What happens when a young director (Matthew Vaughan of "Layer Cake") films the adaptation of the work of a successful writer (Neil Gaiman), tosses in a narration by a "Lord of the Rings" alum (Ian McKellen), spins one tale of a dying king (Peter O'Toole), another of a literal fallen star (Claire Danes), a young hopeless romantic (Charlie Cox), a love triangle, a transvestite on a flying boat (Robert DeNiro), and a Shakespearean trio of witches (headed up by Michelle Pfieffer)? We get "Stardust", a disappointing, tiring piece of cinema that wants to be "The Princess Bride" for the modern era, but seems much too busy tossing in a dozen more plot points than the standard two hour film. It makes for a very taxing viewing and none of the innumerable sequences ever make it worth the effort.
The curiously titled independent film "Ten Inch Hero" by director David MacKay and screenwriter Betsy Morris follows a young woman (Elisabeth Harnois) into a quirky sandwich shop upon relocating to small-town California. The shop caters to and employs the abnormal, as is specified early on. The ensemble film that ensues involves the young artist Harnois portrays, an attractive nymphomaniac, a tattooed bad boy cook, the quiet "homely" girl, and the hippy boss with a fascination with a weird Wiccan woman.
The cast of characters feels a lot like the roster from John Hughes' "Breakfast Club" (brain, beauty, basket case, etc.) and the setting recalls the likes of James Mangold's "Heavy". The movie is not quite as derivative as this might presume, but where it fails is not in it's resemblance to other films. The main problem that hexes the piece is the inconsistence of tone as it crosscuts between the multiple story lines that open it up beyond the sandwich shop. There are comedic moments sporadically placed within out-of-place overly dramatic plot points. Although this is a competently made, if too-tidy, film it feels like its either not completely true to its romantic comedy vision or it's dramatic one.
Writer-director Kevin Smith made a name for himself in the independent film world with his adult (NC-17 level) dialogue-heavy movie "Clerks" in 1994. His follow-up walked within those same general footprints, albeit with more funding, and became the mess that only fans could stomach. His third movie, "Chasing Amy", was a surprisingly mature departure, as he merged the profanity-laced humor of his first two efforts with an unexpected emotional storyline.
"Chasing Amy" tells the story of a comic book writer, his best friend (the "tracer"), and the lesbian who threatens to come between them. In a matter of speaking it's a high concept romantic comedy with a lesbian tossed in for good measure. It's a hetero-male fantasy that plays out a scenario of a straight male getting a lesbian to fall for him. The improbability of the situation is broached again and again to comedic and emotional satisfaction. In a way, the film is more about relationships in general and the manners in which those in them try to change or "fix" the other. It's a great film written by an intelligent guy who thankfully doesn't only cow tow to the base needs of his core audience.
By the time of the release of "The Simpsons Movie" in 2007, the television show that bears its name had been on for nearly twenty seasons and had practically become its own institution. "The Simpsons" has become the gauge by which animated programs have become judged time and time again. To a point the show has also changed the complexity and number of situations available to the sit-com format, to say little of what it has shown to be the limitless nature of branding and mass marketing. It would nice to think that a big screen version of the show would again cause waves within the industry.
Instead "The Simpsons Movie" is merely a bigger (widescreen, et al), longer version of the show. Compared to the bulk of the output of the show during the mid-2000's the movie has far more to offer than the show, including superior animation. The main storyline presents a post-"Inconvenient Truth" environmental story whereby the town of Springfield is at the brink of being an environmental disaster. Of course, the obese, bumbler, Homer, tips them over the edge, causing the Environmental Protection Agency to enclose the town with a huge dome, which creates havoc and mob rule. It's a good, topical plot line for the frequently liberal-minded show and one that does sustain the running time, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to have the repeat value of many of the shows best episodes.
From the film-making team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (of "American Splendor" fame) comes a chick flick concept with a surprising twist. In the film Scarlett Johansonn stars as a disenchanted college graduate, who stumbles into a most unlikely situation. Due to coincidence and little more than Hugh Grant-like vocal stammering, she finds herself becoming a full-time nanny to the rich and miserable Laura Linney. From first glance the filmmakers seemed like a peculiar match for such pedestrian material, given their documentary background, but since it's structured around the guise of an anthropological study, it doesn't shy away from spot-on social commentary, the lead performances are strong, and the dialogue has some bite, "The Nanny Diaries" becomes a decent comedy from the "Devil Wears Prada" school.
"Dying for Dollars" is one of those ultra-low budget movies that are exceedingly flawed, but represent a bigger picture of the independent film sector of the industry, thus encouraging a vote of confidence in the 'good effort' department. This is not a very good movie, but it's so sporadically interesting and occasionally weird that the budgetary restraints noticeably did not keep the filmmakers from making something marginally watchable. Basically the story follows a family full of gamblers as they lose big and hope grandma dies soon so they can cash in. Or something like that, but there is some less focused plot line about the special needs adult cousin that insults the intelligence of all involved. Is this a dark comedy? It's not quite clear, because the tone is all over the map, and the over the top nature of the piece may or may not relate to the amateurish performances. The main filmmaker who handled the writing, directing, and camera duties has a surprisingly full resume here on IMDb, given the mostly freshman textbook shot list they must have working from and the aforementioned out of control acting. This is one of those festival circuit flicks that will never get much of an audience, and kind of doesn't deserve one, but it is a reminder that there are plenty of alternatives to the Cineplex good, bad, and the uncertain space in between that "Dying for Dollars" occupies.
"Confessions of an Italian American" is a short documentary by the filmmakers behind 2006's great little festival flick "Tale of Two Megans", which was a tight, inspired piece of film. Their new piece lacks either of those qualities. It's basically a home movie presented through the eyes of film school graduates. It opens with a jarring, almost irksome on-screen introduction by the director of the show, who then gives us sixteen minutes about his feisty, camera shy Italian American father. It's a competently assembled and presented film that feels quite hollow. Perhaps it represents a mere sketch of an idea for a longer movie, but as it stands the subject matter is far too close to the filmmakers hearts to have any real meat or much to say.
In 2007 Don Cheadle was sorely under-used in the Adam Sandler vehicle "Reign Over Me" and given a role meaty enough for him in "Talk to Me". Unfortunately the former is likely to be the one most people will get around to seeing. It's a shame, because even though the fact-based drama of "Talk to Me" rearranges history to send its message, it has a lot to say about persevering over adversity and speaking one's mind. Cheadle stars here as Petey Green, an ex-con who sweet talks his way into an on-air gig at an R&B station in 1966's Washington D.C. Seemingly the originator of speaking the truth of the streets to the masses, his story is one seeped in alcohol and pushing buttons to get his way. The socio-political undercurrents of the film that tell its story between 1966 and 1984 are the most interesting and emotionally satisfying. There's a certain retrospective nature to the film that often feels like it's never really set in period, but more a civics lesson about an era, which is not necessarily a bad thing and doesn't really detract from the well-meaning story being told.
It is a term that has a variety of meanings and its interpretation is subjective at best, whether in the possible context of the court of law or the virginal nature of a young woman.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic's feature film debut "Innocence" is based on the 1888 symbolist novella "Mine-Haha: The Corporal Education Of Young Girls" by Frank Wedekind, which she seems more than happy to leave open to interpretation like the title she's chosen.
The film has a fascinating lineage. Hadzihalilovic is married to Gaspar Noé whose uncomfortable and abrasive film "Irreversible" was shot by cinematographer Benoît Debie, whose on-board here. The objective perspective remains here, even to the point of a heavy use of unpopulated static shots representing places and images that strangely evoke tension within the context of montage.
This is a film lover's film all the way. The visual palette offers the feel of the best short films, the quiet sensibilities of pictures before dialogue storytelling is a reminder of the silent cinema, and the symbolic nature serves up what's best about the mainstream maligned "arthouse". It would almost do a disservice to the film to share much about plot or character, especially since much of the truth in that is up to the viewer. What can be said is that it takes place at what seems to be an all-girl's school, complete with the consistent dread and uncertainty of Peter Weir's masterpiece "Picnic at Hanging Rock".
The filmmakers are very assured in their craft, even to the point of the highly watchable five minute title sequence being little more than a murky visual and a limited sound design. If you pardon the semantics, "Innocence" might not be a very good movie, but its one hell of a film.
Adventurous Korean director Ki-Duk Kim has gotten a bad rap for his so-called idiosyncratic film-making, which he delivers with an impeccable visual sense, a twisted sense of humor, and provocative allegory to spare. His fast paced productions and edgy material create films that are rather unique works of filmic art that are clearly not to most people's taste. It seems that many of his harshest critics are surveying the trees and not the forest in his work, which misses the point.
His 2006 film "Time" is another journey into the human psyche. This time with the story of a young couple whose overall unstable relationship replete with jealousy issues and frequent quarreling drive the woman to resort to drastic measures. She abruptly disappears from the man's life and has plastic surgery to change her entire appearance. As the days and months go by the young man loses hope that his beloved will return to him.
This dark romantic, pseudo-science fiction, tale is at times captivating and unsettling and certain to be a satisfying date movie for intellectuals. It has plenty to say about the urge to change the one you love, the obsessive nature of passion, and the culture of youth and beauty. This is one great, great film!
It seems conceivable that without Helen Mirren, Stephen Frears would have been completely unable to make "The Queen". However with her in the title role, the story of the days following Princess Diana's untimely passing in 1997 is able to be told with heart, honor, and dignity. Mirren's real-life character of Queen Elizabeth II represents the old guard of British royalty, unwillingly brought into high status as a teenager, but left to represent and respect the protocol of her standing which is exactly as she saw it after Diana's accident. The British public called for some presence and acknowledgement of their mourning from the royals, but the Queen stood by her resolve and faced the negative press for it. Mirren brings a great pulse to a person who would have been merely the conflicted antagonist in a different sort of film. This is not to state that Mirren pulls this film all by herself. A strong supporting cast and archival footage that encompasses a surprising amount of the plot add additional dimensions to this fine slice of real-life drama.
Robert Taicher's documentary "Rush to War" follows the viewer into a post-9/11 world as it happened and quite efficiently became an Iraq War. In a Michael Moore sort of in-your-face fashion he travels America looking for answers, reactions, and perspective on those historic events from citizens, public figures, and others, including Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. It is the recurrence of the latter's point-of-view that unsettles much of the foundation of the film. Even though the film introduces additional information about shady Washington dealings that occurred prior to September 2001, plenty of eerie quotes from the U.S.'s leaders, among other shiny gems that bruise even the most avid current events documentary viewer's sense of pessimism, Taicher seems to have no sense of who to interview about what topic. "Rush to War" is nonetheless an interesting and unnerving documentary to add to the warehouse full of films that have unfortunately spent a lot of time preaching to the proverbial choir.
Kathryn Bigelow's directorial debut "Near Dark" was released within a few weeks of 1987's "The Lost Boys". On a basic level they both revolve around a young man who is taken against his will into small collective who thrive on the night. Whereas "The Lost Boys" had a hip, late-eighties aesthetic that somehow made bloodsucking perfect date movie fodder, "Near Dark" takes its similar subject matter far more seriously and offers up a much darker alternative. There's no mention of the word vampire, no visible fangs, no bats, or any of the other predictable conventions of this sort of flick. Instead it tells a story of survival that believably occurs unrepentantly over many centuries. The fear of the light and the overall sunrise rituals that are exhibited on-screen sell a sympathetic reality often removed in such stories. It's an intriguing film with some very strong cinematography. A meatier story would have been nice, but "Near Dark" is definitely a forgotten near gem.
What is it about most movies geared toward a mainstream family audience that necessitates they be poorly constructed and two-dimensional like "Evan Almighty"? This sequel to that so-so Jim Carrey vehicle, "Bruce Almighty", offers up a tale of a news anchor turned Congressman (Steve Carell) who is chosen by God (Morgan Freeman) to build an Ark in preparation for "a flood".
During the disillusioned late-1970's Carl Reiner made the smart and funny "Oh, God!", a film about God's search for a spokesman in the form a so-called atheist grocery store employee played by John Denver. That film served up two sequels. The Almighty series is beginning to have a similar vibe, in a similar unpredictable time of emotional recession.
Unfortunately "Evan Almighty" dishes out plenty of morals and dogma, but short-changes on the humor that is promised by the tagline "a comedy of epic proportions". The film is cute and oh-so-wholesome, but its third act undercuts the entire film, much of the cast is under-used, and it's simply too preachy for its own good.
"Away from Her" marks the feature directorial debut of Canadian actress Sarah Polley, whose surprising on-screen strengths to deliver performances that evoke a raw humanity translate well as she steps behind the camera. Her film is based on the short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro, which follows a married couple in their sixties as they cope with the woman's Alzheimer's disease. The film is blanketed with shots of wide expanses of snowy desolation and complete endlessness, which act as a brilliant metaphor for the debilitating disease. Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie star as the couple who have been together for more than forty years. The depth of their relationship is clear, which adds to the heartbreak and pain felt watching it disappear. The choice to cast Julie Christie as the woman strickened with the disease actually makes the proceedings that much more difficult to view, since she's been acting for the past forty-plus years we know her to some end. "Away from Her" is a heart-wrenching film with a very serious and unforgiving tone that hits deeply. Highly recommended!
"Black Snake Moan" is hardly the film it appears to be on the outside or how it was initially promoted, which was some sort of exploitative black man chains up white girl type scenario. True, that basic element does exist, but Craig Brewer's film is something far more. Appropriately coming from the filmmaker whose breakthrough was the hustler-turned-hip-hop-artist semi-masterpiece "Hustle & Flow", "Black Snake Moan" is a filmed blues song with its spiritualism, grittiness, and organic feel. Although it occasionally plays out more like a modern day parable than with a straight-forward plot, the film tells the story of a wild and young small town woman with a sordid past who crosses paths with a recently separated God-fearing man in search of redemption. Through several methods that serve the salaciousness of the cinema and the emotive musical scope of the film, the man struggles to heal her of her ill ways. This is all very interesting, and seemingly original stuff here that has a lot to offer.
Mike Binder's "Reign Over Me" takes its name from "Love Reign O'er Me", that 1973 rocker from the Who, which had to do with a man going through a great personal crisis who prays for the rain to wash all of the pain away. It's an appropriate title for a film about a man who lost his family, and in essence himself, on the morning of September 11th. Unfortunately the operatic build and power of that song seems to have translated to this film in theory and premise only.
Adam Sandler takes a second turn away from his tired comedic shtick (his first presumably being "Punch Drunk Love") to portray the lead. Even though dramatic turns for comedic actors have served many films very well in the past, this is simply unforgivable casting. Sandler is completely two-dimensional, playing an emotionally stunted man that seems fresh when he's quiet and brooding, but then seems all too familiar when he delivers that childish shrill he calls acting. There's dishonesty to the character with him in the role, because it's hard to believe that a previous time existed for his character that did not involve video games and staying out all night.
Playing opposite Sandler is the usually dependable Don Cheadle, as Sandler's former college roommate who has several chance encounters with him. The circumstances might be a touch too coincidental, but the result does draw both of the men out of their prospective shells. It's a shame that Cheadle didn't get to sink his teeth into the lead role, because it might have made for a more fascinating and more honestly moving film. Instead he has a subservient, secondary role that seems unclear and inconsistent as the inconsequential subplots serving as character development roll on by.
"Reign Over Me" might have been considered daring in 2007 for it's exploration of 9/11, however, it actually does a disservice to those looking for a film about healing, mourning, and moving forward, because none of the characters seem real enough to have really lived through the event. Like the song that inspired its title, the film offers up big drama, but it sadly squanders it with very little emotional resonance.
The road film is the subject of the fantastic documentary "Wanderlust" by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. They had previously made the semi-documentary "American Splendor" which starred Paul Giamatti. Given these two examples, they are certainly filmmakers to watch. With "Wanderlust" they focus their attention on the seemingly American fascination with the open road and by association the road film. Using innumerable clips from nearly seventy years of film, excerpts from the likes of Jack Kerouac and Robert Pirsig, and interviews from filmmakers and cultural historians, the documentary presents an effective case for the road film as an echo of the social or political situation of their given time. It's a very watchable, interesting piece of film-making that succeeds at evoking an emotional response at unexpected points, mainly because this is more than just a clip show. It's a well-made film that leaves the viewer longing for the freedom of the open road with no particular destination in mind.
Paul Thomas Anderson's 1997 film "Boogie Nights" is a breathtaking ride through seven years in the pornographic film industry. This was a huge undertaking for this filmmaker's sophomore foray into picture making, but as seen with his prior effort, "Hard Eight", he has a knack for garnering career-making performances from his actors and for interweaving story lines on par with Robert Altman. He seems also to have no qualms with wearing his influences on his sleeve, as is clear by the often spoken about three minute long opening shot that hearkens back to Scorsese or DePalma.
The film follows the journey of a young man, played by the previously under-appreciated Mark Wahlberg, who yearns for a life beyond his Southern California suburban nowhere. Once he meets up with Burt Reynolds, in the finest performance of his career, and his pseudo-family of skin flick makers and performers, the story is just getting revved up. What follows are two and half hours that wiz by with the deft hand of a filmmaker so attuned to the needs of their story that the frequent subplots and meanderings only add texture and aesthetics to the piece. Though it is basically "42nd Street" with a porn twist, it's surprisingly subdued in its expression of on-screen sex, because the film is about so much more. Although their business is sex and pleasure, it is the variation on the family unit and the hopes and dreams of the characters that are really at the core.
It's not entirely clear why Ben Stiller continues to get work and acclaim for his performances, since he really doesn't do much at all. His main role in any given film is to stand there and look dumbfounded as the world falls apart around him. He played one of his most successful versions of this when he played Gaylord Focker. The first time was in "Meet the Parents", which was a remake of a little seen independent film. Stiller plays a male nurse, a detail that punctuates several of the running jokes. He goes home with his fiancée for a wedding, at which point Murphy's Law strikes, his patience is tested, and all of that.
Robert DeNiro is here too, fresh off his uncharacteristic comic turn in "Analyze This". He plays the fiancée's overbearing, ultra-critical, highly suspicious father. It's a role that was originally slated for Christopher Walken, who would have ruined it with an added sense of creepiness. The main meat of the film comes from the tug-of-war between DeNiro's psychological testing and Stiller's struggle to be heard and accepted. This is a classic formula that works surprisingly well as a modern-day screwball comedy, given the weaknesses in Stiller and his irritating and frequent co-star Owen Wilson.
"Meet the Parents" is a formulaic comedy with a bit of a dark streak. It's a decent movie with some memorable bits, but it's more of a trial to get through than enjoyable which is something ironed out in time for the sequel.
The brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffmann stars as Dan Mahowny in the film "Owning Mahowny", as a bank employee with a serious gambling problem. The film recreates a real incident that occurred in Toronto in the early 1980's when Brian Molony, a bank clerk, embezzled over ten million dollars from his bank over an 18-month period. This character driven film presents the man as a quiet, but dependable employee. What seems less visible is his awkward, but determined drive to gamble. The internal struggle Hoffmann's character goes through when confronted with walking away from the table with a big win in one sequence stands as the core of the film. This is a film about addiction in a less seen arena than drugs or alcohol, but the effects and the enabling seem quite similar. Unfortunately, the film does not fare well beyond Hoffmann's award worthy performance. The story is too flat and at times too uninvolving to be sustained by his performance alone.
"The Boss of it All" is a comedy film by Danish director Lars von Trier. As expected by the name Lars von Trier, the film is a far cry from a standard comedy film. This is hardly a date movie, and it certainly doesn't kowtow to a teenager's sensibilities. In fact, for all intents and purposes "The Boss of it All" is less a comedy and more an examination of the comedic form.
Lars von Trier is well-known for his pitch black dramas that frequently investigate the form and function of the drama occurring. The operatic tragedy "Dancer in the Dark" would be an example. With "The Boss of it All", he's got somewhat of a farce on his hands. He opens the film with the self-consciousness of a film parody, and continues to interrupt in a similar fashion throughout. The story, as it is, follows an out of work actor into a real world setting where he is hired to play the role of the president of a company no one has ever seen. From there he's left to fend for himself with a variety of improvisation skills and knee-jerk reaction.
This is a challenging film from the get-go. It's art-house to a fault. The camera framing and editing style are deliberately off-putting and inconsistent, the actors frequently act as though their lines have yet to arrive, and the story is actually of little consequence. What Lars von Trier has assembled seems to be a statement on a business without a head honcho, or more specifically what a film might look like without a director. This is very tricky, well-orchestrated insanity.
Steven Soderbergh's 2001 remake of the 1960 Rat Pack pseudo-classic "Ocean's Eleven" spins the tale of Danny Ocean, a con man ten feet out of prison brewing his best scheme yet. He gathers up ten specifically chosen accomplices to pull off a very profitable, perfect crime that involves simultaneously ripping off three major Las Vegas casinos. George Clooney heads up a film that is busting at the seams with familiar faces. This is modern-day heist movie-making at its sharpest and most stylish, written by the screenwriter of "Matchstick Men" and directed by the prolific filmmaker behind the likes of "Out of Sight". It's one of those highly entertaining movies with so many intricate pieces flying through the air that predictably fall into place by the end. "Ocean's Eleven" is just great, satisfying fun!
The second film in the "Up" series, "7 Plus Seven" catches those darling seven-year-olds at the awkward, self-conscious age of fourteen, which based on this film is evidently a universal. The film is cut between footage from "Seven Up" and footage from seven years later, which is at first jarring since cuteness quickly becomes smugness, and the like. Although, as predictable of the age, the Q & A approach chosen for the first film often feels like pulling teeth, certain key traits and moods of the children in this one will likely dictate far more about what's to come in future installments than could be conceived from volume one. This is a brilliant series of films that is just getting revved up with 1970's "7 Plus Seven'.
"Seven Up!" is the forty minute documentary from 1964 that stands as a prologue for the most forward thinking documentary series of all-time. The film brings together a group of surprisingly articulate seven-year-olds from a variety of backgrounds in England. Through a number of questions posed to each of the children, the audience gets the opportunity to get to know the world through these children's eyes, and often presumably through the parent's eyes and therefore only quoted through these children. Personalities more than perspectives ring through the strongest in this first film, and the glimpse at the education system circa 1964 is intriguing. Unfortunately, as "characters" that will ultimately be seen for another forty years to come, the thick accents of some of them make for a rough start. All in all this is important cinema regardless.