Sunday, December 31, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Good Shepherd"

"The Good Shepherd"
Director: Robert DeNiro
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 73
In a Nutshell: Back after 10 exhausting days in Europe, which forced the New Year's Eve question of "If there are a dozen movies I want to go see and my filmgoing partner of the afternoon won't want to see the tearjerking underdog sports movies I wanna see -- Sorry, "Rocky 6" and "We Are Marshall" -- and I'm too darned jet-lagged to wanna go see a movie that requires reading -- Sorry, "Letters From Iwo Jima" -- or potentially frustrating emotional manipulation -- Sorry, for the 100th time, "Babel" -- what's out there as a compromise?" The answer was Robert DeNiro's second directing effort, a frequently fascinating and textured peek at the early years of the CIA that I was captivated by for around 90 minutes before I tired.

Eric Roth's script does the difficult things very well. It plunges viewers into the world of pre-WWII intellectual privilege -- Yale, Skull & Bones -- and shows how one man, Matt Damon's Edward Wilson, came to develop and launch a prodigious intelligence body. Full of skullduggery, vaguely familiar characters and international intrigue, "The Good Shepherd" has more density and complexity than most films could dream of. It's also a bloated 2-hours-46-minutes and could have been shorter if Roth's script hadn't kept explaining its subtext and over-articulating how Wilson's own life was a prism for the missteps in the CIA. There were a half-dozen times when I thought "Hmmm... I guess I understand how that fits with the films themes" and then waiting two or three minutes to have a character -- too often DeNiro's Gen. Sullivan -- explain those themes in a monologue that would only be necessary if the movie was playing to an audience of monkeys. DeNiro's failure to trust viewers to connect the dots in many crucial scenes probably came about after testing a variety of different cuts of the movie, but it isn't the right result.

I'm also tempted to wonder if "The Good Shepherd" wouldn't have worked better if it had been structured along the "Iris" model and double-cast most of the lead roles, despite the fact that the characters age less than 25 years. Instead, Damon is both the oldest looking Yale Man imaginable and the most boyish 50-year-old on the planet, believable as neither despite a determined and emotionally guarded performance. And Jolie has similarly forfeited the ability to play a coquettish co-ed and her aging matron is full of tics and limps and postural shifts that suggest Jolie will make a poor grandmother indeed.

Couple quick other things: Can it ever be said enough that Alec Baldwin is just about the most valuable supporting actor on Earth? And if he isn't, might Michael Gambon be? And who knew Billy Crudup was so darned British? Or that Keir Dullea was still alive? Or that it would be so nice to see Joe Pesci on the big screen again?

On a side note: I hope to get to a bundle of movies in the next week before Press Tour begins, but with an impending move (next door, so it shouldn't involve huge tsuris) I may not have the chance. I'd still like to remind folks to go see the year's two best movies -- "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Children of Men" when they get to a theater near you. Otherwise, we're just going to be stuck with "Night at the Museum" sequels. Nobody wants that. Oh wait. They do? Sigh.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

MovieWatch: "Children of Men"

"Children of Men"
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 87
In a Nutshell: I've got a plane to catch, so this is going to be ultra-brief. Think "Casablanca" meets "The Nativity Story" as written by Philip K. Dick and directed by some unholy spawn of early Stanley Kubrick and Emir Kusturica. If "Pan's Labyrinth" remains the year's signature piece of pure storytelling, "Children of Men" is the year's best piece of feature filmmaking. Some people will complain that it's heavy-handed and they won't necessarily be wrong. It's a fable about hope and government oppression. There'd be no point in it being subtle. The film's first half -- establishing the world of 2027 in which all women have become infertile and humanity is on the verge of collapse -- is very fine, but the second half -- set mostly in a remote Refugee Camp -- is mind-blowing. Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have constructed shots of unbearable suspense and stark beauty and Clive Owen is just asked to hold the frame and be a leading man, which he is. The soundtrack -- lots of '60s remakes and originals and a Jarvis Cocker credit song that would make a great Oscar night performance -- is killer and the performances around Owen are strong as well. I imagine that "Children of Men" will be tucked in after "Pan's Labyrinth" on my Top 10. It's a meaty piece of cinema and I look forward to seeing it again.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Pursuit of Happyness"

"The Pursuit of Happyness"
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Fien Print Rating: 68
In a Nutshell: The title of "The Pursuit of Happyness" -- or as I'd rather call it "Run, Will Smith, Run" -- has been under scrutiny, with most of the discussion concentrating on the misspelling of "happiness," a typo found on the door of a Chinatown daycare center where Will Smith's Chris Gardner sends his son. Not enough emphasis, I reckon, as been put on the other word in the title, "pursuit," which is really what the movie is about. As Smith's Gardner says early in the movie, the Declaration of Independence makes no promise of happiness. It just suggests that the ability to pursue happiness is an inalienable right.

"Happyness" is actually a good companion piece to the inspirational Disney football drama "Invincible," which I viewed as a surprisingly un-mawkish and dreary glimpse of a Cinderella story that concentrated more on the mire than on the triumphant exit. Directed with a poetically realistic sense of purpose by Gabriele Muccino, "Happyness" offers precious little by way of triumph until its conclusion, which is bound to surprise a lot of viewers excepting something more Hollywood, more consistently uplifting. Perhaps the least shocking thing about the film is that it was scripted by Steve Conrad, whose "The Weather Man" was as complicatedly depressing a film as any major studio has released in recent memory. He was brought on here, no doubt, to keep "Happyness" from wallowing in sentimentality and it mostly doesn't.

Instead, it becomes a litany of the misfortunes that befall Garner on his journey from homelessness to millionaire success as a stock broker. There are at least a half dozen sequences of Smith sprinting away from angry cabbies, sprinting after people who stole his bone density machines and sprinting toward business meetings that he may or may not ever make. And the gloominess does, rapidly, become redundant and, in that redundancy, it becomes distasteful. In fact, if *any* other actor had played Gardner, the movie would have collapsed under the weight of its discontent, but Smith shoulders all of his character's burdens and with them the weight of the whole movie. Casting Smith's son Jaden as Gardener's son was a stroke of absolutely genius because of the movie is all cold visuals and numbing disappointments, the warmth between father and son -- the heart of the story -- can't be faked. Frankly, they should have cast Jada Pinkett Smith as Gardner's bitter, abandoning wife, because poor Thandie Newton gets engulfed by the thankless and distasteful part. I think they could have trimmed about 10 minutes worth of Thandie's shrill harpie and the movie wouldn't have lost a thing.

I don't know if I'm conveying well enough why I liked the movie beyond Smith's performance, but I guess I felt like by the end, Muccino and Smith had mostly earned the misty eyes and sniffles that filled the theater. That being said? No interest in seeing this one again at any point.

Friday, December 15, 2006

MovieWatch: "Charlotte's Web"

"Charlotte's Web"
Director: Gary Winick
Fien Print Rating: A sentimental and *generous* 60
In a Nutshell: To really and truly know me, you need know only two things: The Red Sox's current absence of quality late-inning relief pitching is keeping me up at nights and I love movies featuring talking pigs. Take a couple seconds to parse that and get back to me.

That's why when it became too late to catch the showing of "Babel" that I'd hoped to make tonight (no comment), I dispatched with the other unseen suspects -- Leo whining about diamonds, 50 Cent whining about Iraq, Eragon whining about the difficulties of riding a dragon -- and opted for "Charlotte's Web."

My simple, short and superficial reaction is that it's a painlessly cute movie, one that kids should enjoy and that adults should tolerate provided they have sufficient nostalgia for the E.B. White classic, or a sufficient taste for talking pigs. My Favorite Martian Dakota Fanning provides solid human support to the strong voice cast lead by Julia Roberts, who makes a maternal and nurturing Charlotte, and Steve Buscemi's Templeton the Rat, who may not be Paul Lynde, but who is? Pushed forward by a Rachel Portman-esque Danny Elfman score (which is to same hammy, magically and literary, but almost understated by Elfman standards), the movie builds to many of the right emotional notes.

My shorter and simpler reaction: "Babe" is a magnificent movie, perhaps the greatest ever made for kids and "Charlotte's Web" is unavoidably in its shadow. Heck, while Charlotte's Web" may be twice as good as "Gordy," it's no "Babe: Pig in the City" either.

From "Tadpole" to "13 Going on 30," Gary Winick has proven himself to be amongst the least visual of mainstream directors, so if visual magic was necessary to make "Charlotte's Web" a big screen classic, then the failings are Winick's. How many shots are static, without any point of view or perspective? More than I'd care to count. And the animals? They rarely move and they look either animatronic or drugged, rarely real. The visual effects are never transparent and the straight forward computer animated stuff -- Charlotte in particular -- is better than the integration of actual animals and effects, especially since the art of animal lip-flap (making critters look conversational) hasn't improved at all in the past decade.

And last and probably least for the evening, it's disturbing that Dakota Fanning has been given a love interest in the movie. She's not yet at the point where I'm prepared to see her as a human, much less as a human of necessary romancin' age.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

R.I.P. Peter Boyle (1935-2006)

Since I never really cared for "Everybody Loves Raymond," my associations with Peter Boyle are mostly from that brief period in the 1970s, when his balding, bird-like features (and surprisingly hulking body) made him the embodiment of a certain edgy aesthetic that defined the period. He was fantastic in films from John G. Avildsen's under-remembered "Joe" through "Taxi Driver" and "Hardcore."

At the end of the day, though, for all of those dramatic turns, the best way to pay tribute to Boyle is to post this clip from "Young Frankenstein." For my money, it's one of the 10 funniest moments in cinema history.

Friday, December 08, 2006

MovieWatch: "The Fountain"

"The Fountain"
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 48 (59 if high)
In a Nutshell: [I saw this one nearly a week ago, but my ambivalence was so great that it took til now for me to feel like writing even the briefest of reviews.]
We were infinitely far into "The Fountain" (for time and space matter not with such ephemeral and negligible narrative) and beautifully lit, temporally and terminally frustrated lovers Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz started whispering in each other's ears. "Forever," "Forever," "Forever," they whispered as they floated weightlessly in a snow-globe meant to represent Earth, humanity, life, death, frailty and other nebulous themes. Suddenly it struck me that I wasn't waiting for action or catharsis or for something -- ANYTHING!!!! -- to actually happen. I was waiting to find out what the movie was a commercial for.




"The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky's new fragrance for doomed women and passionate, soulful men."

Au d'toilet, indeed.





"DeBeers' new diamonds... Even if you discover the Tree of Life, they'll last you forever."

Instead, "The Fountain" is a 96-minute piece of product placement that doesn't even have a product to sell, unless you're buying into its crushingly superficial lip service to the ideas of everlasting love, the redemptive and saving possibilities of death and the advantages of animal testing. It's a very sweet, but somewhat sophomoric little mood poem from Aronofsky to the woman he'd impregnate. But it sure isn't deep and it sure isn't profound, because if it were either of those things, I suspect its pretentiousness would have annoyed me. Instead, I invested some time in ogling its technical merits and was neither enthralled nor irked.

Aronofsky is a talented filmmaker and with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, he's crafted imagery so gorgeous that I often found myself frustratedly praying that meaning would arrive to compliment the aesthetic passion. [I won't even complain that Aronofsky consistantly confuses stylistic redundancy with the creation of visual themes, a problem that's plagued all three of his movies.] Certainly the actors are buying into it. Jackman gives his second consecutive sterling performance after his recent turn in "The Prestige," proving once again that the problem with movies like "Swordfish," "Kate & Leopold," "Someone Like You" and "Van Helsing" wasn't the ability of their leading man. He invests Aronofsky's trio of thinly written characters with a wounded and wonder-filled heart. Weisz merely asks Jackman's various characters to fall in love with her, which has to be an easier chore than inhabiting an actual character, particularly if the director has fallen in love with you.

I have no doubt that 10 years from now, "The Fountain" will have a select group of stoners and romantics who think it's a misunderstood masterpiece. They won't be right, but I wouldn't mind partaking in whatever they're smoking.

Friday, December 01, 2006

MovieWatch: "Deja Vu"

"Deja Vu"
Director: Tony Scott
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 59
In a Nutshell:[This review discusses the film's ending in nebulous terms, but it *does* discuss its ending. Be advised. Be very advised.]
After suffering through the last hour of "Domino," it's hard to make me feel sorry for Tony Scott, but after seeing "Deja Vu," I kinda do. You're Tony Scott and your orchestra an expensive, twisty, high concept thriller and you leave it with the studio and then you happen to catch the extended trailer and... DEAR LORD! The studio decided that it was a good idea to include the movie's very last line in its promotion. Now since I mostly don't cover movies anymore, I walked into "Deja Vu" knowing absolutely nothing about the movie except what I'd seen in the trailers, but I *had* -- unavoidably -- seen the trailer and the movie must have been 15 minutes in before I realized, from the trailer, how every single step of the movie was going to progress from there. Yeah, "Deja Vu" was a tough movie to market but geez... Given that it made an underwhelming $28-million-plus in its first long weekend, Buena Vista obviously bungled the job on several levels.

It's disappointing, because for much of its running time, "Deja Vu" is a dazzling and dizzying thriller that runs in enough circles to obscure its mostly illogical time-loop premise that plays like "Day Break" meets "Enemy of the State" meets every single movie in which Denzel Washington plays that one good cop going on a crusade against the corrupt system. The movie cheats many rules of Hollywood structure in that the time travel aspect -- given away in the trailer, naturally -- doesn't kick in until well past the half-way point. In fact, Denzel's tip-toeing through the timeline is the least interesting part of the movie, so thin and uninvolving from a character and emotional standpoint that even if you *didn't* reverse-engineer the movie based on the trailer, you'd probably walk out a little flat.

It turns out that plot is king here, which isn't surprising. What is surprising is just how thin all of the characters are. Denzel is a AFT agent. Nothing more or less. The lovely Paula Patton is the innocent woman in the middle of things. Nothing more or less. Although the cast is loaded with familiar character actors who have played surprise villains in the past, the actual villain behind an impressive ferry explosion is just a fanatical wacko, a McVeigh-inspired "Patriot" without any backstory or extra motivation. Since it's an over-priced B-movie, you forgive that stuff.

Scott exploits Hurricane Katrina marvelously, tying the film's New Orleans setting in with its major theme -- some tragedies (killer storms, for example) can't be prevented, but how far would you go to prevent a hypothetically preventable disaster? New Orleans is used mostly for background flavor, with a large portion of the film taking place in a high tech trailer. The second unit took a trip to the ruins of the Ninth Ward for a jaunt that barely ties to the plot.

If the Disney marketing department hadn't spoiled the entire movie for me, I honestly can't say how it might have played differently. I guess this goes under the heading of Things I Can't Go Back In Time To Change. Nuts.