Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Movie Review: Millions

I've been an admirer of Danny Boyle for about as long as he's been a filmmaker. He first catapulted himself to attention with the gimmicky but entertaining 1994 Hitchockian thriller Shallow Grave, which also launched the career of Scottish wonderboy Ewan McGregor. Forming a creative troika of sorts with McGregor and screenwriter John Hodge, Boyle scored a triumph with his sophomore effort, the sublimely brilliant 1996 ode to junkie joy Trainspotting, which now endures as a classic of 1990s cinema. By the end of 1997 and his ambitiously flawed road romance A Life Less Ordinary, he seemed unassailably cool. And then came the Dicaprio Incident.

Read the full review at Poor Richard's Film Almanac

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Overlooked in the 90s

So I'm sitting on this horde of movie reviews from my old filmgeek days, and I've been wondering what to do with them. I've decided to parcel them out rather than just throw them all up on the site-- it ain't like the old days when I had more free time than I knew what to do with.

With my limited free time in mind, then, I've started a new series on Poor Richard's Film Almanac called Overlooked in the 90s. The idea is to repurpose reviews for 10 films from 1996-1999 that I feel deserve a fresh look. I've just tossed up the latest review, for the 1998 Robert Altman potboiler The Gingerbread Man. Give it a look. And remember, your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Poor Richard's Roundup: April 2005

A look at the theatrical releases on the docket for the remainder of April confirms my theory that 2005 is shaping up to be one of the most creatively flacid years for film in recent memory. It will be a year of small pleasures. Scouring the art houses to find this year's Sideways. Enduring countless overrated foreign dramas to uncover this year's City of God. Diehard film fans will be reduced to prospecting-- and we won't unearth many of this year's gems until we finally catch up with them on DVD.

As for Hollywood-- has their been a more yawn-inducing slate of big studio releases in recent memory? This may indeed be the year that George Lucas finally fulfills his contract with Star Wars fans by releasing a picture that delivers the emotion and high drama that we all loved about The Empire Strikes Back. But other than a few upcoming tentpole releases-- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (see below), Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, Spielberg's War of the Worlds-- there's precious little to get excited about. It's going to a long year of drudgery at the movies.

My job will be to wade through the swamp of mediocrity to bring back for you those few rare orchids. With that said, here's a look at a sampling of the notable releases for April 2005.

***Opening April 15***

Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ellen Barkin
Directed by Todd Solondz

Remember ten years ago, when Welcome to the Dollhouse gave us hope that we had discovered a curmudgeonly combination of Woody Allen and David Lynch? Solondz must miss those days too. This 2004 film, making its theatrical debut in New York and Los Angeles after a year on the festival circuit, begins with the funeral of Dollhouse protagonist Dawn Wiener-- which is either a symbolic act of rejection of Solondz's most humanistic film, or a shameless attempt to link back to what passed for his glory days. Palindromes features a 12-year-old girl named Aviva (her name is a palindrome-- get it?), played by a succession of young and old, fat and thin actresses that includes the once-great Jennifer Jason Leigh, who encounters abortion, abuse and tragedy that rivals the worst of Solondz's dips into the cesspool of human depravity. Once lumped in with fellow misanthrope Neil LaBute, Solondz has developed a pathologic need to abuse his audience, his actors and his investors in the service of his dark art. Confrontational cinema at its best-- or worst.

VERDICT: Wait for cable.

The Amityville Horror
Starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George
Directed by Andrew Douglas

I read the original Jay Anson book and believed every word of it-- when I was 10! The 1979 screen version, starring James Brolin, Margot Kidder and a scenery-chewing Rod Steiger, was about as frightening as a sock puppet, but good for a few laughs. By all accounts, this no-name remake will feature lots of wretched phony scares, pointlessly ominous orchestration and plenty of CGI blood running down the walls. It's going to miss the mark entirely, which should be obvious to anyone with a brain. The Amityville Horror is not about haunted houses or demonic possession or any of that happy horseshit. Much like Tobe Hooper's infinitely superior homage Poltergeist, Amityville is really a metaphor for that sense of dread we all feel when we sign our lives away to become homehowners-- what if we really, really regret our decision? What this material needed was a complete reimagination. What it's getting is a window treatment.

VERDICT: Rent the DVD for Bad Movie Night.

***Opening April 22***

A Lot Like Love
Starring Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet
Directed by Nigel Cole

Cole has several airy, mildly agreeable confections to his credit, including 2000's Saving Grace and 2003's Calendar Girls, so expect more of the same from this love story that begins with a chance encounter at an airport. Those who can stomach Kutcher's presence may find something to like. As for me, Kutcher is now on my Sandler List: the list of actors whose presence precludes me from seeing a film, no matter how good it's supposed to be (i.e., Punch Drunk Love). Anyone who sees it, please feel free to write a review for the site. I'll be busy that day.

VERDICT: Avoid like an Amway salesman.

The Interpreter
Starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn
Directed by Sydney Pollack

Kidman is the UN interpreter who overhears an assassination plot; Penn is the detective assigned to her case. The presence of Pollack at the helm of this thriller assures us that, at the very least, it won't insult your intelligence. Likewise, the screenplay is credited to a pair of heavy hitters-- Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, Gangs of New York) and Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report)-- as well as newcomer Charles Randolph. First rate directors, actors and screenwriters: this is the kind of picture you and I should support, even if we don't end up loving it.

Verdict: To the multiplex!

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
Documentary, Directed by Alex Gibney

If you love documentaries, particularly those designed to inspire moral outrage, then this picture, by the director of The Trials of Henry Kissinger, ought to fit the bill. The picture centers around the California energy crisis and Enron's wilful manipulation of the State's energy supply in order to enjoy obscene profits. It's opening in limited release, so it'll be a while before it reaches the hinterlands.

VERDICT: Top of the Netflix queue.

***Opening April 29***

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Starring Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel, Mos Def and Sam Rockwell
Directed by Garth Jennings

I remember vividly sitting with my little geek buddies in the theater before our 17th matinee viewing of Raiders of the Lost Ark, regaling them with tails from Douglas Adams' brilliant sci-fi spoof and having them in stitches. This 20-years-in-the-making adaptation hits me right where I live, and I can do naught but enter the theater on opening night hoping it will be brilliant. Adams himself cowrote the screenplay and was intimately involved with the production up until his 2001 death, so we have that going for us. My guess is that the purists will howl about changes, but come on-- from BBC Radio series to book to television serial, THGTTG has mutated in each incarnation. The trailer, at least, makes it appear that the filmmakers have hit the nail pretty squarely.

VERDICT: Don't panic, just get to the theater.

XXX: State of the Union
Starring Ice Cube, Samuel L. Jackson and Willem Dafoe
Directed by Lee Tamahori

As I am outside of the target demographic for this picture-- 15-year-old suburban white hip-hop boys and urban, baggy white T-shirt wearing hoods-- my opinion hardly matters. Anybody counting the days until this turkey is released ain't reading this blog, I can tell you that. Originally conceived as an action franchise for Vin Diesel, Columbia pictures is making the relatively novel attempt to build the brand without the star-- in effect, speeding up the natural evolution of the Bond franchise. Ice Cube being eminently replaceable, the franchise can now continue without succumbing to the demands of egotistical stars. If it at least makes its money back, look for 50 Cent to star in XXX: This Time It's Personal in 2007.

VERDICT: Watch only if stuck on an airplane.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Life after the Rings

We all know what happened to the cast of the original Star Wars trilogy: Harrison Ford became an international superstar and sported a series of increasingly spiky haircuts; Carrie Fisher became a best-selling author, noted screenwriter, ex-Mrs. Paul Simon and train wreck; Mark Hamil became the voice of the Joker in the Batman cartoon series. Alec Guinness croaked. Billy Dee Williams did a few malt liquor ads.

Will a similar variety of fates befall the actors in this century's most beloved fantasy trilogy? Which Lord of the Rings actors will parlay their roles in Peter Jackson's fanboy opus into fame and glory, and which will fall by the wayside? One year after Return of the King laid waste to the Oscars, it's now time to take a look at which of the Fellowship have enjoyed a post-Rings bounce, and which suffered a post-Rings thud.

Sean Astin (Sam):
Remember when there was serious talk of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Astin's soulful work as Frodo's longtime companion Sam Gamgee? Astin was probably the fourth in line for breakout potential behind Viggo Mortenson, Orlando Bloom and Elijah Wood. Unfortunately, Astin has been largely absent from the big screen since 2003. He's popped up in multiplex crap (50 First Dates) and a few straight-to-DVD releases, has several below-radar indies in various stages of production and has done a little TV work. But when's the last time you saw or thought about Sean Astin? Given his profile at the end of 2003, it's a shame he hasn't made more hay. Either he's happy living at the shallow end of the Hollywood money pool-- in which case, God bless him-- or it's time to fire his agent. GRADE: C-.

Sean Bean (Boromir):
Let's come to terms with it-- Sean Bean's Borimir was the best thing in The Fellowship of the Ring. Prior to LOTR, Bean's stock was just beginning to rise with well-received supporting parts as hammy Euro-trash villains in Ronin (1998) and the Michael Douglas vehicle Don't Say a Word (2001). Post-Rings, he's reverted back to his mid-tier player status with supporting roles in Troy and National Treasure. Seems as if he's content merely to make his mortgage payments. GRADE: B-.

Cate Blanchett (Galadriel):
Already a mid-tier star, Blanchett had a largely ceremonial roll in LOTR as one of Tolkien's gauzy, half-formed Virgin Mary stand-ins. Her recent Oscar win for channeling Katherine Hepburn cements her status as A-list talent. GRADE: A.

Orlando Bloom (Legolas):
The patron saint of teenage girls everywhere, Bloom is inarguably the premiere breakout star of the LOTR troupe. He's emerged as the poor girl's Brad Pitt, which isn't a bad place to find yourself. The smash hit Pirates of the Caribbean catapulted him onto the A list. But Pirates was really Johnny Depp's triumph-- Bloom could have been replaced by any one of a dozen Brit-sounding pretty boys, or at least by Heath Ledger. The biggest danger facing his career is that his teenaged fan base deserts him before he's established himself as a serious THES-pian. If he follows the DiCaprio game plan, he'll be fine. GRADE: A+.

Billy Boyd (Pippin):
When Boyd turned up as the coxswain in Master and Commander, possibly the best non-hobbit adventure film of the decade, the prognosis looked good. But that was a bit part, and Boyd has pretty much disappeared since then. He has a lead as a con man coming up in a comedy called Save Angel Hope, but for now, he's pretty much invisible. GRADE: D+.

Brad Dourif (Wormtongue):
Dourif has been around forever, usually showing up in scene-stealing cameos or straight-to-video releases. He's since turned up as Doc Cochran in HBO's excellent series Deadwood, where he'll be fine. GRADE: B.

Bernard Hill (Theoden):
Theoden was veteran character actor Bernard Hill's most high profile film role to date, and it's safe to say he knocked it out of the park. But Hill is what he is: a veteran character actor who makes a living in films whenever a casting agent needs a noble-sounding Brit who looks vaguely like Ernest Hemmingway. His upcoming parts in Boyd's Save Angel Hope and The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse will keep him in the gravy. GRADE: C.

Christopher Lee (Saruman):
Christopher Lee needed no career boost from LOTR; his legend among true film fans is secure. His reprise of Count Dooku in the new Star Wars film will further burnish his mantle of greatness. GRADE: A.

Ian McKellen (Gandalf):
That's Sir Ian McKellen to you, bub. McKellen has earned his marble bust in the Geek Hall of Fame with his turns as Gandalf and the X-Men series' Magneto, two of the highest-profile roles imaginable in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy. Sir Ian has nothing left to prove. GRADE: A.

Dominic Monaghan (Merry):
Monaghan at first looked like the odd hobbit out, but now he's sitting pretty with a starring role on a hit television series. His role as ex-rocker and lovestruck junkie Charlie on ABC's Lost has made his fans forget all about Merry Brandybuck, and that's no small feat-- pun intended. GRADE: A-.

Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn):
Ah, the tragedy of wasted potential. With his smoldering, humble performance as Aragorn of Arathorn, Mortensen did for his female Gen-X fans what Orlando Bloom did for teenaged girls-- gave them the screaming thigh-sweats. Out of all the cast, he had the greatest chance to vault into Harrison Ford-level superstardom. And then came Hidalgo-- which had a few fans, but proved to Hollywood that he couldn't open a picture. Mortensen is, however, a quick study. He has wisely opted out of the box office race to try his hand in artier fare, such as the new David Cronenberg picture A History of Violence and the Spanish-language adventure Alatriste. Like water, Mortenson will seek his own level. GRADE: C.

John Noble (Denethor):
This veteran Australian television actor is a little long in the tooth to vault to any new career heights, but he'll keep working in Australia and New Zealand as long as he wants to. GRADE: C-.

Miranda Otto (Eowyn):
Otto is now poised to become Cate Blachett's understudy-- the only question is whether she truly has the goods. Her pointless part in the pointless remake Flight of the Phoenix didn't help her, but starring opposite Tom Cruise in Spielberg's War of the Worlds ought to raise her stock a little. Plus, she's a babe. GRADE: B.

John Rhys-Davies (Gimli):
Rhys-Davies exists at the same level as Bernard Hill, with extra points for playing Sallah in the Indiana Jones films. He's beloved by geeks everywhere, he'll keep working until he's dead, and always in the same bit parts. GRADE: C.

Andy Serkis (Gollum/Smeagol):
You have to hand it to Serkis-- he parlayed a thankless job as the clown wearing the motion-capture suit into serious talk of a Best Supporting Actor nod for a role in which he almost never appears on screen. Now he's back wearing the goofy motion-capture suit for Peter Jackson's King Kong, and you have to wonder if he'll do anything besides wear goofy motion-capture suits ever again. GRADE: C+.

Hugo Weaving (Elrond):
His Elrond was a bit of a cold fish, and we all got sick of Agent Smith by the end of the third Matrix film. But my hat's off to anybody who winds up with big parts in two epic fantasy trilogies simultaneously. Before LOTR and The Matrix, Weaving's highest-profile role was as a drag queen in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Now "Misssster AN-derssson" has entered the pop culture lexicon. Upcoming projects include films with Jackie Chan (downgrade) and Cate Blanchett (upgrade). GRADE: B+.

Liv Tyler (Arwen):
She had the worst role in the Trilogy, she can't really act, and her beauty will only carry her so far. My advice is to land a television series quickly. Boston Legal will take anybody, it seems. GRADE: D.

Karl Urban (Eomer):
In a low-key, non-Orlando Bloom kind of way, Urban has quietly established himself in Hollywood. Vaulting from an unknown Kiwi into the star of the upcoming $70 million production Doom, that ain't too bad. The movie will probably suck, but still. GRADE: B+.

David Wenham (Faramir):
Wenham has wisely gone back to his native Australia to build his career from the ground up. Starring roles in two Australian films, The Proposition and Three Dollars, will give him a leg up. He's too old to become the next Mel Gibson, but ought to be able to live off of Russell Crowe's table scraps. GRADE: C+.

Elijah Wood (Frodo):
If any of this cast was in danger of becoming the Mark Hamil of LOTR, it was Wood. He must have lain awake at night wondering if he would be forever typecast as the tousle-haired, moist-eyed hobbit with the Christ complex. He's fought against this inevitability by taking wonderful cameos in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Sin City, and he's soon set to star in Liev Schrieber's directorial debut Everything is Illuminated. I would have cast him as Jimmy Olsen in the upcoming Superman movie, but that's me. GRADE: B+.

J.R.R. Tolkien (author):
Still dead, and selling more books than ever. GRADE: A+.