Friday, December 29, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Abigail Breslin, Paul Dano, Alan Arkin
Running Time: 101 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

Little Miss Sunshine
could have been a complete disaster. The debut feature from the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, best known for their work on commericials and videos, walks a tightrope between comedy and drama. But they not only pull it off, it's funny, touching and features a couple of Oscar caliber performances, specifically one from a child actress which manages to avoid all the cliches associated with child performances. The indie comedy was one of the big successes to come out of the Sundance Film Festival last year proving that sometimes the folks at Sundance completely miss the mark and sometimes they get it right. This time they really got it right. It's the kind of movie that has to be an independent film because no major studio head would likely have the intelligence to realize it's the kind of movie that appeals to everyone despite its subject matter and off putting elements, which incidently are wielded seamlessly into the story.

This is also the kind of film that leaves you smiling long after you've seen it and proves they'll always be a market for smart films about real people with real problems. I have a feeling (and time will either prove me right or wrong on this) that this is the kind of movie you can go back and watch over and over again without ever tiring of it. It's a good comedy with lots of laughs for sure, but it's also sweet and cares about the quirky characters its depicting without being too obvious or syrupy about it. In a bad year for movies, this small gem really stands out as something special.

The Hoover family is messed up. Look up dysfunctional in the dictionary and you're likely to see their family photo. Dad Richard (Greg Kinnear) is an aspiring motivational speaker who lives by his own nine step program to avoid being a loser, even though he clearly is a big one. His wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette) is the glue that holds the family together. Their teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), idolizes Nietzsche and takes a vow of silence in his honor until he accomplishes his goal of earning his pilot license. Their 7 year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) obsessively watches beauty pageants on tv while dreaming of being a beauty queen herself. She recently placed pretty well in a local competition.

Fresh out of the mental hospital after a suicide attempt is Sheryl's brother Frank (Steve Carell), a former college professor who's life and career spiraled out of control after being jilted by his gay lover. Finally we have the horny, heroin snorting, foul-mouthed Grandpa kicked out of the retirement community. All these colorful characters are struggling to co-exist under Sheryl's roof until they get a call that Olive has been accepted into the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in California. They load up the bright yellow VW van and they're off. What happens along the way I wouldn't dare spoil but let's just say it involves death, porno mags, ice cream, Rick James' "Superfreak" and a bunch of other fun stuff.

It may not be immediately obvious while watching, but it's really hard to make a movie like this. If it's too funny we can't take anything we're watching seriously, yet if it turns too somber it fails to be funny and becomes one of those feel good pretentious dramas. Let's face it, it's not exactly easy to make a comedy out of death, divorce, bankruptcy, depression, drug abuse, homosexuality, motivational speaking, Nietzsche, Proust and child beauty pageants. They strike a near-perfect balance and a lot of that has to do with the performances that humanize all these characters.

As Olive, Abigail Breslin never falls into the trap of being too cute or precocious. She plays it just right, which is tough to do if you're a child actor. She's the heart and soul of the movie. Paul Dano finds a way to give a deeply affecting performance as Dwayne despite the fact he remains mute nearly the entire film. He finds a way to convey more emotions through his silence and facial expressions than most actors do with pages of dialogue. When he finally does speak, and what causes him to, ends up being the most powerful, emotional scene in the whole film. Fans of Steve Carell will be shocked by his low-key work as Uncle Frank. This is a long way from The 40 Year-Old Virgin and he proves he has real chops as a dramatic actor if he ever chooses to go that route. I hope we see him in more roles like this. Toni Collette proves that she's slowly emerging as one of the most dependable actresses today, cornering what's becoming a shrinking market these days playing real, normal women with believable problems. Kinnear plays dad Richard well as a smug smart-ass in an ugly shirt while Alan Arkin is simply hysterical as he delivers every single line with perfect sarcasm, wit and timing. He steals every scene he's in with his misguided wisdom and advice about women and life, some of which is actually true and profound, in a weird dysfunctional sort of way.

If you think these people are disturbed wait until you see the parents and judges at The Little Miss Sunshine pageant that closes the film. Our protagonists, with all their issues, are perfectly well adjusted people in comparison. The horror of seeing 7 year-olds dressed and made up to look like swimsuit models is disturbing enough, but even more frightening is the presence of the host who looks strangely like JonBenet Ramsey murder suspect John Mark Carr. When one of the characters remark that "life is one fuckin' beauty contest after another" we understand and feel his frustration. The movie accomplishes the amazing by somehow making this horror of a pageant funny and entertaining, ending the movie on the right note without ever going too saccharine. Little Miss Sunshine is a cinematic juggling act that never drops the ball.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Lady in the Water

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, M. Night Shyamalan, Freddy Rodriguez, Mary Beth Hurt

Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: PG-13

*1/2 (out of ****)

Remember The Princess Bride? Rob Reiner's 1987 film that starts with a little boy being read a bedtime story by his grandfather and ends up being much more. You were hooked as the fairy tale took you to a magical world that evoked feelings of wonderment and excitement that have gone unmatched by any film in that genre for the past 20 years. People still quote it to this day. Now picture the complete opposite of that movie. It would be M. Night Shyamalan's Lady In The Water. It's also a fairy tale. Only it's stupid, silly and could have easily been written by a fourth grader. Actually no, that's kind of mean since a fourth grader could have probably weaved a tale considerably more intelligent and interesting than Shyamalan's. Critics ripped him apart for The Village a few years ago, but I thought it was an absorbing social commentary that contained a terrific twist ending right out of Rod Serling's play book. Even I can't defend him on this one though. After watching Lady in the Water I think everyone will appreciate just how good The Village really was as Shyamalan nearly commits career suicide with this picture.

Paul Giamatti plays ludicrously named apartment building superintendent Cleveland Heep who suspects someone's been playing in the complex's pool at night. That someone ends up being a sea nymph named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) who's trying to get back home to the "Blue World" but can't because a Scrunt (a wolf-like creature covered in grass) is prowling the apartment grounds determined to keep her out. Don't worry if that sounds ridiculous because it actually plays out far worse than I'm giving it credit for here. If you don't know what a sea nymph is don't feel bad. Neither did I. All you need to know is that she's a magical creature from a fairy tale, kind of like a mermaid, and she walks around... naked. A lot. Since this is PG-13 though, we don't get to see any of it so those with your finger on the pause button can settle down.

Story shacks up at Clevelend's place while they figure out a way to get her home using the special powers of an eclectic group of residents at the complex. These "special powers" include solving crossword puzzles, reading cereal boxes, and talking endlessly about nothing (movie's words not mine). Two of these residents are Asian stereotypes who just happen to know every single detail of this needlessly complex fairy tale before it happens. What a coincidence. That's unusually lazy writing from Shyamalan who seems to be phoning this whole screenplay in from another planet. You'll notice that M. Night himself is listed above as part of the cast. No surprise as up until now he's always had a small cameo role in all of his films (kind of like Hitchcock), but he gives himself a huge one in this. A writer whose work is going to "CHANGE THE WORLD." That's right, this man wrote and cast himself in that role! Let that sink in for a second.

Watching this I couldn't help but feel deep sympathy for Paul Giamatti. He was unjustly robbed of an Oscar nomination for Sideways two years ago and now he's starring in this disaster. Although it's hard to feel much sympathy for anyone who read this script and thought it had any redeeming value at all. Even more perplexing, it was actually a published children's book and is based on a bedtime story Shyamalan told his kid. That's kind of fitting, since I can't think of any tale that would put a child to sleep faster. We have the pleasure of having M. Night read us this story on the special features. Thanks, but I'll take a pass. I'm not exactly sure who this movie is aimed at since kids will find it too scary and adults will just be bored to tears or too busy laughing their asses off.

Giamatti, ever the pro, does his best and actually gives an affecting performance as a lonely widower who's "saved" by this girl. That just adds to the frustration though, because it's in the context of the silliest fairy tale ever told. I really like the idea of a lonely superintendent finding a mysterious girl one night at the pool who changes his life and the interesting residents of the complex. The movie started well and it was fascinating to see Cleveland's interactions with these wildly diverse characters from each room. We find out his family was killed and this relationship with this girl is the closest he's let anyone get to him in years. The ingredients were there to make an interesting character study, but Shyamalan is determined to to make the next Princess Bride. He's also determined to make Howard, who's a real talent, just stand expressionless and talk in a monotone for the entire film.

Then there's a new resident of the complex (played by Bob Balaban) who's smug, arrogant, and thinks he knows everything. His occupation? Film critic. You could probably guess what happens to him. Of course you have to remember this is the same guy who once requested a personal meeting with a critic who panned one of his films. I guess I should have been more careful writing this. I'll expect a call soon. If he wanted revenge on the critics who trashed The Village I could think of better ways. How about making a great movie instead forcing this self indulgent mess on us? Maybe this was just something Shyamalan had to get out of his system and then move on and make quality films again. I sure hope so, because Lady in the Water is about as bad as it gets.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

World Trade Center

Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Jay Hernandez, Michael Shannon
Running Time: 129 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

Oliver Stone's World Trade Center is a well made disaster movie. And I'm not saying that to in any way trivialize the events of September 11th, but rather give you a good idea what to expect from the film. When I reviewed United 93 a few months ago I awarded it four stars, praising it for it's realism and emotional power. It didn't pull any punches as the horror of the high jacked flight that crashed in Pennsylvania on 9/11 unfolded in real time, documentary style. There were no "performances" or unearned dramatics and by the end your heart was in your throat. You can see more strings being pulled by the writers of World Trade Center and thus it ends up being just a movie about September 11th, which is both good and bad. It's emotional, but it's not emotionally powerful. It doesn't disrespect the memory of those who gave their lives on that day and delivers a message of hope and courage that makes it an interesting companion piece to United 93, which is the far superior film.

Ironically, Stone has taken a lot of heat for making the picture when it's actually the tamest and least controversial of his career. The only thing controversial about this is that he made a movie focusing on the events of 9/11, but even that's a moot point since someone already beat him to it. Still, this it's an involving effort that proves Oliver Stone can show restraint and that Nicolas Cage is capable of giving a controlled performance when he needs to.

The first thing that struck me about this film is how well it captures the look and the feel of September 11th. It was a beautiful fall day and everyone was just going about their business as they would on any morning without a clue of what was about to happen between 10 and 10:30 a.m. In a frightening, yet strangely uplifting shot Stone shows us the New York City skyline in all it's glory with The Twin Towers standing triumphantly over Manhattan. Even though you're prepared for the shot and it's absolutely necessary to tell the story, I'd be lying if I told you it still wasn't very uncomfortable and creepy, especially in the context of a major Hollywood motion picture.

Port Authority policemen John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) are just starting their day when Tower 1 is hit and they attempt to go in and retrieve survivors. They don't make it in. Tower 2 is hit and collapses with them stuck in between and without a clue of what's happening around them. Stone really does a good job of taking us in there with them and letting us feel their fear, confusion and dislocation. The rest of the movie alternates between the officers struggling to stay wake long enough under the rubble for anyone to find them and their wives (played very well by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) collapsing emotionally under a weight of uncertainty that hangs over them for nearly 24 hours. Of the 20 survivors pulled from the wreckage, McLoughlin and Jimeno would be numbers 18 and 19.

Stone has picked their story to tell despite being confronted with a number of different story options and people he could of focused on. It's not hard to see why he picked this as it's definitely the one that most represents the courage demonstrated that day, even if does seem kind of narrow in scope. I felt the beginning and end of the film fared much better than the middle portion which at times felt like a Lifetime movie of the week. It's here where the real problem of making a movie about September 11 comes to the forefront, a problem United 93 was clever enough to avoid. The events of that day are inherently emotional and uncomfortable for everyone, so when you depict that emotion onscreen beyond the actual events with big name actors giving nuanced performances you run the risk of exploiting it.

In a way, I kind of felt like I did watching Bobby last month when they interspersed real footage of Robert Kennedy within soap opera-like storylines featuring big name actors. In all fairness though, the casting here isn't nearly as atrocious and the actors all do fine, restrained work appropriate for the material. I am in no way implying Oliver Stone is trying to exploit this tragedy and I can see from the film his heart was in the right place, but I question if he chose the right means of presentation. He's as careful as possible to show everyone he's taking the high road (which he is) but I couldn't help thinking he was sugar coating the story a little bit and we know if there's one story that shouldn't be sugar coated it's this.

The middle section of the film, with the officers fighting for their survival and their wives at the verge of an emotional breakdown could really be out of any disaster movie. Therein lies the catch-22 where Stone must show the enormity of the situation, but anything he shows will pale in comparison to reality and minimize the event. That's why the real time documentary approach worked so well in United 93. It's just more tasteful and lets us draw our own conclusions instead of the filmmaker doing it for us. On the other hand, we already had that movie so Stone really had no choice but to do something different.

Even if it does feel like a disaster movie at least it's a good one that features excellent performances, especially from Cage. For the longest time Cage has been an actor who specializes in giving us wild performances in huge movies that we forget how well he can tone it down when necessary. While I question the decision to cast a major star in the role, if any American actor has to be leading us into the World Trade Center I really can't think of a better choice than Cage (although Tom Hanks would probably be able to pull it off too). The way he plays McLoughlin, as a good man and a strong leader, you get the impression had his mission not been cut short he would have saved many lives in there.

You may be able to question some of Stone's decisions (why is this PG-13? I think he has responsibility to show it as it happened), but you can't accuse him of not having respect for the families in making the picture. It helps that John McLoughlin and Michael Jimeno co-wrote it. There's none of Stone's trademark crazy editing style (employed in films like Natural Born Killers, JFK and Any Given Sunday) here and the only time he veers into classic Stone territory is a dream sequence involving Jesus and a somewhat controversial scene of officer Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez) taking his own life after being mortally wounded in the wreckage. They did not get the family's cooperation for this, so whether this happened or not is going to be up for speculation. Stone's inclusion of a stoic ex-marine who rescues the men (played exceptionally well by Michael Shannon) really hits the mark. I like how his sense of duty and determination was implied by his demeanor but never outright said.

World Trade Center
isn't an unforgettable film like United 93, but a competent Hollywood version of what happened that day. After this, there's nowhere else to go with September 11th films. All the bases have been covered. You have to wonder though, what kind of a movie would we have had if the real Oliver Stone had shown up? By playing it safe, he may have unintentionally done that day and it's victims a greater disservice than if he had tried to exploit it.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Gary Cole, Leslie Bibb, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jane Lynch, Amy Adams, Andy Richter
Running Time: 122 min.

Rating: Unrated

*** (out of ****)

If anything is ripe for movie parody, it's NASCAR. If there's any actor who should star in it it's Will Ferrell. While this may have been a better idea on paper than it ends up being in execution, it's a funny movie with many scattered laughs, and is worth seeing just to witness Ferrell being upstaged by many of his co-stars. The movie isn't quite as funny as it's hilarious title suggests, but I'm recommending it almost solely on the basis of the supporting performances. I'm sure Will Ferrell fans will enjoy it but don't trick yourself into thinking it's another Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. It may share the same writer/director in Adam McKay, but it doesn't contain as much of that movie's wit and humor. Die hard Ferrell supporters or NASCAR fans curious to see how their sport is affectionately mocked will find the most to like about it.

Will Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, who all of his life has dreamed of nothing other than becoming a top race car driver. We find this out in the hilarious opening flashback, featuring his drunken father (Gary Cole) being thrown out of his school on "career day" after giving a wildly inappropriate speech to the kids. Years pass, his father becomes estranged from the family and Ricky Bobby has become the top stock racing champion in the country. Alongside his childhood best friend and racing partner Cal Naughton Jr. (John C. Reilly) the duo take the racing world by storm finishing number one and two in nearly every race, earning the nickname "Shake and Bake." I should mention that the two characters repeat this unfunny catchphrase nearly 200 times during the span of the two hour motion picture, hoping it will only get funnier. It doesn't.

Their friendship is threatened when Cal tires of being "Number 2" and takes it upon himself to steal Ricky's hot wife, Carley (Leslie Bibb) and claim what he feels is his rightful position as the top driver in the world after being overshadowed for years by his best friend. Complicating matters further is the arrival of gay French racing sensation Jean Girard (Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen) and the reintroduction of his deadbeat father. He must fight an uphill battle to reclaim his position as the top driver in the world, while at the same time learn more about himself.

When I say Will Ferrell is upstaged in this movie I really mean it. He did a good job and fits the role fine, but the supporting characters provide most, if not all, of the movie's laughs. There are actually a lot of funny things going on in Talladega Nights on a fairly consistent basis. At the beginning of the film there's an absolutely hilarious scene at the dinner table with the Bobby family where Ricky's brat kids, named Walker and Texas Ranger curse out and insult their grandfather while Ricky and Cal cheer them on. There's a whole feature on the DVD of deleted scenes featuring these brats insulting everyone in sight that unfortunately didn't make the cut. These kids could have their own movie they're that good, or rather bad. Then we have Ricky's very bizarre, one-sided view of Jesus he shares with everyone while saying grace.

Will Ferrell may be the star, but Sacha Baron Cohen steals the movie from underneath him as rival Jean Girard. He speaks in this intentionally inaccurate and at times totally unintelligable accent that's so ridiculous you can't help but laugh at everything he says. It also helps that everything he says is incredibly stupid. I couldn't help but wonder if I would have enjoyed the movie more if it had focused more on him than Ricky. Luckily they realized what they had and Cohen does deservedly get nearly as much screen time as Ferrell, so no complaints The pride of Jean when he introduces Gregory (Andy Richter) to the NASCAR fans at the bar as "his husband" and the reaction of the ESPN reporters who have to reveal it is priceless. It seems like the movie's making fun of gay people, but it's much smarter than that. It's making fun of southern NASCAR fans who have probably never met a gay person in their life.

The movie tries to deliver a message between Ricky's abandonment issues with his father which leads to the neglection of his own family and friends, but I was too busy laughing at all the supporting players to even notice. Gary Cole is just great as the alcoholic dad and Amy Adams (Oscar nominee last year for Junebug), in a small role as Ricky's devoted assistant has an incredible scene at Applebee's that has to be seen to be believed, and I can tell you if you're a guy you won't be able to get it out of your head for weeks. I'd recommend the movie just for her.

I've heard some complaints about all the product placement in the film, but it serves a purpose in mocking product placement in NASCAR. There's no shortage of it in this film with Wonder Bread, Old Spice, Pierre, Powerade, Applebees and many more popping up. There's also bonus fake promos and commercials starring Ricky and Cal that you can access on the special features that are pretty funny. I also give credit to the writers for not having the final race go how you would expect it to at all. When the film was over I thought it was decent, if flawed. I didn't expect to like Talladega Nights, but there's a strange goofy, charm to it that pulls you in.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Best Movie Posters of 2006

Collecting movie posters is a passion of mine, which probably comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me. Sometimes how the studio advertises their movie to the public can be more fascinating than the film itself. The poster has no obligation to tell you what the film's about, just to grab your attention and make you care to find out. I generally have one rule as to what makes a good movie poster: the simpler the better. That was certainly true with my selections this year. I've found that the posters that have the most going on in them are the least effective. With too much to look at, you're not likely to remember anything. Remember, I'm just judging the posters, not the movie. My opinion of the film in no way influences my critique of the poster art. In some cases, I haven't even seen the movie. So here it is, the top 10 movie posters of 2006:

10. Inside Man- At first glance this poster looks ordinary, but it's actually not. The credits appearing sideways is something I don't ever remember seeing and it looks cool cutting through the film strip style of the cast across the white background. Simple, but effective.

9. The Last Kiss- When you have Rachel Bilson in your movie and decide not to put her on your poster, that takes guts. Instead they decided to focus on what the movie's about, cleverly cutting out half of Jacinda Barrett and showing a pensive Zach Braff to reflect the conflicted theme of the film. There's a lot of lettering but that's okay because the stark blue of the title really stands out against the black and white background. I'm curious if the film's as intelligent as it's poster suggests. We'll find out when I review it later this month.

8. Rocky Balboa- Yeah I know it's just basically a copy of the original, but so what? They could have been stupid and attempted to do some crazy things with this but didn't. It only makes sense to remind us of one of the most famous images in American cinema history and why we loved the original so much. It should be interesting to see how this movie does. The time feels right for another Rocky.

7. Miami Vice- I remember first seeing this poster in the theater months before the film came out. Lit up, it was an amazing sight. The blue tint reflects the coolness of the characters while also accentuating the star power of Farrell and Foxx. The movie sucks. The poster definitely does not.

6. Snakes on a Plane-
Okay, so this one breaks the golden rule. There's actually a lot going on here, but you can't tell me it wasn't clever to make a poster of the airline safety instructions for a movie like this. It definitely gets your attention. The only downside is it's so well done it's tough to tell that it's actually a movie poster.

5. Thank You For Smoking
- Simple and straight to the point, but still an eye catcher. Take an identifiable logo and satire it. They found an image that matches the film perfectly. The other poster for this, featuring a cigarette butt in a suit was also really clever.

4. Bobby-
Subtle and classy. With a cast as loaded as this the possibilities for a horrible poster were endless. They took the high road and simply listed them, wisely knowing the big names should take a back seat to what the movie really stands for. This image is unforgettable.

3. The Proposition-
You may not remember the movie, but you'll never forget this poster. There was another poster featuring co-star Guy Pearce that was essentially the same thing but I picked this one because Brosnan just looks more menacing.

2. The Last King of Scotland- Wow. Even if you don't know who this man is, you know he must be important. A towering menace of a poster. You can't look away even if you try.

1. V For Vendetta-
This isn't just a movie poster, it's a work of art. I wish I could have included every poster from this film on the list since it had one of the most brilliant advertising campaigns in movie history. I'm convinced that the movie didn't do as well as expected because there's no way any film could match the expectations set by these awesome retro style posters. I picked the best one: bright red background, cool mask, bald Natalie Portman. It doesn't get any better than this.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Miami Vice

Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li, Luis Tosar, Naomie Harris, Justin Theroux

Running Time: 140 min.

Rating: Unrated

** (out of ****)

All style and no substance. That's the best way to describe Michael Mann's Miami Vice, the big screen update of Mann's own hit 1980's television series starring Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas that revolutionized the action drama. I don't even no why I even bothered to mention that since this movie has absolutely nothing in common with that show other than it shares the same creator. This movie may as well be called Bad Boys 4, except the Bad Boys movies tend to actually have action in them. Be warned, despite the advertising, this movie has exactly one action scene, which comes at the end of the film and features a horrible cover of Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight." The movie does, however, succeed at one thing: It looks really cool.

The plot is needlessly complicated, not to mention terminally uninteresting. It has something to do with Miami cops "Sonny" Crockett (Colin Farrrell) and "Rico" Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) going undercover to infiltrate a drug trafficking ring. That's about it. One of the movie's amazing skills is that it somehow manages to make a paper thin plot frustrating confusing. The relationship between Crockett and Tubbs is basically nonexistent. They seem like just partners with no connection on a personal level, so when something happens to either of them we couldn't care less. Foxx has virtually no speaking lines in the film while Farrell does a good job looking and acting cooler than us, which is all that's required of him. The women in the movie exist so they can participate in sex scenes. You may as well just rent a porno if you want that.

Movies just seem to get longer and longer these days. Which is okay, if they're good. This "Unrated Director's Cut" DVD stretches the movie out to 140 minutes. Why? I didn't see the movie in theatres so I couldn't tell you what was added, but I doubt the added minutes produced anything revelatory since the characters weren't developed and there were no action scenes at all. Everyone just talks...and talks some more. What the movie does have going for it is it's vision and that it's technically very well made. Everything was shot on location in Miami and it looks great. You can practically see for miles in every shot as Mann uses some incredible deep focus photography and every scene in the movie looks like a painting. Mann (who directed the outstanding Manhunter, Heat and Collateral) has always proven himself to be a visual artist and I can't recall any film he's made looking as good as this one.

The DVD's special features confirm about Mann what we should have suspected. He's a perfectionist who won't quit until every shot is just right. It would have been nice if he had a good script to shoot though. The film's score pulsates with an energy and intensity the film doesn't really deserve. I can't complain that they scrapped Jan Hammer's classic Miami Vice theme, as it would seem like a bizarre inclusion given the changes to everything else. I agree with those that feel Miami Vice could not and should not have been brought to the screen identically resembling it's 80's counterpart, but whether you thought the show was stupid or not, you'd at least have to admit that it was fun. This isn't. Mann didn't have the obligation to remake his own show, but he did have the responsibilty to stay true to it's spirit. To that end, the movie fails miserably.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Clerks II

Director: Kevin Smith
Starring: Brian O' Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Rosario Dawson, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith, Trevor Fehrman, Jennifer Schwalbach

Running Time: 97 min.

Rating: R
**** (out of ****)

Clerks II is easily one of the best comedies of the year, if not the past few. If anything, it proves beyond any doubt that Kevin Smith is a filmmaker who's operating a few levels above what's been expected of him. He managed to make a movie that's not only brutally hilarious, but also buries beneath it a touching coming-of-age story packed with ideas and characters to care about. More impressively, he did it all under the enormous pressure of having to sequel one of the most beloved cult films of the 90's twelve years later.

According to naysayers the movie wasn't supposed to be this good, much less the best film of Smith's career. It's hasn't been a strong year for movies and it's been an even worse one for comedies so I can't tell you what a relief it was to watch one that had me smiling throughout, knowing I was witnessing something special. From start to finish the film is pitch perfect and does everything right that most comedies always get wrong. Smith has always had a great ear for dialogue and how real people talk and act and it's never been put on better display than in Clerks II. When the credits rolled, I didn't want the movie, or my time with these characters, to end.

It's ten years later and the Jersey Quick Stop has burned down sending Dante Hicks (Brian O' Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) to work at Mooby's, a fast food burger joint run by hot manager, Becky (Rosario Dawson). It's Dante's last day as he prepares to marry Emma Bunting (Smith's own wife Jennifer Schwalbach) and move to Florida. Of course, she's completely wrong for him (or anyone for that matter) and he's really in love with commitment-phobic Becky, who's more his best friend than boss. Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith) are back and one the interesting touches Smith adds is that they're back from rehab, making reference to Mewes real-life rehab stint from drug abuse.

They also have a new character to pick on in burger flipper Elias (Trevor Fehrman), a devout Christian with a very strange explanation about his virginity and a very unhealthy obsession with Transformers and Lord of The Rings. I dare anyone to watch this movie and say they have not met someone exactly like Elias. Fehrman plays him in such a way that even though we laugh at him constantly, there's something really enduring and likable about him. He could have his own movie in a heartbeat.

In terms of humor, this film nearly mirrors the first, with the characters spending their days dissecting pop culture (an argument about how Lord of The Rings compares to Star Wars provides some of the movie's biggest laughs) and making sick sex jokes, all of which are funny. Nothing, however, is funnier than Randal's plan to throw Dante a surprise party featuring bestiality... or rather, "interspecies erotica." Only Kevin Smith could come up with such a brilliant politically correct term to describe something so vile and disgusting. Let's just say the show Randal pays for isn't exactly what they get, making for a really hysterical scene.

If Clerks II was just incredibly hilarious, I'd be satisfied. But it goes one further and not only does that, but makes an incredibly moving movie about friendship. I've never seen a writer/director balance as many elements as well in one film as Smith does here. It's really interesting what Smith does with Dante and Randal and how they learn something from each other. In their thirties now, these guys are facing a crisis. Randal wants things to stay the way they are and just goof around, but there's a strange force pulling at him and telling him he doesn't. This is evident when he's shaken up by a hilarious encounter with an old classmate (Jason Lee in a great cameo role). Dante has the opposite problem. He wants to change his situation as soon as possible. He's the responsible one, but he makes an irrational knee jerk decision wanting to marry this woman and get the hell out of New Jersey. Yet, there's a force pulling at him telling him he doesn't. That force is Becky.

The casting of Rosario Dawson was a surprise. I just couldn't picture her in Smith's "askewniverse," assuming her presence was mostly due to being a hot, big name of the moment. While that may have initially been true, she absolutely owns this movie. Owns it. From the second she appears on screen it's evident how cool and relaxed she is in the role. I believed she was a manager at a fast food joint, and more shockingly she sold me in believing her character would fall for a guy like Dante, even though on the surface it should seem impossible. The scenes they share together and the dialogue they speak feels real, like how two people would actually talk. It was a harsh reminder of how few movies do this well and how many awful romantic comedies Hollywood has vomited out to us in recent years.

There's a great scene on the roof where Dante's watching her dance and the smile on his face says everything. We get it. I'm sure they'll be those who accuse Smith of "going soft" toward the end of this movie, but he never steps over the line and the sentimentality is earned because we care about what happens to these people. Just when you think it's getting too sappy, he does too and pulls back, like in a memorable montage spoofing musicals set to the Jackson 5 that somehow strangely works in the context of the film.

Smith often gets a lot of credit for his witty dialogue, but some of the best moments of the film come when no one's talking at all and he just lets the music do the job for him. Some of that music includes The Smashing Pumpkins, Alanis and Soul Asylum. Fitting, since the first film came out in 1994. Also, big props to him for using my favorite Talking Heads song over the opening credits.

Kevin Smith has an obsessive cult-like following, which I've never felt a part of, at least until now. They gave him hell about this movie. There's a documentary on this special edition DVD, almost as long as the movie itself, where we learn he was absolutely torn up as to whether or not he should make this picture because he wanted to make sure he had something to say and do justice to the original film. He admits he was really shaken up by the negative feedback to the idea from fans on the internet. We find out in the documentary that he did face pressure from the studio to cast a big name and all the names considered to play Becky. I can't even imagine what a nightmare this movie could have become if either Sarah Silverman, Liv Tyler, Rachel Weisz or Bryce Dallas Howard had played the role. All fine actresses, but they would have been all wrong for this. Smith agreed.

Another revelation I wasn't as surprised to learn was that Smith had the first and last scene in his head for years before it even hit the page. I say I'm not surprised because the movie is bookended perfectly and it looked like both scenes were shot by someone with a very clear idea what they were trying to convey. The opening has an incredible visual and the final scene, in particular, really got to me because it ended exactly where it should have, touchingly paying tribute to the original film.

Supposedly the movie got an 8 minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier in the year. If you ask me, it deserved every one of those 8 minutes. The original Clerks was an excellent first feature by a film student that changed the course of independent cinema in the 90's. This is a more mature effort by an accomplished filmmaker at a different place in his life with more things to show and prove. The script is tighter, the acting is better and it has a deeper story. Even if you haven't seen the original it makes no difference. As a stand alone movie, it's still perfect. It's fitting one of the big arguments in the film centers around Star Wars. Like The Empire Strikes Back, Clerks II is the rare sequel that tops the original.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Superman Returns

Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, James Marsden, Parker Posey, Frank Langella, Eva Marie Saint

Running Time: 154 min.

Rating: PG-13

** (out of ****)

There's something really arrogant and stupid about Superman Returns. The movie assumes we can just pick up where we left off in the Superman saga even though it's been nearly twenty years since we last saw any of the characters on screen and they're now being played by different actors. It doesn't establish anything and we're just expected to "go with it" because it's Superman. Just because it's Superman the movie feels no need to let us know the characters or put them in an interesting situation. This effort was phoned in to milk more money out of D.C. Comics' biggest cash cow. By the end of the film I had just one question: Why? What was the purpose of this? If anything, this movie only exists to remind us how how great a job Christopher Nolan did at reviving the Batman franchise last year.

Superman (Brandon Routh) has returned to Earth after a lengthy visit to what's left of his home planet Krypton to discover Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is engaged, has a young son and has basically gone on with her life without him. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is out of prison and plotting to build a continent of made of Kryptonite that will wipe out all of North America. Could I ask just once in a super hero movie that the super villain have a feasible plan to destroy the world? Or if not a feasible one (I realize this is fantasy), a realistic way of going about it that would actually cause some kind of fear or dread in the audience and make the film feel like something other than a live-action cartoon.

The script's ridiculous insistance of picking up where it left off (wherever that was) proves to be a huge distraction. If this is a continuation of the Superman saga how come Lois doesn't know Superman is Clark Kent? In this movie we're back to the beginning and Lois has no idea, like the writers wanted to have their cake and eat it too. I promised myself I would make it through the review without comparing Brandon Routh to Chistopher Reeve. It's really not fair. They should be able to cast whoever they want as Superman without worrying how he'll stack up to Reeve and I think they made the right move picking an unknown. The problem is they picked the wrong unknown. Routh isn't necessarily bad, or good. He's just there. He isn't much of anything. At times it looks like he's just a guy pretending to be Superman for Halloween. I kept waiting for the real Superman to appear and take him out. The costume's a little cooler looking than the past, but Routh looks ridiculous in it. So much so I caught myself laughing at times during the film when he's standing there trying to strike a Superman pose. He has a look on his face like, "Look at me...I'm Superman."

To be fair, he did a much better job as Clark, but we're given so little time with that character it has no impact. Kevin Spacey does an okay, if unmemorable job as Lex Luthor, but he's not given much to work with so it's understandable. I was surprised how little screen time he had actually. I was racking my brain trying to figure out who would have made a better choice as Lois than Kate Bosworth and then it occured to me. Anyone. She brings absolutely nothing to the role and her character's whiny and petulant throughout the film, like a child. Lois Lane is supposed to be fiesty and strong-willed. I'll believe Lex Luthor can build a continent that will destroy North America, but I cannot buy that this woman actually won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. I don't think I've ever appreciated Margot Kidder as much as during this movie.

Superman Returns is never boring and I was pleased that the special effects, particularly of him flying, didn't look fake or too CGI like they did in the Spiderman movies. There's a scene early in the film where he stops a plane crash that's really well done and thriling. The set and production design is also top notch, but I can't say I'm happy with them making Metropolis look like it's out of a comic book. Lately, there's a disturbing trend going on in Hollywood to make these superhero movies as cartoonish as possible and aimed at five year olds. I really enjoyed Batman Begins because it had a dark, gritty realism to it and took the time to explain the origins of Batman. You have to cater to all audiences, not just kids and comic book fanatics. NBC's Heroes has struck a cord with viewers because they like seeing real everyday people discovering something special and extraordinary.

If you want to see Superman I suggest buying Richard Donner's great original and the recently released uncut version of Superman 2. It's tough to reconcile that Bryan Singer, the mastermind behind the Usual Suspects, was responsible this mess. I can take solace in the fact this movie dissapointed at the box office, so maybe this a sign audiences are beginning to smarten up. If anything, watch Superman Returns just for the opening credits so you can one again hear John Williams' legendary score. Unfortunately, it's in a movie undeserving of it.

Saturday, December 2, 2006


Director: Emilio Estevez
Starring: Anthony Hokins, Demi Moore, Christian Slater, Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt, Emilio Estevez, William H. Macy, Laurence Fishburne, Sharon Stone, Lindsay Lohan, Elijah Wood, Ashton Kutcher, Heather Graham
Running Time: 120 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

Emilio Estevez's Bobby is a misfire that fails so fascinatingly I couldn't turn away from the screen. It was like watching a train wreck. In that sense, I would recommend everyone see it. The movie is all at once mind-numbingly boring, unintentionally hilarious, and at times emotionally moving. The film features some career worst performances from major stars and some brilliant ones from lesser known actors. Major mistakes are made tackling a sensitive subject that borders on being downright offensive. Yet strangely, the movie is unforgettable and nearly redeems itself in the emotionally powerful last half hour.

The cast you see listed above is perhaps the most star-studded ever assembled in a film and given the liberal leanings of Hollywood and the connections of Estevez (who concieved, wrote and directed this himself), it's not exactly a surprise that major A-list stars were foaming at the mouth to be a part of it. What is a surprise is that someone thought it was a good idea for many of them to be in the film in the parts they were cast. It was definitely time for a movie about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. This is supposed to be about what he stood for and how he affected the lives of a myriad of fictional characters who were present in Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel in 1968, the day the 42 year-old senator was gunned down after winning the California primary. Only it doesn't completely succeed where it needs to. Estevez has his heart in the right place and the movie does succeed as something: Being one of the most unforgettably bizarre movie experiences I've had this year.

I cannnot possibly overstate how loaded this cast is, nor how sometimes it distracts unbelievably from the important issue at the center of the film. There are so many subplots and storylines (some good, a lot bad) going on I had to remind myself at times that Kennedy was going to be shot. It becomes almost an afterthought in the midst of what is essentially a nearly two hour soap opera.

We have William H. Macy as the hotel's manager who's married to manacurist Sharon Stone, but having an affair with switchboard operator Heather Graham. Macy just fired the restaurant manager Christian Slater because he's a racist who won't let Hispanics leave work to vote. Freddy Rodriguez is a busboy with tickets to see Don Drysdale's sixth consecutive shutout but can't go because he has to work a double shift. He gives the tickets to the Ambassador's chef, played by Lawrence Fishbourne. Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt are a married couple battling his depression and her superficiality. Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood play childhood friends getting married so he doesn't have to go to Vietnam. Anthony Hopkins is the retired doorman of the Ambassador who now just hangs around in the lobby and plays chess with Harry Belafonte. Demi Moore plays washed up alcoholic lounge singer Virginia Fallon, who's set to introduce Kennedy that night and is stuck in a loveless marriage to Emilio Estevez. Joshua Jackson and Nick Cannon are young Kennedy campaign workers who send Shia LeBouf and Brian Geraghty out into the field to get votes, but they instead hit on flirty waitress Mary Elizabeth Winstead and drop acid with hippie drug dealer Ashton Kutcher. And on and on.

There isn't enough space in this review to list all the ridiculous choices Estevez makes in this film but I'm going to attempt to try. First, there's the casting. I don't know who thought it would be a good idea to put Lindsay Lohan and Ashton Kutcher in major roles in a movie about the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy. Unfortunately for both, they're involved in the two worst storyline threads in the entire film further accentuating their unwelcome presence. I'm not saying this as a shot at their acting abilty, though neither are very good (Lohan's performance is merely adequate, while Kutcher is just plain awful), but more at the decision to cast them in these roles.

The second Lohan appears on screen it's distracting and I was taken completely out of the movie. It's not her fault she's such a huge celebrity (well, it kind of is) but how could she top anyone's list of who they'd want to see playing this role? If it's a movie about the day Bobby Kennedy was shot, wouldn't you want it to seem as authentic as humanly possible? I know this is a fictional account, but why not avoid a potential problem by casting a relative unknown instead of making Lohan have to act beyond her reach to overcome preconcieved notions. She's not up for it.

As for Kutcher, his appearance actually drew unintentional laughter from the audience. Bobby's probably rolling over in his grave. Even worse, his character serves no purpose other than as an excuse to show us there was drug use in the 60's. It's forced and unnecessary. This is representative of another larger problem with the film. This whole drug scene excursion with the campaign workers is funny, but not for the reasons Estevez wants it to be. The scenes are so stupid and ridiculous that it becomes hysterical for all the wrong reasons. Helping with this is Estevez blasting Donovan's "Season of the Witch" over the sound track because well, you know, it's 1968. There's even the mandatory appearance of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence." Estevez also has the characters in the film have arbitrary conversations about The Graduate and Planet of the Apes just to make sure we don't suffer from time dislocation. There's also an annoying Czech reporter (cartoonishly played by Svetlana Metkina) determined to interview Senator Kennedy. Of course, she's in the film only so they can mention Communism and deliver the cruel irony of her never getting the interview. I'll give it to Estevez, though. He jams as many 60's social issues as he can into the picture. In just the first hour we witness infidelity, racism, mental illness, Communism, materialism and the anti-war movement.

The wisest decision Estevez makes is to not cast any actor in the role of Bobby. He instead intersperses real footage of Kennedy into the fictional story. Even though I felt uncomfortable seeing footage of the real man intercut with these storylines, Estevez at least knew the movie should be about the hope Bobby represented and any actor would have a rough time trying to convey that. The way this movie was cast I suppose I should just be grateful Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes weren't playing Robert and Ethel Kennedy.

With this many big names you are bound to have a number of different and interesting performances. Some actors come out of this circus unscathed while others don't. Anthony Hopkins has maybe the most useless role of his entire career as the former doorman. He hangs out in the lobby. That's it. Is Estevez trying to show how time can has passed these people by? I'm sure, but why is Anthony Hopkins in the role? It makes no sense to have an Academy Award winning actor to do nothing for two hours.

I did some research and found out none of these characters are based on real people. I'm glad because if lounge singer Virginia Fallon really existed her family would have to sue Demi Moore for slander. She gives an unbelievably campy performance, easily the worst in the film. I don't know whether to be relieved the character is ficticious or insulted it was actually written and conceived for the the screen. The saving grace of her performance is that she does her own singing and her voice is actually very good. Moore and Sharon Stone have an interesting scene together in the salon where they confide in one another the problems facing older women. This is clearly meant to draw parallels with the actresses' own lives, but what's more fascinating is watching Stone completely out act her.

Despite the trivial nature of the adultery storyline, Stone, Macy, and most surprisingly, Heather Graham, all give really solid performances. Christian Slater does career-high work as the bigoted kitchen manager who clashes with Macy. That Slater and Graham are such standouts amidst the names billed along side them should give you an idea how strange this movie is. With a small role, Mary Elizabeth Winstead also does a great job as the aspiring actress waiting tables. In just the few minutes of screen time she's given she seems authentic and real, acting how you imagine a waitress would in 1968. Why couldn't she have Lohan's role?

Nick Cannon and Joshua Jackson are also very good and they have much larger parts than you'd expect. Even though Estevez addresses the issue of racism heavy handedly, the performances of Laurence Fishburne and Freddy Rodriguez reach way beyond it. Fishburne especially. He gives a speech about race and society that forces you to sit up and pay attention. When he gets the tickets to the Dodgers game, he scribbles a message on the kichen wall and it's a heartbreaking moment because we know by the end of the night who's blood will be covering it. Rodriguez's performance is the heart and soul of the movie. His character is based on the famous photo of the busboy cradling Kennedy's lifeless body in his arms after the shooting. He makes us care about him so it becomes that much more emotional when that pivotal moment finally does come. Out of everyone, his character is the one that really connects.

A strange thing happens with the film when we finally see Sirhan Sirhan enter the Ambassador. It suddenly takes on an important meaning and everything ties together. There's almost justification for a lot of the ridiculousness we endured for the first hour and a half and I realized why we were introduced to all these people, even if at times they seemed like caricatures. I was even reminded of an important detail of the assassination that I had either forgotten or just pushed out of my mind during the film. This detail becomes important in realizing why the film was tracking so many random people in the hotel and their behavior. When he's shot the scene is scary, devestating and uncomfortable giving the rest of the film an eery brilliance, despite all it's flaws. It's kind of neat the way Estevez brings them all together at the end.

By the time the credits rolled, I felt film does pay tribute to Bobby Kennedy and the cold, hard impact his death had on the entire country and the world. There was a universal loss of hope you could argue we've never fully recovered from. What would have happened if he wasn't shot? He likely would have won the Presidency but how would that have affected things today? One of the things the movie does very well is draw a strong parallel between the turmoil and uncertainty of the 1960's and what's happening now. If you think about there isn't a huge difference and that may be the saddest message I walked out of this movie with. The last half hour to forty five minutes of this picture almost saves everything. Almost.

I just read a Roger Ebert interview with Nicolas Cage where Cage says he looks forward to getting mixed reactions to his films because it confirms he's working outside the box and evoking strong reactions. Even if they don't like it at least "they felt something." I thought about that comment after leaving the theater. I don't recall ever having such a strong reaction to a movie I felt was this flawed. Estevez at least had the creativity to fail interestingly and he gets credit for being a far superior director than writer. The movie is well-paced, beautifully shot and he deserves special props for being able to shoot some scenes in Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel before it was torn down.

With it's end of the year release date and all-star cast this movie is clearly being postioned as Oscar bait. It should be interesting to see whether the Academy overlooks the movie's flaws and probable low box office to give it any nominations. Like I said, Estevez clearly has his heart in the right place with this project. It's just his mind I'm not so sure about. Bobby may not necessarily be good, but it isn't easily forgettable.