Monday, January 31, 2005

Mini-Review: The Station Agent (2003)

Not to be harsh, but I only knew this movie as the one starring a dwarf where I believe Patricia Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar. I wasn't too interested in seeing it at the time, but since I'm trying to see all those critically acclaimed movies of 2003 so I can finally finish my top 10 list and be honest about it, I rented this from Netflix.

It's a story about Fin (Peter Dinklage, i believe), a dwarf who used to work in a model train shop until his friend, the owner dies. Fin inherits from his friend an old train depot in New Jersey and he goes to live there by himself.

What follows is a slow moving, gradual picture of his life and how Fin builds a friendship with a very outgoing guy named Joe, and a woman named Olivia (Clarkson).

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Movie Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

A film by Michel Gondry

From the very creative mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman comes "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", one of the best movies of 2004. The narrative is kind of disjointed, but that is par for the course with a Kaufman script. The first scenes of the movie are really from quite a bit later chronologically, but at first we do not know quite how these first scenes fit into the story or why. Not long into the movie we learn that Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) had a relationship, but when it ended Clementine decided to have a new procedure done which can remove a person's memories of another person (or another thing). So, as far as Clementine now knows, she and Joel have never met. When Joel learns about this he has the same procedure done to remove all memories of Clementine.

At this point, the movie loses all sense of chronology, but it is makes more sense. The following scenes are Joel's memories as they are being erased, so his unconscious is reliving the memories and remembering both the good and the bad of his relationship with Clementine. At some point Joel decides that these are memories he doesn't want to lose. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is a very original look at love and relationships and what it could mean to really try and make a relationship work. The film is uncompromising in how it reveals Joel and Clementine, but at the same time it is very tender and sweet. Co-starring Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Kirstin Dunst, the movie never makes a wrong turn. With a subject that could easily have mad a very bad movie, Michel Gondry instead makes a very good one. In a refreshing change of pace Jim Carrey plays the straight man to Kate Winslet's far crazier Clementine.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is one of the most original, well acted, and simply excellent movies of the year. It deserves a place on any critics Top 10 list and is well worth watching. Grade: A-

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Movie Review: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

A film by Roland Emmerich

Yes, "The Day After Tomorrow" is the latest in a long tradition of disaster movies and it managed to spawn the rather dreadful television movie "Category Six". The premise here is that after decades (centuries, even) of devastating the environment through industry the world is facing a climate shift. Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is a scientist who has been warning anyone who will listen that we have to start thinking about the future right now and not leave the Earth a worse mess for future generations to deal with after it is too late. Hall believes that similar, severe climate shifts have happened several times throughout the history of this planet. In Jack's prediction, however, he admits that this may be decades if not centuries away. For there to be any sort of a movie, however, we know that this drastic climate shift is about to happen in the immediate future.

Jack Hall is dismissed by the Dick Cheney look-a-like Vice President, but from the beginning of the movie we have been seeing some strange weather. The air temperature dropped so quickly over Scotland that helicopters little froze in midair and dropped. The pilots also physically froze in place. Maybe cryogenics will be able to help them out in the future. Likewise, there are reports of bizarre weather all over the planet and it is becoming apparent that something is very wrong. Not too far into the movie government officials start believing Jack and have Jack and his staff work out a forecast model for what this storm is going to do. The only potential forecast that Jack has is what he believes happened tens of thousands of years ago. With this forecast he sees that the climate shift is going to be harsher and quicker than anyone would imagine possible.

"The Day After Tomorrow" is not just about death and destruction and pretty special effects, but there is a side-story revolving around his son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal). Sam is a high school student and is incredibly bright. He is in New York City for some sort of a Quiz Bowl Championship. On his team is a girl he is very interested in named Laura (Emmy Rossum), but he is too shy/scared to talk about his feelings for her. When the climate shift occurs, they are trapped in New York after the city floods, then freezes. From talking to his father, Sam knows that the deep freeze which knocked out the helicopters is headed for New York and anyone caught outside will not survive it.

As good of a job as Emmy Rossum did in "The Phantom of the Opera" she is given nothing to do here other than be the love interest of Sam, and this entire subplot is unnecessary. Honestly, most viewers know that these disaster movies are never very good, but we watch them to see wanton destruction and some special effects. Surprisingly, the discussion about what is going on with the weather is actually interesting and is one of the better parts about the movie. I think it is because the characters are taking the issue seriously and there is nothing campy or horribly unrealistic about it. If the absurd is taken seriously, the absurd becomes believable. But even that pales in the absurdity of Jack trying to travel from Washington D.C. to New York City to rescue Sam after the Climate Shift and before the Hard Freeze. That part is just too absurd for words.

Dennis Quaid is a very good actor and his work puts this whole discussion into the realm of the believability, and I have been enjoying his recent work since "The Rookie". Gyllenhaal is a bit old for his role here, but he is fine as is Rossum who has nothing to do. The reason we watch this movie, however, is the destruction. It looks good (well, as good as the destruction of our planet can look). The trouble is just that all of the climate stuff is done in the first half of the movie, so that the rest of it is just anti-climactic.

A movie like "The Day After Tomorrow" makes me wonder what happens after the movie ends. What happens to all these people now that the climate has stabilized? Is there is a shift in ecological responsibility? Will there be new world powers since half of America (and Europe) is under ice? Of course, the movie doesn't answer the questions, but it is something to think about after the movie is over. The reason I think about the questions is also because the movie itself wasn't that good. It isn't supposed to be, or, at least I don't think it is supposed to be good. It is a special effects bonanza in the tradition of disaster movies. In that sense, it is no worse than anything that has come before and it looks better (though "Deep Impact" is still far superior to any recent disaster movie). If you like disaster movies (despite their lack of narrative or performance quality), then this should be entertaining. If you want an Oscar Caliber film, then look elsewhere. Grade: C-.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Movie Review: The Aviator (2004)

A film by Martin Scorsese

I go into a Martin Scorsese picture hoping to have my expectations blown away. With classic films like "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas" Scorsese was still able to exceed expectations and a lesser work such as "Bringing Out the Dead" was far better than expected. There is always the potential for greatness with Scorsese, and I always hope for the best but expect something less. "Gangs of New York" did not deliver. With "The Aviator" critics were once again saying this could be the year for Scorsese, this could be the picture. It's not. "The Aviator" is a biopic focusing on part of the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), a wealthy filmmaker and aviator, a true American genius with all the success and tragedy that this entails. The movie is good, and the performances better, but "The Aviator" is less than the sum of its parts not greater.

The film opens with a young boy being told by his mother about these diseases that are outside, that there are epidemics raging in town. That young Howard is not safe. Now we push forward to the late 1930's when Howard Hughes is older, but still a young man. He is directing a movie called "Hell's Angels", an incredibly ambitious film about World War I. Personally financed by Hughes, the film ran way over any expected budget and took three years to complete (compare this to the 18 months of Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" which was said to be extremely long and demanding). "The Aviator" shows the rise of Howard Hughes. He is already wealthy from a drill bits business, but he has a grander dream. His movie is a success, he spends his time with famous movie stars including a star of "Hell's Angels" Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), and the rise of Howard Hughes continues as he becomes more and more successful in aviation. He designs planes, flies planes and eventually becomes owner of TWA airlines.

Not to stretch the analogy of Howard Hughes the Aviator too thin or make too obvious of a cliche, but perhaps Hughes flew too near the sun and though he kept trying to fly higher, he was to be brought back down to earth. Hughes was a mess of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and full of little nervous tics because of his OCD compulsion about cleanliness. I suppose that the suggestion Scorsese is making here is that his compulsions stem from those childhood moments where his mother admonishes him that the world is not clean, not safe. I question that, but there is no doubt that Hughes suffered from his mania. It kept him from truly living a normal existence, though it got worse as he aged and as success was replaced by failure.

After buying TWA so that he can make a different, new kind of airplane, he gets into the world of airlines. Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) of Pan Am works with Senator Brewster (Alan Alda) to put Pan Am at an advantage compared to the upstart TWA. Hughes fights this and it is perhaps the whole ordeal with Pan Am and the Government which begins the fall of Howard Hughes.

"The Aviator" is a very big, broad movie. It covers a large period of time in the life of Howard Hughes, though not his entire life. It is a long movie, and perhaps a little bit too long. More than halfway through the movie, "The Aviator" begins to feel its length. It feels long and while I'm not sure what could have been trimmed, something could have been.

What helps "The Aviator" to rise above other movies is the performances. Every actor in this movie is quite excellent. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the strongest performances in his career and for the first time he was believable as an older man. I bought him as an adult, and this was one of my biggest concerns. John C Reilly is perpetually solid as Hughes' business man Noah Dietrich. The real heart of the movie, however, is Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn. She seems to give both the movie and Howard Hughes a sense of morality and direction. She is the power driving the film, and perhaps his life. Life after Hepburn began her lifelong romance with Spencer Tracy became the other part of the Decline of Howard Hughes. Blanchett may very well deserve an Oscar Nomination for her work here, but she never gives a bad performance in any film.

This film is an instance of every part being so good, especially the acting, but these parts somehow do not quite come together to make the masterpiece "The Aviator" almost was. Everything is in place, but it doesn't quite connect. Inexplicable, perhaps, and this movie will likely wind up on "Best of" lists and may very well earn an Oscar Nomination, but it doesn't live up to what it almost was. And that is disappointing. The acting is worth the price of admission, but the film itself is only a Grade: B.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Movie Review: X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)

A film by Rob Bowman

Set shortly after Season 5 of the "X-Files" television program, "X-Files: Fight the Future" is the first film (and to date, only) dealing with the "X-Files" characters and storylines. This film is steeped in the mythology of the series, which means that it deals with the government conspiracy and the cover ups of aliens, and all of the deep mythology which drives the show. The X-Files are closed and FBI Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) have been reassigned and are currently working on a called in bomb threat in a government building. The case has the feel of the Oklahoma City bombing of the Murrah building, and when the bomb goes off the wreckage looks like just that. But this is only the beginning as things quickly do not add up and Mulder is off on another chase for "The Truth" while Scully has to try to scientifically back up (or disprove, which she never can) Mulder's wild theories.

While the series can explore grand conspiracies and big stories on each episode, these stories tend to be revealed slowly over the course of multiple episodes and multiple seasons. Giving the viewer an "X-Files" movie means that we are likely to be given a grander story all at one time, and this is exactly what we get. This movie works on two levels. A viewer with no experience with the "X-Files" can enjoy the movie on its own merits. This is the way that I first experienced the film when it was released in the theatres in 1998. It wasn't until years later I started watching the show on DVD and worked my way up to the movie and had a completely different experience. For longtime fans of the show, this movie works as an extended episode (or one of the two episode story arcs). It just operates on a larger scale than is possible on episodic television.

Viewers with no "X-Files" experience can watch a movie involving a government conspiracy and something do with extra-terrestrials. Fans of the series will get explanations for the origins of the black oil, the bees, a greater look at the extent of the conspiracy (difficult to explain without spoiling it), and a very good long episode of the show. There are explosions and danger and a trip to Antarctica with a reveal that has to be seen to be believed. This movie rewards fan of the show, but leaves as many questions as it answers. This particular storyline will not be resolved until midway through Season 6.

While enjoyable, I would not recommend this movie for those who are not fans of the "X-Files". It works on its own, but truly rewards viewers of the series. I would highly recommend this movie to those who already enjoy the show or are just discovering it. But for those viewers, I would make sure that you have seen the episodes through Season 5 as this is where it fits into the chronology. For fans of the show, this movie should just be considered a two hours episode of "The X-Files", and it is a good one.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Movie Review: Maria Full of Grace (2004)

A film by Joshua Marston

Maria Alvarez (Catalina Sandino Moreno) de-thorns roses at a flower plantation in a small Colombian town. She recently learned that she is pregnant by her boyfriend whom she does not love nor does he love her. After being poorly treated by her employer, Maria quits her job and needs to find work. Maria helps to support her family, which includes her sister and nephew. Her sister doesn't work. The only job options are to return to the flower plantation or travel many miles away to get work in a city. She meets a young man named Franklin (John Alex Toro) who suggests another option: Maria could work as a mule.

A mule is the person who transports drugs from Colombia to America. In the case of the mules in "Maria Full of Grace", the mules swallow 60 or more pellets filled with heroin and transport the drugs inside of the mule. There is still great risk: the mule can still be caught by customs and submit to an X-Ray which will reveal the pellets; a pellet can break open inside the mule, essentially sentencing the person to death; or the mule can lose a pellet by using the bathroom. Losing a pellet can result in horrible consequences for the family of the mule, as the drug lord threatened Maria and her family. American may be the Land of Opportunity, but "Maria Full of Grace" shows why a Colombian girl with no criminal leanings would choose to enter this life. The opportunities are simply not there in Colombia. A mule could buy a house for her family with just one paycheck.

This film does not shy away from graphically showing us what can happen to those who traffic drugs across the border. We see every possible consequence to being a mule, from the good to the horribly bad. While Joshua Marston does not hand us a moral judgment on Maria, I don't see that there is any way that he is giving any sort of approval to the life of a mule, either. I just know that those characters which chose to continue in that life are not going to have an easy or very long life. Sooner or later time and reality will catch up. The mule is a beast or burden and will not long live a life of luxury.

Catalina Sandino Moreno did a fantastic job as Maria. It is difficult to believe that this was only her first role in a movie (much like Bryce Dallas Howard in "The Village", only this movie is actually good). Moreno is so self assured in "Maria Full of Grace", but also frightened or unsure when circumstances call for it. We get why a basically moral young woman would make the decision she did. For Maria being a mule is not entering a life of crime, but rather an opportunity in a land of no opportunities. Moreno truly is the star of this movie and I would love to see her nominated for this performance.

"Maria Full of Grace" is one of the year's best films and it is moving, heartbreaking, and even uplifting. Second time director Joshua Marston looks to have a very good future ahead of him if he can keep making movies as good as "Maria Full of Grace". The story and the performances really make this foreign language movie shine. Grade: A

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Book Review: The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger

If I said that "The Time Traveler's Wife" was a non-conventional love story with time travel, that description would not come close to accurately describing this novel. It is a non-conventional love story with time travel at its heart, but the novel is so much more than that, and it is also different. Clare met Henry when she was 6 and he was 38. When Henry met Clare, he was 28 and she was 20. How is such a thing possible? Henry is afflicted with what will come to be called Chrono Displacement Disorder. Or, to put it plainly: involuntary time travel. Ever since he was a child Henry has involuntarily time traveled when he is in a period of great emotional stress. He doesn't know why, or how. When Clare meets Henry for the first time, he has known Clare for years and he knows that they will marry when she is older (and he is younger). When Henry meets Clare for the first time, she has known an older Henry all of her life. "The Time Traveler's Wife" is their love story and it is an exceptional one.

This novel is told from the perspective of both Henry and Clare in alternating viewpoints. Niffenegger lets us know at the beginning of each perspective exactly when this event is happening and how old both Clare and Henry are in each perspective. This is vitally important otherwise "The Time Traveler's Wife" would not make any sense. While it seems at first that the story is being told without any apparent order or structure, it soon becomes clear that the structure is Clare. Since she does not have Chrono Displacement Disorder, she ages normally and does not flit back and forth between the years. The structure of the novel follows Clare from when she is a child and first meeting Henry through she teenage years to their life together as adults. The structure follows Clare's life and her timeline. Henry pops in and out of her life from age 6 through 18 and he is sometimes in his 40's, other times a younger man in his thirties. This is why Niffenegger's telling us the ages of the characters is so vital. Henry may or may not know some events in Clare's life because for him, depending on his age, they haven't happened yet. This allows the reader to discover things about Clare and Henry as Henry learns them. Sometimes he knows that something happened because Clare references it, but it is only later that he discovers what it was when he time travels.

"The Time Traveler's Wife" is a very moving novel. Watching Henry and Clare struggle to fit a normal relationship into their lives despite Henry's time travel can be heart wrenching despite the fascination with when Henry will go next and what we will learn about their past together. Audrey Niffenegger has done such a great job constructing this novel and making sure that it has a very firm structure that even the unrealistic idea of involuntary time travel (as if building a time machine wouldn't have been strange enough for Niffenegger) seems realistic and grounded in reality. This novel feels real and true.

I don't know that I can praise "The Time Traveler's Wife" enough or even adequately. The best praise that I know how to give is to say that from time to time I encounter a book that blows me away, that I don't want to put down, and that is so magical that I am simply absorbed into the story. It's a rare book that completely levels me and gets instantly elevated to one of my favorite books. "The Time Traveler's Wife" is such a novel.

Movie Review: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

A film by Wes Anderson

If you have seen one of Wes Anderson's previous three films ("Bottle Rocket", "Rushmore", or "The Royal Tenenbaums") then you have a very good idea what sort of movie "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is. "The Life Aquatic" is a very quirky sort of comedy and it is very similar to Anderson's previous movies, though with a bigger budget which he uses for special effects that would only fit in a Wes Anderson movie. The basic plot of the movie is that Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) is an oceanographer in the mold of a Jacques Cousteau. Steve makes documentary films about his voyages and discoveries and once he was very famous and successful. Now his films are not making very much money at all. On his last expedition, one of his crew, an old friend, was killed by some sort of shark that Zissou names a "jaguar shark". While such a creature would not normally exist, the movie spends its time showing us increasingly exotic and unlikely sea creatures (and this is where the effects budget went).

At a screening of his latest film, Zissou announces the subject of his next: he is going to track down the jaguar shark which killed his friend, and kill it. When asked what the scientific value of this would be, he answers simply, "Revenge". This, from an oceanographer. Around this time, Steve also meets a man claiming to be his son, Ned (Owen Wilson). Steve immediately takes to Ned, and invites him to be a part of Team Zissou. Steve and his crew set out to sea to track the jaguar shark and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. To be honest, Team Zissou feels like a bunch of amateurs.

As with any Wes Anderson movie, the plot is not why we watch the movie. The reason we go to a Wes Anderson movie is the humor, the absurd interaction of the characters and increasingly odd situations. There is a tone, a general ambiance to a Wes Anderson movie, and "The Life Aquatic" has it in spades. Everyone speaks in a dry, slightly ironic manner where no dialogue feels real (except for that of Cate Blanchett's character). This has worked in "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" because it seemed to fit the characters and the situation. Simply, I believed the situations and the actions of the characters in those movies (as I did in "Bottle Rocket"). There was a deeper sense of intelligence in the humor in Anderson's previous work that is missing here. There is a lot of humor here, like the interns that continually are being tortured by Zissou, the red hats and the fact that everyone carries a glock. But, whatever it was that held "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" together is missing here. Instead we have several action sequences (really), an attack by pirates, and a three legged dog. The cast also includes Angelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, and Bud Cort.

A Wes Anderson movie usually takes several viewings for everything to really seep in and sometimes just to get exactly what is going on in the movie, and perhaps "The Life Aquatic" will be far more rewarding on the second or third viewing. But this movie was a bit of a let down in the theatre. I loved "The Royal Tenenbaums" and really enjoyed "Rushmore", but "The Life Aquatic" seemed somewhat pointless and this was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. Grade: B-