Monday, June 22, 2009

Movie Review: The Taking of Pelham 123

Who says big budget summer movies starring major Hollywood stars have to be all about F/X or resemble video games? Why can't Denzel Washington transform himself into a slightly rumpled, coffee spilling city employee with ethical demerits on his dance card? Who says John Travolta doesn't look a little scary brandishing neck tattoos and a gun? These are just a few of the questions answered in this remake of the original film (which I've never seen) from 1974. So yes, there is more to "Pelham" than F/X, Denzel does manage to morph into his low key character with the greatest of ease and Travolta has some impressive and scene chewing moments tearing into his villainous role. Veteran action director Tony Scott does a good job of setting up the hostages in a subway car scenario with the lead actors bouncing off each other nicely despite actually sharing the screen for only a brief time. There are some nail biting moments as Travolta and his ruthless crew comandeer a New York City subway car, delivering a chilling ultimatum: Unless a ransom of millions is paid out within an hour, one hostage will be killed for every minute after the deadline. No idle threats here as hostages begin to bite the dust while unfortunate dispatcher Washington, who picked up the phone at the wrong time to receive the ransom call, struggles to control the situation.

Although there's much to like about this high drama movie, things fall apart towards the end. Scott suddenly pulls out all the stops and makes a serious mistake by removing the action from the claustrophobic subway car, throwing in a car chase, a car jacking and a silly confrontation with a SWAT team. The final scene of the film is not only completely unsatisfying but destroys any credibility the story and characters have maintained up to that point. It's always a pleasure to watch Denzel weave his magic with a rather interesting character but the script could have offered more about Travolta's angry psychopath and the supporting roles are little more than peripheral.

Things to love about this movie: As always, Denzel turns in a multidimensional performance despite some script restrictions; a few intriguing twists
Things to hate about this movie: Wonderful actor Luis Guzman is seriously underused in a throwaway character
Pleasant surprises: The terrific addition of modern technology as one hostage continues to communicate with his girlfriend via a laptop
Unpleasant surprises: An over-the-top ending that doesn't ring true; not enough Big Apple flavor; the usually excellent John Turturro didn't quite work for me here as the blandest hostage negotiator ever

Movie Review - Little Ashes

The early student days of artist Salvador Dali, filmmaker Luis Bunel and poet Federico Garcia Lorca may be one of the more esoteric movie ideas in recent memory but director Paul Morrison forges ahead bravely to bring this strange tale to the screen. Of course the film would probably have gone straight to DVD if not for the popularity of heartthrob actor Robert Pattinson (of "Twilight" fame) who plays Dali, silly moustache and all. The story follows the three future icons as they meet in college during revolutionary times in Spain and remain friends into their eventual careers as ground breaking artists with varying degrees of commitment to their youthful ideals. Along the way there are political upheavals, disastrous love affairs and much discussion about making subversive art, not to mention plenty of costume changes. An interesting menage a trois develops between Lorca (Javier Beltran), his devoted friend and frustrated paramour Margarita (Marina Gatell) and Dali. Bunel (Matthew McNulty) is granted less screen time as the turbulent, fascinating relationship between Lorca and Dali takes center stage.

Unlike the art created by these Spanish trailblazers, there's nothing particularly provocative about this movie aside from the fact of its existence in theaters. Performances are excellent with Beltran particularly effective as the ill fated Lorca. The screenplay by Philippa Goslet is muddled and uneven, veering from thoughtful to silly with the most interesting scenes take place at the beginning of the story.

Things to love about this movie: An exquisitely romantic swim between Lorca and Dali under a full moon; excerpts from Lorca's marvelous poetry
Things to hate about this movie: Typical 'rally the peasants' speeches in local bars
Pleasant surprises: Pattinson acquits himself rather well as Dali and should be commended for his courage in taking on a distinctly non-commercial film of this nature
Unpleasant surprises: Not much of Dali's art is shown and his eventual status as a wealth, successful sellout is given heavy handed treatment

Monday, June 1, 2009

Movie Review - Rudo Y Cursi

Two outstanding young actors (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna) with plenty of chemistry make this rather scattered Mexican indie fun to watch despite a routine storyline. Half brothers Beto (Luna) and Tato (Bernal) share a mother and a combative relationship in their small, impoverished town. Both are soccer players as well, though Tato harbors a not-so-secret longing for a singing career, seizing every opportunity to display his barely adquate vocal skills. When Tato is discovered at a local soccer field by a talent scout big changes are under way. Tato soon becomes a popular professional player, acquires a more upscale lifestyle and a new name (Cursi) and even gets the chance to make a music video. Meanwhile Beto, still living back in the small town with his wife and kids, grows more envious of his successful half brother. Wouldn't you know, they eventually end up playing soccer for competing teams with a big game on the line and the crucial play coming down to the two of them.

Writer/director Carlos Cuaron has a good feel for the hard scrabble origins of these characters, but the constant antagonism between the brothers grows tiresome, especially since neither of them is particularly appealing. Beto is brutish while Tato/Cursi, though amusing at times, quickly turns arrogant with success and begins throwing jealous tantrums over his newly acquired girlfriend (Jessica Mars) which seem completely out of character. The relationship between the brothers is developed just enough to make us care but not quite enough to elevate the muddled script into anything more than adequate. It's always fun watching actors like Luna and Bernal bounce off each other but this time their natural chemistry is weighed down by annoying characters who don't provide the excellent material they deserve. The final image of the film with the brothers on the beach together, both of them utterly changed from their beginnings, might have been more meaningful if their journey had been better delineated.

Things to love about this movie: Tato's outrageous outfits and hilarious music video; acting is uniformly excellent; gritty feel with a little edge
Things to hate about this movie: Predictable situations and problematic characters
Pleasant surprises: Not overloaded with footage of soccer
Unpleasant surprises: Not much comic relief or comraderie between the brothers

Movie Review - Earth

When Disney meets Mother Nature it's the unsuspecting viewer who's caught in the crossfire. Despite a trailer featuring exquisite glimpses of waterfalls, baby animals and flocks of birds in flight, this documentary falls prey to the anthropomorphic curse so common to nature films. It seems that even such amazing creatures as whales, elephants and polar bears can only be fascinating to audiences when placed in the context of the human nuclear family model. The film focuses on a herd of elephants crossing hostile terrain in search of water, a whale and her baby traversing stormy seas and a polar bear with two cubs foraging for food. Their stories are engrossing but a forced sense of drama continually sabotages the action. Yes, life is grim for earth's beautiful creatures and Mother Nature is cruel, but these points are made so relentlessly that several scenes became unwatchable for me. Do we really need to see a group of lions clinging onto a frantic elephant? Or a starving polar bear desperately trying to bring down a walrus? I found myself literally looking away from the screen far too often during this film and wondered how the many children in the audience might be reacting to such harsh images.

"Earth" purports to be a celebration of life on our planet. Perhaps it is, though simply following the animals during their migrations might have been just as effective as presenting one disturbing incident after another. An effective narration by the great James Earl Jones works wonders for the somewhat pedestrian script. There are many marvelous sights to be found in this film: arctic landscapes, vast open plains, baby ducks leaping from a tree for their first flight. I only wish the filmmakers had told their story in a more natural, less brutal way.

Things to love about this movie: Underwater footage of a mother and baby whale; marvelous photography featuring a wide range of creatures including lynx, ducks, antelope and cheetah
Things to hate about this movie: Truly disturbing, drawn out scenes of slaughter; the sight of an exhausted, starving polar bear who simply lays down to die (an unforgettable image I wish I'd never seen); many of the fabulous places shown in the documentary are never identified
Pleasant surprises: A baby elephant swimming; a fun segment (shown over the ending credits) of the photographers setting up their shots
Unpleasant surprises: Too much cutesy script with too little solid information about the animals