"That's a nice-a donut."

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Black Dahlia (2006)

L.A. Confidential is regularly considered as one of the best movies of the 1990s, by both critics and casual moviegoers alike. So it isn't any surprise that there many people looking forward to The Black Dahlia. Dahlia was the first release from author James Ellroy in what became known as his "L.A. Quartet", four stories of crime fiction revolving around the Los Angeles Police Department. Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential was actually the third book in the quartet. His award-winning adaptation was tight, impeccably acted, stylish, and highly mesmerizing. It fits in neatly with other classics such as Chinatown in the "modern noir" category.

In addition to his love-it or hate-it fondness for Hitchcock (which, depending on what side you fall on come off as nice homages or blatant ripoffs), director Brian De Palma also has a taste for classic film noir. In Dahlia he is clearly set on capturing the essence and atmosphere of 40s noir, including Scarlett Johansson as the classic blonde and the use of raspy voiceover from the hardened detective, and at points he succeeds to great effect.

The story itself is actually rooted in a real-life story; The Black Dahlia was the nickname given to the victim of one of the most gruesome and infamous crimes in California history. The woman, Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) was a fledgling actress who was one day found naked and dead on the side of the road in the middle of broad daylight. Oh yeah: she also had her mouth slit ear to ear, was cut into two pieces and had been eviscerated. Detectives Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are assigned to the difficult case, which seems to have very few workable clues. The case begins to consumer Bucky and Lees lives - Lee in particular - and quickly gets them into trouble. Bucky gets involved with a mysterious woman (Hilary Swank) from a wealthy family, while Lees relationship with his wife (Johansson) suffers. With a hard-boiled story like this, you know it can't end well for everyone.

Hartnett, perhaps the weakest link of the main actors acquits himself why and shows that he is quite capable of both leading a movie and showing a believable range of emotions. The rest of the cast is obviously quite solid and the performances are quite fine, but nobody seems to be used in quite the right way. The story diverts from the main mystery of interest a few times too many and, while it isn't so much convoluted, it becomes almost a chore. Nothing comes together in the end the way it should have, in yet another case of a movie that I wanted to like a lot more than I did. Though, certainly, the plausibility isn't helped after one of the detectives becomes a soothsayer suddenly in the end and the crime is wrapped up in a convenient little way.

It may be one of those that grows on you over time, but as it is now, the only thing The Black Dahlia shares with L.A. Confidential is the original author. As movies, they aren't in the same league.

The Verdict: C+.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker Man could have been a very good character study or action drama about a unique religious group (a la Peter Weir's excellent Witness). In fact, several of the basic plot elements are quite similar between the two films. The premise is fascinating: a detective, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), is investigating the disappearance of a young woman named Rowan from a remote Scottish island, but encounters resistance from the locals, many of whom even deny her existence (including the girl's supposed mother).

But I said it could have been very good. Instead there is very little in the way of suspense, or even any interesting drama. I quickly realized that I didn't care whether or not Howie found the girl, or even why the townsfolk would be so unhelpful and deny knowing the girl, or why they would be acting so strangely in general. And they do act strange, tha's for sure. And I don't mean "strange" like they don't have phones or they like to raise barns and drink lemonade. I mean things like the ladies dancing naked around outside, and the group even tends to break out in song on occasion. In fact, the movie almost feels like a musical for the first half, but unfortunately they aren't very good or ear-pleasing songs and the soundtrack as a whole is pretty weak.

The group is very cult-like, and they refer to their leader as "Lord" Summerisle (a much younger-looking Christopher Lee). Their strange behavior is completely foreign to Howie, who is a Christian, and this certainly doesn't help his investigation in finding the girl. And course it doesn't help his case when one of the town's women (Britt Ekland) tries to seduce him via song in a rather erotic scene, which is by far the film's best.

One very risky move was to not reveal anything on the background of Rowan and how or why Howie came onto her missing case to begin with. I can't say that the move worked though. The movie is further hindered by Woodward's complete lack of charisma and likeability into his character. And the wackiness and absurdity of some of the things the islanders does is just too out there; not in interesting or fun way, but in a boring, dated, and disappointing way. Given all this, I just can't believe that there was enough interest or reasons to remake this story.

The Verdict: C-.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

All About My Mother (1999)

All About My Mother is a pretty typical Pedro Almodovar film. That is to say, it is yet another Almodovar film that contains a number of bizarre, strange, and weird characters intertwined in fascinating stories and situations. It is another Almodovar film that is rich in vibrant colors and elaborately and carefully designed sets and backgrounds. In short, the Spanish-language movie is a textbook example of an "art house film" but is also very accessible if you give it a chance.

In the story, a single mother named Manuela (Cecilia Roth) witnesses her teenage son get hit by a car on his birthday in a fatal accident. His death is crippling to Manuela and, perhaps even more so because she had just promised to finally tell him about his father (whom she left while still pregnant). As a result, she leaves her job and heads out of town to Barcelona to find his father and tell him about the son he never knew about. But before she finds him, she runs into an old friend, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a preop transsexual, and befriends a pregnant nun named Rosa (Penelope Cruz). She also becomes a personal assistant to an actress (Marisa Paredes) that her son admired. Together these women try to get through their lives and each experience significant transformations along the way. There are several explicit references and comparisons to All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire, and several parallels to each with regards to desire, disappointment, love, hate, and friendship.

As Almodovar has proven before, he is incredibly competent at creating movies filled with depth, particularly with well-developed (and well-acted) characters. Manuela is a strong lead character, but Agrado is perhaps the most complex and compelling, and she makes a commendable transformation throughout the course of the film.

All About My Mother is close to being an excellent movie, as it is near-flawless from a technical standpoint. But in the end it never quite convinced me of its purpose or true meaning, other than to tell an emotional story about some interesting people. Though it would be nice to see more normal, everyday people in his stories - Manuela is probably the closest to it, and even she has plenty of issues and skeletons in her closet. The narrative also loses steam a bit near the very end, as it jumps ahead in time too many times in order to finish telling the story, and crosses a tad too much into melodramatic territory. It's worth it though, if simply for the humorous (and heartfelt) dedication at the end.

The Verdict: B+.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hoodwinked (2006)

In the now oversaturated world of CGI animated movies, the concept of Hoodwinked seemed like a good idea. It offered a fresh take on the classic children's story, Little Red Riding Hood. Though there are a number of slight variations, the typical story is a straightforward fairy tale - where a little girl named Red journeys through the woods to her grandmother's house only to find that the grandmother has been eaten by the Big Bad Wolf, who is waiting for Red in disguise (followed by a happy ending, of course).

Instead, in Hoodwinked, after Red stumbles upon the Wolf in Granny's bed they have a skirmish, the police show up and by way of police interviews we get four Rashomon-style flashbacks of the days events. Namely, was there more to the wolf incident then it might originally appear? It is an obvious, but fascinating, twist that hints that adults (and not just kids) will be able to enjoy the tale. There are a few other innovative details that are thrown in along the way, such as a cable car in the middle of the forest. And some of the fast-talking wit, mainly from Red (voiced by Anne Hathaway) and Wolf (Patrick Warburton) - who are by far the best characters - is also amusing, and generally suitable for children and parents.

But that is where the originality and promise ends. There are several occasional musical interludes that are wholly unnecessary, distracting, and ill-fitting for the story. And the woodsman character is a complete waste, other than for a couple cheap laughs, perhaps because the filmmaker's couldn't come up with anyone or anything more interesting. I also wasn't terribly fond of the gen-X take on Granny (Glenn Close).

Hoodwinked could have, and should have, been reduced from its already short 80 minute running time. Heck, it would have even worked as a 22-24 minute tale, such as in a Looney Tunes-style series as a one-shot. Or at the very least, simply give us the four stories (with some edits) and do away with most of the other junk. Because unfortunately, after the fourth tale, we still a good half hour left, and this time drags along into a barren story wasteland. Sure, the animation is low budget, and it shows in the simple style, but this doesn't impact the film in a negative or positive way. What does hurt is the complete lack of a fun or worthwhile story. It seemed like a good idea. But you're better off just opening up your old book of fairy tales and reading instead.

The Verdict: C.

Friday, September 01, 2006

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2005)

Imagine if the South had won the American Civil War? That, in effect, is the question that is answered in Kevin Willmott's mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America. The film uses a very satirical - sometimes humorous, sometimes not - approach via a faux British documentary that looks at the history of the C.S.A., by blending in fake interviews, historic footage, and commercials. It is a daring, often very risque and in-your-face works that sometimes goes too far and sometimes doesn't actually go far enough.

The turning point in the fictional version of the Civil War is that the south got help - economically and militarily - from Britain and France, which led to an easy victory. This had many side effects. For starters, Lincoln is not assassinated, but instead becomes a fugitive. Also, it is rather tongue in cheek how in the new C.S.A. many of the liberals of the day (such as Frederick Douglas and Henry David Thoreau) fled to Canada amid the new policies and practices of the country, perhaps a slight jab at some of those liberals who have also threatened to head north in the last few years. Naturally, one might expect, "The War of Northern Aggression" is viewed simply in terms of slavery and not any of the more complex issues of the time, and ultimately the rest of the movie is left focusing primarily on that as well.

One thing that really left me puzzled, perhaps owing to lazy screenwriting, is that there were not nearly enough differences between the real U.S. history and the made-up C.S.A. history. For example, buildings built in the 20th century such as monuments like the Jefferson Memorial are still the same, the Vietnam war still happened, Kennedy still faces Nixon for the Presidency (and is later assassinated), etc. I didn't expect a "butterfly effect" to happen, where the course of the country would have been thoroughly thrown out of whack (not counting the issue of slavery, of course), but would still expect more. Some of the small details that are changed are interesting though, such as people who might now be Democrats actually being Republican in the film's modern era (owing to Lincoln being a Republican and the switch that happened over time with regards to social stances between the parties). Or how the C.S. A. sided with Hitler and Nazi Germany (though didn't enter that phase of the war) and actually preemptively attacked Japan on December 7, 1941 (instead of the other way around).

Ultimately though, there are too many fake commercials and fake movies and other entertainment, leaving the story of the C.S.A. barely half of the movie. It is an interesting exercise, and at least a nice change of pace from most other films, but perhaps a little too heavy-handed. If you hang your head in shame or cover your ears at racist terms or portrayals, you will likely be quite shocked at some of the forthcoming scenes here; not surprisingly there is heavy use of the "n" word and it is filled with many caricatures of Blacks and African Americans. The themes of racism feel a little too much like "beating a dead horse" on several occasions, and thus ignoring a great chance to really explore what the country really would have been like had the south won.

The finale of the film is actually perhaps the most shocking part of all, as it lists several of the things in the film that were actually quite real in the States and elsewhere over the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are several things about our society that the movie will make you ponder, but the product as a whole is rather hit-or-miss. In the end, it will be a disappointment to most people. But in the small, niche market of alternate history stories, it is at least worth your time.

The Verdict: C.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Cache (2005)

Cache is one of those films with a lot of promise, but ultimately fails to deliver on any of those promises. To take an obvious cliche, it has a lot of bark but no bite. The French language movie, from writer-director Michael Hanecke, opens with a still shot on a sleepy French residential street one morning. Cars are parked on the street, and a couple people pass by here and there as the city begins to awaken. We soon learn that this scene is being videotaped, and a tape ends up on the doorstep of Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne Laurent (Juliet Binoche). There are millions of possibilities at this point; and one is quick to wonder what in the world is going on and where will Hanecke take us?

Things begin to get scarier for Georges and Anne as more tapes begin to show up at their place. Later, some strange drawings are sent. The stalker is obviously a very sick (and potentially dangerous) person; there is no telling what they might get next. A few scenes even appeared to be "live" but were later revealed to be video, adding another dimension to the mystery. The frightening crises reveal some cracks in the marriage, which leads to some tense shouting matches, filled with accusations that the one lacks trust in the other, and so on and so forth.

The film begins to choke when it goes into these dull lapses in marital and family conflict. But the movie is good when it focuses on the stalking with its mysterious tapes, mail, and even phone calls. I especially liked the repetition of showing outdoor locations such as their street and house exterior, and the use of rewinding and fast-forwarding the tapes. These elevate a simple drama into adventure territory (temporarily at least...). The performances from the leads are solid, and Binoche of course always elevates the French films she is in, though perhaps that just owes to the familiarity from her role in hit Chocolat from a few years back.

However, the promise of the adventure is nullified by a final act that provides nothing, but one lightning-fast shock scene that quickly dissipates. The truth behind the Laurent's stalker is related to an obscure event from Georges' past, and perhaps even stretches back to the French-Algerian conflict. Or does it? The story is too vague for its own good. The film's title, translated as "Hidden" in English, becomes both its strength and major weakness, though the payoff is probably rewarding if you are willing to search for it.

The Verdict: C.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

You know the story by now; you've got to. Snakes on a Plane has ...snakes on a plane! But that's not important right now. What is important is that despite one of the most memorable marketing campaigns since probably the standard bearer, The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and a very intense cult fanbase (even before the film's release), the movie opened last weekend to rather disappointing box office returns. In effect, it suffered from part of what made the film concept so great in the first place. People simply expected it to be a bad film. With "eh, that looks like pure shite" from one group of people, while others were more optimistic: "it's so bad, it's good."

Here's the truth: Snakes on a Plane is not going to win a single Oscar or critic's group award. You probably already knew that already. But here's what you didn't know: Snakes on a Plane is a fun movie and is actually - dare I say... - pretty good.

Other than the opening title, the rather pedestrian beginning of the movie leaves not a hint of what is to come. Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) is riding his motorbike in Hawaii when he stops momentarily and happens to witness a brutal slaying by well-known crime lord Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). Soon thereafter Kim's henchmen show up at Sean's place, but FBI agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) saves the day and convinces Sean to testify against Kim in court. This, of course, requires Flynn to escort him to LA on Pacific Air flight 121. Naturally, being the evil genius that he is, Kim manages to get a stockpile of exotic (and poisonous) snakes onto the plane in the cargo area. If they don't kill Sean directly, then maybe they will manage to create enough chaos to bring the whole plane down.

Eventually, after some gruesome deaths, Neville starts to take control of things. It's a fight between man and snake, with his eye on protecting his important witness but also on helping his fellow passengers and flight crew, including ER's Julianne Margulies as a flight attendant on her very last trip.

Through all this crazy mayhem, Jackson delivers an honest-to-goodness refreshing performance. He quite obviously had a grand time making the movie. He is in full-on kick butt, scene-stealing, Sam Jackson mode, taking the pieces of his best and most memorable roles such as Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction and Zeus Carter in Die Hard with a Vengeance. He makes great use of facial expressions, providing for several hilarious moments on the plane, such as a scene in the cockpit near the climax. And the infamous line that was added to the movie after principal photography had ended, allegedly after the suggestion of fans on the Net, is delivered with as much glee, terror, and conviction that you could possibly hope for from Neville the hero: "Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherf**king snakes on this motherf**king plane!"

For those in the "it's so bad, it's good" crowd, you're going to be pleasantly surprised. Sure there are a few plot holes, leaps of logic, and a couple other technical flaws, but none of them are fatal. It is funny (in a good way), terrifying and dramatic (where it needs to be), and audience-friendly (as it should be). In fact, Snakes on a Plane is one of the more audience-friendly films I've ever seen in the theater. Director David R. Ellis and company deliver everything they intended. It is a ton of fun and pretty much the perfect escape movie. I liken it to Independence Day, as far as just being a fun, entertaining movie. I completely recommend it to anyone looking for a good time.

The Verdict: B+.


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