Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Step Brothers

All right, I admit it: I laughed, and I laughed a lot.

Nothing like watching two 13-year old boys in the bodies of men, 39 and 40, still living with their respective parents, doing nothing but watching TV and masturbating - sort of a Bevis and Butthead all over again.

The accompanying picture says it all: Mom and Dad wonderfully happy; the boys, bewildered, suspicious, and angry.

Raunchy for sure ... as 13-year old boys are, but it's not about raunch, but growing up, and how hard it can be these days. Sociologically, the film represents a developmental phenomenon: prolonged adolescence. Single adults well into their 30s behaving adolescently.

Both "boys" live with their respective parents - decent, hard-working folks, amazed at their immature sons, frustrated but loving. I think it's the love of these parents that stands at the emotional center of the story. How does a parent love? And how to motivate and guide a child?

It's also about blended families - the stresses and strains of getting a new household up and running - the absolute power of blood, and the hard decisions parents have to sometimes make.

After falling in love (yes, boys and girls, your parents can still fall in love again), the task of building a new household begins. The boys are resentful and competitive - hating each other, setting limits ("you touch my drums, you die"), yet in time, they bond together by their mutual dislike of the situation, discovering a great deal in common.

Ultimately, the boys sabotage the marriage. It happens - though Mom and Dad love one another, the bond of blood prevails.

Will Ferrell and John C. Riley (with that incredible nose-bridge crease) are a great team, playing off one another's energy. Their respective parents, Richard Jenkins (most recently seen in the brilliant The Visitor) and Mary Steenburgen, bring a terrific sense of real parenting to the story. Jenkins is "every man" in his acting. Certainly no "leading man," his character is a common story - working hard every day to make sense of life, to provide for those he loves, trying to add some flair to an otherwise common life. Steenburgen, wonderfully hot, is remarkable - she loves her son, wants a home, and makes hard decisions with tearful grace.

Both Ferrell and Riley offer up two personae - that of the immature adult and then an adult with promise - the transformation of voicing and physical movement is great to see. I wonder if we'll see either of them in a dramatic role any time soon - both are capable of such, I'm convinced.

The end is oddly funny - not sure it's the best ending, but it gets the point across. Even as adults, we remember the schmucks who beat us up, and who wouldn't want to land on the play ground in a powerful corporate helicopter and beat 'em all up.

Entertaining for sure - I'd say this is a movie (the word "film" seems a bit out of place on this one) worth seeing. So buy a popcorn and get a Coke, and be prepared to laugh.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dark Knight


First, the story ... a great story filled with drama. A little murky toward the end with the introduction of Two Face.

The Joker is a madman and perhaps so is Bruce Wayne - obsessed with purpose: the one bitterly insane, the other, compelled by justice and defending the city he loves. In the tug of war between the two, Bruce Wayne begins to fear what's happening to him - hence, the title, "The Dark Knight." Or as Harvey Dent says, "You die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain."

The music is powerful ... some of the best I've ever heard.

From beginning to end, the film has a "dark" feel to it, but not in the same vane as, let's say, Blade Runner." This is a dark film with just the right amount of whimsy - the Dark Knight and the Joker.

The acting is superb ... Christian Bale as Batman, Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth (our devoted butler), Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon, Aaron Eckhart as the bold and handsome city attorney, soon to become Two Face (this role was hard to read. Eckhart is great at playing smarmy characters - never know whether to trust him or not. At the end, I suppose, he becomes what he really is. Can we say the earlier part of his life was a facade for something darker?) and then Maggie Gyllenhaal - I wasn't entirely satisfied with her role - is she too sweet to play in such a gritty film? She knows who Batman is, but somehow or other, she didn't convey the emotional struggle of knowing the truth and hiding it, all the while falling in love with Harvey Dent, hiding that, as well, from Bruce Wayne, who is waiting for the day when the city no longer needs Batman, and he'll be free to love her. And who can ever forget Morgan Freeman as the wise inventor who creates the Batman suit and guides Wayne Enterprises? What a presence. What a voice.

And now, the star: Heath Ledger. Yes, I know that Christian Bale is the star, and I quite agree. Bale brings to the role a passionate thoughtfulness verging on the dark side. His interpretation of the role is without peer.

But the story is energized by the Joker flawlessly portrayed by Ledger.

He sets the bar so high for the Joker, I can't imagine another portrayal. Different actors will all bring their own unique take on things, should this story be filmed again, but Ledger's performance will stand for a long time.

Yes, Jack Nicolson was terrific, but Ledger brings a dimension of insanity, pure and parasitical - not wanting to kill Batman, for as long as Batman lives, so does the Joker. Clever and masterful - manipulating and maneuvering - to tweak the nose of Batman, almost as if he's trying to win his admiration, because the Joker surely admires Batman, seeing the two of them in the same light, or same darkness. That's the frightening and troubling reality facing Batman. Their interaction is unbelievably powerful.

In my favorite moment, when meeting Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal), the Joker walks toward her smoothing his hair while holding a favorite knife in hand - a smooth move by a madman convinced of his power.

One of the most curious and entrancing moves - the smacking and licking of his lips - perfect, weird and slightly winsome.

His voice, and inflections - innocent and profoundly threatening - perfect.

And a superb makeup job - much of it done by Ledger himself. Interestingly, the Joker gives at least two versions of how his scarring occurred. In the end, we don't know - like evil itself, we have no idea how it came to be.

There is, finally, a sense of childlike need in the Joker - to love and be loved are the essential needs and drives of the human soul, and if denied, or subverted, the love grows obsessive and/or aggressive. When the camera pulls back, we see the Joker, not as some hulking monster, but a slight and needy figure, nattily dressed in his own bizarre way - a great pathos in the way the clothing fits, revealing a rather small man blustering his brilliant way through a world perceived as hostile, and likely, what with his disfigurement, a world that was probably hostile.

Had Ledger lived, this achievement would have propelled him to the top of his game. Surely now an Oscar nomination.

I couldn't help but feel great sorrow several times, and at the end of the film, a dedication to "our friends" - Heath Ledger and Conway Wickliffe, a special-effects technician who was killed last September in a stunt-car accident on the set of the Batman sequel - broke my heart.

"The Dark Knight" joins "Batman Begins" as the best cinematic interpretation of the DC Comics' story to date. Hats off to Christopher and Jonathan Nolan for bringing this story to the silver screen.

This film exceeds my highest ratings.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Though I saw it in non-3D, the movie is obviously all about visual effects which might be pretty good in 3D.

"Journey" is an interesting story marginally developed - Brendan Fraser portrays a scientist in search of his brother who disappeared somewhere in Iceland while looking for Jules Verne's portal to the center of the earth. The quest is initiated when his brother's son (Josh Hutcherson) comes to stay with him for a bit of a vacation and some quality time with his uncle. Brendan's bro, the boy's father, was a Verneian - someone who believes that Verne's novels are based upon fact, and while reading his brother's copy, and deciphering his margin notes, Fraser makes some quick comparisons about seismic activity being monitored by equipment set up ten years earlier by his brother.

To his surpirse, the readings correspond to his brother's notes, indicating that the time is good to seek the volcanic tunnel leading to the center of the earth.

So off they go to Iceland. They find his brother's dilapidated lab and a lovely young lady (Anita Briem) now living there. As it turns out, her father was also a Verneian and disappeared with Fraser's brother.

There's an ore car mine scene similar to Indiana Jones - the whole film has the feel of Indiana Jones lite, very lite.

Did Fraser have his heart in this one?
In previous Mummies, he seems to be enjoying the camp, but this film lacks conviction - was it all about the 3D?

I found myself clenching a time or two what with flesh-eating plants snapping away and a special effects T-Rex hungry for the boy.

I wonder if Jules Verne's story can be successfully translated to the screen.

This film doesn't succeed on that score ... it's an adventure story, with folks using the Verne book as their guide, discovering that, in fact, Verne's story isn't a novel at all.

As for seeing all of this set to film, I guess we'll have to wait for another try.

Here is a classic illustration of special effects being the star, and everyone else so-so.

Worth seeing?

See it in 3D - otherwise stay home and wait for Fraser's next Mummy installment.

Friday, July 11, 2008


I really liked it.

Will Smith is terrific, as always.

It's a great story - reminded me of The Highlander - but got a little ragged when it moved from comedy to drama. Hard to pull of anywhere.

Had a lot of laughs up front ... got a little lost in the transition to drama.

The transformation of Hancock from a drunken lout saving folks at great cost to the city into a genuine superhero is a story of life for all of us - to move from a self-centered to an other-centered way of life. His time in prison, the anger-management group - was fun to watch with some twists and turns I didn't expect.

Special effects, music - lots of money thrown at this one, and it's not disappointing.

A good way to spend an afternoon at the movies.

A date flick? I don't think so.

Well, maybe ... because there's another one just like Hancock - his wife (Charlize Theron) from a former life a few centuries earlier. But she went her separate way: sometimes folks are just no good for each other (this spins out a little more clearly in the story - it seems that when they're together, he starts becoming mortal). He's suffering from amnesia - hence, the name: John Hancock as in "put your john hancock here). She's now happily married to Jason Bateman, a publicity guy working on saving the world, and on transforming Hancock into a superhero.

Okay, the plot thickens at this point, with some good twists and turns, but maybe you catch the drift.

Be sure to stay for the credits ... just after they start to roll, the hint of New York City sequel is rolled out. Sure, why not?

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Fall - 2006

Charm without syrup ... a story without preaching ... a powerful tale of redemption without a goofy ending, The Fall.

Set in Hollywood during the earliest days of silent film making, a stunt man and a little girl find themselves in the same hospital, victims of a fall. He's lost the ability to walk; she has a broken collar bone. He's enjoying the Hollywood life; she's an immigrant child who picks fruit with her family.

He's utterly depressed but beguiled by the little girl to whom he starts telling tall tales, working into the stories her family members and experiences, firing her imagination.

But there's a dark side to his regard; he wants the young girl to get into the pharmacy and steal some morphine to "help me sleep," when, in fact, he wants to overdose and end his life. Well, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, and in this case, the girl misunderstands his instructions and brings him only three pills (she pours the rest out) - not enough to end his misery.

I won't spoil the ending, but suffice to say it ends well, yet without any fairytale embellishment.

The little girl (Catinca Untaru) is stunningly good, playing her role with a genuine innocence, sweetness, that can only come from a real heart. She comes to love the story teller (Lee Pace) who, in turn, comes to love her, too, in spite of his depression and the subsequent guilt he feels in the light of her purity.

The film moves wonderfully from hospital to story - the tallest of tall tales; improbable and exciting, done with limited special effects, revealing the mind of a child pure in its loves and hopes ... and strikingly courageous.

Filmed in 16 different locations - South Africa, South Pacific, Indonesia, China, Egypt, Nepal, to mention just a few.

Glorious music, filming - a movie worth seeing.

Seven Faces of Dr. Lao - 1964

Starring Tony Randall and Barbara Eden, this remarkable film is a journey through the human psyche.

Randall is extraordinary as he portrays a variety of folks - including a blind fortune teller, an abominable snowman and a snake - all in a magic circus, with an interior larger than the outside, that appears suddenly in a small western town, Abalone, Arizona, around 1920 or so.

Through the circus, folks discover something true and important about their lives, though perhaps hard to face at the time. Vanity, cruelty and greed are unmasked and love released.

The film won several awards: an Oscar for special effects and the Hugo for best dramatic presentation - obviously nothing like today's work, but impressive for the time.

I suspect Randall was one of those actors with a comedic face - but in this film, what with makeup, he gives an extraordinary performance - with voice changes to boot. Makeup was done by William Tuttle who died just last year. One of the special features of the Netflix DVD is a piece by Tuttle on makeup - don't forget to see it.

Definitely a Netflix choice.