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. Movies in Brief
(Fourth quarter, 2007)

Cinema Signal:
Look
Due to the low budget and limited following for arthouse films, this original take on the mockumentary is bound to be widely overlooked. But, it deserves better.

Writer-director Adam Rifkin ("Homo Erectus"), warning us at the beginning about our much spied-upon society in the interests of security, and the ubiquitous cameras peering down on us the minute we leave our homes, tells many stories as seen (and recorded) from the high perches where such devices are normally installed. The effectiveness of it in capturing our attention attests to
what is, essentially, very fine writing and editing which serve the episodic concept with strong gripping power.

One might also marvel at his seamless use of first-time actors who remain entirely natural all the way, in a behavioral range from comedic embarrassment, a spectrum of irony, to agonizingly dark tragedy. Of course, recorded dialogue is entirely false, but it's all so absorbing you tend not to question it. Kudos to all concerned.

Cinema Signal:
The Game Plan
I don't know what planet the people who put this together live on, but the behavior depicted here has nothing to do with anything recognizable as human, let alone normal. The actions, reactions and motivations have no basis in anyone's experience and the best that can be said for it is that it's a fantasy in search of a laugh. The worst part is the casting of a little girl supposedly playing a super-precocious eight-year old witch-in-training and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a star quarterback who can't stop talking about himself and showing off his considerable muscle
development. Alas, this appearance exhibits how challenged he is in the acting department and indicates that he's taken a step between the wrong goalposts. Nothing here is believable for anyone past the age of three though perhaps a nine year-old might consider it entertaining. It's a low mark in Disney pandering any way you look at it and they should be ashamed of such inane and false product.


DVD Specs:
SPECIAL FEATURES: * Deleted Scenes * Interview with The Rock on learning to play quarterback for the movie. * Behind-the-scenes Featurette * Peyton's Makeover Madness ~~ (Click title for more info)


Cinema Signal:
The Savages


This is a nice turn for Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, depicting brother and sister rather than other relationships the title and common practice might suggest.

Their great skill shows in the astuteness of picking up on the nuances of
sibling hierarchy and habits born of years and familiarity. Directing from her original screenplay, Tamara Jenkins' observations of the subtleties builds the drama within the invisible walls of a family as their elderly father Lenny (Philip Bosco) goes through the symptoms of dementia, borrowing from the syndromes of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. As circumstances slowly alter assumed roles and orders of accomplishment, a change develops between the siblings that brings with it a new regard for each other.



Cinema Signal:
Enchanted
I didn't expect the enchantment factor to work its spell on me and, for the most part, it didn't. But one part did keep my interests up through this animation-live action romantic fantasy, and that was its female star, Amy Adams. There's just something about this girl that filled the movie with enough magic to nudge it beyond the sappy fairy tale.

Maybe it's her country girl-next-door quality, a girl who sees more virtue on

Enchanted
The Movie Storybook
by Sarah Nation
(Hardcover from Amazon)
the streets of Manhattan than any New Yorker ever did. Even the breakouts into song gave new meaning to the mean-street tempo of the metropolis and to the fantasy origination of this doll's appearance.

Susan Sarandon has notable fun with the role of wicked witch and Patrick Dempsey does what he can as the Wall Street smoothie who is the primary target for enchantment -- somewhat rare rolls for both. But it was Adams who cast the spell to make me wanna go with it.


DVD Specs:
SPECIAL FEATURES: * Deleted Scenes * Pip's Predicament: A Pop-up Adventure * Fantasy Comes to Life * Bloopers
* The D-Files (on Blu-ray disc only) * Click title for more info and/or to buy.




Cinema Signal:
The Last Mimzy
While I can't rate this film very highly, I did find one aspect of it intriguing, which was the casting of the two child leads, (Chris O'Neil as Noah Wilder and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn as Emma, his sister). For sure there are times their inexperience shows, as though they didn't find a handle on a particular scene and it moved on without their making a particular contribution. But, more often than not, they both show qualities that make them ideal for the supernatural phenomena

The Last Mimzy:
And Other Stories Originally published as
The Best of Henry Kuttner
by Henry Kuttner
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
visited upon this poor family and shaking it up when it's discovered. Their effectiveness with the material, however, isn't enough to overcome filmmaking flaws, like sudden cuts, feeble character and thematic development, and unconvincing suppositions.

Mom is played by Joely Richardson; dad by Timothy Hutton, suitably going through the motions well enough for alarmed parents who have no idea how to deal with their kids' new playthings. These include a small slab of glowing crystal, a teddy bear, spiraling rocks and glowing fog. Michael Clark Duncan almost steals the show as the closest thing to a bad guy with his soft, charismatic and imposing presence. What an interesting personality!

Producer Robert Shaye doesn't display a particular gift for moving the story along as the director. His limitations also show by not demanding one more re-write, which seems desperately needed.



Cinema Signal:
Grace Is Gone

Sad and slow, this family drama braces a subject behind today's headlines: the effect on families whose loved ones die in Iraq -- sometimes the consequence of one tour too many. When Stanley Philipps (John Cusack) learns of his wife's death he can't bring himself to tell his two daughters.


While They're at War:
The True Story of American Families on the Homefront
by Kristin Henderson
(Discounted Hardcover from Amazon)
He puts it off by taking them on a road trip, ostensibly to learn about new things but in reality to prepare them and himself for the inevitable. We understand that it's the most difficult thing a father will ever have to do but the drawn out process in this character vehicle runs on low grade dramatic fuel. It's a test of patience but it doesn't make you want to leave the theatre early, either. It'll make a good DVD release for a limited, sensitive audience.

With this, and "Martian Child" and "1408," all in 2007, my John Cusack tank is full for the year. Fortunately, he'll be moving on from "dad" roles in 2008.


The DVD



Cinema Signal:
Persepolis

An animated life story about an individualistic Iranian woman who grew up

Ways to Survive, Battles to Win:
Iranian Women Exiles in the Netherlands and the United States
by Halleh Ghorashi
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
during the Islamic Revolution. The amusing narrative style by co-writer-directors Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi (whose story it is) features Catherine Deneuve voicing the role of Mrs. Satrapi, Marjane's mother.

There's a good lesson here about Iranian history but it's not exactly gripping material. Charming at times, it amounts pretty much to a "so what?" And, by way of trivia: Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands, and Iggy Pop lent their voices to the English-language dub of the film but go uncredited.



Cinema Signal:
Margot At the Wedding
This is Nicole Kidman exploring new territory and creating a chemistry that brings out the best in her co-stars, Jennifer Jason Leigh as her sister Pauline and the man she's engaged herself to, Malcolm, played by Jack Black.


The Marriage You've Always Dreamed Of
by Greg Smalley
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
If there's any actor who can play the slacker character, it's Jack Black, who has it down pat. Margot's reaction to her future brother-in-law doesn't go over well with Pauline, who's always been floundering in Margot's achiever shadow. Now, she wants to make a decision for herself. But that's all right. Margot, with son Claude in tow, turns the celebration of the event into a festival of self doubt and ego/id destruction.

Ms. Kidman, who can liven up a reading of the phone book, doesn't quite bring enough icing for the cake to make her visit, and this film, particularly compelling unless you can relate to sado-masochistic subtexts in a relationship.


DVD Special Features: * A conversation with writer/director Noah Baumbach and actress Jennifer Jason Leigh * Theatrical Trailers
(Click film title for more on the DVD).



Cinema Signal:
Control
As for films that attempt to dissect tragic figures in pop music so that we may better understand them and their motivations, this is neither the best nor the worst. It's certainly more expressive than Gus Van Sant's "Last Days" an attempted insight into the suicidal death of Kurt Cobain.


Rip It Up and Start Again:
Postpunk 1978-1984
(Bargain Paperback from Amazon)
But, that's not exactly saying much.

This, on the other hand, isn't a suggestion of difficult-to-understand acts but an out-and-out biography of Ian Curtis, singer for post-punk band, Joy Division. It's a study of a man who couldn't handle his own conflicting feelings for two women in his life while on a trajectory to stardom.

Emerging from TV, Sam Riley, who bears a remarkable resemblance to the rocker he's emulating, carries it out with a low and steady energy and spurts of high animation particularly when on stage with the band. Samantha Morton plays his wife, Deborah; Alexandra Maria Lara ("Youth Without Youth") his girlfriend/groupie/home wrecker.

Aspects of an ambitious group's life rising from poverty in merry ol' England is nicely detailed in a down-to-earth realistic rendering but so much is absent that questions persist. Who wrote Curtis' songs? Did the band contribute? How did they work out a number in terms of instrumentation? To what degree are the lyrics improvised? What is there about the low-range post-punk minimalist-melody style that amasses a following for a band like this? Isn't a film bio about a musical figure the place to at least give us a hint about the music-making and the milieu? Instead, they are avoided as though irrelevant. For me, this aspect would have provided a much greater sense of the life we're following.


(Click film title for more on the DVD).


Cinema Signal:
Honeydripper
It isn't just honey that's dripping here -- it's the old timey flavor and syrupy style that went out with the dial telephone. The title is derived from the name of the bar and barbeque restaurant owned by good-natured Pine Top Purvis (Oh, please!) and played by wonderful velvet-cement throat Danny Glover. He's a piano player and ex-hoodlum whose place is his soul and
identity... and mighty close to foreclosure. The only way he can figure to get out of debt is by promising more than he can deliver.

While his wife Delilah's (Lisa Gay Hamilton) search for salvation compromises her attending to the barbeques for the scarce Alabama clientele; and a desperate and insistent guitar-picking stranger appears off a train; and his young daughter fends off her suitor; and the greedy and inane sheriff (Stacy Keach) throws around his power like a mobster, Purvis is busy distributing posters to announce the Saturday night appearance of the very famous Guitar Sam, whom he's hired by phone in order to attract a big crowd and save his place from the deadline imposed by his pushy debtors.

Things, of course, don't go right but that doesn't mean the complications aren't as predictable as mice and cheese. John Sayles directs this with the skill and taste of a B-movie hack who thinks 1950's style and Old South black poverty is a fruit that's still ripe for squeezing. Could be, but not in the synthetic way he does it here. This formulaic indulgence weighs way too heavy with sweetness and fabrication. As he's messing with a brilliant legacy one can only hope he'll exercise more discernment the next time he sets down to write a script.


Cinema Signal:
Man In the Chair

This attempt to make a film is about a guy who is attempting to make a film.
Cameron Kincaid (Michael Angarano) has problems in high school but no problem in thinking he can be a filmmaker. He runs into aging actor Flash Madden (Christopher Plumber) and lures him out of his post-career funk to help him out. Flash, difficult and irascible as he may be, becomes the subject of the film.

Once Flash decides to engage himself with the kid's enterprise, he arranges a meeting with one-time successful screenwriter Mickey Hopkins (M. Emmet Walsh) living a sad and sorry life in virtual destitution but the guy is so spaced out that he lends nothing to the project.

Which is pretty much what this all adds up to, furthering the popular notion that filmmaking is a haven for some low-graders. The most surprising thing here is that any of the legends who people the cast (Plummer most especially) thought it worth doing. Which begs the question... didn't these pros read the script?


Cinema Signal:
Ratatouille
The Pixar directorial genius Brad Bird follows up his brilliant "The
Incredibles" (for which he won an oscar) with a tale about a chef-rat who defies his lowly reality with culinary genius. How he manages to apply his gift for haute cuisine and turns a once-great five-star Parisian restaurant into the glory it once was is the basis of this highly unlikely kitchen romance. Fortunately, the fragrances of the kitchen overpower those of the sewers and the garbage bin. Typical Pixar and Bird brilliance but one might have wished for a hero type more acceptable in terms of food preparation. The challenge is to make it enchanting and Bird makes it as cuddly and kid-friendly as anyone possibly could.


DVD Specs:
SPECIAL FEATURES: * Deleted Scenes * "Your Friend the Rat" new animated short with rat brothers Remy & Emile * Fine Food & Film - short film intercutting the creative ponderings of director and master chef Thomas Keller * "Lifted" - Oscar-nominated short film


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Cinema Signal:

Casey Affleck as Robert Ford is a brooding, shadowy presence hiding his suppressed ambition to be like the outlaw who has, in a 14-year career, achieved so much fame and crowd-pleasing notoriety. At times immediately responsive to Jesse James (Brad Pitt), at times fawning, he becomes the
faithful sidekick to chide and make sport of as doubts and inner turmoils seize the elder outlaw. The James gang of gunslingers, sitting idle and restless while Jesse deals with his demons instead of planning their next piece of work, slowly disintegrates through death and disharmony, leaving the faithful lapdog Ford at his role model's side.

On the path to that fateful and historical day that marks a milestone in the history of the Old West, the film methodically concentrates on the details of James' raging paranoia, an incipient madness that envelops him. But his mind returns to his patented sharp sense for danger, allowing him to get the drop on those who would seize an opportunity to claim the price on his head.

The aspect of the film that justifies this new look and understanding of the famed outlaw justifies itself in the way it focuses in on the psychological aspects of the legendary figure, developing a curious mood of impending fate and final destiny that rides along with the action.


I'm Not There
Cinema Signal:


Nor is there much comprehension there, either. Maybe I have this reaction because I know too much about Bob Dylan (see my review of his "Chronicles I." Or, I care too much for his work. But it doesn't strike me that this multi-metaphorical approach has any value in
illuminating a soaring talent who keeps his private life private and has always denied the hungry press any hints about the meanings in his songs. This is not the way to expose or solve an enigmatic famous person. It's just exploiting the luster of his name.

It saddens me even more that Cate Blanchett got involved in an interplanetary zone between imitation (mostly in hair and makeup) and revelation (which is caught in a vacuum). Didn't anyone inform the superb actress that space has no air?

But seriously, she and the other emulators (embodiers?) of Dylan and peripheral figures (Jack Elliott?) get carried away in a dearth of discipline and more confusion than illumination. The directorial style by writer-director Todd Haynes ("Far from Heaven") conveys an experiment that needed to go back to the lab for less looseness and tighter discipline. Of course, many people think they got something out of it so it's a matter of taste. But loving Dylan has nothing to do with how you take this film. I categorize it along with "Lions For Lambs," which realized a quicker, more merciful death at the boxoffice.



Cinema Signal:
Across the Universe
In the genre of "Rent" set to a "best of" compilation of Beatles hits, innovative theatre director Julie Taymor delivers a musical love story told within the framework of political and social unrest. It's the 60's, and Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) are of different pursuasions over how to deal with the government and the Vietnam War, issues which threaten to smother or forestall the powerful love at the center of the story.


The Beatles Anthology
by John Lennon, Paul McCarthy, George Harrison, Ringo Starr
Friends and allies join them in song and the hallucinogenic images that characterize so much of the crowd-think and practices of the time transmit to our eyes and ears in settings rich with talent. Dance routines across roof tops and city streets suggest an updated "West Side Story", this one using the Beatles songbook as a guide through the confusion and dynamism of the era. For fans of the Fab Four, it's a vivid reminder of just what creative and varied songwriters they were.

Between the visual and aural excitement, the emotion between the two leads is almost eclipsed, but not lost. The tie between them, despite differences in thinking, proves compelling enough to give meaning to the whole as a successful experiment and stylization, if predictable and sentimental. Holy Jude, Beatles fans, come for the music.



The Simpsons Movie

Cinema Signal:

Balmy and clownish as ever, the movie about these beloved folks plays like a "Best of the..." album. There's no use taking it to another level when the fans want the samo, samo. So, it's smart to stay within the expected Simpletonian framework.

What will be lauded is the opportunity to see the Simps in the coloration and glorification of the silver screen, confirming the family's presence and antics in our culture with no questions to be asked.

Homer's trademark unawareness now embraces environmental issues to shock the folks who, like him, are a beat or two behind the curve -- a region of insensitivity he passionately passes on to his son. Emptying a silo-full of pig excrement into nearby Lake Springfield is no more damaging than the ineptitude coming out of certain Washington bureacracies, the EPA (Environment Protection Agency) for example.

The answer to Homer's pollution is the Feds declaring Springfield a contagion area as a legal means to seal it off in its entirety under a plastic enclosure (to protect the rest of us, don't you know?). But, they're no more able to contain the Simpsons than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could sustain the dikes of New Orleans against Hurricane Katrina.

With the series' satiric mockery of the stupidity and irony in officialdom, the Simpson framework hardly calls for a feature presentation except that it's a powerful form of market engineering.



Beowulf
Cinema Signal:


Another epic, historically set legend with a good dose of the supernatural is also a 3-D animation directed by Robert Zemeckis in the same faulty style of
his "The Polar Express." By design, the proportions of the grandeur would seek out the same audience that "300" drew in collosal numbers but it does itself no favors to go again with a medium that is so disconcerting. In this style of animation, expressions and body movements are no less awkward than in the original, and one is constantly adjusting to it as the people "float" and the eyes register as wandering.

It is drawn from the legend described in a 9th century Old English poem that tells of the mortal hero's victories over the monster Grendel and his all-powerful mother. From a time when kingdoms at stake and rescue by a great and powerful warrior was the proper subject of epic poetry, it translates intriguingly for modern audiences attracted by grand themes, perfect bodies and fine CG stunt choreography by the VFX experts from Sony Pictures Imageworks. Ray Winstone valiantly serves as the title character, with Angelina Jolie as the snaky evil power that won't allow the castle of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) to rest on its foundations nor forget its betrayals. Question is, is Beowulf a match for her magic? -- no small part of which is her guile and beguiling figure.

While Beowulf's mission to enrapture teenage boys (and other fans of grand adventure) is accomplished, I'd have to suggest to Mr. Zemeckis that it may be time to abandon this form of animation.


DVD Features: * Deleted scenes * A Hero's Journey: The Making of "Beowulf" * Beasts of Burden--designing the creatures * Creating the Ultimate "Beowulf" * The Art of "Beowulf."


Cinema Signal:
The Band's Visit
Writer-director Eran Kolirin, in a feature film debut, uses droll, laid-back humor to depict the unusual event of an Egyptian police band visiting Israel to play at the inaugural ceremony of an Arab arts center. Their arrival in
the wrong town, with no reception, no one to receive and direct them, is mined for rich, good humor and earned the film an Academy nod for Best Foreign Language Film for 2007.

Also finding humor in the outlandish appearance of eight stiff blue-uniformed foreigners is a group of local Israelis clustered in the small restaurant run by a somewhat world weary Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) who thought she's seen it all. Once the initial impression wears off, and the band's leader Tewfiq, a man ruled by propriety, offers of hospitality and shelter are accepted, leading to a few surprising developments.

Resonating through the script is the subtext of irony and a lesson in human- to-human detente in a sea of hostility. There's nothing subtle about this, either, and its obviousness to a cynic makes it less appealing than the softies go for with no questions asked. In the end, however, it's a very nice try, if a bit overrated.


Cinema Signal:
La Vie en Rose
A superior biopic about the incomparable lady of song, Edith Piaf. While not
everyone's musical cup of tea, her throaty, warbling cool captured millions across the globe and came to represent the icon of cosmopolitan style and taste.

In a performance that justifiably proved its superior worth in the category of lead actress, which in 2007 offered no real competition for the glory of the Oscar, Marian Cottilard grabbed it with her rendition of the chanteause, her rise, her weaknesses, her physical deterioration at the end.

Cottilard embodied her subject with what appears to be the definitive version of Piaf.


Cinema Signal:
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
The true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) who suffers a stroke that turns him from a high-achiving, energetic man at the top of the fashion world into a survivor who must learn to communicate despite total paralysis.
The only part of him that he can control is his left eye and, when his nurses notice his reactions to their attentions, a difficult code is developed to understand his needs and thoughts. The dedication of these nurses, who go through such devotion, is a credit to the profession, especially as Bauby is no easy case. At times petulant, demanding and emotionally stressed, the effect of his condition weighs heavily against the life-loving man he once was, which is used in flashbacks to contrast against his diminished state.

Emmanuelle Seigner and Marie-Josee Croze do honor to their real-life nurse and physical therapist Celine Desmoulins and Henriette Durand. Max von Sydow's brief appearance as Papinou Bauby, the invalid's father, is impressive, creating a buzz about a possible Best Actor nod from the Academy. The highly personal character study was well directed by Julian Schnabel, a man given to art and the off-beat ("Basquiat"). Writer Ronald Harwood ("Love in the Time of Cholera," "Oliver Twist") handled the screenplay, adapting it from the subject's novel. Amalric's performance is selfless and accomplished. With this performance under his belt one might well expect we'll be seeing more of him.


DVD Features: * Submerged: The Making Of * A Cinematic vision" * Audio Commentary with Director Julian Schnabel * Charlie Rose interviews Julian Schnabel.

Reviews:
Look
The Game Plan
The Savages
Enchanted
The Last Mimzy
Grace Is Gone
Persepolis
Margot at the Wedding
Control
Honeydripper
Man In the Chair
Ratatouille
I'm Not There
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Across the Universe
The Simpsons Movie
Beowulf
The Band's Visit
La Vie en Rose
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

     ~~  Jules Brenner  
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