The Illusionist (2006)


The Illusionist

We're both adults here; we'll flip for it. Winner gets top billing, loser gets this cherry tomato.

(2006) Thriller (Yari Film Releasing) Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, Jake Wood, Tom Fisher, Karl Johnson, Aaron Johnson, Eleanor Tomlinson, Vincent Franklin, Nicholas Blane . Directed by Neil Burger.

Reality is, in reality, made up entirely of our own perceptions. Look at a picture of a clown and you might see an object of gaiety, or for some, a terrifying figure with homicidal tendencies. The picture hasn’t changed any between one viewing and the next, but the way we perceive it always does. In some rare cases, perception can actually change reality to a degree.

That is what illusionists count on. During the 19th century, performers of magic were referred to as “illusionists” rather than magicians since those rationally-minded people of that era knew that these performers were not creating magic but rather, illusions of magic. In turn-of-the-century Vienna, one of the best and most popular illusionists is the great Eisenheim (Norton), a man of humble birth who had as a young boy (Aaron Johnson) fallen in love with a young Countessa, Sophia (Tomlinson). However, class distinctions being what they are, the two were separated and Eisenheim went on to Asia to study under the masters of illusion.

His shows get the attention of Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti) of the Vienna Police, who has the ear of the Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell). Uhl, an amateur magician himself, is thoroughly entranced by the illusions perpetrated by Eisenheim, particularly that of an orange tree that apparently grows miraculously from a seed to a fruit-bearing tree in a matter of moments. The Crown Prince decides to attend a show himself, bringing with him his retinue, which now includes a grown-up Sophia (Biel). When Leopold sends up Sophia to participate in an elaborate illusion, the two childhood friends reconnect.

Leopold, on the other hand, is a man who prides himself on his intellect and is frustrated that he cannot debunk Eisenheim’s illusions out of hand, so he invites him for a private performance at his hunting lodge. Eisenheim, who has never learned how to be circumspect around those with power, humiliates Leopold which gets his show shut down.

There are forces at work however, that even the great illusionist can’t control. Leopold is set on marrying Sophia, which will bring Hungary solidly behind him in a forthcoming coup against his own father, the reigning emperor. Eisenheim and Sophia find themselves as pawns in a very deadly game, and as smart pawns are wont to do, they decide to take their pieces off the board and get the heck out of Dodge. However, the crazed Prince whom, it is rumored, once pushed a woman out of a balcony to hide the bruises he gave her during a sexual encounter, isn’t the sort to let them go easily. When things go terribly wrong, Eisenheim has no choice but to turn to darker powers to bring down the corrupt prince.

This is a solidly made movie, based on a short story by Steven Millhauser. Filmed in Prague, Burger evokes pre-World War I Vienna beautifully, filming mostly in shades of sepia and black and white. This gives the whole movie a kind of washed-out quality, not unlike looking at antique photographs.

Norton and Giamatti are two actors who can always be depended upon to give a terrific performance. Both do fine jobs in their roles, with Giamatti getting a little more to work with than Norton. Jessica Biel, who hitherto has been essentially a pretty face/nice body sort, does a surprisingly good turn as the strong-willed but trapped countess, caught in an untenable situation.

If there is a problem with this movie, it is that the filmmakers tend to telegraph the twists and turns a little too much. I found myself guessing well ahead of time what was about to transpire and I know Da Queen was doing the same. I would consider us fairly well-educated filmgoers, but not particularly brilliant. I think I would have appreciated a bit more misdirection in the script. Also, the accents affected in the movie could be better. A note to filmmakers – if the film is set in a German-speaking country, we all figure the characters are speaking in German without having to have all the actors sound like Colonel Klink. Unless the actors are actually speaking German in the movie and periodically speak English, there’s no need to have them speaking in heavy accents. After all, shouldn’t they theoretically be speaking in their native tongue?

Be that as it may, this is a nice atmospheric period piece that has some elements of genuine creepiness and a nice surprise or two. The effects are not really groundbreaking, but are well-executed and serve to enhance the story, rather than the other way around. I was a little disappointed but still, I didn’t think they did too badly.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific perforances by Giamatti, Norton and (shocker) Beal. Great cinematography and location really evokes the era and the place.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too predictable, particularly when it came to the twists and turns.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of sexuality and a little bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: While the movie is entirely fictional, it is loosely based on the Mayerling incident, in which Austrian crown prince Rudolph and his mistress were found dead at his hunting lodge on January 30, 1889.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87.9M on a $16.5M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Take Me Home Tonight

Planet 51


Planet 51

Now there's a sight that would scare anybody.

(Tri-Star) Starring the voices of Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, Justin Long, Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott, John Cleese. Directed by Jorge Blanco

When all is said and done, we’re a pretty scary species. Oh, to ourselves we seem to be okay but if you were to look at our record of genocide, warmongering, cruelty and violence, I’d be mighty scared if I were an intelligent species on another planet that humans came to visit.

Astronaut Chuck Baker (Johnson) has done just that. Planet 51, a planet in the…well, it’s just dang far away, is the destination of his interstellar voyage. However, when he arrives on this Earth-like planet, he discovers that it’s more than just a little Earth-like; it’s just like Earth. America in the 1950’s Earth, that is.

While Chuck is a little freaked by the little green men he’s discovered, the inhabitants of Planet 51 are more than a little freaked out by his presence. In fact, they’re downright terrified, as any self-respecting species would be after decades of alien invasion movies to scare the righteous you-know-what out of them.

Only Lem (Long) has the sense to put aside his irrational fears, even though he’s plenty scared at first. Of course, Lem has a bit of an advantage – he works at the local planetarium, where he tells the schoolchildren who come to watch the light show “the universe is a very, very large place – hundreds of miles wide.”

Once he and Chuck get to know one another, they discover that they aren’t that unalike after all. However, Chuck has a big problem – his lander has been confiscated by the paranoid military-industrial complex exemplified by General Grawl (Oldman) and he has a finite window of time to get back to the service module, otherwise it will leave for the return back home, leaving Chuck stranded there forever. And Lem has problems of his own, trying to impress Neera (Biel), the object of his affections who has a soft spot for the counter-culture (after all, if you’re going to have a ‘50s that means a ‘60s aren’t far behind).

Sony Animation, who gave us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, actually didn’t have much to do with this; Spanish animation studio Ilion is actually the entity that is responsible. It’s their first effort and as any first effort goes, has its good points and places where they didn’t do quite as well. The entire small town Pleasantville­ vibe with the sci-fi touches (cars that look like something out of the “Jetsons” for example) is done well enough, but could have been more clever and maybe a little more quirky.

There are plenty of cute characters that will keep kids occupied, like the mechanical Rover that oozes oil when it’s frightened, a dog-like creature that pays homage to the Alien movies, and the aliens themselves, a cute cross between sea monkeys and tree frogs with more than a little nod towards the Shrek franchise (green creatures with antennae sticking out of their foreheads, although they aren’t nearly as grumpy or gross as the ogres). There are plenty of bright colors to distract the very young but quite frankly, not enough real humor to keep their parents from getting bored.

Johnson’s Chuck is a bit on the smug and self-congratulatory side, a bit of a refreshing change from the insecure heroes we usually get in animated films – oh, wait, that would be Lem. In fact, most of the rest of the vocal cast is merely adequate but then again there is truly nothing offensive here; but by the same token, there’s nothing really exciting either. It’s a diversion, nothing more.

WHY RENT THIS: Johnson’s overbearing hero is a nice change of pace from the usual animated hero, who as a rule tend to be more like Lem. Some cute little pop culture commentaries.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a little too weird for kids. The animation is just not all that impressive.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little inappropriate humor, but nothing that most tykes haven’t seen already on the Cartoon Network.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the most expensive movie ever produced in Spain, with a budget of roughly $70 million U.S. dollars.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An obstacle course came featuring Rover is the most kid-friendly feature here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $105.4M in total box office on a $70M production budget; the film flopped.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

Machete


Machete

Is this the face only a mother could love?

(20th Century Fox) Danny Trejo, Jessica Biel, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Robert de Niro, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal, Tom Savini, Daryl Sabara, Alicia Marek, Gilbert Trejo, Cheryl Chin, Shea Whigham.  Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis

Injustice requires a hero, someone to stand up and defy those who perpetrate it. However, some injustice is so grave, so reprehensible it requires more than a hero: it requires a legend.

Machete (Trejo) is a Mexican federale who is a bit of a maverick and a lone wolf. While his partner pleads with him to back off of a kidnapping case, Machete refuses. He only knows one direction – forward – and one way – the hard one. Unfortunately, this turns out to be a trap set by a drug lord named Torrez (Seagal) who butchers Machete’s family. Since Machete’s boss is in Torrez’ pocket, his career as a federale is over.

Flash forward three years. Machete is working as a day laborer in Texas, where corrupt State Senator McLaughlin (De Niro) holds sway on a fire-eating anti-immigration platform. However, the good Senator’s re-election campaign isn’t going particularly well. It seems that he’s made some powerful enemies, including a snake oil businessman named Booth (Fahey) who hires Machete to execute the Senator with a high-powered rifle from the state capitol in Austin. However, the whole thing turns out to be yet another set-up.

It seems that Booth is actually McLaughlin’s aide. It turns out both of ‘em are also in Torrez’ pocket. It also turns out that a paramilitary vigilante border patrol, led by Lt. Von Stillman (Johnson) are in McLaughlin’s pocket; as a matter of fact, McLaughlin went on a little ride-along with the boys and shot him some Mescans, including a pregnant woman right in the belly.

However, they’ve messed with the wrong Mescan, as Machete slices and dices his way through every slick-haired, black-suited henchman this quartet of baddies can throw at him. He has allies of his own, however, to aid him in the slicing and dicing; Luz (Rodriguez), a revolutionary whose Underground Railroad-like organization for illegals operates out of her taco truck; Sartana (Alba), an ambitious immigration officer who falls for Machete; Padre (Marin), a priest who packs a little bit of lead along with his crucifix and Julio (Sabara), a vato with a heart bigger than all of Mexico.  

Along the way they’ll run into April (Lohan), a drugged-out wannabe-model whose father wants to make her daddy’s girl, Osiris Ampanpour (Savini), an Assyrian assassin with a sadistic streak and Sniper (Whigham), Booth’s right hand man. The odds are stacked against Machete, but Machete doesn’t care about odds, not as long as he has a razor sharp blade at his disposal.

This has all the elements of 70s blacksploitation (i.e. movies like Superfly and Shaft), Asian chop sockey (the films of the Shaw brothers and some of Bruce Lee’s early stuff), spaghetti westerns and even the slasher flicks of the 80s. All of this has been filtered through Robert Rodriguez’ Cuisinart of influences to create something unique and refreshing, even as it is also at once familiar.

It’s no secret that this was born from a faux trailer that appeared as part of the 2007 B-movie homage Grindhouse that Rodriguez did with fellow trash movie aficionado Quentin Tarantino (it is said that another fake trailer from that movie, Thanksgiving is on the fast track for development as well). However, the real genesis for this character and this project took place back in 1994 when Rodriguez was finishing El Mariachi when Rodriguez began writing a script about a disgraced ex-federale with a penchant for blades.

This is so over-the-top that NASA has it studying planets. Every swing of Machete’s weapon generates a fountain of blood and a limb, head or other body part parting rather gruesomely from the original owners. Machete also gets to use his other weapon plenty of times as nearly every woman in the movie gets a sex scene with him, all to the beat of ‘70s porn movie. Wackada wacka wacka boom chicka boom, baby! Of course, it’s a little difficult to picture Danny Trejo, who’s pushing 70 but still in awesome shape, as anything of a sex symbol. To each their own.

Still, this is the role Trejo was born to play. With his hard scowl, stringy hair, Fu Manchu moustache, angry demeanor and a slathering of tattoos, he has played murderers, rapists and thieves in countless movies over the years. Here, he is the kind of anti-hero that the audiences of the ‘70s embraced. There’s something vicariously thrilling about sticking it to the man, y’know.

De Niro is clearly having a great time here. His character is a combination of Byron de la Beckwith, Arizona state senator Russell Pearce and Foghorn Leghorn and De Niro hams it up like he’s working a middle school talent show. In fact, one gets the impression that Rodriguez told all his actors to “let her rip!” and the only instructions they received from him thereafter were “More!”

Certainly modern audiences aren’t used to this much gratuitous sex and overt, bloody violence but that’s okay; those of us who remember Times Square before the chain restaurants, Starbucks and tourist-friendly shopping when just walking into the area made you want to shower and then dry off with sandpaper will embrace Machete with both arms. Okay, not literally; giving Machete a hug will probably lose you the use of both your arms unless you’re a naked chick with big bazoombas. And that’s the way it should be.

REASONS TO GO: It’s social commentary disguised as a cheesy 70s action flick wrapped in satire. The movie is so preposterous you have to love it.

REASONS TO STAY: Those who are faint of heart when it comes to sex and violence should steer clear.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of gratuitous sex and lots of gratuitous violence to go with lots of gratuitous language. Who says they don’t make ‘em like this anymore?

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After Rodriguez told Trejo about the role of Machete and the film he intended to make, Trejo called Rodriguez regularly at varying times of the day to pitch himself for the role. Finally, when an exasperated Rodriguez asked Trejo why he didn’t just text him, Trejo replied “Machete don’t text” and Rodriguez liked the line so much he used it in the movie.

HOME OR THEATER: Oh, home viewing for this one, definitely. Preferably with a six pack of cheap beer, a bagful of pork rinds and a taco or two.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Fifty Dead Men Walking

The A-Team


The A-Team

Here's another plan coming together.

(20th Century Fox)  Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Jessica Biel, Patrick Wilson, Gerald McRaney, Henry Czerny, Brian Bloom, Omari Hardwick, Yul Vazquez, Maury Sterling, Terry Chen. Directed by Joe Carnahan

Adapting a beloved television show into a major motion picture carries its own pitfalls as well as a built-in audience. That makes it something of a double-edged sword for the filmmakers; how to keep fans of the original show satisfied while delivering something that stands apart from the original.

Colonel Hannibal Smith (Neeson) heads up a team of Army Rangers who specialize in tackling jobs that most covert teams would run away from screaming like little girls. They never fail because of their specialized skills; Cpl. Faceman “Face” Beck (Cooper) is a smooth lady’s man who is second in command on the team; Cpl. B.A. Baracus (Jackson) is as strong as an ox and is the team’s driver while Capt. H.M. Murdock (Copley) is just on this side of insane (and maybe on the other side) and is the team’s pilot.

They are in the process of leaving Iraq when they receive a visit from two separate people; one is Captain Charissa Sosa (Biel) who has a past with Face, but has come to warn the team to stay out of Baghdad. The other is a smarmy slimy CIA Agent named Lynch (Wilson) – one of many, apparently, with that name – who has a mission for the “Alpha” team; to retrieve plates from the U.S. mint that renegade Iraqis have stolen to print their own U.S. currency. While Hannibal’s superior officer, General Morrison (McRaney) has some reservations, ultimately he decides to allow Hannibal to go, even though it violates direct orders so this mission is strictly “off the books.”

It also pisses off a mercenary from the Black Forest Corporation by the name of Brock Pike (Bloom) whose team was originally set to retrieve the plates but is now being moved aside for Hannibal’s cast of characters. It’s a very tough job involving getting aboard a moving semi while avoiding a convoy of heavily armed trucks escorting the semi, but the A-Team pulls it off.

Unfortunately, when they return to base General Morrison is killed when his jeep explodes and the Black Forest team absconds with the plates. Despite their protests of innocence, the A-Team is accused – and convicted – of colluding with the mercenaries and get sent to prison.

Of course, no prison will hold them for long and with the help of Lynch – who wants to retrieve the plates – the A-Team escape from the four separate penitentiaries that are incarcerating them and go about the business of retrieving the stolen plates, find out who set them up and clear their names in the process. How? Hannibal has always got a plan in mind…

Director Joe Carnahan has a history of quirky movies like Smokin’ Aces to his credit. This is his biggest assignment to date, and he doesn’t do a bad job at all, considering the limitations he has to work with and they are the ones that came with the property.

One of the problems with any television series is that they have a tendency to have a very similar modus operandi for each episode; the details may be different but they tend to follow the same plot outline. When a big budget movie remakes a TV show, generally the film wants to retain many of the same elements of the show in order to establish continuity between the show and the movie; this is to attract the original audience to the movie. However, this can lead to the movie feeling more like a retread than a re-imagining.

To be honest, there is some of that here; however, enough of the movie is fresh and new enough to distance it from the show and make it a little more 21st century, a little different.

Part of the reason for that is the cast. There was some criticism of the casting in online circles which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Neeson is one of the finest actors in the world and while this is a role he doesn’t usually tackle, he is excellent in creating a Hannibal Smith that recalls George Peppard’s character but is completely Neeson.

He’s solid but Copley, so tremendous in District 9, makes Murdock fascinating; you want to see more of him every time he’s onscreen. Like the Dwight Schultz Murdock, he’s crazy like a fox; just sane enough to make you wonder how crazy he really is. Copley plays the character as a cross between Scott Bakula and Robin Williams. Cooper further cements his standing as a rising star; Face is not only a lady’s man but also a brilliant military strategist. Cooper makes both sides of the character believable and does it with leading man charisma.

Patrick Wilson, impressive as a middle-aged hero in Watchmen, plays a very different character here and he’s quite good. He’s shown some real versatility in his performances and is moving into the territory of actors I look forward to seeing in whatever role he might be cast in. He makes for a terrific villain, almost to the level of my favorite bad guys Alan Rickman and Sean Bean.

As summer movies go, The A-Team is a perfect fit. It’s frenetically paced, light-hearted, well-acted and above all, fun. When I go into a theater on a hot summer day (or even a warm summer evening), I want to forget my cares and be taken on a delightful ride. Here’s a movie that fits that bill to a Mister T.

REASONS TO GO: This new A-Team does surprisingly well. The action sequences are seriously fun and the pacing is fast enough to keep us off-balance. Wilson makes a great villain.

REASONS TO STAY: The same problems the TV show the movie is based on haunt the adaptation.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of big bang explosions which may frighten the tykes; there is some bad language as well as a good deal of sexual innuendo and Hannibal smokes cigars throughout. In other words, probably mature pre-teens and above for this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The head judge at the court martial of the team is named Carnahan after the director; also an actor credited for “The Greater Escape” movie shown during the Murdock escape sequence is Reginald Barclay, the name of a character played by Dwight Schultz who played Murdock in the original television show.  

HOME OR THEATER: Big action movies deserve big screens; see it in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Killers

New Releases for the Week of June 11, 2010


The Karate Kid

Once you’ve seen the Great Wall, everything else is just a Very Good Wall.

THE KARATE KID

(Columbia) Jackie Chan, Jaden Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Rongguang Yu, Zhensu Wu, Zhiheng Wang, Zhenwei Wang, Jared Minns. Directed by Harald Zwart

Dre, a young boy, moves with his single mom from Detroit to Beijing. Talk about culture shock – he can’t speak the language, most of the food is gross and he can’t make any friends. When he falls for a young girl – who takes a mutual interest in him – the class bully takes an unhealthy interest in Dre. Dre knows some karate but not enough to stand up to the bully, who is trained in Kung Fu and wipes the floor with Dre. When a maintenance man sees the bullying and intervenes, it sets the stage for the lessons of a lifetime and an unexpected friendship. Yes, it’s based on the iconic film from the 1980s that starred Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita. Ask your parents.

See the trailer, featurette, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language)

The A-Team

(20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Jessica Biel. Yes, this is apparently 80s week at the multiplex. The classic television series gets the big screen treatment, as a group of elite soldiers, falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned, escape incarceration and set out to clear their names.

See the trailer, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence throughout, language and smoking)

Powder Blue


Powder Blue

Ray Liotta looks for redemption in the seedy underbelly of L.A. where it is seldom found.

(Speakeasy) Jessica Biel, Ray Liotta, Forest Whitaker, Lisa Kudrow, Patrick Swayze, Kris Kristofferson, Eddie Redmayne, Sanaa Lathan, Alejandro Romero. Directed by Timothy Linh Bui

Big cities are a terrible place to look for redemption. Cities are impersonal, seedy, uncaring and mean. Still, redemption can be found in places where you least expect it.

Charlie Bishop (Whitaker) is a former clergyman who is carrying a load of pain greater than he can bear. The death of his wife has left him overwhelmed and looking for release. He drives the city streets of Los Angeles in the dark of the night with a bag containing his life savings of $50,000. He intends to give this to whosoever can deliver him from his pain – with the gun that is also in the bag.

Rose-Johnny (Biel) is a stripper but not because she wants to be. Her son lies in a coma in a hospital bed and is unlikely to ever come out of it. She rails against the doctors and the world that is insensitive to the needs of a single mom who only wants to hold her laughing son once again. Her boss (Swayze) is more interested that she makes it to work on time than in the heartache she feels for the only one in the world she cares for.

Qwerty Doolittle (Redmayne) has inherited the mortuary that his father started and is barely keeping his head above water. He has no time for dating and partying and is intensely lonely, generally only kept company by the dead. He wanders through life knowing he wants more than just existing and also fully aware that he is unlikely to get what he wants.

Jack Doheny (Liotta) has just been released from prison after 25 years behind bars, but not because his sentence is up or because of good behavior. He has terminal cancer and nowhere to go, nobody to be with. An old buddy (Kristofferson) gives him a briefcase full of money and the name “Rose-Johnny” written on a piece of paper. What this is for is anybody’s guess.

Sally (Kudrow) is a waitress who is separated from her husband. She, too, is lonely and scared and wants to reach out to somebody but working the night shift in a coffee shop isn’t exactly conducive to meeting a nice guy. She remains cheerful and upbeat, but deep down she has needs and fears that are colliding in her heart.

For those who have seen movies like Crash and Traffic, these stories are meant to be separate but related, interweaving until the very end when they are theoretically supposed to be tied together with a nice big bow. It’s a means of storytelling that Robert Altman was a master at and that many independent filmmakers of the first decade of the 21st century have tried to imitate with varying degrees of success.

There’s not a lot of success here. Liotta fares the best out of all the actors, bringing dignity and pathos to a character who is Mickey Spillane-tough. Kudrow is also likable and sympathetic in her mostly supporting role.

The problem here though is not the actors, who do their best, but with a script that is scattershot and sometimes senseless, giving the actors lines to say like “You’re not a doctor! Doctors cure people! You’re not curing anybody!” Some of the dialogue is equally cringeworthy. You have to feel for the actors in cases like that, especially for Swayze (whose final screen appearance this is) who is made up in excessive eyeliner and looks like a transvestite version of his character in Road House had that character been castrated early on, and Biel who went to great lengths to learn how to be an exotic dancer and does indeed go topless. Not many actresses of her caliber are willing to do that these days.

Bui has a good eye for color and tone but at times he goes for style over substance. The strip club in which Rose-Johnny toils is a neon palace where the strippers are lit like rock stars and the patrons cheer, whistle and throw dollar bills like confetti on cue. Not that I spend my time in strip clubs, but I’ve seen my share and I’ve never seen one like that.

The problem with these kinds of interweaving stories is that you have to care enough about the characters to want to follow them through the weave of the tapestry that is being unfolded before you. That doesn’t happen here; even the great Forest Whitaker chews his scenery like he hasn’t eaten in weeks. The only thread I cared about was Liotta’s and I found myself wishing he was in more of the film. That’s a bad sign for a movie with this means of storytelling. Considering the top-of-the-line cast Bui assembled, this should have been a far better movie than it turned out to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Liotta does a solid job as the dying ex-con.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A scattershot script and some wacky over-the-top performances submarine this effort.

FAMILY VALUES: Much foul language, plenty of nudity and sexuality and some scenes of graphic violence. All in all, much more suitable for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The color blue is featured in some way in every scene.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Don’t Tell (La bestia nel cuore)

Easy Virtue


Easy Virtue

Colin Firth and Jessica Biel trip the light fantastic.

(Sony Classics) Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth, Kimberley Nixon, Katherine Parkinson, Kris Marshall, Christian Brassington, Charlotte Riley, Jim McManus, Pip Torrens. Directed by Stephan Elliott

Part of the way we are brought up is to keep our problems and tragedies hidden. Therefore, even the lives that seem most perfect on the surface have some kind of ugliness hiding just below the façade.

John “Panda” Whittaker (Barnes), scion of a wealthy English family, is attending the 1924 Grand Prix at Monte Carlo where he witnesses the triumph of a beautiful blonde American, winning the race. He falls instantly in love and impulsively marries her. The hard part comes next; he has to bring Larita (Biel), his new bride, back to meet his family.

Like many wealthy English families, eccentricity runs through the family like rain through the gutters. Father (Firth) is a veteran of the Great War and who hasn’t been the same since he returned home, taking a slight detour through Europe to do so. Sister Hilda (Nixon) is a busybody who dwells on morbid news clippings and has a vindictive streak a mile wide. Sister Marion (Parkinson) is searching for a husband with a desperation that borders on hysteria and has her eye on Phillip Hurst (Brassington), the son of Lord Hurst (Torrens). Phillip, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with her. Finally, there’s Mother (Thomas), an icy woman with a sharp tongue and a heart of solid steel. She runs the family with an iron hand and even Father steps aside for her when she’s in one of her moods.

Larita couldn’t have come at a worse time. They are entering a busy social season, and the family estate is crumbling into disrepair. There is an odd disconnect with John’s father, which is becoming more and more pronounced. And she’s running into Mother at her most venomous.

Things aren’t going well but it’s not for Larita’s lack of trying. At first she tries to be friendly and respectful but Mother’s sharp barbs put an end to that. Eventually it settles into a bitter cold war with the two daughters taking Mother’s side and Father, who has a great admiration for all things American, on Larita’s. When her past threatens to catch up with her, the staid life of the manor threatens to explode.

This is based on a 1924 Noel Coward play. It has been made into a movie at least once, by none other than Alfred Hitchcock(!) back in 1928. This time, the director is Elliott, best known for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This is his first feature in nine years and he is aided by the auspices of Ealing Studios in England, one of the most famous in all the UK. They are well-known for their drawing room comedies of the sort that Coward excelled at, and this is right down their alley.

Of course, this isn’t the play that Coward wrote. Writers Elliott and Sheridan Jobbins have taken some liberties with the original material – Elliott himself admits on the commentary track that the script is about “30% Coward” – and it seemed to me that the movie was at its weakest when it departed from the original material.

Elliott at least brought together a magnificent cast, but the surprise is Biel. I’ve always thought her more of a pretty face than as a strong actress, but she does very well with the material she has to work with which makes me wonder that if she were getting more challenging roles she wouldn’t be getting more respect as an actress. I hope she is given some based on her performance here; she plays a woman who is somewhat trapped by the strictures of her time but has a great deal of inner strength and an independent spirit. She has survived some of the most awful events you can imagine and is still able to keep her heart open despite that. Not Oscar-winning material mind you, but a superior performance nonetheless.

And the cast she has behind her! Firth is an Oscar-nominated actor just beginning to get the kind of notice that an actor who has delivered consistently strong performances should be bestowed. He gives a layered performance as a man haunted by horrors thee and me could not even begin to conceive of and walks through life with the ghosts of those horrors haunting him. Not many could pull it off as effectively as Firth does here.

Finally there’s Thomas who plays the bitchy mom. This could easily be a part that spirals into shrillness but Thomas plays the mother with dignity and decorum. She’s as British as you can get and has a burden of her own that she bears, keeping hidden with the typical stiff upper lip of the wealthy class. In a time when image was everything, she is terrified of the façade crumbling and the real face of the family showing up. Thomas makes an unsympathetic character largely identifiable to most of us.

Noel Coward is definitely an acquired taste but it is one I have learned to appreciate. It’s nice to watch a comedy once in awhile that doesn’t have to do with high school students trying to get laid, or adult losers trying to get laid, or stoners trying to get stoned…and laid. Coward had a flair for the English language and as someone who uses it as a tool I can appreciate and admire his gift. This wasn’t his best play to begin with, and it has been adapted for the screen nearly beyond recognition, but 30% Noel Coward is better than 100% most anyone else.

WHY RENT THIS: It’s a nice change of pace from modern comedies. Jessica Biel shows some acting chops. Fine supporting cast helps elevate the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Film strays from the original Noel Coward material quite a bit and is at its weakest when it does.

FAMILY VALUES: It’s a little bit sexy and there is smoking throughout as was common during the era; however it might be a bit more sophisticated than the average youngster would be into so make this part of your adult post-kids bedtime viewing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the end credits, all the musicians playing on the track are introduced as they would be from a bandstand during a live performance.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Stone Angel

Valentine’s Day


Valentine's Day

Jennifer Garner finds out what Demi Moore already knows - Ashton Kutcher delivers.

(New Line) Julia Roberts, Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Alba, Queen Latifah, Emma Roberts, Jessica Biel, Hector Elizondo, Topher Grace, George Lopez, Eric Dane, Taylor Lautner, Patrick Dempsey, Anne Hathaway, Taylor Swift, Bradley Cooper, Kathy Bates, Bryce Robinson, Larry Miller. Directed by Garry Marshall

There are many who consider Valentine’s Day to be a “Hallmark holiday,” an artificial occasion that prompts the sale of chocolate, jewelry and flowers, as well as dinner reservations. It is a day for those who are single and not seeing anyone to be reminded painfully of that fact, and for the unromantic to give their best shot at actual wooing.

It is a sunny day in Los Angeles on February 14, which means that the florists of the Southland are going to be hella busy. For Reed Bennett (Kutcher) who inherited his flower shop from his grandparents, it’s going to be a little different; this morning he has proposed to his girlfriend Morley (Alba) and she’s said yes. His best friend Alphonso (Lopez) is happy but seems surprised she accepted his proposal.

Schoolteacher Julia Fitzpatrick (Garner) is awakened by her boyfriend, handsome cardiologist Dr. Harrison Copeland (Dempsey) who is unfortunately flying up to San Francisco to perform surgery there and will have to miss his Valentine’s Day rendezvous with his deliriously happy girlfriend. Still, he leaves her with a cute little memento.

Liz (Hathaway) and Alex (Grace) have had a night of incredible sex; they’ve only been going together for a couple of weeks but things look very promising. He is a bit of a nebbish from Indiana and she is a sophisticated L.A. woman who has kept from him that in order to help pay off her student loans, she is also working as a phone sex operator while she works as an assistant to bitchy high-powered sports agent Paula Thomas (Latifah) whose star client, quarterback Sean Jackson (Dane) has just been let go by his ballclub. Sean’s publicist Kara Monahan (Biel) is working on spin control at the same time she is planning her annual “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party. Terminally single, she commiserates with buddy Kelvin Moore (Foxx), the second sportscaster at a local television station whose station manager (Bates) is relaying instructions from on high that more fluff pieces are wanted and Moore, who doesn’t believe in romance, finds himself doing a piece on romance in L.A.

For romance, he could have looked no farther than one of Julia’s students, Edison (Robinson) who has a big crush on someone at his school and hires Reed to send some flowers there. He is staying with his grandparents (MacLaine, Elizondo) because his mother is away. The grandmother has just revealed something to the grandfather that is a game-changer in their relationship. Edison’s babysitter (Emma Roberts) is contemplating having sex with her boyfriend and her best friend (Swift) is head over heels over track star Willy (Lautner). In the meantime, a businessman (Cooper) and an army captain (Roberts) are sitting next to each other on a flight home.

Just another day in L.A., no? No. It’s a day on which romance will bloom for some, wither for others and make unexpected turns for all of them. Some of these relationships will not survive the stress and pressure of Valentine’s Day.

Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate have crafted a sort of American version of Love, Actually and quite frankly, it doesn’t measure up. For one thing, there are far too many threads going on here and quite frankly about half of them are unnecessary. That forces many of these relationships to be given short shrift in terms of screen time so we don’t get the opportunity to become invested in them. We didn’t really need two high school romances, nor did we need multiple anti-Valentines Day cynics in the mix. One gets the feeling that there were stars who called Marshall and said “I want in” and Marshall had his writer add another vignette to accommodate them.

Surprisingly, Kutcher proves to be the most winning actor on this fairly distinguished list. He is at heart a really nice guy, and he is the real glue that holds this entire handmade Valentine together. His relationships with Garner, Lopez, Robinson and Alba are all well-thought through and work nicely. Lopez is also impressive as the somewhat clumsy but lovable sidekick. Julia Roberts, one of the biggest stars in the world, shows why as the captain coming home to the love of her life. She is alternately warm and sweet as well as cold and sandpapery. Not Oscar-winning material mind you but compelling nonetheless.

I’m a sucker for a good romantic movie, as Da Queen can attest – Love, Actually and About a Boy are two of my favorites, and I watch them regularly on DVD. Although this movie has it’s share of sweetness, it won’t bear the same repeated viewings on home video for me. There’s just too much going on and despite the talented actors who do their best in roles that are just not that well-developed, not a lot here to love.

REASONS TO GO: A star-studded cast and a lot of awww moments. Kutcher does a nice job of being the glue that holds this movie together.

REASONS TO STAY: While some of the pairings work from a chemistry standpoint, not all of them do. It seemed to me there are too many vignettes going on for the movie’s own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality, as well as some partial nudity but nothing very naughty. Indeed, this movie is suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Julia Roberts’ last name in the movie, Hazeltine, is a combination of her daughter’s names; Hazel and Valentine. Also, on Alex’s phone the date “Monday, February 14” is plainly seen. Since Valentine’s Day fell on a Sunday this year, we have to assume that the movie takes place in 2011, the next year that Valentine’s Day falls on a Monday.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie to be seen cuddling on the couch with someone you love.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Starting Out in the Evening