The Majestic

Aunt Cleo: So, I went to see “The Majestic” last Saturday.
Aunt Georgina: Which one is thatr
Aunt Cleo: With Jim Carrey.
Aunt Georgina: Oh, I don’t like him. He’s vulgar.
Aunt Cleo: Not in this movie he isn’t. He’s sweet and handsome and charming. Like in “The Grinch.” That movie was excellent and had a message and “The Majestic” is just the same, but better because it’s newer.
Aunt Georgina: Well, Cleo, after listening to your well-reasoned recommendation and allowing myself a silent moment internal deliberation, I have decided that I too will pay money to see “The Majestic.”

Those MBAs at Warner Bros. go, “Ka-ching!” while you’re tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd and not shove this turkey bone up Aunt Cleo’s ass for diluting the family gene pool. But, as usual, I digress…

I went to see “The Majestic” because it seemed to be another one of those films made specifically for me. It takes place in the 1950’s (a decade that fascinates me more than any other) and it’s about a screenwriter (hey, instant character identification) who refurbishes an old movie palace (I plan on enslaving Theo Kalomirakis someday–and if you don’t know who Theo Kalomirakis is then, um, you’re dumb). Additionally, The Majestic is directed by Frank Darabont who’s made one of the best American studio films ever in Shawshank and it stars my two most favorite modern day actors: Jim Carrey and Bruce Campbell (will someone please cast these two as brothers in an action-comedyr).

I don’t know why I still get emotionally pig-dogged every time a movie doesn’t live up to expectations because I should be used to it by now. Not to say that “The Majestic” is bad. Far from it. Actually, not too far. “The Majestic” is mediocre at best, cold molasses boring at worst. Part of this has to do with the script by Michael Sloane which hammers us over the head with the same points over and over again. How many times do we have to hear someone say…

The town needed you, Jim, because all of our other sons died in the War.

Or…

Listen, Jim, you really don’t want to screw around with those McCarthyites–you could be blacklisted!

Maybe it’s because the film is rated PG, but it speaks to us, the audience, as if we were all 8 years-old. That’s probably one reason why “The Majestic” runs 2 1/2 hours and probably the only reason why the climax is of Jim standing before HUAC–I shit you not–reading aloud from a pocket sized Constitution.

But there is good stuff in the movie. All of the performances are top notch. You’d expect nothing less from Jim. Bruce handles his B-movie one-liners with aplomb. Martin Landau proves again why he actually deserved that Lifetime Achievment Award/Best Supporting Actor Oscar. And seeing Laurie Holden –who must of us know and loathe as the Unablonder from X-Files– is like breaking one of the seven seals…she’s a revelation. Funny, fiery, sexy. You can completely understand why Jim’s character falls in love with her because the audience does, too. Seriously impressive stuff by Laurie. She’s gonna get a lot bigger real soon.

Other good stuff: the scene where they re-open The Majestic theater for the first time made me cry. And I don’t cry often–not at my wedding, not during acting class, not even when God Himself did Irish fans a favor and arranged it for George O’Leary to get fired from Notre Dame. But I cried during “The Majestic.”

Finally, the film has come out at a time when it’s themes will actually make people think about the world around us. Because it’s about American boys going overseas and sacrificing themselves for the Greater Good. Because it’s about what it means to be an American. And because it’s about an understandably scared government prosecuting people on flimsy evidence just because they happen to be a part of the wrong minority group. Not that I don’t think the Justice Department should be investigating suspicious Saudis, Egyptians, etc. They should, but at the same not allowing things to turn into a witchhunt. Wow, look at that. A Jim Carrey movie inspiring politically charged discourse. Who woulda thunkr

I took my grandparents to the movie and they loved it. Really loved it. And since they are roughly the same age as your average Academy Award voter and since every other old fogey in the theater stood up and cheered at film’s end, I think Jim will finally get his official Oscar Acknowledgment (that’s what they’re calling “nominations” these days, isn’t itr Acknowledgmentsr How can you get fucking PC about awards terminologyr Only in this town). So, if you’re old or like easily digestible melodrama-with-a-message or need a Bruce Campbell fix you should be fine with “The Majestic.”

Rating: B+
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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“Harry Potter” (and the whatever stone) is one of the best films I have seen this year, and while this has been a dreadful year, it has also produced “Memento” and “AI.” In the most twisted of ironies, Uberdirector Spielberg chose to honor Kubrick with “AI” instead of cashing in with “Harry Potter,” and it may have been the wisest decision of his career. I feel that Spielberg could have ruined this film; more on this in a bit.

“Harry Potter” is based on a book, a popular book, which many (too many) people have read and bear stringent expectations. Other than pure money, the only reasons to convert such a novel into a film are to 1) broaden the appeal, especially for those who don’t read fiction (translation: men over the age of 16) and 2) show a forced vision to an audience, bringing to life (and sight) images which could only exist in the mind… and in a computer or on a sketch pad.

The key to success is simple: don’t mess it up. A director like Spielberg could have strayed too far from the novel, or more accurately, the borrowed, processed vision that J.K. Rowling has so daringly re-written for today’s generations. “Harry Potter,” as both successful novel and now film, is a wonderous, Velveeta-like smish-smashing of every childhood fantasy, fairy tale, folklore-myth-thing, and dream, creating a world that is both fantastical and gothic, surreal and yet grounded.

Another key to the story’s success is its unwillingness to bend from traditional Euro-myths and legends. The fact that every actor, every set, and every atom of the film is British is not some twisted culturalist facism by Rowling, but rather, an assurance that we will recognize the more fantastical aspects of the tale. To borrow from a close friend and colleage, I dare any of you to name a popular fairy tale, style, or character, that is purely and originally American-born. All of our favorite stories come from countries and cultures older than our own, and films like “The Wizard of Oz” and even “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” tap into the very images that graced many a bedtime story. “Harry Potter” does the same.

Let’s talk technical. Chris Columbus is a Spielberg-clone, and a damn good one… I like his films, and I even liked “Bicentennial Man.” Don’t get me wrong… Columbus is NOT that talented, but he’s solid enough in his vision and technicality to get all the elements on the film reel. And he does his job perfectly; he takes little true risk, and delivers in every place that counts. The score is wonderous, and unmistakably John Williams… while I reserve laud for composers such as Barry, Newton-Howard, and Zimmer for having tremendous range and ability, Williams is the very best at what he does. He is so good at it, in fact, that he has mastered the ability to be subtle (see: “Saving Private Ryan”) and to showboat (see: “Star Wars”). This film’s score is all showboat, all-riffs, all classical epic-movie-music gloating, and it is precisely what’s needed.

I also will toss props to the editor, Richard Francis-Bruce, for the film’s pacing is nearly flawless. The film runs for more than two hours, but you’ll never notice it. In fact, there’s little editing trickery… very few fades, no quick cut-ups, just damn good timing.

Several critics have complained that the film doesn’t last long enough. Unfortunately, it is just not possible to cram an entire book into a two hour movie. Many things are left implied and unspoken, simply because there isn’t enough time for it. When a film contains too much information to show, either details get left out (most films reiterate the same points repeatedly, explaining and justifying absolutely everything. Critics call this ‘strong, planned screenwriting’.) or the film contains a zillion edits and rocks by at 100 MPH, causing nausea, irritation, and possible blindness. Having said that — considering the latter part — I really liked Michael Bay’s “Armageddon,” and I like anime too. For the kids, though, Harry Potter and its creative team have elected the former route.

As a result of that choice, some people and some critics feel the film is disjointed and incoherent. I’m sure the book fills in all the gaps nicely; I have not read it, and don’t intend to. If you are expecting a complete story from this film, with all the ends tied up, you will not get it. For time and monetary considerations, the film does cut corners, and while complete by its own means, feels more like a slice of life on a much larger timeline. A lot of the blanks are left unfilled for good reason.

The performances are outstanding across the board. The three principle characters, all kids, are more than sufficient for this type of film, and young Daniel Radcliffe has that kind of sick Haley Joel intensity and charisma that makes him likeable in all sorts of evil ways. I saw this guy on TRL (sigh, yes, I watch MTV because I like the eye candy) and he was being swamped by horny 16-year-old *N’Sync fans in towels. Poor guy. The supporting cast is a damned celebrity-Jeopardy spotting game of British celebrities, and more accurately, classically-trained actors. Everyone is in this thing, even some of the Pythons. The casual fan will never notice, but the filmgeeks out there are sure to spot those actors whom they cherish, but whose names they know not.

Why is the film so goodr I have no idea. J.K Rowling’s book probably gets the most credit. The casting directors did their job. Cinematography is a long orgasm. Steve Kloves’ script is faithful and doesn’t mess up, just like Columbus’ directing. Instinct tells me that the film is good because everyone knew what they were doing… a quick glance of the technical credits at the end confirms that everyone who’s anyone works on this project (even Henson has their fingerprints all over the place). Maybe I actually witnessed a true team effort for once, rather than one vision trying to overbear everyone elses. Of course, I would never mention this in a public review, but the fact that this film, at $125 million US dollars in budget, did NOT use name actors who cost lots of money, and did NOT use American unions for below-the-line crew… hmmm. That could mean that the people… as in, the labor… actually cost very little, and the great majority of the budget could be spent on effects, pre-production planning, and construction, so they could get it right…. hmmm. Hmmm indeed.

Yeah yeah yeah, so the effects are trippy terrific, the sets are great, the whole look of the film is just sizzlin’ in the best of ways. Look, it all comes down to this: no matter who you are, or what you do, I recommend the film. Big or small, large or tall, old or young, troll or goblin. You’ll dig it. You’ll lose yourself and become enchanted with the film, its characters, and its little nuances. Even its flaws. Will it change mankindr I certainly hope not. But gee, a movie that actually entertained me… it’s been a long time.

PS – I have been remarking to friends that a “hairy potter” is British slang for something quite interesting. Remember, these are the same people that would not release the “Austin Powers” sequel in their country with the word “shag” in the title. I think I’ll write a children’s book called Richard Rash: Private Investigator, and see how that tides over in the states.

Rating: A
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Waking Life

“I want it to sound rich and maybe almost a little wavy, due to being slightly out of tune,” he says. “I think it should be slightly detached.”

The musician hits it on the nail. For the next hour and a half, slightly detached and completely opulent, “Waking Life” rolls our mainstream cinematic perceptions into a tightly packed joint and smokes them, stopping to enjoy every inhalation along the way.

The film follows, literally, the erratic journey of a young man as he stumbles through a dreamlike world, never sure into what state of consciousness he is entering or what level of reality he will submerge from. His initial claustrophobia gives way to a lucid understanding that his grasp of this illogical state is actually empowering him to pursue an acute awareness of deeply complex philosophical and existential polemics that could never come to comprehension in his waking life. Slowly, he begins to realize the physical act of ‘waking’ offers little in terms of intellectual consciousness while the stirring to life in his dream truly wakes him up. As a little girl points out in the first scene, dream is destiny.

As a viewer, the enjoyment is twofold. Aurally, Linklater opens up a spectrum rarely used by filmmakers in this day of popcorn cinema by infusing each spoken word with cyclical significance. Characters don’t merely speak for the purpose of forward communication; they contemplate and analyze a myriad of universal truths and possibilities for the sake of exploring them later. In this way, the script moves forward by not moving at all, at times relishing its eclectic rhythm and broken narrative form. Suddenly, you are aware of sound in a completely new way – each syllable has a color of its own, each word its own shape.

This is the second and perhaps more important outcome of experiencing “Waking Life.” Much like the mystified protagonist of the film, the viewer is forced to re-negotiate how s/he experiences the aesthetic before them, be it life, dream or a moving picture. From its bold use of rotoscopic animation, which perfectly creates that on-the-fence reality (it looks real and fake at the same time), to its insistence on visual inconsistencies (objects change shape and color at will), the universe of “Waking Life” is one you haven’t been to before. This makes it a unique experience at a time when experiencing films has largely depreciated into formulaic crud.

“Waking Life” brings Linklater back to his roots. Since “Slacker,” the Austin auteur has stumbled from pothead piece (“Dazed and Confused”) to mainstream drivel (“Before Sunrise”), but Waking puts all the pieces back together. Free from cinematic constraints, both in sight and sound, “Waking Life” manages to float by slightly detached and completely out of tune, and the result is one hell of a trip.

Before you ask, let me touch briefly on the weed-worthiness of the film. Stoners will find this as compelling a toke-trip as “2001” or “Wizard of Oz” but whereas those films get better with pot, “Waking Life” is simply just as good without it. Don’t get me wrong – once this puppy hits DVD, bring it home, turn out the lights, and puff away, but on the big screen, it might be worth tuning in and staying afloat. Just the same, the concessions should see some line-ups.

Rating: A
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Zoolander

In the writing process of a film such as this it is very easy for the film to take a wrong turn and fail miserably in its attempt, with “Zoolander” Ben Stiller has mastered this challenge. While the characters were ridiculous in almost every way they were still very enjoyable to watch. Scenes that might normally be unbearable to watch (such as the “gasoline fight”), were actually incredibly funny. The entire film walks such a fine line of being very funny or just plain awful, it amazes me that it held itself together for the entire length of the film.

Owen Wilson’s performance was easily one of his best ever, and proves he is one of the best comedic actors in Hollywood. With his ability to pick good acting roles and his writing abilities shown from his co-writing of “Rushmore,” Wilson should be one of the top actors for some time to come. Ben Stiller as Derrick Zoolander was excellent as Derrick Zoolander, a role in which very few other actors would be able to perform.

“Zoolander” is able to successfully hold together a really absurd plot. In doing so I produces one of the funniest films of the year to date. The last time I laughed as hard during a movie as I did during “Zoolander” was during the first half an hour of “Moulin Rouge.” While this movie is probably not worthy to be considered in the elite class of great comedies it surely merits multiple viewings.

Rating: A-
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Hearts in Atlantis

The problem with the movie is that it tells two disjointed stories. The stories are both set off by Robert Garfield (David Morse), in the present day, getting a letter and a baseball glove as a bequest from his childhood friend John Sullivan’s will. As a result of this, he flashes back to his childhood, where we have two distinctive plotlines:

1. A relatively realistic coming-of-age story between young Garfield, the young girl he loves, and his friend Sullivan. Add to this a meddling, overprotective mother (Hope Davis), and complications ensue. Gradually, Garfield becomes stronger as a person and moves toward adulthood. This story is well-done, but somewhat underplayed. In particular, even though Sullivan leaves Garfield the glove that sets off the reminisence, he’s never given any character or substance. Also, because the “big star” of the movie isn’t in this plot, I suspect it may have gotten cut down in the testing process.

2. A somewhat odd supernatural story about Ted Bradigan (Anthony Hopkins), the new boarder in the Garfield home. Ted has a “second sight” (exactly what this extends to or means is never really explained), and is being chased by “Low Men.” He asks Garfield to keep him safe and watch for the “Low Men.” Slowly, he befriends Garfield, and their relationship develops.

Now, the stories do intersect, especially near the end of the film, but to a large degree, they’re very separate. One is pretty starkly realistic while the other is heavily supernatural. The supernatural story leaves A LOT of questions unanswered. What exactly are Bradigan’s powersr How did he get themr What is her Who are the “Low Menr” Why are they chasing himr What do they wantr We don’t know, and the unclarity makes it confusing.

Hopkins is really good here, playing a haunted man, but the story doesn’t really drive him forward. His character is just haunted the whole time and doesn’t really change or grow. Also, the child playing young Garfield (Anton Yelchin) is excellent and has a strong chemistry with Hopkins. The movie really rises or falls on his shoulders, and he holds it together well.

So, did I like the movier I think it’s a good film, and worth seeing. It’s well-made, well-acted, and beautifully photographed. The problem is it’s not particularly entertaining or insightful. The insight it has to offer is that “childhood is a wonderful experience, but it’s fleeting.” This isn’t really anything new, having been said for ages in various movies, books, TV programs, and other sources. It’s interesting and noble, but in the end, I’m not sure it’s the great film it so painfully wants to be. It’s better than many films this year, but it’s not (I suspect) going to make my Top 10 for the year, nor do I expect it to burn up the box office, as it’s slowly paced and self-indulgent.

Rating: B-
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Count of Monte Cristo, The

I don’t know. But it did. Now, I got some spoilers here so watch out. Bare bones review: the movie is pretty solid and I would recommend it.

For all you illiterates and twelve year-olds out there, “The Count of Monte Cristo” is based on the classic (and really fucking long) novel by Alexandre Dumas who also wrote “The Three Musketeers” (and if you ever get the chance–there is an excellent stage adaptation written by Charles Morey that is the best version of the story I have ever seen). “Monte Cristo” was made into a Richard Chamberlain movie which I slept through in English class and is often described as the mother of all prison break movies. This version stars Jim Caviezel as Edmund Dantes, a naive sailor, and Guy Pearce as Count Mondego, a fellow adventurer and Edmund’s best friend. The movie opens with Jim and Guy landing on the island of Etta. Their ship’s captain has a “brain fever” and they are desperately looking for a doctor. Complications arise from the fact that Napoleon is being held prisoner on the island and, fearful of a possible prison break, his British captors have been ordered to shoot on sight anyone who sets foot on the island. Thus is set up our first big action scene and it’s poorly staged and confusingly edited and I was pissed as hell, cause it looked like I was going to be in for a long night.

In fact, the whole first act feels clipped and rushed like they new the film was long (this cut came in at about 130 minutes), they needed material to excise and the set-up was chosen to go.

Now, Dumas wrote really complicated plots so I won’t go into detail how or why Jim is set-up for treason by Guy and sent to an inescapable island prison, but suffice to say when Jim does get imprisoned, the movie starts to pick up steam. Jim is befriended by an old, wrongfully imprisoned priest played by Richard Harris who is much better and more lively here than he was in Gladiator. Dick teaches Jim all about mathematics, how to play swords and most importantly the location of a huge Spanish treasure. This is easily the best section of the movie, interesting and full of suspense and if it feels derivative of The Mask of Zorro… well, motherfuckers, guess who ripped off who. After Dick dies, Jim escapes the island and runs into a group of smugglers. Luis Guzman is one of these smugglers and he is set-up as one of the world’s greatest knife fighters and Luis is going to fight Jim to the death and if he doesn’t…the smugglers will kill both of them. So, there’s this great set-up for what will be a great action set-piece…only it never happens. Jim disarms Luis in about two seconds and then tells the smugglers that he refuses to fight and the smugglers say, “Okay. Come be a pirate with us.” The fuckr Look, you could have just put up a title card that says: “Jim meets a gifted minority actor who agrees to be his manservant and comic foil.” Lazy. And Luis Guzman is too good for treatment like that. Seriously, every time he was on screen I saw the audience lift themselves out of their seats so they could better see what he was doing. Dude’s got talent and charisma and even with the shitty material he had to work with, was quite good.

But enough negative remarks about the writing. One thing I really loved about this movie was the depth of characterization. Guy has his own petty, selfish reasons to do what he does, but we totally buy into it. And while he did fall into some mustache twirling shenanigans every now and then, most of the time Guy was quite human and very believable. Jim was even better, depicting a character who starts off as innocent and naive then becomes a shell of his former self: hollow, haunted, consumed with revenge. I thank Terry Malick and The Thin Red Line for introducing us to this actor. It’s great fun to see Jim reinvent himself as the Count, and begin his exacting revenge on his former captors. There’s also a nice little love story between Jim and newcomer Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays Mercedes, Jim’s former fiance who has since married Guy. The climax of the movie is a little goofy. Does Jim really have to go “mano a mano” with Guy even after he has taken Guy’s family and money and exposed him as a murdererr I don’t know, it seemed kind of liked, “Hey, Gladiator had a big swordfight at the end, maybe we better have one, too!” I guess you do need one, but the motivation behind it didn’t seem so strong to me (shit, there I go talking like a creative exec again…). Oh, there’s also this one really lame character sub-plot about Jim losing his faith in God, but then he finds it again, I guess, by ramming steel rods through people’s chests and breaking Dorleac’s (Michael Wincott) neck.

This movie is better than any other big studio Hollywood action picture I’ve seen this year. The fight scenes may not be as flashy as what we’ll get in “The Musketeer,” but the story, characters, acting and visual design is all there. Solid filmmaking. I recommend it.

Rating: B+
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