Thank You for Smoking

Movie Review >>

Thank You for Not Smoking photo

It should be noted that not one character smokes a cigarette onscreen in “Thank You for Smoking,” the long-awaited film adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s satiric novel. The closest smoking encounter is when tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) reaches for a pack of smokes only to discover it’s empty – a clear metaphor for the tobacco lobby’s strength.

Thank You for Smoking Poster
Thank You for
Smoking

(Fox Searchlight)
Rated: R
starstarstar (out of 4)
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First-time director Jason Reitman (who adapted the novel himself) is reaching for a deeper concept, a comment on the disintegration of debate and the trade-off of argument for manipulation in contemporary politics (and society in general). Reitman sees the tobacco lobby as an opening to a bigger, less tangible issue, and while he should be congratulated for his ambition, the execution sadly stumbles.

Naylor has lot on his plate as the premier lobbyist for a research organization propped up by Big Tobacco. He makes the rounds on talk shows, exchanges strategies and compares body counts with his buddies in the MOD (merchants of death) squad (the lovely Maria Bello for alcohol, the hilarious David Koechner for guns), makes deals to promote smoking on film with zany Hollywood agents (Rob Lowe), and competes in verbal battle with an overzealous senator (William H. Macy). Oh, and he’s trying to be a good role model for his preteen son (Cameron Bright). That’s only the start—more complications arise by the frame.

Which is part of the problem – Reitman has a lot of ground to cover in a limited amount of time (a good comedy should never run over 90 minutes), so every crazy character gets to make an entrance, be odd, and then maybe show up for a later cameo. Robert Duvall gets hardly any screen time as the tobacco maven the Captain, and it seems as if Reitman asked J.K. Simmons to reprise his “Spiderman” Jonah Jameson role instead of find a new character for Naylor’s boss B.R.
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Of course the Academy got it wrong! The true two best pictures

OscarCall it “The Snub Heard ‘Round the World.”

One has to wonder whether the Academy of Arts and Sciences was playing it safe in crowning Crash best picture instead of the heavily favored Brokeback Mountain, which had won the owner from the Golden Globes and just about every respected film critics’ organization. Did conservative members, unable to accept a homosexual love story (The Hours, which had a bunch of gays and lesbians, lost out to Chicago back in 2003), go with the race relations flick? I’ve already read the excuse that West Coast Academy members were more affected by Crash because it took place in L.A., but I’m not buying it. I think the Academy wussed out.

But this year was tough as, for a change, all the nominees for best picture were excellent films (well, four were excellent and one was good). Also, four of the five films highly are social-conscious works that take on issues pertinent to these troubled times. The Academy chose substance over fluff. And I don’t mean to discount Crash, because it is a powerful and thought-provoking film; I’d go as far to say that it’s one of the best ensemble dramas I’ve seen in the last five years. But out of the five nominees, it was actually my number three pick.

Up until the moments before I heard the news, I hadn’t made up my mind between Munich and Brokeback Mountain. When I did choose, I went with the critics: Brokeback is an astounding film, rich with narrative, imagery, and subtle symbolism that is all too lacking in American films.

(Warning: All kinds of spoilers ahead.) Continue reading →

Manderlay

Movie Review >>

Manderlay photoManderlay photo courtesy IFC Films

Danish writer/director Lars von Trier, best known in the states for engaging yet cinematically daring melodramas Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, gave the world a bit of a shock in 2003 with Dogville. Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, a pretty young thing on the lam, is taken in by a seemingly kind town only to be raped and thrown into slavery. By using David Bowie���s ���Young Americans��� during the end credits over ill-sitting images of my-country-tis-o-thee, von Trier delivered the message (in a not-so-subtle way) that Americans defile the gifts given to them.

Manderlay poster
Manderlay
(IFC Films)
Rated: NR
starstarstar (out of 4)
Official Site
Trailer
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It���s a great film ��� three hours long and not a boring minute. Trier knows how to make an amazing film, as anyone who has seen Breaking the Waves can attest. Anti-American? Eh, maybe a bit, but more social commentary with a dash of nihilism for good measure.

Manderlay, the second film in von Trier���s ���U.S.A ��� Land of Opportunities��� trilogy keeps the same aesthetics and is equally as shocking as Dogville, but less poignant as its themes get lost in the director���s shock tactics. While still a good unsettling yarn, Manderlay is also unfulfilling.

Travelling across country after the incident at Dogville, Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard, spawn of Ron) and her gangster father (Willem Dafoe) stop by the gated plantation Manderlay to find that the residents of the plantation have no idea slavery has been abolished. The blacks are still planting cotton and getting whipped by the overseers.

In an obvious Iraq war analogy, Grace uses her gang of well-armed gangsters to easily depose the weakened tyrant Mam (Lauren Bacall) and enforce ���democracy��� on the newly freed slaves, even rounding them up to attend lectures on freedom. But Grace���s idealism over practicality mindset has dire consequences, as her lack of foresight leads to famine and unrest among blacks, who weren���t all that thrilled about freedom in the first place.

Howard is a suitable replacement for Kidman; she���s preachy to the point of annoyance, but it works well for the idealistic Grace. Is she trying to figure out whether she really wants to help the inhabitants of Manderlay or is using this exercise for personal salvation, penance for the ���white guilt��� she feels? Howard shines in exploring Grace���s sexual curiosity toward the Africans, particularly her erotic interest in proud Timothy (Isaach De Bankol?�), an African Munci supposedly descended from the blood of kings.

Von Trier visually contrasts idealism and reality by switching between gorgeous zooming overhead shots that clearly show the layout of Manderlay and shaky handheld camerawork on the ground. As in Dogville, von Trier uses a soundstage with minimal props for a set: running water and doors are displayed by sound effects, workers plow nonexistent fields, and buildings are drawn by chalk outlines, complete with informative labels. The lighting is awkward and hazy, obscuring figures, while the lack of props opens enclosed spaces and let us peer where we normally couldn���t.

But in winding down, the film loses focus. The pacing lags and the timeline makes no sense. While Dogville was straightforward in its themes, Manderlay gets muddled in its Iraq parallels versus the psychological effects of oppression versus black and white relationships. Scenes such as when the former overseers are forced to put on black makeup and serve the former slaves serve no purpose except to set the audience at unease. The resolution reeks of misanthropy. Von Trier loses his grip in trying to one-up Dogville, stomping all over his points and our senses.

Still, Manderlay is jarring and eerily watchable. Von Trier proves once again he���s an excellent filmmaker, even with the most unpleasant subject material. Perhaps once he gets off this ���shock and awe��� kick, he���ll make another excellent flick. Washington, to be released in 2007, concludes the ���U.S.A.��� trilogy.

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STARRING: Bryce Dallas Howard, Isaach De Bankol?�, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Jeremy Davies, Lauren Bacall, Chlo?� Sevigny, and Jean-Marc Barr
GENRE(S): Drama
WRITTEN BY: Lars von Trier
DIRECTED BY: Lars von Trier
RELEASE DATE: Theatrical: January 27, 2006
RATING: NR
RUNNING TIME: 139 minutes, Color
ORIGIN: Denmark / Sweden / Netherlands / France / Germany / USA
LANGUAGE(S): English

Imagine Me & You

Movie Review >>

Imagine Me & You poster photophoto courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

Imagine Me & You is a highly amusing British take on the love-at-first-sight romantic comedy, with a homosexual twist. Rachel (Piper Perabo) is marrying Heck (Mathew Goode) when she locks eyes with florist Luce (Lena Headey) and faster than you can say Ellen DeGeneres, Rachel���s got marital problems and a budding lesbian romance.

Imagine Me & You poster
Imagine Me & You
(Fox Searchlight)
Rated: R
starstarstar (out of 4)
Official Site
Trailer
Metacritic
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Curt dialogue and snappy one-liners never cease, while the film has enough ���aw!��� moments to satisfy the sentimental-needy. It���s not that much of a surprise as the Brits excel at this kind of comedy on television (���Coupling��� is a far funnier “Friends” knockoff) and in film (Four Weddings and Funeral anyone?). If you���re looking for a sure-fire date flick, you���re probably best off going British.

But Imagine Me and You runs into the same trouble most romantic comedies (especially American) do: its leads aren���t nearly as interesting as its costars. In particular, Goode, last seen in Woody Allen���s Match Point, proves he���s one of the best leading men out there ��� he truly inhabits the role of Heck, who is trying to avert crises in his professional and personal lives, right when everything should be falling into place. He���s got the sweet, high-paying job, the luxury flat, and the hot, hot wife, but what has he given up to achieve all that? (Or as David Byrne might say, ���Mah god, what have I done?���) In fact the movie might have been perfect if it focused entirely on Heck and the tall and gaunt Goode.

Heck���s best mate Coop is utterly hilarious in his chauvinism, but Darren Boyd subtly conveys that Coop is more talk than cad. And Anthony Head (you may remember him as Giles on TV���s ���Buffy the Vampire Slayer���) as Rachel���s world-weary father gets the lion���s share of throwaway lines: ���I love the smell of hot dogs in the morning. Smells like… hot dogs.���

The problem is writer/director Ol Parker has come up with some really interesting, fleshed-out male characters, but his women feel like cardboard cutouts. This wouldn���t be all that bad if the center of the plot wasn���t about two women falling in love. But for the most part, Headey and Perabo are eye candy; while their longing glances and awkward conversation show their initial attraction is strong, it���s a stretch to see this relationship advance because there���s not much to either one���s character and the actresses don���t seem all that interested in finding any depth. When Rachel and Luce finally get to physically exploring their growing passion (make-out city, here we come), it comes off like a couple of drunk schoolgirls experimenting.

It is surprising, though, how enjoyable the film is despite this central shallowness. Scenes involving quirky flower shop customers are side-splitting and Heck and Coop���s chumminess is reminiscent of Randall and Dante in Clerks. Plus Parker has a knack for setting up situations ripe with comedy, such as Rachel���s awkward attempt to watch a lesbian porn or a return-to-nature sex encounter between Rachel and Heck that takes a hilarious (and unexpected) turn. The end falls a bit into clich?�, but it���s well-executed clich?� and, more importantly for a good date movie, sweet.

Oh, and then there���s the gay thing, or there really isn���t. Seriously, it���s a nonissue ��� not one character seems to think there���s anything wrong with love between two women. There are no vulgar slurs or homophobic jokes. The only complaint comes from Rachel���s mother and it���s about the loss of potential grandchildren, but Rachel���s father settles that by explaining an alternative use for a turkey baster. You could replace Luce with a man and you���d have the same movie. To some extent the treatment of the gay relationship feels like a Brit reaction to U.S. homophobia; the film seems to jab America and whisper in its ear, ���What the bloody hell is wrong with you Yanks?���

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STARRING: Piper Perabo, Lena Headey, Matthew Goode, Celia Imrie, Anthony Head, Sue Johnston, and Darren Boyd
GENRE(S): Comedy, Foreign, Romance
WRITTEN BY: Ol Parker
DIRECTED BY: Ol Parker
RELEASE DATE: Theatrical: January 27, 2006
RATING: R
RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes, Color
ORIGIN: UK, Germany
LANGUAGE(S): English

Cache (Hidden) — Movie Review

Cache photophoto courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Cache (Hidden), the latest film by director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher), could not have better timing for a limited American release: a French couple anxiously wonder why they���re receiving unmarked videotapes with surveillance of their house. The creepy premise can���t help reminding the moviegoer about the recently revealed (and legally questionable) domestic spying program run for the last few years by the Bush administration.

Cache poster
Cache (Hidden)
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Rated: R
starstarstar (out of 4)
Official Site
Trailer
Metacritic
IMDb

We watch the videotapes at the same time as Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche), hearing them talk over it: ���It���s stupid, but it scares me,��� Anne says. Nothing really happens in the videos, it���s just a shot from across the street, but we can feel the couple���s anxiety ��� is there something we���re missing? What are we waiting for? Every car that passes, a bicyclist who speeds by, even Anne entering the apartment all build the tension just a little bit more. It���s oddly unnerving, the idea of not only being watched but actually viewing the surveillance.

So why would we be watched unless we have something to hide? It becomes clear through subsequent videotapes and postcards featuring childish drawings of violent images sent to everyone in the family that this all has something to do with Georges���s childhood, something he is determined to hide and someone is determined to reveal. Auteuil gives a powerhouse performance, desperately attempting to maintain his cool as his level of panic and paranoia grow. His relations with Anne become strained as he gets tangled in his lies to and his half-hearted justifications of his past actions. Auteuil shows us a man who can feel his foundations being uprooted.

Haneke avoids quick cuts in favor of long, drawn-out scenes that allow his top-notch actors space to breathe. The camera is so unobtrusive that the whole film feels like surveillance ��� characters are even framed in a mug-shot like fashion. The result is extraordinary natural performances and a jarring impersonal feeling that gives the film an edge you won���t see in an American thrill-ride.

Unfortunately Cache goes off on tangents that are relevant to the central theme but are ultimately hung out to dry. Is Anne having an affair? Is there something more to son Pierrot���s sudden rebelliousness other than teen angst? The complete lack of resolution is immensely disappointing. The pacing is leisurely (to put it kindly), and a shocking scene (you may jump) feels contrived and doesn���t sit well with rest of the film.

Cache is a slow but fascinating examination of what we hide and the lengths we will go to protect our secrets. The film begs the question is there such a thing as privacy? It���s a clever and thought-provoking take on the thriller genre.

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STARRING: Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche, Maurice B?�nichou, Annie Girardot, Lester Makedonsky, Bernard Le Coq, Walid Afkir, and Daniel Duval
GENRE(S): Drama, Suspense/Thriller
WRITTEN BY: Michael Haneke
DIRECTED BY: Michael Haneke
RELEASE DATE: Theatrical: December 23, 2005
RATING: R
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes, Color
ORIGIN: France, Austria, Germany, Italy
LANGUAGE(S): French (with English subtitles)

Bursting the Bubble: Is Soderbergh’s latest predicting the death of the movie theater?

Steven SoderberghMy worst movie theater experience is still vivid in my mind: Loews in Georgetown, 28 Days Later, opening weekend, midnight showing with girlfriend (ex now, if you care to know). Oh, it should have been scary and tense, horrifying and brilliant, but no, it was aggravating. Two drunks reeking of whiskey sat to the right of us, one snoring and the other one punching him every five minutes and telling him to wake up. A kid in front of us played a game on his cell phone and felt the need to hold it up, as if I wanted to see his high score. And the chatter: at times I couldn���t even hear the dialogue. I left vowing I would never see another film at Loews in Georgetown again (a vow I���ve subsequently broken).

Of course, that was only part of a trend. I remember during a screening of Bad Santa watching a couple get into a hysterical screaming bout a few rows ahead. And let���s not even get into any film where there might be kids in the audience ��� Star Wars Episode I (which was unbearable enough alone) was absolutely miserable to sit through with a bunch of uncontrolled brats throwing popcorn and candy at each other and shouting out descriptions of the action (or what happened two minutes before because their little friends with little bladders had to loudly run to the bathroom).

Director Steven Soderbergh (you might remember he did Ocean���s Eleven and Traffic, oh and this little indie flick called Sex, Lies, and Videotape) has brought to life a novel concept: his latest film Bubble on Friday opens in theaters and is released on DVD and is available on satellite and cable TV. All media, all at once ��� an cinematic assault, you could say. Talk about this kind of marketing has been brewing for years, with theater to DVD timetables growing shorter every year, but Bubble goes all the way. And I���m left pondering, is that a good thing? Continue reading →

The New World — Movie Review

The New World photophoto courtesy New Line Cinema

Terrence Malick and I have history. As a teenage film buff, I was excited when Malick, director of the classic spree killer flick Badlands, came out from whatever rock he was hiding under to direct The Thin Red Line, which promised to be an art house war movie. Snobby and violent, could you go wrong?

The New World poster

The New World
(New Line Cinema)
Rated: PG-13
starstarstarstar (out of 4)
Official Site
Trailer
Metacritic
IMDb

Yes: three hours of impressive Australian scenery and poetic voiceovers, but not much else. Narrative was thrown right out the window as one scene haphazardly ran into the next. Even though the voiceovers clued me in on their internal monologues, the characters themselves were sparsely drawn, sometimes one dimensional. There were powerful scenes, but on the whole the movie fell flat. Malick���s lost it after 20 years without making a film, I thought.

So I was wary when I heard the buzz surrounding The New World, Malick���s take on the founding of Jamestown and the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith. But my fears of a Thin Red repeat are completely off-mark, as here Malick weaves a tapestry thick with depth and symbolism around a strong narrative and characters that jump off the screen, with the help of a fantastic young talent as Pocahontas. The New World is about discovery, internal and external, and easily one of the best films of 2005.

As we learned in American history class, shortly after the founding of Jamestown, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) is sent to see the native’s big chief to talk about trading and, in a thrilling sequence, is saved from execution by Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher). Thus starts their courtship, as Smith teaches Pocahontas English and English ways while idealizing the communal and simple living of ���the naturals.��� He seeks redemption, a new self in this new world, through his love of Pocahontas, full of life and spirit, and she falls for the mysterious yet passionate foreigner as well. Continue reading →

The Matador — Movie Review

The Matador photophoto courtesy Miramax

A mustached Pierce Brosnan walks through a hotel lobby wearing only a speedo, beer can in hand, gut hanging out, cigarette drooping out of the side of his smirk. The other guests stare, almost horrified, and obviously we���re supposed to have the same reaction: that can���t be (the former) James Bond playing washed-up hitman Julian Noble in The Matador. Julian is a complete 180 from James Bond: instead of style, he oozes sleaze; while Bond is a charmer, Julian is a bisexual predator, eyeing Catholic schoolgirls and raiding S&M clubs.

Matador poster
The Matador
(Miramax)
Rated: R
starstarstar (out of 4)
Official Site
Trailer
Metacritic
IMDb

Cinephiles may remember a similar anti-Bond performance Brosnan gave in The Tailor of Panama as a disgraced British agent who stews up trouble in Panama just because he���s bored and horny. But Julian is a far more complex and ultimately redeemable character that Brosnan plays with both gusto and finesse. Even though the setup is reminiscent of Gross Pointe Blank, The Matador���s focus on friendship, particularly male bonding, and Brosnan���s surprisingly articulate performance make this film a whole other beast.

On his birthday, when he���s alone and watching TV in a Mexico City hotel room, Julian realizes he has no friends. Scanning through his address book, he finds only brothels and gun shops. After indulging in an orgy, Julian meets businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear), who is recovering from losing his job and his son. His current shaky business deal is essential to his survival, but he hides his lack of confidence in that suburban American appearances-are-everything way, which attracts Julian to him. Julian feeds off Danny���s normalcy ��� the first thing he wants to know is if Danny has a wife and kids. He wants a taste of that white-bread living that Danny sweats, and Danny indulges in Julian���s more exciting world of hits and screwing whole Filipino whorehouses. Continue reading →