Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day

3/4

Starring: Frances McDormand, Amy Adams, Lee Pace, Ciaran Hinds, Shirley Henderson, Mark Strong, Tom Payne

Rated PG-13 for Some Partial Nudity and Innuendo

"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" is an attempt to bring back the classic screwball comedies from the 30's and 40's.  There's nothing raunchy or gross about this movie; it's all timing and lines.  Someone looking for something like "The 40-Year Old Virgin," or (God forbid!) "Anchorman 2," will be surprised (pleasantly, I hope).  Comedies like this have been out of style for decades, and as Miss Pettigrew proves, they can be just as fun, if not more so.

The film is based on the book by Winifred Watson that was a massive hit when it was published in 1938.  It was going to be turned into a movie, but the onset of World War II put those plans to a halt.  The project was forgotten until the publisher re-released the book in 2000, at which point it was once again attempted to bring to the screen.  70 years after its publication, the story finally reached cinemas.

It's not hard to understand why it was so successful as a novel and so easily translated to the screen: it's got a likable heroine, quirky and engaging characters, and an amusing plot that grows more convoluted (and funnier) as the film goes on.  Miss Pettigrew is someone we can root for, and that makes the film work; the story rests on her shoulders, and she's impossible not to like.

The time is at the tail end of the Great Depression (due to how close it is to World War II, it's probably fall 1939).  Miss Pettigrew is a nanny who is tossed out by just about everyone for one reason or another.  The employment agency has given up hope for her and turns her away.  She overhears that the social secretary for Carole Lombard is freed up again and the worker decides to send her to Delysia Lafosse (Adams).  Desperate, Miss Pettigrew takes the lead and goes there herself.  That's when she realizes that Delysia isn't a mother looking for someone to take care of her kids, but a young starlet trying to juggle three boyfriends: Nick (Strong), a brutish club owner for whom Delysia sings and whose flat she lives in (and whose bank account she empties as fast as she can), Phil (Payne), the son of a theater producer who may make her a star, and Michael (Pace), the penniless pianist who loves her.  Over the course of the day, Miss Pettigrew may help Delysia decide her future and find her own as well.

Indian director Bharat Nalluri has elected to cast actors best suited for the part, rather than who is the most famous or photogenic.  That's the right decision.  The cast is just about perfect; everyone seems born to play the role they were given.  McDormand is turns up the frump as the mousy Miss Pettigrew.  We've all felt like we were at the bottom, and if there's one thing that an audience loves, it's to see the underdog get what they deserve.  Amy Adams, who specializes in playing ditzy and naiive characters is also in fine form as the bubbly but immature Delysia.  Mark Strong, Tom Payne and especially Lee Pace (who has never been so sexy and, in Amy Adams' own words "dashing") are all in fine form.  Shirley Henderson is perfectly nasty as the ambitious and manipulative Edythe.  Ciaran Hinds, with his laid-back and low-key acting style, may not be the first name that comes up when one thinks of a screwball comedy, but he gives the best performance in the film after Lee Pace.  He plays Joe Blomfield, a clothing designer (and Edythe's ex-fiancee) who sees right through Miss Pettigrew...and likes what he sees!

As fun and frothy as this film is, it could have been a lot better.  Screwball comedies require perfect timing, almost down to the milisecond, and they have do gain momentum.  The timing is sharp enough to be amusing, but it lacks to precision to be truly hilarious.  It also doesn't gain much momentum.  The film's first scene should have been a classic, but neither Nalluri doesn't nail the timing.  Things should have been quicker and more energetic than they actually are.  While both Adams and McDormand have displayed comic aptitude and timing (on numerous occasions), they're both struggle with this scene (much more successful are Mark Strong and Tom Payne, the latter of whom has the exact manic energy that the film demands).  After that, the film hits its stride and it is on more solid ground.  It has the same innocence as the comedies of old, and as such feels nostalgic.  It's a much gentler comedy than we're used to these days, but it's not less funny.  In fact, it's a richer experience because it demands much more than improvisation (in fact, I doubt that improv would be possible in a movie like this) and coming up with the grossest gag the latest stand-up comic turned actor can come up with.  Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

0.5/4

Starring: Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Steve Carrell, Megan Good, Dylan Baker, Christina Applegate, James Marsden, Judah Nelson, Greg Kinnear

Rated PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Content, Drug Use, Language and Comic Violence

Comedy is subjective.  What one person finds hilarious, the next person finds a torturous bore.  I like to think that I have a widespread sense of humor, although I think everyone says that.  I can laugh at anything from "Tommy Boy" to "Cruel Intentions" to "Death at a Funeral," and plenty in-between.  Apologies to James Berardinelli, who started his review of "Freddy Got Fingered" in a very similar way to this.  James, I swear, I'm not trying to plagiarize you.  I just think that I have to defend myself before I go on some Will Ferrell bashing, and it kind of turned out like the beginning of your review of the Tom Green movie.

I can even laugh at Will Ferrell, who stars in this awful sequel to the monstrosity that came out a decade ago.  I thought he was hilarious in "Elf" and "Old School," and he was amusing in "Wedding Crashers."  There is one name that is missing from all these movies that is in both "Anchorman" movies (at least one that can be blamed: Adam McKay.  Adam McKay wrote and directed both of the Ron Burgandy movies, and he was also the creative force behind "The Other Guys," which was supposedly Will Ferrell's "return to form."  Due to the fact that Will Ferrell can be hilarious when he is not working with McKay, I blame the director for the movie's unbelievably poor quality.  He has taken the term "belaboring the jokes" (meaning hammering them home until they are no longer funny) to a whole new level.

Ron Burgandy (Ferrell) has married his rival from the first movie, Veronica Corningstone (Applegate).  They have a son named Walter (Nelson).  Their boss, Mack Tannen (Ford), likes them a lot.  He promotes Veronica and fires Ron.  Unwilling to play second fiddle, Ron dumps her and rounds up his old crew and heads to New York.  Ron, armed with idiot Texan Champ Kind (Koechner), sex-obsessed Brian Fantana (Rudd), and their pet, Brick Tamland (Carrell), who has only the intelligence to speak in nonsequitors and woo an equally challenged secretary named Chani Lastname (Kristen Wiig).  Ron is picked up by Type A news CEO Linda Jackson (Good) for her new 24 hour news cycle.  Unfortunately, they're in the time slot where no one will be watching.  Prime time has gone to good looking stud Jack Lime (Marsden).  Their fortunes switch when Ron discovers the power of junk food news.

Satire is a tricky thing (and that's what this is with every fiber of its being).  It doesn't have to be subtle, but it has to be intelligent.  Unfortunately, nothing in this movie could be described as "intelligent."  This is stupid, stupid satire, making fun of the obvious and hammering it home with a sledgehammer.  To be fair, a lack of intelligence can be an asset to comedy if it's used well (such as in "Tommy Boy"), but these characters are so dense that it's amazing that they're able to walk upright, much less form coherent sentences.

Will Ferrell does two things in this movie: overdramatize everything he says and screams.  I have no doubt that this could be used to hilarious effect in a different comedy (in fact, it has).  Watching Will Ferrell here is like watching someone try to improvise when they have no idea what they're doing.  They say the first thing that comes to their head (which is what improv is) and resort to heavy dramatics to let us know that it's supposed to be funny.  It doesn't work.  Ron Burgandy doesn't have anything funny to say, and neither does anyone else.

Speaking of the rest of the cast, they're all just as plastic.  It's as if McKay handed them the script on the day of the shoot and told them where to go and what to say (Uwe Boll did that in "Postal," and, surprising as it is to say, it worked to better effect there.  Much better).  All the performances, save for Good's, seem unrehearsed.  No one appears to know what they're supposed to be doing, and it shows.  Actors who have shown comic ability in the past (that's just about everyone) have suddenly gone camera shy.  It's not just their fault.  McKay's shot selection is constantly static and the timing is off..

I won't claim that this is completely worthless.  Some of the jokes and gags are amusing, and one bit where Ron's un-PC behavior at a dinner party actually did make me laugh.  Which is why I gave this movie a half star instead of the zero it so frequently deserves.  There's about one amusing gag every ten minutes or more, and it's a two hour movie.

It's not as painful as last years crapfest "Identity Thief," but it comes close.  I really hope that there isn't another movie this awful for a long, long, time.

Monday, January 6, 2014

187

2/4

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kelly Rowan, Clifton Collins Jr., John Heard, Karina Arroyave

Rated R for Violence, Strong Language, Drug Use and Brief Nudity

"187" is a depressing movie.  That's to be expected, I guess, from a movie that takes its title from the police code for homicide.  Unfortunately, the film has little to recommend it.  Depressing movies aren't bad per se.  Many are very powerful, in fact ("The War Zone," "Boys Don't Cry," "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire" are three examples).  Kevin Reynolds' urban high school drama cannot be placed among those elite films.  Despite some effective performances, the film is largely unfocused and only moderately engaging.

At least it has its heart in the right place, which is more than can be said for many films.  "187" has something important to say, but it's presented in an unconvincing and occasionally melodramatic way.  In fact, what it actually says is unclear, period.

John Garfield (Jackson) is a teacher in New York City.  Despite being at a school where metal detectors are a necessity and the students could care less, he remains devoted to his job of bettering his students.  One day he finds that his textbook has the number "187" written on each page.  After taking it to the principal (character actor Richard Riehle), who doesn't take him seriously, he finds himself on the wrong end of a vicious attack from one of his students (hip hop star Method Man in a cameo).  Traumatized by the incident, he packs up and moves across the country to Los Angeles, where he finds himself in a similar, if not worse, situation.

The performances help a lot.  With less talented actors, the film would have been unwatchable.  But Samuel L. Jackson is magnetic in every film he's in.  Even in awful drek like "Do the Right Thing," he's always wonderful to watch.  John Garfield isn't an especially well-written character, but Jackson's carefully modulated performance helps a lot.  Despite everything, he believes in teaching, and is fighting his way back to the way he was before the attack.  He begins to realize that there's no way back from something like this.

The supporting cast isn't as good, but they're adequate.  Kelly Rowan is lovely as the fellow teacher who looks to him for support and inspiration; their romance, while underdeveloped (even though it has far too much screentime), is endearing because they have chemistry.  Clifton Collins Jr. (going, at the time, by Clifton Gonzales-Gonzales as a tribute to his grandfather) has his stiff moments early on, but soon finds his groove and makes Cesar into a chilling adversary for Garfield.  John Heard is good as Dave Childress, a fellow teacher who has given up hope of accomplishing anything other than earning a small paycheck, but his character is essentially superfluous.

The film was directed by Kevin Reynolds, the one-time best friend of ex-matinee idol Kevin Costner.  This was their first movie after their relationship soured over the "Waterworld" debacle.  To say it's a change of pace is to understate matters tremendously, although it's not any more successful.  The film is too long and it drags.  It may have been Reynolds intention to make this a character study of Garfield, but, despite Jackson's efforts (this is not his best performance nor is it his strongest attempt), the character remains two-dimensional.

The film was written by a teacher.  I believe it.  The film has a clear ax to grind, and it knows its subject.  Unfortunately, passion doesn't always translate to skill.  This isn't a well written film, and it goes on and on in many scenes.  Whether it was due to bad editing or lack of experience (the screenwriter's only previous credits are two reality TV shows from the 70s and early 80s, neither of which lasted long), the film isn't sure what it's about.

The ending is particularly problematic.  It features plot developments that are absurd and unbelievable, plot holes, and sermonizing to the point where any tension in the film is replaced with eye-rolling.  The climax, which could have been hugely powerful had the film set it up correctly and afforded the characters to speak intelligently, is ridiculous and almost unintentionally funny.  The "big emotional aftermath" is similarly preachy.

So this movie doesn't get a recommendation from me.  I admire its message, but not the way it goes about saying it.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Little Bit of Heaven

3/4

Starring: Kate Hudson, Gael Garcia Bernal, Lucy Punch, Rosemarie DeWitt, Romany Malco, Kathy Bates, Treat Williams

Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content, including Crude References,  and Language

"A Little Bit of Heaven" is a bittersweet comedy about a bubbly woman dying of cancer.  Now that may seem like an oxymoron, since cancer is a painful and traumatic experience for all parties involved, but this is a fantasy.  At no point is this movie meant to be of gut-churning realism.  There are other movies available if that is your thing.  Some may still find this offensive.  I found it to be funny and sweet, mainly due to the terrific performance by Kate Hudson.

Marlee Corbett (Hudson) has what many would call the perfect life.  She's beautiful, wealthy, self-confident, and always has a one-night stand on speed dial if she desires.  She doesn't have a boyfriend, but she doesn't want one.  Her friends, which include her co-worker Sarah (Punch), her sister Renee (DeWitt), her brother-in-law Thomas (Jason Blair) and Peter (Malco), her gay neighbor next door.  But lately, she's been feeling under the weather.  Sarah encourages her to go see a doctor, who turns out to be Dr. Julian Goldstein (Bernal), a cute (but not in my opinion) but socially awkward doctor who can't tell a joke to save his life.  After some tests, Marlee finds out that she has colon cancer, and her prognosis is not good.  But Marlee isn't going to let that stop her from enjoying life.

Like many people, I first became aware of Kate Hudson after her brilliant performance in Cameron Crowe's masterful ode to rock 'n roll, "Almost Famous," for which she was awarded a much deserved Oscar nomination (an award she should have won).  Her future performances proved how limited her range actually is, but in the right role, which is the case here, she can be better than anyone.

Hudson's effervescent personality bursts off the screen as Marlee.  This is the girl we'd all like to have around us: beautiful, sweet, a little mischievous, and an all around good person.  She has her flaws, mainly that she can't stand her parents (Bates and Williams) and makes no secret of it.  But Hudson makes us want to touch the screen and bring her into the real world.

Her co-stars are effective, but this is Hudson's show.  Of the supporting cast, Lucy Punch (in a far cry from her role as Amy Squirrel in "Bad Teacher") and Rosemarie DeWitt, impress the most.  Both are struggling to come to grips with the fact that Marlee's time on Earth is now limited.  Director Nicole Kassell, whose previous feature was "The Woodsman," a film starring Kevin Bacon as a former child molester trying to start anew, sometimes struggles to give all the supporting characters their moments, but for the most part she keeps the focus on Marlee, and that's the best course.  After all, it's impossible not to fall in love with her.

This is not a perfect movie, even for a tearjerker (I was smiling the whole time but never got choked up), but it works.  It's sweet, affecting, and occasionally quite funny (the scene with Peter Dinklage as a prostitute is a case in point, although the best part of the scene is given away in the trailer).  Marlee's realization of her own mortality comes abruptly and her snotty behavior to all (and I mean all) of her friends is poorly motivated and takes too long (to the point where it gets kind of repetitive).  And for such a lovey-duvy couple, Hudson and Bernal don't share much chemistry (although both of them give good performances).

Still, I liked "A Little Bit of Heaven."

The Thing (2011)

3/4

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Eric Christian Olsen, Ulrich Thomsen, Jorgen Langhelle

Rated R for Strong Creature Violence and Gore, Disturbing Images, and Language

In 1982, John Carpenter, who directed the horror classic "Halloween," released his remake of the 1951 chiller "The Thing From Another World" (which in turn was based on the short story "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell).  I haven't seen the 1951 film, but I have seen Carpenter's version, which is by all accounts wildly different.  In 2011, the body-morphing creature returned to the screen.

This version is not a remake.  It is a prequel.  As everyone who watched Carpenter's gorefest knows, the movie begins with two Norwegians in a helicopter trying to shoot a dog.  This film is about what happens before that.

Paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Winstead) is invited by her friend Adam Finch (Olsen) and his boss Dr. Sander Halverson (Thomsen) to come with them to the site of a reportedly amazing discovery.  She, along with the Norwegian team, discover an alien ship buried deep under the ice of Antarctica.  Close by are the frozen remains of the creature from the ship.  What none of them realize is that the creature, which has been buried for 100,000 years, is not dead, and it has the ability to perfectly mimic its prey.  Now Kate and the others have to figure out not only how to stay alive, but which of them, if any, is still human.

Apart from the same basic premise and a reference to the most infamous scene from Carpenter's film, the 1982 cult classic and this film are almost entirely different.  Carpenter's film was infamous for its gore, but it was built upon suspense.  This film is more action oriented.  The storylines are also different, sharing little with each other.

The acting is effective, with most of the cast being Norwegian character actors.  The exceptions are Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who at the time was famous for playing Bruce Willis's daughter in "Live Free or Die Hard" and the female lead in "Final Destination 3," and Joel Edgerton, an Australian actor making his way into Hollywood (he would star in "Warrior," which made my Top 10 list that year, a few months later).  Everyone is effective at their roles, and no one tries to mug the spotlight or do any showboating.  That's a good thing because it keeps things on an even playing field.

Carpenter's film was flawed in its own way, and so is this film.  For one thing, there are too many characters.  While most of them are only present to fill body bags and spray blood all over the place, there are so many that we don't know who is who of the minor characters, which leads to confusion.  Also missing is the bleak oppressive feeling that the first one did so well.  Carpenter was a master at atmosphere, and the only horror movie that I've seen that matched his film for grimness is "The Descent."  While no one is going to describe this as a happy movie (horror movies never are when they are played straight), it doesn't feel as alienating.

Of the two films, Carpenter's version is better.  But this one is good enough in its own right that it's worth seeking out.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Total Recall (1990)

3/4

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Ronny Cox, Michael Ironside, Sharon Stone

Rated R (probably for Strong Graphic Violence, Language, and Some Sexuality/Nudity)

Probably the best way to begin a review of "Total Recall" is to compare it to Len Wiseman's bastard child of a remake.  "Total Recall" has its flaws (weak writing and action scenes that are sometimes more over-the-top than necessary), but it is infinitely better than the wretched disaster that made my Bottom Ten list two years ago.

For starters, Paul Verhoeven knows what he's doing.  Verhoeven has skill in crafting stories and action sequences.  This is a visually kinetic movie with adrenaline-generating action scenes.  Len Wiseman, on the other hand, is clueless.  He's the equivalent of a 13 year old boy raised entirely on crappy anime like "Digimon" and "Dragonball Z."  Wiseman's only interest is in what looks cool, which would be okay if his attention span and intelligence weren't that of a flea.  The remake leeched out not only the film's brains (and its gore), but its coherence and complexity.  Verhoeven's action scenes are cinematic and exciting; Wiseman's were straight out of a crappy video game that you didn't even get to play.  Verhoeven knows how to direct actors; Wiseman doesn't care.

Now let's pretend Wiseman's crapfest doesn't exist and get on to the real "Total Recall."

Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi festival of bullets and gore was the second most expensive movie at the time (after "Rambo III") with a budget of $65 million (how times change).  Based on a short story by beloved sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick, it was the final result of 16 years of delays (to the point where people thought it was cursed).  Enter Schwarzenegger, who handpicked Verhoeven personally after seeing "RoboCop" (which was going to have him in the title role until it was decided that he's look like the Michelin Man), and the film was made.

Doug Quaid (Schwarzenegger) is bored in the city.  He hungers to visit Mars, but as his wife points out, it's boring and about to explode into a full-blown revolution.  Still, Mars is calling to him.  He decides to go to Rekall, where a memory of a trip to Mars as a secret agent will be implanted into his head.  Something goes wrong, however, and people are out to kill him.  He's stranded in a story he doesn't understand but everyone else seems to.  But is this real, or is this just the memory implanted by Rekall?

The ambiguity of the film's plot is "Total Recall's" biggest selling point, but it's also the film's least successful plot.  I was never wondering whether or not this was real.  Still, it's an engaging story with some surprise twists (this is where the film gets ambiguous, but it also stretches the film's "suspension of disbelief" to the breaking point).

The performances are effective.  Everyone does solid work, but no one (except perhaps Ronny Cox, who is effectively despicable as Cohaagen) is Oscar-worthy.  Arnold Schwarzenegger makes for an identifiable hero, and the clips of him playing Hauser are particularly good.  Rachel Ticotin is effective but not spectacular as the love interest.  Sharon Stone is great as Lori, Quaid's wife.  And Michael Ironside is acceptably vicious as Richter, Cohaagen's attack dog.

"Total Recall" isn't the classic that some make it out to be.  Frankly, it's not particularly good.  There are plenty of more superior sci-fi action thrillers out there.  "Minority Report," which was at one point planned to be a sequel to "Total Recall" (and is also based on a story by Philip K. Dick), is a good example.  Steven Spielberg's film is an excellent mesh of action and ambiguity.  This movie isn't as successful.

There are enough fun moments in this movie to make it worth recommending.  If you want to watch "Total Recall," just please pick this one.  Leave Len Wiseman's disaster to the dogs.

True Lies

4/4

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Art Malik, Tia Careere, Bill Paxton, Charlton Heston, Eliza Dushku

Rated R for A Lot of Action/Violence and Some Language

"True Lies" is a story about saving a dead marriage.  That's not really a good concept for a film, especially one with $115 million price tag.  But while one can call "True Lies" many things (and there are many words that can be used to describe the film), "serious" is not one of them.

"True Lies" has been a family favorite ever since I can remember.  It's not hard to understand why.  It's strong in every department: writing, acting and directing (that's to be expected from a James Cameron picture).  It also merges action and comedy with peerless success.  The action scenes are tremendously exciting and the humor is consistently hysterical.

Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) is a boring computer salesman.  His life is so dull that his wife Helen (Curtis) tells her friend that when she can't sleep, she has Harry tell her about his day, and she's out like a lightbulb in six seconds.  But Harry isn't a computer salesman.  He's a secret agent working for The Omega Sector (the motto is "The Last Line of Defense"), tracking an international terrorist named Salim Abu Aziz, aka "The Sand Spider" (Malik).  That leaves his wife and daughter Dana (Dushku) feeling lonely and neglected.  Helen also has a secret: she's having an affair with a man named Simon (Paxton), who is also a secret agent.  Harry's work and personal lives are about to collide.

The true brilliance of the film is that James Cameron merges many genres not only into one film, but sometimes into many scenes.  Take, for example, one of the film's most famous sequences: the tango with Schwarzenegger and Tia Careere (who plays the obligatory femme fatale, Juno Skinner).  It's funny, suspenseful and sexy at the same time.  Many other scenes play the same way, without it ever being in a "wink wink nudge nudge" sort of way.  Cameron and his cast are having a lot of fun mixing and matching genres, but it's never especially satirical.  There's no sense that Cameron is saying, "See?  Get the joke?" like some satires.  The humor is germane from the plot and the characters.

Despite somewhat of a tyrannical reputation as a filmmaker (although he's supposedly very nice off set), James Cameron has the ability to get the very best performances from his cast.  Arnold Schwarzenegger is often criticized for his lack of acting ability, and while he doesn't have a lot of range, he's an effective performer.  Schwarzenegger is perfect for the role; he and Cameron have worked together three times ("The Terminator," its sequel, and this).  Cameron knows his star's strengths, and brings them out.  Quite simply, Schwarzenegger has never been better.  This is a surprisingly strongly written character, and Schwarzenegger has a ball.  Using often subtle facial movements and impeccable comic timing, Harry Tasker becomes a hero to root for and laugh with.

He is surrounded by a talented supporting cast.  Jamie Lee Curtis is positively perfect as the mousy housewife.  Boring could not be a better word to describe Helen Tasker, and that's the point.  She's the world's most vanilla individual, so when Jamie Lee Curtis has interesting things happen to her, we snap up and pay attention.  She also has the film's second funniest line (it comes right after she sees her husband's true face).  Curtis has long proved that she's an adept comic and dramatic actress (she's done excellent work in "Halloween" and "Freaky Friday," and everything in-between), but this is her best and most rounded performance.

The supporting characters are just as good.  Tia Careere is certainly sexy (even without a nude scene) and she's also talented (sadly, her career has fizzled and she's become a character actress in mostly bit parts).  Tom Arnold is the perfect sidekick as play Harry's best friend Gib.  And as the villain, Art Malik (who was cast in the role without an audition after James Cameron saw him in "City of Joy") finds the perfect balance between ferocity and farce.

Arguably the best performance is given by James Cameron regular Bill Paxton (they worked on five projects together, more than Cameron has worked with any other actor).  Paxton plays the perfect sleazeball, making us laugh enough at him to make us truly hate him.  This makes some of his scenes more hilarious than they'd otherwise be.

James Cameron is best known as a technical genius; each of his films push the boundaries of what films can do.  While it's not as ground-breaking as "Titanic" or "Avatar" (it was made before either), he proves that not only does he know what he's doing, but he's an expert craftsman.  Cameron has always put story and character above the special effects.  That's the case here.  While we "ooh" and "aah" at the film's action scenes, we are heavily invested in the story (which is a lot of fun) and the characters (who are also fun).

But never before or since has he been so funny.  Sure, his films have had their share of humorous moments (the lesson in spitting in "Titanic" and the scene where John Connor tests out his new bodyguard in "Terminator 2" are two examples).  Initially Cameron hired writers to adapt the story (based loosely on a French film, if you can believe that), but he didn't like most of them.  So he tried his own hand at writing comedy, and the results speak for themselves.  Some are action scenes that reach a new level of absurdity, while others are particularly inventive, such as where Harry berates a horse for being a bad cop.

This isn't Cameron's best film (that goes to "Titanic"), but it's the most fun.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Farewell, My Concubine

3.5/4

Starring: Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Gong Li, You Ge

Rated R for Language and Strong Depiction of Thematic Material

The great thing about a good character study is that we get to meet new and interesting people and find out what drives them.  What makes them tick, if you will.  In the Chinese classic, "Farewell, My Concubine," we are introduced to three fascinating people: Cheng Dieyi, Duan Xiaolu, and Juxian.

After a brief opening that bookmarks the film, we are taken back to 1924, the China's Warlord Era.  A young mother takes her child to an acting troupe.  There, the child, whose name is Douzi (Mingwei Ma as a child, Zhi Yin as a teenager) meets Shitou (Yang Fei as a child, Hailong Zhao as a teenager), a talented and charismatic actor.  Through torture and training, Douzi and Shitou become the most famous actors in Beijing.  Taking the stage names (Douzi becomes Dieyi (Cheung) and Shitou becomes Xiaolu (Zhang)), they play the two most important roles in the Chinese opera, "Farewell, My Concubine."  Xiaolu plays the doomed king while Dieyi plays his devoted concubine.  Trouble begins when Xiaolu becomes engaged to a former prostitute namd Juixan (Li).  War is also on the horizon...

Their relationship is complex.  Dieyi is gay and in love with Xiaolu, who doesn't realize it.  Xiaolu realizes that his friend is troubled, and sticks by him as a friend and protector.

Actually, "troubled" is a bit of an understatement when it comes to describing Dieyi.  Playing the part of a female on stage with an actor whose relationship mirrors what is going on in the play confuses his gender identity and sense of self.  As one person puts it, his personality and his character become blurred.  Add in the lifelong abuse at the hands of his "teachers," being raped as a teenager, and being abandoned as a child, and it's no wonder he's so confused.

The acting is excellent across the board, with two of the three leads being deserving of Oscars that they did not get.  Leslie Cheung, an popular actor in his native China (Jackie Chan was offered the role due to his history with the Chinese opera, but he turned it down fearing the film's homosexual themes would tarnish his image), is brilliant as the tortured Dieyi.  While he does some horrible things, we understand and care about him.  Like his role in the play, Dieyi is not an easy character to play.  And yet Cheung nails it, capturing every facet of his personality and exploring it thoroughly.  The other performance worthy of Oscar attention is given by Gong Li, although anyone surprised by that clearly has not seen any of her movies.  Unlike Dieyi, Juxian isn't as troubled (although she certainly has some skeletons in the closet).  But she sticks by her husband and surprisingly, Dieyi, through thick and thin.  Her loyalty to Dieyi is surprising considering how awful he is to her (anyone else would have run away long ago), but Li makes it work.  We understand her through and through.  Fengyi Zhang exists in their shadows, mainly because his character isn't as dynamic or interesting as Dieyi or Juxian.  But he holds his own.

Director Chen Kaige lets his film unfold slowly (too slowly, in fact...about twenty minutes could have been shaved off), allowing us to soak in every piece of the characters and absorb the ever changing situation that these characters find themselves in. Unfortunately, the editing is as troubled as the film's central character.  Many scenes aren't set up, which leads to confusion as to what is going on and what it means.  Some necessary scenes or clips are left out, while unnecessary ones are left in.  This is a talky movie, but a lot of the subtext doesn't come through because of how the film is edited.

Still, this is a fascinating movie with three extraordinary characters.  Definitely one to see.

The Departed

3.5/4

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone

Rated R for Strong Brutal Violence, Pervasive Language, Some Strong Sexual Content and Drug Material

Without a doubt, Martin Scorcese is one of cinema's brightest and most enduring stars.  Few filmmakers have had such a profound impact on cinema.  The number of classic films he has created is astounding.  From "Taxi Driver" to "Goodfellas" and more, Scorcese has made one brilliant movie after another.

"The Departed" is Scorcese's second remake (he remade "Cape Fear" after his good friend Steven Spielberg turned it down and offered it to him, telling him that directing a hit would give him more clout in Hollywood).  The film is based on a Hong Kong b-movie called "Internal Affairs."  I haven't seen it, but apparently it is miles different from its inspiration.  Regardless, this is still an amazing movie.

The film has a dynamite premise that makes it both a crime epic that Scorcese is famous for, and a gripping psychological thriller.  Two undercover operatives on both sides of the law try to find each other.  How cool is that?  Of course, with a Scorcese movie, it's not that simple.  Scorcese embellishes the story to create a huge epic with depth and feeling.  This is a richly textured film that enhances the story with its multi-layered plot.

The two moles are Colin Sullivan (Damon) and William Costigan (DiCaprio).  Colin has been working for local mob boss Frank Costello (Nicholson) almost his entire life.  To keep tabs on what the Massachussetts State Police is doing, specifically Captain Queenan (Sheen) and his foul-mouthed attack dog Dignam (Wahlberg), Frank has Colin join the Staties and become a detective in the newly formed Special Investigations unit headed by a man named Ellerby (Baldwin).  Billy Costigan is a smart kid from a bad past that wants to give back to his community.  Queenan has him become a mole inside Costello's crew.  The only ones who know who he really is are Queenan and Dignam.  Both rise up the ranks fairly quickly, and that's when Costello and Queenan begin to realize that they have moles in their units.  As Queenan tries to take down Costello, Colin and Billy try to smoke each other out.

Like I said, there are many layers to the story.  It's one of Scorcese's many personal touches.  There's always a main story, but there are dozens of other things going on.

As is usual for a Scorcese movie, the acting is outstanding.  Leading the pack is Matt Damon.  Damon has always been a good actor, but he has never been better than here as the malevolent Colin Sullivan.  He's bad, but is capable of caring about his girlfriend Madolyn (Farmiga).  Leonardo DiCaprio isn't as strong as Damon, although he does an excellent job as the increasingly trapped Billy.  He's constantly in danger and forced to do horrible things, which pushes him to the brink of a breakdown, as he complains to his therapist, Madolyn.  Jack Nicholson is also in top form as the vicious and increasingly paranoid Frank Costello (based in part on the then at large James "Whitey" Bulger).  Martin Sheen replaced Scorcese-favorite Robert DeNiro (who was working on his film, "The Good Shepard," also starring Matt Damon) as Queenan, but he makes the role his own; Sheen is very fatherly towards Billy, but suspicious of Colin.  Mark Wahlberg (taking over from Ray Liotta, who had to turn it down) scored his first Oscar nomination for this role, and I don't understand why.  He's good but a little over-the-top nasty as Dignam.  Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone, the always wonderful Vera Farmiga and, in small roles Anthony Anderson (taking over from RZA) and James Badge Dale, are excellent in supporting roles.

One thing Scorcese does is utilize editing for suspense.  While it's true that editing plays a huge part in thrillers, here Scorcese and his longtime editor (and personal friend) Thelma Schoonmaker use many traditional techniques, such as flashbacks, quick cuts and rhythm, but they also use sound editing for maximum effect.  For example, there are times when a song goes on over some montages, but it stops abruptly as a person starts talking or enters the room.  The abruptness is a little shocking, and that's what Scorcese wants: to keep us on our toes.  And never has the ringing of a cell phone been so intense (unless it comes from a foolish audience member...).

The film takes a while to get going.  This is the roughest part of the movie because we are so overloaded with information that it's hard to take it all in at once.  Writing by William Monahan doesn't exactly help matters here, although it's strong overall.

Twisted, brutal and intense, "The Departed" was the most commercially successful film of Scorcese's career (garnering $289.8 million against a budget of $90 million), but it is not the best film Scorcese has ever made ("Taxi Driver" takes that honor), nor was it the best film of that year (in my opinion, "Blood Diamond" was the stronger film).  Still, this is an outstanding thriller (and the one that, finally, earned Scorcese his long overdue Best Director Oscar).