Friday, November 17, 2006

MovieWatch: "Dreamgirls"

Director: Bill Condon
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 72
In a Nutshell: Mull this phrase over in your head: Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson. Given that I'm talking about an "American Idol" bootee here, a singer who gained her reputation as much for her early reality show departure (and subsequent accusations, not so much by her, of racism) as for her performance on the show (characterized by over-singing and bug-eyes when she wasn't blowing the roof off), that makes the phrase "Jennifer Hudson Oscar winner" one of the most unlikely four-worders this side of "California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger" or "guest starring Patty Hearst." And yet, here we are. I'm hesitant to go into any extensive details on "Dreamgirls," which I saw on Wednesday night, largely because this is the kind of month-early screening where embargoes are only acceptably skirted in cases of rapture. My feelings came up short of rapture, though the film's production values are beyond reproach and Oscar-worthy from every costume to every set to every carefully composed shot.

But it's hard to argue with several performances. Eddie Murphy can also expect a minimum of an Oscar nomination for taking his "James Brown's Celebrity Hot Tub Party" caricature of a '60s soul singer and turning it into a deeply wounded, human performance. But for all of the stars in the cast -- Beyonce is solid, Jamie Foxx less so -- the movie ends up being Hudson's entirely. She isn't going to make anybody forget about Jennifer Holliday, but that assumes you know who Jennifer Holliday is or remember her performance as Effie, the deposed lead singer of the Dreamettes. If you don't, Hudson erases reality show stigmas in an instant -- this acclaim is bound to just off cheese "Real World London" star Jacinda Barrett -- and by the time she gets through the show-stopping "I Am Telling You" (again, try not to remember Jennifer Holliday) you're entirely willing to accept that she's done something amazing here. The most notable thing about her performance is that director Bill Condon doesn't need to finesse her screentime, he doesn't need to avoid shooting her in close-ups or staying on her for dialogue or intense singing scenes, as so often happens with first-time film performers. Even if I might have wanted her to go just a bit deeper at times (and even if her voice is darned good, but not quite remarkable), she sells her biggest moments like a pro.

Of course, the movie also peaks at "I Am Telling You," a flaw I assume holds true of the stage production as well. "Dreamgirls" is hardly the only musical to fall apart in its second act. Heck, "Oklahoma" hardly has a second act at all and it's one of my all-time favorites. But so much emotion is invested into the nearly 10-minute "I Am Telling You" -- the film's Oscar team ought to just send out DVDs with only that sequence and watch the trophies spill in -- and nothing that follows is anywhere near as good. And that's nearly half the movie that lags.

We're in the midst of a year that makes last year's thin cinematic crop look bountiful and given the reaction from the Academy member-heavy screening I went to, "Dreamgirls" may be the kind of film that stands out and stays strong as the disappoints arrive and fade into the background. You can count on this one getting between 10 and 12 Oscar nods and I wouldn't be at all surprised if five or six trophies are already 100% in the bag (including possibly Hudson, assuming they keep her in the supporting category).

Funny old world.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

MovieWatch: "Casino Royale"

"Casino Royale"
Director: Martin Campbell
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 72
In a Nutshell: You've got to love the James Bond franchise, or at least proprietors Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. On one hand, everybody's all "Oooh... Look at us! We're revamping and remodeling our franchise." On the other hand, they're hiring the director of "Goldeneye" and the writers "Die Another Day" and "The World Is Not Enough" to oversee the change. It's a little bit like all the times George Steinbrenner rehired Billy Martin or all the different sitcoms networks keep giving Jenny McCarthy. It goes back to that whole cliche about the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.

In this case, almost by dumb luck, they got it mostly right. After a search that seemed to last years, they ended up with the man they should have hired in the first place (always assuming that Clive Owen kept saying no). Daniel Craig's Bond is an absolute revelation, the perfect actor for a film that thematically revolves around a man who comes to embody his violent job and falls into crisis when he lets his guard down and shows his human side. Part of why people who hate James Bond loved Pierce Brosnan was his effortless cool. He looked like he rolled out of bed every morning in a tux with his martini in one hand, a gun in the other and a beautiful woman sleeping there next to him. That bores me to tears. Daniel Craig's Bond sweats, gets bruised and cut to pieces and finds himself out of breath if he runs for too long. His muscles show strain and his veins pop on his forehead. He understands that taking a life or sleeping with a vixen are choices and he copes with the repercussions. Brosnan was a well-oiled machine, but Craig is a human being, a man with a job that's both cool and also dangerous as heck. [Hmmmm... I'm gonna need to steal that last bit for my Zap2it review.]

Craig is so good -- when did anybody last talk about the actor playing James Bond as giving a "performance" -- that the movie follows him. Campbell, a respectable craftsman without an iota of inspiration, shows a grittier and more energetic side, particularly in the film's two opening sequences, a black-and-white flashback to Bond's second MI6 kill and a splendid parkour-flavored sequence featuring Sebastien Foucan. Craig's intensity even carries the film as the writers are pushing to add action set pieces to an Ian Fleming book that's 95% character study. With a 144 minute running time, these embellishments are often grating, as with an extended scene in Miami that could have been trimmed entirely without any loss to story.

I need to praise Bond Girl Eva Green for being beyond ravishing, but also to note that she's too young for the role.

And I need to emphasize the utter stupidity of turning Bond and La Chiffre's key baccarat game into Hold-'Em Poker. The notion that Bond would be an expert in a game as trendy and common as Hold 'Em is an embarrassment. Might as well have the guy playing Uno.

That being said, I liked the movie more than any Bond film since Who-Knows-When. And a full review will be up by Friday on Zap2it.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stanley Tucci Is a Giant Phallus

Back in college, a former roommate and I spent a while brainstorming bemusing euphemisms for masturbation. In our defense, I can only say that it was the '90s. In any case, one of the oddest we came up with was "Shaking hands with Yul Brenner," on the grounds that Yul Brenner was the single most phallic human being we could think of.

He may have competition in Stanley Tucci. Although he's one of our finest actors, Tucci isn't at his best in the new CBS drama "3 Lbs." His character is a hazy, derivative blur (I like to pitch "3 Lbs." as "'House' With Doctors!") and with his head clean-shaven, Tucci wanders around for 44 minutes looking like a giant penis. If you like that sort of thing, I highly recommend "3 Lbs."

In any case, whenever you look at Stanley Tucci, I'd like you to think "big schlong." I'm sure he wouldn't mind.


Mel Gibson's a Giant Dick

When Jewish groups expressed early concerns about "The Passion of the Christ," Mel responded quickly. Rather than showing his movie to the worried Jews to allay those fears, he showed the film to fundamentalist Christians who vouched for the movie's accuracy. Then Mel expressed disappointment and confusion that Jews hadn't been pacified and rallied his base to go see the movie. It was utterly brilliant. Mel made hundreds of millions by fracturing his audience. Would he have made less if he'd just shown the darned movie to Abraham Foxman and the ADL beforehand? I say yes.

Well, he's at it again. Mel gets busted for drunk driving and embarrassing reports swirl about his alcoholic ramblings about the Jews. Instantly, Disney gets concerned that his new movie, "Apocalypto," might be unpromotable, which leaves the studio up a creek. So first Mel goes on "Good Morning America" an gives semi-apologetic sob story to Diane Sawyer -- he was remorseful, but he also blamed his Anti-Semitic comments about the Jews on the wrong done to him during the "Passion" fiasco. Now, Mel's showing unfinished prints of "Apocalypto" to some very specific hand-picked people. Working on the margins again, Gibson is screening the unfinished movie for Latino organizations and leaders and they love it. He's showing it to some industry friends. And they love it. And now everybody's writing "Mel Gibson has made a brilliant movie, but will anybody be able to see past his personal misdeeds?" articles. Come December, after a few more of these articles, it will be impossible to dislike the movie without showing that you're less willing to forgive and forget than Mel himself. It will be impossible to dislike the movie on its cinematic merits, with all pans only being yet another example of the media persecuting Mel, refusing to forgive him.


I decided I'd written too many MovieWatch posts in a row. Decided to mix it up a little.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

MovieWatch: "Stranger Than Fiction"

"Stranger Than Fiction"
Director: Marc Forster
Fien Print Rating: 61
In a Nutshell: Screenwriter Zach Helm has used a high-flying intellectual premise and mushed it down into a simple-minded fable in "Stranger Than Fiction," a film that starts off trying to appeal to fans of the literary meta-text, aficionados of Charlie Kauffman-style post-modernism, and ends up most appealing to fans of fell-good stories, New Age self-affirmation tales. I don't doubt that Helm is a darned smart writer. I doubt that he's written a smart movie here.

The man-hears-narrator premise is a good one, but it's not the kind of thing that makes writers go "Damn, I wish I thought of that" so much as "Damn, I wish I'd actually written my own script that had that idea." "Stranger than Fiction" is close kin to "The Truman Show," a half-dozen Charlie Kaufman scripts, "I [Heart] Huckabees" and even, in some difficult-to-quantify-ways, "Punchdrunk Love."

Many of those films, for whatever reason, have been vehicles for broad comic actors to Play It Straight (code for Underplay to the Point of Sleepwalking). Will Ferrell stars in "Stranger" and gives a solid performance that never for a second made me stop thinking "Geez, if Paul Giamatti were playing this role, I'd like this movie at least twice as much." I credit director Marc Forster for getting Maggie Gyllenhaal's most purely appealing (and incontestably sexy) performance in several years and for rounding up unimpeachable pros like Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.

But the end of the day, despite all of its intellectual tricky and structural deception, "Stranger Than Fiction" is nothing more than the latest in a never-ending series of schmaltzy fictions about men (and women, though less frequently based on how often Hollywood hires women to write things) who only discover how to truly live when they're faced with death. While you get good movies in the genre, unexpected films like "Fearless," but far more often you get "The Doctor" or "Regarding Henry." The almost provocative idea -- that people who feel powerless in their own lives have to create a greater guiding force (a narrator, God, Xenu, Dr. Phil) to give their lives purpose is almost entirely invalidated by the progression of the plot.

[Spoilers here regarding the ending of the film...]

For this reason, I found the ending of the movie almost depressing. Crick decides to be a Biblical Jesus rather than a "Last Temptation of Chris" Jesus -- He sacrifices himself, which leads to rebirth, rather than deciding to take his fate in his own hands and determine his own life. Meanwhile, the author learns to sacrifice the artistic merit of her work for a soft-headed moralistic message, tacking on a useless message that even she admits will cause her to rewrite the rest of the book, a book that both characters who read it described as a masterpiece (Dubious readers in both cases, but still). All she's done is sacrificed one simplistically ironic ending -- Crick is most alive at the moment he dies -- for another -- Crick's watch, which previously ruled his life saves it. Yawn. Is that really the most creative thing Helm, thinking of himself as a profound writer, could think of to do? I almost crave a movie in which the narrator is somehow the creation of Crick's unused artistic desire, an unwilled construct of his inactivity. And why did Queen Latifah's character end up being literal and not an entry way for something deeper? I really wanted her to be imaginary, but she seems not to have been. Boo.

[OK. Done spoiling the movie.]

I'm sure I have more to say beyond that, but this is too long already. Here's the key: I went in expecting Charlie Kauffman For Dummies (Kaufman doesn't know how to end his movies either), but "Stranger Than Fiction" doesn't want to be that challenging at the end. It wants to engender warm feelings, more than discussion. I guess that's OK, but whatever...

Saturday, November 11, 2006

MovieWatch: "Unknown"

Director: Simon Brand
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 33
In a Nutshell: Even though it features so many actors you've heard of -- Greg Kinnear, Joe Pantoliano, Barry Pepper, Jeremy Sisto, Bridget Moynahan, Jim "Jesus" Caviezel, Peter Stormare -- you probably haven't heard much of anything about "Unknown," which ought to set off warning signs. Even after seeing the movie -- one of the filmmakers is a friend of a friend, otherwise I'd have no excuse -- I still don't know why so many good actors decided to waste a couple weeks on this one.

I guess that the basic premise is an appealing one: Five men wake up in an abandoned, but tightly sealed, factory way out in the desert. Thanks to a weakly justified plot contrivance, they all have short-term memory loss. But one of them is tied to a chair, another handcuffed to a railing, another's nose is broken. Thanks to another weakly justified plot contrivance (a newspaper in the bathroom), they know there was a kidnapping and deduce that some of them must be the villains and others the victims. But who is who? Moral ambiguity is always a treat for actors to play, but Matthew Waynee's script only begins to touch on the most dynamic part of that premise -- the question of how identity is constructed, whether good and evil are products of context or upbringing or even more psychological forces. Mostly, the characters yell at each other for 85 minutes and their absence of memory becomes an absence of character depth so pervasive that I never cared about anybody for a second.

Because there are no characters and no plot beyond the basic story mechanics, there's no way to logically deduce the various twists. Instead, you have to look at the bare bones, assume that the genre requires twists and just guess based on conventions. The sad thing is how often you'll be right. "Unknown" is basically devoid of intrigue or surprise, replacing those storytelling essentials with vague writing and murky visuals.

Brand thinks that choppy and disorienting editing is the path to making the material feel like a movie, rather than a third-rate chamber play. He definitely achieves disorientation, but only some of it seems intentional. And is there a more overused shot in filmmaking than the distraught character standing in a bathroom bowing to splash his face and then rising to stare into a mirror? They keep doing it over and over again in "Unknown," because the only way the characters can have flashbacks (at least in the beginning) is to examine themselves.

I've been assured that the script was written long before "Saw" or "Memento" was written, but that doesn't keep "Unknown" from feeling derivative of those two successful movies as well as a dozen other genre pieces. The cast tries hard (Moynahan is the weak link, but her part is tertiary), but even they shouldn't be seen as reason to check this one out when it makes its swift trip to DVD.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

MovieWatch: 'Volver'

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Fien Print Rating (out of 100): 79
In a Nutshell:

You don't blame Pedro Almodovar for being melodramatically convoluted any more than you'd fret about Spielberg being skillfully manipulative or Goddard being dyspeptically French. That being said, the number of half-gestated films suspended in Amodovar's "Volver" amniotic fluid is a bit daunting. I'm not complaining, mind you. "Volver" is one part ghost story, one part murder semi-mystery and one part woman-recovers-spirit-through-food celebration and it's striking that not a single one of the stories goes to a traditionally satisfying place and yet the movie resolves in an emotionally confident manner. The movie takes a traditional Almodovar theme -- women coming together to reclaim their identities through sisterhood, motherhood and friendship -- and delivers them in just about the least Almodovar-esque manner imaginable. An Almodovar movie you could almost go to with your grandparents? How peculiar.

The movie is a celebration of leading lady Penelope Cruz, with Almodovar taking obvious pleasure in reclaiming his frequent collaborator after otherwise respectable American filmmakers -- yes, I'm looking at you Billy Bob Thornton and Cameron Crowe -- conspired to convince English-speaking audiences she couldn't act (see also what Michael Mann did to Gong Li this summer in "Miami Vice"). In her native tongue, treated with directorial respect, Cruz is captivating. She's funny, passionate and grounded. Even if Almodovar didn't insert a clip of Visconti's "Bellissima," you'd know he was approaching Cruz as a far sexier version of Anna Magnani's Earth Mother archetype, with Cruz's rather amazing cleavage serving as a running visual joke as well as a key verbal punchline later. As much buzz as there's already been for Cruz receiving an Oscar nomination, I'd love a bit of extra talk to focus on Carmen Maura, another frequent Almodovar favorite.

The film's title, generally translated "To Return" or "To Come Back" takes many meanings with in the film, both literal resurrection, but also a darker idea of history repeating itself and old misdeeds coming unburied. It's also a reference to the film's most Almodovar-ian sequence in which Cruz lip-synchs a famous Argentinean tango of the same name. Exiting the theater, I hear at least one person complain about how fake that scene seemed. Such people shouldn't be allowed at Almodovar movies.