Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

This is of course the highly hyped, highly grossing end of the year blockbuster remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic. To the benefit of the filmmakers it's more of a re-imagining of the story than a simple remake with better visual effects. In fact, the first half hour or so actually showed promise. But then Keanu Reeves started acting, and the whole thing just fell apart.

The primary story is essentially the same. In the original, an alien and an indestructible robot come to Earth to try to broker peace in a way. In a slightly hypocritical fashion the message is "make peace or we will destroy you all." This clear Cold War allegory has been updated to the current crisis facing the planet- the environment. This time, Klaatu (Reeves) has come not too warn the Earth about our polluting ways, but to tell us that it's already too late.

There were some exciting scenes. When Klaatu's ship first arrives, it brought back memories of the breathtaking entrance of the aliens. And to their credit, they did a fairly nice job of updating Gort, the giant robot, while staying true to its original styling. I even kind of dug the concept of it releasing a swarm of nano-robots, or small creatures, or whatever they were. I mean if you were going to destroy all life on a planet, would you do it just by shooting a laser?

Jennifer Connelly plays Helen Benson, a doctor who helps Klaatu, and tries to convince him to not wipe out our species. She is accompanied on this quest by her adopted son (Jaden Smith). The two of them looked positively animated next to Reeves. I understand that the point was to portray him as cold and emotionless, but how could they replace the inquisitive and almost fatherly Klaatu of Michael Rennie with this?

Aside from updating to 21st century visuals, there was no reason for this movie to be made. The Day the Earth Stood Still took one of the classic sci-fi movies of all time, and turned into forgettable drivel. If you haven't seen the original, please, see that instead.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

This is Charlie Kauffman at his most bizarre. This is saying something considering he is the man that penned Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation. But this is also his most serious, and one of the most touching. In fact, it's my favorite behind Eternal Sunshine. This is also his directorial debut, and it seems he struggles some times under the weight of the script. Despite some flaws, Synecdoche is a pretty remarkable film.

First, we need to clear the air about the name. It's a play on words. The movie takes place in Schenectady, New York, but the term Synecdoche means to use a part of something as a representation as the whole (like saying 'sail' to represent a ship). This makes sense later on in the movie.

Synecdoche is a movie of essentially two parts. It stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Caden Cotard, a theater director struggling (not very hard, though) to keep his family together. This includes his feelings of inferiority in the face of his artistic wife (Catherine Keener). The movie really gets going, however, after his entire life crumbles, and he receives a MacArthur grant. Armed with his new found money he starts production on the largest play ever conceived- recreating New York in a warehouse (hence the name). This takes a turn for the bizarre when he hires what balloons to thousands of actors to live out their daily (yet scripted) lives in this microcosm. And he does this for decades, with it growing bigger and bigger all the time.

Besides the play the movie deals with the women in his life. Clearly Caden is too narcissistic to truly connect with anyone, whether it's his first wife or daughter, his second marriage to one of his actresses (Michelle Williams), or his true love and long time assistant, Hazel (Samantha Morton). These relationships are all played out in his real life, and by the actors that portray each of them in his play. In true Kaufman fashion, he has the real people and the their actors sharing many of the scenes in the second half.

The movie, though completely open to limitless interpretations, seemed to be about Caden's descent in full blown self-indulgence. He was struck by an illness that slowly rendered his motor skills inactive (whether this actually was happening or was just in his head, who knows). Every romantic encounter foundered, and his grand work (again, who knows if any of it actually happened) crushed him. Despite its grandiose nature and ideas, the movie really just seemed to be about an extremely lonely and socially inept man, hiding behind the director's chair of real life.

This movie just continues to enhance my adoration of Hoffman. He can play everything, from the flamboyant arrogance of Capote, to the genuine self-loathing of Synecdoche. The rest of the cast was wonderfully bizarre, each portraying their own unique oddities. The problem with this movie is that it dragged a little bit. I can see why Kaufman would want to direct it himself, probably only the writer of this script could visualize it. Unfortunately it drags in several spots, and over two hours is a long time to barely hang on to what's happening. I think the entire ending could have been left off.

This can be a difficult movie to watch, but there are parts that make it absolutely magical. The characters are fantastic, and there are some hilarious scenes balance with utterly depressing ones. It's filled with the a self-deprecating sort of humor, exemplified with Hazel buying a house while it's on fire, and living in it for another few decades. If you liked his previous movies I strongly recommend checking this one out. Besides, in an interview with Kaufman, he said that there is no wrong way to interpret this movie. See? No pressure.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008


2008 looks like it will be ending quite strongly, with Frost/Nixon being among one of the award contenders. It tells the story behind the legendary 1977 interviews of Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) by David Frost (Michael Sheen). I've never seen a movie consisting almost entirely of interviews be so intense. This is Ron Howard's best movie in quite some time, possibly going all the way back Apollo 13 in 1995.

One interesting thing about this movie is that it was based on a play also written by Peter Morgan (who was nominated a few years ago for The Queen). Langella and Sheen both also starred in the stage production. It's fitting that a movie that is so dialog driven and so focused on one location would have been born on stage. Movies like this always seem to be better because of this, as opposed to being written originally for screen. Having the feel of the theater trims away all the fat, and just leaves the most important aspects.

The interviews could have gone one of two ways. Nixon was looking at them to clear himself and look presidential. Frost's team was hoping to "Give him the trial he never had," according to one of Frost's researchers- James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Reston, along with with John Birt (Matthew MacFayden) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) scour every piece of evidence in hope of backing Nixon into a corner. Frost, on the other hand, is more concerned about ratings and money.

Frost's lack of preparation is evident when Nixon walks all over him during the first few interviews. Sheen captures this show-business freewheeling attitude wonderfully. It takes one of the most intense phone calls I've ever heard to whip Frost into shape. And from that point on, the interviews become a no holds barred battle.

Frank Langella deserves his recent Golden Globe nomination, and so far of the movies I've seen this year, he should win. He portrayed Nixon as simultaneously arrogant and fragile. Despite the failure of most of the interviews, they managed to capture Nixon in a vulnerable light that had never been seen before. Even without the climactic outburst featured so prominently in the trailers, it would have still been a breathtaking moment.

And the cast just goes on. Kevin Bacon, in what may be his first great dramatic role since Mystic River, plays Jack Brennan, military aid to the former president who will do anything to protect Nixon. And the criminally underrated Toby Jones (his Capote was equal or better than Phillip Seymour Hoffman's) plays legendary talent agent Swifty Lazar, representing Nixon to get the most out of the interviews.

It's not easy of make a movie about an interview and research exciting, but Ron Howard and the fantastic cast pulled it off. Everything from the tense scenes between Frost and Nixon to the sleepless nights with the researchers lend brevity to the importance of this event. Probably the highest praise I could bestow on this movie is that it makes me want to watch the actual interviews.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bottle Shock

Imagine Sideways if it were actually about wine instead of self-loathing. This movie is nothing but good fun and wine. The closing film at the Savannah Film fest stood out among a year dominated by rather serious movies. Bottle Shock is based on the true story of a 1976 wine tasting in Paris, the first of which including California wines. It was what could only be described as America's wine coming out party.

In the movie, Steven Spurrior (Alan Rickman)- the owner of a Parisian win store- in an attempt to cement France as the wine center of the world, relents to his fiend's challenge and sets up a blind tasting to include American wines. He sets off to California to track down the best of what Napa Valley has to offer. Here Spurrior comes across a vineyard run by father and son team Jim and Bo Barret (Bill Pullman and Chris Pine). It's a story as old as time. The stubborn strong headed father butting heads with his slacker son. As the movie progresses, the roles change in a way, as Bo wants to participate in the tasting, while Jim wants nothing to do with it, or the stuck up Spurrior.

Bo, with his youthful ambition and openness, sees the competition as a way to finally give California wines credibility. He finally looks to something beyond hustling people tasting wine in the local bars with his best friend and wine connoisseur, Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodriguez) and the vineyard's new intern, Sam (Rachael Taylor). Jim, on the other hand, sees the competition as nothing more than an attempt to mock America.

The movie does, of course, include other plot lines, like a love triangle between Bo, Gustavo, and Sam, and conflict between Gustavo and Jim when Gustavo wants to start his own vineyard. None of these, however, overshadow the wine. Without a doubt the best moments are when the characters are either talking about, or drinking wine. It forms not only the backbone of the movie, but also the cornerstone of their lives. It seems the only time they're truly in their element is when wine is around.

Bottle Shock was a delightfully fun movie. There's not a whole lot of substance to it, but it doesn't pretend to have what it doesn't. It naturally has the intergenerational and international conflict that drives the movie, but it's not bogged down by trying to say too much by these themes. It presents them as is, and lets them just float in the background. The movie is fun from the start all the way to its light finish.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cadillac Records

Cadillac records chronicles the story of Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody)- founder of Chess Records- and the artists who recorded there. This is a tremendous cast of larger than life characters, including Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) , Howlin' Wolf (Eammon Walker), and Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), all of whom are in the rock and roll hall of fame. Cadillac records is more of a story about the music and the time, than about the people.

Since there were so many powerful characters it was impossible to delve into much depth on any of them. The exception to this was Waters and Walter, the two original artists at the label. They represented the relationship between the artists and Chess, and personified the conflict between the races at the time. The movie dealt with their struggles to keep the blues relevant through rock and roll, and how the dealt with fame and money. None of the characters were painted as wonderful people, but they were painted as flawed heroes.

None of this is more evident than with Chess himself. Considering this was the man who probably did more than any other to integrate the air-waves, and erase the prefix "race" from music, we don't get a whole lot about him. We know he was a savvy business man, morally ambiguous at times, and apparently traded Cadillacs as currency (hence the title). Other than general themes, and the fact that he threw out the rules with every recording, the movie doesn't tell us much about why he did what he did. Was his intention to further music? Or was it just to make money? In this film, the answer is really not that important.

Even Etta James, brilliantly portrayed by Beyonce was a small player in the story. She didn't appear to more than half way through, and her story was barely touched. Even though her music was the highlight of the movie, and she had a greater personal impact on Chess than any other character, we didn't get much about her psyche besides the surface race issues. This was my one major complaint about the movie. Rarely will I say this, but I think it could have stood to be longer- if only to better accommodate the depth of these characters.

In the end, the music really was the star. Every member of the cast amply captured their characters (and from what I've read, accurately captured their true personalities). But the story whipped by too fast to get more than just a feel for the characters. If you enjoy 50's and 60's rhythm and blues, you'll love this movie. And if you lived through it, you'll love it even more. As opposed to being a straight forward biopic, Cadillac Records is more of a look at what happened behind the scenes on these legendary recordings.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Australia is at the center of a very divided public. There have been some wonderful things said about the movie, and some terrible things. In fact, even the group that I went with was divided- though not as polarized. Our impressions ran the gamut from terrible to mediocre. I think I had the best impression of it, though I would still rate it as "just okay." Australia is long- very long. But there's a lot there. Perhaps too much for its own good. The movie struggles to find what it really wants to be. Is it love story set in the wilds of Australia? Well, yeah, except for the war tacked on to the last hour, and the ever present oppression of the aborigines. Australia tries to say a lot, but just seems to get bogged down in its own self importance.

The movies follows the wandering story of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) as she takes over the management of an Australian cattle ranch following the death of her husband. She grows as she takes on her competitor, King Carney (Bryan Brown) who owns half of northern Australia, as they vie to provide beef to the Australian army. At her side is Drover (Hugh Jackman) the man responsible for driving the cattle, and Nullah (Brandon Walters) a half aborigines boy, whom Lady Ashley sort of adopts. The movie explores the struggle to save the ranch, the struggle to keep Nullah out of the hands of the missionaries, and the struggle within Drover between following his untamed lifestyle, and his romantic relations with Lady Ashley. And these are just desperately over simplified explanations of the plots. Australia truly has an epic web of story lines.

The movie was indeed beautiful to look at. The Australian outback was incredible in its scope, and the scenes where Drover, Lady Ashley, and their workers are driving the cattle into Darwin are breathtaking. Unfortunately, pretty pictures can only hold for so long- not almost 3 hours. In fact, it takes a lot to hold an audience's attention for that long. Very few movies can.

The movie was not bad for about the first half. The conflict between the Ashley camp and the Carney camp, and the moderately exciting cattle drive were enjoyable. Even the development of the relationship between Drover and Lady Ashley fell in step with traditional Baz Luhrmann romance stories. But after three or four times of me thinking, "this would be a good place to end it," the movie kept going.

One thing about Luhrmann is that is excellent with revolutionary concepts and styles. Romeo and Juliet was a fantastic update of one of the most fundamental stories of all time. And the style of Moulin Rouge! still blows me away. The point is that neither of these movies required the greatest acting. The concept and in Moulin Rouge's case- the music- carried the movies. No such luck in Australia. Now I'm not saying Hugh Jackman wasn't good. He was the best in the cast. Nicole Kidman I never think is all that strong. And Nullah, the aboriginal boy, sometimes bordered on being as irritating as Short Round in Temple of Doom.

On top of everything, even on top of the war, there was the themes of the missing generations- in which the government took aboriginal children from their families. These seems to have been an important theme to Luhrmann, but it was almost lost in the shuffle of everything else. The scenes with Nullah's mystic grandfather therefor just seemed out of place.

Australia wasn't terrible. But I must warn you, it's not a movie to go see unless you're in the mood to see that movie specifically. Despite being too large and too ambitious for its own good, there were still some moments that were gems. Australia certainly isn't a bomb, and it hasn't brought down my esteem for Luhrmann. It's simply that he tried to cover just too much and as a result, everything suffered.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Bolt is the newest animation from Disney, and by far their best venture into 3D. It's the first movie that they've made entirely since their acquisition of Pixar, and it shows. The animation is wonderful, the aesthetic is fantastic, and the story is god forbid- original. While many movies go for throwaway gags every minute, Bolt focuses more on a genuinely crafted plot.

Bolt (John Travolta) is the biggest canine star on TV. The only catch is that he doesn't know it's not real. There are some very clever scenes faking special effects on stage to maintain the illusion of reality to Bolt while they're filming. Unfortunately it also prevents Penny (Miley Cyrus), Bolt's owner and co-star from actually having him as a pet. To boost the show's ratings, they decide to have Penny kidnapped in a cliffhanger ending. Not knowing that this is fake, Bolt manages to escape from his trailer and sets off on a cross country journey to rescue her.

Along the way Bolt assembles a little posse. Mittens the cat (Susie Essman) provides a sarcastic dose of realism to counter Bolt's delusions. Unfortunately her protests fall on deaf ears as Bolt thinks that she is in on the conspiracy that captured Penny (in the show, the bad guys are cats). Along the way they pick up Rhino (Mark Walton) a hamster in a ball who reveals himself to be Bolt's biggest fan. He buys right into the reality of the show and feeds Bolt's mission with unparalleled enthusiasm.

This is, of course, a family movie, so it lays on its themes pretty thickly. Perhaps a little more overt than I would care, but that's forgivable considering the primary audience. The idea of family and belonging are expressed through Mittens' distrust of the humans that abandoned her, and Bolt fearing that Penny has replaced him with a new dog. These are touching, if sappy, moments.

Bolt is being shown in both regular ad 3D. I saw it in 3D and though it does add something to the experience, I always have trouble balancing the 3D glasses with my actual glasses. And for some reason stereoscopic movies seem to strain my eyes more. That, plus the several dollars added to the ticket price may make it not worth while (though seeing trailers to Up, Monsters Vs. Aliens, and Coraline in 3D were pretty cool). The good thing about Bolt is that Brian Howard and Chris Williams did not direct it for stereoscopic viewing. This means there are not a lot of things illogically flying at the camera (though there are a few). The 3D is done much subtler, adding depth to the rich environments.

These environments truly stood out in this movie. Detailed streets from cities around the country, elaborate film sets, and lush wilderness environments make each scene unique. There is never a shortage of eye candy. These sets are only matched by the delightful animation. The movie really did feel fresh, among animations that generally seem more occupied parodying pop culture than creating something original. Also, Bolt opens with possibly the cutest scene ever put on film. If this movie doesn't make you want to get a puppy, there is something seriously wrong.



Never before have I been to a movie that elicits not one, but two squeals from the audience- both for vampire hottie Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), and his "father" (Peter Facinelli). This experience aptly explains how this movie topped the box office and had the second best opening of the year (behind The Dark Knight, of course). The first installment of Stephanie Meyer's wildly popular book series may have been a smash, but it was anything but a good movie.

Kristen Stewart stars as Bella Swan. If there's a more obvious allusion to the ugly duckling, or the belle of the ball or whatever combination they're trying to convey, I haven't seen it. Bella is supposed to be that "every girl," cute, but plain by movie standards, who becomes the object of the vampiric heartthrob's affection. In this regard I can understand the troves of high-school girls lined up outside the theater on opening night. It's a shame that they weren't met with a quality film to backup their crush.

The vampires in this movie are not your traditional sort. They've given up feeding on people- a sort of tofu variety of vampire. They're still super fast, super strong, and can fly-ish. But instead of burning up during the day (they have to go to school after all), they sort of sparkle in direct sunlight. Yeah, they sparkle, like they were attacked by face glitter wielding PETA members. That actually got incredulous laughs from the audience they had won over weeks before the movie even came out.

The film opens with Bella moving in with her father in a cold rainy Oregon town, a far cry from her mother in Pheonix. Bella immediately proves to be popular, attractive to nearly every group in school, including catching the eye of Cullen. It's not long before the two of them start an awkward relationship, made difficult by the fact that he wants nothing more than to drain the life out of her. As he put it, she's his "own personal kind of heroin." I'm not sure whether that was meant to be flattering or just plain creepy. Either way, it's a prime example of the poor dialog that riddled this movie.

I take beef with the message in this movie. In an interview, Kirsten Stewart said something along the lines of Bella not being your standard damsel in distress. "She's a real woman." I got the complete opposite impression. This role is why people may look at high-school girls as, well, stupid. Edward is Bella's first crush, and yeah, that's a big deal. But risking her own life and essentially the lives of her parents? Even going so far as to wanting to be turned into a vampire so she could be with him forever. Call me crazy but that relationship seems a little too serious.

The visual effects were pretty bland, except for one really interesting scene. The Cullen family brings Bella to play baseball with them in the middle of a thunderstorm. It's one of the most exciting baseball games I've seen in a long time. And it culminates in a confrontation between the Cullens and a roving group of vampires who have not adopted their tofu lifestyle.

Twilight doesn't provide much on the action front until towards the end. And it doesn't offer much in the way of a legitimate love story, or teen drama. It just cobbles together all of those into a mediocre film with little more than attractive leading actors.


Long time

My god it's been a long time. I apologize for that. It was the end of the quarter in school, and I was utterly swamped. But I've got a whole slew of reviews that I'm going to get out. And besides, it's getting close to the end of the year, with some pretty big movies coming out (Frost/Nixon, and Milk- I'm looking at you guys). So keep checking back, and I swear I've got movies for ya'll.