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Monthly Archives: March 2008

I’ve been on a good streak lately. I haven’t come across a really bad movie in some time. (Let’s just forget I saw 10,000 B.C. a few weeks ago.) Here’s the last ten movies I’ve seen, which have ranged from breathtaking to decent enough for a rental:

Bread and Roses (2001)

I haven’t kept my love for Ken Loach a secret in the past (I listed The Wind that Shakes the Barley as one of my favorites of 2007, and I’ve mentioned my admiration for both Sweet Sixteen and Kes). Bread and Roses only helps to reinforce that love. Even if he has a bias and can be a little heavy-handed with his message at times, Loach and his socialist ideals are comforting, giving us an imaginary world of perfection that shows real change can take place. It’s nice to watch during a time in which I’m experiencing extreme anxiety over the future of the United States in the November presidential election. Bread and Roses is the kind of movie liberals can watch while curled up with a mug of hot chocolate (no matter what the weather is like outside). I don’t want to turn anyone away from seeing it, but I feel I must say that anyone with right-wing tendencies probably won’t get anything out of the movie. Sorry.

Rating: 9/10

Hardcore (1979)

I could just sum up the movie by saying, “Paul Scrader is God,” but I don’t think doing so would do the movie justice. George C. Scott is electrifying, and Schrader wonderfully uses the streets of New York’s underbelly as a playground for good and evil, angels and demons. It’s always interesting to see how Christian his movies are as he uses such dark subject matter at the same time. The ending comes as a bit of a suprise at first, but it settles into your system slowly.

Rating: 8.8/10

Breaking Away (1979)

About time I saw this. Totally fun, insightful, and inspiring. All the characters ring so-very true. I graduated from high school only a few years ago, so the experience is fresh in my mind. As different as the boys are, they are completely sympathetic in their own ways. It’s also enlightening to watch how each one approaches his own fears and coming-of-age moment.

Rating: 9/10

Romance (1999)

I’ve been interested in checking out the change of the portrayal of sex in movies since checking out Indie Sex from IFC, a documentary chockful of info and movie clips that intrigued me: now I have yet another “potential rentals” list to bring to the video store (a.k.a. work).

The unsimulated sex scenes in Romance are interesting not only because I’m a guy but also because Breillat doesn’t put them there to give all the guys in the audience stiffies. These scenes are erotic, yes, but the messages in those scenes are so necessary that an R-rated cut couldn’t do the job. These messages, however, get old after a while, and I can’t say I would recommend the movie as a whole as much as I would like to. Even though I much prefer Fat Girl, Romance is still a solid movie.

Rating: 7/10

Spanking the Monkey (1994)

I thought it would be fair to cover only one David O. Russell movie, and even though I enjoyed Flirting with Disaster more, I’d rather people discover Spanking the Monkey, a gem of a first film, than never hear about it and rent Disaster instead.

My creative writing teacher recommended it to me as an example of a story that heightens tension without resorting to some ridiculous, violent climax. Despite the two main characters being a college student and his mother, the sexual tension is teeth-grinding, leg-kicking, bite-the-inside-of-your-cheeks tense. (It doesn’t help that Alberta Watson, who plays the mom, is quite the attractive 40-year-old.)

Rating: 8/10

Happiness (1998)

Name a more disgusting, affecting, fragile, beautiful movie (all at the same time) than Happiness. End of story, case closed.

Rating: 9/10

Blow Out (1981)

I could only get through about half of it at first. On a second watch, though, I found a lot to like about Blow Out. The movie irritated me as I kept thinking about Blow Up and its similarities other than the title. After getting a chance to soak it all in, I really dug it, especially the scenes where we see the soundman (a non-dancing John Travolta) in action, getting into his groove as we try to get a clue about what he plans on doing.

And the ending is great. Definitely not as pretentious as Blow Up‘s.

Rating: 8/10

Tootsie (1982)

I don’t expect to write some revelatory mini-review of Tootsie: everybody has seen it except for me (not anymore!) and a handful of kids. The writing is fun (though very by-the-screenwriting-handbook), the acting is solid, and most importantly, it’s funny.

But I will say (or ask, rather) this: Why is this movie on AFI’s list of the best 100 American movies ever made? Yes, it’s a cultural landmark, and that’s their criteria, but don’t call it the top 100 American films. Call it “the most culturally relevant American movies ever made” instead. It’s a lot less misleading.

Rating: 8/10

Chuck & Buck (2000)

Various scenes in Chuck & Buck are simultaneously comic, disturbing, and insightful. Mike White wrote and starred in this little indie with fellow writer Chris Weitz. A character or two rubbed me the wrong way and not every scene works. I have symmpathy for Buck (White), though, and since he’s the driving force of the movie, it all balances out. As I said for the also-uneven Horton Hears a Who: a modest recommendation.

Rating: 7/10

Far from Heaven (2002)

Todd Haynes (The Karen Carpenter Story, Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There) lulls you into a Douglas Sirk-esque world and snaps you back to reality with one utterance of the f-word. Dennis Quaid shows off his talent in his role as a husband who has homosexual tendencies in 1957 Connecticut. The movie doesn’t try to push buttons unnecessarily: it ends up being about tolerance and accepting one another’s differences. Haynes doesn’t even need to get melodramatic like Sirk: he lets the story flow like it should.

Rating: 9/10


Horton is hearing a what?

I was expecting something along the lines of the disastrous live-action version of The Grinch from about five years ago (which also starred Jim Carrey). Thank God, I got something much more than I expected – but not too much more. Honestly, Horton Hears a Who! actually could have earned a slot as a classic family film if it would have stuck more to the sentiments of Dr. Seuss. Even though the movie is uneven and all over the place, it works very well when it works, so the movie earns a modest recommendation.

The voices are essential to the success of the movie, and they work just enough of the time. Carrey, as usual, is fun in small doses when he is in a main role – which is the problem. Since he voices the title character, it’s almost impossible for Carrey to resist overacting in every scene he’s in. Which is practically every scene of the movie. Will Arnett, who was brilliant on Arrested Development, does a terrible accent when he portrays Vlad, the devious vulture who has plans to rid of the speck. Steve Carrell is the only voice that really stands out. He does an amazing job making the audience sympathize with the Mayor of Whoville, who is trying to keep control of both his town as it begins to enter chaos and his 97 children.

But as many cons as there are, Horton Hears a Who! has enough pros to make it worth seeing. There are better movies out there to see (Funny Games, The Spiderwick Chronicles), but if you’re in the mood for something light and breezy, Horton Hears a Who! is your best bet.

Rating: 7/10

“Please, please keep me safe all through the night.”

I left the screening for Funny Games around noon, and I turned on my iPod once I got in the car. None of the shuffled songs seemed to meet my fancy, but after a minute, I heard something familiar:

“Why don’t we do it in the road?
Why don’t we do it in the road?
No one really watching us,
Why don’t we do it in the road?”

The driving beat and the bright lyrics set a stark contrast from the darkness of the movie I had just watched, yet I couldn’t help but realize how appropriate these words are in the context of the film. A yearning, a begging for an answer and a search for catharsis exist in both the film and the song.

Ann (Naomi Watts), her husband George (Tim Roth), and their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) take a trip to the countryside for a vacation. Their idyllic vacation-home soon becomes a den of both physical and psychological torture at the hands of two supposed neighbors, Paul and Peter (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet). Everyone is fantastic in their roles, especially Pitt and Gearhart. Just watch the scene when Georgie points a gun at Paul with noise-rock playing in the background. It’s almost too chilling.

The brilliant Austrian director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Caché) remakes his great 1997 film, which deals with media and the audience’s reaction. Despite being a shot-by shot remake, the more recent version contrasts wonderfully with the older one. The audience feels a certain distance from Ann and George because they are played by two big actors (Watts and Roth) in the new Funny Games as opposed to the Austrian original, whose actors are practically unknown in the States. The actors handle their characters differently enough from those in the previous version to keep the movie from feeling like a retread.

Haneke has said that he intends to “torture” rather than “entertain” the audience. It’s a great idea, considering how so many contemporary American directors (Quentin Tarantino, for one) try to use violence as a means of entertainment. Funny Games isn’t torturous in terms of being bad (like the recent 10,000 B.C.) but in terms of showing what violence is like. Even though the events are faked, one character asks, “If violence is real in your mind, is that the same thing as it being real?” Think of people who are dying to see the next installment of the infamous Faces of Death series or recent “torture porn” films like Hostel or Saw. Whether the violence is real or not doesn’t matter: if people are getting off on bloodshed or the degradation of others, something is wrong.

Even though the film has been getting both flattering and appalling reviews, any fan of the original (or of Michael Haneke, for that matter) should find something to enjoy about Funny Games (though it certainly is a love-it-or-hate-it affair). Sure, it’s pretentious and reflexive and contradictory. This consistent balancing act is what keeps Funny Games interesting, though, and the film deserves very high marks.

Rating: 8/10

Talladega Nights: good, but not great. Blades of Glory: terrible. Yet Semi-Pro can’t comfortably fit into either category. The movie doesn’t offer anything particularly dumb or startlingly great. So even though it doesn’t beg for a negative review, I still come to the thought in the back of my mind: “Then why see it?”

It’s the 1970’s, and Jackie Moon (Will Farrell) is the coach/owner/player of the Flint Tropics, a fledgling basketball team that might no longer exist in the near future. The American Basketball Association (ABA) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) are merging, and some teams will have to get cut. Jackie suggests picking the best four teams of the ABA by performance, which would give his team a chance at NBA greatness.

After getting this chance, he receives Monix (Woody Harrelson), a championship ring-bearing player, in a trade, and Monix soon becomes the coach. Jackie, however, continues with his creative/crazy promotions that continue to draw decent crowds. Will the Tropics achieve their dreams after all?

I know that cheesy last line kills the paragraph, but Semi-Pro does the same. It wants to be a badass, but can’t it be lovable, too? The movie is also inconsistent in the laughs department. The comedy bits miss more than they hit, but some of the good parts are hilarious, like one tense, yet funny, scene with a gun that gets tossed around.

Semi-Pro features many of the usual members of the earlier “frat pack” outings (Will Ferrell, David Koechner, Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows, Will Arnett) and a few bigger names (Woody Harrelson, Maura Tierney, Jackie Earle Haley), but its no Dream Team. Ferrell, Arnett, and Harrelson don’t make fools of themselves (in a bad way), but no performance stands out. These rapscallions play their parts well, but the characters are really nothing more than excuses to get the movie rolling so we can see and hear dick-and-fart jokes. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the jokes aren’t always worth the one-dimensionality of the people with which we’re supposed to sympathize.

The killer is that the movie is missing everything that has made other Ferrell movies special. The organized insanity of Anchorman, the well-realized characters in Talladega Nights, and the charm of Elf are nowhere to be found. So what’s wrong with the movie? The writer and the director, both of whom are trying to do too much, are at fault. The film would have turned out much better if they decided to focus on just one style just as the aforementioned movies did.

And there are some funny jokes. They’re cheap, but they made me laugh nonetheless. When I take in all the factors of Semi-Pro, I wouldn’t not recommend it, but I wouldn’t spend $8.50 to see it either.

Rating: 6/10

May I compare thee to a much better movie?

Even though screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) wrote the adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, the movie doesn’t even match the class or style of his previous work.

King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) can’t seem to produce a male heir. Blaming it on his queen, he travels outside his marriage to find a woman to bear a son. The father of Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) yearns to get his daughter involved with royal blood and sets her up with the king. However, the king seems to take more of a liking to Mary (Scarlett Johansson), Anne’s sister.

Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Then, the picky king can’t seem to make up his mind which sibling he desires. When he does, Anne takes him on a rollercoaster ride as she demands that she be queen, that he disband from the Catholic Church and start his own, and that her sister must live in the country. What’s next, Henry ends up being Mary’s baby daddy? Well, actually…

Even though the melodrama in this film makes Douglas Sirk movies look minimalist by comparison, the over-the-top nature of the film isn’t just in the story. A rousing orchestra makes an appearance in just about every scene: Mary having sex with the king, Anne being pouty and jealous, Henry walking down a hallway (dun-dun-dun). The plot reeks of drama already, so why try to heighten it anymore? How about Henry taking a squat and the trumpets blare in the background?

And if I’m going to watch melodrama, it better go all the way. There is one particular scene toward the end that hints at something somewhat disturbing, and it left me thinking, “You know what would be totally ridiculous? If she suggested…” Soon enough, she does, and momentarily, I was willing to play along, to see if the movie had the cajones to actually go through with the scene. Naturally, the movie wussed out and took a safer route.

Even though Morgan is an accomplished screenwriter, he doesn’t appear to understand the meaning of “zigzag,” the back-and-forth pull of conflict in a story. He reads “hills and valleys,” instead, as “exciting moments” and “boring moments.” Because of his misconception, it’s almost impossible to become engaged with the characters at the beginning of the movie. So when people screw them over or they screw over people, we couldn’t care less.

The Other Boleyn Girl is the kind of average dreck that should be both beheaded and, for good measure, burned at the stake.

Rating: 5/10