Monthly Archives: May 2005
Let’s talk a little about screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. This is the man responsible for travesties like Lost in Space and the franchise killing, pun-crazy Batman and Robin. There’s plenty of junk writers in Hollywood and plenty of good writers just saddled by junk to make a living, and either might apply to Goldsman. How in the world did he become a Hollywood go-to guy?It probably has something to do with Ron Howard. Goldsman adapted the screenplay for Howard’s film A Beautiful Mind and both walked away with Oscars. Suddenly the man who wrote Mr. Freeze saying, “You’re not sending MEEE to the COOLER,” had an Oscar on his mantle. Goldsman and Howard, in retrospect, seem like a match made in heaven. They both enjoy big Hollywood event movies that spoon-feed an audience and shave off the gray areas. Cinderella Man serves as the duo’s second collaboration and it’s exactly what you would expect a big Hollywood event movie to be from them.
Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) is an up-and-coming New Jersey boxer who’s on a warpath to the heavyweight title. His wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) loves him dearly and he dotes on his three kids. Life seems so perfect in 1929 America. And then the Depression hits. Braddock breaks his hand in a fight and his skills slip tremendously. The boxing commission revokes his license and Braddock is forced to take a dock job to provide for his family. Times are tough and there doesn’t appear to be a way out, until Braddock’s old boxing manager (Paul Giamatti) offers him a one time only bout in the ring. Braddock is seen as a has-been but he knocks his opponent flat out. More fights come and so do more victories, and Jim Braddock seems destined for a remarkable storybook comeback. But then there’s the reigning champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko), an arrogant playboy. Baer also is a ferocious fighter and has actually killed two men in the ring. The championship leads through him and Braddock is unafraid. Mae is terrified she’ll become a widow and pleads with her husband not to fight. But now that he’s been through the gutter, Braddock knows what he?s fighting for: the survival of his family. To do that, he?s headed for a title match with Baer.
What elevates Cinderella Man from an “okay” film into a “mostly good” film is the singular brilliance of Russell Crowe. This man is simply one of the most amazing actors we’ve ever seen, and he’s been on an incredible hot streak since 1999’s The Insider (forget 2000’s Proof of Life, please). Yet again mastering another accent, Crowe excels at playing a noble man with guarded emotions and honest intentions. He’s an actor that can display such an intense wealth of emotions in the same moment. When he visits his old boxing bosses, hat in hand, begging for enough money to turn the electricity back on, Crowe has laid a sucker punch to your emotions. It’s getting to the point where I will go out and see any movie Russell Crowe stars in just to soak up his brilliant performance. He can throw a phone at my head anytime. Crowe’s stellar and resonant acting will hopefully be noticed come Oscar time; however, I doubt much else of Cinderella Man will be remembered.
Crowe’s sparring partner doesn’t fare as well. I’ve liked Zellweger in a lot of her roles (even the sappy One True Thing), but she’s entirely miscast as Braddock’s underwritten stand-by-your-man wife. She scrunches her face too much and squints for most of the movie.
Two great actors make the most of their meager roles. Giamatti serves as Braddock’s growling pit dog of a corner man and works up a good froth. Bierko almost transcends the film’s one-note villain caste and becomes a figure of showboating sensuality. He struts in the ring with a gallant pride that’s fun to watch, even though you know Howard?s whispering in your ear, “Booooo. Don’t like him. He’s the mean man. Booooo.”
The production design on Cinderella Man is great and really recreates the look and feel of the 1930s in all walks of life. The cinematography, on the other hand, seems washed out and overly dark in spots, though it may have just been my theater?s projection. I miss Roger Deakins, DP on A Beautiful Mind. Deakins knew how to beautifully light a scene and capture the audience with a precise, eye-pleasing angle. In contrast, Cinderella Man seems to think that sepia tones defined the time period of the 1930s.
Howard still has little to no trust in his audience. He can’t rely on the performances of his actors to express their motivation. We know why Braddock is fighting during the Depression, Howard. We don’t need split-second cuts of his family for reminders. It’s almost like Howard wants to point to the screen and tell the audience what to feel. It should be obvious by now but ambiguity doesn’t work here. That’s why Braddock is seen as almost saintly (never mind the connections to organized crime). That’s why Baer is seen as dastardly (never mind that in 1933 Baer heroically wore a Jewish star and knocked out Hitler’s favorite prize fighter, Max Schmeling). It seems that the details just get in the way when Howard wants to turn true-life stories into calculating crowd-pleasers.
At the docks, just in case we don’t get how tragic the Great Depression is (you know, in case you forgot what either the words “great” or “depression” meant), Howard has to bend over backwards to show someone stepping over a newspaper declaring how high unemployment is. When Braddock finds a friend in Hoovertown (Central Park turned into a neighborhood of shanties) we see him run over by a horse and buggy as another man crushed by the system or a runaway metaphor. When Baer fights in the ring Howard makes sure to get that sneering close-up of our villain. And surely anyone who’s a womanizing playboy must go down for the good of the nation. Howard is aggressive in his pandering.
Thanks to Goldsman and Hollingsworth’s mawkish script, Cinderella Man has the myth of complexity to it when it’s really content to go the easy route. It plays this story too close to the rules: embittered hero with humanity intact, stalwart wife, cocky villain, the grumbling manager. Cinderella Man is stripped of complexity and Goldsman and Hollingsworth want to lead the audience by the nose. When Braddock promises his son in a heart-to-heart that he’ll never split up the family, we know it’s only a matter of time before it happens. Their script is also full of workmanlike dialogue that does enough to just push the story forward but give little shading to its people (Zellweger’s, “You are the champion of my heart, Jim Braddock” is particularly not great.
Cinderella Man really is a film more about the Depression than boxing, except for its pummeling and gritty final act of non-stop boxing. The script paints an almost insulting idea that the Depression was good for people to learn important life lessons, like family comes first, hard work will be rewarded, and one man can heal a nation. Seabiscuit fell into this same trap with its depiction of the Depression but at least Gary Ross’ film dealt with characters that weren’t tired genre archetypes. Cinderella Man could be described as “Seabiscuit in a boxing ring,” as yet again the triumph of an underdog pulls the country back together and gives the common man something to believe in. What I’d like to see is Braddock vs. Seabiscuit in a ring or even on the horse’s turf. Then we can finally decide once and for all who is responsible for getting America out of the Depression (somewhere FDR is spinning in his wheelchair-accessible grave).
The film does come alive when Braddock steps into the ring. The boxing matches are finely choreographed and pack a real wallop. You can practically feel the bruises and taste the sweat during the 15-round bout between Braddock and Baer. These scenes give you a good understanding of the progression of a boxing match and the real strategy that can turn a loser into a winner. Howard also has a smart visual cue during these lively moments. Whenever a bone gets broken, like Braddock’s hand, we cut to an X-ray shot of that scene and see the bone snap. It might seem old in a CSI-drenched landscape of entertainment but it’s effective and neat.
Cinderella Man is a rousing, heartstring-tugging crowd-pleaser that will inspire hope and redemption. Until you look at it more objectively. It?s easy to get sucked into Howard’s underdog tale and that’s because it’s been tailored to satisfy your emotions. Crowe rises above this heavy-handed yesteryear yarn with a riveting performance. I’m positive most people will walk away from Cinderella Man feeling uplifted and touched and would view me as being overly cynical. But with a maudlin story by Goldsman that simplifies the details, Cinderella Man feels like a feel-good-movie that’s been rigged. These people have no trust in their audience, so why should you put your trust in them?
Nate’s Grade: C+
Layer Cake may be the least intimidating name ever for a crime movie. It conjures images of bridal showers, cooking shows, and birthday parties. It does not necessarily bring to mind thoughts of gangsters, assassins, drug trafficking, and the seamy underbelly of London’s criminal underground. Unless you’re watching some really awesome cooking show I don’t know about. The “layer cake” in question refers to the hierarchy of criminals. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Matthew Vaughn, who produced Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. This time it’s Vaughn sitting in the director’s chair and the results are exceptionally entertaining. Layer Cake is a cinematic treat.
Daniel Craig (Road to Perdition) plays our untitled lead, referred to in the end credits as “XXXX.” He’s a cocaine dealer but not a gangster by any means. He wants to make his money, not step on any important toes, and then walk away on top and without any gaping holes in his body. Craig is summoned by his boss Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) and given two missions, whether he wants to accept them or not. The first is to relocate the missing daughter of a very powerful friend of Jimmy’s. The second, and far more dangerous job, is to secure a package of millions of stolen ecstasy pills and make a profit. Complicating matters is the angry Serbian mob that the pills were stolen from. They’ve dispatched a deadly assassin known as Dragan to track down their stolen drugs and kill anyone involved. Craig is left to juggle the investigation, find a buyer, stay ahead of Serbian hitmen, get some time in with a hot new girl, and all the while keeping his higher-ups content enough not to kill him themselves.
Layer Cake should be the film that makes Craig the star he so rightfully deserves to be. This man is a modern day Steve McQueen with those piercing blue eyes, cheekbones that could cut glass, and the casual swagger of coolness. Craig grabs the audience from his opening narration as he explains the ins and outs of his business. We may never see Craig sweat but he still expresses a remarkable slow burn of fear so effectively through those baby blues. He’s in over his head and the audience feels his frustrations. In an interesting character twist, when Craig does resort to killing, he’s actually tormented and haunted by his actions.
As with most British gangster flicks, there are a batch of colorful characters that leave their mark. Dragan (Dragan Micanovic) is a wonderfully enigmatic ghost of an assassin always one step ahead of Craig and the audience. Morty (George Harris) and Gene (Colm Meaney) add heart and bluster as Craig’s trusted right hand men. But the actor who steals the whole film with a malevolent glee is Michael Gambon (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). He plays Eddie Temple, the man behind the men behind the scenes. Gambon delivers the harshest of speeches with a velvety pragmatic calm. We don’t know what runs deeper with Eddie, his tan or his scheming.
Sienna Miller plays the thankless love interest to Craig. She’s pretty, sure, but there isn’t much acting ability on display in Layer Cake beside some smoldering glances. We never really know what Craig sees in her besides being another cute blonde to choose over. Miller isn’t alone in the “underwritten character department.” Layer Cake is crammed with secondary characters that pop in and out when it’s necessary. It’s not too annoying but it does mess around with an audience?s ability to follow along coherently.
Layer Cake is not one of the slick, whack-a-mole ventures Ritchie has given us (pre-Madonna). No sir, this is a brooding, serious and nearly terrifying look at the old adage “crime doesn’t pay.” Very few crime centered films express the day-to-day anxiety of just being a criminal. Jimmy reminds Craig that he’ll never be able to walk away because he?s too good an earner for his higher-ups. In Layer Cake, you can get killed for being too greedy, being too careless, being too good at your job, and even just being in the wrong place. Eddie sums it up best whilst describing Faust: “Man sells his soul to the devil. It all ends in tears. These things always do.”
Vaughn has a polished visual sensibility that doesn’t overwhelm the viewer. He keeps the camera fluid and steady with a minimal amount of cuts. A nifty opening scene involves an imaginary drug store (stocked with pot, cocaine, and the like) melting into a real drug store (one hour photo, impulse items at the register). When the tension does mount Vaughn knows just how to turn the screws. A late sequence involving a chase between the SWAT team and our batch of criminals had me on the edge of my seat. For a first time director, Vaughn also has great patience. He doesn’t rush his storyline and he doesn’t suffocate his movie with visual flourishes. He also has a great deal of faith in his audience’s intelligence. This isn’t as lively as Snatch or Lock, Stock, but that’s because Vaughn’s film is also much more serious and dangerous.
This is an intricate and gripping film but it might be a little too complex for its own good. Twists and double-crosses are expected in this genre, but writer J.J. Connolly has so many characters running around and so many hidden agendas that it’s nearly impossible to keep track. Some of the subplots and back stories add very little like the inexplicable “Crazy Larry” flashbacks. I left the theater still confused about plot points but refreshingly satisfied nonetheless.
Layer Cake is the most thoroughly exhilarating time I’ve had at a theater this year. This pulpy daylight-noir caper is full of memorable hoods, plenty of twists and turns, and a star making performance by the steely-eyed wonder that is Daniel Craig (rumored to be the next 007, though in my heart I’ll always root for Clive Owen). Fans of Ritchie’s frenetic gangster flicks should be entertained. Anyone looking for a clever and exciting potboiler that treats violence and crime seriously should start lining up immediately. If you’re suffering from the cinematic wasteland that 2005 has shaped up to be so far, then have yourself a generous helping of Layer Cake and thank the Brits.
Nate’s Grade: A
I was in Dublin, Ireland of all places when I saw Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I was enticed to get off my sick bed and see George Lucas’ final Star Wars installment. As a kid I loved the original trilogy. My expectations were piqued by the promise that Revenge of the Sith would be bigger, badder, and suitably darker than any previous Star Wars installment. It did get the series’ first PG-13 rating and a stern warning to parents from Lucas for nothing. I had equal hopes for the other two prequels, 1999’s The Phantom Menace and 2002’s Attack of the Clones, but said hopes were dashed upon actually watching the movies. This was the last film and I had my fingers crossed ole George would finally get it right.
It’s now several years into the war between the Galactic Republic and the separatists led by General Grievous, leader of the droid army. Anakin (Hayden Christenson) and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGreggor) fight for the Republic and the chancellor of the Senate, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Anakin is having nightmare that his secret wife Amidala (Natalie Portman) will die in childbirth. He seeks out a way to save her and is tempted by certain promises by shadowy figures that the dark side of the force can restore life. From there things are set into motion that turn the Republic into an evil Empire, the Jedi into a near extinct band of warriors, and Anakin into the iconic Darth Vader.
My friend Josh Browning brought up the idea that Star Wars would be so much cooler without George Lucas. I gave this idea some thought and have come to the same conclusion. Can anyone ever say “no” to the Jedi master in plaid? Directing flaws aside, where Lucas really needs assistance is his writing. The biggest qualms I’ve had with the new set of Star Wars, horrible acting aside, is how unforgivably boring they are and the tepid romance. The original Star Wars were about action, adventure, and things that mattered. The prequel set has been mostly about trade, taxation, Senatorial control, and separatists. The majority of the prequels have been sleep-inducing and riddled with pacing issues.
In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Lucas said 60% of his prequel story was related to the final film. With some quick calculations, that means that there was 20% plot in The Phantom Menace and the remaining 20% in Attack of the Clones. No wonder nothing seemed to be going on! This also creates the problem of Sith having far too much plot to deal with in too short of a reasonable time frame. Things feel left out or not fully explained, like why the hell does General Grievous have a cold? I know I’m missing something but it’s lazy filmmaking to make an audience do extra homework to flesh out your storytelling.
As stated, my other main gripe was the half-baked romance Lucas had between Anakin and Amidala. In Attack of the Clones, the romance is spontaneous. He hasn’t seen her in like 10 years and now they’re instantly smitten? There is no beginning to this romance, no nurturing, no progress. The romantic troubles are worsened by Lucas’ disinterested writing. Lucas cannot write dialogue to save his life. Romantic bon mots like “Hold me like you did at the lake” and “I’ve been dying a little bit day by day, ever since you reentered my life” will not exactly stoke a fire in your loins. Plus Portman and Christenson have as absolutely no chemistry.
Now, the reason I’ve reviewed the romance from Attack of the Clones is because it serves as the linchpin for why Anakin goes bad and becomes Darth Vader. It’s a mighty big question about what turned Anakin from man into one bad mutha, and his quest to save his wife is a satisfyingly plausible answer. But the transition doesn’t have near the punch Lucas intends because of his weak romance he’s penned. Lucas’s shortcomings as a writer finally pull the rug out from Anakin’s big moment.
The acting is another weakness. True, the acting hasn’t always been the top priority with any Star Wars film, but these prequels have shown that Lucas would rather stand behind a computer than in front of an actor. Portman has generally seemed bored and lacks any interest in hiding it. In Attack of the Clones she seemed sedated. In Revenge of the Sith she gets to cry a bunch. In Lucas land, that’s seen as character development.
I thought Anakin could not get any more annoying than Jake Lloyd’s awful “yippee”-filled run in Menace, but I’m starting to reconsider this. Anakin mopes around and when he gets upset he whines in a falsetto voice. I will say Christenson was rather good in Shattered Glass where his arrested development acting techniques expertly channeled the manipulative Stephen Glass (if you do have a choice, go rent Shattered Glass). But in the more operatic Star Wars world, Christenson routinely comes off like a kid playing dress-up. Even after he’s gone full evil and growls and screams and glares, he comes off like nothing more than a poodle trying to be a guard dog. Of course neither performer is helped any by Lucas’ absentee directing style with actors.
The only members of the Star Wars prequels that will walk away unblemished are Ewan McGreggor and Ian McDiarmid. McGreggor has got the Alec Guinness voice down and proves to be a capable and dignified leading hero. McDiarmid has a juicer role than Anakin and really relishes his villainy.
Sith is the best of the three Star Wars prequels but that isn’t saying a whole lot. Whereas Menace and Clones were boring, Sith is just kind of slow and okay. It’s an improvement but the bar wasn’t exactly set very high. The formula is about the same: the first two acts are again quite plodding and then Lucas unleashes a torrent of action to close out his film. Sith does break apart because, surprise, things actually happen and they actually matter. After about six hours of buildup, actions meet consequences, characters meet their demise, and our boy wonder becomes the dark Jedi. People have been waiting decades for these moments and when they arrive they hit like a thunder bolt. Most of the time at least.
The special effects are uniformly fantastic, which has never been an issue for Lucas. Yoda moves and emotes fantastically, actually besting some of his flesh and blood thespians. The interaction of live elements and CGI seems improved. Planets are rendered beautifully and the lava world is simply visually stunning and just plain cool.
The action is exciting but a bit overly edited in light saber battles. As we march into Act Three, there’s a terrific sense of climax with Yoda going off to battle Palpatine and Obi-Wan knowing he must put down Anakin. At long last I felt jolts, shivers, and goose bumps at what was to come. The concluding half of Sith is great rollicking entertainment and visually luxurious to watch. See George, light saber duels and character deaths are far more entertaining than trade disputes and embargo talk. The excitement’s back in the Star Wars franchise but it’s a shame it had to only appear this close to the finish line.
The final chapter on the Star Wars universe is closed. Well, for now. The lure of mountains of cash will probably ensure we haven’t seen the last of some of these beloved characters. Revenge of the Sith is a moderately satisfying closing episode to the Star Wars saga. The film still is an exhibition of Lucas’ filmmaking flaws (writing, pacing, his handling of actors) but Sith finally reaches the excitement and grandeur the original Star Wars had. My Dublin theater was roaring, clapping, yelling and screaming throughout. And for the first time during the prequels, so was I for awhile. And you know what the absolute best part was? Not one single word from Jar-Jar Binks!
Nate’s Grade: B-
I had no real intention of ever seeing The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. It looked to be a competent movie, horrifically clunky title aside, but I really didn’t have any interest in seeing another movie where four young girls become four young women. Then my then-girlfriend says she wants to see it. I think we all know what happens next. Even though I was the only male in my theater (I kind of expected this), I found Sisterhood to be a sweet and heartfelt film I was glad I experienced. It had far more emotional truth to it than I ever would have expected.
Four very close friends are about to depart for the summer. Bridget (Blake Lively) is the confidant sports star and going off to soccer camp in Mexico. Lana (Alexis Bledel) is the demure artist and is going to visit her grandparents in Greece. Carmen (America Ferrera), a bigger girl with big ambitions, is traveling to South Carolina to spend time with her long-absent father (Bradley Whitford). It seems the only one staying put is Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), an angsty nonconformist stuck stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart-esque store and working on her documentary, which she has deemed a “suckumentary.”
Before they set off on their adventures the girls discover a magical pair of pants. It seems that this one pair of jeans fits each to a T, even the curvier Carmen. The girls form a sisterhood around these magically one-size-fits-all pants. They promise to send them back and forth to each other all summer and write down any luck the jeans have imbued them with.
In Mexico, Bridget sets her sights on a hunky soccer coach (Mike Vogel). She’s brimming with confidence and flirts like a champ. Overseas in Greece, Lana meets Kostas (Michael Rady), a hunky fisherman attending university in Greece. Sparks fly but Lana’s grandmother forbids her to see Kostas. Carmen is shocked to discover that her father is planning on getting remarried to Wasp-y Lydia (Nancy Travis). It seems dear old dad has not told her everything. And Tibby is befriended by a dogged and precocious 12-year-old, Bailey (Jenna Boyd), who wants to be her assistant on the “suckumentary.”
The best part of Sisterhood is the excellence of the lead actresses. All four give well-rounded, warm, enlightened, and exquisitely affecting performances. They each get a good weepy scene and each actress nails it. Bledel has mastered the nervous stammer. She’s adorable as we witness her wallflower character coming out of her shell. Tamblyn mopes and sneers but grows the most thanks to the intervention of Bailey (Boyd is a scene-stealer if ever there were one). Ferrera was a terrific find in Real Women Have Curves, yet another intelligent and charming teen movie. In Sisterhood she gets to display tremendous anger and heartache and she sells every second of it. She is going to be a lovely actress to watch in the future. Lively is a newcomer to film even though she looks like Kate Hudson’s lankier cousin. She’s a girl that knows what she wants but doesn’t necessarily know why she wants it.
One of the smartest things director Ken Kwapis does is to keep the different story threads together. I first thought that Sisterhood would become a vignette movie, meaning that we’d get like a half hour of each girl’s adventure and then we’d travel to the next. It would have worked. But by keeping the girls’ stories intertwined we’re reminded of their bond and we can connect with them all. Kwapis even fits in some nifty scene transitions in his mostly unobtrusive direction. He lets the film’s focus rest on the characters and the performances, which are the strengths of Sisterhood.
The film seems to diverge into two storylines: the summer romances (Bridget and Lana) and the more dramatic (Carmen and Tibby). The summer romances are fun but the real meat of the movie is in Carmen and Tibby’s teary adventures. Carmen is devastated to feel that she’s been replaced and forgotten by her father. It all comes to head in a marvelous scene where Carmen cannot fit into a bridesmaid dress that fits Lydia’s rail thin daughter. She explodes in anger and pain against her father’s new family and runs off. Tibby, on the other hand, is your typical dour and rebellious teen (though in PG-land that means nose ring, colored hair, and thrift store attire). Her relationship with Bailey opens her up and the audience falls in love with both of them. The last half hour of Sisterhood hits an emotional crescendo with both storylines that will leave plenty reaching for the Kleenex.
Sisterhood sure doesn’t lack melodrama but the film is played so earnestly that you really won’t mind. In other teen girl films, the inclusion of dramatic elements like suicide, abandonment, and even leukemia might cause the casual rolling of eyes. The difference is that Sisterhood respects both its characters and its audience. This is a sincere, unpretentious movie that has a genuine sweetness that won?t give you a toothache. In fact, the most unbelievable moment of the movie is that a pair of pants would fit them all. Again, pretty good for a flick rife with melodrama.
Sisterhood is unabashedly sentimental but it walks a fine line without ever getting truly sappy like some Nicholas Sparks tale (A Walk to Remember). Usually movies of this ilk whitewash over reality and oversimplify complex issues and emotions. Not so with Sisterhood, which deals with tough issues in an admittedly soap operish way but also forces its characters to endure tough resolutions. I am clearly not the intended audience for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (I do by all accounts have a Y chromosome) but I enjoyed it all the same.
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is an old fashioned, good-hearted family film that won?t make you cringe. It’s respectful of its audience and doesn’t take easy shortcuts with its story. It’s also respectful of teenagers and their experiences. The acting by our four leading ladies is uniformly outstanding. In a summer fueled by male-driven high-octane action flicks, something a little low key and sweet is always appealing when done right. This won’t exactly be a movie that will appeal to everyone, but Sisterhood is an above average and earnest take at all-too-familiar territory. Despite the clunky title, this teen-targeted weepie is a good fit for any audience wanting to feel good.
Nate’s Grade: B