Monthly Archives: December 2007

The Bucket List

What a setup: Jack Nicholson is a billionaire Scrooge with terminal cancer, sharing a room in the oncology ward of his own hospital with auto mechanic Morgan Freemana family man endowed with all the kind, redemptive wisdom Freeman can bring to Justin Zackham’s hokey script. This being Oscar-coveting Hollywood claptrap, class barriers vanish as the two become best friends and Nicholson bankrolls a spree in which they indulge their deepest romantic whims: parachuting, car racing, and flying across the globe while sampling the emblems of the good life found in TV commercials. I don’t know if Rob Reiner is the one to blame for this atrocity, but he directed and coproduced. PG-13, 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Great Debaters

The story of the champion debate team nurtured in the 1930s at the all-black Wiley College in rural Texas is so amazing that it’s infuriating to see producer Oprah Winfrey, director Denzel Washington, and screenwriter Robert Eisele add so much spin, including a climactic argument that anticipates Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent tactics by two decades. Washington plays the tough-love coach, poet and activist Melvin B. Tolson; Denzel Whitaker is the team’s youngest member, James Farmer Jr., who later founded the Congress of Racial Equality; and Forest Whitaker (no relation) plays his remarkable father. The other three debaters (Jurnee Smollett, Nate Parker, Jermaine Williams) are fictional composites, and for some reason the climactic match has been moved from the University of Southern California to Harvard. Conceived like a sports movie, this delivers passion, nuance, and historical insight along with unnecessary hokum. PG-13, 123 min. (JR)… Read more »

27 Dresses

Katherine Heigl stars as a compulsive bridesmaidshe cultivates friends for the sole purpose of joining their wedding parties. Secretly in love with her boss (Edward Burns), she has to negotiate an emotional obstacle course after he proposes to her dependent and popular younger sister (Malin Akerman). Meanwhile a wedding reporter (James Marsden) has been dogging the older sister’s steps, writing a story about her compulsion. For most of this romantic comedy, fatuous contrivances run neck and neck with what seem to be authentic observations about repressed sibling rivalry; some of the latter are too painful to be funny, and eventually the contrivances win out, but the cast keeps it all watchable. Anne Fletcher directed a script by Aline Brosh McKenna. PG-13, 107 min. (JR)… Read more »

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s arty blood opera about revenge, squalor, cannibalism, and despair in Victorian London provides a good many challenges to nonprofessional singers, including unhummable tunes, and one accomplishment of this well-crafted if relatively impersonal adaptation by director Tim Burton and writer John Logan is that Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sacha Baron Cohen do a lot more than simply survive the songs. Like Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons in Guys and Dolls (1955), they dissolve the distinction between singing and acting. Dante Ferrett’s claustrophobic setsvirtually the reverse of the spacious settings in Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factoryare pretty effective too. R, 117 min. (JR)… Read more »

Youth Without Youth

After a decade’s absence from directing, Francis Ford Coppola seizes on a metaphysical fantasy novella by Mircea Eliadeabout a Romanian linguist in the 1930s (Tim Roth) who starts to grow younger after being hit by lightningas both a personal allegory and, like his lively Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), an opportunity to try out a good many visual effects. Unfortunately this lacks the safety net of Dracula’s familiar story and heaps on one outlandish premise after another (the hero produces a doppelganger and falls in love with a woman who goes into trances, speaks in ancient languages, and starts to age rapidly), eventually skirting incoherence. I’m all for bold screwiness, but this provocation seems labored despite the striking images. With Alexandra Maria Lara. R, 124 min. (JR)… Read more »

P.S. I Love You

B.S. I Love You would be a more accurate title. After a young Irishman in New York (Gerard Butler) dies of a brain tumor, his bereft widow (Hilary Swank) receives a series of messages from him, written when he knew he was dying, that fondly advise her on how to resume her life. New Agey Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers) cowrote this interminable tearjerker with Steven Rogers, adapting a Cecelia Ahern novel, and directs as if he and we had all the time in the world. At least he has the wit to open with the couple fighting bitterly in their Chinatown flat, which implicitly qualifies the fond memories that follow. With Lisa Kudrow, Gina Gershon, and Kathy Bates, all squandered. PG-13, 126 min. (JR)… Read more »

National Treasure: Book Of Secrets

I haven’t seen the original, but the absurd high-concept of this sequel appears to be quite similar: it’s a Disney romp with several stars (Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, and Harvey Keitel from the first movie, plus Ed Harris and Helen Mirren) appearing in and around various international monuments as they pursue a centuries-old treasure with arcane clues and sliding panels. All this climaxes in an underground city of gold out of H. Rider Haggard, located close to Mount Rushmore. Leave it to coproducer Jerry Bruckheimer to revive the Indiana Jones cycle without the period setting, the camp elements, or Spielberg’s efficiency; director Jon Turteltaub just plods along, and the script by Marianne and Cormac Wibberley is equally poker-faced. With Justin Bartha and Bruce Greenwood, the latter playing the U.S. president. PG, 124 min. (JR)… Read more »

Doc

Oscar-nominated documentarian Immy Humes brings both intelligence and ambivalent affection to this fascinating portrait of her father, the largely forgotten but clearly remarkable H.L. Humes. He wrote two acclaimed novels (The Underground City and Men Die, both recently republished), cofounded the Paris Review, managed Norman Mailer’s campaign for mayor of New York, and shot an unfinished beat feature called Don Peyote (which his daughter has uncovered and samples here). He befriended everyone from William Styron to Timothy Leary to Paul Auster (all of whom are interviewed, along with Mailer, Peter Matthiesson, and Jonas Mekas). And though he was eventually institutionalized for paranoid behavior, it later emerged that he’d been under constant surveillance by the FBI and CIA. Humes eludes simple classificationhe was also an activist, inventor, scientist, and healerwhich may help explain why he’s been forgotten. 98 min. (JR)… Read more »

Starting Out In The Evening

Every film adapted from a novel paraphrases and abbreviates, but the remarkable thing about the second feature of Andrew Wagner (The Talent Given Us), adapted with Fred Parnes from Brian Morton’s lovely novel, is how faithfully it renders the main characters: a Jewish New York novelist in his 70s (Frank Langella), ailing and mainly forgotten; a grad student in her mid-20s (Lauren Ambrose) who’s inspired by his early work and writing a thesis about him; his daughter (Lili Taylor), a former dancer pushing 40 who wants to have a baby; and her former boyfriend (Adrian Lester), a black academic who has a son from a previous marriage and doesn’t want another child. Part of Morton’s achievement is to present all four people through the viewpoints of the other three; Wagner can’t do that, but the performances are so nuanced that the characters remain multilayered, and they’re not the sort of people we’re accustomed to finding in commercial films. PG-13, 111 min. (JR)… Read more »

Complicated Characters [STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING]

From the Chicago Reader (December 13, 2007). — J.R.

Starting Out in the Evening 

Directed by Andrew Wagner ***

The two most interesting movies I saw at press screenings last summer had their opening dates postponed, and it’s not hard to imagine why. As Orson Welles experienced time and again, features that are fresh and unconventional are harder to gauge as commercial prospects than stale conventional ones — and thus they’re harder to sell. This explains both the box-office success of Welles’s relatively pedestrian The Stranger (1946) and the delayed and relatively unprofitable U.S. releases of many of his other features, starting with Citizen Kane and continuing through The Lady From Shanghai, Othello, and F for Fake, among others.

Neither Jon Poll’s Charlie Bartlett nor Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out in the Eve­ning is a masterpiece, but both films exemplify a kind of adventurous filmmaking that’s increasingly difficult to envisage in today’s marketplace, where first impressions mean everything — it’s an unpromising cli­mate for any art form. When I saw Charlie Bartlett — an edgy and quirky satirical teen comedy, unusual for both its nervy politics and its class consciousness — in mid-July, it was scheduled to open in early August.… Read more »

Strength And Honor

The brogues run so thick in this cliche-ridden, Irish-American boxing tale, a first feature by writer-director-producer Mark Mahon, that I might have faced some comprehension problems if the plot and dialogue weren’t so shopworn. A boxer (Michael Madsen) accidentally kills a friend during a sparring match, quits fighting, then resumes his career seven years later, after his wife dies from a hereditary heart condition, in order to pay for an operation for his son, who suffers from the same ailment. It’s not clear why Mahon filmed this intimate story in ‘Scope when his center framing yields so much wasted space, but there’s plenty of ham and blarney (such as graveside monologues) to take up the slack, and at least the boxing sequences are lively. R, 104 min. (JR)… Read more »

Revolver

This 2005 feature offered me my first taste of Guy Ritchie’s macho-centric artiness, and I hope it’s my last. His hero (Jason Statham) emerges from seven years in prison ready to take revenge on a casino owner (Ray Liotta), then gets sucked into a mysterious loan-shark operation. All this transpires in a netherworld, neither the U.S. nor the UK, where sub-Tarantino posturing and metaphysical conceits (There’s no such thing as problems, Mr. Greenthere’s only situations) are progressively undermined by a lack of coherent storytelling. Ritchie’s epigrams are endlessly repeated in intertitles and voice-overs, women figure only as decor, and the stylish visual flourishes (which include a few shifts to animation) carry most of the interest. With Vincent Pastore and Andre Benjamin. R, 115 min. (JR)… Read more »

The Cooler

I generally like William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin, and I’m reasonably receptive to parables about Las Vegas gamblers, but this first feature by Wayne Kramer lost me early on with its show-offy shooting and editing, portentous metaphysical conceits about winners and losers, and exaggerated displays of evil, violence, and deceit. Macy is a congenital hard-luck case indentured to casino owner Baldwin, who uses him to inflict bad luck on winning gamblers. When Macy and a pretty cocktail waitress (Maria Bello) fall for each other, Baldwin turns into such a meanie he makes Mephistopheles look like a pussycat. There are more scams at work in this scenario than I could keep up with, but I couldn’t believe in any of them. With Paul Sorvino. R, 101 min. (JR)… Read more »

Stuck On You

If you believe, as I do, that America is joined at the hip to the rest of the world but often in denial about it, then this cheerful comedy from the politically incorrect Farrelly brothers (There’s Something About Mary) about similarly conjoined twins who refuse to acknowledge all the ramifications of their condition is bound to have some allegorical resonance. Leaving behind their burger joint in Martha’s Vineyard, the pair go west to LA, where one (Greg Kinnear) wants to pursue an acting career and the other (Matt Damon) has a chance to meet his romantic pen pal (Wen Yann Shih). The actor lands a sitcom role opposite Cher (playing herself) and his brother frantically tries to conceal his condition from his sweetheart. Much of this is hilarious as long as one can stay sufficiently removed from the realities of conjoined twins. With Eva Mendes, Seymour Cassel, and, also playing themselves, Griffin Dunne and an uncredited Meryl Streep. PG-13, 119 min. (JR)… Read more »

King Lear

Grigori Kozintsev’s last film (1970), a follow-up to his celebrated 1963 Hamlet (both were based on Boris Pasternak’s translations of Shakespeare), makes optimal use of desolate landscapes and ancient battlements framed in black-and-white ‘Scope and a comparably grim Shostakovich score. The diminutive Estonian actor Juri Jarvet is oddly cast as Lear; Donatas Banionis (the lead actor in Tarkovsky’s Solaris) makes a more conventional Albany. The violence of the original is slightly attenuated, but at little cost to its dramatic force. Having directed the play for the Gorky Theater in 1941 and written about it at length, Kozintsev knew it like the back of his hand, which accounts for the film’s masterful assurance as well as its limited sense of discovery. In Russian with subtitles. 140 min. (JR)… Read more »