Sunday, May 31, 2009
"Sugar" is the nickname of Miguel Santos (Algenis Perez Soto), a Dominican baseball player. His strong pitching arm gets him noticed and he is recruited to play in the U.S. minor-leagues for the fictional Kansas City Knights. He leaves behind his family living in poverty in a village outside San Pedro de Macoris, and promises them he will send back money to them as he jokes with his girlfriend that he will drive her to New York in a Cadillac that can drive on water. Such are the dreams of the shy young man who is going to America for the first time. A series of lessons follow: in ordering a meal at a diner, not to use the hotel mini-bar, and how to avoid a bar brawl among other things.
Assigned to Iowa, Sugar stays with a host family on a farm and makes friends with a few of his fellow players (Andre Holland and Rayniel Rufino). He is lost in translation, literally, as he knows very little English but strives to be polite and do right admirably. It's not at all smooth sailing for Sugar as his arm falters and a friend is cut loose from the team. After a few more setbacks he finds himself estranged from the game and travels to New York where he finally begins a more natural American assimilation.
Now I'm not a fan of baseball but I am a fan of baseball movies. From THE BAD NEWS BEARS to BULL DURHAM it's an endearing film formula. Baseball is easier to follow in a movie, I mean I could never figure out just what the Hell was going on in the field scenes of football movies like ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, LEATHERHEADS, JERRY MAGUIRE (or HEAVEN CAN WAIT for that matter). But I'm just not sports minded and SUGAR is much more than a baseball movie. It has the same sober intensity that made Fleck and Boden's previous work, HALF NELSON, one of the best films of 2006. A thoughtfull well made movie that is worth seeking out, so bypass the multiplexes and make your way to your local indie arthouse theater. That is, if your town still has one.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Owner May Sell Iconic Theater (The Chapel Hill News - May 27th, 2009)
Varsity Theatre Set To Be Sold But Not Closed (Daily Tar Heel - May 27th, 2009)
This is all frustrating and depressing for me and many folks as the theater has been a beloved institution since its birth in 1927. I grew up going to the Varsity. When I was seven years old I saw STAR WARS there in 1977 - a memory I've never forgotten and possibly why that movie keeps coming up on this blog. I attended many movies over the years as it changed hands from a one screen first run movie house to a bargain theater in the early 80's then, after being closed for a bit, re-opened as a art house with 2 screens (the large theater was split in half in 1982). Stone, who founded the Chelsea Theater at Timberlyne Shopping Center roughly 20 years ago, bought the theater in 2000. I got a job at the Varsity in 2004 (the same year I started this blog) and have highly enjoyed working there - seeing many movies and forming many friendships.
Like I said before, I thought tomorrow night would be both my final night and the Varsity's but it looks like we both will see a bit more of each other. I, of course, hope that the theater will continue but as so much on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill has changed it may be time to adjust to this major change. I'll keep you posted with what happens as I hear it. If you live in the area you may consider coming to seeing what just could be the last double bill (pictured at the top of this post). It's such a great old school theater with a great atmospheric vibe I know I won't be alone in missing.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Warning: This review contains Spoilers!
You want to know how to begin what proposes to be an "event" motion picture? You first see the edges of ginormous letters that form the film's title shrouded in black or standing in space (or both). They are either shining metallic silver or beaming black like they are made out of the same alien substance as the monolith from 2001. They are so huge they at first can not be contained by the silver screen. They look as if as if they will collide but they glide into place as we pull back to see them in their entirety. They, with the booming bass section on the score, announce that this is a big blaring blast of a movie that demands your attention up front. That's how you begin an "event" motion picture and that, like every other piece of the franchise blockbuster formula, TERMINATOR SALVATION makes good on.
As the fourth entry in THE TERMINATOR series, SALVATION doesn't intend to surprise or re-write any former history, it just intends to be a solid entertaining action film and on that level it succeeds enormously. It opens in 2003 with an odd appearance by Helena Bonham Carter as a doctor representative for a large corporation trying to persuade a death row inmate (Sam Worthington) to donate his body to what, of course, is an ominous project. From there we jump forward 15 years (surprisingly that's the only time jumping we do - the rest is set in 2018) with Christian Bale as the intensely determined John Connor leading the resistance in the massive war against the machines across the definitively apocalyptic terrain. There's no reason to recount any more of the plot - it's a series of bombastic set pieces with tons of physical violence, devastating destruction, and ginormous explosion after explosion. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
As one of the most capable actors working today, Bale is as ferocious in the iconic part (he's the fourth actor to take on John Connor) as he was in his infamous on-set rant. Worthington, possibly the real protagonist of the piece, is stoical and restrained with the right tone as he jumps from cyborg fight to cyborg fight. Many genuinely scary (or at least extremely jarring) moments abound with no wasted scenes or unfocused direction. The former TERMINATOR movies are referenced in a non-offensive manner - Linda Hamilton's picture and voice on the tapes that Bale reviews for clues, the now set in cinematic stone "I'll be back" line, and (I warned you about Spoilers!) the face of Arnold Swartzeneger via CGI on one of the Terminators in factory production.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
After doing 2 years time in development Hell, this royally panned project came and went through theaters with warp speed earlier this year. It's immediately easy to see why. "A short time ago in a galaxy not so far, far away" goes the blue text which fades for the yellow title, done in faithfully curved block STAR WARS font, powering through space to make way for the famous crawl. Yep, it's that reverential to the beloved space saga but the jokes contained in the crawl like this one: "Ever wonder where these words are flying? Maybe aliens in another galaxy will one day read this and think WTF?" tell us we're in for crude cheap comedy instead of knowing sci-fi obsessed geek satire.
It's a shame too, because it's a interesting premise: In 1998, a group of die-hard STAR WARS fans (Sam Huntington, Dan Fogler, Jay Baruchel, and Chris Marquette) decide to break into Skywalker Ranch to steal a copy of the long awaited EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE. You see, one of them (Marquette) is dying of cancer, so they and obligatory girl geek Kristen Bell, want him to see the movie before his death. Notice I didn't say it was a good premise, just an interesting one as we all know how EPISODE I turned out - some folks would've chosen death over seeing that still reeking pile of CGI, poor plotting, and Jar Jar Binks bullshit. But hey, in the aforementioned premise is the opportunity to parody the lives and dreams of fanatics with pot shots at their arguments over series inconsistencies, disputes with Trekkies, and dead end devotion.
FANBOYS is more concerned with raunchy scatological humor and road movie clichés (like a gay biker bar scene that plays like a outtake from WILD HOGS) than it is with character driven comedy. There are flashes of wit here and there which come mostly in the cameos. Given the subject matter it's no surprise to see Kevin Smith show up, his pimping out of Jason Mewes is at least as amusing as anything in ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO. Not playing themselves are Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams from the original holy trilogy, they give a bit of credibility to the proceedings even if their parts are little more than walk-ons. For some inexplicable reason, Seth Rogen plays 3 roles - 2 Star Trek nerds and a STAR WARS tattooed killer pimp who the Fanboys tussle with in Las Vegas - yep, it's that kind of movie.
When William Shatner appears, mocking himself yet again in another throwaway cameo, it's amusing to note that in the Trek Vs. Wars battle, Star Trek is the reigning winner right now. The J.J. Abrams reboot is bathing in the kind of overwhelming critical acclaim that George Lucas's prequels never received and its series future looks blindingly bright. FANBOYS is nothing more than star waste in its attempts to be a tribute or homage or comic valentine or whatever. The ending Skywalker Ranch sequence has some charm despite being horribly edited, but it at least hints at the heart this film could've had. Just maybe after so many STAR WARS satires from sounder sources like The Simpsons, SNL, South Park, Robot Chicken, Family Guy, etc. this stuff is beyond stale.
Through all of this I'm reminded of a great bit from Late Night With Conan O'Brien: Triumph the Insult Dog (voiced by Robert Smigel) visiting the STAR WARS: EPISODE II - ATTACK OF THE CLONES Premiere back in 2002. Between the bits of the puppet's prodding ridicule, some young guy dressed perfectly as Spock walks through the hoards of real life fanboys holding his hand high not in a Vulcan salute but in a more universal salute to everyone in the crowd (watch it here). Considering the current status of that rebooted franchise the middle finger seems beautifully appropriate to me.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Symbologist Robert Langdon, the hero of the critically condemned yet commercially successful 2006 film THE DA VINCI CODE, is back in this bloated blockbuster wannabe adaptation of Dan Brown's inconsequentially controversial bestselling book. As played by a unusually stiff Tom Hanks, Langdon, who was described by Brown as "Harrison Ford in a Harris tweed", is no franchise powering figure - obviously he's no Indiana Jones but come on, he's not even in the league of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan who Ford played in a few durable 90's thrillers.
After the Pope dies and Cardinal candidates are kidnapped with the Vatican under terrorist threats, Hanks is called upon by Vatican police officials to do his deciphering clues thing. He suspects the Illuminati - the secret society considered to be the "power behind the throne" and with Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer as his obligatory dark haired female companion, he runs around Rome spouting exposition connecting the dubious dots. As the Pope's shifty eyed assistant, Ewan McGregor seems eager to chew scenery but stalks the shadows instead, lacking a coherent character. So does Stellan Skarsgård as a police commander in charge of a bunch of black suits with ear pieces also running from location to location for reasons you're likely to forget. "I need a map with all the churches in Rome!" Hanks yells in possibly one of the least gripping moments in recent movie history.
Like its predecessor, ANGELS AND DEMONS looks great (Salvatore Totino's luxurious cinematography being one of the sole saving graces), but the emptiness is endless with the actors, director, and everyone involved grasping for a gravitas that simply isn't there. Ron Howard has made many solid accessible films - FROST/NIXON was one of last year's best movies - so with hope, he'll leave Dan Brown's mechanical formula history playtime theatrics behind from here on out. I was reminded in one of the many long boring stretches of this intensely tedious film that I saw Howard/Hanks's first film together, the man meets mermaid rom com SPLASH, in the same theater almost exactly 25 years ago. Now, come to think of it, that was a fun movie with a more plausible take on mythology. Wish they'd make another like that next time around.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
On Vacation in Las Vegas last month, I picked up a book titled "Best Movies of the 70's" by Prof. Dr. Jürgen Müller at the gift shop at Madame Tussauds. It's a thick book filled with great glossy film stills surrounded by classy scholarly text. Though it's hardly definitive (What, no NETWORK? No MEAN STREETS?) it makes a good case for Dustin Hoffman being the face of 70's cinema. Hard to argue as his mighty run through that decade included the likes of LITTLE BIG MAN, STRAW DOGS, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, PAPILLON, MARATHON MAN, and STRAIGHT TIME.
Lately though, Hoffman hasn't really made much of a dent in moviegoer's memories with family fare like MR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM or in cruder family fare as Ben Stiller's father Bernie Focker so it would be nice to have the man who was once a major player back in a quality character study drama. LAST CHANCE HARVEY luckily isn't his last chance for this, because while it's a fine cute comic valentine it's still not going to make a dent. However, for those who missed Hoffman's particular brand of quiet charm disguising heartache, it'll do quite nicely for now.
"I missed the plane, I lost my job, and my daughter, who's getting married today, decided that she wanted her stepfather, rather than me, to give her away, okay?" Hoffman piles on the pity to Emma Thompson as a customer service airline rep he at first rudely dismissed. He's a jazz pianist turned commercial jingle writer who was told harshly by Richard Schiff (The West Wing) that "there are no more chances". Despite Hoffman's doomed demeanor and Thompson's pithy reluctance their meet-cute morphs into a day of getting to know each other in a sunnier than usual London, BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET-wise with a bit of ABOUT SCHMIDT thrown in for good measure - the scenario of the aging sad sack going to his estranged daughter's wedding, that is. Not to say this is anywhere as good as those movies, just that it has a pleasantly familiar framework.
Hoffman's ex-wife (Kathy Bates) is happily not a character made for you to hate, but an agreeable yet weathered woman who has long moved on. James Brolin as her husband dressed in a white tuxedo looks like he just suavely stepped out of a James Bond audition but somehow doesn't intimidate Hoffman or make awkward waves in any respect. Nice touches like these and the natural feeling of the banter all make this a movie that breezes by. Hoffman and Thompson effortlessly walk through the rom com plotting with a good sense of the cheekiness involved. LAST CHANCE HARVEY is highly likable, though it wouldn't be missed at a Dustin Hoffman film festival (or a Emma Thompson one either for that matter), it is a nice reminder of the presence and poise of one of the finest actors ever, especially since it looks like he's going to get Focked again.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
Sporting the most positive pre-release buzz since THE DARK KNIGHT, Gene Roddenberry's vigorous vision proves itself yet again in a dazzling spectacle of a sure to be Summer blockbuster. This is extremely impressive after the diminishing returns of the last few films of the franchise featuring Patrick Stewart leading The Next Generation crew. It's boldly back to basics here with a prequel/reboot that re-introduces the original characters from the classic 60's TV series, now played by hot young actors and actresses just out of Starfleet Academy and entangled in an action packed series of (as Spock says) "universe ending paradoxes".
A friend joked a few weeks back that the trailer made it look like: "a Mountain Dew commercial...thought it may be Star Trek X: Treme." And yeah, that's a reasonable fear - that it would be a new fangled streamlined brainless affair - but somehow Abrams has presented intact an engaging re-imagining of the best elements of Star Trek with the immediately recognizable quirks of the protagonists, the strong chemistry of the relationships, and the overall humanity that was the core of the long loved series. No dark dystopian future here, as we see young fit cadets of all races and alien species at Starfleet Academy in unusually sunny San Francisco after an opening that establishes the opposition in upbringing that defines the brash arrogant James T. Kirk, Chris Pine who doesn't ape William Shatner but still captures his ego, and the cold logical half human/half Vulcan Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto).
Singled out for his impulsive potential by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk quickly gets in trouble by cheating on the Kobayashi Maru training exercise (something Trekkies or Trekkers or whatever will appreciate) which gets under the skin of the test's designer: Spock, see what they did there? Kirk's hearing is rudely interrupted by a patented Trekkian threat, a gigantic evil electrical space cloud which, of course, may destroy the Earth, the Universe, and everything. Helming the Romulan ship at the heart of this insidious cloud is Captain Nero (Eric Bana) who is harboring a revenge vendetta because of the actions of future Spock. That's right, Spock as portrayed by as an elderly Leonard Nimoy, appears in a glorified cameo to mentor and advise Kirk and, most enjoyably, to inspire him to provoke young Spock's conflicted emotions at a crucial moment.
The original cast is wonderfully replicated with a nice mix of familiar affectations and fresh interpretation. Karl Urban and Simon Pegg lapse almost completely into impressions of DeForrest Kelly and James Doohan (if you live under a rock that's Dr. McCoy and Scotty the engineer, respectively) but they keep the characters amusingly in check even if they don't quite make them their own. As Lieutenant Uhuru, Zoë Saldana brings a strong headed take on the iconic part even if most of it entails swooning over Spock - yep, one of the many details that makes this "not your Father's Star Trek". John Cho (Harold from HAROLD AND KUMAR) as the wet behind the ears Lieutenant Sulu and Anton Yelchin as earnest 17 year old Ensign Chekov convincingly take their posts on the Enterprise bridge.
Fittingly the movie in the franchise that this most resembles thematically and spiritually is STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. The revenge scenario of the obsessed villain, Kirk's rejecting of the no-win situation in the before mentioned Kobayashi Maru, the mind controlling slugs (in a sequence that may be a timely statement on torture techniques), and Spock's immortal "I have been and always shall be your friend" line, all recall that fan favorite film which many consider the best of the series. This new entry though, is strong enough to change that consensus as Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman's sharp screenplay re-writes a lot of Star Trek history while at the same time upholding and paying glorious homage to it. STAR TREK is fast flashy fun - it's colorfully gorgeous (see at an IMAX theater if you can - although none of it is filmed in IMAX), powerful, and as good as the ginormous, yet well earned, hype suggests.
Monday, May 4, 2009
Warning: This review may contain Spoilers!
The title would best befit a comic book; I know that's the point but it's clumsy as a movie title even for a big blustery comic book movie like this.
No one will use the full title though, I'm sure as Hell not planning on on using it again from this point onward. The film itself gets off to a clumsy start with a cold opening set in 1800's Canada with our wolfish hero as a kid (Troye Sivan) witnessing his father's murder, or who he thought was his father - you see, it's complicated. The kid has the infamous bone claws which can protrude from his knuckles at will and he's working on the screaming: "no!!!" at the sky in a ascending camera crane shot, something he'll be an ace at a lot later in life.
Lil' wolf boy and his likewise indestructible brother (Michael-James Olsen) run off into the night and into seemingly every war in history as they grow into Hugh Jackman and the fierce growling Leiv Scheiber. This montage credits sequence recalls the jaunty sweep through time opening that WATCHMEN employed but here it comes off as more then a little forced.
After surviving a military style execution, the brothers, one good and one bad (guess which is which) are recruited by Danny Huston as a conniving Colonel who is putting together an elite team of mutant folk for a mysterious mission.
The supernaturally skilled group (including Ryan Reynolds, Dominic Monaghan, Kevin Durand, and John Wraith) is immediately too much of a kill crazy crew for Jackman and he quits to live a normal life as a lumberjack in his home country. After 6 years of peace with a school teacher girlfriend (Lynn Collins) in an idyllic cabin in the mountains, Huston again appears to warn our constantly scowling protagonist that his former team mates are being hunted down and murdered one by one.
We know, of course, that it's Sabretooth Scheiber and that a huge confrontation fight set piece is coming with him. It's one high octane fuelled fight action scene after another and, yeah, that's what I expected with all the players in place and the pulse pumping perfectly but inspiration was sorely lacking.
There was not a single shot that surprised or excited me. The tried and true frantically running, or at one point walking casually, away from a gigantic explosion shot has been done so many times that it's beyond redundant here (you'd think that the countless Simpsons satires of said effect would've killed off this cliché). The plot is pretty standard stuff too with themes like revenge and betrayal banally balancing everybody's motivation.
Still, the tone of the previous X-MEN movies is replicated convincingly and I'm sure many will find plenty of worth between the lines. Jackman undoubtedly owns the role with a presence that grows in every scene while the dynamic between him and Scheiber has a effective edge albeit being far from fleshed out.
Because of the foul stench of early bad reviews I went in with low expectations and that definitely helped. It's not a badly made or boring movie by any means, just a mediocre super hero movie throwaway that I believe only fanboys will remember with much affection in the near future.
Post note: Incidentely Scheiber and Huston have both played Orson Welles in previous projects. They're both listed on a post I did a year ago about Welles wannabes (May 5th, 2008).
Friday, May 1, 2009
"wished David Brenner didn't hog George Wallace's spotlight."
"loves the looks people give him when he's wearing his Elvis sunglasses."
"had a good time @ old downtown Vegas despite losing a little money. Now we are having some late dinner at Augustus Cafe @ Caesar's Palace"
"full of Italian food again from that place (Battista's) that looks like a mob hangout with multiple Michael Landon pictures on the wall - that damn angel musta ate there a lot."
"is watching Close Encounters (my favorite Spielberg film) on HDNet in this kickass Venetian suite."
"just took a shower in a glass shower that looks like some kind of sci fi pod - thought I was going to be cryogenically frozen."
I mean my life isn't very interesting enough normally to constantly comment on but this trip was full of fun activities so, of course, my friends and family immediately knew when I was going to whatever show - Penn & Teller, the Cirque du Solei Beatles "Love" deal, "O" (also Cirque), George Wallace, etc.), where I was dining, when I met Mary Tyler Moore (@ NAB - Las Vegas Convention Center on 4/20) and, ahem, when I got married (around 8:00 PM 4/28).
So now that I'm back my tweets will be less interesting (mostly just about what movie I'm watching I bet) but you're welcome to follow them. Just look up Filmbabble on Twitter and sign on.
We took a little time away from Vegas to drive to Sedona, Arizona which was beautiful. after a full day of looking at art, visiting Montezuma Castle, and walking trails in the red rock country we relaxed in our sweet suite. After viewing too much reportage on the Craigslist killer through much channel flipping I was happy to see the new telefilm GREY GARDENS on HBO.
If you're not in the know it's based on the 1974 Maylses bros. documentary (also named GREY GARDENS) about Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale who were the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Onassis. Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, respectively, portray the ladies living in absolute squalor in their rundown mansion in Easthampton, New York. With flash backs to Little Edie's New York lavish lifestyle as an aspiring actress before being sucked into her Mother's Hell hole habitat we get little in the way of true insight but plenty of pleasurable kitsch.
I've often thought Lange brings an element of mental unstability often to roles that don't require it but here she that more than works in her favor. Barrymore hasn't quite matured acting-wise but since she's playing a bad misguided showbiz wannabe she seems to somehow pull it off. Jeanne Tripplehorn (Big Love) has a great understated cameo dead on as Jackie O. with Ken Howard (The White Shadow - oh, forget it, nobody remembers that show) and Daniel Baldwin filling out the small cast as the socialite ones that got away. While this is an immensely entertaining and moving melodrama I must recommend seeing the original documentary first for proper context. A new Criterion version is available which contains the follow-up film THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENS (2006) which I have yet to see. A friend also recommened the musical, in which he said Christine Ebersole was awesome in (comments via Facebook status updates of course), so there's that too. Whew! Those Beales ladies really get around!
On our last day in Las Vegas we decided to check out Madam Tussaud's Wax Museum. We knew it would be cheesy but we thought it would be fun to see all those famous likenesses; some of which were awful - Springsteen with blonde hair (!) and a highly unrecognizable Brad Pitt for a few examples. What we didn't know was that we walked in just in time to see the unveiling of the new Hugh Jackman Wolverine wax figure on what they dubbed "Wolverine Wednesday." I filmed it with my camera and since it was so delightfully stupid I decided to share it with you fine folks:
Now that's one way to start off the summer season which gets under way with X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE today. Hope the movie is better than that fairly unconvincing statue.