REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘voiceover narration’

AVATAR (2009)

In A, Action, Adventure, Epic, Motion Pictures, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on July 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSam Worthington, Sigourney WeaverZoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, Wes Studi

DIRECTORJames Cameron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Following the success of Titanic, James Cameron took some time off from making movies. Oh, he produced an IMAX documentary about the doomed ocean liner, but when it came to his next dramatic film, he had an idea which he claimed would be ground-breaking. It would take place on a mysterious forest planet called Pandora, made with as-yet invented technologies in CGI and motion capture. It promised to be more expensive than Titanic, take years to complete, and it would do it all in 3-D. Finally, in December 2009, Avatar bowed. It was everything Cameron said it would be, and it eventually shattered box office records.

Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine veteran recruited to replace his late twin brother Tom, a scientist, on Pandora, a lush moon orbiting a gas giant light-years from Earth. On Pandora, a major corporation has set up a mining operation for a substance called unobtanium. But the indigenous population, a ten-foot tall humanoid species called the Na’vi, are intent on protecting their home, so a paramilitary defense presence, headed by Colonel Quatrich (Stepen Lang) is required. To provide a more diplomatic solution, exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called “avatars”, which are “driven” via mnemonic transfer, in order to interact with the Na’vi more easily. Despite Augustine’s protests (she wanted a PhD and not a grunt), Jake becomes part of the team.

Jake Sully and Norm Spellman (Sam Worthington, Joel David Moore) on their first expedition in their avatar bodies

Now, just in case you are among the dozen or so people left on this planet who have yet to see this movie, I will stop here. Avatar is one of those movies that, no matter what you have heard about it, needs to be seen to believed. James Cameron spent over a decade developing this movie, and it shows. Visually, this is among most striking motion pictures ever released. It was filmed in 3-D from the word “Go”, but even in 2-D, it is a visual feast for the eyes. I had seen this movie in 3-D when it was released in December 2009, and I can tell you that there are few “3-D gimmicks” in the movie. This allows for fairly easy translation into the 2-D world upon which many of us still rely in our home entertainment systems. The CGI and motion-capture effects are so photorealistic, that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a physical set and a virtual one, even when you know which one you’re looking at.

True, James Cameron makes an eye-popping movie nearly every time out of the gate. His philosophy is that visual effects should enhance the story, not drive it. Here, however, the visual effects do both, but in such a way as to not be obvious. Does this mean it’s “the perfect movie”? No. There are flaws, some obvious, some subtle. For example, for a screenwriter, James Cameron is an excellent director. While the screenplay in this movie exceeds that of Titanic by leaps and bounds, it still has a few rough spots to stumble through in the telling of this story. For example, when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Sully’s avatar, her first instinct is to kill him (he is, after all, the enemy), but because of a “sign” from Eywa (the Na’vi deity), she takes him to her peoples’ village, instead. Overall, it was handled all right, but I feel this could’ve been written better.

Another weak point I noticed right away in this movie is its similarities with Dances With Wolves. Both feature a military man learning the culture of the indigenous people. Both have a romantic subplot between the military man and a prominent native woman (in the case of Dances With Wolves, she was a white woman adopted by the Sioux). Both have the military questioning the central character’s loyalties. And both feature Wes Studi (He was the “angry Pawnee” in Dances With Wolves, and in Avatar, he is the Na’vi leader and Neytiri’s father). These similarities were pointed out, by the way, prior to Avatar‘s release in this “South Park” episode (Caution: NSFW).

And what about the mining operation? I’m fairly certain more than a few people let out a snicker or two when they heard that the substance in question was called “unobtanium”. Well, as it turns out, as silly the name of this stuff is, this is not the first movie which uses the term (It was also used in 2003’s The Core). And it is based on the engineering term “unobtainium“, which was first coined in the 1950s. In Avatar, it’s a metallic grey substance that fetches “20 million a kilo”, and the largest deposit of it sits underneath the Na’vi village, known as Home Tree. Again, silly name, but it fits.

There has also been a recent “3-D backlash” of sorts because of this movie. Several movies this year which were released in 3-D, including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender, suffered from critical and popular derision, because these were originally regular (2-D) movies which were converted to 3-D in post-production. Interestingly enough, the 2-D versions of these movies fared better. These are just a few of the many cases of Hollywood trying to capitalize on a trend based on one very successful movie, and charging a higher admission for people to see it. But if too many of these “bad 3-D” movies come out, people will refuse to see all 3-D movies, even ones intended to be in 3-D, like Avatar. Are you listening, Hollywood? By changing the movie to take advantage of a trend, you are changing the director’s vision. Remember when you converted Gone With the Wind to CinemaScope in the 1960s? Yeah, that went over really well, too…

Avatar is a visual and aural feast, to be digested over and over. Even though it comes thisclose to being “Dances With Wolves in space”, it is still a ground-breaking motion picture, and one of the best science-fiction films to come along in years.

4 (out of 5)

THE LOVELY BONES (2009)

In Crime, Drama, L, Mystery on May 27, 2010 at 8:13 pm

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STUDIO – Paramount/Dreamworks SKG 

CAST – Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Michael Imperioli, Rachel Weisz, Saiorse Ronan, Rose McIver, Carolyn Dando 

DIRECTOR – Peter Jackson 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 

Peter Jackson seems to be a popular guy on my blog lately! 

I don’t mean this intentionally, yet in four short months, this is the fourth movie for which I have done a write-up with his name on it. Of the first three, he directed two of them (Heavenly Creatures, Dead-Alive), and the third (District 9) he produced. This time around, we take another imaginative step into the past to uncover a murder mystery in The Lovely Bones

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a 14-year-old girl in Norristown, Pennsylvania. She’s the oldest of three children, she wants to be a photographer, and she has a crush on a boy who’d just arrived from England. In other words, she is a normal adolescent in a quiet suburban community. But one day, on her way home time from school, she encounters George Harvey (Best Supporting Actor nominee Stanley Tucci), a doll house builder who lives down the street from the Salmons. She is neither seen nor heard from again.

A self-portrait of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan)

Peter Jackson’s eye for camera angles and visual effects makes for a visually striking movie, but I could not help noticing some similarities with his past work. What stood out for me was the metaphoric shifts between the real world, where Susie’s parents (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz) contend with the loss of their daughter, and the “purgatory” in which Susie resides were strongly reminiscent of Heavenly Creatures. Also, some of the “blink-and-you-miss-it” shots of Susie’s realm look strangely like locations from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (I guess it stands to reason, since Jackson filmed these scenes in his native New Zealand). Now, I’m not disparaging New Zealand at all. From what I understand, it is a lush, green country with some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. My concern is that the Kawarau Gorge may become to Peter Jackson movies what Vasquez Rocks is to Star Trek

There are some good performances in this movie, and some not-so-good. Tucci was particularly creepy as the killer, and Miss Ronan did well, too. But, as much as I like Wahlberg and Weisz, I could not get past the notion that they simply turned on their respective “grieving parent” switches for this one. And Susan Sarandon, another otherwise talented actress, was quite forgettable as the “helpful grandmother”, who just happens to have a whiskey glass and a cigarette in her hands every chance she gets. I’m sorry, but even her portrayal of Janet in Rocky Horror was better than this! To me, the best (and most understated) performance in this movie goes to newcomer Carolyn Dando, as the mysterious Ruth Connors, who seems to have the unique ability to “touch” Susie’s lost soul. It’s a fairly small role, but a meaty one, and Dando handled it well. Keep an eye on her; I think she may be going places. 

As for the script (co-written by Jackson and his wife/writing partner Fran Walsh), it seemed somewhat incomplete to me. It’s almost as if to say there is more to the story, and as an adaptation from a novel, this is usually the case. But still, I feel as if the clairvoyance angle of the story could have been better explained (at least, from the family’s point of view). Jackson’s employment of various symbolisms (nearly all of which are explained throughout the course of the movie) works for the most part, except for the icicles. I had a hard time wrapping my brain around that one; as a result, the ending left a somewhat bad taste in my mouth. 

The Lovely Bones is visually beautiful to watch, but it is far from a classic. To me, it plays out like a fictionalized version of Heavenly Creatures, only replace “repressed daughter” with “creepy single guy” and “mother” with “innocent teenager”, and place the murder at the beginning of the movie rather than at the end. I know Pater Jackson is a better filmmaker than this. I just hope his next project offers some redemption before he turns into New Zealand’s version of M. Night Shyamalan. 

IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME (1949)

In Classic, Comedy, I, Motion Pictures, Musical, Romance on May 16, 2010 at 9:15 am

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STUDIO – MGM

CAST – Judy Garland, Van Johnson, S.Z. Sakall, Spring Byington, Buster Keaton, Marcia Van Dyke, Clinton Sundberg, Lillian Bronson

DIRECTOR – Robert Z. Leonard

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: G)

When I recently opened my rented copy of The Shop Around the Corner, I popped it into my DVD player and discovered that You’ve Got Mail was the second remake of that movie. The first was redone as a musical set at turn of the 20th Century, and that it starred Judy Garland. So, I made a quick trip into my Netflix Queue and ordered In the Good Old Summertime and put it straight to the top of my list. Now, before I proceed any further, let me state that, with the notable exception of The Wizard of Oz and the occasional Andy Hardy serial, I had not seen any motion pictures starring Judy Garland until this point. Nothing against her; she just isn’t my cup of tea. Still, I pressed forward, bowl of popcorn in hand, and watched…

And I dare say I enjoyed this movie. In the Good Old Summertime is the same basic premise of The Shop Around the Corner, only instead of a contemporary department store in Budapest, it’s set in a music store in Chicago. Also, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The head clerk of the store is Andrew Larkin (Van Johnson), the boss is Otto Oberkugen (S.Z. Sakall), and the romantic interest/fly in the ointment is named Veronica Fisher (Garland). Replace the musical cigarette boxes with 100 table harps, throw in some slapstick, courtesy of Buster Keaton, and some old-tyme songs, and you have yet another Technicolor musical churned out by the factory known as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Veronica (Judy Garland) offers to "help" Albert (Van Johnson) deomonstrate a song for a customer

The basic story is the same, in some cases nearly word-for-word, but the pacing is actually better than the original. Van Johnson tries not to impersonate Jimmy Stewart, but in some scenes it’s easy to spot that “aw-shucks” quality for which Stewart was famous. Judy Garland proves that even marriage and a child haven’t rusted her pipes. In one scene, a frustrated Veronica is asked to demonstrate a Christmas song; she does so, but only going through the motions in the process. Even in that moment, it’s hard to dismiss her vocal talent.

Speaking of talent, I made discovery with this movie: Marcia Van Dyke. She is an accomplished singer and musician in her own right, and here she shows off one of those talents. Her character, Louise Parkson, lives in the same boarding house as Andrew, and she is a violinist, a damn good one. Several scenes showcase her talent, culminating in an audition for a scholarship in Leipzig, Germany (home of one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world). Van Dyke isn’t much of an actress, but where she lacks in that department, she more than makes up for it with a violin in her hand. And she was very easy on the eyes, too.

One of the things that I noticed in this movie is that many of the musical numbers, especially in the first half, were in 3/4 time (waltz tempo). Now, I’m a sucker for the waltz, but I think even Johann Strauss himself might have cried out “Okay! Okay! Enough with the waltzes! Let’s move on, shall we?” But overall, the music fit in well with the plot, with one minor exception. Okay, maybe not so minor. The bulk of the movie is set in the fall and winter, but MGM needed an excuse to use the song “In the Good Old Summer Time”, which was still a fairly popular tune nearly 50 years after its initial release. So, they bookended it with two brief scenes set in a park during the summer. I’m not sure how, but they managed to pull it off.  Oh, there is one more thing: At the very end of the movie, Veronica and Albert are strolling through the park with a little girl; that brief scene marks the (unofficial) motion picture debut of Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minelli.

The DVD comes with a pair of travelogue shorts about Chicago, one for day, one for night. Both are remarkable time capsules to a time that is now all but forgotten. The daytime tour features many fixtures of the skyline, including the Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, and the Drake Hotel, along with a parting shot of Buckingham Fountain. The nighttime featurette highlights some of the entertainment and night life aspects of the city, including a music hall frequented by the mayor, Martin H. Kennelly, as well as a dancing horse(!).

In the Good Old Summertime is a surprisingly fun movie to watch. MGM can be considered one of the few manufacturing corporations whose work was considered art, and this musical fits nicely into that fold. Remarkably, I found it at least as charming as The Shop Around the Corner. Up next, the conclusion of my three-part review. Stay tuned…

3-1/2 (out of 5)

THE BLIND SIDE (2009)

In B, Biography, Drama, Motion Pictures, Sports on May 11, 2010 at 10:43 pm

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.

CAST — Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Ray McKinnon, Jae Head, Lily Collins, Kathy Bates

DIRECTOR — John Lee Hancock

MPAA Rating: PG-13

In many parts of the United States, football is more than a sport; it’s practically a religion. This is especially evident through the South and Midwest, where college football reigns supreme. I can testify to this fact, as I have seen Bulldog-themed restaurants in Georgia, Longhorn-themed stores in Texas, and Cornhusker-themed everything in Nebraska. In fact, I can personally support the theory that life all but shuts down on Saturday afternoons in the fall in the state of Nebraska. After spending 16 years of my life there, I have brought back this observation: Go shopping in a department store during a Husker game, and life stands still while a play is in progress. When the ball is snapped, everyone stops in their tracks and listens intently to the radio broadcast (guaranteed to be on in at least 95% of the businesses in the state); if there’s a touchdown, they celebrate like they’re all guests of honor in a massive bachelor(ette) party. Then when the game goes to commercial, as if by magic, they go back to whatever they’re doing. It almost looks like a scene from the classic Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons” (Just watch through the first sct, and you’ll see what I mean). I do, of course, say this in jest, but it is still fascinating to witness.

There is no mistake in identifying passionate football fans. They support their favorite teams until the ends of the earth, even if they have been “rebuilding” for 15 years. They wear their hearts on their sleeve, their wardrobe is adorned with the team colors of their choice, their cars are littered with flags, decals, and other paraphernalia, and they even plan social events around the games! This is true of nearly all passionate sports fans, but college football fans really love their sport, and they really love their school, no matter where they live. Such is the case of Leigh Anne Tuohy, an Ole Miss graduate living in Memphis, Tennessee.

Michael Oher (Quiton Aaron, right) at Thanksgiving dinner with the Tuohys (from left, Lily Collins, Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Jae Head)

By now, I am sure that you have heard of Mrs. Tuohy, and the remarkable story of how she took in a kid from the wrong side of town because he had nowhere to go. That kid grew up to become Michael Oher of the Baltimore Ravens. They could not have been more different. She was an affluent, pretty, outspoken white woman with a family; he was a very large, very shy, very homeless black teenager with no ambition or direction in life. Yet, she took him into her home, fed him, clothed him, and guided him into becoming a young man who had found his destiny.

Okay, I’m not sure what has already been said about this movie, but I will say that, as sports movies go, this is one of the best I have seen in the last 20 years. One remarkable fact about The Blind Side is that it is the first motion picture with one actress billed above the title (by herself) to gross over $100 million. Now, I have had a soft spot for Sandra Bullock ever since she burst on the scene as the off-beat cop of the future in Demolition Man (1993). She is a quirky, slightly-left-of-normal girl next door, and I knew there was nothing but a bright career ahead for her. But never in a million years did I expect her to achieve serious critical acclaim, and I don’t think she did, either. When she co-starred in Crash (2004), things began to change. I noticed that Sandra Bullock was evolving from a movie star to an actress (there is a difference), and when you are an actor or actress who is also a movie star, really good things begin to happen.

The Blind Side contains fine performances from much of the cast, beginning with Bullock, who won Best Actress as Leigh Anne Tuohy. TIm McGraw was an agreeable Sean, and Quinton Aaron did very well, too. I did have one concern: Did Michael Oher, during the lost days of his youth, really lack intelligence, or did he just not care? Signs seem to point to the latter, and Aaron played from that angle fairly well (Although I did notice a few overly-vacuous spots in his performance). The breakout performance in this movie (to me, anyway) goes to Jae Head, who played Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy’s son, S.J. First of all, he had all the best lines (“Enough with the rugby shirts! You look like a giant bumble bee!”), and it was very easy to see he and Quinton Aaron bonded well. Also, watching S.J. coach Michael through drills is a sight to behold! Oh, one more cool fact about this movie: The college football coaches in the film are the real deal. Some had retired and others moved on to other positions, but yes, Virginia, that really was Lou Holtz you saw on the screen.

The Blind Side is a wonderful and inspirational story of generosity, love, and good ol’ Christian beliefs. And football. Lots of football. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, then get thee to your Queue and line it up!

4 out of 5

UP IN THE AIR (2009)

In Comedy, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, U on April 25, 2010 at 1:23 am

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STUDIO — Paramount

CAST — George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Sam Elliot 

DIRECTOR — Jason Reitman 

MPAA Rating: R 

If you are reading this review, you have been fired from a job. Whether you were a top-level executive at a Fortune 500 company or flipping burgers at Dairy Queen, somewhere in your lifetime at least one employer handed you a pink slip. It’s never fun. Personally, I have been fired twice in the last ten years. The second time was probably for the best, as it really wasn’t a good fit. But the first time was at a job that I had loved. The hours were bad, the pay was worse, and it was the most fun I’d ever had in my life. We’ve all experienced that, haven’t we? You get called into the office, and in that office, your supervisor/manager/galactic overlord of a boss hands you an envelope and tells you that your services are no longer required. It’s one thing when you are the only one being terminated. But what about those major corporations who lay off thousands of people at a time? In the last couple of years, we haven’t been able to go a week without hearing that Company X is cutting thousands of jobs. Did you ever wonder how they do that?

Natalie Keener, Alex Goran, and Ryan Bingham (Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, George Clooney) at the Miami Hilton

In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing specialist based out of Omaha, Nebraska. Ryan spends over 300 days a year flying all over the country to do one thing: fire people. And he is very good at what he does. He walks into an office somewhere in Corporate America, and the employees already know they are on borrowed time. Occasionally, he also does the odd speaking engagement, in which he asks his audience to place everything they own into an imaginary backpack and realize how heavy it is (a metaphor on the burdens of life). One day, he is called back to the home office; big things are on the on the horizon. On the way there, he meets Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another business traveler, and they form a fast… friendship. Back in Omaha, he is introduced to Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a hotshot young college graduate with a revolutionary new way to fire people, via the Internet. 

Seeing this as a threat to his very existence, Ryan convinces his boss (Jason Bateman) that Natalie needs a taste of what it’s like on the road before this new method of “introducing future possibilities” goes into effect. Soon, Natalie learns how hard it really is to fire a complete stranger, but she eventually finds her groove. Meanwhile, Alex reenters the picture and Ryan grows closer to her. 

To proceed further would spoil the movie, but I can say that Up in the Air is fine entertainment, and it has one of the best endings I have seen in recent memory. Clooney is perfect as Bingham, with his cocksure ways and his arrogance. It almost harkens back to his “heart throb” days when he was on “ER” (Wow, was that really 16 years ago?). I especially like the little moment (seen in the trailer) when Natalie is talking on the phone with her boyfriend, and Ryan overhears her saying “I don’t even think of him that way; he’s old”, prompting him to look in the nearest mirror! We all reach that age sooner or later, when we realize that we are no longer young (though we desperately try to keep thinking that way). Also, Farmiga and Kendrick (both Best Supporting Actress nominees) were great foils to Ryan’s personal and professional lives, respectively. 

There are plenty of messages in this movie: Never settle; The slower we move, the faster we die; Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams. I especially like that last one. It has given me pause to reevaluate my life (which admittedly is not that great) and made me think that I should try to get back on my career wagon again. It’s been a long time, but it’s what I was trained to do, and it’s what I love (and we all remember our true loves, right?). I am not at liberty to discuss this topic any further at this time, but I promise if anything comes of it, I will post it on my News page! Besides, I’m digressing (Gee, haven’t done that in a while). 

Up in the Air is a movie that I would dare say is a modern classic. The timing of its release, with the economic struggles of the last three years, could not have been more fortuitous. In fact, throughout the film, there are several cutaways depicting fired employees; these were real people who had recently lost their jobs (The actors, most notably J.K. Simmons, were the ones who interacted with Clooney and/or Kendrick). That dose of authenticity makes Up in the Air a wonderful time capsule of the turbulent first decade of the 21st Century. 

4 out of 5

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE (2009)

In Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, P on April 18, 2010 at 1:40 am

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STUDIO — Lions Gate 

CAST — Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton 

DIRECTOR — Lee Daniels 

MPAA Rating: R 

By now, I’m sure many of you have heard of the latest “next big thing” known as Gabourey Sidibe. I am here to tell you that the claim is justified. 

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire is the story of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Sidibe, in her motion picture debut), an overweight 16-year-old girl, pregnant with her second child by her father, and still in junior high school. As if life wasn’t already hard enough, she lives in a fifth-floor walk-up in Harlem with her mother, Mary (Academy Award winner Mo’Nique), an abusive monster of a woman whose sole purpose in life is to make nicey-nice with the social workers by using Precious’ mentally-disabled daughter as a means to keep the welfare checks coming in. 

When her school finds out about her second pregnancy, they have no choice but to expel her. But the principal reaches out by telling her of an alternative education program, where she can work toward a GED. There, she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who can see the inner beauty and intelligence within Precious and, bit by bit, helps her to discover it for herself.

Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) on her first trip to alternative education school

Within the first 15 minutes of this movie, I was taken in and I never let go. I have seen interviews with Gabby Sidibe; she is a charming, funny young lady with a bubbly personality. Her characterization of Precious Jones was so moving, it is very easy to see how she was very likely a strong runner-up in the Oscar race for Best Actress of 2009 (which went to one of my personal favorites, Sandra Bullock). Sidibe’s performance is so captivating, it is truly hard to believe that we are actually watching (to borrow a college football term) a redshirt freshman in the role. I can only see bigger and better things for her down the road. And one might dismiss the movie altogether because the supporting cast features three singers (Paula Patton, Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey) and a comedienne (Mo’Nique), but think again. Mo’Nique may have taken home the Oscar, but it was Mariah Carey(!) who really surprised me as social worker Ms. Weiss. Here she is, with no makeup and wearing frumpy clothes, and she looked and acted so much like a real social worker, I almost forgot this was one of the most popular (and most glamorous) singers of the last 20 years! And director Lee Daniels’ cutaways into the fantasy worlds which Precious creates whenever she is abused, whether by her father, her mother, or even some punks on the street, gives us, the viewers, a look into how an abuse victim mentally escapes from the pain, even during the act.

This movie is about the vicious cycle that is the depravity of inner city life, and how one woman gave a girl quickly slipping on that downward spiral the gift of literacy and, ultimately, the power to step out on her own and make a new life for herself and her children. But it was more than just having the right people help her; it’s also a story of finding inner strength. And where there is strength, there is courage, and it is in courage that one develops a positive self-esteem.

The DVD is packed with several features, including Gabby Sidibe’s mesmerizing audition video. Did you know that over 400 women auditioned for the part in a nationwide open call? Did you know that filming of Denzel Washington’s American Gangster (2007) blocked Sidibe’s normal route to school, so she decided to go in the opposite way to the audition instead? Did you know that executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signed on to promote the movie after the movie was completed? That last little fact debunks the theory that, since Oprah put her name on the project, her show had to be mentioned in the movie. Sorry. While it’s true Precious asks another character if she watches Oprah, the all-powerful Ms. Winfrey had nothing to do with it.

Precious is a gripping and moving motion picture with a powerful message that there is strength in each of us to find the ability to reach out, to love, to learn, and to improve ourselves, all in the face of adversity. There aren’t many films that reach into the bowels of despair, yet convey a strong message of hope. This movie succeeds, and with a payoff for the ages.

3-1/2 out of 5

HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

In Biography, Crime, Drama, H, Motion Pictures on April 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm

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STUDIO — Miramax 

CAST — Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Pierse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison, Simon O’Connor 

DIRECTOR — Peter Jackson 

MPAA Rating: R 

A reader from New Zealand dropped a request in my lap: Review some of Peter Jackson’s early work. So, I threw a couple of darts at the wall, and one of them landed on Heavenly Creatures, Jackson’s take on the friendship between Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, both in their big-screen debuts), from the time they met at school in 1952, until their murder of Pauline’s mother, Honora, in June 1954. 

The movie starts as a sort of travelogue of Christchurch, New Zealand, an idyllic city which boasts friendly people, beautiful surroundings, and lots of bicycles. Suddenly, we lurch to a moment of terror: Two young ladies running through the woods, screaming in panic and covered in blood. From that moment, we are taken back in time to when these two girls first met at an all-girls preparatory school two years earlier. Right away, the dynamic between these two becomes very apparent. Pauline is very imaginative, but shy and withdrawn, while Juliet is adventurous, outgoing and worldly. But they form a bond right away because both girls had debilitating illnesses when they were young (Pauline had osteomyelitis, and Juliet had tuberculosis), and they became fast friends. 

Juliet and Pauline (Kate Winslet, Melanie Lynskey) on Easter Sunday, 1953

Prior to making this movie, Peter Jackson was best known for making low-budget horror movies. But when his wife suggested that he try his hand at a movie based on one of most infamous crimes in New Zealand history, little did she know that it would lead him to bigger and better things. But the two of them sat down and wrote the script, using writings from Pauline’s diary as a guide (The title even comes from a passage in the diary). Heavenly Creatures doesn’t focus on the murder and the trial, which were sensational in their own right, but rather it paints a portrait of the two girls’ friendship, the intensity of which brought concerns from both families that they were becoming a homosexual couple (considered a mental disorder at the time). Whether Pauline and Juliet were lovers remains under debate, that aspect of their relationship is explored in a surprisingly innocent way in this movie. 

There is a lot to talk about in Heavenly Creatures. Jackson’s skill as a director becomes apparent in this movie. He weaves a tale in both the real and imaginary worlds, and in such a way as to illustrate how Pauline and Juliet’s friendship grew stronger with each passing day. We, the viewers, are swept into this imaginary “Fourth World”, where James Mason and Mario Lanza are saints, and the girls are king and queen of the fantasy land of Borovnia. Soon, it becomes difficult to see where the real world ends and the imaginary one begins, especially when Pauline and Juliet begin to believe their parents (Pauline’s mother and Juliet’s father, specifically) are conspiring to separate them. 

For the then-newcomers Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, this was a great debut for both of them. Lynskey’s shy and secluded Pauline was both painful and captivating, and Winslet proved she had star power from the second Juliet entered the classroom for the first time. Both of them were perfectly cast for this movie, and both of them have become well-known actresses as a result. They both displayed the youthful exhuberance necessary for girls of that age, as well as their characters’ obsession for each other, and their chemistry together was nearly perfect. 

Heavenly Creatures was shot on location in Christchurch. In fact, Peter Jackson went to great lengths to use as many actual sites of the events portrayed, including the now-demolished tea room where Honora ate her last meal. This lends a degree of authenticity to the movie and holds the viewer’s attention throughout. By the third act, Pauline and Juliet’s friendship had become so close, they began to take on each other’s behaviors, but to devastating effect. Pauline grew so confident so quickly, she overcompensated by lashing out at her mother. And when Juliet’s parents announced they were breaking up, she started suffering from separation anxiety. And this is merely the beginning of what became the two girls’ final act. 

Heavenly Creatures is a look at one of the world’s most shocking crimes of the 20th Century, one I would consider as notorious in New Zealand as Starkweather is in Nebraska, and Manson in California. I do not make this statement lightly, nor does Peter Jackson try to make light of it. Instead, we see two friends willing to do anything for each other, only in this case it went too far. 

3-1/2 out of 5

GOODFELLAS (1990)

In Action, Biography, Crime, Drama, G, Motion Pictures on April 9, 2010 at 1:49 pm

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STUDIO — Warner Bros.   

CAST — Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco  

DIRECTOR —  Martin Scorsese  

MPAA Rating: R   

There is so much I can say about this movie, except that it has most likely already been said before. Goodfellas is, of course, on my short list of favorite motion pictures and, as I did with Patton, I will recount my experience by checking out the two-disk Special Edition of this movie.  

When I received Disk One, I literally watched this movie three times. First, I had to watch the movie itself, which is something of which I will never tire. The kinetic energy throughout this masterpiece grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until long after you’ve seen it (but more on that in a minute). Sure, there are some anachronistic gaffs here and there (A teenaged Henry Hill selling Black Market cigarettes with UPC barcodes on the cartons — in 1959!), but every performance, every characterization, gave me a sense of what life must have been like in the Mafia during its heyday. The whole first half of the movie shows the glamour, the connections, the camaraderie, and the partying, while the second half follows a steady descent into Hell, with drug addiction, greed, murder, and paranoia.  

Goodfellas recounts the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a half-Italian/half-Irish gangster associated with the infamous Lucchese crime family, and how he met up and partnered with two other mobsters, portrayed here as Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Academy Award winner Joe Pesci). As you may have guessed by my last statement, some of the names were changed for the purposes of making this movie. Does this diminish the quality of this movie? Not in the least. Anyway, all three performances were mesmerizing, especially Pesci’s. His performance as Tommy was cemented in the now-infamous “You’re a funny guy” scene, and it sustained all way through.  

Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) enjoy a night on the town

 Also of note (especially for you fans of  “The Sopranos”) is Lorraine Bracco as Henry’s wife, Karen, and a brief appearance by Michael Imperioli in one of his first film roles, as Spider. Another face to watch for is Samual L. Jackson in one of his quieter roles, as Stacks Edwards. Look for a few famous faces as well, including Jerry Vale, Robbie Vinton (as his father, Bobby), and comedian Henny Youngman, in one of his final film appearances.  

Okay, by now, I’m sure you’re asking “Why the subsequent screenings?” Well, there are two commentary tracks, “Crook and Cop” and “Cast and Crew”. In the “Crook and Cop” commentary, Henry Hill and U.S. District Attorney Ed McDonald (who placed Henry and his family into the Witness Protection Program — and plays himself in the movie) give their insight to the events portrayed in the film from both of their unique perspectives. Hill would fill in some gaps in the story or explain why or how something happened, while McDonald talked about how difficult it really was to pin convictions on some of these wiseguys, problems with surveillance, and how the FBI employed what became known as the “Al Capone strategy” for getting a conviction: If you can’t get them for murder, get them for something else.  

The “Cast and Crew” commentary doesn’t cover the entire length of the movie; whole sections of the movie are skipped during the “silent” parts. But, Scorsese, producer Irwin Winkler, co-writer Nicholas Pileggi, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and cast members Liotta, Pesci, De Niro, Bracco, and Paul Sorvino, among others, all talk about their own perspectives on the making of this movie. Did you know that Ray Liotta and Henry Hill met up for a drink after the film’s release, and each was star-struck to meet the other face-to-face? Did you know that, as written, Goodfellas has no climax? And remember when I said this movie doesn’t let go? Well, did you know that Paul Sorvino, who had struggled for months to find his character, initially hated the completed film? It took a few hours afterward before he realized how great it really was.  

The second disk has a few documentaries, including a short with Henry Hill, called “The Workaday Gangster”. In it, he tells us, the audience, that the essence of what we see in Goodfellas is “99% accurate” from his perspective. Another features several directors influenced by Scorsese and/or Goodfellas, including Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and others. As a special treat, there’s even a four-minute snippet called “Paper Is Cheaper Than Film”, which literally illustrates how Martin Scorsese visualized some of the shots by writing notes and thumbnail sketches on the shooting script. 

Many people have argued for years which of Scorsese’s movies is his best. Some say it’s Raging Bull. Others would say Taxi Driver. Another camp might even cry out, “Well, The Departed won Best Picture”. Then there’s the Casino crowd. Exciting, visceral, unflinching, and unrelenting, Goodfellas is not only a classic gangster movie, it is a film for the ages. And to me, this is the epitome of Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking career. 

OUT OF AFRICA (1985)

In Adventure, Best Picture Winners, Drama, Motion Pictures, O, Romance on March 30, 2010 at 12:31 am

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STUDIO — Universal 

CAST — Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Kitchen, Iman 

DIRECTOR —  Sydney Pollack 

MPAA Rating: PG 

In the summer of 1986, I was a strapping young lad of 21, stationed at Camp Red Cloud, in Uijongbu, South Korea. I had a girlfriend at the time named Lynda; she was also in the Army. One day, we were walking by the AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange Services) movie theatre on post, when I noticed that Out of Africa was playing. I had heard it just won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, so I suggested to Lynda we go see it. To this day, Out of Africa remains as the only motion picture I had paid to see in a cinema which made me fall asleep. 

Naturally, one can understand my resistance to screen this movie again. But it was placed on my Request List, and I figured it was better to get it over with early on. Well, after watching it again with fresh eyes (and staying awake through the whole thing), I came away with a somewhat surprising opinion of this movie: It’s not as bad as I remember! 

Okay, hear me out. My memories of seeing it in Korea were those of disappointment, to say the least. Visually, Out of Africa is stunning, but the story had about as much “oomph” in it as an Andy Disk right hook. But today, I am different man than I was then. I am more open-minded, wiser, and more… seasoned. And on that note, let’s get into how I see Out of Africa today. 

Karen (Meryl Streep) entertains Denys (Robert Redford) at dinner

The movie stretches over many years, beginning in 1913, when a young Danish lady named Karen (Meryl Streep, in one of her myriad Oscar-nominated roles) enters into a relationship with a Swedish gentleman, Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). He brings her to Kenya, marries her, and they settle onto a nice, large plot of land for their cattle ranch coffee plantation. It quickly becomes a loveless marriage, and Karen is left in charge of the property, while her husband traipses around the far reaches of the Serengeti. Meanwhile, a somewhat free-spirited big-game hunter named Denys Finch Hatten (Robert Redford) quickly becomes enamored with her, and the two soon form a bond. 

If you are looking for action, this isn’t the movie to see. The most thrilling parts involve lions on the hunt, of which there are three, but then again, this is a romantic movie. Without a doubt, Out of Africa is a so-called “chick-flick”, even going so far as to follow certain modern romantic movie formulae. On the other hand, if you are in film school taking a course in cinematography, this movie is required viewing. If there is one good thing I can say about Out of Africa, it’s that it is one of the most beautifully filmed motion pictures I have ever seen, and I doubt few movies will ever top it (Another movie in this elite category is 1990’s Dances With Wolves). 

And speaking of Dances With Wolves, the musical score has a recognizable sound to it. That is because those sweeping violins you hear come from the trademark style of John Barry, who understandably received his third Oscar for musical score (and fourth overall) for his work in this film. As for the script, it is a good one, though some parts found me checking the time upon occasion. Meryl Streep’s performance was very good, and I have a lot of respect for the character she plays in this movie. Here, Karen is portrayed as an independent woman who was willing to work alongside her field workers; I have a lot of respect for bosses who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Robert Redford is charming enough, and he was still a major box office draw in 1985, but I get the feeling the part might have been better served going to Mel Gibson, who at the time was just coming into his own in America, and a “serious” movie at that time would’ve proven him a capable actor who could do more than Mad Max. 

If this movie were to be remade today (2010), I get the feeling that Kate & Leo would reunite to do it. As it stands, with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, I got the impression of an “off -the-rack” suit in a tailor-made environment, which I think is the primary weakness of Out of Africa; mediocre chemistry between the leads can hurt a film like this, and in this case, it did. Still, it makes for a beautiful postcard for the African continent, and even 25 years later, women will still swoon over the sparkle in Redford’s blue eyes. 

SAVING SILVERMAN (2001)

In Comedy, Crime, Motion Pictures, Romance, S on March 20, 2010 at 11:00 pm

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STUDIO — Columbia

CAST — Jason Biggs, Jack Black, Steve Zahn, Amanda Peet, R. Lee Ermey, Neil Diamond

DIRECTOR —  Dennis Dugan

MPAA Rating: PG-13
(Uncut version Rated R)

Have you noticed lately how some sports venues have taken to playing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” late in the game as a means of rallying the fans? I know, it sounds really strange, but I think this movie has a lot to do with it.

In  Saving Silverman, three friends, Wayne (Steve Zahn), J.D. (Jack Black), and Darren (Jason Biggs), make up a street-performing Neil Diamond tribute band called Diamonds in the Rough. All three are big fans; Wayne even claims his mother went into labor with him during a Neil Diamond concert! After one of their performances, they go to a local watering hole, where Wayne spots a beautiful woman (Amanda Peet) and talks Darren into chatting her up. Right away, she asserts herself onto Darren, and right away, Wayne and J.D. realize she’s a threat to their friendship.

Wayne (Steve Zahn, right) and J.D. (Jack Black) attempt to persuade Judith (Amanda Peet) to break up with their friend, Darren Silverman

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Darren is the Silverman in the title of this movie, a sometimes too-broad comedy that reaches too far into the depths of low-brow to deliver its gags. Much of the comedy in this movie was formulaic, telegraphed as much as a minute ahead of the payoff. Don’t get me wrong, here. I liked Jason Biggs in the American Pie movies, and in this movie, he continues his bumbling charm with appeal. And I also like Steve Zahn; his break-out role in That Thing You Do! is among the most memorable in that movie. As for Jack Black, I confess I am not as familiar with his work, but I do know he does have the ability to charm underneath that oafish appearance of his.

So what happened here? In my opinion, too much happened here. Judith is a psychiatrist who has absolutely no problem showing off her cleavage (and, based on what I can tell about the character, her readiness to assault the first man who notices it). Amanda Detmer plays Sandy, Darren’s “one and only”, who had recently left the circus after a tragic trapeze accident in order to… become a nun(?). Then there’s R. Lee Ermey. That’s right, ol’ Gunny himself makes an appearance as a high school football coach who was imprisoned for manslaughter after he accidentally skewered a referee with the down marker during a game. Finally, we have Neil Diamond himself, who inexplicably agrees to help our heroes in the third act, despite the fact that he had a restraining order against them. Tell me, does any of this make sense to you?

Okay, it is, after all, a movie. But the plot is supposed to have some logic to it, right? Only Darren turns appears to have any depth of character to him. Wayne and J.D. are little more than baffoons, Judith acts like an overcaffeinated queen bee, and Sandy was way too bubbly to be a convincing nun in training. Of all the supporting characters, only Coach was engaging enough to be funny. From all appearances, R. Lee seemed to relish the opportunity to commit a bit of self-parody by using his famous “gung-ho” attitude to great comedic effect. It’s too bad the rest of the cast did not follow suit.

Saving Silverman tries to be funny, and it tries to be sincere. Unfortunately, it came up short in both departments.