When we first meet middle class student Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), he is leaving his distant father for Oxford. Instantly, he is thrust into a world of privilege, and the seedy sphere of influence surrounding fey fop Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw). Over the course of the school year, they become inseparable in ways that suggest something other than simple companionship. Fate finds the pair spending the summer at Sebastian's family home, known as Brideshead. There, Charles meets two women who will figure prominently in his future -- the staunchly Catholic matriarch Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) and Sebastian's glamorous sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). Over the next few years, everything about Brideshead, from the people to the place itself, will haunt Charles' attempt to forge an identity for himself, as well as guide what he really wants out of life.
Continue reading: Brideshead Revisited Review
While the CIA's roots in the WWII-era OSS (Office of Strategic Services) are well established, very few films have rooted the American spy service as firmly as this one does in its starched, prim and proper WASP world. Wilson, played by Damon as a tight-lipped, practically invisible cipher, comes from one of that world's better families, and so is a shoo-in for Yale's secret Skull & Bones society once he does a little snooping for the FBI on his pro-Nazi poetry professor (Michael Gambon). Smart and stoic, Wilson shoots up the OSS ranks and soon is masterminding the CIA's global subterfuge against the Soviets.
Continue reading: The Good Shepherd Review
For the uninitiated, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the book where author J.K. Rowling finally went off her rocker, turning out a 734-page monster of a book (vs. 309 pages for #1) that made everyone wonder if any child could possibly have that kind of attention span.
Turns out they did: Book four is also where Rowling went from Big Hit to Mega Worldwide Sensation, and the Harry Potter series became a cultural touchstone. (This is also about the time that ultra-right wing groups started denouncing the series as demonic.)
And so, everything that is past is prologue: The first three films now feel like nothing more than window dressing for this one, a rich movie with expert plotting, clever humor, and a sophistication lacking in the earlier pictures. At the same time, it's fine for (older) kids, who'll root for Harry and Co. through his many scrapes in this edition.
Goblet of Fire finds Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) back for his fourth year at Hogwarts Academy. Things are getting heavier for the lad: He's having vivid dreams about Lord Voldemort being revived in the flesh. On top of that, the school is hosting the legendary Tri-Wizard Tournament, in which three aspiring magicians will compete to win a fancy blue cup (plus bragging rights), which brings two foreign schools -- one a collection of brutish Russian guys, another a group of breathless French fairy queens -- into Hogwarts for the term. While the tournament is meant for older kids, naturally the undersized Potter will find his way into the mix. On top of that, Harry's got some raging hormones, which has him swooning for fellow student Cho (Katie Leung), while Ron (Rupert Grint) tries in vain to suppress his budding love for Hermione (Emma Watson). This comes to a head of sorts during a formal dance, one of the film's most memorable scenes. And all the while, Voldemort inches closer to Harry.
Overall, the story is obviously and dramatically pared down from the book. Even I, a non-reader, could tell that there were huge gaps in the plot. Strangely, it doesn't really matter. All but the bare essentials have been stripped away, and even though it tops 2 1/2 hours, Goblet is a lean, mean, storytelling machine. There's rarely a dull moment (a stark contrast to some of the overblown earlier installments in the series), and it's amazingly easy to follow the serpentine plot. Partly this is because we've had three movies to get up to speed on the myriad characters of Potter, and even though Goblet introduces a good number of new faces, keeping track of them is a snap. The downside of this is that, aside from a little romance for the main three characters, there's not much time to develop our heroes further. But really, it isn't needed. They're fleshy enough as it is, and the film does give them a bit more structure to set up #5.
Speculation has been rampant about how director Mike Newell -- of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame -- would work out as the helmer of an action-oriented kid flick. Turns out, he's better than those who came before him. Not only does Newell have a good handle over the film's action showpieces, he knows how to deal with awkward romances and growing pains of the teen years. Maybe it's because he's the first British director to try his hand at this very British series?
Speaking of the action: The special effects in this installment are hands-down better than ever. There's probably not a single scene in Goblet of Fire that isn't manipulated with CGI in some way -- but you'll never notice. The effects are so good and so seamless that you seriously can't tell the difference (reality-wise) between Radcliffe and the giant, fire-breathing dragon staring him down.
And speaking of dragons: The film is scary, more so than the other three. As a case in point, the woman sitting in front of me, with two kids aged about six to eight, had to leave the theater after the first two minutes because the little ones were so frightened.
Altogether the film is just about right for what a Harry Potter movie ought to be. The story is consistently interesting but not too confusing, the dialogue is spot-on, and the film blends action and quiet moments perfectly. (Frankly, the film should win an Oscar for editing.)
But overall Goblet of Fire has succeeded in doing one big thing that the first three movies completely failed at: For the first time, I'm actually looking forward to the next in the series.
A little magic ought to fix that arm right up, no?
As the great Julia Lambert, the toast of the London stage in the early '30s, she's struck by a premonition of fading vitality at the grand age of forty. Worries of it bring her close to a breakdown as she begins to desperately search for other stimuli to give her life meaning. She carries on a dialogue with her muse, Jimmy Langton (Michael Gambon), her dead drama coach that she summons up as an imagined presence to tell her when she's going well or going astray.
Continue reading: Being Julia Review
Charlotte Gray (Blanchett), a Londoner, joins the French Resistance after her pilot boyfriend gets shot down over France. When a fellow female spy is caught on her first drop-off assignment, Charlotte stays with local rebellion leader Julien (Crudup) and takes care of two Jewish boys whose parents have been captured. Meanwhile, she continues to meet with her contact to find ambush points for Julien.
Continue reading: Charlotte Gray Review
Drawing from pulp, noir, and classic comics for his inspiration, director Kerry Conran - in his film debut - creates an entire new universe for us to soak up, based right here on earth. Ostensibly set in an alternate version of the late 1930s/early 1940s (and notably pre-WWII), the film is filled with the technological promises of many a World's Fair. Planes can turn into submarines. Entire cities can float in the sky. Robots 100 feet tall can parade through the streets. And everyone wears a hat. (As an aside, Conran really wants to disorient you with the setting; look closely at the newspaper in the beginning and you'll see it's clearly dated sometime in the 2000s.)
Continue reading: Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow Review
It's 1882, and best friends Charley (Costner) and Boss (Robert Duvall) are cowboys who have lived on the open range for ten years, driving cattle in a world where nature makes the only laws. Roaming the West with them are rambunctious young cowboys Button (Diego Luna), Mose (Abraham Benrubi), and Charley's faithful dog. When a rainstorm strands their wagon, Charley and Boss send Mose to the nearest frontier town to gather additional supplies. When he doesn't return, they decide to take a visit to the town -- with their revolvers at hand -- to search for him.
Continue reading: Open Range Review
Murray ambles through his performance as oceanographer Steve Zissou, whose longtime partner was just eaten by a rare species of shark ("which may or may not exist") and is determined to set off on an expedition to find the shark and kill it. When asked what scientific purpose this would satisfy, Zissou gives an almost imperceptible shrug and says, "revenge." Much in the same way that Luke Wilson's Richie in The Royal Tenenbaums had long outlived his brief fame as tennis pro by the time the film started, in Life Aquatic, Zissou's best days are already behind him, and the film is littered with the detritus of his past glory, many of them '70s-style nostalgia items like a special edition tennis shoe or a pinball machine featuring his bearded visage. The funding for Zissou's increasingly poorly-received films is drying up, it looks like his wife is about to leave him, and there's a reporter nosing around asking painful questions. So Zissou's expedition - a half-assed, barely-planned affair - is much less a research trip than a has-been's last hurrah, a perpetually stoned Ahab hunting his white whale (or jaguar shark, in this case).
Continue reading: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou Review
Gosford Park is the name of an English country estate, where, in 1932, a gaggle of royals and wannabes -- including a horde of locals plus a popular British actor and a Charlie Chan-obsessed Hollywood movie producer -- gather to attend a weekend hunting party. Upstairs, it's the usual hoity-toity, drawing room chitter-chatter, while downstairs an army of servants does little but gossip about the visitors above.
Continue reading: Gosford Park Review
As if that weren't enough, Alfie, stricken by "the love that dare not speak its name," is constantly at war with his emotions and his sexuality, and he is painfully infatuated with the bus's driver, Robbie (Rufus Sewell). As the annual play draws near, a new rider, Adele (well-played by Tara Fitzgerald) shows up, and Alfie decides to cast her as the virginal lead in Wilde's controversial Salome.
Continue reading: A Man Of No Importance Review
The result is two films slapped together. Neither of them are very good on their own, and combined they make little to no sense at all, since the stories bear no resemblance to one another at all.
Continue reading: The Gambler (1997) Review
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Two crazy girls overhear a crime going down, then decide to turn the tables on the criminals by extorting some cash for themselves. Hilarity ensues! Oh, you have heard it... well this time it's different -- you see, one girl is British and one is American.
Continue reading: High Heels And Low Lifes Review
Well folks, it's another year at Hogwarts Academy (two years in real life), and our rapidly maturing stars are back for another round of magical high jinks and mass merchandising in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Harry's been absent since the fall of 2002, and even casual viewers will notice that a lot has changed over the last two years. Director Chris Columbus (who did the first two films) is out, replaced with the controversial Alfonso Cuarón, who last hit the scene with the teen sex romp Y Tu Mamá También.
You'll notice Cuarón's touch right away. He likes to pick up the camera and get right in his actor's faces, moving all the while, a stark contrast to Columbus's traditionalism. Gone as well are the rich Technicolor tones of the Columbus movies; Cuarón prefers washed-out, yellowish shading that connotes decay and decrepitude. This is old-school wizardry, not kids stuff. In one fell swoop, Cuarón has reinvented the movies into an arthouse series that's as un-kid friendly as it gets.
How you feel about all of that depends on whether you're old enough to vote. I can't speak for the kids, but I heard more than one crying jag erupt during Azkaban's 150-minute running time. Will young kids relate to this iteration of Potter? Here's the story, you be the judge:
Once again, Harry's living with his cruel aunt and uncle, anxious to return to school. That happens soon enough, and quickly he discovers he's the target of the titular Prisoner of Azkaban, a wizard named Sirius Black who was convicted for killing dozens of people, most notably Harry's parents. Now he's escaped and is making his way toward Hogwarts, ready to snuff young Potter. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), now a troubled 13-year-old, doesn't seem overly fazed at first. He's up to his usual school antics; taking classes, sneaking out to go to town, dodging Draco. It isn't until Black arrives on the scene for real (well past the midpoint of the movie) that any of this starts to gel into a plot.
And I use that term loosely. I think of myself as an astute follower of stories, but Azkaban can be baffling if you haven't read the book or don't have someone nearby to explain who's who. For those going into this blind, there are soul-sucking dementors (not especially terrifying here), shapeshifting wizards, old friends reunited, and a time travel subplot all coming together into one of the least satisfying dénouements in fantasy movie history. While it's riddled with plot holes (which I won't reveal since they'd spoil the ending), there's no doubt Harry's going to come out of it okay: The last half hour of the movie is rehashed from another angle as we run through the time travel bit, reliving the scenes from another angle.
Azkaban the novel gets mixed reviews from Potter maniacs -- some say it's their favorite book; others say it's the worst. However, if my research is correct, it is the worst-selling of the five books to date, and it will probably go down in history as the worst of the movies, too. (But I've been wrong before, of course.) In any case, by all accounts, the books really get good starting at #4 (due out in movie form next year), while Azkaban is a slim volume where comparably little happens. Ultimately Harry is in virtually no peril compared to that in the first two stories and those that follow. Heck, Voldemort doesn't even show up in this round.
The other notable problem is how radically older the cast has gotten since 2002's Chamber of Secrets. Radcliffe is valiantly fighting off puberty, but Emma Watson (Hermione) is looking her age; she's tarted up in jeans and a rainbow belt for most of the film, and sports a more stylish haircut to boot. Now 15, Rupert Grint (Ron) looks like he ought to be starring in the next American Pie movie as a wacky foreign exchange student. And Tom Felton, who plays Draco, is now 17 years old and ought to be playing rugby in college. He probably is. I couldn't believe it was the same actor.
Speaking of actors, Richard Harris is sorely missed as Dumbledore. I love Michael Gambon, but he doesn't do the kindly old wizard too well. He's got a Robert Mitchum-esque undercoating of villainy that he just can't shake. David Thewlis and Gary Oldman are fine as the new blood, but it's Emma Thompson that steals the show as a doddering divination professor.
The rest of the series remains intact. Twittering ghosts and pictures are as we remember them (Dawn French steals a scene as a portrait of a vain fat lady), the Quidditch match is an abbreviated bust, and Snape (Alan Rickman) is as menacing as ever. But nothing much happens - certainly nothing to enhance any of the characters aside from the tenuous hand-holding of Ron and Hermione - and Azkaban generates very little energy along the way.
I have high hopes that Mike Newell will reinvigorate the series with next year's Goblet of Fire (how it will clock in at less than 8 hours I have no idea), but I can't recommend Azkaban for anyone but die-hard Potter heads.
The DVD is just the thing for those Potterphiles, including two discs of extras, such as bonus footage, cast interviews, and games for the kids.
Wand by Hogwarts. Jeans by Guess.
Beginning with a voice-over that provides cheeky insightinto the savvy it takes to stay ahead in Britain's organized-crime drugtrade, he sets the stage for a story full of unexpected sharp edges thatmake it increasingly unlikely his character will ever reach his statedgoal of early retirement.
"You know why people like you can't leave this business?You make too much money for people like me," says Craig's boss (KennethCranham), an uncouth kingpin who puts on country-club airs as he intimidatesour anonymous hero (whose name is never mentioned) into a job way out ofhis depth -- hunting down an associate's sexy, strung-out missing daughter.
But the girl is barely a jumping-off point for the stimulatinglybyzantine plot of "Layer Cake," in which one stupid mistake byan irresponsibly flashy small-time associate who calls himself "TheDuke" (Jamie Foreman) begins a domino effect of revelations, double-crosses,paybacks and bursts of violence -- all of which come tumbling down on Craig'shead.
Continue reading: Layer Cake Review
You may need a program to keep track of the two dozen-plus characters in Robert Altman's soap opera, murder mystery, chamber comedy-of-manners "Gosford Park."
Carpeted with dry wit and filled to the rafters with salacious secrets and unspoken animosity, the film takes place at an English country estate in 1932 and unfolds from two points of view -- above stairs, where a multitude of aristocrats size each other up in subtle sociological war games, and below stairs, where their gossipy maids and valets fall into a strict pecking order based upon whom they serve.
The estate is the home of the aloof upper-crusters Sir William and Lady Sylvia McCordle (Michael Gambon and Kristin Scott Thomas) and it's gathering place for their many coattail-riding relatives, including Aunt Constance (the wonderful, quizzically austere Maggie Smith) who habitually puts on airs as if she's not living off an allowance from the McCordles.
Continue reading: Gosford Park Review
Who better to revamp Washington Irving's classic spook tale of the Headless Horseman than Tim Burton, the modern maestro of movie macabre?
A little tweaking here (a conspiracy plot), a little re-writing there (Ichabod Crane is now a nervous police detective instead of a nervous school teacher) and -- ta-da! -- it's "Sleepy Hollow," a sumptuously stylized, oddly traditional, darkly comical, and unmistakably Burton-esque take on this uniquely American fairy tale.
Taking place in 1799, this inventive reinterpretation of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" -- written by "Fight Club" scripter Andrew Kevin Walker and polished by "Shakespeare In Love" scribe Tom Stoppard -- features Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane, an ungainly, outcast, New York City constable come to the upstate hamlet of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a spate of beheadings that local legend has pinned on the noggin-less ghost of mad a Revolutionary War mercenary.
Continue reading: Sleepy Hollow Review
An imaginative spectacular of retro-futuristic adventure and mind-boggling special effects, "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" so perfectly captures the silly sci-fi wonder of the 1930s serials which inspired it that watching this matinee marvel doesn't arouse a modern reaction of "wow!" or "cool!" -- it garners a genuine, awe-struck "golly!"
The film is cinematically breathtaking, with sepia-toned semi-color photography, swooping Orson-Wellesian dutch angles, top-secret floating air fortresses and pre-War propellered fighter planes battling giant robots in the skyscraper canyons of Depression-era Manhattan. But what's all the more amazing is that, except for the actors and a few props, nothing on the screen -- not the city sidewalks, not the interiors of cars the actors drive, not even the carpets in the lush, film-noir-shaded interior sets -- is real.
Beginning in college, first-time writer-director Kerry Conran spent 10 years on his Macintosh computer creating a six-minute sample of the opening sequence, in which a dirigible docks with the top of the Empire State building just as the riveted-steel six-story robots attack. When Hollywood producer Jon Avnet saw this clip, he raised $70 million and gave Conran free rein to hire himself a titular hero, played by a swashbuckling Jude Law, to come to the rescue and complete the director's groundbreaking dream -- a live-action movie set in an entirely CGI world.
Continue reading: Sky Captain & The World Of Tomorrow Review
I know what you're thinking because I thought it too: Does the world really need another Kevin Costner epic Western? But while I don't pretend to go into movies without any preconceived notions, I'm always willing to be pleasantly surprised (read: wrong), and "Open Range" is more than just good -- it's a proud, powerfully acted paradigm of cinema Americana.
From its gorgeous photography of the wide-open prairie -- across which actor-director Costner and Robert Duvall drive cattle as some of the last "freegrazers" of the cowboy era -- to their brutal, wide-ranging, Peckinpah-worthy climactic shootout in a dusty town run by an iron-fisted rancher (Michael Gambon), this is some of Costner's best work in front of or behind the camera.
More like "Unforgiven" than "Dances With Wolves" (and thankfully nothing at all like "The Postman," which was something of a futuristic Western), "Open Range" takes its time (an authentic Western shouldn't have a modern Hollywood pace) telling an unpretentious story of rugged but peaceful men surrendering to the enticement of revenge after the rancher's henchmen attack the freegrazers' camp, killing one of their young apprentices and leaving another at death's door because "No freegrazer's gonna take the food out my cattle's mouths!"
Continue reading: Open Range Review
An appropriately moody, gray and madly passionate ode to misery-embracing, famously suicidal author and poetess Sylvia Plath, the biographical "Sylvia" nonetheless paints a very incomplete picture of its subject's life. In fact, it doesn't have much to offer anyone who isn't already well versed in Plath lore.
With only a few scattered, out-of-context quotes from her works (the film went ahead despite disapproval and refusals from the Plath estate), the film provides little sense of her emotionally blistering talent, instead relying on the appraisals of peers. "The wealth of imagery," one friend exalts. "Such horrors but expressed with such coolness."
With its awkward sense of time passage, the storytelling sometimes feels like Cliffs Notes. In one comprehensive segment Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) and husband Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) move from England to Boston (where Plath's mom is played by Paltrow's mom, Blythe Danner), then live on the coast for a summer, become frustrated by writer's block, move back to England, become college lecturers, begin struggling with marital problems, and have a baby -- all in 1960. Then suddenly it's two or three years later and she's launching a book of poems ("The Colossus") without even a mention of her revitalized inspiration or a shot of her actually writing.
Continue reading: Sylvia Review
Director Gillian Armstrong has a talent for visual imagery, and she makes a powerful impression with the opening shot of "Charlotte Gray" -- a field full of bright purple flowers, blurring past the window of a train car. All by itself this image evokes an emotional reaction that primes the senses for what should be a powerful melodrama about war and love.
But the story that follows -- about a Scottish woman who becomes a World War II espionage courier in the hopes of finding a pilot boyfriend shot down over France -- is so prosaic and tainted with narrative missteps that it feels black-and-white compared to that almost magical title sequence.
The always-captivating Cate Blanchett stars in the title role, reuniting with Armstrong, who directed her breakthrough performance in the vibrant, unconventional period romantic tragedy "Oscar and Lucinda" in 1997. But lightning doesn't strike twice, and for the first time in her career Blanchett's potency seems watered down in a role that goes through the paces of being intense and passionate without actually inspiring any feelings.
Continue reading: Charlotte Gray Review
I have two things I need to get off my chest right off the bat about "High Heels and Low Lifes." The first is, I'm dumbfounded that nobody at Hollywood Pictures was bright enough to catch and correct the grammatically erroneous title. Call it a pet peeve, but "Lowlifes" is one word, for cryin' out loud.
The second is, despite the fact that I'm about to rip into this picture for its non-stop, intelligence-insulting assault of idiotic clichés, plot holes, predictability and common sense chasms, "High Heels" has such an infectious, lively spirit that I wish it could have been better.
Minnie Driver and Mary McCormack play ditzy post-feminist pals living in London, who inadvertently overhear the coordination of a overnight bank heist on surveillance equipment belonging to Driver's lousy live-in boyfriend. (He's a wannabe avant-garde artist working on an "urban noise symphony" that includes snippets of intercepted cell phone calls.)
Continue reading: High Heels & Low Lifes Review
Steve Zissou is a washed-up Jacques Cousteau type suffering from an Ahab complex and middle-age ennui. His long-time first mate has just been eaten by the mysterious (and fictional) jaguar shark, and although his undersea documentaries haven't turned a profit in years, he's setting sail on one last low-budget oceanography adventure to make one last, rather out-of-character nature film -- about hunting down that shark if it's the last thing he does.
Another eccentric, buoyantly melancholy ensemble piece from wonderfully weird writer-director Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums"), "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" is thick with the curious comedy of crew conflicts, researcher rivalries, laid-back shootouts with kidnapper pirates, and an outlandish underwater world teeming with colorfully imaginary stop-motion creatures created by Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas").
But the movie's driving force is Anderson's signature sense of humor. The underlying (and unspoken) joke of this oddball farce is that it is transparently fake. Besides inventing an ocean full of fantastical life, the film is full of mischievous impossibilities, nonsense science, and cinematography designed to make it amusingly clear that the scenes onboard Zissou's run-down, retrofitted, World-War-II surplus sub-hunter ship are shot on a cut-away soundstage set.
Continue reading: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou Review
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