Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Starring: John C. Reilly
Director: Paul Weitz
Based on the popular series of books by Darren Shan, it tells the story of a small-town teen who inadvertently shatters a 200-year-old truce between warring factions of vampires. Sixteen-year-old Darren (Chris Massoglia) is your typical adolescent; he spends most of his time with his best friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson), earns decent grades, and generally manages to stay out of trouble. But trouble finds Darren when he and Steve make the acquaintance of a vampire named Larten Crepsley (Reilly) while attending a traveling freak show at a local theater. Transformed into a bloodsucker by Crepsley, Darren joins the Cirque Du Freak and quickly ingratiates himself with the unusual cast of characters who populate it, including Madame Truska the Bearded Lady (Salma Hayek) and the traveling sideshow's towering barker (Ken Watanabe). As Darren works to master his newfound powers as a budding member of the supernatural underworld, he becomes a valued pawn between the vampires and their deadlier rivals, the Vampaneze. With tensions between the two sects intensifying, Darren must figure out a means of keeping the coming war from destroying his last vestige of humanity. Patrick Fugit, Orlando Jones, Willem Dafoe, and Jane Krakowski co-star.
A very bland comedy wasting all the stars' talents. (108 mins.)
My Rating: *1/2
Monday, September 20, 2010
Starring: John Malkovich, Colin Hanks & Emily Blunt
Director: Sean McGinly
This is a very agreeable "feel good" movie and, as such, should find favor with a great many of those who view it. The story, which is in the tradition of other "behind the scenes with a difficult talent" films as My Favorite Year, concerns an aging mentalist -- do not call him a magician, please -- named Buck Howard (Malkovich), who was once at the top of the heap but is now reduced to playing to small, if appreciative, audiences far from the big time. His new road manager, Troy (Hanks), has joined Buck because he is floating aimlessly after dropping out of law school and is trying to "find himself." Working with Buck is an education in itself, as he has taken self-delusion to an extreme, is entirely self-involved, and more than a bit temperamental. But there's something about Buck that draws Troy in and ultimately teaches him a lesson about being true to himself.
Buck is a very audience-friendly film, provided that viewers are willing to let themselves be taken along for a fairly manipulative ride. Director-writer McGinly has created a well-crafted screenplay that hits all the right buttons in terms of eliciting the desired response. Where he has fallen down a bit is in not adding real depth to the story or keeping it as tightly focused as it might have been. Troy's dilemma is a bit too superficial, as is the setup with his disapproving father (well-played by the actor's real-life papa, Tom Hanks). The part of the plot which deals with Troy's dalliance with a young P.R. agent feels incomplete, perhaps because Blunt's dynamic, eye-catching performance makes the viewer want to learn more about her character and see more confrontations between the agent and Buck. However, neither of these flaws (nor McGinly's tendency to overwrite and overuse the narration) is fatal by any means and they're more than made up for by some wonderful comic moments and McGinly's trenchant yet amiable way of dissecting the whole concept of celebrity. Most importantly, Buck has Malkovich operating at the top of his not inconsiderable form. The actor clearly relishes this character, and it is a joy to watch him inhabit Buck's skin and bring him to beautiful life. Malkovich finds the humanity beneath the caricature without letting the caricature slip away; Buck's trademark "I love this town" is funny because it is simultaneously cheesy and heartfelt. As Troy, Hanks isn't able to hold his own against Malkovich -- or Blunt -- but he does the best he can as the "straight" man in the movie. The supporting cast, especially Steve Zahn's and Debra Monk's on-target "hayseeds," are aces. McGinly's direction is smooth, if a bit too concerned with getting its points across, and Tak Fujimoto's cinematography is both glossy and warm. (87 mins.)
My Rating: ***
Starring: Anthony Quinn, Giuletta Masina & Richard Basehart
Director: Federico Fellini
La Strada is often considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century filmmaking, a sad and poignant remembrance of innocence lost and of the roads that each of us must choose. As with much of the work of director Fellini, man is viewed as suspended between the heavens and the earth, adroitly symbolized here by Il Matto/The Fool (Basehart), a high-wire circus performer. Fellini's motifs are among the most influential of all post-WWII filmmakers, and you'll find clever Fellini and La Strada references in such unlikely films as Blues Brothers 2000. Giuletta massina's Chaplin-like Gelsomina is among the screen's most poignant and tragic performances, and she, like the entire film, is aided by Nino Rota's evocative score. Fellini had few production values to work with, but here he doesn't need them. La Strada is among the most studied films of late Italian Neo-Realism and a classic of the first rank. (115 mins.)
My Rating: ****
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr. & Jamie Foxx
Director: Joe Wright
When the Soloist was originally intended to be a 2008 Oscar hopeful, the initial advertising campaign made it look like a cross between Shine and A Beautiful Mind. And the setup certainly smacks of Oscar bait: Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Downey), recovering from an especially nasty bike accident, meets the homeless Nathaniel Anthony Ayers (Foxx) during a walk through the park. Because Nathaniel plays a violin with just two strings -- and plays it rather well -- he catches Steve's eye, and Steve, always on the lookout for a story, strikes up a conversation. When the obviously mentally ill Nathaniel mentions that he went to Juilliard, Steve decides to investigate the man's life, and discovers that the onetime cello prodigy suffered a schizophrenic breakdown while he was at the school, leading to a life on the street. Steve proceeds to write a column about Nathaniel, and the overwhelmingly positive response to the story prompts the gift of a cello from a reader. After delivering the present to Nathaniel, Steve slowly finds himself, almost against his nature, trying to make life better for the man.
This kind of movie quickly falls apart if the actors overplay the inherent sadness of the situation, and thankfully the stellar cast never makes that mistake. Although he's become more famous for performances in blockbusters like Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, Downey hasn't lost an ounce of his dramatic chops. He makes Steve selfish and prickly, but also so charming and funny that you understand why his subjects trust him with their life stories. You can also see why his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), who is now his boss, stays close to him even though she left their marriage. Steve begins asking himself why he cares so much about what happens to Nathaniel, questioning his own motivations -- is it really an ongoing act of selfless goodness, or is he just doing it for his career? Steve doesn't find a satisfying answer, until realizing that this new friendship offers the chance for him to become a better person.
As the catalyst for Steve's change, foxx pulls off a disciplined, subtle performance. Foxx isn't interested in earning our pity -- a choice that undermines so many actors playing mentally ill characters. You never question the debilitating nature of Nathaniel's disorder, but you also never question that he's able to take care of himself to the best of his ability, surviving -- however miserably -- in L.A.'s large homeless community. Both he and Downey avoid obvious melodramatic choices, and in doing so they create unfailingly honest portraits of complicated people.
My Rating: **1/2
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Starring: Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca & Jami Gertz
Director: Walter Hill
A superb blues score by guitarist Ry Cooder highlights this enjoyable fantasy about an ambitious young bluesman (Macchio) who "goes down to the crossroads," in the words of Robert Johnson, to make a deal with the devil for fame and fortune. Most viewers will enjoy the performances, the story, and the music in this all-too-rare-big-screen celebration of the blues and its mythology.
This misbegotten fantasy seems like a revamp of The Karate Kid, with a crotchety old musician replacing the wise karate master who guided macchio's coming-of-age. Halfway through, it becomes a Faustian morality play in which Macchio has yo play a mean guitar to save his mentor's soul. (100 mins.)
My Rating: ***