December 19, 2004


Coming out of James L. Brooks's new film Spanglish, I can identify two key points of contention that could derail the film for a viewer: The implausibility of some of the plot turns, and Téa Leoni's character.
The plot conveniences were a blemish on a film that was at times spectacularly involving for me. But while I absolutely hated Leoni's character by the end of the film, it is an absolutely skilled creation. Her bundle of neurotic tendencies resolve themselves in a variety of different ways; she is always a ticking time bomb that resolves in outbursts and displays of extreme thoughtlessness and unintended (and occasionally intended) cruelty. If she were all this film had to offer, it would be a despicable film. (and have far more Oscar buzz as a result)
But she is only one piece is a spectacularly complex pie. The interaction between Leoni, husband, children, mother, maid, and maid's daughter is endlessly involving; each character is distinct in their emotions and motivations. And the effect that each personality has on the others spreads is ways large and small, profound and tragic. Standing out from the rest are two relationships that parallel and stir even as they interact.
Leoni's character, Deb, is married to Adam Sandler's character John. Deb and John's relationship is not one of those two; it never approaches that territory until the end. But Deb and John have an funny, charming, sensitive, and overweight daughter named Bernice. Even as Bernice is devastated by Deb's actions which alternate between active cruelty and neglect, she shares with her father one of the purest on-screen relationships between a parent and their child in years. As Deb dotes on the maid's beautiful young daughter Christina in her endless search for validation, Bernice watches from the sidelines at all of the things her mother should have been doing for her. When Christina cultivates friends at school, again Bernice is the outcast. This is a C-plot in terms of focus, but it is ever present throughout the proceedings, and it is (with one notable exception) the focus of Sandler's character. When the rest of the world shuns this poor girl, John lets her seek comfort in his familiar hugs. When the rest of the world tells her that she needs to be corrected, John tells her that she's spectacular and just how much he loves her. With fitness freak Deb clearly not an appealing contrast, this film is powerful in its counter-movement to American society's focus on conformity at any cost. At one point, John notes that "between odd and the same, you gotta be rooting for odd, don't you?" when the maid reveals her two fears about her daughter attending a private school.
Christina, the object of Deb's misplaced affections, is an innocent along for the rider; her older wiser self narrates the film in terms of a college admissions essay. Her relationship with her mother is equally unique. The maid, Flor, gives up everything for her daughter, including a somewhat dicey trip across the border. Deb represents the temptation of the excesses of modern upper-middle-class white America. Flor represents the purity and honesty of her roots both in her mother's love and her mother's culture. The interplay between these two often opposing forces is a source of fascination, one that Shelbie Bruce handles perfectly. There is a scene late in the film which gives the indication that Deborah's philosophy has completely only one brief change in expression belies the actual truth.
Through out this all, hovering around this whole mess is Deb's mother Evelyn. Evelyn, who was once a jazz singer of some renown, is played by Cloris Leachman and hovers over and around the action with a wonderfully sardonic sense of humour. In her character we gain an indication of where some of Deb's issues came from, but we also gain an understanding of how much further Evelyn has come sense. Now she balances her time between hiding her alcoholic tendencies and prodding her daughter in the right general direction and shielding the rest of the group from the aftermath. I have seen Cloris Leachman play kindly and I have seen Cloris Leachman play sarcastically un-PC and cruel. In Spanglish, she strikes a somewhat realistic balance of the two.
I'm still not entirely sold on an woman as beautiful as Paz Vega experiencing what her character does. The means of her moving herself and her daughter in with the family can only partially be explained away by Deb's manic behaviour and decision-making. The hand of the screenwriter can be felt guiding the action a little more than it should.
But in the end, this was a fantastic range of characters, and as they gained and grew and hurt and hugged I felt for them and felt with them. I feel guilty giving this that extra-half star, but when this movie's at its peak there are moments that simply can't be found in National Treasure. Leoni inhabited that wretched soul. Sandler made fatherhood admirable again. Cloris Leachman went up a notch in my book. And Paz Vega and Shelbie Bruce reminded me that not all struggles to preserve cultural identity can be outside of my ability to relate. ()


December 10, 2004

Blade: Trinity

I went into Blade: Trinity expecting the worst. What I got was at least mildly better than my expectations. The reviews were horrendous and Goyer had none of the experience that either of the prior directors brought to the game. It shows; this third entry lacks the plotting of the original and the stylized universe of Blade II. Still, much like the last few levels of "Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast" there's much fun to be had in watching the bad guys get chewed up and spit out by a hero with whom we already share two movie's worth of familiarity.
The primary difference from the other two stands out damn near immediately, however. After a trip inside an Iraqi tomb, we are presented with a traditional opening Blade action scene. The trouble begins when he stakes a human by mistake; the human world encroaches immediately. Suddenly Blade's running from police cars and his face is all over the news. This time around, the FBI is nearly as much of a nemesis as the vampires.
Other changes come in the form of Hannibal King and Abigail Whistler. The latter has at least as much comics history as Blade does, and is played by Van Wilder himself, Ryan Reynolds. His humour falls flat through the first half of the film and provides one of my chief complaints with the movie. From King's first interaction with Parker Posey's character, however, I was consistently entertained. Abigail is your typical action heroine, but at least Goyer didn't try to force a romantic connection with any of the male leads. Her character is primarily notable for looking extremely hot in a belly shirt. Damn.
A lot of conceptions are introduced and disposed of with flourish, each fluctuating between varying degrees of absurdity, with the UV laser thingy being the most absurd of all. Or the iPod. What the fuck is an iPod doing in an action movie, anyway? I know a lot of the troops over seas like to pump music into their tanks as they head into battle. But you'd think that when you're partaking in hand-to-hand combat, being able to hear what's coming at you would be important. Sheesh.
The film's primary villain is supposedly Dracula, or "Drake" in the Blade film. Because, you know, even the greatest horror villain in history needs to keep up with the times. He's played by Dominic Purcell, so great as "John Doe" and misused ever since. The movie's more fascinated by Posey's character, whose name I still can't recall, and he only gets a couple scenes and an action sequence before the final confrontation.
The final confrontation itself was the most disappointing thing about the film; had it really chosen to go out with a bang, this movie could have worked itself up to four star territory. I won't reveal what happens, so as to maintain what little suspense and tension there is. I will only say that it seems more geared towards opening the door for spin-offs that resolving Blade's story. Sure, he gets his big action scene. But the final narration is hardly the kind of wrap-up this character deserves. I still had an overall good time, but more in the fashion of a Scifi Channel Original TV movie than the theatrical experience the previous two provided. A solidly made but bland and relatively uninvolving entry to the series. ()


December 05, 2004

National Treasure

Despite being at times preposterous and logically quite flawed, it's the first film since Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade to earn the right to be compared to an Indiana Jones movie. It had the action set pieces (here even more outrageous and implausible) but more importantly it has the an impressive knowledge of history - or at least gives the impression of having an impressive knowledge of history - that the Tomb Raiders and their like sorely lack.
While many of the facts were probably fabricated for the purposes of the story, many weren't and that drew me in. More importantly, however, the facts were treated as the meat of the story rather than the exposition between explosions.
Here is a movie that is more concerned with its ideals and its motivations than taking the audience on the latest thrill ride. It's easily identifiable as a Bruckheimer production: you have the heroic male lead, the female sidekick/love interest, the intellectual villain, and the geeky comic relief. The difference is in the details; the heroic male is more historian than action hero, the attraction to the love interest is first and foremost a shared passion for history, the villain and the hero share a respect for each other as obvious as the conflict that divides them, and the comic relief is as able as he is oblivious.
The conspiracy theories are chained one after another; they weave into, out of, and around history with a gleeful abandon. Obscure real facts are intertwined with a fictionalized mythology around the free masons. Perhaps my favourite part was the way all of the elements of the puzzle were as old as the mystery itself; it leads the movie to a lot of the lesser-used historical sites in the colonial-area America. When the movie final breaks away from reality into a true Indiana Jones style tomb deep in the underbelly of Manhattan, the entrance is through a building that is plausibly as old as the treasure underneath it.
In the end I didn't believe all of it - where the hell were all of the guards in these historical sites post-theft anyway? - but I was consistently entertained and mentally stimulated by it. Part of me wishes a little more plausibility would have pushed it that extra step into being something substantial. But deeper down, I know that plausibility would ruin most of the charm. ()


November 26, 2004

Prisoner of Azkaban on DVD

Ah, the joys of puberty: Small and sniveling nemesis Draco now positively towers over our hero.
I still contend that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a less satisfying adaptation than either of its two predecessors. Watching the DVD today marked my third time with the film, however, and my appreciation grows with each viewing. The first two have proven less satisfying with each viewing, made perhaps more aggravating by the fact that they get so much so spot on that the omissions and alterations stick out like a sore thumb. Frustrating as it has turned out, with Azkaban Cuarón and Kloves have crafted a work that stands better on it's own than as a companion piece.
Perhaps the most striking difference is the difference in approach; the first two films went for the "throw in everything up to and including the kitchen sink" approach, which I quite liked. Azkaban, in adapting a longer work into a shorter running time, doesn't even try. Events are reordered, revamped, and replaced. Sections of dialog again come verbatim from the text ("Turn to page 394.") but it is rarely utilized in the same fashion as Rowling had it. For as many times as I felt they got it right ― alluding to but not expanding on the origins of the Marauder's map; Sirius and Lupin's mentions of James and Lily ― there were an equal number of times where they should have just let be; the Three Broomsticks revelation in particular was far more powerful in the book.
Still, I found myself far more engaged this time around. While the relentless and breathless editing that always seems to cut away a moment and a half too soon still irritates me, I'm familiar enough with the movie now to keep pace. The texture of the film, and the sense of place in particular, get better with each viewing. Columbus's take on the Potter world was more or less how I imagined it, and is indeed one of the things I admire most about his two entries in the series. That said, it always felt more fanciful than real; Harry's world was another world that I could quickly immerse myself in, but it never felt particularly real. Though I never minded, I really dig the way Cuarón has taken Columbus's world and grounded it in reality. It's the same storybook castle in the distance, with all of the towers in all the right places. But getting closer, the courtyards feel lived in and the geography is navigable. I knew that Hogwarts had the all of these locations already, but it wasn't until Azkaban that I could place the Quidditch pitch in relationship to the courtyard in relationship to Hagrid's hut. Even during my lacklustre first viewing of this flick in theatres, I revelled in the time travel sequences both as a way to finally slow the pacing down a pitch and as a way to travel all around Hogwarts without any significant cut aways.
Oh yeah, and the use of the Weeping Willow as both a calendar and a gag was awesome.
Cat Quandary: "Ronald has lost his rat."

Dumbledore Distracts: "See all those strawberries?"
IIf anything contributed to my increased appreciation for Prisoner of Azkaban, it was the visual presentation. It is a very dark and gloomy movie, with a relatively subdued colour palette. Throughout the vast majority of the movie, it's seems to have just rained (or in some cases, is raining violently). In theatres, this amounted to a washed out, dreary sort of look. The DVD perfectly captures what colour there is, bringing a look to the film that is more natural than it is theatrically gloomy. If there is any problem with the presentation, it's that the transfer tries to compensate for the lack of colour by pushing the contrast slightly high, which makes the blacks, while true blacks, slightly lacking in detail. Grain pops up occasionally but never becomes problematic to enjoyment.

Changing of the guard: Professor Lupin passes through his classroom one last time.
The English Dolby Digital mix is more notable for what it doesn't than what it does. What it doesn't do is draw attention to itself; for the first time in the series, the audio component of the experience is completely immersive. Dialogue, sound effects, and music are perfectly balanced; no element suffers to the advantage of the others. The action scenes make full use of the surrounds but never overpower the listener. Perhaps most importantly, even with the British accents understanding the dialogue is never a struggle. Despite all of this, the surrounds are fully utilized and the LFE channel never suffers. Not the latest and greatest demo disc to show off your equipment, but one of the most transparent listening experiences for a blockbuster in a good while.

Mischief managed... barely: The Marauder’s Map serves as the main menu for the somewhat lacklustre second disc.
Prisoner of Azkaban continues the "Harry Potter" series' tradition of style over substance for extras discs. Upon putting Disc Two into your player, you are presented with the typical FBI warning and studio into followed by the option of selecting either English or French. The narrator from the second discs of Azkaban's predecessors solemnly swears he is up to no good, and then the Marauder's Map loads as the main menu. The disc is from here split up into four sub-categories: "Divination Class", "Great Hall", "Defense Against the Dark Arts", and "Hogwarts Grounds". "Tour Honeydukes" is also available from the witch statue in the middle.
"Great Hall" features three controller-based games: "Catch Scabbers!", "Choir Practice", and "The Quest of Sir Cadogan" I personally found the Scabbers and Sir Cadogan games to be damn near impossible to play with my remote. Just the slight delay would mean having to interpret what was coming next to get anywhere. Nothing really substantial here.
"Defense Against the Dark Arts" features only two features: "Magic You May Have Missed" and "Tour Lupin's Classroom". The latter is probably the game that provides the most fun for all ages. Much like that old card game "Memory", it shows you a clip from the film and then asks you what magic just happened. A neat little way to pick out background details that were just thrown in there. "Tour Lupin's Classroom (and "Tour Honeydukes" for that matter) works just like the self-guided tours on the previous two discs: you have arrow options as to where you want to go, and with each node, the narrator has some sort of commentary. It was a nice little glimpse of what Hogwarts students do before the teacher enters, but nothing really substantial.
"Hogwarts Grounds" features a trailer for the Azkaban video game, the DVD-ROM features, and "Hagrid's Hut" - which in turn features several more options. For whatever reason, even using the dreadful DVD-ROM application on the DVD itself, I still couldn't get the DVD-ROM features to work through the menu itself. Clicking on "Extra Credit" in the skin seems to do the trick, however. Of the DVD-ROM features, only the "Hogwarts Timeline" is half-way interesting - and made all the more aggravating by the fact that there is nothing about it that would have prevented it from being part of the DVD proper. "Hagrid's Hut" features two things that prove far more interesting. "Care of Magical Creatures" smells a bit of EPK fluff, but still proves to be a nice, in-depth look at what goes into filming and handling all of the live animals on set. On set footage is inter-cut with clips from the movie and talking head interviews with the producers and animal trainers. Fascinating stuff; I wish the disc had more of these types of things. Following from the Chamber of Secrets disc, also featured at on this menu is another "Conjuring A Scene." This is a great look behind the scenes of a lot of the signature scenes in the film, complete with interviews at every level of the production including cast members, make-up artists, the director, the producers, the visual effects guys, the practical effects guys, the director of photography, and more. Seeing the "outside" of the Shrieking Shack was truly something to behold. I knew they'd run into problems with rain on-location, but how dire the situation was I have very little clue. The featurette is filled with a wide range of behind the scene clips. Easily my second favourite feature on the disc.
That's because my favourite feature can be found under "Divination Class". The feature in question, "Creating the Vision", would be my favourite if it only had David Heyman, Steve Kloves, Mark Radcliffe, Chris Columbus, and Stuart Craig. But throw in side-by-side commentary with Alfonso Cuarón and J.K. Rowling and you have one of the best featurettes in a long while. Seeing little details like J.K. Rowling's map of Hogwarts and its grounds was fantastic, but having Rowling go through all the big scenes and offer her opinion on them is a rare luxury with a film adaptation. ― especially in the case of one of the greatest literary phenomena in history. The other features that round out this section aren't total fluff either; "Trelawney's Crystal Ball" offers several deleted scenes. Most offer only slight additions or scenes that convey information already in the film via a different manner, but the second deleted scene is worthwhile for putting Hogwarts geography into context and the last two fill out a subplot that I missed in the final cut ("When Siriuses Attack"!). "Head to Shrunken Head" provides the usual cast interviews, but I found the talking head too irritating to get any enjoyment out of them. Typical questions to the tune of, "if you could have any magic power, what would it be?" The biggest thing I gleamed out of the whole affair was the sum of the weight gained by Richard Griffiths; truly a massive fellow, poor bloke.
Disc One features a cast and crew listing as well as a trailer for each of the three Harry Potter films.

A disjointed and rushed film that I never-the-less admire more each time. A very respectable DVD presentation with an excellent sound mix and a blemish-free transfer. Extras are plentiful but short on substance, yet still prove to be a minor step up from the previous film in the series.


November 23, 2004

The Incredibles

Every now and again a movie comes along that strikes you at the right moment and in exactly the right way. I’ve had two this year, and The Incredibles is the latest and greatest.
The last one, Garden State, spoke to me at a specific time and place in my life. I think Bird’s genius is in creating a work that speaks to everyone. I knew I’d love this movie from the very first belt-popping teaser in front of the fun and well-crafted but ultimately bland Finding Nemo, but it wasn’t until the black, white, and grainy newsreel footage at the beginning that I gained an idea of exactly how much.
The world of the Parr family is in various ways both retro and modern. The design of the metropolis looks as if it was ripped from the pages of golden age Superman, but the stale and monotonous realm of the insurance business is an all too current play on our times.
Too many recent superhero flicks make the mistake of trying to force their heroes into our world. Like any Pixar production, the “supers” of this movie exist in a world of their own, which influences them and is influenced by them. The thing that propelled Spider-Man 2 past its predecessor was that Spider-Man wasn’t planted into a superficial mock-up of Manhattan landmarks. His Manhattan exists only in that movie, but it lived and breathed around him. Likewise, I can trace the influences of all the locations in The Incredibles, but the way they are blended into a cohesive whole is unique and much greater than the sum of its parts.
But beyond all of that, the thing that sold me on the movie above all else was the characters. The trailers presented the typical post-feminist “Mother knows best” role reversal that has become all too tired as of late. That aspect is definitely there, but there are greater complexities that the trailers would lead to believe. Bob Parr aka Mr. Incredible is a revelation; I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a dedicated and complete portrayal of the adult male in an animated feature. There are plenty of times when he is vulnerable and flawed, and Helen (aka Elastigirl) definitely rounds him out around the edges. But he is not the helpless fool man that is too often portrayed any more; from the opening action sequence to the way he helps his clients at the insurance company to the way he handles himself on Syndrome’s island to the way he notices his daughter’s new hairstyle in the midst of chaos, Bird and company take the time to present as many admirable traits as human weaknesses.
The kids are also revelations; Dash falls into the rambunctious schoolboy cliché and Violet into the shy and introverted goth stereotype. Like their father, however, all is not as it seems. Both children are affected by the quirks of a super-powered family. Rather than relying too much on angsty diatribes of “I just want to be normal,” we are shown their family life and how exactly things are the same and different. The dinner scene, for instance, feels perfectly natural even though Bob is holding up a table with three people attached to it and each of Helen’s arms are stretched several feet further than they should be. When the parents get in an argument late at night, neither the impetus of the argument nor the kids’ manner of eavesdropping would exist in an average household, but the impact the arguing has on the children exists in every home and the united front the dueling spouses put on to shield them from it happens in the better ones.
Finally, the most inspiring thing about this film is the way it bucks the trend of conformity and uniformity. Increasingly, children are being taught to ignore one another’s talents and faults and treat people exactly the same regardless of who they are. So fixated is our society on surface differences like gender, race, and age, we lose sight of the rapidly dwindling diversity of talents and ideas. There’s a moment in which Helen tells her son that, “Everyone's special, Dash.” The son replies, in an uncommonly melancholy tone, “Which is another way of saying that nobody is.” Very few people are truly special anymore, because they succumb to the oppressive blandness that society nurtured so well. It’s about time a film came along that tells kids to act out, stand up, and approach life differently and relate to others differently. Bravo. ()