Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Black Dahlia (Wicked Little Critta)

The Black Dahlia had a decent amount of hype surrounding it. A newer attempt at film noir—a style that has not been very popular in recent years—it did quite a good job. For the most part, I was transported back to the 1940s (sorry, Particle Man, not the 1950s)—the costumes, scenarios, and sets were convincing without screaming too loudly and really set the tone.
The cast was also a supreme help. Josh Hartnett as Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert was impressive—he was surprisingly convincing as a skeptical, serious cop. Scarlett Johansson, while not my favorite actress, worked well in her role as the romantic interest of both male leads in this type of film. She has the sultry voice and doe eyes that fit the bill for the character of Kay Lake. Aaron Eckhart, who plays Hartnett’s partner, Leland “Lee” Blanchard, almost stole the show with his unmatchable smile and likeable personality. He definitely captures the persona of a man who is caught in the middle of something bigger than he can handle, which drives him to obsession and eventually grievous loss. I was most caught up in his unfolding story, even though Hartnett gets much more screen time. Finally, Hilary Swank was pretty much perfect. To be honest, I never really understood the big deal about her before, even after seeing Million Dollar Baby. But now I see. I frequently forgot that Swank herself was playing the character of Madeleine Linscott. To be honest, there were times when her composure, expressions and even appearance reminded me of the late great Katherine Hepburn. Maybe I’m going too far, but there it is.
Now, I said before that there were parts of the movie that really set the tone. The actors definitely enhanced that. Then came the moments when I was jerked back to the present. There were things that kept reminding me that this movie was filmed in 2006, i.e. a gruesome murder, infidelity, lesbian clubs, pornography, and a love of the word “f*ck.” Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that these things did not exist in the 1940s. I am, however, informed enough to know that they were probably not commonplace, and if anything, were rarely talked about or acknowledged.
The Black Dahlia had me fooled for awhile. In actuality, it had me fooled for the entire movie, which isn’t surprising, because for me, it was almost impossible to follow. It starts off simply enough, with two cops trying to figure out Elizabeth Short’s murder. But it keeps adding things to the pot: mixed signals, plot hooks, information, misinformation, motives, and loads upon loads of peripheral characters. “Well,” you might say, “in a mystery, things are supposed to be unclear!” Granted. But this one didn’t give us a chance. I still feel clueless. There were so many people involved that in the end I didn’t care “whodunit”, and when I did find out, it made absolutely no sense to me. I mean, it was like expecting us to notice eggshell versus white paint as a clue. “Are you kidding?” I actually thought, “I was supposed to notice that?”
In addition to the extremely convoluted plot, there were too many unpleasantries involved. A bit too much violence and crudity to make me believe this is the “classy” film the characters tried so hard to make.
But let me back up for a minute. The Black Dahlia is about the murder of an actress, right? Well, sort of. Elizabeth Short is a young woman who appears as nothing more than a dead body near the beginning of the movie. An actress? Technically, maybe not. A girl who wanted to be famous but who hadn’t found her big break yet is more like it. Unfortunately, it seemed that this “big break” would only result after her brutal death, when she becomes known to the public as “The Black Dahlia.” As the film progresses, we get to know her as Hartnett and Eckhart investigate her very ugly murder. This definitely pulled me in. Who is this girl? Did she have it coming or not? Who would have done something this grotesque? We follow the winding plot even more. Hartnett and Eckhart share a confusing relationship of partners, best friends, boxing opponents, and love interests of the same girl. Eckhart and Johansson both have hidden pasts that don’t really relate to the story of the murder, but get brought out nonetheless. Hartnett gets involved with a woman and her family who might have the key to what happened to Elizabeth Short. He also gets leads on people who knew Short, and that maybe she wasn’t the innocent, sweet girl that everyone was letting on. Believe it or not, there’s even more involved, but I want to avoid spoiling everything for you. However, I doubt even if I did, the movie would make much more sense.

Rating: -3

In any case, The Black Dahlia is on the negative side of the scale, but not so negative that I would call it a bad movie. The attempt at combining classic film noir with 2006 thrills didn’t gel at all. The only above average aspect of this movie was the acting, but even that couldn’t redeem it for me. I almost lost track of all the characters and subplots. The whole thing was like listening to one of those long, involved jokes when at the end you miss the punchline. Maybe the one good thing that The Black Dahlia has to offer us is a temporary truce between movie critics and the public.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Hollywoodland (Stormy Pinkness)

“That was all right,” was my first thought upon leaving after my viewing of Hollywoodland. Hollywoodland revolves around the death of George Reeves, TV’s Superman, and explores several theories about what caused the death of the actor—from suicide to several different scenarios of murder, each with their own motives.
Ben Affleck leads the cast as George Reeves, the aforementioned Superman. He is joined by fellow big names (pretty much all bigger than his) Diane Lane and Adrien Brody. Brody plays Louis Simo, the investigator hired by Reeves’ mother to prove that her son’s death was not a suicide. Diane Lane portrays Toni Mannix , the wife of Eddie Mannix, the head of MGM studios, and Affleck’s love interest. The movie portrays the intermingling and investigation of these and many more lives.
I had heard a lot of buzz about this movie. Some good, some bad. According to early reports, Ben Affleck was apparently back to his pre-J.Lo. form, yet Adrien Brody fell short of what we have come to expect from him. I went to the movie with that in mind but I don’t really get where those critics got that idea. All of the acting in the movie seemed to be on the same level to me. It was good, but nothing amazing. I did not see any glaring differences between Ben Affleck’s performance and Adrien Brody’s, aside from the fact that they were playing different characters. The acting was good, but there is more to a movie than acting. The plot was well done. It was intriguing to the viewer and did not have any glaring gaps. Of course that could have been helped by the fact that it was based on actual events. Everything in this movie was around B level for me. This would seem to lead up to an extremely positive rating.
However, all this movie left me was a feeling of “it was all right,” “not a complete waste of money,” and “so what’s going on now?” The last thought alerted me to how mediocre I found the movie. Usually I am processing a movie for up to about 20-30 minutes after leaving the theater or turning the TV off. In this case, my thoughts were straying 30 seconds after the film. Now I am not saying that it was a horrible movie, cuz it wasn’t. It was an all right movie. Or, to translate that into a rating, it’s a 3. I was just slightly over apathetic about it. It was better than just mediocre, but only slightly.


Attention, TMBC readers: Your Racist Friend's review of The Black Dahlia has been delayed due to injury. YRF's magnificent review will be up a few days late, when he has recovered from a dire weasel attack, and feels horrible and sexy enough to type the darn thing.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Hollywoodland (Particle Man)

“Who killed George Reeves?” That’s the question from the first shot of Hollywoodland, which begins like a good Law and Order episode. It was actually ruled a suicide, but from first seeing the crime scene, we’re going “yeah, that’s a likely story.” So the entire time there’s this question, sometimes in the back of our minds, sometimes in the front. The movie isn’t completely about the question, but it remains just the same, even at the end. “Who killed George Reeves?”

Hollywoodland is a very smart and tight mystery, a movie that harkens back to the era of film noir. It takes place in the ‘50s, and you almost think you’re watching an archival print from that time period. The movie’s earthy sepia tones capture the grandeur and splendor of Hollywood, and give just a hint of its seedy underbelly. Like in a James Ellroy novel (which The Black Dahlia, another ‘50s murder mystery and the other half of TMBC’s Movie of the Month, actually is), its vernacular and flow are unique to that region and time period. Hollywoodland lets you know what it is from the get-go, and transplants you into the necessary frame of mind to really enjoy it.

It starts with the death of George Reeves, but actually centers on a detective named Louis Simo, played by Adrien Brody, a private investigator who lives on the next paycheck, the next case, the next opportunity. As cliché as he seems at first look, he has an ex-wife and a young son who loves Superman, the character played by the recently deceased Reeves. He gets a tip on the case from a friend in the LAPD, and eventually gets hired by Reeves’ mother, since she doesn’t think it was suicide, or maybe doesn’t want to believe it. At first it’s just a paycheck, but Louis gets fascinated (and later obsessed) when the details don’t really add up. The detectives investigating the case for the city think he’s a joke, so he plays up his theories to the papers. The case gets more and more complicated, as does Louis’s life, and we’re eventually left without knowing for sure whether it was suicide or murder, just like the real LAPD officers. Oddly enough, though, we don’t really mind.

At the same time, we get the story of George Reeves, played by Ben Affleck with a fantastically un-Affleck-like charm. He was able to step outside the Ben I had heard about ad nauseum in the media for the last few years, and that might have been because of the fact that he was playing a real person. Reeves gets romantically involved with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM executive and near-mobster Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). Apparently Eddie has given his blessing for Toni to run around on him, and George even has dinner with the Mannixes and Eddie’s girlfriend, who amusingly doesn’t speak any English. In a Rashamon style, we get glimpses into what could have happened the night Reeves died, and we go down different avenues as new characters are introduced. That approach isn’t taken as much anymore, and it’s refreshing to see it used.

The fascinating thing is that while the movie revolves around the death of George Reeves, it’s not totally about that. It’s also about what the event did both to the people at large, and to one man who became obsessed with it. Louis’s son burned his Superman outfit in effigy on his mother’s couch, and he also saw how the case affected his father. In a way, the movie is about the nature of obsession. Nevertheless, there is still this slightly burning question: “Who killed George Reeves?” The world may never know.

Iconic lines:
“Does she blow smoke rings with her c***?
“Nobody asks to be happy later.”

22 Rating: 12

Particle Man

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Last Kiss

In the future, I think I will go into movies with a cooler head, a more realistic approach, and not as many expectations. I heard a bunch about The Last Kiss, and it looked like a very smart drama with deep characters, and if not approaching American Beauty status, at least on par with Closer and the like. After Garden State, I leap at the chance to see anything Zach Braff is involved with, and after Crash, Paul Haggis looks like a god. Knowing all these things, The Last Kiss just proves that a movie definitely can add up to much less than the sum of its parts.

Looking at all the elements individually and objectively, the movie is pretty good. The acting was top-notch from everyone in the cast. It was well-shot, with no dramatic cinema tricks to make you feel like you were being jerked around. The writing was excellent as far as plot flow and delivery went. All in all, everything was in place for a pretty good movie, and it was. The problem lies in the fact that I was expecting a great movie.

The plot, while effectively delivered and smartly played out, was just so achingly standard. At the center is a 29 year-old with a pregnant girlfriend, a good job, and solid friendships who is quietly and slowly freaking out. He meets a young vixen who shakes his world up and challenges his morality, and he very clumsily ventures down the much-trod path of infidelity. No matter how well it’s presented, we have heard this story about a million times before. The Last Kiss, despite good intentions, has nothing new to offer. The plot doesn’t do anything that we couldn’t see coming from 6,000 miles away.

There are so many opportunities for the movie to turn around and do something that is unexpected, and it wastes every single one. The guy meets a girl. He considers cheating with her. He asks his friends to lie for him. His girlfriend finds out. She reacts badly. He tries to lie to her. He sleeps with the girl he cheated with. When he tries to reconcile with his girlfriend, she throws him out of the house. Yadda yadda yadda.

Like I said, the acting is extraordinary here. Everyone in it gives a great performance, and they have a script they can really sink their teeth into. Zach Braff, actually, is the least stellar one in the film, as he plays his character exactly like his one in Garden State, just a little less depressed. Rachel Bilson is incredibly sweet as the vixen who is ten years younger than the hero. Her character is the most interesting, because though she fills the role of temptress to the point of being a walking cliché, she does it completely not of her own volition. Everything she does is exactly what a not-very-bright college girl her age would do, one who doesn’t have much experience in the real world but is expected to live in it. To her character’s credit, she doesn’t know she’s a home-wrecker, and when she finds out, she reacts with the appropriate amount of disgust for both herself and the guy who put her in that position. And she plays it to perfection with complete believability. Tom Wilkinson and Blythe Danner both give award-worthy performances in pretty standard roles, and really make lemonade out of lemons. Jacinda Barrett (yes, the girl from TV’s The Real World back in ’95) is very endearing as the pregnant girlfriend, if her actions are completely predictable. Even the supporting performances, by the likes of Casey Affleck, Michael Weston, and Eric Christian Olsen, are also pitch-perfect. Too bad they’re stuck in a movie with no originality whatsoever.

The Last Kiss’s common-as-dirt premise and excess of sex and nudity are redeemed by the great script and phenomenal performances, but they only take it so far. The movie got about 10 points lower on the 22 scale than I thought it would before I saw it. But I suppose even Paul Haggis can’t be expected to hit it out of the park every time he sets pen to paper.

Iconic lines:
“The world is moving so fast now that we start freaking long before our parents did because we don’t stop to breathe anymore.”
“What you feel only matters to you! It’s what you do to the people you love that counts.”
“Where did you come from and how do I make more of you??!!??”

22 Rating: 3

Particle Man

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Satires aren't supposed to have much of a shelf life. Kitch value aside, three years is about the most one can hope for, and even that's being generous. There's a reason for this expectation, however: Satires poke fun at conditions that exist during the time that they are created. They trade staying power for a sharper attack. They're meant to make an immediate impact and then go away.

Network, however, is still a very effective satire, despite the fact that it was released in 1976. And while that's remarkable for the creators of the movie and for anyone watching it now, it's bad for the rest of the world: It means that the problems that the movie exposed are still with us today. All the more reason for you to go and rent this film, if you haven't already seen it.

Here's the plot: Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is the news anchor for the (fictional) UBS network. At the beginning of the film, we are told that he has been fired because his ratings are down, effective in two weeks. During his next broadcast, when he announces to the world that he is being let go, he also announces that--since he has nothing left to live for--he's going to kill himself on national television in one week.

Of course, that shocking announcement causes the network to forego the two-week waiting period and sack him immediately, but Beale manages to convince his old friend and head of the news division Max Schumacher (William Holden) to let him at least go on one more night for a moment to apologize for the previous night's faux pas. Beale does apologize on the air, adding, "I just ran out of bullshit."

The resulting outcry is predictable, and Beale is once again summarily dismissed. But before a day passes, a young, brash programming director named Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) notes that the ratings for Beale's last two shows shot up significantly, and convinces Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), a hotshot within the (fictional) CCA--which is in the process of buying out UBS--to keep Beale on the air.

The show, predictably, is a hit, especially after Beale has an invigorating spiritual revelation and becomes known as the "mad prophet of the airwaves." Hackett and Christensen become stars within the CCA, while Schumacher--who objects to his friend being paraded around like a circus freak--is dismissed.

Whew. And that's just the first half hour or so. The film is dense with plot twists, and can certainly be confusing if you're watching it half-asleep at midnight on a Friday night. But it's worth staying awake through, for a couple reasons. One is that it's pretty darn funny. But another is that it speaks to 2006 just as much as it spoke to 1976, in two ways in particular.

One: Networks are no longer independent, they're controlled by huge corporations. That's even more true now that it was in then: Disney owns the Disney channel, obviously, but it also owns ABC, ESPN, and Lifetime, and holds substantial interest in A&E, and E! Viacom owns MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, VH1, CMT, BET, and before last year, CBS. AOL Time Warner owns CNN, HBO, TBS, and TNN. And so on. Why is this problematic? Well, in an era where very few people read newspapers or books, these few companies control what most people know. So, in effect--as Network points out--these companies have an oligopoly on truth.

Two: These companies are all in competition for the almighty dollar, which in the entertainment industry means ratings, which means they want as many eyes viewing their programming as possible, which means they'll show you any fool thing you want to see. In the age of reality TV, most of us have figured this out already, but it's worth noting that Network figured it out 30 years ago.

However, while the movie may be perfectly prescient, it's not perfect. Much of the movie revolves around an affair between Schumacher and Christensen (who is about 30 years his junior), which is rather unbelievable and not all that compelling. (Though it wins points for Schumacher's awesome line: "Why is it that a woman always thinks that the most savage thing she can say to a man is to impugn his cocksmanship?") Also, those who know me won't believe I'm saying this, but the movie also loses a few points for being a bit too bombastic. Even granted that all its characters are educated individuals working within a communications industry, the way they speak isn't the way an educated person speaks. It may be the way an educated person writes, but it's not the way they speak.

But whatever points the movie loses in bombast, it gains back with Beale's absolutely amazing speech midway through the movie. You may have seen it or heard of it before, as it's been rather frequently reproduced. It's the speech where he implores his audience to get out of their seats and shout out their windows: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Even just writing about it gives me the chills. If nothing else, see the movie for this.

Network won a slew of Oscars in the 1977 Academy Awards. Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway won best actor and actress awards, respectively, while Beatrice Straight (who plays Mrs. Schumacher) won best supporting actress. On top of that, William Holden was nominated for a best actor award, and Ned Beatty (who plays the head of the CCA) was nominated for best supporting actor. So I shouldn't have to tell you that the acting was top-notch.

Had I seen this movie in 1976, I probably would have given it a 15. Had I seen it in 1976 and known how prophetic it was going to be, I might have given it an 18. Still--as much as Network has remained relevant--films tend to lose a bit of steam after thirty years. So if you're looking for a number that describes how much you'll enjoy seeing this movie today, plan on somewhere around a 9.

Movie of the Month - September '06

The Black Dahlia / Hollywoodland

Stay tuned for our reviews coming up September 25th-29th! As you might already know, They Might Be Critics hosts a regular movie of the month. During this exciting time, all (or most) of our critics post reviews of a chosen movie that has come to theaters during the month. This month, we're shaking things up a little with a double movie of the month. Two critics will review Hollywoodland, two other critics will review The Black Dahlia, and on Friday the 29th, one critic will sum the two movies in one all-encompassing metareview.

So be sure to direct your browser to next week to find out who wins the battle of "movies that are released one week apart and both happen to feature detectives trying to solve the murder of an actor/actress in Hollywood."

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Science of Sleep (a guest review by Mr. Me)

Michel Gondry seems to me like a man on a mission: a mission to revive hand-crafted gadgets and in-camera tricks for special effects in this age of plastic-looking digital tomfoolery. This mission might have just taken place on the sets of his bizarre music videos, but luckily for us, he has chosen to move forward by making fantastic films that push him to the very limits of his creativity. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind combined Gondry's kinetic, unpredictable style with a Charlie Kaufman script about love, memory, loss, and the loss of memories of love, to make a film that was, without question, unforgettable. Similarly, Gondry has once more created a contradiction of a film with The Science of Sleep, as it will undoubtedly awaken your inner artist.

This time around, Gondry wears many hats once more. He both wrote and directed The Science of Sleep, his third feature, but it's the first solo effort to receive this much attention stateside. His story follows a young artist named Stephane (played with likeable eccentricity by Gael Garcia Bernal), who returns from Mexico to live and work in Paris with his mother after his father dies from cancer. Stephane takes up residence in his old room in an apartment building his mother owns, and a moving accident causes him to meet his new neighbor Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a fellow creatively-minded young Parisian. A relationship forms over their shared interest in creating art for the sake of creation. Stephane shows off his "inventions" like 3-D glasses for seeing real life in 3-D, and a one second time-travel machine (backwards and forwards). We soon find out, however, that Stephane's trouble with separating his dreams from his real day-to-day existence has wild repercussions for those that he chooses to befriend.

Visually, The Science of Sleep is without rival. Its real-world locales, but especially its dream-world counterparts, shoot straight off the screen and capture the audience's eye instantly. Gondry does this to increasingly blur the line between dreams and reality for his protagonist. Stephane's dream version of Paris features all kinds of homemade alterations like cardboard tube trains and yarn-fed pulley systems, just like the ones he rigs up in his apartment bedroom. This distinction between real and imagined is easy for the viewer to decipher, for the frenetic cutting and camera movement of Stephane's dreams is contrasted by smooth, even cinematography when he is awake. However, it isn't diffcult to see how Stephane becomes confused by his life that is continually looping back thematically and commenting upon itself.

This is not to say that the film's unique look is overwhelming, or that the film is all style and no substance. It simply provides the perfect expressionist background for the touching relationship drama that unfolds in The Science of Sleep. Stephane, while initially attracted to the fetching Zoe, finds himself more and more obsessed with the creative Stephanie, and his encouraging romantic episodes with her in his dreams only reinforce this obsession. However, these fantasies become problematic when his feelings are not reciprocated, as is so often the case. Stephane's unique mental situation blows the issue up even larger, making his seemingly small life into an increasingly harsh universe that cannot be escaped.

While Stephane's inability to separate fantasy and reality is somewhat of a construct for the purposes of the film, it represents the insecurities and nagging subconscious worries we all have in our personal relationships. Some might find this to be the weak point of the film, that Stephane's unusual nature is both very genuine in the film and next to impossible to function with in real life, but Bernal plays it with such sincerity it is easy to accept as true. Also, for all the strange ups and downs of their relationship, Gainsborough's Stephanie always seems willing to give Stephane the benefit of the doubt. And although The Science of Sleep is certainly unlikely to close with a stock Hollywood ending, the film's final scenes are definitely pure Gondry, both evocative and emotional.

On the venerable 22 scale, I rate The Science of Sleep a 18. It's not perfect, no, but it does flirt with such excellence on more than one occasion. The Science of Sleep is to be praised for its ingenious sets and visuals, its fun and refreshingly different lead characters, and its commitment to the creative mind. If pressed, I would say I liked it even more than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as its boundless energy and imaginative spirit are so utterly appealing throughout. Great style plus interesting characters times heartfelt storyline equals one fine film; that's a irrefutable formula. So treat both sides of your brain to a feast, and go see The Science of Sleep. Simply put, it's a dream.
-Mr. Me

Friday, September 15, 2006


Passion. That is one word that repeatedly popped up in my mind while watching Delovely. Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd star in this biopic about Cole Porter. For those who aren’t ridiculously obsessed with Broadway musicals (as I am), Cole Porter was one of the great song writers of the Great White Way. In fact he was ranked right up there with the Gershwins.
It was hard to review this movie. I had to separate my love for Broadway from my judgment of the movie. While I tried my best to achieve this, I can’t promise that I was entirely successful. This was a very well done movie. The acting was very good, the story was interesting, and the plot was pushed further along by the inclusion of some of Cole Porter’s greatest hits.
Let’s start at the beginning. Kevin Kline plays the lead character of Cole Porter. There haven’t been many occasions where I was let down by Kevin Kline’s acting, and again I wasn’t disappointed. This character involved many levels to play. As a human Cole Porter wanted to achieve success and secure his own happiness. That happiness, however, was difficult to obtain. Cole Porter desired both the couple and physical intimacy of both men and women. However, living in a time where any reports of homosexual activities (false or not) could be a career destroyer. Kevin Kline does a very admirable job of showing the different levels of this career. He often fluctuated from concern for his wife’s happiness, to his own fulfillment of needs, his independence as a songwriter, his dependence on his wife for encouragement in his musical career. He shows the contradictions that were in the man.
Although I stated that Cole Porter had homosexual tendencies, he also had heterosexual tendencies. He met a woman who enjoyed his music and had an understanding of what would be required to be with this man. This role was conquered by Ashley Judd. Again, this is an actress who I am scarcely disappointed by. Throughout this film she showed the inner turmoil of both supporting and loving her husband and also wanting her husband to support her as she did him. While not the main lead, she still gave an excellent performance and definitely made an impact.
Now my favorite part of the movie, the music. Now as some out in They Might Be Critics land know when it comes to musicals I could go on for days (same as my tendencies with history). However, the music in this film captured me. The songs were excellently chosen to reflect the moods of the scenes they were featured in. But as I said in my opening, they reinforced the passion. While some may see a musical and not really think it isn’t a very passionate story, I believe it is the music that sets the passion. All the songs in the movie had to do with the theme of Love/Passion. Not only did I see and hear the passion in the film, but awoke the passion in me, a passion for musicals that much needed a reignition. After watching this movie all I could think of was singing and performing, something I have not felt that strongly for awhile.
This movie does credit to one of the greatest Broadway songwriters ever. It shows an accurate depiction of the life he had and shows how his passions in life drove the music he wrote. The acting only adds more credibility. I wish I could’ve watched this movie in the theaters, but I’ll take sitting at home watching it. This movie receives a 13. Thank you for creating a Broadway picture that shows the passion that is required to be involved in the genre of music in anyway.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


I love Christmas. Candy canes, mistletoe, frosty windows, colored lights, Santa Claus, evergreen trees, brightly-papered presents, all of it. But more than that, I love the celebration of Christ’s birth, the acknowledgement of the beginning of my faith. Also, I love movies. The dissection of films is one of my main leisure pursuits, and writing for this blog has become one of my biggest focuses. So, naturally, when two of the biggest loves of my life intersect, I am especially excited.

That being said, let me also say that Elf, one of the latest contributions to the Christmas movie canon, is not the greatest Christmas movie I have ever seen. In reality, it leaves a lot to be desired. It doesn’t have very lofty ambitions, though, so I wasn’t expecting too much from it. It’s cute, it’s harmless, it’s pretty funny, and that’s about it. In the scope of other much greater Christmas movies (Miracle On 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Nightmare Before Christmas, even the first Santa Clause), it falls short, but is at least better than the piece of chicken-fried crap called Santa Claus: the Movie.

Elf centers around the story of Buddy the elf, and also on Will Ferrell’s performance as the title character. Ferrell is really the only actor in the movie who really believes in his role, and you have to admire the reckless abandon he brings to every role he plays. Even so, director Jon Favreau (a much better director than an actor) pulls him back in places, representing the reins to Ferrell’s wildly bucking horse. The unabashed homage to the classic clay-mation Christmas cartoons brought a smile at first, but went from charming to annoying when it didn’t stop at the credits. The part where the narwhal is wishing Buddy good luck made me think “wait a sec, is the movie honoring those cartoons, or making fun of them?

Ferrell’s very funny, and I really like the approach that he takes in this, one of innocence and selflessness. James Caan is good as Buddy’s biological father, and funnier than he lets on in his other movies. Zooey Deschanel, while she is very appealing, is pretty vapid as Buddy’s love interest. She was great in Almost Famous, but it seems she had a downward spike after that. Bob Newhart’s cameo is nice, though, and he gives exactly what the audience wants from him: Bob Newhart as an elf. The theme is the father-son relationship, and how it’s stronger than circumstances, but its presentation is pretty weak, like it was little more than an afterthought. The movie’s Stranger In a Strange Land vibe is neat, and the things Buddy does in reaction to this cynical world of ours are sometimes hilarious and sometimes tragic.

Overall, however, the movie’s just alright. But I can’t help but think that there are so many other Christmas movies out there that are so much better. I think you should see all of those before you see Elf. What I like about this movie is that it doesn’t try to have this deep message about Christmas, as many Christmas movies do. A few succeed admirably, but some of the best Christmas movies and TV specials are very simple, with a simple message. Elf is one of those, but because the plot had so much to do with Christmas and the theme really didn’t, I was a little let down. The intersection of those two things was pretty cool, but not enough to garner it a higher score.

Iconic lines:
“What’s a Christmas Gram? I want one!”
“It’s just like Santa’s workshop! Except it smells like mushrooms, and everyone looks like they want to hurt me."
“Have you seen these toilets? They’re GINORMOUS!!!”

22 Rating: 5

Particle Man

Monday, September 11, 2006

Kingdom of Heaven - Director's Cut (a review by Number Three)

I like epic Gladiator-type movies. So, of course, I went to see Kingdom of Heaven when it first hit the theaters. After all, it was helmed by one of earth’s greatest filmmakers working today and it featured a strong cast and a big budget. “Letdown” is the word that comes to mind. But, lest you think any ill of Mr. Scott, allow me to rant for a moment: Ridley got utterly screwed over by the production company (which I won’t name here). Not only did they gravely mis-market it as a love story, which it’s not, but they strong-armed him into chopping the ever-loving thunder out of the movie to the point that KEY characters were completely missing in the theatrical release.

Okay, end of rant. What this all leads up to is the fact that you can see the movie Ridley Scott meant for you to see on DVD, because a director’s cut has been released. Let me just say that these two films are like night and day. If you saw the theatrical release, forget about it. They are not the same movie. I encourage everyone to see this movie (provided you can handle Gladiator-esque fare).

Here’s the basic story: the Crusaders have occupied Jerusalem for decades, and a fragile peace exists between the Arab Muslims and the European Christians. Enter the religious/political zealot who is positioned to snap the tightly stretched rubber band of peace, because to him, religious warring is better than flawed attempts at getting along with your enemy. Enter the fascinating circumstances of the present ruler of Jerusalem and his heirs (circumstances I won’t give away here). Enter the story of a broken man that is really the story of every man in that time, as his search for redemption and purpose bring him to Jerusalem. What you have here is a whole universe developed before your eyes; a universe that is both fiction and history.

Orlando Bloom holds his own, and the side characters are deep, rich and fully-developed. There is no skimping on character development but at the same time, no boredom.

Is the movie even-handed? Not perfectly, but everyone has their own take on this part of history, and I didn’t find the writer’s own bent too distracting. Characters from both sides of the conflict were shown as genuine, and neither side was particularly demonized. After I saw this movie, I reflected a bit on the present times and found it to be quite apropos. Substitute “Christianity” for “Democracy” and “Jerusalem” for “Middle East” and you have a whole new set of Crusades for today. I hope we don’t make the same mistakes, but the hard reality that the movie shows so well is the humanity of men; a humanity that is all too inhuman all too often.

If you want to be entertained Gladiator style and also be left with something to think about, see Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut.

Mouthspeak is the overall cleverness, realness, and impact of the dialog and human interchange, and watchfeel is the overall aesthetics and impact of the visuals. Averaging these produces the mouthfeel, which judges the overall watchablility of the film.

Number Three’s Score:
Mouthspeak: 13
Watchfeel: 18
Mouthfeel: 15.5

Number Three

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Snakes On A Plane

It would be remiss for Snakes On A Plane come and go without at least one of us here at TMBC reviewing it, and I, Your Racist Friend, have come through. The first thing I remember hearing about the film was an article in Entertainment Weekly that all but begged Sam Jackson not to do the film. At the time, that seemed like sensible advice, but my thinking on Mr. Jackson's decision has come full circle now that I have actually seen the film.
New Line Cinema bills SOAP as a "high-concept action thriller." This is complete and utter bull. The film is nothing more, and nothing less, than a tongue-in-cheek spoof of of those old "animal disaster" flicks from the 70s (Frogs, The Swarm) and cheesy 80s action movies, which forgoes the chainsaw-through-Jell-0 approach of movies like The Naked Gun and Scary Movie. But is it any good? It really shouldn't be, but somewhere along the way, SOAP became a movie much sharper and more deliberate than anything anybody was expecting, the massive internet buzz and hype aside.
SOAP is the story of Sean (Nathan Phillips), a slightly dim surfer dude who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and witnesses a murder. Assassins are dispatched to take care of him, and he is rescued by Agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L Jackson), who convinces him to testify. The criminal in question, Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) can't get to him to silence him.....or can he? Kim enacts a wild, desperate plan to get to Sean: planting snakes on the plane, hidden in the cargo among packages of flowers, to be driven berzerk by time-released pherenomes also sprayed on leis worn by the passengers. Yes, it's ridiculous, I know. But can you name ONE film that has done this before? While similar to films such as Lake Placid and Anaconda, SOAP has a little bit more going for it in the script department. As ridiculous as it is, it is structured very classically, and poses interesting questions. It's an exploitation film, constructed in a way that Robert McKee would approve of.
I used the word "deliberate" earlier, and that word flashed through my mind a lot when I watched the film. There is no stunt casting, everybody is placed for maximum effect. Sam Jackson as the hard-boiled agent. Julianna Margulies as the flight attendant who finds herself in the middle of the crisis. Lin Shaye as the veteran stewardess. David Koechner as the tough as nails, slightly lecherous co-pilot. Bruce James as the effeminate male flight attendant. Flex Alexander as the germophobe rap star. Kenan Thompson as the assistant to aforementioned rap star with a secret that could save the passengers of the plane. Nothing in the film has an effect that is accidental, and there is a lot of comedy. So the film is an explotation/comedy/horror/thriller.
I saw SOAP at Boston Common, opening night, to a PACKED house. The audience was very, very into it. Lots of applause, cheering, standing ovations. I have to say, I've been to some really neat special screenings. LOTR Trilogy Tuesday. One of the coveted advance screenings of Serenity. I have maybe never seen an audience so hyper, as the cop hanging off to the left with the concerned expression could probably attest.
I've talked about the good, now let me address the bad about SOAP. It's not a film that you can watch by yourself, and have a lot of fun with. It's probably best viewed with at least 6 people, and plenty to drink. I'm not saying that you have to get inebriated to truly enjoy this film, but it might not hurt.
Funny? Violent? Tugs at our heartstrings a tiny little bit? Interesting deaths/maimings? Wackiness? Snakes On A Plane has all of the above, in a neatly wrapped, smart little package. I give SOAP a 12 on the 22 scale. So go see it, and bring as many of your friends as you

Revisions FROM THE FUTURE!!!!!!

Time has not been kind to SOAP. While it is a good-ish bad movie, it's pretty calculated, and that hurts it. I re-grade thee 6 out of 22, SOAP.

Memorable Quotes: "Well, that's good news.....snakes on crack."
"Somebody get this $&%^in' snake off my @ss!"
"Don't you think I've already exhausted every option? HE SAW ME!"

Your Racist Friend's latest contribution to TMBC was brought to you by the sounds of It's Alive, The Ramones' classic live record!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Transporter

Initial Reaction: Hey, let’s do that again!

I am a middle-class, intelligent young woman who works in education and values relationships most highly in my life. Why, then, did I like The Transporter? It doesn’t make much sense, and to the casual observer, might seem quite unexpected. In short, it’s a fun, action-packed film with a good main character and some interesting plot points. I couldn’t look away from the fighting sequences. The music was high-energy, and the pace was steady and quick; I felt as though the ending of the movie depended on my involvement.

Jason Statham doesn’t have the most difficult job in the world playing the role of Frank Martin, an ex-army something who seems bitter about his past and now has a job as a transporter. His character is minimal: not caring necessarily about abiding by the law, retaining relationships, or getting hurt, but still being kind-hearted and human enough to help the innocent or those that are unfairly treated. His personality is that of a strong, close-lipped man with few relationships (if any) who likes to do things his own way. Frank Martin is an “underground” transporter of goods and people. He strives to know as little as possible about his clients, and strictly abides by his own set of rules. Until…

It seems like a regular job. For Frank, that is. He meets the appropriate people, at the appropriate time, and receives a large duffel bag for transporting. But something different happens this time. He has to stop to replace a flat tire, and in so doing realizes that the bag in his trunk contains a person. He allows himself to break his rules out of compassion for the girl, and at this point the conflict arises. He’s gone too far, and his clients want him dead. And now that he’s stepped in the direction of helping Lai (the girl he initially found), he finds himself in an unraveling situation that calls for him to either coldly refuse to help innocent people or to go in a bit over his head.

Statham is a commanding lead. Watching him fight is almost mesmerizing, and the fighting sequences in this film are very creative. These battles take place in such non-standard locations as: an oil slick, between huge metal containers, and in a bus filled with people. The action is well-balanced, too: not too artsy or aided with obvious special effects, but also creative and intricate enough to keep a person waiting for the next move.

However, as much as I appreciated the very well-done fight scenes and car chases, I felt the inevitable lack of depth that many expect from high-action films. The plot was fine—standard, and an intriguing pull between caring and indifference—but nothing to recommend it above any other action film. Probably the most troublesome to me was the female lead, Lai, played by Qi Shu. My feelings are most likely the collective frustrations from about 50 action movies I’ve previously viewed in which the female lead can be summed up in three words: token hot girl. Lai isn’t a bad character, or a poor actress. It’s just clear that her role wasn’t exactly the result of creative inspiration. She is helpless enough, sexy enough, and screams enough to fulfill the token hot girl role.

The rest of the characters were simply fighting fodder for Statham. The “bad guy,” played by Matt Shulze, was decent, but for some reason rubbed me the wrong way. But maybe that was the point.

Rating: 11

So, if you’re in the mood for some intense driving, fascinating fight sequences, and sexy actors, this movie is an A+. For those that need more substance, it’s a B. If you need realistic movies with incredible acting and noteworthy cinematography, it’s a C. All things considered, in my opinion The Transporter translates to an 11 on the 22 scale. Please, enjoy.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

The Exorcism of Emily Rose never really got a fair shake. Judging by how much money it pulled in, audiences gave a collective shrug. And critics weren't much friendlier: Exorcism scored a measly 46% on Metacritc and a slighly measlier 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. I'm here to tell you that it's better than that.

If you've seen the trailer, you probably identified it as a horror movie. You may have thought to yourself: "Wait, didn't they just make The Exorcist sequel a year ago?" And therein lies the problem. It's not a horror movie, and it's definitely not The Exorcist. It shares a common element (hint: exorcism), but that's really it.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose is actually a courtroom drama with bits of psychological/supernatural thriller spliced in. Taken this way, it's not half bad. It's actually two-thirds good.

Our protagonist is Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), a tough, no-nonsense, agnostic lawyer who signs on to defend Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), the priest who was charged with negligent homicide after Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) died while under his care. Emily was afflicted with either demon possession or some sort of epileptic schizophrenia; the state's case is that it was the latter and that Father Moore brought about Emily's death by treating it as demon possession. The defense, of course, is aiming to prove--or at least leave some room for the possibility--that demons were in fact plaguing Emily Rose.

Essentially, it's a court case to decide whether or not demons exist. That sounds interesting enough, doesn't it?

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm already interested in this science-and-religion interplay. I work for a magazine called Science & Spirit that deals with that very topic. But I still think that a majority of Americans would be interested in hearing a jury decide on the existence or non-existence of the spirit world. And that is what this movie--based on a true story, by the way--purports to show.

For example, during a testimony about Emily's possession, the movie cuts away to show it actually happening (this is the creepy part). So we get to see, for example, random people's faces turn in to snarling demon faces with black goo coming out the eyes. And Emily's body contorted into extremely strange and seemingly quite uncomfortable positions. And we think, "Goodness, she's demon-possessed!" Then the movie will show us a witness from the prosecution, who, as the movie is showing clips of the possession again, explains how all the horrible things we just saw happen to Emily could actually be the result of mental illness. And we think, "Huh, is it really demon possession?" That back and forth is what makes the movie really neat and really worth watching.

However, as numerous critics have pointed out, Exorcism doesn't give both sides a fair shake. It gives about four fair shakes to the religion side for every one fair shake it gives to the science side, and after awhile it stops giving the science side any shakes at all. But I can understand the filmmakers' choice here. Their goal, in large part, is to freak the audience out, and demons are a lot more freaky when you believe they might exist.

Unfortunately, that choice also hamstrings the movie, making it try to do two things at once. It can either try to freak us out or try to give us an intellectual retelling of the incident (personally, I'd prefer the latter). But since it tries to do both sides at once, neither side can reach its full potential.

But, as I said at the beginning, this was still a good movie. The acting performances are passable if not earth-shattering. Jennifer Carpenter, a relatively unknown quantity, rises to the challenge of playing a demon-possessed girl, while Tom Wilkinson and Laura Linney give us what we've come to expect from Tom Wilkinson and Laura Linney. And it's legitimately creepy--I had trouble sleeping that night, which is the true test--though not as creepy, perhaps, as a straight-up horror movie. It's also legitimately thought-provoking and discussion-inducing, which for me is a mark of a good movie.

It's understandable but unfortunate that the filmmakers decided to play this middle road: A straightforward courtroom drama could have been as good as an 18 in this case, while a pure horror treatment probably would have netted it a 10. Unfortunately, Exorcism isn't as good as the sum of its parts, but it's still good enough to warrant an 8.