Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Kicking and Screaming (1995)

Not to be confused with the Will Ferrell movie, the uncertainty and ennui of post-college life is captured in this man movie. It focuses on that energy and those shiny eyes that still radiate hope for a life that revolves around ideals and not a cubicle.

This guy group is dysfunctional but strong. Post-graduation, they decide to continue their lives ambling around their college town, Munton. This is a talky one and works well with the themes. Max (Chris Eigman) is a grumpy crosswords aficionado. Grover (Josh Hamilton) is brooding after his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d'Abo) leaves for Prague after getting accepted into a writing program. He sleeps with a lot of freshman searching to recreate Jane while seemingly doing nothing with his life. Otis (Carlos Jacott) is a neurotic who after unable to get on a plane to Milwaukee to start an engineering job, returns town to work in a video store. Skippy (Jason Wiles) is dating Miami (Parker Posey), a senior, who is growing bored of his doing nothing but lecturing her. Friedrich (Chris Reed) doesn't get enough screen time; he's a European student with strangely compelling charisma. (See deleted scenes had more Friedrich). Eric Stoltz as Chet is underused as the perpetual student--eight years and going strong.

This character driven piece is a fun watch. I was sad when it was over but am looking forward to rewatching The Squid and the Whale and Margo at the Wedding, also by the same director.

Themes: post-college, girlfriend problems, hook-ups, conversations

Director: Noah Baumbach

Country: US

Genre: Drama/Comedy

Minutes:  95 minutes

Scale: 4

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

It's easy to enjoy this animated movie if you're a fan of the Simpsons. The movie is an extended version of a show with an environmental twist. This is good for a time when you are looking for humor and easy viewing (maybe you need a break from subtitles).

I enjoy the background details in the Simpsons, among my favorites: when a character is performing or delivering a speech and his/her audience doesn't react; all you hear are crickets and perhaps a random cough.

The voices:

Dan Castellaneta: Homer, Grampa, Krusty, Groundskeeper Wile, Mayor Quimby, Itchy, Barney

Julie Cavner: Marge, Selma, Patty

Nancy Cartwright: Bart, Ralph Wiggum, Todd Flanders, Nelson

Yeardley Smith: Lisa (easy gig)

Hank Azaria: Moe, Chief Wiggum, Cletus, Professor Frink, Apu, Lou, Carl, Sea Captain, Bumblebee Man, Dr. Nick, Comic Book Guy,

Harry Shearer (hardest working man in animation): Mr. Burns, Smithers, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Lenny, Pres Arnold Schwartzenegger, Principal Skinner, Kent Brachman, Dr Hibbert, Otto

Pamela Hayden: Milhouse, Rod Flanders, Jimbo

Tress MacNeille: Mrs. Skinner, Nelson's mother

Marcia Wallace: Mrs. Crabapple


Themes: save the environment

Director: David Silverman

Country: US

Genre: Animation/Comedy

Minutes:  88 minutes

Scale: 3

Vantage Point (2008)

The one is a freshman trying to fake it as a senior.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

US President Henry Ashton (William Hurt) appears at a counter-terrorism summit in Salamanca, Spain. He is shot in an assassination attempt (2nd in two years). Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) took the bullet for the president in the first assassination attempt a year earlier and this is his first day back on the job. Once the president is shot, Barnes is off running and driving through Salamanca to find the assassin.

The plot is flimsy. You are fed to believe that Barnes is so good, that after 90 minutes of chase, he will be the hero (of course--that's set up early on). The caricatures of secondary characters offer their shallow takes on what happened from their perspectives. For example, Howard Lewis (Forrest Whitaker') is an American and he's filming everything. When a stranger approaches him in the crowd, Lewis is immediately open and reveals he's having a rough patch in his marriage and not with his wife and kids. I was certain the stranger was going to create trust and then a distraction would occur and Lewis would end up pickpocketed. Doesn't work out this way but much worse--Lewis ends up a hero.

Vantage Point also committed the peeve of having characters with Spanish accents speaking in English. It would be much more effective to have them actually communicate in Spanish and offer subtitles, but that would alienate many of their target audience (I'm always surprised by the number of folks that complain about having to read subtitles).

This movie is weak and boring. The car chases down these small streets go on for so long and a kid runs out in the middle of it. In the end, Barnes saves the president in the most unbelievable way. Skip this crap.

Themes: presidential assassination attempts, kidnapping, car chases

Director: Pete Travis

Country: US

Genre: Drama

Minutes:  89 minutes

Scale: 2

Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) (2007)

To watch this movie is to experience the grimness, little hope and bleak reality of Nazi Germany. Based on a true story, it details the greatest counterfeiting operation ever. Imagine it, so much perfectly replicated money that it could bring down an economy or two. That was the goal of Operation Bernhard, a Nazi SS idea to counterfeit the British pound and US dollar in an attempt to sabotage the Allied economies and win WWII.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) is a counterfeiter, ladies man and artist in mid-1930s. He's also a Russian Jew in Germany. On the eve he plans to leave town, he gets caught up forging an Argentinean passport for a female caller. They end up in bed and in the morning, he's busted. He spends time in prison before being moved to a concentration camp. There Sally improvises ways to survive. With his sketching and painting skills, he becomes an artist for the Nazis, creating portraits of them and their families. Five years later as he's working on a huge mural, he learns he's being moved to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

This alarms him as he's been able to live better than most prisoners. On the train ride, he is transported in the same cart as Kolya, a young Russian man who's been badly beaten and sits like an animal in the corner. Sally offers Kolya his soup. Kolya slurps the soup almost without breathing and they forge a friendship.

Once the men selected for Operation Bernhard (for their skills in printing, counterfeiting, finance, etc.) realize how good they have it compared to the general population, they're relieved to be on this detail. As long as they are working toward the goal, they're spared. But, do they follow through with the task and help fund genocide or do they sabotage and risk being killed? This quandary is the basis of the relationship that develops between Sally and Adolph Burger (August Diehl).

The relationship between Sally and Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) is gripping. Sally's protagonist to Herzog's antagonist engage in chess match rapport. Herzog needs Sally and believes himself above the Nazis, that he treats these men, prisoners, better than other prisoners are treated but they are still captive and fearful of their lives. Sally must cultivate the relationship to both stay alive and keep his men alive.

The fear, the hunger and the despair are exhibited in the way the men in the camp inhale their food, the way they tremble when men in power are around, the way they touch the bedsheets...it's palpable. For examining a dark period in the history of the world, this movie possesses great energy, is beautifully filmed and even better acted. The very deserving Counterfeiters won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. See it!

Themes: Nazi war crimes, concentration camps, survival, counterfeiting, sabotage

Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky

Country: Germany

Genre: Foreign/Drama

Minutes:  98 minutes

Scale: 5

Monday, August 18, 2008

Cidade dos Homens (City of Men) (2007)

It was a delightful day when I learned that even after I finished watching the City of Men series, there was a movie. That could be good or bad. Most movies made to follow a series are rarely spectacular. You get your fix but you aren't wowed. Nonetheless, I moved this one to the top of my Netflix queue.

It picks up where the series left off. Oddly, the characters' names have changed in the subtitles. Acerola is now called Ace. Laranjinha is now Wallace (yes, Wallace). Madrugadão is now Midnight. Baby Clayton is now Clinton. The two, both on the cusp of 18, are still boys in men's bodies. Ace continues the struggle with his daddy duties and Wallace has accelerated his quest to find his father. The absent dad situation was a recurring theme in the series and in the movie, it has taken leading role. The boys have been like brothers and, at times, they've supported one another the way a father might. Here, Ace and Wallace learn details about the friendship their own fathers shared. As Wallace meets his dad and more tales are unearthed, the boys' relationship deteriorates. What will happen when they learn the truth?

At the same time, the favela experiences a coup d'état and Midnight, the ruling drug lord, has been ousted. This coup further affects their strained friendship. Will the lifelong friends end up going their separate ways?

Cidade de Homens The Movie is an amicable Dear John letter to its loyal fans. It offers a satisfying resolution that brings you to the cinematic climax of an era that began with the City of God and reigned through the series. As you watch the two main characters age, you are left hoping you don't see them again, at least not in the form of Acerola and Laranjinha. RIP.

Themes: friendship, absent fathers, teenage parents, favela life, gang war

Director: Paulo Morelli

Country: Brazil

Genre: Drama

Minutes:  106 minutes

Scale: 4

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fool's Gold (2008)

It sounded fun. Hijinx on the open seas in search of Spanish treasure. A just-divorced couple collaborating to find the long-lost riches while a hip-hop/rap mogul and his cronies try to beat them to it. Sounded like a mindless action and adventure flick. I wanted to see Matthew McConaughey without his shirt. But Fool's Gold didn't play out this way. Instead, it was MM wearing a shirt most of the movie and a clunky, dragged out movie that should have ceased at least 30 minutes sooner.

This movie is a typical example of the trailer highlighting the few good scenes to push the film. Now, I wasn't expecting a 5 . I wasn't even expecting a 4 but I was looking for a pleasant 3. No such luck.It's too bad too because there are some talented players, including Ray Winstone, Donald Sutherland, Alexis Dziena and Ewen Bremner. Even Kate Hudson, who isn't a favorite of mine, was okay. The clumsy plot is a let-down.

Themes: sunken treasure, divorce, father-daughter relationship

Director: Andy Tennant

Country: US

Genre: Romance-comedy, Adventure, Disappointment

Minutes:  113 minutes

Scale: 2

Be Kind Rewind (2008)

Jack Black is a guilty pleasure. I have always liked him--at first, reluctantly, but over time, I could no longer deny it. When I hear of him in a movie, I make note of it. I read about this one, written and directed by Michel Gondry. I thought I'd try it, not expecting much as it sounded amusing but had the potential to be crappy.

Yesterday, needing some relaxation in the 90oF+ weather, I watched it and it was better than expected. The movie lumbers before gaining focus and starting to move, but the cast is oddly diverse enough to keep interest.

Jerry (Jack Black) and Mike (Mos Def) are best friends. Mike helps Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) run his VHS-only video store. When Mr. Fletcher goes on his annual Fats Waller reminiscing trip and leaves Mike in charge of the store, his last missive to Mike is: Keep Jerry Out. In spite of his good intentions, Mike doesn't listen and one thing leads to another, resulting in ALL the videos being erased. What to do? When Mr. Fletcher has his pal, Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow), check on Mike to make sure all is well at the store, she isn't pleased with their mess. She also requests to rent Ghostbusters. It's been recommended to her. But, because all the tapes are erased, they can't let her know. They tell her it isn't in and ask her to return the following day and it will be ready. They try to get another copy to bide time but when that fails, they decide to remake Ghostbusters themselves. Since she hasn't seen it, she won't know. They decide to shoot it from a distance so that she won't recognize them.

Once the shooting starts, Be Kind Rewind gets rolling. These scenes are hilarious. When a store regular rents their version of Ghostbusters, he's hooked and wants more. He tells other customers. That's when they begin remaking all the cult "classics"--Rush Hour 2 (special effects are great and Black as Jackie Chan), Robo Cop (see image above of Jack Black in action), Driving Miss Daisy (Jack Black as Miss Daisy). They dub the process Sweded. A following develops and the Sweded films are now in high demand. During the remaking of Rush Hour 2, when Jerry won't kiss Wilson (Irv Gooch), his mechanic who is playing the woman's role and makes a stink, the mechanic quits and they bring on Alma (Melonie Diaz), the sister of the woman Jerry really wants to kiss, both working at a dry cleaners down the block. Alma's business savvy drives their business further. More storylines involve attempts to save the building the store is housed in from demolition; repercussions of copyright infringement (bit role for Sigourney Weaver); and fame and notoriety going to Jerry's head. The memory of Fats Waller drives this film from beginning to end. See this one. You may not love it but it has some fun moments.

Themes: video store, Fats Waller, friendship, movie-making

Director: Michel Gondry

Country: US

Genre: Comedy

Minutes:  102 minutes

Scale: 3

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

I resisted Lars and his not-so-real girl for a long time. Partly, I was intrigued because I dig Ryan Gosling but upon hearing details, it sounded lackluster.

I jumped in and it was surprisingly good...not what I was expecting. Both funny and touching. Lars (Ryan Gosling) is a loner. He avoids people contact and rarely speaks. His brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) worry about him. Karin often invites him to join them for dinner. When Lars does accept, he eats in silence and rushes off as quickly as possible.

(Spoiler Alert: Read at Your Own Risk!)

One day, Lars announces his desire to bring his new girlfriend over to meet them. Gus and especially Karin are overjoyed. When Lars introduces Bianca, Karin and Gus are horrified to learn that she is a life-sized doll. She looks like a high-end blow-up doll and she comes with a history--she sires from Brazil. Lars wheels her around in a wheelchair. He engages in one-sided conversations with her and appears smitten. The relatives freak out. Convinced Lars is crazy, they take him to see Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), a psychologist, and she determines that Lars is in a delusional state. The only way to help him is to accept Bianca and go along with his delusion that she's real. Reluctantly, they do and the town follows.

The movie plays like a fairy tale or a metaphor. The town treats Bianca like one of its own. The movie doesn't take cheap shots or become predictable. Small details are offered to try and explain why Lars might be experiencing this. Gosling does an incredible job. He's believable and sympathetic as Lars. There is one scene that pushed the boundaries of ridiculous though (one night Lars is practically hysterical when he finds Bianca won't wake from her slumber. Lars starts panicking. In desperation, Karin screams, "call 911!" They do and Bianca is taken to the hospital via ambulance. She's wheeled in and Dagmar is there waiting to talk to Lars but this was too much. I kept thinking, there's no way this understanding little town is gonna be okay footing the bill for that ER run!).

Lars starts working through the Bianca situation when he's faced with his conflicting feelings for Margo (Kelli Garner). This and the support he receives from the understanding little Northern town helps him deal with the uncertain future of Lars and Bianca.

Themes: mental illness/delusion, brother-brother relationships, love

Director: Craig Gillespie

Country: US

Genre: Thriller/Drama

Minutes: 107

Scale: 3.5

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Employee of the Month (2004)

Recommended by Brian, this one played like a really good student film with top names. It offers dark humor, endless plot twists, high-wire suspense and an excellent cast, including Christina Applegate, Dave Foley and Jenna Fischer. Steve Zahn steals this scenes, but opposite Matt Dillon, it's a pretty good showdown.

David (Matt Dillon) and Jack (Steve Zahn) are old pals with very different paths. Jack is a con and David is a bank employee with a promising future ahead. When he unexpectedly gets fired, the day continues in the same vein. After his fiance breaks it off, David decides to change the course of his day...forever. At this point, you see influence of/similarity to Falling-Down (1993) where Mike Douglas' character becomes a vigilante. Dillon plays his character oddly but in the end as it all comes together, it makes sense. Zahn does insane extremely well. Some conversations in this movie are uncomfortably funny, such as when Sara is dumping David at a small restaurant while here parents are there at the table with them. There's also a scene when Steve Zahn is getting a lap dance and the stripper is telling him about a murder in her family on Christmas Day. You may suspect the ending, but not the first fake ending, nor the next and least of all, the real ending, but then again, after the first fake ending, you find yourself predicting what's next. Might be obvious but still...this is a fun one!

Themes: infidelity, revenge, bank heist

Director: Mitch Rouse

Country: US

Genre: Thriller/Dark Comedy

Minutes: 96 minutes

Scale: 3.75

Californication (Disk 1) (2007)

David Duchovny is back! Just six episodes in and I'm hooked. When La Fredette mentioned Californication to me, she'd watched an episode or two and liked that flawed Hank (portrayed by David Duchovny) was a writer living in LA not doing a lot of writing. She said he was sleeping with women who weren't the typical 20 years younger than him, but more his age range. This isn't the case but it adds to some of the plots.

Hank is on the rebound and he gets a lot of play...LOTS. He can be utterly charming, then turn into a jackass, yet overall, he's extremely likeable. Even though he's playing grab-ass more than he seems to eat, he is in possession of a moral code and he is surprisingly true to it. The chemistry between him and his ex, Karen (Natascha McElhone) sizzles. They should be together but their friendship seems almost ideal now that they're separated. He has a lovely relationship with his tween daughter. Their time together makes me a little jealous for that kind of dad-daughter relationship. It never ventures into maudlin territory. Another boon is the supporting character of Hank's agent, Charlie (Evan Handler who played jolly Harry on Sex and the City). He starts out with the seemingly decent life, marriage and job. But, even he can't resist the allure of the LA lifestyle.

Could Californication become the Sex and the City of Showtime? I think so! The writing is clever, the situations are funny and not predictable and the characters are interesting, whether you like them or not. Go into Californication knowing little or nothing about it. Don't read any reviews, do not pass go. Get it at Netflix, Hollywood or Rain Video. Insert and press play. After six episodes, let me know if you concur or think I'm a creep.

Themes: LA life, adultery, sex, parent-child relationships, writer's block

Director and writer: various

Country: US

Genre: Dram-Com Series

Minutes: Each episode approximately 30 minutes

Scale: 5