"That's a nice-a donut."

Tuesday, May 31, 2005


Kinsey is a fact-based account of Alfred Kinsey and his trials and tribulations in producing the first substantial scientific research on the taboo subject of sex. A young Kinsey (played as an adult by Liam Neeson) rebels against his strict parents and goes into zoology instead of engineering (like apparently every good boy should). He becomes a successful bug collector and professor at Indiana University. He eventually expanded into teaching a biology course on human sexuality and soon realized that there was little research and knowledge about variations in sexual behavior. He wondered: what is normal? He hires a team of investigators and is soon conducting a massive nationwide study to interview people and ascertain the answers to many different, very sensitive questions. Along the way he has two best-selling books, some setbacks, a load of resistance from the moral front, and some problems at home as well.

Kinsey's research and books were extremely controversial at the time. The first book, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," broached topics that just weren't supposed to be talked about (especially masturbation). Yet, as groundbreaking, contentious, and exciting that these books were, Kinsey the movie is nothing of the sort. It is bland, generic, and rather sterile. Whether the director, Bill Condon, intended to or not, the movie often feels like one of the many plain, ordinary, nondescript science films from the 1960s and 70s that were sometimes shown in grade school. Even when Kinsey's bisexuality is shown (including one fairly risque scene with costar Peter Sarsgaard), it just seems like it is included for completeness sake and not to further the study of the man. Similarly, as is standard practice with many biopics, we see that Kinsey was not close to his parents - in particular his very moral, conservative father. When this side plot is reintroduced later in the film, it is out of place and quite unnecessary.

The actors generally give okay performances, though it sometimes felt as if they were being held back a little - especially Neeson. Laura Linney is very good as the young coed who Kinsey romances and then marries. As he always is, Sarsgaard is good too. I also enjoyed the sequences depicting short segments from the interviews. It was refreshing to see normal, everyday people discussing and answering questions about their usually very personal sex life. I only wish that there were more of these scenes; it could have helped create some humor in what should have been a livelier picture. For better or worse, this film is relatively short for a "biopic", clocking in at just less than 2 hours in running time. It is a very interesting story, and the movie isn't bad, it just could have been much better.

The Verdict: C+.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Madagascar (2005)

Madagascar, the new CGI-animated movie from the folks behind Shrek, is an unfulfilling retread of the fish-out-of-water story that we've seen numerous times before. The movie begins in the tiny Central Park Zoo smack in the middle of Manhattan. We have four stars here: a lion (voiced by Ben Stiller), a zebra (Chris Rock), giraffe (David Schwimmer), and hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith). These animals are coddled and treated like royalty (especially the lion). They get to put on a show for the adoring crowds every day and are fed very well. The lion king even sleeps under a tanning bed, and the zebra has a treadmill. Oh, and the giraffe is a hypochondriac who relies on an array of medicines to keep him going each day. Well, the zebra is having some misgivings about his place in life. He witnessed some psychotic penguins breaking out of the zoo (to go to Antarctica) and is thinking that maybe he belongs in the wild as well. He does escape and his three friends go looking for him; after some escapades they end up on a ship headed for an animal preserve in Africa. Things go terribly awry and they end up on the tropical paradise of Madagascar with a colony of lemurs who worship them, and a band of foosas (kind of like hyenas) who want to eat them. Of course, since they are actually in the wild now, they must find their own food to survive and this sets up the main story wherein Alex, the manly lion, must overcomes his natural desires to eat his best friend, the zebra.

The main problem with this movie (other than the deplorable Ben Stiller, who we'll get to in a moment) is that it is less concerned with the plot and developing a good story than it is with trying to be hip. Unlike Pixar movies such as The Incredibles, Dreamworks Animation feels that it must overcompensate for its bland been-there/done-that stories by cramming in as many in-jokes and movie parodies as possible. Planet of the Apes! Cast Away! American Beauty! Lord of the Flies! Silence of the Lambs! Don't get me wrong; I love a nice sly movie reference, but if they are going to consume such a big part of the movie I'd prefer if they just went all the way ala Airport or Naked Gun.

As for Ben Stiller, I once again see a tired, unfunny performance to create a very annoying and rather dislikeable character. And that is not a good thing when the character is supposed to be the protagonist and main figure of the story. After so many of these part-arrogant and self-centered, but part-whiny, and quite sexually ambiguous roles, it seems quite clear (if it wasn't already) that Stiller is not actually acting. For that matter few of the other voice actors in this movie are doing anything different. Instead of becoming their characters, they are making their characters become then. It's a shame because I like Stiller a lot in There's Something About Mary and thought he was the best thing about Meet the Parents.

I must say, though, that I loved the penguins. The movie needed a lot more of them. Unfortunately they were relegated to just a minor side story so that we could witness the big stars in action. As expected, there are some funny moments from Chris Rock ("You're biting my butt!") and several amusing situations, especially once they land on the (amazingly humanless) island. The doofus giraffe provides for some good slapstick as well. I think the basic premise of the story was fine and had a lot of potential, but it was almost treated as secondary to the funny gags, and the resolution was rather unsatisfying.

Overall, the film is sometimes tasty but just feels like a helping of heated up leftovers that are trying to be passed as something more. Where Pixar is creating timeless stories that can be appreciated by young children and adults alike - from the casual fans to the movie buffs and everything in between - Dreamworks is trying way too hard to please the parents. The big name stars and the flashy animation don't mean much without the story and quality script to back it up.

The Verdict: C+.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Some 23 years in the making, the final installment in the iconic Star Wars saga is finally out. This is the film that many fans have been waiting for; the one in which we finally see Anakin Skywalker's descent to evil and to the dark side to fulfill his destiny of becoming Darth Vader. Certainly many people - from the most persistent haters to the greasiest fanboys - will come into Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith with trepidation, as the first two films in the prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones) are generally universally regarded as being inferior to the classic originals. But suffice to say, for the most part, George Lucas has succeeded in creating an admirable finale.

Right off the bat, Lucas throws us into some intense action. Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are in the midst of a space battle while attempting to find and rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Eventually they are led to General Grievous - a powerful skeleton-like creature - and Count Dooku - the Sith apprentice of the mysterious Darth Sidious (who has been seen as the Emperor-like figure in a holographic form in the previous two films). Grievious and Dooku are leaders of a growing group of separatists from the powerful Galactic Republic. Meanwhile, Padme (Natalie Portman) - who is secretly married to Anakin - tell him that she is pregnant with his child. He is overjoyed, but begins having nightmares that she will die during childbirth. These nightmares overwhelm him and become an obsession. On top of this, he is appointed to the Jedi Council by Palpatine - whom he trusts and has become friends with - but is not granted the rank of "Jedi Master." Despite the fact that the Jedi are supposed to be selfless, Anakin has often been arrogant and consumed with want for more power. The nightmares and his disappointment eventually come to a boil. Of course as those of us who have seen the original trilogy know, destinies are fulfilled, hearts are broken, and a galaxy is changed forever.

The movie is an improvement over the previous two, but that is not to say that it doesn't still have some flaws. Most of these are variations on the same problems with Menace and Clones - sometimes shoddy dialogue, acting that won't be winning any prestigious awards anytime soon, and a few pacing problems. One issue with the plot is that not enough time is spent dwelling on Anakin's mindset prior to his descent and subsequent transformation. Also, the fate of Padme seemed rather inconsequential. The Anakin/Padme love angle is more of a backstory in Revenge of the Sith compared to Clones. As such, Padme is given less time on screen - and when she is on screen her performance isn't anything special.

Some of the acting is actually very good though. McGregor finally gets a real chance to shine, and Christensen shows some signs of life too. But McDiarmid is fantastic as the very evil chancellor. This is, without a doubt, the role that he was born to play. I love the satanic look he often has on his face and the terrifying grin that he sometimes gives to other people. His voice enunciation is top notch as well. The fight scenes are also excellent. If you like lightsaber battles then you are in for a real treat. There are several major one-on-one fights, highlighted by Anakin and Obi Wan's confrontation. The chaotic second half is well done, especially after the crescendo when thing really hit the fan. Things are helped along by John Williams' score which, while mostly just made up of variations on what he created for the original back in 1977, does a fine job of capturing the essence and emotions of the film. Lastly, I would be remiss to not mention the Wookiees as well - lots of them!

The last couple shots of the movie are very emotional and do a good job of bridging the gap into the original trilogy (starting with "A New Hope" in Episode IV). Whether or not people who turned their backs on the other prequels will like it, or whether it will stand the test of time of course remains to be seen. But, for now, it is a very worthy edition to the Star Wars series. I put it on about the same level of Return of the Jedi, behind The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope.

The Verdict: A-.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Carnival of Souls

From director Herk Harvey, Carnival of Souls is a classic B-picture that has surely influenced many modern horror films including Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, The Vanishing, as well as some David Lynch mindbenders. The film begins as Mary Henry (Candace Halligoss) and some of her friends engage in a street race. There is an accident and Mary and her two girlfriends go off a bridge and sink into a river below. Miraculously and to the amazement of the townspeople, some three hours after the crash, Mary emerges from the depths of the river. She is dazed, and seems a little out of place now, so heads off for a job to be an organist for a church in a sleepy Utah town (where the minister at the church remarks that they now have an organist who is "capable of stirring the souls"). But she seems to be experiencing some hallucinations and is being followed by a mysterious, creepy man. Meanwhile, she is mesmerized by and drawn to an old pavilion by a lake that used to be a bathhouse and then housed a carnival before being deserted. But why - and what does the pavilion have to do with anything? Mary may just be losing her mind, and we are led to a startling climax.

Harvey does a great job of building an eerie, haunting atmosphere in which nothing seems quite right. Things seem so peaceful and normal in this serene town. Yet Mary is filled with such anxiety and dread, that we know that terror may be lurking just around the corner. The story is held together by a great spooky organ score that helps to portray the paranoia that we (she and the viewer) are feeling. There are also some very nice shots, particularly of the bridge and river where the accident took place. Nothing is wasted; everything is on the screen for a reason and Harvey makes very efficient use of the short running time. Given the very low B-budget, some of the acting is rather amateurish though. But Halligoss in the lead role is okay and other actors can generally be forgiven since this isn't exactly a 19th Century Victorian character study or anything like that. Also the film editing is awkward in places.

Note that the dandy Criterion Collection DVD includes both the original theatrical cut as well as an extended director's cut of the film. The latter restores an additional 4 or 5 minutes of screen time and is the preferred version.

The Verdict: A-.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


Paycheck is a ho-hum action/sci-fi adapted from a short story from the great mind of Philip K. Dick. Ben Affleck stars as Michael Jennings, an engineering whiz who is often asked to work on top-secret, ground-breaking technological projects. In the beginning of the film, he finishes one job and is then required to undergo a magical procedure that erases his memory of the previous 2 months in which he was working. Since he is apparently the best there is at what he does, Jennings is asked to come to work for another company on an even bigger project - one which may take 2-3 years and would bring with it an 8 figure paycheck at the end. Of course we wouldn't have a movie if he didn't say yes; this time he must reside at the company and have no contact with the outside world. He must give up all his possessions and of course this job will also require a magical memory procedure. Flash forward 3 years. His work is done and Jennings is free to go. Soon he discovers that he inexplicably gave up his pay (about $92 million in stock) for 20 seemingly worthless and random items in an envelope. The rest of the film is an adventure yarn where Jennings must try to figure out what the heck he did over the last 3 years and why he gave up his payday.

The movie requires some great leaps of faith in its complex logic and unbelievable situations. The contrivances and unexplained plot holes are too numerous to mention. It's hard to take too serious a film (and being a sci-fi it certainly tries to be quite serious at times) where hundreds of bullets are fired - some nearly point blank - and no one gets hurt. Further, the resolution of the mystery seems like a letdown from the very intriguing buildup, and the climax isn't too exciting and is fairly predictable. The fine actor Paul Giamatti is generally wasted in a small supporting role as a friend of Jennings. Uma Thurman is okay as the love interest, but unmemorable and probably interchangeable in this role with any number of other actresses.

The movie does have a few good points though. I rather enjoyed the MacGyver-like way that Jennings must figure out what he should do with his 20 items - some of it is quite clever and are the highpoints of the film. There are a couple nice chase scenes too. Affleck most certainly doesn't look like an engineering whiz but he turns in a solid performance. Overall the story is mindless fun; once you start watching you'll want to stay on until the end.

Director John Woo does an admirable job, and even manages to fit in some of his usual bits including a white dove, but he should probably stick to more bang-up in-your-face style action. I really like Philip K. Dick adaptations (including Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report), but unfortunately Paycheck falls short of that pantheon. In fact, this felt like a much weaker version of Minority Report.

The Verdict: C.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Team America: World Police

From the creators of the love-it or hate-it animated series South Park (for the record: I love) and movies such as BASEketball (I hate) comes the sometimes great, but also uneven and misguided, Team America: World Police. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have crafted a wild comedy using a team of patriotic puppets (or marionettes) to satirize nearly everything. Few stones are left unturned from the United States' involvement in foreign affairs, to the United Nations, Muslims, the French, evil North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, Hollywood, action films, musicals, gays, patriotism in general, and many things in between.

The story focuses on a rag-tag band of global terrorism fighters based in Mount Rushmore. They suffer a setback, so must try to recruit another team member, Broadway star Gary Johnston. Since he is an accomplished actor, of course he would be perfect for spying. The team also includes a clairvoyant, a former Nebraska quarterback, the best martial artist in all of Detroit, a blonde, the suit who heads the team, and their I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E., a supercomputer. There are several deadly terrorist plots underway around the world that Team America must try to stop. Several historic monuments are accidentally destroyed along the way, including the Eiffel Tower and the Sphinx. Meanwhile, F.A.G. (the Film Actor's Guild) - led by the world's best actor, Alec Baldwin - take up the anti-war cause and zealously begin to organize protests. This all comes crashing together at a peace summit in North Korea.

It's swell to make fun of things, but I would have loved it if Parker and Stone had chosen a side, and sharpened the edge on its satire of the "War on Terror." There is plenty to ridicule, and they sidestep much of it. And where is the Bush administration? Hiding in a bunker? With regards to F.A.G., while some celebrity activists are certainly doing the pro-peace community no favors with some of their hyperbole and ill-advised rhetoric, it wasn't necessary to make them such a focal point of the movie. Some actors may be aloof or hypocrites, but no more so than many politicians, who are ripe for mockery and scorn.

But there are some wonderful, inspired moments in the film too. The much-discussed sex scene is hilarious and quite vulgar. If ever there were any doubt, that these puppets aren't for children, this would be it. Much of the film is a not-too-subtle jab at the mindless action blockbuster genre; Michael Bay is certainly the biggest victim. As they do on South Park, the musical is a key feature of their repertoire. One of the better songs features the lines "Pearl Harbor sucks, and I miss you" and "I need you like Ben Affleck needs acting school." There is also the typical montage scene, featuring the montage song. Overall, many films are parodied including Pearl Harbor, Top Gun, and even Star Wars. It was a bold, but hilarious, move to leave the puppet strings visible in the picture.

In the end, Team America is a good - almost very good - effort. At its best, it is a multi-layered hard-hitting satire that might suggest different interpretations from different people. One person might interpret a scene as: America causes more harm then good. Another person might read it as: freedom isn't free. But both might think: "America, F*** Yeah!"

The Verdict: B.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Despite some harsh criticism, George Lucas carried on and continued his space opera in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. It is about 10 years after the events from The Phantom Menace, and things in the galaxy far, far away have gotten even more tumultuous. There are a growing number of rogue planets that are leaving the Republic, and a bounty hunter is dispatched to assassinate Padme Almidala (Natalie Portman) who has since been made a Senator since Naboo has term limits on its democratic monarchy. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) and Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent by the Jedi Council, at the request of the mysterious Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid in a sinister turn), to protect her. Another attempt on Padme's life follows, and Anakin and Obi Wan split up - Anakin to serve as her personal protection (and potential suitor) and Obi Wan to seek out the origins of who or what was behind the foiled assassination. While Anakin is putting the moves on the Senator, nearly twice his age, Obi Wan is uncovering a deep plot that involves an enormous army of clones. Throw in a mysterious Sith lord (Count Dooku, played by the great Christopher Lee), and it is clear that the universe is edging closer and closer to a cataclysmic war that could change things forever.

Of course, some things never change. Though I should note that I feel that the overall quality of the Star Wars prequels has gotten a bum rap, it is hard to defend some of Lucas' dialogue. Easily the most notorious is this disaster, a very poor attempt by Anakin to seduce Padme: "I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth." The acting is generally adequate, though I must single out the boy who plays a young Boba Fett as being rather appalling. As with The Phantom Menace, some characters are underused. We get to see more of Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), but it is more of a tease, as his character is very under-developed.

However, there are certainly some improvements in Attack of the Clones compared to Episode I. For one, there is less Jar Jar Binks - although his stupidity is quite cringe inducing in one important scene. There is also less politics and inane discussions on trade routes or things of that nature. In general the plot is more focused and sure of itself. The action sequences are first-rate, though there are fewer space scenes relative to other films in the Star Wars canon. But a lightsaber battle with the great Yoda during the climatic scene is marvelous. And some of the new creatures that have been created are a delight to watch; I especially like Dex, an offbeat four-armed character who is old friends with Obi Wan. Additionally, the scenes where Anakin and Padme return to Tatooine are rather compelling, and certainly a precursor of things to come in Revenge of the Sith. While once again, it is perhaps more of a filler until the main course, all-in-all, Attack of the Clones is a marked and worthy improvement on The Phantom Menace.

The Verdict: B+.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

White Chicks

The Wayans (Shawn and Marlon and directed by Keenen Ivory) have done some solid work before in such films as Don't Be a Menace to South Central, Scary Movie, The Ladykillers, and Requiem for a Dream (no, I'm not kidding), unfortunately White Chicks is not among them. It is a rather lame - and surprisingly quite tame - comedy about a couple of young FBI agents who are assigned to protect a couple young slutty, rich White girls (sort of like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie) from being abducted. They get in a silly accident and, fearing that they will lose their jobs, they convince the chicks that they should stay in their hotel and not go to the Hamptons as planned. Without the girl's knowledge, the agents arrange to go undercover as the girls - literally, with the faces, the hair, the mammary glands, and even the skin color.

Much of the comedy in this outrageous farce is of the more juvenile style that we have seen in numerous teen films over the years. There is bathroom humor galore. There is also the requisite enemy (the mean girl), as well as bonding with the girl's friends, and a shopping montage. Oh yeah... there is also that pesky backstory of the kidnapping plot. If you can answer the riddle of how these guys made it into the FBI, then you can probably also cure cancer and find the solution to eternal world peace.

I suppose the main appeal of the movie is that a couple of Black dudes aren't just playing women. No, they are playing White chicks! How daring of them! A smarter film would have had more fun playing with stereotypes of the races and perhaps even been a nice satire on race relations in general. As it is, there aren't even many gibes at White women; one of the few was a dig at the interchangeable Top-40 style music that many listen to. The kicker was that a big, Black football player (played by Terry Crews) likes that kind of music - further, he has a thing for White women in general. How original!

In the end, White Chicks is good for a mindless laugh or two, but it's pretty forgettable and not something to be seen over and over again. If you are looking for something in the men-being-women genre then you are better off going for the classics: Some Like it Hot, Tootsie, or even Mrs. Doubtfire.

The Verdict: C-.

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Last Shot

The Last Shot is yet another in an endless line of movies with a fun, interesting idea or premise that is ultimately flawed and disappointing. At the beginning of the movie, five short words appear on the screen: "Based on a true story." Upon viewing the film, it seems like a joke - like the Coen Brothers rouse that Fargo was based on a real events - but is amazingly quite real (though certainly some names and details have been changed). Anyway, Steven Schats (played by Matthew Broderick) is a hopeless movie theater usher in 1980s Los Angeles with starry-eyed dreams of selling his movie screenplay to someone. Enter Alec Baldwin, as an FBI agent who is working on the team to take down mob boss John Gotti. He comes up with a plan to use an undercover sting operation to get an associate of Gotti's, Tommy Sanz, in Providence, Rhode Island on racketeering charges. Sanz is head honcho of the local Teamsters. He controls the trucks in town, and of course the trucks are needed to carry materials for sets and other things on a movie shoot. So, the FBI comes up with this far-fetched plan to use Schats by producing his movie "Arizona" ...in Providence. Schats is so desperate for a big break in the film business, that he doesn't even spend much time questioning the absurdity of this. The sting is so successful at keeping things secret that a number of other stars are eager to get involved with the hot project.

There are a number of things missing in this relatively short film (just over an hour and a half). Too much is going on; for instance, not much time is given to the mobster Sanz (Tony Shalhoub). Meanwhile, too much time is given to a couple lame subplots including Schats' girlfriend and his brother (he helped co-write the script to "Arizona" but doesn't really want it on the screen anymore). And I'm not sure how true the filmmakers were to the original story, but they neglected to include any plausibility in The Last Shot. Broderick's reactions to his need to film in Providence are somewhat humorous, but the situations are quite unbelievable. And other than that, there isn't much to laugh about in a movie calling itself a comedy. I was reminded of another Alec Baldwin film, State and Main, but that works much better as a making-a-movie farce.

All this being said, it is an interesting story. You certainly will find yourself rooting for Schats to be able to get his dream realized. As a sendup of Hollywood and the FBI it is somewhat successful. It just could have been better. Of special note is the opening title sequence. If nothing else, you'll want to check out The Last Shot just for that.

The Verdict: C+.

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is director Wes Anderson's often hilarious tale about a quirky team of oceanographers who are generally more interested in making a hit documentary than in enjoying the wonder and science of the ocean. On the surface, the film is about captain Steve Zissou's (in a fine performance by Bill Murray) quest for revenge on a mythical jaguar shark. See, his old friend and coworker was killed by one - as we see in the opening on-screen documentary. Zissou then gears his team up for part 2 of the documentary in which they try to hunt down the "shark-like fish."

It's not all fun and games though for Team Zissou. Steve's marriage is crumbling, he's having financing issues, is competing with a wealthier and better equipped nemesis (Operation Hennessey), and must deal with a pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett) and a man from Kentucky who may just be his son (Owen Wilson). Most of the all-star cast is great, though it would have been nice to see more time devoted to the relationship between Zissou and Klaus, the German oddball (played by Willem Dafoe).

Like Anderson's previous pictures (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tennenbaums), The Life Aquatic is teeming with outrageous characters and exceptional set design. The Team Zissou ship - the Belafonte, which was modified from an old WWII submarine - is meticulously crafted. Of course, some of the things on the Belafonte are quite ridiculous: a sauna, a Swedish masseuse, an editing room (so they can create assembly cuts of the documentaries right on the ship!), and last but not least a man on the team who spends much of the film singing David Bowie tunes... in Portuguese. Also, it is rather dorky, but certainly very funny, how the whole team has a wardrobe full of matching uniforms - topped off by the contrived little red hats. The dialogue, from the script by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, is fantastic. From the weird and wonderful to the suspenseful, and even to tenderness in the time of tragedy, they are able to see the irony and humor in many things that Team Zissou experiences.

Some critics have suggested that the film is just too random weird - wacky just for the sake of it. But that's only part of the truth. Though much of the film is weird and some things just seem out of place (I wasn't crazy about a segment with pirates that takes the film off-course a little), this is also a very compelling story. We see Steve Zissou mature from a man past his prime into a less selfish man who can finally begin to empathize with, and appreciate, his friends, family, and career. And like Anderson's previous pictures, I have a feeling The Life Aquatic will only improve over time as well.

The Verdict: B+.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Bad Education

Acclaimed director Pedro Almodovar's film Bad Education (or: La Mala Educacion) is a stunning portrait of childhood innocence lost and the impact on two boys. A man shows up at a hot young film director's house one day; he is the director's old chum and lover from Catholic school years before. He is a young actor looking for work, but also has a movie script that he wrote. Later, the director reads the script and we are transported right into the movie - it's a good story and the two old friends get back together and discuss adapting the script. Meanwhile, Almodovar also takes us back to the school years before and shows us the "bad education" that the pupils received at the hands of their literature teacher, and school principal, Father Manolo. Eventually, the three come colliding together into a web of deceit and revenge.

Gael Garcia Bernal is fantastic in the multifaceted lead as the young actor looking for work and several other roles, not to mention as a guy in drag. He has evolved from an attractive young Spanish actor into one of the finest actors in the world today. I wouldn't be surprised if he crosses over into English-language films soon, though I hope that he continues to have a strong eye for fine parts such as this. Fele Martinez is equally convincing as Enrique, the director.

Almodovar has crafted a beautiful film. From the coming-of-age school scenes to the moody atmosphere of the drag queen and club scenes to the lush colors of the Spanish setting, it is adeptly shot. No scenes are wasted, as everything is there for a reason and to move the story along. There are so many layers, that it felt as if there were several different feature-length movies that could have been made from Bad Education - and each would have been great. One small complaint is that the finale is a bit forced; it seems as if Almodovar was a little unsure about how to wrap it up.

The dialogue is real, succinct, and oftentimes humorous. I especially liked the following exchange (paraphrased) between the two young boys, which takes place after the bad education of abuse had begun:

"I don't believe in God."
"What do you believe in then?"
"I'm a Hedonist."
"What's that?"
"I like having fun."

Lastly, on a side note, I must mention the absurdity of the film's NC-17 rating by the MPAA. Yes, there is a small amount of male nudity and some sexual content. But, it is clear that the rating - perhaps the movie equivalent of the death penalty - is due primarily to homophobia. I certainly don't recommend this for young children, but the movie deserves to be seen by more people and should have received an R.

The Verdict: A-.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Trading energy... it sounds so droll and boring and completely unexciting - certainly not fodder for a lurid and scandalous movie. But, in fact, that is exactly what we have with Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Enron is the sometimes humorous, but often mind-boggling, new documentary from director Alex Gibney that chronicles the swift rise and even quicker descent of the Houston-based energy company. The movie intercuts new interviews, extensive amateur video, footage from Congressional hearings after the company's collapse, as well as a few reenactments to tell the story of how Ken "Kenny Boy" Lay and Jeffrey Skilling (among many others) swindled billions of dollars and directly impacted thousands of people. The movie subtitle is taken the title of a book by a couple people who were among the first to have doubts about that maybe Enron stock was overvalued.

Gibney gives us numerous shocking and powerful moments. Perhaps first in my mind is the section that details the electricity problems in California back in 2001. Basically, the West Coast Enron traders found loopholes in the new energy deregulation in that state. On whims, they could halt the availability of electricity to any particular area. They would move energy around - sometimes out of the state - and would skyrocket the selling price when demand warranted it. This led to out-of-control electric prices, which led to the "rolling blackouts" that plagued the state and eventually helped to take down its governor ("Cal-ee-for-nee-ya"). That information is nothing compared to the glee and unimpaired joy that some Enron employees had when wildfires struck the state. "Burn, baby, burn," one exclaimed, knowing that this would drive up the prices even further.

But the unethical corporate environment at Enron began long before 2001. We meet the ruthless Lou Pi who headed up an Enron sub-company and had a love for strippers. Pi ultimately walked away a couple years before the crash with a couple hundred million dollars, for a division that was badly treading water. We also meet Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO who came up with the brilliant plan to use "mark-to-market" accounting. Which is to say, Enron could more or less make up whatever profits they wanted. In the very high-risk game of energy trading, Enron was always in the black. As such, the stock price continued to rise higher and higher to the delight of many powerful people. Then there is Andrew Fastow, the man that Chairman Lay made out to be the clown prince. Fastow was the Chief Financial Officer and created his own holding companies for Enron to hide their substantial losses at. See, for all its success and high stock value, Enron was struggling to make any money. It is simply amazing that Enron's lawyers, accounting firm Arthur Anderson, and numerous other leading financial institutions signed off on these practices.

One interesting comparison that Gibney makes is to the famed Milgram Experiments in the 1960s. You can read more about that here, but basically participants were to read questions to someone in another room that they could not see (it was an actor). If the actor got an answer wrong, then the participant was to shock them with electricity, where upon the actor would pretend that they were in great pain. The electric voltage was gradually increased. The end result was that more than half of the participants continued inflicting the maximum voltage even though it was apparent to them that the other person was in trouble. Anyway, the film suggests that the rank-and-file Enron workers were just following the direction of the top brass (just as the Milgram people were following the instructions of the experimenters). I'm not sure I fully believe that hypothesis, but it is certainly something to think about long after the movie is over.

All this being said, the movie isn't perfect. I would have appreciated a little more on the relationship between Kenny Boy and Skilling. Was Skilling the mastermind behind most of the evil, and Lay was just along for the ride? Or did Lay play a greater part in shaping the greed-is-good, self-destructive behaviors of the company? Also, I still don't quite understand what exactly it means to "trade energy." But, I suppose that is more my problem then Gibney's. This is a very good movie. It is a gripping account of a saga that can be seen as a modern fable on the excesses of greed and immorality. You really have to see it, to believe everything. I highly recommend checking it out.

The Verdict: A-.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Out of Time (2003)

Out of Time is a solid movie with an interesting premise, but ultimately is unfulfilling and disappointing. From director Carl Franklin, it features megastar Denzel Washington as a police chief of a small South Florida town who finds himself in a mess when he is inexplicably embroiled in an arson double homicide. The chief is having an affair with someone in town. He suddenly finds out that she has incurable cancer, and then he and the woman get involved in some shady dealings involving making Denzel the beneficiary to her life insurance as well as stealing a bunch of drug money out of police evidence. Soon things go very wrong and he must try to cover his tracks since all signs seem to point to him as the culprit. Among other things, he must contend with his soon-to-be-ex wife (Eva Mendes) who is a homicide detective in Miami and is heading up the investigation.

The plot of Out of Time is fairly complex and contrived. It wasn't until a "twist" late in the movie where I finally understood most of the things going on. Even so, the very end of the movie was fairly predictable. I think the film would have worked better on a different level, by having the chief come right out and fess up to the other investigators. Then the movie could have operated solely in the mystery/thriller genre, where it succeeded best (the occasional implausibility notwithstanding). As it is, there was too much going on for a plot with many holes. I could never tell what the movie was trying to be, or even whether or not I was supposed to empathize with Denzel's character.

I do appreciate how a star like Denzel sometimes takes parts such as this that aren't necessarily "the good guy" or are flawed or are morally ambiguous. The cast as a whole is pretty good; I especially liked the cliched but amusing role of the sidekick, played by John Billingsley as a medical examiner. Also, Carl Franklin does a good job of creating atmosphere and putting us right in sunny Florida. There are some neat shots, one notable scene is where an elderly lady is in the police station and fingers Denzel's chief as someone who she saw outside the crime scene the night before. Denzel and Franklin worked together before in The Devil in the Blue Dress. While I prefer that movie to Out of Time, I think the two are a good pairing and hope they make more movies together.

The Verdict: C+.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Ocean's Twelve

At one point in the second half of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Twelve, the character played by Julia Roberts is impersonating Julia Roberts, while talking to Julia Roberts on the phone. If you haven't realized by that time that this doesn't quite follow the same formula as Ocean's Eleven, then you haven't been paying attention.

It is some three years after the events in Ocean's Eleven and victimized casino boss Terry Benedict (played by Andy Garcia) has decided that it is time to enact revenge on Danny Ocean (that would be George Clooney) and his crew of loveable criminals. And he gets his revenge by hunting them all down and demanding his money back... with interest... and they have two weeks to do it. That's his revenge? I thought that Benedict was ruthless and would even "go to work on you" after killing you? But I suppose that wouldn't make for a rousing star-showboating, audience-pleasing, money-making sequel. And so I digress. Anyway, the gang gets back together and since they've spent a good portion of their previous haul, they decide to get back in the game again. They head to Europe - including Amsterdam, Paris, and Rome - and begin to run into a few problems. There is a pesky investigator (Catherine Zeta-Jones) on their tale as well as a master thief by the name of "The Night Fox." It is a race between the Twelve and The Night Fox to get the goods before time runs out.

The details of the plot though are rather complex, sometimes confusing, and rather inconsequential. It often felt as if the details didn't actually matter - you know that in the end George, Brad, Julia, Matt, etc. would have a jolly good time and that their characters will succeed. The overall level of acting was fine; but most of these actors are playing the same basic roles that they have played numerous times before. Soderbergh took the first film and tried to infuse more of his brand of independent and stylish filmmaking. There are some unusual cuts and camera decisions; some of it works well, but much of the time I was wondering why they were necessary.

There are some good moments in the film though. My favorite was probably a scene early on with Topher Grace reprising his role from Ocean's Eleven as himself. The scene is a nice little satire on the excess and ego of Hollywood stars, not to mention a cheeky dig at "phoning in" performances. The Being Julia Roberts scene was humorous and also includes a "special guest star." Also the heist scenes were nicely filmed, including clever flashbacks to reveal some details. But all-in-all, whereas Ocean's Eleven was effortlessly cool and fun, Ocean's Twelve tries too hard to be and comes up a bit short.

The Verdict: C+.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Since its release in May 1999, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace has been widely criticized and mocked by professional movie critics, Star Wars fans, and casual moviegoers alike. It is generally believed that the film suffers most from a very weak screenplay with a relatively uninteresting story and a lot of unnatural, and sometimes unintentionally humorous, dialogue. Many also suggest that director George Lucas' use of filming in front of blue screens (prior to inserting digital backgrounds and other visual effects) hurt the performances of the actors as well. Not to mention the reviled new character Jar Jar Binks. Six years later and just a couple weeks prior to the opening of the third installment of the prequel trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, it seems like a suitable time to revisit the film. Are the original criticisms founded?

Well, first of all - yes, the basic plot of The Phantom Menace is rather bland and doesn't seem to elicit the same magic and whimsy that the tale of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewie, and Princess Leia did years ago. Ostensibly the story begins in the middle of a developing conflict involving trade taxation between the planet Naboo and the rogue Trade Federation. The Galactic Republic sends a couple Jedi Knights to help resolve the situation. Along the way they take in the queen of Naboo to protect her, and meet some other interesting characters including the aforementioned Jar Jar and a young boy named Anakin Skywalker. Anakin, of course, is the focus of the new Star Wars trilogy as he is destined to become the evil Darth Vader. Anyway, eventually the Jedis and their friends help out in a battle to save the queen's planet. Much of the political stuff is rather dry and should have been cut. But the action scenes are good and the visual and sound effects are first-rate.

Other than the need to change or edit some of the trade/taxation/political scenes, the weakest part of the film is certainly the dialogue. There are a couple cringeworthy lines, but frankly I don't think it's that bad overall. One thing I definitely disagree with some of the critics on is that the acting is wooden and mechanical. I'm not about to give anyone an Oscar here, but certainly everyone did their job and creating their own unique characters. In fact, young Jake Lloyd who played Anakin (contrary to the harsh criticism) is pretty good. He shows the starry-eyed wonder and optimism of a 6 year-old boy, while also providing confusion, concern, angst, and excitement where necessary. Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, and Natalie Portman are all okay as well - certainly no worse than Mark Hamill.

Yeah, but what about Jar Jar? He is definitely somewhat annoying, but no more so than C-3PO is. He helps to provide a more casual or comedic presence, given the pseudo-seriousness of much of the plot. And let's face it: the movie wasn't written for middle age people who grew up on the original films. Star Wars is, and always has been, a children's fantasy. Though The Phantom Menace has its faults, they aren't any more evident than if you rewatch the original trilogy with a neutral eye or watch this without absurd expectations. The movie is supposed to be fun, and on that scale it succeeds.

The Verdict: B-.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Warm Springs

Warm Springs is a fairly typical HBO made-for-TV movie. That is to say: it is an interesting story (and like many of the others, is based on actual events) that is well-acted, admirably plotted and directed, but is not ground-breaking or earth-shattering in any way. The story focuses on a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt (played by Kenneth Branagh), in the 1920s, who is a rising player on the Democratic political scene. Suddenly one day he becomes sick and is diagnosed with infantile paralysis - otherwise known as polio. He checks-in at a rural spa in the middle of Georgia to try to rehabilitate in the pool, and possibly even get cured. Along the way, Roosevelt feels a connection with his fellow polio sufferers who have also journeyed to the rehab center. Of course, it is implied that his experience at Warm Springs was the springboard to developing his skills at relating to the people and to bringing the country out of the Great Depression during the 1930s. Eventually his family and other comrades convince him to get back onto the national stage. We all know what happens next.

Branagh is quite good as FDR and the rest of the cast is terrific too. Especially of note is Tim Blake Nelson as the proprietor of Warm Springs, who builds a close relationship with the charismatic future leader. Cynthia Nixon, formerly of Sex and the City, is believable as the outspoken Eleanor and David Paymer joins in as FDR's friend and political advisor. The story is fairly straightforward and enjoyable. One scene at the end even has some tension and suspense, even though most of the audience should have an idea that the ending will be a positive one. This one is worth a look.

The Verdict: B.


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