Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New DVD releases December 18

At the end of The Commitments, we see a montage set to the band’s cover of “Try a Little Tenderness,” where we see what the members of the band have been doing since they split up. The very first shot in the montage is of Jimmy (Robert Arkins), the band’s manager, listening to Outspan (Glen Hansard), the guitarist, and Derek (Ken McClusky), the bassist, as they perform on a busy Dublin street corner. The opening of John Carney’s Once finds Hansard, 16 years older but still hale and hearty, performing by himself on a Dublin street corner, and while it’s two different movies, it’s easy to imagine Hansard’s character merely being Outspan later in life. Certainly, in addition to being musicals set in Ireland, both movies are about the depth of feeling music can produce in us, and they’re both small treasures because of that.
Hansard, whose character is simply known as “Guy” (as in not the name), is playing one night when he’s approached by a woman (Marketa Irglova), simply known as “Girl”, who likes what she hears (even though she only gives him ten pence). As it happens, she’s also a musician – she plays piano, and she practices at a music store (the owner lets her). The two play together enough to know they’ve got something connecting them on a musical level. But does that connection exist elsewhere? After all, he’s got an ex-girlfriend living in London whom he still pines for, and her husband is back in the Czech Republic (she went ahead to try and make enough money for him to move to Dublin), while she lives with her mother and child. Does it matter the two of them may have feelings for each other, as expressed through the music?
What makes this all magical is those feelings are expressed through the music, and thrillingly. I still recall the chill I felt – in a good way – when Hansard and Irglova first performed “Falling Slowly,” the first song they perform together, in the movie – it simply and beautifully captures those feelings. Carney sets all the songs up simply – except for “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy,” which Hansard performs on a bus in response to the question of why his girlfriend left him, everything is done with a naturalistic feel. The two main characters are similarly grounded – he works as a vacuum salesman, while she works a variety of jobs, including selling roses. Both of them, in other words, have a practical life, and let loose only in their songs.
You could argue this is a new Brief Encounter for the millennium (except the two never consummate their relationship, as they did in the earlier film), or that she’s merely his muse, but I think it’s a lot more than that, and that has to do with the music. Hansard (who, along with Carney, is in the band the Frames) and Irglova also do a good job acting out the non-music parts. But the songs are where the real emotion comes from (the opening line of “Falling Slowly” is “I don’t know you but I want you”), and Carney captures the emotion of the songs without sentimentalizing it, as do Hansard and Irglova. It’s the music that makes Once so special.
My senior year in college, I was without a TV, and was concentrating more on the girl I was in love with, and the history thesis I had to write. All of which is to say I missed being part of the audience for The Simpsons when they started their march to being the most popular cartoon, and sitcom, in TV history. I respect the writing, and have liked some of the eps I’ve seen, but it’s not part of my vocabulary the way, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was. All of which is to say I was able to enjoy David Silverman’s The Simpsons Movie for what it was, and not how it stacked up against the TV show. True, most of the supporting characters get little screen time (including my personal favorite, Mr. Burns). True, the movie feels like one half-hour ep stretched out to feature length (even at 87 minutes, this feels a tad long). And true, the environmental message, while undoubtedly sincere, does tend to blunt the satire the show is famous for. However, the movie in some ways sums up the basic appeal of the show – the family. The show’s fans have always seen Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa as representative of the American family, for better or worse, and that certainly comes out in this movie. The plot may involve things usually seen in an action or sci-fi movie – pollution in the lake causes the town of Springfield to be closed down, and EPA head Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks, who’s one of the few celebrity voices here – the others being Green Day and Tom Hanks, as themselves) convinces President Schwarzenegger to blow up the town – but it all comes out of the basic actions of the Simpson family. As in almost every episode, Homer does something stupid but eventually comes around, Marge is impatient but loving with him, Lisa has a crusade, and Bart wishes Homer wasn’t his dad (this part is, admittedly, over the top). The beginning of the movie has the family watching an Itchy and Scratchy movie, and Homer declaring they’ve been gypped by paying for a movie from a TV show when they could just watch the show for free. The Simpsons Movie never achieves greatness, but you won’t feel gypped either.
Ever since the Lord of the Rings franchise, studios have been turning out fantasy films of their own, hoping to reproduce some of that magic, box office and otherwise. Some have come close (the first Narnia movie), but most have fallen short. Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust, though it has some good parts, falls in the latter category. Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, this starts out well – in 19th century England, Tristan (Charlie Cox), a goodhearted but clumsy lad, wants to win the love of Victoria (Sienna Miller), the callow beauty of the village. One night, they’re out together, and they spot a falling star going towards the kingdom of Stormhold, outside the village (which is protected by a huge wall). Tristan declares he’ll go and retrieve the star for Victoria, and this will prove his love. What he doesn’t count on is the star is actually a girl named Yvaine (Claire Danes). What Tristan also doesn’t count on is he’s not the only one after the star – Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), a witch, wants to cut out Yvaine’s heart because it will give her eternal youth, and the sons of the king (Peter O’Toole) want the stone Yvaine is carrying, because whoever gets it will be the next king. One more thing Tristan doesn’t count on is falling in love with Yvaine.
Until Tristan goes through the wall into Stormhold, this is actually pretty good – Vaughn sustains a fairy tale atmosphere that’s appealing. Once he crosses over, however, there are problems. For starters, the attempts at humor are hit and miss at best. Robert De Niro, for one, is way too cartoonish in his portrayal of Captain Shakespeare, a pirate who pretends to be tough but is really swishy (and that’s a tired conceit anyway). He does have one good moment, when he’s dancing along to a can-can number, but that’s about it. And the business about the sons of the king who appear as ghosts after they’ve died is another joke that gets tired. Ricky Gervais does brighten things up in his brief scene as a trader. Vaughn does better by the fairy tale side, especially with Pfeiffer playing another great villain character after Hairspray. He and his Layer Cake cinematographer Ben Davis also avoid the paint-by-numbers look of that film with some lyrical shots, especially when Yvaine is lighting up (her light burns brightest when she’s feeling good, as when she’s falling in love with Tristan). But the story is choppily told – I’ve never read the novel, but I wonder if scenes involving the unicorn and the dream where Tristan is warned about Yvaine being in trouble were better handled than they are in the movie. And then there’s Danes. She certainly looks aglow when she’s in love, but there’s something about her that seems too modern for a fairy tale like this, and at the beginning, when she and Cox (who’s adequate, nothing more) are squabbling, she comes off as pouty. One wonders if this would have soared if Miller had played the lead instead. Stardust could have used a little more.
When Blade Runner, the adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep, flopped upon its initial release in 1982, few could have predicted people would still be talking about it 25 years later. After all, most critics thought director Ridley Scott and writers Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples (with an uncredited assist from Roland Kibbee) had made a muddled mess of Dick’s novel (Pauline Kael admitted the movie couldn’t be ignored, but complained it “gives you the feeling of not getting anywhere”). As for audiences, those who were hoping for another light-hearted Harrison Ford adventure like the first two Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark were bewildered by the storyline and turned off by Ford’s monotonous voiceover narration. However, it did gain a cult following, thanks to the stunning visuals and blending of science fiction and film noir. Then in 1989, a different version of the film was discovered, shown in some theaters, and was eventually released to theaters and video to great acclaim in 1992. This version eliminated the voiceover, shortened some scenes, and had a different ending and meaning, and was the so-called director’s cut. Now, Scott has redone the film once again for his final director’s cut.
For those who don’t know the story, a brief summary is in order. In 2019 L.A., man has the ability to create replicants, or androids that can pass for humans. However, after a bloody battle between replicants and humans, all replicants have been outlawed, and humans hunt them down to destroy them. Deckard (Ford), a former “blade runner” (detectives who hunt down replicants), is called out of retirement to hunt down a group of replicants, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), who have stolen a ship and are looking for their creator. Meanwhile, Deckard finds himself falling for Rachael (Sean Young), who turns out to be a replicant. In the original cut, that’s as far as it went, but in the director’s cut, Scott changed it to imply Deckard maybe was a replicant as well.
Scott has never been really a director of ideas (after all, Kingdom of Heaven is about the Crusades yet eliminates almost all religious discussion from the war), but this film, in any version, is an interesting meditation on what it means to be human. True, Batty is certainly villainous, but Deckard’s superior (M. Emmet Walsh) and co-worker (Edward James Olmos) are just as ruthless, if not more so. And even in the original version, we saw Deckard being cut off from life, whereas the replicants, whose life span was only four years and whose memories were all imprints, seemed to embrace life, and acted out of self-defense. Making Deckard a replicant adds a further twist to that. And the noir-ish world Scott and production designer Lawrence G. Paull create further add to the sense that life for mankind is empty. Finally, all the performances are good; while this was never one of Ford’s favorites, he brings toughness and vulnerability to Deckard, Young is bewitching as Rachael, and Hauer is charismatic and ruthless as Batty while remaining sympathetic. There’s also good work from Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy as other replicants. The new special edition DVD contains both earlier versions, plus a new “director’s cut,” which is basically a tweaking of the 1992 version (which Scott claimed wasn’t his cut, even though it was closer to his vision). Whatever version you see, Blade Runner is still worth watching.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

New DVD releases December 11

I haven’t, and won’t, see High School Musical 2 (five minutes of the first one was enough to turn me off), but the other two franchise pictures coming out on DVD are really good, as is the big indie film of the week.
One of the primary components of American action movies is the hero – or, in the rare case, heroine – always knows who they are, and more importantly, what they are. They may have doubts whether or not they’ll succeed, and may regret things they didn’t do, but that’s almost always momentary – they, and we, are sure of their eventual triumph. This is one of the many ways the Bourne movies have been different from most every other Hollywood action movie. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) knows he’s a killer, but he doesn’t know who he is – just that he doesn’t want to be a killer anymore. Also, his enemies aren’t the outside threats (except as hired guns), but the people who trained him, and made him, in the first place. And unlike most Hollywood action movies, this franchise has made every bullet and punch count. Hard to believe that films of this caliber could be made from novels (by Robert Ludlum) that were convoluted to the point of annoyance, but there you go. And Damon and writer Tony Gilroy, two of the constants of the series, are joined once again by Paul Greengrass, who directed The Bourne Supremacy, for the third chapter, The Bourne Ultimatum, and it’s the best of the series.
In this installment, Bourne, still haunted by the death of his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente), is in hiding until Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), a crusading British journalist, gets a tip from an inside source that Bourne was the key to a CIA operation called Blackbriar. Bourne figures this is another key to finding out who he is, so he decides to track down Ross. What he doesn’t count on is CIA Deputy Director Noah Vossen (David Strathairn), who wants to keep a lid on Blackbriar. Vossen and his superior, CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn), want to put Bourne into the ground, while Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) thinks that will just make Bourne angry with the CIA.
Once again, Greengrass shoots this film as if it was a documentary, with lots of handheld cameras, which has caused griping as well as praise. I think the hand-held cameras lend the movie an immediacy, putting you right into the action, and making it come off more realistic. Also, it adds to the mission of making every bullet and punch count. And while there are some spectacular action scenes, including a chase scene inside a railway station and a chase across rooftops, Greengrass doesn’t forget the human factor – the most heart-stopping moment of the movie is when Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) reappears (she works for the inside source) out of nowhere (it also does the movie credit there’s no flashback explaining how she knows Bourne). And as I mentioned before, the self-doubt Bourne feels adds a layer of emotional resonance not seen in most action movies. A lot of credit, of course, goes to Damon, who is not only realistic in the action scenes, but shows the turmoil of being Jason Bourne.
The reason why J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have resonated with so many people is not just the way she tells the stories (although she’s a great storyteller), or the minutiae she packs in (although both the Muggle and Wizard worlds that she’s created are nicely detailed), but the way each character, particularly the main ones, continues to grow as the series progresses. To me, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the best of the books (though the final chapter, Deathly Hollows, runs a very close second) precisely because it does so well the emotional journey Harry and her friends take. While director David Yates and writer Michael Goldenberg (stepping in for Steven Kloves, who wrote the first four movies) have to trim the book (the longest of the series, if memory serves), they keep that emotional journey, and that’s why the movie is, next to Prisoner of Azkaban, the best of the series to date.
In the previous installment, Goblet of Fire, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) returned to power, but the Ministry of Magic, led by Cornelius Fudge (Robert hardy), refuses to believe it, and won’t hear any talk of Voldemort. So Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), once considered the hero of Hogwarts, is now a pariah, especially since The Daily Prophet is running stories against him. He’s even brought up on charges for using magic outside the school (he was trying to protect himself and his cousin Dudley (Harry Melling) from Dementors). Only a last-minute intervention by Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) prevents Harry from being expelled. To keep Harry and Dumbledore in line, the Ministry appoints Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher, and she appoints herself as watchdog of Hogwarts, coming off as a sadistic Mary Poppins. Among the many changes she brings to the school is banning any teaching of defense methods against the Dark Arts. So Harry, under the prodding of Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), starts his own class, which will prepare the other students against Voldemort. Among the others are Ron’s sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright) and brothers Fred (James Phelps) and George (Oliver Phelps), new student Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and, of course, Cho Chang (Katie Leung), the girl Harry has a crush on, and the girlfriend of the student Voldemort killed in the previous story. At the same time, Harry is tortured by his own connection with Voldemort; he sees things through Voldemort’s eyes, and even sees harm coming to others through him, including, possibly, his godfather Sirius Black (Gary Oldman).
Yates, best known in this country for the made-for-HBO movie The Girl in the CafĂ©, doesn’t seem to have the background for the special effects called for in the movie, but he handles them fine, especially the climatic fight Harry and his friends have with Voldemort’s followers, the Death Eaters (including Sirius’ cousin Bellatrix (Helena Bonham Carter)). More importantly, he handles the relationships with aplomb, for the most part. The only relationship that comes off wrong is between Harry and Cho – they have no chemistry together. But Lynch is superb as Luna (she apparently wrote the producers she was born to play the part, and it shows), the slightly off-center girl who nevertheless is a staunch ally, and Staunton is simply terrifying as Umbridge (though I wish she had done more of the thought-clearing interruptions that made her so memorable in the book). Where the movie falters is with the supporting cast from the previous films – for the most part, they barely register here, except for Snape (Alan Rickman), who here tries, and fails, to teach Harry to close his mind against Voldemort, and Sirius, who feels left out. I understand the movie wanted to focus on the main people of the story, but the supporting cast adds detail to the story that seems missing here. Also, while the climax ends in tragedy, the movie still feels the need to tack on a somewhat happy ending, where a lesson is learned. Still, none of that is enough to negate the fact that I really enjoyed this film, and look forward to what Yates will do with the next installment, The Half-Blood Prince.
Before director Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004, he had been planning to shoot English-language remakes of this first three feature films. Upon his death, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and Stanley Tucci have stepped in to direct them. Buscemi’s effort, Interview, which he also co-wrote (with David Schechter, adapting the original screenplay by Theodor Holman) and stars in, is the first out of the gate. It’s the tale of a night-long interview between Katya (Sienna Miller), an actress best known for her tabloid antics than her talent, and Pierre (Buscemi), a political journalist who’s been assigned to this interview for reasons that only become clear later. I can already hear people groaning at this concept, and it’s true this comes off as little more than an acting exercise, with as much insight. However, it’s a very entertaining exercise, because Buscemi and Miller go at each other with ardor and skill. For Buscemi, of course, this is no surprise – he’s been one of our most reliable character actors for almost 20 years now. Miller, however, is a find here. I still haven’t seen Factory Girl, which left most people cold (although she, and the film, have a few defenders) – matter of fact, the only film of hers I’ve seen is Layer Cake, where she had such an inconsequential part that she made no impression on me whatsoever. I don’t know if having her own tabloid nightmares fueled her performance here, but she shows herself as both thick-skinned and vulnerable, with a level of intelligence that’s not apparent right away. Movie critics aren’t supposed to like remakes of foreign films, but on the basis of this, I look forward to Tucci and Turturro’s efforts.
This week’s major Criterion release is Monte Hellman’s cult road movie Two-Lane Blacktop, one of many road movies to come out in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It may be heresy to say this, but I don’t think it holds up very well. Minimalism is one thing, but either Hellman’s characters are completely one-note, the actors are directed poorly (except for Harry Dean Stanton in a small role as a hitchhiker, and Warren Oates as GTO, a race car driver), or they’re actually that wooden. James Taylor (as the Driver) and Dennis Wilson (as the Mechanic) are fine musicians, but they have zero screen presence, and the plot (about a cross-country race between them and GTO) is so burdened with metaphor it barely registers. The car racing scenes are fine, but as far as road movies of the early 70’s go, I still prefer Vanishing Point.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

New DVD releases December 4

Greg Mottola’s Superbad is about a subject we’ve seen thousands of times before – two teens trying to lose their virginity. What’s more, while Mottola and writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Rogen also appears with Bill Hader as a pair of boorish cops) do capture the friendship between main characters Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), they just don’t make it funny enough. Or maybe I’m turning into a crank about humor as I get older (always possible). Still, I really didn’t laugh that often, not even at newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Fogell, whose fake ID is “McLovin” (gettit?). I’ve never seen Mottola’s The Daytrippers, and I hope that was less obvious than this.
After I saw John Turturro’s directorial debut, Mac, I came across a quote from a critic who said it was “obviously a labor of love, but often a labor to sit through.” That’s a very smartass review, of course, but unfortunately, it rang true. I thought of that line when I watched Ethan Hawke’s The Hottest State, which he adapted from his own novel, directed, and also appears in. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale about William (Mark Webber), an aspiring actor who comes to New York City, and his relationship with Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno), an aspiring singer/guitarist. I’ve liked the two in other movies (Moreno especially in her Oscar-nominated turn in Maria Full of Grace). Hawke has also lined up some good performers in supporting roles, like Laura Linney as William’s mother, Sonia Braga as Sarah’s mother (the scene with William, Sarah and her mom is especially good), and Michelle Williams as an older woman William gets involved with. There’s just one problem – Hawke can’t write dialogue to save his life (except in scenes like the one mentioned above). Therefore, the two main characters, who ideally should be appealing, come off as whiny and self-absorbed. Plus, Moreno must join the list of foreign actors who are uncomfortable with English – or, at least, expressing any emotions in English that have to do with anger (even when she’s upset, she comes off as perky). And Webber is directed to do little but be insufferable – you wonder how two women, let alone one, could throw themselves at him. Hawke can be a talented actor (and he’s also sharp here as William’s father, seen in flashbacks), but as a writer and director, he makes this mostly a labor to sit through.
Two box set tributes to great directors arrive this week. One of them is merely a repackaged deal – four of Ingmar Bergman’s best-known films have been re-released in a Criterion set (The Seventh Seal, Smiles on a Summer Night, The Virgin Spring, and Wild Strawberries), and while I’m not a big fan of Smiles, the other three are essential viewing for anyone who wants to know what Bergman was all about. The other box set is part repackaged, part discovery. One of John Ford’s most frequent studio collaborators – aside from Republic Pictures, where he made masterpieces like Stagecoach and The Quiet Man – was 20th Century Fox. It’s where he made some of his best-known and acclaimed movies like The Grapes of Wrath, Young Mr. Lincoln (which no less than Eisenstein called his favorite John Ford film), and How Green was my Valley), as well as The Iron Horse, the silent film about the building of the Union Pacific Railroad that put Ford on the Map, and even a Shirley Temple movie, Wee Willie Winkie, considered by most to be one of Temple’s best. All of those and more are included in the giant box set Ford at Fox, along with a new documentary on Ford. For those who can’t shell out the $300 bucks for the set, Fox is also releasing some of the movies individually (like The Iron Horse, which includes both the U.S. and European versions of the film), and in smaller, six film sets divided up into the classics, silent films, comedies (including films he made with popular comedian Will Rogers), and the rarities. One of those rarities is Up the River, a 1930 prison comedy featuring the film debut of Spencer Tracy, and the one-time only teaming of Tracy and his lifelong friend Humphrey Bogart, in only his second film (having not developed his gangster persona yet, Bogart was playing a nice-guy role). I haven’t seen most of these, and I’m not a fan of some of the ones I have seen (like Valley or Drums Along the Mohawk, his Revolutionary War film), but it’s nice to see a studio committing itself like this to arguably the best American director of all time.
Finally, while the release of the sixth season of 24 is, of course, big news to TV aficionados, even those who thought the season was lacking somewhat, I’d like to promote the release of the fourth season of The Wire. HBO’s cop drama doesn’t get the viewer or awards attention that other shows like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under received, but critics and a loyal fan based (myself included) consider it the best show on television right now. Creators David Simon (a former reporter) and Ed Burns (not the actor, but a cop turned teacher) are after nothing less but a portrayal of how America’s cities are being laid waste to by drugs, corrupt systems and indifference on every level of bureaucracy, and how a small group of people try to fight that system and indifference even though they may know the outcome. Season 4, which I haven’t seen yet, focuses on the school system, as four eighth graders struggle to make through a school system that doesn’t care about them (except for a few dedicated teachers like Prez (Jim True-Frost), formerly a detective) and a drug trade that beckons. Meanwhile, Marlo (Jamie Hector) continues to solidify his position as the leading drug dealer of the area, and Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) runs for mayor. Personally, after watching the first three seasons, I can’t wait to watch this one, and I'll be very sorry when it finally goes off the air next year.