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.


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.

Shallow Hal

When Hal (Jack Black) was 9, his beloved father died but before he passed away, the old man had time to make his boy promise him one last thing: to not settle for average, and only pursue “hot young tail”. Now all grown up, Hal does just that, judging women solely by their looks and treating them as sex objects. Then one day, he has another influential conversation, this time with TV self-help guru Anthony Robbins (playing himself), who hypnotises him so he’ll only see women’s inner beauty. Thus here he goes flirting with girls he wouldn’t even have had a second thought for before, to the great dismay of his best buddy in bigotry, Mauricio (Jason Alexander). More so, Hal falls in love with fun-loving Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow), aware only of what a great personality and a big heart she has. How will he feel when he realises that’s she actually weighs 300 pounds?

I did not want to see this movie. The trailer was horrible. It made the film look like a beyond mediocre comedy, with a premise that seemed not only silly but offensive. Guy is “cursed” into finding fat women hot. Oh, so we get to laugh at all the fatties and how ridiculous it would be to actually love one because, gasp, she’s a good person. And Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit? *sigh* Not only did I not laugh once during the trailer, I found some of the jokes so lame that I wanted to avoid seeing the movie just to not have to watch them again. Fat Gwyneth jumps in pool, big splash, little kid is thrown into a tree. *long sigh* Okay, so I ended up seeing the movie anyways. Why, you ask ? Well, first there’s the fact that it’s directed by the Farrelly brothers, whose every film from “Dumb & Dumber” to “Me, Myself & Irene” has made me laugh hard and often. I figured that there had to be some funnies in their latest. And then there’s Jack Black.

Who? JB! Wonderboy! I’m in awe of this guy. I’ve discovered him only last year in “High Fidelity”, in which he stole every scene. Then I saw him in “Saving Silverman” a comedy which, while uneven, had its share of guffaws, many of them thanks to JB. What really made Black a god in my book though is my discovery of his band, Tenacious D. The idea of two overweight, average looking dudes with acoustic guitars proclaiming themselves the greatest band on earth is amusing, but as funny as their CD and their live gigs can be, what’s really surprising is how hard they really rock! When he’s on, Black has the presence of a Jim Morrison, no kidding, you can’t take your eyes off him! And that, my loyal readers, is why I paid good money to see a movie which I wasn’t interested in seeing at all.

Now here’s the funny thing: the movie was surprisingly good. I’m even tempted to say great, but I’ll need another watching or two to confirm my initial reaction. The fatty jokes from the trailer? Barely a few minutes of the running length. Turns out the movie isn’t mocking overweight people, it’s saying OK, some people are big, get over it. They can be as smart, funny and lovable as anyone. Through its protagonist who sees beyond appearances, “Shallow Hal” makes you realise that you should really take the time to know people before saying they’re “not your type”. Beforehand, I deemed the premise hypocritical and artificial, i.e. what good is it if you get to love “ugly” people only by thinking they’re pretty and thin? There’s no worth in being brainwashed into being less shallow, right ? Well, as the film aptly retorts, everyone’s already brainwashed by TV, magazines and movies into thinking teenage anorexics are ideals. Tony Robbins and the movie are only levelling the field for Hal, so he can see past his shallow instincts.

What makes it work for the audience is that by showing us Rosemary looking gorgeous like Gwyneth Paltrow, the picture also makes us not reduce her to her extra pounds. We kind of forget that and get lost in the cutesy love story. We fall for Rosemary along with Hal, we find her cool and interesting and funny, we think they make a nice couple. By the time Hal -and us- finally see her as her natural, wider self, we are able to get past that. She’s still Rosemary, we still love her, and we still want our lovers to get their happy ending. When have the manipulative mechanics of romantic comedies ever been used to communicate such a potent lesson?

“Shallow Hal” confirms something I suspected about Peter and Bobby Farrelly, that they’re not about gross-out humor as much as they’re about heart. The recurring themes in their filmography are not merely bodily fluids and functions but love and friendship. What makes their movies succeed in the end, I think, is that they’re about often unusual people making good together. We’ve seen sympathetic characters in their films who were dumb (and dumber), bowling players, Amish, retarded, handicapped, schizophrenic, albino, overweight. Sure, they have jokes about these differences, but it’s not mean, it’s like they only want to include them in the comedy, to judge everyone fair game. Take Walt, a supporting character in “Hal” who’s afflicted with spina bifida, which restrains him to walk on all four. Actor Rene Kirby’s condition is sometimes played for laughs, but what comes through mostly is how happy and fulfilled he seems, and how he’d be the first to take a crack at himself. This reminds me of an anecdote told by legendary French Canadian comedy group Rock et Belles Oreilles in their DVD anthology. They talk about how, after a skit in which they played blind hockey players aired, the Association for the Blind not only didn’t protest but they gave them an award! I guess people prefer to be included in good humor than be taken in pity.

But I’m getting sappy here: it *is* the Farrellys we’re talking about, and they still have a knack for making you laugh hard. They’re not filmmaking visionaries, but their movies have a smooth flow, bright visuals and consistently enjoyable alt pop soundtracks. They also get solid work from their actors. Jack Black, of course, rocks. He might not have conventional leading man good looks, but his natural charisma more than makes up for it and, dare I say, that makes him sexy. He’s got some really funny men-behaving-badly scenes with Jason Alexander, playing a rowdier, dumber George Costanza with sprayed on hair, and he actually has chemistry with Paltrow. She really shines in the film, endearingly playing as insecure and self-conscious. You just want to hug her, with or without the fat suit (which doesn’t look as grotesque as it could have, thankfully).

So there you have it. Yes, “Shallow Hal” ‘s marketing campaign made it look unfunny and offensive but as it nicely reminds us itself, you shouldn’t pass judgement on appearances alone. While it’s quite often hilarious, it’s not the Farrelly’s funniest, but it’s probably their most mature, heartfelt movie.

The One

Hey, y’all, what do you know? We thought we were living in a universe, right? Well we were wrong, this is in fact a multiverse! There are countless (well, 125) dimensions similar but different in varying degrees to ours, and there is another version of you in each of these dimensions. In one particular world, unlike here though, people are aware of this reality, and they’ve even found a way to hop from one dimension to another. But wait, it is highly RESTRICTED! There’s even a multiverse police to keep thing balanced. Cause there needs to be a balance. So things remain, er, balanced. Unfortunately, there’s a bad little boy named Yulaw (Jet Li) who decided to travel illegally between worlds, systemically killing each of his selfs? Why? Because apparently, everytime one of your other “you” dies, his energy is divided between the survivors. Yulaw figures that if he kills all of his personas, he’ll become a God!

But what about natural death? Everyone dies eventually, do those who live longest get stronger and stronger? How many 90 year olds do you know who can dodge bullets and crush cars? And why exactly 125 dimensions? And why does there have to be the same people in each, only with different hair or a different job? And what is it about black holes and breaches and whatnot that make it possible for one to slide into another world? And… Dah, why bother? I could spend all night trying to make sense of the huge gaps in logic “The One” suffers from, but I’ll sum them up as such: it’s a STOOPID movie! TV writers James Wong and Glen Morgan’s screenplay is an astonishing achievement in the field of mediocre, pseudo sci-fi writing. Monkeys could come up with less leaky concepts!

One might suggest that this being a Jet Li action film, the plot doesn’t matter. Well, if there was 10 minutes of it and then 80 of badass kung-fu, I might fall for it. But this is a movie in which the fights are few and far between, and in the meantime we have to sit through scene after scene of exposition hogwash debited dead serious by really bad actors. Delroy “Mr. Potato Head” Lindo embarrasses himself as a Multiverse cop with incomprehensible motivation paired with Jaston Statham, who commits an even more obnoxious, unconvincing non-performance as his idiotic, “procedure is bullshit” partner. Worst still is the tacked on, ultra cheesy and derivative love story with Carla Gugino.

You just know that “The One” was green-lighted just for this pitch, “Jet Li against Jet Li”. Then why did they have to bury this geeky thrill into retarded inter-dimensional nonsense? It does lead to some tasty eye candy, I’ll grant that much. Wong (who directed his script) does have some visual flair. There are a few pretty cool scenes in which one of the Jet Lis does some superhuman stuff, like killing guys four times before they hit the ground or using motorcycles like fly swappers. Wong rips off “The Matrix”‘s signature bullet-time shots, but it’s used effectively. Yet as stated, there isn’t enough action in the film to compensate for the utter dullness of its plot.

Like Wong’s other superficially well crafted movie “Final Destination”, “The One” turns out to be a confused, shallow, pointless mess. Even the initially cool fighting gets repetitive, and the climactic Li-on-Li showdown is a big letdown, with a lot of distracting camera trickery but very little actual physical prowess. What’s cool about Jet Li is that he’s this little, harmless looking fella but when he gets mad, he can fight like a god. Smacking a lot of special effects over this can be nice, but not when it overshadows what Li does best. “The One” is a must-miss, unless you’re a diehard Jet Li fan. Even then, you might be better off not seeing him in a film so bad even The Rock turned it down.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Ah, the Coen brothers. You really can’t pin those lads down. Then again, you couldn’t mistake one of their films for anyone else’s. Their big thing seems to be to take an established genre, like gangster films or Capra feel-good comedies, reproduce it down to the smallest details, then start wedging in a bunch of more or less subtle odd touches. Someone taking just too long to die. Golden age wrestling. A Cyclops. Killer thieves watching the Tonight Show. The Dude, abiding. Henceforth, what looked like an utterly classic, by-the-numbers genre piece ends up being an offbeat, hard to define movie not quite like anything you’ve seen before. Take “Fargo”, their best film in my opinion. There’s this man, who has his own wife kidnapped to score a ransom from her wealthy father. Yawn, right? Yet watch as the Coen bring in the most unlikely of cops, an amusingly down-to-earth pregnant woman. Sometimes, though, the Coen’s work can be obnoxious, like in last year’s misguided “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, their dull one-joke redneck comedy (wonderful soundtrack, though).

And then there’s films like “Raising Arizona” or this one which, while they don’t work perfectly, have well enough great things about them to be memorable. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is the Coen’s take on the film noir. Shot in glorious black-and-white, set in northern California in the late 1940s, with all the nice big American cars, the old fashioned hairstyles (“the executive contour”), everyone’s smoking drenching every shot with moody smoke. And at the centre of it all, another iconic Coen character in Ed Crane, played with evocative reserve by Billy Bob Thornton.

Crane works the second chair at his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco)’s barber shop. Crane is a man of few words. “I don’t talk much. I just cut the hair.” And so he does, keeping to himself, the eternal cigarette dangling between his lips. He’s the kind of man you don’t notice, a man without stories. But he does have a pretty wife in Doris (Frances McDormand), who works as an accountant in a department store downtown, he’s got a nice bungalow, an electric ice machine, garbage disposal… He’s got it made.

Yeah. But Ed’s not content with his station in life. He’s fed up with being “the barber”. Second chair barber at that. So when he hears about this new thing which is supposed to become a cash cow, something called dry-cleaning, he’s intrigued. And tempted. It sounds crazy (“cleaning, without water!”), but what if this is his big opportunity? All he needs is ten grands to launch himself. He doesn’t have the capital, but he soon figures out a blackmailing scheme directed at his wife’s boss (James Gandolfini), with whom she’s two-timing him. A simple plan. Unfortunately, simple plans have a tendency to get complicated, especially if you’re an everyman character in a film noir pastiche who’s stepping out of line for the first time. I won’t get into the specifics, but the Coen bros are far from being done with their barber.

The film is almost melodramatic in its unflinching succession of cruelly ironic twists. It walks a very fine line between tragedy and ridicule, and it’s hard to tell which the filmmakers would rather lean towards. To me, this is the main reason why I found “The Man Who Wasn’t There” good, but not great. It had the potential to be emotionally wrenching and thematically haunting, but just too often Joel and Ethan Coen can’t help but get silly and take potshots at the genre. Those are actually pretty funny, like when Ed’s potential dry cleaning partner (Jon Polio) makes a pass at him (“That was way out of line!”), or when Big Dave’s wife (Katherine Borowitz) rambles on about UFOs, but it takes you out of the story. The Coen say their movie is about “existential dread”, but you get the feeling it’s also a joke to them. Of course, I can’t pretend to know what their intents truly are, but this is the impression I got, that they cared less about involving us with the characters’ ordeal than about being clever.

Still, if only on an aesthetic level, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is one of the most beautifully crafted movies they’ve made. I couldn’t get enough of Roger Deakins‘ b&w cinematography, of the almost expressionistic use of light and shadow, the Carter Burwell score playing around Beethoven sonatas. And then there’s the Coen’s wonderfully rich and colorful dialogue dispensed by Billy Bob Thornton (mostly in deadpan voice-over) and by the all-around great supporting cast. James Gandolfini has strong presence without relying on his Tony Soprano mannerisms, Frances McDormand is interestingly colder and sultrier than usual, Tony Shalhoub steals many scenes as a smarmy, full of b.s. lawyer. There’s also a few very nice, ambiguous scenes between Thornton and Scarlett Johansson, who plays a pretty young girl whom Crane likes to watch play the piano. So, even though I wish the Coen had invested themselves in their story more seriously, they more than make up for it with style and atmosphere.

Monsters, Inc

You know how, as a kid, you thought that monsters would come out from the closet at night? Well, you were right! Every day, at the Monsters, Inc. factory down in Monstropolis, monsters go through inter-dimensional portals which open into the bedrooms of children all around the world. They proceed to frighten said kids in order to make them scream. For you see, in the monster’s world, children’s screams are the main source of energy, powering cars, lighting houses, everything. The top scarer at Monsters, Inc. is James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), an 8 foot tall, blue-with-pink-polka-dots haired monster who’s coached by his best friend Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), a one-eyed green thingie. Their success at the company is threatened when they somehow let a 3 year old girl into Monstropolis, which is a very bad thing because human children are, of course, the most toxic and dangerous thing there is. Or so they think.

“Monsters, Inc.” is the latest from Pixar, the computer animation geniuses behind the “Toy Story” movies. Once again, their technical wizardry gets further more impressive. It seems that with every movie, they become more skilled at making everything look stunning, creating rich and large universes filled with imaginative, offbeat details. Yet while there is an endless collection of creatures of all shapes and sizes in the movie, the most amazing creation might just be Boo, the little girl. Now, she’s not a technically perfect replica of a human, as it wouldn’t fit the overall somehow cartoony feel of the picture, but her expressions and behaviour and all the thoughtful little touches brought by the Pixar guys are incredibly life-like. You forget that she’s just a bunch of pixels and you actually start to care for her, as if she was real.

This also goes for Mike and Sully, who might look freaky but soon reveal themselves to be some jolly good guys. John Goodman gives Sully his big-bear-who’s-really-a-softie attitude and he becomes a completely endearing character. Just visually, he’s a treat, with the alleged 3 million animated hairs of his fur which makes you wanna grab him and pet him, but even better is how he’s given a personality and feelings. It’s particularly touching to watch him opening up and becoming affectionate and protective towards Boo. Mike is mostly there for comic relief, with Billy Crystal doing his shtick, but he’s likable too and the friendly back-and-forth between Sully and him is nice. The film also features the voice talents of Steve Buscemi as a chameleon-like vilain, James Coburn as the grumpy boss of the factory and Jennifer Tilly as Mike’s snake-haired girlfriend.

“Monsters, Inc.” is obviously targeted at kids, so there isn’t much depth to its story, which is little more than a continuous succession of chases filled with eye candy and slapstick, but it’s crafted with enough heart, skill and energy to entertain audiences of all ages. Personally, I preferred the rowdier, funnier “Shrek” or even more so, Richard Linklater’s mind-blowing cartoon for adults “Waking Life”, but if “Monsters, Inc.” wins the first Best Animated Film Oscar next March (and it probably will), I won’t be displeased. There’s nothing wrong with just being a lot of fun.

Ghost World

Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) have known each other since they were kids. They always had that us against them thing, hanging on the fringe of the world and having a good laugh at its expense while trying to figure out what other possibilities they have. Cause it’s easy to name what you don’t care for, what’s harder is pinpointing what you do want of life exactly. Like, now that they’re out of high school after yearning for years to be free to go their own way, they’re looking into getting jobs and an apartment, but things haven’t really changed overnight just because they’ve graduated. They’re still stuck in the land of mini malls and fake 50s dinners, home to the free but also the idiotic, the ridiculous and the pathetic. They still have their sarcasm, but even that’s wearing thin…

Thus is the setting of “Ghost World”, a fantastic little film with a very particular tragicomic tone. Often times, you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry; the movie can be hilarious at times, but it can also get quite depressing. But then, through the helping hand of the movie gods, hope presents itself. Not in the form of phony Hollywood schmaltz, but in something nice and simple like making a new friend. Enid, meet Seymour (Steve Buscemi), a funny looking fortysomething loner who divides himself between an inconsequential desk job and his passion for vintage 20s and 30s blues 78″ records. He’s sort of a dork, but Enid is intrigued by him so they start spending time together and then… Well, you’ll see! Just don’t expect the usual clichés and forced resolutions. This isn’t a movie driven by bogus plot mechanics, but by the nature of its complex, unusual characters.

“Ghost World” is based on the comic book by Daniel Clowes, who wrote the adaptation himself with Terry Zwigoff, who also directs. His first fiction feature, this is in the same vein as his acclaimed 1995 documentary “Crumb”, about famed cartoonist (and Zwigoff friend) Robert Crumb, a renown misfit. Both pictures denote an aversion for the mainstream and an affection for “beautiful losers”. Indeed, there’s real heart and truth to the film beyond the satirical jabs and the colourful visual look (which is in keeping with the illustrated source material). While the central figures are multi-dimensional and well defined, the people who revolve around them are seen as caricatures. There’s the out of touch father (Bob Balaban), the pushover buddy (Brad Renfro) who works at the 7-11, his Greek boss and the mulleted doofus who are always at each other’s throat, Enid’s kooky summer school art teacher (Illeana Douglas), the old man who waits all day every day at a bus stop even though that bus line has been cancelled… The broad strokes with which the supporting cast is drawn puts the leads more into perspective, and we get to see how shallow and bizarre the world appears to them.

Enid, as played by Thora Birch, is an original and compelling character. I like that even though she doesn’t fit in, she’s not a shy wallflower, she’s extraverted and outgoing. This differentiates her from Jane, Birch’s character in “American Beauty”: Enid doesn’t just mope, she creates her own style and gets her kicks her way, whether it be by wearing a Catwoman mask or following strange people. That’s how she gets to know Seymour, a character who’s actually not in the Eight Ball comics. He was created by Zwigoff as a variation of himself and friends of his (Crumb himself must have been an inspiration). Maybe this is his silly fantasy of getting laid by a cool young girl who “gets” him. One way or the other, Seymour is a wonderful part and Steve Buscemi is great in it. He’s often cast as an offbeat, nervous crook, but here we see a softer side of him. Birch and him make an unlikely couple, but they have chemistry and their relationship is surprisingly touching. “Ghost World” is short on noise and flash, but it’s one of the most genuine and smart films I’ve seen all year.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Here’s a film with all the right ingredients which somehow manages to taste bland as a hell. I mean, it’s directed by John Madden , who previously did the wonderful “Shakespeare in Love”, it has a stellar cast led by Nicolas Cage, one of my very favorite actors, and it’s shot by John Toll, who was also the director of photography on “The Thin Red Line”, one of the greatest looking films in recent memory. It’s an adaptation of a Louis de Bernieres novel by screenwriter Shawn Slovo. I haven’t read the book, but had one reviewer go: “If you read nothing else in this life, you must read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”. Okay, this was proclaimed by one of those Epinions.com fangirls but still, how could a best-seller which meant so much to at least that one girl be turned into so forgettable a film?

1940, the beautiful Greek island of Cephallonia, home to doctor Iannis (a hard to recognize but enjoyable John Hurt) and his daughter Pelagia. She’s engaged to local fisherman Mandras (Christian Bale), but she might be more interested in following her father’s foot steps and studying medicine than settling into marriage. Life on the island is good and simple, until the war raging in mainland Europe threatens to come disturb things here too. The Greeks have fought and even on occasion defeated Mussolini’s troops, but when Hitler’s Nazi troops join in, they’re forced to surrender. Enter the Italian army on Cephallonia, trying to take over the island without rocking things to much. Dr. Iannis is ordered to let a Captain stay in his home, which doesn’t please him much until he meets the man. Antonio Corelli (Nicolas Cage) turns out to be not a brutish soldier but a soft-tempered, opera loving, mandolin playing gentleman. And Palagia herself grows to care for this enemy in their home…

Spells trouble, right? Well, not really. For the longest time, the movie is mostly about people hanging around while nothing much happens. All the soldiers seem to do is sing opera, get drunk and flirt with girls. You start wondering whether this is a musical or a war film! There was potential for another “Pearl Harbor” (I mean this as a good thing, I’m one of the few who gave it a positive review last May), with a love triangle set against wartime, but Corelli and Pelagia’s romance is surprisingly inconsequential. You neither get the feeling that their passion is overwhelming or that much is at stake. He gets a boner from watching her dance, she gets wet from hearing him play the mandolin… They roll in the hay, they profess their love and then… Well, nothing ! You’d expect Pelagia’s father to oppose her affair, but he actually approves it. Then, surely, Mandras will fight for his woman, right? Nah, he just mopes a little but does nothing about it. It’s as if the filmmakers purposely avoid any drama, how dull is that!

Eventually, trouble does occur, as the Germans pop in and decide that the Italians haven’t been hard enough on the Greeks, so we get a lot of planes, jeeps, tanks, explosions, soldiers shooting or getting shot… But it’s all mostly just noise, there is little to drive the story. Maybe they could have gone for tear-jerking tragedy, or honourable sacrifice, anything to make the love story more dramatic, but no such thing happens. What twist we get is that **SPOILER WARNING Corelli leaves the island because the Germans want to kill him because he fought on the Greek’s side. Yet I wasn’t moved by how our lovers were separated. I mean, can’t Pelagia just go to frickin’ Italy with him? Where’s the problem? END OF SPOILER** We eventually get the obligatory happy end, but it has no impact: we don’t learn anything, we don’t think anything, we don’t feel anything. Yawn.

I’m not quite sure what went wrong. Cage and Cruz are pretty good. There aren’t much sparks flying between them, but they’re cute together. Cage’s Italian accent is laughable at first, but you get used to it and he seems to have really mastered the mandolin (for those two scenes at least). It’s no great performance, though. The only actor who really leaves a strong impression is Christian Bale, with his manly, proud Mandras, a simple fisherman willing to fight for his country against impossible odds. There’s a fire to him that’s absent from the rest of the film. He’s actually more deserving of getting the girl and the screen time than Corelli. I can’t believe he doesn’t get to beat the girly Italian’s ass and make his girl see that he’s the bigger man. Maybe then this wouldn’t be such a vapid picture. As it is, the only reason to see it is John Toll’s gorgeous cinematography, which offers us such gorgeous sights as blue skies and seas, lush vegetation, rocky earthy hills, sandy white beaches and Penelope Cruz’ naked boobies…

Apocalypse Now Redux

I first saw “Apocalypse Now” as a teenager on some classic movies cable network, and it blew my mind. A few years later, I talked a bunch of friends and the (then) love of my life into watching it, and I was once again amazed as were, I was happy to find out, the rest of the girls and boys used to your “Men In Black”, “Top Gun” and whatnot. Yet even though the 1979 film is already one of those films really special to me, I wasn’t ready for the impact of this “Redux”. This isn’t merely a re-release, or a half-assed Director’s Cut. This is a re-imagining of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Viet-Nam epic. He didn’t just add a few new scenes, or tinker with the special effect like Lucas did with his “Star Wars” trilogy. He actually went back to the editing room with his load of some 5 hours of footage and crafted a whole new cut, this time with no pressures to make it shorter or in any way different than his own daring, artistic vision. What we get is a film which is not only almost an hour longer but also different in tone, pace and feeling.

You probably know the story by now, a variation on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” novel in which colonial Africa is replaced by war-bound Viet-Nam. Our unlikely hero is Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who, when we first meet with him, is depressed and piss drunk in his hotel room, aching to get a new assignment, anything to occupy his mind. He gets more than he’s asked for when his superiors send him on a very secret, very touchy mission : to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). The catch is that Kurtz is not an enemy, but an American officer who apparently went nuts. Willard himself will soon start questioning his own sanity, as his journey through the hell that is war wears him down more and more. Death is never very far, and for what ? This isn’t World War II where the Nazis are clearly to be stopped, this is a conflict that has cocky, brutish U.S. troops bombing harmless villages so they can go surfing, abusing clueless peasants, basically screwing up a whole country just because they don’t jive politically and economically with the capitalist regime…

John Milius (who co-wrote the film with Coppola and Esquire’s war correspondent in Nam Michael Herr) describes “Apocalypse Now” as a modern “Odyssey”, with the Cyclops becoming surf-obsessed commanding officer Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) with a thing for “the smell of napalm in the morning”, and the Sirens working as Playboy bunnies sent to cheer up the troops. Other twists include a tiger attack, a tense confrontation with a suspicious merchant boat, a visit to an aimless military camp devoid of a c.o. described as “the asshole of the world”. These scenes we were all familiar with, but in “Redux” there’s more. There’s a fun scene in which Willard and his boys steal Kilgore’s beloved surf board which establishes furthermore the camaraderie between them and an amusing enough scene with the Playmates where they trade sexual favours for some of Willard’s diesel fuel.

And then there’s the infamous French plantation sequence, which takes up most of the additional hour of footage. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on that. I thought the discussion of the war between the Frenchmen was quite interesting, and the bit where Willard is seduced by a blasée French woman is both sensual and eerie, but I think this extended tangent somehow breaks the flow of the film. The other major addition to the film comes along in its riveting last act, when Willard finally arrives in Cambodia to the end of the river and the village where Kurtz rules like a pagan god over the natives, who are willing to kill or be killed for him. I love how Coppola uses Marlon Brando, as a rarely seen upfront but always felt menacing presence, sorta kinda like the shark in “Jaws”.

Through the film, we’ve gone through Kurtz’ dossier with Willard and we are eager to see how such a admirable officer could have gone this far off the deep end, but when we get to him, we hardly get to take a good look at him. Draped in shadows, slithering away from the frame, Brando presides over his people, and over Willard. The new material involves Kurtz reading to Willard from a Time article blabbering about how there is hope to this war again and things are smelling better. “Can you smell that, soldier?”. Priceless. I think that single line justifies this whole “Redux” business. More so, there’s absolutely no way you can miss seeing this oh so powerful picture on a big screen in a glorious new Technicolor dye transfer print. Right from the start, there’s no help being hooked, as you can hear helicopters approaching from all the way behind you and seemingly flying over you to bomb the jungle on screen, as the percussive opening notes of The Doors’ “The End” gradually fill your ears. And then the montage with the flapping ceiling fan over Willard’s soiled hotel bed, and the unforgettable first words of the film’s wonderfully used narration, “Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”

Or what about the classic helicopter raid set to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” which, 22 years of supposed advances in special effects and moviemaking techniques later, still stands as one of the most breathtaking action sequences ever made. There’s also all the great performances, from Sheen to Duvall to Brando by the way of Dennis Hopper, playing a constantly stoned photographer who worships Kurt and the rock and roller private played by a teenage Laurence “Larry” Fishburne. “Apocalypse Now” was always a unique cinematic journey, a surreal orgy of images and sounds, beauty and horror. It was one of the best movies of the ’70s, and “Apocalypse Now Redux” might be the best movie to be released in 2001. It’s certainly better than anything Coppola made in the 22 years in between, and it puts to shame most of what takes up screens these days. If there’s ever been a must-see, this is it.

NOTE: An updated version of this review was written upon the release of the Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier DVD