Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Recent Viewings

Over the holiday weekend, I saw some flicks.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events was practically required viewing since we have a child of the target audience age. I have to admit I was intrigued, too, since the previews promised at least a visually interesting movie. And while the presence of Jim Carrey is not a promise of greatness, it is a promise of a riveting performance. (Has he ever not given a riveting performance? Even Jim Carrey haters will admit to his overwhelming presence in any movie, which is often the reason for their hate. My wife, I think, put her finger on it when she compared Carrey's charisma to Jack Nicholson's.)

So there we were, in an audience full of hacking and sneezing children - some virus is sweeping the Denver area this Christmas season. And the movie, as most professional critics have warned, is dull. Even though the trailer is striking when viewed against other trailers, the movie itself is monochromatic and gloomy in appearance. The script is monochromatic and gloomy in appearance, too.

I suspect that Lemony Snicket's series of books is one of those literary achievements that will never quite translate to the screen. The written word is unique in that the style of an author can transcend the tone of the events themselves. Which is to say, the dreariness of the "unfortunate" books is overcome by the clever and humorous writing. The same goes for Lolly Winston's Good Grief. It was a hilarious novel, but it will probably make a dreary movie, because we will just observe a widow grieving her dead husband, and we will not be living inside her head as we do in the novel, where her sense of humor never abandons her, even if her sanity does, temporarily.

Thus, outside of Meryl Streep's great performance, the movie was a slog. The wife and I were happy when the credits rolled. And then the most damning review of all, MPC (most precious child) said she liked it, but wouldn't want the DVD. Ouch.

The only truly moving occurrence in the whole of the two hours spent in the theatre was when the credits began to roll. A girl behind us burst out into heart-rending sobs, most probably because the movie is a big downer centered around the most primary of a child's fears: losing his or her parents. The ending is essentially: "so the children survived all these travails, but there are still many bad things to come, and their parents are still dead, the end." The girl's heartbreak seemed about the only appropriate and honest reaction to the movie.

Therefore, I think that parents of children who are sensitive, or at least those who haven't read the books and know of the delight contained within the pages of the books but not found in the frames of the movie, might just opt for a second screening of The Incredibles.

The Manchurian Candidate

I was fortunate enough to see the original Manchurian Candidate cold, knowing nothing about it, in a blissfully uninterrupted, lights-out optimal movie experience. It's a hell of a movie, and I recommend it highly. It's on that short list of older films (pre-70s in my book) that simply does not age, and some of the twists of the plot still shock. (Warning: You'll never be able to view Angela Lansbury in quite the same way again.)

The new version does not have the tremulous dread of the original, and not for lack of excellent casting or new plot contrivances. No, the blame can be laid squarely at the director's feet for managing to make the movie so plodding I ended up glancing at the clock three times within a span of five minutes. Not good.

Denzel Washington is predictably compelling. He's just one of those stars who magnetically pull your eyes across the screen to wherever he is. His acting is top-notch, as always. But you just don't give a damn about his character. No. You care for the Manchurian Candidate himself, played by Liev Schreiber. Liev, like Denzel, is really, really good in practically every movie he's in, but here, he's -- he's Edward Norton as the yokel who's exposed as the evil mastermind in Primal Fear good (and if you don't know what I mean by that, check out the flick, even though I've given it away). He's freaky good.

Here's why: Liev has to convey all the glossy sheen of an American political candidate hand-picked by the powers that be for unquestioned domination and success (think George W. Bush with the intelligence and charisma points ratcheted up a couple notches), with all the inbred comfort with privilege and access to the powerbrokers, yet at the same time someone who's vaguely aware of and tortured by the possibility of being a brainwashed pawn of a star chamber. He's the tragic Howard the Duck (think of the comic, not the movie) who's living in a world he didn't create. When Liev's character is teetering on that razor edge of realization and remorse, while still clinging to stature and his assigned role of greatness, it just gives you Oscar® chills. I recommend the movie for his performance alone. The plot is telegraphed loud enough that you could conceivably fast-forward through the scenes he's not in, watching for the scant clues you need, and drop back into real-time when he reappears. Ok, stick around for Denzel's scenes, too.

Meryl Streep continues the wonderful third act of her career, bringing her massive talents to bear in roles not quite worthy of her. She hits the perfect note of the obsessive mother whose relationship with her charismatic, powerful son is just two quivers past incestuous and wrong. Since all of her best stuff is during scenes with Liev, if you take the fast-forward approach, you'll only need to stop for her scene where she's standing outdoors with two of the heavies from the Manchurian Corporation.

Totally worth a cheapo rental, but not as the full-price centerpiece of the movie night rental.

Expect bigger things in the future from Liev. And, Denzel, dammit, pick better directors.

Around the World in 80 Days

Another Jackie Chan swat-fu fest. Sucks. Out. Loud.

Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed

I don't know if I have any cachet with my regular readers regarding taste, because I like some pretty silly stuff and don't like some of the supposed media caviar out there. But if I did, I won't after this because, I think Scooby-Doo 2 is the Citizen Kane of sequels to remakes of second-hand, bargain-basement 70s television animation.

Even stranger, I didn't like Scooby-Doo as kid. I've always been an animation aficionado, and the terminally over-looped, blatant mistakes-left-in animation fiasco that was Scooby-Doo always left me mildly pissed off. (I watched it only when there was no other choice.) It had one plot, and, as Likeks pointed out once, approximately 7 overused music queues. The characters where unappealing, with Daphne being a low-rent version of Josie with no Pussycats, Velma evoking all the warm charm of the eternally congested class introvert in second-hand sweaters who smelled like catpoop, and Shaggy being an ugly unshaven stoner who represents the exact kind of adult all policemen told kids to avoid and whose sole talent was being able to consume twice his body weight during an attack of the munchies. Scooby himself was a vapid retread of the Jetson's dog (voiced by the same guy, no doubt), done better and done first. And just what the hell was the point of Fred anyway? He didn't ever solve a mystery, that was always Velma's gig. Perhaps he was merely Daphne's love puppet (or, shudder to think, Velma's), but if so, then what was that kind of character doing in a kid's cartoon?

Anyway, the first movie was only interesting insofar as Matthew Lillard's resurrection of Shaggy was spooky dead-on, and impressive considering the original voice for Shaggy was done by none else than Casey Casem, he of the infamous paint-stripping voice that introduced the weekly top ten on the radio during the Reagan years. I think he still does it, been since we've become Radio Free America through the implosion of the industry via monopoly, I can't be sure.

I didn't expect much of Scooby 2, and got it only at the request of MPC, who was mildly interested in seeing it while recovering from the croup. Even she suspected she'd have the attention span for it only while swacked on Triaminic and children's Motrin.

And then, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, there we were, the whole family, tears of laughter streaming down our faces, backing the DVD up to hear a funny line yet again, or pausing it altogether whilst MPC got a (laugher induced) coughing fit under control. One line that floored us, as the team pulled up to yet another spooky place to search for monsters and clues, was Shaggy warbling: "Like, Scoob, how come we never get to investigate, like, a Burger King?" This line is made all the funnier due to the dubious fact that the movie touts a product placement for Burger King so bald-faced that the laugh line puts a nice spin on the tawdriness of it.

Fearing I might had been under the influence of rogue endorphins, or in some other unexplainable generous mood, during my initial viewing and enjoyed the movie more that it deserved, the MPC and I sat down to watch it again a couple days later. It was still as funny, so it wasn't mood or circumstance. We've slated this one for a purchase when it hits the under $9 mark.

I thought this movie was funny as hell, and, like, so did my family. I bet you will, too.


I don't like Tom Cruise. He's got that mechanical "Scientology has improved my life too much" glare that all the lesser talents in the thrall of that cult do. (Only John Travolta appears to have the chops to be able to suppress it while playing a role, even though it's on full display when he hits the talk-show circuit.) Further, I don't think Cruise is that gifted of an actor. Granted, he pulled Lestat out of some dark hole in his soul, but then Lestat has a lot of the same manic denial of unwanted reality that Scientologists do, so maybe the performance wasn't so much of a stretch after all. Therefore, when Tom Cruise is in a movie, there have to be other damn good reasons for me to see it. (I think the continued partnership between Cruise and Spielberg is one of the more egregious developments in recent movie history. Doesn't someone as perceptive as Spielberg realize most Americans find Cruise sorta creepy?)

But, I needed a movie to watch, and I'd read that Jamie Foxx - the same Jamie Foxx that is currently channeling Ray Charles so brilliantly and Oscar®-worthy in the biopic - essentially carries the movie, so I decided to pop for the rental. (And when I got it free by remembering a promotion code, I was especially smug.)

Not that it's not clear from his performances in Any Given Sunday and Ray, but why not state it for the record: Jamie Foxx is a great actor, and probably has a huge future in front of him. From the first frame of Collateral, he owns and inhabits his role. Were you to leave the credits off of the three movies mentioned in this paragraph, some might not realize the same actor played all three leads. Well, then Tom strolls in and kinda messes up the vibe until it becomes obvious that the movie is really about Max, Jamie's character, and not Vincent, Tom's shadow puppet. With the Cruise relegated to a purposely 2-dimensional supporting role, the movie glides along under its own power, and is a fine piece of entertainment.

Highlights include the soundtrack and the relative consistency of the intelligence of the plot, marred only once by the "psychic bad guy phenomenon" during the final chase sequence. Lowlights (outside of the Tomster) include the cinematography which may have been done in a digital video kind of feel on purpose, but it draws your attention in a bad way, meaning "what the f*ck was that?" and not "ooooo, cool!"

Collateral is a nice, tight little thriller with groovy tunes (have the surround on and the volume up) and the talents of Jamie Foxx to waft you to the credits. Pick it up next time you're in need of some diversion.

Aloha till next time.


jon said...

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I just stumbled onto your blog while looking. Seems to happen to me a lot since I am a knowledge mooch LOL


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