Monday, June 25, 2007

Home Video: Freedom Writers

Freedom Writers
Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Released January 5, 2007

This inspiring teacher story is full of genre cliches and far too many moving speeches but is nonetheless a decent film based on a true story. This can be best compared to "Stand and Deliver", the 1988 film starring Oscar-nominated (for his performance) Edward James Olmos as a teacher who inspires his students to work hard and excel in calculus. This time, however, the teacher is not Olmos but rather the unflinchingly irritating Hilary Swank. Her constant cheeriness and bouncy nature pervades the film and the message she is trying to send. Whenever she tries to act serious, it comes off as ineffective because she is just too darn happy the rest of the time. Patrick Dempsey is irreconcilably wooden as her estranged husband, and usually great actors Imelda Staunton (see "Vera Drake" right now) and Scott Glenn have boring parts. The ensemble of kids is pretty good. The film seems to run fairly long at only two hours, in addition to skipping over interesting developments for the sake of telling a broader story more quickly. Overall, an occasionally moving but more often corny take on a true, moving story.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Sweet and Melodious: Once

Directed by John Carney
Released May 16, 2007

This is a wonderful and endearing film, made surprisingly well on such a small budget ($150,000) and boasting some great talent in the musicians featured. It starts out as a somewhat incomprehensible, slow-moving tale of two poor Irish people who meet each other and try to enhance their daily lives with their love of music. The most incredible thing about this film, which grows on you to be sure, is that such a great story is told with so little dialogue. The music really tells the story here, and I loved every single song. I would be thrilled to see any of the songs up for Oscar, and from the reviews I have been reading, everyone LOVES this movie. It is a short film that nonetheless tells a nice, sweet story.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Upsetting but Lacking: Away from Her

Away from Her
Directed by Sarah Polley
Released May 4, 2007

Popular independent actress Sarah Polley makes her feature film directorial debut with this drama about a marriage facing trouble in the form of Alzheimer's disease. While the film certainly packs an intense emotional punch, the denouement is rather lackluster and does little to supplement the source material. My reasoning is always that a film based off of real events or already written material (this comes from a short story by Alice Munro), I give little credit to the director if the film fails to rise above the material, no matter how good the original story. The cinematography is good, and shots of the main character in the snow are beautiful. The film does feature probably the most incompetent hospital staff I have ever seen, who constantly say the wrong thing, to a ridiculously obnoxious point.

Julie Christie plays Fiona, the woman diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and she does a remarkable job. I am fairly certain she will have an easy time garnering an Oscar nomination. The real revelation here is Gordon Pinsent, who portrays Fiona's husband, Grant. His reserved performance drives along the often uneven film. An entertaining minor character, a former sportscaster living in the facility with Fiona, diagnoses Grant's condition best with a memorable line: "Here comes the elevator on the left, where there is a man with a broken heart, broken into a thousand pieces." The film is not as solid as that one line, however. It surrounds a dramatic and harrowing experience but tells it in a slow way that does not really go anywhere.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Laidback Fun: Ocean's Thirteen

Ocean's Thirteen
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Released June 8, 2007

Quick preface to this review: I think "Ocean's Eleven" is one of the best movies ever, deserving of an A+, and that the second film, "Ocean's Twelve" deserves nothing more than a D+. This film falls somewhere in between, luckily far more towards the "Ocean's Eleven" end of the spectrum. The wit and inventiveness are far less subtle, yet the general style and construction of the movie returns back to that of the first film, an element lost in the second chapter. The whole crew is back, along with new villain Al Pacino and his right-hand woman, Ellen Barkin, both of whom are fine in their roles but nothing too special. Eddie Izzard ("The Riches") has a fun small part, and David Paymer gets a great role as a shafted hotel reviewer. The real standouts of the film, however, are Casey Affleck and Scott Caan as Virgil and Turk Malloy, who work so well both together and apart. The gadgets in this film are amusing and clever, but the movie has a very "you know the drill" feel to it. The amazing originality of the first film is pretty much gone, and character development goes out the door too. It is still a fun, generally mindless ride.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Home Video: Danny Deckchair

Danny Deckchair
Directed by Jeff Balsmeyer
Released August 11, 2004

This feel-good dramedy tells the story of Danny, a frustrated and unhappy man who ties a bunch of balloons onto a deck chair and goes floating off into the sky. He lands in a small, tight-knit community and establishes himself as a mysterious but well-liked stranger. The film is a nice, relaxing experience devoid of a truly sensible and realistic sequence of events.

Rhys Ifans is an affable lead, and he gets great support from leading women Justine Clarke and Miranda Otto, as the old and new women, respectively, in his life. The supporting ensemble is great too. The film, while slightly predictable, is a great opportunity to just put your brain away and meditate on what it would be like to just float away and start a new life.


Friday, June 8, 2007

Dane Cook Hearts Serial Killers: Mr. Brooks

Mr. Brooks
Directed by Bruce Evans
Released June 1, 2007

Serial killer movies are my favorite kind of movie, provided that it is spectacularly done. It is a hard feat, and some fail pretty miserably and end up just being creepy and dark ("Copycat" and "Suspect Zero"), others are merely disappointing ("Taking Lives" and the extremely slow "Zodiac"), but then there are the great ones. "Silence of the Lambs", "Se7en", and "Red Dragon" are my top three thrillers, and there is nothing quite like the excitement of watching this kind of movie.

Unfortunately, "Mr. Brooks" falls somewhere between "Copycat" and "Suspect Zero" in quality but its tone is extremely uneven. Kevin Costner and William Hurt play the two halves of the serial killer Mr. Brooks (Hurt is the imaginary portion), also known as the Thumbprint Killer. Costner has never really been a good actor, and I have despised Hurt recently. Their performances in this film echo that recent opinion. When the two cackle together, it is particularly cringe-worthy. The Jekyll/Hyde element does not really make sense, as evil alter ago Hurt is often asking Costner why he wants to kill more people.

And then there is Dane Cook. I am not even sure if he can be considered miscast, as the role is pretty terrible to begin with. As an overeager weirdo who accidentally snaps a shot of Mr. Brooks at a murder scene, Cook's character feels a rush and wants to have Costner teach him how to kill people. This kind of role has no place in this kind of film. Demi Moore is awful as the terribly annoying cop in charge of the Thumbprint Killer case, and I immediately wanted her character to die at any moment. The film also contains one of the most poorly conceived abductions I have ever seen on film. Danielle Panabaker, in a less-than-well-conceived role as Brooks' daughter, is the one positive element of the film. Overall, the film thinks much too much of itself, and becomes obssessed with how fun it would be to be a serial killer. The unnecessary opening quote is particularly obnoxious and indicative of the film to come: "The hunger has returned to Mr. Brooks' brain. It never really left".