If you're only going to see one movie this year about turn-of-the-century stage magicians, see this one. It does have a lot in common with The Illusionist. Both movies feature beautiful period settings, solid performances, and one actress who is very attractive but not very good at acting (The Illusionist's Jessica Biel and The Prestige's Scarlett Johansson). The big difference is that The Prestige has enough story to drive a two-hour movie without dragging, whereas The Illusionist does not. Plot is so crucial to this kind of movie. No matter how good the performances are, a movie with a bad, slow, or transparent plot won't have the audience talking about it afterwards or seeing it again to catch everything they missed the first time around. The Prestige delivers on this front and sustains it with an excellent performance by Christian Bale (as well as some good ones from Michael Caine and Hugh Jackman).
Viewed: 10/21/2006 | Released: 10/19/2006 | Score: B
The Last Kiss
It's been 18 days since I saw this movie; I think that qualifies as the latest I've ever been with a review. Just to allay any possible suspicions, the delay was entirely due to my own laziness and had nothing to do with the film. After Garden State fans lauded Zach Braff as the voice of his generation, so it comes as no surprise that there was a lot of buzz surrounding this one. Some people expected something huge, some figured that he wouldn't be able to manage it a second time. Which one did it end up being? Well, I'm not sure. It turns out that The Last Kiss has a lot in common with Garden State. Both are coming-of-age stories and both, in my opinion, show a certain amount of self-deceptive immaturity. The difference is that Last Kiss is about a slightly later stage of life--the beginning of family life instead of first independence. Garden State had the sense of reaching for profundity that brought to mind late night talks I had with my friends in high school and college, talks that seemed full of wisdom at the time but that the clarity of hindsight shows were actually naive. And that naivete made Garden State's immaturity kind of cute and fresh. By contrast, Last Kiss seems like it should be old enough to know better. In some ways, though, that may actually work in its favor, since it kind of goes along with the age group it depicts. Will this one turn out to resonate as well with the early-30s crowd as much as Garden State did with the twenty-somethings? Only time will tell, I suppose. In any case, I think I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent cast. I imagine most people will have gone to this to see Braff, but in my mind the real standouts were Jacinda Barrett and Tom Wilkinson.
Viewed: 9/15/2006 | Released: 9/14/2006 | Score: B
Trust the Man
We haven't seen two movies on the same day since the spring, when we went to the Newport Beach Film Festival, but we just couldn't make up our minds whether to see The Oh in Ohio or Trust the Man. Interestingly, both films deal with sex and infidelity, though where The Oh in ohio is more of a cute, fairy-tale-ish movie, Trust the Man is a bit more serious. Not to say that it's particularly heavy or anything--it's definitely got laughs. It's just that the relationship troubles in this one are given more weight. I think that's because Trust the Man is primarly concerned with relationships, whereas The Oh in Ohio was really just about an individual character. I was initially intrigued because the film pairs Maggie Gyllenhaal and Billy Crudup in one of the two couples that the film follows. (The other is played by Julianne Moore and David Duchovny.) I nearly always like Gyllenhaal so it's no surprise that I thought she did well in this film. I did think the role was a bit of a departure for her--I tend to think of her in roles that play up a liberated or driven aspect, whereas her character in this one was more nice, even a little naive. Crudup is an actor who I've come to respect enormously. I think it may be that you need to see him in multiple films to really appreciate his talent. He has a wide range but never "steals" a scene. Rather, every performance just works. It's pretty impressive. Anyway, I didn't really love the story but the performances were solid and the dialogue was good with some spots of excellent.
Viewed: 9/9/2006 | Released: 8/17/2006 | Score: B
The Oh in Ohio
Juliette and I first heard about The Oh in Ohio at this year's Newport Beach Film Festival. For whatever reason, we didn't end up seeing it then even though we were both somewhat intrigued by its blurb in the program. The film centers around Parker Posey's character, Priscilla, a successful Cincinnati business development executive who has never had an orgasm. While the film doesn't cover any new ground in terms of comedy or personal discovery, I enjoyed it for being cute and perky. (Incidentally, that also describes Posey's performance pretty well.) A lot of the dialogue was kind of stilted, but it didn't really bother me much. In fact, it might have even made the film a little more endearing--it felt a little amateurish, but in a personal kind of way, if that makes any sense. The downside was that the same unpolished nature of the script made for a final product that lacked focus. There was a pretty large plotline that followed Paul Rudd--who played Priscilla's husband, Jack--out of the depression brought on by his perception of not being able to please his wife. It could have worked, but partially because the film doesn't set Jack up as a particularly sympathetic character and partially because Mischa Barton can't act, the whole thing just felt extraneous. Even so, I'm still glad I saw it--it's nice to take in lighthearted stuff now and then. Keeps you from getting too jaded.
Viewed: 9/9/2006 | Released: 3/29/2006 | Score: B
I had really high hopes for this one. Edward Norton is one of my favorite actors. Add Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell (who I quite liked in Dark City) as co-stars in a movie about intrigue and stage magic in turn-of-the-century Vienna and it seems like it would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, The Illusionist was hampered by two big problems: Jessica Biel and poor pacing. The Jessica Biel problem is simple enough: she's really bad at acting. That's not such a big deal with something like Seventh Heaven, but when a big part of the story relies on the audience being invested in her character's relationship with the title character, well, it's not good. The pacing seems to me to have arisen in the transition from short story to film. I think the original story was probably quite good, but there were several stretches of the film that really dragged. My guess is that those parts were covered as narrative between scenes in the short story, but there just wasn't a very graceful way to do it in film and I found myself getting bored. Still, The Illusionist has been getting pretty good reviews, so you may want to make your own decisions on this one.
Viewed: 8/18/2006 | Released: 4/26/2006 | Score: C
Little Miss Sunshine
I'd been looking forward to this one since I first saw a preview for it several months ago. Between The 40-Year Old Virgin and The Office, Steve Carell has been comedy's "it" boy lately and I have been consistently impressed by his work. I figured that Little Miss Sunshine would be a chance to see more of his dramatic side since the trailer had a much bleaker outlook than most of his previous work. It came as a surprise, then, that this movie was so funny. In fact, I think that this may very well have been the funniest movie I've seen so far this year. Carell's role was much more subdued than fans of his may be expecting, but it worked well in two ways. First, it allowed him to show off more of his acting chops. Second, it provided space for Alan Arkin to really cut loose. You know, I don't think I've ever disliked an Alan Arkin performance. The man is just brilliant, equally comfortable with comedy and drama. I thoroughly enjoyed this film and, what's more, I think it may just have the potential to become this year's indie hit.
Viewed: 8/16/2006 | Released: 7/25/2006 | Score: B
A Scanner Darkly
If you caught the previews for this one, the first thing you probably noticed was the fact that it's animated. More specifically, it's rotoscoped--live actors were filmed and then each frame was drawn over by a computer. And unlike other, older rotoscoped films, the animation in this one was highly stylized, using thick lines and very odd shading and colors. If you're anything like me, the idea would make you immediately skeptical. It works, though. The film, as well as the Philip K. Dick novel on which it's based, is set in a not-too-distant future in which a new narcotic called "Substance D" has escalated the war on drugs to truly dystopian proportions. The story is told from the perspective of an undercover narcotics officer--played by Keanu Reeves--who, in the course of his investigation, becomes addicted to Substance D. A good deal of the film is taken up with depictions of the drug culture, from the paranoia and inanity of the characters' conversations to the hallucinations brought on by the deterioration of the protagonist's brain. This is where the animation comes in so beautifully: the comic-book coloring and the constantly shifting lines produce a very unsettling feeling. Combined with the spot-on dialogue and performances--especially from Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson--makes the film feel quite authentic while still being intensely surreal. I might have wished that Reeves' and Winona Ryder's characters had been cast differently, but they didn't really do all that badly. I think I'm definitely going to have to check out the book.
Viewed: 7/22/2006 | Released: 7/6/2006 | Score: B
Lady in the Water
I'm a little torn on the score I'm giving this one. You see, on the strength of the writing alone I'd have to say this deserved two stars, possibly even one. The plot was pretty thin, and didn't mesh well with itself. That is, there were two major components to the story: a character-driven story about a man coming to terms with a past tragedy and a quest story about a fairy creature trying to get home. The second is what the film pays attention to, but the first is what the story is really about, and I didn't feel that was done skillfully enough. On top of that, there was a lot of jarringly goofy comic relief that didn't match up well at all with the more fable-like tone of the rest of the movie. On the other hand, the performances taken by themselves would have gotten four stars. Paul Giamatti, especially, did some really amazing work in this movie. I don't think I can give his performance in the climactic scene enough praise. And I always like Jeffrey Wright--he always manages to bring a quirky realism to even the smallest roles. Even M. Night Shyamalan did a pretty good job, stepping it up a few notches from his normally wooden self. So I guess I have to split the difference and give it three stars, which I find quite unsatisfying for not reflecting either part well.
Viewed: 7/20/2006 | Released: 7/20/2006 | Score: B
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Askaninja.com has a pretty funny review of this movie up. I can't say I entirely disagree with their assessment, actually. The crux of it all is that Dead Man's Chest is not a standalone story--it is the middle volume of a trilogy. In that light, the fact that nothing actually gets resolved during the entire two and a half hours is, perhaps, somewhat forgivable. What may not be forgivable, though, is that this episode really brought nothing new to the table. Nearly all of the comedy was just a rehash of stuff we already saw in The Curse of the Black Pearl. Even Johnny Depp's performance came off as pretty stale. I am going to see the next one, but it's more because I feel a need for closure than because I particularly liked this one.
Viewed: 7/13/2006 | Released: 6/23/2006 | Score: C
When D.C. Comics decided--back in '93--to kill off Superman, the response (among those who took notice of the event) seemed to fall into two general categories: those who found it tragic and moving, and those who thought it was just another ploy to get us to buy the comic. So, when I tell you that I was pretty solidly in the former camp, it should tell you something about the biases I have in approaching a movie like this. In any case, I loved it. In reading some other reviews, I've noticed that a lot of people are complaining that the movie wasn't fresh enough, that there wasn't enough of a new spin. But consider: Superman is quite possibly the single most iconic figure in the entire history of American pop culture. I have a hard time imagining a way in which a studio could "update" the story that wouldn't just be wrong. Director Bryan Singer seems to agree with me, since Superman Returns is so obviously reverent toward the source material. Not to say that it's exactly the same as the comic or the first two films (we can just pretend that the second two never happened)--there are some significant differences from D.C.'s established chronology. But in the important ways, especially with the characters and the overall tone, Singer stayed faithful to the film's roots. Lest you think I've let me fanboyism run away, I will say that the film was not without its faults. Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane was pretty flat, but even at that I noticed a lot of growth in her skills since Win a Date with Tad Hamilton. Brandon Routh drew very heavily on Christopher Reeve's work for the basis of his own performance, which had its ups and downs. On the one hand, he did a pretty good job of reincarnating Reeve's Superman, which appealed to my sense of nostalgia. On the other hand, Routh is not as good an actor as Reeve was, and it shows the most in the scenes where he plays Clark Kent. Reeve was so good that you could almost believe that Kent and Superman were different people. Not so much with Routh. He was also a little hurt by the fact that he looks so young. Reeve was the same age when he started working on the 1978 film--a mere 26--but somehow he still looked like a grown-up instead of a teenager. Finally, if my experience talking to some of my friends is any guide, people who aren't familiar with the genre may find it a little campy. I thought it had a good balance of comic relief and dramatic intensity, but your mileage may vary.
Viewed: 6/29/2006 | Released: 6/20/2006 | Score: A