Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Casino Royale

Hello, movie-keteers, and welcome to the second part of November's movie of the month! In this review, Your Racist Friend and Wicked Little Critta will take a look at James Bond 21, Casino Royale. This latest installment of the time-honored franchise tells the story of how James Bond (Daniel Craig) becomes 007. When money launderer to the terrorist LeChiffre (Mads Mikkelson) holds a high stakes poker game at Casino Royale, MI6 sends still-fresh-from-earning-his-00-stripes Bond to win the game, take all of LeChiffre's money, and make him cry like a little girl. Along to help is beautiful treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Will Bond succeed, or is the novice Bond in way over his head?

YRF: I really, really liked Casino Royale. I like the series a lot, despite the many less than stellar installations in it. What did you think? You don't really have a lot of experience with Bond films, correct?

WLC: I liked it a lot, too. I have some experience with the series, having seen a few older Bond films years ago, but I'm left mostly with vague impressions now rather than hard and fast opinions of them. My taste runs to a more wholesome action hero that gets his hands dirty and doesn't womanize just for kicks. Thankfully, Casino Royale delivered in both those departments.
Was this Casino Royale a remake of an older version? Or a storyline that hadn't been told yet?

YRF: Casino Royale was the first Bond novel, which was filmed as part of a TV anthology in America in the 50s, with Peter Lorre playing LeChiffre. Then, there was a "satire" version of it starring David Niven, and everybody under the sun then in cameos. There is an amusing turn in that by Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond, James Bond's "disappointing" nephew. But this is the first proper adaptation of Casino Royale, yes. The Broccoli's never had the rights before.

WLC: Ok, good to know. I wasn't sure if there was something it could be compared to.
Anyway, the movie was a hit. It pretty much grabbed me by the throat within the first 15 minutes. We are introduced to some terrorists up to their not-so-good schemes, and Bond in the midst of a job that is getting a bit out of control. That first on-foot chase is totally gripping. It shows how Bond doesn't hesitate to jump head-first into his work, but that he also operates on a slightly different level than the average thug. Plus it's a blast. What were your initial thoughts after this scene, YRF?

YRF: I loved the opening of the film. Let's not forget the black and white opening of the film, showing Bond's earning of his 00 status. The neatest thing about that to me was that they worked in the now-infamous "shooting the fish-eye lens" into the actual film. That was really cool.

And yeah, not only was that "stop the terrorist" sequence kickass, it was also very important in that it shows us the way Bond operates, him thinking on his feet and using his environment to his advantage, and also the fact that he's not afraid to use the blunderbuss approach if it suits the situation. I think the thing that demonstrates that the best is the chase scene at the construction site. This terrorist is doing all the crazy parkour stuff to get away from Bond. At one point, he jumps through a small open window in a sheetrock wall.....and Bond just comes crashing through the wall itself a moment later.

YRF: So, what did you think of Daniel Craig? There's been a lot of controversy over his casting as Bond.

WLC: All I heard about Craig that might have been thought of as controversy was someone saying: "James Bond isn't blond!" Honestly I wasn't sure what to expect. But Craig was fantastic. He did the character soooo well, balancing the cool and self-confidence that is Bond, but also the "Oh sh*t! that didn't work..." that might have been more frequent in his early days. I also noticed a side of him that I don't remember from earlier Bond movies, this being a "caring" side, if you will. It's not like he breaks down and cries when he kills someone, but I could definitely see even just some hesitation that gave me reason to believe he doesn't take the consequences of his job lightly. In short, he impressed me.
How about you? What controversy was buzzing?

YRF: There was a small contingent that felt, for whatever reason.....hair color, height, that he wouldn't be a good Bond. I thought he was an outstanding Bond. Just because doesn't resemble Ian Fleming's sketch of the character to be used as a model as well as, say, Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan, doesn't mean that he can't get inside the character. I'm fighting the urge to go off on a tangent about Tobey Maguire and how he only really looks like Peter Parker, but I think I'll suppress that urge and stay on topic. I don't love the portrayal from the Moore years of Bond as this wisecracking playboy. Brosnan talked about this kind of thing a lot in interviews, mentioning that the big thing that Timothy Dalton (especially) missed was how dangerous Bond is. If you think about it, and the older movies don't play this up too much, his primary function is wetworks. He's an assassin, albeit one who enjoys some of the finer things in life. It can be a very tough thing to play an established character like Bond, Allen Quartermain, Batman, etc, because there's all this baggage to deal with. I know that I was looking for certain character things, and Craig hit every one of them. I think this might sound sacrilegious, but I feel his portrayal of Bond surpassed even Connery's. I was completely sold on every aspect of the character. Back when they announced that he got the part, and released that promo pic of him in the tuxedo with that ridiculously long-barrelled gun, I kinda looked at him, and went, "Hmmm." Those blue eyes of his are really intense, aren't they? That kinda reminds me of Peter O'Toole. He was also a really, really physical specimen in the film. I read that he gained 20 pounds of muscle for the role, and I think you can see every bit of work that he did in the film. What did you think of the action sequences/fight choreography in the film?

WLC: Twenty pounds of muscle? Ouch!
Regarding fight choreography, one thing I'm noticing even now as I reflect back is that there weren't a bunch of long, drawn-out fight scenes, which was kind of a nice change. I dunno, sometimes you see the hero character battling someone for five minutes straight, and in my opinion, that can easily get boring. But Casino Royale had much shorter combat scenes, probably due to the fact that there were a lot of guns used. In the scenes where there was melee fighting, I felt like it was better than most other action films: a punch is thrown, and the guy feels it. Bond gets blood on himself, and is even hurt pretty badly several times. It's not pretty and dressed up action, and it doesn't beat the dead horse at all.
One thing I really appreciated was that people weren't as expendable. Bond does a significant amount of killing, but this film doesn't just make his opponents fighting fodder. They're more real. Would you agree?

YRF: I very much agree. As much as I like watching Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa slug it out for ten minutes straight, it's not very realistic. The fights, and the aftermath of the fights, were very visceral, and I think more true to life. I don't think I've ever seen so much blood in a Bond film, and that's a good thing. And it's not like he's Superman either.....even the more untrained people he's matched up with can give him trouble, which is definitely realistic. But yeah, they put a human face on his opponents. Like the guy he kills in the museum. He sits him down afterwards, and pats him on the cheek as if to say "tough luck, old man." But let's talk about other aspects of the film....how did you like the story?

WLC: I must confess, the story seemed secondary to me because everything else was so good: the pace, the characters, the fights...but we'll get to more of that later. The story was fine. I admit that these plotlines that keep the audience on their toes aren't my forte, and there were definitely times that I was left wondering why he was doing what he was doing, and what we were hoping for in the end. The whole concept of gambling to catch the man funding terrorists was a bit over the top, but also lends itself to great entertainment. I kept thinking, did he have to take a class in poker in order to get 00 status? It was just a bit much.

YRF: Catch them? No, the whole point was that they knew that LeChiffre was laundering money for terrorists, and that the simplest way to stop him was to take all his money....in a perfectly legal manner as well. It was common knowledge in MI6 that Bond was a good enough card player to take LeChiffre for everything he was worth. So, not so much catch him as stop him. And I agree with you that it takes a little suspension of disbelief that the British Secret Service would resort to such an unconventional method, but it's an intriguing plot point.

WLC: Right. In a word, intriguing.
What are your thoughts on the other characters? Anyone stand out to you?

YRF: I hope they stay consistent on Felix Leiter this time around. Jeffrey Wright is a great actor, and I really enjoyed seeing him in that role. I think he did a lot with very little screen time. Looking at Wikipedia, I see that Wright is the 8th actor to play Leiter, 9th if you count Bernie Casey in Never Say Never Again. So, I hope they keep him around. I thought Mads Mikkelson was really good, if not amazing, as Le Chiffre. And Giancarlo Gianni as Mathis? Really, a lot of class actors in this.....more than any other Bond I remember. I've always liked Judi Dench quite a bit since Goldeneye. I think Bernard Lee was a bit of a talking head in the older films, and that she breathes more life into the character. Before I discuss Eva Green, what did you think of the other characters?

WLC: Ha, interesting. I felt like out of all the characters, Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter was the one I liked the least. Maybe if he'd had a bigger role I'd feel differently, but he seemed to baby-faced to be doing anything undercover. When he first leaned over to talk to Bond, I was thinking, "Who the heck is this guy? I'm not buying it."
I will say, Mads Mikkelson was great. Completely believable and successfully intimidating as LeChiffre. He seemed surrounded by mystery, and even a bit creepy. I especially liked his chrome inhaler, as you know. He may have difficulty breathing, but he has difficulty breathing with style.
You're right about a cast full of class actors. I agree with you about Gianni as Mathis, and what's not to like about Judi Dench? She's powerful, and somehow added a lot to the comedic aspects of the film. She's pretty much what you'd want for the character of M.
Even the smaller characters were enjoyable. I remember really liking some of the other card players, the dealer, and the banker. Don't ask me their names, though.
Eva Green? Well, I'll let you go first.

YRF: Ha, the chrome inhaler was pretty awesome. Quentin Tarantino and Pierce Brosnan met with MGM to pitch a Tarantino-directed Casino Royale, but it didn't fly. The chrome inhaler made me think of that, kind of the odd thing you'd see in a Tarantino film. But if they're smart, the Broccolis will let Tarantino near the franchise at some point. With the right script, Tarantino is quite capable of making the be-all, end-all Bond movie........

.......but yeah, Eva Green. I thought she was pretty good. A lot of the work was done for the actors by the screenplay, and I think Paul Haggis has hit another one out of the park in terms of the script and dialogue. But I bought the love story between Bond and Vesper Lynd. Green is both sensitive and firm, when it's called for. And I thought she had good chemistry with Daniel Craig. I particularly liked the scene in the shower.......

WLC: Me too! That was a good piece they put in there. It really brought the two of them together in a real way, and it was a bit of a break from the harshness of the rest of the movie. (For our readers who haven't seen the movie, this scene isn't anything dirty.)
I also really liked Eva Green. She had a good amount of substance, and made it clear she wouldn't be just another female falling all over Bond. I bought their love story as well, it was successfully romantic and heartbreaking at the same time. I wasn't expecting that kind of depth in their relationship, but I'm glad they pulled it off.

YRF: To get to closing, what did you like least about the movie? I'll tell you what it was for me.....those two old ladies behind us cowing their gum and muttering every 30 seconds.

WLC: That definitely did not enhance my movie experience. Another note to our readers: if you don't like violence or gambling, then don't see Casino Royale. You'd think that people would have a decent understanding by now of what Bond movies are. But apparently not.

What I liked least about the movie? Probably the scene where Bond is being tortured. It wasn't grotesque or prolonged, but was still very unpleasant. But then again, I'm very sensitive to those kinds of scenes...so it might just be me. However, I would assume that men would be more bothered by it than women, considering what they do to him. I'll leave the rest to your imaginations.

Overall, I give Casino Royale a 12. Very, very well done, extremely entertaining, and not following the recent trend of action movies going way over the top. Your rating, YRF?

YRF: Yeah, they did keep the torture scene short, and not incredibly graphic. I did think the movie definitely pushed the boundaries of what's allowed in a PG-13 movie now. I think it was more of a light R, but that's not necessarily a complaint. The good thing about the torture scene is that it showed Bond's loyalty and commitment to his job, and to England.....even in the face of horrible dismemberment and probable death. And if the audience wasn't firmly rooting for him at that point, then there's no way they wouldn't be after that.

I thought Casino Royale was better than the previous best Bond, which was Goldfinger, in my opinion. I give Casino Royale a 17. The score would be higher, but I'm holding out for a bit more of the oddness and flamboyance of the old Bonds, without losing the down to earth feel of this one. That gives it what, 14.5? Respectable!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

They Might Be Critics is trying out a new format for certain reviews: Rather than posting several separate reviews for the same movie, we're having certain critics discuss a movie, then posting the resulting discussion for your reading pleasure. In this review, Dr. Worm and Stormy Pinkness discuss Stranger Than Fiction, in a later review, Wicked Little Critta and Your Racist Friend will be discussing Casino Royale. Be sure to let us know if you like this format and you want to see more of it in the future, or if you think it sucks and hope we never do it again.

Stranger Than Fiction centers around the life Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an auditor for the IRS. Crick has a perfectly monotonous life full of numbers and routine, until two things happen to him, almost simultaneously. First, he starts hearing the events of his life being narrated to him by a British, female voice (Emma Thompson), as he says, "accurately ... and with a better vocabulary." Second, on a routine auditing trip, he meets a beautiful baker named Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with whom he can't help but fall in love. When the narratorial voice in his head predicts his imminent demise, Harold seeks the counsel of a literary professor named Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) to divine—and hopefully avoid—what this narrator has in mind.

Dr. Worm: Overall, I liked this movie. It was campy at moments and unbelievable at others, but it was fun and frolicky overall and contained a good message—even if just a tad sanctimonious. I feel like when I go to really analyze the movie, there are plenty of things I could point out as flaws (and we'll get to these), but movie was breezy enough to keep me going along with it without feeling the need to nitpick those things. So, Stormy Pinkness, what's your overall take?

Stormy Pinkness: Well, I thought the movie was boring at first. I guess I must just be so used to all these special effects that when a movie is not rife with them I get bored.

DW: Well, is that really it though? I mean, were you bored at the beginning of Marie Antoinette?

SP: No, but that was history. (Editor's note: Stormy Pinkness is a notorious history geek.)

DW: True.

SP: But overall I thought the movie was all right. Very much an improvement from the last Will Ferrell movie I saw.

DW: Which was?

SP: I think Kicking and Screaming.

DW: Yeah, that movie was pretty much crap.

SP: It was, but Stranger Than Fiction was somewhat enjoyable. It had some funny moments, and it had a good theme as well, I think.

DW: What would you say was the theme of the movie?

SP: That you never stop to think of the way you live life until something threatens your routine.

DW: I like that. I think that's kind of true.
DW: I think the movie added a different sort of moral at the end, but we'll get to that later.
DW: How do you think Will Ferrell held up in his role?

SP: I think he held up very well. I thought he just knew how to do comedy, but I was wrong. Even his comedic parts as a serious actor were done well.

DW: Yeah, I'd make the argument that his comedic bits are only funny because we take him seriously enough. Even though he starts out the movie as more of a caricature than an actual person

SP: I would buy that.
SP: What did you think of Emma Thompson?

DW: I thought she did a solid job, though she too was more of a "type" than an actual person.
DW: In fact, I think I could levy that complaint against all the characters.

SP: Yeah, I think that Emma Thompson did well, but her character definitely seemed to be an amalgamation of different writer's block scenarios

DW: It's true, and she had a bit of the "crazy artist" archetype about her.

SP: Yeah, and I did not really think Queen Latifah's part was necessary.

DW: I totally agree. (Editor's note: Queen Latifah played a specialist sent by Emma Thompson's publisher to see to it that Emma got the book done. ) It seemed that she was only there so the scenes with Emma Thompson wouldn't just be Emma talking to herself.

SP: Exactly!
SP: I am somewhat above apathetic for Dustin Hoffman's character

DW: I hear that. He, like the others, was a little more than a type. In his case, something like the absent-minded professor. Someone with a ton of—pardon the pun—book knowledge, but not much ability to deal with people.

SP: Yeah, he seemed like a necessary plot device.
SP: Kind of like a plot hook.

DW: He was. I guess one of the dangers of making your story about writing a story is that the audience sees why you're putting these characters in your story. That they're often there to serve a purpose rather than to be a person.

SP: I can see that.

DW: I think Maggie Gyllenhaal was the most egregious example. She did a good job with a role that she's just way above: the yang to Will Ferrell's yin, as well as his obligatory love interest.
DW: I really didn't buy their love story.

SP: Me either. It was sweet, but it didn't seem real.

DW: No, I could imagine him falling for her, but it made little sense to see her falling for him.

SP: But I think someone as cautious as he was would spend more time with a person before falling in love. I can see showing him interest, but they go right from that to the whole dreamy-eyed "I love you" phase.

DW: It's true. That whole subplot felt very ad hoc and unnecessary.
DW: The weird thing is, we're sitting here ripping this movie to shreds, but I liked the movie. I liked it quite a bit, actually.

SP: I don't think we are ripping this movie to shreds.

DW: No, we're not. But our comments have been negative.

SP: We've done a lot worse to movies.

DW: I guess I'm saying: I liked this movie. So I should try to point out why.

SP: Ok, so let's balance it out
SP: I think the theme of the movie was good and resonant with the current time period.
SP: I think it had a very interesting premise, which I actually supported during the movie.
SP: The acting was in no way bad, but some of the roles seemed a bit unnecessary.

DW: I agree, and I'll go further: Some of the roles were actually pretty poor, but the actors and actresses involved rescued them from mediocrity.
DW: And I like what you said about being resonant with our time. With the prevalence of reality TV and cameras literally everywhere, it's easy to imagine your own life as a show. Will Ferrell's life was a novel, not a show, but the same feeling holds true.
DW: But I think the smartest point this movie made was the question it asked about the value of art vs. the value of life.

SP: How so?

DW: It essentially asks the question: Is it right to kill a person in order to create an excellent, lasting work of art? With one argument saying: No, of course not, it's wrong to kill a person. And the other saying: But the person will die anyway, sooner or later, but the art may last forever—and, by so doing, immortalize the person.

SP: But also, as is the case in the movie, the author, or artist, if you will, did not know that the character she thought she created as a fictional person was in fact real.

DW: Absolutely, but when she finds out he is, she's essentially faced with that question. Does she kill him to create excellent art, or does she spare him and create either no art or poor art?

SP: I think this kind of brings to light the concept of characters having their own lives.

DW: Go on.

SP: I have just heard interviews where authors are talking about the characters in their works and they say they had and idea about what they originally wanted their characters to do, but their characters take on a life of their own. In the case of this movie, literally.

DW: It's true, and I think that's the sign of when your characters have become 3-dimensional and "real." Ironically, most of the characters in this movie are actually rather flat.

SP: True.

DW: All right, are we ready to make a final pronouncement on the movie?

SP: Guilty!
SP: Oh wait, wrong pronouncement.
SP: I thought it was good. Much better than I anticipated a Will Ferrell movie being. Some of the secondary characters had some problems, through no fault of the actors, but because of the way their characters were established.

DW: Yeah, I agree. It was pretty fun and interesting overall, despite the problems we mentioned. I'm wondering if it had been a small indie art-house flick if it would have been better than biggish Hollywood release aimed at a wide audience.
DW: In other words, I wonder if the movie suffered by feeling like it had to pander to everyone's tastes.

SP: That's definitely a possibility.

DW: I guess we'll never know.
DW: Anyway, on to the ratings: As I mentioned to you, leaving the theater I gave it a 13. But upon further reflection, I don't feel like I can give it more than a 10.
DW: Which doesn't bode well—you want a movie to increase in rating the more a person thinks about it, not decrease. So I fear that, if I saw it again, my rating my shrink even further.
DW: I guess if I could give my rating as a barometric reading, I'd say 10 and falling. I think it's still a good movie—I don't think it would ever fall below zero—but I'm less impressed with it now than I was then.

SP: My rating is the same as when I originally left the theater, which is a 7.
SP: And I think mine is pretty concrete

DW: So we're giving it an average rating of 8.5 but falling.

SP: Seems reasonable.

DW: Guilty as charged!
DW: Stranger Than Fiction, I sentence you to lukewarm DVD sales and endless shame when an independent filmmaker totally improves on your premise six years from now.

SP: The prosecution is pleased with your honor's decision.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Prestige

The Prestige is a movie about magicians in the 1900s made by a modern-day magician, Christopher Nolan. Nolan has only made five full-length movies, and all the ones I’ve seen (Memento, Batman Begins, and The Prestige) hit the ball so far out of the park that they hit a tourist in Singapore on the head. Watching a Nolan film isn’t like watching other movies, because you’re not just getting a movie. In Nolan’s hands, a movie isn’t just a medium for telling a story. In fact, with Nolan’s films, your watching of the movie is the story.

On the small level that all non-Nolan movies exist on, The Prestige is the story of two rival magicians in turn of the century London. Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is a master at his craft, but sadly lacks the flair of showmanship required of any magician, something Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) has in spades. When the movie begins, Alfred is on trial for Rupert’s murder, and the entire story is told in a non-linear mode that can be quite confusing if you’re not on your toes the entire time. For the first half-hour or so, I thought the movie would lose me, because it went forward with such speed and force, and I thought it would sprint ahead while I was left trying to catch my breath. But I eventually became acclimated to the movie’s pacing, and it got easier. Also in the mix is Scarlett Johansson (it must be a federal law that every fifth movie made has to have her in it) as Olivia, the “lovely assistant,” the magician’s main method of misdirection. She starts as the assistant for Rupert, but eventually “defects” to Alfred at the behest of Rupert to steal Alfred’s secrets. Whether her defecting is genuine or not is in question. I found her forgettable, though she is a treat for the eyes. There is also Michael Caine as Cutter, the designer and engineer of the tricks Rupert and Alfred employ, and a special and sneaky appearance by David Bowie as Tesla, an inventor who builds… something… for Rupert. I can’t tell you what, because a magician never reveals his secrets, and it would be very crass for me to reveal his secrets for him.

Honestly, there’s not much I can tell you about the plot, and for that very reason. Just know it involves some very big surprises and a few unexpected turns. Nolan’s touch seems genuine rather than hammy, and the tricks he plays on the audience are met with applause instead of scowls. Christian Bale gives a knock-out performance, and I see an Oscar in his future. Alfred Borden was a masterful creation, forged out of equal parts obsession, dark charisma, and single-minded drive. Hugh Jackman didn’t do the best job of conveying that Rupert was a master showman, and both magicians could have acted more histrionic and flamboyant. Jackman’s portrayal of pain, however, was palpable, and he did a great job of making me feel his drive for vengeance. There should also be a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Chris Nolan and his brother Jonathan. Once again, they have pulled off a fabulous magic act, and made a movie that acts as a kind of meta-movie.

Watching the movie, I wasn’t on the edge of my seat the entire time wondering what the secret was, but that was a good thing. The nature and spell of the film made me forget about trying to figure it out, and instead made me marvel at the wonder of it. On a stroke of luck (I never do this), I figured out the secret of the movie about half-way through, and spent the rest of it waiting to see if I was right. I was, thankfully, and I probably would have had very different feelings about the movie as a whole if I had been wrong. But regardless, Nolan does something here that I’d wager no other modern director can do, and you need to see the movie to really know what I’m talking about. Can we say “Best Picture nod?”

Iconic lines:
“Don’t forget your hat, Mr. Angier.”
“No one cares about the man in the box, the man who disappears.”
“Now, you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it. Because you want to be fooled."

22 Rating: 15

Particle Man

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Movie of the Month - November '06

Stranger Than Fiction/Casino Royale

Stay tuned for our reviews coming up this week! 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 even more with a double movie of the month, and a new format! Three critics will review Stranger Than Fiction, and two other critics will review Casino Royale. Instead of the standard individual reviews, we will critique these films discussion-style. Let us know if you love it or hate it. Preferably using the 22 scale.
Anyway, we are all about providing a range of opinions and insights, and allowing for an open forum in which we discuss the film with each other and anyone who desires to participate. So, see one of these two movies in theatres now, and join in!

Friday, November 17, 2006


Initial Reaction: Grimace and sigh.

I think I remember having different expectations for Elizabethtown than your average chick flick. I'm not sure why--could've been the buzz, or just my own reaction to the previews. But I went into it expecting more than the typical "boy meets girl, girl brightens boy's life, boy and girl get separated, will boy and girl end up together?" plot. I was satisfied, a little, but was left with an overall sense of apathy towards them after the movie ended. There was great potential for great moments, but Elizabethtown was left reaching for higher ground.
Elizabethtown stretches beyond the bounds of the standard rom com. In fact, I think that those involved in creating Elizabethtown would resent either the title of "chick flick" or "rom com." But too bad. It was like... a rom com in disguise. Which was frustrating for me. I was fed the normal "boy meets girl yadda yadda yadda" along with some depth of character. This would normally thrill me and give me hope for Hollywood romance stories, but in this film it didn't fly, for the following reasons:
Orlando Bloom didn't seem great for the role as Drew Baylor. Thinking back, it was a really good role, but Bloom didn't own it. He was given some realness regarding his life, family and emotions, and I loved his character development. (Though the fact that he apparently lost his company millions of dollars by creating the worst sneaker ever seemed rather...dumb.) Anyway, Orlando just didn't bloom. Ha.
Kirsten Dunst played female romantic lead, Claire Colburn. Oy. I'll be honest, I don't like Dunst as a romantic lead. Not too sure why. In this case, I think her accent and annoying optimism contributed to my dislike. Anyway, if you'll read my review of Hope Springs, you'll understand why I didn't like the romance in this film, as it seems to mirror the relationship progression from that movie.
So, a plot outline: Drew Baylor watches his professional life go down the drain as he loses his company a LOT of money. Understandably, he's pretty depressed, and is nearly pushed to the edge. Thankfully, his father dies. Odd as that may seem, this helps him out of his selfish down-in-the-dumps stupor by making him realize that his mother and sister need him. He rises to the challenge and goes home to see them.
As a result, he is placed into the role of mediator. His father's body is in his old hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and he is sent there to make sure his father's last wishes are carried out. On the flight there, he meets Claire, who connects with him and seems to pull him out of the pit he's in. Throughout his journey to Elizabethtown and elsewhere, they keep in touch and develop feelings for each other. As they are continuously drawn together and pulled apart, we wonder if anything will ever come of it. Will they each get over their respective problems and find each other? Or move on? Or neither? This plotline does resolve itself, but not in any spectacular way.
In short, the film didn't impress. For the most part, the positives and negatives balanced themselves out. One thing that the movie had going for it was an actual story going on behind the romance. After Drew loses his father at the beginning of the film, we follow him as he grieves with his mother and sister, as well as members of his family he's never met before. Susan Sarandon plays his mother, and is, as usual, wonderful. The most touching scene was at her husband's memorial service when she says goodbye to him. I love how they all learn about themselves and each other through their loss. Also good was the road trip near the end that Bloom takes with his father (at this point, an urn filled with his ashes).

Rating: -3

Elizabethtown had good intentions, but the main thrust of the story, which was the budding romance between Drew and Claire, lacked chemistry and purpose. It wasn't refreshing. It wasn't touching. It wasn't meaningful. It was just there. And a love relationship that just exists is less than mediocre. Which is what brought Elizabethtown down to a negative score. A decent attempt by Cameron Crowe, but ineffective at best.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Not every movie that wins the Best Picture Oscar is absolutely stellar. When considering this, it is useful to remember that the Oscars are an annual event, and the Best Picture nod is only the best film of that year. Even so, Titanic was nominated for Best Picture in the same year as L.A. Confidential, and those two films, while not absolutely stellar, are pretty darn good. But they kind of represent two ends of the spectrum. L.A. Confidential is a very tight and intricately constructed movie, but Titanic touches way more emotional nerves. It hits us where we are, despite that it takes place in a time when nobody who is watching the movie was even alive. L.A. Confidential does that a little bit, but it’s more visceral and raw than emotionally affecting; it goes for the gut rather than the soul. Titanic, however, has an effect that lasts much longer.

Now, the media machine surrounding Titanic was monumental, and the movie was incredibly successful. Those two things open it up to unnumbered parodies, riffing, and merciless mockery. I saw it when it came out while I was in high school. I returned three times to the theater to see it, and it quickly became my favorite movie. That was due in part to it being really good, and in part to my not having seen very many movies at that point. But as soon as I told my high school friends of the male persuasion that it was my favorite movie, I was laughed at and scorned for being the epitome of a wuss. Even a few of my female friends thought me a little too wishy-washy. On the other hand, all the guys who made fun of me for liking it never even saw it, so there you go.

Though other movies have surpassed it over time as being my favorite, it still rings true and I still love it. James Cameron’s previous films were True Lies, Aliens, and the first two Terminator movies, so it doesn’t seem that he would be very competent at a love story. Cameron’s high-price action style actually lends itself to this material more than one initially thinks, however. Let’s not forget that the central event in the plot is a ship sinking, and that in the course of the movie, 1,500 people bite the big one. Macho detractors of this movie have no ground to speak, as I can think of nothing less girly than a whole bunch of people dying.

But the movie’s not really about the ship, or its sinking. It’s about Jack and Rose. Kate Winslet earns her Best Actress nomination here, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s not bad, either. He was better in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Departed, and Romeo + Juliet, but this role didn’t demand a whole lot, so we don’t expect it of him. The supporting performances are absolutely great, especially Billy Zane, Gloria Stuart, Victor Garber, Kathy Bates, Bernard Hill, and David Warner. I noticed on my most recent viewing that the film creates empathy with every character, not just the two stars. You understand the pain, drive, and motivation behind each major character, from Captain Smith (he realizes he let his pride get the better of him) to Cal (he feels emasculated by Rose’s wayward ways) to Mr. Andrew (he put all this work and energy into a ship that despite his best efforts, wasn’t good enough).

The love story has a rocky beginning, and a few pieces of dialogue could have been written better by a 7th grader, but the stunning visuals and the historical credibility more than balances that out. The Jack and Rose romance is pretty fast and emotional, and usually love affairs that begin like that don’t last, but we don’t really have to worry about that because, hey, the ship sinks anyway. Rose only says “I love you,” to Jack once, and he never says it to her, but one only has to look at them when Rose is floating on the door and Jack is in the water to see that they do in fact love each other. Each actor does a magnificent job of conveying the emotion and drive behind every single line, and that’s true of all the supporting performances, as well.

You can call me a sissy or pantywaist, and you can call into question my sexuality, because all of those things have been done because of this movie (really), but I like it. It’s thoughtful, it’s well-shot, it’s well-acted, it’s emotionally touching, and its themes last much longer than just the time you’re sitting in the theater chair. And aren’t those the components that go into a Best Picture nod? In summation, there are better movies, but this one just does it for me.

Iconic lines:
“I know what ice fishing is!”
“Interesting that the lady slipped so suddenly, and you still had time to remove your jacket and your shoes…”
“You jump, I jump, right?”

22 Rating: 16

Particle Man

Friday, November 10, 2006

Borat:Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Hi all! Your Racist Friend has returned with a review of a film about a real "racist friend." I'm of course talking about Borat Sagdiyev, of the number one film in the country, Borat. Borat is the story of Borat Sagdiyev (Sascha Baron Cohen), a TV reporter from Kazakhstan. Borat likes swimming, table tennis, disco dancing, degrading women, and hating on Jews and gypsies. The film is a mockumentary of Borat's journey to America with his producer Azamat, to make a documentary for benefit of Kazakhstan. Whence there, he sees Pamela Anderson on a rerun of Baywatch, falls in love with her, and decides to travel to California to make her his bride. Needless to say, wackiness ensues.
There has been a lot of hype surrounding Borat, and it has only grown with the opening of the film. After a stunning opening weekend where the film netted over 26 million dollars in a mere 837 screens, FOX is expanding the opening to 2,500 screens. A lot of people are saying that Borat is one of the funniest movies they've ever seen, and I say this: Believe the hype. Borat is at least the funniest movie I've seen since South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. I attended a 5:00 screening last Monday, and the theater was very full despite the oddball time. The audience (myself included) laughed uproariously, and very frequently. There was more funny material than in 95% of most comedies, and it came a lot faster. Cohen and his collaborators have created an inspired mix that borrows from Peter Sellers, Jackass, Monty Python, and Charlie Chaplin, among others. We've seen Borat before on Cohen's very funny It's Da Ali G Show, Innit?, but Cohen has more opportunity for the impish Borat to run amok across America. The specific language choices and odd angles at which Cohen launches jokes is no small boon to the humor in the film. Like Rocky Marciano punching his opponents in the arms to drop their guard, the things that come out of Borat's mouth are odd and hilarious.
Much has been made of the Borat character's anti-Semitism, with the debate originating with the infamous "Throw The Jew Down The Well" segment from Ali G. The Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations have argued that some people don't have the perception to realize that Cohen is making fun of those "sentiments." First off, Borat is portrayed by a man named SASCHA BARON COHEN. If that's not a Jewish name, I've never heard one. Second of all, Borat's attitude against Jewish people is far from subtle. It crosses beyond simple prejudice and ignorance, and crosses into superstitious nonsense that any adult of at least average intelligence should be able to see right through. And therein lies the secret theme of Borat: intolerance sucks, and so does ignorance. I feel that this film won't be well received in red states, since Cohen doesn't pull any punches. Consider the scene in which Borat is told by the manager of a rodeo that he looks "too much like a terrorist," and would benefit from shaving off his mustache, since it would make him able to "pass as an I-talian." Also, Borat is a buffoon, like Beavis and Butthead. The key thing is that even though Borat is hopelessly anti-semitic, misogynist, and homophobic, his naive nature prevents the character from going "too far," and alienating the audience.
Some scenes to watch for include:
-Borat visits a "humor specialist" in New York.
-Borat shows just how clumsy he can be......in an antique shop.
-Borat stops for the night in a bed and breakfast........run by an elderly Jewish couple.
-Azamat commits an unspeakable act, ands a sequence ensues that rivals the infamous "Mr. Creosote" sketch from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life in terms of hilarity and shock value.
In closing, I would like to say that I found Borat much funnier than so-called "comedy classics" like Modern Times or Life Is Beautiful (THAT movie will be getting a special drubbing on this site from me very, very soon). Borat is a hilarious film, and more fun than anything I've seen all year. I give Borat:Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan a 20 out of 22 on the 22 scale....and it earned every point.

Memorable Quotes:

Driver's Ed Teacher-"In America, a woman can choose whom she has sex with."

Borat-"What's up, vanilla face?"

Azamat-"We should go back to New York. At least there are no Jews there."

Borat-"This is Orkin, the town rapist! Naughty, naughty!"

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Nacho Libre

Nacho Libre is pretty much the movie you expect it to be. Do you expect a fun, light-hearted romp with plenty of Jack Black antics? Then that's what you'll get. Do you expect a stupid, puerile movie with more fart jokes than substance? Then that's what you'll get. Do you expect an epic, Oscar-worthy period piece about two Mexican lovers separated by space and time? Then you're probably seriously misled.

Jack Black plays the titular Nacho--short for Ignacio--and, as it's a PG movie, he's seriously toned down. He's still Jack, but with about one-third the caffeine. His character, Nacho, is a priest/monk/friar at a monastery in Nowheresville, Mexico. It's clear early on that he's at the bottom of the monk pecking order, as he's forced to take on the tasks no one else wants, like--as he says--"cooking duty, and dead guy duty." It's also clear early on that he's not totally into his priestly duties; instead, he longs to become a professional wrestler. This is a problem, of course, because wrestling is considered a sin.

Nevertheless, when Nacho learns of a wrestling opportunity where the winner takes home 200 pesos, he decides to try it out--incognito. He enlists the help of a local street rat named Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez, who is hilariously hideous in his role), and the two form a tag team. They lose consistently, of course, but still get paid because audiences come to see them. So Nacho continues to lead his double life--humble priest by day, terrible wrestler by night--even while trying to win the favor of Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera), a smoking-hot nun (really!).

This leads down a familiar path as our hero is eventually found out, hits his lowest of lows, but bounces back for his final triumph, in which he spectacularly defeats the top wrestler in the region and simultaneously convinces his order--particularly Sister Encarnación--that wrestling doesn't have to be sinful.

"That's all well and good," you say, "but is it funny?" Yeah, it is. It's not hilarious, but it's amusing enough. Jack Black and Héctor Jiménez are each delightfully hapless in their own special way, and the movie definitely trades on the fact that you're not supposed to take it even remotely seriously.

But, here's the thing: it's PG. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but it gives you a hint as to what audiences it's being directed at: primarily males between the ages of 9 and 12. If you're one of those people, by all means, run out and rent this movie. If you're anyone else, well, it's a harmless use of 90 minutes, so I wouldn't say you should necessarily avoid it. But unless you're a Jack Black worshiper who needs to see each and every one of his works, Nacho Libre is a movie you could probably take a pass on.

Here's how the rating calculus for this movie works: it starts out at a -5. Now, on your own, rate Jack Black from -22 to 22, and then add that number to the -5. Personally, I rate Jack about an 11, so I'd give this movie a 6. If you think Jack's a 22, you'd probably give the movie a 17; if you think he's a -10, you'd probably give it a -15. In any case, you can use this formula to decide whether Nacho Libre is worth a rental for you.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

House of Flying Daggers

I finally got a chance to see this movie after about two years of meaning to see it. It was always there in the back of my mind, but certain things (including watching movies with people who didn't want to see it as much as I did) kept it from happening. Luckily, I found and bought an inexpensive copy to solve that problem.
And it was worth it. The movie is enchanting, and officially on my list of "movies I could watch once a week for the rest of my life." I'd never seen a Yimou Zhang film before, but having seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a number of times, I had mostly accurate expectations. Both movies have superb art, drama, depth, and combat going for them. For the average viewer, House of Flying Daggers requires a bit of adjustment of expectations, as Chinese films tend to be more fantastic and cartoon-y with their fighting sequences. However, if this doesn't put you off, it's quite a treat. Thankfully, I was ready for this aspect of the film and enjoyed it immensely.
In short, House of Flying Daggers is a feast for the eyes. Each scene is a work of art. Zhang integrates color, combat, and nature to create a vivid backdrop for a beautiful story of love, drama, and loss.
Zhang moderates the fantastic elements of this film quite well. The fighting sequences, while creative and engaging, complement the plot and don't distract from the rest of the movie. Each of the main characters gets the screen time they deserve, and are given great depth and character development. Ziyi Zhang, who plays Mei, makes the movie as convincing as it is. In my opinion, she's greatly improved since Crouching Tiger, which was nothing to sneeze at, either. Also noteworthy are Takeshi Kaneshiro as Jin, and Andy Lau as Leo. All three bring the story together seamlessly. Plus, Takeshi Kaneshiro is pretty darn attractive.
The first viewing is the best. It keeps you on your toes for the most part, and creatively delivers an engaging plot with characters we care about. There are some surprises, which are complicated, but don't alienate the audience at all. Personally, I loved the story. It rings so true on a number of different levels, and I think most people could identify with at least part of it. It's right up my alley: dramatic and even sorrowful, yet hopeful that humans have great potential for good, and for love.
**POTENTIAL SPOILER** (if you're one of those people who effortlessly figures out a movie within the first 20-30 minutes)
My problem with the movie is the fact that the surprises at the end render a significant piece of the first part of the movie pretty much pointless. While I watched it for the first time, I was so intrigued and impressed by the turns that the story made and how well it seemed to pull them off. Upon further reflection, however, (and a second watch) the beginning of the film is far less cool than originally thought. In my opinion, a movie should build upon itself and form a unified whole. In this case, an attempt to keep us guessing worked, but also forced the film to contradict itself a bit.

Rating: 15

This is definitely my kind of movie: graceful yet fatal martial arts, incredible characters with the right amount of depth, beautiful images and scenes that push us to the edge of reason, and a dramatic story that doesn't condescend to the audience and has a good message. In the end, my issues with the plot can easily be pushed aside for these qualities.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Marie Antoinette

“She did not say that! There is no evidence that she did!”

This is my typical reaction when people bring up Marie Antoinette’s infamous line: “Let them eat cake.” Throughout history there have been many general misconceptions about the wife of King Louis XVI. Fortunately, Sofia Coppola decided to show people the Marie that historians know, basing her movie on the book Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser.

The movie begins with a very young Marie waking up and saying goodbye to her parents, Francis I and Maria Theresa of Austria. They had chosen to marry her off to the grandson of King Louis XV, Louis-Auguste. The movie follows her from her entrance into the French Court as the Dauphine of France (the heir apparent or princess) to her tumultuous end after the peasants rebelled against the reign of her and her husband.

Since receiving my bachelor’s degree in history in 2004, I have become very critical of so-called “historical” movies. And when I first heard that Kirsten Dunst would be playing the famous queen, I was extremely skeptical.. But Kirsten won me over. Although I know she is much older, she really did have me believing that she was a scared 14-year-old who was being married off to a stranger to ensure an alliance between two countries. She also seemed to grew as her character did, going from scared and confused to reckless and carefree to becoming a mother and accepting the responsibility that came with it, even if people in her court did not want her to.

Jason Schwartzman gave another fine performance as Louis XVI. He had already impressed me in Shopgirl, but he solidified my estimation of him with this performance. He showed the composure of a king but also some of the same lack of confidence that his wife shared, since they were both kinda thrown into the center ring at a young age—he was only 15 when he was married and only 20 when he ascended to the throne.

Most of the film was shot on location at Versailles, the grand palace of the royal family. The costumes as well seemed very appropriate for the time period. The film is backed by a soundtrack of both classical and modern music (much like in A Knight’s Tale, although with wildly more impressive results). Again, I thought this would be a major stumbling block to my enjoyment of the movie, but it ended up only enhancing it.

Although I did have some problems with some minor historical inaccuracies throughout the film, there was only one major flaw that I saw: The roles played by Molly Shannon and Shirley Henderson seemed completely inconsequential to me. I’m sure that they were part of the royal family—they seemed to be given some prominence, but the film never explains who they are. They seem just to be older gossips who talk about everyone, including Marie, acting completely nice to people’s faces while cutting them down behind their back. Versailles was way over its quota for that two-facedness.

Overall, the movie impressed me. I really enjoyed it and I always love seeing correct history being brought to the movie screen. It is definitely a movie I intend to buy when it is released, not out of any obligation to my chosen field of study, but because it showed what I love about history: It’s about the people who are involved and how they deal with and cause the situations that occur in their lives and around the world. I would give this movie a 12. Way to go Sofia! Although I liked Lost in Translation, this movie is MUCH more up my alley.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I ♥ Huckabees

I ♥ Huckabees is a deeply philosophical movie filled with probing… questions about the… nature of existence and… how everything is… connected and… what was I saying, again? Eh, it probably doesn’t matter anyway.

This film is nuts. I don’t just mean the characters in it, or the circumstances they find themselves in, or even the ideas behind it; I mean the actual movie. It’s totally froot loops insane. From the very start, I got that it would be a zany ride, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. It asks a few very important questions, and the characters make some deep claims, but it’s a comedy. And because of the nature of the comedy presented, you wonder if it actually is asking them.

The movie has a somewhat wide cast of characters. First up is Albert (Jason Schwartzmann), an environmental activist/bad poet who is simultaneously self-righteous and self-loathing. He goes to two “existential detectives” (whatever they are), a married couple named Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin). Under his pro-bono employ, they observe him in every aspect of his life, taking feverish notes. At the same time, they are “investigating” Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter who goes to fire scenes on a bicycle because he’s concerned about fuel emissions. He becomes Albert’s “other,” someone else under investigation by Bernard and Vivian. “Others” are meant to help each other through a difficult time. What Albert hires them for is ridiculous, and doesn’t have much bearing on the rest of the plot. He asks them to please stay out of his work life, a request which they of course ignore, and they discover that his environmental corporation is being taken over from the inside out by a kind of hyper-capitalist uber-Walmart named Huckabees. The architect of this friendly-but-hostile takeover is Brad (Jude Law), who’s in a relationship with Huckabees model and spokesbabe Dawn (Naomi Watts). We pretty much have polar opposites in Albert and Brad; indeed, this seems to be a movie about opposites (or perhaps complements), as Albert and Tommy fit into that category, as well. The Bernard/Vivian team and a competing psychiatrist named Caterine (Isabelle Huppert), with their opposite philosophies about the interconnectedness of everything, seem to fit into it as well, as does Dawn with herself (figure that one out, I dare ya!).

A few things in that explanation needed further explanation, and I purposely left them unexplained, since that’s what the movie does, too. It doesn’t bother itself with trivial details since that’s not what the movie is really about. A lot of the dialogue could double for a Philosophy 101 class, but it’s always connected to a particular character and what they’re dealing with. At the same time, it’s a kooky, zany ride that checks reality at the door and asks you to as well, and also has the ability to laugh at itself. It’s a movie about the struggle between the abstract and the concrete, conservatism and liberalism, and nature and technology, but it’s also about the complete ridiculousness of all those things. It points out the stupidity of philosophers while it simultaneously philosophizes in and of itself. More importantly, it does that in a way that doesn’t seem forced, half-assed, or condescending.

The actors in it are pretty good, but I especially enjoyed Mark Wahlberg and Naomi Watts. Wahlberg was at once hysterical, tragic, and uncompromising. Given this performance and some others in recent years (The Departed, Three Kings, The Perfect Storm, Boogie Nights), I really think he could pull off any role he sets his mind to with incredible ease. Watts was vapid, spoiled, child-like, wishy-washy, and precisely right for her role. She also falls into the “smokin’ hot” category.

I ♥ Huckabees assumes a lot about the audience, and is something people who like concrete ideas and familiarity with movies simply will not enjoy. That’s a shame, though, because the movie is very charming, and I found it pretty fun to go along with its madcap pacing and plot. You just have to be willing to put yourself in the hands of the film, and that’s something a lot of people aren’t willing to do with any film. But the performances are funny in that wacky, nonsensical way, and the movie itself has an inspired madness that I appreciated. And in its own laughably twisted way, it even has a happy ending.

Iconic lines:
“I don’t know what you guys are talking about. I thought we were talking about petroleum.”
“There is no remainder in the mathematics of infinity.”
“I’m in my tree with the Dixie Chicks and they’re making me feel better."

22 Rating: 13

Particle Man