Vanilla Sky


A couple of months ago, I rented “Abre Los Ojos,” the 1997 Spanish film which was the basis for “Vanilla Sky”, and I was utterly blown away. So much that I just had to watch it again, right there and then. That doesn’t happen often, but here was a movie that was so complex and stimulating cinematically and thematically that I just had to take a second trip down that insane ride to process it. You would think that, having loved the Alejandro Amenabar original so much, its remake could only be a letdown. But this would be overlooking two things: 1) It’s not very fashionable to say, but I generally prefer American movies. I like Hollywood movie stars, I like not having to read subtitles, I like being able to catch pop culture references. 2) This is Cameron Crowe’s new film, silly! Remake or not, that’s a near-guarantee of a wonderful time at a movies. As I expected, “Vanilla Sky” is indeed easier a film to get into, with great use of pop/rock/electronic music, and the kind of irresistible romantic comedy moments only Crowe is able to pull off this well. And then, as the twists and turns grow more and more confusing and dark, Crowe is prompted into artistic territory we’ve never seen him explore.

Tom Cruise stars as David Aames, a hotshot New York magazine editor with everything a man could want: money, two spacious bachelor pads, a black Ferrari, movie star good looks, an overall glamorous lifestyle and countless gorgeous babes aching to jump his bones. We meet him as he’s about to celebrate his 33rd birthday, with a snazzy party of course, but there are a few wild cards. First, there’s growing tension between David and his best pal Brian (Jason Lee), who’s tired to see him treating carelessly women he would dream of being with. Speaking of which, the date he’s brought to the party, Sofia (Penelope Cruz, reprising her “Abre los Ojos” role), seems to fit just right his idea of the dream girl. Unfortunately, despite much pleading by Brian for his friend not to, David has her in his phasers, always the seductive alpha male. Though this time, it’s more than plain lust ; he’s really amazed by this Sofia. Enough so that he turns away his fuck buddy Julie (Cameron Diaz)’s advances, shoving her into becoming a truly wild card.

Okay, enough with the summary. What I’ve described is only the very edge of this complex tale of obsession and despair, a mostly warm, fun edge which hardly prepares us for what’s to follow. Without going into specifics, “Vanilla Sky” unfolds twists upon twists, as David’s whole life and being are torn to pieces. True love is denied to him just as he finds it, his self-image is shattered, and that’s still only the beginning! This pretty much follows with what Amenabar’s film did, but the two pictures differ quite a bit in the execution. In “Abre los Ojos”, there was a certain bleakness in tone from the get go. Crowe’s movie, on the other hand, doesn’t hurry through the calm-before-the-storm set-up. For nearly an hour, this is not so different from, say, Crowe and Cruise’s “Jerry Maguire”. David and Sofia have this great night together, full of witty, flirtatious conversation and little moments of joy.

Cruise is at his charismatic best, and Cruz is more lovable than in any other movie I’ve seen her him, even “Abre los Ojos”. The two of them have palpable chemistry, I have no trouble believing that the sparks continued long after Crowe yelled “Cut!” Jason Lee is, not surprisingly, perfectly cast, having mastered the art of playing the smart-ass best friend in Kevin Smith’s flicks. The real surprise is Cameron Diaz. I’ve adored her ever since she first entered that bank in 1994’s “The Mask”. She then proved surprisingly game in “There’s Something About Mary”, and she revealed an edgier side of her acting in “Being John Malkovich” but this (for lack of a better term) psycho bitch turn is still quite shocking! I’ll never see her as a harmless blonde sweetie ever again! Cruise also does some of his most interesting acting when events spin out of control, showing a much darker side of himself. As in “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Magnolia”, I think the fact that we’re used to see him as such a successful stud makes his breakdown even more affecting.

Behind the camera, Crowe is as “on” as he’s never been. With the help of cinematographer John Toll and his wife Nancy Wilson doing the score, he crafts a constantly stimulating succession of sounds and visuals, sometimes to rivetingly surreal effect. Plenty of scenes are still haunting me, from the Times Square opening to the breathtaking finale, through countless other great moments. And what about the soundtrack! A former Rolling Stone writer, Crowe always puts together bitching soundtracks for his movies. Think of the use of “In Your Eyes” in “Say Anything”, of “Free falling” in “Jerry Maguire”, the Seattle grunge in “Singles”, or the Led Zeppelin tunes in “Almost Famous”. Now in “Vanilla Sky”, we can hear such great artists as Radiohead, REM, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel, all used to near perfection. I mean, some will disagree, but I found the “Good Vibrations” music cue just priceless, I had “Solsbury Hill” caught in my head for the whole day and even Joan Osborne’s “One of us” took on creepy undertones!

Like the original, “Vanilla Sky” evokes “Phantom of the Opera”, “Vertigo”, and Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction writings, among many other influences. It explores some very intriguing territory, which will confuse the hell out of a lot of people, but give it time, this isn’t “Mulholland Drive”, there is a point and some sense to make off it all in the end. Lynch fans might argue that it’s better to leave things unexplained than to tie everything up, but in this particular case, I thought the exposition served its purpose, and as delivered by Noah Taylor (“Tech support!”) and Tilda Swinton, it doesn’t feel tedious. And then, the movie reaches a payoff even more satisfying than the original. To reverse one of the film’s leitmotiv, since you got more into the sweet early scenes, the sour elements hit even harder, and when you don’t expect it no more, “sweetness follows” and you leave the theatre still on a high, wondering what it is that would make you most happy.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring


I haven’t read J.R.R. Tolkien‘s classic fantasy saga. I tried actually, but after ten pages of painstakingly detailed description of Hobbits doing Hobbit stuff, I just quit. Having now seen the first of three movies adapting “The Lord of the Rings”, I kick myself for not having stuck with it. Then again, I might not have been as amazed by what unfolded on that giant screen. As directed by Peter Jackson, “The Fellowship of the Ring” is the kind of experience you wish for every time you go to the movies. Right from the opening prologue, which brings virgins like myself up to date on the basic elements of the story, the film is fascinating. Sitting among a sold out screening, I gradually zoned out from my surroundings and emerged in Middle-Earth, witnessing the creation of Dark Lord Sauron’s rings, which he divides among elves, dwarves and men, maybe to make up for being, well, a Dark Lord. But surprise surprise, turns out this is only another devious trick from Sauron, who’s also crafted another ring out of all his might and evil, “one ring to rule them all”. He’s soon embarked on a war to take over Middle-Earth but against all hope, one man throws his all into battle and manages to destroy Sauron. Or so it seems.

Flash forward to centuries later, as the little dudes of Hobbiton are preparing to celebrate the 111th birthday of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Among the guests is his old friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), a powerful but rather down-to-earth wizard who likes to smoke a little weed and to mess around with fireworks. These early scenes are a treat, some quiet and fun before the sinister events depicted in the introduction cast their shadows into the present. I liked the way Bilbo and Gandalf quickly felt like real persons and how they related to each other, and what felt tedious on paper now seems natural and stimulating. Through a handful of little moments, we get an understanding of who Hobbits are and how they live, and we accept them as an existing species in this world. This is one of the most startling things in the film, how it often doesn’t feel like fantasy as much as a historical drama, so richly detailed everything is.

The festivities end abruptly when Bilbo slips on a mysterious ring and disappears, to his guests’ shock. Gandalf finds this strange, so he forces his buddy, who is about to leave town, to leave his ring in the care of his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) while he does some research. And thus Gandalf realises that he’s been in the presence of the supposedly mythical yet ever feared ring of Sauron, and his unholy armies have already sensed its reawakening. And so they get riding to its pursuit, set to get it back to their master. Gandalf hurries back to poor Frodo, and together with a Fellowship overcoming racial barriers, they embark on a quest to destroy this ring which no one could behold without being corrupted by its infinite power. But, having been made in the fire of Mount Doom, “only there can it be unmade”, hence the Fellowship will have to venture through forests, rivers, mountains, fields, caves, snow and more, all while fighting back attack after attack from various deadly foes.

As stated, I’m not familiar with the source material, so the film kept surprising me. I heard about how imaginative it was, but I didn’t know it was so ruthless. This isn’t a fairy tale: characters can and will die, failure always seems imminent, and a nameless dread inhabits every other frame. It’s a wonder the Fellowship manages to survive and that they keep going. I am not sure whether they’re admirable heroes or desperate fools who can’t accept that they’re bound for a horrible fate. Maybe it’s a little of both, with Frodo, especially. He doesn’t say much, but you can feel what a burden having been entrusted as the bearer of the ring is for him, 4 foot tall, barefoot, innocent and inexperienced Hobbit that he is. Elijah Wood is great in the role; you can see all the vulnerability and the fear but also the purity and the courage in the world in those big blue eyes.

The 8 other members of the fellowship are also portrayed memorably. As Gandalf, McKellen is as intense as it gets, appearing threatening, but also warm and friendly when it’s befitting. Viggo Mortensen‘s Aragorn, the mortal human royal heir who lost faith in his potential as a ruler, is great. He’s pretty much our badass hero, but he’s a rather unlikely one, all rogue and brooding. Though he does have a few sweet moments with Liv Tyler, playing a beautiful Elvish princess or something whose love motivates him. Sean Bean‘s Boromir, also human, is a bit of a wild card, often driven more by passion than reason, but he’s a fierce fighter and he’s obviously determined to stop the evil forces. Then there’s Frodo’s Hobbit friends, Pippin (Billy Boyd), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Sam (Sean Astin), who are quite careless and foolish, but who have good hearts. Sam, especially, is the most loyal friend Frodo could hope for. They have a very touching scene together late in the film which establishes intriguing ambiguously gay undertones. Also on hand are axe-wielding dwarf Gimly (John-Rhys Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), an elf who can do no wrong with his bow and arrows but, at least in this first chapter, they’re not really defined into clear characters. They still leave a strong impression, if only because they kick major ass during the fight sequences!

You know, I don’t think any film has ever deserved to be called epic as much as this one. The sheer grandeur of the settings, the large cast of colorful characters, the larger than life confrontations. I spent nearly all the film wide-eyed and slack-jawed. New Zealand by itself appears to be just gorgeous, with its tall waterfalls and green prairies, its mountains and its great big skies. Then, through impressive work from set builders and digital effects teams, plenty of marvelous castles and cities are worked into the world near seamlessly. As if it wasn’t enough, filmmaker Peter Jackson pulls all these impossible shots which fly though his locations, further enhancing how big in scope it all is.

Yet Jackson doesn’t just shoot a lot of pretty scenery. He’s telling a big, sprawling story and, as the film rolls on, the narrative becomes more and more urgent, fast-paced and action-packed, with always more terrifying threats to our heroes. The Black Riders chasing down the Hobbits, Gandalf’s magic duel with the corrupted Saruman (Christopher Lee), the showdown with the Cave Troll (which makes a similar scene in “Harry Potter” feel so silly and harmless in retrospect), the hellish Balrog demon, the attack of the Uruk-Hai army. Take the best things about “Conan the Barbarian”, “Braveheart” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, filter them through the manic energy Peter Jackson brought to his “Dead-Alive”, match it with resources usually only accessible to the likes of Lucas and Spielberg, and you’ve got some of the most breath-taking set pieces ever crafted.

“The Fellowship of the Ring” is such an engrossing picture that you completely lose track of the time and the 3 hour running length just flies by. I’m telling you, when it ended, I wasn’t even spent or anything, in fact I was dying to see “The Two Towers” right there, and then bring on “The Return of the King”!

A Beautiful Mind


Russell Crowe stars as John Forbes Nash Jr., who we meet as he arrives to Princeton University in 1947, a poor young man whose remarkable skills in mathematics won him a scholarship. He doesn’t really fit in with the other students though, and he has no interest in actually going to classes. He just wants to find a truly original theory, to think of something that will matter. Something that will make him matter. He does calculate some brilliant stuff, which opens up opportunities for him, all the way to a code breaking gig at the Pentagon, but something is tearing him loose : schizophrenia. Combined with Cold War-era conspiracy theories paranoia, this might make him go totally insane. All he’s got left is his caring wife Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), and even she is tempted to give up on him.

It’s taken me a while to process my feelings on Ron Howard’s latest film, as they’re kind of confused. In short, I thought the first act was mediocre, then the film did something I perceived as a cheat, but finally it redeemed itself in its powerful last hour. So how am I supposed to review the whole film, as I found its first half to be generic and maudlin, but by the end I was moved to tears? Well, let’s start at the beginning, or the “Good Will Hunting” part. These early scenes aren’t that bad, they’re just bland and harmless. Nash is somehow interesting already, with subtle hints of personality troubles, but he’s surrounded by walking clichés, like the snobbish daddy’s boy (Josh Lucas), the wisecracking buddies, the kind old teacher, or a newer obligatory staple (see also : “Notting Hill”, “Undeclared”), the quirky British roommate (Paul Bettany). Plus, it’s all so timid, a little joke here, a little touching moment there. Yawn.

Another thing that bothered me was the seemingly random, unnatural pacing. It’s the first day of the semester, then wham!, it’s six months down the line, boom!, Nash’s made his discovery, watch out! It’s now five years later and he’s called in to break some Soviet code. It gets even more frustrating when Nash starts teaching and Alicia, who’s his student, catches his eye. It literally goes from ‘what’s your name’ to ‘I find you attractive’ to ‘will you marry me?’ to ‘you’re pregnant?!’ Meanwhile, Nash, is recruited by a Secretary of Defence agent (Ed Harris) who wants him to peruse periodicals to look for secret Communist codes. Come again? That’s not all, there’s tense dropouts, mysterious men in black, chases, shoot-outs. It makes little sense, and it’s hardly all that interesting. I was ready to pan the film.

Oh, but wait a second there, that’s only the first hour or so of the film, before what I called the big cheat. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna spoil it. Let’s just say that the film reveals that it isn’t really concerned with code cracking or Nash’ love life; “A Beautiful Mind” is ultimately about one man’s struggle to retain his sanity, to sort out his mind at once capable of genius and madness. Once the narrative settles on this, the film becomes more and more engrossing. It remains conventional in form as Ron Howard, hardly a daring filmmaker, can’t help but go for melodrama and little bittersweet comic beats, or something as predictable and schmaltzy as the “pen scene”. But the screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, adapting the Sylvia Nasar novel, presents us with a very interesting, complex character who hits bottom, degrading into the kind of fidgety old weirdo kids mock on the street. This makes his eventual getting back on his feet oh so touching, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room during the final scene.

It takes many people to make a film, and it’s usually unfair to single out an individual as being most responsible for its success, but in this particular case, I feel it’s obvious that this is Russell Crowe’s movie. Writer Goldsman did, after all, commit “Batman & Robin”, and as mentioned, Howard has a tendency to lay things too thick, overdoing each moment as if he’s trying to show off to the Academy (but oooooooh, that’s not his intent, natch). Fortunately, he’s at least made one brilliant decision in casting Russell Crowe, who brings depth, pathos and humanity to his character. We see him age nearly fifty years in the film, and I was never thinking ‘make-up’, Crowe just seemed older in the way he held himself, spoke and appeared altogether. Likewise, with his schizophrenic behaviour, Crowe is not one to chew scenery and go over the top. This is a performance full of nuances and rough corners. His relationship with Paul Bettany and Ed Harris’ characters lingers hauntingly in our minds, and even though it’s underwritten, his screwed up romance with Jennifer Connelly is affecting. She herself is pretty good (and gorgeous), despite a false-sounding shrieking breakdown scene.

Overall, I’d pretty much recommend “A Beautiful Mind”. There are quite a bit of things to dislike in what can be summed up as a tearjerker posing as a psychological thriller, but ultimately it did surprise me by making me cry, and Crowe’s performance alone is worth the admission price. If he hadn’t won the Best Actor Oscar last year, I’d say he’s sure to get it now, and the movie itself will probably get noticed here and there as a reaction. Check it out.

À ma Soeur


As you might gather from the low star rating, I really hated this film. It made me angry, but not good-angry, like if it had made me think and question my reaction, but plain bad-angry at wasting 83 minutes of my life watching a lazy, misguided pseudo-art film. “À ma soeur” (or “Fat Girl”, as it’s insultingly titled in the US) is the latest from Catherine Breillat, whose big thing is to rock snobbish intellectual circles by making so-called feminist movies depicting graphic but cold and impersonal sex acts. The best example of her close-minded vision is a scene in the overrated “Romance” in which a woman is stuck through a wall, with only her legs and private parts on one side, where dirty men rudely screw her or jerk off on her. I found it insulting as a man, and I can’t see how a woman wouldn’t feel the same way. Sure, some men are lowly dogs, but it’s paranoia to put them all in the same league.

Okay, so about this new chapter in Breillat’s long “women are victims” craptacular saga. You’ve got these two French sisters whose parents have brought on a holiday to Italy. Anaïs (Anaïs Redoux) is 12, a bit chubby (I wouldn’t call her fat) and rather conflicted and self-conscious, thanks to her sister’s relentless taunts. Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is 15 and pretty but naïve and often bitchy. Both girls are intrigued by sex, but not in a giggly schoolgirl way ; this is a Breillat pic after all, so they’re already weird and bitter about sex, even though they never did it. They just wanna get rid of their virginity, like it’s a chore. Or so they say? For when Elena hooks up with twenty-something Roman dude Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), she falls back into clueless, love-blinded girly patterns, believing all his obvious bullshit which is only meant to get her in bed, in which he succeeds. And then… Well, not much really happens in the film. The sisters yell at each other a lot, but sometimes they’re friendly. Elena falls more and more for Fernando, giving him access to one orifice after another. And then… Well, more on that later.

Right away, I have to stress how mediocre a film this is. Maybe the premise has the potential to be developed into an unflinching look at teenage girls’ sexuality, but the way writer-director Breillat goes at it, apparently girls have as much fun getting laid as when they’re vomiting. Breillat obviously feels contempt for the male characters, from Fernando as the insincere, lying dick, to the unavailable, grumpy workaholic father. But even the females are portrayed in a bad light. The mother is an impulsive, bitter woman who yells and slaps her kids, Elena is dumb, illogical, slutty and cruel to her sister, and Anaïs is this pathetic “fat” girl who’s always stuffing her face, making out with inanimate objects or singing some whiny ditty which spells out her despair and has her imploring crows to devour her aching heart. Oh, brother.

All this is shown through long, boring scenes of no cinematic or thematic interest, such as a more than 10 minute long sequence in which all we see is highway driving. I’m not kidding, Breillat just shoots the family car passing by other cars and countless trucks, for minutes on end. Oh, the girls are sobbing in their seats, and they say a few words, but it’s still endlessly dull. And then comes the oh-so-shocking ending, which I found retarded and despicable. ***SPOILER AHEAD*** In an even more extreme strain of paranoid nonsense, a big bad wolf of a guy kills both the mother and the older sister and rapes the 12 year old in the woods. It’s depicted almost exactly like the earlier consensual sex scenes because, wouldn’t you know it, all sex is rape and all men are predators, right? =sigh= ***END OF SPOILER***

Don’t encourage Breillat by watching her self-indulgent, utterly unenjoyable and shallow little exposé, and don’t get fooled by the controversy which surrounds it into thinking this is a daring film. Naked teenagers or not, this is still the work of a feminist reactionary without any notable filmmaking skills.

Ocean’s Eleven


How cool is George Clooney? From the first five minutes of “From Dusk Till Dawn”, I knew he would become a huge movie star eventually. Alright, “Batman & Robin” was lackluster, and he’s made a few other ho-hum movies, but lately he’s been on a roll, working with the likes of David O’ Russell, the Coen brothers and, of course, Steven Soderbergh, for whom he first starred in “Out of Sight”. With “Ocean’s 11”, Clooney reaffirms his position as one of the most charismatic leading men of his generation. This is a remake (or re-imagining, to use the current buzz word) of the 1960 cult flick starring the Rat Pack. I haven’t seen the original, but from what I hear it’s not that good, save for the fun of watching Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and others having a good time knocking casinos.

Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a recently paroled con artist who starts planning a new scheme the minute he’s out of the big house. His latest idea for a score is ambitious, if not insane: to rob three Las Vegas casinos during a Lennox Lewis prize fight and walk away with more than 150 million big bucks. To even attempt such a feat, Ocean needs to gather a large team of pros, starting with his old card shark buddy Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt). Then there’s British bomber Roscoe Means (Don Cheadle), pickpocket Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), master of impersonation Saul Bloom (Carl Reiner), drivers Virgil (Casey Affleck) and Turk Maloy (Scott Caan), as well as an electronic surveillance specialist (Edward Jemison), a casino owner with deep pockets and crooked leanings (Elliot Gould), a blackjack dealer (Bernie Mac) and an Asian acrobat (Shaobo Qin)! Nothing like this has ever been done, but with all these guys working in synch, they might have a shot. Meanwhile, Ocean’s got an even bigger goal: to steal from casino owner Harry Benedict (Andy Garcia) not only his money but his girlfriend Tess (Julia Roberts), who just happens to be Danny’s ex-wife!

Now, that’s what I call a movie! This isn’t the deepest, most groundbreaking, most emotionally affecting flick there is. This isn’t by any mean an “important” film. Heck, it doesn’t even try to be. What this is is slick. S-L-I-C-K. Overall and down to the smallest detail, “Ocean’s 11” is mainstream Hollywood moviemaking at its slick best. What makes it so enjoyable? It’s the to-the-point, engrossing script from Ted Griffin, packed with wit, surprises and dialogue where every other line is quotable. It’s Steven Soderbergh, still at the top of his game after his “Erin Brockovich”/”Traffic” double-threat at the last Academy Awards (which had him winning AND losing the Best Director Oscar!), making a film both masterfully conducted and effortless looking. It’s Soderbergh also acting as his own cinematographer (under the name Peter Andrews), shooting a great looking film in real Vegas locations. It’s a David Holmes score which grooves and boogies tirelessly.

Last but not least, it’s a cast to die for in which everyone shines, notably George Clooney, of course, all rogue manliness and charm; Brad Pitt, looking great but not relying on it, delivering instead a nicely natural and not self-conscious Method-type performance, all munching and mannerisms; Don Cheadle, entertaining as always, getting good mileage out of British lingo; Scott Caan and Casey Affleck as amusingly dopey brothers, always arguing and bickering; Carl Reiner with his time-honed comic timing and an impressive ease at sliding into a character-into-a-character of an Eastern European high roller. As for newcomer (!) Julia Roberts, her part is small but her few scenes with Clooney are a treat. I love the way they play off each other, and there’s nearly tangible sexual tension between them. And then there’s Andy Garcia who, surprisingly, turns in the film’s most striking performance. His Benedict is riveting, “like a machine”, all precise, unflinching, purely rational, and utterly threatening.

Some lament that Soderbergh is supposedly lowering himself by doing such an inconsequential heist flick, but what the naysayers fail to notice is that he is not just going through the motions. Most of the scenes in “Ocean’s 11” have familiar outlines, sure, but they’re all given an extra twist, touches of quirkiness which keep the movie unpredictable. It’s things like a montage of past attempts at casino theft with time period clichés like (for a mid-80s robbery, having the criminal wearing a “Miami Vice”-style white on pastel suit, with “Take My Breath Away” on the soundtrack), or Pitt and Clooney’s characters crashing a Young Hollywood poker party between “That 70s Show”‘s Topher Grace, “7th Heaven”‘s Barry Watson, “Charmed”‘s Holly Marie Combs and “Dawson’s Creek”‘s Joshua Jackson!

Oh, and the whole remake thing? I think it’s just a starting point, as the movie mostly feels like an unofficial sequel to “Out of Sight”. Like that previous Soderbergh-Clooney genre pic, “Ocean’s 11” will keep you in a state of grinning glee for its entire length.

The Nightmare Before Christmas


There is a place where different worlds intersect, worlds which revolve solely around the preparation of each major holiday, from Easter to Thanksgiving. Our antihero, Jack Skellington, leads the administration of scares of Halloween Town. It’s understood that the thin, skull-headed ghoul is the best at what he does, but he’s getting bored with it. Screams and darkness can take a toll on a guy, and he longs for something else, something more. One night, his wish is answered as he stumbles upon Christmas Town, which seems to be the opposite of what he’s come to dread: it’s colorful, it’s cheerful. It’s jolly merry good fun! Thus Jack decides to take over that so much more stimulating celebration, even though he and his Halloween friends don’t quite grasp its concept.

Ohmigod. This is AMAZING! Okay, so I’m late on this, but I only “really” watched it for the first time yesterday, between 2 and 4 in the morning (which was a perfectly odd time to do so). I had seen the film around the time it was released, but being only 14 or something at the time, I didn’t quite get it. I found it mostly odd, with too many songs. While, some 7 years later, I still find this to be one mightily bizarre creation, I’m now strongly enamoured of said quirkiness. And the songs. Damn, the music hardly ever stops in the film, but it’s all for the better! Through the years, I’ve grown into a big enthusiast of Danny Elfman’s work, which spans from the bulk of Tim Burton and Sam Raimi’s filmographies to the Simpsons theme and the scores of “Men In Black” and “Good Will Hunting”. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has got to be his crowning achievement, as it boasts not only plenty of his signature creepy, moody music but also bonafide catchy tunes, many of them sung by Elfman himself singing as Jack Skellington (otherwise voiced by Chris Sarandon).

It’s just song after song after song, and there’s hardly a dud among them. Being an animated film (stop-motion actually), some might dismiss it as “for kids”, but it doesn’t take long to see that this is a rather dark, complex film with little patience for family movie platitudes. The musical numbers have less in common with those of Disney cartoons than with the cult tunes from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, with which “Nightmare” shares an affinity for blending spookiness with offbeat humour. The film is adapted from characters and ideas from the wild imagination of Tim Burton, which were turned into a screenplay by Caroline Thompson (with whom Burton also wrote the wonderful “Edward Scissorhands”) and finally brought to life by director Henry Selick and a top team of designers, stop-motion animators and visual effects artists. There isn’t much of a story; besides how Skellington plans and executes his misguided take on Xmas, there’s a thin subplot about how a Bride of Frankeinstein-type girl falls for and tries to help Jack, as well as villains in the form of a wheelchair-bound scientist with direct access to his brains and the disgusting but festive Oogie Boogie Man, but most of it is inconsequential.

Yet that hardly matters, because the film delivers such a relentless flow of visual and musical wonders. The animation, set design and cinematography are endlessly fascinating, and you will still be have the songs stuck in your head for days! “The Nightmare before Christmas” is one addictive picture which you won’t be able to help but watch again and again, just to take in some more of its delightful eccentricities.

The Deep End


So you’ve got Margaret Hall (Tilda Swinton), a soccer mom from Lake Tahoe whose husband is always out to sea with the Navy, leaving her alone and bored doing chores at home and driving her three kids back and forth to this and that. Danger is brought into her routine when her closeted teenage son (Jonathan Tucker) is followed home by his 30 year old male lover who, after a rocky confrontation, ends up dead on the beach by the family house. Margaret doesn’t want her son to have his life ruined, so she takes the corpse to the other end of the lake and tries to clean away all evidence. Unfortunately, there’s a mysterious stranger (Goran Visnjic) who knows the truth, and he threatens to go to the cops if he’s not given fifty. thousand. dollars.

I’m not sure what’s worse about “The Deep End”: how unconvincing its plot is or how achingly dull it is? The basic elements like murder, cover-up and blackmail have the potential to make for an Hitchcockian thriller, but the bad writing by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (who also produces and directs) kills any possible suspense in the egg and replaces it by contrived twists. Right off the bat, we can’t understand why the mother does what she does, why she doesn’t just go to the cops; it’s made clear early on that this wasn’t premeditated murder, even though manipulative editing withdraws information from us until the end for an unsurprising revelation. This made me think of the “South Park” episode in which Stan’s mom thinks he’s killed a bunch of people and she goes psycho, burying corpses all over her backyard and chaining up nosy cops in her basement. “The Deep End” takes a somehow more realistic approach, but I’m not sure this is for the better, as the film is awfully pedestrian. Watching a mom making credit demands and pawning her jewelry is hardly exciting, and neither is her driving her kids to school or having her Jeep stall on her.

The film is competently directed, but without heart, wit nor style. Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography might have won an award at Sundance, and he does make Lake Tahoe look gorgeous, but in the context of the film, it just slows things down even worse. Pretty scenery does not a good movie make, and the way McGehee and Siegel spend every other scene getting off on shooting in and around water (the lake, pools, fish tanks) gets mighty tedious. All right, we get it, “the deep end”, drowning into more and more trouble, enough already! It would help if something interesting actually happened in the story. As it is, all we’ve got is a chick driving around and making phone calls. Yawn. The filmmakers do try to play the gay card, but only in a half-assed fashion. It’s like they just want to make things grittier; it could have been a girlfriend of the son who was killed and it wouldn’t affect the remainder of the film.

And then there’s Alek, the blackmailer played by Goran Visnjic. Where do I start? I’m guessing this is what drives the film into what the press materials call a “new and provocative landscape”. For you see, he who starts off as the villain at some point walks in on his prey as she’s standing over her father, who’s heart has stopped, and Mr. Big Time Blackmailer gives the old man CPR and saves his life. Then, gradually, he softens up for Margaret, and he doesn’t wanna force her to get the money anymore. But his boss thinks otherwise, and he’s much less accommodating than Alek. I won’t spoil more of the cheap twists that follow, but if you decide to submit yourself to this lousy flick anyway, prepare to roll your eyes and scratch your head over the anticlimactic, ill-thought final events of the film. “Oh, don’t go Mr. Blackmailer, sniff sniff, wait for me.” Even Tilda Swinton, whose intense performance is the only high point of this thrill-less thriller, can’t salvage “The Deep End” from being nothing more than a bargain bin “women-in-peril” pulp novel.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone


I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such frenzy for a series of books. Kids who hate reading are devouring these, as are their parents, who enjoy them as much. And then there’s even tons of people my age who’ve shed their young adult cynicism and cool and allowed themselves to get lost in J.K. Rowling‘s writing. It actually took me forever to get around to reading “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. So many people were hammering me about it (“Oh you HAVE to read this!”) that I was sick of it before I even cracked it open. Plus, I didn’t get why grown-ups were reading these kiddie books. What interest would I have in the adventures of a little brat on a broomstick? Still, I eventually gave in last month and read the first Potter book. What can I say: Harry Potter is one heck of an enjoyable read. It’s not “Catcher in the Rye” or anything, but you do get hooked on it. Rowling knows just how to involve you and it’s easy to identify with the characters, have fun with them and get caught up in the suspense. Then there’s the way magic is almost an aside. This is really a nice book about this little geek who arrives in a new school, makes some friends, studies for exams, confronts bullies, gets on a sport team… Except that the story also involves magic wands, messenger owls, flying broomsticks, centaurs, a troll and a baby dragon!

Many felt Steven Spielberg would have been perfect for bringing the world of Hogwarts to life, but the movie ended up being directed by Chris Columbus. Ok, so he’s no Spielberg, but he does know how to direct kids (ain’t Macaulay Culkin priceless in “Home Alone”?). And I have to say, though I wasn’t as impressed by the film as some others who can’t wait for seconds, Columbus has done a very good job, if only at putting into images Rowling’s vision without sugar coating it or making it crass. This is a classy, imaginative kiddie flick.

I won’t spend too much time on a synopsis, as you probably know all about Harry Potter already. So he’s this legendary young dude whose parents are murdered by the evil Voldermort, who tries to kill the then infant too but, mysteriously, he’s the one who is nearly annihilated. Harry is marked with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead but lives on, unaware of his history, in the care of his Muggle (non-wizard) uncle and aunt Dursley, who are contemptuous of magic in general and of him in particular. Then one day, on his 11th birthday, a jolly giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) takes him away to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he’ll discover that he has amazing hidden skills…

In the book, this takes a fairly long time, but the movie wisely rushes to get to Hogwarts, avoiding to spend too much time with the obnoxious Dursleys. In any case, things only really get interesting at Hogwarts. The film has some problems, as I’ll get into later, but I have to give it to Chris Columbus: his crew and him have crafted a rich, visually overwhelming world. From the liveliness of Diagon Alley to the train station’s Platform 3/4 to the tall halls of the Hogwarts castle to the scary, fantastic Dark Forest, “Philosopher’s Stone” presents us with many intriguing locations, which are filled with all these quirky details like Goblin bankers, floating candles, and paintings with lives of their own. Columbus must also be applauded for the solid, natural performances he got from his young leads. Daniel Radcliffe conveys an irresistible wide-eyed, naive enthusiasm as Harry, who he portrays just like we imagined him. Redhead Rupert Grint has a smirky charm of his own as the wisecracking Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson is a treat as Hermione, their know-it-all classmate.

So the film is well directed enough, but I was a bit disappointed by the screenplay by Steven Kloves, who had previously adapted Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys” into the best movie of last year. There’s no clear plot, which makes for a film that just meanders from set piece to set piece with little sense of purpose. This approach worked better on the page, because books are fitted to chapter-by-chapter storytelling, as you read them little by little, but with movies, you expect a smoother flow. Here, it’s like Kloves tried to include everything from the source material, but obviously he couldn’t put everything on screen unless he was to make a 6-hour movie. Hence, a lot of time is wasted on introducing elements only to then shove them aside, which can be frustrating.

Eventually, the film does get into its main dramatic arc, Harry’s long overdue rematch with Voldemort. Through the film, everything made it clear that it was Professor Snape (played with devilish glee by Alan Rickman), but **** SPOILER **** in the end they pull a bait-and-switch on us and try to tell us that ah! ha!, the bad guy is really the stuttering Professor Quirrell, who we’ve seen maybe two minutes previously. I thought this was a cheap trick in the book, and it comes off even worse in the film, as does the trite, forced happy ending. All of the sudden, the film is dragged down by exposition on top of exposition on top of exposition, as Quirell and Harry and Dumbledore (the wise old headmaster played by Richard Harris) try to talk any and all fun out of the movie. Fortunately, this is followed by a nicely touching goodbye scene between Harry and Hagrid, so the film ends on a good note. **** END OF SPOILER ****

Don’t think I’m panning the film. I just have to set things straight – despite what some critics have proclaimed, it doesn’t hold up to classics like “The Wizard of Oz”, “Star Wars” or “E.T.”. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to enjoy, from the fun interaction between the kids to such special FX thrills as confrontations with a troll and a three-headed dog to a deadly game of wizard’s chess and, of course, Quidditch, a kind of flying broomstick basketball. I don’t quite get how it’s played or, more precisely, why the players bother with all the passing, aiming, blocking and scoring when the only thing that can get them victory is catching the stupid “snitch”, but it does make for an exciting sequence on a purely sensory level. Overall, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” is a well crafted blockbuster for the whole family, but it’s nowhere near as extraordinary as the hype surrounding it.

Startup.Com


From filmmaking team Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (“The War Room”) and newcomer Jehane Noujaim comes this very timely documentary on the rise and fall of dot-coms. It follows high school buddies Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman has they cook an idea for a website acting as a portal between local government and citizens. You want to renew a permit, or to pay a parking ticket? Why waste a whole day running around municipal facilities when you can do it from home, sitting in front of your computer in your underwear? It’s a good idea, and while the two partners don’t have experience and expertise, they make up for it in ambition and enthusiasm and soon enough, millions of dollars are raised and govWorks.com is born.

Unfortunately, all too often, what goes up must fall down. CEO Tuzman gradually realises that business is harsh. Yes, they’re making money and he’s making the rounds, being featured in national magazines and TV shows and even meeting with President Clinton, but they can’t rest on their success. The company must keep up with technology which evolves daily, fierce competitors and the instability of the stock market. More so, Kaleil finds himself growing apart from his girlfriend, from his friend Tom and from his old ideals. I don’t know how directors Noujaim and Hegedus managed to always be there to record crucial conversations and happenings, but that applies to documentaries in general. How can people allow to be followed by cameras spying on their personal struggles and confidential business dealings ? Well, in any case, this makes for a very compelling watch, as
the real-life drama is more unpredictable than most fiction.

Technically, “Startup.com” is a well crafted, well paced documentary with a nice balance of business and the personal, as it focuses as much as the creation and maintaining of govWorks.com as on the intimate lives of the people behind it. What got me the most, I think, is Kaleil. He’s a wonderfully complex and interesting character, which is odd to say since he’s a real person but still, he just has that special something on screen that involves you with what he’s going through. There’s a sense of a kid trying to act like a grown-up and actually achieving to project real leadership, but remaining somehow naïve nevertheless. You also feel for Tom, who seems to be even more in way over his head. He eventually does crack, and the particulars of his outing are wrenching.

“Startup.com” is out on home video and DVD from Artisan Entertainment, it’s well worth checking out.

Sexy Beast


Spain’s hot. Too hot. But not for Gal Dove (Ray Winstone), who loves nothing better than to lie by his pool, in the back of gorgeous hacienda out in the sticks, letting the sun almost literally bake him like a turkey. Yeah, this is the life, living off his past accomplishments in glorious retirement with a beautiful wife (Amanda Redman) he loves. But happiness won’t be ever lasting for the couple, as Gal’s shady past comes back to haunt him in the form of Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a seemingly psychotic gangster he used to work with occasionally before he retired. Ray tries to tell Don just that, to little avail. Logan is here to offer him to go back to London and take part in an ambitious heist. Retirement, schmetirement. Don wants Gal on the job, and that’s that. No? Yes. No, Gal can’t. Yes he can. No he can’t. YES HE CAN! Cause Don frickin’ said so!

Tee hee. “Sexy Beast” is a movie hard to pin down, but whatever your grasp of it is, you can’t help but be sneakily amused by it. It’s a movie all about style and attitude. There’s a plot, but barely. The film lasts less than 90 minutes, and it’s perfect like that. It quickly establishes Ray’s pleasant, sun-drenched life, then shadows it with a sense of nameless dread. Said dread soon gets a name in Don Logan’s, a name which casts a general feeling of uneasiness as soon as it is spoken by Jackie (Julianne White), the wife of one of Gal and his wife DeeDee’s friends. And when Don arrives in Spain, all their bad feelings are confirmed. Don will not leave them alone until he gets what he wants, and he’ll spend at least half the movie harassing Gal into accepting to do one last job. This sounds redundant and dull, but it’s actually endlessly riveting, and the reason for that is Ben Kingsley. Truly, you do not wanna deprive yourself of seeing Kingsley in “Sexy Beast”, especially if you still think of him mostly as the actor who won an actor for playing Gandhi. Don Logan is a whole different ballpark, one badass, tough as nails, foul-mouthed ballpark! This is quite possibly the most intense and memorable performance I’ve seen all year.

“Sexy Beast” is the feature film debut of commercial and music video director Jonathan Glazer. Sometimes this spells trouble, as filmmakers skilled at crafting short pieces strain to make a whole movie as consistent, or they’ll rely on bells and whistles too much and make a pretty but empty picture. Glazer’s film is indeed pure style to a degree, playing on sort of the same turf as Guy Ritchie’s flicks, which also put a Cockney spin on the post-Tarantino gangster flick genre. Except that instead of multiplying characters, overcomplicating things story-wise and staging forced bits of black humor, the Louis Mellis and David Scinto screenplay Glazer’s working from sticks to a few basic ideas which are nicely developed into an exciting, witty modern noir tale. And while the events that occur through the film aren’t all that numerous, they have much weight to them. Logan isn’t just any thug coming for Ray. They have a history of bad blood together, a history which also involves Jackie, for whom Don had/has confused feelings that only make things more awkward. A lot more is implied than is spoken aloud, but that’s part of what makes the film interesting, how it plays in nuances.

Then again, this unwillingness to spell everything out for the audience and the often very thick accents of the cast can make the film difficult to comprehend by moments, and some things are left unanswered, like what’s the implications of all the bunnies pointed or being pointed at by guns, what’s the deal with Gal’s pool boy or even the meaning of the title. Yet even if you find yourself scratching you head, you can always content yourself with enjoying the savvy with which the film is crafted. The cinematography and editing are very dynamic and the powerful visuals are matched by a very effective, beat-heavy score. “Sexy Beast” is not without flaws, but it has a sustained edge in and around Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan that you won’t forget anytime soon.