Sunday, October 30, 2005

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (***1/2)

What an awesome flick. This is a real movie movie. It's self-aware, stylish, and showy. It knows what it is, and boy, does it have fun with the conventions of noir-action-comedy-buddy films. Shane Black, the writer-director, is behind some of the more enjoyable and influential action flicks of the late 80s and 90s. Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight are all his. Here, he has the benefit of working with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, two actors who give his script the ultimate reading. It's ballsy, hard-boiled, clever writing. Some of the lines are just screamingly funny. Kilmer particularly shines as the gay private detective affectionately called "Gay Perry." A two-bit thief and gay P.I. are not the typical match in these kinds of movies, but Black knows this and has a grand old time shooting holes through what these movies tend to require and what audiences expect. Along with Kung Fu Hustle, this is the most unabashedly exhilarating moviegoing experience of the year so far. Go see this little gem now.

North Country (***)

My wife stole my thoughts of this movie for the review on her blog, so forgive me if this sounds a tad too familiar. While watching North Country, you are easily swept up in the story, the characters, and the drama. The acting is fantastic, and Charlize Theron gives another great performance. But it was while watching this movie that I came to the realization just how easy a film it was to make. Anytime a film deals with explosive subject matter, such as racism or, in this case, sexual harassment, the viewer is so easily engaged right from the start. When you have characters who are so wrong and hateable, you can't help but root for our heroine and hope she overcomes the odds and prejudices against her. When I say this is an easy movie to make, I don't mean that exactly. I mean it's an easy movie to like. It's easy for people to label this movie "excellent." The thing is, it's not excellent. North Country devotes too much time in the end to Theron's character sexual history and rape. And when it finally does give you the payoff, it feels cheap and unearned, and yes, a little schmaltzy. Anytime you have people stand up one by one in a courtroom for a cause, you're veering into dangerous territory. Don't get me wrong though: North Country is good. It's worth seeing. But don't be fooled into believing it's a better movie than it actually is just because of the subject matter.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Saw II (***)

The fact that I liked this movie kind of just throws the whole rules of moviegoing out the window. I pretty much hated the first Saw. Liked the twist at the end, liked the idea behind it, but thought that the execution was piss poor at best. The acting and directing were awful. Then, I hear that Lions Gate had greenlit a sequel that's going to be rushed into theaters in a year. Then come the stupid previews that tout "Featuring a new song by Mudvayne." Could Saw II try any harder to discourage the seasoned filmgoer from attending? Turns out that looks can be deceiving. This is actually an unusually effective horror-thriller. It's reasonably clever, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. Donnie Wahlberg is good in the lead role, and the rest of the cast acquit themselves nicely. There is, of course, another twist at the end. This one's not as good, and it kind of ruins anything they can do with future sequels. Given limited expectations, and one's fondness for this type of genre picture, Saw II is a good time at the movies.

Shopgirl (**1/2)

I'm a big fan of Steve Martin's novella of the same name, but the movie adaptation didn't really cut it. The casting may be spot on, but the script and direction are problematic in more than one way. For one thing, the tone of the movie is a bit all over the map. Many have compared this film to Lost in Translation, but that film more expertly weaved its comic and dramatic strands. Shopgirl is a bit more erratic and amateurish in that regard. I really enjoyed Claire Danes performance. Her character isn't the most engaging, but she's interesting to watch, and more importantly, comes across as a real person. Jason Schwartzman is likeable as the grunge slacker type, and Steve Martin is decent. I don't know what it is about his more dramatic roles, but I find him pretty boring as an actor when he plays it serious. Some comedians can do drama (Jamie Foxx, Robin Williams, Bill Murray), and Steve Martin isn't one of them. Watch out for some truly horrific narration as well. Thankfully, it's only used three or four times, but when it is, the movie suffers. All in all, a mixed bag.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Doom (**)

This Aliens ripoff is unbearably dull for most of its running time. It is only in the last 20 minutes or so when this movie actually picks up steam. Doom is based on the popular video game, which pretty much explains why this movie's no good in the first place. No video game has ever been turned into a good movie, save for the guilty pleasure that is 1995's Mortal Kombat. Doom is no exception. The movie waits way too long to get to the creatures. Why else do we go these kinds of movies? We want to see creatures shot, maimed, and killed in as many different and exciting ways as possible. Instead, Doom gives us characters we could care less about bickering and showboating until they're finally picked off one by one. The Rock is the only true recognizable face in the film, and he has some interesting character development down the stretch, but it's marginal. When the gimmick of the film finally shows up, the first person shooter point of view from the game, the audience is finally engaged and having fun, but it's a case of too little too late I'm afraid.

Capote (***)

I saw this right after Good Night, and Good Luck, and I must say it was a bit of a letdown. Don't get me wrong. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great. He takes what could have been an annoying, one-note characterization and turns it into something much more complex and interesting. Wish I could say the same for the film. It's slow as molasses at times, and is directed in a drab, lifeless manner. The story also didn't really work for me. Capote's research of his famous book, In Cold Blood, and the murders that inspired it reminded me more of the millions of police and forensic procedurals on television, only this time with someone even more quirkier than Vincent D'Onofrio in Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I hope Hoffman is recognized come Oscar time for his stellar work here and in the past, but the movie isn't anything special. Still, it's better than most things that have come out this year. It's clearly intelligent and insightful. It just doesn't move you.

Good Night, and Good Luck. (***1/2)

George Clooney's second directorial effort is even better than his last. This is a tightly focused, beautifully shot film. I think when people describe a film as "handsomely" shot, this is what they're talking about. This is one handsome film. The black and white, the constant smoking, and the period decor all contribute to that fact. David Straithairn absolutely nails Edward R. Murrow, and captivates the viewer in every scene he's in, much like the real Murrow did back in the 50's. The movie dramatizes the battle between Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy in an efficient and highly effective manner using a seamless combination of both archival news footage and present-day recreation. The dialogue is crisp and memorable, with Frank Langella having most of the movie's best lines. Though it feels slowly paced on the surface, the movie just zips along and is over before you know it. One of the year's best.

The Weather Man (***1/2)

The Weather Man is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. It is an intelligent, funny, and at times, movingly dramatic film that's made for adults. Few films like this get through the Hollywood pipeline, and when one finally does, we, as audiences, should embrace it. Nicolas Cage is wonderful as Dave Spritz, a man trying to keep a smile on his face when nothing in his life is worth smiling about. He could give Bill Murray an acting lesson on how to act depressed and downtrodden while still retaining the behavioral aspects of a human being. This is probably director Gore Verbinski's best film. After the splashy, but highly enjoyable, Pirates of the Carribean, he's settled down and here tells the story as simply and stylishly as he can. The city of Chicago is on full display, and it's one of the few films where the weather is such an important and memorable character, which is fitting here given the title of the movie. There are so many great, small moments. This one's a gem.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Domino (**)

Tony Scott, what were you thinking? Granted, Richard Kelly's script is all over the place, and Domino Harvey's life, though sporadically interesting, doesn't really warrant feature film status, but still. Tony Scott single-handedly sinks this movie. Much of the stylistic flourishes he used in Man on Fire are back with a vengeance this time around. Have you seen the preview for this flick? Lots of cuts, slow-mo, and diffused light? Well, the whole movie's like that. 2 hours of non-stop assault on the senses. When the movie does work, it's because a story finally starts to congeal and take center stage. But it's not too long before things go awry. This is a movie that's kind of faux "cool." It boasts great opening credits, and some inspired performances, namely from Christopher Walken, Brian Austin Green, and Ian Ziering. Yup, you read those last two right. The 90210 alums are probably the best thing in this movie. Keira Knightley is fine in the title role, if a little too one note, and Mickey Rourke continues his career upswing as the bounty hunter Ed. You walk out wondering who this movie is designed to please though. I don't know anyone I could or would recommend it to. It's entertaining enough but too much is too much.

The Fog (*)

Ugh. Another week, another pointless remake. I just watched John Carpenter's original a week ago, and I really liked it. It's no Halloween, but it's effectively creepy and makes for a genuinely horrific ghost story with some well-earned scares. The remake is modeled after all the Japanese horror films that have made their way overseas. Like The Ring and The Grudge, it feels the need to explain away the ghosts and focus on the backstory. What those movies and this one don't understand though is if we know all there is to know about the ghosts, they're not that scary. Maggie Grace of t.v.'s Lost takes over the Jaime Lee Curtis role, and she's awful. She can't emote at all, and spends most of the film in a robotic trance. The movie is also plagued by a really annoying pop soundtrack, and is utterly devoid of any scares. The film tries to stand apart from the original, and in doing so, fails completely on every level.

Feast (**1/2)

Having watched the latest installment of Project Greenlight, I had a grand time watching the movie that resulted: Feast. This is your typical horror comedy wherein a group of disparate strangers band together to fight off unknown creatures as they are picked off one at a time. It reminded me a lot of Evil Dead, and I think that's intentional. The best part of the movie is its sense of humor. Nothing is ever taken too seriously. All the creatures are referred to as monsters, and the screenwriters are all to aware of the horror conventions involved in a film like this. They know just when to kill certain characters to upend our expectations. Director John Gulager, who appeared to be a disaster-in-the-making on the t.v. show, acquits himself nicely here. He does a good job with the comedy of the piece and in keeping things moving and intense. The film was shot for a budget of about $3 million, and it shows. The action is too unfocused and sloppy. You don't know what's happening on screen all the time, and characters' deaths are handled too quickly--they suddenly just disappear and you have to assume they're dead. Having said that, it's a fun Friday night flick, and better than most bigger-budgeted horror flicks out there.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Elizabethtown (**)

Cameron Crowe's latest film has been maligned by critics, and I can't say I disagree with them. Crowe is one of today's most talented writer-directors, so to see him stumble so poorly with this one (especially after the mixed bag that was Vanilla Sky) is a sorry sight. Where to begin? How about the casting? Orlando Bloom works as a dramatic actor when he doesn't speak, but he struggles mightily with his American accent, and is horrible at comedy. This movie needed a Topher Grace or a Gyllenhaal. Kirsten Dunst does fine, but her character is really annoying. I don't like Dunst as an actress, so the character just remains annoying. In the hands of a truly likeable actress, say Rachel McAdams, the character's annoyances could become overcome. It's a shame too, because the first half of the film is actually quite decent. There's a great scene at the beginning with Alec Baldwin, a well-handled suicide attempt shortly thereafter, and a nifty wedding party at the hotel Bloom's character stays at. But once you realize that all of the subplots and little stories aren't going to be tied up or even handled appropriately, you become restless. Then there's THE SCENE. This is a scene that will live in infamy as one of the worst I've ever seen. The movie runs spectacularly off the rails during a memorial service for Bloom's dead father. Susan Sarandon's character, the widow, gets up on stage and does stand-up comedy as well as a stupid tap dance that everyone in the crowd on screen laughs, claps, and loves. The audience in the theater is another story. Just when you think it can't get any worse, Free Bird starts to play, the room catches on fire, and you become amazed at just how clueless Crowe is at this point. Then there's a long road trip segment to end the film, and seemingly show off Crowe's idea of a mix tape. Crowe usually has great style in music, but not here. Every song is used to tell you what's happening on screen or how you should think/feel. Crowe needed at least a dozen rewrites on this sucker. I miss the Jerry Maguire days.

The Squid and the Whale (***1/2)

Brilliantly written and acted, The Squid and the Whale is one of the better films this year. Writer-director Noah Baumbach mined much of his personal history to give this film so much insight and truth into the effect divorce has on a family. Though the film contains some incredulous indie film "quirks" and leaves the viewer a bit cold, so much is right here. The parents' power struggles over the kids is nicely realized, and a lot of the dialogue is sharp as a knife and can really cut. I'd compare the film to Closer in that regard, where much of the audience is shocked just to hear such vile and poisonous words pour out of the characters mouths. Kudos to Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney for perfectly capturing that New York intelligentsia character dynamic, and to the child actors, particularly Jesse Eisenberg of Roger Dodger, who gives the film it's sole, beating heart. Worth seeing.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (***)

Aardman Studios, the creators behind Chicken Run, bring their beloved short film characters to the big screen, and the results are safe, sweet, but satisfying. Claymation, like the stop motion animation of Corpse Bride, is a marvelous and visually dynamic style of animation. The amount of work that goes into a project like this. Well, I can't even begin to think about it. From what I've read this film took five years to make. I wish I could say it was incredible. It's not really. It's cute, and occasionally funny, and there's some great horror send-ups, but you won't be amazed. It's a fine family film, as there are some typically British bawdy jokes throughout. Kids will of course like it, but it lacks the finesse of the Pixar films. Is it wrong to compare the two? Maybe. But still, if you're putting five years of your life into a film, it better be damn good, not just "cute."

In Her Shoes (*)

Clocking in at a completely unnecessary 2 hours and 15 minutes, this movie is pure chick flick hell. A tremendous disappointment given its stellar cast and accomplished director. Although Toni Collette is good, and Cameron Diaz acquits herself nicely, this is a film with little to no story or at all. After the film, I told my wife Julie that there was no plot. She said, yes there is. I said what is it? Her reply? "Sisters." Yup. That's about it. Diaz plays an utterly unlikeable character who is supposedly redeemed in the end by her reading of poetry to a dying old man. What? The movie is stopped dead in its tracks once Diaz moves in with Shirley Maclaine, the grandma she never knew she had. There is no conflict, and nothing of interest. The two get along from the start. Meanwhile, Collette is romancing a nerdy Jewish guy who, in the film's most revolting scene, shows how "liberal" and "open-minded" he is by debating the merits of offense and defense with a group of African-Americans. This is not a film whose story was just screaming to be told on the big screen. I don't know if the novel this film is based on is any better, but it certainly couldn't be any worse.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Serenity (**1/2)

Serenity starts off wonderfully enough. It's interesting, quick-witted, and something you haven't seen before. A space western is a great idea. To do a "horse chase" with spaceships instead of horses is pretty cool. But from there on out, it just becomes another geeky, cliche sci-fi saga. I must admit that I've never seen Firefly, the Joss Whedon show that developed a huge cult following, but this film doesn't make me want to watch it. The characters are mostly flat and uninteresting. Nathan Fillion makes for a fine, Harrison Ford-type leading man, but the rest of the cast is utterly forgettable and deserve to stay on a small screen. This is not the kind of movie that reinvents the sci-fi genre. It does some small, interesting things with it, but nothing more.

A History of Violence (***)

David Cronenberg's latest has received rave reviews all over the place, and though it's a good film, it's not as fantastic as everyone's making it out to be. For one thing, the tone of the film is all over the place. It's weird, it's funny, it's cheesy--all in alternate measures. Some of it seems intended, but a lot of it feels accidental. The performances are all over the place. While Viggo Mortensen underplays to great effect as the sweet simpleton with a violent past, Maria Bello and the actor who plays his son are, to put it simply, not so good. That being said, there is much to enjoy here. The violence is sudden and grotesque and makes you question how much you should root for the bad guys to "get it." Those bad guys steal the movie. I have never enjoyed a William Hurt performance more than I did in this film. He just nails his few minutes of screen time and creates a highly memorable character. Ed Harris is also good. I like this movie the more I think about it. It's different, which is always appreciated. It's just received a bit too much fanfare accompanying its release. Cinema buffs will enjoy it more than others.