Friday, November 24, 2006

Deja Vu

An interesting action/thriller that,if you buy into its premise, will keep you entertained. Denzel Washington plays an agent for the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) who is investigating the bombing of a New Orleans ferry loaded with U.S. servicemen and their families. The film starts out as your typical “find the killer” story but takes a detour into science fiction when the plot hinges on time travel.

Val Kilmer and Adam Goldberg play FBI agents working on a “top secret government project” who bring in Mr. Washington as their investigative expert. Why the FBI needs an ATF agent as their “investigative expert” is our first leap of faith. When he realizes their project can actually send things into the past, Mr. Washington uses it in an attempt to prevent the tragedy from happening in the first place. Paula Patton plays the woman who is the key to finding the killer and of course, ends up Mr. Washington’s love interest. Another leap of faith.

You sense you seen these plot elements before…Hmmm, Déjà vu? What keeps the story grounded is the serious and committed acting of Denzel Washington. He believes it so we believe it too. Time travel plots are very tricky. If you change the past, then there’s no longer a need to go into the past but if you don’t go, you don’t change it…very complicated stuff, which raises all kinds of questions at the end of the film. Don’t try to figure it all out. Movies like this are all about the ride and Director Tony Scott along with Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is very adept at giving you a fun ride. I have a strange sense they’ve done it before….

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Fountain

Contrary to expectations, "The Fountain" is not about the fountain of youth but rather The Tree of Life. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz star as lovers in this sci-fi, time traveling love story. Jackman's acting is intense and serious but wasted in this metaphysical mess.

The plot (or what resembles a plot) moves between 16th century Spain, the present and the far future where Jackman must find The Tree of Life in order to save Weisz, who appears to be immortal but apparently, is not.

The best analogy I can offer describing this film is when you have an intense dream and wake in the middle of the night to write it all down. It makes sense at the time but when you read it back in the morning, it's incomprehensible. "The Fountain" is the result of writer/director, Darron Aronofsky's dream.

On a positive note, the art direction is excellent although the lighting is so dark for most of the film, you can't appreciate it. The whole thing is a 96 minute bore ruminating on immortality, faith, love and the healing power of tree sap. Don't bother drinking from this "Fountain".

Saturday, November 18, 2006


"Babel" is the newest film from director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. As he's done in the past with "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams", he expertly weaves multiple story lines connected by a single thread. With each film, Inarritu continues to impress with this style of storytelling.

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play American tourists traveling in the Moroccan desert. While they are both major stars, this film is truly an ensemble piece and their story is but one of four human dramas with one thing in common. Pitt manages to disappear into his role and does some great work with his limited scenes. Blanchett, due to the nature of her role, is limited in her acting, but still conveys a great deal of emotion. The film also features Gael Garcia Bernal and an excellent group of international co-stars.

The action shifts back and forth through time and place from the Moroccan desert to the Southwestern US, Mexico and Japan. The stories are so believable and the acting is so good, you will feel like you're watching CNN News rather than a movie. When Cate Blanchett's character is accidentally struck by a rifle shot, it sets off a series of further accidents and misunderstandings affecting her children, their Mexican nanny, the Moroccan family that owned the rifle and a Japanese deaf-mute teenage girl and her father. What transpires throughout is tragic and yet by the end, we sense a glimmer of hope for at least some of the characters.

This is a thoughtful and moving drama and one of the year's best films.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Casino Royale

I am very happy to report that James Bond is back... shaken, not stirred. Much has been written since the announcement of Daniel Craig taking over the franchise, and most of it very critical. Mr. Craig has taken the iconic role and completely made it his own. While I'm sure this will be debated by die-hard fans everywhere, he is the best Bond since Sean Connery.

This film revitalizes the franchise by literally taking it back to it's roots. Staying pretty faithful to the Ian Fleming novel, "Casino Royale" introduces Bond to his first 00 mission. The film is full of the action we expect from a Bond film but this action is grounded (for the most part) in reality. The stunt work is terrific. The CGI, from what I can tell, is kept to a minimum. There is a plot that makes sense, real dramatic moments and a very human James Bond. Mr. Craig plays him as a diamond in the rough. This Bond is serious, intense, and flawed. This Bond bleeds... repeatedly. He is beaten, shot with a nail gun, poisoned, tortured, nearly drowned, and beaten some more. I could criticize his incredible healing ability but why bother, it's James Bond.

The screenwriters (including Paul Haggis. What doesn't he write these days?) have done a great job infusing the Bond elements we all love (Judy Dench as M, the exotic locations, the women, a creepy villain) into a story that, while bloated, never goes as over the top as we've seen in the recent past. The film runs two and a half hours and could have easily been cut by 20 minutes or so. There is a point when you think it may never end but end it does and it will leave you with anticipation for Mr. Craig's next turn in the tuxedo.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Saving Money At The Movies

Last week, AMC/Loews quietly raised their ticket prices. An adult ticket is now $11. I haven't checked yet but I'm sure Clearview, City Cinemas, and UA Regal theaters won't be far behind. I recommend a few ways to save some money. First, sign up for free reward cards. AMC has a movie watcher program, Clearview has a rewards program and UA Regal has a movie club card, all of which give you points towards free snacks and free tickets. Even if you don't go often these points add up and help save you money.

Another way to save is to take advantage of a little known secret at all AMC/Loews theaters in the city. If you go before noon any Friday through Sunday, or holiday, the price is just $6.
For some reason the AMC/Loews at 72nd street only has this deal on Saturdays and holidays but this theater is the only exception.

And finally, check HR sites at your job or AAA, for discount passes which can save you at least $2.50 on each ticket. Of course, you can also read my reviews and be more selective about what you see.

Running With Scissors

Despite the pedigree cast and terrific acting, "Scissors" doesn't cut it. The film is based on the true memoirs of Augusten Burroughs. Burrough's book was apparently very popular but having not read it, I was drawn to the film by the cast and not the story. Luckily the acting rises above the plot and keeps you interested.

As a teen, Augusten is sent to live with his mother's shrink and his family. Having difficulty enough adjusting to his parent's divorce and his metal unstable mother, Augusten must now reside with the family that puts the D in dysfunctional. The Finch family is played by Brian Cox, as Dr. Finch, Jill Clayburgh as his wife, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Evan Rachel Wood as their daughters. While all do an outstanding job, Jill Clayburgh is just wonderful as the long suffering repressed wife and mother. She deserves an best supporting actress nomination at Oscar time.

All of these characters are damaged goods. Repressed, depressed, confused and somewhat psychotic, it is not a happy picture. If not for the acting, watching these characters for two hours would just be painful. But the saving grace of them all is Annette Bening as Deirdre Burroughs, a leading role with Oscar nomination written all over it. Ms. Bening is just terrific in a difficult role as a mother with delusions of grandeur coupled with intense mental anguish. Joseph Cross plays Augusten and holds his own among all these top notch actors. His scenes with Bening are heartbreaking and true. Alex Baldwin plays the small but important role of Augusten's father, downplaying his usual bombastic character and showing some real depth.

This one gets an A for acting but a D for a depressing story.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

The idea of a person discovering their reality is not what it seems and confronting their maker about it has been done before with Jim Carry in "The Truman Show". Call this "The Truman Show Redeux". Instead of Mr. Carry, we now have Will Ferrell, who discovers he is a character in the imagination of author Karen Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson.

The earlier film played for more laughs while exploring questions of one's existence. "Stranger Than Fiction" forgets the laughs and plays it straight. This is not necessarily a problem, however, one's expectations from the trailer and Mr. Ferrell's history suggest you will be laughing during this film. Mr. Ferrell's attempts at a deadpan dramatic performance are a disappointment. While I applaud his effort, it's too much of a leap for him and the audience finds itself forcing laughs at his situation just because he is Will Ferrell.

The story, moving from the Truman TV reality, places us in the literary world of Karen Eiffel's new book. A novel about Harold Crick that she hasn't finished due to a bad case of writer's block. When Harold actually begins to hear Karen's narration, his mundane world collapses and he is forced to face his mortality as Karen tries to figure out how to kill her character. Along for the ride are Maggie Gyllenhaal as a baker who inexplicably falls for Harold, Dustin Hoffman as a literature professor helping Harold figure things out and Queen Latifah, who is wasted as Karen's assistant. She simply isn't given enough to do.

This is a smarter film than you'd expect. The ideas of existence, free will, and one's fate are entwined throughout the film and the ending finds a manipulative way to keep from painting the story into a corner. It's more entertaining than a philosophy class on free will but it's been done before...and better.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Marie Antoinette

This film had me from the start but lost me somewhere between the pastry trays and the French Revolution. Sophia Coppola does a fine job of recreating 18th century Versailles and all the excesses that befit the royal family. The excess of food, drink, gambling, clothing, and most of all, boredom are all portrayed lavishly by Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Steve Coogan, Asia Argento, and Rip Torn.

What drives the first half of the film is the problem of consummating the marriage for Marie and Louis. Once solved, all we can do is wait for the revolution while Marie spends like crazy and Louis empties the royal treasury donating war funds to the Americans fighting their own revolution.

The use of contemporary music and dialog by Ms. Dunst work in a fun and illuminating way as we watch this young girl grow into her place in history. But even this starts to wear thin as we begin to anticipate the next song selection turning the film into a very long music video.

Ms. Coppola has a very artistic vision as a director and the film looks fabulous. The problem is she falls victim to her own excess. Endless shots of Ms. Dunst from every angle possible carry the boredom of the court into the boredom of the theater. Had she cut 20 minutes, I think the film would have been much tighter and more enjoyable.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Queen

"The Queen" takes us inside the royal family just after the death of Princess Diana in 1997. As an American, it is fascinating to watch the the machinations of the British government during this time of public shock and grief. The exchanges between the newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and her royal highness are absolutely priceless. There is quite a bit of humorous dialogue which I perceived to be unintentional and only funny as an outsider looking in.

During the week between the accident and Diana's funeral, the royal family opts to remain private and retreat to their country estate. The British public, who obviously worshipped Diana as a public figure, resent the actions taken by the royal family and public opinion begins to plummet for the monarchy. Tony Blair recognizes the importance of a public show of grieving to unite the country and does his best to gently persuade The Queen to change her mind.

As The Queen, Helen Mirren is simply brilliant. One can only imagine what it's like inside the royal family and Ms. Mirren acts like she's lived the part her entire life. Every line and every look come so naturally to her, you forget she is acting. She will be very hard to beat come Oscar time. As Tony Blair, Michael Sheen is up to the challenge of verbally sparring with Ms. Mirren. The very reliable James Cromwell plays Prince Phillip and Alex Jennings portrays a spot-on Prince Charles.

The story is cut with actual footage from the period which only serves to create an air of authenticity to the entire film. One would think the screenwriter, Peter Morgan, was a fly on the wall during that tragic week. It is easy to dismiss The Queen as the villain and Tony Blair the hero of the story but as the film unfolds, things are not so clearly defined and a key line by Ms. Mirren towards the end of the film puts everything in perspective. Whether or not it's all accurate, "The Queen" is fascinating look into a world most of us never see.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Last King of Scotland

Based on the true story of the infamous Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, "Last King" is a tour de force for actor Forest Whitaker. While the story's point of view comes from a fictional character, Dr. Garrigan (played by James McAvoy), it is Mr. Whitaker's performance that keeps you riveted to the screen.

   Amin is impressed by the Scottish doctor and makes him his personal physician. At first, the doctor isn't interested but is soon won over and begins to enjoy his involvement with the charismatic Amin. However, he slowly comes to realize the monster hidden behind the smile.

    McAvoy plays a great counterpoint to Whitaker's dictator. Naïve at first, his awakening once he learns the truth is very natural and the film's climax at Entebbe Airport is filled with tension as he attempts to free himself of Amin's control.

    Mr. Whitaker is a wonderful actor. He recently did a terrific job guest starring on the TV series, "The Shield". His portrayal of Idi Amin is Oscar worthy and he most certainly should receive a nomination at the very least. While the doctor's tale occasionally ventures into melodrama, you are jolted back to reality every time Mr. Whitaker is on the screen.
Don't miss one of this year's absolutely best performances.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Based on Sacha Baron Cohen's fictional character, Borat makes the successful jump from a TV sketch to the big screen. This formula has a shaky past and most of the time doesn't work. Fortunately, Borat lends itself perfectly to a full length film and is unlike anything you've ever seen.

The film is outrageous, offensive, and hysterically funny. It is "Blazing Saddles" for a new generation. When that film opened in the 70's audiences could not believe what they were hearing and seeing but it left them weak from laughter while breaking taboos at the same time. Borat is a TV personality from Kazakhstan who journeys to America to learn of our culture. Much like "Saddles", the film sets up outrageous situations in familiar settings but the big difference is most of the people Borat encounters are real and not in on the joke.

This sets up biting social, political, and sexual commentary. Many of the reactions to Borat's behavior are extremely funny but it's also scary to think some people in this country still have the attitudes revealed in the film.

Just as the story begins to wear thin, a new encounter or situation will have you laughing out loud. This is not a film for everyone as many will NOT get the joke but if you go with an open mind and realize this is satire, you may find yourself weak from laughter. Be warned, there is plenty of gross comedy and bad behavior but underneath there is method to the madness and it's name is Borat.

The Prestige

Without revealing any secrets, the basic plot is simple enough. Due to a tragic act, two friendly magicians-in-training become bitter enemies over the years, each trying to outperform the other causing nothing but further tragedy.

Oh how I wanted to love this film and oh, what a disappointment. Christopher Nolan has worked magic in the past with "Memento" and "Batman Returns". This time, with magic as the literal subject matter, his tricks fail to impress. The "pledge" of the trailer sets up a promising "turn" but the final act or as it's known to magicians, the "Prestige" rests on two faulty elements. One is obvious very early in the film and the other is completely ridiculous.

What does work here is the very capable performance of Christian Bale. This man is incapable of a bad performance. From his very first performance in "Empire of The Sun" (very underrated Spielberg), Bale has delivered over and over again with every film. Hugh Jackman plays the rival magician with his usual dashing aplomb. Michael Caine plays his "Alfred" role from "Batman Returns" and once again, Scarlett Johansson lends herself as eye candy in an otherwise minor role as the assistant with vacillating loyalty. There is a worthwhile cameo by David Bowie, who makes a wonderful entrance.

There have been some comparisons between this film and "The Illusionist". While both are period films about magicians, the stories are really quite different and frankly, "The Illusionist" pulls the rabbit out of the proverbial hat. "The Prestige" is left just holding the hat.