MATADOR ANNAPOLIS THE
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Of late, when an actress wants to make a strong impression, it often entails going to the extreme. Charlize Theron remade herself into an ugly, man-killing lesbian in Monster and won an Oscar. Hillary Swank played a girl masquerading as a boy in Boys Don’t Cry and won an Oscar.
Felicity Huffman (TV’s Desperate Housewives) may not have had awards on her mind when she chose to play a pre-operative transsexual in Transamerica, but her performance makes her a real contender. (She’s already picked up a Golden Globe for her efforts.)
Hoffman stars as Stanley Osbourne, a man who has always struggled with his sexual identity. Currently undergoing hormone therapy and psychoanalysis in preparation for his eventual sex change, Stanley now goes by the name “Bree,” dressing and passing himself off as a woman.
One day, only weeks before his/her operation, Bree gets an unexpected phone call. It turns out that she has a teenage son and he’s been in trouble with the law. Toby (Kevin Zegers from Dawn of the Dead) has never met his dad, and only recently found out about him. It is now Bree’s responsibility to bail him out of jail.
While Bree would rather ignore this problem, her therapist (Elizabeth Pena) insists that this matter be settled before signing the papers that would allow Bree her sex change operation. Bree then travels from California to the East Coast to deal with this dilemma.
Bree has trouble admitting her identity to Toby, so she claims that she represents a Christian charity aiming to help him. The duo then begins a lengthy cross-country journey of struggle and self-discovery.
Taking a brief side trip to her childhood home, Bree has difficulty with her unsympathetic parents who are reluctant to keep her secret from Toby, the grandchild they never knew they had. At one point, Bree’s mother, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan), says “Don’t do this awful thing to yourself, please. I miss my son.” Bree replies, “Mom, you never had a son.”
While this setup may sound dreary, the movie is anything but. There are certainly moments of despair, but the story is punctuated with lots of humor and humanity. Especially poignant is Bree’s brief relationship with a Native American man (Dances With Wolves’ Graham Green). These lonely individuals immediately recognize the deep-seated need in one another, forming an instant bond.
Huffman is sensational. While she affects a deep voice and awkward look to establish that Bree is a man struggling to appear as a woman, these affectations don’t detract from her credibility. She finds Bree’s humanity in a finely nuance performance.
Although first-time director/writer Duncan Tucker hasn’t quite mastered the pacing that would elevate Transamerica, he’s provided Huffman with a star-making vehicle that helps puncture our prejudices. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 01/27/06)
So, now that Daniel Craig has taken over the role of James Bond, what is Pierce Brosnan to do? Why not play the anti-Bond?
In the new offbeat comedy The Matador, Brosnan portrays Julian Noble, a man who certainly does not live up to his name.
Julian, you see, is a sleazy hit man, one who prefers margaritas to martinis and underage girls to femme fatales. Often drunk, wearing loud jewelry and teetering on the edge of an emotional meltdown, this assassin promises collateral damage.
While in Mexico City to rub out someone for one of his mysterious “corporate clients,” Julian meets an affable Denver businessman named Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) at a hotel bar. To say that Julian lacks social skills would be something of an understatement. When Danny confesses that his infant son recently passed away, Julian responds with a dirty joke.
But the friendless killer persists in his efforts to befriend Danny, aware that he’ll need some support if he has a nervous breakdown.
When Julian explains to Danny what he does for a living, his admission is met with skepticism. Naturally, he must be joking…right? When Julian proves that he’s not kidding, Danny is stunned, repulsed and aghast. He’s also intrigued and titillated. Oddly enough, these two form an uneasy friendship.
This strange relationship changes both men and they behave in ways that neither would have imagined before meeting one another. Naturally, events unfold that make Danny regret that he ever ventured into Mexico.
Kinnear (The Bad News Bears) is fine as Danny, personifying a likable if slightly dense everyman. Hope Davis is equally good as Danny’s sweet and sexually energetic wife, Bean.
But this movie belongs to Brosnan…and that’s a mixed blessing.
While Brosnan is quite good as Julian, his character is never believable. Writer-director Richard Shepherd (TV’s Criminal Minds) wants it both ways. He wants us to buy Julian as an ice-blooded, morally bankrupt pro, and as an angst-ridden, wavering weakling. Brosnan handles these fluctuations well, but it’s hard for us to accept it coming from the same character.
I’m sure that some may quibble that this is just a comedy and that we should just go with the flow. But like any good movie the story has to be true to its own reality. If we can’t buy the circumstances, we can’t laugh at the joke.
While it certainly has some interesting twists and turns, The Matador is ultimately a decadent and frivolous dark comedy. (R) Rating: 3 (posted 01/27/06)
What if you were to throw together the gung-ho military clichés of Top Gun and combine them with the melodramatic elements of an old-fashioned boxing flick like Rocky or Body and Soul?
Perhaps the more apt question might be, “Would you want to?”
Well, the makers of Annapolis apparently did and the movie that emerges from their efforts is a by-the-numbers formula flick that shamelessly and clumsily steals from other, better movies.
James Franco (Tristan and Isolde, Spiderman) stars as Jake Huard, a cocky young welder working for his father in a Maryland shipyard. From across the bay, he gazes in awe at the magnificent buildings of the nearby Naval Academy, yearning for the day when he might be able to attend.
Problem is, James is poor, his dad doesn’t approve of this dream, his grades are poor and he’s got a bad attitude. In the minds of most people, these wouldn’t be the traits that one would wish for in an officer candidate.
But a sympathetic Navy lieutenant (Donnie Wahlberg) has been watching the tough kid in the shipyard-boxing ring and thinks he could use his talents to win an academy contest. He pulls some strings, and Jake is in.
While he’s got the heart, Jake needs to learn how to control his temper, find some discipline and conform to the standards of conduct that all Navy officers must adhere to. He butts heads with his commanding officer, Cole (model-turned-actor Tyrese Gibson), a Marine who happens to be a champion boxer. Naturally, these two are headed for a confrontation in the ring.
All of the standard cardboard characters are on board as are all of the tired, formulaic elements we’ve seen in dozens of previous films. This is especially puzzling given the amount of talent involved.
Franco is a terrific actor (he was brilliant as James Dean in the 2001 television biography), and he makes the most of his underwritten character. Vicellous Reon Shannon (Hart’s War) is also effective as Jake’s overweight roommate, Twins.
But the screenplay by David Collard (Out of Time) is so tired and the direction by Justin Lin (who made the impressive Better Luck Tomorrow back in 2002) is so lackluster, that the cast’s efforts are nearly wasted.
While Annapolis may appeal to action fans that don’t demand that their movies have originality or credibility, it will strike everyone else as more of the same old thing. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (posted 01/27/06)
Leo McCarey’s 1944 Hollywood flick Going My Way won seven Oscars including Best Picture. That amiable classic would never be made today because it has a pace that can charitably be called “leisurely”.
Audiences in the 1940s had a lot more patience than today’s moviegoers weaned on MTV and fast-paced action flicks. They good-naturedly allowed movies to grow on them so that they might savor their easygoing charms.
That brings us to the new historical romance, The New World by eccentric filmmaker Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven). While Malick has very little in common with the sentimental McCarey, they do share one trait. They have no interest in narrative momentum. Their movies unfold in an unrushed fashion that establishes just the tone they’re looking for.
Sadly, due to modern audience impatience, a lot of people won’t be willing to appreciate the merits of The New World. It’s their loss.
Beautifully photographed and painstakingly constructed, The New World is Malick’s realistic and touching version of the story of explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) and the Native American teenager, Pocahontas (Q’Qrianaka Kilcher).
The story unfolds in 1607 when Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) and his crew land in unexplored territory inhabited by people they derisively refer to as “naturals”. Shortly thereafter, Smith is captured by members of a local tribe who want to eliminate these smelly intruders. But, of course, Pocahontas intervenes.
The rest of the film depicts Pocahontas’ difficult life, from her ill-fated relationship with Smith, to her separation from her people, to her marriage with tobacco grower John Rolfe (played with understated grace by Batman Begins’ Christian Bale), and to her eventual relocation to England.
While Farrell spends the entire film with a pained expression that conveys little more than a possible case of constipation, Kilcher (the cousin of pop singer, Jewel) gives a lovely, guileless performance as the love-smitten teen.
Malick manages to have it both ways in terms of romanticism. While the experiences of the English interlopers are realistically stripped of any of the idealized glamour seen in other Hollywood epics, the beauty of nature and the Native Americans’ seemingly harmonious relationship with it are rapturously depicted.
The film benefits greatly from the stunning cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events) and James Horner’s haunting score (aided considerably by the work of Wagner and Mozart).
But all of this fine work will leave many viewers cold. Perhaps The New World is just too old fashioned. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (posted 01/20/06)
In 1989, filmmaker Woody Allen made one of his most critically acclaimed films, Crimes and Misdemeanors. It dealt with a man who has a long-term extramarital relationship and, when his lover demands he marry her, considers murdering her to cover up his affair.
Allen revisits this theme with Match Point, an uneasy drama in which Allen transplants the action from his customary Manhattan to the starched shirt world of contemporary England.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Alexander) stars as working-class tennis pro Chris Wilton, a modestly successful player who takes a job as an instructor at a prestigious private club. There, he rubs elbows with the wealthy upper crust of British society. Although he has a blue-collar background that is hard to overcome in this world of peers, he manages to endear himself to many club members.
One fellow he befriends is Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), the son of a powerful businessman (Brian Cox). He’s introduced to Tom’s lovely sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and immediately she is enamored with him.
While Chris likes Chloe, he sees a relationship with her mainly as an opportunity to improve his lot in life. They begin a romance that lacks the passion that Chris craves.
But Tom has a pretty fiancée named Nola (Scarlett Johansson) who sparks Chris’ interest. An American actress who is making the audition rounds in London, Nola is a sexy, earthy young woman who triggers Chris’ lust.
He secretly pursues her and she reluctantly gives in to his advances. When she demands that he break up with Chloe and marry her, Chris has a dilemma. Should he abandon the world of wealth and privilege he has become accustomed to in order to continue his relationship, or will he eliminate this distraction?
Those who’ve seen Crimes and Misdemeanors may feel a sense of déjà vu here. It so closely follows the same thematic threads that one could see Match Point as a companion piece, presenting and exploring a very cynical worldview.
While Allen may be repeating himself, he does so skillfully. The story is well constructed and the dialogue seems plausible. He even cleverly works references to Dostoevski into the mix, a novelist whose philosophy he apparently rejects. (Dostoevski’s belief that man always pays a price for his crimes is a view that Allen obviously sees as naive.)
The actors acquit themselves nicely and the change of locale may have helped Allen regain his edge.
Match Point, like Crimes and Misdemeanors, is smart
and well made. To the dismay of many, it’s equally dark and off-putting.
(R) Rating: 3.5
Comic Albert Brooks is an acquired taste. To some, his laconic, self-deprecating humor is a scream. Others find him smug and off-putting.
Depending upon which camp you fall into will determine whether or not Looking for Comedy in a Muslim World is for you. It features Brooks as his most “Brooksian.”
Brooks plays himself, a self-important comedian who, in the opening sequence, loses out on a role in a sequel to James Stewart’s classic, Harvey. (Director Penny Marshall derides his participation in the ill-fated remake of The In-Law.) He then gets a letter from politicians in Washington, DC, asking him to help in their efforts to better understand Muslims.
After meeting with a senator (played by former Senator Fred Dalton Thompson) he is asked to travel to India and Pakistan to figure out just what makes Muslim people laugh.
With the possibility of a Presidential Medal of Freedom in the offing, Brooks accepts the assignment to write a 500-page report on the subject. A natural neurotic, Brooks finds difficulty in every minor aspect of the trip.
Dismayed when he discovers that there are no comedy clubs in India, Brooks conspires with the State Department agents who have been assigned to him (Jon Tenny and John Carroll Lynch) to set up a comedy concert in which he’ll perform a standup routine…and figure out what the people will laugh at.
Well, of course, the audience sits in stunned silence in reaction to Brooks’ sardonic performance. Undaunted, Brooks accepts a dangerous invitation to illegally cross the Pakistani border to meet with a band of underground Muslim comics. There, he discovers that none of these struggling, hash-smoking comedians speak English. They provide him with the best audience of his career.
Before you know it, Brooks is being booted out of India because his presence
has aggravated relations with long-time enemy and nuclear rival, Pakistan.
While his is the only fully established character, there is one other who makes an impression. When Brooks needs an assistant and translator, he hires a smart and wide-eyed young woman named Maya, played with considerable charm by Sheetal Sheth. Problem is, Maya has trouble relating to the concept of sarcasm…Brooks’ modus operandi.
Brooks’ movie may lack the nerve to be a potent political comedy, but is sporadically funny in the vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm. In any case, this is for Brooks’ fans only. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 01/20/06)
When a film is described as “formulaic,” it’s usually meant as a put-down. It describes the type of movie that is an uninspired, by-the-numbers retelling of tired plots and themes.
In the case of Glory Road, the term can also be applied. But here, it can be viewed as a compliment. Glory Road sticks to a tried-and-true framework that is very similar to others of its ilk, but it is executed with taste and restraint. It’s a movie that is pleasantly familiar.
Thanks to the recent success the studio has had with fact-based sports movies like Remember the Titans and Miracle, Disney follows suit yet another inspirational flick, this time involving basketball.
Josh Lucas (Stealth) stars as Don Haskins, the coach of a high school girl’s basketball team. In the early 1960s, he manages to land a coaching job at a small college in El Paso called Texas Western. Although the compensation left something to be desired, it afforded the coach an opportunity to helm a Division 1 men’s squad.
Problem was, the Texas Western team was abysmal. So, unlike other Southern schools, Haskins decided to recruit black players — many from the North — to fill his roster. In the segregated South, this action didn’t set well.
The film chronicles the difficulties that the squad encountered, including racist intolerance, bigotry and violence. But Haskins and his team persevered, and (as any true basketball fan probably already knows) won the national championship in 1966. It was the first team to win with an all-black lineup.
While the film is only sporadically effective as social commentary, it does manage to create a strong feeling of time and place. First-time director James Gartner, whose previous experience is limited to TV commercials, does a commendable job with recreating the era. (The Motown-heavy score helps, too.)
Lucas is effective as the driven, but empathetic coach. He’s matched by an appealing supporting cast, including Derek Luke (Antoine Fisher) as a cocky ballplayer named Bobby Joe Hill.
Even though the outcome is well known, the movie manages to create a modestly exciting climatic game against the powerhouse team from Kentucky. (Jon Voight, under pounds of makeup, plays legendary Wildcats coach, Adolph Rupp.)
One of the most appealing aspects of the film comes after the film ends. As the closing credits roll, the actual principles are featured in talking head interviews. Their heartfelt revelations are worth setting through the credits to see.
Glory Road doesn’t mine any new territory, but it covers ground that most sports fans won’t mind revisiting. (PG) Rating: 3.5 (posted 01/13/06)
When Shrek arrived on the scene in 2001, it became an enormous hit that has, to some degree or another, influenced animated films that have been released since.
The new computer animated comedy Hoodwinked was obviously heavily influenced by the big green guy. It so closely follows Shrek in its “fairy tale as post-modern pop culture satire” style, that it might be described as homage.
A tongue-in-cheek reworking of the Little Red Riding Hood story, Hoodwinked tells the tale of a young lass named Red (voiced by Brokeback Mountain’s Anne Hathaway), and her adventures with wolves, grannies and goodies.
While the bare bones of the original tale are here (Red delivers the goodies to her granny’s home only to be confronted by the wolf), that just where this zany story gets started.
It seems that there has been a series of crimes committed, so a police inspector frog named Nicky Flippers (David Odgen Stires) tries to get to the truth. As he interviews the various principals involved, the story is retold from several points of view, Rashomon style.
A number of revelations follow. Red is no shrinking violet. This is one tough martial-arts-lovin’ mama who can handle herself. The Wolf (Patrick Warburton) isn’t a carnivorous predator, but a roving undercover reporter on the trail of the notorious “Goodie Bandit” who has been swiping recipes throughout the kingdom.
Granny (Glenn Close) isn’t exactly the sweet, demure senior citizen that one would expect. Secretly, she is an extreme sports addict, participating in any number of dangerous competitions. The Woodsman (Jim Belushi) is an out-of-work actor who drives a schnitzel truck.
While all of this irreverent chicanery may sound amusing, it isn’t as cute as it obviously wants to be. The appeal of its cheeky slant wears a bit thin after a while.
The animation isn’t up to current standards, either. Because of the sophistication of the recent animated efforts from DreamWorks and Pixar, audiences have become accustomed to hyper-realistic, eye-popping visuals. When something comes along that hasn’t been produced with the same care (or with as big a budget), the look comes across as second-rate.
But the film lacks the sophistication and wit of its inspiration, Shrek. It’s colorful, but a pale imitation. (PG) Rating: 2.5 (posted 01/13/06)
Georgia Byrd (the central character in Last Holiday) seems to have little in common with Queen Latifah. Unlike the popular rapper/singer/actor, Byrd is a wallflower who plays it safe in life. Yet Latifah turns in a believable and, at times, moving performance as the earthy woman who decides to get a life only after getting news that she has three weeks left to live.
This remake of the 1950 comedy of the same name manages to charm in spite of a predictable plot and some goofy moments (such as the scene in which Georgia waddles through a European spa in a body wrap as she rushes to the bathroom).
Last Holiday succeeds because most of its comedy springs from what appear to be natural interactions between the characters. Absent are the over-the-top antics and obligatory screeching of Motown hits that were present in Taxi (the 2004 film starring Latifah and Jimmy Fallon).
Georgia is quirky enough to be interesting but typical enough to be real. She’s a sales associate in department store’s cookware department by day. By night, she cooks exotic dishes for a neighbor boy, Darius (played by Jascha Washington), although she only eats Lean Cuisine™.
She keeps a scrapbook labeled “Possibilities,” which features fake photos of herself with co-worker Sean Williams (played by L.L. Cool J), but she barely knows Sean. It’s clear from the first moment we see her that she’s just a dreamer in frumpy clothes.
Last Holiday has nowhere near the depth and seriousness of Chinese Box, a touching film about a terminally ill journalist that, like this film, was directed by Wayne Wang, but Wang has created an ambiance in this film that elevates it above the typical romantic comedy. It’s Wang’s modus operandi to lovingly show details that illuminate the lives of his movies’ characters. It matters not whether those characters are poor housekeepers who work in a fancy hotel (as in the 2000 film Maid in Manhattan), dogs and their young cohorts (as in Because of Winn Dixie, 2005) or generations of Chinese women (as in The Joy Luck Club, 1993).
In Last Holiday, Wang captures the grandeur of the Grand Hotel Pupp, including its ornamental ceilings. He makes sure that the camera catches a shot of the rows of fish in an outdoor market that Georgia and Chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu) walk through.
But this film’s greatest accoutrements are the actors in the supporting cast. Each seems a natural fit for his or her role. Timothy Hutton embodies self-centeredness as department store owner Matthew Kagen. Giancarlo Esposito plays Senator Dillings with an air of confidence and coolness. And Alicia Witt and Susan Kellerman breath fire into their respective, mean-spirited characters.
I predict that word of mouth will do for Georgia Byrd what time and exposure have done for Queen Latifah: It will make her popular. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (posted 01/13/06)
If there is a connection between gender-bending sexuality and political chaos in Ireland, then filmmaker Neil Jordan seems bound and determined to focus on it.
His latest effort, Breakfast on Pluto, covers some of the same thematic territory as his elegantly twisty 1992 hit, The Crying Game. This time out, the narrative drive that propelled The Crying Game is sadly missing.
Adapted by Jordan from Patrick Mcabe’s novel, Breakfast on Pluto is a meandering tale of alienation set in the turbulent 1960s. Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Red Eye, Batman Begins) plays Patrick “Kitten” Brady, an extremely effeminate young man who feels woefully out of place in his small Irish village.
As we learn early on, “Kitten” (his preferred moniker) is the illegitimate son of the local parish priest, Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), and his former cleaning lady, a vivacious bombshell who resembles 1950’s film star, Mitzi Gaynor.
When Kitten was born, his mother left him on Father Bernard’s doorstep and hightailed it to England, never to return. Father Bernard put Kitten in a foster home with a conservative Catholic family that didn’t know what to make of him.
Always aware that he was gay and attracted to women’s fashions, Kitten horrified his foster mother when, at a tender age, he began donning his foster sister’s clothes and makeup. This behavior didn’t set well with the priests at his local school, either.
Kitten’s oblique journey begins when he is made aware of his parentage. He decides to leave home, travel a bit, and eventually go to London in an attempt to find his long lost mother. Along the way, he gets involved with traveling rock musicians, IRA gunrunners and an emotionally needy magician (Stephen Rae).
Murphy gives a startlingly fine performance. Even though Kitten’s nonconformity is so profound as to be occasionally off-putting, Murphy makes him a near-saintly character. While he certainly has an agenda, he is always accommodating and kind. You root for him to find his mother…and happiness.
But the route he takes is far too rambling. There are so many twists and turns, so many plot threads and so many characters, that Jordan has a hard time keeping our attention. As a result, the pace of Breakfast on Pluto is achingly slow, and none of the numerous story elements are completely satisfying.
While Murphy’s performance may be enough to make the film palatable for some, the circuitous nature of this unfocused narrative will leave many in a state of utter boredom. (R) Rating: 2.5 (posted 01/06/06)
Hollywood has always celebrated love. But the love on display in Brokeback Mountain isn’t exactly your standard studio fare.
This controversial feature focuses on the lifelong bond between two cowboys. Yes, it’s a story of “forbidden” love.
Screenwriter Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), frequent collaborator Diana Ossana (Johnson County War) and director Ang Lee (Ride With the Devil) have adapted a short story by E. Annie Proulx into a sincere and understated drama that less about love than it is about the numerous obstacles that get in its way.
Jake Gyllenhaal (Proof) stars as Jack Twist, a struggling rodeo cowboy who takes a job guarding sheep in the Wyoming wilderness in 1963. His companion on the job is Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger from The Brothers Grimm), a soft-spoken ranch hand.
Left alone in the wilderness for long periods of time, these fellows eventually draw close and Ennis’ quiet reserve slowly breaks down. Eventually, they become intimate even though they realize that their romance will probably bring them nothing but sorrow.
The film takes place over a period of two decades, and we see how their relationship weathers the years. While each men marry women, have children and lead separate lives, they reunite for semi-regular “fishing trips” to rekindle their relationship.
While Ennis has come to believe that the world will never accept them as a couple, Jack persists, trying vainly to persuade Ennis to join him in a plan to leave their families and live together on a remote ranch.
Gyllenhaal is fine as Jack, but Ledger carries the film with his realistic portrayal of the tortured Ennis, a living example of emotional repression. Michelle Williams (TV’s Dawson’s Creek) also scores as Ennis’ wife, Alma, a good-hearted woman who suffers quietly when she learns that her husband’s affection lies elsewhere.
Linda Cardellini (Scooby Doo) is equally impressive, making the most of her brief role of Cassie, a waitress who pursues Ennis after his marriage collapses.
Lee, a director of impeccable taste and discernment, goes out of his way to eschew any lurid or unseemly elements and to present the relationship as one of love, not just sex.
The only problem with Brokeback Mountain…and it’s a big one…is that it often seems very padded. It’s based upon a short story and it often seems like it. The dialogue is always credible and the scenes convincing, but the film’s pace is awfully deliberate.
Earnest and unfussy, Brokeback Mountain is a film more to be appreciated than liked. (R) Rating: 3.5 (posted 12/30/05)
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