Monthly Archives: December 2005

Fun with Dick and Jane (2005)

This feels like two movies battling for control and neither of them are good. Jim Carrey is horribly miscast and the film goes off the rails whenever it veers into his face-contorting slapstick. The corporate satire bits have more bite but fall short of even being on the same playing field as an off-day on The Daily Show. The end credits thanks big companies like Enron and WorldCom for making this film possible, but Fun with Dick and Jane hasn’t earned that ending gripe. This film is a sadly unfunny mess that deserves to be let go. Maybe we should outsource our comedy next time.

Nate’s Grade: C-

 

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Walk the Line (2005)

I found this movie enjoyable but full of your standard, by-the-book biopic moments (rise/fall, addiction, famous faces, losing a brother at young age); still the performances were what the film hinged on and they were fantastic, especially with the added pressure of singing in their own voices. Walk the Line was good but didn’t really connect for me, and I think part of that is because the plot revolves around June Carter refusing to “be” with the Man in Black for 10 years. Yes they were each married to other people and their time on stage was like a forbidden courtship all its own, but it’s just not that compelling of a conflict, to me at least.

Nate’s Grade: B

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

I’m really liking how much more mature this series gets as it goes. I’m also enjoying the fact that they’ve had two talented directors in a row with, surprise, artistic vision. Harry Potter 4 isn’t the best film as far as plot is concerned (if they needed Potter’s blood could they not have done this at any time?). It is, however, the best as far as character, turning near every scene into an awkward coming of age moment. The movie is far more comical than the rest; seriously, nearly every scene has some comedic underpinning. The emergence of the Dark Lord (a nasally-challenged Ralph Fiennes) is creepy, and the series gets better as its outlook gets darker.

Nate’s Grade: B

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

George Clooney’s pet project is articulate and a tad dull. The black and white cinematography is elegant; you can practically taste all the smoke onscreen. The idea of press vs. fear-mongering politician is very relevant today, and the film?s insight into the running of TV news is really interesting, but this is a movie that works best as a study and not as strict entertainment. It?s not stuffy or ideologically overwhelming; in fact it’s easy to follow and easy to get into, even if it leans too heavily on speeches. Clooney, as I predicted, is transforming himself into a terrific director with a great feel for his material. With Good Night, and Good Luck it seems like he got exactly what he wanted, regardless if an audience is going to walk away feeling they got their money’s worth.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

A very personal film for writer/director Noah Baumbach, this flick exposes the bitterness of divorce better than any other film. The performances are great, especially Jeff Daniels as a note-perfect sour snob whose ego is constantly needing gratification. The humor is more of an uncomfortable nature and nervous titters. The Squid and the Whale is really short and altogether well-done, however, if you’re not a child of divorce you will find it somewhat lacking. Had I been such a child, I would probably be calling this one of the greatest, most emotionally honest movies of the year. But I’m not, so I’m not going to call it such.

Nate’s Grade: B

Munich (2005)

If 2005’s War of the Worlds was Steven Spielberg’s look at 9/11, then Munich should be considered his examination of the aftermath. What could be more relevant today than a film about combating terrorism, violent reprisals, and where a government leader says, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values?” Anyone seen the news lately? Spy eavesdropping, prison abuses, hemming and hawing on what the definition of torture is, it’s all compromised values in the name of security. This is our world and Spielberg analyzes the costs of war. Munich is visceral, haunting, thoughtful, and compelling as both an idea piece and as a mainstream thriller. It’s Spielberg’s most mature work in a decade.

In 1972, a group of Palestinian terrorists known as Black September took 11 Israeli athletes hostage during the Munich Olympics. The world watched as the standoff stretched for hours, finally ending in a firefight at the airport and the terrorists throwing grenades into helicopters housing their hostages. Every Israeli athlete and Black September member had been killed. “They’re all gone.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir (Lynne Cohen) recruits Mossad agent Avner (Eric Bana) to run a secretive counter strike. Avner is to assemble a team, track down the architects of the Munich massacre, and assassinate each one. Their mission is only known by a select few, and their only contact is via a handler (Geoffrey Rush) and a safety deposit box that fills up with money. Joining Avner are Steve (Daniel Craig), the South African with a hot-head, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitch), the toymaker turned bomb maker, Hans (Hanns Zischler), the document forger, and Carl (Ciarán Hinds), the clean-up man. The men crisscross the globe hunting down their targets, and with each successful kill there is escalating retaliation by Black September. Soon Avner’s group becomes a target themselves and he questions if the men they are snuffing out have any connection to Munich.

When I first heard about Munich I thought it would be a dramatization of the hostage situation, and Spielberg does revisit the sequence in horrifying and bloody flashbacks. The film’s focus is on the aftermath of Munich, though it does not pretend to be fact. This is a made up story based on rumors. As new evidence clears, it looks like the Munich retaliatory slayings were unrelated Palestinian men.

For events that began in 1972, Spielberg punctuates his drama with a gnawing sense of timeliness, closing his film with the very image of the World Trade Center in the New York skyline, connecting an invisible line from Munich to our world today. This is a mature, meditative examination on the retaliatory response to terror. Munich is even-handed in its views and dives into challenging territory where an easy answer is an insult. This isn’t a pro-Israeli movie or an anti-Palestine movie (though it’s already earned condemnation from fundamentalists on both sides), and every side gets a moment in the spotlight to effectively argue their case. The result is a movie that thoughtfully and reflectively looks at the cost of vengeance and compromising our values. Munich, even with its glut of important messages and mouth pieces, never forgets to be entertaining. The cameras are often handheld and Speilberg’s winding shot compositions give a visceral feeling to the events.

Bana (Troy) is the moral anchor of the film and gives a staggering performance. He begins proud and humbled, living in the shadow of his father’s name, an Israeli war hero. As the assassinations play out, each changes Avner and Bana expertly expresses his character’s turmoil, finally succumbing to paranoia and fear. The final act has relatives telling Avner he has done right, that his dead family is smiling with approval, and Bana’s sad, haunting eyes tell the full story of what he truly believes. He looks like he’s aged ten years in such a short time span. Each member of the hit squad fills out their role nicely, with Craig (Layer Cake) imparting tough, hip savvy, Kassovitch (the director of Gothika, oddly enough) is nebbish and the first to morally crack, Zischler is stoic button-lipped,and then there’s the fantastic Hinds (Julius Caesar on HBO’s Rome), an experienced man that?s so calm and knowing and wryly warm-hearted. He’s such a delightful onscreen presence. Rush is only onscreen in spurts but is brash, humorous, and unsentimental to the very end. He’s an actor that rarely misfires, if ever.

Too often we bandy about the term “evil;” our enemies are “evil,” atrocities are brought about by “evildoers,” but by painting in such broad, simplistic strokes, demonizing the enemy as “evil” (and conversely implying you are the side of good) you strip away the reality of the situation. The worst thing you could do in this war on terror is simplify the situation. These are not evildoers; these are people deciding to commit atrocious acts. If they are dubbed monsters or simply evil then we’ve reduced the argument to a kindergarten lesson. Munich doesn’t show the Palestinian targets as mustache-twirling evil doers (no one is spotted tying a damsel to railroad tracks). These are men with convictions, family, and humanity. “Evil” is too tidy a term, and Spielberg understands this. Are evil acts necessary to combat evil? Do we become our enemies when we resort to their ruthless tactics? Robert, shaken from a recent kill, pleads that Jews are supposed to be righteous, that’s what separates them from their persecutors. Assassination is not a righteous act, despite what Pat Robertson may spout off on TV. In the end, the only trustworthy people in the film may be a strange French family that sells information to the highest bidder, regardless of politics.

There’s one moment in the middle of Munich that will stick with me forever. There’s only one pure vengeance murder in the movie and it involves a female killer (Marie-Josée Croze). It’s a kill the audience is thirsting for and demanding; the other assassinations were murky, men unknown to have any involvement in terror other than being a name on a sheet. This is an instance where the audience wants revenge and then Spielberg gives exactly what we want and disgusts us. The kill is so sharp, so uncompromising that the violence is startling and, more importantly, it hurts. The reality of it is painful to watch. The scene seems to be a sexual affront as well, leaving the victim naked, bloody, purposely disfigured. Spielberg has masterfully turned our quench for violence and shown the ugly reality. The audience never thinks the same from that moment on.

Munich also succeeds as a thriller, pulsing with immediate danger and drawing the viewer in. There were key moments that I was chewing on my knuckles because of how taut the suspense was. As a thriller, Munich briefs us on these men’s mission like all good spy movies, brings us into their fraternal order, and then we watch each assassination play out, many never going according to plan. What elevates Munich is how real everything feels and how dangerous every moment comes across. This is a thriller that it makes the heart pound but also courses with subtext, and exquisite dialogue by Tony Kushner (Angles in America), who magnificently frames his characters with the tiniest details, who crafts deft symbolism in moments of doubt and paranoia, and who, channeled with the film’s masterful acting all around, creates a stirring study of the cost of violence and the broken bodies it leaves behind, even those that live to ponder another day. Kushner’s writing is a perfect match for Spielberg’s effortless artistry.

This is Spielberg maturing as a filmmaker, despite some missteps here and there, mostly with the length and a late sequence where he juxtaposes the final Munich hostage flashback with Avner climaxing in coitus with his wife. The characters are sharp, the acting is resonant, and the thrills are palpably engrossing, giving the film a refined sense of danger where anything could happen. Munich is more than a thriller and more than a think-piece. It’s a close examination of the cyclical nature of retaliation and reprisal, dooming both parties into an endless bloodbath. Don’t be frightened by all this heady talk because it’s also a very entertaining movie. Munich isn’t the best film of the year; it’s pretty good but it’s definitely one of the more important movies of the year and worth seeing.

Nate’s Grade: B

Wolf Creek (2005)

It comes across as choose-your-own-adventure horror, each with their own vignette and then starting back. Wolf Creek is very uninspired. The only thing it has going for it is the fleeting gimmick of an Australian take on American horror staples. In many horror flicks, there’s always that nation of creepy yokels waiting to take advantage of visitors off the beaten path. Now, this is Australia’s version. The film’s biggest sin is that it spends an agonizing 60 minutes before anything happens. The set-up is protracted and the characters are uninteresting, bland, and mostly just sketches of ideas. It takes forever to get the horror going and once it arrives I’ve already checked out of the movie into a coma. Wolf Creek lacks any subtext or commentary, some of the saving graces of the horror industry. The whole thing is an exercise in tedium, with some splashes of gore at the end. This movie takes too damn long to get to the goods. There’s nothing suspenseful in that 60 minutes and little has any meaning later (why do their watches and car stop?). Wolf Creek is derivative, possibly exploitative being based on a true story (what it shows is mostly speculation), and really boring. Casual horror fans should stay home.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Grizzly Man (2005)

Werner Herzog goes through hundreds of hours of the late Timothy Treadwell’s own footage of himself living amongst Alaskan grizzly bears. He lived every summer with the bears, his “friends,” for 13 years, until one bear killed him and his girlfriend (the deadly altercation’s audio was captured, though Herzog never plays it in the film). Treadwell was retreating from a human society and putting animals on equal pillars as human being, even predators he treated as “men in bear suits.” Treadwell never references his girlfriend, who can only be seen barely once or twice in his hours of footage. That would destroy his fantasy that he’s out there alone, living it up with these creatures. Grizzly Man is an absorbing character study into the working of a very troubled man. It’s interesting how he uses the camera an audience and means of catharsis. He bounces from point to point, brought to tears a bumblebee died mid-flight on a flower. He does different takes of his own nature footage. Herzog presents an altogether different point of view about nature, more cold and survival of the fittest and less cuddly. He brings a critical analysis to Treadwell’s idealized platitudes. The bears Treadwell was spending time with were on protected land, so there really wasn’t much need for his activism. He definitely had a martyr complex going. This critical perspective gives Grizzly Man depth, dueling views of nature playing it out in the documentary form. Weirdly, it seems like a lot of the interviewees in Grizzly Man treated their moments like they were auditioning for Hollywood. This would be a really interesting double feature with March of the Penguins. Treadwell wished for death because his cause would be even greater. Now there’s a movie that will reach millions. Be careful what you wish for.

Nate’s Grade: A-

King Kong (2005)

Has there been any movie this year that’s had a bigger hype machine than Peter Jackson’s King Kong? Coming after his Lord of the Rings trilogy, about two billion in revenue and a slew of Oscars in tow, Jackson decided to recreate the movie that captured his imagination as a child. It was King Kong that made Jackson want to become a filmmaker, so now he is returning the favor. Universal ponied up a staggering 200 million dollars for a budget and paid Jackson a record 20 million to sit in the director’s chair. Like his Rings series, this Kong clocks in at a gargantuan 3-hour running time. Will audiences share Jackson’s adoration with the story of a woman, a big ape, and a bigger building?

Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a filmmaker feeling studio pressure. The suits want to reel him in before he even starts shooting his next picture. Carl scrambles to get his crew and equipment onto a boat before the studio can shut him down. He?s on the prowl for a new lead actress and spots Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a hungry out of work vaudeville actress. He quickly convinces her to be apart of his movie and hurries her aboard, the selling point being that Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) has written the story. Carl practically kidnaps Jack and they all set a course for the mysterious Skull Island, a place only rumored to exist. The ship’s captain and crew are wary but sure enough their vessel washes ashore on an exotic island. But this is no sunny getaway, as the crew is immediately besieged by hostile natives and Ann is taken prisoner and offered as a sacrifice to Kong, a 25-foot gorilla. Jack leads an expedition to retrieve Ann, who begins to bond with her hairy captor (Stockholm syndrome, anybody?). Kong rescues Ann from dangers, be it bug or dinosaur, but flies into a vicious rage when she’s plucked away from him. Carl realizes an even bigger attraction: a giant ape to headline Broadway and line his own pockets. His schemes come true as Kong is knocked out and transported back to New York City. However, no stage is too great for Kong, as he busts free and looks all over for the love of his life, Ann.

The sweet love story gives Jackson’s update a surprising emotional richness. In the 1933 original, Fay Wray never stopped shrieking until the big guy toppled off the Empire State building. She had no emotional connection to her furry captor and his unrequited love. In the 2005 King Kong, the strength of the movie is the relationship between Ann and Kong. Jackson of course stacks the deck of his story to all but guarantee an audience will fall in love with the big brute (he appreciates sunsets, how romantic!). There?s not much choice whether or not to sympathize with Kong, especially those moments where we stare into his soulful eyes welling up with emotion. King Kong has always been a tale of exploitation with man as the true monster. By administering time to fully develop a convincing relationship between beauty and beast, it makes the later scenes of exploitation have a larger sense of tragedy. Immense credit goes to Watts for selling this relationship and spurring our sympathy for Kong, instead of making their bond something for snickers and eye-rolling. Poor Adrien Brody though. It’s pretty bad in a romantic triangle when you’d rather pick a giant primate than Brody.

The performances go a long way to adding to the enjoyment of King Kong. Watts is a luminous actress and a natural beauty. It’s because of her that the second half of the movie has a beating heart and some kicks to the gut. Brody is ho-hum but given little to work with as a, wait for it, second banana. Black works wonders to make his villainous role so charismatic. Denham is a huckster that would step over his dying mother to make a buck, and yet Black’s charming and funny even at his most dastardly and cowardly. I don’t think King Kong would have worked the same with different actors; few could bring the heart and emotion Watts emotes, and few could bring Black’s comic virtuosity that makes it plausible why others would follow his showman character. Colin Hanks (also along side Black in Orange County), as Denham’s assistant, imparts a favorable impression. I’d like to see him paired up with Topher Grace sometime. Give it some consideration, Hollywood.

King Kong is a spectacular vision by one of cinema’s greatest visionaries. Jackson has lavishly recreated the excitement of his youth, bringing the story of Kong into the modern age with studly panache. The film is marvelously beautiful to take in and has plenty of moments that will reawaken the child within you, transporting you to an age when movies truly seemed larger than life. During the epic battle between Kong and the T. Rexes, I knew the exact curiosity and excitement Jackson felt when he saw the 1933 original. The action is intense and rarely lets up once our adventurers reach Skull Island. The special effects are some of the best movies have ever seen. Kong moves with expressive accuracy that goes a long way toward expressing his humanity, whether it is in a sigh or a tantrum. Andy Serkis has yet again brought life to another entirely CGI character. King Kong is well worth the price of admission just to sneak a peek at the Jackson’s limitless imagination.

With Jackson’s beefed-up recreation, he has also brought with him a terrible amount of bloat. This King Kong runs a frightful 3-hours plus, and most viewers will just feel exhausted by the time the lights go back up in their theater. Jackson’s love affair with his material is indisputable but it also seems to cloud his judgment as far as pacing is concerned. Numerous scenes seem to stretch longer than necessary and lose their point of interest, the first hour seems too drawn out and prosaic, and the movie haphazardly mixes in the serious with the soapy (Kong on ice?). Some scenes lose their sense of believability the longer they stretch on, even in a movie filled with giant monsters. Certain subplots have set-up but no follow-through, like all the added attention to Jimmy (Jamie Bell), the ship’s teen that wants to experience danger too. Jackson even makes sure we catch that he’s reading Heart of Darkness. So where does this character go? Nowhere and very slowly at that. The character has no bearing on anything that happens with the plot and is dropped entirely once they leave the island. There’s no point. Did something get cut from the inevitable 8-hour extended edition DVD that will prove how pivotal Jimmy really was? I doubt it.

Some nipping and tucking and a comprehensive editing overhaul would certainly make King Kong a better movie, but it would lose its sense of spectacle. I can’t complain about length too much since Jackson packs such a wallop of entertainment like few others, so while King Kong certainly is a bloated and exhaustive film, it’s also an artistically bloated, exhaustive film. Jackson sure does have reverence for his source material (some lines and scenes are directly lifted), though he may have overlooked the 1933 King Kong‘s 100-minute running time.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is an epic, epically grandiose, epically imaginative, epically action-packed, and epically bloated. The update is a bit exhausting but Jackson packs more entertainment per minute than few others in the film business, even if he has too many minutes to work with. Watts really sells her tender relationship with Kong and gives the film a surprising emotional heft absent from the 1933 original. Because of our emotional investment the film has a greater sense of sadness and tragedy as it plays out. King Kong was the 800-pound gorilla of the movie year and Jackson knows how to deliver a visual epic, even if he tiptoes into self-indulgence. While I can protest the length, pacing, and some subplots that go nowhere or strain credibility, it’s hard to argue that King Kong is the popcorn spectacle of the year. Your bladder may hate you by the end of it but you won’t want to miss a second.

Nate’s Grade: B

Syriana (2005)

Written and directed by Stephen Gaghen, Syriana is very reminiscent of his Oscar-winning work with Traffic. It’s very dense, complex, and demanding of its audience, which is both its best and worst aspect. I needed a notepad to keep up with the multiple criss-crossing storylines. It’s similar to Traffic in scope and texture, but this film seems a whole lot angrier. Whereas Traffic felt like it was trying to hold a mirror up to society, show us the truth of the failing War on Drugs, this movie feels like a wake-up call as well as a call to arms. Syriana is desperate to shake people out of complacency and show them how the world is running. I love the fact that the “Free Iran” committee in the film that preach Iran’s desire for democracy are not backing the emir’s son that wants to educate his country, install democratic freedoms, put women on equal footing as men because … he wants to open the oil fields to China because they’re offering more money. They are backing the less-enlightened son because he’s willing to give America what it wants: oil. The movie is a mostly potent microcosm about questioning who has our best interests at hand. It’s a bit slow at parts and incredibly rushed at others, and your head will be left spinning trying to keep track of the wealth of information it throws at you. It is thought-provoking even without an emotional connection. This flick reminded me of The Constant Gardener, also a screed against the evils of big business though grounded in an evolving love story. This is a movie I admire more than I can say I enjoyed.

Nate’s Grade: B

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