stuff. But this is the land of MOVIE romance, which is another dimension entirely. The acting of the two leads doesn't exactly help: Hillary Swank has tended to burn hot and cold in her performances, and this is definitely on the cold side. But at least she has a discernable personality, which is more than can be said for Butler. And not only is the script predictable in the extreme, but the dialogue is clumsy and corny beyond the tolerance of all but the staunchest lover of romantic cliches. This is especially surprising and disappointing coming from writer/director Richard Lavgravanese, who managed to take one of the worst-written romance novels of all time, "The Bridges Of Madison County", and turn it into a warm and sincere film. "P.S. I Love You" is also based on a novel (unread by me), but either Lagravanese has lost his touch, or the novel must have set a new world record for sappy, poorly constructed awfulness.

All of that said, there are at least occasional moments and stray elements that should hold viewers' interest enough to keep them from falling asleep. The ever reliable Lisa Kudrow contributes some snarky attitude that keeps the film from going overboard TOO often, and Harry Connick has a nice supporting role as the one and only character in the entire film whose story arch isn't completely easy to figure out within a minute of their first appearance. And for fans of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" (such as, for instance, myself) it was very interesting to see James "Spike" Marsters in the role of Butler's best friend, a character about as far removed from Spike as you could hope to find.

Still, those are primarily compensations for those who happen to find themselves stuck with the prospect of sitting through the movie for two hours. I certainly wouldn't recommend you go to see it JUST for those moments. Unless, of course, you're one of those fans of the easily foreseen plot developments that I mentioned at the beginning of this review. Instead, if you get the opportunity, you might try to find "Things We Lost In The Fire" and check out how some of the same basic ingredients can be blended together into a powerful, emotionally effecting film that will stick with you for a long time. "P.S. I Love You", on the other hand, is a film that most people won't even remember for as long as it takes to... ahh... err... um, what was I talking about again?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Two Creepy Movies

Now, I happen to like creepy movies, so keep in mind that that is meant in the nicest way possible.

1. "The Orphanage". Guillermo Del Toro, as either director or producer (and sometimes both), has been responsible for some of the most creepy, shivery ghost and supernatural stories of the past decade or more... at least when he makes them in his native Spain and isn't influenced by the "requirements" of Hollywood schlock. Acting this time as producer, in (thankfully) another Spanish production, he has given us a movie that fans of the "Saw" and "Hostel" franchises will probably loath, but that those who savor a little elegance in suspense along with the scares ought to cherish.

It's the story of a young mother who moves, along with her husband and their adopted son, back into the building that, long ago, used to house the orphanage she grew up in as a young girl. She hopes to turn it into an orphanage once more and run it herself, but it seems that the ghosts of some of its former inhabitants are still hanging around. Furthermore, due to her adopted son's illness, he is able to communicate with those children (he apparently has Haley Joel Osment's disease, too... he sees dead people)).

There is precisely one and only one scene in the entire film with any amount of blood or gore, and it's over almost before you know it. What we have instead is a film packed to the brim with the kind of subtle, eerie atmosphere that hardly any American mainstream movies know how to do any more. Sure, you've probably seen horror movies where the entire audience mutters things like "gross!" and "ick!"... even sometimes laughing where they weren't meant to... but when was the last time you saw a supernatural drama where an entire theatre full of people were gasping in simultaneous shock and surprise every ten minutes or so? Or, for that matter, actually applauded at the end? That's exactly what happened when I saw a sneak preview of this film (scheduled to open at the Uptown Theater at the very end of December)at the Oak Street Cinema last week.

If you're a fan of horror movies but have grown weary of the same old tired Hollywood cliches, you couldn't do much better than "The Orphanage". Guillermo Del Toro has had a perfect batting average (yeah, I know that's a sports metaphor, but it's baseball, so that's okay), and with this new film he hits it out of the park again.

2. "Sweeney Todd". What a perfectly appropriate, sweet subject for a musical. A wrongly imprisoned man returns to his old life after 15 years to find his wife dead and his daughter become the ward of the same evil judge who put him away years ago. He restarts his old barber shop with the aid of new friend Mrs. Lovett (baker of "The worst pies in London") and with the aid of his razors, begins his quest for revenge (as the song puts it, "He shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again"). Sounds just like something you'd expect to see in a Disney cartoon, doesn't it?

Well, maybe not. But it does sound exactly like something you'd expect to see starring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton (their sixth collaboration). Stephen Sondheim's very, VERY dark hit musical needs a director... and star... who are perfectly attuned to its sinister sensibilities in order for a film version to work. In the wrong hands, this material could be dreadful and campy. Fortunately, the combination of Burton and Depp are perfect, and they are ably aided by a cast featuring Helena Bonnom Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall ("Secrets And Lies") and Sacha Baron Cohen, A.K.A. Borat (doing an ITALIAN accent this time).

It should be noted that aside from being quite dark (which I don't think anyone familiar with or interested in "Sweeney Todd" would have any trouble with), it is also very explicitly bloody. On stage (as in the local production I saw over twenty years ago), you obviously don't see a lot of graphic blood and guts when Todd starts working the old razors, but Burton takes full advantage of this being a film and features blood spurting longer and further than is probably possible. He even goes a little further in that department than I personally think is really necessary, but by no means enough to ruin his otherwise impressive achievement.

None of the cast is exactly a veteran musical performer, but while they don't exactly give Pavarotti (or even the Beatles) a run for for their money, they do quite a respectable job vocally. Depp, in particular, manages to avoid the frequent musical trap in which the actor stops ACTING the role while they're singing a tune and just "performs"... he's acting in every scene. And maybe it's just me, but knowing his habit of often basing his ACTING performances on various actual people (like Keith Richards as the basis for Jack Sparrow), I couldn't help wondering whether it was a coincidence or not that at frequent moments in various songs he tends to sound a bit like David Bowie.

This is clearly not a musical meant for fans of "The Sound Of Music". But as gruesome as it can sometimes get (though what else could it be and remain true to the source material?), "Sweeney Todd" is a fascinating glimpse of a very different kind into the world of some fascinating characters and their dark world and lives (and the cast does indeed make each character very real). Burton "opens up" the stage play just enough (in some very creative ways), without going hog wild about it. If you have a taste for the dark and sinister... not to mention for some impressive film making and acting... "Sweeney Todd" could be just what you're looking for. It opens at Christmas.