Friday, September 30, 2005

THE WAR WITHIN - A Movie Review

Upon reflection of seeing the internal struggles and conflicts of a would-be Islamic fundamentalist intent on blowing up Grand Central Station in Joseph Costelo's THE WAR WITHIN, two thoughts pop into mind: one, that we have arrived at a comfortable enough distance in time from the incalculable tragedy of the terrorist attacks of September 11th for them to be directly sourced within popular culture; and two, that as a New Yorker, you can almost watch as locations you frequent daily become targets on-screen without too much wincing. Are these good things?

Recent films like HOTEL RWANDA, THE CONSTANT GARDENER and IN MY COUNTRY have taken recent real-life or close-to-real-life tragedies and repurposed them for our cinematic consumption; often shedding interrogation-intense light on international horrors that skip by our news radars. THE WAR WITHIN, on the other hand, deals with still-controversial and fresh events and issues that happened in our and, personally, my backyard. Specifically, the film centers on Hassan (Ayad Akhtar, who co-wrote the screenplay), a Pakistani-born, American-educated and westernized Parisian who is abducted in a terrorist sweep (by who, it's never clear) soon after September 11th, 2001. After horrid treatment, Hassan reappears in the present day as an Islamic fundamentalist sent to New York City, tasked as an engineer for an unnamed terrorist group hell-bent on revisiting new horrors upon the city. While in New York, Hassan stays with Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), a childhood friend, who has assimilated himself and his family quite well into the American dream. As Hassan acquaints his present-self with his past, internal conflict arises. Will he actually go through with his assignment?

Based only on the fact that it portrays the mindset of a terrorist - the "other side" if you will - THE WAR WITHIN is, without a doubt, an important film. Like the films previously mentioned, the producers and filmmakers deserve an enormous amount of credit bringing something like THE WAR WITHIN to the screen. Truthfully, it speaks to overall power of cinema that a rare point-of-view can be given voice and outlet. This is not to say, however, that THE WAR WITHIN is a particularly good film. Hassan's "will-he" or "won't he" conflict is by no means enough to carry an entire film and the middle of its 90 minute span sags from its tiresome prolonging. Other plot devices, like an almost re-kindled romance between Hassan and Sayeed's way too-cute sister, Farida (Sarita Choudhury) and Hassan's fundamentalist 101 education of Sayeed's young son feel awkward, forced and artificial; they suffer from a lack of any real exposition. The best external conflicts, that between Hassan and his old friend, Sayeed, and Hassan and his shaky partner, Abdul, are left under-fed as a result. Until the very end, Costelo's portrayal of the America Sayeed and his family have assimilated into is way too squeaky clean to be believed; any subtle fear of and prejudice towards the main characters is non-existent. Indeed it is the end that finally delivers some unforgettable moments; the scene where Hassan passes the innocent men, women and children he may soon after kill being the most compelling.

They say time heals all wounds; but I wonder what the reaction would have been to a movie like 2001's PEARL HARBOR, had it been released a few years after the original tragedy? Will there be some silly, effects-laden romantic adventure movie made about the events of September 11th fifty years from now? Probably. Until that day, however, we can be at least be treated to a serious yet flawed treatment of events we are still trying to understand.

**1/2 of *****

Saturday, May 14, 2005


If Will Ferrell quit the business tomorrow, his place within the hipster pop culture pantheon would be secure. With roles like OLD SCHOOL’S Frank The Tank and his better Saturday Night Live bits, Ferrell has made his mark playing the “man-child:” a character whose faux cool exterior hides a fragile (and funny) tyke inside who gives in to fits of spontaneous, vocally high-pitched and emotionally intense outbursts. In Jesse Dylan’s KICKING & SCREAMING, his shtick collides with actual children for a go on the soccer pitch.

Ferrell plays Phil Weston, a vitamin salesman whose son warms the bench on his soccer team. Phil is a wishy-washy modern guy who can easily cry, sew, and be politically correct around lesbians (did I mention he also sells vitamins?) Despite a lifetime’s worth of trying, Phil has never been able to please his hard-line father Buck (Robert Duvall) who coaches said soccer team with the ferocity of Vince Lombardi. Buck is a man’s man, who eats steak for breakfast and cares enough about winning to bench his own grandson. When Phil pleads with Buck to get his son off the pine, Buck “trades” him to the last place team in the league, which is, of course, filled with a cast of non-athletic booger-flickers and dirt-eaters channeled from the likes of the original BAD NEWS BEARS. Cue not one but two hit-in-the-groin jokes. Left without a coach and faced with forfeiting their season, Phil fills in, helped out by his father’s neighbor and rival, real life ex-football coach Mike Ditka. Before long, Phil obsesses with beating his father and loses sight of why he took the job in the first place – to be a better dad to his son.

The best part of the film – for adults anyway – is the contrast between Buck’s “Father Knows Best” old school and Phil’s “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” new school. Ferrell, for one, plays straight man to the wacky group of tykes for a sizable portion of the film. It’s only in the second half, as an overly caffeinated coaching monster, does he tackle his comedic talents and some genuine chuckles ensue. Ditka also proves himself game, although, to be fair, I’m not sure how much of a stretch it is to play oneself or a parody thereof.

The worst part of the film – for adults again – is Jesse Dylan’s (yes, Bob’s son) filmmaking skills. At least half the movie is shot hand-held, resulting in a constant shaky frame. Does an innocent scene where Phil hands out little birds in cages to each team member need to look like a LAW & ORDER episode? Do the birds murder the parents? No! Too many scenes also felt stitched together. It’s almost as if Dylan didn’t know what he wanted, shot everything possible and patched together a sloppy quilt in the editing room. You may scoff at my critical snobbery over such a “family” movie, but the simple truth is that filmmaking basics are like umpiring in baseball: it’s at its best when you don’t notice it. Any moment where your viewing momentum is broken is poison for a director.

If you are an eleven year-old boy with a face full of chocolate and you and your buddies need to ride out a Reese’s Pieces high, I’d recommend KICKING & SCREAMING. For you twenty or thirty-something fans of Will Ferrell, I’d wait four months, save five bucks, rent the DVD and suckle a few chuckles and munchies in the comfort of your own home.

**1/2 out of *****

Thursday, March 10, 2005

IN MY COUNTRY: A Film Review

Should a film get a critical pass because it is about a highly important social topic? In a recent review I wrote on HOTEL RWANDA, I emphatically said “yes.” Well, that little personal rule is about to meet its enemy, stinging exception. Director John Boorman’s (DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR, TAILOR OF PANAMA) heart is in the right place, setting his latest film, IN MY COUNTRY, amidst South Africa’s real-life Truth & Reconciliation hearings; an attempt by that country’s government to right the wrongs of apartheid by trying those who doled out the persecution. Unfortunately, however, it’s his filmmaking mind that leaves the film’s events feeling thin and undercooked.

Based on the novel COUNTRY OF MY SKULL by Antjie Krog, IN MY COUNTRY stars French ingénue Juliette Binoche as Anna, a native white South African poet, who is covering the hearings for national radio. Outraged and shocked by the testimony she hears, Anna is nonetheless treated as one of “them” by Washington Post reporter Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson). The debate about whether blame for such atrocities lies with the most powerful few, the soldiers they charge with orders or the populace who may or may not know of the goings-on is the most glowing and interesting theme in the film. Similar deliberation constructs the crux of Stanley Kramer’s classic, JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBURG, with Nazism in place of apartheid. But while it is the focus of the latter film, it is only a few of the pixels that comprise the blurry total image of IN MY COUNTRY.

As Anna and Langston get past the associations their skin pigments bring to the fray and find the individuals underneath, they have an affair. But a quick glimpse of a kiss and a shorter moment of edited passion betrays a kid-glove treatment to what may have been a compelling storyline. What you’ve already read might have been enough to effectively fill 104 minutes, but IN MY COUNTRY grows grossly overweight on a myriad of sub-plots. For example, the effect of Anna’s affair on her husband and family; Anna’s mother admitting to a past affair with an African-American; oddly placed intermittent pace-killing inserts of Whitfield interviewing De Jager (Brendan Gleeson), a former ringleader of barbarity; a needless sub-plot regarding the involvement of Anna and Langston’s guide, another involving a caretaker from Anna’s youth; Whitfield’s anger over the American press’s disregard for the proceedings; and, most lukewarm and needless, the glossed over suicide and funeral of Anna’s brother. While full treatment of these pieces – and others, not named - would have resulted in a three-hour epic long puzzle, inclusion of some would have sufficed here. Admittedly, I did not read the book, but it is quite plain to see that the filmmakers wanted to stuff every last bit of it and then some into its cinematic adaptation.

It is indeed a fallacy to believe that any film that tackles weighty social issues should be perceived as “important” (JAKOB THE LIAR, anyone?) Sometimes, as in the case of IN MY COUNTRY, the movie gets in the way and serves itself instead of the substantial cause that originally inspired it.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Gun To Your Head: Read My HOSTAGE Review

“Typecasting” is as dirty a word to Hollywood actors as “it” is to the Knights of Nee. Why else is Robert Davi cast a villain in all of his movies? But typecasting is not always a bad thing. Often it provides the nectar of comfortable familiarity to soothe the expectations of an eager audience. Higher-up on that scale, type can cast a perpetual shiny veneer of iconography to a select group of actors; where type becomes archetype. Thus, John Wayne will always be remembered as the rough and tumble cowboy, Edward G. Robinson as the hard-boiled gangster. With Florent Emilio Siri’s HOSTAGE, Bruce Willis officially offers his archetype candidacy as the hardened, blue-collar cop in dire need of redemption.

One of the keys to ascension to archetype status is durability and adaptability over time. Starting famously with DIE HARD in 1988, Willis’s John McClane was a perfect masculine American answer to continued post-Vietnam frailties and the xenophobic fears of Japanese fiscal superiority that dominated the day’s headlines. Likewise, in 2005, Willis’s Jeff Talley arrives amidst contemporary fears of terrorism and a faceless enemy. In both cases, these characters’ broken family histories and desire for salvation make them an easily identifiable pill for an audience to swallow. Likewise, it assures us that we can sleep safer and easier (for two hours, at least) knowing that these last boy scouts are on watch.

HOSTAGE opens with Talley acting on task as Los Angeles’s top hostage negotiator. Things go awry quickly, as a chilling turn of events leaves him feeling responsible for the doomed fates of a woman and her young son at the hands of a crazed psychopath. Leaving that harsh spotlight, Talley resurfaces a year later as the police chief in a small, quiet California town in Ventura County. Small and quiet turns big, loud and ugly when three no-good teenagers attempt to car-jack Walter Smith (Kevin Pollack), a rich accountant and his teenaged daughter and younger son. Things go awry (again!) and the delinquents are forced to hold the family hostage inside their own impenetrable fortress of a home. Further complicating matters, a shadowy organization will stop at nothing to get inside and steal a DVD tha contains vital shadowy organization financial information. When his own family is brought into the fray, Talley must spring back into action.

Forget for a moment that Columbine seems to have taught Hollywood that white teenagers are evil, or that light is never shed on the whos or whys behind said shadowy organization (I’m an American, I want the truth!), or that what starts out as an interesting suspense thriller premise literally goes up in the flames of convention and bombast. There is a highly redemptive thought on HOSTAGE that the kindness of retrospect has granted me. Consider the Smiths’ compound, outfitted with the very latest in security technology as analagous to our own pre-9/11 notion that our national boundaries were impassable. Allow then that the three measly truants were able to penetrate the compound and wreak havoc much as a small band of terrorists did on that fateful day. The faceless, nameless “shadowy organization” can then be compared to the intangible yet fully real resulting fears of terrorism that still paralyze us to this day. Finally, it is up to Talley, the blue-collar cop, the strong American patriarch, the face for our own armed forces and protective law enforcement, to restore order, to fight for and save us.

Is this too simplistic? Perhaps. But remember that art is always directly influenced by the surrounding times it was created in, whether its creators are conscious of it or not. It is thus strangely comforting in today’s pop culture environment, where Wayne’s cowboys have long gone out to pasture and nerdy scientists rescue the world from CGI mayhem, that Willis’s characters stand watch to do the real dirty work.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

From Hell: A Review of CONSTANTINE

For a film about the mighty eternal forces of good and evil doing battle on Earth’s (or contemporary LA’s) soil, Francis Lawrence’s CONSTANTINE never really makes you feel as much is at stake. Perhaps it’s my fault. While I consider myself an intelligent enough person, I will admit to feeling perplexed in contemplating the fuzzy storylines that coarse through the film’s 121 minutes. Maybe in having not read “Hellblazer,” the comic novel on which the film is based, I missed out on cues and points that only faithful readers were privy to; I was merely an outsider given a glance into hardcore fanboy-dem. But if so, isn’t it the filmmaker’s responsibility to bring me, the graphic novel zero, into the club?

What I can flesh out is that John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) is an exorcist/ detective who has been cursed with supernatural powers since childhood. At one point, in his teenaged years, it led him to an attempted suicide and a rare return ticket from hell. In an effort to get back in heaven’s good graces – time is running short, he’s terminally stricken with lung cancer – Constantine methodically helps the possessed free their inner demons in an effort to quell his own. A cynical detective, Angela (Rachel Weisz), seeks out Constantine’s services when her twin sister, Isabel (Weisz), commits suicide amidst odd circumstances. Together, the two get caught up in a much larger battle that involves, among other things, the Sword of Destiny (damn Nazis!), the migrant worker who stumbles and wields said sword, questionable angels, alcoholic priests, a bowling alley pin monkey, the son of Satan, Satan himself (Peter Storemare, in an odd turn), and a rock star playing Balthazar (Bush’s Gavin Rossdale), a conduit of hell on Earth. That’s quite a buffet considering the film could be viewed as the most expensive anti-smoking ad ever produced. Truth!

Besides its hazy plot, CONSTANTINE rests its (un)success on a couple of things. One is Reeves feeding his inner-Steve Decker, to play a weary, chain-smoking, noir-ish, beaten-down detective. It’s a role that the actor is a bit too pretty and young looking (he is 40, though!) to pull off. Secondly, Lawrence, a music video veteran (aren’t they all these days?) making his feature film debut, has an eye for some interesting visuals and shots; immediately, the breath-taking shot of Isabel’s initial suicide comes to mind. However, the CGI demons and hellscapes feel too forcibly scary to truly terrorize. In this current pop-culture landscape, something organic or less-is-more, tends to raise the hairs on my back; not yet another ogre-ishly ugly demon. Lastly, the film hinges on the fact that both heaven and hell cast minions (“half-lings”) into our “middle” stage that can influence us mere mortals by only “whispering” sweet goods and evils in our ears; not to mention reliance upon general hokey religious symbolism (look at the character’s names above) and dogma. Please. If that’s what it takes to maintain cosmic and religious balance, I’m moving to Canada.

So in the final analysis, I’m not so sure anymore that it’s my fault for not “getting” or particularly “liking” CONSTANTINE. Heck, I never read any of the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (don’t shoot me!) but enjoyed the hell (no pun intended) out of the films. What I am sure of it is that like the film’s protagonist, CONSTANTINE dips into Hades, aspires to join the heavens, but ultimately will lie, forever forgotten, in cinematic Purgatory.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Your Movie Dude's Diary: A Review of DIARY OF A MAD, BLACK WOMAN

February 25th, 2005

Dear Diary,

Wow! Been awhile since I last wrote, things have been real busy. Remember my neighbor, Mrs. Neugeborn from 4H, and her little Yorkshire Terrier, Buttercup, who would leave me little smelly “treats” outside my door? Well, consider that bitch’s wagon fixed. I slipped a Grade 9 cyanide pill into one of her doggie treats. That Grade 9 stuff does more than just kill. It'll give you the explosive and violent runs just before it finishes you. Buttercup's last “treat” is sure to be her best!

Let’s see what else. Oh! I went to go see Darren Grant’s DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN today. While that guy Grant directed the film, it actually belongs more to Tyler Perry, who wrote the play that the movie is based on. He also wrote the screenplay, produced the film, scored some of the music and starred in it, too – in three roles! The story revolves around Helen (Kimberly Elise), a beautiful African-American woman (Duh…look at the title!) who gets quite a shocking 18th wedding anniversary gift from her uber-successful lawyer husband, Charles (Steve Harris): dumped for a hot Latino bird and literally kicked out of her house without a penny! Having no work experience (why do so many women seem to be not employed in movies today? What is this, 1955? Get a job!), prospects or people to turn to, she goes back to her old ‘hood in Atlanta and seeks refuge at her grandmother, Madea’s house. Guess who plays Madea? Tyler Perry! Yup, taking a page from Eddie Murphy’s NUTTY PROFESSOR diary, Perry dresses up as an old, gun-toting, tell-it-like-it-is matriarchal maelstrom. Madea lives with her even crazier brother, Joe. Guess who plays Joe? Did you say Perry? You’re so smart! Especially for a diary. Anyways, Helen ends up meeting a cutie boy-toy, Orlando, who lacks her ex-husband’s money, but yet is much bigger where it counts…in his heart! When a sub-plot twist enables Helen to have revenge on her ex, it forces him to come to depend on her. He then reforms and grows to appreciate her. By then, she must choose between her converted husband and Orlando, the man with the big heart.

That “choice” is a defining element of this DIARY, dear diary. Reading Molly Haskell’s definitive film criticism book, “From Rape To Reverence: The Treatment of Women in Film,” the “choice” film is a sub-category she uses for the so-called “women’s film” genre, of which DIARY would be a contemporary member. It is by no means a comedy, despite Perry’s Murphy-like effort; which are the best parts of the film. They are also part of the problem for a film that is otherwise highly soap-operatic and problematically melodramatic. Specifically, Orlando was so sweet to the point of being saccharine. Heck, he even plays the “cuddle-instead-of-making-love” card. Yuck! He’s too-good to be too-good-to-be-true. Plus, the film has a highly religious influence, complete with many “what would Jesus do?” type questions. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it is presented in such a manner that it did not connect with this pop-culture fed blue-state baby. Sigh.

At least, like Helen, I have my own revenge to look forward too. Maybe Buttercup is feeling the effects right now. I’m gonna go have a quick listen to see if I hear any explosions behind her door. If not, I think I’ll relax in a goat’s blood bath and drift away by reciting “I’m the prettiest of them all” over and over.

Until next time, thanks for listening, diary, about DIARY; and let’s keep the dog-poisoning and goat’s blood thing to ourselves, shall we?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

You Can Exhale Now: Your Movie Dude's Official Oscar Predictions

Pssst. You. You in an Oscar pool? Yeah? You wanna win? Good, good. Come closer. Now, read below.

Editor's note:
These are Your Movie Dude's predictions, not who he wanted to win. If it was up to him Paul Giamatti would win Best Actor and Finding Neverland wouldn't sniff an award except Best Gilded Crap. This is an especially tough year, as their is no clear-cut runaway TITANIC, RETURN OF THE KING, or DANCES WITH WOLVES. The cumulative domestic box office of the best pic noms is the lowest in forever. Which means you need me even more! The predictions are based on the psychic statuette bio-rythyms that only Your Movie Dude is tuned into. Comments are available if necessary, look out for overusage of "momentum," "consolation," and "buzz."

Personally, I'm a huge fan of SIDEWAYS (What pathetic critic isn't?). But Clint's pic has more momentum.

Best Actor: Jamie Foxx, RAY
This isn't brain surgery, the man's on a roll. I would have voted for Paul Giamatti or Don Cheadle.

Best Actress: Hilary Swank, MILLION DOLLAR BABY
This is toughie (my gut was nagging at me to pick Imelda Staughton in VERA DRAKE). Every year there is an upset in one of the actress categories, but it's usually in the Supporting category (see below).

Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman, MILLION DOLLAR BABY
My personal vote would have been for Thomas Haden Church. But BABY is far out-distancing it's competition in key categories: late season awards, buzz momentum and Oscar-nominated box-office resurgence.

Best Supporting Actress: Natalie Portman, CLOSER
This category is a perennial wild card. Anything is possible. I have a gut feeling for the pick and any gut filled with booze, various cheeses and fried foods is never wrong.

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, THE AVIATOR
There are a few Oscar rules to note: 1. Best Picture often translates to Best Director; 2. Oscar likes actor/directors (both of which point to Clint). However, as mentioned above, this is not like any other year. Although by far not his best film, I think Marty wins doubly based on consolation for past wrongs and as second place for this year's Best Picture.

Best Screenplay (Original): ETERNAL SUNSHINE (Charlie Kaufman)
If there is a tenant in heaven, ETERNAL gets the nod. Screenplay is usually the one place where a small film will get noticed and ETERNAL was one of favorites of the year; the rare occasion where my gut and my heart lie together. Awww!

Best Screenplay (Adapted): SIDEWAYS (Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor)
See above re: small films. This is where SIDEWAYS collects it's consolation prize. Congrats to BEFORE SUNSET on the nod.

The rest (aka "The Guess Landmine"):

Art Direction: THE AVIATOR
Visual Effects: SPIDER-MAN 2
Original Song: "Believe" THE POLAR EXPRESS
Animated Feature: THE INCREDIBLES
Animated Short: BIRTHDAY BOY
Live Action Short: TWO CARS, ONE NIGHT
Costume Design: THE AVIATOR
Cinematography: THE AVIATOR
Best Documentary: BORN INTO BROTHELS
Best Documentary, Short Feature: SISTER ROSE'S PASSION
Foriegn Language Film: THE SEA INSIDE
Sound Editing: SPIDER-MAN 2

In sum, I think THE AVIATOR will carry a ton of the "technical" awards usually awarded to the biggest epic. The rest are educated guesses (industry jargon for "bullsh*t coin-flipping"). Good luck!!

Thursday, February 10, 2005

"Lost" and "The Office:" Perfect Together?

If you watched the February 9th episode of the TV series "Lost," and had your razor sharp pop-culture ears tuned in, you may have caught a quick reference to the hit BBC show, "The Office." In his flashback, Charlie, the lovable - but drug addled - bassist from the fictional rock band Driveshaft (You are everybody!), gets taken home by a pretty 22 year-old English girl, Lucy. When Charlie asks her where her rich father is, she says he's off buying some 'paper company in Slough'; Wernham Hogg, the infamous setting for "The Office," is a paper company in Slough. Coincidence? I think not. A brief marriage of two of the best series from the past few years to grace a television screen? You betcha! Keep those ears open.

Hitch: A Movie Review

If we’ve learned anything of the “Queer-Eye”-ified world of reality television, it’s that the common man is dirty, poorly dressed and couldn’t make a peanut-butter sandwich if you spotted him the bread. Taking a swift glance around my own dank dwelling, well, perhaps they’re right. How can one secure true love if one’s unmentionables are dangling precipitously from one’s lamp? In the pre-metrosexual era, that answer may have been “pay for it.” But, as luck would have it, our current makeover-obsessed culture has thankfully readied our acceptance – in cinematic form, of course – of the urban date doctor, HITCH, to cure the love ills of the quiet, good-hearted, late-blooming, slightly unkempt, modern male.

It is important to note for the purposes of the film, that Alex Hitchens (Will Smith) will only help a guy if he is truly, madly and deeply in love with a women; boorishly wanting to “bang” a member of the opposite sex does not qualify you for his services. Due to his rather funny past as a wallflower and victim of cruel heartbreak, Hitch fully arms his clients – teaching them to dance, getting their backs waxed - with the confidence to engage in a dying art: romancing the girl of their dreams. Hitch’s latest project is projected as his most difficult: an overweight, asthma-stricken nebbish, Albert Brennaman (Kevin James), a junior accountant who has fallen head-over-heals for one of his clients, Allegra Cole (Amber Valleta), a beautiful celebrity socialite. While helping out Albert, Hitch meets and falls for a hard-working gossip columnist Sara Melas (Eva Mendes) whose initial resistance and verbal return-serve capabilities pierce his veneer of suave intelligence and eternal bachelorhood. That Sara trails Allegra’s evening escapades for good copy is no coincidence; indeed it is the collision of these two conflicts that ably fill-out the rest of the movie’s narrative.

Director Andy Tennant (SWEET HOME ALABAMA, ANNA AND THE KING) does a yeoman’s job in keeping the proceedings light and fun, easing, at times, his characters and their dialogue into a playfully quick rat-tat-tat. Mr. Smith is quite charming without being too cutesy in the title role and Mr. James easily sheds his “King Of Queens” skin – almost outshining his co-star - for a very funny, physically intense comedic turn. The two actors find an excellent on-screen chemistry that works well. First time screenwriter Kevin Bisch’s script features some really witty repartee and steers its story away from the murky, maudlin depths of melodrama or sentimentality.

Besides the considerable debt the movie owes to the very now “new you!” pop-culture landscape, HITCH, is truly a movie of its own time. I’m pretty sure that ‘“Google-ing” someone’s name’ – among other contemporary references – will sound downright archaic and laughable to anyone who watches the film on HD-DVD-On-Demand in 2025. The movie hinges upon the majority of its audience projecting onto – rather than identifying with – its attractive thirty-something main characters: their lavish New York apartments, restaurants and tastes are highly sophisticated, urbane and affluent. HITCH is also a film whose foundation is built on several accepted stereotypes, both cinematic and more broadly social. It doesn’t take a genius to hypothesize – from the film or my description above – the religious background of the Albert Brennaman character. It’s also trite, at this point, to show that white men can’t dance and, to a lesser extant, aren’t generally as hip as their African-American brethren. Lastly, it’s a by-now embedded cinematic double standard that a career-driven woman – in this case the Sara Melas character – cannot possibly have time for love, while all of Michael Douglas’s high-powered executive characters have more than enough time for both. Indeed, it is her aggressive careerism that is partially responsible for the break in her relationship with Hitch. And yes, I know, this is just a movie.

Romantic comedies, more so than other genres, are by definition predictable: boy meets girl; boy falls for girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back; they live happily ever after, the end. Of the specimen’s better examples, of which HITCH is one, the best compliment you could pay it is that you’ll enjoy the breezy ride: it is a rare date movie that women will love and the men who take them won’t hate. While I am certainly no date doctor, I feel more than self-assured in prescribing it as is the perfect Valentine’s Day cure.

*** out of *****

official website/imdb

Monday, February 07, 2005

Movie References In Commercials: Keep Those Ears Open

I saw a Mastercard commercial tonight that features a young man awkardly calling a girl he had just met and leaving a message on her answering machine...only to call a few more times when he gets cut off by said answering machine. Sound familiar? If it does, than you'll know what I mean when I say that you and me and the bottle makes three tonight. If it doesn't, then you probably weren't between the ages of 16 and 30 when Doug Liman's Swingers injected itself into the pop-culture pantheon ten years ago. For further proof, the young man in the commercial's name is Mike and the girl he's calling is named Nikki; the same names of characters involved in the same situation in the film.

If you see this or any other similar homage, throw a shout out; they are out there.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Hide And Seek: A Movie Review

Do you like games? I like games, and I know one, too. It’s called HIDE AND SEEK. You know it? Good.

Ready? Go….

Ten Mississippi: HIDE AND SEEK stars Robert DeNiro as David Callaway, a widowed, passing-middle-aged psychologist whose passing-middle-aged wife Allison (Amy Irving) kills herself in a bathtub at 2:06am, five minutes into the movie.

Nine Mississippi: Dakota Fanning stars as Emily Callaway, David’s young daughter who understandably goes catatonic at the sight of her mother floating in a bath of her own blood. I’m not sure, though, if it explains why she dresses and acts like the world’s youngest Goth teenager for the rest of the movie.

Eight Mississippi: To start fresh, David takes Emily away from the horrors of the big city and into tree-lined quiet backwoods town of Woodlawn, NY (pop. 2206…number connection?!?!). Did I mention that Emily’s parents were passing middle-age while she was still pretty young? Just checking.

Seven Mississippi: In the country, funky things begin to happen to the Callaway clan. Emily mopes and grows detached (freaky kid-drawing alert!). David ineffectively tries to help. Emily responds by making play-dates with her new imaginary - but equally murderous – friend, Charlie.

Six Mississippi: Dolls heads mysteriously get disfigured. Emily says its Charlie’s fault. Disturbingly personal messages appear in the bathroom scrawled in red crayon in child’s handwriting. Charlie’s fault. The family cat bites it. Guess whose fault it is? Yup, Charlie’s. David is distraught.

Five Mississippi: Elisabeth Shue plays, well, um, Elisabeth, the local, cute, divorced thirty-something townie who has a thing for David. A passed-middle-aged guy whose wife offed herself and has a daughter that looks like she stepped out of a bad Marilyn Manson video? What, was my number not listed?

Four Mississippi: The Callahans’ country neighbors are a bit odd; the town sheriff is spooky; heck, even the real estate agent who sold David the house is shady and all the while, Katherine (Famke Jannsen), Emily’s confidant and doctor and David’s protégé, senses that something might be amiss. Tension builds, albeit slowly.

Three Mississippi: The twist almost-ending. A very interesting twist which I, for one, did not see coming. I use “almost-ending” because there are still about twenty minutes of movie that follow it. A good twist ending should deliver a knockout blow that sends you reeling out of the theater. In this case, the big reveal renders the final act inevitable and lifeless.

Two Mississippi: Removing, for a sec, my tongue from digging aggressively into my cheek, I’d like to say that HIDE AND SEEK is a decent thriller/horror outing. Cliché-filled horror is not all bad if it serves to create some building suspense, a few chills and a good twist almost-ending, all of which appear here. Plus, Ms. Fanning’s acting chops are more than a match for Method-maestro DeNiro; in most scenes she is given more room and emotion to chew on. It is, however, also the kind of movie that the more you may think about afterwards (say, for example, if you are writing a review about it), the less logical sense it makes.

One Mississippi: If you dig this genre, but are having a hard time clawing through the haze of horror schlock that seems to get released this time of year, then look-up the times that HIDE AND SEEK is playing at your local megaplex and-

Come out; come out; wherever you are!

official website/imdb

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Deep Cut DVD, Vol. II: Cries And Whispers (1972)

With the dawning era of unending queues on popular DVD Rental sites, unlimited virtual shelf-space and DVR technology, the forgotten and forlorn films of the past are receiving renewed attention. In response Your Movie Dude offers a new series, Deep Cut DVD, of brief reviews of some of those gems currently available for your visual consumption on shiny disc. These tidbits are meant for the uninitiated, the curious, and the seekers of new, higher and fertile cinematic grounds. So go ahead...add it to your queue.

Volume II: Cries And Whispers (1972)
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Harriet Andersson; Karri Sylwan; Ingrid Thulin; Liv Ullman
Criterion Collection - 91 Minutes

By Sweden's master auteur, Ingmar Bergman, Cries is a quiet, yet startling film about life and death, love and hatred. In a beautiful mansion at the turn of the twentieth century, Agnes (Andersson) lies dying, stricken with cancer. Her two equally well-off sisters, Karin (Thulin) and Maria (Ullman) come home to help Anna (Sylwan), the family's maid, see Agnes through her final days. Through their flashbacks and their actions, we learn that the two sisters' motivations for coming home are purely selfish; they return because they have to, not because they want to. Once we meet their dry, arrogant rich husbands, its clear that they are less alive then their dying sister and the maid who maternally has truly looked after her. Beautifully shot, Sven Nykvist (who won the Oscar for Cinematography that year) uses red, black and white, almost exclusively (like a White Stripes album cover), on the parchment of each of the film's frames, starkly illustrating the inner-souls and desires of its characters. His remarkable work inside the mansion often looks like actual portraits, dispelling the myth that beautiful photography in film must be external natural landscapes. What's equally compelling about the film is that Bergman foregoes filling his viewer in on the much of the background of the main characters or their situations, preferring to concentrate on the complexities of their conflicts with one another by restricting dialogue and forcing his actors to really emote, often in close-up. These cinematic traits can be a jolt for an American audience that is used to and even expects to get everything, but their withholding is no less a treat and its rewards are greater. If you have seen Bergman's more noted classics like The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries, then please, imbibe. If not, and you are looking for something different, challenging and somewhat shocking, then please, dig in.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

Hotel Rwanda: A Film Review

Once in awhile, a film will come down the pike whose subject matter is so vital as to almost render the cinematic trivialities of “good” or “bad” unimportant. In fact, a tribute should be made to the filmmakers for merely getting it made period and thus bringing its topic into expanded consciousness and conversation. Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda deserves your consideration for that category. For this is the kind of film that hesitates to entertain you, preferring instead to task you with a most noble chore: inform you, nay, shake you from your existence – even if for a moment – pushing your awareness of the larger realities of this world that you may have ignored or not known about before.

Rwanda features Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager of the exclusive Hotel Des Milles Calline, a four star resort that caters to mostly rich tourists in Kigali, Rwanda. Rusesabagina is excellent at his job, catering to every culinary and alcoholic whim, no matter how difficult to obtain. A groomed and tailored suit, a look-you-in-the-eye handshake and rare bottle of single malt Scotch are the tools he employs to maintain the fine image of the hotel and himself. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to stock favors and contacts should the appropriate time come. Indeed, that time comes, and quickly. When a delicate peace between the two factions that make-up the Rwandan populace – the Hutus and the Tutsis – breaks, a genocidal chaos breaks out as a militia-sponsored, hatchet-wielding Hutu mob ravages the countryside for any Tutsi man, woman and child that it comes across (eventually going on to kill more than a million of them). As Nazi-esque propaganda crackles out of the radio, Rusesabagina’s trendy hotel becomes overrun. First tenuously protected by a UN envoy headed by Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), the hotel becomes a refuge for fleeing Tutsi families and sympathizers. The tourists, along with Rusesabagina’s boss, are all evacuated, leaving him in charge. As the nightmarish horde approaches, Rusesabagina’s acquired layers of protection - particularly the West and the UN - all peel away, leaving him alone to protect his family and the hundreds of displaced souls forced into his care.

Considering that writer/director Terry George was born in Northern Ireland, it may come as no surprise that he is able to portray bloodstained national strife in a completely convincing, almost documentary-level reality. Amidst this staged anarchy, he also gets excellent performances from his leads. Sophie Okonedo, as Paul’s wife Tatiana, is marvelous in her first big movie role. As far as Mr. Cheadle is concerned, I have always counted myself among the growing legions of his fans. However, in most of his parts, it seems he is left to chew secondary scenery that all tastes somewhat similar. In Rwanda, Cheadle is finally given the room he deserves to channel his immense talent and thoroughly disappear into a fully fleshed-out character. He easily earned the Oscar nomination he received for this film.

It shouldn’t be lost on a contemporary American audience that it was Belgian invasion and colonization of Rwanda that caused the rift between the two groups. The invaders separated the populace strictly by their perceived appearance before putting one group in power and leaving a mess behind. Like Roland Joffe’s Killing Fields before it, one hopes that a film like Hotel Rwanda makes at least some of those viewers recognize that their backyard does not end where its native journalists or averted government eyes say it does. I, personally, would prefer not to learn about this kind of barbaric tragedy years after the fact, in a movie.

official website/imdb

Monday, January 17, 2005

Deep Cut DVD, Vol. I: The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

With the dawning era of unending queues on popular DVD Rental sites, unlimited virtual shelf-space and DVR technology, the forgotten and forlorn films of the past are receiving renewed attention. In response comes a new series, called Deep Cut DVD, of brief reviews of some of those gems currently all available for your visual consumption on shiny disc. These tidbits are meant for the uninitiated, the curious, and the seekers of new, higher and fertile cinematic grounds. So go ahead...add it to your queue.

Volume 1: The Night Of The Hunter (1955)
Directed by: Charles Laughton
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Shelly Winters, Lillian Gish and Peter Graves

Noted 1940's/50's screenstar Charles Laughton's sole directorial credit and it is a dark, noirish masterstroke. Robert Mitchum is absolutely terrifying as Harry Powell, a preacher who roams the countryside shrouding himself in strict religious adherence without tolerance committing a sharp blade against those he feels are ribald sinners. While serving a short sentence with condemned bank robber and murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves), Powell overhears Harper sleep-mumbling about the $10,000 he had made off with, the location of which only Harper's two young children know. Freed from incarceration, Powell tracks down and nightmarishly ingratiates himself into Harper's family, including marrying his ex-wife Willa (Shelly Winters), and torments the kids for the cash. Robust with suspense while compact (93 minutes), the film features some glorious, innovative, expressionistic black and white cinematography; if ever a film's frames begat its emotions, this is it. It is so influential, in fact, that one of Powell's early speeches about the famously scrawled inscriptions of "love" and "hate" on his fists is featured, almost word-for-word, in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. Forget about the few dated moments that liter the film here and there, and dim the lights, sit back, watch, and submit.


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Your Movie Dude's Epic, Huge Top Ten Movies Of The Year 2004 List Thingy

Wasn’t it only yesterday that lists were used solely for the purposes of food shopping or as something Santa checked twice? A simpler time when breezy summer days passed to the static sounds of the counted-down top 500 rock songs of all-time on the radio; the only real list that mattered? Drift away, for a moment, into the welcoming grasp of childhood nostalgic tranquilities past, before I rudely slam you with the reality of today: lists are everywhere and like Gremlins fed after midnight, they are multiplying, fast. Every magazine, network, website, blog, man, woman and child categorizes something according to their “expert” opinion. It’s gotten so that I made an actual entire outfit out of paper containing these little monsters and nobody looked twice. Ok, I’m lying. But making a list has become, along with owning a gun and drinking moonshine, an inalienable American rite. So without further ado, and while VH1 subjects me to the Top 100 Red Carpet Moments…again, I present to you my top ten and worst bottom-feeding three movies of the year (and a few other goodies thrown in as well). Enjoy!


The most fun I had watching a movie (released in 2004) on DVD at home. Even if I didn’t get all of the zombie movie references, this horror film spoof is well made, lively (no pun intended) and highly entertaining. Hail Britain!
The best from the foreign “art house,” both films hail from France. Both films are crafted beautifully; Patrice Laconte’s STRANGERS a comic, quirky, romantic tale while Cedric Kahn’s RED LIGHTS is a darker treatise on modern adult manhood in an unraveling marriage.
Putting politics aside for a moment, the film is most intriguing as an op-ed piece; an expensive, visual op-ed piece that gathered unique footage and a boatload of heated, but known, argument points in one package. To the large mouth and body that spurred a documentary renaissance, I pay homage.
The most fun I had in a theater this year. Paul Greengrass's (BLOODY SUNDAY) true popcorn action thriller has a simple, agile plotline and an actions-speak-louder-than-no-words hero in Jason Bourne (Matt Damon). A summer action flick that all others who come after it should learn from.
Kind of like going to a rock 'n' roll zoo and intimately studying the inhabitants of the heavy-metal cage for two hours, if that were possible. Not just for Metallica fans, but an insightful portrait worthy of any music fan’s attention.
In a year that has produced a thickening haze of biopics, this was the best. Simultaneously and deftly portraying its protagonist’s traits and accomplishments, it treats an often still-taboo subject, sex, frankly and maturely.
Like RAGING BULL and a few others, this is a boxing movie less about boxing and more about the boxer. Director Clint Eastwood, on a bit of a roll, has effortlessly created a superior heartfelt tale of determination and bravery in what feels like handmade cinema.
Richard Linklater’s eloquent tale of true love lost and true love found again is a rare instance where a sequel is even more charming and fulfilling then its excellent predecessor, 1995’s BEFORE SUNRISE. An exceptional instance where the main characters, along with the audience, have grown more worldly and weary in the intermittent real time.
Spare. Poetic. Beautiful. One of my favorite films of the year. An amped-down Jim Carrey shines along with Kate Winslet in director Michel Gondry and noted screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s twisty story of amour that will tug at anyone with a beating heart and warm blood flowing through their veins.
Alexander Payne’s triumph gives, in ample supply, what I love about any great film: true, yet flawed characters who shed that restrictive skin and become people; several moments of subtle, sharp humor; and moments of gripping emotional depth that cause serious personal contemplation; the film sticks with you for days, long after its last credit has lifted up towards the sky.


Cliché-drenched, non-scary horror thrillers with creepy kids are bad enough. Cliché-drenched, non-scary horror thrillers with a non-sensical, dim storylines are absolutely dreadful.
Even getting to stare at Sara Foster’s unquestionable beauty for 88 minutes (which felt interminable!) couldn’t save this stale, half-assed, boring, half-baked “comic” caper remake.
Good luck surviving this unfunny bit of trash. This is the kind of movie they should hand out merit badges to the three leaving audience members who sat through CHRISTMAS in October (one of whom was presumably James Gandolfini’s mother). Ben Affleck’s smarmy, self-aggrandizing, annoying, cutesy character may just be the real reason why the rest of the world hates us.


Guiltiest Pleasure (THE DAY AFTER TOMMORROW): I know the CGI wolves looked terrible and were pretty pointless. I know director Roland Emmerich made GODZILLA. I know the Dennis Quaid’s trek was as realistic as that leprechaun who tells me to burn stuff. I know that Sela Ward’s character’s sub-plot was totally manipulative. But, what can I say? I…got…sucked…in. Guilty as charged.

Most Overrated Movie (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE): At the risk of taking heat on this (it is selling like hotcakes on DVD), I am not in love with Napoleon or his Liger. Yes, I laugh at these characters because, like P.T. Barnum’s freak show, it’s easy to point and chuckle. But this was less a film then a series of skits with emotionless vessels that left no impression, good, funny, or bad, on me.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Assassination Of Richard Nixon: A Review

Few real-life personalities have received as much cinematic attention over the past quarter century then former president Richard Milhous Nixon. His political career, likeness and exploits have formed the foundation for films in such divergent genres as the biopic (Oliver Stone’s Nixon); the political thriller (Alan J. Pakula’s All The Presiden't Men) and satire (Andrew Fleming’s Dick). Niels Mueller’s directorial debut, The Assassination Of Richard Nixon adds assassin character-study to the list while bumping the 37th President’s full name onto the marquee. Like All The Presiden't Men, Nixon is not played by an actor here – intermittently shown giving speeches on television instead – but is the focus of the dogged obsessions and goals of the films’ protagonists.

Based on true events, Assassination depicts the slow, burning descent into madness of Samuel Bicke (Byck in reality), played to full tortured-soul effect by Sean Penn. When we meet Bicke, he is a struggling furniture salesman trying unsuccessfully – and at times cover-your-eyes awkwardly - to get his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts), and his kids back from whom he has been separated. To prove his self-worth to his family and himself and to finally chase his American Dream, he attempts to take out a federal loan to start a mobile-tire business with his good friend, Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle). What leads to Bick’s deterioration is an unassailable desire for pure, golden honesty from everyone around him, a rather odd quality for a man who has chosen sales as his gig. Bicke, of course, soon finds that everybody is bending the truth to earn a buck, festering into a slimy disease that irks him to his core. When his boss Jack (Jack Thompson) tells him that President Nixon is the greatest salesman (equals crook) in the country – having sold America on him twice with a war-ending platform he didn’t adhere to – Bicke finds the ultimate target for his anger (and we find a slight liberal-biased analogy to the current administration). Bicke’s goal thus shifts from American Dream to fame, elevation from what he calls being a tiny, unknown “grain of sand” on the beach that is the population of the United States.

That Mr. Penn is an excellent actor is an undeniable fact. He portrays Bicke as a pathetic simpleton, adding a natural slouch and unsure stutter to emphasize the peeling away, layer-by-layer, of Bicke’s sanity. Yet these traits and his overall performance, at times and especially in the hands of a first-time director, can get amplified into 1990’s Al Pacino-style overacting. But Mueller, from a script he co-wrote with Kevin Kennedy, gives an overall yeoman’s effort, achieving chilling effect in one disturbing point of view shot where Bicke holds a shaky gun at an unknowing bystander. Indeed, Mueller seems to want to channel a more famous would-be assassin character study, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, his “Bicke” a mere “l” away from “Bickle.” Yet where Travis Bickle is striking out against dirty, scummy, urban evil – personified by Harvey Keitel’s character Sport – Bicke’s beef is with dishonesty for profit, an inescapable fact-of-life that is as American as apple pie. Thus the film does not quite crawl under your skin and reach deep into your gut; while you oddly may find yourself identifying with and bloodthirsty for Bickle to kill, you find yourself pitying Bicke and hopeful that he fails.

The Assassination Of Richard Nixoncarries with it the kind of strained seriousness one may expect from a limited release film with a juicy cast that opens just before Oscar’s finish line. Unlike its namesake, however, I’m not sure the film will be remembered, for better or worse, long after its term is over.

official website/imdb