Movie Reviews by Paul Preston
Reviews in alphabetical order
AMERICAN DREAMZ (***)
Paul Weitz, the brain behind the “American Pie” movies slides from the tasteless to a sincere attempt at broad satire with “American Dreamz”, a comedy setting out to skewer “American Idol”, George W. Bush and his administration, terrorists, and society in general. This is a tall order, and it never seems like the movie goes far enough, but it does generate enough parody to satisfy. Dennis Quaid gets the job of playing the Commander in Chief, who one morning reads the newspaper and is at once both surprised and depressed by the knowledge he had up till then been sheltered from. Would that W. would have a similar awakening. The main contention of the film is that more Americans concern themselves with voting for the next pop star than voting for President. The two worlds collide when the President hooks up an appearance on the film’s version of “Idol”, “American Dreamz”. The other major plots of the film concern a young girl’s discovery as the newest contestant on the show and a young Arab’s attempt to win the show’s crown as well, bucking his lot in life as a terrorist. The strongest asset of this film is how it portrays reality TV as having no regard for human emotion and, ultimately, human life. Mandy Moore continues a promising career as an actress with her role here. I hope she keeps popping up in challenging films, as opposed to going the route of an actual “American Idol”. With her youth and pop sensibility (and following), she could easily lapse into lightweight romantic comedies. I hope she sticks with more projects like this and “Saved!”. In the end, everything “American Dreamz” satirizes DEFINITELY has it coming. For that, it’s worth seeing.
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (***1/2)
Al Gore stars in this engaging documentary about global warming’s impact on Earth. Seriously, Al Gore…engaging. Yes, I did use those words in the same sentence. Director Davis Guggenheim followed Gore around the country while Gore was touring his media-enhanced lecture on the dangers of global warming. When Gore was a Tennessee Senator, I thought he was Mr. Cool, appearing on talk shows like The Dennis Miller Show, plugging his books on the environment. Gore came off as really hip and he never really spoke like a politician. But something happened when he became Vice President, he became famous for being wooden and boring. And he seemed to live the fame, goofin’ on his own stolid image and apparently putting his environmental plan on a back burner during the Clinton administration. This was particularly disappointing to me because there weren’t many politicians that spoke plainly to folks like me without filtering the words through political rhetoric. You know that face politicians put on when they “talk”. John Edwards has it. I like what he’s saying, but he puts on that phony “caring” face when he says it, losing all credibility. Just TALK to us, for the love of god!! I’m happy to say that years after he has left office and taken the slap in the face that was the 2000 election, Al Gore is makin’ it plain again. He is talking to us again in passionate and compelling terms about the subject that put him in the spotlight in the first place. The result is “An Inconvenient Truth”, a convincing and persuasive account of society’s negative effect on the global climate. “Truth” finds a place next to “United 93” as another quality film that raised my social awareness. I left “United 93” upset, but “Truth” has a unique end credit sequence that lays out actions everyone in the theater can take that work towards combating the global warming effect. During the film, Gore lays out proof of climate change throughout the world, from the thinning snows of Kilimanjaro to the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. The credible footage is delivered in graphs, video footage and animation, but it’s Gore who sells it. He elevates the lecture from mere facts to urgent information, and he lays down a solid case for acting now to recognize and rectify this worldwide dilemma. It’s a eye-opening film.
THE DA VINCI CODE (**1/2)
I don’t read a lot of novels. When I have time to read a book, I usually find myself sitting down with something like a Michael Moore book or “Fast Food Nation”. Rarely am I reading a narrative story, but something compelled me to read “The Da Vinci Code” before the movie came out. This is one of the most popular books of the new century and I wanted in before they made it a film. I gotta tell you, it makes me want to read more books, ‘cause it was great! It was a page-turner that I absolutely could not put down and all those other book-review go-to quips. Loved it. Then I realized why I don’t read a lot of novels. Because the old adage is right: the book is way better than the movie. I love movies. I love the “Harry Potter” movies for example, and all I ever hear is that they’re not nearly as good as the book. But…I love the MOVIE. So, that doesn’t bode well for me reading these novels that will ruin them. It’s a twisted theory I know, but one of the first times I’ve read the book, here with “The Da Vinci Code”, the movie just doesn’t match up. Director Ron Howard is a good choice to handle the expanse of the material, but not perhaps a subversive enough filmmaker to really enliven the book’s pages of foundation-shaking facts on screen. One problem Howard falls into is pacing. The book has loads of fascinating facts at the beginning. Pages of exposition full of twists, turns and, again, exposition. The movie moves all too quickly at this point, yet slows down, WAY down, towards the end when the film should be speeding towards a tidy conclusion. The movie (and book) poses numerous theories of interest, most notably, that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ lover. The evil bastards (apparently) in the Catholic Church don’t want this information revealed for fear of the Church losing power. This information is brought to light by Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a symbologist, and Sophie (Audrey Tatou) as they investigate an unusual murder at The Louvre in France. There are even more outlandish, yet totally entertaining theories brought to light in “The Da Vinci Code”, but the movie seems to forget to have fun with those facts. It’s just a dour trip. Hanks looks like he’s having the least fun, giving one of his most lackluster performances. The script also made his character more of a skeptic than Langdon was in the book, lending the character to be less excited (even less excited than me) about what was going on. Ian McKellen (an asset to ANY movie) comes aboard mid-way through and breathes some excitement into the story, but the overall picture is missing the danger, scope and passion of the book. The book is a must-read, but the film version of “The Da Vinci Code” is a sorta-if-you-have-time-and-if-you-haven’t-seen-“Cars”-read.
Another guy who needs a great film AND a box office hit is my favorite actor of all time, Harrison Ford. “Firewall” isn’t that film. He plays a high-tech bank security expert who is forced to withdraw money for a group of criminals or HIS FAMILY WILL PAY. There’s an interesting choice made by Ford’s character that’s similar to Mel Gibson’s character in “Ransom” where he seems to risk putting his family in even MORE jeopardy by challenging the criminals’ intentions. This jacks up the machismo, but the movie never really elevates to a point where it’s compelling. And the goofiest of plot points involves the criminals, for some reason, including Ford’s DOG in the kidnapping, and it works against them. It would’ve worked, too, if it wasn’t for that meddling dog. The great Mary-Lynn Rajskub is fun in a supporting part, basically playing a toned-down version of Chloe from “24”. Ford is still convincing in his part, it’s good casting in that he’s still an everyman, not a superhero, and in his sixties he still fights GREAT, taking and delivering punches so I feel them sitting in my seat. Actually, Paul Bettany is fun to watch, too, as Mr. Slick kidnapper/extortionist. In the end, all these good actors just need a story not so overflowing with typical kidnapping elements like phone arguments and sympathetic kidnappers. Ford needs more prestige projects. I regret the day I found out he turned down Michael Douglas’ role in “Traffic”. That would’ve been more meaty than his last six movies combined. Next up for Ford, a Civil War drama. We’ll see. I hope it’s got a great director.
INSIDE MAN (***)
For “Intolerable Cruelty”, the Coen Brothers teamed with Brian Grazer and created one of their least enjoyable films. I can only presume that their style was lost when they didn’t stick to producing the film themselves. Now Spike Lee has teamed up with Grazer for “Inside Man”, and I immediately feared there’d be a loss of the normal style Lee brings to his films. Don’t get me wrong, Grazer is a great producer, but he’s traditional, slick and slightly homogenized. Lee, not so much. So it is to my great surprise that I find Lee and Grazer’s collaboration to be an exciting, unique heist film. Denzel Washington, Hollywood’s sure-thing leading man, is a detective who has to pull out all his hostage negotiation tricks when a bank robbery leads to a standoff. The Great Clive Owen plays the ringleader of the bank robbery. His performance is so good (in an increasingly good resume) that I found myself rooting for the criminal, This isn’t the first time a film has presented the sympathetic or empathetic criminal, but it works here. The heist story is told very well, but the film also explores some plotlines outside the main story. They are not as interesting, but I was intrigued by the stabs Lee took at post-9/11 NY racism, still alive and well in the subcultures of Spike Lee films. There was an attempt made to present Jodie Foster’s character as really mysterious and tied into some major power firm in NY City, but instead she just came off as strange and unreal, despite the usual good performance from Ms. Foster. So, come for the great performances, stay for the heist and I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in this film. With “Inside Man”’s critical and financial success, I’m curious to see if Spike Lee stays a bit mainstream, or ducks back into the world of indie cinema.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3 (***)
With all of his wacky antics in the Hollywood, I really didn’t want to like Tom Cruise’s latest film. After being obnoxious on talk show after talk show, I really didn’t want to like Tom Cruise’s latest film. After his spouting Scientologist gobbledygook with annoying righteousness, I REALLY didn’t want to like Tom Cruise’s latest film. However, I did. Dammit, I did. It’s a flashy, slick slam-bang action movie that is much more engaging than the last two films of this series. Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt to thwart an arms dealer, and rescue his fiancée. At the helm, co-writing and directing this time is J.J. Abrams, known for his TV shows like “Alias” and “Lost”. He shows a very assured style, never letting the story get out of hand, and keeping the visual style flashy and exciting. Particularly amazing are a couple of action scenes involving a shoot-out at a warehouse and flying through the air and across skyscraper rooftops in Beijing. Seeing as how the story in the first “Mission: Impossible” movie was an unintelligible mess, having a coherent plot this time out is a very welcome asset. And the action here is less ludicrous than in John Woo’s “Mission: Impossible 2”. A good example is the masks, which duplicate another person’s face. They were very prominent in “M:I 2”, being pulled off every two seconds, revealing new identities underneath. Their plausibility was really in question and they were rather overused. In “M:I 3”, the idea of these masks is still pretty outrageous, but we get introduced to how they’re made, and it turns out that it’s INTERESTING. Any time this franchise goes into detail on how all the spy hardware works, it’s fun. There’s just a great confidence in how the action and espionage goes about its business in “M:I 3”, which is surprising given that it’s Abrams’ first feature. He’s re-vitalized this series, hopefully he’ll stay with the big screen a while.
NANNY McPHEE (**1/2)
This movie is filled with magic. But I had to ask myself why there was so much magic in it. That answer is never really given. But hey, apparently there is no sense to be made of “Syriana”’s script, but that didn’t prevent Richard Roeper from putting it at #1 on his Top Ten of 2005 list. I, for one, need a complex plot like “Syriana” to make sense, but for “Nanny McPhee”, I gave it a bit of a pass. My wife liked it more than I did, and it prompted us to talk about the film for far longer than I expected to after a kid’s Nanny movie. The story, written by Emma Thompson, involves a widower who has grown apart from his kids, and they rebel by driving away nanny after nanny. Eventually, the fates lure the widower to bring in Nanny McPhee, who rustles up some magic to bring the kids in line. Not an entirely new concept, but by the end I was still drawn in somehow. I’m sure it had to do with the caliber of actor in most every role – Colin Firth, Thompson, Angela Lansbury and the Great Derek Jacobi and Imelda Staunton slummin’ in it supporting comedic roles. They’re all great. Something about the unashamed passion for magic that this film exhibits is contagious and ends up pulling off a movie I didn’t think would connect at all. There are certainly clunky moments, especially one involving a bad CGI donkey that was overdone and a few sound effects that aren’t necessary. NOTE TO FILMMAKERS: Sound effects only work for comedic effect in cartoons. Period.
THE PINK PANTHER (*1/2)
This uninspired remake pretty much played out exactly as I expected. Steve Martin is miscast, however, rather funny in a supporting role is Kevin Kline, who probably would’ve knocked the part of Clouseau out of the park. There’s a distinct difference between what made Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau funny and what makes Steve Martin’s numbskull characters funny. Martin’s made a career out of playing outwardly, boldly stupid characters. Clouseau was made more sly by Sellers. Still stupid, and causing outrageous situations, but he wasn’t as brazen about it. I think Kline would’ve found that note, whereas Martin’s Clouseau bounds about this film loudly and proudly being dumb, and it just doesn’t work as effectively. Based on the big box office returns this film cranked out, I’m guessing a lot of younger people checked it out and haven’t been exposed to the original Pink Panther films. If you love the old ones, this will pale by comparison. We’re also delivered another wet-paper-plate performance by Beyonce Knowles, who should probably stick to singing. Well, dancing. Well…posters. I’ll give her posters. And modeling. I also want to talk about Steve Martin’s career for a second. Here’s one of my favorite comedians of all time, and he’s enjoying the best box office success he’s had since the ‘70s. He’s had hits with “Bringing Down the House”, “Cheaper by the Dozen” and it’s sequel and “The Pink Panther”. I just wish he would rebound to box office stardom with better films, don’t you?
Despite directing “In The Line of Fire” and “Troy”, Wolfgang Petersen is close to becoming a genre artist. His genre? Adventure on the high seas! This is the director of “Das Boot” and “The Perfect Storm” and now he tackles another big budget epic in remaking “The Poseidon Adventure”. Once again I’ll bring up that successful movies needn’t be remade. If they just can’t live with themselves shooting an original script, producers should be looking for old films that didn’t quite work or films way, WAY off the beaten path that deserve a second go-round at finding an audience. I remember “The Poseidon Adventure” quite well. It was pretty cornball ‘70s disaster fluff, but I can’t forget Gene Hackman’s earnest performance, that classic fall-into-the-skylight stunt, and Shelley Winters swimming to save the day. Unfortunately, the only thing worth remembering this time around are the impressive visual effects. Nothing else in this dud holds water. The Great Kurt Russell, so good in “Dreamer” and “Miracle”, was no doubt looking for a return to box office stature here, but he’ll have to keep waiting. I hear he’s in Tarantino’s new film, and I think it’s both good timing and a good career move to pair those two. I think by being risky with his next project, Russell will probably back into box office success without expecting it. But jumping onboard this star-studded mess doesn’t help Kurt in the meantime. If you don’t know, a freak wave capsizes a cruise ship, leaving a small group of passengers to the decision to climb their way to the top of the ship. That being the bottom,. Got it? Worse than anyone is Kevin Dillon, saddled with the role of loudmouth, slick doofbag, who is just counting the seconds until something stupid he does kills him. We get to wait that agonizing time, too. Thanks, Wolfgang. Dillon’s character seems pulled right out of a bad ‘80s action movie, with no attempt to remind us that it’s 2006. I like Josh Lucas a lot, too, but there’s nothing he can do to hasten what seems like a deadening pace for an adventure movie. The effects and stunts are great, with carnage bustin’ out all over the place, but the sense of fun that made disaster movies of the ‘70s a hit is gone here. Please don’t remake “The Swarm”…
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (***)
A more cerebral satire than “Dreamz” is this first feature from Jason Reitman, son of “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman. Aaron Eckhart is perfectly cast as a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, and “Thank You For Smoking” follows him as he spearheads one of the most lecherous spin machines in America. It’s interesting to see what’s happened to tobacco over the years. If it weren’t for the tobacco industry, there pretty much wouldn’t be a United States of America. Yet today that industry is almost uniformly reviled across the country. What’s it like to have to defend the Tobacco Industry’s desires and attempts to deal a harmful product to everyone in the country? This clever script shows us that the job is certainly not easy, but it also requires someone of a massive self-confidence and an unbending sense of duty to a cause, righteous or not. Watching Eckhart work his magic on the non-believers and tobacco-haters is big fun to watch. Not as interesting are his familial relationships. The best moments of the film involve the “Merchants of Death”, a trio of lobbyists who each work for quasi-nefarious industries – Tobacco, Guns and Alcohol. This trio shares lunch and conversation throughout the film that is priceless. “Thank You For Smoking” is sharp and clever, and an impressive debut for a young director.
UNITED 93 (****) – Director Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” is a magnificent film, both in it’s artistic accomplishment, and it’s success in creating an emotional experience that should quell critics who believe the story’s telling is coming “too soon”. It takes a filmmaker of brazen courage and extraordinary skill to tell the story of the passengers, terrorists and air-traffic and military personnel that held us transfixed on September 11, 2001, given how socially relevant the events of that day still are in our daily lives. Greengrass has crafted a film that honors the real-life people of 9/11 without an ounce of exploitation. I am a huge fan of an earlier film of Greengrass’s called “Bloody Sunday”, which depicted the ciivil rights march massacre in Ireland that bolstered the IRA’s political presence. It was called “documentary-style” filmmaking by many critics, with a roving camera, presumably never weighed down by a tripod, wonderfully realistic acting, and a script with overlapping dialogue that never once rang false. All of these aspects are used to eerie effect in “United 93”, as the film never condescends to present you with pedestrian movie gimmicks to force a feeling on you. Greengrass is much smarter, as his cinema verite style percolates in the extreme ordinariness of the first few hours of that fateful day. Pilots arrive at the terminal, chatting unimportant banter, passengers check phone messages, the FAA operations manager trudges into his first day on the job. The inevitability of our knowledge of the fate of these people simmers underneath it all. Greengrass’ fly-on-the-wall style doesn’t announce “Great moment of the film coming!” or pander to labeling the passengers from Standard Disaster Film Catalogue #1. The material demanded more. “United 93” achieves much more by immersing you in the chaos and confusion in the flight towers and military bases of the east coast, and strapping you in as a passenger of the doomed flight. Much has been made of the fact that the film boasts no stars. This is a great asset, as no baggage marred my ability to get to know the characters just as they got to know each other. In fact, many of the roles in the film are played by the people who experienced 9/11 firsthand, the boldest performance coming from Ben Sliney, who plays himself as the FAA operations manager, whose day slips into turmoil as he’s constantly fed misinformation about hijacked planes, and underserved by a military presence. Sliney also served as a consultant to the film to help Greengrass re-create the order of the day most accurately. And as I watched hundreds and hundreds of shocked and frantic FAA controllers and military personnel scramble to prevent further harm to the country and await chain of command orders from the highest levels of government, I once again hope George W. Bush really enjoyed “My Pet Goat”. Military response orders arrived from the Executive branch well after the fourth and final plane crashed in Pennsylvania. The filmmaking is so good, I almost expected a different outcome, I was so emotionally invested. After viewing the film, I was visibly shaking. It prompted a 90 minute conversation with my friend Kevin about religion and politics and reawakened in me an immediacy to be involved in the world view. Normally, when I write a review, I just say whether I liked a movie or not, but with “United 93”, I am highly, highly recommending you SEE IT. This is easily the year’s best film and one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. It’s an important reminder of what happened that day, so when you see a “We Will Never Forget” sign, you can further understand. This film is a noble reminder that the greatest, most honest and most successful retaliation against terrorism since 9/11, happened immediately.
V FOR VENDETTA (***1/2)
Alan Moore is the finest comic book/graphic novel writer in the world, in my humble opinion. He is in an elite class with Frank Miller. Hollywood has made and attempt to visualize his classic graphic novels with film versions of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “From Hell”. However, he was so disgusted with the outcome of those films (who can blame him with LXG?) that he took his name off of the project “V For Vendetta”. What a shame, ‘cause this is certainly the best realized of his books! Director James McTeigue honed his chops on “Star Wars” and “The Matrix” sequels to prep for this, his debut at the helm. Working from a script by The Wachowski Brothers, McTeigue has created a vision of a totalitarian future that rings frightening from the beginning. Running through the streets of oppressive London is the mysterious character “V”, played emotionally, despite always wearing a mask over his most expressive features, by Hugo Weaving. He rescues an unlikely ally in his fight against the oppressors in Natalie Portman’s Evey. V is fascinating, at the same time exhibiting both excess verbosity and prolific terrorist and fighting skills. What other freedom fighter-type character would say things like, “Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate.”? When V is on screen, the movie is electric, and, thankfully, it rarely slows down when it follows Evey’s story, or the cops trailing V, or the hauntingly prescient future government run by venom-spewing John Hurt. It is a visceral examination of human freedoms and human nature that would make Alan Moore proud.