Monday, February 26, 2007

Heavyweights (a guest review by Number Three)

This review is dedicated with love to my number two, Particle Man, who insisted that I write a review for a movie I don’t like for once…actually, for twice (I also loathed The Departed). The fact is I rarely waste my time watching movies unless I’m pretty sure I’ll like them. There are a few exceptions. In the case of The Departed, it was purely for educational purposes. In the case of Heavyweights, it was because someone from the youth group we lead suggested we watch it with the group. Needless to say, I think we’ll skip it.

So, you already know I don’t like the movie. But just how bad did I think it was? Well, let’s just say it was Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story bad (without the constant, unfunny “sexual humor”). So, now you know whether or not you’ll like Heavyweights, because the same thing that made one movie bad was the same thing that made the other bad: Ben Stiller. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved Meet the Parents. It was probably the funniest movie I saw the year that it came out. The problem, though, is that when Ben Stiller isn’t playing the loveable, slightly Magoo underdog, he’s playing a character so bizarre, absurd, stupid, gratingly annoying, unreal, mean, vitriolic, and loathsome, that there’s simply no way for me to get into the movie he disgraces his presence with. Examples of such roles are the aforementioned Dodgeball, along with the irritating rotgut that is Zoolander. And again his sour abrasion is on display in Heavyweights.

Now, technically this is not a Ben Stiller movie. He barely shows up in the credits, yet, whether intentional or not, he is a dominant role with quite a bit of screen time. The basic plot is this: Nicholas (David Goldman) is a chubby young boy and his parents send him to fat camp. He is reluctant at first, but realizes it will be fun, so off he goes. During the first general session at fat camp, the friendly, fun owners announce that someone else is taking over the camp. It turns out that that Tony Perkins (Ben Stiller) is the guy. Whereas the old owners didn’t really push the kiddies at all to lose weight, Perkins is basically a slave driver. He is obsessed and delusional, and in an effort to sell his own name and image, he intends to knock many a pound off the chubbies.

And thus the “comedy” begins. He pushes the kiddies to the point of child abuse (something I guess we’re supposed to laugh at). Once they’ve had enough, it becomes a battle for the camp as some of the old camp counselors work with the kiddies to try to take down Perkins and his crew of buffed-up Scandinavians. Nicholas, his band of veteran fat camp friends, and the seasoned counselors all work together to bring justice to the unjust. That’s pretty much the only admirable part of the movie. This mission encourages and justifies a vengeful retaliation from the kiddies that really doesn’t make them much better than Perkins. Let me qualify…it doesn’t make them morally better. Certainly every one of the child characters and the old counselors are vastly more watchable than Ben Stiller’s character. Oh, by the way, some kids from the cooler camps across the way also cause problems for the chubbies, and I guess we’re supposed to laugh at that too.

Sorry, Stiller. The way to comedy isn’t to create an unbelievable character that goes over the top with “funny ridiculousness.” Rather, the truly funny movies are successful because they involve real characters in funny situations. These situations can border on impossibility as long as they don’t cross over. For example, Meet the Parents is brilliantly funny. The situations are right on the edge of believable. You play a character that we can identify with and care about; not so in Heavyweights. You cross the line of a believable character. On top of that, you are gratingly mean. Thus, this movie is completely unfunny, and when it did manage to pull a laugh out of me, it was a guilty laugh. Try again, Stiller. Take a look at Adam Sandler for some education in comedy.

Number Three’s Score:
Mouthspeak (impact of dialog): -18
Watchfeel (impact of visuals): -12
Mouthfeel (overall watchability): -15

Number Three

Saturday, February 24, 2007

TMBC's Oscar Predictions

The following are They Might Be Critics' predictions for who will win the 2006 Oscars in each of the following categories. Mind you, this isn't who we think should win, this is who we think will win. The critic who predicts the most categories correctly wins a cookie. And the eternal adulation of all the other critics. If you think you can beat us, submit your own predictions for a chance at eternal adulation and a free cookie (after $5.95 shipping and handling).

Best Supporting Actor
Dr. Worm's pick: Alan Arkin - Little Miss Sunshine
Particle Man's pick: Eddie Murphy - Dreamgirls
Stormy Pinkness' pick: Eddie Murphy - Dreamgirls
Wicked Little Critta's pick: Mark Wahlberg - The Departed
Your Racist Friend's pick: Alan Arkin - Little Miss Sunshine
Actual category winner: Alan Arkin - Little Miss Sunshine

Best Supporting Actress
Dr. Worm's pick: Jennifer Hudson - Dreamgirls
Particle Man's pick: Abigail Breslin - Little Miss Sunshine
Stormy Pinkness' pick: Jennifer Hudson - Dreamgirls
Wicked Little Critta's pick: Jennifer Hudson - Dreamgirls
Your Racist Friend's pick: Abigail Breslin - Little Miss Sunshine
Actual category winner: Jennifer Hudson - Dreamgirls

Best Actor
Dr. Worm's pick: Forest Whitaker - The Last King of Scotland
Particle Man's pick: Forest Whitaker - The Last King of Scotland
Stormy Pinkness' pick: Forest Whitaker - The Last King of Scotland
Wicked Little Critta's pick: Will Smith - The Pursuit of Happyness
Your Racist Friend's pick: Forest Whitaker - The Last King of Scotland
Actual category winner: Forest Whitaker - The Last King of Scotland

Best Actress
Dr. Worm's pick: Helen Mirren - The Queen
Particle Man's pick: Helen Mirren - The Queen
Stormy Pinkness' pick: Helen Mirren - The Queen
Wicked Little Critta's pick: Helen Mirren - The Queen
Your Racist Friend's pick: Helen Mirren - The Queen
Actual category winner: Helen Mirren - The Queen

Best Documentary Feature
Dr. Worm's pick: An Inconvenient Truth
Particle Man's pick: An Inconvenient Truth
Stormy Pinkness' pick: An Inconvenient Truth
Wicked Little Critta's pick: An Inconvenient Truth
Your Racist Friend's pick: An Inconvenient Truth
Actual category winner: An Inconvenient Truth

Best Animated Film
Dr. Worm's pick: Cars
Particle Man's pick: Cars
Stormy Pinkness' pick: Cars
Wicked Little Critta's pick: Cars
Your Racist Friend's pick: Happy Feet
Actual category winner: Happy Feet

Best Adapted Screenplay
Dr. Worm's pick: The Departed
Particle Man's pick: The Departed
Stormy Pinkness' pick: Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Wicked Little Critta's pick: The Departed
Your Racist Friend's pick: The Departed
Actual category winner: The Departed

Best Original Screenplay
Dr. Worm's pick: Little Miss Sunshine
Particle Man's pick: Letters from Iwo Jima
Stormy Pinkness' pick: Letters from Iwo Jima
Wicked Little Critta's pick: The Queen
Your Racist Friend's pick: Pan's Labyrinth
Actual category winner: Little Miss Sunshine

Best Directing
Dr. Worm's pick: Martin Scorsese - The Departed
Particle Man's pick: Martin Scorsese - The Departed
Stormy Pinkness' pick: Clint Eastwood - Letters from Iwo Jima
Wicked Little Critta's pick: Clint Eastwood - Letters from Iwo Jima
Your Racist Friend's pick: Martin Scorsese - The Departed
Actual category winner: Martin Scorsese - The Departed

Best Picture
Dr. Worm's pick: The Departed
Particle Man's pick: The Queen
Stormy Pinkness' pick: The Queen
Wicked Little Critta's pick: The Queen
Your Racist Friend's pick: The Departed
Actual category winner: The Departed

Categories predicted correctly:
Dr. Worm: 9
Your Racist Friend: 8
Particle Man: 5
Stormy Pinkness: 4
Wicked Little Critta: 4

Babel (Oscar Round-Up)

Some have compared Babel to last year's Oscar winner Crash, and that's not a bad place to start. Both films jump back and forth among a number of loosely connected story lines. Both films cover very different people coming from very different backgrounds. Both films make white people feel bad.

But while Crash packed a more severe emotional wallop, Babel is probably technically a bit better. The different story lines don't seem quite as forced together, the cinematography is a bit more daring, and Babel manages to be even more relevant than Crash.

I know that last claim will need some explaining, but let me first give you an overview of the plot, which contains four distinct but connected elements occurring on three different continents. The first centers around two sons in a Moroccan goatherding family who get in trouble for shooting at a tour bus (thinking that they were too far away to hit it). The second concerns Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (the only really recognizable actors in the film); Blanchett is hit by the bullet fired by the Moroccan boys and Pitt must scramble to find her medical help in this third-world country. The third focuses on Pitt and Blanchett's two young children and their Mexican caretaker Amelia. Unable to find someone to watch the children for her on the day of her son's wedding, Amelia decides to bring the children to Mexico with her for the occasion and, predictably, trouble ensues. The fourth plot line is the most tenuously connected: It involves a deaf-mute Japanese girl named Chieko whose father sold a gun to a Moroccan who sold it to his friend who gave it to his son who shot Cate Blanchett with it.

If this is confusing, I apologize. I promise it's easier to follow when you're actually watching the movie.

Rather than confusing you further by trying to continue explaining the mildly convoluted plot, I'm going to attempt to substantiate the my claim: that Babel is more relevant than Crash. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that racism is irrelevant. I'm just saying that racism was also relevant ten years ago, and twenty years ago, and forty years ago. Babel, however, is a more perfect time capsule, brilliantly capturing what life was like in 2006.

So what's life like in 2006? Well, as Babel points out, different parts of the world live in very different ways. Without being too showy about it, Babel unmistakeably demonstrates how different Americans live--not just compared to poor, rural Moroccans, but even compared to our neighbors to the south. It's a totally different world, and, to be quite honest, you can't blame the rest of the world for resenting us for it. There's a great moment in Babel where a helicopter flies in to the dingy Moroccan village where Cate Blanchett is being cared for to airlift her to a hospital. The villagers, who have clearly never seen a helicopter, all come out of their homes to gawk at the scene unfolding before them. But behind the pure curiosity in each of their eyes, you can also feel a question burning: "Would you do this for me if I were dying?"

Now, you may rightly point out that Western entitlement isn't exactly much newer than racism, and you're right, but I'm not done yet. Another subtheme of this movie is the fear of terrorism. After Cate Blanchett gets shot, the news media back home gets all riled up, hesitating not at all to call her bullet wound an act of terrorism--even though, if you'll remember, it was just the product of the curiosity of a couple young Moroccan boys. But if you heard that an American tourist got shot while in a tour bus in some dusty Muslim country, you'd instantly assume terrorism as well. So you can understand the reaction of the authorities, even as the boot of justice comes down far too hard on those poor boys. That Babel manages to evoke all these feelings at once is one of its greatest strengths.

If I had to point out flaws: Well, the whole Chieko subplot. It's not a bad little story, it's just that it doesn't really fit with the rest of the film. Sure, if you believe the point of this movie is the difficulty in overcoming language barriers--as some critics (and the movie's title) might have you believe--then yes, it makes sense to include a subplot about a deaf-mute Japanese girl struggling to communicate. But that's really not the point of the movie. It's a bit of a recurring theme, sure, but it's not the point.

I might also point out that, with a bit more focused editing, it would be easy enough to trim 10-15 minutes off of this two-hour-and-twenty-two-minute film. But I don't want to come down too hard on it. The greater point is that this is a monumentally relevant, strikingly poignant, and even unabashedly uncomfortable movie that's well-worth a rental. Does it deserve a Best Picture award? That's borderline, but it's certainly no shame that it was nominated.

I managed to see all five Best Picture nominees this year, so I'm happy to unveil to you my 22-scale rankings for not only Babel, but the other four nominees as well. I'll award Babel a 14, which ties it with The Queen and puts it comfortably ahead of The Departed (11) and Little Miss Sunshine (10). But if I could cast a vote with the rest of the Academy, I'd have to cast my ballot for Letters from Iwo Jima, which just edges the rest of the competition with a 15.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima (Oscar Round-Up)

Bravo to Clint Eastwood for making this film. It is a powerful account of the battle at Iwo Jima, Japan in World War II. As a sister movie to his other World War II film, Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood made Letters from Iwo Jima to give audiences a much more accurate and all-encompassing view of this time period than any one movie could do.

Eastwood took a unique approach to Letters from Iwo Jima. Most war films push a specific ideology that exists on one side, depicting those who represent the enemy as bad, evil, or wrong, while glorifying the actions and words of the "good guys." Eastwood stays away from these things, and in so doing creates a "big picture" movie that tells a tragic story beautifully while simultaneously exposing us to the ugliness of war.

The main character we follow is Saigo, played by Kazunari Ninomiya, a soldier at the bottom of the ladder who ends up in some very difficult situations, but bears it all in the hopes of seeing his family again. The movie begins with the Japanese forces getting ready for the impending battle, doing the backbreaking job of digging beach trenches--which one of them on a dry note refers to as "their own graves." Soon General Tadamichi Kuribayashi arrives, played by Ken Watanabe. Kuribayashi has been sent to command the forces at Iwo Jima, and as soon as he arrives he starts shaking things up. His approach to the battle is entirely different from those around him; for example, he stops the digging on the beaches and instead tells the soldiers to begin digging tunnels. Kuribayashi realized the number of lives that would be sacrificed in those trenches and knew that if they didn't fight more defensively, their slim odds would become even worse. He also strongly believed that his men should be treated humanely and kindly, a sentiment not shared by the leadership under his command.

The beginning of the film helps us to identify with the Japanese soldiers. As the title indicates, we become privy to a number of the letters that were written by the soldiers on this island before and during the battle. At different times and with different characters, we catch a glimpse into their lives, meet their loved ones, and hear their deepest desires and regrets. We hear their hopes, their despair, and the daily musings any other person would have called unimportant. Screenwriter Paul Haggis based these letters on authentic letters that were found on the island in 2005. These scenes add a beautiful, gentle side to an otherwise tragic and sobering film.

I remember distinctly the bitter moment when the battle begins and we see the Americans descending upon the beach. I felt a true conflict within me, seeing my own people arrive to kill and defeat the people I had been getting to know through the film. And as soldiers fell on both sides, I was reminded that for every man there is a mother, a father, a wife. There is an entire story. Through this, Eastwood does away with the "us and them" mentality: the "good guy versus bad guy" idea that is the norm with war movies, and movies in general.

Now, there is "good" and "bad" illustrated in Letters, but it is not limited to one side. There are very specific moments in the film where one sees ugliness as well as beauty from both Japanese and American soldiers. We are confronted with individuals, not faceless enemies or agendas, and we are given this look at the individuals through their letters.

Eastwood shows us not only the conflict that existed between America and Japan, but also that which existed within the Japanese forces, as a new ideology works against an old one. This old ideology fostered fear of the unknown, brainwashing, and suicide. This "battle within the ranks" tore the Japanses apart from the inside, and we are able to see the conflict at numerous levels of command.

I cannot pretend to know what working on this film must have been like for all involved. The direction and screenplay were incredible, and the acting was top-notch. Ken Watanabe is one of my personal favorites; he draws us in and keeps the strength and emotion of his character very well-balanced. Ninomiya effortlessly provides us with a main character who acts as a channel through which we can experience the movie. He mirrors our own reactions to the terror and tragedy of war from beginning to end, and empowers us to hope against the odds that all will be well.

Rating: 17

Letters from Iwo Jima is a story about the Japanese, their culture, the individuals who fought and lost their lives, and this bloody battle. As most people know, it is a very sad story, but we're provided with enough glimmers of hope to not feel completely destroyed at the end. It is a masterpiece which pays a wonderful tribute to both sides, while at the same time reminding us to remain humble.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Queen (Oscar Round-Up)

When I was little, I, probably along with every other little girl in the world, dreamed of being royalty. Although my parents claimed that I acted like I was, that didn’t change the fact that I wasn’t royal. As I got older I felt a sense of envy for royalty; they had all that money and power just because they were born into it. They never worked hard for it. Now, however, while I still do feel somewhat envious, I’m also very relieved that I don’t have to live up to the expectations that blue bloods do. This feeling definitely hit home when I saw The Queen.

The Queen tells the story of the way the British Royal Family dealt with the death of Princess Diana. When the death of Diana is announced to the Royal Family, the Queen decides that they will mourn privately for their ex-daughter-in-law. However, this causes a great uproar among the British people, who, because of their love for Diana, believe the Royal Family should show some outward sign of mourning. In the middle of all this is Tony Blair, the newly elected prime minister, who must save the Queen from her own ways in order to preserve the monarchy in the public eye.

Although I love history, I didn't expect to enjoy this movie that much. It did get nominated for an Oscar, however, so I decided to go see it. From the moment the movie started I saw how wrong I was. I was completely drawn into this film. It didn't feel like I was just watching a story unfold, it felt like I was involved in the story (which, for a nonfiction movie, is a bit of a miracle).

The acting in this movie was near-perfect. While I was not very familiar with Helen Mirren before this movie, I was aware that she had recently completed a role as Elizabeth I and now was playing Elizabeth II. Most people thought that this was quite an accomplishment, but I decided to see if she could act before jumping on that bandwagon. Let me tell you, she can act. She looked like the Queen; she conveyed this reserved and powerful manner that made me believe she was Queen Elizabeth II; and she showed brilliantly how she was conflicted between being the sovereign of her country, a mother, and a grandmother to two boys who just lost their mother.

Another great performance in this film was turned in by Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. Not only did he look like the Prime Minister, but he lets us see the human side to these foreign political figures we all see on the news. Sheen did an excellent job of showing that the main conflict of the movie also existed within Tony Blair: he clearly understood the disappointment with the Royal Family's apparent lack of remorse as well as he understood the Queen's need to be private and reserved--and was frequently explaining one point of view to those who held the other. Such internal conflict requires excellent acting, and Sheen hit this dead on.

Sheen and Mirren were the standout performances of the film, but other actors pulled their weight as well. Alex Jennings did a good job of portraying Prince Charles, although I think everyone wishes Prince Charles looked more like Alex Jennings. One character that annoyed me, however, was Prince Phillip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, played by James Cromwell. He seemed to always want to run things, and there were several times where I wanted to point out to him that he had no power, his wife was in charge.

If you're wondering whether The Queen is worthy of the Best Picture Oscar, it is. It had wonderful acting. The story was unexpectedly compelling and drew you in. And there was a stroke of symbolism within the movie that enhanced the film with multiple interpretations. It is a great movie and has the whole package, which earns it a 16.

-Stormy Pinkness

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine (Oscar Round-Up)

Imagine, if you will, 6 people who are as different from each other as Pepsi is from ice cream, but have one thing in common: they are all related to one another. With some that connection is rather tenuous, either because of marriage or dislike, but the fact remains that they’re all family, and there is no getting around that, much as they sometimes wish. Little Miss Sunshine is a film about the unbreakable connection of family, and about the way that even though you may fight with them, scorn them, and do things simply to piss them off, you will always be there for them in their time of need, just as they would be for you.

Gone are the days of Ward and June Cleaver, and family dynamics are no longer simple. Actually, they were never simple; shows like Leave It to Beaver just desperately wanted you to think so. Now we have broken homes, homes with additional members, and even parental units that exist of two members of the same sex. Just as regular households have become rarer, functional families have become rarer, too (though the relation of the two is very debatable). Little Miss Sunshine demonstrates that, and also demonstrates that even though things are frustratingly complicated now, they don’t have to be bad.

Little Miss Sunshine deserves to be a Best Picture nominee for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the splendid way in which it shows the familial bond, its good and bad parts. It does this through caricature, and that fits in with the tone and plot of the film. It’s technically called a comedy, and it is ridiculously funny. But the contrivances and conventions of comedy are strangely missing, and even stranger, it’s not really a problem. There are plenty of laughs, but there are also moments of stark seriousness, and that mixture catches us off-guard. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

Second are the fantastic performances in it. Of the six main characters, only Toni Collette is just so-so, and the rest are amazing. Steve Carell plays against type with his depressed college professor, without a hint of hyperbole or heavy-handedness. He’s a quickly rising star, and I haven’t seen him in a bad role yet. Greg Kinnear elicits hatred and bile as the father of the family. I don’t feel even an ounce of sympathy for him as his plans come crashing down, but I don’t think I’m supposed to. I feel much more connected to Alan Arkin’s character, the smack-sniffing grandpa. He’s foul-mouthed, hedonistic, and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, but he demonstrates first the “family is all you’ve got” theme. Paul Dano uses one of an actor’s greatest tools in the first half of the movie to fantastic effect. After all, “no voice” can be a voice.

That leaves Abigail Breslin, who is nominated on her own for Best Supporting Actress. She really earns her nod, as she plays her character as a brilliant bright spot amidst the grungy dirt of the rest of the family. She could have easily given in to the grimness of the rest of her family, but she instead has a sunny disposition even in the face of tragedy, and Breslin has us rooting for her at the very start of the film. Even though she’s obviously physically imperfect, she was the most “pretty” of all the beauty pageant contestants.

Sadly, I don’t really think this will win Best Picture. As good as this movie made me feel when it was over, it’s hurt by the fact that what it has to say is not all that important, at least compared to the other nominees. But it does have a positive message, and great performances to boot; a film worthy of the label “Best Picture nominee.”

Iconic lines:
“Welcome to hell.”
“I’m madly in love with you! And it’s not because of your brains or your personality.”
“Again with the f***in’ chicken!”

22 Rating: 15

Particle Man

The Departed (Oscar Round-Up)

Before I say anything else, I want it noted for the record that I think Goodfellas is the most overrated mob movie I've ever seen. And that Martin Scorsese is just as inconsistent as any classic filmmaker. Having said all of that, Scorsese turns in his most consistent work in years with The Departed. And while solid, The Departed doesn't quite ascend to sit aside other great Boston movies like Good Will Hunting or Mystic River, but it's sitting directly behind them.
Scorsese's latest police and thieves epic, a remake of the Hong Kong film Internal Affairs (and its sequels, in a way), tells the story of two young men in the state police, Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Billy grew up in a fractured family with mob connections, and Colin under the watchful eye of Whitey Bulger analogue Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson, in his finest performance since Batman). Colin works his way up the ranks of the state police, while using his position to keep Frank one step ahead of the police. Billy is persuaded to use his family history and violent background to infiltrate Frank's gang in an attempt to bring him down for once and for all. And from there, wackiness ensues.
Now let's stop and talk about the performances. Performace-wise, The Departed is the movie I've been waiting for all year, in that the performances don't simply serve the film. Based on his work here, I think I can finally consider DiCaprio a solid actor. He doesn't do anything flashy here, but he has done his homework. He gives us a Billy Costigan who has no problem beating the crap out of a couple of goombas from Providence with a comic book rack for shaking down a Pakistani store owner, but visibly flinches while Frank brandishes a severed hand and talks about John Lennon. Matt Damon turns in a solid performance as Colin Sullivan, who we see slightly recoiling from time to time, from the choices he's made, and the position he finds himself in. Jack Nicholson is one of those actors I watch all the time, and think "He could be doing better work," the other being Gene Hackman. But here he completely shines as the malevolent Frank Costello, stealing every scene he's in without even coming close to overacting (Paying attention, Al Pacino?). Vera Farmiga is serviceable as the psychologist who is caught between Colin's easy charm and Billy's raw nature. Martin Sheen turns in a subtle, unpretentious performance as Captain Queenan, one of two links to the outside world for Costigan. The other, Sergeant Dignam, is played by Mark Wahlberg, who is making himself more and more invaluable with each passing year. The foul-mouthed (slightly more so than he would be in reality, unlike practically all of the other characters in the film) Dignam serves as an unlikely voice of reason, and seems to have stolen Robert DeNiro's terrible haircut from Scorsese's earlier King Of Comedy. Ray Winstone shows up as Mr. French, Costello's right-hand man, unrecognizable under his skeezy beard. I must give special mention to Alec Baldwin, as SPI Captain Ellerby. Baldwin squeezes maximum impact out of the relatively few scenes he's in as the sweaty, boorish Ellerby. Baldwin is also the actor who has the most accurate Boston accent, save natives Damon and Wahlberg.
One department that helps the film a lot here is the music. Scorsese tones down the overall density of classic rock songs, and uses several effective selections, most of them from the Rolling Stones' seminal Exile on Main Street. The score was also very effective, sort of an urban version of spaghetti western guitars, performed by the prestigious likes of Sharon Isbin and G.E. Smith, under the masterful ear of Howard Shore, late of the LOTR trilogy, Dark City, Silence of the Lambs, and many other classic film scores in recent times. Scorsese reunites with Goodfellas/Last Temptation cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who gives us an attractive yet realistic Boston, and gives the film a nice feel somewhere in between Altman and Anderson, which is right where Marty S is supposed to be. William Monahan is the film's secret weapon, giving us whip-smart, blink-and-you'll-miss-it dialogue, which contributes greatly to the film's excellent pacing. And I have to step in here and defend the film's many Scorsese films, the "excessive" language is cited as a bone of contention for some. Yes, there is a lot of swearing in The Departed, but it is accurate. If you listen to 99% of Bostonians conversing outside of polite company, they talk pretty much EXACTLY like the characters in The Departed, Dignam excepted. People also talk about the violence, but I have three things to say about it: One, children and those who don't have the stomach for lots of gore shouldn't be watching films by Scorsese, Miike, Tarantino, or any other director who is somewhat infamous for violent content. That's like me saying that I went to see the Barney movie and was put off by excessive hugging. Two, in a movie about cops and the South Boston Irish mob, people are going to get shot in the face at point blank range. A lot. It's what's called content that is appropriate to the material. Thirdly, even aforementioned face-shootings in the movies don't seem like much when you've been exposed to real world violence. It's brutal, ugly, and virtually impossible to capture on celluloid...not that it should be. I don't want to make a reductionist statement to the effect that people who haven't seen stabbing and shooting victims, or have seen or been in serious (read: one person is trying to maim or kill the other person) fights aren't qualified to comment on violence, but I will say that a large section of the puzzle is missing for them.
The Departed suffers a bit from what I feel is excessive character death, and by missing plenty of opportunities to dig deeper into what makes the characters tick, adding more substance to the film. It is what separates The Departed from other great crime films like the first two Godfather films, Double Indemnity, and Se7en. Having said that, Scorsese has distinguished himself with a admirable showing that hasn't escaped notice. The Departed is currently number 74 in the IMDB Top 250 movies of all time, and holds a very impressive 93% on I give The Departed a rock-solid 13 out of 22 on the 22 scale.

24 Watch: James Badge Dale, who played Jack's Season 3 partner Chase Edmunds, turns up here as a state cop.

This review was fueled by Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones (duh).

Friday, February 09, 2007

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

What could be better than a rip-roaring, action-packed, good vs. evil adventure across three continents? One that includes Indiana Jones!

The third installment in the Indy trilogy is by far the best one, as it contains themes and conflicts the level of which are simply not found in the first two. Don’t get me wrong, the first two are great, especially Raiders of the Lost Ark. As great as they were, though, they’re really just fun action stories that appeal to the 8 year-old in all of us, instead of just blowing stuff up and wowing us with CGI like today’s action movies do. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is that as well, and so much more. The quest for the Holy Grail is a great starting point for so many engaging stories, this one being the chief of them (tied with Monty Python). The reason for that is that there can be any number of “holy grails.” Anything that a hero strives for, and that at times seems unattainable, is a holy grail. That can be anything from the tangible (like the Grail itself) to the intangible (like an actual relationship with one’s father).

The Last Crusade was released in 1989, a time when special effects were not the thing they are today. In modern times, digital photography and advanced post-production make virtually anything possible. Back in ’89, filmmakers had to use a little more ingenuity to make things happen. The Last Crusade had basically everything going for it, because it had a genius of a director in Spielberg, and a master of special effects (and nothing else…) in George Lucas. Besides having production values that gave it the space to stretch out, it was amazingly cast as well. Harrison Ford plays one of the only roles that fits him like a glove, as he had proven with the first two films. Trumping him is Sean Connery, who injects comedy and light-heartedness as well as a strong sense of dignity to his aging archeological professor.

Like I said, this movie has overarching themes that bring it out of the realm of simple good storytelling, the realm the previous two movies exist in. The father-son struggle is very strong throughout, but in typical Spielberg-ian style, it transforms from a struggle to an appreciation and admiration, and maybe even a love. But what really makes this movie great is the optimism of it, another element of it being a Spielberg film. The character of Indiana Jones is a real, genuine hero, stereotypical and iconic in the best way. When he beats the bad guys, you cheer. When he’s in danger, you flinch. When it looks like he’s about to fail, you get filled with a sense of dread. Those things are a part of good storytelling, and are the result of creating a character that the audience can believe in and root for 100%. In order to create that kind of character, the filmmakers have sacrificed some realism and believability, but I think it’s more than a fair trade. In a way, the ridiculousness and un-reality of some situations only make them more enjoyable. Of course Indy’s hat comes back to him after he almost falls off a cliff. Of course the tank veers to the right at the last second. Of course Indy and his dad don’t get killed or severely maimed when they crash the plane. It’s not a surprise, and it’s sort of expected. If it weren’t there, we’d be disappointed.

The original genesis of the Indiana Jones character was an idea in George Lucas’s head, one he generated around the same time he had created the Star Wars universe. It was based around 1930s serial adventure stories, ones where plucky heroes would find riches, glory, and pieces of tail on escapade after exotic escapade. Three films later, Indy has become one of the most enduring and immortal characters ever put on film, and a part of the childhood of many members of my generation. Whispers of a fourth film exist, but it’s been almost 20 years since The Last Crusade, and you now have an entirely new demographic to appeal to, and Indy isn’t quite as big a star to them. Never mind the fact that as the Indy trilogy is 20 years older, so is Harrison Ford. I don’t think the whip and fedora will fit him the same way anymore. We’ll see, though.

Iconic lines:
“X marks the spot!”
“He chose… poorly.”
“You call this archeology?”

22 Rating: 16

Particle Man

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Classics Rocked: Life Is Beautiful

The reputation: Much-hyped-at-the-time 1998 film about a man who attempts to protect his son from the horrors of the death camp they are in.

Why it's not as good as you think: Uhhhhh, it's not good at all. I can see why some people thought this movie was touching and a good idea, but it was completely misguided. First of all, it's a "comedy" about the Holocaust. I don't think that this is an idea that is completely out of bounds if done properly, but I didn't laugh once during Life Is Beautiful. Strike One.
For those who haven't experienced the horror of this overpraised trainwreck, let me save you the trouble: Italian Jew Guido (Roberto Benigni) arrives in small village, and woos beautiful Dora by being somehow less of an @$$ than her fiance, and by using cheap parlor tricks to mesmerize her into ignoring his obvious looks, and lack of personality. Benigni's aggravating "love-child of Pee Wee Herman and a Marx Brother" persona is Strike Two. Benigni's wife Nicoletta Braschi's performance as Dora is the film's sole saving grace, and keeps it from being COMPLETELY toxic to children and other living things. Fast forward a few years later. The Holocaust is in "full effect," and Guido, Dora and young son Joshua are tossed in a concentration camp. In an effort to shield Joshua from the horror that surrounds them, Guido tells him that the camp is a "hiding game," and that the winner gets a tank. (Ok....I have to give credit where it's due, again. That concept is so sick, it's ****ing hilarious.) Despite the fact that THEY ARE IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP AND PEOPLE ARE CRYING AND BEING MISERABLE AND GETTING SHOT AND GASSED AND DYING all around them, Joshua buys it. This is where the film REALLY loses me.....I just can't but the fact that nobody around tries to offer the kid up to the guards in an attempt to save their own butt: human beings are far too selfish. I can believe a man can fly, and toss planets around, but this is beyond the wildest sci-fi. Strike Three, yerrrrrr out. Anyway, Guido is shot by guards, and Joshua is reunited with his mother as American forces arrive to save the day. How bittersweet. Eeeeeechchhhh.

I refuse to believe that this film won an Oscar. I think that there was a wormhole ala Donnie Darko, and our section of the Academy Award was switched with the corresponding part of the ceremony from Bizarro World, and none of our quantum scientists caught the gaffe. Arrrgh. Me love Life is Beautiful. Me say hello now!

Dr.Worm's Response: Really? The story of a man trying to protect his son from the horrors of the Holocaust--even losing his life in the process--doesn't do it for you? Not at all moved by the noble concept of self-sacrifice? Well, to each his own, I guess.
But was there a line in there about Guido having a "lack of personality"? I'm trying to wrap my mind around that one, and I'm having trouble. Guido oozed personality. His personality jumped off the screen. You might not have liked his personality--though I have no idea why, the Academy and I found him perfectly winsome--but there's no way you can say he lacks personality. It's like saying Shaquille O'Neal isn't tall.
And you didn't laugh once? Not even at lines like "I don't like Visigoths. Tomorrow, we'll get sign: 'No Spiders or Visigoths Allowed'"? And you found Guido annoying? Even as he's saying, "I want to make love to you--not just once, but over and over again! But I'll never tell you that. I'd have to be crazy to tell you. I'd even make love to you now." See, your strikes one and two were both home runs for me. I'll grant that it's a little tough to believe that Joshua never catches on about the game, but I think the film is self-aware enough to know that, too. So I'll call that a foul ball.
I find it difficult to believe that you were unmoved by such a charming, captivating, and good-hearted film. Perhaps, while you watched it, you were sitting on a tack, being pestered by mosquitoes, and battling a case of mumps. That's the only way this savaging makes any sense to me.