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– Movie Journal B

8.19.06 – The Night Listener

In this quiet, slow-burn of a drama, Robin Williams plays Gabriel Noone, a successful writer and host of his own radio show, Noone at Night. Depressed over the loss of his long-time boyfriend, who has moved out “temporarily” to explore other horizons, Noone finds himself getting wrapped up in the life of Pete, a talented teen author who is quickly dying of AIDS. The two get along swell over the phone, but when others point how Pete sounds a lot like his foster mother, Donna, questions begin to service. Does Pete actually exist? Has Noone been playing into a fantasy all this time? The answers aren’t nearly as fun as the investigation, which features a great performance by Williams and enough natural tension to keep the audience intrigued without giving too much away. At one point, watching Noone break into Donna’s house actually made me think, “No, this is bad! Walk away, Noone, walk away!” This kind of internal rooting for the hero almost never occurs when I watch a film, so kudos to The Night Listener, I say. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, too, especially if you’re looking for an antidote to the more mainstream fare. Mind you, it may not stick with you long after leaving the theater, but it’s chilly fun while it lasts.

8.19.06 – Clerks II

Truth be told, I’m an enthusiastic fan of Kevin Smith’s series of New Jersey comedies, even though for some time now I’ve wanted the director to branch out and test his directorial skills with new projects. Thankfully, his latest adddition to the NJ saga makes it clear the series has come to an end, at least for now, and luckily it does so with great ease and a spirit of nostalgic fun. I love the characters of the Clerks universe, having followed them from the original through their failed animated series, and this sequel to Smith’s claim-to-fame proves they can still entertain ten years after their introduction. Randall’s still smarting off, Dante’s still indecisive, and the dynamic duo of Jay and Silent Bob are still passing out the wacky weed, even if in this movie they claim to be sober and devout to Jesus Christ. New characters are also introduced in Clerks II, including Becky, played by the beautiful and always charming Rosario Dawson; Elias, a hopelessly dorky teen who walks away with some of the best lines in the film; and Emma, Dante’s controlling fiance and quite possibly the most annoying part of the ensemble. Apologies to Kevin Smith’s wife, Jennifer, but I couldn’t get past her plastic, pinched looks and somewhat shrill line readings. Otherwise everyone works well together, resulting in much mayhem and hilarity. There’s also more than a few truly touching moments, proving why the Quick Stop gang is so endearing in the first place. Mind you, a scene involving a man and his donkey nearly makes the film implode on itself, but this is the film’s only major misfire. Otherwise, Smith fans should be more than pleased.

8.11.06 – Time Bandits

Terry Gilliam seems to be married to a mish-mash concept of filmmaking, wherein ideas are thrown in front of the camera without nary a care to their logical place in the film he’s currently making. Time Bandits is definitely an exercise in mish-mashing concepts, creative brain bursts, and outright visionary doodling, as it almost never sits still and is always pushing forward to another locale and plot device. Its jumping-off point is pretty simple, with a group of wannabe robbers teaming up with a young boy in their quest to rid the world of its goodly possessions. They chase this dream with the help of a map, stolen from God himself and used to navigate time via convenient holes in the universe. In under two hours the gang confronts Napoleon, Robin Hood, Agamemnon, and finally an army of evil in the mystical place known as the Time of Legends, but rarely does any of this action stir any real interest. Sure, the premise always sounds interesting on paper, but the problem lies within the characters, who are so thinly drawn they almost don’t exist on the screen. Each of the Time Bandits has a name and defining trait, such as one’s desire to eat anything he can get his mits on, but none are compelling or have any unique motivation. Perhaps Gilliam didn’t care about development, though, instead choosing to revel in his world of pig-headed midgets, giants who wear ships as hats, and other overtly silly fantasy gimmicks. As Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale might say, Time Bandits is “minor” Gilliam at best, and at worst nothing more than a slightly intriguing way to pass two hours.

8.11.06 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

A note to the curious: Don’t watch this movie and try to eat pizza at the same time. You’ll finish the evening sick in the stomach. I wouldn’t have it any other way, of course, since any slightly optimistic adaptation of George Orwell’s famously morbid vision of the future would be a downright catastrophe. The source material is quite daunting, with lengthy discussions on society and very little dialogue, so putting it to film is a true challenge. Thankfully director Michael Radford succeeds in realizing the more striking images from the novel, presenting them in their full, disturbing glory while also indulging in stretches of Orwellian philosophy. An encounter with an extremely aged prostitute, to cite one instance, produces a great sense of revulsion, and the climactic torture scene involving rats made me wince with pain. As for the text, it gets its fair share of time in the limelight, though sometimes I did find myself drifting during some of the longer stretches of philosophical chatter. Of course, I’m not asking for action sequences either, so blame my short attention span on the movie’s horrible video transfer, which muddled a good portion of the script. To summarize, the performances in Ninteen Eighty-Four are credible, the filmmaking produces some memorable pictures, and any intellectual soul will surely be stimulated by Orwell’s classic musings. I can’t help but wonder what another attempt at adapting the novel might produce, but for now, I am content with this version. If you’re in for a dour evening you might like it as well, but again: no food of any kind on the journey.

8.8.06 – The Squid and the Whale

Wes Anderson’s effect on Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is evident. The two men have a clear working relationship, since Baumbach co-wrote Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Anderson is a producer of Squid. While both films share a sense of dry sadness teetering on boredom, where the two split creatively is an important distinction. I do not think Tenenbaums‘ legacy will last long because of Anderson’s innate need to not only suck every last ounce of humanity out of his actors, leaving them dull-eyed husks, but also to stylize them in a very superficial, needlessly heightened way. Baumbach, on the other hand, does not go so far, allowing his Squid cast to be a tad dull while also allowing them to be, well, alive. They get emotional and, you know, their faces actually move, which in the end tips the scales and allows Squid to be the better movie. It also helps that Baumbach’s script is great, with nearly silent stabs at humor and moments that will resonate with the audience because they seem so true to life. This is probably because the film is based on the man’s own experiences, living with an arrogant yet failed writer for a father and long-depressed mother, but at no point does it seem like Baumbach is romanticizing his life for the sake of making a “movie.” He’s pulling all the right strings and holding back punches at just the right times, and it makes for a great movie.

8.8.06 – The Emperor’s New Groove

Originally meant to be an uber-serious take on The Prince and the Pauper, only with Aztecs and a large supply of musical numbers penned by Sting, The Emperor’s New Groove is instead a gloriously goofy product of circumstance. The production process was short for this vastly underrated Disney film, but the end result is hilarious, easily holding up even after half a dozen viewings. It’s hard to imagine its story being told in a dramatic fashion: Kuzco, a selfish emperor, finds himself transformed into a llama after firing his obviously evil royal employee, Yzma. Nothing in that last sentence calls for any drop of sentimentality or catchy songs, and so I’m glad Groove dodged the bullet taken by other failed Disney films (Pocahontas being the prime example) and instead embraced a Looney Tunes mentality. The script is sharp and always willing to go for random jokes, most of which come so quickly and are so adult-oriented they’ll fly past the heads of kids at the speed of light. This is where the slapstick comes in, and even the silliest sequences (including one where Yzma is turned into a human pinata) will entertain older viewers because they so honorably recall the days of the Tunes. A talented voice cast, including David Spade, Eartha Kitt, and Patrick Warburton, assures dead-on comic timing, and there’s even a cameo by Tom Jones as a theme song-belting midget with a red afro. C’mon, it doesn’t get any better than Groove and you know it, especially now that Disney is putting out CGI schlock like Chicken Little and Valiant.

8.5.06 – Carnival of Souls

For all intensive purposes, watching Carnival of Souls doesn’t result in considering it a classic of the horror genre. There are a lot of problems to be noted, including a good portion of poor dubbing, one laughably slow car chase, and a foley artist who goes a little wacky with the coconut halves. These moments will surely make the experienced b-movie fan chuckle, but after a while they’ll notice something else: Souls occassionally can be pretty disturbing. Now I doubt you’ll be kept up at night after watching this movie, but considering the time of its release (1962), there’s a level of malice and dread at work here one must admit is ahead of its time. The film’s hero, car accident survivor and professional organist Mary, spends most of her time onscreen either examining an abandoned carnival pavilion or being stalked by white-faced members of the damned. These mysterious, unexplained people, with their sunken eyes and grim smiles, are used to great effect, especially in a sequence where they are shown dancing at great speed. My question, and I think it’s more fun to pose it rhetorically, is what does it all mean? The plot of Souls is murky at best, lending to more than one interpretation. Whether or not this was intended on the director’s part is unknown, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and say this movie was meant to be a mystery. You’ll snicker at times, but I dare you to not walk away from Carnival of Souls with even a slight chill.

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