Saturday, July 7, 2007

Babel (2006)

Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza.

Babel is a powerful, wrenching, and sad meditation on the interconnectedness of a group of people scattered across the world. Something ties all the characters together; gradually we understand what it is.

The movie centers around a married couple (Brad Pitt & Cate Blanchett) touring Morocco on a bus. While the bus traverses a remote mountainside, a bullet suddenly hits the bus and wounds Blanchett. Pitt has the bus pull over in a nearby village. Blanchett is in jeopardy, there’s no hospital close by, and Pitt is in a panic. Both Pitt and Blanchett are affecting in this film.

Meanwhile, a kindly Mexican nanny/housekeeper (Adriana Barraza) is caring for two kids in San Diego. She’s torn, though; her son is getting married in a nearby town in Mexico. She tries urgently to find someone to care for her charges so that she can attend the wedding. Barraza is outstanding in this movie; we experience her gradually increasing desperation as events unfold.
In another segment, a father purchases a gun so that his two young sons can kill the jackals that prey on their goats as they graze near their village.

Finally, we follow a deaf/mute adolescent Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) having a very unhappy day. Kikuchi delivers a powerful and wrenching performance. It makes me afraid for every father of every adolescent girl.The movie segues between these stories, gradually filling in our knowledge of each set of characters. The movie lingers in ones mind after it ends. We can only hope that not every interconnection among widely dispersed people across the world contain such elements of tragedy and misfortune.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Shooter (2007)

Starring Mark Wahlberg

A former Marine sniper is framed by a mysterious agency in this violent thriller. Mark Wahlberg plays the sniper, Bob Lee Swagger. Danny Glover plays “the Colonel”, who supposedly recruits Swagger to help prevent an assassination. Glover imbues his role with oily confidence and charm.

Once the plot elements are set up, Swagger is wounded and on the run from a national manhunt while trying to figure out what happened and why.

Shooter is based on Point of Impact, a book by Stephen Hunter. The book is a well-written thriller, while the movie is only so-so. The translation from book to movie left behind the loving detail and believable action for a breakneck plot in which Wahlberg simply uses his guns and his wits to best his foes, one by one. Further, in the book Swagger is a Vietnam-era sniper, wounded in action, who isolates himself after the war for twenty years on a mountain in Arkansas. In the movie he’s a young Marine sniper who retires to Wyoming after a disastrous incident, with the story picking up two years later.

Ned Beatty plays a corrupt U.S. Senator, and is thoroughly unlikable in the few scenes in which we see him. While he richly deserves the end that awaits him, the dénouement of the film is a little basic and not particularly imaginative.

Fans of violent thrillers will enjoy this film. Everyone else, stay away. If you want to see a taut, well-done thriller, check out a DVD of Three Days of the Condor instead.

The Last Mimzy (2007)

Starring Tim Robbins and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn

The Last Mimzy is a charming, kid-friendly movie. A sister and brother on vacation discover a strange box in the ocean near Seattle, Washington. When it opens, they discover mysterious toys. As they play with them, they start to have new perceptions of the world and new abilities.

Rhiannon Leigh Wryn plays Emma, the little girl. She inhabits her role very well: we believe in her curiosity and wonder. Chris O’Neil plays her brother Noah; together the two must puzzle out the mystery of the toys, including what they are, where they came from, and what they must do with them. The young siblings must learn to get along with each other while confronting the challenge. The interaction between the kids and with their parents felt realistic.

Tim Robbins and Joely Richardson play the children’s Dad and Mom. The kids are becoming geniuses, but the parents are worried, and turn to their son’s teacher for help and advice. Rainn Wilson is quirky as the science teacher working to challenge and inspire his students. He reminded me of Jack Black.

Michael Clarke Duncan has a small role as the man investigating a perplexing event in Seattle for the Department of Homeland Security. He’s entertaining during the time he’s on-camera, but it’s a small role.

This film moves along slowly. This isn’t a criticism; the film gives itself the time it needs in order to tell a good story. It’s not terribly long at 90 minutes, but it felt just right.

There are a couple of unrealistic plot points in the movie involving the teacher and his girlfriend, and the Department of Homeland Security, but these don’t detract from the overall experience. The special effects showing what the various toys do are great. It’s refreshing to see a movie that’s interesting and charming, but without a lot of violence. This movie is recommended for children and for families.

300 (2007)

Starring Gerard Butler and Lena Headly

300 is a visually stunning, violent spectacle of a movie that moves along like a freight train in order to tell a pared-down story. It’s based on the graphic novel (comic book) by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.

The movie title refers to the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, wherein 300 Greek warriors led by Spartan King Leonidas fought against an invading million-man Persian army led by Xerxes at a narrow pass leading into Greece. Leonidas enters the battle knowing that he and his Spartans might only be able to delay, not stop, the Persian army. The political will didn’t exist in Sparta or in the rest of Greece at that moment to mobilize and fight.

The movie is narrowly focused. Setting the stage, we meet Leonidas (Gerard Butler), his wife (Lena Headly), and a few other characters, notably the Persian leader Xerxes. Do you want deep character development, or a complicated and subtle plot? You won’t find them here. The film moves quickly along to the battle, gifting us along the way with stunning visual panoramas. The look of the movie is gorgeous. Much of what we see onscreen is created with special effects, and they’re very well done.

If you can, try to see this movie at a theater with Digital Projection. The color saturation is amazing in such a theatre. Not every film necessarily looks best in Digital Projection, but this film was meant for it. It offers iconic images and stylized violence.

This movie has two controversies associated with it, and one puzzle. First, is it too violent? It does focus on a violent (and historically significant) battle. To minimize the violence of that battle would trivialize the sacrifice of the warriors. Still, this is comic book violence, in which many are killed, but few are hurt. The film doesn’t dwell on the suffering of those who are wounded or who die. Some say this comic book quality cheapens violence; this is a question filmgoers must consider when making movie purchases and rentals. Do we want the realism of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List, or the fantasy of movies like 300?

Second, some commentators have suggested that the film’s situation is somehow analogous to our own day, where a leader (the U.S. President) must valiantly confront evil enemies. Having seen the film, it seems a pretty weak comparison. These days we don’t see leaders putting themselves on the front lines of a battle in order to oppose tyranny. Further, the threat from the invading Persian army was clear; there were no phantom weapons of mass destruction used as an excuse for going to war.

Finally, why has this movie been wildly successful? I think this is because it is a well-made movie that sticks to its business and takes us into the iconic heart of a famous battle, replete with glorious visuals. Gerard Butler is convincing as the stubborn King Leonidas, and carries us along to the inevitable conclusion. Though it’s a bit early on the calendar, this is a good summer movie.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Breach (2007)

Starring Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillipe; Directed by Billy Ray

Breach is a fascinating glimpse into the mind and heart of the FBI’s worst traitor, Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillipe) is a young FBI agent-in-training; he’s assigned to be Hanssen’s assistant in order to investigate if the senior agent presents a security risk. Only later is O’Neill told that the FBI has discovered that Hanssen is selling secrets to Russia, and that O’Neill’s new job is to help catch him in the act. Cooper delivers a stunning, multilayered performance as Hanssen, inhabiting the role with authority, energy, and complexity. This movie is based on actual events.

The pleasure of the film is seeing the cat and mouse game between Hanssen and O’Neill. O’Neill at first admires Hanssen, seeing a very smart, intensely religious man. He tells his FBI handler that they might be making a mistake about Hanssen; far from being a security risk, he may be getting punished for being outspoken. Everything changes once he knows Hanssen is a traitor. O’Neill has to distract Hanssen at key moments so that the team tracking Hanssen has time to search for incriminating evidence. It’s tense and dangerous work. Catching Hanssen in the act is also a real challenge: he’s getting suspicious, and may decide to stop his treasonous acts.

Laura Linney is convincing as O’Neill’s handler; Dennis Haysbert (President Palmer on 24) also adds authority and intensity as one of the team tracking Hanssen.

Hanssen is a dominating, menacing man, with a threat of physical violence that has O’Neill almost shaking at times. Further, this undercover job puts a real strain on O’Neill’s marriage; he can’t tell his wife anything about what he’s doing, and she’s very curious. Apparently this is an occupational hazard for FBI agents; they must accept that their real work can seldom be shared with their spouses.

We know the outcome of this movie at its beginning, but Cooper is riveting as the traitor at the center of it all. We get clues as to why Hanssen became a traitor, but they’re not definitive. Some dark secrets of the human heart are forever hidden or can only be suggested. Cooper should get an Oscar for this performance.

Sweet Land (2006)

Starring Elizabeth Reaser, Tom Guinee, Ned Beatty, Alan Cummings, and Lois Smith; Directed by Ali Selim

Sweet Land is a sweet, charming, quiet piece about a young woman (Inge Altenberg, played by Elizabeth Reaser) who emigrates to the U.S. in 1920 to marry a Norwegian farmer in Minnesota, Olaf Torvik (played by Tom Guinee). However, troubles arise, and the marriage doesn’t happen. First a local minister (Paul Heard) refuses to marry the couple, saying she’s an alien from Germany, a country the U.S. just fought a war with. Then the county Justice of the Peace refuses to marry them, insisting that Inge needs documents and papers from her home country to prove she’s not a dangerous seditious agitator.

Olaf’s friend Frandsen (Alan Cummings) and his wife take her in, and she slowly learns English as she lives with the couple and their many children. Cummings shines in this small role; we really like the playful, charming character he creates.

This film has a lyrical soundtrack, gentle and lovely, that meshes with the quiet images and the slow development of the plot. Violin and piano provide perfect accompaniment for the images on the screen. This movie doesn’t rush anything, nor do the young couple forbidden to marry. Guinee imbues his character with dignity and strength. Reaser is engaging as Inge, challenged to overcome one obstacle after another.

Though set in Minnesota, the film could just as easily have been set anywhere in the Midwest. The sky presents an endless vista from horizon to horizon, and the farm is always in need of attention. Though we see tractors and even a steam-powered threshing machine, much of the farm work is done by hand. (At that, not everyone can afford a thresher.)

An opportunistic banker, played with cheerful gusto by Ned Beatty, intrudes. He informs Olaf’s friend Frandsen that he’s foreclosing on his mortgage. Frandsen and his wife and many kids will be forced from their home, and their farm and property will be sold at auction. Some slick city fellows show up at the auction, intent on grabbing a bargain.

This scene reminds us that bankers and farmers have had an uneasy relationship going back generations; farmers need capital to do their farming, but bankers need regular payments, or else. Olaf says to the banker after a telling moment in the film, “Banking and farming don’t mix.”

This is a satisfying movie, engaging but easy-going, of a young couple coming to know and love each other amidst a beautiful unbounded sky and the verdant land. They must find ways to overcome the mistrust of their fellow farmers and of the local minister. Inge begins to earn her place in America by her actions, not her words, ending in a scene of great beauty in which all that is important is suggested, not shown.

This is Ali Selim’s first time as a director; he also produced and wrote the film, based on a short story by Will Weaver. The movie is a beautiful achievement; we can expect great things from Selim going forward.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Over the Hedge (2006)

Animated; Starring the voices of Bruce Willis and Garry Shandling

Over the Hedge is an entertaining animated children’s movie. It features a talented ensemble of actors who bring the story to life. Bruce Willis is a wily raccoon whose love of food gets him into trouble with a nasty, selfish bear (Nick Nolte). Willis destroys Nolte’s food stash, and now has to go out and steal all the food (and other items) needed to replace it.

On the snoop for food, Willis runs into a group of forest animals just coming out a hibernation. They consist of a hyperactive squirrel, a cautious turtle (Garry Shandling), a skunk, a family of porcupines, and a family of possums. There’s some of the flavor of Ice Age, with this unlikely group of animals considering itself a family; they share an old hollow log for their hibernation, and gather food together to prepare for their annual rest.

The animals face a strange new world. While they were sleeping, their forest was transformed. A hedge now surrounds their forest world; an alien landscape awaits them on the other side of this mysterious new precisely manicured object: suburbia. A luxury housing development of uniform mansions now dominates the area that used to be part of the animal’s forest. Willis sees all the food the humans have, and immediately covets it in order to pay off the bear threatening his life. The other animals are (justifiably) nervous about invading this mysterious world.

But Willis uses all his charm to trick the herd into helping his food gathering. There are some entertaining moments as the animals overcome challenges like sprinklers, guard cats, and cars.

Finally, one of the suburban dwellers, the nasty president of the homeowner’s association (Allison Janney), calls in an exterminator (Dwayne the Verminator, amusingly played by Thomas Haden Church) to “terminate with prejudice” all the animals that have invaded her neat manicured world. Willis and the other animals have to use all their tricks and all their skills to survive.

Along the way Willis faces a choice between selfish hedonism and selfless charity. Since this is a children’s film, his choice can be reliably predicted.

This film isn’t the greatest of the animated films released in recent months; I’d give that honor to Ice Age: The Meltdown, which was visually more stunning. But Over the Edge entertains, and has some fun and imaginative action sequences, and some entertaining character interactions. I’d recommend this film for children up through twelve or so.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

Starring Tilda Swinton and Liam Neeson

This movie is a charmer, beautifully filmed, with characters we care about who face moral dilemmas that have real-world consequences. It’s a fantasy movie, but it plays fair: the supernatural can be understood, and it behaves consistently just as in the Harry Potter series.

Some English schoolchildren have been sent to the country to escape the London Blitz during World War II. They explore the old mansion they wind up in, and stumble across an old wardrobe that transports them to an unknown new world called Narnia.

Narnia is a strange, magical land, and before they know it the four Pevensie children are caught up in the war between the White Witch (played with chilling menace by Tilda Swinton) and the mysterious lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson). There are talking animals in this world, and mythical creatures such as fauns and satyrs. The amazing thing is how ordinary it all feels. We’re not trapped in special-effects-land: the overall feeling is surprisingly normal and naturalistic. Moviemakers who feel the impulse to overuse (and abuse) special effects in their movies could learn a lot from this movie.

This is the best rendition of the Narnia books that I’ve yet seen on the screen. Georgie Henley breathes life into her role as Lucie Pevensie, the youngest sister. The other children turn in good performances as well.

There’s treachery, heroism, and loads of allegory in this movie. C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, was a staunch Christian. He imbues the Narnia books with his beliefs, but also tells some very good and entertaining stories along the way. Allegory is a painless way to absorb the ideas that Lewis cares most about; good and evil, honesty, beauty, and sacrifice.

Take The Lead (2006)

Starring Antonio Banderas, Rob Brown and Alfre Woodword; Directed by Liz Friedlander

Take the Lead is a dance movie through and through-it's high-spirited and fun, and draws you in with a mix of classic and popular music. Antonio Banderas is Pierre Dulaine, a smooth, skilled dancer who competes in ballroom dancing competitions, and teaches at a dance studio filled with wealthy patrons.

After witnessing a bit of mean-spirited vandalism by a high school kid, Dulaine goes to the high school and asks to teach ballroom dancing to the students. The skeptical principal, played by Alfre Woodward with toughness masking her caring, almost laughs him out of her office; she then sends him down to the detention hall, which happens to be in a deep basement that resembles a dungeon. It's so close to the boiler room that you can almost hear the hiss of steam and the drip of water.

Banderas is a pleasure to watch through this entire movie. He's courtly, polite, and kind, and meets every obstacle thrown at him with tact and courtesy. His Spanish-tinted English suggests a world of rich Corinthian leather. The kids are intrigued by him; he's like an alien from another world. They can't relate to his music or his dance moves, until he brings in a skilled and beautiful partner who dances an extremely suggestive tango with him. After that, the kids’ resistance is futile.

One of my favorite scenes is a PTA meeting where a smarmy teacher who dislikes the idea that "dance class" is competing with the serious subjects the students should be learning. Dulaine disarms the parents and teachers by demonstrating a little dancing with Alfre Woodward (who is charmed in spite of herself) while telling them why learning to dance is relevant for the kids, and how it will assist their growth to maturity and identity.

There’s a nice sub-plot of a young girl from a wealthy family who decides to join the detention kids at the high school. She's getting ready for her debutante debut at a high-society dance, and feels awkward and shy. She figures that joining this bunch of misfits trying to learn to dance might help her to overcome her fears.

Rob Brown, star of Finding Forester, is one of the hard-case kids. In seeing his life outside of class we understand just what a challenge it is for kids in the inner city to see beyond today's rent and tomorrow's bills. Brown is convincing in the good and bad choices he makes, and in the growth he experiences in the movie.

This movie is based on a true story, which makes it all the more enjoyable. At the end of the movie the kids enter a city-wide ballroom dance competition. There's a live orchestra playing, and the best dancers in the city have arrived to compete. Are the kids good enough? Do they win? See this infectious, toe-tapping movie to find out.

The Celestine Prophecy (2006)

Directed by Armand Mastroianni

The Celestine Prophecy is a spiritual quest movie about a man seeking to learn about some mysterious prophecies that are unearthed in Peru. The prophecies are about an expansion of human consciousness predicted to occur near the end of the 20th Century.

The movie curiously mixes in a sub-plot involving bad guys who menace/chase/attack/imprison the people who are hunting the prophecy and attempting to understand its meaning. It’s based on the book The Celestine Prophecy.

There are some very beautiful parts of the movie—we see gorgeous shots of mountainsides and trees and old ruins. Peru is a country I’d like to visit some day, just based on this movie. There are parts of the quest that are also interesting, while others seem more in the vein of telling rather than showing (seldom a winning formula).

The closest movie The Celestine Prophecy can be compared to is The Da Vinci Code. Again, people search for hidden knowledge while being chased by mysterious opponents. The difference is that Tom Hanks is one of America’s best actors, and they didn’t have Tom Hanks for this movie. The star of the movie didn’t ensnare me into the movie’s world, and I found myself uninvolved in what happened in the plot. They’re chased, they’re captured, they get away, they understand another piece of the prophecy. Next? This is not a bad movie—it has interesting scenes, and some fascinating ideas as well. It just isn’t a great movie.

Great movies possess a unity and magic that encourages us to relax our doubts and overlook their imperfections. Less than great movies, like this one, leave us scratching our heads. Why didn’t it live up to its full potential? Did the director have the wrong touch? Did the screenwriter(s) mess up? Did the actors fail in their performances? This reminds me of the old expression about families; happy ones are all alike, while unhappy families are all unhappy in different ways.