Archive for February, 2007

Like a Comfortable Pair of Old Mocassins

One of the reasons Becket feels so refreshingly comfortable is that it begs to be talked about in conventional narrative terms. For instance, the “central conflict” is easily identifiable. By today’s standards, though, the pace of the film will seem plodding to most, almost even soporific. The performances will come across as overdone, even hammy. The direction and storytelling will seem positively pedestrian. Still, the two areas where Becket should still work for all audiences, though, are in its dialogue and in its themes. Becket and many of its contemporaries were such fine, fine films.

Amazing Grace
Amazing and Graceful, If Not Perfect

As a history lesson, Amazing Grace is beyond admirable. As a tract on the evils of the 18th-century slave trade, it’s a powerful indictment and makes a fine companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s 19th-century slave-trade tale from the opposite side of the Atlantic, Amistad. As a portrait of Wilberforce, it’s an Oscar-bait complex powerhouse. As an example of ensemble acting that might be more memorable than anything else we’ll see this year, we couldn’t ask for more. And still, the whole doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts.

The Number 23
A Great Premise That Comes Up Short

In The Number 23, director Joel Schumacher makes the most of our expectations of Jim Carrey. Simply put, Carrey’s character, a dog catcher named Walter Sparrow, is not what we are expecting—so Carrey gets to shine as a serious actor and as a regular guy with great comedic timing. In brief, the story is creative and unique, Carrey’s acting is Oscar-caliber, and as we would hope, the story takes a surprising turn. But the turn that it takes is inconsistent with the film’s internal logic, and the climax is a non sequitur.

The Astronaut Farmer
Just Enough Dreams, Too Much Fantasy

If you find the plot of The Astronaut Farmer implausible (as I did), your chances of enjoying this film are less than optimal. While the Polish brothers’ movie does offer a refreshing reality in terms of families and dreamers, there are simply too many implausibilities for me to take the film as seriously as they seemed to have intended it. The movie seems to be trying too hard to “ring true,” yet still be fantasy enough to provide the “escape” that movies served in decades past, requiring too much line-dancing between fantasy and reality to get me to buy into this man and his dream.

Deconstructing Cinematic Cynicism
A Plea for the Days of Wide-eyed Wonder

As Billy Bob Thornton noted, “We used to see a double feature, and we were so happy we saw two movies for the price of one… Now, to get somebody to see two movies in a row, you have to chain ’em to the wall.” His comment made me reflect on my own mindset as I enter a theater, which is often “this-better-be-good.” He went on to explain: “First of all, it’s a movie… and when I used to go to movies, I went to like the movie, and not to pick it apart and to be cynical…” As he expounded on the shift from wide-eyed to cynical, I knew where I stood.

Bridge to Terabithia
Adaptation Hits on All Cylinders

Movies based on beloved books are often chancy things. Happily, Bridge to Terabithia may be among the best translations of a book to the big screen that I have seen, and I don’t say that lightly. This is a very, very good thing in the case of Bridge to Terabithia, serving to introduce this heart-warming tale to new generations of readers. Adults will also likely find the movie just as engrossing as children. Over time, this movie is likely to prove just as enduring as the book that inspired it. There is a message here about strength of character and the value of friendship—and yes, love—that can’t help but leave a lasting impression with audience members.

A Talk with von Donnersmarck
Of Totalitarianism and Film School

“You can’t learn film,” says von Donnersmarck, director of The Lives of Others. “Film is about actively applying your own tastes and just detecting untruthfulness. If you see someone acting and you find something you don’t find truthful in that acting, you have to say so. You have to name it. You have to correct it. That’s not something you can learn. Nobody can teach you to detect lies. You can either do that or not. It is something that life teaches you, certainly not a professor. Then the technical side of filmmaking is not that difficult… Film school is an opportunity to have a lot of equipment at your disposal with the time to think about the stories you wanted to tell. But everything else is not really that useful.”

The 2006 Oscar Nominated Shorts
Good News for John and Jane Doe

I was fortunate enough this year to screen The 2006 Oscar Nominated Shorts and, although it may not have been as great as watching, say, The Departed, it made for an entertaining Saturday night. So now when they announce the nominees for the short film Oscars, I’ll not only have a clue about the films, but perhaps even a rooting interest. My Oscar night just got a little better. If you’re lucky enough to live in one of the arthouse markets where these collected shorts are being released this weekend, check them out.

Someday This Cold War Is Gonna End

The first thing to note about Breach is that it has an authentic feel. Even before researching the background, I got the impression that the story accurately reflected what a behind-the-scenes hunt for a spy. While there is little action to speak of, director Billy Ray does manage to create tension through the cat-and-mouse interaction between Hanssen and O’Neill. The pace isn’t always perfect; my attention did wander one or two times, but on the whole it was engaging. Like The Good Shepherd before it, this movie shares with the audience a different perspective on patriotism and the cost that the men and women who work in the shadowy world of our intelligence agencies often pay in the performance of their duties.

Starter for Ten
A Fine Screenplay and a Disarming Lead

“Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to be clever.” So says Brian Jackson in voiceover at the beginning of Starter for Ten, a clever film written by David Nicholls and produced by Tom Hanks. Nicholls’ screenplay strongly captures the first-year college experience. The film is somewhat autobiographical—Nicholls was even a classmate of director Tom Vaughan. I don’t mind confessing that this movie also fairly well portrays the feelings I had a fresh college student. As Brian Jackson, James McAvoy has a surprisingly disarming quality which, with this kind of story, works in any era.

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