– Movie Journal A

7.26.06 – Les Gaspards (The Holes)

When you purchase a set of forty VHS tapes for the low-low price of $10, you’re bound to inherit a few potentially damaging films. The Holes, a French comedy about Parisians living in underground to escape their Prime Minister’s ongoing construction projects, while not awful, certainly lives up to its boring packaging and poorly written summary. All the wacky, high-spirited music in the world can’t convince me this is anything more than a badly dubbed series of limp jokes being created out of a gimmicky premise. Who could possibly care when mild-mannered bookseller Rondin finds his daughter to be missing, only to discover she’s been taken captive by a band of cave-dwelling surface-haters known as the Super Rats? The answer is no one, since the actors are consistently grim-faced and their English voices are provided by a stable of actors who sound like they were held at gunpoint for their services. You can understand how I therefore didn’t find myself laughing at these characters’ collective antics, with a recurring joke being the disappearance of a man named “Nixon.” Yep, those French policeman are just frantic due to the loss of this Nixon fellow, since a United States President being held captive underground would just be positively crazy, eh what? Then there’s the zany sequence where the leader of the Super Rats crosses Paris’ utility lines so water comes out of telephones and gas erupts out of the street. Yeah, I’m sure they had ’em rolling in the aisles with that little gag. I’ll be honest: The fast-forward feature, like during other particularly tiresome features, quickly became my friend while watching The Holes. Taken by itself, it certainly doesn’t give foreign cinema a good name.

7.25.06 – The Player

No one can look more catatonic and at the same time immensely priggish than Tim Robbins, and with his greasy jet black hair and stone-cold eyes he’s perfect for the role of a generic movie producer in Robert Altman’s The Player. It’s a movie about the harsh business of movies, where writers are never called back and jobs are lost at the tip of a political hat. Business as usual becomes personal, however, when one snubbed writer begins sending a series of not-so friendly postcards to Robbins’ Griffin Mill, each one threatening nothing less than death. Griffin tracks down a likely stalker candidate and ends up killing him out of a combo of passion and resentment, but did he get the right man? Now he must struggle to maintain his innocence while dealing with the same old drum beating of the Hollywood system, and it’s not an easy game to play. This is a great premise for a film, but the best bits are not the thriller/mystery elements but rather Altman’s zooming in on smaller moments of sheer show biz schlock. Watching Griffin as he listens to yet another boring, hackneyed movie pitch–“It’s like Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate…I’m thinking Julia Roberts should star.”–is morbid fun, and the film develops based on rules every character already knows about: There will be a happy ending, a steamy sex scene, and more than a few twists by the time the credits begin to spool. Everything is delivered with a somewhat sickened grin on Altman’s part, and that dark spirit is what makes The Player worthwhile. Also look out for Whoopi Goldberg having a great time as the requisite detective on Griffin’s trail. It’s sad to think a good performance in a film such as this led to her career fizzling out over time.

7.24.06 – King Kong (2005)

The main difference between watching Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong (the second and by far more successful of two attempts) in a darkened theater and on DVD is the sheer loss of spectacle and surprise. Whereas the film’s original action highlight, a sprawling battle involving Kong an extremely dedicated trio of T-Rex, had me glued to the screen the first time around, a second viewing does not replicate such excitement. If anything it’s a bit silly, especially as you’re watching the combatants getting tangled in a mass of vines and swinging about like yo-yos in the jungle mist. Thankfully what does hold up over time are Kong‘s special effects and how they allow the titular character to draw us in on a purely emotional level. It’s the loving relationship between the battle-scarred warrior and the woman he wishes to protect (the beautiful Naomi Watts) that gets me with each go-around. Watts turns in an appropriately complex performance, and her work allows us to believe she could care for a 25-foot-tall simian without so much as a snicker. Of course the other half of this on-screen partnership should be commended as well: Andy Serkis, as the mighty Kong, must have stretched his facial muscles to their acting limit, as he lends such subtley and unheard voice to his role it’s simply a joy to watch. Outside of this pair there are ups (the final climactic hour in New York along with the joyously gross Insect Pit) and downs (odd writing puts too much focus on smaller characters while ignoring key motivation for Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll–though Brody does a great job with what he’s given anyhow). After seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, however, a film that hems and haws without ever reaching any sort of memorable destination, I can easy forgive Kong‘s faults, for in the end it’s one of the most well-made films I’ve seen in some time. Sure, the script could have used some tinkering dialogue-wise, but you never once feel the three hour running time pass you by (unlike Chest). It’s a fun and at the same time touching example of movie spectacle, and I applaud it’s creators.

7.20.06 – Trembling Before G-D

I’m all for a documentary following the issues of gays and lesbians in today’s society, but for whatever reason Trembling Before G-D never really takes off despite its original angle. The film focuses its cameras on a large group of gay men and women who are trying to balance their sexual orientation with the teachings of Judaism, teachings which explicitly condemn homosexuality as punishable by death. This is meaty conflict, and I was ready to really dive in and find out about these people and their complicated lives. What put me off was how one of the main stories, concerning a lesbian couple who are shown counseling a fellow gay woman who is trapped in an arranged marriage among other moments, is partly still in the closet, so to speak. Every shot of this very captivating couple put the majority of their faces out of view or behind objects in their home, and interviews saw the women completely hidden by shadows. It’s a strange decision, since I would have hoped this couple would have been courageous enough to really come out with their identities. This doesn’t apply to every subject, thank goodness, since I would have balked if the movie were an exercise in witness protection (I understand the need for privacy, but this is a documentary after all). At the time I was marginally involved with these people and their varying viewpoints on religion and sexual identity, but as I sit here I realize not much stayed with me after the viewing of Trembling Before G-D. I don’t think it has to do with my not being Jewish, either, as the subject of religion is one I and every other gay individual has had to face, but rather because the filmmaking may just be a little too dry. There’s only one true instance of passion on display here (a man shunned by his family and resentful of his upbringing finds himself delivering a free-flowing speech overflowing with emotion), and I wish this could have been present throughout. There’s always room for true discussion and debate, but the heart of these stories lies in how they really affect us at the core. 

7.19.06 – Match Point

From the opening moments of Woody Allen’s Match Point it is clear the noteworthy theme is luck and its fickle nature. This mysterious force factors greatly in the life of Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who finds himself quickly moving up the social ladder after falling into a convenient relationship with the daughter of one of London’s more important businessmen. Temptation threatens to shake apart this lucky set of circumstances when Chris falls for his brother-in-law’s fiancee, Nola Rice, and the affair ultimately pushes him to desperate action. Meyers is collected and nice to look at as Chris, and Scarlett Johansson as Nola starts off well enough but ends up screaming half of her lines as the movie draws to a close. Both are victims of an acting syndrom that is so understated it is as a result totally uninvolving, so I found it hard to care for them as anything more than attractive bodies throwing themselves at each other. Reflection reveals the third act of Match Point as nothing more than a low-rent crime thriller, and I’m not too sure it earns such an emotionally raw conclusion. Luck doesn’t win out in the end, and despite all the good press I read about this film I have to write it off as passable entertainment. 

7.17.06 – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Wow, talk about your lumbering, stumbling, bumbling beheamoth of a failed blockbuster. The more I consider Dead Man’s Chest the more it cries out for criticism, despite some initial bursts of fun that are now leaking out of my ears and floating away into the night. By and large the film signs its own death warrant by being so heinously long, dragging its feet at nearly two and a half hours. Its predecessor, Curse of the Black Pearl, could be forgiven of its beefy running time because it was fun and fresh, but this time around it’s an unforgivable, indulgent, and sloppy mistake. An entire half hour stretch involving Captain Jack Sparrow’s misadventures with a clan of cannibals has nothing whatsoever to do with the main arc, which takes its own dear sweet time making itself clear. To summarize: Everyone wants what’s inside the chest of Davey Jones, and much pirate tomfoolery results. Why in the world those in the editing department deemed it appropriate to take so long to explain so little is a decision I cannot explain, nor do I care to do so. As I said, there are bursts, such as a three-man sword fight atop a gigantic, out-of-control wheel and the first real appearance of the sea monster known as the Kraken, but in the end there are too many plot holes crowding my brain to redeem the whole shebang. There are a number of questions I could ask (the main one concerning the undead monkey, who, by the original film’s rules, should not be undead), but life is too short. Just know that this is not the glistening, perfect sequel advertised by other critics online. Oh, and as for the ending, which has been described time and again by those same critics as your motivation for running to the third slot in this trilogy: I was less than enthused. Sorry, but while I will catch the next Pirates adventure, this was a true disappointment.

7.16.06 – The Pink Panther Strikes Again

Seeing as how up until this point I had been a Panther virgin, if you will, it might seem strange to begin experiencing the franchise with its third entry, Strikes Again. Even so, there’s not a lot of ground to cover after being plopped into this movie, as it generally follows one basic rule: Let’s put Peter Sellers in a multitude of wacky situations. This is more than enough to sustain the film’s first half hour, which features a hectic, children-at-play fight scene between Sellers’ Clouseau and his trainer, Kato. This very bizarre battle was then followed by what is now one of my favorite comedic bits, where Kato is fooled by Clouseau’s hunchback disguise to the point of total conviction. Then, strangely enough, the humor is obscured by a story, one which didn’t exactly lend itself to humor when all was said and done. Clouseau’s former Chief Inspector wants him dead, he kidnaps a scientist and forces him to build an evil ray gun, and so on and so forth, but it never really matters or results in any gags whatsoever. Far too much time is spent actually discussing the ins and outs of this obviously trivial plot, and to what end? Long stretches of silence from the audience, that’s what. It’s too bad the energy was drained from The Pink Panther Strikes Back so soon, as I was all too willing to go along for the ride. At some point, however, the ride derailed.

7.16.06 – Serenity

I don’t really know what compelled me to rent this movie, as I never watched the extremely short-lived TV series on which it’s based (though I have heard good things). Thankfully, despite a seemingly standard plot and set of rules, Serenity did not turn out to be a disappointment. Its only problem is the slight reliance on the fans of its televised predecessor. I got the feeling there were about five percentage points of the overall product dedicated solely to them, and as such I felt left in the dark. Setting this aside helped me access it eventually, though, and I’m glad, since there’s some really funny writing and great sci-fi action going on here. Like I said, the initial setup isn’t really anything new: A war between the dominant Alliance and a group of rebellious planets raged sometime ago, and the spoils went to the Alliance. Since then the rebels have dispersed, with one group becoming a batch of shifty, morally grey mercenaries, ready to take on any job that pays. Things get sketchy when the Alliance zeroes in on one of the group’s members, a girl named River who was once experimented on by government scientists who wished to turn her into a walking weapon. Being a psychic by birth, River came to learn secrets about the Alliance, and her subsequent rescue by her brother now means she is to be taken prisoner (as quietly as possible, of course). Now the mercenary crew of the ship Serenity have a choice to make: Harbor the girl or throw her to the wolves? This is all an excuse to fly about and explore new worlds, and as such it ain’t a bad one. Each supporting member of the Serenity crew is appealing and gets their own moments to shine, and when it comes time for a fight sequence the choreography doesn’t disappoint. The finale lends itself to a sequel, to be certain, but low box-office takes means we probably won’t be seeing further adventures of the Serenity crew. As such, enjoy this movie on its own, as I’m sure you’ll enjoy its slight satirical roots and its acting. By the end of Serenity I was actually rooting for the cast to overcome the odds, and I bet you will too.

7.14.06 – Running Scared

Though Running Scared is technically an entry in the Die Hard school of thought, involving one chistle-jawed powerhouse’s fight against overwhelming forces, it scared me more than any horror movie from the past five years, hands down. This is by no means your daddy’s action film, as there’s a level of twisted creativity at work here that puts a surreal bent to the proceedings. The story is easily summed up, though the film tries to make it more complicated for the sake of double-crossings and other matters. Essentially, Paul Walker plays a gopher thug who is charged with ditching a “hot” weapon, a silver-handled gun used to take down a batch of dirty cops. When the gun gets in the hands of the kid from next door, and is then used to nearly murder said kid’s abusive criminal of a papa, then things get a little complicated. Soon the crooked coppers, Russian mafia, and a ton of other seedy unerlings are hot on Walker’s trail, and much bloody action ensues. Walker plays the role of anti-hero well, being tough and rugged without taking his job too seriously (there’s a bit of ham in this performance somewhere, I’m sure). The filmmaking is overflowing with style, implementing reversed footage, sudden shifts in POV, and other lightning quick devices to give the movie a hyperkinetic feel. Then there are the horrific elements which had my body frozen and eyes glued to the screen (I’m being quite literal here), including a haggard, shadowed drug addict whose voice sounds like sandpaper and a sequence at one couple’s less than stable home. I won’t spoil what happens during this sequence, since the less you know the more you’ll be chilled. In any case, if you wanna see a quote-unqoute “action picture” with more than a little crack running through its system, prepare yourself and find Running Scared. It goes where the rest of its genre doesn’t dare venture. 

7.14.06 – Yankee Doodle Dandy

The musicals of the 1940’s and ’50s carry with them an inherent spectacle, as they were created on a grand scale and never held back when it came to resources. One of the best examples of the epic musical is Singin’ in the Rain, and while Yankee Doodle Dandy can’t quite reach that film’s height it certainly strives for it with great energy and old-fashioned spunk. The problem lies within the biographical story, which details the life and times of famed patriot and songwriter George M. Cohan. Cohan’s exploits are decent fodder for a bio-musical, but a painfully outdated framework device (in which George is literally compelled to relate his timeline by the U.S. President) makes everything feel outdated when compared to more recent studies, such as Capote. This may be an unfair comparison, however, as techniques have definitely changed since Yankee‘s release in 1942. What doesn’t seem rusty are the wonderful production values of those numbers, which come in abudance and never cease to amaze me with their size and scope. The sight of hundreds of American flags, each carried by a crowd of extras that seems to go on for miles, is enough to make you dumbstruck. James Cagney is a fantastic study as Cohan, a magnifient dancer whose sharp, calculating movements seem totally natural from the at-ease look on his impish face. Most people would surely hurt themselves trying to accomplish what Cagney does on the screen, but from his perspective it looks like jogging or any other simple activity. This is a fun movie, even when it tumbles down into the land of grossly political incorrectness, like during a frightening blackface routine and a head-shaking moment where a dozen or more black performers seem to worship a statue of Abraham Lincoln, all while singing “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” Call it patriotic innocence, I suppose. If you’re interested, you’d best be advised to skip the more lengthy bio moments and move straight to the numbers, as they’re the real highlight of Yankee Doodle Dandee, not Cohan. 

7.13.06 – The Girl Next Door

Our culture is packed to the brim with sour, gimmick-driven comedies starring aging men with a penchant for nut-thwacking humor, so it is truly a blessing to watch a comedy of a different sort with The Girl Next Door. Though the plot is practically a clone of Risky Business (just remove “hooker” from the synopsis and replace it with “porn star” and change some other minor details), here is a genuinely funny movie populated with characters who are actually endearing to watch instead of sickening. Emile Hirsch is perfect as dorky teen Matthew, and has a subtle comic timing other actors could do well to emulate (I’m looking at you, Rob Schneider). The beautiful Elisha Cuthbert plays the romantic foil to Matt wonderfully, oozing sensuality while never coming off calculating or two-dimensional. It’s a credit to the film’s director and writer that Cuthbert wasn’t used simply as eye candy but rather as a fully realized character. I also have to point out Timothy Olyphant’s performance as Kelly, an antagonistic porn producer who could just as easily offer you a cigar as he could punch you in the skull. Olyphant is, simply put, a truly great villain because of the random, sketchy personality he brings to Kelly, making him dangerous and fun at the same time (one could compare the performance to Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, but obviously the two actors were going after different objectives). I highly suggest checking out The Girl Next Door, since seeing it the first time pretty much guaranteed I’d watch it again and again. And with garbage like Click and Little Man infesting theaters right now, you’d be infinitely better off with this sweet/hilarious movie.

7.7.06 – Pirates of the Caribbean

I actually watched this over the course of two days, which probably helped due to the movie’s lengthy running time of 2 1/2 hours. This is not to say Pirates is a bad film, because in fact it’s quite a lot of fun, especially with a few repeat viewings. Johnny Depp is the obvious star of the picture, and by the way he shambles about and twitches his cat-like mustache you can tell he’s aware of the status. Thankfully he walks the fine line of comedy and scene stealing well, making his mark without completely turning the movie into a vanity project. The special effects are remarkable, used to seamlessly show transformations between live pirates and their other, cursed sides (i.e. skeletons). It’s certainly a technological achievement, and it adds to an already thick atmosphere of confidence in being a true adventure film. Some may complain about Orlando Bloom’s supposedly stoic performance, but compared to his dull-eyed turn in Elizabethtown he is practically an overactor, and for my money he’s a worthy mirror image of Depp’s more loony character. To summarize, this movie is refreshingly cool, so check it out.

7.7.06 – Transamerica

For some reason I’d been putting off watching Transamerica, one of a few films I’d rented from Blockbuster this past week. Now I can’t imagine writing it off, as it’s really a very well written movie with many great performances that should be acclaimed. The first is the remarkable Felecity Huffman, who plays a hopeful transsexual named Bree Osbourne. I can’t imagine diving into a role that requires a female actor to portray a man aspiring to become a woman, but Huffman meets the challenge as if it’s no trouble whatsoever. The role of Bree is eternally nervous, staunchly conservative, and just a bit of a compulsive liar, and she’s a perfect anchor for the film. Kevin Zegers shows he’s more than just a pretty boy teen idol-type by bringing his own immense talents to the table. As Bree’s drug-using, dream-driven son Toby he inserts a darker presence into the story, presenting a morally greyed young man who is stumbling to find a place in life. There’s not a hint of reservation in Zegers’ performance as he makes every scene his own, matching Huffman point for point in terms of confidence in his role. The script is wonderful as well, filled with complexities almost never discussed in a major film while striking a balance between sensitivity and examination. Bree is neither an exalted martyr for the transsexual movement or a painted caricature, but rather a flawed, multi-faceted individual who just wants to fulfill a dream. Transamerica should be seen because of its achievements, and needless to say I’m glad I picked it up on a whim.

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