Saturday, December 16, 2006


20th Century Fox, 99mins, PG

Directed by
Stefen Fangmeier

Yes, the book that this was based on was written by a fifteen year old kid named , and his parents published it themselves before it was taken up by a real publisher. Apparently, the book was struck a nerve among a certain age group, otherwise they wouldn't have adapted it. Be that as it may, this is no way a great movie.

According to the prologue, Dragons and their riders kept the peace for thousands of years until an evil bastard by the name of Galbatorix (John Malkovich) took over the works and now dragons are extinct. However, there is one egg, and the heroic (and blonde) princess Arya (Sienna Guillory) has stolen it from his badness, who has sent his evil minion Durza the shade (Robert Carlyle) to get it back. She uses her magic to send it to our hero Eragon (Edward Speleers), a simple (blonde) farm boy with lousy aim [okay, the magic flash might have something to do with it.] Something a fifteen year old kid who's read too much hard fantasy might have thought up.

All the clichés are there. The fact that he's an orphan, his meeting up with Brom (Jeremy Irons), the village idiot, who just happens to be the last of the dragon riders of old. The names of the species of villains come right out of LotR, “the Sword of Shanara”, and every other book with the word “elf” somewhere in it. The only original thing about this paint-by-numbers epic is getting Rachel Weisz to be the voice of Saphira the Dragon, although they could have spent an extra five grand or so to move her lips. The telepathic gag is not only old, but lazy. So's the plotting, but then it was written by a fifteen year old kid, and most of them don't know any better. So of course, it's one big cliché. Young Christopher Paolini, who wrote the novel and it's two sequels may have a future ahead of him, but hopefully he's going to do something original from here one out.

If you want pseudo-medieval battles with fairys and elves, go take Lord of the Rings out off the shelf and let this one slip by. Yeech.

Charlotte's Web
Paramount Pictures, 97mins, G

Directed by
Gary Winick

You have to be careful with classics. They're so easy to muck up. E. B. White's “Charlotte's Web” is a classic if there ever was, right up there with “Huckleberry Finn” and “Winnie the Pooh.” In order to get it right, you have to stay faithful to original source, and even moreso, you have to respect it. The first movie version did this to some extent (Hanna Barbera), but the production values weren't really that good. Which makes this one of the great remakes of all time. This was White's most intelligent children's book, and Gary Winick makes sure that the intelligence remains.

Sam Shepard's voice introduces us to a slightly updated version of “Our Town” or Lake Wobigon, a place where everyone is nice and nothing much happens, and Fern(Dakota Fanning) watching her father (Kevin Anderson) midwife the birth of a litter of pigs, the runt of which, Wilbur(voice of Dominic Scott Kay), is about to get the axe when Fern saves him and he gets transferred, eventually to Fern's uncle Homer's(Gary Basaraba) farm across the way. Here we meet a bunch of refugees from “Babe” with what has to be one of the most prestigious voice casts of any animated or quasi-animated film ever. Okay, John Cleese, Julia Roberts and Steve Buscemi have done quite a bit of voicework in the past, but Robert REDFORD? Kathy Bates? Wow!

Yeah, Roberts is great as Charlotte and Buscemi is always brilliant, and as a CGI enhanced funny animal flick its just fine, but what's surprising are the adults. You have Fern's mom(Essie Davis) consulting with her doctor(Beau Bridges) about her kid's bizarre attraction to the animals in the barn, and you have to remember that the “X-files” angle, and the reaction of normal adults to the messages in the spiderweb.

This is the definitive version. If you have kids, take them to it now, and by the DVD in six months and hope no one else tries to do another version ever again, and thus ruin it for future generations.

The Pursuit of Happyness

Directed by
Gabriele Muccino

There are two reasons to go to movies: one is for entertainment and the other information. Hopefully, you get both. Unfortunately, this is neither. Which is more the pity as everyone does a really good job all around.

The year is 1981. Christopher(Will Smith) and Linda Gardner (Thandie Newton) live with their son Christopher, Jr (Jaden Smith) in one of the less fortunate sections of San Francisco. They invested all their money in a medical device that no one really wants. She works in a laundry doing double shifts as he tries to sell the gadget to doctors and hospitals in the area with little or no success. The bills are beginning to pile up, and Linda is beginning to crack. There is really no hope here, until he sees a sign saying that the Dean Witter brokerage saying that there's an competitive internship program, so he begins to hound the executive in charge(Brian Howe), until he gets an in, unfortunately, he's got those pesky financial problems, the internship is unpaid, which first forces his wife to leave him, then to move further and further down the financial ladder, until he and Chris, Jr have no place to sleep except a public toilet and homeless shelters.

Filmmakers Gabriele Muccino and Steven Conrad have figured out what some critics like: serious melodramas about nice people in pain. This is all about that. We see our Job [Sissyphus, whatever] trying to get that rock out of that hole again and again and again, with little or no success. He gets the internship, but everything else gets worse and worse. While this is based on a true story, the happy ending seems tacked on. Even the comic bits with the medical gadget being stolen, isn't that funny, which brings us to the question: Do we really want to see Will Smith suffer for over an hour and a half? Not really…and what of information?

There isn't any. The film recreates a time gone by extremely well, but so what? “The Pursuit of Happyness” just isn't worth the bucks or time.


Written and Directed
By Bill Condon

The oft-threatened return of the movie musical makes good this year with an adaptation of Tom Eyen and Michael Bennett's famous fictionalized history of the Supremes. It's nice that somebody finally got it right [okay, Rob Marshall's “Chicago” got it right too, but that doesn't explain everything else].

One of the reasons that this works is that it's operatic. There's very little spoken dialogue, and everything else is sung. This makes the numbers blend seamlessly from one to the other and that makes the highlights even better.

It's 1962, and Effervescent teenagers Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) are late for their debut at that big Detroit talent show. They lose, but are noticed by car salesman/talent agent Curtis Taylor, Jr.(Jamie Foxx), who immediately gets them a gig singing backup with James "Thunder" Early(Eddie Murphy) and from there it's straight to the top. Well not exactly straight…

There are the complications: Effie is a bit of a diva, Curtis is basically a stock villain, who throws people away like wet Kleenex while treating the rest like puppets. Yes, folks, it's a melodrama with two dimensional characters. However, most of the great musicals from the 1930s and '40s did too, and it was the music and dancing which saved them. This is the case here, as well.

For instance, Effie's showstopper "And I am Telling You I'm Not Going." Is the bomb. Hudson blows everyone away, and that includes Beyoncé, a very difficult feat indeed. The acting is excellent thoughout. Foxx and Murphy give the performances of a lifetime, the four members of the group are smart and sexy and sing their own stuff, and as minor characters Sharon Leal, as the fourth “Dream”, Danny Glover as Eddy Murphy's first manger, and Keith Robinson as Effie's songwriter brother hold their own very nicely, and oh yeah, John Lithgow has a brief cameo which is a real hoot.

This is worth full price.

The Good German

Directed by
Steven Soderbergh

You have to say this for Steven Soderbergh, he isn't afraid to try stuff. Each and every film he's done [with the exception of the “Ocean's 11” films], has been starkly different than anything else he's done. Different isn't necessarily good, nor is it necessarily bad, but in recent years, and that's excepting “Ocean's 12,” he's not done all that well as compared to the glory years bracketing the millennium.

To say that is an improvement over his previous film is not really saying anything, as “Bubble” was truly horrid, However, the question is this better than, or on par with most of Soderbergh's other recent work, and that's a more difficult question.

This time Soderbergh is doing a film noir, and he wants it to have a truly retro feel. Thus he tries to replicate the technique of the times, and this, to some extent does give it that 1940s feel. It's the rest of the film which is a little off.

One problem is its structure. This is a three act picture in which each act has a different narrator. The first is Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire), a driver and bigwig in the black market. His “day job” is to chauffeur “New Republic” correspondent and honorary captain Jake Geismar (George Clooney) around town while he's covering the Potsdam conference between Stalin, Truman and Churchill. As an act of friendship, he introduces Geismar to his girlfriend Lena Brandt(Cate Blanchett), a local hooker who, before the war, was screwing Geismar himself, and just as this triangle is getting set up, about twenty minutes into the film, Tully is about to offer Lena's husband Emil(Christian Oliver) to Soviet General Sikorsky (Ravil Isyanov), when he's relieved of his narration duties and life offstage only to be found next to palace where the confrence is being held by none other than our old pal Geismar, who then becomes the narrator.

I hate when they do that. It throws you off and makes you waste precious time trying to readjust, which is a bit difficult, as the plot begins to thicken as fast as a frosting in a blender: You have Lieutenant Schaeffer (Dave Power) trying to find Nazi war criminals, Colonel Muller (Beau Bridges) trying to protect some of them in order to start up the cold war and space programs, and various other figures at odds with each other. Lena doesn't help very much until she takes up narration duties for the final few scenes, which ends up like Casablanca, and I don't mean in a good way.

All and all, while the acting is more than professional, the film itself is kind of on the sloppy side, and this sloppiness makes the entire work a bit off kilter, which hurts the whole production. It also doesn't look authentic.

Stick with the videos of the real thing, and wait for “Ocean's 13.”

Home of the Brave

Directed by
Irwin Winkler

The better part of a lifetime ago, there was a great movie called “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which was about GIs returning from the second world war and how they coped with the transition back to their previous lives and the effect on the loved ones they came back to. Updating this premise has been done for a number of wars since then, with varying results. This is not one of the better ones.

First off, there's a semi-gratuitous battle scene. It's the present day, and the platoon we're going to follow is informed that they're going home. However, before then, they have to go on one last mission: deliver badly needed supplies to somewhere that needs it.

But the bad guys (or are they the good guys?) are waiting to blow our guys up, and the mission is foiled. There's lots of blood and gore, which is fine if was a regular war movie where you could get into the action, but this isn't.

This is about people in pain. Vanessa Price(Jessica Biel) has gotten her hand blown off, and is having trouble getting past the physical limitations of her new situation. Jamal Atkins (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) is having trouble with the Veterans administration, who won't let him have the therapy he needs or even schedule a doctor's appointment; Tommy Yates (Brian Presley) has lost his best friend(Chad Michael Murray), in battle and when he gets home, he can't really connect with his father(Vyto Ruginis), who's a bit of an ass, of the friend's significant other(Christina Ricci) and Dr, Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson) has to reintegrate with a family(Victoria Rowell as his wife, Sam Jones III as his son, and some little girl as his daughter) that no longer really understands him.

The problem with the film is, while Winkler and writer Mark Friedman try, we can't really understand either. The characters generally just mope about, and with the exception of Vanessa, none of them actually TRY to reintegrate themselves. The acting is okay, but not good enough to make things actually engaging. The characters are flat, and by the end, one doesn't care that much as to what's going on. This is not something to waste an afternoon with. Pass it by.

The Secret Life of Words

Written and directed
by Isabel Coixet

One of the reasons that some people prefer foreign films to Hollywood movies are that the latter are much deeper than the former. For instance, this thing is very, very deep. So deep in fact that getting the bends is a distinct possibility.

Hanna (Sarah Polley), is a mysterious young woman working in a factory somewhere in Britain. She does her job very well, but she doesn't socialize too much, and the union and her co-workers convince her boss(Reg Wilson) to force her to take a vacation.

So where does she go? Northern Ireland in the late fall, where it is cold and depressing. While there she hears some fellow talking to another guy on the phone discussing a third fellow named Josef (Tim Robbins), who was badly burned in a flash fire at an offshore oil rig in the North Sea. Since Hanna was once a nurse, she goes up to the guy and volunteers. Yes, this is a dream vacation.

So for the next hour and a bit, we are treated to dialogue. Hanna has conversations with the bouncy Spanish cook Simon (Javier Camara), who's the only person who isn't morbidly depressed, the captain of the rig, Dimitri (Sverre Anker Ousdal), who is only there for the money and isn't very happy ever, the crew's ecologist Martin (Daniel Mays) who thinks he could save the world, and a couple of bisexuals who barely play a role. Then there's Josef.

This is more a filmed play than a real movie. Sure there's the sweeping vistas of the oil rig taken from a helicopter, but most of the film takes place in Josef's sickroom, where the two protagonists talk about life, philosophy and why they are the way they are.

This is Polley's picture and hers alone. She gets the accent right, and manages to go from an emotional automaton to a real-live girl without skipping a beat, and her scene where she reveals her past is quite moving. For those fans of deep, foreign films, this is something to see. You don't even have to read the subtitles.


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