Monday, March 31, 2008

10,000 B.C. *

Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Steven Strait, Camilla Belle
Cliff Curtis, Joel Virgel, Reece Ritchie, Omar Sharif

Roland Emmerich's newest extravaganza is called "10,000 B.C", what it never states is what planet does it take place in.
Disregarding all notions of history, sanity and just plain common sense he sets his epic somewhere after the Ice Age, but not quite in the exact age that followed it. A time and place where wooly mammoths roam freely next to giant, man eating dodos, while different human races are separated by mere mountains and forests.
Among these tribes is the Yagahl, home to D'Leh (Strait) a mammoth hunter whose father marked with shame when he abandoned the tribe. D'Leh is in love with Evolet (Belle) a mysterious girl who arrived years before to the tribe and is supposed to be part of a big prophecy.
When Evolet is kidnapped by "four legged demons", along with most of the tribe, D'Leh finds it fit to fulfill his destiny and prove to everyone that he is not his father, setting off to rescue them.
This gives the plot a perfect excuse to cram all the prehistoric clichés it can fit into 109 minutes.
Efficiently crossing all sorts of terrains, D'Leh and his gang, which includes village warrior Tic'Tic (Curtis), meet different tribes (and the most polite saber toothed tiger in film history), including the Naku, formed by Africans who just pop out in the middle of a desert to remind us that D'Leh is part of a bigger scheme.
As preposterous as all the twists seem, the real flaw in the film is that it never has any fun with it. When it has gorgeous, semi naked people, wearing loincloths, it chooses to go for a prude attitude that would make museum figures look perverted.
Turns out these people knew agriculture, sail boats and fire, but hormones were still to be discovered.
When it had all kinds of mythological ideas to draw from and turn into unabashed camp, it's spiritual guru (Mona Hammond) is better suited for a Disney movie.
Even with its narration, done by the legendary Omar Sharif, the film doesn't see how the contrast between his sobriety and the incoherence of the visuals could make for some sort of postmodern take on the nature documentary.
Emmerich could've easily exploited the idea that history is constructed by random events and coincidences, but instead he chooses to go for a "The Ten Commandments" meets "300" mashup that has neither the style of one nor the emotional feel of the other.
It's absolutely bizarre that the filmmakers took such decisions, because by taking this dramatic route, most things take on a different level.
Sometimes it seems as if it's perpetuating racism and making it look OK by setting it before recorded history.
That the black people immediately bow and follow the hunky Caucassian is offensive.
But the most perplexing element in the film might be after all its inspiration. Borrowing visuals and ideas from "Stargate" and the films mentioned before, the most honest thing the film has is probably its title.
The B.C. perhaps makes no reference to any time or place but is merely an abbreviation for "bad cinema".

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Paranoid Park ***

Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Gabe Nevins, Taylor Momsen
Jake Miller, Daniel Liu, Lauren McKinney

Paranoid Park is a skate park in Oregon populated by homeless people, junkies and the teenagers who become infatuated with this sense of freedom they don't have in mainstream parks and their homes.
Among them is Alex (Nevins) whose parents are divorcing and is under constant pressure from his girlfriend (Momsen). Going to Paranoid Park for the first time with his friend Jared (Miller) he discovers a breathtaking world where he can fit by being himself; which, in a Van Sant film has nothing to do with more traditional connotations.
While the film industry has gotten us used to watching the problems of teenagers who have popularity, love and selfimage issues, Alex's problems come as a more existential dilemma.
One night while travelling in a freight train with a stranger (Scott Patrick Green) he just met in Paranoid Park he accidentally becomes responsible for the death of a security guard.
Later when a detective (Liu) begins to interrogate the "skating community" in his school, Alex becomes worried about the weight of his secret.
"Paranoid Park" never becomes some sort of police drama or murder mystery, since we already know what happened. The substance behind it lies in the choices made by the director and how Alex's experience isn't as alienating as it is revealing.
He asks a friend (McKinney) what would she do when she has something troubling her and when she asks what did he do, he pulls back slowly.
Later he phones his dad (Jay Williamson) but once the phone starts ringing he hangs up (this incident later leads to a very Van Sant moment, other directors probably would've dismissed or exploited).
Alex begins to write in his journal and as he proceeds with his normal life we realize that besides the criminal implications of what he did, his real problem lies in how to make it surface into a world he's so unfamiliar with.
The skating culture in a way is some sort of secret world with distinctive codes and rules that don't apply to all other aspects of people's lives and the film focuses on what happens when both worlds suddenly intersect.
Alex doesn't really know what crime he will be accused of, or even if he will be accused of something, but the guilt seeps into his mind at all times giving, non professional actor, Nevins an opportunity to expose what's going on behind the thoughts of a population we really don't know.
His disaffecting voice, the lethargy with which he moves and his ability to sound bluntly sincere even when he's not looking at your eyes creates a full sense of character. As inner as these actions might be, they're rising from a deeper level.
Van Sant is at his best when he tries to interpret this world. Teamed with brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle they shoot skating sequences with a complete sense of wonder.
Some are shot in 35 and 8 mm which give them a nostalgic, homely touch, while in the most beautiful ones, the jumps and techniques are shown in slow motion.
Several wide angles give us a sense of being underwater, the people move without restrictions and at the same time are limited by some invisible matter we don't perceive.
Van Sant dives into this like Cousteau and when later he uses music from Fellini films with full self awareness of how strange the combination is, we realize that to him, like to us, this is a completely uncharted territory.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Penelope **

Director: Mark Palansky
Cast: Christina Ricci, James McAvoy
Peter Dinklage, Catherine O'Hara, Richard E. Grant
Simon Woods, Reese Witherspoon

Cute in concept, but flawed in execution, "Penelope" is a fractured fairy tale that tells the story of the title girl (Ricci), a wealthy heiress who inherited a curse from one of her ancestors and was born with a pig snout. The curse can only be cured by one of her own kind (whatever that means which gives the plot one of its biggest flaws).
Her parents (Grant and O'Hara) faked her death, have kept her hidden in their home all her life and have hired a dating service agent (Ronni Ancona) to find her a suitor who will marry her and be able to break the curse, but most of them run away the minute they see Penelope.
One of them (Woods), who is deemed as insane after revealing what he saw, teams up with a local reporter (Dinklage) to uncover the story.
They hire a gambler (McAvoy) to infiltrate Penelope's home and take her picture for the world to see, but obviously romance rises when these two strangers begin to see past their shortcomings.
With a plot that tries to cover too many current issues, what remains most poignant besides the whole "inner beauty" thing is how easy is to obtain fame nowadays.
Penelope becomes a celebrity only because she's different (that she's rich could be a direct comparison to specific cases) but even she becomes aware of how unjustified her fame is.
And to be honest, Ricci puts so much heart into Penelope, that the snout isn't really something absolutely hideous.
Perhaps the film was trying to prove how demanding society has become with minor flaws, or they chose to provide her with the wrong animal part to make a stronger case.
Most of the cast is terrific, especially Grant as the cool father and Jason Thornton as the family butler who doesn't get much lines but steals every scene he's in.
Producer Witherspoon gets a small role and an opportunity to shine without overpowering the lead actress, with a character that works like some sort of urban fairy godmother and is filled with more life and glee than most of the film ever lives up to.
Sadly the romance between the leads is never engaging, probably because the film makes us fall for Penelope and not even want the curse to disappear, so when the plot begins to suggest it will take a man to fulfill her, it loses the girl power sass it feeds itself from to inspire others.
The visuals are stunning, think of "Amélie" meets Tim Burton, but the final product itself feels lacking in something.
You gotta give them point of course for the final sequence in which we're forced to try and think what was this all really about.
Even when it fails in so many ways, a film that has the guts to question its own existence with a surprising innocence and a bit tongue in cheek self awareness reminds us what fairy tales were invented for in the first place.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Richard Widmark 1914-2008

The other day while watching "The Night of the Hunter" I couldn't help but be reminded of Richard Widmark.
In "Hunter" Robert Mitchum gives one of the most terrifying performances ever put on film and with the film's Expressionist visuals and very dark mood, it's impossible not to think how would Widmark have fit in it.
His performance in 1947's "Kiss of Death", as murderous sociopath Tommy Udo is also one of those instantly iconic roles that leave a mark on you. He practically created what we know as the film noir villain.
While Mitchum was all about the mood and suspense, in Widmark's case it was the disturbing combination of that boyishly handsome face with an infamously wicked giggle that made his deeds look like child's play.
That you don't remember who else was in the movie, or even what it was about makes no difference, it's perhaps the best way to summarize the legacy of an actor who may have been cast in supporting roles, but never ever played a small part.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Spiderwick Chronicles **1/2

Director: Mark Waters
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger
Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Joan Plowright

Soon to be divorced Mrs. Grace (Parker) moves with her kids to a house left to her by great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn), who disappeared mysteriously eighty years before.
Her eldest daughter Mallory (Bolger) practices fencing and seems to have taken a more mature take on the divorce than her twin brothers Simon and Jared (both played by Highmore).
Simon is a bookish kid who avoids fights and always has wise words for his siblings, while Jared is the rebellious one who resents his mother for taking him away from his father.
One day Jared finds a book written by his great uncle and containing secrets of the woods around their house.
Turns out the forest is inhabited by creatures that include fairies, trolls, brownies and ogres. The ogre king Mulgarath, is keen on finding the book in order to destroy the world and before you can say visitation rights, Jared has convinced Simon and Mallory that it's up to them to stop him.
While the film sounds instantly reminiscent of all those other fantasy book adaptations, which have become so popular and ubiquitous, truth is that you might get a surprise or two.
For starters the acting is great all the way, from Parker's heartbreaking mother who's trying hard to adjust to a new life and Plowright, who as Spiderwick's daughter gives the film it's most breathtakingly beautiful moment.
Highmore is nothing short of wonderful; it is always great to see a child acting like a child. While in some moments Jared delivers forced speeches, the rest of the time you can't really blame him for giving in to all the madness he becomes part of.
And it is here where the film's best quality lies; the visual effects aren't anything we haven't seen before and the magical world thing might not be really original or fascinating, but director Mark Waters imprints them with what he's become best at: delivering stories about young people with an affecting emotional truth, disguised as a genre film.
The movie features some honestly scary sequences which might not be appropriate for small children, but it's even harder to fathom that the harshest moments of all come when there are no magical critters around and the characters are forced to confront their own demons.
A dinner scene becomes as hostile a battlefield as you ever saw and a conversation between mother and son has them throwing words more painful than arrows.
"The Spiderwick Chronicles" is a film about knowledge.
How when we're little there is so much information hidden from us and how usually by accident we discover facts that push us into maturity.
Great part of the plot deals with how these two are opposing forces; Spiderwick tried to hide it from his family with tragic consequences, while Jared constantly calls his father to know what's really going on.
When, and if, those forces intersect the results will always have unforeseeable consequences, which is why it's pleasant to find a film aimed at children that doesn't believe that during this time ignorance equals bliss.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Jumper *

Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Hayden Christensen, Jamie Bell
Samuel L. Jackson, Rachel Bilson, Diane Lane

David Rice (Christensen) is a jumper: he can teletransport himself to anywhere in the world by just thinking about it. He can sunbathe atop the Sphynx, surf in Maui after a one night stand in London and he can travel two inches closer to the remote control on his couch.
Since he was a teenager David has lived by robbing banks and then using the money to buy himself expensive things and lead a carefree life.
When he watches people waiting to be rescued on TV and the words "out of reach" should sound like a cue for him to come help, he chuckles and turns it off.
In other words, David has the power of irresponsibility.
One day he discovers there is a group called the Paladins, led by Roland Cox (Jackson) whose sole mission is to kill jumpers.
He runs away, after going back to his hometown to get his childhood love Millie (Bilson) and while having a Roman holiday meets Griffin (Bell) a fellow jumper with whom he teams up to get rid of the Paladins.
It's of course out of the question to believe in a film that has people teletransporting themselves all over, but even for something like this, there should be a string of veracity that makes the characters and situations believable within the context.
"Jumper" has none of it.
What we get is a lot of explosions, even more "whoosh" sounds and fast editing, along with awful perfomances.
The film never feels the need to elaborate on why the featured jumpers have dedicated their powers to hedonism or haven't at least looked for easy jobs to keep their secret safe.
If you wanna try to look deeper into what the film might be all about we have on on side the jumpers, whose irresponsibility and the way in which they travel causing mischief is reminiscent of what a child would do.
Then we have the Paladins who want to stop them (even if the reason Cox gives is that "only God should be able to be everywhere") but in a way they are adulthood trying to catch up with these kids.
If the methods are a bit drastic, one might argue that maturity usually involves hard knocks when it arrives, but of course all this would be looking too far into a movie whose existence results impossible to defend.
Christensen's casting as the lead is puzzling, unless they wanted David to be played in a robotic manner (and can we really believe that someone who won't commit to an apartment will go back because he has never stopped loving his childhood sweetheart?)
Jackson is so over the top that he isn't even as selfconsciously campy as he usually is.
Bell is good, if only because his caddish ways never let his character take any of the crap he does seriously. The British actor must've known he was in the movie for the money and makes no effort trying to prove otherwise.
But what results plain disappointing is how aimless Liman's direction is. Like his jumpers he has lost all clue of the commitment filmmaking should be.
And while he gets to throw double decker buses in the middle of the desert and stage instant crosscountry battles, he doesn't seem to be extracting any fun out of it.
During the film's most ironic sequence David tells Griffin they should unite like "Marvel heroes".
What the characters, and the director, misunderstood is that superpowers don't instantly make you a super hero.
They should have taken cue from a true hero, and a much much better film that reminded us that with great power, comes great responsibility.

How do you say "meh" in French?

According to Yahoo! News, last year's "Persepolis" will be re-released in the States in a new English version (with a cast led by Sean Penn among other who's who of Hollywood liberals).
Because we sure need people getting lazier about subtitles...
Then again, it's good they're doing this so that the film will be viewed by even more people (most of whom need to hear the message about tolerance and freedom Marjane Satrapi delightfully delivers) but it's ironic how a film that deals with cultural shock, is now having one of its best qualities removed in order to be understood better.
Click on the picture to read the whole story.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Anthony Minghella 1954-2008

Academy Award winner director, producer and writer Anthony Minghella passed away after complications during a surgery.
His death comes is as surprising as it is tragic, especially for a man who was constantly pushing himself in terms of cinematic quality.
While I'm not a fan of "The English Patient" it's impossible not to admire the scope it achieved as an independent film.
Personally I find the director's best quality to be his appropriation of adapted material, he proved my idea that sometimes you just don't have to write original stuff to deliver a powerful message or say something about yourself.
His craft was pure classic moviemaking, in films like "Cold Mountain" he delivered abewildering, epic spectacle that evoked "Doctor Zhivago" (even in the cold manner with which he linked the leads making for an unconventional love story).
But it was in "The Talented Mr. Ripley"(one of my favorite films of all time) where he reached his biggest achievement. With a pitch perfect cast and pedigree filmmaking the likes of which we see only once or twice in a decade, he gave an aura of charm and mystery to a recent era, in the process creating Jude Law's golden boy image and directing Cate Blanchett to one of her best, and curiously underrated, performances.
Rest in peace.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cassandra's Dream ***

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Colin Farrell
Hayley Atwell, Sally Hawkins, Tom Wilkinson

Ian (McGregor) and Terry (Farrell) are two middle class brothers, living in South London, who are trying to achieve success through different means.
Terry works in a garage and makes money on the side by gambling, while Ian works in his father's (John Benfield) restaurant where he dates the waitresses and talks about all sorts of businesses he wants to invest in.
The brothers decide to buy a boat as a first step to achieve their ultimate goal of living the rich life.
Their mother (Clare Higgins) constantly reminds them of their uncle Howard (Wilkinson) her wealthy brother who has become the one image of success they must follow to the detriment and ego bruising of their father.
When uncle Howard comes to London he is willing to help them finance their dreams, if they can do one favor for him: commit a murder.
Returning to the operatic structure of "Match Point" Allen slowly builds his plot towards a crescendo from which there is no return.
He injects the film with a spirit of unease that has us looking twice at every action, like the moment where Ian meets the beautiful Angela (Hayley Atwell) who with her confession about wanting to be rescued can't prevent evoking an archetypical femme fatale.
The plot follows genre staples and creates moments of deeply affecting suspense highlighted by a darkly funny anguish and once again the British ensemble works wonders for Allen.
McGregor is remarkable; if he's been overusing his caddish qualities it's merely because he is great at it. The way Ian dresses and acts like a decadent playboy doesn't result as pathetic as it's heartbreaking.
Wilkinson is once again at the top of his game; during one rainy sequence with a few sentences he makes you believe he could convince you of practically anything.
And while the supporting players are magnificent, the film's true revelation is Colin Farrell who makes justice to all the James Dean comparisons he got at the start of his notorious career.
While Ian is like an Alfie, Terry is the complete opposite, mostly trying to stay out of the spotlight (in fact the camera rarely places him in the frame's center).
First you might assume the plot will revolve around his gambling problem, if only because that's the conception Farrell's public persona would lead to, but once he subtly begins to drive the attention away from him, he delivers a brilliant and unexpected performance.
Perhaps as the film's moral compass, his downward spiraling towards an unforeseeable underworld needs no Greek chorus to convey its full power.
Extracting his themes from film noir and pure Greek tragedy (most notably Medea) Allen can't help but pay tribute to the sources that made him such a masterful filmmaker and even when he's revisiting themes which he's explored more complexly in the past, "Cassandra's Dream" comes off looking less obsessive and more like the bittersweet reaffirmation of someone who has travelled down the dark path of humanity too many times and perhaps can't conceive a more hopeful outcome.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Deal *1/2

Director: Gil Cates Jr.
Cast: Burt Reyndols, Bret Harrison, Shannon Elizabeth

Alex (Harrison) is a recent college graduate who, against his parents' will, chooses to play poker professionally.
Tommy (Reynolds) is a former gambler with certain fame in the poker world who finds himself in need of extra money and wants to recapture some of his old glory.
When he sees Alex on TV one day he decides to train him for the Poker World Championship.
If you think you've seen this film before, it's because you probably have, all you have to do is change the sport and the characters, to end with a cross generational tale about how we all can learn from one another.
Harrison gives an interesting performance that requires no outstanding skills, but on pure likeability can carry the whole film, while Reynolds is the kind of guy whose "cool" factor cancels almost everything else (including a horrendous dye job).
Despite the fact that you expect the film to fall into conventional genre twists it remains a bit disappointing that a film that makes such a big deal about the marvels of bluffing carries none of its cards up its sleeve.
When Alex decides he's had enough of poker, the background song goes something like "I don't wanna play this game no more", whenever there's an appearance by Jennifer Tilly the score changes to a vampy, jazzy mood to go with her voice.
And by the time the film gets to its supposedly surprising ending, whether you carry your heart in its place or in your pocket, you too will have seen it coming ages ago.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Kindness of Blanchett.

Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett is going to play Blanche in an Australian production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" (Click on the picture to read the whole story).
Can someone imagine the scope of this?
She not only will play what I think is perhaps the best written female role in history, but she will also be directed by the incomparable Liv Ullmann.
"Streetcar" has always been a very female driven play and even when directed by men they can't control the power behind Tennesse William's ode to libeartion (even if it comes from insanity).
I'd kill to see what Ullmann brings to the production...

Meet the Spartans *

Director: Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer
Cast: Sean Maguire, Carmen Electra, Kevin Sorbo
The latest entry in the spoof genre takes on the Spartans from "300" to tell the story of Leonidas (Maguire) who under the threat of the Persian army led by Xerxes (Ken Davitian) gathers an army of thirteen men to fight them.
The Persian army though is made up of Transformers, urban dancers and Paris Hilton among others and the film's plot turns around how many pop culture references it can use and mock per scene.
There are awkward nods to the homoeroticism of "300" (and by casting hunks in leather thongs they aren't really solving that issue), an impossibly bad joke about "Spider-Man 3" and musical sequences that should feel insulting but are merely dull.
Let's ignore the fact that it's practically impossible for movies like this to stop being made (they are cheap and by attracting preteens often ensure average box office that always makes a profit).
It's also true that, despite tolerance claims, most of the subjects being made fun of, will be talked about outside without the film (even if it results nauseating to hear yet another Britney Spears joke).
And one can also argue that by the time films like this get to movie screens, there are newer objects of obssession that make most of the jokes irrelevant and dated.
But let's focus for once on the Imperialist irony that hovers over it all. For countries that are invaded by American trash cinema, going to a film like this requires a bit of knowledge.
Not that one must get the "American Idol" encyclopedia, but to laugh at the jokes one must first know what they're laughing at.
And for people who never get the joke, wouldn't it result embarrassing to realize how there is so much to be laughed at within the world's superpower?
As if their foreign policy and their politics weren't cause enough of chuckles, they have decided to export more reasons to make their foundations unstable.
They say laughing at yourself is a sign of modesty, "Meet the Spartans" is so full of itself that it is the perfect example of laughing at and not with something.