December 31, 2005

2005 Year-End Wrap-Up

2005 was a tough year to pick my Top Five. There were few great movies, so I had to pick from 9 or 10 really good movies. I finally settled on The Forty Year Old Virgin, Good Night, and Good Luck, King Kong, Syriana, and Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

December 29, 2005

Fun with Dick and Jane: Guys Movie Night

funAnother spotty comedy in the same mold as two of Jim Carrey's most consistent comedies, Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty. Dick and Jane are financially wiped out when Dick's company Globodyne implodes. Jim Carrey is doing the same wacky shtick, which is still funny, if totally unchanged over the last decade. Instead of being wacky because of his son's birthday wish (Liar Liar) or because of God (Bruce Almighty), he's wacky because he's been driven to a life of crime by the total discorporation of his life. Their increasingly competent escapades in robbery are amusing, until the only-in-Hollywood elaborate and nonsensical scheme to steal millions from the Globodyne CEO (Alec Baldwin, channeling George W Bush) who bilked the employees for fun. The ending feels like the last, best compromise which test audiences didn't hate, which is no way to make a movie. Like Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty, and director Dean Parisot's previous comedic success, Galaxy Quest, Fun with Dick & Jane feels like the product of focus group reshoots and ruthless editing. Angie Harmon plays Dick & Jane's neighbor, and you can tell her more-substantial role was cut down to only two remaining lines, and her character's husband is only there long enough to set up one joke. I think I saw Laurie Metcalf as Jane's travel-agency boss, but her part was cut out until only one or two lines remain. (AMC Fenway)

December 16, 2005

King Kong: Guys Movie Night

An overload of the senses, Peter Jackson's loving remake of the (still-powerful) 1933 monkey movie is overstuffed and overexcited, but the excessive creeps, thrills, and scares don't distract from the powerful, authentic romance at the center of the film. Kong himself is a masterpiece. Just as director Jackson and actor Andy Serkis trancended special effects in creating Gollum, the CGI Kong is seamlessly rendered on the big screen. I never spotted any sign that Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) was not actually interacting with Kong. I believed every second of it. Kong is imbued with personality, feelings, and a whole character. None of the characters talk about Kong: there is no pointless speculation about his history, his life on the island, his enemies, his food supply, his relationship with the natives: In a wonderful example of "show, don't tell", we discover a rich tapestry of the ape's life through the graceful storytelling (or 'story-showing') of Peter Jackson.kingkong

Yes, the movie is three hours long. The movie starts pretty briskly: Renegade filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) escapes New York on the SS Venture with his cast, crew, and screenwriter (Adrien Brody) before his studio can pull the plug on his production. Once on the boat headed for the South Pacific, we are stuck with subplot seasickness: Jackson introduces a completely unnecessary (and easily excised) coming-of-age subplot with a stowaway-turned-cabin boy (Jamie Bell, aka Billy Eliot at age 19) and the first officer (Evan Parke) who tries to teach him to become a man. WHO CARES! Did Peter Jackson find this cliche on the cutting-room floor of the 1933 film and decide to intergrate it into the new movie? All I know for sure is that the movie could have spared its omission.

The movie's violence and creepiness inch towards R-rated territory in two areas: The ruthless savage natives of Skull Island are truly spine-chilling and bile-raising, and in my opinion, cross the line between entertainment and unwatchable terror. Speaking of unwatchable, the bug sequence, where the expedition is trapped in a pit of giant locusts, maggots, spiders, and scorpions, was unwatchably disgusting. If I see this movie again, I will step out for some gummy worms from the concession before I have to watch men eaten by giant maggots (shudder).

By the time Kong has been lured into a chloroform-soaked trap, you truly understand why Ann Darrow is drawn to Kong, and begs the men to leave him alone: he may be 25 feet tall, but this gorilla cares more for this tiny blonde than any human ever could.

THEATER NOTES: I saw this with my friends Phil and (I think) Angus too. Picture this: Kong has escaped the theater and has been chased across midtown. He suddenly pauses in the middle of the street when he spots through the mist, Ann Darrow striding towards him. The soundtrack is nearly silent when...Phil's BlackBerry starts ringing! The BlackBerry is hidden away in one of Phil's coat pockets, and he can't find the right zipper, so in order to muffle the ringing as quickly as possible, he simply clutches the whole coat to his chest! We later discovered the caller was our friend Peter, who arrived late, to see if we wanted to meet for dinner.

December 11, 2005

Syriana

syrianaA disturbingly vivid look under the covers of oil and global politics. Directed by Stephen Gaghan, whose screenplay for Traffic explored the same themes within the drug trade. Syriana exposes us to the destroyed lives, toppled governments, and CIA assassinations which keep the SUVs of America running and the lawyers of the world impossibly wealthy. Syriana will make you want to abandon your gas-fueled car by the side of the road and move to a yurt on a hilltop somewhere. After the screening, I went home and popped Die Hard in the DVD player for a little Christmas-themed escapism. (Loews Boston Common)

December 2, 2005

Aeon Flux: Guys Movie Night

The Aeon Flux movie takes what is, by all accounts, a pretty bizarre, surreal, and totally cool early-nineties animated character (from short films on MTV), brings her to flesh-and-blood life in the Academy-Award-winning body of Charlize Theron, and then removes all the bizarre, surreal, and coolness. Set in the far future, in the last city on earth, Aeon Flux is an assassin for an underground movement, attempting to topple the Orwellian regime of Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas, The Bourne Supremacy). The movie is filled with quality talent all around: the movie also stars Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy from Trainspotting), Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda), and Frances McDormand (Theron's co-star in North Country), in an extended cameo.
However, great source material and a solid cast isn't enough. The characters are completely flat and passionless- Flux is supposed to be a cool-as-ice assassin, yet also on a vengeance trip at the same time. How to reconcile these two ideas? Director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) doesn't figure it out. The secret history of the last city on Earth is a cool premise which offers limitless possibilities for a cerebral sci-fi examination of self and the human condition, but this potential is squandered on lots and lots of gunfire.
Bregna, the last city on Earth, is depicted as endless Brutalist poured concrete and modern gardens (my friend Marc asked 'was this shot at Government Center? Jack replied 'I think I saw Mayor Menino in one scene!'). The climactic gun battle takes place in a grove of cherry trees. I kept thinking "Bregna's arborist is gonna be pissed that you're shooting at all these nice trees!" In the end, this Aeon Flux is a boring shade of Logan's Run, Blade Runner, Dark City, and Minority Report. (AMC Fenway)

November 20, 2005

Ray Charles and Johnny Cash

Their life stories, as told in the movies, follow similar courses. Let's see how...
RayWalk The Line
ParentsMother offers tough love to newly blinded son. Father, absent. Mother's love, passive. Father thinks Johnny is useless, never has a kind word for him.
Brother Dies TragicallyBrother George drowns while Ray stands and watches. Brother Jack gets chewed up by circular saw while Johnny goes fishin'.
Parents BlameMother asks "Why didn't you do somethin'?" Father asks "Where were you?!"
Leaving HomeCharles's mother sticks him on a bus bound for a school for the blind. Johnny leaves home on a bus bound for the Air Force.
Marries PoorlyMarries a gospel singer who just wants to settle down and raise a family.Marries a hometown girl who just wants to settle down and raise a family.
Iconic ImageAt his first audition, Ray is given sunglasses to hide his blindness. At his first audition, Cash and his band wear all-black because that's "the only color shirt all three [band members] own"
First Public PerformanceRay comes across as awkward and uncool, but immediately wows the crowd with his raw talent.Cash comes across as nervous and dorky, but immediately wows the crowd with his raw talent.
Infidelity on the RoadBeds every beautiful woman he meets, including backup singer Margie Hendricks. In love with June Carter from the moment they meet. Pledges his love via romantic duets onstage, uninvited kisses in motel room doorways, and spontaneous marriage proposals. Cash also is seduced by teenage fans backstage.
Substance AbuseSeeks out heroin from his junkie bandmembers, becomes hooked.Offered amphetamines by roadies, becomes hooked. Drinks beer constantly.
Strung OutSweaty Ray trashes bathroom, ends up on floor. Sweaty Johnny trashes bathroom, ends up on floor.
Jail TimeFinally nabbed by Feds for travelling back from Canada with drugs. Finally nabbed by Feds for travelling back from Mexico with drugs.
Rock BottomEnters rehab to avoid jail time, sweats out cold turkey withdrawal. Crashes tractor into lake, sweats out cold turkey withdrawal.
Gets His S**t Back TogetherMovie ends with Charles still in rehab-- his new, clean lifestyle is recounted in the end title cards. Movie ends with Cash and Carter getting engaged-- his successful marriage is recounted in the end title cards.

Walk The Line

walkthelineJoaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon no longer have anything to prove- they both turn in masterful performances in this above-average biography with quality acting and breathtaking musical performances. The story is too reminiscent of Ray to offer any surprises, but Phoenix draws on a deep well of emotion over his own brother River Phoenix's death to inhabit this role: a man who always belived that his late brother was a better person that he, so Cash never tries to make something of himself when he belives he can never equal what he lost in his brother. Witherspoon has the luxury of a well-drawn role of her own: the good girl from a religious family who can't live down her failures in marriage, and is hanuted by dashed expectations. (AMC Burlington)

November 19, 2005

Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire

harrypotter4Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings & A Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin) deserves to be knighted by the Queen for the heroic effort in making a watchable movie out of an insanely dense and long novel. I didn't realize exactly the scope of the challenge until we saw the movie Saturday night. Besides ruthlessly cutting out plots and subplots (house elves, Quiddich, Rita Skeeter, the Dursleys, Mrs. Weasley, all either cut out or barely present), Newell valiantly struggles to keep this intensely episodic story moving. The previous installment, Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban, was delightfully organic and lyrical. This film, by contrast, was choppy and full of rough tone changes, but the whole story gets told in an entertaining manner, and that's all we could ask for.
The three kids are still very accomplished in their roles, Michael Gambon has made me forget the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore, David Tennant is intensely crazy in his few scenes as Barty Crouch Jr., and Ralph Fiennes is spot on as Voldemort. Brendan Gleeson delightfully chews up the scenery as the ex-Auror, paranoid veteran Alastor 'Mad–Eye' Moody. (AMC Fenway, November 19 2005)

SECOND VIEWING: February 11, 2006
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 okay 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. (Arlington Capitol Theater)

November 12, 2005

106: Sunrise


The Cover is a snap I took just before daybreak in Elizabeth, New Jersey on Thanksgiving morning 2005, as my wife and I awoke extra early to go see the Macy's parade.
This disc has no title. I created the packaging for #105, 106, and 107 all in one shot, and I was not inspired with titles.
I will say I spent more time on the back covers than I ever had before, and I am really happy with the result. Perhaps I was feeling particularly OCD that week, but I was intent on creating a custom-made pre-printed "form" to fill out, with little boxes for each bit of information.
  1. Don't Stop Me Now - Queen, as heard in Shaun Of The Dead.
  2. Lovely Day - Bill Withers
  3. Deacon Blues - "Steely Dan is not one guy!"
  4. I Can't Make You Love Me - Bonnie Raitt
  5. Walk In The Sun - Bruce Hornsby
  6. Thin Line Between Love and Hate - The Persuasions (1973)
  7. Margarita - The Traveling Wilburys
  8. Wild Mountain Honey - When I was a teenage DJ at WBMT 88.3 FM, We played a LOT of Steve Miller. Our Steve Miller Band Greatest Hits LP got a lot of use. It was nice to include Mr. Miller on one of my mixes for the first time in at least 10 years!
  9. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart - You might think it impossible to include this Wilco song on a mix, but I think I pulled it off. Sandwiched between a trippy 1970s song and a loopy 1980s song, I think it works.
  10. America Is Waiting - When I was a college DJ at WERS 88.9 FM, I played this sample-heavy experiment-rock track from David Byrne & Brian Eno on the afternoon world music/jazz fusion/experimental show Gyroscope.
  11. Screenwriter's Blues - Soul Coughing
  12. Desire - The "Hollywood Remix" of the U2 song.
  13. Mass Romantic - New Pornographers
  14. All The Right Friends - A surprisingly retrograde R.E.M. song from the Vanilla Sky movie soundtrack.
  15. Panic - The Smiths
  16. Soap Star Joe - This Liz Phair track brings the mix to a dead halt. I should have cut it out.
  17. Frere Jacques - The famous nursery rhyme, recorded in the style of "The Space Between" by Dave Matthews Band, credited to "Dave Math Shoes". I found the web site advertising this collection and I loved it.
  18. A Bit Of Alright - Paul Peña wrote the song "Jet Airliner" which Steve Miller made a smash hit. This song was (at the time) used in Boston.com/jobs TV commercials.

November 4, 2005

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

kisskissShane Black has returned to the genre he reinvented in the 1980s -- the buddy action comedy -- with this funny, violent, densely-packed directing debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Hapless crook Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), accidentally immersed into the Hollywood machine, is plunged into a classic Chandler-style murder mystery, involving his hometown crush-turned-aspiring actress Harmony (a breakout performance from Michelle Monaghan) and a gay private detective (Val Kilmer, in his first comedy since Real Genius). The dialog is rapid-fire, the mystery tortuous and satisfying, and the violence is slightly gratuitous but creative, in other words, a typical Shane Black screenplay (see Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight) .

This movie is good enough to be a big hit, even if it is lacking all the ingredients to be a big box office success: it doesn't have the kind of box office stars which make the youth of America come to the theater (which is ridiculous), and it's rated R (which is supposed to keep kids away from the language, violence and sexuality/nudity). The nearest comparison would be the success of Pulp Fiction, although Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is unlikely to be a Oscar-winner and cultural icon. (West Newton Cinema)

November 3, 2005

Only On Home Video: 1995-2004

This movie diary is a tribute to all the movies, good and bad, I have seen in a theater. These pages give me the opportunity to praise movies I love, but this document only tells part of the story. While I have visited movie theaters more than forty times per year for over a decade, some gems still slip through my fingers. After exhausting research, I have compiled a list of the Top Ten Best Movies, which I missed in theaters. I had to set a cut-off point to keep the list from growing too large (no one wants to read my Top 50!) so I restricted the list to movies I love which I missed in theaters since 1995. In Alphabetical Order:
  • Boogie Nights (1997) I missed this Los Angeles porn epic, probably because my then-wife would have hated it. I was living in Portland, Maine at the time, so who knows if P.T. Anderson's sexy masterpiece had a theatrical exhibition out in the sticks, anyways.
  • Clueless (1995) This "Emma In L.A." is still cute, smart, and funny, 10+ years later. It must have seemed kind of silly and inconsequential at the time.
  • Dark City (1998) Why did I miss this movie in theaters? It's a challenging premise with no "stars", and frankly, the trailer for the movie was badly assembled.
  • Desperado (1995) I don't know why I missed this one.
  • Galaxy Quest (1999) In an unprecedented endorsement, my parents called me right after they saw this movie, to praise how great this movie is. I saw The Sixth Sense that weekend instead, and missed this great comedy.
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) I had enjoyed the Coen Brothers's Fargo and The Hudsucker Proxy, but I hated The Big Lebowski. HATED IT. So when their subsequent movie came out, I avoided it. Only when my friend Dan forced me to watch it in 2001 did I realize what I had missed.
  • Office Space (1999) I'm hardly the only person who missed this movie in theaters, then discovered it on home video.
  • Out of Sight (1998) In 1998, I didn't give a rat's ass about George Clooney or Jennifer Lopez. I still don't care about J-Lo, but she was great in this Steven Soderbergh movie.
  • Shaun of the Dead (2004) Another movie which didn't look as funny in commercials as it turned out to be. Emily and I came very close to seeing this in the theater, but never quite pulled the trigger. Thanks HBO!
  • The Tao Of Steve (2000) I remember reading a magazine or newspaper feature about this movie and it's director. I rented it from Netflix in 2001, a year when I rented dozens of movies to fill my newly-free time: In 2001 I was freshly divorced, living with my parents, mostly unemployed. This small, romantic movie about a underachieving, overweight-yet-charming guy (Donal Logue) who happens to look a lot like me won me over. I went to a New Year's party full of strangers that year, and everyone started calling me Steve, after this movie.

Shopgirl

shopgirlA worthwhile if occasionally clumsy romance, Shopgirl examines what a male infatuation is like for the object of male desire: Mirabelle (Claire Danes), a kind, sweethearted artist who escaped the frozen wastes of Vermont for a lonely existence in the tangles of Los Angeles. Two men fall for her on first sight: kindly but emotionally detached millionaire Ray (Steve Martin) and sweet but aimless Justin (Jason Schwartzman). Martin and Schwartzman play their roles with care and affection, but they are drawn as ridiculously polar opposites. Steve Martin the screenwriter seems to be drawn to this feeling-versus-thinking, brains-or-body dynamic: His original screenplays L.A. Story and Roxanne both cover this same idea. In L.A. Story, Harris K. Telemacher struggles to choose between sexy free-spirit SanDeE* and eccentric and plain Englishwoman Victoria Tennant. Steve Martin plays brainy, witty, nose-y C.D. Bales, versus sexy, brain-free Chris (Rick Rossovich) in Roxanne.

Besides the ham-handed symbolism (yeah, we get it, Justin's poor and unrefined, and Martin is rich and polite!) the overbearing, overloud musical score made the movie feel twice as long as it should. The repeating theme sounded like Bernard Hermann's Vertigo- it made me dizzy and logy.

Director Anand Tucker (Hilary & Jackie) apparently has never been to Los Angeles before, and has never seen a movie set there either- the recurring helicopter shots of the clogged freeways are terribly cliched and stock, as if there was no other way to illustrate the locale of the movie. The establishing shot of Saks Fifth Avenue's exterior was exactly the same in each instance: How about a different angle, or different time of day?

I am hardly a follower of the Claire Danes oevure. Danes's films I have seen (on the big screen or TV) include Little Women, How To Make an American Quilt, Home for the Holidays, Romeo + Juliet, and Les Miserables. However, I was very taken with her performance: At the age of 26, Danes begins this movie a shopgirl and ends it a woman.(Kendall Square Cinemas) .

November 1, 2005

105: Apple

The Cover Photo is my wife's hand holding a freshly-picked apple October 16, 2005.
This disc has no title. I created the packaging for #105, 106, and 107 all in one shot, and I was not inspired with titles.
I will say I spent more time on the back covers than I ever had before, and I am really happy with the result. Perhaps I was feeling particularly OCD that week, but I was intent on creating a custom-made pre-printed "form" to fill out, with little boxes for each bit of information.
  1. Never Destroy Us - I found this song by The Dears when researching music for our SXSW trip earlier that year.
  2. Count On My Love - I don't apologize for liking all phases of Liz Phair's career, from the lo-fi indie rock to the current hi-fi power pop.
  3. When My Baby's Beside Me - You can only read so many critics saying how awesome Big Star are before you buy their CD for yourself.
  4. Who Did You Think I Was? - This is from John Mayer's attempt to be taken seriously as a blues-rock trio.
  5. Times Like These - Foo Fighters
  6. Chest Fever - The Band
  7. Diddley Daddy - Bo Diddley
  8. Hickory Wind - You can only read so many critics saying how awesome Sweetheart of the Rodeo is before you go buy The Byrds CD for yourself.
  9. Photograph - The first time I heard this Jamie Cullum song, I thought he sounded *exactly* like Paul McCartney. The rest of this CD is a little too jazz-y for my taste.
  10. Fine Line - Paul McCartney
  11. Something Wild - Maia Sharp was the female singer Du Jour on the radio that week.
  12. No Way To Treat A Lady - Canadian rocker Bryan Adams had a flourishing sideline as a tunesmith for other artists. Along with his writing partner Jim Vallance, Adams contributed songs for KISS, Krokus, .38 Special, and Joe Cocker, among others. Two women named Bonnie covered this song: Bonnie "Total Eclipse of the Heart" Tyler, and Bonnie "A dozen Grammys" Raitt.
  13. Get Your Hands off My Woman - Ben Folds
  14. Don't Pass Me By - The Georgia Satellites cover Ringo's song as a Southern-fried rave up.
  15. Free Girl Now - I had this Tom Petty CD single lying around for 5 years without listening to it. I finally cracked the seal and gave it a slot on this mix.
  16. Eight Years Old - I generally like Ben Lee, but I was trying too hard to find new music when I picked this track off one of his CDs for this mix.
  17. Paul Newman's Eyes - I saw Dogs Die In Hot Cars at SXSW that spring.
  18. Forty Feet - Franz Ferdinand
  19. Vox Humana - I saw this terrible Kenny Loggins video on "V-66" when I was a teenager, and I bought the cassette.
  20. Sleeping Bag - ZZ Top

October 15, 2005

Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

wererabbitA perfect feature-length Wallace & Gromit adventure, and the funniest movie I have seen all year. As usual, one of Wallace's inventions has gone wrong, and it's up to Gromit to save the day. The voice talent (Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes) are spot-on, although I found their plasticine charaters a little cluttered and, well, cartoony, compared with the elegant simplicity of Wallace and Gromit's personas. I also found the rabbit design a little crude. The noses on the rabbits looked a little big. (AMC Fenway)

October 9, 2005

Serenity

Smart, adventurous, witty, and moving, the continuing voyages of the smuggling ship Serenity (the big-screen follow-up to the short-lived Firefly TV show) remind me of the continuing adventures of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian, in the Star Wars novels of the mid 1980s. Unlike the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, Serenity's story of galactic intrigue is not painted across an entire Empire or Federation, but just one ship. The total absence of rubber-faced and CGI alien races adds to the verisimilitude.
I had only heard of Firefly secondhand from my brother and sister, both devoted Buffy The Vampire Slayer fans (I have never seen an episode of Buffy). My brother gave me the box set for a present, so I gave it a shot and liked it right away. Serenity, the movie, pays off the unresolved story arcs from Firefly, the TV series: What is River evolving into? Where did the Reavers come from? Will Kaylee and Simon ever have sex? All this and more is addressed in the movie. (AMC Burlington)

October 8, 2005

Good Night, and Good Luck.

goodnightA small but important movie about a singular moment in American broadcast journalism, George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck acts as a wake-up call to journalists across America. David Strathairn is captivating as Edward R. Murrow- he is given powerful speeches to deliver and he does so with authority. Emily especially enjoyed Frank Langella as William S. Paley, and let's not forget the Best Collarbones in Show Business, Ms. Patricia Clarkson. (Church St, Harvard Square)

October 1, 2005

A History of Violence

They say one of the three basic stories is the "stranger comes to town story". A History Of Violence is one of those stories, but told with a fresh layer of uncertainty and creepiness by David Cronenberg: what if The Stranger who comes to town is the local you know best? This protagonist is Tom Stall, an ordinary, average, Middle-American dad, with an ordinary wife and two kids, performed with heaps of plain-faced honesty and goodwill by Viggo Mortensen. The most excitement in his life is when his wife gets rid of the kids for the evening for a night of hanky-panky.

When Ed Harris (in the same diehard bastard mode as A Beautiful Mind) shows up in town, we start to wonder: Who is the Stranger In Town? Harris, or Mortensen? It is so refreshing to watch a movie where you really don't know what to expect around every corner. This film could have been so ordinary with another director and lead actor, but Cronenberg and Mortensen keep the audience off-balance for the duration. The violence in Violence is not gratuitous, but unflinching in a classically Cronenberg manner. (Church St, Harvard Square)

September 16, 2005

The Constant Gardener

The 11th novel by John Le Carré to be adapted for the screen, The Constant Gardener is about secrets between spouses- why you keep secrets, how secrets are discovered, and how you define yourself when you learn your late wife is not who you thought she was. Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is a British diplomat in the Nairobi office, married to Tessa (Rachel Weisz), an outspoken activist. Tessa discovers a deadly conspiracy between the British government and Big Pharma, but she deliberately keeps her investigation a secret from Justin, in order to protect him and his career.constant

Justin is too willing to remain ignorant, and when Tessa is murdered, Justin must investigate the woman he was married to while redefining himself and his relationship to his wife. After her death, he becomes the kind of husband she needed in life, and that's as close to redemption as they get. The direction is solid, with colorful and exciting cinematography. The pacing is kind of slow in the last third. The screenplay is excellent. Rachel Weisz stands out in her supporting role as Tessa. She is revealing all sorts of new talents in every role I see her in (The two Mummy films, Beautiful Creatures, Enemy At The Gates, About A Boy, Confidence, Runaway Jury). (West Newton Cinema)

September 10, 2005

The Forty-Year-Old Virgin

The highest compliment I can offer to a movie called "The Forty-Year-Old Virgin" is that it is intelligently assembled and thoughtfully rendered. Steve Carell and director Judd Apatow could have made a very simple, crass, and rude sex comedy. Instead, they've invented a interesting, complex, human protagonist whom the crowd roots for, even if he is a giant super-nerd.forty

Andy (Carell) is a painfully shy sci-fi nerd who has carved out a tidy little niche for himself: his apartment is fully equipped with videogames, home theater, and action figures, every week he watches "Survivor" with the nice retired couple upstairs, and he works at a Circuit City-style electronics store where he doesn't have to interact with anyone, especially women. In his teens, he missed his chance to have sex for the first time. At age forty, how do you explain to a woman that you don' t know how to have sex? "I respect women so much I stay completely away from them!" he explains, so it will take several misguided social-science experiments by his three horndog coworkers (Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, and Romany Malco) to get him some action. The male relationships are so lovingly rendered, this is truly the Summer of the Chuck Flick. (August 27 and September 10, AMC Fenway)

August 16, 2005

Mad Hot Ballroom

madhotballroomReview ghostwritten by EKD | New York City public school kids taking a ballroom dancing class for phys ed: the premise doesn't convey the wonderfully poised, gawky, funny, honest moments the movie catches on the faces and feet of these middle schoolers. Far less heartwrenching than Hoop Dreams, and much more upbeat than Spellbound, which seems like a festival of schadenfreude by comparison. (Capitol Theater Arlington)

August 14, 2005

Wedding Crashers: Guys Movie Night

The latest Guys Movie Night feature is the funniest movie I have seen since the last Wilson/Vaughn/Ferrell movie, Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy. Wedding Crashers is easily the funniest Vince Vaughn performance to date. Vaughn and Wilson play slightly aging bachelors who have transformed wedding crashing into an art. Vaughn is obsessed with quality appetizers and exotic sexual encounters, while Wilson starts wondering if their all sex, no substance lifestyle is meaningless. When they crash the wedding of a Cabinet member's daughter, they both get much more than they bargained for. Neck deep in WASP dysfunction, Vaughn and Wilson fall for two of the bride's sisters: Vaughn's redhead target (Isla Fisher) turns out to be even more crazy than he is, and Wilson becomes smitten with Claire (Rachel McAdams), who's stuck in an engagement with a cruel, brutish snob (Bradley Cooper). In previous Vince Vaughn comedies, his screen time (and laugh potential) is diluted by an ensemble cast (Old School, Dodgeball). In Wedding Crashers, his machine-gun delivery of brutally frank sex strategizing is undiluted and overpowering. Owen Wilson is a better counterpart for Vaughn than his brother Luke was in Old School.weddingcrashers

The sex jokes come hard and fast, with only a few totally juvenile missteps. The caricatured "crazy mean grandma" and "black sheep/gay/tortured artist son" aren't as funny as the rest of the movie. Christopher Walken, as the father of the bride and bridesmaids, strikes just the right tone without going over the top. In a piece of casting-against-type genius, Jane Seymour plays the drunken matriarch, who lures Wilson into a too-close dance, forces him to try out her newly-lifted breasts, and confesses that she has been faithful to her husband for 3 of their 30 years of marriage.

By the way, Owen Wilson, at age 37, looks a little old for the stoner-surfer shag haircut? The lines under his eyes are getting more noticeable these days...

THEATER NOTES: This was a Guys Movie Night where only two guys made it inside the theater. Angus and I arrived early enough to snag seats in the sold-out show, but our friends Phil and Sandor were shut out. Just as the movie was starting, Phil called from the lobby. I unwisely advised him to "just buy a ticket for something else and sneak into the theater- I am sure you can find a seat!" Thankfully he did not take my advice as the theater was packed. (July 29, Loews Boston Common; August 14, Showcase Cinemas Woburn)

My Ten Favorite R-Rated Comedies, 1984-2005

The release of Wedding Crashers prompted Entertainment Weekly to publish an article lamenting the demise of the R-rated comedy. In the eternal quest for wider audiences, many comedies which could or should be R-rated are toned down to PG-13 levels to hopefully draw in more ticketbuyers. But what's the point in earning a PG-13 if the quality of the movie is hurt as a result? One recent movie which should have been R-rated is Dude, Where's My Car? I found it very funny, but the sex and drug jokes were obviously toned down into PG-13 territory after shooting was completed, and it shows. When I saw Mother, Juggs, and Speed on DVD, it was obvious that all the foul language had been removed in "looping" in order to earn a PG rating.
Here then, in tribute to the R-rated comedy, is a list of my favorite R-rated comedies. To earn a spot on this list, not only does the movie have to be one of my favorite R-rated comedies, but it has to put that R certificate to good use:
  1. There's a symphony of foul language in Beverly Hills Cop (1984): Axel Foley:You know, you have a very big mouth, sir! Are you hiding something from me? Is that it? I bet you that is your Porsche that's parked front, isn't it? How would you like me to have the IRS come down here and crawl up your ass with a f***ing microscope? They'll do it! I've seen them do it! It's not a pretty sight! I want you to know something, pal! I want ALL of y'all to know something! I can have twenty five agents down here in fifteen minutes to march in here, snatch your bonds out from underneath you and you'd be out of business, PERMANENTLY, if I don't start getting some cooperation! Is that understood?
  2. Oh, the irony: Stand by Me (1986) features 11-year-olds talking the way real 11-year-olds do, yet the movie is rated R for language, so an actual 11-year old requires a parent or guardian to see the movie.
  3. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) makes the list for this exchange alone: Otto: You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, f***-face, dickhead, ass****. Archie: How very interesting. You're a true vulgarian, aren't you? Otto: You are the vulgarian, you f***!
  4. Midnight Run (1988) is unwatchable on TV because of great lines like this:De Niro: I never took a payoff in my life and I'm not gonna start with someone like you. Grodin: Why not? De Niro: Because you're a f***ing criminal and you deserve to go where you're going and I'm gonna take you there and if hear any more s*** outta you I'm gonna f***ing bust your head and I'll put you back in that f***ing (train lavatory) and I'm gonna stick your head in the f***ing toilet bowl and I'm gonna make it stay there.
  5. Six words from Heathers (1989): "F*** me gently with a chainsaw." The Heathers could crush the whole "90210" cast with this dialog!
  6. Only an R rating grants you the artistic freedom to discuss necrophilia, snowballing, and hemaphrodite porn, as Kevin Smith & Co. do in Clerks.
  7. Let's just say that the phrase "federal pound you in the ass prison" was coined in the movie Office Space (1999)
  8. The movie South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (1999) is supposedly one of the most filthy movies of all time. Featuring 146 utterances of "f***" in less than 81 minutes, that's 1.8 "f***s" per minute!
  9. Wedding Crashers
  10. and
  11. The Forty-Year-Old Virgin
Update: I forgot Shaun of the Dead! Thanks to HotFix.com's more expansive list for jolting my memory.

August 3, 2005

The Island

Michael Bay (Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and Bad Boys II) doesn't deserve his success as a big-popcorn movie director. I quite enjoy action movies with big explosions, chases, and fistfights. You Constant Browsers out there can find many examples in this diary. Michael Bay, however, directs action movies with the subtlety of a wrench to the face, the grace of a nail gun through the palm of your hand, and the needless violence of a meathook in the back. All three of these acts occur in The Island, directed without flair, intelligence, or accomplishment.
The concept is an unremarkable mishmash (melange is too sophisticated for Bay) of Logan's Run, Blade Runner, and 1984. The clones are kept docile, content, but ignorant, in a giant brutalist-designed colony (it looks like a giant mall parking lot without the flair). They're cloned duplicates, kept in stock as spare parts for their owners in the real world. When their "sponsor" needs some new skin, organs, or a surrogate mother, the "insurance policy" (clone) is used and what's leftover is disposed of. The clones' complete ignorance of sex, crime, and sin in general makes them as innocent and curious as 12-year-olds, and that's what inspires Ewan McGregor to escape, and bring Scarlett Johansson with him. McGregor's clone doesn't know what sex is, but his subconscious knows a bodacious babe when he sees one. There could have been a metaphor for Adam and Eve if Bay could find time for it amongst all the helicopters and bone saws. McGregor and Johansson, both talented actors, spend a few minutes acting and the rest running and getting brutalized by fight sequences and crashes.
Bay employs slow motion without any purpose- it seemed like half the movie was shot in slow motion? I also don't understand the product placement blanketing the sets. I have no problem with the use of product placement in the scenes on the streets of Los Angeles- brand names exist in the real world, after all. I did find it kind of weird that half the vehicles were conspicuously branded (Cadillac, Mack truck) while all the Dodge police cars had their grille logos removed. I found it distinctly odd that all the consumer items within the clone colony were paid placements- Puma sneakers, Aquafina water, XBox video games? Why would these clones, who are complete drones of the company, who have no concept of money, who will never see the outside world, merit brand-name anything? Why everyone would get brand name sneakers and bottled water is beyond me.
I think Bay is a successful movie director because he can helm giant-scale movie productions, which people will buy tickets for, if the studio spends enough money promoting them. The actual movies Bay directs are not as important as the presentation of the idea of the movie to the public. If you can sell the idea to moviegoers, and then deafen them with explosions and blind them with kinetic energy, they'll tell their friends how "good" the movie was. A combination of no big-name stars + less than astronomical promotion kept this movie from recouping its certainly astronomical budget. (Loews Boston Common, with my friend Laura)

July 30, 2005

104th Of July

The cover photo of my friends Kim and Laura looked like a band photo, maybe a female Steely Dan? The sunglasses, the way they're looking away from the camera, the angle, it all says "album cover" to me.

  1. THE STYLE COUNCIL: "Mick's Up" (a instrumental track from their odds & sods collection.)
  2. ELVIS COSTELLO: "...This Town..."
  3. LIZ PHAIR: "It's Sweet"
  4. GENESIS: "Turn It On Again" (I liked this song long before it was in those Chevrolet commercials.)
  5. THE B-52's: "Dry County"
  6. RAY CHARLES: "Let The Good Times Roll" I love the way the horns and vocals are nearly overmodulating. Sounds like a hot session!
  7. GORILLAZ: "Feel Good Inc." (I first heard this song in a TV spot for those "NOW Thats What I Call Music!" collections.)
  8. THE SHORE: "Waiting For The Sun"
  9. KEANE: "Everybody's Changing" (When The Shore and Keane charted these big hits, I could never remember which band was which.)
  10. DANNY ELFMAN: "Veruca Salt" Elfman wrote and recorded original music for the Charlie & The Chocolate Factory movie, with lyrics taken directly from the book.
  11. COUNTING CROWS: "The Ghost In You" (A great cover of the Psychedelic Furs song, live at KBCO Boulder 8/28/93; from the Clueless soundtrack.)
  12. PSYCHEDELIC FURS: "Love My Way"
  13. MODEST MOUSE: "Ocean Breathes Salty"
  14. R.E.M.: "Talk About The Passion"
  15. PAUL McCARTNEY: "Momma Miss America" (used to good effect in the "travel montage" in Jerry Maguire)
  16. THE WHO: "Summertime Blues" (Live at Leeds 2/14/70)
  17. MARK KNOPFLER & JAMES TAYLOR "Sailing to Philadelphia"
  18. NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE: "Changing Highways"

July 27, 2005

Fantastic Four

A half-hearted superhero movie, FF gets the B-list treatment compared to A-list projects like Batman Begins and the Spider-Man movies. The B-level budget is evident not so much in what we see but what we don't. Some of the special effects are very good, but there's not enough of them- it feels like they scaled back the scope of the movie. For example, we only see Mr. Fantastic stretch (up close) twice, and we don't see Ben Grimm becoming The Thing.
The movie is an origin story: Act One- The FF plus Doom get soaked in cosmic rays, become superpowered. Act Two-- The FF learn how to use their powers, while Doom starts losing his grip. Act Three-- The FF fight Dr Doom for a few minutes, and the movie is over. What's the point in wasting our time with an origin story if there are no adventures to follow it? Batman Begins, Spider-Man, and The Hulk are also origin stories, they're all 15-35 minutes longer, and do not feel as abbreviated. Plus, those three movies were good enough to merit sequels, whereas FF felt like the studio crippled it with a small budget.
The cast is talented but not star material: Ioan Gruffudd (Horatio Hornblower) is capable as the earnest, boring egghead Reed Richards. Jessica Alba (age 24) was much better in Sin City. In order placate comic book fanboys, they remake the olive-skinned brunette Alba into a blonde-haired, green eyed Susan Storm, to ill effect. As a result, I found myself distracted from her acting (and her hotness) by her pasty complexion and miscolored irises. Boston native Chris Evans (Not Another Teen Movie) almost saves the movie with his 'I'm not taking this too seriously' attitude. Boston native Michael Chiklis (The Shield) is surprisingly good as The Thing- the orange latex suit he wears is surprisingly convicing- much better than it looks in the commercials. Julian McMahon (Nip/Tuck) never transcends TV-quality menace as Dr. Doom- his unearthly dark black eyebrows are a distraction in every scene. Boston native and Emerson College grad Maria Menounos has an extended cameo as Sexy Nurse. (Loews Boston Common)

July 24, 2005

Charlie & The Chocolate Factory (2005)

Tim Burton's adaptation isn't saccharine and cuddly like the 1971 film: Johnny Depp's Wonka is a sheltered misanthrope. Burton is more faithful to the book than the 1971 film, at least in ways that really matter: The Chocolate Room is better (the river looks like chocolate and not brown water), the riverboat fits Dahl's description, the Oompa Loompas (played by Indian actor Deep Roy) look like jungle people. Veruca Salt is dispatched by the nut-sorting squirrels (instead of a mechanical scale). Burton includes flashbacks to several other Wonka adventures (included in the book): the construction of a chocolate palace for Prince Pondicherry, and Wonka's discovery of the Oompa Loompas in Loompaland.charliebucket

Burton's major addition to the Dahl story is a backstory for Willy Wonka. Why did Willy Wonka turn out this way? Why does he live all alone with his candy? Freddie Highmore is excellent as Charlie Bucket, but he doesn't have a lot to do as Wonka takes his Ticket-holders on the grand tour. The four songs the Oompa Loompas sing (lyrics by Roald Dahl, music and vocals by Danny Elfman) are fantastic, even if the words are hard to interpret. On the whole, a satisfying ride. (AMC Fenway)

July 22, 2005

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)

Emily and I came out to see the first film adaptation of Roald Dahl's book before seeing the new movie this weekend. This original adaptation of the Roald Dahl book holds a lot of sentimental value for me, but isn't as good as my memories of it from childhood. The songs are horribly dated, the tone is stickily sentimental. The Oompa Loompas are completely different from the characters in the book (why the midgets have orange skin, green hair, and white eyebrows is a mystery to me!). In order to pad out the length of the book into a feature-length movie, the world's mad hunt for the five Golden Tickets is illustrated with a series of slight vignettes (a computer is developed to calculate the location of the Tickets; a man is kidnapped for a chocolate ransom; Bucket's math-deficient teacher is obsessed with Wonkabars). As a result, it feels like a majority of the movie takes place away from Charlie and Willy's stories. There's also an added subplot where Wonka tests Charlie's loyalty by kicking Charlie out on a technicality sans candy. I found this to be a needlessly cruel trick at the end of the movie- Instead of betraying Wonka to his rival Slugworth, Charlie proves his worth, Wonka says "just kidding!", and Wonka gives him the whole factory.willywonka

Free Friday Flicks at the Hatch Shell, Boston MA: WBZ is the main sponsor of this series, so weatherman Ed Carroll introduced the movie. He assured us that there were no thunderstorm cells in the area. He said there were storms in the Berkshires, and north of the city, but they should be able to squeeze in the movie. After making this inaccurate prediction, I'm sure Ed Carroll hopped in his car and sped away, leaving us to weather the consequences. During the movie, we were treated to quite a light show. The thunderhead-filled skies behind the Hatch shell were constantly illuminated by lightning. We could not hear the thunder, so I assumed the system was too far off. However, right as the Oompa-Loompas say farewell to Veruca Salt, the wind picked up and a few big fat drops of rain began to fall on us. Emily thought I was over-reacting, until she looked up and got one in the eye! We immediately packed up and headed towards Charles Street. We were soaked by the time we got there. After weeks and weeks of stifling hot and rain-free weather, I really didn't care that I was soaked!

July 6, 2005

War of the Worlds

Steven Spielberg's sloppy attempt to make an unredeemed B-level alien invasion movie takes itself too seriously to be fun. I have no problem with Spielberg making a movie with no redeeming value whatsoever. However, the premise of the movie is presented in an utterly preposterous manner, yet the whole movie is staged with the utter seriousness of Saving Private Ryan's Omaha Beach sequence. Imagine Mars Attacks! without a sense of humor, and that's what we're stuck with here. Tom Cruise, meanwhile, takes the part way too seriously. We've seen all the tricks in the Tom Cruise Acting Portfolio too many times to be abosrbed by him anymore.waroftheworlds

It was widely reported that Spielberg fast-tracked this production when his star, Tom Cruise, became available due to a unexpected break in his schedule. The movie feels rushed, like Spielberg didn't give himself the creative time and effort to inspire new ideas. He's relying on pure talent to carry him through, and if this weren't a Spielberg movie, we wouldn't hold War of the Worlds to such a high standard. One of the principal suspense sequences, a cat and mouse hunt, is a sad pale imitation of the kitchen sequence of Jurassic Park, and ripoff of The Abyss too. The Boston Globe review described Dakota Fanning as a 'creepy mini Bette Davis', and they're not too far off. The ending is as tacked-on and sentimental as any Spielberg movie. Spielberg cannot bear to kill off any character we're supposed to care about, and War of the Worlds is no exception. (Weirs Beach Drive-In, Weirs Beach, NH)

June 26, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy

After twenty years (and a half-dozen adaptations into every other entertainment format known to man), a big-screen Hollywood adaptation of the first Hitchhiker's story has arrived. My siblings Jon and Kate and I all grew up reading the "increasingly innacurate" trilogy of Douglas Adams novels (Hitchhikers, The Restuarant at the End of the Universe, Life, The Universe, and Everything, So Long and Thanks for all The Fish, Mostly Harmless) so it seemed fitting that we see the movie together.hitchhikers

The movie is silly, intermittently funny, with a deadly dull patch in the middle. It's hard to keep up the momentum when you destroy the planet Earth in the first 20 minutes. Only after seeing the movie did we realize how slim the story is in Volume 1. Rather than stick to the novel (and release a 75-minute movie) or combine Hitchhiker's with Restuarant (and release a 150 minute movie), Douglas Adams included an original subplot to beef up the story. In the subplot, religious leader Humma Kavula [John Malkovich] blackmails Zaphod into retrieving a "point of view" gun from Magrathea. In the process of escaping the Vogons, Trillian is arrested and must be rescued from execution by the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. This subplot is only tolerable because I know/suspect that Douglas Adams wrote it himself.

The casting is pretty spot-on: Martin Freeman is perfect as Arthur Dent. The romantic subplot between Arthur and Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) undercuts Trillian's brainy aloofness. I don't think there could be a "definitive" Ford Prefect or Zaphod Beeblebrox, but Mos Def's interpretation is worthwhile, and Sam Rockwell crosses Michael Keaton's Beetlejuice with George W. Bush to create a shag-rockin', cowboy-booted President who "doesn't have time for reading". (April 30, AMC Fenway; June 26, Somerville Theater)

June 24, 2005

Batman Begins: Guys Movie Night

batmanbeginsThe latest installment of Guys Movie Night turned co-ed when most of the guys couldn't make it to the show. The outdoor marquee displayed the titles showing like this: BATMAN BEWITCHED, which would make a pretty sad crossover.
This restart of the corrupted, ruined franchise (last seen in 1997) is the best movie Batman yet. In order to make this movie feel like a comic book, director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) does not use "comic book-y" costumes, camera angles, or production design. Instead, the theme of this "origin story" goes to the heart of every superhero story: why Bruce Wayne wants to fight crime, how he discovers what kind of crime-fighter he wants to be, and how a world-famous billionaire with no superpowers can become an anonymous crimefighter without anyone discovering his secret.
Unlike previous Batman movies, where the Batman was always on the side of the audience, Batman often creeps up on us as much as his foes. In one memorable sequence, Batman stalks machine-gun-toting thugs among storage containers on the Gotham docks. We don't stalk the thugs with Batman- we view the whole sequence from the thugs' perspective, reminding me of Alien. Undercutting this other wise effective technique: the fight sequences are shot so close to the action, it's hard to see who's punching who.
Nolan has an A+list cast to work with: Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Rutger Hauer, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson, and Cillian Murphy. The only disastrous casting choice: Katie Holmes as an Assistant District Attorney-slash-love interest. Bruce Wayne is 30 years old, but Holmes looks way too young to be a lawyer, even though she's twenty-six. See my post Katie Holmes: Unconvincing Adult. (AMC Burlington)

ALSO by Gary Oldman on STUB HUBBY:Batman & Stub Hubby

June 12, 2005

The Interpreter and Cinderella Man

This past weekend Em and I escaped the brutal heat and humidity for the refuge of two dark and air-conditioned movie theaters: The Interpreter on Friday June 10 (West Newton) and Cinderella Man on Sunday June 12 (AMC Fenway). Both movies are major Hollywood productions. Both were directed by Academy-Award winning Best Directors (Sydney Pollack won for Out Of Africa, Ron Howard won for A Beautiful Mind). Both movies' leads are both Academy-Award winning actors (Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Russell Crowe, and Renée Zellweger).interpreter

With such a pedigree, The Interpreter sounds like a very safe bet- After all, Pollack directed one of the best white-collar thrillers of the 1990s, The Firm. All he would have to do is repeat that success and I would walk away satisfied. However, The Interpreter did not remind me of The Firm but another John Grisham adaptation- The Pelican Brief. In both films, the leading lady (Nicole Kidman = Julia Roberts) is thrust into a deadly conspiracy with mysterious bad guys and multiple unknown motives. In both films, the woman is forced into a uncomfortable alliance with a stranger (Sean Penn = Denzel Washington). In both films, the woman whispers all her dialogue and acts scared for two-plus hours. In both films, the woman narrowly avoids getting blown up in a car (or bus) bombing. The Interpreter had all the elements in place to be as good as The Firm, or better than The Pelican Brief. Unfortunately, Pollack's pacing was ponderous, the musical score was ineffective, and the performances bloodless. On the other hand, the location shooting inside the United Nations building was very effective!cinderellaman

Cinderella Man is a vast improvement on Ron Howard's last biopic starring Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), and a vast improvement on his last "Irish immigrants struggling to make a life for themselves in America" movie, Far and Away. It would be easy to call Cinderella Man "Seabiscuit Boxing": An underdog beats the odds to win in glory against a bigger and more powerful foe, while inspiring the American spirit during the Great Depression. I found the story moving, if a bit saccharine and manipulative for my taste. Howard's direction of the boxing scenes is strong and evocative. He did a superlative job of conveying to viewers unfamiliar to boxing (besides Rocky movies) how boxing matches are won and lost- strategy, points scored, tactics, endurance. Crowe is right on target once again, Zellweger is strong in a underwritten role, and Paul Giamatti (as Braddock's trainer) is stellar. I have loved his work in two movies already (American Splendor and Sideways). Giamatti did not get nominated for Best Actor for Sideways because Clint Eastwood (in Million Dollar Baby) is beloved by the Academy. This part is custom-crafted to win him a Best Supporting Actor award. Let's hope that the Academy doesn't forget about this June movie six months from now- dark period movies like this and Road To Perdition (released in July 2002) don't usually fare well (with ticket buyers and critics) in the summer months.

May 30, 2005

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

The last Star Wars movie we'll ever see, Episode III almost delivers everything fans had been hoping for. Lucas has a gift for operatic storytelling, but his plotting, motivation, and dialog desperately need some help from a real screenwriter. (NOTE: Lucas was the sole writer for Episodes 1, 3, and 4: He had a co-screenwriter for Episode 2, and only only wrote the stories (not the screenplays) for Episodes 5 and 6.)
SPOILERS AHEAD: The scene where Anakin is flailing on the rocks, sans limbs, and Obi-Wan is despairing the loss of his 'brother', is incredibly moving. It's so near to true Shakespearean tragedy, it reminded me of how easy it would have been to make Episodes 1, 2, 3 follow closer to classic tragedy, instead of a messy mishmash of romance, tragedy, and political thriller.
Too many people judge Episodes 1, 2 and 3 by their standard for Episodes 4, 5, and 6: they want Episodes 1, 2, and 3 to affect them the same way that 4, 5, and 6 did when they were young, and it's just isn't possible. I firmly believe that our generation's opinion of Episodes 4, 5, 6 is artificially inflated by nostalgia. There are lots of movies I saw when I was ten which I love for nostalgia value but are empirically shitty. The Star Wars movies are not shitty, but Episodes 4, 5, and 6 are not as good as we remember.
Having said all that, I think a lot of fans are disappointed because the shadow of Darth Vader, easily the most interesting character in Episodes 4, 5, and 6, hangs over Episodes 1, 2, and 3. And once Vader finally appears in Episode 3, he gets two lines of dialogue and that's it. A Lucasfilm staffer went on record predicting that fans would want to see "Episode 3.5", meaning, the adventures of Darth Vader after he dons the helmet. I agree completely. In fact, my major restructuring of the prequel trilogy would work like this: the adventures of nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker (most of Episode 1) should have been simply recounted in one or two scenes. The adolescence and coming-of-age of Anakin would be told Episodes 1, then Episode 2 would show his seduction and turning to the Dark Side. Episode 3 would be Darth Vader's early years. (May 25, Showcase Cinemas Randolph; May 30, AMC Framingham)

Also On Memorial Day, Through The Years

I have been to the movies on Memorial Day Monday 13 times in 24 years, but it's not a great track record. 



Simply Disarming

Limbs (Original and Robotic) Removed in the Star Wars Movies
  • Episode I: The Phantom Menace •  Obi-Wan Kenobi cuts off Darth Maul's arms...and the entire top half of his body!
  • Episode II: Attack of the Clones •  Count Dooku cuts off Anakin's right arm.
  • Episode III: Revenge of the Sith •  Eight limbs
    • Anakin returns the favor by cutting off Dooku's arms, and then his head.
    • Obi-Wan Kenobi cuts off two of General Grievous's four saber-wielding robotic arms.
    • Anakin saves Darth Sidious's life by cutting off Mace Windu's right arm.
    • With one swipe, Kenobi severs Darth Vader's remaining arm, and both his legs. Wailing and gnashing ensue.
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story • I don't recall any limbs torn out? I've seen the movie twice but I don't remember any man or droid losing an arm or leg. 
  • Episode IV: A New Hope • C-3PO loses an arm (temporarily) during the Tusken Raider attack in the Dune Sea.
     • During an argument in the cantina at Mos Eisley, Obi-Wan Kenobi defends Luke Skywalker by cutting off Ponda Baba's arm. We are shown the totally fake-looking alien arm, with some fake blood, on the floor (see photo). I can't say for sure that there's never any blood in the six movie saga, but it's so uncommon to make this instance seem out of character.
  • Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
     • Luke cuts off the Wampa's arm while escaping from the ice cave on Hoth.
     • C-3PO loses both arms when blasted by Stormtroopers in Cloud City.
     •  Darth Vader cuts off Luke's right hand- just one of those father-son things.
  • Episode VI: Return of the Jedi •  Once Vader learns there is another Skywalker, he lures Luke out of the shadows with a threat to turn the sister to the Dark Side. Luke goes ballistic. Luke battles fiercely, Darth is on the defensive. Luke gets Vader on the ground and on the edge of the chasm. Seemingly enraged, Luke doesn't stop pounding away at Vader until he chops Vader's robotic right hand off. This seems to lift the fog of rage. Luke stares at the robotic stump, and then clenches his own robotic right hand. Twenty-five years later, I was not surprised to see wires sticking out of Vader's wrist, but back in 1983, fans didn't really know how much of Vader was still inside that black suit. Earlier in Episode VI, Kenobi says Vader is "more machine than man now", and he should know!
  • Episode VII: The Force Awakens •  The first Saga film with no limbs removed...but they did film one! Check out this deleted scene where Chewbacca finally follows through on Han Solo's threat to tear someone's arm out:

May 9, 2005

103: The Effects of a Texas Festival on a Musical Mix

I think the title says it all: I composed this mix after attending the South By Southwest Music Festival for the first time. There's no better time to escape dreary Boston winter weather than mid-March; and Austin, Texas, is not a bad place to escape to: T-shirts and jeans abound, tequila flows like water, the roads are paved with pork ribs, the Dr. Pepper is sweetened with cane sugar, and the steaks are chicken fried.
This mix is peepered with music we heard on our trip: read on...

  1. HUDDLE FORMATION; I saw The Go! Team perform at a UK Pop showcase. The show was a circle-jerk of music industry weasels with corporate credit cards. It was like the Black Hole Of Calcutta of self-congratulation. The Go! Team had a UK record deal but was pimping themselves for a US deal- the hype was so thick I had to burn my sneakers afterwards. The band members knew it, and they were so smug I wanted to slap the bass player around to regain my self respect. Having said all that, I like this song.
  2. BRIGHT FUTURE IN SALES; Fountains of Wayne
  3. F.I.N.E.; I was reminded of this Aeromsith song when I heard the new Billy Idol song on the radio.
  4. SCREAM; Billy Idol
  5. SISTER SURROUND; We saw The Soundtrack of Our Lives from the front row as they opened for Robert Plant on our first night in Austin. The Scandinavian sextet did great imitation 1970s rock, with one Keith Richards clone, one Pete Townshend clone, and the lead singer was a beefy bearded man in a mumu who looked like Mick Fleetwood. Between sets, I ran into "Mick" near the bar. I gave him a quick soggy hug and yelled in his ear "you guys are FABULOUS!"
  6. BIBLE CYST; The Legendary Shack Shakers also opened for Robert Plant, and they put on a hell of a show. Think of a hillbilly Stray Cats on amphetamines and you're close to the mark.
  7. OH WELL, PT. 1; Fleetwood Mac
  8. SON OF A PREACHER MAN (live 1991); Joan Osbourne
  9. SHOW SOME EMOTION; Joan Armatrading
  10. LOUNGER; Dogs Die in Hot Cars was also in the UK Pop showcase - I was drawn to them because they play power pop and their lead singer sounds like the guy from XTC. Their CD was pretty good, and their set was OK.
  11. TAKE ME OUT; Franz Ferdinand
  12. ONE (live 1992);  'Automatic Baby' was a hybrid of R.E.M. circa Automatic for the People and U2 circa Achtung Baby:
    • Michael Stipe, vocals
    • Mike Mills, guitar
    • Adam Clayton, bass
    • Larry Mullen Jr, percussion
    This one-off ensemble covered U2's "One" at an awards show. I really liked Stipe's interpretation of the lyrics. He sang the same words as Bono did, but his style is so different! Back in the early 1990s, it was damn near impossible to find a one-time-only performance from a TV show- if you didn't record it on VHS, you were out of luck. Somehow I found the recording on a benefit CD completely unrelated to the awards show.
  13. CLOSER TO YOU; The Wallflowers
  14. SUCH GREAT HEIGHTS; The Postal Service, since used in UPS commercials?
  15. BOULEVARD OF BROKEN SONGS; A great mashup of "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and "Wonderwall"; A year after I discovered this mashup, we heard it on the set of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart- it was one of the high-octane songs they play during commercial breaks to keep the crowd pumped up.
  16. KINGDOM OF RAIN; I always liked this song by The The because Sinead O'Connor sings on it. I finally bought the CD at a yard sale that spring.
  17. CATCH MY DISEASE; Ben Lee, I always love tinkly kiddie piano!
  18. RENT A COP; Ben Folds
  19. PERHAPS, PERHAPS, PERHAPS; Cake
  20. GUERO CANELO; A memorable song in 12/4 time, from Calexico- we saw them live at SXSW too.

April 27, 2005

The Pink Panther (1963)

pinkpantherThe intention was to start a franchise for David Niven as suave ladies' man/cat burglar Sir Charles Litton. However, Peter Sellers, a little-known British comic, was a late addition to the cast after Peter Ustinov dropped out. Sellers proceeded to steal the movie in the role of Inspector Clouseau, the French detective who cannot catch the notorious thief who's sleeping with his wife right next door. Inspector Clouseau would become the franchise, and nine Clouseau films would follow between 1964 and 2005. All of the following were directed by Blake Edwards, except numbers 3 and 10:
  1. The Pink Panther (1963)
  2. A Shot In The Dark (1964)
  3. Inspector Clouseau (1968), starring Alan Arkin as Clouseau.
  4. Return of the Pink Panther (1975), with Christopher Plummer in the role of Sir Charles Litton.
  5. The Pink Panther diamond has no role in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), but the name had become so synonymous with Clouseau, the name was used anyway.
  6. Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) is Sellers's final legit appearance as Clouseau. Peter Sellers died in 1980 at age 54. David Niven returns as Litton for this movie and "Trail" in 1982. Niven would pass away (ALS) in 1983.
  7. Peter Sellers's scenes in Trail of the Pink Panther (1982) consist of outtakes and unused scenes from previous Clouseau movies.
  8. Curse of the Pink Panther (1983) is a bizarre attempt to create a new Clouseau-like character.
  9. Son of the Pink Panther (1993), starring Academy Award winner Roberto Benigni.
  10. The Pink Panther (2005), starring Steve Martin as Clouseau.

April 16, 2005

Fever Pitch

feverpitchA good-natured and funny rom-com set against the backdrop of the Red Sox 2004 season. The movie did not screw up the Boston-ian parts of the movie. Jimmy Fallon was surprisingly subtle and charming, despite limited talent. Fallon and Barrymore were well-suited for each other. I have barely seen Jimmy Fallon (Saturday Night Live: 1998-2004), before, and I didn't think much of him... before this movie. Drew Barrymore is usually the best thing in all her rom-coms (50 First Dates, Never Been Kissed, Home Fries, The Wedding Singer), and America's love for her makes up for the safe, easy movies she makes. (Showcase Cinemas Woburn)

April 8, 2005

Sin City: Guys Movie Night

sincityOur third selection for Guys Movie Night is a vast improvement on Be Cool. To call Sin City a "gritty" film noir is like calling Mount Rushmore a pile of rocks. Sin City is uber-gritty. Three intertwined crime thrillers with no mercy. Heavy doses of love, revenge, murder, madness, cannibalism, sex, slicing, punching, ripping, tearing, shooting, decapitating, all in a stunning blend of high-contrast black and white. A honest and faithful recreation of graphic novelist Frank Miller's vision. (AMC Burlington)

April 2, 2005

Steamboy

steamboyFrom Katsuhiro Otomo, the director of Akira, comes this apocalyptic, evils-of-technology fable set in the Steam Age: Victorian London, 1863. Otomo rages against the danger of science perverted to serve capitalistic, warmongering influences, yet at the same time he fetishistically showcases fantastic steam-powered technology. Besides the preachy moralizing, Otomo shows a disappointing misogynist streak- there are barely three speaking parts for women in the movie: The protagonist's mother gets a few lines early on, the Queen of England has one line, and the "comedy" relief is a ugly, spoiled, elitist preteen heiress who beats her Chihuahua and calls everyone 'stupid'. (Kendall Square Cinemas)

March 31, 2005

"LA Noir" Series at the Brattle

I have already seen series entries The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Chinatown, so my first screening was Criss Cross (March 29), about 'the sucker of all time' Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster). Steve has never gotten over his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo). He allows himself to be drawn into an armored-car heist scheme by Anna and her shady husband Slim (Dan Duryea). Is Anna playing Steve for Slim, is Anna playing Slim for Steve, or is fate playing a hand? Either way, Steve is a real dope and the voice-over narration is laughably bad.l-a-noir

Point Blank (March 30): I was expecting a gritty, hard-boiled revenge thriller. What I got instead was an extremely low-key revenge thriller, filtered through the then-trendy French psychedelic surrealism of the Summer of Love. Lee Marvin doesn't embarrass himself, but he sure looks out of place in his dark suits and cold fish demeanor amongst all the druggies of L.A. circa 1967.

Collateral (March 31): guest review by EKD • Nat and I rounded out his week o' noir at the Brattle with Collateral, Michael Mann's shiny, satisfying thriller of a hapless cabbie and sociopathic hitman rolling through a misty Los Angeles night. Mann's films are always delicious to look at, and here he makes digital video an art form instead of the usual pixellated lo-fi cop-out. Jamie Foxx is well-cast as the dreamy, timid Max; can't say the same for Mark Ruffalo, who looks like a kid in a Donnie Brasco Halloween costume, ugh. Tom Cruise is a bit of a cipher here: his usual clipped, focused, tightly-wound thing comes across more dangerous and menacing because his character is such a heartless psycho, who seductively charms and ruthlessly manipulates everyone around him by turns. On paper, this seems like a clone of his Vampire Lestat, but that character had an interior vulnerability, a needy streak -- here, Vincent is a soulless shark, unrepentant to the end. Of course, he does get a few chances to do the Patented Tom Cruise Run. The last 20 minutes start to drag like a bad TV movie, and there are a few moments of stale 80's machismo, but overall it's a thoughtfully gripping example of the genre. (A-)

March 12, 2005

Raging Bull

ragingRaging Bull was just released on DVD for its 25th anniversary, and the Brattle screened a new restored 35mm print, billed as a tribute to Martin Scorsese, the most-respected director alive to never win an Academy Award. The Academy much prefers to give awards to beloved directors. In addition, Academy voters refuse to take movies out of the context of history. For example, the Academy was biased towards Ordinary People in 1980 and Dances With Wolves in 1990 because they are directorial debuts by beloved actors. The Academy was biased towards Million Dollar Baby in 2004 because they love Clint Eastwood, and besides, The Aviator isn't Scorsese's best movie. To sum up, in order for Scorsese to win a Best Director Oscar, he will have to direct a movie better than Raging Bull and Goodfellas, which is impossible.

March 9, 2005

Be Cool: Guys Movie Night

becoolIt's hard to believe almost ten years have passed since I saw the original adventures of Chili Palmer. After 30 minutes in this theater, I wanted to run home and watch Get Shorty instead of Be Cool. The plot is basically the same, but F. Gary Gray, the more-than competent director of The Italian Job remake, is in over his head with this top-heavy star-overburdened cast. It seemed like the primadonna needs of all the star power squeezed all the comedic life out of the film. Plus, at 118 minutes, you could have cut 20 minutes out of the movie and made it much better. Cedric the Entertainer and Andre Benjamin try hard to inject some life into their scenes, but John Travolta and Uma Thurman are lost in this one. As much as I looooooove Uma Thurman, at age 34 she is 10 years too young for the part of Edie Athens. Edie reminisces about touring with Aerosmith as their laundry girl, but Uma wasn't even 17 until Aerosmith's comeback album Permanent Vacation came out in 1987. And have you noticed Travolta's track record in the last 10 years? Travolta seems to make one worthwhile film for every three 'paycheck' films. (AMC Fenway)

March 6, 2005

Being Julia

beingjuliaI was easily the youngest person in the theater on this Sunday afternoon. The film was long and boring, until the inventive and entertaining third act. Annette Bening was wonderful, if not Academy Award-worthy. (West Newton Cinema)

February 26, 2005

102: Mashups

I created this mix at the zenith of my interest in "mashups". Mashups, in their simplest definition, are DIY music remixes where DJs will disassemble rock and pop music and mash up the vocal tracks of one song with the rhythm section of another. Thanks to audio mixing and processing software, it's possible for a DJ to isolate discrete vocal and instrumental tracks, change the pitch and/or tempo with precision, and endlessly loop the smallest instrumental break to fit their needs. Most of the mashup titles are include words from both/all the songs sampled; I have included notes to help clarify the provenances, and I have credited the DJs who created these mashups. This collection represents the best mashups I discovered in 2004:

  1. MACA-MUPPET by Pilchard | The Doors vs The Muppets vs The Macarena!
  2. SWEET SECRET by Soundwasta | Madonna vs Mick Jagger
  3. CHOCOLATE CAKE, REVISITED by Lenlow | featuring Bill Cosby "Chocolate Cake For Breakfast"
  4. SEE
  5. BITE by The Kleptones | Queen vs KRS-One, Queen vs O.D.B.
  6. SAY LADY SAY by Brat Productions | The Beatles vs Paul McCartney
  7. WHATCHA WANT, LADY?
  8. MOTHER NATURE'S RUMP
  9. SURE-LA-DI, SHOT-LA-DA by DJ BC | The Beastie Boys vs The Beatles
  10. TO THE TAX-MOBILE! by Lenlow | Batman vs The Beatles vs "Wipeout"
  11. PAPERBACK BELIEVER by Go Home Productions | The Beatles vs The Monkees
  12. BABY YOU'RE A PURE MAN by Brat Productions | The Beatles vs All Saints
  13. CRAZY LITTLE FOOL by Go Home Productions | The Beatles vs Queen
  14. YOU WON'T SEE YOU'RE ALL I NEED TO GET BY by DJ Nite | The Beatles vs Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
  15. DREAMING IN YOUR SLEEP by Brat Productions | The Romantics vs Depeche Mode
  16. WRAPPED DETECTIVE by Go Home Productions | The Police, Lionel Richie, Elvis Costello, Peggy Lee, Bob Marley
  17. THIS IS HOW WE DOOBIE by DJ Jay-R | Montell Jordan vs The Doobie Brothers
  18. J-LO vs K-CO vs S-WO by Lenlow | Jennifer Lopez vs Nirvana vs Stevie Wonder
  19. CALL ON VALERIE by Mixomatosis | Steve Winwood's "Valerie"... Remixed

February 14, 2005

Casablanca

casablancaEm and I had dinner beforehand, and arrived at the packed theater 10 minutes before showtime. We grabbed two seats in the back row of the balcony. The movie (and the company) was wonderful as usual, but the theater was punishingly hot, and the crowd was an unfortunate blend of goofy Harvard students, whose only emotional response is to giggle at every scene.

February 7, 2005

100: Centennial Mix

I wanted to celebrate the 100th mix (almost 12 years since my first numbered mix tape) with some kind of retrospective. At first, I tried assembling a 20-song collection of my favorite songs of all time. That proved to be to all-encompassing. Eventually I settled on a 20-track collection of the best songs which had appeared on my mixes in the "CD-R" era, which began with Mix #49.

The definition of "best" is a flexible one. Many of these songs are some of the best songs of their time, but in this collection, "best" also means a song which fits well on a collection, many of them are fun to sing along with, have a good beat, or have some strong emotional connection for me. The songs don't necessarily date from 2000-2004, but they all appear on one of the 50 mix CDs I had made in that five year span. The track listing below includes info about what CD the songs originally appeared on.

The cover design (main photo covered with checkerboard of smaller images) was inspired by Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club. I am not as pretty as Sheryl, but that photo of me (taken by my friend Robert) may be the best photo of me ever. If it weren't for that photo, at the top of my online personal ad, my now-wife may not have ever met me!

01> Sick Of Myself (MIX 65; My favorite Matthew Sweet song and a hell of an opening track.)
02> Chemistry (MIX 65; the second would-be hit from one-hit wonder Semisonic.)
03> Bohemian Like You (MIX 84; Speaking of one-hit wonders, this is the only Dandy Warhols song I know.)
04> Supernova (MIX 72; Maybe Liz Phair's best song.)
05> Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town (MIX 62; this Pearl Jam acoustic b-side is better than the album version.)
06> Clocks (MIX 94; this Coldplay song is WAYYY overplayed and overdone now, but it was THE song of the year at the time.)
07> Forget About It (MIX 52; this melancholy Alison Krauss song means a lot to me.)
08> Einstein on a Beach (for an eggman) (MIX 57; a leftover song from the August & Everything After sessions, this is my favorite Counting Crows song.)
09> Peace Tonight (MIXES 60 & 78; from the Indigo Girls album when they hired the "JB" horns to add some muscle to their sound.)
10> Some Fantastic (MIX 50; a "deep cut" from Barenaked Ladies that I always liked.)
11> High & Dry (MIX 77; a perfect song from Radiohead.)
12> Barrel of a Gun (MIX 55; I love trying to sing the harmonies on this Guster song.)
13> Murder (or a Heart Attack) (MIX 55; a cool song from The Old 97s about a lost housecat.)
14> Malibu (MIX 55; liking Courtney Love's music is a guilty pleasure.)
15> Circles (MIX 80; this hypnotic Soul Coughing song has me in its spell.)
16> Little Plastic Castle (MIX 88; I love the 12/4 time signature and the awesome rhythm section on this Ani DiFranco song.)
17> It's My Life (MIX 99; a great No Doubt cover of a cool 80s New Wave classic.)
18> Heavy Metal Drummer (MIX 81; it was tough picking only one Wilco song.)
19> Not The Same (LIVE 2002; this Ben Folds Live cut makes its debut here- recorded on the tour where my wife and I went to the same concert, one month before we met for the first time.)
20> Frying Pan (MIX 14; breaking the rules a little here- this Evan Dando solo acoustic cover of a Victoria Williams song originally appeared on mix tape #14, but I re-made that mix on CD-R in 2001.)
21> Strange Condition (MIX 86; a good ending from Pete Yorn.)

January 15, 2005

In Good Company

ingoodcompanyEm and I saw In Good Company on Saturday afternoon, and thoroughly enjoyed it, refuting each bizarre criticism of the Globe's Ty Burr: the lighting was artifical and harsh [hello, it takes place in an office], the actors were caked with makeup [duh!], the soundtrack was insistent and distracting [only if you're a grumpy old man]. It's a corporate satire with a light touch, and the excellent casting is what pulls it together. Topher Grace carried the movie as a sweet but needy go-getter searching for some purpose in life. I expect he'll get some juicy parts out of this. Thanks to Em for her review- I couldn't have said it better myself! (AMC Fenway)

January 9, 2005

Ocean's Twelve

oceanstwelveThe first two-thirds of Ocean's Twelve is better than Ocean's Eleven. However, in the last third of the film, the resolution of the heist slows to a glacial crawl, Soderbergh lapses into terminal smug self-indulgence, and Emily has to explain the denouement three times before I understand what happened. No doubt Ocean's Twelve rewards a second viewing, but the viewer has to enjoy it the first time in order to entice a repeat. (AMC Fenway)

January 8, 2005

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Overly long and self-indulgent, the quirks of Wes Anderson have worn me down to the nub. I no longer have any patience for director Wes Anderson's fetish for retro set dressing. We all have a nostalgia for our youths, but Anderson seems to care more about David Bowie songs, Adidas apparel and footwear, and neato pens which write in any one of four colors, than he does about plot, characterization, and drama. (Landmark Embassy Cinema Waltham)
zissou