Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World

Tonight I saw the documentary Encounters at the End of the World.

All of the best elements that make up a Werner Herzog film are here—the humorous, yet seriously informative narrative; the long shots of nothing, which force you to believe they're something; and the eccentric pieces of a story that somehow come together without form.

This time the filmmaker takes us on his journey to Antarctica, where he studies the scientists that are studying the continent. Instead of focusing on the elements they're obsessed with (although we see them), his approach is to zero in on the freaks that the frigid temperatures attract. And let them tell their own stories.

What results is Errol Morris-like talking head masterpieces spliced in with breathtaking underwater shots of a world most of us will never dare to explore. And it's hard to take your eyes off of it.

One shot will demonstrate how dangerous the dives are (they go without tether, which means their instinct has to guide them back since compasses don't work that low), then another will feature a penguin who takes his own journey Into the Wild, a la Chris McCandless, which the humans realize will not turn out well.

It's all told with a clever, sarcastic-but-sincere delivery that leaves the audience wishing they were along for the ride—just so long as they don't have to go through any of that silly bucket-head training.

Note: the director dedicated this film to Roger Ebert, who was so touched by the gesture, he wrote him a letter of appreciation. To read it, click here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal

Tonight I saw the documentary Heidi Fleiss: The Would Be Madam of Crystal.

I love it when a film makes me think more of the subject—and that's what happened tonight when I saw this glimpse of Heidi's life.

For those living under rocks: Ms. Fleiss ran a very successful escort service in LA for years before she finally got caught in the 90s. Now she's done her time and moved to Nevada (where in some counties, the business she's good at is legal).

In the film, we see that she bought several acres of prime land in a scary wild-west-type town, she owns a laundromat (cleverly titled "Dirty Laundry"), she hired a homeless man to be her assistant (and then fired him), and befriended an elderly woman (Marianne) who was her neighbor, and fell in love with her pet birds along the way.

And did I mention? She wants to open a Stud Farm.

That's right—Stud Farm. As in a place where women would pay MEN to have sex with them.

Genius? Definitely. Risky? Could be that too, but that's not stopping her.

Like any public figure disrupting a small town, Heidi has friends and foes. A female saloon owner says behind her back and to her face she doesn't want the brothel built; other residents at a local swap meet greet her very warmly with smiles of support.

You want to shake the townspeople who are against it because they think "women won't buy sex."

What they don't realize is that even if they don't, they'll come and gawk at those who will, which means stops at all of the local restaurants, hotels and gas stations. They could make a lot of money off of Heidi's notoriety.

In her favor is her gift for business (this is a woman who started a babysitting ring when she was 14), her ability to research (she clearly does her homework), her political savvy and her genuine good heart (I think she actually has one).

Playing against her are her drug habits (you get the sense she's not done using), her manipulative tendencies and her self-imposed isolation.

She clearly wants relationships (though she claims not to) and anyone who witnesses her around her birds could see that she has love to give.

It makes you wonder if someone reached out to her, what she really could become.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tell No One

Today I saw Tell No One, starring Fran├žois Cluzet and Kristin Scott Thomas.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #56, which is available here.

In the meantime, check out the book this film was based upon:

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

This morning I saw The Dark Knight, starring Heath Ledger and Christian Bale.

Listen for my and Michael's review of this on Cinebanter #55, which is available here.

WALL - E

On Tuesday, July 15, I saw the alleged second-coming of animation called WALL-E.

And as far as I'm concerned, WALL-E spells OVERRATE-D.

Sure, the animation is typical-Pixar-cool (the mounds of trash formed into would-be skyscrapers that the humans have accumulated over the years are especially impressive), and the story sends an Important Social Message (as most of these do), but I just wasn't as impressed with the delivery as most of my fellow critics.

Wall-E himself is a robot that was created to manage the trash crises that us obese, lazy, careless Americans...um...humans have created. We've basically trashed ourselves out of our habitat. Clever? Absolutely. But also slightly grim and more than a little in-your-face preachy at times.

The species has been beamed to a superheaven of sorts, where everyone functions from their lounge chair, eats cupcakes in cups and leads generally meaningless (though no doubt, fun) lives. "Autopilots" run the ship, so to speak.

So when another, prettier, more R2D2-like robot (Eva) comes along to keep WALL-E company on earth, it's no wonder sparks fly.

Put simply, there are very tender moments between the two hunks of metal that redeem the story somewhat, but aside from those rare moments, I was either bored or mildly offended at how blatant the moralizing was. And the "battle" scene at the end was painfully formulaic.

I had a much better time at Toy Story.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth

On Sunday, July 13, I saw Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring Brendan Fraser.

I have to confess that I've never read the Jules Verne book the film is based on, but the ride this family-friendly charmer takes you on is nonetheless a pleasant one.

The story begins with professor Trevor Anderson (Fraser) scrambling to save his failing laboratory. It slips his mind that his nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) is showing up for a week-long visit, so when he arrives, he's unprepared for how to entertain him.

Miraculously, the atmosphere is doing exactly what it was doing years ago when Anderson's brother (and Sean's father) disappeared into a volcano, so he takes that as a sign they should go investigate the same land.

Passports in hand, they head for Iceland where they meet up with the daughter of another researcher. Her name is Hannah (Anita Briem), and aside from speaking perfect English, she's an off-the-charts hottie.

Before we know it, the three have embarked on a dangerous hike that leaves them...at the Center of the Earth.

There are many fun effects and beautiful scenes (I especially liked the shining birds) that made me wish I'd seen this in IMAX (I'm told there is a version playing in 3D), but the story is incredibly formulaic and predictable, which is what stops the film from being anything special. And the Indiana-Jones-like one-liners really don't work at all, even with Fraser's undeniable charisma.

That said, overall Journey to the Center of the Earth is a wholesome family film that keeps you entertained in a good way.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Hancock

Today I saw Hancock, starring Will Smith and Charlize Theron.

Smith plays John Hancock, a reluctant and mysterious superhero with the power to fly, bounce bullets off his body and lift tons of weight. This comes in handy when the LAPD can't nail the bad guys.

The catch is that Hancock is also a sloppy alcoholic, who is sometimes more trouble than he is worth.

Enter Ray (Jason Bateman), an ambitious PR representative who is saved by Hancock, and wants to re-make his image to repay him.

Hancock is at first resistant to the suggestion, but soon grows warmer to the plan and agrees to adhere to his suggestions.

What unfolds is an action montage laden with special effects and surprise twists. Charlize Theron's character Mary, the wife of Ray, transforms from a supporting background character to a vital main character and adds her own dose of hero.

The movie sometimes feels like two different stories, as the transition is abrupt, but it's still an entertaining and humorous (if not at times vulgar) ride.

For Independence Day week, what more can Americans really demand?