Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas to all, and movies for me!

I'm obviously far from alone in declaring the Christmas week to be my favorite time of year, but I may be the only person who says that but still has to work on both Christmas Eve day and Christmas. Not a complaint, mind you, because come Boxing Day I'm off to NYC, which means spending five days with my parents and brother and, of course, a heck of a lot of movies.

There are bound to be some surprises that I'm not aware of yet, especially since we're arriving on the last opening Friday of the year, but here are the seven movies I most want to see, assuming they're still playing somewhere in the city (and, on a side note, how in the world did Rian Johnson's "Brothers Bloom" get pushed back to the end of May? I was really looking forward to seeing that one right about now.) Here goes:

On paper this sounds about as appealing as a Tony Robbins seminar, but I'll trust Mike Leigh to turn it into something twistedly appealing. Sally Hawkins plays a schoolteacher whose constant optimism irks everyone around her, which actually sounds right up my alley.

"Synecdoche, NY"
I have a feeling this will be the one I see first, since my parents are arriving before mi hermano (who has already seen it), and I'm really looking forward to it. Oddly enough, Philip Seymour Hoffman's other cheerful holiday flick, "Doubt," is surprisingly opening Friday at a multiplex down in my little corner of the world, so that one will definitely be off the NY menu. For a great read on Mr. Hoffman, check out the profile from last Sunday's New York Times Magazine (which I tried and failed to link to, but you can easily find yourself.)

I was having a discussion with a co-worker and fellow movie devotee yesterday, and I was surprised to hear him say he just can't stand Sean Penn. He compared him to Al Pacino in that they each shout and over emote a lot, but while I can see it with Mr. Pacino, I can't go there with Sean Penn. He just has tremendous range, and you can tell from the trailer for "Milk" that he and director Gus Van Sant found the joy in Harvey Milk's life that came before the tragedy, and I can't wait to see what they came up with here.

Apparently wide doesn't mean wide at all, or this one would be entering the fray even in my little corner of the world with the other 10 million flicks opening everywhere on Christmas day. Since it's not, I'll probably catch it in NYC for Frank Langella's performance as tricky Dick and because I have full faith in Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen. By the way, I rented "The Deal," a k a their other Tony Blair flick, the other day, and it's almost as good as "The Queen." Check it out.

Despite the certain numbness it will bring to my posterior, I'm hoping that the entire five hours of Steven Soderbergh's "Che" will be playing somewhere while I'm there, and hopefully WITH AN INTERMISSION. From what I've heard it's far from an objective tale, but I really wouldn't have expected it to be, and it's been far too long since I've seen Benicio del Toro on the big screen.

"The Wrestler"
The same friend who was impugning the good name of Sean Penn has already seen this Darren Aronofsky flick, and can't believe it's not playing everywhere. Especially down here, where we may not know much about movies, but we do love our wrestling. I don't see any way this one won't be fun, even if it is a bit depressing.

"Frozen River"
Seeing as this opened way back in like June, I suppose it's a long shot that it would be playing anywhere, but I'm hoping the Melissa Leo Oscar train brings it back for one more run. Immigration, by the way, has turned into the great Hollywood (if not great box office) subject that the Iraq war never became. Already this year has come Patricia Riggen's "La Misma Luna" (Under the Same Moon) and Thomas McCarthy's "The Visitor," both of which are superior to just about any of the recent war flicks, and I'm sure "Frozen River" will be fine fare to complete the set.

So, there you have it. Please, if you think of any that I might be able to catch but haven't thought of, let me know, and have a happy, happy holidays! I'm signing off until at least Jan. 2 or so, but I'm fairly certain the world will continue just fine without me. Peace out.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Laugh-a-lot: My 10 best comedies of 2008

The inspiration for this post is actually two-fold, from one thing that made me laugh and one that just made me cringe.

The former comes courtesy of the surprisingly great MTV movies blog, which currently has an interview with David Fincher in which he discusses plans to take "Fight Club" to Broadway as a musical. I just have to assume he was playing the prick with them, but it was delivered as straight news, with him saying he had talked with Julie Taymor and others about what it would involve. Simply bizarre.

The second was something I saw on Variety, and I'll have to take their word for it because I'll never, ever - under penalty of torture, even - tune into anything on my TV featuring Frank Caliendo (I got way more than enough of that during the baseball playoffs anyways.) I mean, does anyone in the world think this guy is actually funny? To me he's just extremely annoying.

He did, however, apparently last night host a special about the funniest movies of 2008, or at least I think he did, since I didn't tune in. Well, if this seriously unfunny guy can say he knows funny, I can too, so here goes: My votes (simply in alphabetical order) for the 10 funniest movies of 2008 (I considered including M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening" here, which indeed made me just laugh out loud and often, but it is the holidays after all, so I'm trying to be civil.)

Be Kind Rewind
Michel Gondry's movie just didn't charm me too much at all the first time I saw it, but I've seen it twice since on DVD and it's now quickly moving up the charts. Silly? Sure. Extremely. But the movie re-creations are almost uniformly funny, the last half hour is a sweet tribute to making movies and Mos Def's explanation of why he doesn't want to do "Driving Miss Daisy" is just priceless.

"Burn After Reading"
This is another one that I think will grow in my estimation once I watch it for a second time, but on the first go-round it still has plenty to laugh about in what is certainly one of the Coen brothers' slighter films. I'm not convinced there's any kind of real commentary about our current state of constant surveillance, but Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt and my new favorite Richard Jenkins still bring the funny.

"Hamlet 2"
Steve Coogan throws himself so completely into this portrait of a serious loser that you'll either cringe or laugh along with his misery in spite of yourself. I was often in the latter category when this flick made it to my little corner of the world for exactly one week. It's worth it for that "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" finale alone, but Coogan, Elizabeth Shue (yes, that Elizabeth Shue) and Catherine Keener also were all just a delight to watch.

"In Bruges"
I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet, but writer/director Martin McDonagh's flick just keeps getting crazier and crazier until a finale that will just leave you scratching your head. Along the way, however, he gives hitmen Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell easily the funniest dialogue of 2008, and they just run with it.

"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"
I certainly don't mind crude or even occasionally cruel comedy, but to me it still works best when a director has affection for the subjects he's poking fun at, as Peter Sollett clearly did here with New Jersey's bridge-and-tunnel kids. When I hit the IMDB to make sure I was spelling his name right I found out he was unfortunately now writing a remake of "Footloose," but don't let that stop you from watching Michael Cera and Kat Dennings in this sweet little flick that soon will find a home on my list of the 10 best flicks of 2008.

"Pineapple Express"
Of all the movies on this list, I suspect this stoner comedy will have the shortest shelf life (not unlike even the best buzz, I suppose.) Even so, it's well worth watching for James Franco's performance as the happy-go-lucky dealer, just a comic hoot, and the most painful looking amateur fight scene I've seen in years.

"Soul Men"
I don't know exactly why I was so convinced that the late great Bernie Mac and Sam the Man Jackson palling around as aging "Soul Men" wouldn't be funny, but I'm glad I finally got over that barrier before it left the theaters (though it's still, somehow, playing at our Regal branch yet again in the coming week. Amazing.) When it's crude, director Malcolm Lee's flick is too often also just stupid, but when it's just the Mac man and Mr. Jackson riffing it has a definite appeal, and it's a fitting if way too early way for Bernie to leave us.

"Tropic Thunder"
This was the flick in which Jack Black just reached the saturation point for me, and he'll have to do something really funny (and a lot less annoying) to win me back. That said, Ben Stiller still managed to craft an almost razor sharp satire on Hollywood action flicks, and if you haven't seen Robert Downey Jr. in black face yet, I have to wonder if you even like to laugh at all.

"Vicky Christina Barcelona"
Though there are a lot of heavyweight contenders coming in the next week as I hit NYC with my parents, I'm still fairly certain Woody Allen's lighter-than-air flick will also find a home on my 2008 top 10 list. Even with the thoroughly unnecessary narrator, Rebecca Hall is enchanting, Scarlett Johansson is a lot less annoying than usual and Penelope Cruz is just manically entertaining in every bit of the brief time she gets on screen.

"Zack and Miri Make a Porno"
It's been far too long since Kevin Smith showed up on a list like this, but he certainly deserves it for this mostly satisfying flick. Like, I suppose, an actual porno, it loses it charm before the finish, but along the way Elizabeth Banks and Seth Rogen make a great comedy duo, the high school reunion is very funny and the money shot (sorry, I had to) comes with an anal sex joke that will make perhaps even the most prudish comedy fans laugh out loud as they are simultaneously blushing.

So, there you have it. Please feel free to add any 2008 comedies I may have missed, and have a perfectly passable Tuesday. In an effort to make that more attainable, here's a shot of the simply stunning Carla Gugino in the upcoming "Women in Trouble," which certainly doesn't need to be spoiled by any more words from me. Peace out.

Friday, December 19, 2008

There's much to laud in the SAG nomination, but what in the world are "enemble stunts"?

It may have seemed to most critics like a big dose of silly hokum, but I really had a blast with Baz Luhrmann's "Australia," so I'm very glad to hear he's getting right back to work - and on something he should really have a lot of fun with.

Hollywood likes nothing if not a trend (don't get me started on "Cloverfield" director Matt Reeves wasting his time on an American remake of the simply sublime Swedish vampire flick "Let the Right One In"), so with David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" looming as the Best Picture co-favorite (with "Milk," I'd have to guess), why not more F. Scott Fitzgerald?

Luhrmann, aiming to get back to work as soon as the awards season ends (though I can't imagine it will be a terribly busy one for "Australia"), has acquired the rights to make yet another version of "The Great Gatsby." There are certainly a lot of things the world needs more than that, but the opulence of America's Jazz Age is right up his alley.

But here today, however, it's all about the Screen Actor Guild nominations which, since actors do most of the Oscars voting, is probably a pretty good predictor of what those acting nominations will look like too. Before any more commentary from me, here they are:

Richard Jenkins - The Visitor
Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn - Milk
Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie - Changeling
Melissa Leo - Frozen River
Meryl Streep - Doubt
Kate Winslet - Revolutionary Road

Josh Brolin - Milk
Robert Downey Jr. - Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Dev Patel - Slumdog Millionaire

Amy Adams - Doubt
Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis - Doubt
Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Kate Winslet - The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Iron Man

My first question from all that was "aren't there more women out there acting today than Kate Winslet"? I mean, she's good and all, but two nominations? Sheesh.

And since I've made it my personal mission to promote the candidacy of Richard Jenkins for the nearly flawless little film "The Visitor," a hearty huzzah to that (and especially if it came at the expense of - once again - Leo DiCaprio). I would have loved to have seen Brendan Gleeson sneak in here for "In Bruges" like he did at the Golden Globes, but I knew that was more than a long shot. If these are indeed the final five, I'd have to guess I'd be happy with that (I'll know for sure next week, when I finally get to see all these flicks.)

Not surprisingly, if unfortunately, "Doubt" leads the pack with five nominations in total, though I never quibble much with any acclaim for Amy Adams. Now, I haven't seen John Patrick Shanley's flick, and if I do it will have to be with my nose closed. As a somewhat regular Catholic, I can't say that the subject outright offends me, but it certainly does just seem tired at this point.

In the category of best actress, I'm happy and more than a bit surprised to see Melissa Leo's name in the final five, probably at the expense of Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh's "Happy Go Lucky." No offense to her, but I'm really hoping "Frozen River" is still playing somewhere in New York when I make it next week, because the "Homicide" veteran Leo is just one of my favorite actresses around today.

For supporting actor, kudos again for the inclusion of Dev Patel, which certainly bodes well for the Oscar chances of "Slumdog Millionaire." How in the world, however, can he be a supporting actor when the entire tale is framed with a love story in which he's one of the two main players? More than a bit mystifying. And thanks from the bottom of my heart for recognizing that Robert Downey Jr.'s profane but perfect turn in "Tropic Thunder" is just comedy gold.

In the supporting actress category, more love for comedy in the form of Penelope Cruz's manic turn in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," my favorite comedy of 2008, and she'd certainly get my imaginary vote if this category didn't contain one of my very favorite actresses working today. I've been in cinematic love with Taraji P. Henson ever since "Hustle and Flow," so it's wonderful to see her nominated here for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," and I can't wait to watch her in it as one of my Christmas presents to myself.

This has probably gone along long enough now, but I can't leave without some bile for the ensemble category. My doubts about "Doubt" aside, the two best ensemble casts I've seen this year were in Oliver Stone's "W." and Darnell Martin's "Cadillac Records." The common denominator in those too is Jeffrey Wright, as Colin Powell and Muddy Waters, respectively, and that's certainly never a bad thing. Martin's fun flick is deserving of more love.

And finally, just what in the hell is "Best ensemble stunts"? If there is a more demeaning category name, I certainly haven't heard it. Though I'm sure it's been around for more than a few years now, it sounds like it was created just to give "The Dark Knight" some kind of seat at the table, even if it's only for scraps. Peace out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Does the world need men in drag and fat suits? Maybe not, but Tyler Perry is damn funny

I realize I'm far from alone here (though perhaps in the minority in the rapidly aging white dude community), but I've been with Tyler Perry since the beginning, and I still get pretty excited when I hear one of his now semi-annual movies is coming.

Granted, the man has been slipping a bit of late. "Meet the Browns" and "The Family the Preys" were both average movies at best that contained great performances by its female leads, Angela Bassett in "Browns" and Alfre Woodard and Kathy Bates in "Preys." In fact, I'd list Bates' turn as the matriarch of a very wealthy Atlanta family as easily one of my favorite female performances of 2008.

And along with making movies with a definite human feel, Perry is also always good at just that: Writing well-round and very funny roles for women. Which is why it's always made me scratch my head when he turns into Madea.

Now, Madea can be very funny in small doses, but as a rule his movies are much better when he lets the women play the "id" rather than setting loose too much of his alter ego. Which is why I wasn't terribly thrilled to hear that she/he is getting her/his own movie, "Madea Goes to Jail," coming Feb. 20 from Lionsgate, Perry's movie home from the beginning.

From this trailer, however, it appears I once again must have been wrong, because it looks like a strong ensemble piece, led by the always-welcome Derek Luke and Keshia Knight Pulliam - a k a Rudy Huxtable (yes, that is little Rudy, all grown up and hoed out with that rather ridiculous wig.) And apart from that, I know that all trailers always cherry-pick the best laughs, but it also looks like not only Perry's Madea but also Perry stage regulars David and Tamela Mann will bring the real funny. Enjoy the trailer, and have a perfectly passable Wednesday. Peace out.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A real dark horse for a Best Actor Oscar

Thomas McCarthy's "The Visitor" is such an unassuming little film that I have to admit it sat in my house for a week before I could summon the desire to watch it, but now I'm certainly glad I did.

McCarthy, who directed the equally satisfying "The Station Agent" in 2003, may also be known to fans of "The Wire" as Scott Templeton, the Sun reporter with a very active imagination. Though that great show went more than a little off the rails in its final season, it was never his fault.

With "The Visitor," he has an able co-conspirator in Richard Jenkins in creating this tale of a man who has pretty much given up on life until he returns to his NYC apartment to find the titular "Visitor" there in the form of an illegal Syrian immigrant (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Jekesai Gurira), though, as it soon becomes clear, Jenkins' Walter Vale is often the real visitor in this world of ours.

Though McCarthy has an occasionally heavy-handed tale to tell about what rights we have given up since 9/11 and the constant peril of living illegally in this country, his movie is much stronger when it just tells the tale of Walter and lets Jenkins jump completely into the role. Partly because of this absorption and partly just because my mind is slowly faltering, I must admit I had to check the closing credits to remember exactly what his name was (though of course we well know his face.)

As we meet Walter, he's a college professor who's been teaching the same one class for 20 years and has now been asked to present a report he only put his name on but no work into. Jenkins captures this detachment perfectly while at the same time moving us to cheer for him without ever becoming manipulative.

And it's a credit to McCarthy's slow-moving but constantly engaging story that he lets Jenkins' Walter be drawn out of his tough shell at a natural pace. Though I'm far too cynical to ever want to participate in anything as hippy-dippy as a drum circle, it's a joy to watch as the Syrian Tarek first teaches Walter to play the African djembe drum and later to even do so in public (and in the most joyous scene, belatedly in life discover the pleasures of Fela Kuti.)

McCarthy lays on the sentiment here but not quite as heavily as in another movie about immigration that's among my favorites from this year, Patricia Riggen's "La Misma Luna" ("Under the Same Moon"). Thanks to uniformly solid performances from his cast, rounded out by Hiam Abbass as Tarek's mother, it never seems anything but genuine and just manages to suck you in.

As for Jenkins, who most people might know from his work on "Six Feet Under" but also appeared this year in "Burn After Reading" as the gym owner who longed for the love of Frances McDormand (and, really, who wouldn't?), he's certainly turned in an Oscar-caliber performance here, but it's probably come in a year too crowded for him to even be nominated. If I had to pick it today, I'd have to guess the final five will be Brad Pitt for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Clint Eastwood for "Gran Torino," Sean Penn for "Milk," Frank Langella for "Frost/Nixon" and Mickey Rourke for "The Wrestler." That final slot could also swing to another outsider, but it's not likely.

But "The Visitor," out now for a while on video, is still well worth checking out, for Jenkins' performance and a whole lot more. And Thomas McCarthy is certainly a director to keep your eyes on. Peace out.

Monday, December 15, 2008

An open apology to the great Mr. Bernie Mac

Actually, the - potentially - greatest news I could find out there this morning is that Warner Bros. has finally given a release date, Oct. 16, 2009, to Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are." Of course, that says nothing about what the final movie will look like and doesn't mean Warner just won't move it back again, but there's still hope that my favorite story of childhood will make it to the big screen while I'm still drawing breath.

But the main subject here today is an apology to Bernie Mac, whose last movie, "Soul Men," I had snubbed until last weekend. As I'll explain, though, I don't really think it's entirely my fault.

This summer and into the fall has really been pretty solid for comedies, but I had avoided Mac, Samuel L. Jackson and director Malcolm Lee's "Soul Men" because of what has to be just about the worst marketing campaign of all time. Can you remember it? It pretty much scarred my brain for the rest of the year with two of the most tired jokes I've ever heard, one about what happens when poor Jennifer Coolidge removes her dentures (man, does she deserve better) and the other about what happens when Mr. Mac accidentally takes a viagra and gets into bed with Mr. Jackson.

So, you can understand why I've just said no since the movie opened in the first week of November, but this weekend was finally weak enough to make me just give in. I just couldn't bring myself to watch any remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," and even with five of my very favorite actors (Luis Guzman, Elizabeth Pena, Alfred Molina, Melonie Diaz and Freddy Rodriguez) in "Nothing Like the Holidays," I also couldn't see taking in what looked like just the most predictable kind of holiday fare. However, neither could I see a fall weekend with no movies.

What it came down to was a choice between "Role Models" and "Soul Men," and my love for Bernie Mac swung me to the latter (how in the world either one is still in theaters remains a mystery, however) and I found there's a lot of good things just under the crude surface in the other Mr. Lee's flick.

If they had just told me (and perhaps I should have been able to figure it out on my own) that this was mostly a sweet buddy road movie in which Mr. Mac and Mr. Jackson drive cross country to reunite at the Apollo Theater as soul duo the Real Deal (and, even better, you get John Legend in a coffin, to boot), I would have been in from the start. Those two dudes are clearly friends and enjoy ribbing each other, and the road leads to very funny scenes like them performing in a country and western bar (complete with Mr. Jackson line dancing.) As a much less funny Adam Herschman says at one point, "They say motherf***er a lot, but they're real nice guys," and that - and support from the always welcome Sharon Leal - is where the flick gets most of its appeal.

Now, don't get me wrong. This is BY NO MEANS a great movie, but it is a really fun one, and well worth a rental when it hits that point (even if this is somehow still playing in a theater near you, too, I'd still wait for DVD.) And a further apology from me to Malcolm Lee, who is, yes, Spike Lee's cousin. He's certainly not making movies that look anything like Spike's, but he's still managed to make three flicks - "Soul Men," "Roll Bounce" and the silly but satisfying "Undercover Brother" - that I really like, so huzzah to that.

Like most of the world, I first found the late, great Bernie Mac in Spike's "Kings of Comedy," and to this day I still can't believe that it was this hilarious but very blue routine that really set up the premise for and landed him his mostly funny sitcom. After a tired couple of minutes of black-white comedy, in this clip he really launches into "his sister's kids" (the 2-year-old is "a shepherd of the devil"), so if you've never seen this watch it with your headphones on if at work and enjoy. And please accept my apology for snubbing your last movie so long, Mr. Mac. Rest in peace.

Friday, December 12, 2008

When it comes to comedy, the Golden Globes get a whole lot right

Since it's all about comedy here today, I was initially very happy to see that very-funny-lady Lauren Graham is finally coming back to primetime TV (and only seven years after "Gilmore Girls" left the air, what the hell's up with that?) Once I found out what her show was going to be, however, most of my excitement quickly disappeared.

I'm not sure when this would ever try and make the air, but ABC has given a production commitment to a new comedy which would star Graham as a self-help guru who teaches women how to live a stress-free life, but struggles to follow her own advice when her boyfriend dumps her. Just in case that doesn't sound "meh" enough for you, this comes from "Will and Grace" writer Alex Herschlag, so even if we don't get real laughs there should at least be a laugh track in stitches.

However, if you had told me that a show about a single mom and her teenage daughter would be my favorite thing on all of TV for six years or so (let's just forget the final season), I never would have believed you, so I'll at least give this one a chance for Lauren Graham alone if it indeed ever makes it onto the air.

But, like I said, it's all about comedy here today, thanks to the Golden Globes, which will be handed out Jan. 11 on NBC. Though I really wish they wouldn't lump musicals and comedies together in the same together, it's enough to get me to tune in for some of the broadcast that they bother to recognize comedy at all, and this year's they've tapped some real winners in the comedic actress and actor categories.

Starting with the Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical, I was very happy to see they recognized two of my favorite flicks of the year, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and - surprisingly - "In Bruges." Woody Allen's flick is just lighter than air and a ton of fun, and "In Bruges," despite it's truly head-scratching WTF ending, contains the funniest dialogue of the year and great performances from Colin Farrell, Ralph Fiennes and most of all the fantastic Brendan Gleeson. I would have liked to have seen "Tropic Thunder" and, even more, Peter Sollett's seriously satisfying "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" make the cut, but some good choices all the same.

But, with this being a musical/comedy category and the roster being rounded out by "Burn After Reading," "Happy-Go-Lucky" (which I can't wait to see at the end of the year in NYC) and "Mamma Mia!", I'd have to imagine the award will go to the only musical on the list. Sheesh.

And it was great to see the love for Woody's thoroughly fun flick continue in the best actress/actor comedy/musical lists. Rebecca Hall carried the movie as Vicky, and she's landed a well-deserved best actress/comedy nomination up against some real heavyweights: Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Unlucky", Frances McDormand in "Burn After Reading", Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia!" and Emma Thompson in "Last Chance Harvey." If I were a betting man, which I no longer am, I'd say it will come down to Streep and Hawkins, with Hawkins pulling an upset.

Also from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," Javier Bardem gets a nod in the best actor comedy/musical category for his portrayal of the Lothario Juan Antonio, and he's up against easily some of the best comedic performances of 2008 (and one I haven't seen yet): Both Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson for "In Bruges", Dustin Hoffman for "Last Chance Harvey" and, in the real surprise, James Franco for "Pineapple Express." As much as I love the guys from "In Bruges," I'd give my vote to Franco's portrayal of the thoughtful stoner, but put my money on Hoffman.

Comedy shines through in the supporting categories too, if not as bright. Since I'm determined to mention "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" in every paragraph of this post, and perhaps convince anyone who hasn't done so already to watch it when it finally hits DVD, I have to add that the best thing of all about it was Penelope Cruz's manic turn as Juan Antonio's estranged wife, the thoroughly crazy Maria Elena. She's at her best in her natural Spanish, and here it just comes flying fast and almost always very funny.

I actually think she might win this one, in which she's up against Amy Adams and Viola Davis for "Doubt", Marisa Tomei for "The Wrestler" and Kate Winslet for "The Reader." Though my heart's with Cruz, I'd put my money in a very close vote on Tomei.

(As the final word on Woody Allen, I'll just add that he's returning to New York City this year with grumpy and very funny old dude Larry David as his leading man in "Whatever Works." That should just be a treat.)

And, finally, in the supporting actor category they've tapped what for me was the best comedic performance of 2008, Robert Downey Jr.'s turn in "Tropic Thunder." Even if you somehow haven't seen the movie yet, you've surely seen the photos of him in black face to play actor-extraordinaire Kirk Lazarus. A gimmick, sure, but along with Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino (yes, that's right) he gets all the movies best lines and just makes the most of them, especially in the flawlessly offensive "full retard" speech.

His competition in the supporting actor category includes another turn in "Tropic Thunder," Tom Cruise's seriously overrated drop-in as movie mogul Les Grossman, plus Ralph Fiennes in "The Duchess", Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt" and the late Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight." I have to think Ledger will rightly take this one, as he will on Oscar night too.

As a final word about supporting actors and comedy, the globes snubbed one other performance that just combined the two perfectly, Brad Pitt's turn as Rusty in "Burn After Reading." The movie was only good at best, but he was a dimwitted delight to watch.

And speaking of Pitt, I'll leave you with this photo from the set of Quentin Tarantino's World War II flick "Inglorious Basterds." Though he looks more like someone you might find standing on the corner in a trench coat, he's apparently the ring leader of the "Basterds," who will also rather incredibly include B.J. Novak of "The Office" and Samm Levine, a k a Neal Schweiber from "Freaks and Geeks." Peace out.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

An "Office" christmas party, but then a shut-down for the rest of the year

Not much of a report today because I'm making something I've never tried before, Italian macaroni and cheese, for our office holiday lunch today. And, thankfully, so far it does look like something resembling macaroni and cheese.

And actually, the craziest and best news out there today is that Oliver Stone, fresh off making a thoroughly entertaining and somewhat insightful portrait of "W.", has now set his sights on Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. "W." was a return to the kind of movies Stone used to make before he lost his fire, so his Chavez doco should just be fascinating to watch.

Tonight, however, it's all about "The Office" Christmas party, which, thanks to Phyllis, has a - surely disastrous - Moroccan flavor. Here's a two-minute-or-so sample which features Dwight's take on the hottest toy of the holiday season (I won't spoil it for you, but it's hilarious) and other tasty bits. On the sad side, this is the last "Office" episode of the year, and with a possible actors' strike looming in January, who knows what might happen next, if anything. Enjoy, and have a perfectly passable Thursday. Peace out.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An animated Best Picture nominee? Why the "Wall-E" not?

I'm always hopeful when I hear a major group of critics sharing the kudos love with animated movies, even if in this case it comes a year too late.

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, usually a contrarian bunch, has just named "Wall-E" as its pick for Best Picture, with "The Dark Knight" as its runner-up. I think they'll end getting one out of two right in the end, with "The Dark Knight" snagging the final Oscar slot (If I had to pick it today, with the caveat that this is mostly a list of movies I haven't seen, I'd say the final five will be "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Milk", "Revolutionary Road", "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Dark Knight.") And if that is the final list, count me among the "Slumdog" supporters.

"Wall-E," however, certainly has enough charms to merit it at least being in the conversation, so thanks to the L.A. crew for that. The first 45 minutes or so of "Wall-E" are just the most enchanting kind of romance, and even if it does become more and more conventional as the story goes on, it's still often a very magical movie.

But like I said, the only problem I have with any of this is that it comes a year too late. Where were the critics when it came to hailing "Ratatouille," the best animated movie I've seen in many, many years, and my pick for the best movie of 2007?

My final five, if I remember this right, were in fact "The Savages", "Into the Wild", "Once", "Zodiac" and "Ratatouille." Of those five, I think "Into the Wild" stands the test of time the best, since I just watched it again the other day and loved it even more.

Though I have a slew of prestige pics to catch up on when I get the chance to hit NYC for the end of the year, I have to say that so far it looks like this year just doesn't measure up as well. So, in that void, why not a win for "Wall-E"?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The best ensemble movie that, apparently, almost no one will ever see

Actually, the craziest thing I heard this morning was that The Roots are gonna be the house band for Jimmy Fallon's late night show, which I don't think I'd bother tuning in for even if I could still stay up that late on a regular basis. Seems like a definite step down to me, but anyone who's seen "Chappelle's Show" knows that ?uestlove can be one seriously funny guy, so who knows?

The real topic here today is director Darnell Martin's "Cadillac Records," which managed to take in a rather unsensational $3.5 million in its first week domestic (sadder still, it even lost to the latest "Punisher" flick, which took in just more than $4 million.)

Which means if you wanna see this one the big screen, you'd better do it this week. I couldn't bring myself to call Martin's fun flick a great one, because she just plays too loose with the facts to get there. But as far as drawing great performances out of an ensemble of performers, I do submit that no one has done a better job this year (not even Oliver Stone with "W.", a very strong ensemble flick in its own right.)

I was inspired to think of this by an ad I saw for "Burn After Reading" touting it for Best Ensemble, easily my favorite of the Golden Globes categories and one the Oscars would be wise to pick up on. As for "Burning," however, it was full of good performances and one great comedic one, Brad Pitt's turn as Rusty, but it falls way short of what you'll see (if you bother) in "Cadillac Records."

It starts with Jeffrey Wright, who plays Chess Records' first big star, Muddy Waters. Wright was in "W." too, of course, as Colin Powell, but this was the first time this year when I felt he really just disappeared into a role. His Muddy is fiercely proud and clearly has a devilish streak that you can always see in Wright's eyes. One of the best exchanges comes near the beginning when he first meets Adrian Brody's Leonard Chess and Chess asks him to drop the "yes boss" act. Muddy's response, "what the f*** do you want?", just made me laugh out loud.

I was certain going in that Wright would be great in this one, but I wasn't ready at all for what happened when Beyonce entered the scene about an hour in as Etta James. Beyonce, clearly just a beauty beyond all reason, becomes something completely different as Etta: Desperately sexy. It comes out best when she's singing, both in the money shot "At Last," but also as she performs my favorite Etta James Chess track, "I'd Rather Go Blind." In every mannerism she just captures the perfect mix of anger, desire and vulnerability, and it's the kind of performance I never would have guessed Beyonce could deliver. My apologies.

And the supporting cast in "Cadillac Records" is almost as great as its leading man and women, starting with Mos Def. He's easily one of my favorite actors already, but just as Chuck Berry's career was cut off at its height because of his attraction to young white girls, Mos doesn't get a whole lot of screen time here. He does, however, make the most of it, playing Berry with an impish smile that masks serious attitude, and if you don't smile too when he does the duck walk I just have to wonder what's wrong with you.

Rounding out the cast are Columbus Short as mouth harp man extraordinaire Little Walter, Eamonn Walker as an amusingly menacing Howlin Wolf and an understated Cedric the Entertainer as narrator Willie Dixon. Brody wisely and mostly just stays out of the way of these energetic performers but is still likable enough as the Chess boss man.

Like I said at the beginning, Martin's first flick isn't necessarily a great one, but with a cast like that and an all-around fun feel, surely it deserves more than $3.5 million.

Though this certainly isn't a reason to see a movie, I'll leave you with this rather troubling fact: With last year's "Talk to Me," which I almost thoroughly enjoyed, Kasi Lemmons became the first black woman to direct three feature Hollywood films, the other two being "The Caveman's Valentine" and her debut, "Eve's Bayou," both well worth a rental. One of my co-workers, Eldridge McCready, suggested perhaps Gina Prince-Bythewood had also reached this peak, but her only two features so far are this year's "The Secret Life of Bees" and 2000's "Love and Basketball."

Again, not a reason to automatically go see a movie, but unless it just looks too sappy for my taste (as with "Secret Life of Bees), I'll always spring for at least a matinee when a black woman gets the chance to direct a flick that actually makes it out to my little corner of the world.

And now I'll leave you for real with this rather remarkable Etta James and Dr. John performance of "I'd Rather Go Blind," apparently on Japanese TV. As sad songs go, I'd say there's only one better, Toussaint McCall's "Nothing Can Take the Place of You." Enjoy this dose of the blues, and have a perfectly passable Tuesday. Peace out.

Monday, December 08, 2008

"Slumdog Millionaire": A tale of one city that would make Dickens smile (if he ever did)

It's high praise indeed that Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" was the one movie I was most looking forward to this year, and even with these high expectations and me having to drive 90 minutes to see it, it almost didn't disappoint at all. I say almost, but I'm in much more of a glass way more than half full kind of mood, so lets start with the many great things about this flick first.

The two strongest things it has going for it are dynamic storytelling and a vibrant visual style that will leave several images burned on your brain for days after you see it.

Though the movie gets its title from our hero's quest to compete on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" to find the love of his life (corny, yes, but often magical too), that's really just a framing device for the real story of Jamal and Salim Malik, two slumdogs growing up without parents on the streets of Mumbai.

And it's in their early life, which would indeed be a depressing tale if weren't told with inventiveness and feature two young actors, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail as the young Salim and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as the young Jamal, who are up to the task. Dickens comes in early and obviously as they fall into the hands of Maman (Ankur Vikal), a recruiter (and blinder) of children to be beggars who makes Fagan look almost like a saint.

The gangster angle comes into play later as the two boys paths start to converge, and it works extremely well as a tribute to the old flicks like "Public Enemy" and "Scarface" (the original, of course), movies I revere enough to have done my senior thesis at Catholic University on them (mostly as a very thinly veiled excuse to watch movies.) As Salim is drawn into a life of crime as a wannabe gangster, it also gives the movie one of its signature shots, of the two brothers sitting on a construction tower and looking out on a Mumbai that looks nothing like they knew as kids.

And it's in the imagery that accompanies this moving tale that Danny Boyle really shows his love for the city and its people. It brings me no pleasure at all to pile on Wes Anderson, but how he was able to film "Darjeeling Limited" in India and make it so devoid of life as Boyle's movie is packed with it just becomes a bigger mystery now. As the most direct example, watch any train scene from "Darjeeling" against the sequences in "Slumdog" in which Jamal and Salim live on the rails, and I think you'll see exactly what I mean (in particular look out for Jamal hanging by his ankles to swipe a piece of bread through a train compartment window.)

In spirit and actual imagery, it compares much more directly with Fernando Meirelles' "City of God," which I hold in extremely high esteem. A challenge: How many movies can you think of this year that show you something you've never seen before, and can therefore be hailed as something close to "unique"? I can think of only three in my early-morning haze, "Slumdog", "The Fall" and "The Dark Knight," a big reason why all three will almost surely find a home on my top 10 films of 2008. (And "Slumdog" even manages to pack in a joke early on that shares its inspiration, if not its delivery, with the crudest gag in Kevin Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" - not as nasty but equally as shocking.)

So, with all this to love about "Slumdog Millionaire," what's its biggest fault? Well, before I mention it, let me just say I've never cared much at all for game shows, apart from occasionally tuning in to see if I know the "Final Jeopardy" question.

I tell you that to tell you this: The game show angle in "Slumdog," which comes from the source novel "Q&A" by Vikas Swarup, just didn't work for me. The eldest Jamal, Dev Patel, plays the role of the beaten down but not out young man well and Anil Kapoor is the perfect counterpart as the oily game show host, but used as a device to tell Jamal's life story (I hope I'm not giving too much away here), it's just too cute and convenient by at least half. But I suppose all this is needed to tell the epic love story of Jamal and Latika (played as a woman by the truly radiant but unfortunately named Freida Pinto, who made me flash back to the most beautiful Indian woman I've ever seen on the big screen, Sarita Choudhury in Mira Nair's "Mississippi Masala"), so I was willing to forgive this one shortcoming. With kudos already piling up from the mysterious National Board of Review and the DC film critics, "Slumdog Millionaire" is likely to claim the outsider slot in this year's Best Picture race, and it would be well deserved.

A final word before I go about the soundtrack, which just offers the most infectious kind of Indian techno pop by AR Rahman, with a little MIA thrown in for good measure. And MIA's "Paper Planes" sure fits in a whole lot better here than it did in the commercial for "Pineapple Express," even if that's what made it a hit. Enjoy this audio-only clip of Rahman's "Gangsta Blues," which will hopefully liven up even the most dreary of Monday mornings. Peace out.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Can "The Dark Knight" really take out "Titanic"? And will Whedon's "Dollhouse" really ever open?

On the surface, it might seem like a gamble for Warner Brothers to send "The Dark Knight" back to theaters Jan. 23, banking on a bounce from the Oscar nominations being announced the day before.

If you think about it, however, there's really no way the flick can lose at this point. If it snags the Best Picture nomination it clearly deserves (and some posthumous love for Heath Ledger), than a run big enough to net the $77 million domestic take needed to unseat "Titanic" as the U.S. champ becomes inevitable. But even if it doesn't, the chip that will put on the movie's devoted fans' shoulders will only gin up the drive to take the title even further.

And I'm not a "Titanic" fan or much of a hater either. I do know that "The Dark Knight" is a far superior flick, and as a sports fan I love competitions of all kinds, so I can only say bring it on (and I'll certainly contribute my $8 or so to see it again, maybe this time finally in Imax.)

But on a personal note, this weekend is now shaping up as perhaps the best movie weekend of the year. Along with visiting a friend for lunch tomorrow, I'm hitting Atlanta mostly to see two of the movies I've been looking forward to all year: "Slumdog Millionaire" and then "Milk," both at the fantastic Regal Tara theater. I can't wait, and of course feel free to check back for reviews of both soon.

Here today, however, it's mostly about the first review of Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse," which has been in development for more than a year, has gone through at least two pilots and is supposedly still going to hit the airwaves in February on Fox (though I'll believe it only when I see it at this point.)

Well, it seems that Time TV critic James Poniewozik has done exactly that, and had what could be charitably be called a mixed reaction at best.

For those who can't remember (and really, who could blame you at this point), the new show from the creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" will be about a group of people known as "actives" or "dolls" who have had their personalities wiped clean so they can be imprinted with any number of new ones to perform missions. It's set to star Eliza Dushku, a k a Faith the vampire slayer, in the lead role of doll Echo, and also Olivia Williams (a k a Ms. Cross from "Rushmore") as the matron of the "dollhouse," Tahmoh Penikett of "Battlestar Galactica" as a FBI agent tracking the secret project and even "Angel" veteran Amy Acker in a recurring role (if it even goes that far) as a doctor who tends to the dolls.

After offering the qualifier that he initially misunderestimated "Firefly" when that great Whedon sci-fi Western hit the air for its far-too-brief run, Poniewozik had this to say about Whedon's new offering:

Yes, this is certainly Joss Whedon trying to do What People Think Works on Broadcast TV Today—the legendary serial-procedural hybrid. But the first episode—in which Echo is imprinted with a kidnapping-negotiator's personality to secure the return of a rich man's abducted daughter—is well enough written to be absorbing. Writing a crime hour doesn't seem like Whedon's thing, but the episode is tight, suspenseful, with intriguing psychological twists and flashes of Whedonesque humor. ...

Now the minus. Dollhouse as conceived (a heroine plays a different "person" every week) is less a series concept than an actress' showcase, a sort of extreme version of an Alias undercover premise. And the actress being showcased is Eliza Dushku. Now, I have nothing against Dushku. I thought she was fine on Buffy. But she's not exactly Toni Collette (who's playing a multiple-personality case on Showtime's The United States of Tara, which I have not seen). Watching her inhabit her imprinted "personality"—a tough negotiator with secret vulnerabilities—I did not see her becoming another person. I thought: Oh, look! There's Eliza Dushku with glasses and her hair in a bun!

If it weren't for Whedon's pedigree, I'm not sure I'd be dying to see a second episode. But for me, the main draw now is not seeing Dushku become a different person every week, but getting to see Joss Whedon become a different writer every week.

I could certainly do without the Dushku hating, but from his assessment I'd say this was just about exactly what I'd expect. Anyone who's seen the rather pedestrian first seasons of both "Buffy" and "Angel, however, knows that Whedon's stuff can often get off to a rocky start but - given the chance - eventually develop into something seriously entertaining.

You can read the rest of what Poniewozik had to say here, and like I said, please feel free to check back for a couple reviews of what are hopefully two of the year's best movies later this weekend. Peace out.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Super "Office" party and a remarkable glimpse of Che

Congratulations to the Grammys, which although it did manage to nominate a slew of tired music once again did at least recognize what in my book are the album and song of the year: Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter III" (which I'm listening to right now) and MIA's "Paper Planes," respectively (actually, MIA is nominated for "record of the year" but not "song of the year," a distinction I'm sure I'll never understand.)

In TV news, Bryan Fuller's return to "Heroes" has now been confirmed for episode 20 of this season, making the already certain imminent death of "Pushing Daisies" now official. A way beyond sad day indeed, especially with the creepy-but-cool developments of last night's episode. As for "Heroes" itself, I lost interest last year then tried to come back again, but the show is just BORING. I'm sure Bryan Fuller will help, but for me it's certainly too little too late.

In much better news, "The Office" will be getting the coveted post-Super Bowl hour, and will make the most of it with what will be a hopefully just way wrong roast of Steve Carell's Michael Scott. Though there will be several celebrity drop-ins, the roast (requested by Michael, of course), will thankfully be conducted by his semiloyal employees.

And in tonight's episode, Oscar (Oscar Nunez) informs Michael that the office must spend a $4,300 surplus or lose it in next year’s budget. When Michael opens up the floor for suggestions, factions break out and officemates square off against one another in order to get what they want. Even better, Dwight (Rainn Wilson) takes Angela (Angela Kinsey) and poor Andy (Ed Helms) to Schrute Farms to work on their wedding plans (I can't wait to see that for a season finale!)

The end of the "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" season just leaves a black hole in the blackest part of my sense of humor, so here's hoping "The Office" can continue to bring the funny.

And speaking of funny, "Funny or Die" has put together a musical video retort to California's Prop 8 starring Jack Black, John C. Reilly, Allison Janney and a bunch of other stars (and even a closing number from Barney!) It's predictably preachy, but also indeed pretty friggin funny, so I decided to include it here for your Thursday enjoyment.

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

And finally, since this is nominally supposed to be about movies, here's easily the coolest thing I could find this morning. At some point, the first half of Steven Soderbergh's truly ambitious Che Guevara epic starring Benicio Del Toro was to be known as "Guerilla," but it now seems that for America at least they've dumbed it down to "Che Part One." Thanks for clearing that up, guys. Either way, you can tell from this trailer that Soderbergh has something rather remarkable here, and I suspect you'll definitely be hearing Del Toro's name right next to Sean Penn's for "Milk" on Oscar night. Enjoy, and have a perfectly passable Thursday. Peace out.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I love Joan Jett, but really?

Even if there really is no hope that the Baltimore Orioles will be nothing but awful for the foreseeable future (and, even worse, they're gonna be worse than the Nationals next year!), there are still plenty of great things that come from Charm City.

I've extolled the virtues of "The Wire," simply the greatest cop show of all time, in this space many a time. And even if he is more than a bit of a pervert, Baltimore's John Waters has made some seriously funny movies over the years (just the other night I was watching "Pecker" with Christina Ricci and Edward Furlong - a real hoot.)

And I always thought, when it comes to music, that Joan Jett was from Baltimore too, but it turns out you can add another thing to the growing list of things I was wrong about. She apparently grew up in Wheaton, Md., before dropping out of high school and joining the Runaways. But no matter where she's from, Joan Jett is just cool in my book.

About once a day or so, my cubicle mate Renee Martinez gets a call on her cell phone that plays Jett's first (and still best) solo single "Bad Reputation," which a few of you may know as the theme song for my beloved "Freaks and Geeks." As sad as this is, it is one of the dependable highlights of my predictably boring work day.

And I tell you all that to tell this, there's a biopic of Jett's all-girl punk supergroup of sorts, The Runaways, in the works, but it's quickly starting to stink so bad you can smell it already. In what can only be an ominous sign, it's being made a woman named Floria Sigismondi, who may indeed turn out to be a great movie director but so far has specialized in music videos for Sheryl Crow, Christina Aguilera and the like.

But, in much worse news, they've now seemingly just botched beyond belief the casting of Joan Jett by jumping on the "Twilight" train and grabbing Kristen Stewart. No offense to her, but I just can't see it,

The Runaways, for the four years they lasted, were exploited for sure but were all about fun and attitude, and Stewart just doesn't have it. The first question that came to my mind when I first read this this morning was whatever in the world ever happened to Ellen Page? She has to be up to something, right? A quick IMDB search finds she's playing the lead of "Whip It!," Drew Barrymore's flick about roller derby queen Bliss Cavendar, and then starring in some kind of psychological thriller called "Peacock." Surely she could make time to get in on "The Runaways" action if anyone bothered to ask.

And now I have to get ready for work, but I'll leave you with something that should make any Wednesday at least a little bit better, a clip of Jett's "Bad Reputation" playing behind one devoted fan's rather well-edited tribute to "Freaks and Geeks" (and be sure to stay until the end for Joe Flaherty attempting to give his "Korea" speech - priceless.) Peace out.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

DVD flashback: The return of "Prince Caspian"

Actually, the best news out there today for those (like me) who still spring for HBO is that Martin Scorsese's is currently cooking up something that smells an awful lot like the "The Sopranos", take two (which wouldn't be bad at all in my book.)

Scorsese is set to direct at least the pilot for a series based on the book "Boardwalk Empire," which retells the rather colorful history of Atlantic City. To up the "Sopranos" factor, the pilot is being written by "Sopranos" scribe Terrence Winter, and it will star "Sopranos" vet Steve Buscemi and - even better - "No Country for Old Men" star Kelly Macdonald (one of those women who I'd gladly watch simply eat a peanut butter sandwich.)

Buscemi will play Nucky Johnson, a cunning businessman who runs a liquor distribution ring at the onset of Prohibition. In adapting a different accent, Scot Macdonald will play Margaret, a smart Irish immigrant who married the wrong man to get out of her parents' house.

Here today, however, it's also about one of my favorite movies of 2008 (not top 10, but it will be close), which hits DVD this week: "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian." I had high expectations for this when it opened way back in May, especially since I really liked "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe." When I saw "Caspian" it was on a movie-heavy weekend in which I also saw the simply sublime "Son of Rambow" and the diverting journey to nowhere "Flight of the Red Balloon."

Here, in case you're eyeing a rental or purchase of director Andrew Adamson's second "Narnia" flick (and yes, he's already at work on the third installment, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader"), is what I had to say about "Prince Caspian" when I first saw it:

I realize it's an incredibly irrelevant activity to add my two cents about a flick that's already had a $56 million opening weekend, but I still wanted to mention that it's the best flick I've seen so far this year.

I had my doubts going into this one, though given my love of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" I'm really not sure why. Perhaps it's because that what little I knew of "Prince Caspian" was that it was a darker - and therefore bloodier - tale, and I really wasn't sure that director Andrew Adamson had the heart for it. In chapter one, the battles were almost completely blood- and consequence-free, not exactly the message you want to pass on to kids by my measure.

That's definitely not a problem with "Caspian." The rather epic battle that takes up the final 45 minutes or so just keeps coming at you in wave after wave and has a real fluidity to it that keeps the excitement at top notch throughout.

Which brings up the only real problem with "Caspian," which wasn't much of one at all to me: It's definitely not for the younguns, either in it's rather slow buildup or it's seriously violent finale. But I like movies like this when they're at their most quiet (my favorite portion of the "The Lord of the Rings" flicks is still the opening half-hour when they're in the shire), and "Caspian" delivers a lot of humor before the carnage, thanks in large part to Peter Dinklage.

And, if I can digress just a bit on that note, if you happen to make movies and want to cast a "little person" (or whatever the right thing to call them is), please consider using the very talented Mr. Dinklage or the very funny Tony Cox (if you doubt me, just watch "Bad Santa") before you employ the simply annoying Verne Troyer.

But if you like epic adventure, it really doesn't get much better than "Prince Caspian," no matter what you see Aslan as.

I stand by my assessment of this movie and my dismissal of Verne Troyer, so take a chance on it if you're looking for a rental this week.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Take a wild, wily trip to Australia

Goofy. Corny. Often cheesy as you could possibly imagine. All those words could just as easily apply to Baz Luhrmann's "Australia" as they could in my book to the movie he set out to emulate, "Gone With the Wind." And in their own unique ways, they're both also often great.

With Luhrmann's flick, however, it takes more than a little while to get there. The first 20 minutes or so, necessary to set up all the story that Luhrmann wants to bite into here, is just about unwatchable. The fish-out-of-water jokes with Nicole Kidman are clearly the point but are just the worst kind of forced humor, and Hugh Jackman fares poorly in this intro too. You might be thinking "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.", but you'll be seeing and hearing something that just misses that mark by miles.

Once the cattle drive that makes up the first hour or so of "Australia" gets going, however, Luhrmann comes surprisingly close to creating just what he set out to do: Make the kind of old-fashioned, grand adventure we just don't get to see any more (and at a cost of $130 million and 165 minutes, we may never again!) Kidman and Jackman never quite gel enough to achieve the epic romance he was clearly going for, and the cliches are piled on without pause or shame, but it's still a rousing ride complete with a stampede that ends at the edge of a cliff (did I mention cliches?)

As this first chapter comes to a close we hit the first point where Luhrmann could have learned from "Gone With the Wind," at least when I saw the most recent re-release in the theater: Please use an intermission. As he panned out across the grand vistas of Oz, I was sure he was going to give my bladder a break, but alas it was not to be.

And if he were inclined to choose just one story line, it also could have been the place to end an entertaining if slight little flick, but Luhrmann has no interest in that here; on top of the cattle trade, he adds the bombing of Australia in World War II and, of course, Luhrmann being Luhrmann, the epic love story. You might be thinking that sounds like more than a bit much, but I can promise that once it got started I was never bored (and would have never looked at my watch if I ever bothered to wear one.)

Now, don't get me wrong. By the time he gets to the war in the third (at least) chapter, it's a rather sanitized vision of conflict. He makes the bombing of Darwin, Australia, simply a backdrop to explore his favorite themes of the joys of music and the power of love ("The Wizard of Oz" and, in particular, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" play a prominent and charming enough role here that I was able to forgive the anachronistic fact that the movie probably didn't arrive in Oz until at least a year after this flick was set.) And as cheesy as all that sounds, it's not "Moulin Rouge" on the battlefield, but it's never "Pearl Harbor" either.

I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but what made this last bit just work for me was the young Aboriginal actor Brandon Walters. He's the kind of cute kid with a cache of catch phrases (expect a lot of talk about "cheeky bulls") which I normally just can't stand, but I guess he and Mr. Luhrmann just caught me with all my cynicism in check. The kid's just great, as is David Gulpilil as his Aboriginal grandfather King George.

And that, I think, sums up in a nutshell just why I liked "Australia" so much. In a fall season that's been devoid of both movies for adults (at least in the wide-release realm where I dwell) and completely uncynical flicks, Luhrmann manages to deliver on both fronts, so check it out if you're in the mood for that kind of thing. In six days I'm planning to hit Atlanta for Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" and will hopefully find another charmer to really get fall rolling right.