Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wide Awake (1998)

This is so unlike Shyamalan in its plot and feel if you look on the surface -- but one of Shyamalan's main themes has always been the issue of faith, of God, of how that can connect to our life down here. He just took an entire movie to explore it here, instead of having it as a sideplot to the main idea of aliens invading earth.

Joseph Cross is superb as the main child. He's possibly as brilliant as Haley Joel Osment was in Sixth Sense, but in a very different genre. He is wrestling with very serious, adult issues, and his growing discouragement is heartbreaking to watch.

Although this isn't a brilliant film, it's a solidly moving portrayal of a young boy's search for God in a world that is too busy to answer his questions. 3.5 stars.

(By the way, what is this "Rosie O'Donnell Is Hilarious!" endorsement up at the top of the box cover? Rosie O'Donnell was in it very briefly and was not terribly hilarious either time. Really, the story's about the boy, not about her at all. Terrible idea trying to market it as an uproarious family comedy.)

The American President (1995)

This movie suffers from a bizarre Annette Bening performance, a terrible script, one-dimensional characters, and a thoroughly boring plot. So what makes it 2 1/2 stars rather than something lower? Michael Douglas' performance. He takes the awkward, stilted lines he was given and somehow fleshes them out to create a character that I'm actually interested in hearing more about. Not worth watching as a whole (Dave is much better as a presidential romance movie) but his performance makes it not terrible. 2.5 stars.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

27 Dresses (2008)

Plot: After serving as a bridesmaid 27 times, a young woman wrestles with the idea of standing by her sister's side as her sibling marries the man she's secretly in love with.

A romantic comedy really only requires two things to make it work: a guy and a girl that you want to end up together. This has that. Katherine Heigl is a charming bridesmaid doormat who has never said no to anyone in her life, while James Marsden (who is rising in fame, hoorah, hoorah) is a charming cynic, and it's easy to root for the two of them to finally realize they're meant to be with each other. The movie tries to be a bit deeper than it's really able to, but plays well with concepts, hopes, and dreams that are easy to relate to and cheer on. Fairly well-done. 3.5 stars.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

John Hughes has a tendency to make pleasant, inoffensive comedies with characters you remember with fondness at the end. This is one of those. Although it does have its truly funny moments, for the most part it's merely "pleasant." There's nothing here that will really stand out in my mind a few days after seeing it. Martin and Candy do well in their roles but still can't manage to pull it above "pleasant."

John Candy's character was actually the most interesting of all. He had a surprising depth to him that, once you realized it, showed through even in the obnoxious moments. Not sure whether it was good scriptwriting or good acting or a little bit of both. 3 stars.

The Happening (2008)

Potential spoilers ahead.

This deserves nowhere NEAR the nasty reputation it got. Shyamalan's made a return to one of the things he does well - creating a creepy atmosphere, even without a very good story. Whether you buy the ending or not, the sight of people calmly and emotionlessly killing themselves is fairly chilling, and Shyamalan handles those scenes well. Although he plays with the gore more than he usually does in his films, he's still more restrained than many other modern horror filmmakers, leaving more to the imagination.

I loved the scene near the end where the two of them decide to leave their safe places to get to each other. There's a great deal of desperate romance in that scene - they know they're going to die. However, the moment directly after that, the voiceover explaining why they didn't die, was one of the sloppiest explanations EVER in the history of movies.

I don't know what people were expecting to see when they watched this, but I suspect it was, once again, The Sixth Sense. Which... it wasn't. On purpose. (Really, people. He's not trying to remake that movie. That's why his other movies aren't good remakes of it.) There *was* no big surprise. As in Signs, Shyamalan focuses on the characters and their reactions to a world gone mad more than just attempting to scare the audience. It may not succeed completely, but it's actually a really good formula for a horror movie. If we see things from the characters' perspectives, if we can get inside their skin and see what disturbs them about all this, then we'll be frightened when they're frightened. Looking at it from an objective box full of stereotypes and cliched endings, it's not that frightening a movie. But the emphasis on "these are real people in the real world" allows the movie to become much better than anyone's giving him credit for.

Effective -- flawed, but effective. 3.5 stars.

Iron Man (2008)

I am becoming more and more impressed with Robert Downey Jr.'s acting abilities. Here he plays a carefree, spontaneous genius... all without cracking a smile. He adds depth to a character that would have been completely stereotyped in the hands of any other actor. Lovely casting there.

The movie itself is thoroughly enjoyable, a fresh new superhero tale with slick action sequences. Terrence Howard's character sums up aspects of this neatly: "That is the coolest thing I've ever seen." The mechanical outfit, the battles, the schemes to escape from the villain... they all have a certain aura of cool. One of the most satisfying in the genre. 4 stars.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Magnolia (1999)

What a fascinating cast of characters. Each and every character has a back story we care about -- even the completely understated ones. (I, for one, wanted to know more about Philip Seymour Hoffman's character, a superbly, subtly acted personality.) Does the ending work, though? I'm not sure it does. It feels like it *should* mean something, but it... doesn't quite.

It's hard to deny the powerful stories told throughout the first two and a half hours, however. There's an incredibly touching moment where all the characters are singing along with a song playing on the radio. (It's much less trite than that makes it sound.) As we see each character lost in their own world, lost in their own problems and miseries, quietly singing this song, there's something very sad and poignant about that. That one scene alone would make this movie worth watching.

A great film, only an okay ending. It wasn't terrible - but it could have been so much more. 4 stars.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Well, it's not Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it's not National Treasure 2, either. It shines with the heritage of the Indiana Jones stories, willing to let Indiana show his age (it has, after all, been nearly thirty years since the last Indy installment was made), but still giving him all the heroism he had in his earlier stories. Shia LaBeouf puts in a good performance as Indiana's teenage shadow, Mutt, and even gets a few slick action sequences of his own.

The Indiana Jones saga has always been willing to play with the mystical and supernatural. Whether it's the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant melting people's faces off, or the Holy Grail that can age people super quickly, there's never been a hesitancy to jump into a realm that for most movies would send it into a sci-fi/fantasy realm. The same holds true here. From early on in the movie, it is clear that we are heading into another tale involving things humans cannot explain or understand, but somehow in Indiana's world, we're okay with it. (I had to smile, however, when Indy claims that "there's always another explanation." Really? There wasn't for the ark...) While it's not the smoothest of the series' plots, it plays fair.

The action sequences are slick, smooth, and lots of fun. I am not a fan of action sequences, but these managed to draw me in. The swordfight on top of the side-by-side cars was a highlight.

Where does this fall in the series? I liked it significantly better than the very-disappointing Temple of Doom, but this is far from being a classic. It's a well-made, fun, fairly mindless action movie that is well worth watching but probably not worth buying. 3.5 stars.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Youth Without Youth (2007)

Francis Ford Coppola and I clearly have very different ideas about meaning in movies. I have now seen three or four films by him and have been left feeling empty and confused by each one. Let me start off by saying, I am *not* a fan of The Godfather, parts one, two or three. If I worked I could admire the craft, but overall I couldn't see what it was saying or why it did why it did. Call me blind to good taste, but apparently it's a reaction that continues to be true for all Coppola movies. I next saw his short film "Life With Zoe" in the collection "New York Stories." Pleasant, but I had no idea what meaning it held. And now Youth Without Youth, whose complicated plot runs through several different possible themes before ending with a shot that made me think, "Wait... Now... wait... WHAT just happened?" I felt it lacked cohesiveness and, judging from the other comments here on Flixster, it's not just me not "getting" Coppola.

Several moments feel like they were deliberately wooden. A character falls to the ground, and it's as if she is a mechanical toy that just goes stiff and topples over. Dialogue us unbelievably stilted. Every time philosophizing is done, the whole film screeches to a halt as "deep points" are made, and then the film continues as if nothing has happened. It didn't bring me to a greater awareness of the movie, however, as it could have done - instead, it made the entire thing feel amateurish, done by a student who wants to make a "great film" in the style of the masters, and just ends up pushing together a lot of moments that could make a movie meaningful, and then releasing it, convinced it's going to go down in history as utter brilliance. Sorry, Francis. It doesn't look like anyone, including me, thinks this is the next Godfather. 2 stars.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Notre-Dame de Paris (1999)

This show was clearly hoping for the international success of Les Miserables. At least one problem, however, was that the lyrics translated into English on the cast recording are TERRIBLE. I was relieved to hear the much more beautiful French lyrics when I watched this film.

That aside, this is really a very gripping musical. Garou is less "aww, a hunchback!" than many productions. He's pretty darn ugly, with a less-than-silky-smooth voice to match it. This means that the way we connect with him is most likely much closer to the way we're supposed to - we feel bad for him, but we really don't want him to be hanging around us all that often. His song "Dieu qe le monde est injuste," which comes across as just whiny in the English recording, here is poignant - the protest of a desperate man who feels he has always been on God's bad side.

I was especially struck by Daniel Lavoie's portrayal of Frollo. Starting off as unflinchingly rigid and slowly degenerating into a a crazed man filled with lust, he is at his best when he is caught in between- in the song "Belle," he finds himself drawn to Esmeralda but maintains a safe distance, only able to bring himself to long from afar. Great performance.

The dancers are a bit much. They fill nearly every scene, filling the stage with chaos that isn't always warranted. The gimmicky stage is also unneeded. "Tu vas me detruire," with its cathedral columns spinning to crush Frollo, was just silly, awkward and totally unnecessary.

Staging aside, though, the music is compelling, the performances are fantastic, and the lyrics are much much better in French than they are in English. Worth watching if you enjoy musicals and don't mind subtitles! 4 stars.