"That's a nice-a donut."

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Chicken Little (2005)

The very beginning of Chicken Little opens with a wholly unserious, jocular little setup where the voice of Chicken Little (Zach Braff) opines on how to begin the film. He first tries out a "once upon a time", then a Lion King opening, and then the closeup-on-a-storybook; finally he settles on "the sky is falling!" and the story begins. The setup in Disney's first in-house CGI animated film seems innocuous, but it manages to represent the whole problem with the movie that is about to follow. It tries to be a cute, but clever, tongue-in-cheek animated story that the whole family can enjoy, peppered with in-jokes and sly pop references for moms and dads. Unfortunately it succeeds in none of these ways, as it immediately becomes a tired, ongoing string of lame throwaway gags and too-obvious spoofs of better material.

The first thirty minutes or so are simply made up of four main scenes: the opening panic (more on that in a moment), a zany sequence where Little goes to school, a dodgeball match, and a baseball game. Each nearly separate and distinct, with little in the way of meaningful plot or real character development. So, back in the beginning of the story Chicken Little causes a ruckus around town when he mistakenly thinks that the sky is falling. It creates a panic, and the even is a great embarrassment to him and his father (Garry Marshall). Move ahead a year and Little and his friends Abby Mallard a.ka. Ugly Duckling (Joan Cusack), Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn), and Fish Out of Water (he doesn't talk) are the outcasts in school. (Not to mention the fact that they were all blessed with very creative and original names.) But they get more than they bargained for and have a chance to make a real name for themselves when they discover that the sky really does appear to be falling. But will anyone in town believe them this time? Or are they all doomed?

Several movies are parodied in some way or another, including a King Kong gag that is way too telegraphed and, later, much of the second half becomes a giant War of the Worlds take. It is so obviously unoriginal that one characters actually cries that it is like a "war of the worlds" out there. There are also several popular songs that are thrown in without any insight or regard for providing any benefit to the film, other than to maybe pique the interest of any adults who happen to be watching it.

The voice actors all do a fairly solid job, or at least as good as they can with the material. And certainly a few of the scenes had pretty good potential to provide a chuckle or two. But director Mark Dindal, who previously did The Emperor's New Groove, and the rest of the creative team are unable to put the pieces together to make anything very memorable. It really makes you scratch your head in wonder that Disney ditched their traditional hand-drawn animation unit to make movies like this. Chicken Little somehow manages to even throw under other recent mediocre CGI fare like Robots and Shark Tale. I sure hope that Pixar is able to bring some of their magic to Disney, rather than Disney bringing their poison to Pixar.

The Verdict: D+.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Wolf Creek (2005)

In a time when it seems that there is a cheap horror movie released into theaters every single week, it is getting a bit harder to separate the junk from the not-junk. In fact, many of the so-called horror movies released today, are nothing more than semi-suspenseful, self-aware teen comedy-dramas. But with Wolf Creek, Australian multi-tasking writer, director and producer Greg McLean has crafted a terrifying tale that is, at last, worthy of being called a "horror" flick.

It isn't exactly the most original story in the world; for starters, it has classic 70s slasher The Texas Chainsaw Massacre clearly in its sights. Not to mention the fact that it is loosely based on a true story - a detail which is gladly mentions at the start. We are told that some 30,000 people go missing in the land down under each year and that 90 percent of them are found within a month. But "some are never seen again."

In the story, Ben (Nathan Phillips) and his friends Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and Liz (Cassandra Magrath) are all college-age students on vacation. They are headed on a road trip through the Outback, with the main goal of hiking the beautifully scenic Wolf Creek National Park. After a carefree beginning to their trip, the ominous signs begin at Wolf Creek, when two of the group's watches have stopped, followed by the car mysteriously failing to start. A very shady, but nice, old man (John Jarratt) happens by in his truck and offers to give them a lift. He can fix it, but it'll need a new part or two. From there, their luck goes from poor to deadly. In case you haven't already guessed: the very shady, but nice, old man is a crazy lunatic and a cold-blooded monster.

With good use of the Outback scenery as backdrop, as well as plenty of shots of the deep orange sunshine to give an idea of how hot it is there, you know you're not at home and that Wolf Creek is not a place you'd really want to be. Pleasantly, the acting is all very solid. These are all no-name actors, yet nothing was amateur about it and well, at the very least, I never felt that I was watching an unintentional comedy. It also helps that the light banter in the beginning is realistic and never feels like that found in any of the interchangeable American teen slasher flicks. The female characters do make a couple stupid mistakes, that will have you pulling out your hair, but the tension is so tight that your heart will be pounding away anyway.

It is a very slow build up in tension though, as McLean tries to set the stage and develop the three main characters for the first half hour or so. Some will likely find the beginning too tedious and unnecessary for the most part, though since we already have a pretty good idea that something bad is going to happen eventually, this keeps you alert. One things get rolling, however, they don't stop. It is no exaggeration to say that the final hour-plus is completely unflinching and unrelenting terror. With plenty of moments that will have you biting your nails and averting your gaze, it is also a ruthless rollercoaster ride as the seemingly hopeless travelers are sometimes given hope. Followed soon thereafter by gut-punching agony. Wolf Creek is definitely not recommended for those faint of heart. But for those like me, who are suckers for low budget horror, it will provide some of the better thrills and white-knuckled scares in recent years.

The Verdict: B.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

True Romance (1993)

Back in the old days, before Quentin Tarantino was a love-him or hate-him egomaniac, he wrote a little story called True Romance. Despite what the title may lead you to believe, it's not a traditional romance - in the mold of a Cary Grant film or a Julia Roberts picture. In fact, many people won't even think of it as a romance, or in any way romantic. But it really is. From director Tony Scott, who has had a mixed bag of success working on a variety of action movies in his career like Top Gun and Spy Game, True Romance is a very effective blend of many elements of film such as humor, crime, chase, action, suspense and, yes, romance.

One night in lonely old Detroit, Elvis and kung-fu fan Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) meets Alabama (Patricia Arquette). It doesn't matter that she is actually a call girl who had been hired by his boss to give him a special little birthday present; they hit it off instantly and soon marry. Things get a bit chaotic, though, after that. Clarence goes to visit Drexl (Gary Oldman), Alabama's pimp, in order to set things straight. It ends up in a bloodbath, and Clarence ends up inadvertently taking a suitcase full of uncut cocaine. So the newly married couple head for sunny California to stay with his old friend Dick Ritchie (Michael Rapaport), who may be able to help broker a drug deal for them through weasely Elliot Blitzer (Bronson Pinchot). But in order to complete the deal, they must contend with other competing factions including the real owners of the cocaine, and law enforcement.

With the trademark Tarantino dialogue and banter, the tone is set for a straight-up fun movie. The action is very good, and it especially helps that humor is so effortlessly infused into the violent scenes. A couple of these scenes in the movie involve several classic soliloquies, including a very un-PC essay on the origins of Sicilians, and how killing someone for the first time is always the hardest.

The soundtrack includes a mix of rock tunes, in the same vain as those found on subsequent Tarantino movies, along with an unusual instrumental theme that is reminiscent of circus or carnival music. It's an unusual choice, for sure, but helps give it a fairy tale vibe that seems to make the story even more interesting. The movie is very violent in several scenes, though to its credit is more of the "ballet of violence" nature, and not too gory. There is a far-reaching, all-star cast - some of whom would not make it big for a few more years, with bit parts from Sam Jackson, Brad Pitt, Tom Sizemore, and a much younger and thinner James Gandolfini.

What ever happened to Christian Slater anyway? It's really a shame, as his once promising career has turned very far south and he's been reduced to the straight-to-video and C-movie fare, and the occasional TV guest appearance. But he has never been better than in True Romance, and his screen time with Arquette is just right. Clarence and Alabama are two lovebirds that would do anything for each other, and you believe it. It would have been interesting to see if (and how) the movie would have been different had Tarantino directed it himself, but that's really just an irrelevant parlor game. Scott acquits himself well. Few movies are more pure fun.

The Verdict: A-.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Capote (2005)

The life of acclaimed American author Truman Capote and, more specifically, the deep emotional impact that his best and most famous work had on him is explored in director Bennett Miller's Capote. The film opens on a dark and dreary day in November 1959 in the middle of Kansas. A good and prominent farm family, the Clutters, have been brutally murdered in cold blood. Shortly thereafter back in New York City, novelist Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reads about the slaying in the newspaper and has an epiphany that his next work should be about this. It would be a "nonfiction novel" and would change the way people think and write. He travels to Kansas for his research, along with Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), his part-time research assistant, close friend and confidante, and fellow writer (who would soon find some mild success of her own with To Kill a Mockingbird).

The thrust of much of the film centers on Capote's relationship with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), one of the two men who were tried and convicted for the crimes. Truman interviews him regularly and even appears as a friend to Perry (they are "amigos"). In reality though, Truman has been using him to get his story - he continually lies to him, such as saying he hasn't written much yet or hasn't even thought about a title. He clamors for the early buzz and acclaim the book is getting, but knows that to really make a mark, he needs to finally hear Perry's story of what really happened that horrifying night. This ends up coming back to haunt Truman as he lays with overwhelming guilt over the prisoners' fate. Although "In Cold Blood" was hailed as a literary classic and made him one of the most popular writers in America, ultimately Capote would never finish another book, as he would succumb to severe alcoholism and depression.

The heinous crime was the story, but it is really all about Capote though (as the title might suggest). Back in Manhattan, where many of the scenes show Truman drinking and socializing with many adoring friends, spinning yarns and telling hilarious tales, he is always the center of attention. It's all a story to him - the greatest story - and nothing else. "Sometimes when I think of how good my book is going to be, I can't breath," he says. And early in the film he tells the Kansas chief investigator Dewey (Chris Cooper) that he didn't really care if they found the killers or not, he just wanted something good.

The one problem with the direction and tone that the movie takes is that I was never convinced that Capote was experiencing guilt. He was fairly self-centered for much of the movie, so I never bought into his sadness or remorse. There was no emotional wallop like there should have been at the end. Hoffman carried his tight, nasally voiced impersonation of the famous writer into an Oscar-winning role, and it's a fine performance and he is clearly in control in pretty much every scene he is in (which is pretty much every scene in the film). Though it's easy to imagine that he would not have won all the acclaim if Capote had been a fictional character. I also didn't care for the way that Harper Lee was portrayed in the second half; after the initial investigation is over in Kansas, it is only Truman that goes back after that. But it was as if the filmmaker's still felt that she should be part of the story - so we get beaten over the head with "look, she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, there are two famous writers in this story!"

Perhaps I'm being too harsh though - I enjoyed the movie. It is a bit slow moving at times but does a commendable job of navigating between both the "In Cold Blood" parts and the story-about-the-story parts. I liked that when Smith and Dick Hickock, his accomplice, were finally captured, the movie was seen completely through Truman's eyes. We don't see any backroom police investigations, or them actually being arrested; just Truman and Nelle watching with others in a crowd as the men are taken into a police station. The many long shots that Miller uses, especially in the outdoor Kansas scenes, provide a deep sense of emotional distance, not too unlike the distance between Truman and the heart-wrenching truth. And, more than anything, I'm grateful that Hoffman has finally gotten his due as an accomplished actor.

The Verdict: B.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Jarhead (2005)

With a theatrical marketing campaign that was praised, and helped along by its song from popular rap artist Kanye West, Jarhead was a hot topic of conversation upon its release last year for the fact that it was one of just a small handful of movies that had broached the short-lived Gulf War under the first President Bush. From award-winning director Sam Mendes (of American Beauty) the movie was destined to be a war classic and would undoubtedly make gloriously subtle comparisons to the much more controversial mess in the Middle East that our country is currently is. But, alas, as with most of its predecessors (Three Kings and Courage Under Fire), it is a solid but ho-hum effort that fails to deliver on several levels.

The movie is based on a true story, from former Marine Anthony Swofford's book about his days as an elite scout sniper before and during the war. Jake Gyllenhaal is Swofford, and we follow him from the beginning during his rough days in boot camp. Peter Sarsgaard is fellow Marine Troy, who befriends Swofford. Very shortly their unit is off to the desert as one of the very first to be deployed during Operation Desert Shield. As days become weeks, and weeks become months, waiting for the war to actually start, the men in the unit must find ways to kill time in the scorching and brutal heat. (For the record, the number one way to pass time is self-pleasure, and the number one beverage of choice is water - lots of it.) As time passes Swofford and Troy wonder when they will finally be able to kill someone. It's really not too absurd of a though; after all, that is what they are trained to do. Eventually the war begins, and we wonder if they will ever get their chance.

The movie is beautifully shot, which is not surprising given that the great Roger Deakens (his credits include The Shawshank Redemption, The Man Who Wasn't There, and A Beautiful Mind) served as lead photographer. We are really given a sense of longing and nothingness out in the vast fields of sand and wind. Shots later on in the movie, of burning oil fields, are respectfully captured but still provide a real sense of shock.

Some of the side characters are pretty standard cliches: the Midwestern home boy, the partying Latino, the raunchy and wild obnoxious guy, the superior who is usually a jerk but when you get to know him he's not so bad (played by Jaime Foxx), and of course the hard ass drill instructor. But the lead actors are quite good. Between this and Brokeback Mountain, Gyllenhaal has certainly convinced me that he is one of the leading young actors of today, and Sarsgaard of course is great as always. It's no surprise that the chemistry is so strong between the two actors, given that they are good friends in real life, and soon to be brothers in law. Unfortunately the wonderful Chris Cooper's appearance is all-too brief.

The coda of the film feels completely irrelevant to the story, and unnecessary. Now, I'm not sure where I would have ended it exactly, but as it is, the ending feels like something that was tacked on after one of those infamous movie focus groups. On the whole, Jarhead seems to aspire to be much more than it really is. It ends up being a rather simple war tale - nothing more and nothing less. It isn't exactly a lightweight fluff propaganda piece or popcorn feast, but on the other hand, we get no deep philosophical essays or diatribes about the atrocities of war (or, on the other side, the necessity of war). The only thing close to this is that Swofford seems to regret joining the forces, and doesn't particularly want to be there. Nobody really has any great enlightening, or is really any different in the end than in the beginning. It is what it is, and that is a solid, reasonably well-told and fairly entertaining story of one man's experience in a war. But it lacks a heart. I'll add it to the ever-growing list of decent films that I wanted to like much more than I actually did.

The Verdict: B-.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Traffic (2000)

Forget the recent little brouhaha over Crash winning the Oscar for Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain. Or other noteworthy surprises such as Shakespeare in Love topping Saving Private Ryan or Ordinary People over Raging Bull. For my money, one of the biggest jokes in the Academy's history was awarding the top prize in 2000 to Gladiator over Steven Soderbergh's masterpiece, Traffic. Actually based on the also-great British mini-series Traffik from the late 1980s, Traffic has the benefit of higher production values and a more pleasing style than its predecessor, and the result is a movie that is a sometimes grim, but very entertaining and multi-layered tale about drugs, the war on drugs, and the effects of each on numerous people.

There are four primary stories in Traffic. One focuses on Mexican police officer Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner Manolo (Jacob Vargas), and their efforts to be good, hard working cops in a corrupt state and to take down the local drug cartels. The second storyline is about a pair of DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) and their operation to bring down a major San Diego drug supplier. In turn, the third story involves the drug supplier's wife Helen Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a pregnant upper-society woman who must come to terms with his likely imprisonment. Finally, Bob Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is an Ohio Supreme Court justice who has just been named as Drug Czar. While he tries to navigate the very complex and difficult road ahead in his job, his daughter (Erika Christensen) and her friends have entered a downward spiral and have become addicted to cocaine, in its various forms. The movie weaves in and out seamlessly between the different, but connected, storylines. Pretty much the only group of people not shown are the actual drug makers - the growers and the post-processing folks. That aspect is covered in Traffik, but doesn't hurt this story as there is already so much for us to take in and think about.

All of the pieces intersect in some way, and all of the major characters face changes and must make crucial decisions along the way as well. Javier has serious career choices to make, with both ethics and money rearing their ugly heads; Wakefield obviously has family issues as well as dealing with how it may impact his career; Helena must figure out how the heck her and her kids are to survive with her husband headed to prison and dangerous people after her for money. Some upper brow wink-and-nod moments help to further increase the depth of the story, like how Wakefield likes to drink alcohol (obviously not seeing the risk or comparison to illegal drugs), or how when he gives a speech to associates about "thinking outside the box" on drug war solutions and ideas, the room goes silent. Nobody has any ideas because the "war" is unwinnable.

The story in Traffic is what forces you take notice, but the many talented actors in the ensemble cast deftly help elevate it. Cheadle is fantastic, in a role that is often deadly serious, but his comedic interplay with fellow DEA agent Guzman is almost show-stopping; it's this performance that helped to eventually catapult Cheadle into one of America's finest actors. Douglas is very commanding in a challenging role; it's hard to imagine being in such a high position of power and having your child ironically be doing the exact opposite of what your job hopes to stop, but he nails the drama and complex emotions that were obviously running through Wakefield. Of course, the unforeseen side effect of this is that seemingly every Douglas role from here on forward were powerful, upper class men. Overall, it is a well-oiled ensemble cast in every way.

Though it lost out on the big trophy, it did end up winning several other awards, and deserved every one of them: directing, screenplay adaptation, editing, and Del Toro as supporting actor. It could also have just as easily won for its photography though, which is enhanced by a beautiful use of filters. With dirty, washed-out, tannish/yellowish tones for the Mexican scenes, grayish-blue hues for scenes in government buildings like in DC or a border security building in Texas, and vibrant colors for the other parts such as plush Cincinnati suburbs or garish La Jolla near San Diego. And a very subtle, and vastly underrated, music score is top-notch. Unlike many other interchangeable scores, it is not distracting at all, and usually sits in the background, only building up as the stories advance. The music finally crescendos over "night baseball" in the closing shots.

For much of the movie Traffic only plays lip service to the other side, with regards to the "war on drugs" being a losing cause, but is able to strike a nice balance by the end and show that you can't just stop the supply, but that the demand must be addressed. The end is just what it needed to be: hopeful and optimistic.

The Verdict: A+.

Monday, April 10, 2006

King Kong (1933)

Let's get this out of the way, right from the beginning: for a film that is over 70 years old, the effects in the original King Kong are truly amazing. This set the standard for many action and adventure films to follow in its big footsteps. It was so far ahead of its time in many ways that the whole concept of the "summer blockbuster" wasn't even thought about for another 40 or so years. If Kong were colorized and someone were to come into this world and have no knowledge of film other than current movies, tabula rasa, they might very well guess that it was made as recently as twenty or thirty years ago. That's not to say that the effects are perfect by any stretch, for instance in an island scene on a cliff overlooking water, the ocean water is clearly just a still picture, but by and large it really wasn't that great of a leap from the dinosaurs in this movie to the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or, more recently, Peter Jackson's King Kong remake.

Sort of ironically, unlike the Peter Jackson remake, which had been criticized by some for being unnecessarily long and perhaps a bit too self-indulgent, this one moves rather briskly at under 2 hours and even includes an overture - something usually linked to longer pictures. Anyway, directors Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack waste no time in moving things along. Little time is actually spent in New York (in fact, the scenes near the end for which the movie is most famous for are actually only a scant fraction of the running time), as fictional film director Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) hurriedly pushes on in his quest for the ultimate movie. He finds pretty Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and has little trouble convincing her to come along on his daring and cavalier quest on the high seas. The ship's crew is a bumbling band of sexist roughnecks, led by first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), who would be reimagined as a screenwriter in the recent update. They are headed for a mysterious island, with a mythical beast (although Denham doesn't tell anyone this until they are almost there). Once there, they soon find out that it is a prehistoric island with a village of uncivilized native people, as well as many dinosaurs, large snakes, and of course the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Kong isn't seen until about 46 minutes in, but once that happens the movie is pretty much pure adrenaline until the end. There is an overarching them of "beauty and the beast." Perhaps the biggest difference with Jackson's version is the relationship between Ann and Kong. Here, it is simply one-way love, as Ann wants nothing to do with the beast. It is almost a tragedy, as Kong could have easily lived out a long life ruling his island being the king but, as Denham says, "some big hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and bang - he cracks up and goes sappy."

Fay Wray is pretty good when she has something to say, other than screaming, but really the acting is probably the movie's biggest weakness. It is almost as if the actors were acting as if guided by a real-life version of Carl Denham. It would be dishonest to say that King Kong hasn't lost a little bit of luster over time, as plenty of movies have come along in its path and surpassed it. But it's still a darn good film, and certainly in the upper echelon of what most of us consider to be "classic." Be sure to check out some of the many amazing special features on the wonderfully restored special edition DVD, a set that many reviewers deemed the best overall DVD of last year.

The Verdict: B+.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

5x2 (2005)

5x2 begins in a small office as we witness the final divorce proceedings of Gilles (Stephane Freiss) and Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedechi) and ends as they swim together in the sea on the first
day of their relationship. From Francois Ozon, director of several distinguished films such as 8 Women and Swimming Pool, it is a non-linear movie that moves backwards to tell the story of their relationship in five short tales. It may remind you of Nolan's Memento or Noe's Irreversible in structure and style. But it's quite different in its own right as Ozon shows us the bitterness and melancholy of a love that has died, before ultimately showing us a relationship that seemed so good. How did this happen?

We move from the divorce proceedings (and a subsequent tryst in a hotel room), to a (strained but) revealing dinner party a year or two before, and then the birth of their son a couple years before that, their wedding night, and finally scenes from a resort paradise where they meet and fall in love. A very minor and seemingly insignificant subplot involves Marion's parents - their relationship is also struggling and perhaps serves as a mirror for Marion and Gilles. By the end of the story (the beginning of the movie), Gilles wonders if the dad has moved out yet, while the parents are clearly still in love at the couple's wedding.

Neither of the main characters are terribly likeable. Early on it is Gilles who seems to be more at "fault" and then we see some more negative aspects of Marion. This isn't the actors fault, but probably just a simple consequence of telling a divorce story like this. In fact, the acting is great overall. These foreign actors, many of whom most of us have never heard of and will probably never see again, are all first-rate and give very deep performances. Bruni-Tedechi and Freiss are very solid, and seem to provide just the right expressions and body signals that are needed, at all the right moments.

The problem with the comparisons to Memento or Irreversible though is that those took place over a much shorter time period. For the most part, they could just have easily been done in linear fashion and most of the relevant details of the characters and situations would have been known to the viewer. 5x2 takes places over a number of years, and with just five tales being told, much is left out. That's not say that we should always be handfed all the answers - and goodness knows Hollywood loves to do that - but give us something. It's often good to leave the viewer to make their own deductions and theories about filling in any blanks in the story; here there is so much space between each story that too much is left blank. This is supposed to be a study and decomposition in the dissolution of a marriage, and yet we only have the vaguest and slightest clues about what really brought them down.

Some of the clues we do get are very intriguing though. Such as how Gilles, after Marion calls him to say that there were problems and they will be inducing her into labor, tells his secretary to hold his calls; he is busy working. Why does he do that? Or how Marion, on their wedding night, ventures outside after he has gone to sleep and ends up flirting with a strange man. Why does she do that?

Technically 5x2 is a very impressive movie, smartly edited with good photography and no wasted shots. It's just a bit on the disappointing side as an end product - the tastes that we get of the relationship are just too brief for us to really hold opinions or, ultimately, to care.

The Verdict: C.


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