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"That's a nice-a donut."

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


King Kong (2005)

In Peter Jackson's King Kong, one ongoing subplot in the middle of the film involves a young deckhand on a ship and his older and wiser coworker. The youth had lived a troubled life and was just finding his way in the world, and the elder was acting sort of as his mentor. Along the way, the young seamen starts reading Joseph Conrad's classic novel "Hearts of Darkness" and the mentor coolly notes that their journey is just like that in the book: it is also a trek in which people are drawn towards something, even though their mind is telling them to turn around. It is somewhat ironic since director Jackson also succumbed to the journey and ended up making an otherwise very good movie that is simply way too long for its own good.

Kong, which is the second remake of the classic monster movie from 1933, is structured in such a way that it contains three very distinct parts - or three "halves" of a movie. Also set in 1933, the first half of the movie concentrates on movie director/producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) and his quest to film his next movie. He enlists his star writer (Adrien Brody), down-on-her-luck actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), and the rest of his crew and, despite admonishments from the studio, they leave on a chartered boat in search of the mysterious Skull Island. The second portion of the movie begins once they find the island, in a series of action-filled set pieces that (perhaps intentionally) resemble some of those in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park. There the crew finds a plethora of prehistoric and out-of-this-world creatures including King Kong, dinosaurs, and plenty of giant and gruesome man-eating bugs. To make things worse, the island natives kidnap Ann as a sacrifice for Kong and yada yada... the beast falls in love with her. In the third half of the movie, we end up back in New York City, where the Eighth Wonder of the World goes berserk and climbs the Empire State Building with Ann.

Jackson deftly handles both intense action and the staging of a romance that could have been unintentionally comical in less skilled hands. A woman who falls in love with a giant ape? That has "grade-Z, straight-to-TV" written all over it (and would likely be too hokey for even the Sci-Fi Channel). But somehow it works. By the end of the day you care about Ann, you believe that she really has feelings for the hairy creature, and you even hope that the creature makes it out alive (even though you know that won't happen). Certainly some of that can be attributed to the excellent special effects, including how realistic Kong looks. If they hadn't already, Weta has firmly established themselves as the world's best movie effects company; no disrespect meant to LucasFilm. And of course the use of Andy Serkis (who also has a visible role in the film as one of the ship's men), who stood in for Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, to motion capture the great ape probably helped to breathe even more life to the creature.

Most of the other characters in the movie have less depth to them though. First, the island natives are kind of an afterthought after the initial skirmishes on Skull Island. And Brody is perhaps underused as the writer; or maybe he is actually overused, trapped in a role in a movie that didn't need him. But Black, while perhaps not the ideal choice to pay the selfish movie director, isn't nearly as bad as others are suggesting - he fits the needs of the role anyway.

King Kong is a fairly exciting movie. As much as I generally dislike remakes, this could easily be called a "reinvention." But it also easily could have cut 30 minutes or more and the movie would have been just as effective - while having the great benefit of being shorter and more succinct. Only a select few movies can seamlessly fly past the 150-minute mark without an afterthought. Is Jackson simply hell-bent on creating one epic after another? Either way, if the length is the worst you can say about a movie, then it's on pretty good standing. Spielberg set the stage for artists like Jackson, and while this doesn't rise to the level of Spielberg at his peak such as in Duel, Jaws, or Indiana Jones, Jackson has proven himself to be the surest thing in directing today. I'd just like to see him tackle a smaller film next.

The Verdict: B+.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


March of the Penguins (2005)

Adding to what could very easily be called The Year of the Documentary (or at the very least, culminating the great trend that started within the past couple years with such other documentaries as The Fog of War, Capturing the Friedman's, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Super Size Me among others) is March of the Penguins, which earlier this year shot up the charts to become the second-highest grossing doc of all time. Its success was one of the biggest entertainment stories of the year, especially considering the fact that it is really nothing more than a feature-length, cute and fuzzy National Geographic movie.

Directed by Frenchman Luc Jacquet, Penguins tells the incredible story of Antarctica's emperor penguins who spend nine months every single year, solely devoted to the massive job of breeding and caregiving. The shots and story of these tuxedoed birds are sometimes overwhelming. We live with the penguins through their long 70-mile march to the breeding grounds (which ends up coming off as a large every-man-for-himself orgy) where the males and females meet and mingle before pairing off for the year. If they are successful then each couple must spend the next months doing nothing but standing around, trying to the eggs (and each other) warm. At one point, they will trade places as the females head back home to get something to eat and the males will care for the egg (hence making all human males look really bad). Amidst temperatures that can reach 80 degrees below zero and 100 mile per hour winds, it is an environment that few species would ever choose to live in. Yet, as the movie points out, long ago the penguins chose to live and stay there. Eventually the lucky ones are born, but the task is far from over.

The movie is rated G in the U.S., for general audiences, and it is certainly a family movie that nearly everyone can enjoy. But there is plenty of heartache and tragedy. Among the distressing images are baby eggs that didn't make it through the harsh winter, vicious seals having lunch, the distant looks of sadness on the poor penguin's faces when death strikes. Heck, if this were about a strange group of funny-looking people doing these things, it would definitely get no lighter than an R rating!

Its glaring weakness is that it fails to show or discuss any of the many technical and scientific details. For instance, nothing is mentioned about the filming techniques: how was this marvelous feat accomplished? Was somebody actually staying there with a camera in the distance, or were a number of stationary cameras somehow left in place and the film was picked up later? Or another way? And though I can understand the desire to leave out more fact-based details on the penguins and their habits, things ended up feeling a little light and voyeuristic at times.

The story of the emperor penguins is so interesting though, and the images so wonderful, that it is easy to ignore or just not care about the details. The movie moves along at a breezy pace, and ends after just over 80 short minutes. There is nothing groundbreaking involved, and most of the information could be learned from watching any number of nature programs on television, but it achieves the basic goal of any movie: to engross the viewer and make them care. Of course, having Morgan Freedman narrate sure helps.

The Verdict: B.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


The Skeleton Key (2005)

The Skeleton Key is one of the better films in the thriller/suspense/horror genre in a relatively weak year for scary movies. It starts out as one of those seemingly-predictable films where you think one person is going to turn out to be a "bad guy", but then you think that was just a red herring and they;re really good, but then they eventually turn out to be bad after all. And it manages to pull it off ...for the most part.

A spooky atmosphere pervades throughout the Key. And there are plenty of other hallmarks (read: cliches) of successful suspense pictures too. For instance, it seems to rain every night there, with perfect warm sunny daylight hours. But the voodoo-tinged atmosphere (or hoodoo as the case may be) mostly serves as an attempt to conceal a plot that isn't all that scary or thrilling until the very last act. Which is to say that the movie, which is mildly entertaining but rather ho-hum for the bulk of it, is redeemed by a very good ending.

Down in Louisiana, Caroline (Kate Hudson) is a young nursing aide at a retirement home in New Orleans (a city which, for better or worse, is only featured briefly in the movie). One day she decides to pursue another opportunity and gets a job at an historic, stately home along the bayou being the personal aide for an elderly man. Ben (John Hurt) is an invalid who doesn't talk and can't walk and is mainly just living out his remaining days with his wife Violet (Gena Rowlands). Caroline is given an old master skeleton key that unlocks any door in the large house, but is gravely warned by Violet to stay away from the secret locked room in the attic. The fourth main character is Luke (Peter Sarsgaard), an attorney who is handling the estate and who befriends Caroline. Gradually Caroline comes to suspect that something is terribly amiss there, especially when Ben begins to give her eerie vibes and signals that something is wrong.

Hudson - who has seen a downturn in her critical success ever since her peak in Almost Famous - is good, and has very good rapport with Hurt, who is even better in a role with almost no sounds or speech. In fact, the interaction between their characters is so well done that I would have preferred more scenes of Caroline caring for Ben; it would have given even more impact to the eventual ending. But one thing that didn't have a great impact was the concept of hoodoo in general. By itself it's more of a curiosity than anything to be afraid of. But director Iain Softley and the filmmakers were able to get around this somewhat by using some eerie flashbacks of a hoodoo ceremony at the estate during the early 1920s that went very wrong.

In the end some people will enjoy the twisty finale, while others may find it too contrived or nonsensical. Clearly though, you're overall opinion of Skeleton Key will be directly related to how you feel about the way it ends. I see a nice comparison with The Sixth Sense - an okay solid movie with a big surprise, which I ultimately found disappointing. In this case, we have an okay solid movie with a big surprise, which more than makes the whole worthwhile.

The Verdict: B.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


Murderball (2005)

Murderball isn't quite what the title suggests. It's not actually a movie about a sport where the object is to kill your opponents (that's already been done before anyway, in the interesting but flawed Series 7: The Contenders). It is though a very good, often fascinating documentary about some of the world's most determined and dedicated athletes: quadriplegic rugby players, who play the hard hitting, sometimes violent sport in their souped-up wheelchairs.

From directors Henry Rubin and Dana Shapiro, Murderball was produced, in part, by MTV Films and it shows in its no-nonsense, fast moving, kinetic pace. But, structure-wise, it is actually a fairly conventional documentary. The set-up is a loss by the United States quad rugby squad in the 2002 world championship to their archrivals, Canada. It was a stinging defeat, as it ended a long string of dominance by the U.S. in the competition. But the team vows to continue on and, led by star Mark Zupan (who looks like a demonic evildoer in the worst way); they set their sights on getting revenge at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece. The Canadians would obviously like to remain on top, and they are led by Joe Soares - one of quad rugby's all-time greats who, in an unintentionally hilarious move, became a traitor to the U.S. See, he used to be U.S. star, but was cut from the team back in 1996 and fled to become the Canuck's head coach. The story moves on to introducing the key people and then, once things are in motion, it settles into alternating between showcasing Team USA and Canadian Joe.

Meanwhile, the film weaves together several running sub-stories. The best of them focuses on Keith, a young man recently injured and partially paralyzed in a bike accident. It is a rude awakening for him, but he manages to get it together and undergoes intensive daily therapy. It is a wonderful heartwarming moment when Keith meets Zupan; you know that the looks of joy on Keith's face as he tries out Zupan's modified wheelchair have pretty much sealed his fate. Two other subplots involve Zupan coming to terms with his former best friend (the driver in the accident that caused his injury), and Joe's relationship with his son (who isn't quite the athlete he would like him to be).

Still, there are some questions left unanswered. I wanted to know more about what these people do in their daily lives. Tell us what they do besides quad rugby. Do they work, or do they somehow manage to do rugby fulltime? Also, in a bit of a nitpick, I would have liked to have seen a few more collisions or skirmishes during the matches. Most of the game shots were just people scoring, which gives an impression that it's easier than it actually is.

But the rest of the movie more than makes up for these deficiencies. Murderball is filled with plenty of fun and funny moments, which is exactly what it needed. Certainly plenty of people have the misconception that paraplegics simply sit around in wheelchairs all day long having others care for them and generally leading miserable, meaningless lives. These men prove that this isn't always the case. Probably the best moment is a brief piece in which the players talk about their sex lives and how they adapted to work around their body's new limitations. This is intercut with scenes from a paraplegic sex ed video. In all, Murderball is a triumphant movie and arguably one of the best documentaries in recent years.

The Verdict: B+.

Monday, December 12, 2005


Syriana (2005)

Writer and director Stephen Gaghan's Syriana is a very smart, complex film. In fact, if you think about it, it nearly runs the gamut of scholarly subjects, with a cornucopia that includes social studies, history, sociology, psychology, civics, religion, and maybe even some mathematics. The wide-reaching ensemble picture is a sometimes fascinating look at the world oil industry, and its implications for government policies. The footprint of Soderbergh's Traffic (for which Gaghan scored an Oscar for best adapted screenplay) is all over this. There are multiple storylines, and many people and places to remember. Many people will surely have some difficulty following it and keeping track of who everyone is and how they relate to one another.

Probably the most startling themes (though perhaps not too surprising, for the most cynical among us) in Syriana revolve around the need for chaos in the Middle East, in order to achieve selfish goals of wealth and power. Not many of the people or entities come off looking very good: the CIA, the Islamic fundamentalists, the Middle Eastern royalty, and certainly not the oilmen. None of them are painted into a strict black-and-white world of pure good and evil (well, maybe the oil industry), but they are all real people with real human concerns. Some of them have good intentions but don't realize what they are doing may be considered wrong; while others may not even know which side they are fighting for. Plenty of serious issues of ethics and moral ambiguities abound, with traitors and mercenaries, and people being used left and right.

There is Bob Barnes (George Clooney), a lifelong agent in the CIA. He is from the old-school CIA of dark-ops and spying, but is butting heads with his managers who are the new breed that harbors poorly thought-out delusions of grandeur. He is sent on one mission, which must succeed at all costs, and the fallout from it has international implications. Then there is Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright), a bright honest lawyer who is working on the legal issues surrounding the merger of two major oil companies. Jimmy Pope (Chris Cooper) is one of the oil tycoons, and is solely focused on pushing the merger through. He and his comrades believe that a bigger company can only be a good thing - for everyone.

But Syriana appropriately tackles both sides of the story. Where in Traffic we only really witnessed the American side of the drug war, here we spend a good part of the film studying Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig) who, though he could pretty do whatever he wants with all his oil riches, he harbors a glimmer of hope to one day help turn his nation into a democracy. He even forms a friendship with an energy analyst (Matt Damon) who is in the midst of family tragedy and turmoil. And Wasim (Mazhar Munir), a down-on-his-luck young Muslim who has just lost his job due to the oil company merger. He tries hard to get another job but circumstances push him in another direction and he gradually shifts towards the dark side of his religion. This is arguably the key storyline in the movie, which needed to hit it out of the park to connect with viewers. It doesn't completely succeed though, as Gaghan doesn't nail the necessary emotional connection with Wasim's transformation.

That being said, everything somehow comes together into a rather cohesive picture. The acting is generally superb across the board. It's a tight political drama, with plenty of intrigue and thrills. Just don't expect many loud gunfights and car chases. Maybe it's just a little too smart for its own good.

The Verdict: B+.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

After years of unsuccessful attempts, novelist Douglas Adams' science fiction classic The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was finally adapted for the big screen. The popular book - part of a series, that I'm sure studio was hoping to turn into a film franchise - crosses multiple genres, from space action to romance, mystery adventure, and plenty of comedy. Combine this with a decent sized budget, and the Guide was destined to become one of the biggest and best hits of the year, right? Well, not exactly. It doesn't help that the director (Garth Jennings) is an unknown with little experience, or that the cast (which has plenty of recognizable faces) seems miscast and out of place. And it certainly doesn't help that the general plot and story is a rambling mess, which most likely will only be interesting to fans of the book.

Good 'ol Brit Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is just an average man trying to find his place in the world. He's unlucky with the ladies - just the other week he blew it with a promising young woman - and it seems like things can't get any worse, when one morning he finds his house about to be bulldozed to make way for a bypass. They do get worse though, as he soon learns that his good friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is actually an alien and that the bypass being built is actually an interstellar bypass. Next thing the pair know, they find planet Earth destroyed and manage to escape and stowaway on a spaceship. The ship, coincidentally, has several strange passengers including Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) - the woman that Arthur struck out with - and a very egotistical and annoying man named Zahod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell). There is also Marvin, a little tag-along robot-like companion that eerily resembles a dwarf-like Stormtrooper with a humongous head, and plenty of other strange things as the travelers embark on a zany adventure that changes their lives.

The style and tone of the movie reminded me of films like The Gods Must Be Crazy. It is quite good when it shows flashes of wicked, irreverent humor, like the idea that humans are just the third-most intelligent species on Earth (second being the dolphin). Or some jokes about having tea, or nice set pieces like a super-advanced encyclopedia. There is even plenty of self-referential humor.

But as exciting as it sounds on paper, this is a dull plot filled with meaningless drivel and too many absurdities and oddities for its own good. Of course some of the many jokes and gags manage to stick, but most fall flat. With an inane plot about finding the meaning of life, each scene could almost have been edited together in a random order, and it wouldn't have made much difference on the overall quality of the film - nor would it have been much less. Unfortunately, the movie manages the feat of creating virtually zero empathy or passion for a single character. I suppose if you are fond of the book, then you may be able to appreciate the humor more. As such, the movie is completely unable to stand on its own terms.

The Verdict: C-.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004)

One of the more bizarre and surreal events of the 1970s was the infamous kidnapping of rich heiress Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). From producer and director Robert Stone, Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst takes us back to that volatile time, when for a good part of the Winter and Spring of 1974 a nation was captivated to the story.

If you're not familiar with the story, basically the SLA was a group of people that had become disenfranchised with the U.S. during the fateful 1960s, perhaps culminating with the Kent State disaster in 1970. Initially they were a group with utopian Socialistic dreams (they're tagline was "Death to the Fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!"), but things soon spiraled out of control once a police officer was murdered. And set against the turbulent backdrop of mid-1970s California, where bombings were a regular occurrence, the group soon kidnapped the granddaughter of legendary newspaperman William Randolph Hearst. The reasons were ostensibly to force Patty's father, Randolph Hearst to provide a large sum of money in order to feed the poor and starving people in the state. In fact, along these lines, Guerilla makes many explicit references to the concept of Robin Hood (i.e., stealing from the rich to give to the poor). It even includes numerous footage of both the classic Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, and the Disney animated feature Robin Hood.

Though a manhunt was underway, and the FBI was heavily involved with the case, weeks later Patty still hadn't been found. The only good news was that the SLA released tapes to the media, demanding things as well as an increasingly cryptic series of messages from Patty. And sure enough, eventually a message is released saying that she had joined the group! To rip out the hearts of her wealthy family even further, she is soon caught on videotape in an infamous bank robbery, using the nickname of "Tania." Debate rages as to whether she was brainwashed, or whether she was a willing accomplice.

In addition to archival news footage, much of the story is derived from interviews with two former SLA members. The movie does a thorough job of covering the beginnings of the SLA, as well as the first month or so of the Hearst kidnapping. After that, perhaps in parallel to the media attention, there are much larger gaps in the coverage. First we start to move up and get updated on the story a couple weeks at a time, up until the first bank robbery. Then eventually we move forward nearly a whole year. What were the heiress and her new friends doing this whole time? How close were the authorities to finding them?

We get few answers on that. And virtually no insights into how and why Hearst joined the SLA, other than a cursory mention that she had fallen in love with "Cujo," one of the group members, and a one sentence mention of the Stockholm Syndrome. Obviously director Stone wasn't privy to what went on inside SLA's hideouts, but surely some conjecture and heresy would have been welcome. Unsurprisingly, there is no input from Hearst herself. There is, though, somewhat of a nice contrast at the end of the film, showing the fates of Hearst versus some of the surviving SLA members. By the way, this isn't mentioned in the movie, but Hearst's defense attorney was F. Lee Bailey, who you might recognize as one of the members of O.J. Simpson's Dream Team.

The Verdict: C+.

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