Thursday, June 29, 2006


Director: Stephen Gaghan
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, Chris Cooper, William Hurt, Amanda Peet
Running Time: 128 min.
Rating: R

** (out of ****)

I like to think I can go into any movie objectively. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), we're all guilty of occasionally bringing our preconceived notions to the movies we see whether we want to or not. It's up to that film to challenge those notions and win us over.

That said, I went into Syriana knowing nothing about oil company corruption and turmoil in the Middle East. I left knowing what I knew going in. Granted this isn't a topic I'm interested in at all, but shouldn't the movie have made me interested? The film's confusing for sure, but that may have been the least of it's problems. It's so narrative heavy and dialogue intensive that by the end that I didn't care about a single character involved in its cross-cutting storyline threads.

I'm not going to waste time on plot details, but the basic premise involves a major oil company merger that inspires a government investigation. At the center of this is CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a lawyer investigating the merger named Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), and industry analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon). They're all caught in one way or another in a web of deception. I think. Who knows? Who cares? They talk and talk about all the big things that are going down even though we don't have a clue what they are and nothing actually happens. By the end of the film there's a payoff of sorts but I was too exhausted to care by then.

The movie's saving graces are that it's well shot, directed, and features at least one compelling performance. It comes from Matt Damon, who plays the only character in the film I remotely cared about. His story arc at least has an intriguing angle that pits his personal and professional beliefs against one another. George Clooney won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work here, which doesn't go much beyond gaining 25 pounds and growing a beard. There's a scene where he's tortured mercilessly. That's how I felt at times during the 128 minutes.

The film was written and directed by Stephen Gaghan, the Traffic scribe who previously filmed the Katie Holmes guilty pleasure thriller Abandon. It may not have been about a serious issue like oil in the Middle East, but I challenge anyone to watch it then attempt to tell me honestly they were more entertained by this. While attempting to provoke thought on a timely topic, Syriana instead succeeds at provoking frustration and confusion.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Starring: Clive Owen, Jennifer Aniston, Vincent Cassel, Melissa
George,  Giancarlo Esposito, Alvin "Xzbit," Joiner, RZA, Addison Timlin
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Derailed is a movie about what happens when an ordinary event spirals out of control, producing extraordinary results. Anyone who's considered writing a screenplay should probably study it since writing a script like this is within the grasp of everyone. I say that not as a knock on the film, which is well-executed and clever, but because it takes one event and shows how someone reacts in a way that makes sense. Not once did I think the main character reacted in an unbelievable way or in a manner that any of us wouldn't have. One decision leads to another as it should while the protagonist digs himself deeper and deeper, all the while making what seems like logical decisions at the time.

Charles Schine (Clive Owen) is miserable. His daughter's (Addison Timlin) dying. His wife (Melissa George) hates him. He lost a big account at work. One day on the commuter train he meets financial advisor Lucinda Harris (Jennifer Aniston) who's nice enough to pay his way when he realizes he has no money. This leads to a conversation, which leads to lunch, which leads to drinks. Pretty soon they're at a cheap hotel ready to have sex. This is where the movie really begins. Before they know it, a crook (Vincent Cassel) has a gun to Lucinda's head. He takes their money, pistol whips Charles and rapes Lucinda. Charles thinks he's seen the last of him. He hasn't. He's put in a position where he can't go to the police initially and that's really what causes all of his problems for the rest of the film. This crook wants more money and Charles is put in a position where he has to give it to him. It may seem like I've given away too much but I haven't at all. Nothing is what it appears to be at the beginning. The crook, who initially comes off as just two-bit bully ends up being far more than that and Cassel does a great job portraying the nuances of the character. His best scene is when he manages to squirm his way into Charles' house to talk to his wife and daughter because if you didn't know better (which they don't) he'd  seem like a great guy.

There's a big twist that I didn't exactly see coming, but it holds up logically and I was kicking myself for not spotting it earlier. We believe all of this could happen and the movie never stretches credibility until the very end where there's a few too many far-fetched action scenes. Clive Owen owns this movie as someone who seems strong, but is believable as a regular guy in way over his head and while the casting of Aniston seems questionable at first, it fits given the eventual direction of the the story. You want to someone who can play average and ordinary and she's is as good a choice as any for that. Her part isn't as large as you think, but the role is huge in importance. If she wants a real movie career she has to do more movies like this, that challenge her in interesting, serious roles that go completely against type. Rapper RZA provides nice comic relief as Charles' co-worker and I really liked how the police detective (Giancarlo Esposito) kind of knows whats going on, but doesn't act like an obvious goof about it, popping in and out at the story's convenience. Derailed isn't the kind of thriller that leaves you thinking about much after it's over, but it's a realistic, well-made effort that makes sense and keeps you guessing.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Fever Pitch, Wimbledon, The Lords of Dogtown

Fever Pitch

Directors: Peter and Bobby Farrelly 
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, JoBeth Williams, KaDee Strickland
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Fever Pitch is a really a smart movie about compromise disguised as a goofy romantic comedy. Ben (Jimmy Fallon) lives for the Boston Red Sox and basically schedules his life around spring training and attending every game of the season. Then he starts dating Lindsey (Drew Barrymore), a high powered business exec who's basically a sweet girl. It's a testament to the clever script that when she discovers his obsession she accepts it and tries to learn everything she can about the team, reading books and accompanying him to games, even when her schedule doesn't allow it. In a lesser movie, she would fight with him about it and goofy hijinx would probably fill out the remainder of the film. It's only when Ben goes too far and starts shutting her out for the Sox, that problems start.

For a welcome change the issues the characters have are realistic and legitimate, not fake, contrived movie problems like the return of an ex. There's a scene in the film where Ben and Lindsey are at Fenway and a disabled kid comes out to sing (kind of poorly) the National Anthem and the two main characters just smile silently, to our surprise. Given this is a Farrelly Brothers movie, (the guys who made There's Something About Mary) we expect a cruel joke that thankfully never comes, and that scene sums up the movie is a nutshell. It's based on the 2002 autobiographical novel by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) and a remake of a fairly well-received 1997 British film so it's operating at a level higher than most romantic comedies and it bares mentioning that the movie was edited last minute to incorporate the Red Sox 2004 World Series win. Jimmy Fallon really dials it down here from his goofy persona and it's hard to imagine anyone playing the role better, while few actresses are as capable as Barrymore at conveying intelligence and understanding.I'd rank Fever Pitch alongside the underrated In Good Company as one of the stronger romantic comedies to come out in the past couple of years.


Director: Richard Loncraine
Starring: Paul Bettany, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Neill, Jon Favreau
Running Time: 98 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

In the tennis-themed romantic comedy Wimbledon, Kirsten Dunst gives one of her most inauthentic performances as top ranked pro player Lizzie Bradbury. Besides not particularly resembling a top tennis player, she doesn't really carry herself like one, and the movie doesn't even try to effectively fool us into thinking she can play like one. There's a scene where she has to throw a tantrum on the court and it seems all wrong. Watch tennis on t.v. and tell me if the players talk like that. Supposedly former pro Pat Cash was the tennis consultant on this movie, but that never seems to show, at least in regards to Dunst (who I usually like). Something tells me it would have been easier to find a female tennis player and show her how to act than to teach an actress how to act and play like a tennis player.

The plot centers washed up club pro Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) who has one last shot at glory in tennis' most prestigious tournament. He falls for the fiesty Lizzie, but her overprotective tennis dad coach (Sam Neill) disapproves of the relationship. Will Peter win Wimbledon? Will he get the girl? Will the sun rise tomorrow morning? Any points this movie wins is for Bettany's performance. For everything Dunst gets wrong, he does it all right and covers for her. He looks like a tennis player, has all the mannerisms down perfectly and is particularly effective in the action scenes, especially the tantrum throwing ones. He also convincingly portrays an athlete who doubts his abilities to pull through on the big one since he's failed so many times before. If the movie was really about that journey and not a fluffy romance with the sport as a poor backdrop it may have worked. The few who may have been waiting on pins and needles for the first great tennis movie, or even just a mildly enjoyable rom-com to pass the time, won't get it with Wimbledon.

Lords of Dogtown

Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Starring: Heath Ledger, Emile Hirsch, John Robinson, Victor Rasuk, Michael Angarano, Johnny Knoxville
Running Time: 107 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

I've always thought the mark of a great sports movie was that it could take something you previously couldn't care less about and make you deeply interested in it by the time the credits role. By that criteria, The Lords of Dogtown is a big success. The movie takes place in Southern California in 1975 and revolves aound the Zephyr Team (or Z-Boys as they're known) of skateboarders sponsored by a local surfboard shop owner played by an unrecognizable Heath Ledger (playing it like a cross between Billy Crudup's rock star in Almost Famous and Brad Pitt's drugged out mental patient in 12 Monkeys) The Z-Boys are comprised of Jay (Emile Hirsch), Tony (Victor Rasuk), Stacy (John Robinson) and Sid (Michael Angarano) who all have nothing in common other than the fact that they love to skate. They start the movie skating empty swimming pools but before they know it they're famous, with endorsements coming their way and girls throwing themselves at them, enamored with the idea of being with the best skateboarders in the world. These guys are in way over their heads and before long egos and jealousy run rampant. Fueling the fire is when Jay hooks up with Tony's hottie sister played by Nikki Reed. When Jay tells Stacy, "You Couldn't handle a girl like that" we realize he's probably dead right. Pretty soon corporate sponsors and infighting rip apart the team and we wonder whether these guys were ever really friends.

I love it when a movie takes you to a specific time and place. Here it's California in the mid 70's and whether director Catherine Hardwicke got it exactly right is irrelevant because it just feels right.. There's a scene where a bunch of the girls are watching Cher on t..v. and screaming and dancing like she's the coolest thing ever, which is hysterical until you realize that at the time she probably was.  The soundtrack to this movie is absolutely awesome and features some of the best rock of the 70's and includes some cool cover songs (like Starsailor's version of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here").

The film was based on the 2002 documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, which I haven't seen and was made by Stacy Peralta, who was one of the kids in the movie and went on to become a world champion skateboarder. I would have no desire to compare the documentary to a movie dramatization. They're like apples and oranges. Hardwicke (who made Thirteen) gets great performances from everyone, especially Hirsch. He's like a force of nature in this movie, channeling a young Leonardo Dicaprio. I also gotta say toward the end of the movie he gets a tattoo that's among the coolest and weirdest I've seen. Oh, and about that ending. Without spoiling anything, the final scene is perfect, where something is done for a friend and it takes the movie full circle in a great way. When it's over and you find out what happened to the real people these characters were based on it speaks highly of the story that we're actually curious to know.