Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Year of the Dog - B-

In theaters. Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.

Dogs are loyal companions who will never disappoint you. Unfortunately for Peggy (Molly Shannon) the only true love or genuine connection she has in her life is her dog, Pencil, who dies within the first few minutes of the movie. The loss sends her into a tailspin to fill the void.

She tries dating her neighbor (John C. Reilly, a standout as Peggy's philistine nemesis) and a fellow pet lover (Peter Sarsgaard as Newt), both of which end up disappointing her and confirming her belief that animals are the best companions. Her love for animals ends up taking over her life, leading her to steal from her boss and adopt 15 dogs that live at her house.

As is typical with the hyped indie movie, this one has some good parts, but the overall package just isn't that great. The story falls apart in the second half of the movie and the final scene is just stupid. Molly Shannon gives a good performance as the lonely and introspective Peggy, and there are several funny moments with Newt and Peggy's brother and his family.

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Five Easy Pieces - B+

On DVD (1970). R-Rated, 96 minutes.

An idyllic setting and lots of money don't always produce a happy childhood. In Five Easy Pieces, Jack Nicholson (as Robert Dupea) rejects his cultured and privileged upbringing and considerable piano talent to become an itinerant oil rig worker with low class friends and a ditzy and insecure girlfriend.

This film is a character study of a flawed man. Robert cheats on his girlfriend (with Sally Strothers) and beds his brother's love interest, seemingly just for sport. He tries to be a part of his chosen gropu, but can't resist insulting his closest buddy Elton when Elton tries to compare their lives. He returns home to find it much as he left it, except that his estranged father has been rendered mute by 2 strokes. He tries to make his peace with his father and himself, but ultimately he chooses to continue to reject structure and facing his own demons and responsibility.

Jack is great in this Oscar nominated performance. His delivery of the famous 'chicken salad' speech, as well as the conveyance of Robert's inner demons in subtle but painful ways are all trademark Jack. I thought the hitchhiker sideshow with Palm was especially funny. Her constant complaints and general attitude were genuinely funny.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Notes on a Scandal/Freedom Writers: B-

Both released on DVD this month.

In the interest of the teacher-based films, here's a pop quiz:

Notes on a Scandal is:
A. An extremely well-written, well-acted film.
B. The female version of Chuck and Buck.
C. Mary Kay Letourneau's favorite movie.
D. Proof that England is too small for Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.
E. All of the above.

Freedom Writers is:
A. A predictable film with good intentions.
B. The female version of Stand and Deliver and Coach Carter.
C. Erin Gruwell's favorite movie.
D. Proof that Scott Glenn deserves more work.
E. All of the above.

Notes on a Scandal stars Judi Dench as a mature high school professor who shows great interest in new teacher Cate Blanchett. Cate Blanchett is in a loveless marriage with a difficult home life. When Dench discovers Blanchett's affair with a student, she blackmails her and tries to get her to switch teams. Dench and Blanchett are so good here, you almost sympathize with their despicable characters. The screenplay by Patrick Marber is first rate and Dench delivers great narration throughout the film. The movie is well-directed and well-shot.

Freedom Writers stars Hillary Swank as a new high school teacher in Gangland, Los Angeles, who inspires her integrated and diverse class to unite and succeed, creating a surrogate home for them in her classroom. Her breakthrough is a field trip to the Holocaust museum and her use of The Diary of Anne Frank. Based on a true story, it's actually surprising that there are no surprises here. Every plot point is expected, even the ones involving the secondary charcters. This being an MTV movie, white men are either unsupportive husbands, cowards without rhythm, or skeptical fathers. Unlike Patrick Dempsey, Scott Glenn is able to rise above his thinly-written role. But it's hard to get too angry at a film with this much heart. The characters here deserve to have their story told. If only we could take the brain and guts from Notes on a Scandal and add it to the heart and soul of Freedom Writers, then we would have a great film. Both films: B-

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Amores Perros - A

On DVD (Released 2000). Rated R, 155 minutes.

Mexico is a tough place. In Amores Perros (Love's a B*tch), Director Alejandro González Iñárritu made his mark as its most compelling and complex storyteller. This film shares its structure and oh so bleak worldview with 21 Grams and Babel, and together the 3 films are considered a trilogy. All three are directed by Iñárritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga (the two have had a falling out over credit for the success of the pictures, especially Babel).

The first of the 3 intersecting storylines tells the tale of Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his pursuit of his sister-in-law, Susana. Her husband and his brother, Ramiro, works as a checker in a supermarket and as a burglar on the side. Octavio lusts and loves Susana, which creates violent conflict between the brothers and scolding from their mother (Babel's Adriana Barraza). The characters and the story are infused with the seething machismo culture that is rampant in much of Mexico, and is played out violently as Octavio uses his other love, his dog, to earn money in violent and bloody dogfights. Octavio sells out his brother, his dog, and ultimately his soul all for the love of Susana. This story is the strongest of the 3, and captures several gritty details and side stories in mesmerizing fashion.

The second story is the weakest. A successful businessman is cheating on his wife and 2 teenage daughters for the 'it' girl in Mexico, a sought after model. After finally separating from his wife and getting an apartment with his girlfriend, she is injured on their first day together in a horrific car crash (the moment of synergy for the film, as the central characters are all impacted thereby) that ultimately renders her once beautiful legs amputated. Loss, vanity, fidelity, love, and ego are all dealt with well.

The third story is the most bizarre, but most emotionally effective. El Chivo (Emilio Echeverria) portrays a strange and unkempt man that was imprisoned for 20 years for his role as a Mexican guerrilla. Before going to prison, he and his wife agreed that they would tell their then 2 year old daughter that he had died. Of course, when he gets out, she is all he can think about. He earns money as a hit man and passes the time staking out his daughter and taking care of a pack of dogs.

There is enough in this movie for a 10,000 word post, but suffice it to say it deserved the Oscar it won for Best Foreign Film in 2000.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Goodfellas - in 10 Pictures

The beginning of the best long shot in the history of cinema.

"I believe you have sufficient funds for your delightful advertisement."
In a film full of great pistol-whippings, this one is the best.
Henry Hill questions the priorities of his friend Tommy. It is better to give . . .

than to receive.
"I would refrain from the recreational drug use. They are affecting your cognitive abilities."

The best pan in the history of cinema. "Memo From Turner"If you can't figure out the symbolism here, not even Freud can help you.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

The Hoax - A-

In theatres. Rated R. 115 minutes.

Naming is everything. Take Clifford Irving, con artist, liar, and (allegedly) phenomenal writer. In 1971 he conned McGraw Hill into believing he was the authorized biographer for Howard Hughes. Through the use of forged documents and ludicrously absurd tales he bilked the publishers out of a one million dollar advance. Eventually it cost him his wife, his researcher and only friend, his lover, 20 months in prison, 1.3 million dollars, and any hope of being taken seriously as an author. Still, in his last con, he called his memoir detailing the sordid affair “The Hoax,” as if it were a joke that went too far, and The Hoax it remains.

A dynamite Richard Gere (Yanks) stars as Clifford Irving. I’ve never been a huge Gere fan, but he is Oscar-caliber here. The charisma, intelligence, and balls it takes to even attempt a con of this magnitude is mesmerizing, and Gere brings all that and more. While never a sympathetic character, Carter is compelling—daring you to root for him to pull it off. Somehow the stealing and infidelity are overlooked in the excitement of lie after dizzying lie. It’s not until he blackmails his best friend and collaborator Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina, Spider-Man 2) that the awful truth you knew but ignored comes home. Irving is a lying, self-centered scumbag.

This is a fascinating piece of history that I was completely unaware of, drawing lines between Hughes and a just pre-Water Gate Nixon, and in so doing straddling two of the most powerful, idiosyncratic, and paranoid men of the 20th Century. It’s everything historical pics should be: true, funny, enthralling, strange, and immanently relevant. While Catch Me if You Can (2002) and Shattered Glass (2003) both recently covered similar ground, The Hoax is a bigger operator at every level and my favorite of the three. The best film I’ve seen in the theatre this year. A-

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Last Picture Show - B+

On DVD (Released 1971). R-rated, 126 minutes.

When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain in midst of other woe, Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"...that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. John Keats.

The Last Picture Show is a portrait of the soul of West Texas in the 1950's. Based on a Larry McMurty book and directed by Peter Bogdanovich, it tracks the trials and travails of high school senior Sonny Crawford (played by Timothy Bottoms, a dead ringer for a young George W. Bush).

The movie explores multiple interesting themes, all very well: class issues, lust, beauty as power, youth, and small town life. Countless films have explored the claustrophobia and perfect facade with a brooding underbelly of small towns; this film started that genre and sets the standard. Pleasantville, Dazed and Confused, Far from Heaven and dozens of others all owe a debt to The Last Picture Show.

The movie is shot entirely in black and white, to powerful effect. Bogdanovich uses the lack of color as well as the windy, cold and barren streets of Anarene (the name of the town) to set the tone of life in the high plains. Several frames of the film are exceedingly beautiful, and the director uses the big, empty spaces in West Texas to dominate much of each exterior shot, to heighten the feeling of isolation.

Lost and unrequited love as well as foolish choices dominate the story. Sonny falls for his basketball coach's 40 year old wife (Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar for her performance) but then drops her in an instant to date his best friend's ex-girlfriend Jacy (played by a stunning young Cybil Shepherd). Jacy is the best looking girl in town, and her mom (Ellen Burstyn) a mirror image of her, 20 years later, doesn't want her to settle for a roughneck.

The heart of the movie is Sam (Ben Johnson - who won an Oscar for his performance), a mirror image of Sonny, 20 years later. He runs the local movie theater and pool hall, and serves as a father figure to Sonny and many of the town's boys. He can see his life flash before him as Sonny, Duane and Jacy play out their adolescence.

Had I seen this in 1971, I would've given it an A. Unfortunately, the pacing of the film and the bad performance of the main character by Timothy Bottoms took me out of the movie too much. The quote beginning this review is from a scene in their school (taught by Higgins from Magnum PI), and it sums the movie up.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

The Lookout - B+

In Theatres. R rated, 102 minutes.

First-time director Scott Frank made his name penning screenplays based on novels by noted writers Philip K. Dick (Minority Report) and Elmore Leonard (Out of Sight, Get Shorty). Come to find out, he’s got a few stories worth telling of his own. The Lookout tells the story of the athlete that probably should have died young. The Set-up: Chris Pratt (an understated Joseph Gordon-Levitt of Third Rock fame) was the handsome/rich kid/star athlete everybody wanted to be or be with in high school (“I was three years older than you and I wanted to be you”). Driving down an old Kansas highway with his best friend, his girlfriend, and a fourth, he flips the headlights off and never sees the combine in the middle of the road. The accident leaves his girlfriend and best friend dead, the fourth with a prosthetic, and Chris with substantial brain damage that limits his ability to sequence cause and effect and self-sensor his speech.

The Plot: Coupled by “the agency” with blind roommate Lewis (an excellent Jeff Daniels), Pratt attends classes by day and cleans a small town bank by night. Lonely and frustrated by his inability to pick-up a girl (a deft commentary on the need for a guy to self-sensor his intentions in order to get in a relationship), Chris is vulnerable to a high school acquaintance (Gary Spargo) and his ex-stripper accomplice “Luvlee Limons” (a stock character played with depth and feel by Wedding Crashers stand out and Borat fiancee Isla Fisher). Of course his new friends just want access to the vault Pratt sweeps around every night, snagging Chris with the hope of love and the dream of returning to his high school glory days. No fun spoiling the ride, but the story keeps twisting in unexpected directions, turning every time I thought I'd figured the ending.

The supporting cast is uniformly spot-on. Of special note is Bruce McGill (of MacGyver fame), Carla Gugino (Night at the Museum, Sin City), and Sergio Di Zio as a small town cop with hidden fire in his belly. The cinematography captures both the wide-open starkness and loneliness of Kansas farm roads and the warmth of the people that inhabit them. While the wrap-up’s a little clean, a very good film. B+.

Favorite scene: The confrontation between Jeff Daniels and Isla Fisher when he asks, “Something tells me you don’t see yourself invited to the Pratt family Thanksgiving next year. So let me do you a favor and ask you a question, ‘What are you doing here?’”

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

The New World - B

On DVD, released 2006. Rated PG-13, 150 minutes.

Walking into a Terrence Malick movie is like buying a Radiohead album. You give him the benefit of the doubt, but you have to be careful not to fall into 'fart into a bag syndrome', which holds that Radiohead could release an album of songs featuring farts into a bag, and it would still make all music critics top 10 lists. All sycophantic urges aside, you have to be aware of the talent of the filmmaker involved.

All that being said, The New World is essentially a depiction of the love story of John Smith and Pocahontas during Britain's initial colonization of America. As is expected in any Malick feature, nature and the natural elements are featured so prominently as to become almost the central character in the film. Collin Farrell walks around looking pained the whole time as John Smith, and Q'Orianka Kilcher hits the mark portraying the innocent, inspiring, and lovelorn Pocahontas.

The film works as a study and commentary on the nature v. progress themes as well as innocence and man's attraction thereto. The cinematography is top notch, and Malick uses the environment, especially tall grasses and trees, to surround the story. This is the strongest element in the picture, and is hypnotizing (in a good way). Unfortunately, I found the basic structure and plot of the film extremely lacking. I don't need a perky story, but I need something interesting to at least let me enjoy the nature and subtext.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I can't wait for this. Ken Burns tackles my favorite historical event, WWII. Coming to PBS in November.

THE WAR, a seven-part (14 hour) series directed and produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, tells the story of the Second World War through the personal accounts of a handful of men and women from four quintessentially American towns. The series explores the most intimate human dimensions of the greatest cataclysm in history — a worldwide catastrophe that touched the lives of every family on every street in every town in America — and demonstrates that in extraordinary times, there are no ordinary lives.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Klute - B

On DVD (released 1971). R-Rated, 114 minutes.

Imagining Jane Fonda as a prostitute isn't hard for me to do. In Klute she portays Bree Daniel, a prostitute trying in vain to get away from 'the life' - she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her work. Given that this movie was released in 1971, she probably had to fit it in between firing on US troops in Vietnam.

Klute is a thriller with a side of pyschoanalysis. The plot centers around the disappearance of a business man and the private investigator's search for him. Bree is at the center of the case because she was beat up by a john 2 years prior and is suspected to have been receiving disturbing letters from him (unbeknownst to his family) over that same period. Fonda does good work portraying the instability and unevenness of her character; her sessions with her therapist were very revealing and well done. She keeps on 'hooking' in order to be in control and guarantee the intimacy; as she grows close to Klute she wants to destroy the relationship simply because she doesn't have control.

The interaction of Klute, the country detective and honorable man, and the decadent and foolish Bree is well done. Themes explored include rural/urban life, sexual depravity, female intimacy issues, male susceptibility to sexual manipulation and drug use.

The director, Alan Pakula, makes good use of light and dark to accentuate the mood and give the viewer clues into Bree's state of mind. Throughout much of the picture you can only see parts of the actors faces.

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Monday, April 9, 2007

20 Movies I Like Better Than Anyone Else- Part 1

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) - Shane Black's directorial debut is a return to form in his perfect screenplay construction of Lethal Weapon 1 and 2 (#2 was uncredited - he wanted to make it darker, including Riggs's death). But somewhere in his 10 year screenwriting absence, he learned how to write unbeatable dialogue. And the commentary on the DVD is one of the best in recent years.

Mulholland Drive (2001) - David Lynch took a rejected TV pilot and turned it on its ear, adding 45 minutes by revisiting nearly every scene. All Hollywood genres are represented (cop, western, romance, gangster) as a naive Naomi Watts struggles for success and love. Is the first 2/3 of the movie a dream, masturbatory fantasy, or her life flashing before her eyes?

The Thin Red Line (1998) - Unlike Saving Private Ryan, this movie allows you to sympathize with America's on-screen enemy. Terrence Malick spends a lot of time contemplating man's relationship to nature. The classical four elements of earth, water, air, and fire are all explored. The movie has some excellent combat scenes as well. But it's heart and soul is Jim Caviezel's character Private Witt who wants to find immortality. Initially conceived as the story of 3 soldiers, Adrien Brody's scenes were mostly cut.

Boogie Nights (1997) - The center is a dysfunctional family with a father (Burt Reynolds), mother (Julianne Moore), and children (Mark Wahlberg, Heather Graham). My favorite directorial touch is William Macy's increasingly distanced relationship from his wife. In three scenes, she goes from close-up, to a long-shot, to not being seen at all. I also love Rollergirl turning her identity into a weapon.

Lone Star (1996) - In a Texas border town, sheriff Chris Cooper investigates a generation-old murder after a freemason ring is found on a skeleton. The transitions between the present-day story and the past are first-rate and the screenplay skillfully explores race relations. Most of all, director John Sayles gets the feel and tone right of a Texas border town.

Fearless (1993) - Jeff Bridges survives a plane crash and is considered a hero when he leads several people out of the burning wreckage. He withdraws from everything in life, including his family, and only feels alive when his life is threatened. He forms a friendship with Rosie Perez, whose infant son died in the crash. Faith, spirituality, love, and purpose have rarely been so intelligently handled simultaneously by the underrated Peter Weir. And the ending is a knockout.

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) - An exciting movie about chess? Yes, but it's also about child prodigies, friendship, and parenting. The scene when Josh plays chess with Vinnie in the park and rediscovers his love of chess is a highlight. In real life, Bobby Fischer himself has become a crazy, America-hating anti-Semite who has praised the 9/11 attacks. And the kid on which the film is based (Josh Waitzkin) is now a kung fu master - but the film stands.

A River Runs Through It (1992) - The story of a precher's two sons in 1920s rural Montana is frequently touching as they grow up, discover women, and try to become men. Brad Pitt's first big role completely suits him, and as the lead, Craig Sheffer shows honesty and gravitas well. The fishing shows on TV are unwatchable, but director Robert Redford turns fly-fishing into a work of art.

JFK (1991) - The film that turned me into a movie junkie. The movie is over 3 hours of fascinating conspiracy theories expertly directed, edited, and photographed. And it's all completely false. Oliver Stone created a new cinematic language all by himself, and unfortunately it's been copied by every single music video and most movies since.

Miller's Crossing (1990) - In most years, this movie would the best, but Mr. Scorsese was in top form that year. Joel and Ethan Coen still haven't topped their third film where Gabriel Byrne plays a gangster who is having an affair with his boss's girl. From the opening Godfather homage, to the intricate repetitions in the script, the movie always has a sense of humor about itself and a sense of film history. The great Carter Burwell score has often been imitated, never equalled. Unlike most Coen Brothers' movies, this one's message about the decisions we make in our lives and the reasons we make them almost matches their monumental technical skill - almost.

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Hollywoodland - B-

On DVD. 126 minutes.

The so-called “Superman curse” goes back to this story of the original TV Superman George Reeves and his untimely death in 1959. Ostensibly, it is the nature of his death, precipitated by a shot to the temple at close range, with which Hollywoodland is dealing. Ruled a suicide by the police, there are enough unanswered questions and possible perps to fuel several conspiracy theories. But the real gas firing this mystery is our inability to separate actors from the parts they play—to believe the man of steel could succumb to a piece of lead shot from his own hand.

Ben Affleck has rarely been better than here as George Reeves. Once a respected film actor, he is reduced to taking the black-and-white kiddie Superman show for the bucks. His lover Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), herself ten years his senior, is the wife of still older studio exec Eddie Mannix. The assumption is that Toni will be able to move Reeves back to some respectable projects. It’s not obvious whether she won’t or can’t, but the better films don’t come. Showered with a house, money, and gifts, George is a kept man. Determined to move into directing and producing, he throws out a feeler in NYC and, while there, has a fling with a gold-digging wannabe starlet that morphs into an engagement. But he’s got no gold to dig and that revelation, along with his jilted lover and her husband’s odd sense of duty lead to plenty with an interest in seeing Reeves dead. Tragically, in a nation in love with Superman, there’s no one with an interest in keeping him alive.

Adrian Brody is Lois Simo, a private eye with delusions of fame himself, hired by Reeves’ mother to look into the case. Divorced and with a son struggling to understand his matinee idol’s suicide, Simo’s concern is getting his picture in the paper and keeping the doubts alive long enough to line up his next case. Brody is solid if not spectacular in the part that fifteen years ago would have gone to Bruce Willis. Diane Lane continues to be a template on how to age in Hollywood. Without noticeable work or botox, she lets us see every wrinkle in a film shot in unflattering muted colors and black-and-white. She is still sexy and stunning enough that we believe she can attract a younger man even as we know she’ll never be able to keep him. But this film is notable for Affleck. He nails Reeves. Still charming and good-looking, he’s grown tired. It’s in his eyes, his walk, his smile. If it is suicide, it’s not from depression. He sees a way out. He’s just too tired to make it happen.

Ultimately this film wants to be about the American obsession with TV and movie stars. In a culture that denies itself a religion with sculpted idols, celluloid feels that void. We’re just not sure what to do when they die. Unfortunately, this theme has been covered too many times before, and Hollywoodland brings nothing new to the table. It’s a shame the film doesn’t spend more time on what it actually has going for it: the mysterious death of the one unabashed, unvarnished Christ-figure in popular culture. Superman. What happens to our faith and our entertainment when our religious figures and our celluloid idols become one and the same? And what do we do when they die and can’t be resurrected? B-

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Lives of Others - A-

In theaters. R rated, 137 minutes.
(To be released on DVD June 26, 2007)

The Lives of Others is a powerful film about duty, honor and character. Set in East Berlin in 1984, it is both a study of communism and western freedoms and a study of the human condition under such oppression. The story centers around Gerd Wiesler, a diligent and seeminlgy soulless German Stasi (Secret Police) agent trained in espionage and interrogation. He is charged with spying on Georg Dreyman, a respected writer whose girlfriend is the object of affection of a high ranking East German official Bruno Hempf.

Dreyman is not an agitator and is comfortable in his role as a writer whose content is muzzled by the government and chooses not to express his anti-government sentiments in order to keep himself from being imprisoned. Wiesler initially pursues his charge forcefully and without remorse, as a good 'comrade.' As he gets drawn into the lives of Dreyman and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Marie Sieland, Wiesler slowly undergoes a transformation. He is a man of duty, honor, and sacrifice for the good of the country, and he is beginning to question the system that he has dedicated his life to. He lives in a bleak solitude, which the director often juxtaposes against the rich and full life lived by Dreyman and Sieland. I won't give away the rest of the story, because I hope the readers will see it.

Each of the actors put in powerful performances, especially Ulrich Muhe as Wiesler. His understated performance is the anchor of the movie. This is a highly intelligent, emotionally satisfying movie with a sophisticated and interesting script.

Most of what I have read about this movie mentions its meaning relative to the US wiretapping program. After seeing the movie myself, such an extrapolation is clearly ridiculous. The primary message of the film is the power of freedom and the evils of an oppressive government. Other themes in the movie are love, isolation, insecurity, and sacrifice.

This film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, 2006. It is now #5 on my 2006 list (see my profile for the rest).

Favorite scene: The last scene of the movie, in the Karl Marx Bookstore.

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Blades of Glory - B-

In theaters. Rated PG-13, 93 minutes.

This comedy tells the story of of 2 male figure skaters (Jon Heder and Will Ferrell) that must join together to skate as a pair after being banned from singles competition. This is one of those movies where the plot only serves the purpose of facilitating gags, but there are some redeeming moments. For what its worth, Heder's character is the straight laced technical skater, while Ferrell's is the sex addict freestyler that skates to "Stroke Me."

Any movie with Gob, Pam from the Office, Napoleon Dynamite and Will Ferrell is going to have a few laughs. The dancing between the two leads is funny, as are Will Arnett and Amy Poehler as a rival skating pair, but the feeling of the movie is that its a SNL skit that goes on to long. Jenna Fischer and Jon Heder form a geeky romantic couple, and both are successful in escaping the shadow of their famed characters from other projects. Luke Wilson is funny in his cameo as the facilitator of a sex addict meeting.

While funny, this doesn't belong in the same category as Anchorman, 40 Year Old Virgin, Old School and Wedding Crashers.

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Sea Inside - B-

On DVD. Released 2005. Rated PG-13, 125 minutes.

The Sea Inside explores the world of Ramon Sampedro (in a great performance from Javier Bardem), a Spanish quadriplegic seeking permission from the Spanish government to end his life (or, more accurately, for allowing someone to help him do it). The movie, based on a true story, takes place 26 years after the diving accident that paralyzed the then 20 year old Ramon, showing his life, his family, and his reasons for seeking his own demise.

This one never really gets off the ground, partly because of the pedestrian script, but mostly because of the director, Alejandro Amenabar (The Others). The thesis of the film is that Ramon should be able to die with dignity, and that there are no arguments against Ramon's wishes except for the metaphysical, so therefore in a secular state and society there can be no prohibition of 'assisted suicide.' The court case is secondary to Ramon's relationship with his caretakers and two women. The first is Rosa, a working class woman that falls in love with him after coming for a visit spurred by an interview with Ramon on TV. The second is with Julia, the lead attorney in his case and his eventual lover. He chose Julia to respresent him because she, too, has a degenerative disease (but, alas, is beautiful), and she ultimately forms the main argument for the film's thesis.

After becoming intimate with Ramon (kiss/snuggle) she says she loves him, and wants to help him die and then she will die too. Then she backs out of the deal and chooses to live. After we see Ramon's final words and his death after drinking potassium cyanide, the movie cuts to Julia. She is unintelligible and can't remember Ramon.....The message of course is that she should have joined Ramon in their Romeo and Juliet plan, and would have been better off.

This movie strikes me as an extension of the extreme secularization of Europe, and represents a depraved world view. Although the arguments against his wishes are presented verbally and through his relationships, the conclusion of the film is unsettling.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Good Shepherd - C+

Released on DVD this week. 2 hr, 40 min.

Something has happened to Robert De Niro. Shortly after Wag the Dog wrapped, someone must have taken control of his body like Being John Malkovich and he's been a shell of his former self since. The Good Shepherd is about the origins of the CIA, told in flashback, but centered around the Bay of Pigs disaster. In his second directorial effort, De Niro shows a similar disdain for pacing as he did with A Bronx Tale. Important plot points are barely audible and poorly filmed making a second viewing necessary if you want to understand the jumbled plot. Even worse, in his supporting role as a diabetic general, he mugs for the camera like he's in the third Focker movie.

De Niro still has enough in the bank to attract an amazing cast. Timothy Hutton, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Keir Dullea!, Angelina Jolie, John Turturro, and Joe Pesci all have supporting roles. Surprisingly, Alec Baldwin and William Hurt struggle to breathe life into their characters. Only John Turturro as a vindictive, violent CIA operative and Joe Pesci as a mob boss have memorable moments. Turturro's torturing of a Russian agent is intense. Pesci is on screen less than a minute, but is nearly mesmerizing. It's his first appearance in a movie in 8 years and he's been missed.

As the lead, Matt Damon does his best to play a soulless CIA agent with no sense of humor. He's in a loveless marriage with a wasted Jolie and appears to find nothing in life bothersome or exciting. Most of the movie is just like his character. There's probably a pretty good 2 hour movie in here somewhere and the themes of family vs. country, honor vs. duty and loyalty vs. betrayal are all interesting. But as it stands, it's good in sections, but overall disappointing. C+

Medical mistake: De Niro complains of pain in his feet, but with diabetic neuropathy, you would lose sensation.

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Y Tu Mama Tambien - B+

On DVD (Released 2001). R-Rated, 105 minutes.

This film tells the story of Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), 2 best friends in Mexico City finishing high school and preparing for college, and their fateful trip with Luisa (Maribel Verdu), a world weary married Spaniard that recently located to Mexico City.
Tenoch is the privileged son of a cabinet level official in the Mexican government and Julio is a middle class Mexican. Together they raise hell liek most 18 year old boys and pretend to have the world figured out, despite a dearth of actual life experience. Luisa is married, in her late twenties, and has experienced significant tragedy in her life. After learning of her husband's infidelities and receiving disturbing news regarding her health, she decides to take up the boys' offer of traveling to a deserted beach. Their journey is both literal and figurative, as each character changes along the way.
The film is densely layered with images of the culture and life of Mexico, and in that regard it seems like Cuaron's ode to his home country. As in Children of Men, the setting and circumstances of the film are as important as the story and the characters. Several themes are explored, all intelligently and without pretense: indifference to poverty, class issues, male/female sexuality, the adolescence of males, environmental issues, coming of age and the impact of time and tragedy on the soul, and homosexuality in Mexican culture.
The most interesting themes for me involved Mexico and its culture and poverty, juxtaposed against the unaffected and carefree boys. The sexual issues were not especially interesting, especially the scene at the end of the film involving implausible actions by the 2 boys that ultimately spells the demise of their friendship. If not for that scene, this movie would have gotten an A-.
Favorite scenes: The entire sequence at the beach with Chuy and his family, itinerant fishermen that guide the trio around the beautiful and uninhabited beaches of Mexico.

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