Capsules for 2005

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2005. Includes all the movies of 2005 I've seen that I did not write a full review for.

Grizzly Man
Director: Werner Herzog
Rating: 10/10
An amazing, fascinating film, Grizzly Man is an untraditional documentary -- not really a biography, not really a nature show, but a critical and artistic analysis of a man, his life and his work. Famed German director Werner Herzog collects the remnants of Timothy Treadwell's work in the aftermath of his death; his is a gruesome story if there ever was one. Treadwell spent his summers living amongst, observing, filming, and, as he claims, protecting the Alaskan grizzly bears until he and his then-girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by one in 2003. Herzog has incorporated much of Treadwell's footage -- wherein he often narrates his thoughts directly to the camera -- into his film, which becomes a macabre dance of fascination between a director captivated by human madness and a subject who appears to be certifiably mad. Much as Treadwell is prone to spouting his opinions, Herzog doesn't resist voicing over his own thoughts on Treadwell's condition. The result is a portrait of the human obsession to understand their universe that is several layers deep, containing the views of the subject, the auteur, and everyone in between. It's a psychological smorgasbord. Herzog allows us to hone in on Treadwell's personal plight, where we can sense his melancholy desperation for purpose, and the director simultaneously expresses a kindred connection to the activist's pioneering drive in the name of his search and a frank dismissal of his views on nature and redemption. Such is the human dilemma -- the irrational seeking of warmth and reason in the face of what we fear to be, ultimately, a freezing void. (added 12/23/2005)

Guess Who
Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan
Rating: 7/10
That this comedic reverse take on 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner can even be pitched, produced, and sold today is pretty fascinating -- consider the source movie came out only 38 years ago, and it had characters speechifying with all seriousness about how mixed relationships may never gain true acceptance in 50 to 100 years (or something like that -- I paraphrase). Now we get this movie and instead of a cautious social drama we're offered a Meet the Parents-style laugher. To its credit, though, it's much more thoughtful and less illogically broad than Meet the Parents, and, consequently, much preferable. It's light on its feet while being sly about how it dances around the social issue at hand -- and, in an almost unnoticeable wink to the source movie, it eventually sidesteps the topic of race to say that, when it comes to loving a woman, all men are created equal. So a blistering examination of how little things will ever change when it comes to racial differences and prejudice it may not be -- its exploration is surface and obvious, at best -- but it is an entertaining turn by Bernie Mac as a character you don't immediately like, propping up a routine turn by Ashton Kutcher, and all in a script that's pretty decent at avoiding crass comedy in favor of having the sparks fly on account of some hotly exchanged words. (added 3/24/2005)

Herbie: Fully Loaded
Director: Angela Robinson
Rating: 6/10
How you feel about Herbie: Fully Loaded may depend on what your thoughts are about Herbie's updated ability to create facial expressions. The Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of his own can now blink and rotate his headlights, giving the impression of looking in different directions; and his front fender can be used to "smile" and "frown." One wonders if the original Herbie movies of the '70's would've done this, had they had the technology, but one thing's for certain -- the little guy loses quite a bit of his original charm this way. It's just a little too glaring. It also clashes with Robinson's well-intentioned but seemingly halfhearted attempt at making the film look and feel retro, harkening back to the original era of Disney family films. I'm happy that she didn't try to hip it up to today's ADD-inducing standards, but, alas, the resulting cornball-ness is both kind of cute and kind of dopey. It's quick to project a sense of spirited innocence (e.g., see opening credit montage of Herbie's celebrity rise and fall) to thinly mask gaping lacks of logic (e.g., if Herbie indeed achieved celebrity once, how come no one, but no one, recognizes him upon his re-emergence?). If you're not asking much from it, Fully Loaded can be a decently fun movie; it's otherwise a harmless and unremarkable kids' flick. (added 6/21/2005)

A History of Violence
Director: David Cronenberg
Rating: 9/10
What a perfectly twisted movie of subverted expectations and technical proficiency. A History of Violence is being lauded as one of horror master David Cronenberg's best works, largely due to its parallelling of the underlying thirst for violent justice of its small American town setting with that of its own movie audience. Whether it's a critique of the hypocrisy of these small communities, the film viewers, or both is not indicated directly. I do confess there's something gratifying about the events that occur -- even humorous in some parts -- but if it was meant to disturb in equal measures, it's accomplishing that more subversively. The movie's form is perhaps its biggest strength -- it's praiseworthy as efficient, effective filmmaking. Its scenes are steered straight and purposeful, and the suspense they patiently generate is potent. The movie contruction's greatest effect is that of taking you along somewhere, to a place you can't ever see directly ahead of you. It fits right into the film's apparent agenda -- as the situation becomes more fantastic and, without mistake, more quenching, you'll wonder how you got there in the first place, and how the first and second halves even belong in the same movie; but you'll accept it because it fulfills certain vengeance fantasies and it takes you there so unassumingly. In other words, A History of Violence achieves its mission as pulp storytelling first and as disturbing thought provocation the morning after. That's the business of a thoroughly professional movie. (added 10/6/2005)

Director: Andy Tennant
Rating: 8/10
At heart, it's a simple romantic comedy that tries to coast off the star power of Will Smith, and succeeds in doing so. But what makes any rom-com good is its connection to social truths -- and Hitch, surprisingly, has a few insights to go with its fluff. It works as a capsule -- a snapshot -- of what American metropolitan dating has become: a game of social defense in which courtship consists not of a man doing his best to charm a lady but instead doing everything he can to not appear unattractive, shallow, nor predatory. Of course, this is a very localized perspective on the subject, but it's fascinating that in our high-tech, information-heavy world, dating has become the hunt for the sincere in which the main tool is second-guessing. Why? Because we've over-analyzed what the other sex thinks to the point where we don't trust what each one is saying at face value. Hitch approaches the subject in a bald-faced, obvious way, but it's good that it doesn't put a rosy face on dating -- beneath the humorous approach, it's as cynical as the modern scene itself is. (added 3/10/2005)

Howl's Moving Castle
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Rating: 9/10
What I love so far about Miyazaki is how he never fails to take advantage of the fact that his entertainment medium of choice is animation. With animation, imagination flows unfettered -- and the more you challenge reality with it, the more potent it becomes. Howl's Moving Castle may be hurt by not making much immediate sense, but so many things make up for it, not the least of which is its playful visual interpretation of a Western/European tale and setting. The scattered, unpredictable ideas infect its character interpretations, too -- it's always delightfully surprising to see characters not acting like stock players. It shows great faith in the human being (and, yes, that goes for the many imaginary beings that populate this film) in showing there are no black-or-whites, just many shades of grey, or, more precisely, great varieties of color. The movie does feel a bit shackled by its source material, though -- just trying to be even semi-faithful to it creates a subtle dynamic of Miyazaki's flights of fancy fighting to break free from someone else's story. The resulting mix of new ideas and already established elements contributes to the movie's confusion factor, but the wondrous weirdness of the animated world and the unique situations it presents are always worth sticking around for. (added 7/1/2005)

Hustle & Flow
Director: Craig Brewer
Rating: 7/10
Hustle and Flow definitely gets style points -- Craig Brewer fashions the story of a Memphis pimp trying to turn his life around by going into rap music with a '70's vibe, and the look and feel are dirty, almost blaxploitative, like you can smell the sweat and feel the heat of the afternoons. It is otherwise a modern-day fairy tale, unfortunately selling a story that has already been sold so many times before. We're thus forced to grasp on to unexpected surprises and certain standout elements -- a great turn by Terrence Howard, real sympathy spun like gold from Taraji P. Henson, and... well, I'll put it this way: this is the first movie in which I actually liked Anthony Anderson. Too bad it takes a rather Ludacris turn in the end (pardon the terrible pun -- the rapper-turned-actor is actually quite good here), where gangsta-gunplay makes an unnecessary appearance, jarring us out of the reality the movie had built for itself up to that point. All pluses (e.g., catchy music, unapologetically hard-to-sympathize-with protagonist) and minuses (e.g., ignorance of latent misogyny) added up, it's really a modest movie with strong features, certainly enough for a recommendation. (added 11/21/2005)

In Her Shoes
Director: Curtis Hanson
Rating: 7/10
For the first half of this movie, I wanted to disassociate myself from these characters -- Cameron Diaz as Maggie, an irresponsible good-for-nothing who takes advantage of her sister, Rose, played by Toni Collette in one of those roles that's tailor-made to unjustly beat up on her looks relative to the "hotter" co-star. Maggie steals from and betrays Rose, who gets angry with her sister yet is prone to highlighting the word "doormat" stamped on her own forehead. And then, surprise of surprises, In Her Shoes started to win me over as both sisters separate and start on progressive roads to independence, self-confidence, and dignity. Yes, it easily feels predictable, but the movie did such a good job in making me angry with these characters that I began to genuinely pull for them when they started to become better people. The movie is patient and professional, which means it doesn't oversell itself and trusts in its own story. It also feels genuinely feminine, recognizable in its warmth and emotional dynamic. Not bad after all, it's yet more evidence of the storytelling versatility of the film's director, Curtis Hanson. (added 12/31/2005)

Into the Blue
Director: John Stockwell
Rating: 2/10
What's pretty to look at but is otherwise totally obnoxious when it's not being boring? That's right, this new movie's got hot bods to spare; it's just too bad they belong to some of the most annoying characters I've seen in the movies all year. Not that I think the filmmakers cared -- if the first half in particular was indicative of anything, it's that T&A was first and foremost on their minds. Gratuitous shots of beautiful people in swimsuits galore, but, frankly, it's just not enough to justify the time spent with this company and the nothing they accomplish while they're on screen. They're a foursome of treasure divers who squabble regularly before they somehow get mixed up with murderous drug dealers, and never have I wanted to root for the drug dealers more. Poor Jessica Alba, already struggling for acting credibility, gets burdened with the line, "I believe in you more than in the prospect of any treasure," while James Caan's character gets the award for "Most Irritating Character on the Side of the Good Guys... Ever." Nice underwater camera work is the only thing noteworthy here; what's left after that is cruise control acting and a plot that amazingly gets more stupid as it goes. (added 9/29/2005)

It's All Gone Pete Tong
Director: Michael Dowse
Rating: 7/10
Essentially a disability-driven biopic about famous European DJ Frankie Wilde (Paul Kaye), who goes deaf, It's All Gone Pete Tong thankfully avoids any heavy-handedness by being cheeky. The lifestyle excesses of Frankie are played up to a spectacular degree, accompanied by the kinetic filming and editing that just seems to come with the territory now, and this strategy is sometimes effective and sometimes annoying for the early part of the movie. So it comes as something of a surprise when its final act actually manages to rally your sympathies. It has Kaye to thank for this -- he plays Frankie as a caricature of excess, then of denial when his deafness strikes, but throughout the performance he's able to retain a humanity which finds its payoff when Frankie embarks on the road to recovery. This helps put the film in the company of the more daring crowdpleasers, wherein the protagonist starts off as someone you don't really care for but then end up cheering for in the end. Not an easy thing to do, so it deserves applause. (added 4/15/2005)

Director: Phil Morrison
Rating: 9/10
I wish I had seen Junebug before The Family Stone -- it could be considered the more realistic version of that story. Chicagoans George (Alessandro Nivola) and his new wife Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) are stopping by a small town in North Carolina to visit his family, so you can imagine the kind of drama this is setting up for. But Junebug isn't a simple case of the hometown folks ganging up on the city slicker this time. George's family -- mother (Celia Weston), father (Scott Wilson), brother (Benjamin McKenzie), and sister-in-law (the deservedly praised Amy Adams) -- has its fair share of dysfunction, and the situations presented soon expose the varying limits of everyone's heart. These are the ties that bind and threaten to strangle, and the movie cuts deep with its realistic portrayals of human strengths, weaknesses, and relational dynamics. Obstacles to true harmony abound here in natural, believable ways. That doesn't mean it's a sour movie -- it has a fair balance of characters, from the innocently ebullient to the selfish, from the uptight to the angelically patient, and it doesn't sell any of them short. And even though the movie, patiently shot with observant visuals, sets itself firmly in the Christian South, by the end, you might feel a sense of recognition of the pressures in a family wherever you may be from. And, yeah, it'll sting. (added 1/26/2006)

Just Like Heaven
Director: Mark Waters
Rating: 7/10
Just another romantic comedy, you say? Well, yes, Just Like Heaven pretty much is, and, like any romantic comedy, it highly depends on its leads to make it stand out in any way. Luckily, this one has Reese Witherspoon as a selling point, and she's in fine form -- she's particularly cute this time around -- but the special prize this time may have to go to Mark Ruffalo, whose regular-guy sensibilities once helped buoy 13 Going On 30 and who now gives the new Reese vehicle its emotional anchor. I'm not sure if Ruffalo is planning to continue his romantic lead career -- he has the potential to pick up where Tom Hanks left off -- but he's building up a nifty resume. Meanwhile, the movie is actually able to handle a controversial subject with some measure of dignity; one can't help but be reminded of the recent Terry Schiavo case, and Just Like Heaven is actually surprising in how it manages to avoid the obvious central character crisis in lieu of one that is relatively courageous. It might've been more courageous had it ended on one of two possibly sad notes, but I guess that would be too much to ask of any rom-com; the happily ever afters are par for the course, and we'll just take the occasional birdies where we find them. (added 9/15/2005)

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Director: Shane Black
Rating: 8/10
The more movies I watch, the less a fan I become of snarky postmodernism, but once in a while something will come along to remind me of what I found so appealing about it in the first place. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang goes for that tone immediately, then, to my surprise, deftly pulls it off, in no small part thanks to its main players Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer. It's a modern noir comedy that is able to mine a number of truths about insecurity from its characters, particularly Downey Jr.'s character, a general loser who is able to utilize that ironic postmodern sensibility as a tool in his search for, ironically, sincerity. But I've always believed that's the best use of irony -- not just to be clever but to disarm facades (it's also how and why The Princess Bride works). Anyway, I'm also weary of the use of Hollywood as an easy target in movies, but the dialog and mystery moved quickly and humorously enough to make me believe that the film was smarter than it was lazy. The casting (Michelle Monaghan completes the main trio) plus a rhythmic, energetic screenplay by writer/director Shane Black, really save the day. (added 6/24/2006)

Land of the Dead
Director: George A. Romero
Rating: 8/10
Hmm, it seems I spoke too soon. In my review for Shaun of the Dead, I called it the capper to the Romero slow zombie period, a comedic salute and sendoff in the face of the new, emerging running zombie model. Little did I know that Romero himself wanted one more hurrah. I'm glad he got his chance -- it's really nice to see him with a budget. With a few name actors (including another fun weirdo turn by Dennis Hopper) and some nice, gory effects, Romero's gone and made the zombie version of Metropolis. As usual, his undead movie is just as much social commentary as disembowelment show; this time, it's an old sci-fi theme, continually relevant -- the conscious and economic separation between the ruling class and their subjects. The weird thing about it, though, is now we seem to be made to sympathize more and more with the zombies, especially as they make their way to an ivory tower to try to eat the contented rich and priveleged. So, in a way, the movie is also a concession to the notion that these shows belong to the zombies, and the people are just in them (it may also be a sign that these monsters have just about overstayed their welcome -- that perhaps we're now too familiar with them). The movie's political points aren't made very subtly, which is a weakness, but we can always appreciate how Romero makes sure his films have a working brain. And, for now, this chapter of the book of the undead movies still remains open. (added 6/23/2005)

Me and You and Everyone We Know
Director: Miranda July
Rating: 6/10
Precious with a capital "P," Me and You and Everyone We Know starts with a good idea -- modern social communication continues to enforce barriers and confound attempts at human connection -- but places it in a self-consciously quirky navel-gazer. It relies on precocious kids, a lost-soul male protagonist who begins the movie by lighting his hand on fire, and a shy performance artist female protagonist (director Miranda July herself) whose work consists of video recording photographs and intoning bittersweet-romantic voiceovers on them. You're either going to find this cute or annoying. I fell mostly into the latter category, so it's to the movie's credit that I was still able to take away a sense of loss from the picture, a feeling of sadness for the truth in its thesis of people inhibited in many ways from reaching out to others. Now if it just didn't feel so affected and if its eccentricities didn't feel so conscientiously conspicuous, that truth might've found a more natural way of emerging. (added 12/1/2005)

Director: Danny Boyle
Rating: 8/10
I didn't expect this to be a "family movie," but a family movie is what Millions shapes up to be -- and a good one at that. A straightforward story approach is combined with the visual playfulness one can associate with a child's imagination at work. Here, a child (Alexander Etel) finds a big bag of money suddenly dropping in his lap from nowhere. His brother wants to keep it a secret from the adults and spend it for themselves, but the child himself, obsessed with saints and good deeds, would rather give it away to the poor and needy. There's little that's tricky about where the story is going or where ends up -- if it wanted to provide deeper insights into mankind's inherent morality, it would've been a story about adults. But it does provide a good place to show the relationships among childhood, innocence, and a natural-born tendency towards kindness. For that, this whimsical tale stays rightly within the point-of-view of a little kid. (added 3/10/2005)

Mrs. Henderson Presents
Director: Stephen Frears
Rating: 7/10
Mrs. Henderson Presents is a rather cute production purportedly based on a true story about an elderly widow who buys an old theater on a whim in pre-WWII London. It's surprisingly amusing and spry, trying for a politely naughty tone -- when Mrs. Henderson (Judi Dench) and her theater manager Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) find business is flagging, they decide the best way to bring in the crowds is to offer young ladies posing nude. It acknowledges the public's omnipresent taste for naked ladies in a tasteful fashion, and that actually creates a certain longing for a time when such displays could be considered tasteful at all. Whether that time ever really existed isn't truly the issue here; maybe it did in some people's minds, and this is what it was like to be able to applaud live nudity as *wink* art and not something as lurid as pornography. This sounds funny, and it is, with a tart Dench, an irascible Hoskins, and a high-minded Christopher Guest providing a delightful journey. Also, Kelly Reilly provides much of the, um, scenery, but she also turns in a pleasantly warm and sympathetic supporting character in the process. Unfortunately, the movie forgets its sense of humor in the last act, taking a few unwelcome dramatic turns, and it feels like a bit of a letdown in the end. It's saved overall by vintage Dench and Hoskins, doing what they do best. (added 12/8/2005)

Mulan II
Director: Darrell Rooney and Lynne Southerland
Rating: 4/10
As a video to keep little girls occupied, perhaps it's harmless; in fact, if it were any more trivial, it'd be invisible. Mulan II is, rather, more conceptually offensive. First, it's, once again, another low-quality straight-to-video Disney sequel created for cheap cash-in purposes. Second, it has a huge disregard for the meaningful aspects of its predecessor, particularly its artistic and thematic qualities; to say the two movies are related in any significant way would be like saying an eagle is related to a mosquito. Third, whereas the original Mulan was a subversive critique of an outdated Asian attitude (the degradation of women), this follow-up is flatly callous in its use of an ancient Chinese custom (arranged marriages) as a 21st century plot driver. It's ridiculous for the princesses to sing that they want to be like other girls, who surely don't have it any better than they do. It's representative of the whole project's thoughtlessness; perhaps it's reassuring, then, that it also doesn't inspire much thought from its audience, either. (added 6/2/2005)

Directors: Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
Rating: 8/10
Pick a fascinating subject and film it -- in the case of Murderball, the focus is on a little known sport called wheelchair rugby and its quadriplegic participants (hence the game's more popular name, "quad rugby"). The film is intent on showing us that these guys are as rough-and-tumble as they come, despite their physical handicaps, and gleans most of its energy and attention from this approach. It works effectively, mainly because you can't quite believe these guys are trying to ram each other in these reinforced battle-wheelchairs -- I got your chariots of fire, right here. Scenes of the competitions largely bookmark the individual stories of several of the quads involved, and here's where it reinforces the idea that, although circumstances may drastically change, ultimately people don't. Once a (blank), always a (blank), and, in this case, fill in the blank with "jock." It's an ode to the indomitable stubbornness of people, really, to pursue what gets them off, no matter what it takes. That's the kind of stuff that warms the heart of a cynic. (added 12/15/2005)

Nobody Knows (2004; released in U.S. in 2005)
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Rating: 9/10
A single mother with a child rents a new apartment in Tokyo, but soon she smuggles in three more kids under the noses of the landlords. Her brood is a plucky bunch, and she appears almost childlike in her optimism and determination to make things work, but before we think we've landed in a story about how a patchwork family strives together to survive, the mother disappears. She says she must go away for work for a month, but then she doesn't come back -- and it's up to the responsible eldest son, the quietly steadfast Akira (YŻya Yagira), to take care of the family. Nobody Knows is a tough movie to sit through -- the audience is essentially rendered helpless as it watches an abandoned family of four small children decay as a surviving unit before its very eyes. Reportedly based on a real story, director Koreeda would appear to be using this film as a criticism of a modern society that could allow such an inhumane thing to happen, but he makes no bold moves to betray an axe to grind -- the movie is naturalistic and detail-oriented (watch as the kids hair grow longer, their clothes become worn-out, and their faces become dirtier through the course of months), and it never leaves the point-of-view of the kids, particularly Akira and all his pre-teen concerns and reactions to his situation, despite his highly mature disposition. In fact, everything feels realistic, unhindered by anything that feels like a writing contrivance, until its ending, which I found unfortunate but, perhaps, necessary to bring the tale to a close. Nobody Knows makes you weep for humanity's lack of humanity, but in doing so it reveals your own humanity in the concerns that honestly surface from within you as you watch. (added 12/31/2005)

Ong-Bak (2003; released in U.S. in 2005)
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Rating: 8/10
Reports of Tony Jaa's Muay Thai boxing tour de force in Ong-Bak are not greatly exaggerated. It does indeed feel like it's been a while since we've been exhilirated by pure movie martial arts -- Jaa combines speed, strength, and fluidity in a convincing bid to turn wire stunts into yesterday's fad and return simple physical prowess to the forefront. The production of the movie is of the low budget variety, sure, but Jaa's stunts leap off the screen; if magic doesn't exist in its silly plot, it surely does in its exhibitionism. There's little else to be said, but quite a bit to be admired. I can't wait for this guy's next show. (added 8/25/2005)

Pride & Prejudice
Director: Joe Wright
Rating: 9/10
This one sideswiped me -- the last thing I was expecting was a visually adventurous version of the oft-filmed Jane Austen reliable. But that's exactly what first-time feature film director Joe Wright has created, and his version is quite fun to watch. The overall effect is a very fly-on-the-wall sensation of eavesdropping on the characters and their business; the camera feels like its own active, moving character, and it all feels more exciting as a result. It's grounded by a warm, earthy and organic color palette. And with the story economically pared down to fit in a dynamic two-hour space, main actors (Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen) who grow on you, sharp supporting turns, and, of course, Austen's social insight intact, this movie adds up to an entertainment that is surprisingly transporting. Wright has made a point of delivering a fresh, unique perspective on a story few people feel needs to be told again on screen. But I'll say this -- this is the first incarnation of Pride and Prejudice I've ever made it all the way through, and I found myself enjoying it very much. That's gotta count for something in my book. (added 12/15/2005)

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
Director: Jane Anderson
Rating: 5/10
It's a sweet little story set in the 1950's and '60's about facing the struggles of raising a gaggle of kids armed with pretty much nothing but regular doses of pluck and luck. It's problem, though, is that it takes its point and repeatedly hammers it home. It presents its idea, which involves a woman's love, intelligence, and determination pulling a family through in the face of gender inequality and a raging alcoholic husband, and doesn't develop it, opting instead to continually show instances of it until even the climax ends up just reflecting ealier depicted circumstances. Points should be given for its bids at creativity -- main star Julianne Moore occasionally breaks the fourth wall to explain parts of the story to the audience, and these sections are often fanciful and playful. Unfortunately, it also contributes to the movie's try-to-be-everything-at-once tone problem, whipping back and forth between cutesy humor and gasping melodrama so fast one doesn't know when it's appropriate to laugh or not. The movie isn't Woody Harrelson's finest hour in particular -- he's trapped in a role of villainized buffoonery -- and Moore only gives us a peek at the true actress she is in one scene of frustration, but otherwise it's all rather one-note smile-to-keep-from-crying kind of stuff. No knocks on its interesting true story; I just wish it had something more to give of itself on screen than just dolled-up domestic dramedy. (added 9/29/2005)

The Producers
Director: Susan Stroman
Rating: 7/10
In the second of two revivals of past Gene Wilder characters this year, Matthew Broderick channels the veteran comedian in all his anxious, neurotic tension, especially when he goes into his fit, yelling, "I'm hysterical!" The word also appropriately describes this new version of The Producers, a movie of a musical of a movie, all overseen by Mel Brooks, although this big screen rendition is directed by Susan Stroman. It doesn't matter -- the movie is so Mel Brooks that it literally feels the same as the original 1968 movie, only with musical numbers, and not much else. The same jokes and stereotype-cannibalizing humor are revived without updated irony or relevance, so although I can see the rationale for turning the movie into a stage show (different medium gives new possibilities for entertainment), I can't really see the point of turning it back into a movie when all that's been added are songs and dances with otherwise nothing new to say. Well, that part of the show is fun, anyway -- the new Producers is more of a performance piece than anything, and it gives those of us who couldn't make it to Broadway a chance to see Broderick and Nathan Lane strut their stuff. The movie does get points for humorously wallowing in the bombast of these kinds of big stage productions -- it's as if it personally wants to deliver that special brand of overcooked Broadway glare and glitz straight to you, the movie viewer. It's the kind of screwy indulgence only Brooks could spotlight, and it did occur to me, as I watched it, how much absurd voices like his are missed in today's movies. (added 12/15/2005)

Pulse (2001; released in U.S. in 2005)
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Rating: 8/10
The Japanese horror/ghost movie genre already feels overcrowded, but room should definitely be made to include 2001's Pulse, a prime candidate for the most unsettling of the bunch. It's also the most ambitious in terms of social commentary -- Kiyoshi Kurosawa uses his film to illustrate how people have become increasingly disconnected to each other, and literally equates perpetual isolation and loneliness to death. It's a chilling thought to be sure, but as a social metaphor it overreaches -- the statements about loneliness are more explained than shown, as the main characters actively fight against the ghost plague (and don't seem to have a drastic problem making the effort to connect with others) while those who succumb to it also seem perfectly normal until supernatural encounters force a sense of desolation upon them. Ghosts literally inhabit the internet, an entertaining notion if also a rather blatant statement about technology and society. Overall, the thesis is more academically than emotionally effective, but it's easy to appreciate the ambition in its presentation. Meanwhile, Pulse's craft as a dread-fest is superb. Shadows are everywhere, always obscuring the faces of the ghosts, whose slow-motion movements unnerve better than any traditionally grotesque imagery. This is a work of vision and skill, not to be missed by enthusiasts of these films. (added 12/23/2005)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2005

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