Saturday, December 29, 2007

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Today I saw Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, starring John C. Reilly and Jenna Fischer.

It's the tale of Dewey Cox (Reilly), a Southern musician that alternately encompasses Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and other notable stars, as he sings his way through life after a terrible childhood tragedy.

A tragedy that happens to be slicing his brother in half with a machete.

Sound stupid? Of course it does. But they way it was written and delivered makes it hilarious.

Dewey's enduring love for Darlene (Fischer) is the backbone of the bio, which takes us through his entire career of milestones and mistakes (the now-famous 'penis' scene is among the funniest). Each wink to another era and yet another star has such goofy charm attached to it I found myself anticipating who would pop up next (thankfully, my Beatles hope came true with the incomparable Jack Black as McCartney and Paul Rudd as Lennon).

The sidekicks are also funny—Tim Meadows as Dewey's primary drug connection, Kristen Wiig as his first wife and Margot Martindale as Ma, but the real credit goes to Reilly, who I found myself confusing with Will Ferrell (that's a compliment). He was that funny.

Overall, it's what I expected: a ridiculous beginning, predictably clever songs and electric nonsense chemistry between Reilly and Fischer.

I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


On Christmas Day, I saw Juno, starring Ellen Page and Jason Bateman.

Our Cinebanter review is available here.

Charlie Wilson's War

On December 23, I saw Charlie Wilson's War starring Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

With so many big names (Hanks and Hoffman are joined by Amy Adams and Julia Roberts) attached to this film, it was hard not to anticipate its merit before going in, but having been burned in the past by similar assumptions, I reserved judgement.

Thankfully, there was no need for me to.

Hanks dazzles as real-life Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, a booze-loving womanizer with the heart of an everyman who is faced with political demands from a wealthy mover and shaker (played by Roberts), who also occupies his bed. Luckily, he's on the same page with her intentions, to covertly help the Afghans defend themselves against the then-enemy of Russia.

The plot is pretty basic and simple to follow, but what makes this movie so watchable (and will have you wondering how the time went so fast when it ends) is the collection of charisma that ensues: partly a result of good writing; partly a result of the performances.

The main scene stealer is Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays the Greek colleague of Wilson's that has enough justified anger and sarcasm to fill each room he steps into. He is absolutely electric in this role and I wouldn't be sorry to see him score another Oscar® nod because of it.

Also great is Wilson's adorably smart administrative assistant played by Amy Adams. Just the right mix of wholesome and alluring, Adams possesses a unique balance of what most men want: sexy mixed with Betty Crocker. There couldn't have been a better actress for this role.

The clothing and sets are also authentic to the time (early 80s), however I did question whether the phrase 'dial it down' was used back then?

Regardless, this film is solid entertainment that just happens to contain a valuable history lesson: don't fuck up the end game.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Starting Out in the Evening

Today I saw Starting Out in the Evening, starring Frank Langella and Lauren Ambrose.

The narrative takes us into the lives of washed-up novelist Leonard Shiller (Langella) and righteous graduate student Heather Wolf (Ambrose). Her mission seems to be resurrecting his career, while his goal is simply to finish his final book before dying. He is a senior citizen with heart problems; she is a twentysomething with a hungry heart.

It's inevitable that in the course of her spending time with him to complete her thesis (based on him) that these two will develop a chemistry. Thankfully, they do. It's what saves this film from being a completely predictable starry-eyed-girl-wants-crotchety-old-man bore.

Although Heather is slightly too righteous to be endearing, there are so many real people like her, I could look past her irritating nature. What's also great is the subplot of Leonard's daughter Ariel (played by the amazing Lili Taylor—Ambrose's former Six Feet Under co-star) and her inability to have a successful relationship.

The thing is, all of these characters seem to be making the choices they need to make for themselves as their lives intersect. Heather is persistent in her quest for information from Leonard (and in her sexual attraction to him), Leonard will only talk about the topics of his choosing and fights to focus on his writing. Ariel wrestles with feelings for two men in her life; neither who share her desire to have children.

These simple, yet interesting situations are all presented in a well-acted, well-written package with believable dialogue and character progression.

I'll confess to being alternately touched and disgusted by Leonard and Heather's love story, but I can't help but admit it felt real.

I also wouldn't be surprised if Langella and/or Taylor were nominated for their performances.

Nor would I be sorry if they won.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Golden Compass

Today I saw The Golden Compass, starring Dakota Blue Richards and Nicole Kidman.

I must confess—I went into this ignorant, having never read the book it's based on. But in this case, I think I probably enjoyed it more as a result.

The story follows the orphan Lyra (Richards), a petite spitfire in the possession of the last magic golden compass. The power it holds is immeasurable, as it has the ability to display the truth in any situation. This upsets the magistrate (a.k.a. church) and the evil Mrs. Coulter (Kidman) pursues her to retrieve the compass, at first kindly offering her a trip north (where many of Lyra's friends have been kidnapped to, and are having their free will revoked) then fiercely hunting her after she escapes.

The way the characters get through this is somewhat confusing, but the ride is so visually stimulating, you can forgive the jumble. A parallel British town is illuminated at each glimpse, while the scenes in the great north make you nearly shiver in your seat, they're so remarkable.

And I musn't conclude my review without a mention of the polar bears. These aren't your typical Christmas-Coke-commerical polar bears, these look and sound like the real deal (well, except when they don human voices and carry on conversations). The growls and snarling teeth are terrifying; the fluffy fur and awkward bodies are endearing. I really wanted my own 'armored bear' after seeing the final fight scene, too.

So really—this film was pretty entertaining. Good, solid acting from the female leads and supporting actors like Daniel Craig and Sam Elliot, and cinematography that's nothing short of beautiful. An easy choice for holiday viewing.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

I Am Legend

Today I saw I Am Legend, starring Will Smith.

If I hadn't yet seen No Country For Old Men, I may have claimed this was the most nervewracking film of 2007, but even it can't match the Coen brothers gift for tension.

At the core of this science-laden story is heart. Will Smith, always great, plays Robert Neville—a successful scientist convinced he can reverse a terrible virus that has wiped out New York City (and apparently most of the United States as well). We learn the virus had initial good intentions as a cure for cancer (a cameo by Emma Thompson delivers this revelation), but went terribly wrong as it mutated.

As you can imagine, what ensues forces you to abandon all rational thought and play the suspension-of-disbelief game with a non-thinking head.

Instead of the infected just withering away (as one may expect, after an incurable virus attacks the immune system), these victims exhibit "rabies-like" behavior (who knew rabies enabled you to scale walls and pull apart houses with superhuman strength?) and terrorize all who cross their path. They're not vampires in the traditional sense of the word, but they do have an aversion to light and a tendency to chomp at flesh.

Amidst all of this silliness, Neville somehow manages to make us feel sorry for him and bask in his lonely existence (though if I were him, I wouldn't be 'borrowing' one DVD at a time from the now desolate video store—I'd borrow a whole shelf). His dog Samantha brings him a fair amount of companionship, as dogs generally do, and familiar sounds such as Bob Marley on the stereo and Ann Curry on an obviously taped vintage Today Show would undoubtedly help keep one's sanity in tact if they were the last human roaming the city (after all, deer, lions, etc. seem to have no trouble avoiding the virus).

In the visual sense, this movie is arguably great. When things jump out at the characters, you feel they're jumping into your lap; the sounds are just as unnerving.

But as a "I'm the last person left in the world, what am I going to do with myself?" sci-fi romp, I'm disappointed the character chooses to stay at "ground zero" to pursue his mission.

The movie, brief in length, does manage to keep the viewer engaged until the ultimate predictable ending commences. For that, all of the stolen ideas from 28 Days Later can be forgiven.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Jimmy Carter Man From Plains

Today I saw the documentary Jimmy Carter Man From Plains.

Every time I watch a documentary, I ask myself the same questions: Is the subject a worthy topic? Is the information presented in a captivating way? Did I learn something about the subject that I didn't previously know before I watched this film?

In this case, two out of three isn't bad.

Really, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter is a wonderful topic. He's as kind as he is smart and as driven as he is accomplished. As the first president I have any memory of as a child, I will always be especially curious about his history and his character because it helped shape my childhood as an American.

That said, watching a two-hour collection of interviews I could've Tivo'd wasn't the best way to educate me about this Nobel prize-winning man—though I did learn a few things.

Amidst this travelogue of president Carter's book tour (for his controversial book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid), I witnessed a man who finally seems comfortable in his skin and aims to make up for lost time. He does this in his trademark gracious way by making no apologies for his well-thought-out beliefs while showing the utmost respect to each person he tries to convince.

There is an innate refreshment in a transparent politician, probably because they're so rare. Carter lives the very definition of this role, alternately arguing with a TV host who is trying to misquote him, then thinking out loud about becoming fluent in Spanish because he has a program on his computer that would enable him to.

He's also the kind of Christian that gives Christians a good name: one who believes that science can co-exist with Jesus worship and also tirelessly serves the poor (in a too-brief segment, we see him building Habitat for Humanity houses in New Orleans). One who reads the Bible aloud with his wife each night and treats his staff as equals.

We see all of this in snippets of previously aired interviews and behind-the-scenes glances as he shuffles from city to city with his Simon & Schuster handlers. But what we don't see are the effects of his work. The people who read his book and saw the Middle East conflict in a different way as a result. The policymakers who defended his view and took his ideas to their colleagues for further debate. Where are they? Do they even exist?

The filmmaker doesn't attempt to pretend whose side he's on. You will love this former president from the first frame of the movie until the credits roll because the portrayal is so endearing, you'd be evil not to.

If that was the aim of the documentary, then I say "mission accomplished," but if the viewers were supposed to leave with an enhanced knowledge of the peace process, or an expert view on the background of Carter's legacy, it failed.

While many of the moments are sweet, that's ultimately all that this documentary adds up to: a series of moments. It's the dust jacket version of the story.

Makes me want to buy the book.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

This morning I screened Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

The story, based on the popular musical, follows barber Benjamin Barker on his journey from happy family man to vicious killer. But there's more to it than that.

Without sounding like a complete cinelitist, many people will probably see and dismiss this movie as nothing more than a typical Burtonesque display of cool effects and crazy makeup. And that's a shame—because if they dig deeper and focus not only on the visual rewards, but the heart of the characters, they'll see a more profound film.

As usual, Johnny Depp (Barker) is brilliant as the main character, wearing more expressions on his powder-pale face than any other man could possibly muster. He is darling as a charming husband and father, then equally as effective as a violent monster. Alan Rickman is also notably good as his rival, Judge Turpin. Rounding out the main cast is the always-convincingly-creepy Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, a terrible pie maker who falls in love with Todd and becomes his key accomplice in murder.

If we unveil the allegory, we are left with this: terrible, unforgivable things happen to a good, decent person, robbing him of his faith in all of mankind. As a result, he retreats to a place so dark that he loses every trace of the person he once was, allowing negativity to thrive in its absence. That darkness arrives in the form of a typical jealous woman who will go to great lengths to conceal truth and protect her own interests. Only when it's too late will he realize that she has betrayed him and that he could've regained all that he lost—had be been open to just behavior.

Of course, because it's Burton, this is all masked in dark eyeliner and Einstein hair, but the core of the message remains clear. And it is delivered in a charming, if not slapstick, bloody way.

Were it not for the distractions like Sacha Baron Cohen (as a cartoonish con artist) and a wimpy sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower), this would've been practically flawless.

But then again, no one can be expected to make two Edward Scissorhands in one career. Even with the same genius actor.