In it, all the Merchant Ivory hallmarks are present. The stalwart cast is led by Ralph Fiennes and a trio of Redgraves: Vanessa Redgrave, Lynn Redgrave, and Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave's daughter. The setting -- Shanghai in the period leading up to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 -- is lush and meticulously rendered. And the script, loosely adapted from Junichiro Tanizaki's novel The Diary of a Mad Old Man, was penned by acclaimed writer Kazuo Ishiguro.
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This is our loss and Australia's gain, because Shine comes off as one of the upper-echelon films of the year, an ambitious and unflinching look at that country's David Helfgott, a prodigy of a pianist driven insane by his father, only to emerge again after 20 years of institutionalization.
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The story follows the Thornberrys, a hodge-podge British family of three generations all living in one souped-up trailer home, as they travel throughout the world documenting nature's wonders. Our protagonist is young Eliza (Lacey Chabert), who has been given a magical gift to talk to animals. Eliza is the quintessential loner, as she is more content with her animal friends than her family's rules and constantly seeks adventure. Along with her chimpanzee companion Darwin (Tom Kane), she manages to get into trouble when she recklessly takes the baby cheetah Akela past the safe boundaries of the desert. Sure enough, malicious poachers snatch up Akela from a helicopter, and despite Eliza's heroic efforts, she's unable to save the cub. Heartbroken and facing rebuke from her bewildered parents, Eliza is shipped off to boarding in school in England. Trapped in the confines of "civilization," Eliza vows to find the lost cheetah cub and to return to her family where she rightfully belongs.
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In a plot that I can only describe as inspired-by-peyote, Kathy Bates decides to head to rural Britain for the funeral of a murdered pop star after hubby Dan Aykroyd abruptly dumps her. Dressed in sequins and seen mainly in Six Feet Under-like flashbacks/materializations, Jonathon Pryce plays the pop star. As it turns out, pop star is gay and has left his estate to his lover (Rupert Everett). Bates and Everett then take it upon themselves to hunt down the murderer. What follows includes both Barry Manilow and Sally Jessy Raphael.
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The pacing of Spider is totally understandable, seeing as it entirely takes place in and around a halfway house for recently-released mental patients -- and, obliquely, within the mind of its central character. "Spider" (Ralph Fiennes) is a muttering mess, a paranoid schizophrenic who wears four shirts atop one another and scribbles illegibly in a little book he carefully hides at the end of each day. Just out of the loony bin, Spider hops a train to London, finds his depressing room at the inn, faces annoyed berating at the hands of stern Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), and immediately begins shutting himself into a cocoon. "Caterpillar" might be a better nickname -- for the man and for the movie.
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Though it goes against everything he stands for, this rejuvenated Pan actually shows signs of growth and maturity. Special effects advancements help Peter and his cohorts pop off the screen. Cinematographer Donald McAlpine expands the rich color palette he utilized in such vivid films as Moulin Rogue and Romeo + Juliet. And director P.J. Hogan slips in subplots of unrequited love, develops pangs of loneliness, and mixes fleeting flights of happiness with his heroism.
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Writer-director Bill Condon has a talent for hitting just the right tone in his work. Whether he's paying stylistic homage to "Bride of Frankenstein" creator James Whale in "Gods and Monsters" or writing a screenplay for "Chicago" that re-envisioned the Broadway musical as a wannabe showgirl's uniquely cinematic daydream, Condon always finds a way to seamlessly marry the crux of his story to the strengths of his medium.
In "Kinsey," he legitimizes and revitalizes a rather tiresome narrative gimmick -- on-camera interviews with the characters. For a biopic about legendary sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, there could be no more apropos structure for the story. Kinsey himself interviewed thousands of Americans about their bedroom predilections in the 1940s and '50s to compile his groundbreaking, rather comprehensive and certainly controversial studies on the subject. So Condon opens the film in kind -- with a simple, head-on, black-and-white image of the bluntly matter-of-fact and obliviously awkward Professor Kinsey (Liam Neeson) being quizzed about his own background and sexual experience.
Composing the film around Kinsey's answers, Condon cues flashbacks of an upbringing under the fire-and-brimstone hand of a preacher father (John Lithgow), introduces the equally clinical-yet-passionate student who becomes his wife (Laura Linney), touches on the man's own pseudo-scientific dalliances and their promiscuous effect on his marriage, and sets the stage for the studies that helped launch the sexual revolution.
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In an era of severely dumbed-down children's movies, the first live-action "Peter Pan" picture since the silent era does something extraordinary -- it un-Disneyfies the story, revives the deeper themes of J.M. Barrie's original book and play, and emerges as an appropriately wily family-fare delight.
From its exquisite, Maxfield-Parish-inspired Neverland of golden sunlight, lush green forests and cotton-candy clouds to the quintessently pubescent and enigmatically tingly chemistry between Peter (the strangely pretty 14-year-old Jeremy Sumpter) and Wendy (the even prettier 13-year-old Rachel Hurd-Wood), the film is a vivid and surprisingly visceral experience.
Director P.J. Hogan ("My Best Friend's Wedding") evokes the true wonder of childhood in the eyes of his young stars as Peter Pan, the mythical leafy-clad boy who refused to grow up, hovers with the power of happy thoughts and fairy dust outside the third-story window of Wendy Darling on a snowy night in 1900s London, engrossed in the stories of adventure that the girl spins with wide-eyed zeal for her little bothers John and Michael.
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Far more imaginative and ambitious than the trivial, cash-in features Nickelodeon has made from its other animated TV series, "The Wild Thornberrys Movie" is a funny, original, whimsical but meaningful story of an intrepid 12-year-old girl's adventures in Africa.
Directors Cathy Malkasian and Jeff McGrath get off to a bit of a clumsy start, catching up uninitiated audience members with a rushed, "the story so far"-style prologue that establishes the Thornberrys as globe-trotting naturalists (can-do American mother and pith-helmeted English father host their own cable TV nature show). In the first two minutes a busy voice-over also explains that nerdy heroine Eliza (all freckles, braces and braids) was given the ability to talk to the animals by a tribal shaman, and that she'll lose the gift if she ever tells anyone about it. Obviously this fact will come into play, because it's greatly emphasized.
But soon Eliza's adventures begin in earnest, when she's packed off to boarding school -- on the advice of her priggish blue-blood grandmother -- after almost being kidnapped by poachers while playing with some friendly cougar cubs.
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Homogenized, sterilized and clearly revised by test-audience scoring, "The Next Best Thing" is a disingenuous, emotionally deficient comedy-drama about an earthy yoga teacher who has a baby with a gay friend after a night of booze-fueled accidental amour.
Starring mismatched Madonna and Rupert Everett as the atypical parents who decide to live as a family and raise their son together, there is a core of sincerity in the script that is lead to slaughter by the studio's desire to pat itself on the back for being edgy without losing ticket sales to the lowest common denominator crowd.
The story starts well enough, with our unusual couple commiserating over failed relationships by getting hammered on margaritas one evening, then waking up the next day in a compromising position. Next thing they know, Abbie (Madonna) is knocked up, Robert (Everett) embraces the responsible daddy role, and they move in together -- much to the amazement of friends and family.
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