"That's a nice-a donut."
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Sling Blade (1996)
Karl Childers is quite possibly the gentlest, nicest, and most pleasant killer in screen history. In Billy Bob Thorntons opus Sling Blade - as the writer, director, and lead actor - a slow, simple man comes to terms with his past in a moving, thought-provoking drama checkered with a wry (and sometimes twisted) sense of humor, and a deep personal look at the impact one man can have on so many people.
All right, then. Karl was just 12 years old when he killed his mother and her lover with a sling blade (or a kaiser blade, as he called it). He was incarcerated in a "nervous hospital" for many years and is finally released as a middle-aged man, having served his time and been pronounced as well. He is able to get a job in his hometown at a little fix-it shop, since he is a hard worker and is somehow a genius at fixing small machine engines. Almost right away he befriends Frank, a young boy who is just about the same age that Karl was when get got in trouble. Karl's simple, well-meaning mannerisms also win over Frank's mother Linda and soon he has moved into their garage. He also makes friends with Linda's boss and gay friend, Vaughn (the late John Ritter). Unfortunately, Linda has an abusive, drunken, redneck boyfriend Doyle. Things begin to boil over, leading to an unforgettable finale.
It is an unfortunate, but necessary ending to Karl's tale and has the rare feat of being an ending that is both sad and uplifting at the same time - and accomplishing both equally well. I had managed to easily predict where things were leading, but it didn't matter because it was how we got to that point that made it worthwhile. This is a movie with very little action, so dialogue (and sometimes silence) is very important, especially when it involves the main characters. Karl is the glue that helps carry several of the relationships in the movie: the tenderness and compassion between Karl and Linda; the shared stigma and common ground between Karl and Vaughn; the not-too-subtle derision and scorn between Karl and Doyle; and of course the everlasting friendship between Karl and Frank.
Thornton does a tremendous job at becoming the slow, mentally handicapped man. From his awkward walk, to his funny speech patterns (Frank says that it's like he's revving his engine with some of the sounds he makes), to his facial expression with the pronounced underbite and distanced look, he has no doubt become Karl. A new standard was set with this performance, which puts other mentally disabled characters from the movies (Forrest Gump comes first to mind) to shame.
The film goes off track momentarily near the end in a brief scene in which Karl visits someone (Robert Duvall) from his past. The scene could have easily been cut and no flow would have been lost, but I suspect it wasn't because of the sly nod toward To Kill a Mockingbird via Boo Radley. In all, I reckon that Sling Blade is a truly wonderful accomplishment, a classic fable of innocence and redemption.
The Verdict: A-.
Michael Bentley 1:32 PM
Friday, August 26, 2005
The Ring Two (2005)
Following up on the heels of the wildly successful horror/thriller film The Ring (the Americanized remake of the Japanese Ringu), The Ring Two was released in theaters earlier this year. As with many sequels this was heavily anticipated, but middling reviews and word-of-mouth tempered the excitement and it disappeared relatively quickly. So is it as bad as they say, or is it worth a look?
It has been about half a year or so since the terrifying events in the original and news reporter Rachel (Naomi Watts) and her alien-like son Aidan (David Dorfman) have moved to a small, quiet town in Oregon. Things seem to be going all right for them, until a local teenager dies a vicious and mysterious death. Rachel investigates and quickly discovers that his death was linked to the eerie videotape - and the young ghost named Samara - that previously plagued her life. Without much effort, she locates the tape and destroys it. This sets off a disastrous chain of events, and she continues to probe the mystery in order to make things right again.
The sequel - now directed by Hideo Nakata, who helmed Ringu, Ringu 2, as well as the original Japanese version of Dark Water - plays as some sort of demented cross between the Nightmare on Elm Street series and The Exorcist. Unfortunately it has neither the wit nor the appeal of either of those films, though. And while we have the same general story as in the first Ring, it somehow manages to lose nearly everything that was good about it.
Instead of the edge-of-your-seat tension, threatening atmosphere, and some truly horrifying images and moments that we saw in the first film, the action in The Ring Two is stale, dull, and rather forced. And perhaps more importantly, the characters are practically lifeless and not worth caring about. It may not have aspired to be an award-winning drama or anything of that ilk, but it is at least necessary to have some connection with the characters or else any potential scares are wasted - because there is nothing to get scared about. Watts and the rest of the cast pretty much sleepwalk through the production. Though there are a couple brief scenes that are slightly thrilling, you never get the feeling that Rachel or Aidan are in any real danger. Further, even considering that this takes place on a supernatural level, there are numerous moments of disbelief and forgotten logic.
Will there be another sequel (or even a prequel, as there was in Japan)? I don't know, but I sure hope not. What is most amazing is how the man who directed both the original and the remake could botch this so badly. Of course, I imagine that the studio heads will cluelessly think up some hair-brained, incomprehensible drivel for a plot and some people will still go see it. This movie was not necessary. The gap in quality between The Ring and The Ring Two ranks as one of the largest in cinematic history between a first film and its sequel.
The Verdict: D+.
Michael Bentley 1:48 PM
Monday, August 22, 2005
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was acclaimed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki's first big hit movie and led to the creation of the successful animation company Studio Ghibli. It is an interesting composition on the environment and the need for ecological preservation and compassion.
Princess Nausicaa is a gifted, strong young woman; a born leader and only child of King Jil of the Valley of the Wind. It is a peaceful village, but one of the last civilizations on the planet since most of mankind was wiped out during the Seven Days of Fire 1,000 years before. Now, insects rule the Earth and Nausicaa and her people live near the ever-expanding forest. It is a "toxic jungle," filled with poisons and dangerous monster-like insects - including the scary ohmu creatures. The poisons will eventually make everyone sick, and so other neighboring villages are on the offensive. Nausicaa and her pet fox-squirrel (sort of like a cat) must overcome the threat of war by humans and by the angry insects, a mysterious giant warrior that has been preserved ever since the great war (and may hold the key to solving the problem of the toxic jungle), as well as death and destruction, in order to try to save the day.
As with most of the Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films, Nausicaa is very imaginative - in both its animation techniques and in its story. The backgrounds and details in the locations and the way people look and dress is very intimately detailed. It is as if the story is being told by a child, most of whom are filled with imagination and wonder and a remarkable sense of creativity. The interesting counter to this is that Nausicaa is a rather adult movie in several ways. It explores some complex issues in which the human species' ultimate fate may hinge, and violence is an unfortunate but almost unavoidable side effect.
Though, perhaps it's just somewhat dated, but the movie is sometimes a little hokey. At times it seems like a feature-length 1980s B-cartoon, like MASK or He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but let's face it: the dialogue isn't Miyazaki's best. Further, the mostly instrumental, synthesized soundtrack provides for a very-80s feel. I also feel that the movie is a little weaker during the scenes that do not include Nausicaa, who is a great character and one that could easily have spawned an ongoing television series.
Much of the film is a comment on war and a metaphor for the world's pollution and general disregard for maintaining the environment. It is a theme that is even more relevant today in a world of global warming and energy crises, among other things. And given that hand-drawn animation is almost as extinct as the dodo bird, one can easily appreciate the time and devotion that went in to making an inspired movie like this. Though it isn't my personal favorite Miyazaki film, I can still recommend it without hesitation.
The Verdict: B.
Michael Bentley 11:54 AM
Friday, August 19, 2005
Gates of Heaven (1978)
Documentarian Errol Morris' first feature film Gates of Heaven has been closely linked to both great German director Werner Herzog and film critic Roger Ebert (more on these later). This is a simple story really. The movie is basically in two halves; the first focuses on a failed pet cemetery in Los Altos, California and the second on a successful pet cemetery in the Napa Valley.
The Los Altos portion of the story is intercut with interviews with the cemetery founder and other investors, a couple pet mourners, and a cold, unsympathetic owner of the enemy: the local animal rendering plant. The primary focus is on a hopeless old man who started the place, driven by a love of animals. The problem was that neither he nor the other investors had much in the way of good business planning or foresight. For instance, he talks glowingly about the perfect location that he found for the cemetery, and then it is ironically revealed that it is really at the intersection of two main highways and the view isn't that great at all.
The second act in Gates of Heaven concentrates on a family-run cemetery in a picturesque area of the Napa Valley. The father, who founded the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, seems like a sincere man who cares for pets and shares the concerns of the people who lost them, but also knows that a dollar can be made from it. He has aspirations of having the best pet cemetery in the country. Both of his sons hope to one day run the place, but they are quite different, to put it lightly. One son is in it for the money, he is self-absorbed and is always giving motivational speeches, showing off his trophies, and talking about his former career as an insurance salesman. The other son is a slacker, playing rock music with his electric guitar, waiting to realize his life dream, growing marijuana plants in his room, and generally being a hippie.
An interesting dichotomy is made between the mourners (the pet caregivers) and the cemetery owners. The owners are there to do a job (and to try to make some money out of it), but must balance this with the needs of the dedicated people who are very sad and need closure for their lost family members. Some of the better moments in the film are when the grievers are talking about their beloved pets, though one of the best remarks was made by the downtrodden founder of the Los Altos plot who said that pets are on Earth for two reasons: "to love and to be loved."
The people are the story of this movie; not pets or pet cemeteries. These people are wacky and eccentric, and a movie could probably be made about each of them individually. The people are somewhat interesting and there is high comedy in some of the things that are said, but the parts of the movie are too jambled together. I half-expected to see some random person (like perhaps a waitress in a restaurant from a couple miles down the road) meander on about some subject wholly unrelated to pets. In fact, a very strange, awkward and overlong transition between the two halves of the film involves the tale of a senile old woman. She begins discussing the Los Altos pet cemetery and then proceeds to ramble on about anything and everything, including her son. It has nothing to do with pet cemeteries, and only serves to show the oddity of these people.
I can't say I enjoyed this as much as some people, including Roger Ebert who has anointed the movie one of his ten greatest of all-time. The movie is somewhat unfocused and Morris clearly hadn't yet learned when to cut away from an interview - some are way too long and rather boring. Some editing was needed, and things could have been improved with more stories from the grieving pet people. But certainly much can be appreciated about it. What is it - a tongue-in-cheek comedy? A serious case study? Does Morris have sympathy for these poor people, or is he making fun of them? Whatever the case may be, the movie is an interesting and generally original take on human life and the attachments we have with our furry friends.
...So what does Werner Herzog (director of the recent documentary Grizzly Man) have to do with all this? Well, Morris was a struggling young filmmaker and a friend of Herzog's. I'm sure there are different versions of exactly what was said, but Herzog promised that he would eat his shoe if Morris completed a film. Of course, he did complete a film (and many more after this) and Herzog ate a shoe at the Berkeley premiere of Gates of Heaven, boiled and garnished with garlic and hot sauce.
The Verdict: B-.
Michael Bentley 1:43 PM
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
A Very Long Engagement (2004)
With A Very Long Engagement Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of such films as Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, the regrettable Alien: Resurrection, and the recent classic Amelie, has created a stirring work. This is a story of love, love lost, and hope for love again that may (or may not) come true.
Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) is a very determined and optimistic young woman in 1920 France, who has been anxiously waiting to hear good word on the fate of her fiance Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), who has been missing but presumed dead since a battle three years before during World War I (of course, it was not called that at the time). He had actually been court-martialed prior to this, along with four other men, and was sent out to die in no man's land. But Mathilde would just know if something had happened to him, so she holds out hope that she will be with him again. She hires an investigator to find clues as to what really happened that fateful day, and also begins to piece things together herself. Along the way, she meets several comrades who Maneche met, or who knew people that he met (including Jodie Foster in a short, but strong supporting role), on his fateful tour and experiences several highs and lows.
Mathilde is sometimes rather childish in her superstitious ways. For example in one scene she tells herself that if the train enters the tunnel or the ticket taker comes to take her ticket before she counts to 7, then Manech is still alive. Her hope becomes our hope though, as we our lost in Jeunet's world.
One amazing thing about the movie is that it seamlessly merges several very distinct genres of film; romance, war, mystery, and comedy, as well as being a period study of post-war France. The war scenes are short, and not the main focus of the plot, but are well filmed and good for what they are. It is very interesting to see different cinematic takes on the "War to End All Wars" given that, for some reason, there have been relatively few WWI movies. It is in the other aspects, where it really excels though - as a romance and light-hearted mystery.
A Very Long Engagement is a very visual presentation. Color is very important here, as there is heavy use of tan, yellow, and brown tones, with some darker greens and blues in certain places. And many of the images are perfectly shot; oftentimes good camera work in a movie can be established by a simple test: does a single frame tell a story or have any artistic value when it is paused? In that regard, the movie richly deserved its acclaim and Academy Award nomination for cinematography (for which it should have won).
The overall editing and sense of style is wonderful. Jeunet made heavy use of flashbacks, and even sometimes overlayed them onto the present-day scenes. The quick cuts are used to tell brief stories about the characters. And some of them are repeated and scenes are played over again - sometimes from different perspectives - as the past becomes very important to Mathilde's story and to her well-being. Tautou is just right for the part; she plays a similar sort of character as the free-spirit Amelie, but with even more depth and emotion.
My one real complaint is that the story gets a little complex. It is very taxing trying to keep up with all of the soldier's and other people's names, and their relationships to one other. This is a good thing in one respect, because you know you aren't getting a juvenile teen romance with outrageous hijinks and fart jokes (well, actually that latter one isn't true because there are in fact a couple humorous fart jokes, but I digress). On the other hand, it is mildly distracting from the other great things, trying to play along as a detective. This is just a minor issue though, and one that would certainly be less of a factor with further viewings. Some people may be disappointed by the ending, others may find it to be the perfect denouement, though I was somewhere in the middle. Either way, it is a very fulfilling story.
The Verdict: A-.
Michael Bentley 11:39 AM
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
Surprisingly, Cellular is almost a good film. I'm sure we've all had experiences where, for whatever reason (be it negative word of mouth or poor critical reviews), we have low expectations for a film. More often than not, these low expectations are matched and the movie is just as big of a stinker as we had imagined. But ever so often, we are pleasantly surprised by our enjoyment in the quality of the movie.
The plot of the film can be loosely described as Speed meets Phone Booth. One morning, several bad looking men break into Jessica Martin's (Kim Basinger) home and kill her housekeeper and ruthlessly kidnap her. She is tied up and taken to an unknown location, where she is locked in a room somewhere. To make matters worse, the main henchman named Ethan (Jason Statham) smashed the telephone - her only hope of getting help. Of course she is terrified, and she has no idea what they want with her other than some vague threat about her husband. Soon enough though she has managed to string some wires on the broken phone together and a random phone call is placed into the unwitting hands of Ryan (Chris Evans) on his cell phone. A frantic chase then starts for Ryan to get help to rescue Jessica before she and her family end up dead.
Despite the fact that I imagine most people will be able to accurately predict whether or not Jessica is saved, the film provides some moments of very good suspense. A couple small twists also help. For instance, throughout the first half of the film, we are left wondering who the heck the vicious kidnappers really are. When we do find out it probably won't make your head spin around, but a blink or two is quite likely. The action is fast-paced; the story was obviously developed by minds out of the MTV Generation, and for this particular movie, that's a good thing. Evans (who is probably most familiar now as the Human Torch in the recent Fantastic Four flick) moves things along smoothly and does a solid, likeable job as the hero.
For each of the positives about Cellular, there are a few unfortunate lapses and problems that keep it from getting a thumbs-up. First of all, Kim Basinger again leaves me scratching my head about the fact that she will forever be known as an Academy Award winner. Though, in fairness, I suppose she doesn't have too much to work with here as her character is in a continuous state of distress. So we get a lot of cringing, screaming, and crying, but nothing to attest that she is anything other than a robot. Also, there is some strange editing and too little exposition, especially in the beginning. Yet, way too much time is spent on Jessica Biel's character - completely irrelevant to the story. So, it's as if a very close eye was being kept on the running time, yet time is wasted on what should have been a fringe character. For what ...to capitalize on Biel's big box office drawing power?
Of course, the masterful way in which Jessica Martin acts like some sort of electrical engineer in order to rig the smashed telephone is beyond believable. But, if you ignore that and a few of the other issues, then Cellular is a pretty fun time. Go in with low expectations and you'll probably be fairly pleased.
The Verdict: C+.
Michael Bentley 1:29 PM
Monday, August 15, 2005
The Perfect Score (2004)
If movie titles were actually representative of the quality of the movie - for example, The Godfather might be The Excellent Godfather - then The Perfect Score would actually be titled The Imperfect Score. Or even more accurately, The Wretched Score.
The movie is about a group of high school seniors who team up and conspire to break into the Educational Testing Services to steal a master copy of the upcoming SAT test. This is a very cliched band of school characters, they are like the rejects that didn't make it into The Breakfast Club. There is Anna, the super smart girl who is seemingly just trying to please her parents (Erika Christensen); Desmond, the dumb jock basketball player (former NBA player Darius Miles); Kyle (Chris Evans) and Matty (Bryan Greenberg), the masterminds behind the heist; Francesca (Scarlett Johansson), the wise-beyond-her-years girl who is rebelling against her father who just happens to work for the ETS in Princeton; and Roy (Leonardo Nam), the stoner who ranks dead last in the class but has some surprising wit about him. They all join the "SAT Study Group" for different reasons; a few because they want to get accepted to the school of their dreams, others for reasons of love or hate.
The night of the heist plays like a major life experience for all the kids, where they all somehow mature into experienced adults overnight. The heist itself is a bit of a bore and, though the filmmaker's would like to believe otherwise, there is little camaraderie or "chemistry" between the stars. Erika Christensen proves that she owes whatever career she has to Steven Soderbergh and her role in Traffic, as she is one of the worst actresses around. Further, Roy is both one of the dumbest and poorly written characters I've ever seen, and also one of the most interesting - sometimes both at the same time. I sometimes couldn't stand it when he was on screen, yet I couldn't look away. Fortunately, Johansson saves it from being a total dud as she injects some life into the scenes that she is in.
Needless to say, there are plot holes-a-plenty and some truly laughable logic. And of course there is the typical Hollywood ending where everything comes together, tied up with a nice little bow.
I'm really sick of high school movies where the characters all think they are seasoned college students. Though, it certainly doesn't help that the actors are often older than college-age. Sure there are a few moments in The Perfect Score that are worth watching, but in general you'll likely find yourself wishing you were taking the SAT instead.
The Verdict: D+.
Michael Bentley 8:49 AM
Friday, August 05, 2005
Alex Hitchens (Will Smith) is the "Date Doctor", a self-made man who helps other men pick up dates. These men are occasionally losers, sometimes awkward, often lacking confidence, usually desperate, but generally just want to have a chance with the women that they have fallen for. Albert (Kevin James) has hired Hitch to help him with his infatuation, Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta), some sort of famous celebrity and society woman. Meanwhile, Hitch has his own eyes on Sara (Eva Mendes), a gossip columnist for a local newspaper. Things start to get a little complicated when Sara - who is on the trail of the hot story of Allegra and the no-name Albert - learns that Hitch may have something to do with it.
As soon as the film begins, and it reuses a song (Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World") that was already used to perfection in a classic scene from the great Peter Wier - Harrison Ford movie Witness, I just knew that I was in for a treat. I would be watching an innovative, refreshingly original treatise on romance and relationships told with a dry, biting humor and a fair share of heartfelt drama. Of course there would also be plenty of laugh out loud moments. The ever-versatile Will Smith would break the Hollywood mold once again and deliver yet another shining performance, one that would provide new insights on male dating behavior. Hugh Grant, George Clooney, or John Cusack - forget them. None of the characters would be cliched or hackneyed, but would instead be unique creations, developed with a sly eye towards real world and things that people can relate to.
I expected that the ending would be smart, completely believable, thoroughly convincing, and highly rewarding. It wouldn't matter if the characters ended up together or not - though we would certainly care either way - because they would each have had personal revelations and their lives would be changed forever. Casablanca - your place has been usurped.
Then, before the opening credits were even over, I woke up. Hitch is Hollywood to the max. It is an overlong, seen-it-all-before comedy. It tries to be too deep, and provide for some philosophy or lessons in love, but if fails in that regard. There are a few brief fun scenes where Hitch is with his clients, working his magic, but Smith gives pretty much the same safe performance we've seen from him before. James can be pretty funny, though, and provides for most of the better moments. Everyone else seemed to be sleepwalking through this. All told, director Andy Tennant (who?) isn't able to provide us with anything new. The movie seems to have been made solely to squeeze a few more dollars out of Smith's trademark laid back style. Hitch don't know much about history, don't know much biology, and don't know much about romantic comedies either.
The Verdict: C-.
Michael Bentley 10:00 AM