Monthly Archives: November 2007

Next (2007)

Nicolas Cage, channeling Tom Hanks’ greasy mullet in The Da Vinci Code, can see his own future but only two minutes ahead. Based on a Phillip K. Dick something or other (does it really matter at this point?), this half-baked sci-fi thriller keeps shooting itself in the foot by retreating back in time to reveal, over and over, that what was just shown was merely Cage seeing his future. Now it’s do-over time, hooray. This tricky concept is given little thought and Next hews close to tired thriller clichés and formulaic trappings. There’s the hot girl dragged into the fray (Jessica Biel, pretty but pointless), the shady government agents that need Cage’s help but don’t fully trust him, and the nondescript bad guys with a hidden nuke. Next had potential for disposable escapist entertainment, but man do they blow it big time. For a 90-minute film, there’s way too much setup and not nearly enough payoff. There’s about a grand total of two action sequences for the entire film, neither very good, and then the movie utterly collapses as half of it folds in on itself as one of Cage’s visions. In the blink of an eye, half of the movie we watch is erased; it’s a freakin’ cheat, especially when the movie slouches to a close right after. This easily forgettable sci-fi bobble is another nail in Cage’s coffin as a reliable actor.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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Blades of Glory (2007)

When the movie sticks to skating, it can often get hilarious with the on-ice performances and flashy, crafty costumes. Will Ferrell works his doughy man-child schtick and generates mostly amusing results.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

No better or no worse than the original, this less than fantastic follow-up to the cruddy 2005 superhero dysfunctional family melodrama ups the apocalyptic ante with the emergence of the powerful Silver Surfer, the herald for a cosmic cloud, yes cloud, that consumes the life forms of planets. The special effects run the gamut from fake and awful to passable, but what ultimately kills this movie is how little substance there is. It’s lightweight, shallow, and more interested in making the kids giggle. Example: The Human Torch, after touching the Surfer, can now switch powers with any of the members after they touch him. The Thing, covered in spongy orange rock, is lamenting his state but finds solace in his relationship with a blind woman. The Human Torch asks what Mr. Rock Dude what would do if he had but a few moments left in this world. Now, I’m thinking that the Human Torch is going to swap places with his buddy so that The Thing can enjoy even one night as a regular flesh-and-blood human being with his sweetheart. Maybe they could even knock boots without her getting serious rug burn. But no, the movie does nothing and just moves along because it doesn’t have the scope, the interest, or even the time to flirt with anything outside its limited plot. The storyline, what little there is, is predictable from beginning to end and the action sequences, while expanded from the first film, still fall far short of eliciting tension or tickling the imagination. I swear the only reason the flying jet thing is introduced was to sell toys. You have a bunch of people with unique super powers; the least the script could do is think of exciting things to do.

Nate’s Grade: C

Waitress (2007)

Kerri Russell is irresistibly charming in this winning romantic comedy from the late write/director Adrienne Shelly. I fell totally in love, head over heels, with Waitress and I’m not ashamed to say it. In a perfect world, Russell would earn an Oscar-nomination for her sure-handed, witty, and incandescent performance as a pregnant woman who has an affair with her new gyno doc (Serenity‘s Nathan Fillion). This is a star-making performance and it is sealed when the movie relies solely on her emerging smile for an entire minute to communicate a blossoming figure. The supporting cast is great in their eccentric roles well and the movie concludes in a happy if unconventional manner. Waitress is the kind of movie that makes you feel great. The sheer exuberance on display is infectious and it makes it an even bigger tragedy that Shelly will never grant the world another wonderful slice of entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: A

Southland Tales (2007)

Richard Kelly is a talented writer/director who scored big with his first film, modern cult classic Donnie Darko. I was in love with the ominous yet inspired Darko from the moment I saw it, which, not to toot my own horn, was February 2002, way before the cult got started. I have been eagerly anticipating Southland Tales, Kelly’s writing/directing follow-up, even after its notorious 2006 Cannes Film Festival reception where critics readily cited terms like “indulgent,” “bloated,” “messy,” and, “disaster.” My love of Darko shielded me from such negative affronts, and so I watched Southland Tales undaunted and with as open a mind as possible. The regrettable truth is that even after Kelly shaved off a half-hour from the Cannes version, Southland Tales is every bit a mess as had been advertised; however, it is occasionally worthwhile and subversively ambitious.

Kelly begins his massive yarn with a nuclear attack on Abilene, Texas in 2005. America is plunged into World War III and fights, simultaneously, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea, while the conflict with Iraq continues. The Internet is now in control of the government, who passes sweeping security measures, chief among them IdentiCorp. This government arm uses thousands of trained cameras to keep watch over the lives of ordinary citizens, including when they duck into public bathroom stalls. Violent neo-Marxist groups have placed cells around the country, ready and willing to strike to destroy the last vestiges of American capitalism.

Fuel resources have almost run dry and the world looks to scientist Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn, hamming it up and having a good time) for a solution. The Baron has devised a substance known as Fluid Karma, which works under the properties of the churning oceans and will produce a radius of power. Fluid Karma also works as a powerful hallucinogenic drug and the Baron tested it on wounded Iraqi vets like Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake). Coldly narrating the film, Abilene stands guard outside the Baron’s laboratory and also peddles the drug on the side.

It is the summer of 2008 and the presidential election is months away. The Republican candidate, Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne), is in crisis mode. His spoiled daughter (Mandy Moore) is frantic because her husband, actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), has vanished. He’s awakened in the California desert with amnesia and shacked up with porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar); the duo has written a prophetic screenplay called “The Power.” Krysta and a pair of tattoo babes (Nora Dunn) plan to blackmail the Frost campaign with video of Boxer frolicking with the adult movie star. They want the campaign to endorse Proposition 69, which would rescind the encroachments on civil liberties by the U.S. government.

A group of neo-Marxists, led by pint-sized Zora Carmichaels (Cheri Oteri), have kidnapped a police officer, Roland Taverner, and are using his twin brother Ronald (both played by Seann William Scott) to frame the police and Boxer. And I haven’t even begun to talk about Senator Frost’s wife (Miranda Richardson), the president of Japan having his hand lopped off in a loony sequence, the frequent inverting of T.S. Elitot’s quote about the way the world ends, a commercial where two cars literally have sex, and a rip in the space-time continuum that people are putting monkeys inside.

Extraordinarily messy and scattershot, Southland Tales has 1000 ideas rolling around inside without much traction. It’s as if Kelly thought he was never going to get the chance to make another movie again so he crammed every thought and topic he ever had into one 144-minute cross-pollinated jumble. The movie veers wildly and chaotically from political satire, to crude comedy, to sci-fi head-trip, all the way to Busby Berkley musical. There’s a little of everything here but few of the dispirited elements mesh and the film runs a good two hours before any sort of overall context becomes remotely approachable. One second the movie is satirizing a Big Brother control state and the loss of American civil liberties, and in the next second a character is threatening to kill herself unless Boxer allows her to orally pleasure him. You got, among other things, zeppelins, global deceleration, perpetual motion machines, Zelda Rubenstein, drugs, holes in time, twins, a murderous Jon Lovitz, ice cream trucks that house military-grade weapons, blackmail, Kevin Smith in a ZZ Top beard and no legs, reality TV, the American national anthem cut together with an ATM robbery, Biblical Revelation quotes courtesy of Timberlake, and, why not, the end of the world. What does it all mean? I have no idea but I credit Kelly for his ambition.

Plenty of stuff happens for a solid two hours but little to nothing feels like it amounts to anything, and several subplots just get dropped. There are long stretches where I cannot explain even “what’s happening” from a literal description. This sprawling, magnificently self-indulgent meditative opus consists too much of side characters running into each other and having vague, pseudo-intellectual conversations that go nowhere. There are a lot of nonsensical speed bumps in this narrative. Sometimes the screen is just nothing but a series of newscasts overloading the audience with details on the reality of this alternative America; it’s filler. The conclusion is rather frustratingly abrupt; after slogging through two-plus hours of oblique questions it finally seems like we may reach some tentative answers, and then Kelly pulls the pin on his grenade and collapses his tale. Krysta tells Boxer in a moment of clarity, “It had to end this way.” Really? It did? This way?

The movie feels like a giant garage sale with scattered treasures hard to find but buried beneath loads of kitsch. Kelly clearly has bitten off more than he can chew and yet there is a bizarre undeniable power to some moments here. Roland (or is it Ronald) Taverner watches his mirror reflection a step behind; it’s unsettling and eerie and very cool. Timberlake has a drug-induced dance number where his scarred (both physically and mentally) Iraq veteran character is covered in blood, drinks beer, and lip synchs to the Killers’ song “All the Things I’ve Done,” which has the pertinent lyrics, “I’ve got soul but I’m not a solider,” and “You gotta help me out.” All the while, leggy dancing girls in blonde bobs strut and coo around him. It’s weird and tangential to the plot but it has a certain draw to it. The conclusion featuring the Taverner twins seeking forgiveness even generates some redemptive quality. Religious questioning and the philosophy of souls occupying the same realm plays a heavy part and gives the film an approachable reflection that tickles the brain, even if Timecop, sort of, visited the same ground, albeit secular, first (you’ll kind of understand when you see the movie). Southland Tales is grasping at profound and relevant messages, and yet some images achieve this easily, like a toy soldier crawling on the L.A. streets or a tank with Hustler stamped across its side for product placement. These simple images are able to transcend Kelly’s pop manifesto.

None of the actors really equip themselves well with the outrageousness. Scott comes off the best but that’s because his character(s) is/are the only figure(s) the audience is given a chance to emotionally connect with. The Rock, listed for the first time simply as Dwayne Johnson, is an actor that I genuinely like and think has tremendous comic ability, as evidenced by 2003’s The Rundown. With this film, however, he comes across too constantly bewildered and shifty, like he really needs to pee and cannot find a bathroom. Gellar is woefully miscast and I think she knows it given her leaden performance. Southland Tales is the kind of film where every role, even the two-bit nothing parts, is played by a known face, be it Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Curtis “Booger” Armstrong, Will Sasso, and a horde of Saturday Night Live alums.

Kelly’s previous film succeeded partially because an audience was able to relate and care about the central characters, which is not the case with the comically broad Southland Tales. Kelly seems to work best when he has some restraint, be it financially or artistically; the director’s cut of Donnie Darko explained far too much and took some of the magic out of interpreting the movie on your own terms. Southland Tales runs wildly in the opposite direction and is a giant mess unseen in Hollywood for some time, though for the doomsayers comparing Southland Tales to studio-killing, self-indulgent, era-defining Heaven’s Gate, may I argue that Oliver Stone’s Alexander was far more self-indulgent, longer, wackier, and duller. Due to its unpredictable nature, you can never say Southland Tales is boring.

Southland Tales the movie begins as Chapter Four of Kelly’s saga, the first three chapters being made into comic books, and really, when I think about it, a comic book is the right medium for this material. The confines of narrative film are too daunting for Kelly’s overloaded imagination. Southland Tales is oblique, incoherent, strange, and unfocused but not without merit. I doubt Kelly will ever be given the same artistic legroom to create another picture like this, so perhaps Southland Tales has helped to reign in Kelly’s filmmaking. A reigned-in Kelly is where he does his best work, and I look forward to Kelly’s remake of Richard Matheson’s story, “The Box,” presumably with no dance numbers and sexually active motor vehicles.

Nate’s Grade: C

Norbit (2007)

It’s terrible, yes, and a grotesque cartoon that milks one joke (the fat shrew is fat!), but it’s not as terrible as I expected and that in and of itself must be something of a small victory. The candy-coated direction and ghastly realistic makeup effects elevate the wretched material, and I’m ashamed to admit that I did indeed laugh a few times, albeit only a few. Rick Baker’s makeup will likely win yet another Oscar, which means we will be stuck with the tragic sentence “Academy Award-winning Norbit” for the rest of our lives. The fabulous makeup can bring these wretched characters to vivid life, including an odd racist depiction of Murphy as an old Asian man, but what’s the point of expert mimicry if it can be recreated on a physical level? Murphy’s comedic gifts seem like they will be replaced by technology instead of complimenting what he has to offer. Then again, there’s no technology that can make Norbit funnier. I hope you’re happy with the money you have reaped from this mean-spirited, unfunny crass comedy, because the advertising for this almost certainly cost you, Eddie Murphy, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Dreamgirls. Then again, that movie wasn’t too great either.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Blood and Chocolate (2007)

A werewolf tale set in Europe where the remaining handful of werewolves hunt men for sport by night and swish around being Eurotrash by day. The film plays closely to the teens-as-super creatures formula that seems to be chiseled by the likes of The Craft, Underworld, and The Covenant. What’s kind of hilariously goofy is that these werewolves actually just turn into normal, White Fang-looking wolves; no hulking man-beasts. They tend to run, and in a feat of cheesy special effects, blur into a wolf thanks to a magical glow. But there are instances when they would be much better off staying as people than transforming into wolves, like for ridiculous wolf-on-wolf fight scenes. The whole concept seems rather uninspiring; would you feel a sense of power simply because you could transform into a medium sized canine at will? I can’t see many practical instances where this would benefit someone. What’s the appeal? Regardless, the peculiarly titled film is rather dim with plot and character and whimpers to a hasty yet predictable conclusion. Agnes Bruckner, that’s a talented and beautiful young actress. Someone out there find here something worthy.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Lives of Others (2006)

A mesmerizing and piercing human drama that burns into your memory long after it’s over. This Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Film actually deserved to beat out Pan’s Labyrinth. This vastly intriguing, dense, and extremely moving film explores life inside East Germany before the Wall fell, a life not often seen in the movies. The crux of the movie follows a career officer (Ulrich Mühe) in the secret police who has been assigned to eavesdrop on a playwright and his actress girlfriend. It is this assignment that shakes the man’s blind faith in his government, and The Lives of Others becomes nerve-wracking when our silent listener decides to become active in trying to protect his subjects from his boss. This is masterful, artistically illuminating filmmaking with a tight, deeply felt story and superb acting and direction. Germany has been crafting some of the world’s finest cinema as of late, including Oscar-winner Nowhere in Africa and Oscar-nominees Downfall and Sophie Scholl. See this film before Hollywood remakes it and ruins it. Tragically, Mühe died of stomach cancer in July 2007 just as American audiences began to see The Lives of Others and witness the depths of his talent. He will be missed by the world of cinema but his work in The Lives of Others is a lasting testament.

Nate’s Grade: A

Freedom Writers (2007)

Add this to the feel-good genre of true-life teacher-makes-a-difference movies. It is suitably well acted and uplifting and doesn’t necessarily pander even if it does hit all the expected stops of the genre. These kids have grown up in an area heavy with gang affiliations, and the film earns extra credit for dealing with the heavy reality of gangs better than most any other teacher-in-urban-setting flick. Hillary Swank relies on her mega-watt smile to communicate her character’s perseverance and idealism and does a fine job along with a strong supporting cast including Imelda Staunton as the doubtful, pessimistic, dismissive principal. Freedom Writers clings to the us-vs.-them model and builds a believable underdog tale that actually could inspire a few future educators out there. This film is cozy and familiar but it also made will skill and care.

Nate’s Grade: B

Shooter (2007)

A passable albeit mediocre action thriller, this humorless tale about an elite sniper framed for a presidential assassination is more interested in the nitty gritty of sharp-shooters than building a credible plot. Mark Wahlberg grumbles through uninspired action sequences but who really draws attention is a villainous Danny Glover. The man has a lisp and carries it until the end of the film, and it is never explained. It’s so weird and distracting and it feels superfluous, like Glover was hard-pressed to make his rote villain interesting, so he thought, “Why not a lisp?” Shooter is more proof to my ongoing assertion that Antoine Fuqua (King Arthur, Tears of the Sun) is a  director with little interest in storytelling; he’s studied at the Tony Scott school of Visual Indulgence. The characters are either stock roles or superhuman, and how in the world does a man get pinned for almost taking out the President and then buy mass quantities of weapons with the clever disguise of sunglasses?

Nate’s Grade: C

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