Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Transporter (2002) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli.

The Transporter is cinematic extravaganza for everyone who disdains wimpy movie elements like plot and character development. This balls-to-the-walls action/adventure makes the average James Bond film look like something by Eric Rohmer. It’s high rent Steven Segal - fights, explosions, and more fights, but with a flair. Director Corey Yuan (well-known for his Hong Kong action films) and writer/producer Luc Besson (La Femme NikitaThe Professional) want the audience to overdose on adrenaline and testosterone, but they also want it clear that they don’t take anything too seriously. That’s why lead actor Jason Stratham always seems to be on the verge of turning to the camera and winking.

To be fair, the movie has something that passes for a storyline, although it’s so riddled with holes and implausibilities that one would do best to ignore it altogether. (For example, there’s a scene in which a woman, tied to a chair, manages to get into the back seat of a car by herself without being freed from her bonds. Short of David Copperfield, I can’t think of anyone who could manage that.) The screenplay, co-written by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, steals liberally from Besson’s The Professional. The lead character, Frank Martin - a.k.a. The Transporter (Stratham) - bears more than a passing resemblance to Jean Reno's Leon. He makes money by taking things (or people) from one location to another, no questions asked. He lives by three rules: (1) the deal is the deal, (2) no names, and (3) don’t open the package. He gets into trouble when he violates Rule #3 and discovers a pretty girl named Lai (Qi Shu) trapped inside a bag. From that moment on, Martin is on the run with all sorts of bad guys, and even a few good guys, on his trail. The film eventually has something to do with Chinese people being sold into slavery, but the less the viewer pays attention to that, the better off he (or she) will be.

Aside from Jason Stratham (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch), there's nothing special going on with the acting. Stratham is delightfully cool as the imperturbable Transporter, but no one in the supporting cast makes an impression. Qi Shu brings little more than a cute face and a poor command of English to her love interest/woman-in-distress role. Matt Schulze is not imposing as the bad guy (perhaps because he doesn't froth at the mouth enough). And Francois Berleand is uninteresting as the police inspector who takes an interest in Frank's situation.

The action sequences are virtually non-stop, with only occasional, brief interruptions to facilitate minor exposition. Every example of hand-to-hand combat features lots of martial arts (high kicks, but no obvious wire fu), and enough explosives and ammo are expended to supply a small army. The film opens with an amazing thing: a car chase that isn't boring (it's so outrageously over-the-top that it can't help but be fun). Overall, The Transporter will likely satisfy anyone on the lookout for a mindless, cheesy action flick. The Transporter's destination may be ordinary, but, to get there, this film moves.

Labels: action, crime, thriller

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Searching for Debra Winger (2002) [R] ****

Written and directed by Rosanna Arquette, this revealing documentary is a series of interviews with various actresses about the sexism and ageism-related pressures women face working in the Hollywood film industry. The cast includes, among others, Patricia Arquette, Rosanna Arquette, Laura Dern, Jane Fonda, Teri Garr, Whoopi Goldberg, Melanie Griffith, Daryl Hannah, Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Kelly Lynch, Julianna Margulies, Samantha Mathis, Frances McDormand, Julia Ormond, Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlotte Rampling, Vanessa Redgrave, Theresa Russell, Meg Ryan, Ally Sheedy, Sharon Stone, Tracey Ullman, JoBeth Williams, Debra Winger, Alfre Woodard and Robin Wright.

Rosanna Arquette titled her documentary Searching for Debra Winger because at age forty Debra Winger took a six year hiatus from acting. Ostensibly this was because Winger had reached her expiration date and was no longer being offered challenging film roles, but, while this explanation makes Rosanna Arquette’s case, it may not have been the only reason. Debra Winger began receiving film role credits in 1976 at age 21. By 1984, just eight years later, she was well established as an A-list actress, having received Best Actress Oscar nominations for both An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Terms of Endearment (1983). A decade later, she had received a third Best Actress Oscar nomination for Shadowlands (1993). Despite her obvious talent, and her accomplishments, after filming Forget Paris in 1995, at age forty, six years would pass before she took another role, in Big Bad Love. While the expiration date explanation may be correct, it is also true that Winger had a reputation as a difficult actress, that she had publicly named Ivan Reitman and Taylor Hackford as the two worst directors she had ever worked with, and that at one point in her career she had walked out on her agency, CAA, for several years. Also, Winger had a second son at age 40, so her six-year hiatus from acting may have been the lack of substantive film roles, but it may also have been her biological alarm clock going off, and her desire to focus on motherhood.

In any case, one of the most enlightening aspects of the documentary is the in-depth interview with Jane Fonda, which begins at about the eighty-minute mark. Jane describes the peak experience of film-making as the thrill and terror of making the pivotal scene of a film. She characterizes this scene as one with an intense flow of emotions between the actors, a scene that the director tries to capture all in one take. She describes the enormous pressure this puts the actors under, since the success of the film often depends on the believability of the pivotal scene. She paints a vivid picture of sitting in her trailer waiting for those dreaded words We’re ready for you now, Miss Fonda, and then having to walk the gauntlet from trailer to film set, between rows of cast and crew, all of whom are thinking This had better be good. You’re the big star; you’re getting paid the big salary, so prove you’re worth it, because we’re all depending upon you. Jane reveals that, when the pivotal scene is successful, it is better than the most intense lovemaking. But, she also admits that she remembers having had the pivotal-scene, peak experience fewer than ten times in making over forty films since 1960, which means that she did NOT remember a pivotal-scene peak experience in over 75% of her films. Does this mean that three-quarters of films released are mediocre, or worse? It’s an interesting question.

Jane’s description of the pivotal scene was so vivid that I found myself reviewing some of my favorite films, as well as some of Jane Fonda's films, to find the pivotal scenes as she described them. On Golden Pond, for example, has always been considered a cathartic bonding of Jane and Henry Fonda, since the fictional daughter-father relationship between Chelsea and Norman Thayer seemed to closely mirror the cool, dispassionate real-life relationship between Jane and Henry. In that film there's a powerful pivotal scene in which Chelsea tells Norman that she'd like them to be friends, reaching out to touch his arm and causing his eyes to well up with tears. And in The Electric Horseman, starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, there's a tender pivotal scene in which the two actors kiss, a scene director Sydney Pollack reportedly shot thirty times because he wanted to be sure he got it right.

For an enhanced understanding of the filmmaking process, the pressures that actresses endure in the film industry, and the difficulty of finding substantive roles, I highly recommend this documentary. Rosanna Arquette is to be commended.  

Label: documentary, filmmaking   
Internet Movie Database    
Tomatometer (critics=NA, viewers=47)

Dragonfly (2002) [PG-13] **

A film review by James Berardinelli, for

Dragonfly is the latest supernatural thriller to pour all of its energy into the big, surprise twist at the conclusion. However, for anyone who has been paying minimal attention to the less-than-subtle clues left by director Tom Shadyac, the gimmicky resolution will be obvious before the movie is 30 minutes old. That means more than an hour of fidgeting, twiddling one's fingers, and waiting for the inevitable to happen, since Dragonfly has nothing to offer besides the ending and a few unintentional laughs along the way. This is a tedious and insulting motion picture. The only ones likely to be surprised by the payoff are those who understandably dozed off fifteen minutes into the proceedings.

Kevin Costner plays Dr. Joe Darrow, an all-around good guy who heads the Emergency Room at a Chicago hospital. By the time Dragonfly's opening credits have ended, Joe's pregnant wife, Emily (Susanna Thompson), has died in an avalanche in a remote part of Venezuela, where she was working as a Red Cross volunteer. There's no body, though... hmmm, I wonder if that's important? Joe, meanwhile, suffers from a debilitating affliction commonly called SSS (Steven Seagal Syndrome), which results in his walking stiffly, talking in a monotone, and never showing more than one or two facial expressions. After Emily's death, Joe's condition worsens, and he now begins to experience strange, supernatural occurrences, like his pet parrot saying Honey, I'm home in the middle of the night, then going berserk. Could Emily be trying to reach out to him from beyond the grave? Eventually, Joe decides that the answers lie in the cancer ward at the hospital, where his wife used to work. Kids there have been dreaming about Emily, and Joe tries to piece together their visions, convinced that, if he can solve the puzzle, he'll find... what? (We already know, but it takes forever for him to find it out.) To drag out the movie's interminable running length, he has meaningless conversations with his fun-loving, lesbian neighbor (Kathy Bates) - usually about her caring for the parrot while he's away, harasses a nun (Linda Hunt) who's literally half his height, and plans a trip to go white-water rafting.

Hollywood must have a tragically low opinion of the average viewer's intelligence to foist something this poorly written and ineptly directed upon us. (I know this isn't the first time I have made that observation.) Shadyac, who is responsible for the likes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Patch Adams (he must have an affinity for terminally ill children), italicizes every clue in bright, bold letters. And, once you have figured out the ending, there remains nothing to do but visit the rest room, pick up a tub of popcorn, and envy the dozing person in front of you. With the exception of one sloppily-directed scene that uses a pair of stock boo! clichés, Dragonfly never manages even a momentary fright, which is a bad sign for a ghost story.

The creepiest thing about this movie is watching Kevin Costner's zombie-like performance. One could easily imagine that, like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense (a movie that, to some extent, this one tries to emulate), Costner's character is actually dead - or at least he acts that way. Costner typically plays laconic individuals, but he takes low-key a few steps too far on this occasion - Joe is comatose. We're supposed to be invested in this character, not wondering if sticking a red-hot poker up his butt would generate a reaction. The movie spares its other actors any lingering shame by assuring that none of them makes more than a token appearance.

Dragonfly will undoubtedly trade heavily on its Sixth Sense similarities - the plodding male protagonist, the ghostly apparitions, and the gasp! ohmygod! ican'tbelievethisishappening! ending. But, much as I dislike M. Night Shyamalan's overrated Oscar nominee, it displays a level of craft that is entirely absent from Shadyac's misfire. This film is so badly made that it makes What Lies Beneath look like a masterpiece of supernatural suspense. The dragonfly is a sleek, graceful insect that doesn't deserve to have its reputation sullied by being associated with this pile of offal.

Labels: drama, fantasy, mystery, romance, thriller

Two Weeks Notice (2002) [PG-13] ***

There is a striking similarity between Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics, both of which were written and directed by Marc Lawrence. Both films star Hugh Grant as a shy, self-deprecating celebrity, irresistible to women because of his wealth or star power. Both films co-star a lovely girl (Sandra Bullock in Two Weeks Notice, Drew Barrymore in Music and Lyrics) who has taken a relatively unglamorous path in life, and doesn't appear to be living up to her full potential. She is also poorly dressed and romance-deprived.

In both films Grant and the girl meet cute; Grant quickly appreciates her potential, and immediately offers her a seemingly incredible opportunity to work with him, which will allow her to express herself creatively. In both films the girl has to be convinced to accept Grant's offer. The two work well and productively together, albeit not without some friction, and a romance develops. But then, during the third act, Grant does or says something thoughtless and inconsiderate, something that threatens to destroy their relationship; at the last minute he realizes his error and brilliantly redeems himself by performing an extraordinary, romantic act which melts her heart.

Two Weeks Notice is about real estate development, lawyers and old money, and while Grant and Bullock have good chemistry, their relationship is much more about work than romance, and there's more drama than comedy. Music and Lyrics, by comparison, is about writing music and the New York entertainment scene. Grant and his co-star Drew Barrymore have great chemistry, their relationship is about romance as well as work, the romance is better developed and much more intense, and there's more comedy than drama. Music and Lyrics also features a better written script, a stronger supporting cast, and a bigger production budget, including an original soundtrack with some truly memorable songs. While Two Weeks Notice is a good film, Music and Lyrics, which was released five years later in 2007 is a great film, and could almost be thought of as Two Weeks Notice 2.0. If you have to make a choice, forget Two Weeks Notice and go for Music and Lyrics.  

Labels: comedy, drama, romance   
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 42/100   
Tomatometer (critics=42, viewers=63) 

Maid in Manhattan (2002) [PG-13] **

What if a hotel maid, trying on an outfit owned by a wealthy hotel guest, is mistaken for that guest by a well-known local politician, who then falls in love with her? It's a good idea, but it's poorly executed in this updated Cinderella story, which is a star vehicle for Jennifer Lopez, and not much more.

Ralph Fiennes, playing the assemblyman who falls for Lopez, is an excellent character actor, but he appears uncomfortable as a lead in a romantic comedy. There is absolutely no chemistry between Lopez and Fiennes, and their gratuitous love scene does nothing to create a bond between the two, or propel the action forward. Fiennes exhibits none of power and presence he displayed in The English Patient and The End of the Affair. Almost totally derivative, Maid in Manhattan manages to steal the shopping scene from Pretty Woman, and the ending from both Notting Hill and Sleepless in Seattle

Labels: comedy, drama, romance
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 45/100   
Tomatometer (critics=39, viewers=53)   

Prime (2005) [PG-13] ***+

A film review by James Berardinelli for

Consider a movie that takes place in the Big Apple and features a heterosexual romance with an age gap, a dose of Jewishness, a psychoanalyst, and an ending that doesn't pander to all the usual clichés. This may sound like Woody Allen - in fact, it often feels like Woody Allen (minus the expected helpings of angst) - but it's not. Prime is from writer/director Ben Younger and, while it's not up to the level of Allen's great romantic comedies (Annie Hall, Manhattan), it's better than anything the acclaimed New York auteur has brought to the screen in recent years.

Prime accedes to a number of the romantic comedy formulas to keep aficionados of the genre happy, while at the same time flouting enough of them to remain fresh and engaging. It also manages the difficult task of making the material funny without turning it into a sit-com. (Although there are a few times when it threatens to cross the line - consider the grandmother with the frying pan.) Prime is amusing and romantic, and offers a few intelligent opinions about the difficulties of bridging cultural and generational gaps in dating. Movies often treat these issues as either inconsequential or insurmountable. Prime falls more realistically in the middle ground; the keys to success are not love and passion, but commitment and maturity.

Rafael Rafi Gardet (Uma Thurman) is a 37-year old woman who, on the rebound from a messy divorce, finds herself head-over-heels in love with Dave Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg), a man 14 years her junior. And, as if the age gap is not enough, Dave is Jewish while Rafi is not. This doesn't mean much to Dave, but it's an issue for his mother, Lisa (Meryl Streep), who can't bear to think about her son in love with someone who isn't Jewish. Rafi confides all the intimate details of her new love affair with her therapist - the same Lisa Metzger who is Dave's mother. Both women are unaware of their non-professional connection until Lisa figures it out. At that point, she has a dilemma: terminate her sessions with Rafi or do her best to keep her composure and continue the therapy. While she is wrestling with this decision, Rafi and Dave encounter the first rough patches of their new relationship.

Prime treads carefully around the issue of ethics. For us to accept Lisa as more than an interfering mother, we have to believe she has Rafi's best interests at heart, and we do. Although Lisa's sessions with Rafi are laced with comedic moments (such as one in which Rafi confesses, [Dave's] penis is so beautiful I just want to knit it a hat - something I'm sure no mother wants to hear about her son, no matter how flattering the revelation may be), there's an undercurrent of seriousness. Give at least partial credit to Meryl Streep, who refuses to allow Lisa to sink to the level of a caricature. By keeping her real, the film avoids a significant misstep.

Having finished attempting to Kill Bill, Uma Thurman gets a chance to relax in a less physical role. She outshines her younger and less experienced co-star, Bryan Greenberg, but the two display enough chemistry to keep the film from stalling. It's easier to see what Dave sees in Rafi than the other way around. I suppose the allure of youth, physical attractiveness, and innocence is enough to blind Rafi to her lover's shortcomings - including a preference for playing video games over frolicking in the bedroom.

Although Rafi and Dave's relationship faces hurdles (including Dave’s one-night-stand with Sue (Mini Anden) a model who works with Rafi), the film does not throw the obligatory romantic complications subplot at us - at least not in the expected fashion. Prime is smarter and more sophisticated than that. And the resolution takes viewers in a different direction than that of most romantic comedies. We get to see what happens after the main story is over. Is the epilogue necessary? Probably not, but it adds another dimension to the movie, and makes me wish more romantic comedies would go this route.

The writer/director is Ben Younger, who is making his first feature since 2000's The Boiler Room. Prime is a different kind of project, but the screenplay shows evidence that Younger is a keen observer of human interaction, and there are enough small touches to indicate that he understands a little about the difficulties inherent in a coupling where one participant is significantly older than the other. Unlike many movies reaching theaters at this time of the year, Prime is not an Oscar contender, but it's a satisfying romantic comedy and a worthwhile diversion. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, drama, romance

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pearl Harbor (2001) [PG-13] ****

Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) were born in Tennessee at the end of WWI. Rafe's father was a crop-dusting pilot, and the boys grew up as best friends, with a love of flying. By 1941 they were both lieutenants in the Army Air Corps, and while undergoing an Army flight physical exam Rafe met and fell in love with Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), an Army nurse. Unfortunately, their romance was cut short when Rafe was accepted into the Eagle Squadron, a group of US Army pilots flying with the RAF during the WWII Battle of Britain.

Meanwhile Kate and Danny had been assigned to duty near Pearl Harbor on the island of O'ahu, Hawai'i. After Rafe was shot down over the English Channel and presumed dead, Kate and Danny consoled each other, and their friendship gradually grew into a romance. So it came as a surprise when Rafe arrived on O'ahu late in 1941, a man returned from the dead. Rafe's love for Evelyn had kept him alive, so her romance with Danny caused Rafe to feel bitter toward both of them.

This romantic triangle was interrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, depicted as a betrayal and a one-sided massacre. The attack impacts the viewer especially deeply because of the individual human dramas that are part of the larger story, including romances between Danny's pilot friends and Evelyn's nurse friends. The film's last act includes a portrayal of the Doolittle bombing raid over Tokyo, depicted as a suicide mission.

Pearl Harbor is successful both as a romantic drama and as a war epic. It's especially powerful and compelling when describing the sacrifices made by the millions of American men and women who fought and died in WWII, a group that has come to be called the greatest generation. The lead and supporting performances are excellent, the sets are incredible, the cinematography is breathtaking, the computer graphics are masterful, and the musical score by Hans Zimmer is thrilling. 

Labels: action, drama, romance, tragedy, war, WWII
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 44/100    
Tomatometer (critics=25, viewers=67)    

Pearl Harbor soundtrack:
Tennessee (1923)
Tennessee - Original Soundtrack Theme
First Kiss
And Then I Kissed Him
There You'll Be (Faith Hill)
Tennessee (final scene)

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Fast and the Furious (2001) [PG-13] ***

Dominic Toretto runs a performance auto shop and a diner, together with his girlfriend Letty, his sister Mia and some childhood buddies. But the two businesses are really just a front for Dominic's hijacking ring that preys on long-haul truckers carrying expensive consumer electronics across the California desert. Then one day, Brian Spilner walks into the diner, orders a tuna sandwich and starts flirting with Mia. It turns out that Spilner is really Brian O'Connor, an undercover police officer, and the trail of stolen electronics has led to Dominic.

The film was co-written by Ken Li, based on his magazine article Racer X, about street clubs that race Japanese cars late at night. There's a glimpse into the L.A. illegal street-racing subculture and how to use NOS to boost engine performance, some great car chase sequences, and a bit about Asian street gangs with motorcycles and automatic weapons with silencers. There's also a great tutorial on how to use three superfast and highly maneuverable street racers to overtake and hijack a speeding 18-wheeler, plus a sobering lesson on what happens when truck drivers decide to fight back.

Vin Diesel is excellent as Dominic, with just the right combination of street smarts, business skills, muscle and heart, and Michelle Rodriguez is passionate and compelling as his girlfriend Letty. Paul Walker is cool and detached as Brian Spilner/O'Connor, and while Jordana Brewster is attractive as Dominic's sister Mia, she has a small role and her romantic chemistry with Walker is understated at best. If you like action-adventure films with car chases and guns, films that give you an adrenalin rush, films like Fast & Furious (2009), Gone in 60 Seconds, The Italian Job, The Transporter and Transporter 2, then you should not miss The Fast and the Furious, the film that launched the film franchise.

The Ferrari used in the film is an F355 Spyder.

Labels: action, crime, Ferrari, thriller
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 58/100
Tomatometer (critics=54, viewers=68)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tortilla Soup (2001) [PG-13] ****

From the opening title you know this is going to be a sensual film... it's all about Mexican cuisine... the colors, smells, tastes, textures, and the sounds of food preparation. All of our senses are engaged and stimulated, and our mouths begin to water even before the first scene. Letitia, Carmen and Maribel Naranjo are three unmarried daughters living with their widowed father Martin (Hector Elizondo), who's part owner of a restaurant in Los Angeles. Martin never remarried and all he has left is his cooking, but now he's losing his sense of taste and smell.

His three daughters have their own daily lives but they all get together for Sunday dinner... it's a family tradition. Letitia (Elizabeth Pena) the oldest, is a high school chemistry teacher and a fervent, tightly-wound Christian. Carmen (Jacqueline Obradors) is a smart, beautiful, high-powered businesswoman, with a healthy sex life, who likes to cook; she creates Mexican dishes her boyfriend calls Nuevo Latino. And Maribel (Tamara Mello), the youngest, is an innocent ingenue who works in a music store and is a bit obsessive compulsive. Add to the mixture Yolanda (Constance Marie), a lovely neighbor who's a divorcee and a single parent, whom Martin finds very attractive, Hortensia (Raquel Welch) her meddling, husband-hunting mother who cannot resist dispensing irritating advice, several of Letitia's high school students who play matchmaker for Letitia and the baseball coach, and a handsome Brazilian boy whom Maribel falls for, and you have all the ingredients for passion, romance and drama.

The screenplay is charming and the soundtrack is incredible. Hector Elizondo is terrific as Martin, the widower who holds the family together and prepares the delicious, mouth-watering Mexican cuisine. If you like warm, family-oriented, character-driven romantic comedy dramas, films like Fools Rush In, and you enjoy Mexican food, you will love Tortilla Soup. 

Labels: comedy, drama, food, romance     
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 58/100     
Tomatometer (critics=74, viewers=70)

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Cat's Meow (2001) [PG-13] ****

Did something tragic happen on William Randolph Hearst's yacht Oneidain 1924? We'll never know for sure, but The Cat's Meow offers one possible scenario. There are outstanding performances by Edward Herrmann as Hearst and by Kirsten Dunst as actress Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress. However, Eddie Izzard as Charlie Chaplin was lackluster, especially when compared to the Oscar-worthy portrayal of Chaplin by Robert Downey, Jr. in Chaplin. Worse, the film's pacing was far too slow, especially the third act which should have been more powerful, emotional and fast-paced.

This period piece will mainly be enjoyed by viewers who are intrigued by Hollywood history, as well as fans of the radiant Kirsten Dunst. And, for those of you who enjoy watching Miss Dunst, I can highly recommend Wimbledon in which she and Paul Bettany have terrific chemistry in a tennis-themed romantic comedy-drama, as well as Elizabethtown in which she and Orlando Bloom have equally terrific chemistry in a romantic comedy-drama about giving life and love a second chance. 

Label: drama     
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 63/100     
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=65, viewers=62)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ocean’s Eleven (2001) [PG-13] ****

Danny Ocean (George Clooney) has just been released from prison in New Jersey and he’s already planning his next heist. But this one will dwarf them all. Danny plans to rob three Las Vegas casinos simultaneously – the Bellagio, the Mirage and the MGM Grand - by breaking into the secure vault located two hundred feet below the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip, and getting away with $160 million. 

The three hotels are owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) who’s made a number of enemies over the years, including Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould). Reuben decides to bankroll Danny and his team, which includes blackjack dealer Frank (Bernie Mac), Danny’s right hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt), brother drivers Virgil & Turk (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan), electronics expert Livingston (Eddie Jemison), gymnast Yen (Shaobo Qin), con artist Saul (Carl Reiner), pickpocket Linus (Matt Damon) and demolitions expert Basher (Don Cheadle). And when Rusty spots Danny’s ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) in the casino, and learns that she’s now Benedict’s girlfriend, he realizes that this heist isn’t just about money – it also about Danny getting some payback.

Ocean’s Eleven features an inventive screenplay and a great cast; clearly they had fun making this film. It has aged well, and it provides just the right combination of comedy and drama for an ensemble heist thriller. It is fast-paced enough, and requires just enough suspension of disbelief that repeat viewings continue to entertain us, even though we know how it is going to end. If you enjoyed films like Bandits, RED, and Sneakers, you will really enjoy Ocean’s Eleven

Labels: crime, thriller   
Internet Movie Database   
Metacritic 74/100   
Tomatometer (critics=82, viewers=79)   

Bandits (2001) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Mick LaSalle, S.F. Chronicle ( on Oct. 12, 2001.

Bandits is an unusual concoction. As a comedy, it comes up short on laughs. As a caper movie, it lacks suspense. And as a romance, it lays down a perennially interesting proposition -- the menage a trois -- then doesn't develop it very seriously.

Yet taken as a whole, Bandits is a success, a two-hour entertainment that floats along, stumbling into various genres, discovering its moments. The cast -- Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Cate Blanchett -- is as eclectic and unexpectedly charming as the movie. 

Somehow, Bandits works -- except with movies there is no somehow. Director Barry Levinson brought this one home, finding, amid the flashy performances and wild swings of tone, a thin cord of truth, between zaniness and naturalism, that allows it to hang together.

Any time someone makes a film that's not quite like any other, that's good news for two reasons. The first is that any artistic advance, however minor, is welcome. The other is that movies that aren't designed to formula are rarely financed. They're harder to make and even harder to market. Bandits isn't any better than a good formula picture -- it isn't incisive or memorable, just light and amusing -- but it's different.

Bruce Willis and Billy Bob Thornton play Joe and Terry, convicts who break out of prison one afternoon and have to improvise from there. They rob a bank and hide out, then devise a plan to rob more banks, in order to raise money for a beachfront restaurant in Mexico. Everybody has a dream, and that's theirs.

To minimize their risks, they come up with a novel way to rob banks. They show up at the bank manager's home the night before, sleep over and go to work with the manager the next morning. The safe is opened. They take the money and leave.

The bank scenes, even when things go wrong, play flatter than they should. The audience is so sure -- too sure -- of Joe and Terry's basic decency that there's no real worry that they might hurt somebody. This is where the comedy drains some of the suspense, perhaps more than necessary. The filmmakers might have taken more of a chance with the audience's affections and made Joe and Terry just a bit darker.

As Terry, Thornton has the crowd-pleasing role. He's a worrier and a mass of imagined ailments, plagued by hypochondria, fits of blinking and some unique and inspired phobias, including Benjamin Disraeli's hair. He is so easy to manipulate that, at one point, Joe tells him a fake story about a brain-tumor victim, knowing this will result in Terry's becoming immobilized with the same symptoms. Thornton has some funny moments of physical comedy, as he gradually imagines that his entire right side has become paralyzed.

Willis as Joe is like the Willis of a dozen other movies, but that's not a bad thing. His masculine authority provides the movie's only -- and much- needed -- dose of menace. His stillness can be alarming, even if it's undercut here by the most unconvincing hairpiece of his career.

The performance of Cate Blanchett would be a revelation, except that her versatility has been demonstrated in every film she has made since Elizabeth.  Here she is a neglected trophy wife who becomes Joe and Terry's willing hostage. Kate (Blanchett) is unbalanced and miserable, a combustible element brought into the men's partnership. Even worse, she's a Bonnie Tyler (Total Eclipse of the Heart) fan.

The men fall in love with her, but at least they're harder to get than the audience, which needs only a single shot: Blanchett replaces her refrigerator light with a blue bulb. The shot of Blanchett bathed in blue light is stunning, her face glowing like that of a star from the glamour era. As the picture wears on, the focus is less on crime and more on the three-way romance. Blanchett makes the shift in emphasis seem right.

Bandits was shot on location throughout Oregon and Northern California, and Bay Area audiences may recognize some locations, which include the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa and the Charthouse Restaurant in Montara. This film contains sexual situations and mild violence. [LaSalle's rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Labels: comedy, crime, drama, romance   
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 60/100   
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=61, viewers=62)  

The Anniversary Party (2001) [R] ****

Joe Therrian (Alan Cumming) is a popular British novelist, a bad-boy who grew up, married Hollywood film star Sally Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and settled down among the eucalyptus trees in the Malibu hills. Joe and Sally are having a party to celebrate their sixth anniversary although they've only been back together five months since a separation caused by Joe's marital infidelity. They've invited friends, cast members and their families, and the next-door neighbors.

Joe was recently offered a deal to direct his first film; however he really doesn't like movies all that much. The film’s screenplay was adapted from his latest novel, whose main character was based on his wife Sally, although the film's producers have given the role of Sally to young starlet Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow) whom Sally intensely dislikes, but whom Joe invited to the party anyway. Meanwhile, Sally has been cast in a comedy, together with Oscar winner Cal Gold (Kevin Kline). They're being directed by Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly) who brought tapes of the dailies to the party, and who is panicked because Sally is phoning in her performance, and Mac isn’t sure he can edit around her poor performance.

The Anniversary Party is based on Cumming and Leigh's finely-crafted screenplay, which feels like a stage play because it takes place in and around Joe and Sally's home, over the course of a single day and night. The film’s pacing is perfect, there are no extraneous sub-plots and all of the lead performances are outstanding. Even the supporting cast is excellent, especially Phoebe Cates, as Cal Gold’s wife Sophia (as well as Kevin Kline’s real-life wife), Jane Adams as Mac’s wife Clair, Jennifer Beals as Joe’s friend Gina, and Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey as the neighbor couple.

If you enjoy multi-layered, character-driven, conversation-laden, ensemble comedy-dramas, with a film industry setting, films that contain moments of intense euphoria and intense tragedy, then you probably will enjoy this film. And while there are few films with which to compare The Anniversary Party, it is similar in some ways to films like Crazy, Stupid, Love.Dan in Real Life, Elizabethtown, Feast of Love, He’s Just Not That Into You, Rachel Getting Married, State and Main, and Stuck in Love.

Labels: comedy, drama, filmmaking
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 56/100
Tomatometer (critics=60, viewers=58)

Iris (2001) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for

Those who have had a loved one fall prey to the mental ravages of Alzheimer's will see in Iris a depiction that is so lucid and accurate that it may be painful to observe. Anyone who has been spared an intimate encounter with this cruelest of diseases will gain a measure of understanding. Based on the memoir of John Bayley, Iris tells of the first and last days of his relationship with his wife, philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. It's a powerful, affecting tale that uses scenes of the young couple's new love as a counterpoint to Iris' final days - memories of a brightest spring echoing in the darkest depths of winter.

Iris' main storyline unfolds in the early 1990s, when Iris (Judi Dench), regarded by some as the foremost novelist of her generation begins to experience the first stirrings of the disease that would eventually reduce her to a state of childlike helplessness. At first, she forgets things, and, for someone with a deep and abiding passion for words, her inability to recall the best one becomes a frustrating experience. Eventually, she loses more than just words. She can no longer write or even think coherently. The unknown frightens her. She sits in front of the television, watching shows designed for children. Her husband, John (Jim Broadbent), comfortable for forty years being the weaker half of the union, is now thrust into the role of caregiver. There are times when he is found lacking, but his love for his wife ensures that he will not give up on her until the end.

Intercut with the '90s scenes are sequences from the '50s, when John (Hugh Bonneville) first meets and falls in love with the young, vivacious Iris (Kate Winslet), who loves nude swimming, fast biking, and no-strings-attached sex. Unaccountably, Iris is as drawn to John as he is to her, and it's not long before some of her free-spiritedness rubs off on him. They are a classic case of opposites attracting. She introduces him to sex and he shows her the rewards of simple, honest tenderness. It is in these flashback moments that Iris derives a measure of its power. Through them, we see Iris at her strongest, and understand the foundation of her relationship with John.

Iris persuasively illustrates how Alzheimer's affects not only the afflicted, but those who are close to the victim. During the early stages, Iris - once brilliant, now faltering - is at the tragedy's epicenter. But, as the disease advances, the burden shifts to John. By then, Iris has been reduced to a state where she is unaware of what has happened to her. She is an infant in an adult's body. She does not recognize that her brilliance has been obliterated. That cross is John's to bear. Director Richard Eyre (primarily known for his stage work in England) facilitates our empathy for a man who is powerless to act as the most important person in his life is slowly, inexorably diminished before his eyes. We share John's pain because we, through the flashbacks, have known the younger Iris and recognize what the two mean to one another. And we know that he is ill-suited to care for her (the unhealthy state of their house - with litter and grime all over - emphasizes this).

Because the focus of this film is on character more than plot, Iris demands strong performances. There are four of them (three of which have been honored by the Academy with Oscar nominations). Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, each doing some of the best screen acting of her career, bring Iris to life as both a young and older woman. Their work ensures that Iris' tragedy inspires not pity, but an awareness of loss. Remarkably, contrary to what is often the case when one individual is played by two actors, we never lose sight of the reality that there's only one character. In part because of makeup, costumes, and hairstyling, Dench and Winslet resemble each other, so we never have difficulty reconciling the youthful Iris with her mature counterpart. Similar comments can be made regarding Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville. The actors are physically similar and adopt the same mannerisms. Their performances are not as flashy as Dench and Winslet's, but they are no less crucial to the movie's success.

Lest Iris seem like too much of a downer, there are moments of light humor to go along with the poignancy. Iris and John's courtship is presented playfully, and Eyre's decision to sprinkle the flashbacks throughout the film (rather than present them in one long block) gives us moments of needed respite from the sadness that accompanies Iris' downward spiral. And, while this is a story about the effects and ramifications of a disease, it is also a tale of the unbreakable power of love. While Alzheimer's defeats Iris' intellect, it never sunders the bond that she and John have formed. For that reason, many of the tears to fall during Iris will be shed not only out of sadness.

Labels: biography, drama, romance

Moulin Rouge! (2001) [PG-13] ****

A film review by Roger Ebert, June 1, 2001.

Like almost every American college boy who ever took a cut-rate flight to Paris, I went to the Moulin Rouge on my first night in town. I had a cheap standing-room ticket way in the back, and over the heads of the crowd, through a haze of smoke, I could vaguely see the dancing girls. The tragedy of the Moulin Rouge is that by the time you can afford a better seat, you've outgrown the show.

Moulin Rouge! the movie is more like the Moulin Rouge of my adolescent fantasies than the real Moulin Rouge ever could be. It isn't about tired, decadent people, but about glorious romantics, who believe in the glitz and the tinsel -- who see the nightclub not as a shabby tourist trap but as a stage for their dreams. Even its villain is a love-struck duke who gnashes his way into the fantasy, content to play a starring role however venal.

The film is constructed like the fevered snapshots created by your imagination before an anticipated erotic encounter. It doesn't depend on dialogue or situation but on the way you imagine a fantasy object first from one angle and then another. Satine, the heroine, is seen not so much in dramatic situations as in poses -- in postcards for the yearning mind. The movie is about how we imagine its world. It is perfectly appropriate that it was filmed on sound stages in Australia; Paris has always existed best in the minds of its admirers.

The film stars Nicole Kidman as Satine, a star dancer who has a deadly secret; she is dying of tuberculosis. This is not a secret from the audience, which learns it early on, but from Christian (Ewan McGregor), the would-be writer who loves her. Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo), the dwarf artist, lives above Christian, and one day comes crashing through the ceiling of their flimsy tenement, sparking a friendship and collaboration: They will write a show to spotlight Satine's brilliance, as well as truth, beauty, freedom and love. (I was reminded of Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor's motto in Singin' in the RainDignity. Always dignity.) The show must be financed; enter the venal Duke of Worcester (Richard Roxburgh), who wants to pay for the show and for Satine's favors. The ringmaster is Zidler (Jim Broadbent), impresario of the Moulin Rouge.

Each of these characters is seen in terms of their own fantasies about themselves. Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, is flamboyant and romantic; Christian is lonely and lovelorn; Satine has a good heart and only seems to be a bad girl; Zidler pretends to be all business but is a softy, and the Duke can be so easily duped because being duped is the essence of his role in life. Those who think they can buy affection are suckers; a wise man is content to rent it.

The movie was directed by Baz Luhrmann, an Australian with a background in opera, whose two previous films were also experiments in exuberant excess. Strictly Ballroom made a ballroom competition into a flamboyant theatrical exercise, and his William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet updated the play into a contempo teenage rumble. He constructs Moulin Rouge! with the melodrama of a 19th century opera, the Technicolor brashness of a 1950s Hollywood musical and the quick-cutting frenzy of a music video. Nothing is really period about the movie -- it's like a costume revue taking place right now, with hit songs from the 1970s and 1980s (you will get the idea if I mention that Jim Broadbent sings Like a Virgin).

I am often impatient with directors who use so many cuts their films seem to have been fed through electric fans. For Luhrmann and this material, it is the right approach. He uses so many different setups and camera angles that some of the songs seem to be cut not on every word of the lyrics, but on every syllable. There's no breathing room. The whole movie is on the same manic pitch as O'Connor's Make 'em Laugh number in Singin' in the Rain. Everything is screwed to a breakneck pitch, as if the characters have died and their lives are flashing before our eyes.

This means the actors do not create their characters but embody them. Who is Satine? A leggy redhead who can look like a million in a nightclub costume, and then melt into a guy's arms. Who is Christian? A man who embodies longing with his eyes and sighs -- whose very essence, whose entire being, is composed of need for Satine. With the Duke, one is reminded of silent films in which the titles said The Duke, and then he sneered at you.

The movie is all color and music, sound and motion, kinetic energy, broad strokes, operatic excess. While it might be most convenient to see it from the beginning, it hardly makes any difference; walk in at any moment and you'll quickly know who is good and bad, who is in love and why -- and then all the rest is song, dance, spectacular production numbers, protestations of love, exhalations of regret, vows of revenge and grand destructive gestures. It's like being trapped on an elevator with the circus.

Labels: drama, musical, Paris, romance  
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 66/100  
Tomatometer (critics=76, viewers=90)   

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Summer Catch (2001) [PG-13] **

Ryan Dunne (Freddie Prinze Jr.) has lived his whole life in the town of Chatham, on Cape Cod, nurturing his dream of becoming a major league baseball pitcher. Each summer as the Cape Cod summer league starts, college players from around the country arrive in Chatham, Wareham, Hyannisport and the other resort towns, filling out the local teams, rooming with local families, and hoping to be seen by the professional scouts who come to the games. Ryan played baseball at Boston College and Framingham State College, washing out of both. This is his last chance, and he's been offered a pitching slot on the Chatham A's. But Ryan took his mother's death very hard; his father Sean (Fred Ward), his brother Mike (Jason Gedrick) and his coach (Brian Dennehy) all wonder whether he still has the drive to succeed.

One day, while mowing lawns for his father's landscaping company, Ryan spies the gorgeous Tenley Parrish (Jessica Biel), who has just graduated from college, is home for the summer, and wants to be an architect. Ryan is instantly love-struck, although this seems unlikely since he must have observed Tenley every summer for the past six years, while mowing her family’s lawns. Tenley falls equally hard for Ryan, although they barely know each other and are from different social and economic strata. We’re never told, but perhaps Tenley is secretly rebelling against her wealthy, controlling father (played by Bruce Davison), who has other plans for her. In any case, from this point on the story's plot is fairly predictable, although Ryan and Tenley's relationship isn't developed very well.

Freddie Prinze, Jr. is a one-expression actor; he has virtually no romantic chemistry with Jessica Biel, although it's not for her lack of effort. Comic relief is provided by Ryan's groupie girlfriend Dee Dee (Brittany Murphy), his catcher from USC, Billy Brubaker (Matthew Lillard), and the virginal Mickey (Wilmer Valderrama), but Ward, Dennehy and Davison are all underutilized or forced into stereotypical roles. Summer Catch is a boring imitation of Bull Durham; don’t waste your time on it. 

Labels: baseball, comedy, drama, romance
Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 21/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=32, viewers=52)

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Majestic (2001) [PG] ***

A film review by Claudia Puig, USA TODAY, on December 24, 2001.

The Majestic is named after a dilapidated movie palace that the movie's stars, Jim Carrey and Martin Landau, renovate and reopen. If only they had managed to overhaul this overly sentimental movie while they were restoring things.

Both Landau and Carrey deserve better material. Carrey is miscast as Peter Appleton, a '50s-era B-movie writer who is blacklisted, loses his identity after an accident and discovers his inner integrity after being embraced by the kindly denizens of a California town. When Carrey breaks into an aw, shucks smile, you can spot the maniacal trickster lurking beneath the bland demeanor that the part imposes on him. It's not that he should star only in wild-eyed comedic roles. He was superb as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon and well cast as the goofy but well-meaning dupe in The Truman Show. But those films had an edge that allowed Carrey to vent his darker, unpredictable side.

One hopes that this is a temporary deviation for Carrey and that he hasn't decided to follow in Robin Williams' sappy footsteps. Both men have a witty cynicism that has worked well in more complex material.

Once in town, Carrey's character is spotted by Harry Trimble (Landau) and mistaken for the son he lost in World War II. With little memory of his own past, Peter begins to believe he is the prodigal son and gives no more thought to his Hollywood problems.

The McCarthy era has been depicted more convincingly in other films. Peter's banal work would have been unlikely to call attention to him, much less inspire the scrutiny of commie-baiting witch hunters.

Further straining believability, the cops sent to arrest Peter for failing to testify before a government committee stage a dramatic face-off right on Main Street. And the confrontation just happens to fall on the day that his accident-induced amnesia clears, the same day as Landau's funeral. Meanwhile, the flag-waving townspeople who had embraced him all turn on him as one. Even his brainy blonde love interest, Adele (Laurie Holden), can't resist doing her own preaching.

Director Frank Darabont, whose The Shawshank Redemption was a better example of his talent, sought to make a Frank Capra-style feel-good picture. But he produced a pale imitation that challenges credulity and tries too hard to win our hearts with schmaltz.

Labels: drama

Monday, May 9, 2011

Kate & Leopold (2001) [PG-13] ***

A film review by Claudia Puig for USA Today, Dec. 31, 2001.

You know the singles scene has become grim when the best advice a Hollywood movie can offer is, Date a guy from another century. But in Kate & Leopold, the dashing Duke of Albany - who travels through a portal in time from 1876 into modern-day New York - so outclasses contemporary guys that women will walk out of the theater seeking a portal of their own.

It's not just that Leopold (Hugh Jackman) is a handsome hunk who's as chivalrous as a knight and rides a white steed as if his life depended on it. He also knows how to slow down and savor life.

That's something crack market researcher Kate McKay (Meg Ryan) thinks she doesn't need as she immerses herself in corporate climbing to recover from a disheartening relationship with a brilliant dreamer (Liev Schreiber).

What eventually happens to our hard-bitten exec and poetic hero isn't hard to guess. And if you can ignore the glaring implausibilities, Kate & Leopold is a sometimes charming fable that is worth seeing mainly because of Jackman's performance. He's an Aussie who convincingly plays the role of a courtly but free-thinking Victorian aristocrat.

Many, though, will be put off by forced moments that spoil what could have been a pleasant diversion. A just-beamed-in Leopold manages to find a violinist, a caterer and other service personnel to set up an intimate dinner-for-two on the roof of Kate's apartment building. And when Kate spouts thoroughly modern psychobabble, Leopold nods knowingly - not a bit perplexed by the contemporary jargon.

The movie also is hindered by Ryan's performance, which is almost a caricature of the persona that worked in When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. That bubbly girl-next-door now seems brittle and mannered, and one wishes she'd dial back the cutesy quotient and develop a more mature style.

Worse, Kate & Leopold is lacking in originality. Think the fish-out-of-water love story Splash crossed with the old-fashioned romance Somewhere in Time. Too bad director/co-writer James Mangold (Cop Land; Girl, Interrupted) couldn't come up with anything fresher and more worthy of Jackman's suave grace. [Puig’s rating: ** out of 4]

Labels: comedy, fantasy, romance, space-time