Tuesday, September 19, 2006


[from September 8, 2006]

Hollywoodland, to me, is about failures. It is so dark and bleak that at times it seems like something Charles Dickens would have written about Hollywood. There were moments when I wondered why I was still sitting there watching it.

However, the more I sit and think about it (and I can't help thinking about it), the more impressive it is to me. It reminds me a lot of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential (and I'm wondering very much if the upcoming Black Dahlia - which is part of the same trilogy as Confidential - will have this same feel). It paints a raw picture of the real Hollywood. The cesspool that's seething beneath the glitzy façade. The truth that underneath all the expensive clothes, houses, and dental work, people in Hollywood are as ugly as the rest of us - perhaps uglier. I've always found Hollywood somewhat creepy that way.

The writing is ... nothing special. The directorial technique is likewise not that extraordinary. What really makes this film stand out are some really spectactular performances.

I'm going start with Ben Affleck, because I believe he's rather unfairly gotten a bad rap in the past few years. He's made some poor job choices, and people were more interested in his love life than his work for a while there. But hopefully, that part of his life and career is over now, because I've always found him to be an interesting and talented actor. You can tell from the movie's marketing that they were a bit nervous about advertising Affleck's presence in the film, but he really gets a chance to shine here, and does. He plays the late George Reeves (TV's original Superman, for you kiddies out there) with a great balance of charm and desperation, humor and despair. The last time his Reeves is seen alive in the film is just breathtakingly sad, and I'm sure every actor who has ever been out of work and felt unwanted

Diane Lane is getting a lot of Oscar talk, and deservedly so. Despite not being the main characters of the movie, she and Affleck are the real heart of it. Lane's role of MGM studio exec's wife Toni Mannix is almost cliché. She's married to a philandering studio bigwig who encourages her to find love outside their marriage. She meets the much younger Reeves at a party and soon begins "keeping" him. So, it's basically your garden variety older-woman-loves-younger-man story, with the predictable outcome for the foolish and unfortunate female. But Lane makes this ordinary role something very special, and her last scene with Bob Hoskins is a thing of beauty.

I started by saying that this is a movie about failures. George Reeves and Toni Mannix are both failures in their own ways, but Adrien Brody's Louis Simo is the real personification of this idea. At first it seems obvious and rather cheap to say he's a failure - he's an investigator who works out of a seedy motel room and takes incriminating pictures for ducats a day. His former partner throws him the Reeves case, which has been closed by the police, but which also has lots of holes in it. His exploration of the case and the surprising effects it has on his personal life are the meat of the story. A small side plot involves the children who are Superman fans and who are so devastated and depressed by Reeves' death. One of these children is Louis' son, and every scene between this boy and his father is *about* Reeves' death, and the realization that there are no heroes. That no one has superpowers. That everyone fails. And Brody's exploration of that theme in his character is the backbone of the story.

The more I think about this movie the more I like it. It's quite dark and probably not for everyone, but I think it's an outstanding movie in it's own dismal way.

The Wicker Man (2006)

[from September 2, 2006]

If you want to see The Wicker Man, I'd highly recommend seeing the original 1973 version with Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward instead (warning: lots of obligatory 1970s nekkidness). This new version is an interesting exercise in subverting the premise of the original. I loved the idea of making Summersisle a more matriarchal society, and the metaphor of the bees is particularly cool. However, some of the scenes made me think the movie needed a beta reader. Even worse is the very "glued on" romance angle - Nicolas Cage and Kate Beahan couldn't have less chemistry if they tried, and they just seem like two dolls that the filmmakers are playing with and saying "Okay, you love her, you love him, now kiss."

But the climax - OMG so bad. Maybe part of it is that it's so close to the original (except for an added twist that I sort of liked) and I was expecting most of what happened. The original does such a great job of building the tension and delivering a payoff that just guts you. This version, while doing a pretty good job of building the tension, throws it all out the window with a highly ridiculous conclusion. It's not the Big Reveal itself that's a failure - it's the way the movie presents it. The emotions are wrong, and there's some really weird voice-over stuff. People in the audience were actually laughing.

So yeah, if you're interested in The Wicker Man, check out the 1973 version.

The Illusionist

[from September 2, 2006]

This movie was quite enjoyable, despite not meeting my expectations. I won't go into any details because it's a highly spoilable movie, and even knowing nothing about it going into it, I was totally unsurprised by most of what happened. The setting and costumes are gorgeous - it's a great-looking movie - and the illusions are very impressive and entertaining. I was pleasantly surprised by Jessica Biel, whose acting talents I had not been hitherto impressed with, and the romance was unexpectedly pleasing. The Viennese accents were spotty, but not too distracting, and if loving Rufus Sewell as the baddie is wrong then I don't want to be right. :P I'd recommend it, if you're looking for an interesting diversion and don't mind being a few steps ahead of the movie's "secret."

Little Miss Sunshine

[from August 19, 2006]

I didn't really like this one at first. The first 20-30 minutes plays like dozens of Quirky Indie Films that I've seen and am getting kind of bored with. The whole setup just seemed so contrivedly "offbeat" and I found myself rolling my eyes at some of it.

But this is definitely one that grows on you. The real magic of the film naturally comes from Little Miss Sunshine herself, Olive (played with an adorable lack of "little girl" guile by Abigail Breslin). At the beginning of the film, we learn that she was the runner-up in her local Little Miss Sunshine pageant, but that the winner (for some reason I can't recall) was unable to continue her reign. That means that Olive is the winner and has the chance to go to the national Little Miss Sunshine pageant in California. After a good deal of arguing, it is decided that the whole family will go with her. What follows is a hilarious ... you know, I hate to call it a "road trip" story, because that sounds so generic and sells it short.

The characters are fairly predictably quirky, but their respective storylines and relationships are truly interesting. And after the first 20-30 minutes, when the movie gets all of the "Look! I'm an indie film!" out of its system, it is hysterically funny. And it gets more and more funny as it goes along, until an absolutely absurd climax. I will never hear "Super Freak" the same way again. :)

And, as usual, Steve Carell is love.

Gratuitous "Snakes on a Plane" Post

[from August 18, 2006]

This movie is awesome for what it is. It is, without a doubt, a B-movie. Perhaps C. It's bad, but it knows it's bad. Revels in it, even.

If you are the kind of person who is intrigued/amused by the title Snakes On a Plane, you will probably enjoy this. This is the kind of movie where the filmmakers know their audience and are not afraid for their audience to be a step or three ahead of them. We know what's going to happen when the horny couple goes to get it on in the bathroom. We know, as the film gets closer to the end, that there's going to be one last showdown with the snakes. And we're waiting the whole movie for Sam Jackson to say "mutha****in' snakes on this mutha****in' plane." And that's fine, because it's fun in spite of being predictable. You can see the Audience Response buttons being pushed and Obligatory Movie Elements being checked off a list somewhere, but it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that it's a good time.

I *do* think it's a rather effective horror movie, though. It seems to follow all of the cardinal rules of horror, even down to the anti-sex message. If you're going to check this out this weekend, I wish you a good audience to see it with - one that gets the "so bad it's good" vibe - because that's pretty key to the enjoyment factor. I guess it could also be entertaining to watch people leave in disgust, though. :P

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

[from July 16, 2006]

I love storytelling. I love that it can be done in lots of mediums, but one of my favorite mediums (other than cinema, obviously) is oral tradition storytelling. The National Storytelling Convention happens every year in Jonesborough, TN, and my family tries to go regularly (though not successfully for a few years). I love listening to these professional storytellers spin their yarns and hold audiences for hours at a time.

Ted Elliott said the following about he and Terry Rossio writing the first movie: "We wanted to have moments where people told stories ... about their lives, about their backgrounds, about other characters..." Something I dearly love about these movies is that they remind me of stories that might have passed down through oral tradition. I can totally picture someone (whether 300 years ago or today) telling these pirate stories. I can picture people sitting around a campfire listening to the story of Captain Jack and how he got his ship back after a mutiny, with the help of a plucky blacksmith and the feisty object of his amour. The details of the story probably change depending on who's telling the tale. If there ever was any truth to the story, it has been exaggerated again and again, often to the point of the ridiculous. And there are probably tangents that don't really further the story, but are fun nonetheless. That's very much how I see the first movie, and I think Dead Man's Chest continues most admirably in that tradition.

I can barely express how much I love this movie. It's actually quite different from the first movie (despite the occasionally ponderous references to it). It's a good bit darker, it goes a good bit deeper into the plot and characterization, and the humor largely comes from the action this time instead of witty dialogue. The Ain't It Cool News boys have branded this as the "Empire Strikes Back" of the Pirates franchise, and I agree in terms of tone. But in terms of its role in the story as a whole, this comparison to the LOTR world is even more apt, because it's not just continuing the story and setting up a cliffhanger. It's taking a smaller story and creating a mythology for it.

So where do I start? I suppose the beginning of the film is the best place. The ruined wedding. The torrential rain that seems to permeate the entire film, both literally and figuratively. This opening, like the first scene of Black Pearl, sets the tone for the rest of the film (Also, like the first film, it all begins with Elizabeth - I'm wondering if that means something in the scope of the films, but I digress). This is going to be less pirate lore and adventure on the high seas (though still quite a bit of that), and more emotion, character development, and obstacles for ... well, everyone.

Will Turner - Harry Knowles calls him "the Ronald Reagan character," and I can totally see that. He's the nice, good guy who's usually kind of boring, but usually gets the girl. Of course Orlando Bloom is nice to look at, so it wouldn't really matter if he was boring. I saw him as a bit dull in the first movie myself, but I think that was just how his part was written. Straightforwardly good people just come across that way, no matter who is playing them. This time around, though, the part gets juicier and Bloom really sinks his teeth into it. His best stuff is in the scenes with Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgård). He's especially strong in the dice-rolling scene. The whipping scene is just brutal (I felt kind of guilty drooling over wet, shirtless Will there :P). And the last few scenes, where he reacts to Elizabeth apparently (I'll get to that in a bit) falling for another man, are GOLD.

Elizabeth Swann - I really loved how Keira Knightley played her in the first movie. She could very easily have been a generic pretty face, but there's a lot more depth (and quite a dark side) to her than that. Ted and Terry obviously had a great deal of fun writing Elizabeth this time. I love what an absolute mess she is. That whole pouting scene on the island ("Oh! Oh! The heat!" *pretends to faint*) is just all kinds of awesome. From a very young age, she's been fascinated with pirates, and now she's pretty much become one. I feel sure that her character arc in At World's End will at least partly involve the psychic consequences of essentially killing Jack. And then there's-- no, I'm not ready for the shipping yet. :P

Pintel and Ragetti - the unsexy pirates, and a large source of non-Sparrow comic relief ("I could be in the circus!"). I'm glad we got to see what became of them (though I'm sad not to have seen their Royal Navy counterparts, Murtogg and Mullroy, in this one). They're the leftovers from Barbossa's crew, left to fend for themselves and make it as best they can. They strike me as the Peter Pettigrews of piracy, who don't care much what side they're on, as long as they're on the right end of a blade. I loved the little scene during the three-way sword fight when they explain each of the guy's motives for wanting the chest, and one of my favorite parts of the whole movie is when the two of them and Elizabeth are trying to fight Davy Jones' crew with two swords between them ("Sword!" "Sword!")

Gibbs - one of my favorite characters of the first film that didn't get as much of a character arc this time. But he's fun nonetheless, and out of the whole cast, he's the one who sounds most like a pirate. Well, he and Barbossa. :)

Norrington - Oh my. I loved him in the first one, but man oh man did he turn into a badass hottie! So much love. I was so worried when I heard about one of the scenes he was in that he was just going to be in one or two scenes, all miserable and emo because Elizabeth left him. But I couldn't be happier with the role he was given in this story. I *LOVE* that he was the one who absconded with the heart to buy back his life.

Barbossa - There is but one word for his appearance in this film, and that is, of course, "ZOMG!"

Cutler Beckett - I love Tom Hollander. I like him more as a sympathetic character, such as he played in Gosford Park, but he does make a great baddie. He doesn't try to make it over-the-top; he just plays it as bland, bureaucratic, and very real Evil. That takes talent.

Davy Jones - the other kind of evil, naturally. :P I love what the CG guys did with him, and Bill Nighy is just superb. I love his weird brogue, and the way he emphasizes the ends of words ("Ninety-nine sow-uhlzzzz-AH"). He's got a kind of Sean Connery lip waggle going that I loved. And the scene where he's playing the organ is just the coolest.

Tia Dalma - I have to say that she was possibly my favorite part of the whole movie. I sort of cringed at the little clip I saw in the trailer, thinking this was going to be a cartoonish "islander" stereotype. But this woman is amazing. Her look is perfect, her voice is perfect, and she loves her some pirate booty, nudge nudge, wink wink. :P I can't wait to see what part she has to play in bringing Jack back "and him precious Pearl." And speaking of Jack...

Jack Sparrow - I'm always concerned when actors come back after a little break to a character that is as well-loved as Jack. So few actors have the ability to be consistent in later films. They either lose the charm of the original character or they're trying too hard and step into the realm of self-parody. But I feel like Depp just picked right back up where he left off with Jack. And luckily the writers gave him lots more to dig into instead of relying purely on the audience's love for the character to carry the movie. Here we see a little bit more of Sparrow's bad side - his cowardice and selfishness most of all. This film was clearly the slough in his character arc, and he'll come out in At World's End with some heroic gesture to finish things off. I mean, just look at that last scene he's in. I wanted to jump up and down and yell "JOSEPH CAMPBELL! BELLY OF THE BEAST, YO!"

Yeah, it's kind of convoluted. There's a lot of stuff going on and it will probably take several viewings (shucky-darn!) to get it all. But I don't think it's too tortuous. There are a lot of characters with a lot of different motives. And don't even get me started on the complaints that it's too long. I don't mean the comments that the first section drags - those opinions are more than valid, even if I don't feel the same way. I mean the very idea that anything longer than 2 hours is "too long." Dude, most people pay as much as $10-15 per ticket, and critics complain that they're being given too much???

Technical Stuff
If this movie doesn't win a Visual Effects Oscar, I'm going to be upset. The first movie had to compete with Return of the King, but there's no reason it can't win something this time. The animation of Davy Jones alone is worth some Oscar gold. My favorite effect is the guy who's grown into the side of the Flying Dutchman.

The Action
Yeah, it's fairly absurd most of the time. The bone cage, the shish-kabob, the shell-head pirate, the mill wheel, etc. To me, this goes back to these movies' resemblance to the oral tradition tales. I just imagine someone telling this story and what, in a real story, might have been someone falling off a mill wheel in the middle of a sword fight becomes an elaborate 12-minute farce that's packed with physical impossiblities. Much like Gibbs and the story of how Jack got off the island via sea turtles.

Also, I can't help remembering while watching that this whole story is based on a theme park ride. A ride that the writers each rode 100 or so times. Ted & Terry seem to treat these movies as a ride, in a way, pulling the audience wherever they want them to go. I think that's a big thing that makes the movies so fun and what bothers the people who don't like them.

The Shipping
Okay, here we go. Let me start by saying that I'm positive that Will and Elizabeth will get their happily ever after. What happened in Dead Man's Chest was an obstacle to their eventual reunion - one that will begin a stronger relationship between them. Having said that, however, this is the only love triangle I can think of that I've ever actually enjoyed. I *love* the Jack/Elizabeth sideline, and I think it makes all three of their characters a lot more interesting in relation to each other.

So ... here's how I see it. Will loves Elizabeth. No, scratch that. Will loves the idea of Elizabeth. He's put her up on a pedestal, in a lot of ways, and she doesn't really belong there. Well, no woman does, really, but ... who Elizabeth really is, what we learn of what she's really like deep down, doesn't match the ideal of her that Will spent much of his life building. Sometimes, in a situation like this, the seedier parts of someone's character come out of their own accord. But in Elizabeth's case, and the more to cause pain for Will, this side of her character is largely drawn out by another man.

Jack Sparrow does not love Elizabeth. He is certainly drawn to her in a basic heterosexual sense. There's a strong tendency, especially in women (or maybe it's just me :P), to feel sympathy for this kind of character, in romance terms. I mean, why does the girl have to end up with the "Ronald Reagan" character? Doesn't Jack deserve some lovin'? The answer is that deserving love is beside the point. Elliott and Rossio, like many writers and filmmakers, have been inspired by the Sergio Leone model, and Jack (as well as Barbossa) are in the "god" role. Gods don't have the same kinds of stories as the mortals who surround them. They don't fall in love, and they don't get the girl. They just don't need to.

Elizabeth loves Will. No doubt about it. She has feelings for him that she'll never have for Jack. But I think she also has feelings for Jack that she'll never have for Will. I agree with those who have said that being robbed of her wedding night has a bit to do with it. She's horny and Jack represents the freedom she wants. It's not surprising that this translates into some chemistry. Not to mention a kiss that's as hot as a supernova. And no, I don't think Elizabeth kissed Jack just to distract him so that she could shackle him to the ship. There's a distinct moment after they break apart where she leans in to kiss him again but stops herself.

Is that kiss a threat to Will's and Elizabeth's relationship? Sure it is. That's why it's there, to provide an obstacle. I think the next movie will explore the distrust that kiss created, and Elizabeth may have to "win" Will back, as it were.

HOWEVER... if this weren't Disney and Jack weren't the Leone "god" character, I would SO be predicting a menage a trois between these three characters. I mean, they're PIRATES. Hang the social mores!

The Bottom Line
I really, really love this movie. I think this may rank even higher than the first movie. Yeah, I've got a couple of complaints, but they're WAY overshadowed by all the stuff there is to love. I can just feel the geekish glee emanating from the screen as I watch it. And what I probably love *best* about it is that it started as a theme park ride ... then it was made into a hugely successful film whose star was nominated for an Oscar ... and now with the second film it has become a full-fledged hero myth. This is very much the kind of story that could have been passed down by oral tradition, much like the songs in the Tolkienverse that told of the epic adventures of hobbits in Middle Earth. And what I find the most satisfying is that my affection for these movies is shared by many of the same people who share my affection for LOTR and HP - and that now our Pirateverse is becoming so rich in the mythology and worldbuilding (and theorizing!) that we love so much about those other works.

The Devil Wears Prada

[from July 1, 2006]

Except for about 15 minutes in the middle, I quite enjoyed this film. Fluffy, without being sentimental, and lots of GREAT fashion eye candy. And I *loved* that not one female in the movie had a "get the guy" subplot. I can't tell you how refreshing it was to see a story dominated by women that wasn't even a little steeped in shipping. Yeah, the women in the movie had men in their lives, but they were in the background.

The centerpiece of the film, of course, is Meryl Streep - or, as I refer to her, The Greatest Actress Ever. It was once said that what she does is more channeling than acting, and this is one of the best roles she's had to play with in a while. The power her character has over her magazine and in the fashion industry itself is established before she even appears on screen. And she's able to convey a lot of different emotions without removing the mask of that power. Her character, Miranda, would never have gotten as far as she has (as a woman, I mean) if she hadn't learned to control and disguise her emotions, i.e., play it like a man. That really comes through here, and it's a testament to Streep's acting ability that despite not being able to give over to her emotions she still manages to convey what she's feeling.

The rest of the cast is remarkable as well. I quite like Anne Hathaway, and I don't want to gloss over her performance, because it takes a great deal of ability and presence to share a screen with Streep as much as she does. But my favorite performances were Emily Blunt as Emily and especialy Stanley Tucci as Nigel. I'd never seen Blunt before, but she was SO great as the bitchy fasionista-wannabe. She was such a great foil for Anne Hathaway. But Stanley Tucci was by far my favorite, almost edging out Ms. Streep herself. His mentor-ish relationship with Hathaway's Andy is fascinating, and he has some of the best lines. (Referring to women's sizes, he says "2 is the new 4, 0 is the new 2, and 6 is the new 14.") A lesser actor in a lesser film would have played this as a stereotypical, swishing, lisping gay man. Now, I do think his character was probably supposed to be gay, but Tucci plays it very subtly because that's not Nigel's defining characteristic.

However, as much as I loved most of this movie, there was about 15 minutes that took me out of the film almost completely. I won't spoil it for anyone, but it involves Harry Potter, and it's the kind of thing that drove me - as an obsessive HP fan - crazy.

Despite that weird little detour, though, I found the rest of the movie very enjoyable. It's not deep or anything, but it's a fun movie - for women, at least. :P And Anne Hathaway makes a great, flawed heroine.

Superman Returns

[from June 28, 2006]

Even though I'm not the biggest fan of Superman in general, I simply had to go to the 10:00 screening last night and see this with my nerds.

I have my issues with Superman as a hero and as a franchise. To own the truth, I find Superman kind of boring and goody-goody. His big weakness is something he should only be faced with in a bizarre situation that seems to come up more often than it really should. And how the hell can people NOT TELL that Clark Kent is Superman?!?!?! Spiderman and Batman have masks to hide their faces, but Superman is able to bamboozle people with a pair of glasses? Are you kidding me?!

I have issues with this movie as well. I understand that some time had to have passed, but it's rather laughable that no one seems to notice that Clark Kent and Superman disappeared at the same time and then reappeared at the same time five years later. The ridiculousness of this is further amplified by a little scene where Lois Lane and her not-quite-husband think "Could Clark and Superman be the same person?" for a second before laughing it off. But hey, if it only takes a pair of glasses to pull the wool over people's eyes, I suppose their sense of logic wouldn't be sophisticated enough to make a connection between Kent's return and Superman's return.

Having said all of that, though, I couldn't NOT love this movie. It completely won me over, despite my issues with the franchise and even with this specific story.

It started with the opening credits. Well, no. It actually started with the Warner Bros. logo and the little musical theme that accompanied it. Music which ended with a faint whisper of John Williams' Superman theme. After a few more logos from a few more studios (dude, it really takes a village - several villages, in fact - to build a movie) the opening credits begin. Nothing too fancy, and not a part of the film itself, thank goodness (One of my cinema pet peeves is when a movie's credits play over the first part of the movie itself. I mean, does that part of the movie not matter as much? If so, why is it in the movie? What do you want me to look at, the names or your movie? [/rant]). But the best part of the credits is that the movie uses Williams' original Superman theme. That majestic, perfect superhero theme. A theme that brings us right back to the Donner movies, and which permeates the entire film, despite John Ottman's still-impressive score.

Because this isn't a reinvention of the franchise, like Batman Begins. This film wants you to remember the Donner movies. It wants you to remember Christopher Reeve (which is, I suppose, part of the reason Brandon Routh was cast - he looks alarmingly like Reeve). The director, Bryan Singer (yes, this is the same guy who's the executive producer of House, M.D.) even uses archival footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El from the first movie.

And I think that's ultimately what makes the movie work. I think a lot of people, if not most, find Spiderman a more satisfying, relatable, "better" superhero. In fact, it amused me to note that the teaser trailer for Spiderman 3 which preceded this film got more cheers and applause than anything in Superman. But Superman is the superhero. He's the first one people generally think of when they think of superheroes. He's almost generic. So you can't really mess with that and reinvent it. Get different actors to play the parts, sure, but the essence is the same.

Consistency is Superman's strength, I think - in a meta sense, that is. People need to believe in something greater than themselves, because the world is often too much for we mere mortals to handle, so there'd better be someone somewhere who can handle it. Superman has a fascinating mythology, and he is - more so than any other superhero, in my observation - the most like an anthropomorphic god. Because he is like a man, but is clearly much more than a man. And you can't really mess with that.

There are more interesting superheroes out there, to be sure (and Spidey is probably my favorite), but Superman Returns reminds us of why we love Superman.

The Break-Up

[from June 12, 2003]

I don't care what the critics say, The Break-Up is a unique and outstanding "romantic" comedy. I used the quotation marks because this is so far-removed from your average rom-com that it doesn't really belong in that category. I've read a few good reviews of this, mostly on AICN, but the stuffier crowd (even Roger Ebert, who isn't stuffy but who shares the stuffy opinion) is pretty universally panning it. But I think the people who dislike it, for the most part, are missing the point.

The Break-Up

Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston) meet at a baseball game where he sort of bullies her into having a hot dog and then proceeds to corner her on the way out of the stadium to convince her that her date is a loser. Sounds like a jerk, right? Well, no he isn't. He's an aggressive suitor, to be sure, but his ultimate goal is to make her smile, and it works. You get the feeling that if it were any other man doing that to any other woman, he'd get slapped in the face. And if you're paying attention, you can see what's really happening here. Brooke is watching a baseball game she couldn't be less interested in. She has come - as non-sports-loving women occasionally do - to a sporting event in order to spend time with her guy. The problem is that she's not that interested in the guy either. She keeps sneaking sidelong glances at Gary, even before he makes the scene with the hot dog.

Mr. Ebert doesn't like this opening, but I think it perfectly sets up what Brooke likes about Gary and why they're suited to one another. I totally bought it, and I'm sorry for those that didn't. We get a few more quick glances at the Relationship, through candid photos that run through the credits (that's probably my only complaint about the film - I can't stand once the movie has started telling me the story). In these photos, they're happy and decidedly in love. But once the credits are over, it's time to get to what the movie is really about.

The relationship falls apart bit by bit, and the break-up is complicated by the fact that the two of them are co-owners of a condo. Their real estate becomes an interesting symbol of their life together that both of them are loathe to let go of. But there are clearly problems, and you think you know what they are at first. However, this movie is smart in that it doesn't go where you think it's going. Gary and Brooke make some spectacular and classic mistakes, usually preferring to play games and drop hints rather than actually talk about their problems. And they ask the absolutely wrong people for advice, which makes matters worse.

I don't want to spoil any more of it, but it does end very unconventionally, which may disappoint some people. But I think the ending is perfect - somewhat ambiguous, but I think your interpretation of it will largely depend on what you bring to it.

I have to say a word about the writing, because I think the dialogue was atypically (for the genre) great. Lots of rom-com dialogue makes me cringe (or maybe that's the formulaic plot that does it to me). The fights are exquisite. Real, nasty, and over the stupid crap that most couples fight about. And it feels so unwritten. Like the script simply said:

Gary and Brooke FIGHT for 3-4 minutes.

It just seems like the director pointed the camera at Vince and Jennifer and said "Okay, go for it." It's just so well done, and the writers don't give two flips about the Formula. It's almost as if they took a traditional romantic comedy and turned it inside out and stomped on it.

Speaking of Vince and Jennifer, they have an interesting kind of chemistry. I usually don't care for real-life couples playing on-screen couples, because - bizarrely - much of the time their off-screen chemistry doesn't read into the film. I'm not sure how Aniston and Vaughn would play as a traditional rom-com couple, but they were quite good with this particular material. The fighting dynamic was great in itself, but the few tender moments they have feel very real and are surprisingly moving. (Yes, I cried a bit - why do you ask?)

If you're thinking of seeing this but have been scared off by the negative reviews, give it a shot and leave all your preconceptions at the door. Personally, I just really loved this movie and I'm glad that there are people who want to make "romantic" movies that take you to unexpected places. I'm sick of being able to guess how everything ends by looking at a movie's poster. :P

The DaVinci Code

[from May 19, 2006]

Let me preface this by saying that I have not read the novel on which it is based. I have no intention of getting into the contents of the story or the attending controversy. What follows is simply my view of the film itself.

The Da Vinci Code

Meh, whatever. As a film, it's rather unimpressive and dull. In serving the intricate plot, the director, writer, and actors all but abandoned any humanity or soul it might have had. Maybe the novel didn't have much to begin with - I have no idea - but I don't think that's an excuse.

Ian McKellen makes his scenes interesting because of his amazing voice and delivery, but he's stuck with almost nothing but exposition. Everyone in the film is stuck with mostly exposition. Well, that's not true. Paul Bettany (as the monk Silas) has some great moments - GAH! The self-flagellation scene! - but they kind of get lost in all the blahblahcrypticblahblahcluesblah. He does get the best scare of the movie, though. Audrey Tautou looks like an arthouse actress who got lost on the way to the market and ended up on the set of a blockbuster - i.e., she seems totally out of place. And I don't think I've ever been more underwhelmed by Tom Hanks.

Akiva Goldsman - I know you're an Oscar-winning screenwriter, but it does not show here. I'm sure you did a great job of condensing the novel, but I felt nothing for the characters, I winced at several lines of dialogue, and I saw the identity of you-know-what coming a mile away. For shame. I wouldn't be so disappointed if I didn't know you could do better.

I have no doubt this will be the numero uno movie this weekend and maybe the next. But I can't see it as a big "repeat viewing" movie. Maybe it will be a conversation starter - for me and those two other people who haven't read the book. But all controversies aside, it's fairly forgettable.

An American Haunting

[from April 21, 2006]

With a little less excitement and tickets to far fewer flicks than last year, I joined several hundred other Nashvillians last night for the beginning of our local film festival. I was a bit surprised when I got to the Will Call desk and they couldn't find either of the tickets I had reserved. But the event staff were very, very nice and just gave me replacement tickets, without even asking for my confirmation or anything. But this did tie me up for a bit, which meant that I just barely made it in time to find a seat.

The opening film was preceded by the usual festival schpiel, and we got a brief intro from the director, Courtney Solomon, and one of the stars, British actor James D'Arcy. I think the room temp may have gone up a bit due to the fierce hotness of James (though he'll always sort of be George Blifil from the BBC's "Tom Jones" miniseries to me).

We were about to see An American Haunting, a film which opens nationwide May 5, but which the director particularly wanted a Tennessee audience to see a little early.

This movie is based on one of the many versions of the Bell Witch legend. I'm actually a little scared to even type some of this stuff. I'm not superstitious about many things, but the Bell Witch is something that definitely spooks me and has done ever since I used to hear the stories as a small child. The movie studio is pushing the idea that this is the only recorded case in American history where a spirit caused the death of a person. I don't know how true the "death" part is ... if it happened like it does in the movie, I can't imagine sane, reasonable people unable to come up with any explanation besides "ghost." But I definitely believe that the Bell family of what is now Adams, TN, was tormented by a supernatural presence for several years. As to whether or not that was the real cause of the death, however, I'm rather skeptical.

Most of the movie follows pretty much what I had always heard. There was a fairly well-off and respectable family named the Bells, and strange things started happening to them in the night - though most of the spirit's focus seemed to be on their daughter Betsy. An invisible something would pull her hair, smack her face repeatedly, and drag her around her bedroom. The attacks grew more and more violent, and (in the movie) the father, John Bell, is convinced a local woman - who John has wronged in a business transaction - is behind it.

The Good
It is VERY well made, visually and stylistically. You don't see many horror movies that are period pieces (unless the 1970s counts as "period"), so that was something pretty unique about it. It didn't look like your average horror film. There were almost no special effects, no blood, and there were no visible monsters.

It is impeccably paced. It isn't like the cookie cutter horror movie where it spends the first 10 minutes going "Grrrrr! Look at me, I'm SCARY!" and then becoming a totally different movie for the next hour while you get to know the characters and the story before it explodes in a frenzy of jump-scares and blood in the final act. This movie is continually tense. You never get to relax for more than a couple of minutes at a time. And the scares keep getting better and scarier as the movie goes on.

It is beautifully shot (by the late Adrian Biddle, whose other recent work many of you have seen in V For Vendetta). I was kind of bummed that they shot it in Romania, rather than, you know, Tennessee. But maybe they were superstitious - plus, supposedly you can't take a good picture in the town of Adams, because the spirit still lives there. At any rate, the camera work is gorgeous, and there's a very cool "Ghost-Cam" shot (kind of like the opening of Evil Dead) that culminates in possibly the most awesome horse-and-buggy wreck ever filmed.

The cast is (for the most part) outstanding. Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek are Mr. and Mrs. Bell, and Rachel Hurd-Wood (Wendy, of the most recent Peter Pan film) is Betsy. James D'Arcy is the local schoolteacher, Professor Powell. I usually don't care much for Sutherland, at least when he's playing a character that requires him to dress in period costume or speak with an accent, but he was quite good here. Spacek, of course, does Teh Scared about as well as anyone. And Hurd-Wood is poised to take the Scream Queen title away from Jamie Lee Curtis. I am very sensitive to badly done dialects, particularly if they are southern accents. And this time the accents were supposed to be specifically from my neck of the woods, so I braced myself for bad ones, but they were actually not that bad, except when a couple of the actors forgot not to be British for a second.

The Bad
My main problem is with the writing. I know 19th Century dialogue is going to be different than modern dialogue, but there is no reason it should be all clunky-ass like it is for so much of this movie. Also, the little modern-day bookend is totally pastede on yay. It would have been far more effective to have the whole thing happen when, you know, the whole thing happened. I think they were basing the secret writings on the actual ones that were supposedly written by, I think, Professor Powell. But here they've got it written by Mrs. Bell, like a letter to her daughter explaining things, as if she didn't experience them first-hand herself. The way the ghost story is set up, too, is very confusing. I imagine they were trying to go for an ambiguous feeling of "Is this is a dream?" or "Where do the nightmares end and reality begin?", but it doesn't really work and only serves to make the audience go "huh?"

I also had a HUGE problem with the "reason" for the haunting. It reminded me forcibly of the twist in 28 Days Later, where it all seemed to be about the victimization of women. I realize that this is a real problem, and it's one I'm particularly sensitive to, but I can't stand it when people use it as a soap-box in a story, especially when it's so damn obvious. And the fact that they connect the Bell's haunting with the modern-day story - again, in a very "pasted on" fashion - just added insult to injury. This is, however, presented as only one (of many) explanations for the haunting that people have come up with over the years. It doesn't make much sense logically, but apparently neither do many aspects of the story in general.

So, all in all, it's a very effective scary movie, and I'm strongly considering seeing it again. It does have its flaws, but they don't really take away much from the experience of watching it.