Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Quote of the Week - Noel Gallagher


"We've got a rule in the band - no matter what trouble you're going to get into, never get arrested in a country that doesn't use your own alphabet. Get arrested anywhere that uses your alphabet and you're basiclly all right. But if you get arrested in a country that uses squiggles or a box or a line instead of proper letters, you're f%#ed, mate, you're never coming home."

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill - C+

On DVD. Rated G, 83 minutes.

Okay, I admit it. This one takes the indie vibe a little far. But it showed up on PBS' Independent Lens tonight and I couldn't resist.

This 2005 documentary tells the story of Mark Bittner, the self-appointed caretaker of a flock of wild parrots living on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. Bittner does not work, squats in a small shed behind one of the houses in the neighborhood, and lives in solitude off of the good will of his neighborhood.

He knows each of the 45 parrots by name, as well as their personality traits, partner and history. The director (Judy Irving) is trying to make a point about nature and the relationship humans can have with animals. Mark is a lifelong loner who has never fit in, but finds meaning and direction with the flock of parrots, in particular his ornothological doppelganger (rock me) Connor. According to Mark, Connor is compassionate and smart, but lonely because he is a different species than the other parrots and is not fully accepted by the group.

As a person who frowns upon squatting and not working, as well as a general avoider of all animals of every kind, I am obviously not the target audience for this film. That being said, the are some genuinely tender and emotional moments sprinkled in, and an interesting arc the last 15 minutes of the film when Mark has to leave his shed and part with his beloved birds. I laughed out loud at the epilogue, which stated that the director is now dating Mark Bittner.

If you're looking for a great bird movie, rent Winged Migration (A-). It is a moving and calming film tracking the migration of birds across Europe.

For your enjoyment, below is my own 'birdman' moment:

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Namesake - B

In theaters. Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.

Rejection and delayed embrace of your parent's heritage and life is a rite of passage in any culture. In The Namesake, Gogol has to deal with not only those issues, but also the myriad cultural issues that coming with immigrant parents.

The film begins with Gogol's parents and their early life in India. The traditions and struggles are shown, and the pacing is methodical but tender. Ashok, Gogol's father, is inspired to go to America after a chance encounter on a tragic train ride. He was reading Nikolai Gogol, a Russian author, at the time, and the author and the event combined to provide the central lever to Ashok's life and ultimately leads to his son's unusual name.

Cut to the modern time, with Bend It Like Beckham (B+) style Indian culture vs. Americanized teens scenes. Gogol quietly rebels and rejects his heritage until his father's premature death cuts his rejection phase short and thrusts him into the embrace phase (usually its becoming a parent that brings this on). He ponders the importance of his father's words and heritage and finally understands the true meaning of his name.

This is an interesting movie and it approaches its subject with an unconventional narrative. I saw the movie at the Rio in Kansas City, an historic theater originally built in 1947 that has been restored to its original decor. Below is a picture of the exterior.

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Book Review - The Atomic Bazaar, by William Langewiesche

Released this week. 179 pages.

The Atomic Bazaar (The Rise of the Nuclear Poor) is a study of the method and probability of the proliferation of nuclear weapon capability to developing nations and rogue terrorist groups. Containing such proliferation is the central goal of American defense and foreign policy, but is at the same time almost impossible to stop because of institutional and cultural barriers.

The author begins with an intimate description of the US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those bombings set the stage for geopolitics for the remainder of human history. Every nation on earth aspires to either possess or have the direct access (via treaty) to the protection of such firepower. He then moves to report on the status of nuclear holdings in Russia, which is widely acknowledged to be the most loosely guarded supply of nuclear weaponry and fissile material on earth. Fissile material, or enriched uranium, is the single most difficult piece of the puzzle for anyone seeking to build an atomic bomb. It is difficult to enrich and nearly impossible to obtain or transport. He studies the possibility and potential method of stealing and transporting such materials out of a Russian facility in facscinating detail.

Langewiesche describes the US efforts to assist Russia and other nuclear contries in protecting their supplies, and acknowledges that there are institutional limitations to such protections without letting the government entirely off the hook. He then spends the remainder of the book telling the tale of AQ Khan, a Pakistani scientist, and the sucess of the Pakistani nuclear program and its aborted attempt at exporting the program to other Muslim nations. The point of the story is to demonstrate the ease at which such a program can be developed and to shine a light on the primary cog in the distribution of nuclear weapon technology to poor and developing nations.

The book is relatively easy to read, as Langewiesche can tend to be extremely technical and overly detailed. Here these tendencies are tightly reined in and the book's narrative is conducive to (again, relatively) leisurely reading. He stays almost entirely away from any political point of view, although the end of the book does point out some unavoidable inconsistencies in the US's treatment and relations with Pakistan.

For anyone wishing to take stock of the state of nuclear proliferation in the world, this book is highly recommended.

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Pirates of the Caribbean 1 - C+

On DVD. Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.

After not seeing this for 4 years and the episode detailed below, I thought it was time to see what all the fuss was about. Um, I still can't figure that out.

Aside from Johnny Depp's admittedly brilliant interpretation of the Captain Jack Sparrow character and a few spots of clever dialogue, this movie was terrible. I am all for elaborate pirate curse plots, but this one was inconsistent and had holes in it large enough to drive a boat through (rim shot, please). For starters, the 'curse' was to 'not be able to feel, or experience life', but at the same time conferred immortality on the 'cursed'. I won't go on, because its pointless.

Several of Depp and Geoffrey Rush's lines are funny, especially when Sparrow replies to the (always) stiff Orlando Bloom's protests that he isn't fighting fair. His one word reply "Pirate" is funny and, given the rest of the script, likely to have been ad-libbed.

The interesting thing about the Pirates franchise is that it is only successful because of the Sparrow character and Depp's interpretation thereof. When Depp initially rolled out his character, he was nearly replaced on the movie by the 'suits' who tried to get him to tone it down.

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Away From Her - B+


In theaters. Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.

Alzheimers and middle aged love are unexpected topics for 30 year old first time writer/director Sarah Polley (an actress in The Sweet Hereafter (A) and Go(B+)). The film is produced by Atom Egoyan, Polley's director in The Sweet Hereafter, and his influence can be seen in both the emotional depth and tone of the film.

The film follows Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a middle aged couple living an idyllic Canadian life on the shores of Lake Ontario as they deal with Fiona's descent into Alzheimers. Slowly she and Grant realize that she will have to be taken to a home for Alzheimers patients, and the process of diagnosis and discussions with the home are handled with levity and grace. Once in the home, the staff policy is that Grant cannot visit her for 30 days to allow her to adjust. Grant returns after the exile only to find Fiona does not remember their relationship, and has instead begun falling in love with another patient, Aubrey. At first Grant is jealous, but ultimately he accepts that it is the one thing keeping her from a rapid descent.

There are several interesting themes explored, loss, love, regret, infidelity, commitment, and healthcare. Without having experienced Alzheimers first hand, I feel incapable of assessing the film's handling of the self-doubt and pain that the family of an Alzheimers patient feels, but it seems to be done very well. I think if I had had such experiences the film would've been that much more resonant. Overall, this is a very impressive from the talented Polley, who has been doggedly selective in her movie roles and reluctance to be part of the Hollywood system. She even turned down the Julia Stiles role in the Bourne films.

Favorite scene: Other than the touching emotional scenes, my favorite recurring scene was the intermittent appearance of Frank, a resident of the home whose profession was a play by play announcer, and always 'calls' everything that is happening.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Cockblocked by Jack Sparrow

I tried to go see a late movie last night, but every screening after 7:00 was for Pirates of the Carribean, with dressed up movie goers to boot.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Waitress - B+

In theaters. Rated Pg-13, 104 minutes.

As I walked into this one and saw all the women and neutered men in the theater, I was dreading another bad movie choice. Fortunately, Waitress turned out to be a thoughtful and smart, if flawed, look at the complicated life of Jenna (Keri Russell). Directed by the now deceased Adrienne Shelly (she was murdered last fall in New York), it is obviously a 'chick flick' with goofy scenes like a 'sensual' pie making scene that had me squirming.

Jenna is a talented pie cook and creator that works at a local pie shop and is married to an insecure and boorish man that she doesn't love. Early on she finds out she's pregnant, which only serves to raise the walls in her prison of a life. She falls for her attractive and married doctor (again, this is a chick flick) and tries to survive her abusive and idiotic husband. There are several interesting side stories in the film, the best being the interaction of Jenna with Joe, the gruff owner of the diner (Andy Griffith, in a great performance). As can be expected, he is the voice of reason and has a heart of gold. Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelley portray Becky and Dawn, Jenna's co-workers, and each has a developed character with a marginally interesting story.

The director's own experiences with the birth of her daughter clearly influenced the excellent treatment of the birthing and post-birth scenes in which the previously emotionally calloused Jenna is transfixed on her new daughter and all other things are literally taken out of focus. It is a great touch that, admittedly, brings a tear to the eye for any (even this) parent because of its reminder of the elegiac nature of those moments.

Favorite line: Jenna asks her famously negative boss if he is happy. His response: "Happy enough".

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28 Weeks Later - B

In theatres. 99 minutes. Rated R.

2002's 28 Days Later was two stories in one. The first was a zombie flick barely hidden inside the facade of a virus outbreak which turned its infectants into VERY fast moving blood-thirsty cannibals. While the jolts were palpable, it was the second act that truly terrified. In the social/political breakdown that followed, a military outpost held out the only hope for survivors-- but it was these uninfected men that proved to be the true monsters. The breakdown of humans (especially men) when removed from political structures is not an unfamiliar British theme, most notably fleshed out in The Lord of the Flies, but it has rarely been more devastatingly explored.

The trailer for 28 Weeks Later, this time with Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo taking over for Danny Boyle and none the cast returning, left me concerned this time we'd have all the blood and guts with none of the subtext. I shouldn't have worried. This one's bigger on every level. The film opens with a backflash to the original outbreak. Husband Don and wife Alice, played by Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty) and Catherine McCormick (Braveheart), are holed up with a few other uninfected when the zombies strike, leaving Robert faced with almost certain death with his wife or high-tailing it out of there without her. He chooses the latter.

Fast forward 28 weeks and London is being repopulated with the U.S. Army providing the necessary infrastructure, organization, and security. Don's son and daughter, away at school during the outbreak that claimed their mum, return to be with him. The children are played by Mackintosh Muggleton and the already beautiful Imogen Poots with none of the Cosby kids cuteness that afflict most films. But when mom shows up again, dad has some tough explaining to do. No matter, the zombie-induced hell that quickly ensues frees all minds from domestic issues, and the race is on. While an attempt is made to contain the outbreak, soon the decision is made to exterminate, leading to the second-ever fire-bombing of London. The violence here, unflinchingly bloody, is accompanied by a stellar heavy metal soundtrack. They work in tandem to bind moments of peace and silence with tension and expectation.

While the original left us with some hope, the follow-up is truly apocalyptic. Issues explored include family dynamics, the co-habitation or courage and cowardice in each of us, and the U.S. military complex. While most honest individuals will concede that the parallels the film attempts to draw between the US military response to Rage and that of military's response to Islamic terrorists are far from even, a larger problem looms. How did the U.S. come to a place where they are portrayed as the annihilators of a city? After all, the last army that firebombed London was led by Hitler. Meanwhile, the ending suggests it is human compassion and our propensity to give second chances that will ultimately be our undoing.

While there are some odd plot breakdowns and just too much violence for my blood, this film has some interesting things to say that stick with you long after the screams die down and the blood-letting ends. B

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Heathers - B

On Dvd. R-rated, 105 minutes.

"Dear Diary, my teen angst bullsh*t has a body count!" This entry into Veronica's (Winona Ryder) diary gives a pretty tight summary of the mother of all female angst movies. The children of Heathers are Mean Girls, Thirteen, and Clueless.

The film tracks Veronica, recently elevated into the 'cool clique' in her high school (all the other girls are named Heather) and her struggle to deal with the cruelty and shallowness it takes to stay in the group. She is taken with the new guy at school, JD (Christian Slater doing his best brooding), a kid with no parental guidance or love. JD co-opts Veronica into murdering several of the cool kids, including her 'friends.'

The first third of the film is an A. The script is as biting and funny as anything that has come out since (1989). A couple of favorite lines: "Grow up, Heather. Bulimia's so '87!" and "I was impressed to see that she made proper use of the word 'myriad' in her suicide note." The second third is a B, as Veronica and JD start their spree. The last third is a self-parody and is terrible. The film is trying to make light of the way teens are treated and then it tries to ham-handedly show a violent and cheerful ending.

The film is eerily accurate in its depiction of school violence, and shows how Columbine, et al have changed our country. The first scene ends with JD pulling a gun in the cafeteria and shooting 2 other 'cool' teens. It turns out they were just blanks and nobody got hurt, so he only gets a 1 day suspension, and the dialogue of the girls makes light of it. The last scene features JD rigging up dynamite around the school and attempting to blow it up, ultimately blowing himself up. If these kind of images came out in a film today it would be widely condemned and extremely controversial.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Art Review - Banksy


Banksy is a semi-anonymous London based artist that does graffiti/street art of a political nature. Both the form and location of the art is part of the Banksy experience, which makes it extremely unique and temporal in nature. Below are a few of my favorites.

The one above is on the wall in the West Bank.

You can print your own poster for free from his site:

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Unknown - C+

On DVD. 85 minutes on DVD. 2006.

Directed with promise by newcomer Simon Brand, Unknown wants to be the next Memento. Its not, but it's still a pretty good ride. Five men (Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Joe Pantoliano, Barry Pepper, and Jeremy Sisto) come-to in an isolated, pad-locked and barred warehouse, each with chemically induced amnesia. That they were struggling is obvious. Jim Caveizel (The Passion of the Christ) is the first to awake, answering a ringing phone. The voice on the other end makes it clear something sinister is afoot and that some of these men are being held hostage. The next to wake is Barry Pepper (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). He and Jim form an uneasy truce that binds them together until the end. Meanwhile, Greg Kinnear (As Good as It Gets) is faced-down with a recently broken nose, Joe Pantoliano (Memento, The Sopranos) is bound to a chair, and Jeremy Sisto is handcuffed to a railing and shot. As each man regains consciousness, the tension rises. Should the bound men be set free? And who, ultimately, was trying to kill who when the chemicals spilled? Allegiances are formed, dissolved, and reformed as first gun and then a second phone call announcing that the bad guys are returning are tossed into the mix.

The premise of the film is an interesting one, but the editing is often maddening. As the men slowly regain parts of their memory, the viewer is allowed to see it as well. Unfortunately, the sound editing is so choppy the words, often major plot points, are often indiscernable. Also, the original film ran 13 minutes longer in the theatre. One wonders if that time helped better fill-out the ending which, although surprising, seems rushed and not fully realized. The acting is solid, especially from Caviezel, Pantoliano, and Pepper. Kinnear can't quite bring the danger and edginess necessary for his role, but he's okay. Still, the subtext here, why we're good and bad and if we are ultimately driven by our experiences or our natural tendencies, is interesting. C+

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Omen (2006) - C-

On DVD. R-rated, 105 minutes.

This one popped up on tv, and the first few minutes sucked me in. Unfortunately, the story completely unravels into a laughable and amazingly predictable mess.

Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles star as the parents of Damien, the 6 year old antichrist. Pete Postlewaithe appears briefly and memorably as the spooky Father Brennan (he has the mark of the beast, but it is never explained). The first third of the movie, when the boy's parents are realizing and denying his true nature is pretty good. The scenes are interesting and believable. The last 2/3 devolved into a generic horror movie (that wasn't scary) that put a rich diplomat in Jerusalem with a wife beater on. Very stupid and generic.

$20 to anyone that could tell Erika Christensen and Julia Stiles if you saw them side by side.

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20 Movies I Like Better Than Anyone Else - Part 2

Midnight Run (1988) – Robert De Niro needs to transport Charles Grodin from Chicago to Los Angeles in 3 days to receive a large bounty. But the FBI, the mob, and a rival bounty hunter will do anything to stop him. Perfect comedic timing and pairing is on display and unlike many great buddy-comedy films, this one is actually emotionally resonant.

Blue Velvet (1986) –Kyle MacLachlan is home from college visiting his sick father and finds a severed ear. He recruits high schooler Laura Dern to help him investigate. The themes of small town decay and lost innocence are handled well, but the script’s obsession with the five senses is one of my favorite touches (that’s intended). Dennis Hopper has never been better as the violent, sadistic, profane psychopath Frank.

Manhunter (1986) – The original Hannibal Lecter movie stars William Petersen as Will Graham, the FBI agent who caught Lecter, on the trail of another serial killer. While Clarice Starling overcoming her personal demons and a sexist environment is ultimately more satisfying, Tom Noonan’s “Tooth Fairy” is far more menacing than the transgender “Buffalo Bill”. And this Lecter’s immaculate holding cell is much more realistic than the dungeon in Silence of the Lambs. The music is occasionally dated, (especially the one over the closing credits), but the use of Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” during the climax, in apparent real-time, is classic.

Local Hero (1983) – Peter Riegert is sent to Scotland by his Houston oil firm to secure off shore drilling rights from the local town. The town is filled with the usual assembly of colorful characters. Short scenes and interactions all serve the story and build character. As the oil CEO, Burt Lancaster and his therapist have some hilarious interactions. You’ll probably be calling a lot of people “craphound” after you see this.

The Right Stuff (1983) – Over 3 hours of interesting stories and episodes involving the origins of the U.S. space program. The space stuff is fascinating, but it’s the comic relief (especially Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer) that pushes this into required viewing. The humor occasionally gets juvenile (Dennis Quaid and Ed Harris singing on the toilet, anyone?), but at least it’s still funny. And the movie follows the 7 original astronauts from their adolescent behavior to maturity.

Ordinary People
(1980)- Of course it’s not as great as Raging Bull, but it’s still very good - in particular the scenes between Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch. (Any resemblance between those scenes and the ones between Matt Damon and Robin Williams 17 years later is purely coincidental.) Donald Sutherland could apparently play any role at one time in his career including this one - a terrific subdued performance as the desperate patriarch. A sensitive and moving portrayal of a family unraveling after a tragedy.

The Hospital (1971)– A year after George C. Scott delivered a towering, iconic performance as General George Patton, he created a more complex and conflicted character as a chief of staff doctor trying to keep his hospital from falling apart. Paddy Chayefsky wrote the script and does for hospitals what he did for TV 5 years later in “Network”. Why do people keep working and sacrificing for those who will never thank them? As Scott puts it very late in the movie, “Somebody’s got to be responsible.” Damn right. But not just doctors – everyone can make that choice.

Two for the Road (1967) – Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn play a married English couple who vacation in the same place in France every year. The movie moves back and forth in time going from courtship to hardship, and does a remarkable job showing the changes occurring in the 1960s as well. A landmark in film structure and editing from the inventive mind of Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain).

The Loved One (1965) – Maybe the darkest black comedy ever. As Sam Elliott says in The Big Lebowski: “Darker than a black steer’s tookus on a moonless prairie night”. A British man goes to Hollywood to work at his uncle’s funeral parlor. and runs across the expected assortment of crazy characters. The best thing about the movie is the unusual turns and twists it continues to make, never settling or dwelling on very funny situations. Appropriately, it’s in black and white. And Rod Steiger’s Mr. Joyboy deserved to have his own series of films after this.

One, Two, Three (1961) – One of Billy Wilder’s most obscure films is also one of his best. During the Cold War, James Cagney plays a capitalist Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin who tries to prevent his daughter from marrying a communist. That doesn’t exactly sound like a laugh riot, but the pacing and performances make this the funniest film of the 1960s this side of Dr. Strangelove. Cagney always had more energy than everyone else on the screen and his willingness to send up his classic performances in Public Enemy, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and White Heat is the best bit in the movie.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Ex - D

In theatres. 90 Minutes. PG-13.

With Garden State Zach Braff seemed to signal to the late X'ers/early Y'ers that they had a spokesman for their over-parented, over-medicated version of bewilderment, quarter-life crisis, and angst. He rode that success to increasingly large paydays for TV-series Scrubs (where he's consistently stellar on still the most original comedy on TV) and hook-ups with a string of starlets. Alas, that spokesperson position may be open again. While follow-up The Last Kiss had its moments and might be forgivable (with deference to the Lawyer's view), The Ex is not. The third outing from sometime director Jesse Peretz (his most notable work appears to be a pair of Foo Fighters videos) wastes a seemingly can't-miss comedic cast of Jason Bateman, Amanda Peet, Charles Grodin, Mia Farrow, and Amy Poehler on a romantic comedy that lacks both love and laughs.

Intelligent/funny slacker Tom (Zach) loses his chef position at a New York eatery by keeping it real with management on the same day his top-of-her-class lawyer wife Sofia (Peet) gives birth to their first child. They decide to take up daddy's (Grodin) offer to get Tom an entry-position at his ad agency in small-town Ohio. Tom's mentor is Chip Sanders (Bateman), a wheelchair-bound advertising guru who just happens to have cheered with and bed Sofia in high school (This would be "the ex"). Chip works frantically to submarine Tom and move back into the affections of Sofia. Meanwhile, Sofia is miserable as a stay-at-home mom with postpartum depression.
And that's the story. Bateman is just too mean to be fun as Chip. Braff is too arrogant and self-centered to be likable. Peet does her best with bagbalm jokes and ill-placed expletives, but this isn't a Farrelly brothers farce. And, if Woody Allen saw this in Farrow's future, honestly you can't really blame him. Ultimately, the film can't figure out if it's a farce, a traditional romantic comedy, or some wierd treatise on married life. At 90 minutes at least it was mercifully short. Truly horrible. D.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

News - The Darjeeling Limited


Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, Royal Tennenbaums, The Life Aquatic) has written and directed a new movie, The Darjeeling Limited, starring long time collaborators Owen Wilson and Jason Schwarzman, as well as the most overrated actor in the universe, Adrien Brody.
Above is a picture from the set.

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Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus - D- / Come Early Morning - B

Both recently released on DVD.

When you go out on a limb for a movie, sometimes you fall and hit every branch on the way down and sometimes you get rescued by Ashley Judd in a beat-up green pick-up. Fur and Come Early Morning have more in common than sounding like pornos. Both are about the awakening of a late 30s female as she struggles to find her place in the world.

In Fur, Nicole Kidman plays Diane Arbus, the wife of a photographer who is unsatisfied with her husband, two children, and swanky 1950s Manhattan lifestyle. She abandons it all for Robert Downey, Jr. who is covered head to toe with hair. His friends look like rejects from the late, great HBO series Carnivale. She then joins a nudist colony and takes pictures. Robert Downey, Jr. does his best as Teen Wolf 3, but I preferred both Michael J. Fox and Jason Bateman in the first two. The movie contains the worst nudity in recent memory, much worse than an Alexander Payne film because it's just so persistent. Nicole Kidman's still got it, but she looked much better nude in Dead Calm, Billy Bathgate, Malice, Portrait of a Lady, Eyes Wide Shut, Birthday Girl, Cold Mountain, Human Stain, and Birth. D-

Come Early Morning stars Ashley Judd as Lucy, a promiscuous woman in a small Southern town, near Little Rock, Arkansas. She is successful in her career as a contractor, but her interpersonal relationships are strained. She tries to connect with her father, played with expert subtlety by Scott Wilson. Their trips to church provide a rare thing in film: an honest portrayal of small town church life without any snide commentary or ridiculing of church-goers. Even rarer, the preacher has answers to Lucy's questions and the acceptance of her life - and her epiphany - are a direct result of his answers. Also, promiscuity isn't celebrated as it is in most mainstream movies, but portrayed as emotionally and physically harmful. Quite a shockingly impressive debut from writer/director Joey Lauren Adams, the squeaky voiced blond actress from Dazed and Confused and Chasing Amy. B

Personal note: My heartfelt apologies to CMH for yet another Sundance entry, but we all have our roles to play.

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Spider-Man 3 B-

In theatres. 140 Minutes. PG-13.

If you like the first two Spider-Man films, you'll probably like this one too, just not as well. Tobey Maguire is back as Peter Parker and his alter ego Spider-Man. Again, he's great as the earnest Parker, and plays Spidey like Peter Parker playing Spider-Man, which, up to now, is either genius or further proof that Maguire is something of a one-trick pony (see Wonder Boys, Seabiscuit, Cider House Rules, and, even earlier, The Ice Storm) . But this time Spider-Man, dressed in a black suit made from some cosmic goo that looks something like thick, living oil, is suppose to be evil. Or at least kinda mean. So, with hair arranged a la Conor Oberst, Maguire plays a dark Spider-Man like Peter Parker playing a dark Spider-Man.

But enough of the complaints. Kirsten Dunst is back as Mary Jane and continues to do an admirable job in a pretty thin role. James Franco reprises his role as ex-best friend/New Goblin then best friend then ex-best friend then best friend/Good Goblin Harry Osborn. Also returning (and in fine form) are Rosemary Harris as Aunt May, Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben, J. K. Simmons as editor of the Daily Planet, and Elizabeth Banks as his secretary.

The villains in Sam Raimi's Spidey-world are never born evil. Evil is thrust upon them. James Franco's New Goblin is one and Thomas Haden Church as the Sandman is no exception either. A petty thief caught attempting to secure cash for his dying daughters operation, Church continues a renaissance begun with 2004's Sideways. Add to that a third villain, the surprisingly malicious Topher Grace as Venom AND a suddenly Id-ruled Peter Parker, and you've got enough bad guys for even a great director to get bogged down. And Raimi does. There are so many plots and subplots here that any attempt to diagram them is futile. As in the previous films, the special effects are stunning, but the real miracle here is that we're made to care about these characters. Yes, the film is overly-long at 140 minutes and there are way, way too many villains. But binding this mess together are relationships that ring true. When no one is all good and no one is all bad, it's easy to identify with (and root for) multiple characters. In a day when even the Oscar noms have a difficult time putting fully realized characters on the screen, it's refreshing to see a popcorn blockbuster do it. B-

Religious Note: All the church groups which lament the negative view of the church propitiated through film (Jesus Camp, Da Vinci Code, etc...) better line-up behind this Spider-Man franchise. As in the previous film (and possibly more openly), this Spider-Man is about Christianity. The Church is portrayed as a refuge, and issues of sin and redemption permeate. Most interestingly and in contradiction to most Comic Book heroes, Spider-Man is not a Christ-figure. He's human and must come to grips with his own selfishness and hatred. At times the dialogue is so religiously ladden, I wasn't sure whether to slurp my Coke or wave a hanky.

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Saturday, May 5, 2007

Little Children - A-

Released this week on DVD. R rated, 137 minutes.

Dysfunction in the suburbs is not a new idea, but Little Children breaks new ground on the subject and provides the viewer with a compelling morality tale. The film is set in a generic leafy white suburb with parks and stay-at-home moms (and dads) dominating the landscape. Sarah (Kate Winslet, in an Oscar nominated performance) finds herself at the park everyday with the other moms, choosing to escape the solitude of her house to put up with the neighborhood busybodies, who repulse her. She falls for stay-at-home dad Brad, a law school grad who can't seem to pass the bar exam, who is married to a woman that subtly eviscerates him by taking away his magazine subscriptions and is tied to her career (Jennifer Connelly). Brad and Sarah's relationship runs its course and leads to severe consequences in their lives (I won't spoil the end of the film).

The other main storyline is that of the recently released sex offender Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley, in an Oscar nominated performance) that locates in the neighborhood, much to the dismay of the mothers and fathers living near him.

Todd Field plumbs the depths of Brad and Sarah, and the impact of their affair on the lives of their loved ones, particularly their children. Each is seemingly stuck in adolescence and refusing to grow up and accept their role as adults. A smart discussion of Madame Bovary at the local book club serves to flesh out most of the audience's likely feelings toward Sarah. At first you sympathize with Brad and Sarah, but as the movie progresses, I found myself rooting against them and for their families and children. At the climactic moment of the film, each has a separate and unrelated event that takes place that shakes them loose of their adolesence and both make a bold and unexpected choice.

The sex offender storyline demonstrates that parents should focus on the damage they are doing to their own children before they obsess over the local sex offender. Ronnie does have inappropriate urges and isn't really able to be in society, and the film lets him have several ambiguities, including painting his perverse sexuality as something to sympathize with (the burden of having those urges, etc).

This one is densely layered with meaning, and one of the best films of the year.

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

Dreamgirls - C

Released on DVD this week.

Based on a 25 year old Broadway musical, I knew I wasn't the target audience going in, but 2 Oscars wins and 8 nominations (the most last year) is required viewing, right? Dreamgirls is based on the Supremes circa late 60s- late 70s and stars Beyonce Knowles as Deena Jones, who can't sing quite as well as the size 14-16 Effie White (Jennifer Hudson). To reach a mass audience, their promoter Jamie Foxx moves Deena to the front.

Eddie Murphy plays James Thunder Early, a singer at the top on his way down. He's good, but if you've seen SNL's "James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub", you'll have a hard time not thinking about it. Jamie Foxx definitely has a superstar presence, but being a jerk is not his strong suit. He is miscast, partly because of the movie "Ray". I wished I was watching that movie often during the running time of 131 minutes. Even though it was a fairly standard biopic, "Ray" worked because the music was first-rate. And that's the central problem with Dreamgirls. It's a musical where the music isn't really that good. They would have been better off playing Supremes songs.

The one standout musical number is Jennifer Hudson singing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going". She pours all the energy of the Tasmanian Devil into it (in a good way) and is entirely believable. It's like Ms. Hudson knows this is her last shot for stardom and she's leaving nothing on the sidelines. But that scene is near the halfway point and you have to suffer through endless and jumbled musical numbers about backstabbing, spoiled liars for over another hour. C

Red Alert: The preview for Norbit will automatically play on the DVD unless you press menu.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Fracture B/Disturbia B


Fracture tells the story of the legal cat-and-mouse game stemming from the death of a cheating trophy wife at the hands of her wealthy middle-aged husband. Ryan Gosling is the hot-shot young lawyer for the DA assigned to mop-up the details of the open-and-shut case (they've got a signed confession) on his way out the door to the big bucks law firm across town. Anthony Hopkins is (again) the intelligent and rich killer who's got them all in the palm of his hand. While there are a few logical breakdowns in the plot, the scenes between Gosling (proving the oscar nom for Half Nelson was no fluke) and Hopkins are the reason that legal dramas exist. The photography is noteworthy and the editing, tight. Sometimes there's nothing more fun than watching serious actors slum there way through by-the-number genre pics. This would be one of those times. B.

Does Disturbia shamelessly rip-off Rear Window (my second favorite Hitchcock after Vertigo)? You bet, but with a wink and a nod that just matches its charming and cocky star Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf (at 20, already the veteran of over 15 films plus TV work) proves here he's a star on the rise. After watching his father die at 17, LaBeouf's Kale engages in a string of questionable decisions that lead him to house arrest. There, with his XBox and cable disconnected, he familiarizes himself with his neighbors, from the perv 12 year-olds watching skinemax across the street to the 18-year old bathing beauty on one side to the possible serial killer/wierdo on the other. After enlisting bathing beauty (Sarah Roemer) and a bf (Aaron Yoo) he sets out to unravel this mystery man's secrets. While the ending goes a little overboard on the body count and the gross out factor, there are real jolts and some unexpected turns here. A lot of fun for your movie buck. B.

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