Monday, May 01, 2006

Capsule Movie Reviews

At the multiplex:

Akeelah and the Bee (Rated PG for mild language)
I'm a word geek. If you've read this page for any length of time, you know this. So obviously this movie is a good fit for me. It's the story of a gifted student in an inner-city Los Angeles school who grew up with a love of words and eventually works her way toward the National Spelling Bee Championship. However, she's trained herself to "dumb down" so as not to stand out among her peers.

This is not just a movie for nerds. This is one of those feel-good, cheering-in-the-theater movies that leaves you with a smile on your face. I never knew spelling was so thrilling. Seriously. This movie was well-acted and well-written. The young lead carries the film easily. The supporting cast is pretty strong overall, especially the main kids. Angela Bassett's harried-single-mother character was a little flat, but Laurence Fishburne was great as Akeelah's mentor/coach. The character should have been just as flat and predictable, but Fishburne breathes life into it.

Beautiful, heartwarming, funny film--well worth your full-price ticket. And if you're a word-geek like me, you may be tempted to add this one to your DVD collection.

On Video:

Capote (Rated R for violent images and brief strong language)
Truman Capote's landmark book, "In Cold Blood," is one of the most influential works of 20th-century American writing. This film chronicles Capote's pursuit of this story, and the lengths he goes to get the lowdown on the harrowing crime it recounts. Phillip Seymour Hoffman completely disappears into this role, and proves that he deserved his Best Actor Oscar win. Catherine Keener co-stars as Truman's contemporary and friend Harper Lee. It was interesting to see the publishing of "To Kill a Mockingbird" play a small part in this film. Hoffman presents a very fascinating character study. At the end of the film, I felt both compassion and disgust for the title character.

Side note: I appreciate that Capote's homosexuality was clearly addressed but not emphasized in this film. While some would argue that the film whitewashes his relationships, I think the filmmakers would argue (rightly) that it's not as relevant to the heart of the story. We see Truman's partner, it's obvious they are "together," but we never see them as much as touch.

Fascinating story that is worth your time and rental money.

Tristan and Isolde (Rated PG-13 for "battle sequences and some sexuality")
Another medieval romance, but one that can't really decide if it's "First Knight" or "Braveheart." It was too "mushy" to be a "guy movie," but much too violent to be a "chick flick." In other words, it kinda worked for me by not working in any set formula. It was clearly marketed as a romance, with the trailer teasing the "forbidden love" aspects. But, according to my mother, it could have done with fewer people getting their heads lopped off. (Personally, I disagree.)

To describe it would be to ruin it for you. It's predictable in the way that legends and fables are predictable. It uses old scenarios to present somewhat timeless ideas, particularly the conflict between honor and passion. Sadly, honor doesn't really win, as you'd expect. But there are consequences and interesting resolutions.

James Franco is sufficient as the male lead. He's not my first choice, but he's fierce enough to be believed as a warrior. And my teenage sister thinks he's cute, so I guess that works for the women during the romantic elements. He's just not a very strong actor yet. On the other hand, the female lead, played by Sophia Myles, is very good. But of course, I may be biased. (I mean, look at her! Dang.) One of the best actors in the film is Rufus Sewell ("Dark City"), a character actor whom I think has been grossly undervalued over the years.

If you like medieval violence (not quite Braveheart level, but satisfying nevertheless) and you like love stories with lots of "sad longing" looks, then this movie is your bag. Fortunately, I meet both of these criteria, so the movie worked for me a lot more than I expected it to.

Aeon Flux (Rated PG-13 for "violence and sexual content")
I'm a sci-fi apologist. It's true. I'm a dork. I like science fiction, often because it can be much more creative a genre than any other, and I'm a fan of interesting stories. This means that I'll forgive more inconsistencies or problems in sci-fi movies than I would forgive other types of films, as long as the sci-fi film is trying to make sense and accomplish something interesting.

That said, I was let down by "Aeon Flux," the live-action adaptation of the MTV cartoon. I stayed with it, hoping that it would have a wham-bang ending, and it just didn't. Charlize Theron was athletic but not emotive. The male lead (Marton Czokas) was more interesting to watch. The rest of the cast (notably Sophie Okenedo, Jonny Lee Miller, Frances McDormand, and Pete FREAKING Postlethwaite [!!!]) is satisfactory without succeeding. In fact, for those four, I found myself asking, "Why are you all in THIS movie? Well, Jonny, you I understand. But Frances? Sophie? PETE? Really, folks. You can do better."

Plot? I'm sure I could probably try to explain it. I didn't have too much problem following it. But I think the reason so many people hated this movie is because the movie assumes you understand everything that's going on. (For example, the fact that Aeon and the other rebels communicate telepathically, and that's shown visually by suddenly presenting the characters talking in a special room, in white robes, using soft-focus shots. Or, how they have something implanted in them that they use to activate this telepathic communication. I think. I'm still not sure.) Meanwhile, if you have no experience with the original or you are unfamiliar with sci-fi conventions, you are left scratching your head and wondering if you missed the first 90 minutes of the movie.**

Basically, it's typical sci-fi: disease wipes out almost all of humanity, people form "perfect society" to survive (which, surprise surprise, turns out to be a fascist regime), secret rebel groups, slick visual design, some nonsensical elements, "hot" assassins, the dreaded sci-fi "C" word. The production and costume design commits the typical sci-fi sin of trying too hard and taking itself too seriously. Same with the whole "character with a pair of hands at the end of her legs instead of feet." That creeped me out.

The overall story was somewhat interesting, but not thrilling. The acting was mediocre at best. But Sophie "Four-Hands" creeped me out. So overall, I'd say this was a let down. If you love the sci-fi, it's worth a buck or two at the video store. Otherwise, pass.

By the way, Jeff Goldstein provides a pretty succinct review of this film here.

**This has actually happened to me. I went to see "A. I." but showed up about ten minutes late for the showtime I wanted. So I got my ticket, went to the theater, sat down, and tried to pick up the thread of the film. I was surprised when it ended, and said, "Wow, that was quick." Then I realized I had only been in the theater for an hour. The box office clerk had sold me a ticket to the wrong showing. I didn't try to see it again in the theater. I watched part of the first half of the film at Trev's house one time, and realized I didn't miss much but catching the last 2/5's.

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