Speed Racer

May 19, 2008

Speed racer might be the first live-action cartoon.

I heard how awful Speed Racer is, but I went anyway. I read how inane and retina burning Speed Racer is, but I went anyway. And I’m glad I did.

Speed Racer will be a milestone in film history. The Wachowski brothers, long known for their love of comic books and graphic novels, are the first to successfully make a live-action comic book. Action heroes from the comics have been on the screen for years, but this is the first time a film looks and feels like a comic book mixed with the cartoon Speed racer started as decades ago. Whether that is a positive development, who knows, but it is a variation on film capabilities that is coming of age.

Emile Hirsch plays the eponymous rookie driver, whose racing family supports him despite his ability to do little else and his older brother’s supposed disgracing of the sport. Susan Sarandon plays his hotty mom and Christina Ricci his sexed down girlfriend, Trixy. This might be a good place get Speed to open up about his confusion. The younger brother and pet chimpanzee, whose implausibility even other characters note, waver between comic relief and an annoyance to all but kindergarteners, but deliver some of the best moments of the two hours. And this time the forces of evil are not created by radioactive sludge or bio-hazardous outbreaks, but by mega-corporations stock options. Big business’ bottom line is made into the panic inducing force that has shaped racing history for years behind closed doors. It is Speed Racer’s duty, with his family right behind him, to bring honesty back to the sport.

I am not saying the film is not without its problems. Some of the action is muddled and the acting is over the top. Sit back and enjoy the ride and find out where it takes you. This is a film about the journey, and even includes hints of crossing into spiritual enlightenment a la The Matrix.

Go with an open mind and popcorn in hand. Remember the joy of Saturday morning cartons or reading comic books by flashlight. It’ll make you grin.


From Marfa with Scenes

February 25, 2008

This years best movies were dominated by nasty, willful bad guys and the parched landscape where they do their dirty work. The caterers of Alpine and Marfa Texas were thrilled, I’m sure, with two big productions in town. No Country for Old Men, set in the area, got the award for best film (and direction, adapted screenplay, and supporting actor). Early scenes take us to the open plains and grassy hills where hiding is only so effective, for an antelope or a guy with a lot of money in a box.

The scrub-covered slopes substitute for interior California, where Paul Thomas Anderson sets oil tycoon Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Instead of vast, open spaces, we see claustraphobic mines and tight cabins and tents far removed from the finer things in life.The cinematography won this year’s Oscar, and if you remember those dialog-less opening fifteen minutes, why wouldn’t it?

The closest I’ve been is driving west on I-10, on a thirty-hour breeze from Charlottesville, Va. to Carlsbad, New Mexico hoping to make it to a 2:00 PM cavern tour. Something other than , bright, open emptiness where water wells are as sought after as oil rights, was somewhere on the southern horizon. Now I know what I was missing.


The Mist

December 3, 2007

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Weinstein Co.

What’s that mist? “It’s the pollution from Rumford,” someone says squinting into the mountains, possibly to the town whose paper-mills create smells of legend around Maine.

It’s not that, but ‘something terrible’ that asks the question: What would you do to survive when you only have each other and no idea what you’re up against? Starting with that premise we see a small town’s myriad answers. Marcia Gaye Harden realizes her moment as a fire and brimstone preacher. Thomas Jane puts down his paintbrush and picks up mop soaked in lighter fluid. Toby Jones, in a well-aimed portrayal of a diminutive grocery store assistant manager, pulls out a well aimed pistol.

The story comes from Stephen King’s long-short-story of the same name from what now seems like his younger, classic period. Set in the Maine lakes issues of year-round residents versus summer and weekend‘visitors.’

The creatures coming out of the mist look goofy in a B-movie way, but the issues are plausible. It’s worth watching as it makes its way to the discount theaters and to DVD


Beowulf

November 27, 2007

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Paramount Pictures

I recently had the dubious honor of seeing Beowulf twice. Once in 2D and once in 3D. If this movie were only offered in 2D it never would have been made. See it for the special effects if you see it at all. If you don’t see it, you aren’t missing much.

If you don’t remember the story from eighth grade English class, it’s all about a guy who kills a monster in Scandanavia at the time of Viking raiders and Anglo-Saxon invaders. Apparently the screenwriters thought the story a little musty after a thousand years and sexed it up a bit. No longer is Grendel’s mother a hag who lives a few days longer than her spawn. She, in the shape of Angelina Jolie with wings, whip pony tail, and feet fixed with stiletto heels, is the queen who gets all she desires. With Jolie and special effects combined in the part, it is safe to say that no man can resist gilded coochie.

There are a lot of big names in the cast. But it is odd recognizing them by their voice alone since their faces and acting skills have been so altered. The effects are the draw for this flick and unless the DVD comes with special shades you have to see it in the theatre to wring any enjoyment out of it.


Sketches in character development: Gone, Baby, Gone and American Gangster

November 6, 2007

Ridley Scott has been making blockbuster movies for years. In 2000 he made Russell Crowe a star in Gladiator. He once again uses Crowe, here to conterpoint Denzel Washington in American Gangster, a cops and robbers tale from the Superfly years.
photo_10.jpg Universal Pictures

American Gangster is the true life tale of the meteoric rise of a Harlem mobster fueled by the proliferation of heroin as GIs returned home with newfound knowledge of smack and all the special effects-generated gurgling and sucking that accompany shooting up. The protégé of a black crime boss finds his niche, alters a market by cutting out the middle man, then makes the big players work for him. All the while he keeps his style and stays under the radar. He shuns the styles mocked since as 70s pimp and shuns his drab suit for a chinchilla suit at his girlfriend’s urging.

Crowe plays a Jersey police detective too honest to be trusted in the precinct. Once transferred to the newly formed DEA he tries to shut down the mafia-run drug supply in the city. That’s when he notices the chinchilla suit at a boxing match, and our characters’ meeting is destined.

Unfortunately for us, we don’t care that much. Who are these guys? We get little glimpses of their lives, but there seems to be so much that is hinted at but never really explored. Make that, a lot of hinting without explaining any more. We know there are crews on both sides of the story, both get face time, but they aren’t illuminated much. The good long-hair cops look a whole lot like the bad long-hair cops.

There is a nice juxtaposition of benefiting from drug wealth with the damage it causes as a baby cries for her mother, overdosed and soiled next to her at the same time that a family plays ball in front of a southern mansion.

Scott is fascinated that Frank Lucas was a real-life Tony Montana who not only lived to tell about it, but was even able to get out of jail early and go back to his low profile way of life. If only we saw more of that and less of Scott insecurely asking us to take him seriously.

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Gone, Baby, Gone on the other hand, is all about characters. From the opening shots of street life in Dorchester, Mass. to the pans of a Johnny-on-the-spot television reporter in shorts and a suit jacket first-time director Ben Affleck draws viewers deeper into these characters.

Before Dennis Lehane wrote Mystic Rover he wrote Gone, Baby, Gone. Both deal with crime against children and the limits of police protection set in the blue collar neighborhoods of Boston. This movie lives under that tall as Clint Eastwood shadow, but it is it’s own story. A little girl has been kidnapped and suddenly the whole city is glued to the TV to find the little girl.

Casey Affleck and Michelle Monghan play a pair of detectives asked to help find the missing toddler. The fact that police give them roles in their investigation is almost as surprising as how well the younger Affleck and Monaghan carry their lead roles, a first for both. Great actors like Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman and Amy Madigan are almost unrecognizable, a credit to all involved.

Maybe its because the lead characters are relatively unknown, maybe it’s the way the scenes were shot, but whatever it is, the each character seems real. They don’t seem like Hollywood regulars as much as folks you would meet in a bar after the shift is done.

Plot twists and moral soul-searching add to the film’s appeal. I was let down when I thought the movie was over only to find a whole new level of contemplation.

As Oscar contender season gets under way this is my first pick for Best Picture category, though it won’t win. Its cerebral, gritty and searching in a way that left me wanting more.


Across the Universe

October 30, 2007

photo_01.jpg Columbia Pictures

Let me first say that I loathe musicals. I have since high school when I loved acting, but hated musicals. I still hate movie musicals like Chicago. Its not a movie, just a celluloid rendering of stage song and dance. I hated Moulin Rouge when it was on HBO. I have refused to watch Rent despite friends and roommates belting out lyrics at me.

That said, I really wanted to see Across the Universe. It was everything I hopes it would be. It is a musical love set in the ‘60s story told through Beatles songs. Almost a rock opera, but thankfully, not quite.

Through the cast of characters, predictably named Jude, Lucy and Prudence, we see lovers from different backgrounds meeting and falling for one another in New York during the heyday of psychedelia and Vietnam War protests.

What makes this movie so interesting to watch is not just the fantastic choreography and visual effects (which deserve Oscar nominations), but the reinterpretation of songs you’ve heard so many times before.

‘Dear Prudence’ becomes a plea for the girl going through a rocky patch to let herself out of the locked closet. ‘Let It Be’ is sung by a boy during an inner city race riot taking shelter behind a burnt out car. “I Want You So Bad” is sung by the Uncle Sam poster and sergeants at the Induction Center, overwhelming any attempts of escaping Uncle Sam’s Army. “Hey Jude” becomes a plea to come back to the girl you once loved, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” any elegy for Martin Luther King, Jr.

There should be Oscar nominations for costumes, screenplay, and visual effects if not editing for this film. It is not a commercial blockbuster, but it plays with the senses so well. Taking something so overdone as a biopic of the 1960s and making it watchable. Singing cameos that are fun: Joe Cocker as a bum (Come Together), Eddie Izzard as a Flying Circus style Ringmaster (For the Benefit of Mr. Kite), Bono as Ken Kesey (I am the Walrus) and Salma Hayek’s irresistible nurse giving a dose for While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It seems like every countercultural event make sit in here, from Timothy Leary’s Millbrook to Janis Joplin’s split with Big Brother and the Holding Company on to the SDS bombing and the Beatles’ own concert from the roof of Apple Records. I was hoping to see the Grateful Dead smuggled into the Columbia University takeover, but alas.

One last thing. Spoiler alert. The end sucks.


Dan in Real Life

October 28, 2007

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They’re already calling this Steve Carell’s mistake. In truth I wasn’t expecting a whole lot. With the exception of Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carell’s acting isn’t much different from one movie to the next. So how is this movie different? Its worse, that’s how.

Simple story, boy meets girl, she’s brother’s girl, boy tries to get girl. There are plenty of attempts at outcuting any movie this year. There are moodily cute teenagers, cute family reunion, and a cute cabin by the shore torn out of a Land’s End catalog. Add it all together and you get a loose pile of beach muck, just down the bank from said cabin.

Remember The Family Stone? Sound similar? As corny as that movie was it left you feeling warm and fuzzy. “Dan” tries so hard for fuzziness it probably needs another round of full-family hide and seek.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good moments. You can’t help laughing along with Juliette Binoche trapped in a shower with a fully dressed Steve Carell. Binoche brings levity to every scene she’s in. Dane Cook is just annoying enough to get you to root for the good guy. John Mahoney plays the dad as effortlessly as ever. Sidenote: When was the last time John Mahoney didn’t play Dad. Even as a drag performing West Hollywood club owner, he was still the understanding Dad.

The soundtrack is bland and butts into the movie when it should stay unnoticed. It wants to be lingering in the background and helping the scenes along, adding feeling instead of awkwardness. Instead it chimes in like a barely-muted cellphone ring.

I’m not saying this is a bad movie. If you are bored one afternoon, seen everything else playing, need to a reason to get away from whatever, this is an excuse. But it is a movie to rent along with something else, so at least one rental will seem worth the money.