Wednesday, April 29, 2009

17 Again ***

Director: Burr Steers
Cast: Zac Efron, Matthew Perry
Leslie Mann, Thomas Lennon, Michelle Trachtenberg, Sterling Knight

Mike O'Donnell (Perry) is a middle aged pharmaceutical salesman, crashing at his best friend, Ned's (a scene stealing Lennon) house after his wife Scarlet (the always brilliant Mann) asked him for divorce.
His two kids (Trachtenberg and Knight) practically have no communication with him and he finds himself being passed for promotions at the job he hates.
Wallowing in regret and self pity he wishes he could go back in time to fix everything he did wrong and with the help of some movie magic he falls into a river, following a freaky accident and finds himself back in his 17-year-old body.
And only in the movies can Perry become Zac Efron. With his newfound youth he goes back to high school and tries to fix his relationship with his children and tries to get back with his wife leading to all kinds of inappropriate, yet somehow not disturbing, situations that lead to all sorts of comedic twists.
If this sounds too much like an inverted "Big", "13 Going on 30" and at least two dozen TV show premises it's because it completely is, so how do you turn a cliché ridden, predictable film into a successful, entertaining piece of pop culture?
Apparently by hiring Zac Efron in the lead role.
The 21-year-old drives the entire movie counting basically on pure charm and star magnetism. Obviously his presence will attract fans of his previous tween work and screaming schoolgirls (and some grownups who will act like that too), but after a while of just playing it cool Efron unveils layers that show that he can also act!
And he's pretty good at it; very few young actors would be able to convey the sense of loss and regret Efron achieves in a particularly moving scene in a courtroom and then work it like a pro in the dancefloor.
While the filmmakers childishly try to make the most out of his smile and abs, Efron is working on a completely different league.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"The books have nothing to say!"

As a belated nod to "World Book Day" I saw "Fahrenheit 451" today and now have the sudden urge to memorize "Pride and Prejudice".

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jack Cardiff 1914-2009

A few years ago an honorary Oscar was given to a man I'd never heard of before: Mr. Jack Cardiff. I have to confess that like the average person I used to know more about actors than about people that work behind the camera, but watching the tribute video about Cardiff I couldn't take my eyes off from the beauty of the images he had shot.
I was struck by the beauty of a pair of red shoes possessing a tragic dancer, thrilled by Kate and Bogie aboard a fighting ship and the image of Kathleen Byron consumed by lust was something I got out of my head until I got to see "Black Narcissus" some time later.
Cardiff has passed away at the astounding age of 94, age by which he'd photographed, and directed some of the most famous films of all time (he directed the first picture with Odorama!).
His work will live forever and I'm sure anyone who goes to the Himalayas will go in hopes that they fulfill the beauty promised by Cardiff.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Put the Blame on Salome.

Confessions of a Shopaholic **1/2

Director: P.J. Hogan
Cast: Isla Fisher, Hugh Dancy, Krysten Ritter
John Goodman, Joan Cusack, John Lithgow, Leslie Bibb
Lynn Redgrave, Kristin Scott Thomas

Rebecca Bloomwood (Fisher) is a journalist with a problem: she is addicted to shopping. Her excessive spending is sinking her in debt and she must hide from a feared credit collector (Robert Stanton who almost steals the film) while trying to land a job in "Alette" a fashion magazine she's dreamed of working in since se was a child.
A strike of, odd, luck lands her a job in a financial magazine instead, where she becomes an overnight sensation with her savvy column that brings money issues down to Earth for the average reader (read people too lazy to care about what's going on in the world and teenagers) by using fashion/shopping metaphors.
The magazine blooms, she develops a crush on her editor Luke (Dancy) and must hide her fiscal secrets from those who admire her.
Out of the land of realism this film is not. Rebecca's optimistic irresponsibility would have her in a pretty bad situation nowadays and what for many people might be a nightmare, for this character becomes an obstacle to overcome in search of her fairy tale ending.
What's undeniable is that the movie makes for bubbly escapism that's ironically much needed in times like these.
Borrowing the snappy chick wisdom from "Sex and the City", irrationally cute fantasy sequences straight out of "Ally McBeal" and Fisher trying hard to be Reese Witherspoon in "Legally Blonde" it's obvious that nothing here is new.
Add to this some "The Devil Wears Prada" (with the delicious Scott Thomas channeling yet another version of Ms. Anna Wintour, but surprisingly less icy) and a cartoony sense of comedic timing and this will seem like time well spent.
The film suffers a bit from a feeling of haste and incompleteness, too many subplots, too little for us to care including Bibb as an "Alette" competitor and Rebecca's parents (Goodman and Cusack) trying to put some old-er age wisdom and heart into the vapidness.
And while Fisher has improved from her previous screen appearances (her comedic timing and slapstick skills are remarkable) she still lacks a little something to carry an entire movie on her back.
She's absolutely cute and you buy her (no pun intended) as someone who'd literally run from a debt collector, but she lacks presence, which becomes ironically obvious with her wardrobe.
While she narrates about how much she loves clothes and style, Fisher and consequentially Rebecca are sometimes so intimidated by Gucci, Prada, Fendi and all the others that they seem to drown in the clothes.
A particularly awkward piece of jewelry shaped as an anchor (which Rebecca wears to a convention in Miami) really does look heavy on her which proves that even if costume designer Patricia Field is a genius, she needs another genius to pull off her ideas.
Some people might feel offended by the shallowness displayed by most characters, but it's wise to think that those people would never even go see this for starters.
P.J. Hogan, an expert in chick-flicks and rom-coms, takes the wise side by turning this film into a farce that gets more outrageous by the scene (Lynn Redgrave practically has a cameo as a drunk lady who proclaims she loves Rebecca), perhaps only by stating Rebecca is a heroine, instead of judging her (like any normal person would) does he feel he can uplift people's spirits.
"Your mother and I think that if the American economy can be billions in debt and still survive, so can you" says Rebecca's father and while the theater lights are dimmed you actually believe this.

A Star Isn't Born.

In 1975 Albert and David Maysles filmed "Grey Gardens", a documentary about the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter who shared the same name.
Aunt and cousin of Jackeline Kennedy Onassis, Big and Little Edie became notorious for their downfall from society and a scandal surrounding the way they kept their East Hampton home, Grey Gardens.
The women lived in unsanitary conditions, shared their home with over fifty cats, raccoons and who knows what other critters and were even rumored to live without water and heat.
The documentary has become something of a cult classic as people become fascinated by what was going on inside the Edies minds and especially what kept them together after all those years.
Now pop culture figures, their appeal lies in the mystery of what happened in their lives before the documentary was released.
Following the very American tradition of dispelling mystery and digesting information for others, HBO films has produced a film version of "Grey Gardens" that tries to fill the gaps between truth, fiction, real life and the documentary.
Jessica Lange plays Big Edie, with a revelatory Drew Barrymore filling in the shoes of Little Edie. The film, directed by Michael Sucsy, travels back and forth in time from the Beales of the documentary to the socialites back in New York who eventually became the eccentric characters.
The production, as expected from the cable network, is stunning and meticulous, with kudos to costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas who dresses the women in clothes that not only look gorgeous, but also serve specific character intentions.
One of Little Edie's most amazing dresses is a one piece white silk dress, complete with hood, that immediately takes us forward in time to when she had lost her hair and wore scarves around her head, same goes for a delicate wrap she puts on going out of the sea which could serve as a cape in other times...
The costumes do the "tying up" work, the screenplay desperately tries to, without any of the forced lines screenwriters Sucsy and Patricia Rozema put in the characters' mouths.
What does separate this adaptation from any other "made for television" movie, is the quality of the performances.
Lange and Barrymore are nothing if not brilliant in the main roles. They both age, through the use of astounding makeup and on the spot accents and voices, almost fifty years in the space of under two hours.
And they achieve something even more rare than good imitation: believable emotional cores which make you forget they are actresses playing actual people.
Lange's Big Edie is a delightful combination of lust, frustration and misguided love towards her daughter.
"I was happier singing than anything I've ever done since I was born" she confesses to the Maysles, with an affecting tone that would become morbid if she didn't then burst into a joyous performance of "Tea for Two" while sitting on a decaying bed.
In scenes set in 1936 Lange just oozes sex and happiness, without letting go of a certain kind of conservative behavior that makes her become overbearingly protective of her daughter.
She talks to her daughter in a condescending way and seems delighted whenever she proves herself right, even if her daughter has suffered for this to become true.
In old age, Lange gives Big Edie an awkward kind of sweetness that becomes inconceivable whenever she lashes out on her daughter.
When she tells Little Edie "if you're stuck here it's only with yourself", there's a certain kind of resentment and ingratitude that shock only then to be replaced by compassion, as you feel the pain inside this woman.
Barrymore is incredible, really nobody probably saw this coming from her. Perhaps because she's someone who knows what it's like to be typecast and never given a chance to breakthrough, she connects to Little Edie in unexpected ways.
Little Edie always dreamed of becoming an actress (this film suggests that she also wanted to be first lady and held resentment towards Jackie O., portrayed here with gravitas and dignity by Tripplehorn ), but by both the documentary and this film's end, what's obvious is that Edie wanted to be any kind of star.
She becomes involved with a married man (Daniel Baldwin) and as her dreams seem less unattainable goes back to her mom in Grey Gardens, eventually becoming her only, human, companion.
Barrymore, who can win anything based on charm alone, creates a terrifically appealing Edie; as a young woman she's breathtaking and sexy, she introduces herself as "Ms, Beale, poet, temptress, entertainer...".
Older, when her hair has fallen off, she still retains a classic sort of glamour. It's heartbreaking to see her literally holding on the the last pieces of fabric she had to come up with ingenious things to wear. Her now famous pin skirt/cape isn't a cry of desperation as much as a statement of pride.
Drew also gives Edie a sad quality notable in quiet moments when the camera is focused on someone else. It's when she doesn't try to hog the spotlight that she becomes more fascinating.
Excited at the possibility of becoming a star under the Maysles direction she proclaims she will change the 70's "just like the way the New Wave changed cinema!" and later adds "though I never went out to see the New Wave".
It's ironic that Barrymore has blossomed into a real actress by playing someone who never got her chance to do so.
But there's also something quite ironic in that statement, since the nature of the Beales' lives offers many questions about what exactly constitutes performing arts.
"I'm not much of an actress you know" says Big Edie to the Maysles but still puts on a hell of a show for them.
So does Little Edie who tells authorities knocking on her door, "I'll be down as soon as I put on some lipstick".
Were these women auditioning fo their entire lives? If so, the word exploitation is often heard in regards to the Maysles and this film which never clears this up for us, suggests even that the Beales' thirst for fame was just as exploitative as the filmmakers' approach.
One of them sums up this divine decadence by saying "It's just artists making a film about artists".
If this is such an inclusive engagement, where do we stand?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Happy Birthday to...

I just realized it's, still, Jessica Lange's birthday.
The two time Oscar winner turns 60 today and still looks, and acts, like a million bucks!
So congrats to her and may she keep on being so brilliant...
Which by the looks of her delicious performance in "Grey Gardens" is almost a certainty.

Rest in Peace Edie Britt.

"My boobs are impressive, but they can't bend iron bars."

With the death of Edie Britt in last night's "Desperate Housewives" what is left for the show?
The event, which wasn't a surprise in light of the cliffhanger three weeks ago and the news that Nicollette Sheridan was leaving the show even before that, came off as completely anticlimactic and dull.
The episode was structured exactly like the 13th episode this season as the main characters reminisce about someone who has died and in a sign of how the show has been deterring its quality from episode one downwards, it didn't advance the plot at all.
Watching it and relishing in the last moments of Sheridan's iconic Edie, I wondered how will the producers keep this show alive much longer?
Or am I making too big a deal about Edie's death?
Now, with no "Tara", "Conchords","Battlestar" and Patty Hewes and with the iminent season fianles of "30 Rock", "Ugly Betty" and "Gossip Girl" what the hell will I watch on TV?
Suggestions someone?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

While Watching "The Robe"...

...I wondered what are people waiting to make a biopic about Victor Mature starring Chris Noth?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

I'm Completely Psyched About...

After Ellen's endorsement, the previews I've seen from the film, the way she speaks about the character and the way she's been looking in the red carpet lately Drew is set to be one of the acting icons of 09.
And with what's been such a lackluster first quarter, she better hit it out the park with this one.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dragonball Evolution *1/2

Director: James Wong
Cast: Justin Chatwin, Emmy Rossum, Chow Yun-Fat
James Marsters, Joon Park, Jamie Chung, Eriko Tamura, Randall Duk Kim

Akira Toriyama's "Dragon Ball" series has spawned dozens of video games, television shows and comic books for more than two decades, becoming one of the most beloved series of all time.
A few live action films have also been made, but due to their bad quality have remained obscure except for die hard fans, this, the first American version seems destined to have the same fate.
Goku (Chatwin) is an introverted young man and martial artist living with his grandftaher Gohan (Kim). On the night of his eighteenth birthday he receives a "dragon ball" from his grandpa, who proceeds to explain him that it's only one out of seven and whoever has all of them receives one wish from an ancient dragon.
Little do they know that someone else has just decided to go after the dragon balls as well; the evil alien warlord Piccolo (Marsters) who has just escaped a 2,000 year old imprisonment and wants to take revenge on the planet.
After his granfather is murdered, Goku travels to prevent Piccolo from destroying the world and picks up some allies along the way including eccentric Master Roshi (Yun-Fat), hi-tech babe Bulma (Rossum), likeable criminal Yamcha (Park) and Chi-Chi (Chung) the girl he has a crush on.
With an agile running time of eighty four minutes, the filmmakers had to drop some famous characters that will be missed by fans, but amateurs will be disappointed just as much, since in this necessity to reduce elements in order to be approachable, the result is something more of a crammed package seconds away from exploding.
Screenplay wise, everything has been extractred from a cliché handbook; Goku is uncertain of his origins and the writers choose to place him in the most facile of metaphorical limbos, a Western high school, where he is bullied by the jocks and has a pervy crush on a girl who never notices him.
Besides taking away the slightly eccentric feel of the original which had bizarre, mythical looking locations, this movie is set somewhere between the New York of the weird "Super Mario Bros." live action adaptation and the well meaning, but stale "Speed Racer" of the Wachowskis.
According to the characters it's supposed to be set somewhere in Asia, but with Aztec influences, American actors and cutting edge technology from who knows where the result is a mish-mash of intercultural correctness and international revenue greed.
And if this wasn't enough the screenplay also drops coherence and rational explanations using prophecies (of course) and fate as excuses, we never know how Piccolo escaped and the filmmakers imply little should we care as long as it serves the plot unfold.
Plot holes wouldn't be noticeable though if the action scenes weren't so dull and cheap looking.
During some scenes the filmmakers achieve a manga-ish look and feel that would've benefitted the entire film, but the special effects overkill makes for slight camp that distracts more than it benefits.
It's ironic that in such a short film by the time of the final showdown the only wish you want granted is for the damn thing to be over and done with.

"I've never seen the ocean..."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens **

Director: Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon

"Monsters vs. Aliens" presents some kind of a marketing conundrum: to whom do you sell a film that parodies classic cult movies with humor meant to be funny only for six year-olds?
The clever people at Dreamworks Animation chose to sell it to anyone who'd buy a ticket and while trying to please all demographics, have come up with a pastiche made up of one part parody, one part 3-D novelty and a lot of crammed jokes, pop culture references and dashes of a moral story.
The plot centers on an alien invasion started by Gallaxhar, a deranged lord who wants to take over Earth and fill it with his clones.
Under such a threat, the United States government decides that the best way to fight these invaders is using monsters which they have been keeping secret for more than fifty years.
The team is formed by Dr. Cockroach, a mad scientist who ended up with the head of the insect as he looked for a way to obtain their immortality.
The Missing Link; a half ape, half fish creature found frozen and thawed by scientists who behaves like a jock despite his obvious physical shortcomings.
B.O.B (Bicarbonate Ostylezene Benzonate); a gelatinous mass with no brain and one eye who acts innocently and confuses his personality with that of the other monsters.
Insectosaurus is a cute looking 350 foot grub transformed by nuclear radiation who doesn't speak, but is fascinated by lights.
And the newest addition is Susan Murphy; a California girl struck by a meteorite on her wedding day who grew up to 49' 11 feet, obtained great strength and becomes known as Ginormica.
If all the monsters and their names sound familiar, it's because in fact they're versions of some famous creatures that starred in 50's B films.
Therefore Ginormica's peculiar height makes her just a little bit short of being the "50 Foot Woman", B.O.B is one murderous drive away of being "The Blob" and Insectosaurus' name could as well be Mothra.
People familiar with the inspiration for the characters will obviously enjoy the film more on levels other audience members won't, but they will also expect more references to the original films which sadly never happen here.
Those who have no idea this is supposed to be a spoof, partly, won't mind the plot's real cleverness and will have to face corny dialogues, silly moral discourses and humor of the lowest kind.
The animation is impressive, even if everything screams "designed for 3-D", and the flashy colors and action sequences often keep the film entertaining at a basic level.
The problem, other than Dreamworks' insistence in squeezing even the last possible drop out of pop culture references (don't these people have aspirations of timelessness?), is that the film sometimes becomes unconsciously selfconscious.
Like the films it drew ideas from, it should've embraced its B-movie-ness and create a sort of unexpected cheapness. Even little kids would've been entertained by a sort of drive-in humor as opposed to the formulaic "friends are the greatest thing" and "believe in yourself" paths this ends up taking.
Kids will have a blast, more mature audiences will come out wishing the next feature in the double bill does better.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Easy Virtue **

Director: Stephan Elliott
Cast: Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Barnes
Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson, Kris Marshall

Meeting the in-laws for the first time has been a timeless reason for awkwardness, fear, hope and when it comes to plays and movies: comedy.
Larita (Biel) is a glamorous American widower who has just won a race car Grand Prix when she meets and marries, British aristocrat, John Whittaker (Barnes). The fast nature of their love-at-first-sight-relationship is such that it occurs during the opening credits.
After that it's off to meet the Whittaker family whose very British customs, especially those of matriarch Veronica (Scott Thomas) will obviously clash with Larita's upbringing and beliefs.
Based on an early play by Noël Coward, director Stephan Elliott's adaptation tries to spice things up by injecting dashes of modernity to a plot that occurs in the 1920's with results that don't work in any time setting.
Visually the film results beautiful and engaging (everything Biel wears is breathtaking) and the work of art direction and cinematography recall recent British films set during the world war eras.
The screenplay on the other side feels botched and forced, Elliot's adaptation removes what one would guess were traces of Coward's work and replaces them with all too obvious jokes delivered by the ensemble as if they were always expecting the cheesy cymbal clash used in bad stand up comedy.
The entire movie is filled with situations so vulgar that you know these characters would never have come close to being part of.
It doesn't help much that the quality fo the actors is all over the place (especially when their characters are so disperse as well) Biel, who looks gorgeous (even if the blonde color looks odd on her) can't deliver a charming joke even if her life depended on it, Barnes, who is often saved by his boyish looks, can't muster any trace of sexuality, or even masculinity, to make us understand what this allegedly wild woman saw in him (his character is also always singing which on the first occasion is rather enticing, but later becomes annoying and weird).
Firth who plays the Whittaker father, doesn't care much to even seem like he's in the film and Nixon and Parkinson, who play his daughters could've as well been played by the sisters from Disney's "Cinderella".
This all leaves the weigh on Thomas' shoulders, who like her character, has to lift up the entire ensemble into a level where you either love or hate her.
Delivering her lines with snappy confidence and droll resentment, she never falls into caricature which is more than can be asked for in a movie that expects us to laugh at a dog being crushed to death.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

G-d Visits All Lost Souls to Survey the Damage.

"Eating disorders, melancholy, schizophrenia, disease of the soul..."
- Rudolf (Gio Black Peter) reminding Otto (Jey Crisfar) about his past.

Bruce LaBruce is by no means the most subtle filmmaker on the planet and his latest film "Otto; or Up With Dead People" was by no means the exception.
Filled with gore, blood, gay sex and somewhat facile metaphors relating being a zombie to homosexuality it follows Otto (Jey Crisfar) a zombie who gets cast as a zombie in a documentary film while he tries to remember his past.
The film overflows with politics, some utmost bizarre moments and plenty of beefcake (especially in the shape of Marcel Schlutt, who, no surprise, happens, or happened, to be a porn star). So in all it was pretty much your average LaBruce movie, except for something odd: I wasn't expecting it to break my heart.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Woman of Ill Repute.

The tagline in the poster for 1949's "Under Capricorn" read "Ingrid Bergman shows you the heights and the depths to which a woman like this can go".
Why not concentrate on the power of the actual plot twists, the presence of the other actors or the fact that it was directed by Hitchcock and instead concentrate on Bergman and her abilities?
Can it be perhaps that the marketing team was trying to sell the film based on the scandal that was going on in the actress' life?
"Under Capricorn" was released in September 1949, time by which Bergman had left her husband, and daughter, to live with legendary director Roberto Rossellini in Italy.
It's well known that she gave birth to several children with him, that she became persona non grata in the United States and that she ended making one of those legendary comebacks a few years later winning two subsequent Oscars that make her only second in number of all time wins.
What caught my eye though was what would happen of marketing people now tried to sell us the films based on actual scandals?
Can it be that movie marketing, as bad as most of it seems, has actually gone classy?