Movie Diary 2006 previous • next

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The Best Of 2006: Casino Royale, The Departed, Little Miss Sunhsine, The Prestige, and The Insider .

Five Movies in Six Days: Nathaniel goes on a Cinematic Vacation
Tuesday January 3 Wednesday January 4 Thursday January 5 Saturday January 7 Sunday January 8

Rent • Arlington Capitol Theater

The Producers • Loews Church St, Cambridge

Capote • Landmark Embassy Theater, Waltham

King Kong • AMC Fenway

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe • AMC Burlington

The music is fantastic, and the performances by (mostly) the original Broadway cast are wonderful. I think the pacing was very poor in places, which is cinematic poison in a movie with no real plot. Chris Columbus, who is allegedly a Steven Spielberg protoge, has none of Spielberg's talent for cinematic shorthand. When Roger decides to return to New York, Columbus shows Roger with the bus ticket, getting on the bus, and a long, lingering shot of the BUS DEPOT sign. Gee, I wonder what this is supposed to mean?

Who can you blame for this painfully faithful filming of the Broadway show The Producers? Tony-award-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman, making her motion picture debut? Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, who play each gag and facial mug as if they're playing to the second balcony? Perhaps both. Perhaps if I saw the movie in a 1,000 seat sold-out theater on opening night, it would have fared better, but with half a dozen folks on a Wednesday afternoon, the gags all fall flat.

Wonderful performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, and Clifton Collins Jr. as "In Cold Blood" killer Perry Smith. The screenplay (by actor-turned-writer Dan Futterman) is right on target. Director Bennett Miller, making his feature-film debut, seems to be in over his head. The music by Mychael Danna (The Ice Storm, Shattered Glass, Being Julia) is terminally cliched.

See my entry on the 2005 diary page.

A delightful adaptation of C.S. Lewis's 100-page novel. The children playing Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter, are excellent, especially 9-year-old Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie. Tilda Swinton is perfect as Jadis the White Witch. James McAvoy is right on target as Mr. Tumnus.

My 34th Birthday, 2006 • Brokeback Mountain • Showcase Cinemas Waltham ($5 Discount Tuesdays)
Your standard story of love separated by circumstance, intolerance, social taboos, but, with, ya know, gay cowboys. Brokeback Mountain is intense and heartbreaking, thanks to the restrained eyes and ears of Ang Lee, and career-making performances by Health Ledger (Oscar lock), Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway.

The idea of two lonely sheepherders falling in love on top of a mountain in the middle of Nowhere, Wyoming, is completely believeable. Jack (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Ledger) spend one summer together in 1962, but despite their affection for each other, they don't really understand their own feelings until they meet again four years later. Jack is open to taking a chance on love, but Ennis understands that Jack is the only bit of happiness he's ever going to find in his going-nowhere life, and he hates himself for allowing himself to feel hope for the future when he knows their love is impossible. There are zero options for (I hate this cliche) their forbidden love.

Meanwhile, the parts for their wives in this movie could have been incredibly flat, but Michele Williams (Dawson's Creek) and Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries, Ella Enchanted, The Devil Wears Prada) play these roles with perfect precision. When I pointed out that Randy Quaid (as the sheepherding boss) has, like, three lines in the whole movie, Emily pointed out, "Nobody has any lines in this movie!" The movie's strength is the ability to convey so much information and emotion without words.

February 11, 2006 • Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire • Arlington Capitol Theater
Goblet was definitely better the second time around. We didn't need to focus on the plot, and which parts were left in and taken out. Instead, we focused on the subtext and the small details. We had a nice time despite the presence of many under-10-year-olds at this PG-13 movie.

Sure, it's easy for me to complain about parents when I am not one myself, but it seems like too many parents think babysitters are a costly option, not a necessity. It's not OK to bring a 5 year old to the movies, unless there's a monkey and a Man in a Yellow Hat. If the child does not know how to whisper in your ear, they should stay at home. Remember, this is a movie with tortured children (Harry is cut by Wormtail and suffers Voldemort's touch), murdered children (Diggory), Wormtail's hand is chopped off, and Voldemort himself, the personification of nightmare material.

St. Valentine's Day, 2006 • Casablanca • Brattle Theater
Still a romantic treat for the fourth year in a row. The crowd was a lot better than last year's giggle-prone audience. When I know everything that's going to happen in a movie, I get to enjoy all the little details, and all the background action.

President's Day 2006
The Matador • AMC Boston Common • 3:30 p.m.
The Squid & The Whale • Guys Movie Night at the Somerville Theater • 7:30 p.m.

I was sick with a cold on President's Day, but I was tired of sitting around the house, so I went to see The Matador with Laura at the newly acquired and re-named AMC Boston Common (formerly Loews Boston Common). The Matador was a real treat, mainly because I didn't know much about it, and I had no idea where the movie was going. It's mildly funny, mainly thanks to Pierce Brosnan tweaking his James Bond image with a vengeance, much as he did in The Tailor Of Panama. Julian (Brosnan) is an on-the-ragged-edge freelance assassin who smokes, drinks, and screws his way around the globe between killling various corporate targets. On the night of his birthday in a Mexico City hotel, in a moment of drunken lonlieness, he attempts to befriend a mild-mannered, but also on-the-ragged-edge Danny (Greg Kinnear), who is one blown sales pitch away from career and matrimonial collapse. Julian lends Danny some self-respect, and Danny lends Julian some humanity. Additional kudos to Hope Davis (American Splendor, About Schmidt) for lending some humor and personality to what could have been a predictable and flat wife character.
I was feeling too sick to go out again that evening, but I couldn't let Jed and Angus down! In the end I was glad I went. The Squid & The Whale was kind of an odd choice for Guys Movie Night. As Marc put it, "Isn't there a movie with an assassin in a catsuit we can see?" The Squid & The Whale is an uncomfortably biographical and unflinchingly observant joint custody comedy: the flip side of The Royal Tenenbaums. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a once-successful novelist whose creative muse was died out (cf Grady Tripp, Wonder Boys). His wife Joan (Laura Linney) has emerged from her husband's shadow with her own nascent literary career ahead of her. He is fiercely competitive and emotionally closed off; she's been miserable for years and eager for change, including at least one affair with a "jock type"- as different from Bernard as possible.

Their kids, teenage Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, age 21, brother of Hallie) and barely-pubescent Frank (Owen Kline, age 13, son of Kevin and Phoebe Cates) are totally messed up. Bernard is only interested in his own intellectual universe, filling Walt's head with capsule judgements to the point where Walt is incapable of speaking out against his father or even forming a creative idea of his own. Frank, meanwhile, is in the middle of an early-pubescent muddle which is embarassingly familiar and intimate to watch. The 1986 solution to a divorce is a daily joint-custody swap: Dad gets the kids at his new house on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, and Joan gets them Sundays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. They alternate Thursdays. Do you think this helps or hurts matters?

The script contains that same dry humor and unflinching observation of bad parenting which was played for comic effect in The Royal Tenenbaums. I keep bringing up Tenenbaums as a reference, because the retro-1986 vibe and the Wes Anderson-esque soundtrack reminded us so much of that movie- if you added Alec Baldwin's narration, Wes Anderson's trademark captions, and Mark Mothersbaugh's baroque harpsichord, it'd be the same movie. We all agreed on this point before I did the research and discovered that writer-director Noah Baumbach wrote Wes Anderson's other family epic, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. As much as I like movies which don't go on too long with nothing to say, this movie had no third act, and, at 81 minutes, felt a little under-developed.

NOTE: For some reason, the theater smelled like fish. Jed thought it smelled like "cod or haddock", I thought it smelled like tunafish juice, but the whole audience smelled it. I couldn't bring myself to tell the manager "the theater showing 'The Squid & The Whale' smells like seafood"!

March 14, 2006 • Ultraviolet • AMC Fenway
Marc, Jeff, and Ken joined me for this weak brew of Blade and Aeon Flux. In a futuristic Orwellian dystopia, a sexy assassin with special ass-kicking powers (Milla Jovovich, The Fifth Element) fights to save an adolescent boy (with some kind of secret lurking in his veins) from a plague of faceless, black-clad soldiers. Jovovich must have "killed" more stuntmen in this 88 minute videogame than Viggo Mortensen did in 11 hours of Lord of The Rings! Ultraviolet feels like a fairly intriguing if cliched two-hour sci-fi shoot-em-up, where half an hour of interesting detail has been edited out: There are only five characters with more than one line of dialogue, and I don't think there were any scenes where Violet talked to more than one person at a time. It's one insanely outnumbered confrontation after another, alternating between swordplay and gunplay, with a sad muddle of a plot strewn about like the bodies of the faceless dead. One car-motorcycle-helicopter chase sequence was rendered as well as a poor videogame. Our theater held fourteen people, including the four of us. Three guys left about 20 minutes in, and another guy fell asleep, and was indeed fast asleep even after the credits were over.

March 17, 2006 • The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada • Arlington Capitol
Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cesar Cedillo) is a Mexican cowboy in Texas. While tending his goats, Melquiades is shot and killed by Border Patrol officer Mike Norton (Barry Pepper) who mistakes Melquiades for a sniper. Legally, the shooting could be called justified (Melquiades was shooting towards Norton, but he was shooting at a coyote) but there were no witnesses and Norton is wound way too tight for the job. When Melquiades's friend and fellow cowboy Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones) discovers that the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) is going to do nothing about the shooting, Pete brutally abducts Norton at gunpoint and forces him on a tortured trek on horseback to return Melquiades's body to his hometown in Mexico.

Pete literally drags Norton across the brutal landscape, handcuffed and barefoot. Norton is beaten, starved, sunburned, drowned, snakebit, starved, burned, and beaten some more. All we know for sure is that Pete wants to keep Norton alive long enough to make him bury Melquiades. This act will fulfill Pete's friendship to Melquiades, but will Pete decide that Norton has repaid his debt to Melquiades? It doesn't matter that the shooting wasn't murder per se. Before Pete abducts him, we see that Norton is torn apart with self-loathing for this shooting. The abduction and journey are a simple metaphor for what Norton's doing to himself on the inside. Only when Pete forces him to seek forgiveness (at gunpoint) does Norton unload his grief.

NOTE: Emily proposed this movie. I offered to go to the Capitol Theater and see Match Point while she saw Three Burials. When we got to the theater, the Match Point screening had been canceled due to a projector problem, so I joined Emily for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

March 24, 2006 • V for Vendetta • Guys Movie Night • AMC Burlington
A dark and compelling dystopian thriller, light on the thrills and heavy on the dystopia. I have read the Orwellian graphic novel on which the movie is based. It would have been very easy to dial down the despair and opression and crank up the fight sequences, perhaps even add a car chase or two? What's the difference, right? Well, first-time director James McTeigue (an assistant director of all three Matrix movies and Attack of The Clones, too) takes the road less traveled. There are a few scenes where the antihero/protagonist V (Hugo Weaving) kicks ass, including an overly-bloody knife fight at the very end of the movie, but for long stretches of this 132 minute movie, V does nothing more than saunter around his underground lair (picture the Batcave redone as a gothic pop culture museum) spouting anarchist propaganda.

In the not-too-distant-future, a fascist religious zealot (John Hurt, who played Winston Smith in 1984) has been elected PM and assumed the title Chancellor of Great Britiain, all by eliciting the Terror Vote. In the name of national security, civil liberties have been revoked and the populace have been brainwashed by the government-controlled media. This wouldn't be so terrible, but all gays, blacks, Muslims, and insurgents have been interred in concentration camps. In one of these camps, in the course of unforgivable medical experiments, the government has created the crucible of their own destruction.

V wears a Guy Fawkes costume, not just to hide his horribly burned body (which we never see) but because, like Batman, he is not a man but an idea, and "ideas are bulletproof". V finds an unlikely ally in petite Evey (Natalie Portman), who grew up in a socialist household, who has lost everyone she ever loved to a concentration camp. Imagine her performance as Anne Frank, except Evey slips away from the jackbooted thugs and fights back.

V for Vendetta stirred up a healthy debate amongst the Guys of Guys Movie Night: What's the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter? The movie made its points well, if occasionally rough around the edges for a first-time director. Natalie Portman was excellent in a very strong role- if only Queen Amidala showed some of this passion! Hugo Weaving spoke well through his mask and his body acting was evocative. Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, and John Hurt were all excellent.

April 1, 2006 • Inside Man • AMC Fenway
A clever and inventive bank heist thriller, smartly directed by Spike Lee, and gracefully performed by Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster. The movie could have been produced with any director, with any cast, and in any city, but Lee soaks every corner of the story with the people of New York City. Lee never underestimates the audience, the screenplay holds water even under close scrutiny, and the pacing is tight but with ebbs and flows. There's really only one red herring which I had a problem with, but besides that, I felt the screenplay was pretty honest to the audience.

Screenwriter Russell Gewirtz (in his feature-film debut) answers the question "How do bank robbers escape if the police won't let them slip away?" I honestly did not know how it was going to turn out, even though I was watching it with my Usual Suspects-slash-M. Night Shyamalan "trust nothing you see" glasses on. Lee manages to work in plenty of allusions to tolerance and diversity in a post 9-11 America, and the erosion of civil liberties in an America where you can't tell the terrorists from the citizens. Emily read more of a "metaphor for America in Iraq" which also makes some sense. Lee, who is incapable of restraint or understatement, manages to make some of his points with grace and subtlety.

Katie Holmes: Unconvincing Adult
Katie Holmes has been completely unconvincing portraying grown-ups in her most recent roles. As an assistant D.A. in Batman Begins and as an investigative journalist in Thank You For Smoking (see below), Holmes looks like she's playing dress-up for Career Day. For the record, Holmes was born December 18, 1978, making her about 26 when she made Batman and 27 for Smoking.

What is it about Katie Holmes that makes her so hard to believe as a grown-up? Is it her childlike voice, baby face, or bad acting? Has she made a too-abrupt transition from playing teens to playing adults? Batman and Smoking are her first two roles as working professionals after a decade playing high school and college kids.

I am not saying that a woman in her mid-twenties cannot play a lawyer or a reporter, but I can more easily imagine Selma Blair, Reese Witherspoon, Julia Stiles, or Kirsten Dunst in these roles. Perhaps Katie's agent is making bad choices, or were these parts written for women five years older? Her Batman Begins costar Christian Bale is four years older than Holmes, and her Smoking costar Aaron Eckhart is ten years older. The good news is, Holmes will be too busy raising Tom Cruise's alien spawn to make movies for awhile- according to her IMDb page, she has no new projects in the pipline. Perhaps the TomKat mating process will age her enough to play adults more convincingly in the future.

April 15, 2006 • Thank You For Smoking • Montgomery Cinema, Montgomery, NJ
A quality black comedy with a heart, directed and adapted for the screen by Jason Reitman (son of director Ivan Reitman [Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs]). Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is blond, chin-dimpled, charming, and a frighteningly good tobacco lobbyist. The only reason we care if he's evil, soulless, or just lost his way, is that he has a mild-mannered 12-year-old son (Cameron Bright, previously squandered in Ultraviolet), who seems to be learning all the right lessons from his dad. NOTE: I sometimes wonder if it's possible to portray a preadolescent boy in the movies that's not grating, mannered, or precocious. Cameron Bright is swell in this movie and avoids all those pitfalls.

What sets this movie apart from another "cancer comedy" is this relationship. How do you let your son into your everyday working life, and honestly explain to him why you do things which appear to be morally corrupt? How do you teach your son how to be a man when you do things everyday that you wouldn't want him to do? I wonder if this theme resonated with the 29-year old Reitman, because his father Ivan works in another morality-free zone, Hollywood? Early in the movie, Reitman overly relies on cute bells and whistles, especially humorous onscreen captions. The movie is a little episodic in places, and generally rough around the edges, but certainly a worthy debut.

Emily and I went to this suburban NJ art house with my soon-to-be sister-in-law Rebecca and her beau Eric.

April 2006 • Neil Young: Heart Of Gold • Arlington Capitol Theater
(Guest Review by EKW) Nat and I walked down to the Capitol Theater, and for $7 got front row tickets to a Neil Young concert! This small, well-crafted film showcases Young in his element -- surrounded by longtime friends and collaborators, performing new work and old favorites, and baring his soul through song in the most unassuming yet piercing way. Shot on one night at Nashville's storied Ryman Auditorium by none other than Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense), the film manages to zoom right up close and capture the twinkling eyes and furrowed brows of the musicians, without seeming staged or intrusive. I'm so glad we went to see it in a theater -- on DVD the music would still be great but you'd lose that live audience feel. Features a fantastic close-up of the "Harvest Moon" broom. (A)

May 26, 2006 • X-Men: The Last Stand • AMC Boston Common
It's been over a month since my last entry in this Diary. A planned Mission: Impossible III Guys Movie Night fell through, thanks to my poor planning (I neglected to check to see if the Red Sox were playing that night). April is usually a pretty quiet month for movies, and Emily and I made up for the lapse by seeing two of the early-"summer" blockbusters in one weekend.

X3 is a fine conclusion to the X-Men series of films, even if it's clunky and overlong compared to X1 and X2. A teen-romance subplot between Rogue, Iceman, and Kitty Pryde slowed the proceedings to a crawl, and dragged the drama into "The OC" territory, even if it seemed like it was a necessary evil to establish Rogue's motivations. Brett Ratner, a Hollywood hack whom I have no respect for, replaced director Bryan Singer after pre-production, (Singer chose to resurrect the Superman franchise instead.) As a result, the elements which were in place before Ratner arrvied are quite solid. The screenplay is topical and dark, daring to kill off three major characters and "curing" three other major characters of their mutant powers. These fatal choices, plus the law of diminishing returns, spells the end of the X-Men franchise, except for a possible Wolverine spinoff.

THEATER NOTES: Mr. Jack Pelletier joined Emily and I at the AMC Boston Common. X3 was showing on 4 screens at once, yet the theater was still 98% full. We ended up in the fourth row from the front, which in the old 1980s theaters was a death sentence. In this marvelous modern age of theater design, the movie was quite watchable from up front. As the lights came up, I proclaimed in a pedantic, Comic Book Guy manner: "C plus!", but Jack and Emily talked me up to a B-minus.

May 28, 2006 • The Da Vinci Code • Showcase Cinemas Woburn
Guest Review from EKD: This cinematic whipping boy was not half as bad as I expected, which was pretty bad, considering the book is like a Choose Your Own Adventure for adults, with all the choices pre-made for you. With low enough expectations, it might even seem like a great movie -- emphasis on "seem," because it's at least 30 minutes too long for a romance-free one-track "McGuffin" chase. Tom Hanks (and I had no problem with the hair) and the Amelie girl traipse around Paris and London, following cryptic clues about art, secret societies, the Catholic church, and whatnot, pursued by a dyspeptic Jean Reno and apparently rabid Paul Bettany. Each set piece works well, and the interspersed flashbacks were surprisingly effective, but there's just too many of each, they start to blur together. Some of the switcheroos are clever, others are at a sub-Word Search level (the cryptex spells WHAT?), so take your fun where you can get it. Incidentally, I can't understand the religious controversy over this thing -- the whole "Who was Mary Magdalene?" bombshell is soft-pedaled at best, with the whole movie ending on a bit of a "maybe so, maybe no" whimper. I think this might actually have made a better Sunday night miniseries than a feature -- again, the power of low expectations. One extra point for Ian McKellen in a semi-Gandalfian turn as wise old mentor, complete with not one but two walking sticks!

NATHANIEL's NOTE: Let me just add that the movie's so-called "ending" is a total cop-out. Think about the ending of Contact and you're on the right track.

June 2006: The Drought

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What were Emily and I doing for over five weeks? We weren't going to the movies, that's for sure. We were planning our wedding! Movies we missed in the theater include MIssion: Impossible III, Cars, The Break-Up, A Prarie Home Companion, and Nacho Libre. It doesn't sound like we missed too much, eh?

July 7, 2006 • Grandma's Boy (1922) and Sherlock Jr. (1924) • Original Score Performed by Ben Model
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, MA

A novel way to end the dry spell for moviegoing. On our Berkshires honeymoon, we visited Great Barrington, MA (just take the Pike for two hours and turn left) and thoroughly enjoyed two silent comedies from Harold Lloyd (the bespectacled guy who hangs from the clock face) and Buster Keaton (the guy who nearly gets crushed by a house). Both films were wonderfully engaging and funny. Harold Lloyd shows genius in conveying so much emotion, passion, and humor without sound or dialogue. Buster Keaton is more inward and detached, but a master of physical comedy. The physical humor and breathtaking stunts were a real pleasure. The two kids behind us in the theater couldn't stop laughing as cowardly geek Harold Lloyd fought and wrestled the local bully all over the barnyard. It was a treat to watch the stars of the movie really risk their skins doing their own stunts. Ben Model's live organ score was skilled and seamless.

NOTE: These are the first silent films I have seen in the theater, marking a new "Oldest Feature Film" record in this diary (It Happened One Night [1934] is the next oldest). Actually, I think I have seen at least one of the first seven Marx Brothers movies (1929 through 1937) in the theater, but I don't have any memory (or record) of which I saw on TV or in the theater.

July 16, 2006 • Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest • Showcase Cinemas Woburn
The movie we paid $6.75 to see on Sunday afternoon was a funny, scary, exciting, and visually spectacular pirate adventure... hidden within a overly-long, needlessly dense, unnecessarily elaborate 150-minute movie. Director Gore Verbinski entered the editing room with enough material to make a great summer movie. Unfortunately, thanks to time constraints, he didn't have enough time to sculpt that movie out of the raw celluloid. What we are left with, is a movie with too many plot threads, one or two too many "set pieces", and several too many characters.

Plot Threads

  1. Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) wants to control all commerce in the Carribean, and needs Jack Sparrow's magic compass to do it;
  2. Will and Elizabeth are sentenced to death unless Will can convince Jack to trade the compass for their pardon;
  3. Jack Sparrow must pay his debt to Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) or find a way to cheat Jones instead;
  4. Former Commodore Norrington will do anything to regain his honor and his commission;
  5. Elizabeth must escape from prison and stow away on another ship in order to catch up with Will Turner. At the same time, she struggles with her desire to become a pirate, and a possible romantic attraction to Jack Sparrow.
  6. WIll Turner must kill Davy Jones in order to save his father, "Bootstrap" Bill Turner (Stellan Skarsgrd), from eternal servitude aboard Jones's Flying Dutchman.
    Is there any wonder why this movie clocks in at two and a half hours?

Set Pieces

All the action sequences are well made, and are entertaining, thrilling, and funny. There's just too many of them. In the last third of the movie, Jack, Will, and Norrington all fight each other to acquire a key to the Dead Man's Chest of the title. In the process, they take a crazy ride on a old mill wheel, which rolls across the jungle landscape. This is far too similar to the "bone-cage-ball" ride down a different jungle hillside in the first third of the movie. By the time the mill wheel crashes on the beach, I was ready for Davy Jones to show up already. Once the threesome pop out of the mill wheel, they all swordfight each other simultaneously. I think this was meant to "top" any previous swordfight, but it simply highlights the unnecessary complication of the story. Sure, Jack Davenport is a good actor, but did we need him tagging along through half the movie?

Too Many Characters

Sequels inevitably suffer from "reunion-itis", where the writers throw into Movie 2 familiar characters from Movie 1, even if there's no plausible reason to include them. Louis Tully in Ghostbusters 2, The Donkey in Shrek 2, and Leo Getz in Lethal Weapon 3 and 4 are good examples. The good news is, the Laurel-and-Hardy pirates (the Pirate With the Wooden Eye and the Bald One) are funnier than they were in Movie 1, but every scene dedicated to them slows down the movie. Perhaps the inclusion of Lord Beckett will pay off in Movie 3, but in Movie 2, he seems to exist solely to give Will and Elizabeth motivation to chase Jack Sparrow across the Carribean.

The Good News

is that the movie's effects are more visually stunning and opulent than any movie I have ever seen. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars prequel trilogies use equally impressive effects, but for verisimilitude. Davy Jones and his condemned crew of encrusted sea-creature pirates are simply stunning. Our jaws were dropped for the entire second half of the movie- we were stunned at the time and money spent to plaster the screen with such lavishly rendered and imaginative characters. The phrase "no expense was spared" never seemed so appropriate. Talk about getting your money's worth: Every penny of the $10-$12 people pay for movie tickets these days is right up there on screen.

What's Next

Gore Verbinski reports that principal photography for #3, At World's End, is only 60% done. Let's all hope he gets more time in the editing studio before it hits theaters next Memorial Day.

July 23, 2006 • Superman Returns • AMC Burlington

Superman Remade

Why can't Superman just fight crime for ninety minutes?

Bryan Singer took on a lot of responsibility in restarting a 20-year dormant feature film franchise. Unfortunately, he equals "important for the stockholders" with "important movie about Superman", and as a result, this new Superman, which should be fun and breathtaking and exciting and fun, is Important with a capital I, which equals ponderous and talky and touchy-feely. There's a lot of drama to be mined from Superman: the last survivor of his planet, alone on Earth where he is different from everyone else, trying to find love with a woman who can never know the real man in the suit? This is all good stuff, but I didn't pay $10 for 150 minutes of this. I want to see more than just Superman feeling lonely. Perhaps to make up for the romance and chit chat, it's difficult to resist the tendency to make Supes' feats oversized: Everyone in the movies and TV can kick a door down or bend an iron bar into a pretzel, but only Superman can reattach California to the continental shelf, or spin the planet backwards. This super-sizing of his crimefighting removes all the fun from his work. Who wants to see Superman lifting a billion tons of rock over his head, when he could be throwing Emperor Zod across Times Square? I am surprised that Singer, who was so sure-footed in his two X-Men movies, has stumbled into Boring Metropolis.

The main crime-fighting storyline is a remake of the original 1977 Superman: The Movie: Lex Luthor hatches a scheme to create new valuable real estate for his own gain. Luthor steals Kryptonite from a museum to kill Superman with. The rest of the movie is tied up with the love triangle between Lois Lane, Superman, and Lane's fiance Richard (James Marsden). Lane has put aside her love for Superman when he left Earth five years previous, and now she's in a snit because he left "without saying goodbye". Fer Crissake, he's Superman! If you want to love a superhero with a social secretary, try Batman-- he has Alfred around to send regrets to Vicki Vale, et al.

Is Superman Uncool?

In Bryan Singer's new resurrection of the Superman franchise, Lois Lane has set aside her love for Supes and started a family with another reporter (James Marsden), as Superman has been gone from Earth for five years. Lane wins the Pulitzer Prize for her editorial Why The World Doesn't Need Superman. Before we can say why, I would like to ask the question Does The World Need Superman?

It seems like Kal-El has been gone for a lot longer than five years-- it's been twenty years since the Superman movie franchise ended with a whimper in 1986 with Superman IV: The One With Atomic Man. Three years after that, Tim Burton's Batman began a new comic-book hero era in theaters, and the flood of superhero movies has diluted the potency of caped hero stories. In the 20 years since Gene Hackman last donned the bald cap, most every super hero you have ever heard of has had a movie made about them (see sidebar).

Perhaps Superman is boring? He's a goody-two shoes Patriot with no dark side, no human foibles, and no social life. Comic book writer Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Back), portrays Superman as a single-minded, mildly dense, blindly obedient servant to the American government. Maybe we feel like we know Superman too well, that there's no new story to tell? Perhaps Superman is too powerful? Is it too hard to find a worthy adversary for him?

Superman Lives Returns: Coming Soon Since 1998

Meanwhile, Warner Brothers has been trying to make a new Superman movie for a decade. Why has it taken a decade to get Superman to fly? Firstly, to make a Superman movie on a scale worthy of the material, you have to spend a lot of money. You can't skimp on the enormousness of a Superman movie and expect people to come back again and again. Just look at the bargain-priced Fantastic Four movie to see a lack of spectacle. If you're going to spend $200,000,000 on one movie, the suits were rightfully worried about finding the right script, a dependable director, and the right Superman. Thirdly, the studio was scared of screwing up a franchise which had the potential to be a huge moneymaker. Superman has instant name-recognition around the planet, every knows and loves him, and the characters and stories of Superman are rich and deep. The responsibility starts to weigh on you, yes?

Bust A Block That Hasn't Been Busted Before

As of July 24, Superman Returns (released June 28) has grossed $178 million in the United States, while Pirates 2 (released July 7) has $322 million. Each movie cost over $200 million to produce and promote, and that money shows on screen. What's sad is that both movies could have made more money if they had not come out a week apart. Perhaps Hollywood economists would not agree, but wouldn't Superman Returns have been more successful without strong competition from Captain Jack Sparrow, et al? Why not drop this blockbuster on a un-busted block? How about the spring? If a diminishing-returns sequel like Mission: Impossible 3 can make $122 million in early May (and June), why can't a "summer" blockbuster come out in late April? or March? Haven't you ever gone to the movies in the spring, paying $10 to see underwhelming features like The Pink Panther, Eight Below, V for Vendetta, or Underworld: Evolution? Before the feature, you see a trailer for a summer blockbuster like Superman Returns. By the time the trailer is over, you're so excited about seeing Superman fly with 21st century effects, that you've forgotten what feature you paid to watch. And when you do remember, you sadly regret that you can't watch the blockbuster instead? Here's a crazy idea: Release the summer blockbuster in the spring, and watch the eager moviegoers thank you by handing over their Hamiltons by the handful.
  All the Comic Book Movies I could think of, including some I have not seen: 1989-2007
  • Batman x 5
  • Spider-Man x 3
  • Superman x 5
  • X-Men x 3
  • The Hulk
  • Daredevil
  • Elektra
  • The Punisher x 2
  • The Fantastic Four x 2
  • Ghost Rider
  • Hellboy
  • Constantine
  • Sin City
  • Dick Tracy
  • The Mask
  • The Crow
  • The Shadow
  • Tank Girl
  • Men In Black
  • Spawn

Four of The Goonies examine the plot device:
Chunk (Jeff Cohen), Mikey (Sean Astin), Mouth (Corey Feldman), and Data (Jonathan Ke Quan).

August 2, 2006 • The Goonies • Brattle Theater with Em, Amy, Eve, and Brenda
A slice of tween-age nostalgia for some, The Goonies is a suburban, sub-terranean adventure story, created by three of the most potent filmmakers of the 1980s: Screenwriter Chris Columbus (who had just written Gremlins), Steven Spielberg, who wrote the story and exec produced, and co-producer/director Richard Donner (Superman 1 and 2, The Omen, and Ladyhawke.)

I had only seen the movie all the way through once or twice before, so I didn't appreciate it in the same way that Em did (she had the VHS tape in the VCR on continuous loop as a child). I thought it was occasionally amusing and completely harmless. I really appreciated the location shooting for "Astoria Oregon"-- all the aboveground scenes have a wonderful rainy, foggy look. I also appreciated the foul language-- the kids say "shit" over and over, which felt authentic to me. Speaking of dialogue, Eve pointed out the many scenes where all the kids are talking/yelling at once. While this is a realistic depiction of the way teenagers talk (unlike Chris Columbus's Harry Potter movies, for example), it's also grating and incomprehensible. The movie also has no ending-- they find the pirate treasure, the Fratellis arrive, and then the cave collapses and they all escape. The score by Dave Grusin (Tootsie, Heaven Can Wait, The Goodbye Girl) feels simplistic, crude, and half-baked.

August 4, 2006 • Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby • AMC Fenway, with Emily, George & Mandy, Amy, Phil, and friends
I first heard about this movie last year. I read somewhere that the "pitch" for this movie was simply "Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver". I thought it had lots of potential. A few months later, my expectations were lowered by some underwhelming TV commericals. Those low expectations were blown away by this overly funny NASCAR comedy from the team which brought us Anchorman. Ferrell and director Adam McKay worked with a framework of a story (the rise and fall and rebirth of a single-minded NASCAR driver) and shot every scene with an infinite number of comedy permutations. After shooting was complete, McKay had the unenviable task of making a movie out of the results, without looking like the gag reel at the end of the Cannonball Run movies. The results are fantastic-- I am sure they could re-release the movie with all-new jokes for every scene and it would be equally funny.

I would like to single out for praise John C. Reilly, who has been funny before (Boogie Nights and The Good Girl come to mind), but never as sweet and goofy as Ricky Bobby's whipping boy Cal Naughton Jr, aka "The Magic Man". Possibly saving this movie from a B- or C+ is Sacha Baron Cohen as Ricky Bobby's gay French nemesis, Jean Girard. He works his Clouseau-style French accent and completely non-sequitir bon mots ("Hakuna Matata, beetches!") for the ultimate in comedy effect. A guy with a funny French accent is always funny. I almost take Gary Cole for granted-- he works the long-lost father (think Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder, except a drunken thief) for every joke possible. We especially appreciated his drunken rants when getting kicked out of an Applebee's, and Ricky's junior high school...

One of the unfortunate side effects of the "shoot 1,000 jokes" method of moviemaking is that some characters inadvertently get the short end. Amy Adams may have had a Nicole Kidman-in-Days-Of-Thunder-type role in the screenplay, but in the final cut, she is reduced to two brief appearances in the first hour of the movie, then one very funny monologue at the end of the movie. Another character who must have had more meaty scenes deleted is Ricky's wife Carley Bobby (Leslie Bibb). She is in many scenes of the movie, but there isn't one big meaty part which showcases her.

I have a problem in principle with making a movie by hanging a bunch of funny scenes on a bare bones storyline, but in practice, I loved it. A minus.

August 14, 2006 • Clerks II • Somerville Theater
A funny, romantic, and outrageous romp, Clerks 2 is a lot of fun to watch, as a bigger-budget and higher-production-value "remake" of the grainy and cheap (but hilarious) original. Clerks 2 finds Dante and Randal working at a low-rent McDonald's-style fast-food joint "Mooby's", after 10 years at the Quick-Stop. Randal is as dyspeptic and misanthropic as ever, and Dante once again has two women after him. Dante's controlling fiancee Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach, director Kevin Smith's wife), only "loves" Dante because he will make a perfect doormat. Emma's parents are buying them a house in Florida, and installing Dante as a car wash manager. A long life under Emma's thumb awaits Dante, and he's going along because A) He's a pussy, and B) He thinks he's supposed to want to grow up and settle down. Meanwhile, Dante has fallen hard for his Mooby's manager, Becky (Rosario Dawson, and who wouldn't?) who apparently likes Dante for who he is.

Dante and Randal still go on their rambling debates, but Randal has some new adversaries-- the 19-year-old virgin Elias, who loves Jesus almost as much as he loves the Transformers and the Lord of the Rings. Actor Trevor Fehrman nearly steals all his scenes, in a Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles kind of way. Flaky and earnest, naive but not dumb, Elias sticks up for Optimus Prime, Jesus, and Frodo with equal passion, and without losing faith under a barrage of insults from Randal, who fears this will be his new best friend once Dante leaves town.

The relationship between Dante and Randal, and Dante and Becky, both feel strong and genuine, and the funny diatribes strike home. Randal's argument against Lord of the Rings, in favor of Star Wars, sounds promising, but falls very flat. I don't believe that Randal would hate LOTR, and I don't believe Kevin Smith does either, especially since Episodes 1, 2, and 3 devauled the Star Wars property in the last decade. Much stronger is Randal's continuing confusion of Anne Frank and Helen Keller, and his vigorous defense of a racial slur he insists isn't racial at all.

It's interesting to note what has changed between Kevin Smith's homegrown debut Clerks in 1994, and this 2006 sequel. Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson's acting has improved, thank God. Smith has the budget for color film this time, showing off Dante's piercing green eyes (he's still an "ugly CHUD", but a CHUD with green eyes) and the garish Day-Glo color scheme of Mooby's. The soundtrack is much better- Talking Heads, Smashing Pumpkins, and Soul Asylum are featured well, and the dance sequence is set to "ABC" from the Jackson Five. Ah, yes, the dance sequence-- taking place roughly where the hockey game was in the first movie (both in time and place-- Dante and Becky dance on the roof), the dance sequence is fun and totally random.

Something which hasn't changed is the total lack of background action. I know Mooby's is supposed to be a lousy restaurant, but you hardly ever see anyone in the restaurant-- you only see extras when they are part of the plot. Would it be so hard to stage some of the behind-the-counter action with the dining area in the background, and hire some extras to add realism? I suspect Smith shot this movie in a vacant Burger King, and unfortunately, it looks like the main cast is totally alone in there until suddenly, diners pop up. Perhaps this is a symptom of a larger problem- Smith has never known where to put a camera. You're not supposed to be thinking about camera position while watching a movie, but even in the simplest two-person dialog scenes, I found myself wondering why he shot it like that. David Klein has been the Director of Photography on Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and fifteen movies and TV shows I've never heard of. I appreciate Smith's loyalty to his friends, but I suspect he is valuing friendship over talent.

Certainly an improvement over the original, if slightly less funny. A minus.

August 18, 2006 • Snakes on a Plane • Showcase Cinemas, Randolph
SoaP delivers exactly what it promises-- lots of muthafarking snakes on a muthafarking plane! With no pretensions of meaning, class, or talent, this movie was a pure, focused, intense piece of entertaining garbage. Just to illustrate-- the first to get snakebit on the plane are a couple having sex in the lavatory-- the woman gets bit on the tit. Reminiscent of The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down, without the expensive stunts and special effects. Most of the stunts involved C-list actors pretending to be attacked by CGI snakes. Most of the effects include b-level fake snakes, and lost of gross snakebites: swelling, pus, slime, etc. All SoaP was missing was that one final over-the-top coup de grace, like when Jon Voight is vomited up in Anaconda. I would have had more fun in a packed theater, but strangely, there were only maybe a dozen other patrons at my screening on a Friday evening. Grade: A.
  Other Premise-Describing Movie Titles (both real or imagined)
  • Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot
  • The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain
  • The Jerk
  • Voyage To The Center Of The Earth
  • Throw Momma From A Train
  • Honey, I Shrunk The Kids
  • Home Alone
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger Gets Pregnant
  • I've Wasted My Life
  • The Bus That Couldn't Slow Down
  • Single Female Lawyer
  • The President's Neck is Missing!
  • The Boatjacking of Supership 79
  • They Came to Burgle Carnegie Hall
  • The Frontier Family Get Deer Ticks

  • August 30, 2006 • Miami Vice • Arlington Capitol Theater
    Michael Mann has written a plot steeped in the classic tropes of the "Miami Vice" TV show, and directed a feature film with the same ruthless cool and no-bullshit efficiency of his previous crime epics, Collateral and Heat. Mann "filmed" this movie with digital cameras, which once again, just like Collateral, lends superior authenticity to the action. The digital video + muddled dialog recording = a minimum of artifiice. It's true that I didn't understand a lot of the dialog, especially with all the foreign accents, but the details of the dialog was not as important as the atmosphere, and I really enjoyed breathing it in.

    The movie concludes with a climactic firefight, not as long or legendary as the bank heist in Heat, but expertly and imaginatively staged. I am reminded of the nightclub confrontation in Collateral, which could easily have been confusing and muddled, but instead was intuitive and engaging. This final gun battle in Miami Vice, however, adds some new tricks, which I appreciated: at one point, when a gunsel gets shot, his blood spatters the hand-held camera behind him. The cameraman then moves over to another spot where one of his associates is still firing, and later, moves again, all with blood dripping on the lens. My description makes it sound gory and cheap, but it was not- the digital hand-held quality made it feel more like authentic documentary footage.

    Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx acquit themselves well, although Emily is totally turned off my Farrell's doughy scumbag look. I tried explaining that he is playing an undercover cop who's trying to look like a scumbag, but she wouldn't have it. Academy-Award winner Jamie Foxx's "Ricardo Tubbs" character was fleshed out a bit from the TV show. On TV, all too often Phillip Michael Thomas simply supported Don Johnson, brandished a shotgun, and occasionally lapsed into a Jamaican accent as his undercover role required.

    Many of the small parts were well cast, including Justin Theroux as Detective Zito, Barry Shabaka Henley as Lt. Castillo, and John Hawkes as a confidential informant. We had some issues, however, with other casting choices-- I felt John Ortiz was too lightweight as the drug kingpin whose jealousy sparks a murderous betrayal, and Chinese actress Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha, Farewell My Concubine, Raise the Red Lantern)? Her accent is nearly indecipherable, despite multiple credited dialog coaches. I never really felt any actual passion between Gong Li and Colin Farrell. After a few scenes, I started casting other "exotic" actresses in my head for the role: Franka Potente? Too young. Michelle Yeoh? Too old. Monica Bellucci? Not brainy enough. Emmanuelle Bart, Audrey Tautou? Too French.

    I can't give this movie an A grade because the story doesn't break any new ground from the TV show, and is a little threadbare in spots. B plus...

    NOTE:If you have not been watching the reruns of the original series (1984-89) on TV Land, you have been missing out on some prime mid-80s nostalgia!

    September 1, 2006 • Back To The Future • Free Friday Flick at the Hatch Memorial Shell, Boston MA
    One of the first best movies of my moviegoing life, Emily and I packed a picnic (fried chicken...mmmm) and caught Back To The Future on DVD, projected onto a giant screen at the Hatch Memorial Shell on Boston's Esplenade. This was only the third time I ever went to a Free Friday Flick, a very long-running summer tradition, hosted by WBZ. I first went circa 1992-1994 while attending Emerson College. The movie was Casablanca, and I was supposed to meet up with my friend Craig and his girlfriend, but they arrived after the movie started, and in that pre-cellphone era, there was no way to find each other in the dark. The second time I saw a F.F.F. was last July, but the rain started falling before we could finish Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. This screening went off hitch-free, and a wonderful time was had by all.
    September 15, 2006 • Hollywoodland • AMC Burlington
    Superb performances are diluted in this overlong, mis-constructed murder-bio of George Reeves, TV's Superman.

    Ben Affleck is perfectly cast and offers a wonderfully understated performance as George Reeves, a charming, mildly talented, but old-school handsome actor who died under extremely mysterious circumstances in 1959. The police quickly label Reeves a suicide, and sweep the Reeves case under the carpet. A private detective, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), trying to stir up some work, convinces Reeves' mother (Lois Smith) to hire him to force the police to consider a murder investigation. Simo's investigation becomes the framework for our discovery of Reeves' story.

    In the early fifties, after limited success in feature films, Reeves becomes trapped in two golden cages. His only professional success is The Adventures Of Superman TV show, which has made him so successful he may never be able to find non-Super work again. He falls in love with an original desperate housewife, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a wealthy but aging (45 years old?) studio wife. Reeves' youth and charm make Toni feel young again. Toni becomes George's sugar momma, but she ultimately smothers Reeves with her lonliness and fear. While trying to wriggle out of Toni's grasp, Reeves falls in with Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), a classic mean drunk.

    In June 1959, Reeves died from a gunshot wound to the head which could have been suicide, but Simo can piece together motivations for murder with all the principal characters. Did Toni become blinded with jealous rage at Reeves' spurning? DId Toni's Mob-connected studio honcho husband arrange a hit? Did Reeves' crazy "fiancee" Leonore flip out after Reeves threatened to call off their engagement?

    As talented as Academy-award winner Adrien Brody is, he cannot salvage his totally unremarkable detective story/dramatic framework device. His investigation, and Simo's barely relevant child-custody subplot, break no new dramatic ground. Obviously, in stories based on real events, you sometimes have to include characters and plot points in order to be true to the story, even if they aren't worth the screen time. That's what makes the Simo detective framework so frustrating: his character, and his investigation, is a completely fictional device. Perhaps the creative team behind Hollywoodland included so much of this dramatic framework, because they felt Reeves' character, or perhaps Ben Affleck the actor, could not carry the dramatic weight of the whole film? It turns out that Affleck is outstanding as Reeves, and his emotional arc feels underserved by his limited screen time. If the Simo plotline had been pared down, and a few more meaty scenes with Affleck and Lane had been included, we might be talking about a Best Picture nominee, and not just a well-deserved Best Actor nod for Affleck.

    September 16, 2006 • The Devil Wears Prada • Somerville Theater
    A perfectly cute little comedy. Anne Hathaway is Andy, the aspiring journalist who takes a job as an assistant to a fashion magazine editor, notorious sadist/dragon lady Miranda Priestly (based on Anna Wintour of Vogue), played with quiet ferocity by Meryl Streep having her own brand of fun. Miranda is the most powerful force in the fashion business, and she intends to keep herself on top. She succeeds by ruling with an iron fist, never revealing her own decision-making process, and surrounding herself with simpering idiots. Andy is different from any assistant Miranda has ever had, for two reasons: she is not a simpering idiot, and she doesn't care about fashion, translation: she isn't a threat to Miranda's tenure in the top spot. I have not seen any of Hathaway's other comedies (of her eight screen appearances, I have only seen her perfect supporting role in Brokeback Mountain) but she offers a sweet, light comedic touch in a part which avoids dumb cliche. Andy is also buffeted by the derogatory bluster of the newly-promoted assistant (Emily Blunt), who trains Andy to fill her old position with equal parts condescention and ridicule. Blunt just barely avoids leaving her character a one-note harpy- a few scenes late in the movie salvage her character from the 2-D bin. I am glad we did not pay full price for this movie- it would make excellent in-flight movie material!
    September 22, 2006 • Guys Movie Night: Jet Li's Fearless • Regal Cinemas Fenway
    Beautifully choreographed martial arts battles, combined with a strong spiritual message, Fearless is a harmless biopic of a martial arts fighter who learns to put honor and family before pride. The theater was 75% full, and the crowd got a little giggly at times. When Huo Yuan Jia (Jet Li) was on the verge of finishing off his greatest rival, the soundtrack got real quiet, and one viewer said calmly "Say goodnight." so that everyone could hear it. Once Huo Yuan Jia punched his rival so hard his fist bulged through the rival's back, he said it again. Later, a young boy rushes into Huo Yuan Jia's bedroom to awaken him, the young boy grabs him by the upper thigh, and the crowd started giggling again. Finally, near the very end of the movie, Huo Yuan Jia is practising his moves in a field in slow motion, and the crowd got to gigging over Huo Yuan Jia's mildly silly facial expressions. Fellow GMN attendee George theorizes that a few stoners were the source of the giggling.
      September 24, 2006 • The Black Dahlia • AMC Burlington
    A loose and sloppily assembled L.A. noir, which compares inevitably and unfavorably to the superior movie adaptation of a James Ellroy novel, L.A. Confidential. Director Brian De Palma gets a pass on the perfect style and atmosphere, and all the roles were well cast, with the exception of Josh Hartnett, who simply doesn't have the gravitas for the part. The overly-elaborate plot and subplots (a trademark of Ellroy novels) are tangled together so we don't know which storyline we're supposed to care about. Is the Black Dahlia case merely a Macguffin? Is the Bobby DeWitt story connected? Is the warrant case worth paying attention to? Why is Rose McGowan in the movie for one scene? Is k.d. lang's cameo supposed to be funny? Why does Detective Bleichert (Hartnett) single out Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) out of a crowd? In L.A. Confidential, also based on a long and complex Ellroy novel, director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland made this kind of elaborate web easy to navigate. De Palma either doesn't know or can't be bothered to sort it out for us.
    L.A. Confidential vs. The Black Dahlia • These James Ellroy novels have many parallels. Naturally, so do their movie adaptations...
     L.A. Confidential (1997)The Black Dahlia (2006)
    The Obsessed CopBud White, hates wife-beaters after his mother was beaten to death by his father when he was a child. Should have died in the end, but mysteriously survives and drives off into the sunset with Lynn Bracken. Lee Blanchard, obsessed with Black Dahlia case because his own sister's murder was never solved. Should die, and does, while avenging Kay upon her former tormentor/pimp, Bobby DeWitt.
    Blonde Call Girl with a Heart of GoldLynn Bracken came to L.A. from Bisbee, Arizona, with stars in her eyes, instead becomes Veronica Lake lookalike call girl. Bud White becomes obsessed with her. Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson, left), came to L.A. from Montana(?) with stars in her eyes, instead becomes call girl. 'Saved' from tricking by Blanchard, and lives in bizarre love triangle with Blanchard and Bleichert.
    Ambitious RookieEd Exley, looks like a straight arrow, but shows hidden dark side as story progresses. Moves in on Lynn Bracken in twisted (and ill-advised) power play with Bud White. Bucky Bleichert, looks like a straight arrow, but shows hidden dark side as story progresses. Moves in on Kay Lake after Lee Blanchard dies.
    Political PromotionEd Exley is promoted to Detective Lieutenant, Homicide, in exchange for testifying in Bloody Christmas scandal. Lee and Bucky get promoted to Warrants division after agreeing to return to boxing ring, to help push ballot item through.
    Cabin-style roadside motel?The Victory Motel (abandoned) is the site of the climactic gun battle; Ed Exley shoots Captain Smith after Exley learns Smith shot Jack Vincennes. The Red Arrow Motel is where Bucky and Madeleine meet for cheap sex; Bucky shoots Madeleine there after he discovers Madeleine killed Lee.
    The Frolic Room?Exley and Vincennes agree to meet there; Exley stands up Vincennes. It's in the movie, but I forget the context.
    D.A. Ellis Loew played by...Ron RifkinPatrick Fischler
    Overused solo trumpet score composed by...Jerry Goldsmith Mark Isham

    October 6, 2006 •  The Departed • Regal Cinemas Fenway
    Best movie of the year so far, The Departed is a suspenseful, gritty, passionate, authentic crime masterpiece, almost as good as Goodfellas, and better than Casino. It's so refreshing to be able to recommend a new movie without reservation- after a year of pretty good but not great movies, I am pleased to recommend this movie without qualification. Well, you should know that almost everyone dies, there's lots of brutal (but necessary) violence, and the ending is not exactly a "happy" ending, but then again, the movie is called The Departed, not Good Guys Always Win.

    Leonardo DiCaprio is Billy Costigan, a young cop who grew up on the fringes of crime, who goes deep undercover as a petty hood to infiltrate Frank Costello's (Jack Nicholson) crew. Matt Damon smears his clean-cut nice-guy image as Colin Sullivan, a cocky, bold, and despicable Mob soldier who becomes a Statie in order to penetrate the police investigation into his boss, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). Nicholson is only slightly off the rails as a brutal but savvy Mob chieftain who trusts no one.

    Obviously, the "cop goes undercover and begins to lose his grip" storyline is very very old and overdone, but the addition of Costigan's opposite, the mole Sullivan, opens all sorts of exciting dramatic possibilities, which Scorsese exploits to maximum effect. It's hard enough to go undercover for the cops or the crooks, but when each side knows there's a rat amongst them, that makes it even harder. On top of that, they each need to leak information to the opposite side, sometimes in plain sight. During a high-stakes stolen-goods sale, Costigan is texting tips to the cops on the deal, while Sullivan is texting warnings to Costello. In the keystone dramatic highlight, Sullivan sends detectives to "tail" Captain Queenan (Sheen), in the hopes that Queenan will lead Sullivan to the undercover cop (who is Costigan, but Sullivan doesn't know this). Once Sullivan discovers where Queenan is meeting the undercover cop, he tips off Costello's crew, who descend on the location in order to kill the rat. At the same time, the mob crew calls Costigan to order him to participate in the killing of the rat, who is himself.

    The supporting cast was chock full of talent, including Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Alec Baldwin as fellow Staties, and Ray Winstone and Mark Rolston as Mob soldiers. Special recognition goes out to actress Vera Farmiga as the state psychologist Madolyn, who engages in an affair with Sullivan and a tryst with Costigan. I read a profile of Farmiga in the New York Times Magazine, and I expected a second-rate Cate Blanchett, but Farmiga was refreshing and engaging as Madolyn, and she tempered her exotic looks (unearthly blue eyes and translucent pale skin) with a bad haircut and a passable Boston accent. The Boston accents ranged from impeccable (Damon and Wahlberg) to quality (DiCaprio, Baldwin, Sheen), to occasional (Nicholson).

    Kudos also go out to the location photography, especially the under-the-Red-Line meeting with Costigan.

    If this weren't Martin Scorsese, it'd earn an A+ grade, but the songs and score were an uncharacteristic weak point, so it earns a straight A.

      Martin Scorsese Feature Films
    (I have not seen New York Stories, New York, New York, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, or Boxcar Bertha)
  • The Departed
  • The Aviator
  • Gangs Of New York
  • Bringing Out The Dead
  • Kundun
  • Casino
  • The Age Of Innocence
  • Cape Fear
  • GoodFellas
  • The Last Temptation of Christ
  • New York Stories
  • The Color Of Money
  • After Hours
  • The King Of Comedy
  • Raging Bull
  • The Last Waltz
  • New York, New York
  • Taxi Driver
  • Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
  • Mean Streets
  • Boxcar Bertha
  • ( I saw most of Kundun and After Hours on home video)

  • October 22, 2006 • The Illusionist • Arlington Capitol Theater
    A quality genre movie from the mysterious Bob Yari Productions. A love triangle between Eisenheim The Illusionist (Edward Norton), the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), and the young royal they both want: Sophie (Jessica Biel, 7th Heaven, Stealth, Blade: Trinity), set on the damp cobblestone streets and the dimly-lit theaters of late 19th-century Vienna. The leads are all good if unspectacular, although their accents were a bit muddled. What country are these Austrians supposed to be from? Paul Giamatti plays a soulful Inspector, giving the movie some much-needed soul against the overly bloodless and painfully serious passion (both romantic and paranoid) between the principals. The location shooting lent the movie plenty of authenticity, and the photography was pleasantly dim and sepia-toned. The facial hair of Norton, Sewell, and Giamatti looked great, and Giamatti's giant and pimply forehead was perfectly Old Europe. The actors cast to play Eisenheim and Sophie as children were perfect: The young Sophie had the same overstuffed mouthful of teeth as Biel (The royalty in the 19th century get great dental care- who knew they had bleach-trays and ceramic verneers in 1890?) The one lovemaking montage was almost laugh-inducingly cliched. The tangled limbs! Hands stroking body parts which we can't quite identify! No moaning or groaning (just the Phillip Glass score). All in slow motion!

    The illusions were perfectly rendered with modern 21st-century CGI, perhaps too well-rendered for a 19th-century illusionist. The CGI broke the suspension of my disbelief that Eisenheim could create such perfect visions; Emily argued that what we saw onscreen represented the visions which the Viennese audiences believed was onstage. The mystery which the Inspector must solve was a little too transparent for me- the twist ending was perhaps a notch or two below The Usual Suspects or an M. Night Shyamalan film.

    While I found the Neil Burger's direction workmanlike and unremarkable (this was his feature-film debut), I admired the hard work which went into directing and choreographing the sounds of the theater audiences: each gasp, murmur, shouted call, and applause, had to be painstakingly arranged. The theater audiences were a central character in the movie, and no canned 'audience on CD' would have sufficed.

    November 4, 2006 • The Prestige • AMC Burlington
    Sometimes movies you have been anticipating for ages, end up letting you down. In other cases, a movie with no advance buzz ends up as one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. Who would have imagined that I'd find a movie about rival magicians so riveting? Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale (yes, it's Wolverine versus Batman!) play Angier and Borden, who begin as friends and become bitter adversaries after a dangerous trick goes fatally wrong. They descend into a bitter spiral of revenge- it's not enough that they succeed- the other must fail, with pain and disgrace. I don't think I would be satisfied if the movie did not have a fantastical, supernatural element to it. The "real magic" performed in the movie is not revealed until the end, and it is a spine-chiller. I'm still turning it over in my mind two days later.

    Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) uses flashbacks-within-flashbacks to tell the story like a magic trick, which can get a little dense: at one point, Borden is reading Angier's diary, where Angier writes (in a flashback) about reading Borden's diary, where Borden reminisces (in a flashback) about his own past. Just like a magic trick, The Prestige rewards close viewing. In fact, the first words spoken are "Are you paying attention?" The movie does not have a "twist" ending like The Usual Suspects, where no reasonable viewer could figure out that Verbal Kint was Keyser Soze. The Prestige does require your full attention to keep up, and sharp minds will start to unravel the mystery by the mid-way point.

    I was never a fan of magic shows or magic tricks growing up- I always felt like the audience was being played for fools. I can appreciate a clever piece of misdirection, and admire deft sligh-of-hand, but a guy in a tux onstage playing with props never impressed me. I once went to a magic show at the Cabot Theater in Beverly, where the magician levitated an assistant into the air under a cloth- except I spotted the assistant roll out of sight as the cloth "covered" her.

    November 18 and December 2, 2006 • Casino Royale • Guys Movie Night: Regal Cinemas Fenway
    A great reboot of the James Bond franchise. I would not have thought that the producers of the 007 movies would take a chance with a major renovation of the cash cow; the four Pierce Brosnan movies have been extremely successful in the US, UK, and especially worldwide. Maybe they noticed that Brosnan was getting old (he's 53 this year) and his four Bond films were getting bigger and more outrageous. It's not clear that Casino Royale's budget was less than Die Another Day, and it was not guaranteed that audiences would come out to see Daniel Craig as James Bond, so could the producers have made the change...for aesthetic reasons? What a bold move!

    Casino Royale is a origin story/franchise reboot in the mould of Batman Begins; leaner, darker, younger, and with fewer gimmicks and gadgets. Daniel Craig is the freshly promoted 'double-o' agent James Bond. At the beginning of the movie, he is not the secret agent we know so well from the novels and movies. At first, he makes mistakes. He's not charming or dispassionate. He's not unemotional. He becomes that man over the course of the plot: closely based on Ian Fleming's 1953 novel, banker-to-terrorists Le Chiffre (The Cipher) risks death when his clients find out he has lost their massive cash investment. Out of desperation, Le Chiffre must win a $150 million poker tournament, or he'll be forced to surrender to MI-6 to avoid certain death. Bond must ensure that Le Chiffre doesn't win the tournament.

    Le Chiffre (Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen) is cold, calculating, and murderous, but he is not an archenemy like the characters which Doctor Evil parodied so effectively. No secret lair, no alligators or sharks, no world domination, just an evil criminal who stops at nothing to make his money.

    One slightly over-familiar trope of the movie is Bond's relationships with his women. There are two Bond girls in this movie: one ends up dead, and the other has a dark secret. Neither is that surprising. French actress Eva Green is excellent as Treasury officer Vesper Lynd (soon to be seen as Serafina Pekkala in The Golden Compass). Italian actress Caterina Murino is smokin' hot in that red dress! yowza...

    The first half of the movie features several top-notch action sequences- a thrilling footchase across a construction site and two cranes, and later, a fight aboard a truck similar to the fight in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unlike other Bond movies, Craig plays his fights very effectively. The fights seem real not only because he looks tough enough to dish out the punishment, but he looks like he can take the beatings he receives. The final action sequence, a gun battle in a collapsing Venice manse is way too oversized. It feels like a leftover idea from an old Bond movie.

    What's next for James Bond? Why not remake another Fleming novel, perhaps one of the Fleming novels which was made into a forgettable and unpopular Bond movie? By the final shot of the film, Craig is the James Bond we're all eager to see again and again. Here's to hoping that the magic of Casino Royale carries over to the next Bond adventure.

    November 24, 2006 • Little Miss Sunshine • Arlington Capitol Theater
    A perfectly nice movie about family. LMS doesn't try too hard, doesn't make too much of itself, and doesn't try to push the comedy or the melancholy too far. Well, perhaps the body-snatching was a bit much, and the Rick James dance finale was outrageous, but I loved it, and so did the apres-turkey audience on the Friday afternoon after the big holiday.
    November 25, 2006 • For Your Consideration • Kendall Square Cinema
    After one viewing from the fifth row, it's my least favorite of the Christopher Guest/Eugene Levy-led comedies (Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind). The plot did not come to a satisfactory conclusion, the characters were all boringly dumb (Jennifer Coolidge just squawks randomly- not the same thing as comedy), and the hair and costumes, especially John Michael Higgins and Ed Begley Jr, were over-the-top. Perhaps we've all seen too many Hollywood satires? One of my favorite movies of all time is a Hollywood movie, Singin' In The Rain.

    Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy create a skeleton of a plot to hang the improv scenes on. I imagine the movie-within-a-movie "Home For Purim" sounded funnier than the result onscreen: A Tennesee Williams-style southern melodrama, but featuring a Jewish family reuniting for Purim. Plenty of people in my audience were cracking up at the Jewish jokes, but I was only mildly amused. Rachael Harris showed a lot of potential as the lesbian girlfriend Mary Pat Hooligan, but her character just peters out.

    Several scenes were included which were necessary to advance the plot, but were not funny. For example, Parker Posey and Christopher Moynihan are a Reese and Ryan-style couple. When she is rumoured for an Oscar nomination, she senses his jealousy, and they argue over it, but the scene of them arguing is not funny- I imagine the improv juices weren't flowing?

    Perhaps the Hollywood premise is worn out, or the magic just wasn't there, but FYC just didn't spark.

    December 28, 2006 • The Good German • AMC Church Street, Harvard Square
    The ladies were gathered to see Dreamgirls. I was almost convinced to see this Broadway-adapted Motown-esque pseudo-Supremes musical, but Wesley Morris's two-star review knocked me off the fence at the last second. I would have gone to see The Good Shepherd instead, but it was only playing at 6 (too early) and 9:30 (too late). As a result, Brenda Morris, her in utero twins, and I went to see The Good German while Emily, Eve, Laura, and Ananda saw Dreamgirls.

    More of a style exercise than an actual movie, TGG is Steven Soderbergh's pet project: shot with vintage cameras, lenses, and lights, and mostly confirming to the style of 1940s film noir. TGG is a hybrid of The Third Man and Casablanca: imagine if Joseph Cotten were trying to uncover the truth about an old lover (Ingrid Bergman) instead of an old friend (Orson Welles). Clooney is Jake Geismer, a war correspondent sent to Berlin to cover the Potsdam conference in 1945. He gets tangled up in intrigue involving an old lover Lena (Cate Blanchett in full 'haunted femme fatale' mode) and her possibly dead husband, a SS officer who the Americans want and the Russians want to keep from the Americans. In true movie detective fashion, he doggedly uncovers truths which the Powers That Be want buried, friends keep warning him that he'll be the next guy who ends up dead if he doesn't watch himself, he gets beat up repeatedly, even earning a conspicuous bandage like Jake Gittes in Chinatown.

    Brenda pointed out that Clooney is very well-suited for this kind of movie. I have started to notice that Clooney has a couple of acting tricks which must have worked great on TV, but are starting to wear a little thin. Whenever he needs to look vulnerable, or melancholy, he has one special face he makes, but he only has one, so it's a little old. Blanchett, in her black hair, moany accent, and dark lipstick, is flat and emotion-free. She spends the whole movie slowly walking from room to room, lying about everything. Where's the flashback which demonstrates why Geismer fell for her in the first place? Tobey Maguire, in a important role which ends early in the movie, plays a overly cocky, overly young, hotheaded corporal who gets in over his head.

    The plot was appropriately overly convoluted, but then again, does anyone understand the plot of The Big Sleep or Chinatown? In a fatal error of editing, the pacing slowed in the last third of the movie, just when it should have been picking up speed. Maybe Soderbergh is spreading himself a little thin? he directed, produced, shot, and edited this movie, under his own name and two pseudonyms.

    NOTE: Clooney has now acted in six Soderbergh movies: Out Of Sight, Ocean's 11, Solaris, Ocean's 12, The Good German, and Ocean's 13. (SS and GC have worked together, in other capacities, in countless other projects as well.)

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