Mini Reviews (November 2008)
The Times of Harvey Milk, Across the Universe, I've Loved You So Long, Cool Hand Luke, Blue Streak, Growing Op, Wanted, Righteous Kill, A Christmas Tale, Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert
The Times of Harvey Milk (November 2/08)
Despite an opening half hour that's almost disastrously dry, The Times of Harvey Milk inevitably comes off as a tremendously entertaining and surprisingly moving look at the life and death of San Francisco's first openly gay councillor. Director Rob Epstein paints an incredibly vivid portrait of his subject through the judicious use of stock footage and new interviews, and it's subsequently impossible to walk away from the film without feeling a great deal of admiration for Harvey Milk and his various accomplishments. The relatively light-hearted midsection - which is primarily devoted to Milk's trials and tribulations as a struggling do-gooder and (eventually) a respected politician - ultimately gives way to an unexpectedly affecting stretch revolving around Milk's senseless assassination, with the activist's death sure to trigger an emotional response within even the most apathetic of viewers.
Across the Universe (November 5/08)
Visually and thematically audacious, Across the Universe revolves around the romance that ensues between a pair of disparate characters (Jim Sturgess' British steelworker Jude and Evan Rachel Wood's privileged American student Luc) against the backdrop of some of the '60s most well-known events. Director Julie Taymor, armed with over two dozen Beatles songs, has fashioned a contemporary musical that's certainly unlike anything the genre has to offer, as the filmmaker's notoriously avant-garde sensibilities serve her well within the context of a sporadically authentic yet mostly surreal endeavor. And although it does seem entirely likely that the film will have a more pronounced impact on admirers of the Beatles' music, Across the Universe's engaging storyline and proliferation of intriguing characters all but assures the continuing interest of even those with a cursory knowledge of the band's discography. That being said, it's hard to deny that the film loses its way as it passes the one-hour mark - as Taymor, working from Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' screenplay, jettisons marked instances of plot in favor of a random, distinctly free-wheeling sensibility that admittedly does grow increasingly tough to take (with Eddie Izzard's off-the-wall cameo as a demented circus ringleader certainly the most obvious example of this). The engaging performances and catchy songs prove instrumental in ensuring that the movie remains watchable even through its more overtly self-indulgent stretches, while there's little doubt that the whole thing effectively regains its footing as it approaches its emotionally charged, thoroughly satisfying finale.
I've Loved You So Long (November 6/08)
Anchored by Kristin Scott Thomas' searing, downright engrossing performance, I've Loved You So Long ultimately manages to overcome its admittedly flabby midsection to become a deliberately paced yet thoroughly rewarding drama. The film casts Scott Thomas as Juliette, a recently-paroled inmate who agrees to live with her sister (Elsa Zylberstein's Lea) until she's able to get on her feet - with the bulk of the proceedings revolving around Juliette's ill-tempered efforts at integrating herself back into society. Filmmaker Philippe Claudel has infused I've Loved You So Long with a low-key visual sensibility that certainly reflects the spare nature of his script, although there's little doubt that Claudel's most potent weapon inevitably proves to be Scott Thomas' uncompromising turn as the abrasive central character. The actress effectively steps into the shoes of a figure that is, initially, flat-out unlikable, as the substantial chip on Juliette's shoulder ensures that she approaches most situations with as hurtful and downright blunt a demeanor as one could envision (ie after sleeping with a stranger and being asked if the sex was satisfying, she responds, "no, not at all.") It's only as the movie progresses and the mystery behind Juliette's incarceration is slowly-but-surely revealed that one starts to sympathize with Scott Thomas' character, and it's also worth noting that Claudel generally does a nice job of avoiding overt instances of sentiment or melodrama (with the only pronounced exception to this a sequence in which Lea loses her temper in front of several students). And while the film's emotional impact is dulled by its undeniable overlength, I've Loved You So Long's place as an above-average debut for Claudel is cemented by Scott Thomas' Oscar-worthy work.
Cool Hand Luke (November 8/08)
Anchored by Paul Newman's thoroughly magnetic performance, Cool Hand Luke ultimately comes off as an amiable yet awfully slow paced prison drama that boasts a number of justifiably indelible sequences and images. The film - which follows Newman's Luke Jackson as he's sentenced to a two-year stint at a Southern prison, where his refusal to conform makes him a legend among his fellow inmates - unfolds in as leisurely a manner as one could possibly envision, which certainly proves instrumental in establishing both the multitude of characters and the very specific atmosphere of the prison itself. The episodic nature of Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson's screenplay ultimately does prevent one from consistently connecting with the material, however, as there's little doubt that certain interludes are more effective (and interesting) than others. The inclusion of several '60s-era flourishes by director Stuart Rosenberg undoubtedly heightens the uneven vibe, yet it's worth noting that the movie does boast a number of engaging, downright electrifying moments - with Luke's attempt at consuming 50 eggs surely remaining the highlight of the proceedings. The underlying camaraderie between Luke and his confined colleagues ensures that the film is often far more touching than one might've anticipated, with the respect that George Kennedy's Dragline eventually comes to feel for Newman's character cementing Cool Hand Luke's place as a pivotal entry within the guy-movie canon (despite the increasingly baffling nature of Luke's rebellious antics).
Blue Streak (November 19/08)
There's ultimately little doubt that Blue Streak would've fared a whole lot better without Martin Lawrence in the central role, as the actor delivers a hopelessly broad and relentlessly grating performance that proves effective at single-handedly negating the film's few positive attributes. The storyline follows jewel thief Miles Logan (Lawrence) as he emerges from a prison stint determined to retrieve the valuable diamond he hid two years earlier, with complications ensuing as Miles is forced to assume the identity of a detective to retrieve said diamond (which is now sitting inside a police station). It's a can't-lose premise that admittedly does ensure that the movie generally comes off as an affable piece of work, yet the unwarranted emphasis on silliness becomes too much to bear almost immediately - as Lawrence seems to have been given free reign to indulge in his every comedic whim. The resulting spree of mugging and overacting is nothing short of painful, with the collective efforts of Lawrence's talented costars (ie Luke Wilson, Dave Chappelle, and William Forsythe) at picking up the slack falling almost entirely flat. Exacerbating matters is the egregiously action-packed third act - which, naturally, kicks off in an abandoned warehouse - that starts off well enough but grows increasingly tedious as it progresses, and although screenwriters Michael Berry, John Blumenthal, and Stephen Carpenter deserve credit for steering clear of melodrama at the film's close, Blue Streak is simply unable to overcome the scenery-chewing excess of Lawrence's hopelessly incompetent turn.
Growing Op (November 21/08)
A typically quirky Canadian comedy, Growing Op stars Steven Yaffee as Quinn Dawson - a high-strung teenager whose mother (Rosanna Arquette's Diana) and father (Wallace Langham's Bryce) run a marijuana grow-op out of their suburban home. As such, Quinn and his sister (Katie Boland's Hope) have been receiving their schooling at home as a result of their parents' desire to protect them from the materialistic outside world - yet Quinn, spurred by the recent arrival of a beautiful next-door neighbor (Rachel Blanchard's Crystal), impulsively decides to break away from his oddball clan by enrolling as a new student at his local high school. There's little doubt that Growing Op is ultimately felled by filmmaker Michael Melski's emphasis on egregiously oddball elements, as the movie - though well acted and colorfully shot - suffers from a lack of authenticity that only grows more pronounced as it progresses. It's consequently not surprising to note that the film, following its eye-rollingly loopy opening half hour, eventually adopts the feel of a garden-variety high-school drama, with Melski's reliance on some of the hoariest cliches that the genre has to offer (ie Quinn must battle obnoxious bullies and win over the school's prettiest girl) inevitably transforming Growing Op into an unusually tedious experience. The melodramatic third act (which, perhaps not unexpectedly, includes a fake break-up) effectively cements the film's place as an utterly forgettable misfire, although - in fairness - even the most astute viewer will likely find themselves surprised by the admittedly silly twist ending.
Though populated with top-tier actors like James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, and Terence Stamp, Wanted ultimately comes off as an entirely ineffectual actioner that suffers from many of the same problems that one now associates with the genre. The movie - which follows a meek office worker (McAvoy's Wesley Gibson) as he slowly-but-surely becomes a ruthless killing machine after learning that his father was a superhuman assassin - admittedly does offer some promise in its early scenes, as Wesley's transformation from put-upon schlub to ultra-confident alpha male proves an irresistible bit of wish-fulfillment fantasy (with the sequence in which he violently quits his job an obvious highlight). There's little doubt, however, that the palpable lack of plot lends the proceedings a distinctly uneven vibe virtually from the get-go, with Michael Brandt, Derek Haas, and Chris Morgan's screenplay suffering from an aimless quality that only grows more troublesome as the film progresses (ie the entire third act generally serves no purpose other than to pad out the already-overlong running time). Exacerbating the movie's various deficiencies is Timur Bekmambetov's relentlessly hyper-kinetic sense of style, which - though initially kind of intriguing - eventually cements Wanted's place as a violent yet thoroughly empty piece of work.
Righteous Kill (November 25/08)
Saddled with the feel of a generic direct-to-video actioner, Righteous Kill undoubtedly comes off as nothing less than a colossal disappointment - as the film marks the first onscreen pairing of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro since 1995's masterful Heat. And while there's little doubt that the movie fares slightly better than director Jon Avnet's previous effort - the nigh unwatchable 88 Minutes - the filmmaker's rampant ineptitude, coupled with Russell Gewirtz's increasingly tedious screenplay, ultimately ensures that Pacino and De Niro are left with little to do but strike a series of tough-guy poses while spouting eye-rollingly silly chunks of dialogue. The two Oscar winners star as veteran New York City detectives who find themselves caught up in an explosive case involving a vigilante serial killer, with problems ensuing as it becomes progressively apparent that a fellow police officer is the most likely suspect. It's a decent premise that's employed to hopelessly hackneyed effect by Gewirtz, as the screenwriter's inability to evoke even a hint of authenticity proves impossible to overlook. The various performers' subsequent efforts at injecting the proceedings with energy fall completely flat, which effectively cancels out the sporadically strong work from a supporting cast that includes Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino, and Donnie Wahlberg (meanwhile, the phrase phoning-it-in was practically invented for Pacino and De Niro's work here). Admittedly, Righteous Kill never quite morphs into the flat-out bore that it often threatens to become - the laughable third act certainly pushes it, though - yet it's difficult not to feel as though Avnet has squandered what should've been an electrifying piece of work.
A Christmas Tale (November 26/08)
Though it boasts some seriously impressive visuals and a string of impressive performances, A Christmas Tale ultimately suffers from a middling midsection that's been suffused with pointless digressions and melodramatic crises - which effectively cancels out the enthralling and thoroughly promising opening half hour. The film - which follows the members of the Vuillard clan (including Mathieu Amalric's Henri and Anne Consigny's Elizabeth) as they reunite over the holidays amidst the news that matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has recently been diagnosed with leukemia - certainly benefits from Arnaud Desplechin's dense, almost novelistic approach to the material, as the director infuses the movie with an audacious sensibility that proves effective in initially capturing one's interest (ie characters narrate their own backstory directly into the camera). It's only as the various Vuillards begin to congregate that A Christmas Tale slowly-but-surely begins to lose its momentum, with Arnaud's penchant for soap opera-esque plot developments exacerbated by his reliance on needless instances of quirkiness (ie Junon wonders what her own son is like in bed). The inclusion of a silly yet oddly compelling love triangle - which, it's revealed, has its origins in the trio's teen years - proves to be a minor highlight within the disastrously overlong production, while the talented cast does manage to periodically elevate the movie out of its egregiously theatrical doldrums. In the end, A Christmas Tale essentially comes off as a standard, almost generic take on the dysfunctional-family-reunion genre - with the film generally unable to separate itself from such underwhelming similarly-themed fare as The Family Stone and Home for the Holidays.
Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert (November 29/08)
There's little doubt that Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert has been geared towards as specific an audience as one could possibly imagine, and it's certainly not difficult to envision Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus' fans walking away from this concert movie utterly and totally satisfied. The film, which offers up a heaping helping of the teen ingenue's songs, has been infused with a lighthearted and distinctly G-rated sensibility that ensures it remains the cinematic equivalent of elevator music for the duration of its brief running time, as director Bruce Hendricks has essentially excised anything even resembling conflict from the various behind-the-scenes segments. The filmmaker instead offers up a series of genial interludes revolving around Cyrus' preparations for the expensive-looking production, with - for example - a brief look at the hubbub that ensues after several of Cyrus' backup dancers accidentally drop her during the show. It's also not surprising to note that there's really no discernable difference between Cyrus and Montana's songs; both come off as inoffensive pop ditties that are agreeable enough yet almost relentlessly repetitive and similar-sounding. The end result is an effort that possesses few elements designed to appeal to viewers over a certain age, although - in fairness - the movie isn't quite the interminable experience that one might've expected based on its artwork and promotional materials.