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A premise with potential
This show looks to have a lot of potential going for it. A cross-country race involving a bunch of people you wouldn't expect to find in a situation like this. At the very least it offers Nathan Fillion a vehicle (no pun intended) to do what he does, and it reintroduces the world to the great Charles Martin Smith, who all but dropped off the face of the earth.
The story goes that a bunch of uber-wealthy players organized a cross-country road race during the beginning of the 20th century. People would be chosen at random to race. And ever since this race has been going on right under our noses.
This particular race involves an interesting mix. There's a landscaper from Nebraska whose wife has been kidnapped and the revenge-minded stow-away who ends up being his partner. There's the desperate young mother from Ohio who's looking to get away from an abusive husband. There's the dying astrophysicist and his oblivious daughter who drive out from California to the Florida Keys so he can live one last time. There's the two Latino half-brothers from different sides of the tracks bonding for the first time. There's the young married couple from Arkansas, one of whom is a reservist in the army on leave from Iraq. And there's the three sassy ladies from New Orleans. And apparently they are all in a certain situation that makes them perfect candidates.
The first two hours focused most of the time between the landscaper and the abused mother, with a peppering of brothers and father-daughter drama to spice it up.
The always good Dylan Baker and Melanie Lynsky are looking to do the best they can with their roles. I'm a little bit surprised to see Baker doing something as action-packed as this, which includes one scene where he leaves his competition in the dust. I fear his character won't be long for this show, since he has a terminal illness, and is only credited as a guest player.
Overall an intriguing concept, and one that was bond to get made at some point. Given some of the formulas that make TV shows hits, there's not much reason why this shouldn't get a little notice. I don't know if it's the sort of show that will be terribly missed should Fox do what it is famous for, and cancel it, but I wish it the best, if for no other reason than they decided to give Charles Martin Smith a steady role as the enigmatic Mr. Bright. Indeed, unless they're in a high-speed chase, his scenes stand out as some of the best.
El laberinto del fauno (2006)
Absolutely the Best Movie of 2006
Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro revisits the world he explored first in the awesome "The Devil's Backbone," that of the Spanish Civil War. Only this time it's 1944 and the war has just ended. Only a few rebel groups are left to be defeated by Franco's army. The story here is set at one of the rural outposts where militia forces occupy the forest near an old mill.
Ivana Baquero is Ofelia, a ten-year-old girl who travels with her pregnant mother to meet her stepfather, the sadistic Captain Vidal, who cares only about two things: that his son be born at the mill, and that he fulfill his duty and put down the uprising.
Ofelia's only friend is Mercedes ("Y tu mama tambien"'s Maribel Verdu), a serving girl who is feeding information to the rebels. After figuring out who she is, Ofelia agrees to keep her secret because she likes Mercedes, and fears Captain Vidal.
To escape the violence, Ofelia loses herself among fairies and a faun who resides in an ancient labyrinth behind the mill. The faun (played by Doug Jones of Del Toro's "Hellboy") explains to Ofelia that she is a princess who must complete three tasks in order to prove that she isn't mortal, and can be admitted back to her kingdom.
The first of her missions is to destroy an obese frog who has burrowed inside a giant fig tree and is killing it. The scene is pretty funny, but every time she goes on one of these missions she gets berated by her mother, who seems to be even more afraid of Vidal than anyone else.
Del Toro masterfully interweaves the real and surreal elements of the story, balancing them perfectly to create a flawless mix of real tension and magic. She must contend with her mother's worsening condition in pregnancy, and Vidal's growing impatience with her presence at the mill. The rebels know the terrain, but Vidal's men are better equipped, and more fierce. The violence in the movie is quite graphic and heart-wrenching.
Sergi Lopez, as Captain Vidal, should take up residence as one of the great villains of cinema. Lopez imbues in Vidal the kind of humanity that seemed absent in Eduardo Noriega's Jacinto from "Backbone". As such he is a much scarier person. Vidal is the son of a military man who died in the line of duty. His only wish is to follow in his father's footsteps. But first, he must have a son to follow in his. And for this he has no room to care much for Ofelia, or her ailing mother, so long as his son is delivered.
As the other great villain of the movie, Del Toro gives us the Pale Man, a murderous white creature (also Doug Jones) with eyes in his hands and long sharp claws. In his banquet hall there are paintings of him with piles of dead children mounted around him. Truly a menacing figure. His memory is not easy to shake.
This often-shocking film is certainly not for small fry--it would surely give them nightmares--but it is an odyssey that must be seen to be believed. Drawing from a number of fairy tales, Del Toro has created an original work that goes far to become in my opinion the best movie I have seen this year, and certainly Del Toro's masterwork.
The Fountain (2006)
The most visually stimulating movie of the year
Okay, I'm not one of those people who loves to hype up a movie, and considering the mixed reviews this one's received, there isn't, I suppose, much risk of people taking what I say too seriously.
That said, and in all seriousness, this is a fantastic piece of cinema! Darren Aronofsky, one of the most visually gifted directors working today, has created a masterwork so radically different from his previous two forays into the medium that comparing this to either his debut, "Pi," or "Requiem for a Dream" would be unfair to what this has to offer on its own. Granted, it also means that just because you liked those movies doesn't mean you'll like this one.
Aronofsky has created a complex, time-tripping story about love, obsession, life, death, and rebirth. Tom Creo is a man floating through space, with a tree, toward a dying star in the far future. He is a present day doctor who is searching for a way to reverse the effects on a chimp named Donovan, in the hope that the same can be done for his wife Izzy. He also imagines himself the protagonist in his wife's journal of a Conquistador who is sent to New Spain (Guatemala) during the Spanish Inquisition by Queen Isabella, with the mission of finding the Tree of Life.
Cutting back and forth in time, through present and future and past, and leaving much unanswered, it is not the story itself that is important, the the themes at work here.
Hugh Jackman gives the best dramatic performance I have seen b a lead actor all year. Something of a control freak, he goes to pieces when the one absolute - death - takes his wife from him.
Rachel Weisz is the innocent, his opposite and equal, who is a bit of a free spirit. She prefers to leave things to fate. She conveys the fragile but fearless existence of Izzy, and the commanding vulnerability of the Queen of Spain.
Ellen Burstyn and Aronofsky favorite Mark Margolis in particular offer great support to the two stars, as do Cliff Curtis, Ethan Suplee, and Stephen McHattie, as the Grand Inquisitor. But it is Jackman who shines the brightest, and Weisz who seals the deal.
This, more than anything, is a film about ideas, and Aronofsky does a masterful job of showing these ideas unravel.
P.S. There is a small twist with regard to the Tree of Life, but this movie isn't about twists.
Casino Royale (2006)
James Bond for the 21st Century
After all the controversy Daniel Craig has proved his mettle as a Bond for the new generation of moviegoers.
Darker, more realistic in tone, "Casino Royale" is the long-awaited adaptation of Ian Fleming's first book chronicling the adventures of 007, everyone's favorite British superspy. If it weren't for the necessity of introducing the spy as though he never existed, I don't know if Craig, a fine actor in his own right, would have been so impressionable had he been in just the next in the long-running franchise. That they quite explicitly are starting over, makes more sense in terms of who Bond is and what he's about.
The film is less humorous than other movies, but a lot of the humor does stem from the sly references to the long-standing, immediately recognizable facets of what makes Bond Bond. "Shaken or stirred?" "Does it look like I give a damn?" Vesper Lynd in her introduction to Bond "I'm the Money." "And worth every Penny." Craig, in addition to turning in one of the best post-Connery Bonds, is, like Connery, an actor with considerable range. He's also got a bit of a following already. He's still a womanizer who, in this case, fancies married women, who are by nature lonely and dependent on their spouses. Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) is, in this case, everything Bond dislikes about women: cold, confident, and single--in essence, she is exactly like him. A great scene transpires where they analyze each other's character based on first impressions, nailing several qualities about each other that is symbolic of things to come. Thankfully, the scriptwriters did not have to go far to make Vesper a modern woman, as Fleming's own description of her was that she was beautiful with brains.
Mads Mikkelsen, ever the character actor, imbues the treacherous Le Chiffre with all sorts of eccentricities. Asthmatic, with an eyelid that weeps blood, he is also seen as a pawn in a much larger game. Desperate for money, and with investors out for blood, he is prepared to do whatever it takes to stay in their good graces.
The action scenes are exciting and full of amazing stuntwork, especially in the beginning, when Bond pursues a bomb-maker through a construction site. Non-actor Sebastien Foucan does some amazing acrobatic stuntwork, slipping his tall body through vents and making enormous vaults and leaps, where Bond has to improvise quite heavily to catch up with him.
Most of the movie is spent trying to figure out who James Bond is. And we are left satisfied. If the movie seems to drag a little too long, it is worth it, just to hear him say the most famous line of the whole franchise.
While Brosnan's suave portrayal of Bond as a dinosaur of the Cold War period worked well, here Craig gives us a man more atuned to modern cynicism and vulnerability, when the enemy is more elusive.
The Departed (2006)
As an avid fan of the original "Infernal Affairs" I can say this one just about equals it. Borrowing a premise and a few memorable scenes, it creates an original vision by substituting the Irish gangs of South Boston for the Chinese mob of the first film.
Jack Nicholson, as mob boss Frank Costello, creates an honestly larger-than-life character. A monster who chews scenery as only Jack could. The first scenes feature a younger Costello, roaming his neighborhood in the mid '80s, and help set the pace of the entire movie as he recruits and trains a young boy named Colin Sullivan--later to join the State Police in the form of Matt Damon.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives what is probably the film's best performance as the other side of the coin, Billy Costigan, recruited by fatherly Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his controversial colleague Sgt. Dignam (an explosive Mark Wahlberg). With few exceptions, DiCaprio has never really fit his roles (he was great in "The Aviator," but he looked too young). Here he perfectly portrays the manic, stressful situation he's been placed in as the cop infiltrating Costello's crew of thugs.
Both men end up falling for psychiatrist Madolyn (the very talented Vera Farmiga) in what feels like a Hollywood love-triangle. But given the rather low-key way it is played out, it doesn't feel too corny, despite the improbability.
Alec Baldwin offers some hilarious scene-stealing moments as Damon's superior. And British actor Ray Winstone gives a cold, menacing performance as Costello's bodyguard, Arnold French.
Scorsese's direction feels fresh, not necessarily from his style, so much as the cross-cutting style he uses feels so totally different from anything else out there recently. And his use of music, as always, works to great benefit.
The cast is absolutely stellar. William Monaghan really gives these characters depth. Jack does too. And Scorsese is at the top of his game once again.
All I will say about the ending is, I thought I'd never see a movie end this way. But to be vague, it's all tied up in the end.
Will this movie win Oscars? Maybe. It's got the acclaim, but I still wouldn't be surprised if it gets overlooked for whatever reason.
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
I give you "Alias" the movie!
From the opening frame this movie is an adrenaline rush, the perfect film to open the blockbuster season. Tom Cruise, backed by solid talent, returns as super-spy Ethan Hunt in the best entry in the franchise since he was hanging on the roof of a speeding-bullet train. With the creator of "Alias" and "Lost" at the helm, we are back in the backstabbing world of intelligence and espionage.
The movie plays largely like "Alias," with Jennifer Garner switched out for Tom Cruise, and Ron Rifkin exchanged for Philip Seymour Hoffman. And while the drama has been cut down to fit into a two-hour action flick, the human element J.J. Abrams is so handy with is still present.
Ethan Hunt has now gone into semi-retirement, training others to become members of Impossible Mission Force. He is engaged to a lovely nurse (Michelle Monaghan), and all her friends and relatives couldn't be more happy to see her finally settling down with a man who seems to be the perfect guy. But the night of his engagement party Hunt is contacted by his handler, Musgrove (Billy Crudup, at his most subtle). Apparently a former protégé of Ethan's (Keri Russell) has disappeared while following a mysterious weapons dealer, Owen Davian (Hoffman). Hunt predictably accepts the mission, and reunites with likable hacker Luther Stickell, as well as two new recruits (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Maggie Q).
I was surprised and disappointed with myself after watching. I believe I'm actually starting to let the media and gossip go to my head about Tom Cruise. Yeah, I won't deny he's a little cuckoo, but he's still a good actor, and to let that get in the way of enjoying the movie is just pathetic.
Ving Rhames, as Luther, has been promoted to full buddy/partner status. On top of keeping the junior agents in order, he remains something of a straight-man to Cruise's increasingly volatile agent. Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of those villains that are just so bad that it actually becomes fun to watch them kick the hero's ass, because you know he'll get his comeuppance in the end, but he could have used a little more screen time. And some of the best one-liners were distributed quite evenly between Simon "Shaun of the Dead" Pegg as a British version of "Alias"'s Marshall Flinkman, and Laurence Fishburne as the head of IMF. "Well I don't think it's fair that chocolate makes you fat, but I ate my share and, well..." You can always trust that Cruise will make it through, but the fun comes from watching the rest of the cast act around him, especially Rhames, Hoffman, Fishburne, and Pegg. Scientology aside, it's two quick hours that I was happy to give up.
The Ice Harvest (2005)
Make no mistake, this isn't a comedy...
I had heard this movie described as a black comedy by some. And when one thinks of Harold Ramis, they think of his ingenious work as a director of comedies. But this is a different Harold Ramis. What he has fashioned is "film noir" all the way.
John Cusack works perfectly with the material, not so much in a Humphrey Bogart kind of way as in a Fred MacMurray sort of way. He's the average guy protagonist. He just happens to be a Witchita attorney for a Kansas City political boss.
The film begins when Charlie Arglist (Cusack), with over two million in stolen cash, jumps into the car with partner-in-crime Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton). Throughout the evening Charlie encounters strip club owner Renata (Connie Nielsen) and drunken colleague Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt, his fist scene-stealer in a number of years).
The character of Pete offers some great comic relief to the story. He's Charlie's best friend, drunk on Christmas Eve. He's also married to Charlie's ex-wife, and hating it. This leads to an awkward encounter with Charlie's kids and former in-laws.
Thornton is still finding new ways of being corrupt and amoral. Connie Nielsen is a classic femme fatal in the 1940s style. Mike Starr is good as usual, playing a menacing mob enforcer. Randy Quaid does his usual best as Kansas City mobster Bill Guerarrd. And bit player Ned Bellamy, cast as a strip club bouncer with Mom issues adds some fine scenes.
This is about the most straight-forward "noir" I've seen since Lawrence Kasdan's "Body Heat," but as directed by Ramis, it feels slightly like a Coen brothers movie, with the occasional comic twists to the genre, and the casting choices of Thornton ("The Man Who Wasn't There") and Starr ("Miller's Crossing").
It's not the best movie of the year. But it's good for people who aren't so anxious for a "white" Christmas.
Lord of War (2005)
A necessary evil...
The master of film allegories, Andrew Niccol, has created a much more topical story than in his previous films, and one that deals with the problems of today, rather than the trials of tomorrow, and he has done it with just as much flare for character dilemma.
During the opening credits, we are treated to the life of a single bullet in an AK-47. From its manufactuing in a Soviet factory, until it is loaded into an assault rifle and fired into the forehead of a Liberian preteen. From that point on we are treated to the inner-workings of the illegal weapons trade, and the violence that results from it, though seen primarily through the eyes of our protagonist, Yuri Orlov.
The cast is stellar. Nicolas Cage dominates the screen as a man without a country who goes from the mean streets of New York's Little Odessa to become a leading exporter of guns. Told in first-person, we are forced to identify with him, despite his decidedly amoral business. Jared Leto lends great support as his wayward brother and one-time partner, whose sense of right and wrong become his ultimate undoing. Ethan Hawke is also in top form as Interpol agent Jack Valentine, who is only prevented from catching Yuri by his strong belief in upholding international law. Ian Holm adds another creepy character to his resume as Simeon Weisz, Yuri's nemesis in the world of arms trade. Bridget Moynihan, as Yuri's dream girl-turned-wife is also quite good.
The synopsis talks about a gun-runner at the top of his game being attacked by his conscience. This is true, but it's never as simple as all that. The movie makes its point by largely avoiding it. We hear the shots, we see the victims, but only once are we treated to a lecture on the evils of arms dealing. We've heard it all before. We know it's bad. We don't need to hear any more than we are given. By converting the facts of gun running into "wrong" or "evil," Niccol avoids being preachy. While "The Constant Gardner" succeeded by preaching the evils of the pharmaceutical industry, "Lord of War" succeeds because we already know why the gun running is wrong.
This movie ends on a cynical note, that in the world of today there will always be war, and there will always be someone needed to supply the guns. And sometimes, in cases of conflicts sponsored by other countries, it helps to have someone on the outside.
The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Elevated by performances, hampered by source material
I will start out by saying that based on the source material - a brilliant satire taking swings alternately at Joe McCarthy and the Korean War with alternate hilarity and shock - this movie failed miserably. We live in a time when the new communism is Islam and terrorism. We are in the middle of a war many believe is only hurting us at this point, where the cause does not justify the means.
One could see a gold mine of opportunity for resurrecting the satirical spirit of Richard Condon's novel, and John Frankenheimer's classic. When the black-list has been replaced by detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Jonathan Demme strives to walk a tight-rope between Left and Right, making a film that could have spoken volumes about our current climate, and done as Condon and Frankenheimer did, by dissing both extremes. (When the original film first opened, Condon was pleased to see Communists picketing the film in Paris, and American Legion picketing in Orange County, CA) "The Manchurian Candidate" was not meant to cater to all markets. It doesn't still, because certain individuals claim it's hitting out at the Bush camp. And why is that? Because they think everyone's contracted Michael Moore syndrome or something? Or is it just because Al Franken makes an appearance as a news reporter? In truth, Demme's version, while creating a fairly believable alternate world where the same modern situations are occurring in countries with different names than, say, Iraq.
Now to my other point. Sure, the movie could use some of the black humor Axelrod's original script offered up. But it doesn't. Instead, we are treated to a vaguely similar script where events have been reshaped to better fit an unbiased modern America. This would hardly be worth our time if not for some excellent acting.
Denzel Washington has had roles as good as this before, but I've never seen him in such a wildly ambiguous role as our default hero who becomes so completely obsessed and paranoid with the world around him that he even tries to murder his girlfriend! We know he's the good guy, because we know what's going on isn't just in his head, but how far is he willing to go to find out the truth? Admittedly, Sinatra never strived for this kind of psychosis.
Equally good is Meryl Streep as a bitch you just love to hate. She's not the quietly manipulative matriarch Angela Lansbury introduced us to, nor the ambitious seductress of Condon's original book. She is a first-class predator, looking to have her cake and eat it to.
Jon Voight, Kimberly Elise, and Jeffrey Wright also give fine portrayals. But Liev Schreiber, as the title character (or is he?) is woefully underused. What ever happened to the love-hate relationship between Raymond and his mother? What about his close bond to Ben Marco, that here goes as far as Marco biting his shoulder, shrugged off as a man gone mad. Laurence Harvey's Raymond was hard to like, and even harder to dislike. Schreiber, who is usually surprisingly good, is an absolute bore.
In the end the changes to the story don't disappoint for people expecting the same old thing, but there are uneven plot holes to this conclusion, and it leaves one desiring more of an explanation.
I strongly recommend you read Condon's absolutely scathing novel. Or at least give the 1962 version a try.
The Peacemaker (1997)
Above-average political thriller
This was the debut film of Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks studio, and while it is less than stunning, this film gives an interesting spin to mid-1990s political intrigue.
With George Clooney in what I suppose was his second lead role, after "From Dusk Till Dawn," the story examines post-Cold War Russia and the political catastrophe of U.N. negotiations in the Balkans.
The wonderful Marcel Iures is a Croatian diplomat whose disillusionment with the civil conflict in his country has led him to make a deal with a rogue Russian general to buy a stolen nuclear bomb to blow up the United Nations headquarters in New York. As heartless an act as this may be, the character, nonetheless, is a sympathetic one.
Although the movie takes place largely outside of Russia, there is even some reference to the poor conditions modern-day Russia is plagued by: "Russia, what a f*cking mess, God I miss the Cold War." It's both humorous and to some extent true.
Armin Mueller-Stahl makes an appearance as a former Soviet general who is friends with Clooney's Tom Devoe. The romance angle between Devoe and Nicole Kidman's Julia Kelly is muted by the impending danger surrounding them. They are people from different sides of the political stratosphere, so their relationship might not last long anyway, but it does end with hope in sight, for the true romantic.
Less relevant today than it was at the time it was made, the film is still a very intelligent study on foreign relations in the mid- and late nineties.