Sunday, March 30, 2008

Back-to-Back Spielberg

I had the horror of watching Steven Spielberg's 1979 bomb, 1941. Okay, can someone please tell me what was the point of this movie? I understand it's supposed to be about the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and an incoming invasion of California by the Japanese, but there is really no actual story to sustain this general summary. There are about a gazillion characters with their own stupidly unfunny little subplots. This film tries so hard to be funny and it shows. By the middle of the film, it turns into an absolute mess, one of the worst catastrophes I've ever witnessed on film. For the entire 2 hours and 26 minutes (which I swear, felt like five hours), I only found one scene slightly amusing but was bored throughout. I guess some attempt to use the comedic talents of Dan Aykroyd and John Beluishi might have helped the film a bit, but I don't think anything could have saved the film from its ultimate doom.

Even Spielberg himself is kind of embarrassed about the film's existence (Wikipedia):
Spielberg humorously joked at one point that he considered converting 1941 into a musical halfway into production and mused that "in retrospect, that might have helped."
(If anyone knows which interview the above Spielberg quote is from, please let me know.)

If this wasn't directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, I would have banned them from working in the film industry (even though I wasn't even alive in 1979). But this is Spielberg, Gale, and Zemeckis, so if they were banned after the release of 1941, we wouldn't have Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, etc. So I guess they've redeemed themselves pretty well.

While watching 1941, I realized the only person working in the film industry who is always consistent is John Williams. I don't think I've ever heard of a bad John Williams score. Even his march for 1941 is pretty awesome, despite the movie's awfulness.

Rating: 3/10 (Yes, this means I enjoyed a Rob Schneider film more than a Spielberg film.)

Same director, 23 years later:

I'm kind of glad that ABC aired Catch Me If You Can last night so I could wash the bad taste of 1941 out of my mouth. The film certainly isn't Spielberg's greatest effort as a director in his post-1941 career, but it is truly one of my favorites. I don't think I've seen a film as effortlessly entertaining and stylish as Catch Me If You Can.

What I find myself liking about this film after multiple viewings is Tom Hanks's understated work as Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent that spends years trying to catch Leonardo DiCaprio's young con-man, Frank Abignale. I have always sympathized with the character because the man is so obsessed with his job to the point that he even loses his family. Hanks is so subtle and funny here that he gives one of the best supporting performances of recent years. Fine, his southern? Boston? accent did sound awkward, but who cares? It is starting to become one of my favorite Hanks performances, too. I like how he doesn't completely steal the film away from DiCaprio because after all, it is DiCaprio's movie, but he is able to keep up with DiCaprio's youthful energy.

Plus, the funniest scene in the entire film. (Contains the F-word, so that's why ABC had to replace it with some other word (flog?), which unfortunately diminished the humor.)

Rating: 9.5/10

Saturday, March 29, 2008

"This is an adventure."

The Life Aquatic with Steven Zissou | dir. Wes Anderson | 2004

Wes Anderson is my kind of director. I enjoyed The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore immensely. Those films had references to two of my favorite things in the world--J.D. Salinger and "Peanuts." The director has a signature visual style that I completely adore. The films are full of quirky characters, funny dialogue, and a bittersweet finale. The soundtracks to both The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore are full of terrific music selections. So I guess we are totally qualified to be best friends.

But now that I've seen The Life Aquatic with Steven Zissou, I'm not too sure anymore. It is no way a bad film but it is certainly an unbalanced one. For those who liked Anderson's previous films for its humor, style, and music, you will not be completely disappointed--this film has all that flair exploding on screen. Unfortunately, it feels like it's all been done before: the deadbeat deliveries, the eccentric characters, the sixties-era soundtrack, the bright, pastel colors. It feels like The Royal Tenenbaums all over again, only this time, it's on a fancy boat instead of a fancy New York household.

I guess a director can be forgiven for trying to relive what made his previous films successful. The main problem I have with The Life Aquatic is, unlike Anderson's previous films, it doesn't have that wonderful balance of both substance and style; it's about eighty-percent of style and a disappointing twenty-percent of substance. The film certainly looks visually stunning, but the formula that includes quirky characters, funny dialogue, and a bittersweet finale is wearing off.

Bill Murray finally gets a starring role in an Anderson film as the Steve Zissou, a obnoxious, middle-aged oceanographer who is seeking revenge after his best friend, Esteban, was eaten by what seemed like a jaguar shark. He plans to make a second part to his just-released documentary regarding the trip that led to Esteban's death. This time, it's going to be all about finding the shark and killing it.

Before his journey starts, Zissou meets Ned (Owen Wilson), who may or may not be his son. Zissou embraces Ned as his son anyway, and asks him to join Team Zissou, much to his estranged wife, Eleanor's (Anjelica Huston) indifference towards the situation.

Of course, Ned joins Team Zissou, along with a team of eccentric and sometimes funny characters like the German man who worships Zissou (Williem Dafoe), the cameraman (Waris Ahluwalia), the safety expert/man who sings cool David Bowie songs in Portuguese (Seu Jorge), and many others. Team Zissou is also often joined by unpaid college interns who are usually given the chores of hard labor on the ship. But this time around, Team Zissou is joined by a pregnant female reporter, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), who still has some faith in Zissou even though he's merely a has-been.

The large ensemble cast doesn't do the film any favors. Sure, they are solid comic relief but are also portrayed as walking, talking caricatures. The drama in this film usually derives from the Zissou-Ned-Jane love triangle, which I thought was rather bland and uninteresting. The love triangle doesn't contribute much to the father-son relationship that serves as a centerpiece to the film. In result, I didn't care much for the father-son relationship. I wish there was more of an emphasis on the love triangle between Zissou, Eleanor, and Zissou's nemesis, Allie (Jeff Goldblum). Goldblum is a total scene stealer and I wish he was in the film more. There is a lot left unsaid between Zissou and Allie.

But I was enchanted by the beauty of the vibrant animation throughout the film. Most importantly, I found myself touched by this eccentric oceanographer who learns to embrace those around him. Then again, I didn't find myself caring too much throughout the film because, not only did the film want to be about a father-son relationship, it was also about a man coming in terms with his life, an estranged marriage, a blooming new romance, a journey of revenge, and a tale of two rivals. There were so many things this film wanted to be, but everything was so scattered to the point that it was difficult to appreciate what those various subplots had to offer.

Rating: 6/10

Friday, March 28, 2008

"So, were your parents in the witch business?"

Bewitched | dir. Nora Ephron | 2005

I think it is wise to say, first and foremost, that I have never watched a single episode of "Bewitched" in my life. I do have some familiarity with the television series through short television clips and magazine articles, but that doesn't amount to much. In result, I had no biased expectations for this film whatsoever. However, when it was released back in 2005, the film was critically-panned, but I always thought the trailers made it seem pleasantly entertaining--and that's the kind of movie Bewitched is. It's not memorable or groundbreaking, but it's fairly entertaining and fun.

The film stars Nicole Kidman as Isabel Bigelow, a witch who is giving up witchcraft so she can lead a normal life, much to her father's (Michael Caine) dismay. When movie star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) sees Isabel's impeccable nose-twitch at a bookstore, it was just what he needed for his "Bewitched" television remake. Jack thinks Isabel is perfect for the part--not only because she can twitch her nose like the star of the old TV show, but she is an unknown and will bring more attention to his diminishing fame. But Isabel falls in love with Jack immediately and agrees to star in the show. Things get testy when Isabel finds out Jack's selfish motives for casting her.

So, let's back up a bit, shall we? Our lovely witch Isabel has promised herself that she wants to lead a normal life, so she tries to give up witchcraft. Isabel decides to move to Hollywood, then is discovered by a movie star, and agrees to star in a television series in the legendary role of Samantha. In addition, she falls in love with the movie star whose personal life is all over the tabloids. Right. So much for a normal life.

All logics aside, there is one thing I did not buy: Kidman and Ferrell as an on-screen couple. The two are obviously having some fun; Kidman is taking a break from her usual serious roles and Ferrell is well, being Ferrell. But there is very little romantic chemistry and the dialogue for their interactions are often poorly written. There is a fair amount of awkwardness from Kidman as she convinces the audience that she can act in a light comedic affair. But I guess in a fan's point of view, she looks enough like Elizabeth Montgomery to pull it off.

Ferrell, on the other hand, doesn't quite look like Dick York, so that doesn't help him much. There are multiple scenes, especially when Kidman's Isabel puts those hexes on Ferrell's Jack, where Ferrell is overacting and looks strangely like he's about to explode. I guess there are a few scenes that did work--like the scenes during the couple's date--but those scenes are overshadowed by the scenes that feel overly silly and forced.

While Kidman and Ferrell are trying so hard to be convincing and fun, the supporting cast deliver effortlessly satisfying performances. Caine is nicely cast as the concerned father. Shirley MacLaine is bubbly as Iris Smythson, a fellow witch starring as Endora in the TV show. Jason Schwartzman is hilarious as the fast-talking agent of Jack Wyatt. Kristin Chenoweth has a wonderfully sunny presence in the film. Steve Carell has a great cameo as Uncle Arthur--whom I believe was a major character in the original TV Show--near the end of the film.

I admire the script for its originality, though. I like how it didn't do a straight remake of the show but instead came up with a smart little plot of its own. But the dialogue and the character development aren't as smart and promising as its premise. But like I said before, I was pleasantly entertained by the film, mainly because the supporting cast had such an upbeat, energetic presence. I guess I was partially amused by Kidman and Ferrell's forced performances, but for all the wrong reasons.

This film is directed and co-written by Nora Ephron, who has been a overwhelming force in the production of successful romantic comedies in the past twenty years. Her resume includes When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail. Ephron's films all share a certain undeniable charm, and she does it again in Bewitched. Sure, the film is flawed and has multiple cliches, but it's harmless and I enjoyed it for the most part.

Rating: 6.5/10

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I would like that on my wall, please.

Top 5 Favorite Movie Posters

I've been keeping an eye out for great movie posters ever since Premiere uncovered their list of The 25 Best Movie Posters. Here are just a few that I love:

1. Casablanca (1942)
I first realized my love for this poster when "Entertainment Weekly" ran a piece about the poster for The Good German. Although the The Good German poster a pretty awesome, I'll just celebrate its inspiration. I'll admit, I'm not the biggest fan of the Casablanca, but I LOVE--I mean LOVE--the poster. I love how they placed the characters in a semi-collage, I love the fonts they used, I love how the title of the film just pops out in red, I love the text placement, and I love the way Humphrey Bogart is pointing his gun because it just looks too cool. I just adore everything about this poster.

2. Jurassic Park (1993)
Created By: John Alvin
I first saw this poster at a local Blockbusters when I was younger. I instantly wanted to rent the movie. But then I realized I've already seen the movie before (haha), I just didn't pay much attention the poster. The inspiration for this poster is obviously taken from the original paperback cover of the Michael Crichton novel, but the creator made it cooler. I love the black-on-red-on-black-with-orange color scheme. I love the font, too. Not only is the dinosaur skeleton an iconic image of the nineties, it's just simply an alluring, amazing poster. I found out that John Alvin created other movie posters I love, like the posters for E.T., Beauty and the Beast, etc.

3. Manhattan (1979)
Woody Allen's love letter to New York City is--from beginning to end--a series of gorgeous black-and-white photographs put together as a film. So it was pretty much brilliant for the poster to include a scene from the movie. Plus, to fulfill my silly obsession with fonts, I love how some of the letters are shaped like buildings (haha). I wish I could find a insanely high quality image of the poster online, but this is the highest quality version I could find.

4. The Hours (2002)
I first saw this poster hanging in a movie theater back in early 2002. There is something so haunting about this image of the three women. The Hours is quite a darkly serious film, and the poster reflects that perfectly. Although the three women are actually characters from different time periods, they blend together as one in the poster. The color scheme--full of warm, neutral colors--is utilized beyond excellence.

5. My Fair Lady (1964)
This poster is totally fun and chaotic, but completely creative as well. The poster reflects the movie's upbeat and optimistic atmosphere. I absolutely love the overdose of the color pink here, a color that could go tremendously wrong sometimes. Of course, the poster also accentuates the faces of the stars--Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison--in a rather lovely way.

Honorable Mentions
(or next 5): Marathon Man, Funny Face, The Sound of Music, Forrest Gump, Enter the Dragon

For those who are interested in a movie-poster related site, I stumbled upon, which seemed sort of interesting. If you have any favorite movie posters or you think I forgot a few, please share!

Monday, March 24, 2008

This body doesn't feel like mine.

Waring: This is a movie rant. Basically, I spent Easter Sunday watching FX.

I envy those families who get together every holiday, have barbeques, and watch some traditional movie together. My family basically loathe each other and/or live too far away to have a get-together for any holiday. But it was my mom's birthday yesterday too, so we went to an expensive sushi restaurant in Oakland. When we got back home, she was tired and wanted to go rest. Anyway, I was rather bored so I turned on the TV. The Hot Chick (Tom Brady, 2002) was on. (This is Tom Brady the DIRECTOR, not Tom Brady the football player.)

I can only ask one question: Why does Rob Schneider keep doing this to himself? This man is rich and famous enough not to humiliate himself by dressing in tight pink t-shirts and underwear. I don't think I even have to write a review about this movie because well, take a look at the trailer. Whatever negative things that went through your mind during your viewing of the movie's trailer, it was going through my mind during the entire movie.

There are a few obnoxiously funny moments, the kind of humor that makes you cringe your teeth and tighten your eyebrows. The movie is completely crude and disgusting, yet it tries so hard to be suddenly sweet and sentimental.

The only wonderfully positive thing that this movie contains is Rachel McAdams as the "hot chick" Schneider's character switch bodies with. Oh, and I was sort of entertained.

Rating: 3.5/10

I have a confession to make. Actually, it's more of a story regarding a dumb pre-teen fantasy. When I was eleven-years-old, I watched My Girl, a sweet little family movie about a girl's coming-of-age. Since then, I had always wished that my childhood sweetheart lived next door to me and totally worshiped me. Of course, I wouldn't notice how wonderful he is until I go through the obstacles of a typical clueless girl who falls in love with the wrong guy, get my heart broken, and realize that the adorable kid next door has been pretty much in love with me all along.

Sadly, that never happened to me--one of the few reasons why my life will never become the central subject of a movie (haha). To this day, my house lies between the homes of two single middle-aged women. This is why I indulge in the guilty pleasures of a pathetically conventional romantic comedy.

I guess my pre-teen fantasy attributed to the fact why I enjoyed 13 Going on 30 (Gary Winick, 2004) more than I should have. It's one of the few recent romantic comedies that I've seen that shares the cutesy charm of the romantic comedies of the 90s. Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo is sort of an unlikely couple, but it works. But the film isn't without flaws. Unlike Tom Hanks in Big, Garner doesn't act like a thirteen-year-old inhabitant of an adult body. Then again, Garner is such a likable actress that her lack of childlike innocence is entirely forgivable.

In fact, I actually like 13 Going on 30 more than Big. I guess comparisons of these two movies can be found anywhere (i.e. IMDb) but I just want to give my two cents: Before I saw Big, I actually thought that the boy was going to travel to the future to see how his life would be like when he becomes an adult--but that wasn't what Big was about. So I definitely prefer the time-travel plot device in 13 Going on 30. I guess the reason to my preference is also because I'm a girl and 13 Going on 30 is an ultimate girl's movie. Plus, I like to jam to "Jessie's Girl" and "Why Can't I" in the corner of my closet, with the lights turned off, and the door closed...well, not really, but I sometimes fantasize about that too.

Rating: 7.5/10

Sunday, March 23, 2008

"It is very important that you don't stink today."

That Thing You Do! | dir. Tom Hanks | 1996

There is no other way to portray the rise and fall of a sunny 1960 pop-rock group but to do it with bittersweet nostalgia and adoration for the time period. Tom Hanks does exactly that in his writing and directing debut in That Thing You Do! a love letter to the styles and times of the sixties. The film isn't a masterpiece, but the subject is handled with such love and care that you can't help falling in love with the story. It is hard not to be swept away by a catchy tune, and this is exactly what the movie becomes.

Hanks casts Tom Everett Scott (who resembles a younger Hanks a la Big) as the central character, Guy Patterson, a jazz-loving drummer who works at his dad's appliance store. When a local garage band need a last-minute replacement for a drummer, they approach Guy who instantly accepts. The lead singer of the band, Jimmy (Jonathon Schaech), has already wrote a down-tempo love song, "That Thing You Do!" to perform in a contest. But during the performance, Guy plays it fast, which makes the song more upbeat, fun, and well, alive, sounding like something The Beatles may have recorded back then. All the kids go crazy for the song and their band, The Oneders (pronounced "wonders") gradually becomes the coolest thing in town.

The band catches the eye of Mr. White (Hanks), who works for Playtone records. They are renamed simply as "The Wonders." With Mr. White at their side, the band's hit single, "That Thing You Do!" makes its way up the music charts. They become so famous that they even get a bit part in a Hollywood film production and a much-anticipated television appearance. With their newfound fame, tensions increase within the band. Jimmy is constantly annoyed at his girlfriend, Faye (Liv Tyler) who, although devoted, is not what Jimmy seems to want at the moment. Of course, there are a few good bits of comedic relief from the band's other two members--Lenny (Steven Zahn) and T.B. (Ethan Embry).

The young actors are all very convincing in their roles (specifically Scott and Tyler), but I especially like it when Hanks take a backseat when it comes to acting. I think I like Hanks best when it comes to supporting roles like this film and also, Catch Me If You Can. When he takes a supporting role, Hanks seems to nourish every frame he is in. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't like his more acclaimed performances in Forrest Gump or Cast Away, but it's just that he's so much more compelling and interesting to watch when he takes a supporting role.

I was smiling all the way through this movie because well, it's hard not to. The catchy theme song, "That Thing You Do!" is used as a great device in the film. It is an old story that when catch tunes gets old and repetitive, they fade--and they fade fast. The crowds suddenly become smaller and the band is slowly forgotten. Years later, people ask, "You remember this band? I wonder what happened to them..." But the film is too full of saccharine, too shamelessly sappy and sentimental to end on a depressing note and Hanks finds a perfectly satisfying ending for this one-hit wonder of a band.

With That Thing You Do!, Hanks shows great promise as a filmmaker and I could only hope he makes another film in the near-future.

Rating: 8.5/10

Saturday, March 22, 2008

"That's the way it crumbles...cookie-wise."

The Apartment | dir. Billy Wilder | 1960

Excellent romances are hard to come by these days. It is even more difficult to find a good romantic comedy. Good romantic comedies are a rarity these days because they are starting to become more conventional and less engaging. Even the ditsy charm of the genre from the 1990s is slowly fading away. Thank goodness for DVDs, though. I had the pleasure of watching Billy Wilder's immortal 1960 classic, The Apartment for the first time, and it was wonderful. The film is, undeniably, a perfect blend of romance, drama, and comedy and says a lot about human nature. The characters in the film are willing to go to great lengths to get what they want, even if it's not what they need or even deserve.

The Apartment stars two very likable actors--Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Their chemistry is quite sweet and lovely throughout, essential for a romantic comedy to work well. But the real centerpiece of the film is of course, Lemmon's character, C.C. Baxter, a determined (but lonely) man trying to climb the corporate ladder by renting out his cozy bachelor-esque New York apartment to some top executives and their mistresses each night in return for some praise--praise that may lead to paycheck raises and promotions.

Baxter's neighbors think he is a notorious loverboy who goes from one woman to another. But he only has one girl on his mind, and that is MacLaine's Fran Kubelik, the adorable elevator girl at work. Things get complicated when Baxter finds out that Ms. Kubelik is the mistress of Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the boss that Baxter is trying so hard to impress.

Baxter is a great character, perhaps one of my favorite characters in cinema. He is completely flawed and places himself in a vulnerable situation where he is continuously taken advantage of. But at the same time, he is courageous enough to be a true gentleman towards the girl he has fallen in love with. When Baxter realizes that Mr. Sheldrake is unwilling to take Ms. Kubelik seriously, he does not instantly take advantage of the situation (like others have done to him), but he tries to be the middleman who attempts to work things out. Baxter does not instantly make insane declarations of love and instead, he respects Ms. Kubelik's forbidden feelings for Mr. Sheldrake because that is simply part of who she is. Lemmon is terrific as Baxter and there is not a single false note throughout the film. Even when there is no dialogue, Lemmon's priceless facial expressions says it all.

I just watched Double Indemnity a few weeks ago and is surprised by MacMurray's range. What range, you may ask? He plays rotten characters in both Double Indemnity and The Apartment and it doesn't take much versatility to make a few modifications to psuedo-villainous roles who work at insurance companies. But what makes the contrast between MacMurray's performances in these films so special is that he is able to disappear into his character and completely change his persona. It's not easy for some actors to shed their past roles so the audience is not reminded of some other performance, but for MacMurray, it seems like it's a piece of cake.

Another performer of great versatility is Shirley MacLaine. I am more familiar with her post-sixties roles, so I was surprised by the vulnerable, wholesome naivety of her character in The Apartment. MacLaine's character, Ms. Kubelik is just pure emotional baggage in the film, but the audience likes her anyway because she understands herself enough to admit her own flaws. Mostly, we like her because we see all the charms, all the flaws, and all the sweetness that Baxter sees in her.

The more Billy Wilder movies I see, the more I admire his body of work. My favorites include Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, and now, The Apartment. There are some wonderful one-liners in The Apartment, the kind classic film geeks quote in certain situations. There is such comedic wit and quickness in The Apartment that just works so well due to Wilder's (and I.A.L. Diamond's) writing and direction. Wilder's is, first and foremost, a quintessential actor's director and this becomes transparent through his actors' outstanding and complex performances.

The Apartment is an example of a great romantic comedy, the kind that Hollywood doesn't make, or heck, doesn't want to make anymore. It's not like The Apartment is the kind of movie that emulates golden age innocence like another great romantic comedy, Roman Holiday, did. The film is simply a timeless piece of work and has aged very well, probably because it was so ahead of its time. What makes the film so funny and the obstacles believable is that the characters and their emotions are so authentic. This kind of feeling in film can be repeated in this day and age, and the current film industry machine just choose not to. The ending is one of the most perfect endings I've ever seen in my film-watching career. It has a marvelous mixture of last-minute suspense, humor, bittersweetness, and most importantly, hope, that makes The Apartment worthwhile.

Rating: 9.5/10