"That's a nice-a donut."

Friday, November 25, 2005

Happy Endings (2005)

Don Roos' Happy Endings joins the ever-growing list of ensemble dramas, with several interconnected stories and characters, good acting, and a somewhat contrived plot that mostly manages to come together in the end. Unlike other ensemble pics though, such as Paul Haggis' Crash, this one tries to be more of a comedy. In fact, within the first minute of the film, an on-screen caption explains: "No one dies in this movie, not on screen. It's a comedy, sort of."

There are three main threads to Happy Endings. One of them, which I suppose is the central story, revolves around Mamie (Lisa Kudrow) who works at a women's health services center. Years ago as a teenager she got pregnant with her step-brother and was sent away, where at the last moment she changed her mind and had the baby to give it up for adoption. Now, one day she is met by a slimy documentary filmmaker (Jesse Bradford) who claims to know who her lost child is, and tries to blackmail her. His bright idea is to film her journey to meet her son that she gave up. But she has a better idea. Meanwhile, her step-brother Charley (Steve Coogan) is now gay and living with his partner Gil (David Sutcliffe). He gets a bright idea to confront the lesbian couple that they are close friends with because he believes that the couple's son was artificially inseminated with Gil's stolen sperm. Finally, the third tale concentrates on Jude (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who manages to get invited to live in the pool house of a wealthy man (Tom Arnold) and his in-the-closet gay son. She easily seduces the man and they are quickly engaged, but will it be a happy ending?

The best thing about Happy Endings is clearly that Roos manages to get strong performances from all of the actors. Gyllenhaal is sublime, as usual. Everything seems to come so naturally to her. I like how she continues to seek out good scripts and work in more independent, low-budget far, but I'd love it if she could move on and balance this with some bigger studio films that more people will see. Her interactions with Arnold are great, and undoubtedly the highpoints of the movie.

These are all interesting stories, and as we were told before; it is funny. Sort of. But we are rarely exposed, or given insights into, the true thoughts and feelings of any of these characters. Well, other than in the occasional on-screen notes, which come across as simple pop-up trivia factoids. Like: oh, by the way, so-and-so is feeling this emotion right now. This style feels offbeat and quirky, but that strength is also the movie's weakness, as it unwittingly causes us to not identify with them as much as we probably should. The movie is mostly composed of short vignettes about each set of characters, with some ongoing theme in all of them. Namely, all three of the main plots involve some form of blackmail or (especially) deception. Most of these people end up being fairly unlikeable and, by the end, I didn't care too much about the fate of anyone. The movie is all about getting to the endings and, by the end, there is not much left to the imagination.

The Verdict: C+.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

After Hershey's chocolate, when most people think of chocolate factories they are often reminded of Gene Wilder in 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Based on Roald Dahl's classic book, it is a magical fairly tale about a lucky boy and four other kids who win the chance to tour eccentric candy maker Willy Wonka's super fun factory. Gene Wilder's picture (officially directed by Mel Stuart, for anyone who cares) is warmly remembered by many, has a loyal following, and has dazzled children for more than a generation. So it came as a surprise to some when eccentric filmmaker Tim Burton dared remake the tale, and even went back to the book's original title, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The main plot of the movie should be quite familiar to veterans of the original. Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) is a very poor, but good-hearted young boy who lives with his extended family - two parents, and four grandparents - in a very tiny, beaten-up old shack near the center of town. One day it is announced that Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp), the rich reclusive candy genius, will be offering five lucky winners (and one guest each) a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour his factory via five golden tickets that will be randomly hidden inside Wonka candy bars. Naturally, the first four winners are all spoiled rotten, no-good, gluttonous kids: overweight eating machine Augustus Gloop, selfish and sassy momma's girl Violet Beauregarde, rich spoiled princess Veruca Salt, and obnoxious and mindless video game player and TV watcher Mike Teavee.

Of course we wouldn't have a movie without poor Charlie miraculously getting the fifth ticket on the final day of the contest. And so he chooses his kind grandpa Joe (David Kelly), who used to work at Wonka's factory long ago before everyone was fired. And so the big day at the factory arrives. Charlie and Joe have the time of their lives, while the other eight people get their just deserts.

Let's just get this right out of the way: Depp is very creepy and very annoying as Wonka. He is a sick, sad, demented cross between sexually ambiguous rocker Marilyn Manson and sexually wrong Michael Jackson (and not the good Jacko from, say, 1983, but the eerie one from 2005). Why in the world did he ever think that would be a good idea for a children's movie? I'm sure some Depp fans will like what he does with it, and I appreciate that he tries to break the mold and do something different. But it's just awful. Further, I understand what they were trying to do by intermittently focusing on Wonka and his father via flashbacks, but it distracted from the main story and was an unwanted change of pace.

Burton does get some good performances from the other actors, however. I especially like Kelly as the jovial old man, who is optimistic in the face of long odds, and has clear love for his grandson and friend Charlie. Highmore is also quite adept in the title role, although I'd like to see the trend of preternaturally talented child actors come to an end. The other four kids do what they need to do, but the starring role might just be Deep Roy and the omnipresent singin' and dancin' Oompa Loompas. Through the magic of technology, Roy is the Loompas.

On the subject of music, composer Danny Elfman liberally uses his now-too-familiar notes from other such Burton collaborations as Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. In fact, combined with the very familiar set designs, I was convinced that this was taking place in the Gotham City from Batman, with a little scenery from Scissorhands thrown in for good measure. Don't misread this though; Burton's chocolate factory is filled with plenty of wonderful and pretty visuals. Some of the sight and sounds are clearly high points in the film.

Interestingly enough, I always saw the 1971 version as being more about Charlie (though Willy Wonka was in the title), whereas this is more about Willy (though Charlie is back in the title). I was never a huge fan of the original, but appreciate it for what it is. This is a nice companion piece. Burton doesn't just redo the earlier work, but reinvents much of it - changing a few things and adding others. I just wish that he had chosen someone else as Wonka.

The Verdict: B-.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

With Kingdom of Heaven director Ridley Scott attempted to duplicate the success of his blockbuster smash and Best Picture winner of 2000, Gladiator. While the latter was a big-budget epic about a man who is ousted from the top and seeks revenge in the bloodbath of ancient Roman times, this big-budget tale is about a man who rises up to the top and tries to find his faith in the Holy Land during the bloody Crusades of the Middle Ages.

It is the year 1184, and war has been raging on for nearly a hundred years between Christians and Muslims. One day, a modest blacksmith named Balian (Orlando Bloom) finds himself thrust right into the middle of the conflict as a strange man (Liam Neeson) who claims to be his father offers him the opportunity to seek a new life by joining the conflict along side him. The man is a Baron, and a highly regarded Knight underneath the King of Jerusalem (who is a leper, and who you'll be astonished to know is Edward Norton behind the mask). Soon enough Balian is in the holy city, surrounded by fighting. It is not just among the people of different faiths, but also in-fighting; as people like Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas), next in line to be king, are bent on expanding the war, whereas the king and other people hope for peace.

It is refreshing that the movie attempts to play it even-handedly with the two religions. The leader of the Muslims, Saladin (Ghassin Massoud) is portrayed as an honest, fair man who has the same goals as Balian and the king. These men, for the most part, are religious idealists where ultimately one's actual religion doesn't matter, but rather his or her thoughts and actions. One man laments that he first thought they were fighting for God, but eventually realized that they were fighting for wealth and land - something that most wars can be boiled down to. There are plenty of subtle remarks about the current climate in the Middle East, especially about extremists on both sides of the fight. For instance, one man at a pilgrim camp shouts "to kill an infidel is not murder; it is the path to heaven!"

As is often the case with Scott's films (see: Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, for example), characterization is very weak and shallow. The movie is filled with lofty, but empty, proclamations and conversations like: "What will become of us?" "The world will decide!" Though I think that in Kingdom he manages to portray the atmosphere more strongly, but in each of these cases, the general plot is rather dull. Why even bother with the rather lackluster romance between Balian and Sibylla, the king's daughter? The visuals clearly take precedence over the story. But the eye candy is pretty good; the action and fight scenes are first-rate.

In those scenes are some extreme acts of machismo and bravado - like a man with an arrow straight through his neck who gets up and continues fighting, not to finally be taken down until he is hit with two more arrows in his chest. In general though it isn't nearly as gruesome or bloody as some other films from around that period of time, including Braveheart.

As with Maximus in Gladiator, Balian chooses his fate rather than just accept the hand that he was dealt. And, for better or worse, he joined the fight for religious freedom. A fight that is still ongoing, as onscreen script prior to the closing credits noted "nearly a thousand years later, peace in the kingdom of heaven remains elusive." It's not as compelling as it should have been, nor as relevant as it tries to be, but Kingdom surpasses Scott's other recent efforts.

The Verdict: B-.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Office Space (1999)

One of the funniest and most quotable comedies of the 1990s was a complete dud at the box office when it was released. Although it was directed by Mike Judge, who had previously found fame with the groundbreaking MTV sensation Beavis and Butthead and then King of the Hill (which has since become the most underrated series on television today), and had a very familiar face in Jennifer Aniston from Friends, Office Space was almost a total failure. If it had been made in the days of the studio system and before home video it would likely have been lost forever. But that wasn't the case and due to a variety of factors, in part thanks to regular showings on Comedy Central, it quickly built positive word of mouth and a loyal audience that has made it the perfect example of a cult classic.

In this tale of office workers who hate their jobs, Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) lives a dull, repetitive existence as a man who must comb through lines of computer code to prepare for the coming Year 2000 glitch (i.e., to save space, old programmers would use a two-digit year, but without a fix when 2000 happened many computer systems would think it was 1900). He is constantly bombarded with inane tasks and requests, and constantly fears that his boss Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) will ask him to come in on the weekend. With his two coworkers (David Herman and Ajay Naidu) they regularly gripe about their worklife, but realize that they are powerless to do anything. That is, until one day when an efficiency expert is brought in to improve things. Aniston is Joanna, Peter's Romantic interest, and a waitress at a local restaurant in a sort of sideplot that nicely matches the theme of empowerment at work.

There are plenty of hilarious moments in the film, from the need to put a cover memo on the TPS reports to somebody having a case of the Mondays, to Michael Bolton hatred and red Swingline staplers. Gary Cole is brilliant as the evil antithesis of what most people would like to see in a boss or manager. He manages to best his hilarious role as Mike Brady in the farcical Brady Bunch movies with such deadpan droning of phrases like "great" and "I'm gonna have to ask you to..." and "okay," it is everything we hate and revile about mindless office managers. Livingston, meanwhile, is ideal as the day-in, day-out worker who suddenly gets fed up with his job. It is very easy to relate to his laziness; when he tells the story about how his high school guidance counselor would ask him what he would like to do if he had a million dollars and he says "nothing," we can all relate.

One main fault might be that it veers sharply await from the highly relevant, fierce wit and satire on the modern day workplace and moves into a standard plot of bringing down the man and beating the system. That's not to say that it isn't still first-rate, but it is just isn't as funny in the second half, once things change direction after a surreal meeting that Peter has with the efficiency experts (the Bobs). The coda, however, is priceless. If you don't find at least something funny about Office Space then there is something wrong with you. Note that the Milton animated shorts, of which the story is based, are unfortunately not included on the recent special edition DVD release. Even so, it is still highly worth it.

The Verdict: B+.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Millions (2005)

Danny Boyle rocked the independent film world with his first pair of feature films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, but then hit a wall with the disappointments of A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach. He was back big time though with a very solid take on the zombie genre with 28 Days Later. What do all of these movies have in common? They are all very adult films, each given the restricted R-ratings in the U.S. So it was a bit of a surprise when his followup feature was Millions, a very family-oriented whimsical tale about a pair of British kids who find a large stash of money and must wrestle with the ethical burden of what to do with it all.

One day young Damian (Alex Etel), who often wonders around his new neighborhood in the suburbs with no cares in the world, looks up from a daydream to find a large duffle bag next to him. He is astonished when he realizes that it is filled to the brim with money - in British pounds. Damian and his brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) are astonished and quickly go on a mini-spending spree (without their father's knowledge, of course). Their unbridled fun hits a snag, though, when they learn that in just a couple of weeks England is following the lead of other European countries by switching its currency to the Euro. That means that after that time, the found money will be worthless. It becomes an intriguing seesaw battle between their two points of view. Anthony, like most people I'm sure, is bent on spending the money, or at least investing it. Damian is won over by ideals of helping poor people, and would have no problem giving most of the money to worthy causes.

Despite the sometimes heavy premise, and an adventure-filled third act, there are plenty of moments of light humor in Millions. One of my favorite parts was Anthony explaining to Damian that they can't tell anyone about the money; otherwise the government would take 40 percent of it for taxes. Damian asks him how much that is, and Anthony responds "nearly all of it," in classic fashion. It is a biting take on people's obsession with paying as little taxes as possible. One ongoing little joke involves how the brother often get free stuff, like not having to pay for candy at a store, by casually mentioning that their "mum's dead." All-in-all, Etel and McGibbon give good performances as the two children, who even manage to best their fellow adult actors.

Unfortunately the story becomes rather middling in the second half, with a plot focusing on the origin of the loot and somebody who wants it back. Combined with the very spiritual nature of the fantasy, which involves Damian being able to see Saint's and taking their advice to heart, and you have a movie that can't adequately manage its many layers. I just never bought the spiritual side of the movie, and didn't think it was necessary at all. Millions becomes rather disappointing by the end.

Really, it would have worked best if the story simply focused much more on the dilemma about using the money. But it does work as a fine meditation on the nature of humans, as well as highlighting the good and evil that can come from having money. Overall Boyle has infused his own style into the family film, and I hope that he doesn't give up on this and continues to make the occasional light fare in the future.

The Verdict: B-.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead was officially viewed as a remake to George Romero's 1978 classic about the living dead, and it even credits Romero for his original screenplay. But the two movies don't have a whole heckuva lot to do with each other, other than the common mall setting. Certainly plenty of devotees to Romero's version went into this update with great hesitation and trepidation; after all, remade films are generally quite inferior to the originals. Plus, there is rarely a good reason for actually releasing a remake (other than easy money financial reasons of course). "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But much to the surprise of many, however, Snyder's movie far exceeds expectations and is actually right on par with its big brother. In fact, it exceeds it in some aspects. The movie stands on its own, and is a very admirable addition to the growing list of very good zombie movies.

In a frantic opening ten minutes, nurse Ana (Sarah Polley) comes home from a long shift at the hospital, is greeted warmly by her husband, and then is soon scared out of her mind when her husband is mysteriously bitten by a young girl and becomes a flesh-eating zombie. After a terrifying car ride to get to a safe place, Ana finds herself teamed up with a police officer named Kenneth (Ving Rhames), a television salesman (Jake Weber), and a man and his very pregnant wife. They end up at a shopping mall, with some overzealous security guards and a few other lost souls. The zombies don't give up easily though, and as the outside world crumbles around them, the mall refugees fight to survive another day. A few quick cut shots after the end credits begin provides a hint as to the characters fate. I thought that was unnecessary, since often an open-ended conclusion is better as it allows the audience to think and to form their own stories.

The movie is fast moving, filled with wit, humor, and plenty of gore. It doesn't really make any attempt to serve as a sort of social metaphor like Romero's films have done, but it doesn't need to. It's simply a fun, thrilling story with plenty of blood and guts. There is little time to breathe and reflect on the surreal situation that the characters have found themselves in. Polley is commanding in what is more or less the lead role; I'd really like to see her get more noteworthy roles in future movies. Rhames also gives his typical butt-whipping act, and there are no complaints about the other solid cast members.

I do feel that the storyline with the couple expecting a baby is rather weak, but the sight of a zombie baby more than makes up for it. Dawn even accomplishes the feat of creating empathy for a character (Andy, the gun shop owner across the street) that has little screen time, other than a few distance shots from one roof to another.

There may be some Romero devotees who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the quality of this, or maybe they're just living in the past. And they have one good point, there wasn't a good reason to make this. But this isn't just a candy store update (Van Sant's Psycho, anyone?). There are plenty of original ideas here, and quite a lot to like. The ironic thing is that this Dawn of the Dead far surpassed any of Romero's previous films at the box office. In fact, the success of this (coupled with other very good recent zombie films like 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead) helped to revitalize the genre and even finally led to the financial backing and completion of Romero's next Dead film (2005's Land of the Dead). This was a very impressive feature debut for Snyder. I look forward to seeing where he goes next.

The Verdict: B+.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder is pretty much the textbook case for how to create a courtroom drama. There are several varieties of course, but for the criminal proceeding it goes something like this: Start with a likeable, but flawed, defense attorney. Throw in a complex, many shades of gray, case - preferably one in which the defendant readily admits to wrongdoing but for which there is much more to the story than it initially seems. You also need a sharp, highly successful prosecutor, who is easy to dislike but who you grudgingly respect and admire (as you root for the underdog). Toss in a stern but affable judge and a sultry woman. Finally, make sure that the defense attorney is under some financial pressure, which could be impacted by the court's final decision. That's pretty much the formula for Anatomy of a Murder and while it may seem rather simple or cliched now, Preminger's classic helped to pioneer this technique.

Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a well-liked former prosecutor in Michigan's Upper Peninsula who now has his own law practice. He usually spends more time fishing and drinking with his old buddy Parnell (Arthur O'Connell) than he does lawyering, though. One day he is asked to take up the case of Army Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara) who is accused of murdering a local bar owner. He claims that he has a good reason, as his wife (Lee Remick) told him that the barkeep had raped her. But while that may buy him some sympathy with a jury, Biegler still needs to mount a credible defense. Namely, by proving that Manion was temporarily insane. The prosecution is fierce, with the district attorney (Brooks West) plus a slick bigshot assistant attorney general for the state (George C. Scott).

Scott doesn't even appear in the movie until about an hour or so into it, but he and Stewart have a classic battle. It is a great back and forth chess match between the legal counsels and, while I'm sure that several liberties were taken with regards to the court realism, it makes for very dramatic theater. The interesting thing is that while Manion is supposed to be the one on trial, much of the time is spent focusing on the rape allegation. One high mark the movie gets is that it plays it rather neutral with regard to Lt. Manion's guilt. Viewers are encouraged to form their own opinions about the subject matter, although ultimately the ending is never really in doubt.

The cast is first-rate. You could never go wrong with James Stewart, and there are certainly no complaints about the other actors. Especially Remick in the role of the sultry woman and Joseph Welch as the judge (who in real life was actually a key lawyer in the Army - Joseph McCarthy hearings just a couple years before). There is plenty of witty humor and fast-talk all around, in part to take some of the sting out of the controversial material, but it also provides a style that says "just because this is a courtroom drama doesn't mean it can't be fun." There is even a jazzy score by the great Duke Ellington (who also has a cameo appearance). It has no doubt influenced countless cinematic court cases since then, with the popular A Few Good Men coming immediately to mind.

The Verdict: A-.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Psycho (1960)

Psycho is undoubtedly great director Alfred Hitchcock's most famous, and probably the most-watched, of his many great films. For most movie-goers, it is most likely the first thing they think of about the Master of Suspense. The shocking movie (though, of course, a little tame by today's standards) was one of the first to use a marketing campaign that revolved around a big surprise (e.g., you must see this, but don't tell anyone about it, or you'll ruin it). It was sort of the precursor to the don't-spoil-me view that many people have today with television and movies. And, more to the point, the Shower Scene in Psycho is arguably the epitome and the apex of suspense on film and has probably been imitated more than any other. The remarkably simple scene is one of the most perfectly filmed scenes ever.

But there is a lot more to like about Psycho then just that. It is actually a very deep, engaging movie that, despite the spoiler warnings, actually rewards repeat viewers. The beginning of the movie is somewhat of a throwaway, where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is dealing with her lover Sam (John Gavin) and her job at a real estate office, but it helps set up an ongoing plot later on. She decides to make a run from things and, after a bad storm, ends up at the lonely old Bates Motel. There she meets creepy Norman (Anthony Perkins) and, well, then the shower scene happens. The movie takes a sudden shift after that by focusing more on a detective (Martin Balsam), Sam, and Marion's sister (Vera Miles). Though the centerpiece is Norman and his mother.

Amazingly enough, Psycho received just four Oscar nominations and was shut out. More amazing is the fact that Bernard Herrmann's fantastic score received no recognition at the time. As with John Williams' theme for Jaws, and John Carpenter's for Halloween, Herrmann's music single-handedly creates one terrifying moment after another. Of course, Perkins helps by becoming such an unforgettable character. His Norman walks such a fine line between appearing normal and appearing like a third-rate psychopath that it could make you question everyone around you. Who is normal and healthy and who is completely and utterly insane? The role no doubt influenced hundreds of actors to follow, and is clearly an inspiration for Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lector.

Unfortunately, Psycho is marred somewhat by the very lame and unnecessary epilogue. It takes it down at least half a letter grade. It really should have been completely cut, after what would have been an ideal ending after the great fadeout on Norman's mother's face. I wonder if this was added in at the request of the studio, or if Hitchcock actually liked it. In either case, this should certainly be the starting point for any Hitchcock novice. Though it's most remembered for the scene, there is a lot more to like about Psycho. It is deservedly regarded as one of the Master's best movies - which, by definition, makes it one of the better horror/thriller films of all-time.

The Verdict: A-.


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