"That's a nice-a donut."

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

After being modest hits in a series of animated short films, the wacky duo of Wallace and Gromit finally made their feature film debut in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. From directors Nick Park and Steve Box of Aardman Animations, the movie was created using the impressive stop-motion animation process, and it is a delight to behold.

Wallace the inventor (voiced by Peter Sallis) and his loyal dog and partner Gromit (he doesn't talk) are the Anti-Pesto security team. They catch rabbits, rodents and other pests and then adopt the smarmy critters, who then reside in the basement of their home. Many residents of their town use Anti-Pesto to keep their beloved vegetables safe. See, each year the town holds a friendly giant vegetable competition and the veggies are a great source of pride for the townsfolk. So when a large, mysterious creature begins ruining and destroying people's crops, people start getting very anxious. Of course, Wallace and Gromit are brought into stop the carnage, but a couple things are getting in the way. First, is Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes), a snotty dirtball who figures that hunting and killing the creature is the way to go. Second, is a dark secret that could threaten to bring down not only the vegetable competition but also Anti-Pesto.

Much of the film's animation appears rather simplistic at first - especially many of the character models. But on closer inspection, there are some stunning intricacies in the details. It is filled with many laborious, mesmerizing sequences, including several chases that are feats by themselves. The Mouse Trap-like sequence that triggers in the W&G home when someone has an infestation is an absolute riot.

Of course, this is a children's film first there are many sly references that are sure to make the adults chuckle as well. Such as a scene where Wallace is naked, except for a cardboard box in front of his mid-region; the box has a written warning that says, "may contain nuts." Or a scene where the lovely Lady Tottington is showing Wallace her large collection of big vegetables - her passion makes it seem like a love scene to those outside her house (including the very perplexed Gromit). And speaking of Gromit, who doesn't talk and, in fact, doesn't make a sound out of his mouth the whole movie, is still very funny. Some of the best moments in the picture and his hilarious reactions to things, be it a simple shrug or a raised eyebrow. Then there are the small details - like how Wallace would do pretty much anything for cheese, or that Gromit is a knitter - that might seem like just throwaway bits, but end up creating depth and a real warmth to the characters.

Once the secret is revealed, the story becomes a bit more standard; ultimately, we've seen much of it before, but it's still fun. But it is amazing, and very refreshing, that in an age where computer-generated (CGI) movies are king in the animation world (heck, even Disney’s once-vaunted studio has closed its traditional 2-D studio), that less showy, handcrafted creations can still be successful. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a fine movie for people of all ages, and should be an easy choice for the Academy voters as Best Animated Feature of the year.

The Verdict: A-.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Elizabethtown (2005)

Cameron Crowe is a very creative and likeable filmmaker. His talents have given us such classic characters as Jeff Spicoli and Mr. Hand, Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court, Cliff Poncier and Janet Livermore, Rod Tidwell and Jerry Maguire, and William Miller and Penny Lane. He did hit a snag, though, with 2001's Vanilla Sky, which was basically a disheveled mess. But most of his fans are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt on that, and so he went back to his roots of more personal storytelling with Elizabethtown. Whereas his critical sensation Almost Famous was, in some ways, an ode to his mother, Elizabethtown is shaped by the memories of his father. The plot outline sounded very promising: a young man who has just been dealt a blow in his professional life returns home to a small Southern town after his father dies and finds his true love. Unfortunately, the promise ends there. Though the same could surely be said about a lot of movies, I wanted to like this a lot more than I actually did.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) faces being a miserable failure after the sneaker that he has been developing for years becomes a bust and costs his company (an obvious stand-in for Nike) millions. And his relationship with his girlfriend (Jessica Biel) is treading water. He has hit so low that he is about to try to kill himself when he receives word that his father has died. So he heads to Elizabethtown, Kentucky (somewhere outside of Louisville) to take care of things and make the arrangements for the funeral. On the flight there he meets a spunky flight attendant named Claire (Kirsten Dunst) and they hit it off. Back in E-Town, Drew meets much of the town and learns some stories and tidbits about his dad. So while he is still reeling from his unbelievable failure at work, and deal with the many headaches that come with planning a memorial service. And do that while trying to woo Claire, which is the real story here.

By the time the movie finally ended, I just didn't care what happened to Drew or Claire, one way or the other. The horrible last fifteen minutes or so - after the first ending - are simply an egregious, pompous attempt to seem "whimsical" or free-flowing and fun. What it ends up being though is just another excuse to play more popular music. Crowe has obviously used music to much success in his previous films, sometimes the music is even the focus, but there was still some depth underneath the music. There was a story that you actually cared about.

There are some moments of fun though, in E-Town. Especially some of the little things that play up the ingrown, home-fried, Southern culture, such as the way everyone knows everyone else and the fact that they continually say that Mitch and his family were from California (even though it is actually Oregon - because everything far away and out west is California to them). But those small moments are few and far between. I also liked the beginning of the relationship between Drew and Claire, particularly when they first meet. But after that it feels rather forced and the pair are made to be too needy. What's up with all of Claire's little lies - it's fine the first time or two, when you leave the audience unsure if the couple can actually be together, but don't drag it out like that, or you lose. An ongoing joke about Chuck and Cindy's wedding ("lovin' life 24-7") - a young couple staying at a hotel with a bunch of friends, just having a good time and partying before getting married - is more engaging than Drew and Claire. And Cindy is never even really seen!

Prior to the ending, the movie isn't really bad ...it's just not anywhere near good. And if you think that the general plot of the movie sounds familiar, that's because it is. Zach Braff's Garden State already nailed the routine about the young, not-sure-where-he's-headed, son whose dad dies, comes home, has a reawakening and falls in love. Elizabethtown is a very stale comparison. That's two strikes, Cameron.

The Verdict: C-.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

One Day in September (1999)

One of the movies currently nominated for Best Picture at the upcoming Oscars is director Steven Spielberg's Munich. In it, a group of Israeli agents are assigned by their government to carry out assassinations on those people responsible for the terrible kidnapping, and eventual murder, of eleven Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Summer Olympic games in Munich, Germany. It was a terrible event that overshadowed an otherwise great month of sports. It was especially sorrowful for the Germans, who had gone to great lengths to separate themselves from their past and to have things be nothing like that of the 1936 Games in Berlin. But Spielberg is not the first to put this on film. The events of that day have been chronicled before, several years ago, in the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September, from director Kevin McDonald.

Along with some recent interviews, the movie is composed of plenty of stunning archival video. Michael Douglas is officially the narrator, but much of the (announcing) duties fall in the hands of news footage, particularly of Jim McKay of ABC Sports, with brief auditory appearances by other familiar folks like Peter Jennings and Howard Cosell. Some of the interviews include various German officials, the man believed to be the only surviving member (Jamal Al Gashey) of the Black September group responsible for the heinous acts, and several family members of one of the ill-fated Israel hostages - Andre Spitzer a fencing coach.

If there is one, Ankie Spitzer (wife of Andre) is the protagonist of the story. She tells us details about their life together, and how making it to the Olympics was always a dream of his. There is a touching anecdote about how Andre saw the Liberian team while in Munich; he told her he wanted to say hello, but she thought that was crazy since the two countries weren't exactly friendly. He did anyway and, to her surprise, he had a nice conversation with team members, talking about how their events were going. For that very moment, the Olympic ideals of peace and serenity were being fulfilled. Ankie, as well as her daughter who was very young in 1972, and their stories provide even more emotional impact later on in the film.

McDonald and the filmmakers show a few of the memorable athletic endeavors from the '72 games, such as Mark Spitz' legendary efforts and the closing moments of the infamous USA-USSR gold medal men's basketball game, which are shown in a brief montage sequence in the early stages of the movie. For the most part though, the focus is on the tragic events unfolding in the Israel section of the Olympic Village. Considerable time is spent on the fact that it was colossally bungled by both German authorities and Olympic officials. IOC organizers were heavily criticized for not stopping the Olympic events right away (and even after they finally halted them, they were back on soon after). The Germans were completely unprepared for something like this. One example is something that, in hindsight, is rather humorous: when it is revealed that a planned raid on the building (which is being broadcast live to the world on television) was seen by the terrorists because all of the athlete's rooms had TVs.

One thing that holds the movie back from making the leap into the "excellent" category is that it lacks input from the members of the Israel Olympic delegation that were not involved in the tragedy. Surely these very lucky people must have had a lot to say? And, even if every single one of them didn't want to speak about it years later, why was so little said about them via the news coverage that was shown or through narration? They must have been terrified. Certainly their security was at risk, so were they just shuttled off to a safe place, or were they simply watching the events unfold live on television like everyone else? The movie doesn’t tell us.

Other that that, One Day in September is a very insightful and powerful movie that should resonate with most viewers. Even though most people will be familiar with the story - or will at least know how it turns out - it is still very compelling and provides for plenty of drama. You may know what is going to happen, but you are still hopeful. It is a very good and entertaining blend of news coverage, opinions, facts, sentiment and sorrow. It might even make you want to learn more about the Munich massacre. For a documentary, that is high praise indeed.

The Verdict: B+

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Broken Flowers (2005)

Broken Flowers is probably indie director Jim Jarmusch's first and only widely accessible film. That is, in part, due to the fact that it stars familiar face and ever-likeable comedian Bill Murray. Of course it is still very much from the independent vain, so don't many explosive or popcorn-friendly situations.

In the film Murray is Don Johnston (with a "t"), successful middle-age man, recently single after his latest flame (Julie Delpy) leaves. Soon thereafter though, he receives an anonymous letter. It is typewritten and purports to be from an ex-girlfriend of his. The writer informs him that they had a son together about 20 years ago, and that the child is on a search for him. Don's friend and neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) becomes very excited about this potential spark to their normal routines and encourages Don to solve the mystery and find the son first. The only problem is that he has no idea who the mother is (or if the letter is even legit). After narrowing the possibilities down to four women (played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton), he begrudgingly sets off on a journey that could very well be a life-changing destiny or perhaps just a cruel farce.

It is very interesting how Jarmusch contrasts the reactions and lives of each of the four women. There is a wide range and variety in the exes themselves - their personalities and careers - as well as their current homes and situations. The scenes where Don visits Laura (Sharon Stone's character) are definitely the funniest in an otherwise low key movie - and probably the most-satisfying for Don too. The humor is generally droll, and the pace deliberate, but it moves along rather briskly.

Murray is good, though, frankly, his older more "mature" roles in recent years are getting a little repetitive. He has come to excel at being the older man going through some sort of mid-life funk ...with not a lot of range in outward emotion. That's not to say that he's turned into someone like Bruce Willis, who shows little inward emotion either. But, well, something a little more outrageous like one of his classic bits would certainly welcome be a welcome change. Though I imagine he'll never get his long-needed Oscar if he takes that advice.

Some of the logic in the movie is a bit of a stretch, but isn't a problem if you play along. The title relates to sort of an ongoing theme in the movie, involving a vase of flowers back at Don's house and flowers that he gives to each of the women, but that's nothing more than an attempt to be pseudo-high brow. That doesn't really matter though. Broken Flowers fits nicely into the solo road trip genre, where the principal is always on a search for something ...to find someone, something, or themselves - possibly all three.

The Verdict: B

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Hustle and Flow (2005)

When most people imagine a movie centered on a street pimp and his group of homely whores, the picture tends to be very gritty and violent. Few cheeks will be left unbruised, few minds will be left unmessed with, and few hearts left unbroken. Someone will probably go to jail and somebody else will probably be killed. It will be a sad, cautionary tale, but probably with a lot of artistic merit, and somebody's soul will usually be redeemed by the end (the hooker with the heart of gold, anyone?). It will be the kind of movie you rarely want to see again. But with Hustle and Flow, unknown director Craig Brewer has managed to create the feel good pimp and hoes movie of the year!

DJay (Terrence Howard) is a struggling pimp from the streets of Memphis. He has several regular prostitutes (including Taryn Manning and Taraji Henson), but as he tells one of them in the beginning - he doesn't think they need to be doing that anymore. But what else are they gonna do? It's not just talk though; he's got plans. He has a thrilling desire to become a rap star and to fulfill his dream of recording music and getting it played. With the help of an old friend (Anthony Anderson), DJAy and his hoes get to work on recording in a makeshift room of their beat up old house. Things eventually start to come together, as DJay clearly has a natural talent. The sound is good, but will anyone want to listen? The movie takes a sudden, drastic turn near the end that could make-or-break the movie for some people.

The performances in Hustle & Flow are very good across the board, and are ultimately what makes the movie what it is. Frankly, I could have done without DJ Qualls; he certainly isn't bad, but the role just seems misplaced and miscast. He wasn't able to sell me the belief that this white bread little church boy would be hanging with the rest of these folks. However, Howard, who practically came out of nowhere in 2005, is a revelation. If I didn't know better, and you told me that he was really a Memphis pimp, I wouldn't have even blinked or given it a second thought. If you weren't blown away by him in any of his other recent roles, including Crash and Four Brothers, this should convince you. He is the real deal, and should be a factor in Hollywood for some time. And Manning and Henson as the two main whores are really terrific as well. Any time you thought something would turn into a cliche or go back to familiar ground, these talented actors turned things on their heads.

The soundtrack is also very good, and is highlighted by the Oscar nominee for Best Song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." And, while I doubt it will win (see: "Blame Canada"), it very much deserves to. Not only is the song an integral part of the movie, unlike some previous winners that simply played over the end credits, but it is also a good tune.

For better or worse, Brewer doesn't spend much time providing any background for why these people got where they are. It doesn't really matter though, as the focus is on DJay and his pursuit of a dream. Much of the strength of the film actually lies within the subtle, but tender relationship between DJay and the hoes, who are riding along with him. They are at a crossroads, as they are trying to move away from their past (and present), but realize that sometimes they have to make difficult choices. In short, Hustle and Flow takes a potentially very serious topic and manages to make it fun.

The Verdict: A-

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Island (2005)

With a Michael Bay film, most people tend to know what to expect: explosions, gun fights, car chases, minimal plot or character development, quick cut editing, fast-talking heroes, and a happy ending. It is only a slight exaggeration to call his movies a paint-by-numbers operation. You generally know what to expect, just as movie industry watchers tend to expect his films to make a lot of money. His fun, mindless movies are, for many people, the ideal summer popcorn getaway. So it came as a surprise to many when this past summer's flick The Island came and left theaters without much fanfare. So, are people finally getting wise to Michael Bay? Or is this a different type of Bay movie? Or was this simply an outlier in the scheme of things?

Well, in the Bay handbook, The Island pretty much runs the gamut of techniques. In addition to most of the things outlined above, we also have continuity problems, editing errors, and plenty of leaps in logic and reality. It is a bit more subdued than other Bay films, but his touch is still all over it - from the ultra-quick cut, MTV-style editing, to the flashy filtering effects, to the lack of real dialogue and warmth. Though, given that this is a remake of another bad movie - Parts: The Clonus Horror - it would have been foolish to expect much from it.

Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson) are residents of a bland, monotonous society in the year 2019, living in the days after some sort of "contamination" wiped out all of Earth's living creatures. Everyone wears white clothes all the time, and have their meals and body's vital signs monitored by a big brother-like management. People there dream of being selected in the ongoing lottery, to be transported to a wonderful, tropical island where they can live out their days. But Lincoln begins to question things and when Jordan is selected for the lottery, we soon discover the horrifying secret of the facility. Much to their amazement, they escape the facility - still alive - and end up on a search to find all the answers. Is the island even real?

Compared to The Clonus Horror, The Island has more professional acting, and a much larger budget for set design and special effects. This helps the movie surpass Clonus overall. But some of the throwaway bit characters in the facility have more character development than Jordan. One of them is a worker (Steve Buscemi) who befriends Lincoln, but his time on screen is short-lived. Eventually it is just one action set piece after another, with little regard for believability. This is just one small thing, but with all the technological advances and other stuff, why didn't they just say that the year in the film was something like 2050, instead of just over a decade from now - when none of this would be possible?

The movie is kind of fun for a while, but by the end you'll most likely be thinking "blah, so what." The reason it bombed in theaters could very well have been a combination of all three possibilities: Michael Bay's stock is dwindling; it isn't quite the bang-bang action fest of his previous films; and maybe it was just a one-time thing and the marketing just didn't catch on with audiences.

The Verdict: C.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Grizzly Man (2005)

Director Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man isn't about grizzly bears. And, no, it isn't about a half-man, half-bear creature. On the surface, it tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a man who gained acclaimed over the years by returning to the wilds of Alaska annually to live amongst the large, hungry, dangerous, and awe-inspiring, bears. But Grizzly Man isn't even about that, really. It is actually a fascinating account of Treadwell's descent into madness.

From the very beginning Herzog reveals Treadwell's ultimate fate: death at the still-young age of 46. Over the course of his last few Summers in grizzly territory, he had brought along video cameras to document his experiences, and with over 100 hours of footage, Herzog pieced them together. These tales make up a good bulk of the material, with the rest footage of Herzog's investigation to learn more about the man from his friends, parents, colleagues, and other associates.

Initially Treadwell comes off as just a nature-loving oddball. It is mentioned that, in the off-season, he often went around to schools and gave presentations and talks on the grizzly bears, accepting no compensation. He was a relentless advocate of the bears, and saw himself as their caretaker and defender. He was very well-meaning, but also a very misguided person, and over the years we see that his mindset deteriorates into a mass of paranoia, mood swings, and anger. And ...perhaps insanity as well. There are plenty of examples, but one I found quite hilarious was when he deconstructs a big fight that he just witnessed and filmed, between two big grizzly's fighting over a woman. Afterwards, he goes on to interview the loser.

He was ever the showman. (In one interesting tidbit, his father reveals that he "allegedly" was the second place finisher for the bartender spot on "Cheers," that ultimately went to Woody Harrelson.) He often did multiple takes of his shots, and some of these are shown to humorous effect. Make no mistake: Treadwell was a very compassionate and charismatic individual. But this passion would lead to his grizzly death, along with his girlfriend. Unfortunately, he saw himself more as a bear than a human; one person remarks that he would even act like a bear in their presence.

As fun and powerful the movie is, there are some criticisms that need to be addressed. One scene with a good friend of Treadwell, who was also a member of the "Grizzly People" to protect the bears, is out of place and unnecessary, as a coroner awkwardly presents her with a watch. In fact, the coroner is in several scenes and he seems very strange and stilted. These interviews almost borderline on seeming fake, or like bad acting. Some viewers of the movie will dislike the fact that the audio of the death scene is not provided, but rather only a very brief snippet is overheard as Herzog is seen listening to it on headphones. He urges Treadwell's friend to never let anyone hear it and to in fact destroy it. I think this was a good artistic decision to not play it. Doing so not only would have been irrelevant to the goals of the film, but would have come off as sensationalistic and gruesome simply for shock value.

Overall, Herzog deftly handles the subject matter. He also serves as the narrator, which is unusual (as I'm sure Morgan Freeman would have been glad to do it) but it works well; he has an alluring voice. And despite the desire one might have to turn this into almost a mockumentary, he treats Treadwell mostly with respect and dignity, only starting to lecture a bit near the end that the man wasn't quite right. In fact, he evens comes to respect the grizzly man as a filmmaker, as some of his shots were beautifully crafted with meaning and purpose. And Herzog has crafted a wonderful film that is at times funny, sad, and filled with drama. Just don't expect it to be as cute or as family-friendly as March of the Penguins.

The Verdict: B+.


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