Saturday, September 30, 2006

MovieWatch: "Marie Antoinette"

"Marie Antoinette"
Director: Sofia Coppola
Fien Print Rating: 69
In a Nutshell: Is Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" a superficial movie about a superficial woman? Or is it a flawed, but fascinating movie that uses the language of superficiality to explore an interesting historical figure who has been accused -- correctly it seems -- of being superficial. Does that make sense? What I'm sayin' is that either Coppola has perfectly captured the rituals, costumes and decorations of the 18th century French court and called it a day or else she uses the luscious gowns, the ornate food preparations and the ridiculous formality to comment on undeserved and unexpected celebrity in some semi-profound and certainly poetic way. Expect plenty of reviews calling "Marie Antoinette" something like "Paris Hilton: Queen of France" and mean it almost as a compliment. Expect plenty more to call it "Kirsten Dunst Plays Dress-Up For Two Hours," which would also probably be correct. Dunst is perfect as the giggling, silly young Antoinette who arrives in the French court as a teen entirely unprepared for the responsibilities and duties of her new position. She's delightful as she learns relearns how to eat breakfast, get dressed in the morning and choose her friends. Much of the movie is pitched towards a comedy of manners tone that's likely to either be missed by detractors or misinterpreted as unintentional. But since nobody casts Molly Shannon as a bitchy noble or Asia Argento as a French slut with a straight face, that would be foolish. Where Dunst and Coppola and the movie are less confident is when things are supposed to get darker and we're supposed to see how Marie's self-indulgence and waste led to her eventual fate (a fate that's never mentioned even in titles at the end of the movie). Coppola, using many of the New Wave-y visual tricks that she worked out in "Virgin Suicides" and "Lost in Translation," definitely lets us know why we should be amused by Marie and her life, but never conveys why we should care, much less why the people of France cared enough to first love her and ultimately wish her dead. Is that actually Coppola's point? Is it a condemnation of any culture that would raise a no-talent like Hilton or Jessica Simpson to a position of glory and then would see any purpose at all in attempting to tear them down? Heck is it a parable about Coppola herself, an undeniably gifted but somewhat simplistic young woman raised to Oscar-winning royalty before her time? I wish I understood.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

MovieWatch: "Pan's Labyrinth"

"Pan's Labyrinth"
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Fien Print Rating: 90
In a Nutshell: To put it simply, "Pan's Labyrinth" is far and away the best film I've seen in 2006 (pushing "Brick" and "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" down a couple notches if you're scoring at home). To go that extra step, I'd be surprised -- pleased, but surprised -- if a better movie comes out for the rest of this year. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a piece of peerless fantastical storytelling, a poetic tribute to the liberating power of belief and magic and an allegory on the dangers of fascism and extremism that's absolutely universal despite the subtitles and its setting in 1944 Civil War-torn Spain. Although most casual filmmakers mostly know Del Toro from his work on "Blade 2" and "Hellboy," better than average genre pieces that are still glorified hackwork, "Pan's Labyrinth" is the logical successor to the director's underseen 2001 film "The Devil's Backbone," both stories that use imagination and mythical trappings to explore how children are effected by war. "Labyrinth" is going to be a tough sell. In addition to the period and language barriers, it's also an R-rated fairy tale -- drawing from a Campbell-style well of classic tropes, rather than any one specific story -- unremittingly dark and shockingly violent with sequences that will, indeed, scare coddled small children. It will also enchant older kids or kids who haven't been sheltered from original Grimm fairy tales or anything with a spine. Its best hope for finding an audience will be in the embrace of the critical community -- it's already played well at Cannes and in Toronto -- and in awards attention. In an ideal world, Del Toro would be a cinch for directing prizes and Guillermo Navarro's cinematography and Javier Navarrete's haunting score would receive laurels as well, as would the production design and the make-up work, which includes both fantastical creatures and nifty gore. The performances are all perfectly pitched, particularly young Ivana Baquero as the film's heroine and Sergi Lopez as the ultra-wicked Captain Vidal. It's been a long time since a movie has filled me with such pleasure at the full realization of filmmaking promise. So I'm pleased.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The New Zap2it Blog and Why I Love 'The Contender'

If you've noticed a drop-off in blogging in the past couple weeks, it's because of the beginning of a Zap2it shift that will see me covering much more television and much less movies. Don't worry. I'll still go see movies on my own dime and blog about 'em, but there may be a reduction in early screening reviews. Such is life.

In addition, Zap2it has just launched a new TV blog titled From Inside the Box. It'll have reality recaps, our thoughts on the shows we've seen and our thoughts on TV in general. We're attempting to populate the heck out of it, so check it out.

If you can't remember the name "From Inside the Box," feel free to call it "Head In a Box," or "Gwyneth" for short.

On an entirely different note, do you want to know why "The Contender" is possibly the best reality show out there? Even in its cut-rate ESPN version without Sylvester Stallone and without challenges and without flashing editing and without celebrities in the crowd, it's capable of producing moments of utter elation in a way that no other unscripted program can.

Tuesday's night's episode offered the best fight of the season. For the first 20 minutes of the episode, Michael Stewart, a Jesus-loving palooka who only won his first fight because Ebo Elder -- a vastly superior boxer -- walked into an uppercut, gushed on and on about how Grady Brewer was only adept at losing. He told his wife he was fighting a chump. He told everybody that there were just too many ways to beat Grady, who was too old and too weak. He talked endless trash.

Then they got in the ring and Grady won all five rounds. He pounded Michael around the ring like the tomato can he is. He out-boxed him, out-danced him and out-punched him. And yet, you watch every second of every fight holding your breath. Over the course of a season, these contestants become sympathetic, human figures. They becomes people with wives and kids and you grow to love some and hate others and you know that even if four straight rounds have gone for your guy, one punch can end it. It's bloody and primal and animalistic and it's every bit the best show Mark Burnett has produced since "Eco-Challenge."

They're up to the Final Four for the season, but it's not too late to start tuning in. OK. It may be too late. But I'm hopeful it'll get another run. For the rest of the season, I'm rooting a bit for Omar Bravo, but most I just want somebody to beat K-9 Bundrage, who clenched and held his way to beat the competition's best pure boxer, Walter Wright in last week's fight.

And now... Time to watch "Bones."

Thursday, September 07, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Black Dahlia"

"The Black Dahlia"
Director: Brian DePalma
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 70
In a Nutshell: Although the names above the title may include Josh Hartnett, Hilary Swank, Scarlett Johansson and Aaron Eckhart, the true star of "The Black Dahlia" is director Brian DePalma, which has been the case for many of the helmer's finest movies. Josh Friedman's script takes the skeleton of James Ellroy's tortured novel and maintains several of the key themes, but it's really just an excuse for DePalma -- actually at his most restrained -- to mimic the film noir stylings of directors like Hawks and Huston, playing with shadows and perspective and delivering a slew of the his expected set pieces. It's a perfect story for DePalma, a murderous melodrama complete with all types of psychosexual obsession and doppelgangers, so he has fun even as the script has to pack near-endless exposition into several key scenes. Missing a number of main characters and instances from the book, what's on screen may leave lazy viewers wondering what the central mystery was, who the murder happened to be and why anything happened the way it did. But who cares about those things when DePalma is showing his usual mastery of the crane and he's working with craftsmen like cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, production designer Dante Ferretti and costumer Jenny Beavan? The movie suffers from black holes in the middle where Hartnett and Eckhart just aren't up for the degree of mental anguish required by the text. As usual, Hartnett's problem is that while he's capable of teenage angst and brooding, he never gets any deeper, while Eckhart is just hampered by the gaps in his storyline, holes that keep his arc from feeling believable. Johansson looks stunning in the period costumes and is quite sympathetic when she's quiet, but her flat delivery kills several lines. Swank looks like she's having fun playing the vamp and I'll forgive an accent that never quite settles. The film's best performances are Fiona Shaw's operatic over-acting as Swank's socialite mother and Mia Kirshner, who somehow makes the Dahlia into a fleshed out character despite minimal screentime. They weren't really ever going to make a literal adaptation of Ellroy's novel. It's too bleak. So I'll applaud the aspirations of this film despite its myriad flaws.

A full review will be up on Zap2it on Friday, Sept. 15. That may be my last Zap2it film review...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Take Me To The Pilots: "Brothers & Sisters"

[I've said it before and I'll say it again: These capsules aren't meant as reviews. Most of these pilots will undergo at least minor -- and possibly major -- alterations, tweaks and recastings before they make it on air in the fall. These are, however, my first impressions:]

Show: "Brother & Sisters"
The Pitch: The title kinda says it all.
Quick Response: Among the basic plots that writers of all stripes are addicted to is the prodigal son or daughter returning to the family fold, facing past demons and gaining a new sense of responsibilities. That's about all that many months of retooling have yielded ABC in the case of the star-studded "Brothers & Sisters." In this case, the prodigal daughter is play by Calista Flockhart, whose character is a radio host, a conservative radio host. How do I know that? The first character to mention her refers to the "bile" she spews. The second calls her a "right-wing conservative." Really? Both? Then she refers to crack as "so blue state." I'm gonna stop here, but rest assured that for 44 minutes, Flockhart's character is defined as nothing but a conservative in a family of liberals. That's not uninteresting, particularly since Flockhart is playing the character straight-forward-human as opposed to Ann Coulter-Evil, but I like people who are more than just one thing. Unfortunately, in 44 minutes, there isn't time for any of the characters -- all played by excellent actors -- to be defined as anything more than broad outlines. There's the Gay Brother, the Sister-Mother, the Veteran Brother and a couple siblings who aren't even that definable. That's what happens with ensembles of this kind and it's probably unavoidable. This side of maybe "Smith" and "The Nine," "Brothers & Sisters" has the fall's deepest ensemble cast, with Flockhart, Sally Field, Rachel Griffiths, Tom Skerritt and Patricia Wettig, who have many Emmy nominations and wins between them, along with the very recognizable Ron Rifkin and Balthazar Getty, who don't have any Emmy nominations between them. I can see the appeal of working with a cast this good and of playing one part of a big puzzle and having days off for movies or other TV cameos, but nothing in this pilot feels clearly fresh enough to have attracted any of these actors.
Desire To Watch Again: The pilot was such a struggle, with recasting, rewriting and reshooting that it seems unfair not to give "Brothers & Sisters" a second episode, particularly given that I don't watch anything else in its time slot and that Greg Berlanti ("Everwood") has come in to right the ship.
Possible Role For Eric Balfour: Producers, have you no shame? There are at least three or four parts for males of Balfour's age, minimum. And he totally would fit in perfectly with the "Six Feet Under"-lite tone of the piece. This was a missed opportunity for all and sundry and I hope everybody involved with this show is embarrassed.
And Speaking Of Balfour-Esque Show-Killers: The "B&S" producers should also be embarrassed about being the third new show in less than six months to feature Josh Hopkins. It's not that he's a bad actor, but nothing he does in "Brothers & Sisters" makes his appeal any more clear than his work in "Pepper Dennis" or "Vanished" (where, as my colleague Rick reminded me, his Boston accent "vanished" in this week's episode). If "Vanished" and "Brothers & Sisters" fail to make it into the new year, Hopkins would have a killing rate that even Balfour can't match.