Saturday, March 31, 2007

Expecting the Unexpected

Who would have thought that a movie about a man who loses his family on 9/11 could ever bring more laughter than tears? I definitely didn't, but Reign Over Me definitely has some laugh-out-loud moments. Thankfully, though, the comedic moments never once make light of the tragedy.

Adam Sandler plays Charlie Fineman, a 9/11 widower whose family was aboard one of the planes. In another life, far separated from the one he leads now, he was a successful dentist, a happy man, and a good friend. Now he's simply a mess. The always wonderful Don Cheadle plays Alan Johnson, Charlie's former college roommate. While Charlie has lost everything, Alan seems to have everything--the successful dental practice, a beautiful family, and wonderful home. When Alan happens upon Charlie one night on the street, a wonderful relationship begins to blossom. Both Charlie and Alan need each other more than they know. Charlie needs a person to escape with him, someone who didn't know him when he was a family man. Alan needs someone with whom he can be wild and irresponsible just to escape the overwhelming responsibilities of his life.

I could talk about how much I love Don Cheadle for days, but I'm going to keep it short and sweet. Don Cheadle is such a great character actor as well as a leading man. He plays comedy well; he plays drama like a champ, and that kind of versatility really shines in this film. Cheadle successfully shows both a man desperate for change who relishes in the freedom of irresponsibility as well as a man who can't let go of all that responsibility.

One critic said Adam Sandler's performance was like his Billy Madison character on a sedative. I beg to differ. I've always been impressed with Sandler's serious turns, and Reign Over Me is no different. Charlie is a man so deeply depressed that he's past knowing anything is wrong. He'd rather forget his family ever existed than deal with the fact they no longer exist. With every silly thing he does and every violent outburst, Charlie's pain always shows. Sandler may be great with pratfalls and funny voices, but he does destructive and depressed equally well.

I know that this story is ultimately about Charlie and his coming to terms with reality, but I really wish Mike Binder had explored Alan's story a little more. At the beginning of the film, Alan's burden of responsibilities is well-established, but then the story takes a third-row seat to Charlie's larger issues. Jada Pinkett-Smith, as Alan's wife, only gets about 15 minutes of screen time, and the majority of it is spent in the kitchen. I got closure in the Charlie-Alan storyline, but I didn't get the closure I was hoping in the Alan-family story. That aside, I really enjoyed Reign Over Me.

Some people may be turned off by the laugh-out-loud comedy sprinkled with tissue-grabbing drama, but I thought it really worked. People deal with tragic circumstances in many different ways, and it's comforting to find that writer-director Mike Binder wasn't afraid of to make his characters laugh, cry, get angry, and just try to live.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Lost Gems of the 80s, Part 1

If you are a true friend of mine, you understand the glory that is the Teen Eighties Movie genre. Anyone who was a preteen, teenager, or young adult during this glorious decade understands what goes into making a perfect 80s Film. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it, and you guiltily relish in the pleasure of seeing these campy masterpieces.

Mostly everyone knows the true classics of the decade: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Goonies, The Breakfast Club, and Fast Times at Ridgmont High to name a few, but there are some obscure ones out there worth mentioning. These movies hold a soft spot in the hearts of a few, but if brought up in a conversation, most “regular” people have never heard of them. I’m here to attempt to change that. Prepare to jot these down and take the list to your nearest video rental place—whether it be online or in store—because if you’re a lover of the 80s, you should see these movies.

For those who are short on time (or attention span), I'm splitting the list into three parts. Please feel free to put in your two cents and let me know about your lesser-known favorites from the decade of neon colors and choreographed prom dance routines.

Just One of the Guys (1985)
One of the many role reversal movies of the decade, Just One of the Guys stars Joyce Hyser as Terry Griffiths, a beautiful girl who’s convinced her good looks keep her from being taken seriously as a journalist. When one of her articles doesn’t make it into a journalism contest, she decides to switch schools and go undercover as a boy so she can re-enter her article there. She only intends to stay a boy for a couple of weeks, but of course, craziness ensues, and Terry must play, um, Terry for the remainder of the school year.

Unlike Hilary Swank, who was quite convincing as a boy, not even in a heartbeat, would I ever believe Hyser as a guy. But of course, everyone at the new school is completely convinced that this girlie-man Terry is the real deal, including the over-sexed girl who develops a crush and the guy who becomes the best bud. Yes, yes, we all know how the movie will end, but it’s still great fun just watching all the high jinx that get us there.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985)
Helen Hunt, Sarah Jessica Parker, and more dancing than anyone should be asked to handle. This movie is a teen girl’s dream.

Parker plays Janey, the new girl in town who wants nothing more than to be a dancer. When the hit show “Dance TV” holds auditions for two new dancers, Janey wants it more than anyone in the world. With the help of her wild child friend Lynne (Hunt), Janey goes behind her military father’s back and tries out for the show. She’s paired with hot, athletic, motorcycle-riding Jeff (Lee Montgomery). Instant attraction isn't so instant, but soon Jeff and Janey grow a little closer every night Janey sneaks out to practice what is sure to be the hottest routine anyone has ever seen.

Girls has everything from Catholic schoolgirl jokes to bad boys from the wrong side of the tracks to punk freaks who crash parties, and even the quintessential redeeming moment between father and daughter happens right on cue. This movie is tons of fun and is chocked full of cheesy slow motion dance moves. Hunt’s Lynne, Jonathan Silverman’s Drew, and a young Shannen Doherty as Jeff’s younger sister have some great, albeit corny, on screen chemistry--always a bonus!

SpaceCamp (1986)
On January 28, 1986, the Challenger explosion devastated my world. When I was seven years old, I wanted to be a part of NASA more than anything else, and seeing those astronauts lose their lives that day was really hard for me. Not until 1988, two years after its release, did I see a movie that fueled my NASA dreams all over again.

SpaceCamp is a fantastical family adventure starring Kate Capshaw as Andie and Tom Skerrit as her husband Zach. Zach and Andie are both astronauts, but definitely not of equal standing. While Zach gets the pleasure of going into space, Andie is stuck on Earth teaching at NASA’s space camp. The campers she encounters her first summer on the job include a smart and rowdy bunch: Kevin (Tate Donovan), the resident horn ball; Tish (Kelly Preston), an idiot savant of sorts; Kathryn (Lea Thompson), the headstrong one who longs to be a pilot; scientist-in-training Rudy (Larry B. Scott); and the very young, head-in-the-clouds Max (Joaquin Phoenix back when he was Leaf). While testing the booster rockets aboard a real shuttle, the team is blasted into space accidentally. Andie may have wanted to go up in space, but definitely not with a bunch of kids.

Scary things happen up there miles above the Earth, but unlike that horrific moment in January of 1986, this movie has a child-pleasing happy ending. See it for the dreams it evokes, or just see it for the future stars of the 90s.

The Boy Who Could Fly (1986)
The Boy Who Could Fly deals with heavier subjects than most other 80s teen movies-- suicide, autism, and alcoholism, but even when I was at an age where few of these things made sense to me, I still adored this movie. It was like E.T. without the scary little alien.

Jay Underwood plays Eric Gibb, an autistic boy who lives with his alcoholic uncle Hugo (played by the legendary Fred Gwynne). Eric soon forms a very close bond to Milly (Lucy Deakins), the new girl next door who's recently lost her father to suicide. Milly knows Eric is a special person but doesn't realize how much so until after a couple of unexplainable events bring her think Eric might actually be able to fly.

Even though this sounds like sci-fi, this film is firmly planted in reality. It depends heavily on the dreams of young people who want to escape their lives. I found myself wanting to believe this boy could really fly. But, because I was a harshly realistic child at times, I also kept waiting for the moment my dreams, along with his, would be dashed. With many somber scenes, some involving mean-spirited high-schoolers and others involving rather archaic institutional practices, the film comes dangerously close to some serious dream dashing. Even with all that seriousness, the conclusion, though eerily evocative of E.T., brings warmth to my heart and a tear to my eye every time.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

What's in a Name?

I may not be an Indian immigrant, or an immigrant at all, but the story of the Ganguli family penetrated me beyond superficial means. I'm still feeling the emotional tug of The Namesake a day later, and I'm sure when I talk about it in weeks to come, I'll feel that tug again. It is one of those movies that fully reminds me why I love movies so much.

The Namesake tells the story of Ashoke, Ashima, and Gogol Ganguli. It begins in 1974 Calcutta where Ashoke is traveling by train to see his grandfather. Tragedy befalls him, setting Ashoke on a course of events that will bring him to marry Ashima, move with her to New York, and raise two children there. As the children grow, the story shifts to Gogol, their oldest son, and his life as an Indian-American attempting to assimilate into American culture.

Not once did I feel like I was watching actors playing parts. I experienced a complete suspension of disbelief and felt completely engrossed in the story of the Gangulis. Indian actress Tabu's portrayal of Ashima, the matriarch of the family, fixated me more than any other. I cried with her and laughed with her as she found her place as an Bengali woman living in the United States. Her reactions were appropriately subtle and stark when necessary. She radiated with a certain loneliness in parts of the movie that honestly brought a tear to my eye almost every time she was on screen. And, of course, when talking about acting, I have to talk about Kal Penn.

The first movie I ever saw Kal Penn in was National Lampoon's Van Wilder in which he played the ever-attentive assistant to Van. The second movie I saw him in was actually his first film--a short produced at AFI about an Indian family stranded out in the desert. It was this film that made me worry less about his ability to take on a serious role. And just so you know, he doesn't disappoint. Penn plays Nikhil "Gogol" Ganguli with grace. It's wonderful to watch him grow from a teenager who wants nothing do with his Indian roots to a young architect trying to find himself when he's battling the traditions of his parents and the allure of American modernity. Gogol's disconnection and eventual acceptance of his family and culture is absolutely profound.

Though the acting is what carries the film, I cannot forget the overall look. If you haven't seen any of Mira Nair's work, you should. With a strong balance between India and New York, she has such an eye for beauty in everything from people to nature to architecture. When the family travels to see the Taj Mahal, I felt the impact of its importance, and I longed to be standing there with them taking in such a magnificent sight. A simple fall day in the suburbs of New York made me feel warm all over for days spent playing in the yard with my friends when I was little.

I haven't read the book, but Sooni Taraporevala's script is rewarding and a great commentary on how we must all find ourselves. The Namesake is packed full of story spanning 30 years, so it doesn't dig deep into any one character and the jumps in time can be a little jarring. Overall, though, the story is a satisfying epic about the evolution of a family through love, grief, and acceptance.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

It's Mini-Review Time

I thought I would steal an idea from K8, and give you a few mini reviews. Most of these are from my Netflix reviews, so they are short and sweet with very little explanation. Sometimes, that's what people are looking for in a review. Enjoy! :)

Open Water
I just saw this little gem last night. If you couldn't handle Jaws, I suggest you not run out and rent this one. It's like Jaws, The Blair Witch Project, and a little sprinkling of student film work all wrapped up into one. The sharks are real, and they are way freakier than any mechanical thing I've ever seen. I commend Chris Kentis and his wife Laura Lau, the filmmaking team, for taking two years of weekends and holidays to make this low budget thriller, I just wish the stuff that took place away from the ocean had been as interesting as the knot-in-my-stomach thriller that was going on in the ocean.

Marie Antoinette
Beautiful cinematography, beautiful costumes, interesting first half hour...then it all goes downhill. This film is a disjointed romp around France at best. Sofia Coppola has an interesting filmmaking style that seems to focus more on characters and not on any particular storyline. Though it works for her in Lost in Translation, it just comes off as an overproduced music video with this film.

If you're into noir, see this movie. If you're not, you might want to skip it. I gotta say, for the first half hour, the movie was losing me, but then I got used to the noir-ish speech patterns, and I started to really get into it. Plus, seeing Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas playing off each other was a treat in itself!

Sam Mendes' films can always be described as subtle. American Beauty is intense without shouting. Road to Perdition is breathtaking without slapping you in the face. Jarhead is touching and heart-wrenching all at the same time. When you can watch a war movie about a war that lasted only a heartbeat and walk out of the theatre feeling a little tired from the experience, you know you've watched a solid film. There is an amazing moment when Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) is branded, and...I kid you not...I haven't felt so proud that I was moved to tears since I watched Norma Rae.

The Constant Gardener
This had a really slow start--slow start in the sense of too artsy for its own good slow. It was like "look at the pretty landscapes for awhile and we'll get to the story eventually," but about 45 minutes in, I was completely hooked and extremely happy to have all the immense build up. This movie tore at me like Hotel Rwanda. I was angry at the big, bad companies, angry at the people who turned a blind eye, and especially angry at this dead woman who didn't think her husband could handle knowing her real life. I felt for Justin (Ralph Fiennes) so much because he was so alone and didn't get to know his wife (Rachel Weisz, who won an Oscar for this role), but he still loved her enough to risk his life to find out what happened and why. It's harsh and brutal and extremely descriptive at times, but all around a powerful piece.

Usually, I'm completely anti sophomoric comedies. This one is really no different. I definitely give the movie on a whole only 2.5 stars out of 5, BUT there is one scene that made me laugh so hard I probably cried a little. It's the robot fight scene. Yep, robot fight scene. Except it's not between two robots--it's between a mime and a guy making fun of the mime. I promise, if it's on TV, and you see the characters standing outside the Louvre, keep watching for at least five minutes!!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Obsession that is Zodiac

In my Out of the Late Winter Slump blog, I talked about Zodiac, saying that "even though this looks like a run-of-the-mill serial killer film, it is directed by David Fincher (the man behind Fight Club and Seven). That name alone makes me interested." And now that I've seen it, I must say that if you're a fan of David Fincher. See. This. Movie.

Looks can be deceiving, though. The trailers make this film look like some high suspense thriller, but it's not. It's an intelligent, intriguing study of obsession. Not the obsession of a faceless serial killer, but the obsession of the three men trying to find him is what this story truly revolves around.

First, there's Inspector David Toschi, played by Mark Ruffalo, an SFPD officer who gets so wrapped up in finding this man that he visits one of the crime scenes every year. When Toschi finds the man he's sure to be Zodiac, he looks for any way to get the warrants he needs to bring him to trial. But when Toschi, his partner, (played by the quietly wonderful Anthony Edwards), and a host of other policemen can't find enough proof, the devastation on the detective's face is utterly heartbreaking.

The second obsessive player is Robert Downey, Jr's crime reporter Paul Avery. Avery, at first, is simply interested in a good story, but quickly he finds himself chasing leads and corrupting evidence in order to get his answers. From now until eternity, Downey Jr. will always be typecasted as the addict, but I must say, he does play it so well. His Avery is equally cynical and intellectual, as well as dysfunctional and amusing.

The third--and most intriguing--obsessed man is Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Graysmith is a cartoonist for The San Francisco Chronicle who goes from mere interest in the Zodiac's codes to all out unhealthy craving for the truth. He begins as a timid man who looms over Avery's desk to being Avery's go-to guy for working out the details of Zodiac's mysteriousness. As years pass, Avery and Toschi soon find an acceptable peace with the unsolved case, but Graysmith can't let it go. Even if he can't arrest the Zodiac, he must know who is behind the illusive killer.

The story of these three men, especially Graysmith (upon whose book the film is based), is what grabs you when you see this movie, not the murder scenes. You're along for the ride with these guys, half hoping they'll find who they're looking for, and half hoping they stop before it ruins them for good.

If you're looking for a happy ending, you're not going to get it here. There's no made-up-for-the-movies ending where the cops catch the bad guy just as he's about to allude them for the umpteenth time. (Sorry if I ruined anything for you, but history will tell you that the Zodiac case is still unsolved.) What you will get from Zodiac is a fully satisfying film with an ending that might bring you the peace you've been hoping for the entire 160 minutes.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Al Gore's Truth

"This is not a political issue; this is a moral issue."

Al Gore's words have been repeated many, many times since the release of his documentary An Inconvenient Truth. But Mr. Gore, no matter what you want to make yourself believe or make other people believe, it is most definitely a political issue.

If this movie had been about a little known scientist traveling around the globe spreading his message about Global Warming, then I might be convinced that it's not a political issue. Alas, the existence or non-existece of Global Warming is not argued over Bunsen burners and test tubes, it's argued over podiums and in well-furnished offices while the press corps watches with bated breath.

I say all this because unlike any other film I've reviewed, I cannot convince nor deter anyone from seeing An Inconvenient Truth simply by talking about it. This movie is so fully political that you will only see it if you support it. Well...unless you want to watch it so you can alternately laugh or yell at the screen. But this blog isn't for political talk, it's for movie talk, and no matter how politically minded I may be, I would like to keep my politics out of my movies, thank you very much.

So, on a completely theatrical standpoint, An Inconvenient Truth is like a dramatic Power Point presentation. There are pretty pictures and interesting graphics along with perfectly placed graphs all serving as a backdrop to Al Gore, with his slight Tennessee drawl, explain his message and the passion he has for spreading it. It's not boring, as most would think when listening to Mr. Gore speak for 90 minutes; although, it's not all that spectacular either.

The purpose of the film is not to only get out Gore's message but to also tell the story of man who wants to get out his message. At certain points, the film takes a detour from Global Warming and spends time in Gore's personal life. We learn about the near fatal accident one of his children experienced. We learn about him growing up in Carthage, Tenn. as well as in Washington, D.C. Director Davis Guggenheim does a decent job of observing Gore while he travels from city to city with his presentation. Nothing seems staged (besides the presentation of course), and I never feel like the film is beating me over the head. Seriously, I'm not kidding. I never once felt Guggenheim took a side on this issue; I really felt he was just showing us a journey. And for that, I'll give An Inconvenient Truth a luke warm 3 out of 5 stars.

Just so everyone is clear, my review of
An Inconvenient Truth has nothing to do with how I feel about the subject matter. I know that most people who support Gore give the movie high marks while those who don't support him give the movie low marks. DO NOT LUMP ME IN WITH THOSE PEOPLE. I created this blog because I wanted to review films for their theatrical value. If I review the subject matter of every documentary I watch without commenting on the presentation, that wouldn't be a review of the value of the film, would it? I voted for Al Gore in 2000, but that doesn't have any effect on how I feel about the production of this film. Thank you for your time and attention.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

God as Documentary

I was raised as a Catholic. Father Arnold, the priest at my church, always told me that questioning your religion brings you to a stronger faith. Well, Father Arnold neglected to tell me about Evangelicals (or charismatic Christians as they like to be called). The only questions these people have is why you're not as strong a believer as they are.

Jesus Camp is not meant to anger anyone or convert anyone. It's simply there to educate you about the Kids of Fire Camp, the children who attend, and the woman who runs it. I watched this documentary with an open mind, but I was still waiting for the gauntlet to fall, waiting for the filmmakers to make fun of these children who believe so heartily in the power of Holy Spirit that they cry on a regular basis as they pray. It never happened. The feeling the viewer gets from this film is completely dependent on the viewer. If you are a hard-core Christian, the movie will empower you. If you are a moderate Christian, the movie might spark healthy debate. If you're in no way religious, the movie will scare the bejesus out of you.

In a truly un-Christian turn on my part, I must say that the highlight of the movie was when 12-year-old Levi, one of the subjects of the doc, attends service at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. where Ted Haggard is leading the congregation. If Mr. Haggard had never admitted to "sexual immorality" or drug abuse, this would've just been another moment in the movie, but listening to this man preach the word of God and talk about how to be a good Christian honestly just seemed a little creepy. I couldn't help but wonder how Levi felt the day Pastor Ted publicly announced his sins and stepped down in November of last year.

If you like documentaries, check out Jesus Camp. If you've always been curious about the Religious Right, watch Jesus Camp. It's educational and well-done...if not just a teensy bit scary.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

It's in the Numbers

Jim Carrey is not a bad actor. He's not an incredible actor, but he's not a bad actor. Jim Carrey is the kind of actor, when it comes to drama at least, that begs for a great director. He's a comedian by nature, and he needs a good amount of direction to produce quality dramatic roles. Unfortunately, Joel Schumacher is not a great director. He's simply a good one. He's directed great movies (Falling Down), good movies (The Lost Boys), and oh-my-God-give-me-my-money-back-you-awful-man movies (The Phantom of the Opera). I believe The Number 23 falls into the good movie category. And it's mostly due to the pretty good but not great storyline combined with the pretty good but not great acting done by Jim Carrey and Virginia Madsen.

The Number 23 is half paranoid drama and half film noir. Walter Sparrow (Carrey) is a dog catcher who lives a quiet life with his wife and son. When, on his birthday, his wife Agatha (Madsen) gives him a tattered book, he immediately becomes obsessed with the main character, claiming the author is writing about his life. Throughout the movie, Walter becomes more obsessed with the number 23 and begins to drag his family into the twisted theories invading his mind. The weird story culminates into an interesting reveal that seems to be satisfying but falls quickly into the mundane.

As Walter reads the mysterious novel, the audience gets treated to a little film noir as the story's characters come to life. Carrey transforms from everyman Walter into the dark, slick Detective Fingerling. Madsen goes from bakery owner to the masochistic sexpot Fabrizia. The cinematography gets harsher (and much cooler), and the dialogue transforms into that slightly melodramatic, clipped wording that is oh-so-familiar to noir. Even though hints of Schumacher's Batman and Robin kept sneaking in, this was the best part of the movie for me. Carrey, as Fingerling, has some good comedic--albeit dark--moments. There were a few times where I muffled a laugh because of some absurdly funny moment. I actually found myself wanting to spend more time with Fingerling and less time with Walter.

All and all, The Number 23 is a three star movie. Jim Carrey's voiceover is awkwardly serious and feels forced at points. Virginia Madsen is pretty good, but not nearly as good as she was in Sideways. Overall, the story was decent, and the ending was somewhat satisfying, but I'm sure come December, I will have forgotten all about this movie.