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Starter for 10 (2006)
Perhaps a minority opinion, and I can't really explain my antipathy
I can't begin to explain why this film hit me the way it did, but I truly hated it as much as any in recent memory. I love the genre, and had never heard of the actors before this film, so I had no personal bias against any of them. But every minute of watching it made me feel cheated out of that 60 seconds.
This was the first I'd seen of James McAvoy, who I'll admit has never done a movie I've liked (I think "Wanted" is one of the three worst superhero movies I've ever seen), and I did want to like him and his character. But all I wanted to do was slap him, hard and repeatedly.
Every teen in the film is a glaring cliché, but mostly from mainstream films. Maybe the idea was to fill an art-house-aimed title with such clichés in hopes that few members of its audience patronized mainstream teen fare and therefore wouldn't be aware of all the contrivances. But even if you haven't seen a teen romantic comedy-drama since "Footloose", you're sure to pick up on many of the components of the standard high-concept formula of "Working class good guy misguided into falling for wealthy, self-centered beauty, discovers her shortcomings and his own in the process, realizes that ugly-duckling-turned-swan is who he should really care about, etc." As for the device that drives the hackneyed plot, it's a high-minded TV trivia competition for university co-eds rather than a sporting event, but otherwise all the usual ingredients are here. Somehow, though, they manage to work even more poorly in this film than in many Hollywood fluff pieces.
Again, this critique is a lot more visceral than intellectual, but much as I hate to borrow from Roger Ebert, "I really, really, really HATED this movie!"
Curious George (2006)
An 8 out of 10 for me, an old-timer. And a 9 or 10 for pre-teen viewers.
For three years I was the program scheduler for Starz Kids, a movie and shorts channel devoted entirely to G- and extra mild PG-rated films. This means that I basically determined what went on the air and at what times of day. I hope that credential speaks for itself.
"Curious George" is, in my opinion both as an industry pro specializing in content, and as the very involved uncle of two wonderful boys, ages 5 and 3 one of the very best animated movies to come along in years.
I'll freely admit that I was drawn to the film because the animators made George so irresistibly cute, even more so than in the books, where he was still adorable. But what a breath of fresh air! First, and perhaps most notable, is that George doesn't need a voice. Like so much classic slapstick from the silent era, he elicits huge belly laughs from children and adults alike with nothing more than his physical comic antics. True, his actions are sometimes a bit fantastical, but there's no running commentary. He derives sheer joy simply from discovering new things in the world, much like so many small children who haven't yet been corrupted by the more anti-imagination media of today (video games, music videos, those hand-held devices that become mutated appendages, etc.). Every new discovery is magical, and brings a huge smile to his face just by its sheer newness. This is the same type of smile I see on children's faces that gives me some of my greatest joys in life.
So instead of sarcastic remarks, which I admit can sometimes be hilarious coming from cartoon animals, we get the same sort of innocent, sometimes mischievous, but always good-natured fun the books provided. And unlike much of the canon of Disney cartoons aimed at small children (and often, nowadays, their parents), no one dies in this film.
As for the human characters, they come off as endearing and genuine, especially the beleaguered Ted (the man in the yellow hat, now with an accompanying yellow jungle outfit) and his intended paramour, the sweet, understanding schoolteacher who takes her class on an inordinate number of field trips to the museum where Ted works. Their relationship is gradual and innocent, slowly building to their first kiss, which keeps getting interrupted by George's latest misadventure.
The voice cast is as ideal as any outside of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres in "Finding Nemo". Will Ferrell is excellent (four words I never thought I'd utter) as Ted, and Drew Barrymore perfectly cast as Maggie. Also ideally cast are Dick Van Dyke as elderly museum owner Mr. Bloomsbury, Eugene Levy as wacky mad scientist (a friendly one) Clovis, and David Cross as Bloomsbury's conniving son, a character drawn specifically to resemble Cross, who wants to turn the museum into a parking lot.
But the star, of course, is the ever-lovable, ever-hungry, ever-cooing title monkey. The filmmakers retained all of the character's sweetness and heart from the books, and while yes, the film is somewhat overrun with product placement (mainly from Dole, big shock), the end result is a children's' movie from a series of children's' books that plays to children, with their love of animals and physical comedy and their endless curiosity.
For my part, I laughed out loud repeatedly, and for an hour and a half, I was a little kid again. And even if parents won't get the same "adult" subtext they'll find in "Toy Story", "Nemo" and the like, the trade-off is 85 minutes of their time given to a movie they can truly be glad their kids are watching, laughing at and loving.
Sounds like a pretty good bargain in today's climate.
Ellie Parker (2005)
Watts is terrific, movie isn't
I'd looked forward to this one, as most attempts at satirizing Hollywood life in the last two decades, both from studios and indies, have ranged from mediocre to unmitigated disasters. This one offered Naomi Watts in a starring role, and I've adored her since "Mulholland Drive", both as a terrific, versatile actress and as an unqualified beauty (they all seem to come from Australia and the U.K. these days, don't they?).
Well, Ms. Watts does shine in the title role, and she's in every scene, but somehow the film still falls flat. I'm not a big fan of film-making on digital video -- it always comes across to me like I'm watching someone's home movies, an experience I should be paid for, not that I should have to pay for -- but I understand why it's done in certain cases. In this case, it was a mistake.
Writer-director Coffey appears to be going for verite-style realism (I'm assuming he's not so arrogant as to place himself in the uber-pretentious Dogme 95 school), but he doesn't seem to realize that in order for any film to work, the result shouldn't come across as a home movie or, in this case, a student film.
Too much time is spent on Ellie in her car, doing all the things that Angelenos do in their cars because they're just too busy to do them elsewhere (applying makeup, changing clothes, practicing their lines, and the universal asshole-identifier, talking on their cellphones) and too self-absorbed to care how it affects their driving or those around them. This works as satire for one scene -- the next four times it occurs it feels just like being stuck in a car behind one of these narcissists, and it's not an enjoyable feeling. There's a related scene about halfway through that's amusingly ironic, but not worth the endurance test.
Just as with the interior car shots, much of the satire is overripe, pushing the irritation factor of nearly every character to its limits, testing the thresholds of both humorous exaggeration and simple tolerance. No satire should leave you wanting to burn the characters and their milieu to the ground (apart from "Day of the Locust", in which Hollywood does in fact burn, deservedly, but in context).
(As an aside, and for a chuckle, this may be the first time Keanu Reeves isn't the most annoying element of a movie he's in. But then, he appears only as a member of his band Dogstar, playing in a club, and he has no lines.) The other key problem is often endemic to film satire: it moves at a snail's pace. Unless you're the rare individual who's both an struggling thespian in Hollywood AND a caring, thoughtful individual, you will probably find yourself yawning a lot more frequently than laughing during this 95 minutes.
For all its drawbacks, though, this is a showcase for Naomi Watts to show how versatile she is, with the verisimilitude of her having to switch between characters, accents, moods, etc. The overall comment, that she doesn't really seem to be herself very often and has no idea who that self really is within the realm of all her "performing," is funny and worth exploring, but Coffey (or someone else) needs a vehicle that's more engaging, clearer about its objectives, and at least somewhat watchable.
Murder by Numbers (2002)
Leopold and Loeb and Ted and Alice
All the elements are there: Two privileged teens with a latent homosexual relationship commit murder for the thrill of it, and to see if they can outsmart the law. That's L&L, as told in "Compulsion", "Rope", "Swoon" and who knows what else. Add in an angst-ridden investigator (could still be "Rope"), make her a small-town detective with a sordid past that she's trying to escape, and throw in her green partner, with whom she has an uneasy, sometimes sexual relationship, and give their relationship some heavy-handed subtext as well. Any cliches jumping out at you yet? All it needs is for the boys to have neglectful parents and for the detectives to have a commander who wants them off the case and, oh, wait, we've got that, too!
People tell me I'm too critical of today's movies. I say filmgoers aren't critical enough. I still love movies, even some Hollywood output, but I really hate it when I can watch a movie and, without even thinking much about it, recite the "high concept" pitch that the writers or producers or whoever made to the studio exec. This is the tenth movie I've seen in 2002 that's been that easy, and the message it sends is that no one in Hollywood is even bother to THINK anymore, much less be creative. And Barbet Schroeder, God bless him, was at one time a genuinely creative director, turning "Reversal of Fortune" from a bland rehash of a story, to which everyone knew the ending, that had flooded the media a few years prior, into a compelling character study by making it just that. "Murder by Numbers", on the other hand, is a by-the-numbers character study with even its subtext having been co-opted from countless films noirs and 60s and 70s psychological drama/mysteries like "Peeping Tom" and "Klute".
Even Sandy as a cop was much more convincing as her typecast "lovable klutz makes good" character in "Miss Congeniality". She still shows promise as a dramatic actress, but she hasn't realized it yet. The teens are appropriately intense, but despite all the claims the film makes, they're really not that bright, and experienced homicide cops would definitely be smarter than they are here. In this way, the film even manages to co-opt from 80s and 90s teen farces.
Basically, there's nothing new here. And if the celluloid flophouses want four times as much as they did 20 years ago for me to sit my ass in their chairs, they better be prepared to offer more than a rehash of the same stuff I watched back then.
Between the Sheets (2003)
Showbiz farce that's just plain farcical
Deluise family affair is unfortunate load of babble, with dialogue so disjointed that film is difficult to follow even when events are clear as day; this is an almost completely amateur effort, with poor writing, direction, acting; showbiz farce doesn't succeed because it's even sillier than the industry it's trying to poke fun at (and anyone who's worked in the biz knows that's no easy task); every character is made to look foolish, with the leads having the most screen time/opportunity to look this way.
Atlantic City, USA (1980)
A movie about people
I don't know if this is the masterpiece of filmmaking its biggest fans make it out to be, but as a character study of people you wouldn't want to be but who are nonetheless fascinating for the way they approach they same dreams and ambitions we all have, this is the standard bearer (along with "Local Hero", probably the only character play of the 80's better than this one).
Malle's films have always been about character over plot, but this one brings his legendary sensibility for the genre, which draws a far larger mass audience in Europe than in N. America, to a uniquely American city. And this movie is precisely about America in 1978 (when it's set), approaching recovery from the economic miasma of the 70's and the political one of the 60's, struggling under Carter but seeing a light at the end of the tunnel that ultimately proved to be a false idol (the Reagan era).
As a nine-year-old growing up in Philly in 1977, I visited A.C. on Labor Day, right before the fall and subsequent "rebirth," when the boardwalk was about freak shows, frozen custard and pizza slices as big as your face for 55 cents (and salt water taffy, which remains a staple today), and the rest of the town was about poverty, unemployment and lost hope. All right before the town became "the Vegas of the east," full of casinos and glitter and development dollars that led to, today, a seaside slum no better, and in many ways worse, than it was in '77.
This film, released at a perfect time (1981), and today the perfect retrospective film, is about the transition from despair to prosperity, with those participating totally unaware of the even greater despair to come.
It's Atlantic City, and America, 1978-1982.
8 Million Ways to Die (1986)
Tragically, this dud was a great director's final film
Sadly, this was Hal Ashby's final bow as a director.
The man who gave us "The Last Detail", "Coming Home" and "Being There" seemingly threw together this agonizing-to-sit-through hodgepodge of alcoholics, drug addicts and hookers that seems to work only as mind-numbing montage of film noir cliches. What makes it even more painful is that it's both very loud and very dull, and nothing makes any sense until the film reaches a conclusion so inevitable, you wish they would've gotten to it about 75 minutes sooner.
Low-budget goofball vignette comedy has its moments
Lowbrow, Gen-X comedy is passable time killer. The owner and employees of a Los Angeles gourmet food delivery service pursue love, career ambitions and the ultimate joint during the course of a business day. Too many stereotypes, especially one of a young, gay man that is both offensive and really annoying, but sporadically funny and loaded with comical references and homages to classic films.
A nailbiter, but not a good film
Cliche, misogynistic, very bloody -- only for hardened fans of the psycho-thriller. Ewan McGregor turns in his first disappointing performance, and Nolte seems more of a zombie than the corpses (this may have been a stylistic touch, but I'm more apt to believe his heart just wasn't in the role).
Medium Cool (1969)
Haskell Wexler, a cinematographer by trade, practically invented the technique invented we know today as "cinema verite" with this striking drama that plays so much like a documentary, you'd never guess it was fiction without being told. It's less a story and more a voyeuristic look into the lives of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, in this case reporters who are covering a political convention and other Chicago locals who are just minding their own business when the legendary riots break out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Even more groundbreaking is the approach Wexler takes in framing the film's final scenes. He had ample warning that there would potentially be some unrest at the convention, so he decided to thrust his cast right into the thick of it, sending them to the foyer and front entrance of the Chicago Convention Center and the crew right along to film the events. No one knew exactly what would happen, making this perhaps the most creative and timely piece of "improvised" drama in the history of filmmaking up to this point.
Every documentary filmmaker who chooses to make his/her film about actions and events rather than simply a bunch of talking heads owes a debt to Wexler and his creative team on "Medium Cool".