Friday, December 29, 2006

The Reel Gouda's 2006 Round-Up

So here you have it -- the culmination of a year's worth of substantial celluloid viewing condensed into a mere 10 standout. Even pretend film reviewers such as myself should be able to develop a 10 Best list, and there were quite a few worthy contenders this year. Keep in mind, however, that because I am a pretend film reviewer, I have to see movies on my own (limited) time. Also, being a pretend film reviewer means that I do not get the opportunity to attend critics screenings and therefore I did not get to see every single critically acclaimed movie that came out this year. So don't e-mail me asking why awards contenders like The Queen or Little Miss Sunshine didn't make my list. Time and opportunity were simply not available to me.

10. An Inconvenient Truth -- No matter how hard Al Gore tries to avoid it, he always manages to come off as a bit of a douchebag, but don't let that stop you from absorbing his message in this powerful, highly-effective, yet easy-to-digest documentary about climate change.

9. The New World -- A beautiful epic that was praised by critics but largely ignored by audiences, this Terrence Malick film about John Smith and the conflicts between the English and the Native Americans is quite simply a moving work of art, even if you don't consider yourself enthralled about this period of history. Stars Colin Farrell and Christian Bale.

8. Match Point -- The best Woody Allen film in recent years brings us a haunting tale of betrayal, deception, and greed when a young tennis instructor finds himself suddenly living a life of decadence when he meets a wealthy family. The film is immediately engrossing, but the last 30 minutes are particularly powerful.

7. Apocalypto -- It's a shame that an unsavory person like Mel Gibson has to be such a brilliant filmmaker, but it would also be a shame to leave his epic saga about the beginning of the downfall of the Mayan civilization off of this list, because it is truly like nothing you've ever seen.

6. Inside Man -- While Spike Lee has always been a rather inconsistent filmmaker, he hits this unconventional heist flick out of the ballpark. Denzel Washington is as strong as ever as a police detective determined to find out the truth behind a seemingly routine bank robbery.

5. Casino Royale -- The Daniel Craig naysayers are hopefully roasting over an open fire in hell, because not only is Craig utterly captivating as James Bond, but this renewal of the Bond franchise that is intended to take the character back to his darker, more rugged roots is the most skillfully-made, heart-pounding action thriller of the year.

4. Thank You For Smoking -- This unbelievably funny and intelligent movie about the tobacco lobby features political satire (not to mention actor Aaron Eckhart) at its finest.

3. The Prestige -- Proving that movies themselves can be magic, director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins) weaves a story about two rivaling magicians and the consequences of their obsessions that is nothing short of spectacular. Features great acting work on the part of Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and Michael Caine. Particularly a great film worthy of repeat viewing.

2. United 93 -- While many people are generally leery of seeing movies about September 11th, they are doing themselves a disservice by missing this brilliant film by Paul Greengrass. Filmed in almost a documentary style that captures the events of that dark day in real time, the characters are nameless faces, and it has the ability to make us feel as if we were right there with them, making this one of the most emotionally-impacting films to come out in recent years.

1. The Departed -- Martin Scorcese has proven time and time again that he deserves his spot as one of the greatest directors of all time, and The Departed is further proof of this. Featuring top-notch acting by Leonardo Dicaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, and even Mark Wahlberg, this dark, violent drama about two people who are forced to live double lives repeatedly hits you in the gut.

Honorable Mentions:

Monster House -- gleefully dark and entertaining. Not for the under-8 crowd.

Borat -- Shocking and at times brilliantly funny, Sacha Baron Cohen deserves high props for his daring faux documentary even though it can be difficult to watch.

V for Vendetta -- The Wachowski brothers make a solid, dark film about an eccentric man and his unlikely sidekick (Natalie Portman) who dare to remake a dystopian society by particularly incendiary measures.

Slither -- The ultimate in goulish good fun, this gory little flick, made in classic B-movie horror style, is bloody terrific.

Happy Feet
-- Fantastic, original kid fun about a group of singing and dancing emperor penguins.

The Lake House
-- The undeniable chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves makes this paradoxical plot about two star-crossed lovers who are separated by a gulf of two years a pleasure to watch.

Dis-Honorable Mentions:

The Hills Have Eyes -- If it inspires you to walk out of the theater so you can go wash your car, well... it ain't very good...

The Da Vinci Code -- Its folley is that it was TOO faithful to the book. Add to that the bad hair, over-the-top acting, and Ron Howard's refusal to actually edit this bloated turd of a film and you have an overall awful trip to the movies.

Silent Hill -- Not only the worst movie of 2006, but also a stark reminder of how I'm still a bit sore from that loss of two hours of my life. I expect this film to one day help resurrect the Mystery Science Theater 3000 series.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Apocalypto

Loincloths. Lots and lots of loincloths.

The beginning of Mel Gibson's epic Apocalypto begins with a most apt quote by historian Will Durant: "A civilization is not conquered without, until it is destroyed within." When we are first introduced to a young hunter named Jaguar Paw and his family in a quaint, peaceful jungle, we see little sign of this inner decay. In fact, hunting and procreating are the main orders of business for this little village that appears to be completely cut off from pre-Columbian Mayan civilization that we envision with fancy headdresses and towering step pyramids. So imagine their utter surprise when they are invaded by a raping, pillaging, bloodthirsty brigade of fellow Mayan warriors who burn their village to the ground and round up all of the men to be taken to the main city as objects of blood sacrifice to the gods. Jaguar Paw takes his family and lowers them into a deep pit in order to hide them from the invaders before he is captured. What ensues from this point is a jaw-dropping, fast-paced, bloody glut of action that details our hero's attempts to get back and rescue his family.

The plot is rather simple, but the real substance of the film is in its craft. Gibson's knack for visual flair is as top-notch as ever, and he pulls no punches when he exhibits some of the truly barbarous practices of this culture, from their fearsome piercings and tattoos to their methods of sacrificial worship. He counterbalances this, however, by bringing the humanity of the Jaguar Paw's people to the forefront. They play practical jokes on one another and they love their children.

All that being said, Apocalypto is not for the faint of heart. While The Passion of the Christ remains his most graphic film, this one is more applicable to Braveheart in terms of its violence and its themes. Although Gibson does spare us some imagery of village women being brutally raped and murdered by the invaders, we see enough to know that it happened. We also see some unadultered shots of throat slashings, a man eating the raw testicles of a tapier, and a headless body tumbling down hundreds of stairs. Don't worry, I didn't spoil everything. There is plenty left to shock your visual senses.

Mel Gibson has been at the center of some unwanted publicity of late given his anti-semitic comments and eccentric behavior, and many questioned whether or not this film would be able to help salvage his credibility. The answer to that question is difficult to determine due to the fact that Apocalypto is not a bad movie (in fact, it's extraordinary). There are just many factors about this film that will not appeal to a mainstream audience. First, it details a culture that has been rarely depicted in Hollywood films, second it has subtitles, and third it is in the traditional Gibson style of being more than generous with the gore. If there is a large enough segment of the population who can be accepting of all those things, then Apocalypto will do strong business despite Gibson's public fiascos.

Apocalypto shows us a society on the brink of obliteration, and it makes any positive outcome for our heroes bittersweet as we see Spanish ships looming on the horizon. While some might complain that this film is another showcase for Mel Gibson's bloodlust, I would argue that the violence is not without a purpose, and in fact adds to the authenticity of the depiction of this primitive civilization. There may be no film that Gibson can make that can change people's opinions about his eccentricities and religious fanaticism, but Apocalypto is clearly demonstrative of his talents as a filmmaker.

Gouda's Final Grade: A

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

Father and son actively pursuing "happyness..."

One of the most durable and time-honored formulae in all of storytelling is that of the "pulls himself up by the bootstraps" hero who manages to escape hopeless circumstances by the power of his wits. Regardless of whether one believes in the existence of bad luck, it is hard not to sympathize for someone who has fallen prey the all-too human fault of making a wrong, albeit well-intentioned, decision. Chris Gardner (Will Smith) does just that when he decides to invest his and his wife's life savings in a business selling portable bone density scanners, a product that is deemed "an unnecessary luxury" by most of the doctors to whom he attempts to sell them. This business misstep places his family in financial dire straits. They can't pay their rent. The IRS is intent on collecting on a long overdue bill, and it is clear that his wife, Linda (Thandie Newton) has reached her breaking point. Weary and bitter, she leaves Chris and their son Christopher (played by Smith's real-life sone Jaden) to pursue a job on the other side of the country. This sets up a series of heartbreaking events that leave Chris on the brink of and eventually in the throes of homelessness. But Chris is not a stupid man. In fact, he was an excellent student as a child, is personable, can think on his feet, and he sees an opportunity for a better future for him and his son when he decides to apply for a stockbroker internship with Dean Witter.

Based on a true story, "The Pursuit of Happyness" details the trials this father and son face on Chris's transformation from a struggling, homeless venture capitalist to a successful stockbroker and eventual millionaire. We are continuously impressed by Chris's ability to charm and impress his colleagues by day while tending to his son in various homeless shelters by night. The bond between the two lead actors is palpable and touching. Jaden Smith's performance is so unlike that of average child actors in that he is completely natural and intelligent while managing to still be endearing. Will Smith gives his best work to date in a subtle, tear-jerking, physically transformative performance that is sure to garner an Oscar nomination, and he does a pitch-perfect job of portraying a man who is struggling to hold onto his spirit through ordeals that would have broken a lesser man.

Although the film tends to break the threshold of sappy cuteness from time to time ("Daddy, did mommy leave because of me?"), and feels a little long at times because it probably would have been better suited as an HBO film, it is grounded by its solid performances and its poignant story.

Gouda's Final Grade: B

Friday, November 24, 2006

Deja Vu

"Yeah, I don't buy it either, but it's still cool!"

Jerry Bruckheimer is one of those producers who loves to wallow in the realm of the ridiculous and excessive. I've always been of the mind that his work was better suited to the small screen because budgetary and time constraints do a better job at keeping a reasonable cap on his superfluousness, which is why I can enjoy an episode of C.S.I. far more than I could even begin to tolerate a movie like Armageddon. In fact, his name attached to any large-scale project is often a liability, especially with the wrong director at the helm. *cough* Michael Bay *cough*.

Tony Scott, on the other hand, is a mostly solid director. While many of his films are forgettable popforn fare, and his last project, "Domino", seriously made me fear for his sanity (and my own after it was over), he's had a few great hits, such as True Romance and Enemy of the State, and he is certainly gifted with imbuing his films with distinctive visual flair. So I went into Deja Vu with higher-than-average hopes. Which is to say, with my expectations hovering around knee rather than ankle level.

Let me first say that Deja Vu has a premise that is spectacularly ridiculous. It's so unfathomably impossible, that suspension of disbelief doesn't even come close to describing what is necessary in order to go along with this plot. It requires complete obliteration of disbelief, the ability to put aside all questions of logic and ignore any internal nannering that says, "But what about... and why did they...", and just go with it. This doesn't make Deja Vu a bad movie, though. In fact, Deja Vu happens to be quite good. A bad movie that requires us to let completely go of logic is often rife with bad acting, hollow characters, and an equally ridiculous story. Deva Vu has good acting, great dialogue, and an emotionally effective story about a bombed ferry full of Navy sailors on the Canal Street Ferry in New Orleans. The fact that this movie was filmed in New Orleans after the tragedy of hurricane Katrina makes it worth seeing on that note alone.

But let's get down to the brass tacks of the storyline. At least as well as I can, given the number of paradoxes involved here. Denzel Washington plays ATF agent Doug Carlin, who is investigating the ferry bombing that killed roughly 530 people. What starts out looking like a basic crime procedural turns more into a science fiction adventure when he is approached by FBI agent
Pryzwarra (played by a heavily jowled Val Kilmer) about a new surveillance project that can help them look at various aspects of the crime scene and the surrounding city 4 days before the tragedy occurred so that they might be able to get additional evidence to nab the bomber. "But wait," you say. "That sounds kinda normal!" This isn't merely looking at satellite imagery, however. They are literally looking into the past, due to some newly discovered ability to bend time and space... er something. There is full audio, 360-degree pans, and they can look through walls. They tried to explain exactly how it works, but honestly I forgot. Just try to think of the most outlandish fictional forensic technique you've seen portrayed on C.S.I. and multiply that by 3,000.

Now tamp down any questions of how such evidence would even be admissable in court if it was obtained by this kind of top secret project. Just go with it. Trust me.

Carlin eventually discovers that this technology can be used as a sort of time machine that can help send him back to not only stop the bomber (James Caviezel as a would-be Timothy McVeigh), but to also save the life of a witness, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton) with whom he feels a direct kinship; even though, the first interaction we see them having is when she is lying dead on an autopsy slab. As he gets to know her by watching her actions through a window to the past, it is clear that that Carlin is not only motivated to find the killer, but also to take any action necessary to prevent Claire's death.

And so sets the stage for a number of paradoxes that to unravel in the course of this review would take more hours and brain cells than I care to sacrifice. Like the technology they use that is able to fold time, this story is continuously folding on itself. We aren't even really sure that what is portrayed to be current action in the film is the first time that any of it has happened. One thing I will say, however, is that Deja Vu has what is indeed one of the most original, heart-pounding chase sequences put on film. It's not every day that you see a giant Hummer dodging (and in many cases NOT dodging) present-day traffic in order to track (in real time) a truck that was going down that same road 4 days previously.

The whole purpose of this time-bending technology is that it is merely an unconventional way to drive a plot that would otherwise be nothing more than a bloated episode of CSI, but that's okay, because the plot device is original and provacative. Sure, the film plays fast and loose with a lot of details, but I enjoyed the way they attempted to diffuse a lot of potential questions with scientific and philosophical discussions.

Deja Vu is skillfully made and well-paced, but it is also a fun, inventive ride into the world of brain contortionism; therefore, it is definitely worth a see.

Gouda's Final Grade: B+

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Feet

A tap-dancing penguine is now officially the cutest thing -- ever

Family movies only have a small pool of themes from which to choose. Filmmakers can opt to teach us about the virtues of being "different" and breaking conformity, and they can also wax poetic about the power of love and the importance of respecting the environment. The makers of Happy Feet have decided to unleash all of these lessons in a single film, while packaging it with beautiful animation, fantastic and innovative musical performances, and of course, a tap-dancing penguin.

Happy Feet begins with a demonstration of the courting ritual held by a waddle of emperor penguins. These remarkable birds are known for choosing a single life mate, and this colony goes about it in a most entertaining way: by performing a medley of tunes by such artists as Prince and Elvis Presley. Whoever can woo the female with the best musical selection has won themselves a wife. This particular performance introduces us to Memphis (Hugh Jackman in a good Elvis impersonation) and the sexy Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) who will eventually become the parents of Mumble (Elijah Wood).

Mumble is a bit of an oddball, see. The lifegoal of every single penguin in this society is to find their "heartsong," or in other words to be able to find their own particular brand of vocal seduction in order that they will procure a mate and propagate the continuation of the species. Our hero, however, doesn't have much of a singing voice. He hatched feet-first, and from that point on, he couldn't stop tapping his toes. He is, in fact, the Gregory Heinz of penguins, and this does not sit well with the elders, whose strict adherence to tradition is deeply rooted in superstition and necessity. It also doesn't help that Mumble is a late-bloomer. When his peers "graduate" to adulthood, he's still covered in a gray fuzzy down, and in addition to his blue eyes is in stark contract to the sleek black feathers of his other mates. In other words, Mumble is the ultimate outcast, and the other penguins see him and his dancing as a threat. Only one seems to appreciate his differences, and that is Gloria (Brittany Murphy), but her initial fear of going against the grain makes her a reluctant ally.

A series of incidents ultimately takes Mumble far away from home, and he finds himself in the company of a new colony of smaller penguins who appreciate his talents. This group has a Latin flair, and their antics are charming. A couple of them are voiced by Robin Williams, whose well-contained yet hilarious dialogue makes for some of his best voice work in years, and easily redeems him for his horrifically unfunny turn in the grossly underwhelming "Robots."

At some point between Mumble's encounter with these new penguins and the last act of the film, the story starts to lose its way a little bit. We're not really sure what the hero's ultimate goal is until late in the game, and it makes the plot feel a bit laborious. The movie could have been tightened up considerably by revealing the true nature of the conflict much earlier on. Instead, the characters meander from one place to another in the first hour of the film, and certain themes start to feel forced and repetitious by the time we reach the climax in last 30 minutes.

Despite this, however, Happy Feet remains a mostly exhilarating exprience due to the originality of the musical sequences and the vibrance of its characters. The action sequences are also visually thrilling. Additionally, it was refreshing to see humans being portrayed in a somewhat optimistic light. Most movies that feature animals as main characters seem to delight in reminding us that society is either evil, stupid, or hopeless. This film takes a much less cynical approach to human nature, and that is a nice change. It might be a little over-weighted in spots, but Happy Feet is delightful, original, tonic, and among the better animated releases of the year.

Gouda's Final Grade: A-

Friday, November 17, 2006

Casino Royale

Oh Mr. Bond... Consider me shaken AND stirred...

Dear Daniel Craig,

You probably don't know who I am. I'm just a small time blogger in a small Washington town. And to tell you the truth, I was never much of a James Bond fan. It's not that I wasn't intrigued by the lore of 007, it's just that opportunities to see him in action always eluded me. The only reason I ever knew the plot of Golden Eye was because I played the video game endlessly on my Nintendo 64. But I digress...

When I heard you were going to be the new James Bond, my curiosity was finally piqued. Call me crazy, but I kinda go for the offbeat look. The fact that you weren't the "conventional" looking Bond that the public was expecting in a bid to re-energize this franchise was what won me over. And after after all of the nitpicking you've received in the press since taking on this role, my hope is that they are now eating a healthy serving of crow for breakfast, lunch, and dinner because you, Mr. Craig are currently starring in what is sure to be hailed as one of the best James Bond movies ever made, as well as one of the best films of the year.

What can I say about the character of James Bond? Well, seeing as how I have not really experienced the Bond enterprise to the fullest, I've only been able to glean a few tidbits from being the unabashed pop culture nut that I am. Bond is, quite simply, a man who could never possibly exist. He exudes virility and steely masculinity that is tamed with just enough refinement to make even the most hardened of feminists pant in spite of herself. He has a brilliant mind, an agile physique, and he looks dashing in a tux. And we can't forget the accent. Bond is, to many, the "Perfect Man." And your interpretation of such a man, to a Bond newbie such as myself, was in a word: captivating.

But let's get back to the movie, that pulse-pounding 2 1/2 hour piece of cinema of which you were the centerpiece. It was, to put it lightly, an achievement in kinetic energy that can be topped by few movies I've seen in recent years. The action sequences were not only seamless, but they were atheletically astounding, and sometimes painful to watch (but in a good way). Director Martin Campbell was wise to showcase your physical talents by opting for chase scenes that were mostly on foot rather than in cars. There are only so many ways you can show vehicles outrunning one another; to see the human body tackle such feats is much more awe-inspiring. I know some might complain a little that the work of art that is the Astin Martin DBS was not featured prominently enough, but I can't complain. I'd much rather see you jump from towering cranes and rooftops anyday.

As for the other characters, your love interest, Vesper Lynd played beautifully by Eva Green was the perfect choice. You met your match in her, that is for certain, and your chemistry sizzled. Oh and the villain! I know that the bad guys in Bond flicks are supposed to be pretty eccentric, but an asthmatic psychopath who sheds tears of blood? In any other movie it would have been ridiculous. Here, it is just delicious.

Yeah, I suppose you can say that I am now a Bond girl. At least in the sense that I am a fan. Your presence on screen, Mr. Craig, was among the most entertaining I've had so far this year. I think if your body holds out, you will go far in this series. Your whole "suave guy who isn't afraid to get his hands dirty" thing is, quite frankly, a major turn-on. While my loins would most certainly love to give this film an A+, my higher faculties must intervene and settle a tad lower due to a just slightly convoluted plot and a lagging interlude around the second-third of the film. But that is a small price to pay for what was otherwise a perfect exercise in proving those naysayers wrong in their assessment of you.

I don't care what the hardcore fan concensus is. To me, Mr. Craig, you are James Bond.

Sincerely,
The Gouda

Gouda's Final Grade: A

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Sacha Baron Cohen takes method acting to the extreme...

"Borat" is the most difficult to watch film to come out in years. It is a faux documentary that thrives on the creation of the most uncomfortable, awkward (and yes, real-life) situations drummed up by the character's mastermind Sacha Baron Cohen (of Ali G fame), who plays a TV journalist from the nation of Kazakhstan sent on a mission to the United States to learn more about American culture; however, Cohen doesn't merely play Borat, he lives him. Previous to the release of this film, Cohen made dozens of television appearances on such shows as The Daily Show, the MTV Music Awards, and Saturday Night Live in full character mode as a way to cleverly market his film. Similar to the character who shot him into the stratosphere of popularity, fake interviewer Ali G, Borat would befriend his viewers and show hosts with his almost childish charm only to later stun them into states of shock and occasional anger with very naively presented forms of bigotry, anti-semitism, misogyny, incest, prostitution, and other politically incorrect observations.

The Borat film (forget using the full title, which is almost as long as Dr. Strangelove and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), depicts a series of follies that this representative of Kazakhstan creates on a cross-country journey from New York to Malibu. The final destination is where Borat hopes to marry actress Pamela Anderson, with whom he fell in love after watching a rerun of Baywatch.

Cohen's assertion of his cultural values onto unbeknownst bystanders (kissing both cheeks of every man he meets, defecating in bushes, and washing his clothes in the pond at Central Park) are riotously funny in and of themselves. More shocking, however, is when Borat manages to create real commotion among entire crowds of people. An appearance at a rodeo in Texas is perhaps the ultimate example of Cohen's genius, where after saying that he "supports America's war of terror" and that he hopes "George Bush drinks the blood of every man, woman, and child terrorist of Iraq" he then sings to outrageous booing of hundreds of cowboys the (obviously made up) national anthem of Kazakhstan to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner.

Many of these antics are so awkward that they can only be watched from behind covered eyes, and we laugh mostly out of shock. Although the vitims of Borat are surely aware now of Cohen's comedy act, they weren't at the time, and that is the key to the genius of this film.

The problem, however, is that the joke begins to wear a bit thin about two-thirds of the way through. Maybe it was because I had laughed so hard that I was exhausted, but I think it was also because my neck and shoulders were sore from cringing. I can honestly tell any potential viewer of this film that there are things here that you have never before seen, and very likely never wanted to see. You might also feel a little guilty for laughing at certain scenes. Such as when Borat has dinner with a group of Southern high society members and proceeds to insult the host's wife and invite a prostitute as his guest. Or when he and his producer escape a bed and breakfast in the middle of the night when they realize the place is run by a Jewish couple.

Ultimately, Borat is one of the funniest, most original comedies to come out in years, but it is also a movie that easier to admire than it is to love. Cohen's genius is undeniable. Many, particularly the government of Kazakhstan, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, have taken issue with Cohen's portrayal of the Kazakhstani culture as well as his rampant use of anti-semitism, but it should be noted that Cohen himself is of Jewish descent, and his approach should also be viewed as more of a satire on Western stereotypes than any insult to the Middle-Eastern nation.

I can honestly say that taking Borat in such a large dose is a difficult challenge. Come prepared to be amused, but even more prepared to be shocked.

Gouda's Final Grade: A-




Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Prestige

These magicians have plenty up their sleeves...

Dexterity, charm, and the power of persuasion -- these are the mainstays of any competent magician. The ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of human perception and take advantage of its loopholes is precisely what pays the bills of any illusionist, from humble small-town acts all the way up to David Copperfield and his disappearing Statue of Liberty. It isn't wizardry these men employ, but we pay for the experience of being convinced that it is. The same could also be said for any great filmmaker. Creating a world filled with people who are physical, 3-dimensional realizations of the vapors in someone's imagination, and putting them in situations that are nothing short of astounding, making us believe for a brief time that their fantastic adventures are not only genuine, but that we are also a part of them, is real magic in the making.

In The Prestige, we find that magic is not only the obsession of the main characters, but that it is also the film in its entirety. Director Christopher Nolan joins forces again with his Batman Begins staple actors Christian Bale and Michael Caine, adding to the mix Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson, to bring us what is perhaps one of the most complex, fascinating storylines to be shown on screen this year.

We meet Alfred Borden (Bale), Rupert Angier (Jackman), and Cutter (Caine), a small magic act in London around the turn of the 20th century, who perform all manner of classic sleight of hand: disappearing birds (the greusome secret of this trick is revealed early on), daring escapes from tanks of water, bullets nimbly caught from fired guns. Cutter is the wise mentor of the two young men, arranging the magic behind the scenes and mediating the dueling personalities of Borden and Angier, who are fierce rivals. Angier is the charming showman whose talent in magic extends only so far as being able to dutifully follow Cutter's conventional techniques. He lacks imagination, but with his good looks and winning smile can sell any act to a crowd. By contrast, Borden's genius is remarkable, and he is comfortable with it, but his techniques are elemental and without flair. He can spot the methods of any illusion from the back of a crowded room, and he has the ambition and the craft to perform amazing feats, but he lacks the showmanship to wow an audience. Naturally, Angier is fiercely jealous of his partner's talent, but when the group's lovely assistant, also Angier's wife Judith (Piper Perabo), drowns during a water-escape gone wrong due to Borden's mistake, Angier's jealousy erupts into an obsessive determination to bring down the other magician.

What follows is a series of revenge tactics that become nastier with each turn. For Angier's wife, Borden loses a few fingers. Borden avenges the lost digits by sabotaging a few of Angier's magic acts in rather brutal ways; however, when Borden's magical genius reaches a climax in the form of a trick that cannot be explained by any conventional illusionist techniques, Angier's obsession to learn his rival's secret reaches an unstoppable velocity.

This has so far been laid down as a pretty simple plot, but do not be fooled. Christopher Nolan weaves this tale in a style that only the director of a film like Memento can master, with a series criss-crossing, competing flashbacks that is at times confusing, and requires constant attention, but is never short of fascinating. He provides this story with a visual backdrop of the muted yet stylish hues of the late 19th century that are delicious to behold, and perhaps most importantly, Nolan and his brother laid down a screenplay that is full of interesting characters, and even a real historical figure: eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla (I'll let you be surprised as to who plays him). Bale and Jackman portray men who are vastly different, but who are equally engaged in the art of deception, both professionally and personally. Borden is a hard man to know, seemingly charismatic and arrogant one minute, and coldly aloof the next. He is observed by others as a man who is deeply divided, with a wife who can tell from day to day whether or not her husband's declarations of love are genuine: "No, no, you don't mean it today. You love the magic today," she says matter-of-factly to which Borden can't help but agree, with certain bewilderment.

Angier eventually beds his replacement assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), but she soon realizes that she can't compete with his drive to steal the work of his competitor. We at one minute sympathize for him and the next fear him. Jackman's acting work here is nothing short of superb.

From here, I can reveal no more. I have been made privy to the secrets of not only the magic trick itself (although, I am forced to wonder if the true instrument could even be considered magic), and it is my duty to not spoil the illusion for the other viewers. After all, as the film instructs us several times throughout its 2-plus hour length, we really don't want to know. To know would deaden the mystery, and there is plenty to keep one guessing up until the final reveal, The Prestige as it were, which we are told in the beginning, is when the ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

Prepare to be wowed.

Gouda's Final Grade: A

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Departed

So much talent on one screen should be illegal...

Loyalty is a tricky beast; the need to fulfill our obligations to those to whom we are most emotionally dedicated often eclipses our concepts of right and wrong. It's not so much a matter of what we have to do to retain our idol's favor, but that the deed is simply done without question. This is especially true if lurking in the background of every transgression of our moral sensibilities is the certainty that a failure would result in the loss of our lives. If we are indoctrinated as children to become loyal to a monster, it is to be assumed that we would end up doing the deeds of a monster.

In Martin Scorcese's latest film, an epic of dueling loyalties is played out in a taut, complex, brutal, and ultimately brilliant fashion. Like being witness to a boxing match between two men who are blindfolded, we are never quite sure who is going to land the knock-out punch, or how. The ring: the Massachussetts State Police Special Investigations Unit. In one corner, we have Sergeant Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), an up and coming star in the department. He's charming, intelligent, and has the skills to promote easily within the ranks. This is especially beneficial to Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), a powferul Irish mob boss who practically raised Sullivan from a boy and remains the central figure of Sullivan's loyalties. Unknown to Sullivan and the others working under him in the department are the names of the undercover agents assigned to the Costello case, and this is the biggest thorn in Sullivan's and Costello's sides.

Which brings us to who is in the second corner: officer Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose hopes of escaping his own crime-ridden family leads him to the State Patrol. Unfortunately, his past does not escape the attention of higher-ups Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) who want to use Costigan's family connections with the Irish crime syndicate to insert him into a deep-cover assignment to build a stronger case against Costello.

This is when Scorcese's mastery as a storyteller takes center stage. Bouncing us between the lives of these two men, we observe their differences, but more striking are their parallels. Imprisoned by their very grim loyalties, their lives begin to fall apart. Costigan develops a painkiller addiction while Sullivan is continually haunted by intimacy issues with his clinical psychologist girlfriend, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). Often times, it becomes mind-boggling watching how one operation to nab the elusive Costello is thwarted from within by Sullivan while both the police department and the mob know they are dealing with their own respective moles. We ultimately end up with a tale of one rat chasing another.

This story is enhanced so well by a superb screenplay overflowing with dialogue that makes us laugh and gasp, often simultaneously. Mark Wahlberg delivers his most solid work to date, playing a character who delivers the majority of the movie's best lines. And Alec Baldwin, who has become almost as iconic as Christopher Walken in recent years with the dialogue, does not disappoint as the head of Sullivan's department.

Plenty of critics have attempted to draw conclusions between this movie and Scorcese's previous masterpieces, namely Goodfellas, saying that this one doesn't match up. Let's be clear- a movie like Goodfellas can really happen only once in a lifetime for any great director and Scorcese, being perhaps our greatest living director, is lucky to have several pieces of genius under his belt. And rest assured, he can add this film to it. I'm not going to try to draw a distinction between The Departed and his previous films; Scorcese is clearly at the top of his game here. He has made a movie that sets the senses ablaze, and by the end, delivers a swift knee to the solar plexus.

This is, by far, my favorite movie of 2006.

Gouda's Final Grade: A+

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Jet Li's Fearless

Li's swan song is a smidge flat on the story, but is in-tune with the fighting...

I've always been firmly convinced that the purpose of a martial arts movie is not to make us learn anything new about life or even to encourage us to sympathize with the characters so much as to see various versions of a morality tale as told through the fluid, effective, well-choreographed kicking of ass that the movie's star lays upon his or her victims. We can say that we walk out of one of these movies a little more enlightened about the karmic perils of arrogance and revenge, but what we're really feeling (if the movie is good) is the aorta-shattering adrenaline that's a result of watching the amazing weapon of the human body deliver the Wushu-smackdown. If there is an interesting story woven throughout the (hopefully innumerable) combat sequences, then the martial arts movie can be upgraded from adequate to masterful.

Jet Li's final forray into the martial arts genre seems to fall between the two. In Fearless, he tells the story of a real-life figure, Hua Yuanjia, a Wushu master from the early 1900s who founded the now-internationally famous Jingwu Sports Federation. The young Hua is a weak, sickly child whose father is a master of the sport. Driven to overcome his asthma, Hua abandons academic studies and concentrates on Wushu. As a young man, his drive to become the champion fighter of his province results in a staggering, mindless arrogance that you really only see in movies about fighting. He's a great, merciless competitor, but ignores the core philosophies of self-discipline and restraint as he drinks heavily and cavorts with his many disciples.

As predicted, Yuanjia's selfishness leads to great tragedy, and he begins a self-imposed exile where he learns wisdom from kind, humble farm workers, and makes friends with the peaceful Zen master within himself, setting the stage for a Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of his previous shame. After a few years outside of general civilization, he returns to a home that is more and more under the hand of Western influences, where English ladies and gentlemen stroll like snooty caricatures among the natives in their stately dress. Seeing this, Hua decides to compete in an international fighting competition to resurrect the hopes of his disillusioned countrymen.

In other words, formula, formula, formula. The story plugs perfectly into all of the pre-established variables, and surprises are few and far between for anyone who is familiar with this genre. I could bemoan this film on that basis alone, that it is maybe a little dry on innovation, but Li and the other characters are likeable enough to keep the film from being boring between fight scenes, and I found I was pulled into the film in spite of myself.

While not the perfect way for Jet Li to end a successful run in the martial arts genre (Hero was a much more superior film in every way) Fearless is solid, competent weekend entertainment. And perhaps most importantly: the fight sequences are quick, ferocious, and do a fantastic job of showcasing the skills that made this Wushu champion an international film star.

Gouda's Final Grade: B

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Black Dahlia

Perhaps they're trying to make sense of the dismembered plot as well...

The murder of Elizabeth Short in 1948 has remained one of Hollywood's most chilling unsolved crimes and a horrific representation of American hopes and dreams dashed. A young girl, struggling to break into acting, greusomely murdered, mutilated, and left for display in a neighborhood lot, the Dahlia became a source of obsession for those who searched desperately for her slayer, and remains a dark legend haunting the minds of those who still ferverently pursue her tragic, limited backtrail.

In fact, the case of the Black Dahlia encapsulates all of the elements that create a classic noir story. Beautiful, mysterious young girl, drawn by the allure and glamor of Hollywood's silver screen lifestyle, cut down brutally before the flower of any promise could begin to bloom. Take this and then add in the seedy, unorthodox history and tactics of the LAPD in the 1940s, some background involving the pornography industry, a few of Hollywood's elite families, and a couple of detectives obsessed enough to track the footsteps of a psychopathic murderer, and you have the makings of a captivating, chilling film that few who see it would forget.

The problem is, you won't find this in Brian de Palma's film. You will find the flower of promise, but it remains stubbornly in its bud form, despite the competent acting and superbly constructed classic film noir atmosphere that the director captured so well in his other films The Untouchables and Scarface. What makes The Black Dahlia a surprisingly weak execution in the genre is the story. Writer James Ellroy's novel was rife with sprawling complexities and plot layers, and they are a mess translated onto screen. We aren't sure if we are watching a tale about the dark twists of the obsessed mind, as portrayed by grizzled police officers Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) who are hot on the case, or if we are watching a procedural about Short's killer. That's because intermingled in all of that are vague plot threads and distractions that take away potency from both possibilities. By the end of the film, when all of those loose threads are finally connected, it makes little sense and it's just so silly and contrived that we don't even care.

The most interesting character in the movie, the femme fatale Madeline Linscott (played with cunning, sexy brilliance by Hillary Swank), makes a late appearance as a lookalike/former lover of the Dahlia, but the manner by which her storyline resolves itself is an exercise in wasted talent.

The film's strengths are all technical, with incredible camera work that is reminiscent of Hitchcock and beautiful wardrobe and set designs that capture the era when Hollywood never looked better, but it's not enough to escape the convoluted mess of a plot that inspires more apathy than empathy about this tragic, compelling real-life murder.

Gouda's Grade: C

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Snakes on a Plane

"Maybe you didn't hear me. I'll say it for the third motherfuckin time."

Well... it's over. The culmination of the most widespread, successful viral marketing campaign for a movie has come and gone, and Gouda must examine what is left in its wake: A film that challenges the very foundations of cheesiness, and forces us to wade through the thick jungle of impossible dialogue, predictable thriller archetypes, and tangles of snakes... on a plane.

Ordinarily I would have a lot of fun exploiting the weaknesses of any film. If something seems inherently wrong, my brain snags it like a fishing lure in a river of steelheads, so it is a rare movie that allows me to ignore the fallacies and go along for the ride. The difference between a bad movie that sucks and a bad movie that is sorta enjoyable is the lengths to which its makers are willing to go to make us believe they are totally in on the joke. The former focuses too hard on trying to make us go along with the ridiculous, and it is only when we realize that they are leading us into the realm of "This is serious! Don't laugh!" that we sneer and start kicking the crap out of the movie.

The title Snakes on a Plane serves to provide the viewer with lowered expectations, and the movie Snakes on a Plane doesn't disappoint in that arena. We know that it's campy. We know it's over the top. And we know that Samuel L. Jackson, with a filmography that spans both extremes of the quality spectrum, was the perfect actor (aside from maybe Bruce Willis) to save the day because he's not above laughing at himself.

Jackson plays FBI agent Neville Flynn who is escorting from Honolulu to Los Angeles an important witness to the prosecution of a dangerious Asian mafia figure, Eddie Kim. Kim has methods of dispatching witnesses against him that involve all manner of torture and murder that you would only find in movies similar to this. Determined to not let this latest incriminating individual escape his wrath, he arranges to have the cargo hold of a jumbo jet loaded with a variety of poisonous snakes (I know, I know- don't bother asking). Then, a giant box of flowery leis that are to be handed out to departing passengers is sprayed with a pheromone designed to provide the reptiles with an appetite for killing people in ways more involved than a mere bite. They also appear to have enhanced vision, intelligence, and creepy quasi-human expressions on their faces- but again, nevermind.

What occurs from this point is a "Most Creative Ways Snakes Can Kill People" contest. There are several candidates for winners, but I'm going to go for the obvious one: The Cobra vs Trouser Snake Battle Royale. There is also the "Most Creative Way to Kill a Snake" competition. No thriller would be complete without the "Annoying Character Who Most Refuses to Die" Award, and Snakes didn't hold back on giving us the perfect candidate.

So now we know the outlandish plot. Does Snakes on a Plane deliver? I'll give that a firm "mostly". The film could have actually had a little more bite, so to speak, by having Sam Jackson in more scenes and perhaps giving him more outlandish weapons. I was surprised by how little we actually see him in the earlier parts of the film. This is likely because the original footage was added to when it became apparent that it was going to be a bit of a hit. As a result, SoaP is a little inconsistent on the thrills, and the plot device of "snakes vs hapless passengers" starts to wear a little thin about two-thirds of the way through. By the time the obligatory "mother--- snakes" line was uttered, it felt more than a little overdue.

In the end, the film got away with what it was supposed to- delivering two light hours of campiness that paid off only as much as we could have expected out of a movie entitled Snakes on a Plane. I laughed, I squirmed a little bit, and walked out of the theater continuing to be convinced that humans are usually better at weaving legends out of air (or on the internet) than hammering them into reality.

Final Grade: B-

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Descent

The quintessential bloodbath

A horror movie is the ultimate crapshoot, with the vast majority being constructed from plot devices that have come to be considered cliche (camping trip gone wrong, anyone?) or so impossible as to be downright ludicrous (i.e. Saw or Silent Hill), but for those of us who are patient and persistent in our devotion to the genre, we are rewarded once or twice a decade with a true gem of a film that sends our senses into overdrive, taps into our most carnal of fears, and leaves us feeling all dirty (in a sort of good way, if that makes sense) after we watch it. And if it's really good, our appetites are obliterated for hours, we develop a temporary case of nightmare-induced insomnia, or we are simply thankful to emerge from the theater into the blessed daylight. After seeing The Descent, a British horror movie brought to us from the studio who made the overrated Hostel, I noticed not only that my appetite was thankfully nonexistent, but also a certainty that I will not be undertaking a caving expedition in the forseeable future.

The film begins with an introduction to the film's main characters, namely Sarah and Juno, whose friendship was forged by years of adventure seeking- whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, etc. There is a lot of story between these women, enough to create another type of film altogether- one that would even be interesting- but none of that is explored much in depth. Tragedy strikes Sarah's life early in the film, and we are caught up with all of them a year later on the brink of a caving expedition that brings them back together as a way to help Sarah out of her period of grief. We are also introduced to a few other women, making a team of six, in the remote wilderness of the Appalachains in North Carolina. Juno makes for a tough team leader- the bold, experienced one who is taking the women into the belly of an unexplored beast. The writers of this film play these characters smart. We are not introduced to a series of archetypes- Ms. Spunky and Reckless followed by her friends Ms. Smart and Thoughtful and Ms. Slutty and Careless. Granted, they each have their own personalities, but they aren't cardboard cut-outs, and we are made to care about all of them. In a typical horror movie, you pretty much know within the first 10 minutes who is going to live and die. Here these women are tough and independent, and they are straining their bodies to their limits as they squeeze through rocky pipelines, strand rope over crevasses of immeasurable depths, and brought to the absolute brink of insanity when things start to turn horribly wrong.

In fact, the moments that bring the most adrenaline are when the camera shots are tightest, as the women shove themselves through passages not meant for human beings. In one early cave scene, Sarah gets stuck in a narrow opening and begins to experience an anxiety attack. The constricting around the chest, the quickening of respiration, and the outright panic flooding of her senses as she realizes she is trapped 2 miles below the earth in a cave explored by no one else is incredibly palpable, and we feel trapped with her. Similar to another film, a documentary called Touching the Void where two men are stranded and injured on the face of a treacherous mountain in Chile, the level of pain and panic experienced by the actors is contagious, and makes us look away and squirm in our seats. This effect is aided by director Neil Marshall (a burgeoning master in only his second major release) and his cinematographer Sam McCurdy, both of whom have a gift for making this cave a foreboding character all its own. Shots in the dark, illuminated red by flares lit by the girls as they make their way, paint the rock walls like dripping blood, and we are forced to imagine if this is what hell truly looks like.

I am not going to reveal much more about the film's plot than this. I went into The Descent almost completely blind, and I think this only serves to highten the experience. Like the women, I had no idea what was lurking below when I took the plunge, and my terror mirrored their own. But what I did notice was that Neil Marshall has a true gift for stroking our deepest fears- those of the dark, the unknown, closed spaces, or of being lost,- and he does it by paying proper homage to the masters who have done it before while still making the movie his own. You will notice references to movies like Carrie, Alien, Apocalypse Now, and even a little bit of The Blair Witch Project.

The Descent doesn't only refer to a drop into a rock-lined abyss, but also to a descent into madness, grief, and into the animalistic requirements of survival and desperation. Unlike recent horror films like Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes, one-trick ponies where people are gored and tortured merely for visceral shock value, The Descent stirs the soul, involves our minds, and perhaps most importantly- forces us to empathize. If you are a fan of horror, this is the movie you've been waiting years to see.

Gouda's Final Grade: A-

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Miami Vice

A No Contact Order has been issued for pastels in the new Miami Vice...

After several recent misfires in the "TV to Bigscreen" genre (Charlie's Angels, Mod Squad, Dukes of Hazzard, anyone?), it took a top-notch director like Michael Mann to strike gold with Miami Vice. This was undoubtedly helped by the fact that Mann executive produced the original TV series and already had an eye for the sleek, neon-infused nightlife which fueled the premise of two undercover vice squad officers hauling in the kingpins of the drug underground in Miami. Mann updates his baby, however, and makes the film's characters resemble very little of the Crockett and Tubbs of Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas fame. Whereas there was some sparkle of charisma between the television versions of these characters, Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell have been turned down to just one notch above comatose. Not that this is a bad thing- living your life as someone else and working with some pretty horrible people in an effort to bring them down has to sap some of the sparkle out of life. These guys are ragged, tired, and cynical.

We are plunged immediately into the on-duty lives of Crockett and Tubbs, on a stake-out in a trendy Miami nightclub, natch. They are pulled away from the case when an old informant contacts them in a frenzy about a joint-agency (FBI, DEA, ATF) case he'd been helping out on gone sour. The FBI agent in charge played by Ciaran Hinds (recently in Munich) asks Crockett and Tubbs to take over the case due to the fact that the Miami PD was the only agency not in on the sting. From that point on, we are taken from the streets of Miami to Cuidad del Este in South America, and from this point the plot becomes a bit more confusing.

There were parts in Miami Vice where I simply did not know what was going on, my interest in the film only being held by the certainty that the "good guys" were going to eventually going to have to fight it out with the "bad guys" and that one of the "good guys" (in this case, Crockett) was going to fall for the main bad guy's girl- Isabella, played by Chinese actress Gong Li in perhaps the biggest struggle with the English language I've heard in a long time.

Also holding my interest and in fact mesmerizing me were the film's visuals. Michael Mann has a gift for putting artistry in every shot, and his digital cinemaphotography catches night scenes like nothing else. The streetlights are washed out, and dark blues and grays are predominant. Even though Miami Vice is not quite in the same class as the virtuoso predecessors Heat and Collateral, it has that same look and mood that make this director's films captivating. Sound is also a great factor here, particularly when the shooting of very big guns begins, and there are moments in these sequences in which the film more than earns its R rating. There is also a scene near the end as several vice officers stand in the midst of a stand-off in a trailer-park meth lab, and actress Elizabeth Rodriguez utters a line and follows it with something that will make you want to burst out in applause. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it.

Miami Vice is not perfect; The plot lags in spots and is too convoluted in mumbling language. There is also a glaring lack of complexities on the part of the villain and his relationship with the protagonist that is so often a mainstay of Mann's films. I am still recommending Miami Vice, however, because it literally pops with tension, and the visual artistry brought too the party is worth the price of admission all by itself.

No one can craft a gritty crime drama quite like , Michael Mann, and even one of his lesser efforts is still a sheer pleasure to watch.

Gouda's Final Grade: B


Saturday, July 15, 2006

Monster House

This house has an appetite...


No childhood is complete without the "scary house" in the neighborhood, or the crazy old coot who hates children, yelling at all passersby to "stay off the lawn!!". Imaginations are slippery things, and at no time in our lives are our grips tighter on them than before puberty, the time before those wacky hormones rob us of our sense of wonder and make us start acting "grown up". Monster House captures this magic and slams it into the viewers with a nice little bang.

We begin by meeting DJ, a smart but nerdy little kid who spends almost all of his spare time spying on his neighbor across the street, the curmudgeonly Mr. Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Bucemi), who chases away any children who dare step on his lawn; the toys that are left behind also become his sole property. When DJ's chubby but lovable friend Chowder loses his basketball in Nebbercracker's front yard, the old man literally blows a gasket and eventually has to be hauled away in an ambulance, seemingly dead. This is when Nebbercracker's abode offically comes to life, gobbling up any living and non-living item that encroaches onto its premesis, including small dogs and large adults.

The two boys are joined by Jenny, a neighborhood prep school attendee selling Halloween candy. After her near-encounter with the house's cavernous belly, she and the two boys hatch a plan (after consulting with "Skull", the local nerd voiced hilariously by Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder) to snuff out the flaming "heart" of the house with waterguns. Their mission is particularly urgent given that it's Halloween night, and all of the candy-hungry neighborhood children will become free snacks for the monstrous abode.

Monster House is a funny, exciting romp brought to us by producer Robert Zemeckis, who directed another recent childhood classic, Polar Express. The movie uses the same animation technique whereby real actors are overlayed with the animation, making for an almost unsettling, but hard to look away from, visual feast. This film uses that technique much more seamlessly, and its nothing short of a joy to look at.

As a stern warning to parents who are looking to take their young children to the latest animated hit, I do not recommend this film for kids younger than age 10. There is some content and imagery that would be nothing short of nightmare-inducing for preschoolers or those with a tendency to become frightened by houses that eat people. But rest assured, those children with strong sensibilities and parents alike will enjoy this fantastic tale, told in a no-holds-barred way and with a sinister form of humor that is a rarity in the age of fart jokes.

Gouda's Final Grade: A-

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Pumpin' Jack Smash

Trilogies all seem to share a common trait. The first movie is "WOW! That was great! Gimme More!" The second movie is "Hmmmm... very interesting!". And the third movie tends to bring it all home with a "Holy Crap!!" The second installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean trio, Dead Man's Chest, captures that middle sentiment, only it's a "Hmmm... WOW!" The "hmmmm" in this case being the first half of the film. I'll let you guess where the "WOW" belongs.

That is not to say that Dead Man's Chest is boring. Gore Verbinski's swashbuckling adventure brings a lot of story to the table. A lot. But dare I say it's refreshing to have an action film that is not driven by action alone, but by the characters. They never fail to keep the film interesting, and even when the movie lulls a little in the beginning, we are rarely bored.

The movie begins with Elizabeth Swan (Kiera Knightley) waiting in the rain for her wedding to begin, only to learn that her groom, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) has been arrested for his exploits in the previous film: aiding the escape of Captain Jack Sparrow from the gallows. Both he and Elizabeth are thrown in jail until the deliciously evil Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) of the East India Trading Company offers Will Turner a chance at his freedom by tracking down Captain Jack Sparrow and acquiring the Captain's compass, which has more value than we ever could have expected.

We are reunited with Sparrow aboard his ship the Black Pearl, and he has just come in possession of the drawing of a key that is supposed to open a chest belonging to Davy Jones, pirate captain and commander of souls of the deep. Sparrow is indebted to Jones for the resurrection of the Black Pearl, and Sparrow hopes to avoid repaying this debt by coming in possession of the mysterious contents of Jones' chest to use as leverage. Depp's performance lacks a little of the luster of the original film, but he's still a treat to watch, and the novelty of his swaggering slur has not yet worn off. It should hold up for one more film.

From this point, I will leave the rest for the viewer to experience by actually watching the film. There is adrenaline-pumping thrill (island cannibals) after adrenaline-pumping thrill (an amazing sword fight on a water wheel) in this sequel, and there is so much of the story line to digest that I will keep this review relatively short by not revealing too much, but if there is any question of whether or not Dead Man's Chest is a worthy trip to the theater, the answer is a resounding YES.

Among some of the jaw-dropping elements you will encounter- the barnacle-encrusted crew of Davy Jones' ship, The Flying Dutchman. Davy Jones himself is a special-effects wonder to behold, with a giant lobster claw for a hand, and a seamless CGI-generated octupus for a face. It was so convincing that I never would have guessed that it was all computer effects if I didn't already know going in. We are also introduced to Will's father, Bill "Bootstraps" Turner (played brilliantly by an almost unrecognizable Stellan Skarsgaard), who made a pact with Davy Jones long ago and serves as a crewmate on The Dutchman.

And let us not forget the Kraken. The giant tentacled beast of the deep that rips ships apart at the commanding of Davy Jones. I think it's safe to say after seeing this film that if I don't see another tentacle until next May (when the third and final installment of Pirates comes out), I'll be a happy woman.

If I have one complaint about this film, it's that it suffers from the first Pirate's ailment: unnecessary length. I think Gore Verbinski loves his movies and his characters so much that he wouldn't think of introducing any film to the cutting room floor. Sure, Verbinski is no Peter Jackson in terms of epic length, but for this class of film, I think 2 and a half hours is excessive. 2 would have been perfect.

Still, I am recommending Pirates as the "Hmmmm... WOW" precursor to the "Holy Crap!!" finale that the third film will undoubtedly be, particularly based on its last hour, where the story really gets going and the brilliant swordplay and the Kraken take center stage.

So in regards to the scurvy crew of the Black Pearl and The Flying Dutchman, I have to say they were real treat to watch. They are, in fact, what summer action movies are all about. But because a little less can actually be more, I hope that Gore Verbinski can learn to become a little more acquainted with a pair of scissors for the third and final installment in May.

Gouda's Final Grade: B+

Friday, June 30, 2006

Superman Returns

I'm a bit of a douche, but damn I'm hot!


I came to this movie completely cleansed of any high expectations. Having never been much of a fan of the Superman mythology, I feel I am capable of observing the cinematic qualities of this film without any distracting intervening fan bias. Superman has always seemed a little too upstanding and perfect for my tastes. I prefer my superheros to be a bit darker and flawed, with a nuance that says: "Yes, I'm pretty damn awesome, but I'm tortured by these talents too!" Having said that, is Superman Returns worth a trip to the theater?

In a word, yes; however, it is not that simple.

Superman Returns is a film that is supposed to take place between previous film sequels. Superman (Brandon Routh) leaves earth to go and visit his home planet, only to find that it has become a ruin. Five years later, he returns to our blue planet and doesn't take long to get back to hero work. In the meantime he has to deal with a jaded Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), who has in that time that her caped crusader has been absent, become a mother to a little boy and fiance to Richard (James Marsden fresh from his role as Cyclops in the X-Men series).

His arch-villain, Lex Luthor (played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey) is up to shennanigans involving the use of crystals from Superman's Fortress of Solitude which he plans on turning into a brand new plot of real estate. Apparently when these crystals make contact with water, they become entire rocky uninhabitable landmasses, and Luthor sees a whole lot of value in this. Apparently it's not enough to have world domination; today's villains are all about location.

The problem with this film does not center so much around the plot or even the movie's production values. It's with the characters. Brandon Routh in the title role has all of the looks that one could hope from the character, and he even resembles a young Christopher Reeve, but he lacks all of that actor's charisma. The chemistry between he and Lois Lane is shoddy at best, and this has a lot to do with the fact that Kate Bosworth does not protray this character in a very likeable light. She exhibits no joy and is coldy aloof, making it difficult for me to sympathize with her. Scenes between her and Superman have a small heartening element, but they only seem to exist to further the plot; I saw nothing in this dull, stiff superhero that would make me believe that she previously fell in love with him. The only person who brings some entertaining zeal to the screen is Kevin Spacey's nemesis, but those scenes are few and far between in the two and half hour running time. Suffice to say that seeing Superman Returns for the characters would render one in disappointment.

Let's talk about the film's strong points. The special effects were breathtaking. There were moments of pure movie magic that had my pulse pounding, such as when the hero rescues a runaway jet airliner, and when we get to see exactly what happens when someone tries to shoot Superman in the eye. Lex Luthor's girlfriend Kitty (Parker Posey) also garners a good number of chuckles with her superficial ditziness, but I still walked out of the film feeling more ambivalence toward the Man of Steel than actual like. A man who is completely invincible save for one vulnerability is just not terribly interesting for me, and while Bryan Singer's take on this hero was competent, it failed to be compelling enough for me to actually care.

Gouda's Final Grade: C

Saturday, June 24, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

If my professors used Power Point presentations this good, I might stay awake...


It seems like the debate over the environment is always between two distinct groups: the Haves and Have Nots, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. The fact that there even has to be a debate on this issue is pretty telling about the human condition. People are often in denial about the consequences of their indulgences, and this denial usually begets addictions, obesity, wars, and perhaps even a steadily warming planet. It often takes going to extremes to rouse human beings to do what is right instead of what is easiest.

In the environmental arena, people make billions from exploiting the Earth's resources. They offer a vital service, and the power given to these providers naturally creates a state of cognitive dissonance that is almost impossible to shatter. Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth attempts to break through that barrier by effectively illustrating that the planet is going through unprecedented changes that can be directly correlated with human behavior.

A lot of people who doubt global warming, and even go so far as to call it a hoax have commissioned studies of their own to contradict what 938 scientific studies have unanimously agreed upon--that global warming exists. The former chairman of environmental affairs in the Bush administration (who originally worked for the petroleum industry) resigned after it was found he edited an EPA report to downplay the effects of CO2 emissions on the atmosphere. He immediately went on to work for Exxon-Mobil. This is but one example of the conflicts of interests inherent in the global-warming debate.

All of this and more is covered in An Inconvenient Truth. Most shocking is watching the actual trends in the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue upward as the polar icecaps and Antarctic glaciers melt, Greenland's ice shelf recedes, and the delicate balance of ecosystems worldwide are disrupted due to increasing carbon emissions. Al Gore demonstrates through chilling photographic evidence how Mt. Kilimanjaro, once covered in snow and ice even 10 years ago, is now mostly barren dirt and rock. Within the last twenty years, the frozen tundras in Alaska have thawed to such a state as that they can only be driven on 75 days out of the year instead of the previous 270.

And of course, there are the storms, demonstrated by the record numbers of hurricanes in America, and appearing in 2005 for the first time in the southern Atlantic. Unprecedented numbers of typhoons in Asia and increasingly-devastating monsoons in India are also noted. The impacts of global warming are far-reaching, and paradoxical. While there are floods and storms raging in some parts of the world, in others there are devastating droughts brought on by the heat evaporating moisture from the land.

This is not a political film. Despite the opinions of those who feel threatened by what is shown in An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore does not set out to condemn one man over what he views as a global crisis. He emphasizes an element of urgency that is backed by solid scientific research, and how the media spins their findings and thrives off of sending mixed signals to the public. For example, even though there is a consensus in the scientific community regarding global warming, there is an agreement of only about 65% when one views magazines and periodicals. Their job is to keep people confused.

Throughout the documentary, we get glimpses into Al Gore's personal life and what got him started on the environmental path, when he started showing his slide show years ago, visiting hundreds of cities around the world, believing that a real difference can be made by opening people up little by little. Some would call this movie alarmist, but is that really a bad thing in this instance? Using the adage about the frog and the pot of boiling water, he talks about how people have become complacent in their behaviors, and how that complacency can doom them. When our entire way of lives are potentially at stake, is it not best err on the side of caution? To preserve what resources we can to ensure the survival of future generations?

When I look at people who debate these scientific findings, I have to wonder what their motives are, exactly. What is so nefarious about trying to improve the condition of our planet? They use arguments of economics as though making improvements on environmental policies would bankrupt businesses. History has shown that the marketplace is nothing if not adaptable. Technologies that help reduce CO2 emissions and conserve energy can actually save companies money in the longhaul. But we're too scared to change, to deviate from what is bringing in the money right now.

The final question is, does Gore's film do a good job of trying to debunk the opposition? Some say no, but I have to disagree. The staggering wealth of information alone is enough to give pause. Gore acknowledges previous periods of warmth over several centuries, but they are like occasional blips on the radar, until you get to the last 100 or so years, and you find an explosion the the graph that has never before been seen, and it coincides directly with the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide at the beginning of the 20th century. I think he presents such a solid case that it should stop anyone in their tracks and give thought to their own behaviors.

Even if it is later found that this is all a natural fluke, that the earth is warming all by itself despite all of the crap we're spewing into the air, would you really regret that we as a people decided to be less wasteful? Why is it that the people who oppose the findings that humans have an impact on the environment sound like little kids who want to have another slice of chocolate cake?

Al Gore's film serves to pummel people with information, information which can help people to be more conscientious. This is something which should always be promoted and encouraged. Be wary of the words of those whose livelihoods depend on people remaining ignorant and indulgent.

Gouda's Final Grade: A

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Woodsman

Throw it back and walk away, Kev...

While my school schedule has wound down for the summer, I have decided to review some movies I've watched on DVD recently, the first of which is this independent film released last year starring Kevin Bacon as a pedophile recently released from prison who attempts to reintegrate himself into society while being branded as a registered sex offender.

After 12 years in prison for molesting young girls, Walter has been released on parole into a world that has little, if any, forgiveness for his type of criminal. He is given a job at a lumber yard by a man (David Alan Grier) who knows and is willing to keep quiet and give Walter a chance. He quietly goes about his work, avoiding other employees and doing his best to reside in an apartment that has the unfortunate placement near an elementary school. His parole officer (Mos Def) is a hostile man who makes no secret of his opinion of pedophiles, and is just waiting for Walter to slip up so he put him back behind bars. The only friend Walter has is his brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt), and that relationship is touchy at best. So to speak.

At work, Walter meets a woman, Vickie (played by Bacon's real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick), whom he begins dating, and we see Walter trying to form a normal relationship with a woman, something that is obviously unfamiliar to him. Eventually he tells her about his past, and her reaction and everything that unfolds between them is handled convincingly and without melodrama.

Amidst all of these obstacles, we observe a man who has an innate compulsion to touch children, who is doing everything he can to lead a normal life, but at the same time we are not required by the script to sympathize with him. We only begin to wonder how long he is going to make it before his urges overwhelm him again.

This movie was seen very little throughout the country on its release, and it's a shame because it not only is a compelling, well-told story, but it is superbly acted. This is Kevin Bacon's best acting work, and it deserves to be seen. Make sure to pick it up on Netflix or at your local video store.

Gouda's Final Grade: A-

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Lake House

So... where do you see yourself in a couple of years?


If you often find yourself frustrated by movies that deal heavily in manipulating the time and space continuum, then The Lake House, a story about two soul mates who find themselves separated by a gulf of 2 years, is certain to tie your brain in knots. I only ask one favor from here on out regarding this film, because I understand completely your need to parse and analyze plots until their magic is all wrung out: just let it go. For 2 hours, don't ask "those" questions.

We start out peering into the lives of two melancholy people: Dr. Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock), and architect Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves). They share a common bond in that they both spent time occupying a lake house just outside of Chicago. Kate lived there for a short time before taking a job at the major hospital in the city and when we first see her, she is moving out of the house. We then see Alex moving in. Only we later find out that it was he who was moving in first, in the year 2004; Kate moved out 2 years later.

The house itself is a marvel to behold as it is made almost completely of glass and sits on stilts above the water, suspending its inhabitants in the world while at the same time holding them apart from it. It's a work of art designed by a famous architect who also happens to be Alex Wyler's father Simon (Christopher Plummer), a prideful man who never managed to be satisfied with his son's decision to design mid-level condominiums. As Alex observed: "My father could always make a house, but he could never make a home."

As Alex unpacks his things in the house his father built, he notices a letter in the mailbox from Forster, asking the new tenant to please forward any of her mail to her new address. He notes the date and tells her that no one has lived in the house for quite some time, and that she might have the wrong address. In 2006, Kate makes a trip back to the still-empty glass abode she once loved and notices the flag up on the mailbox and sees Alex's reply. The mailbox itself is acting as sort of a conduit for these two people in these two separate times, and as they start to first doubt the possibility of what is happening before their very eyes, they eventually grow to have a beautiful, meaningful dialogue. He plants a tree in front of her apartment building (which was still in the earlier stages of construction in his time) and it appears on a rainy night before her very eyes. They take "walks" together, with him pointing out his favorite places on a map that she goes and visits and finds little signs of his appearance that he left for her to discover. As the plot develops further, they find other ways to make contact, some successful, some not so much, for reasons I will not reveal here.

All this time, we are dying to ask the question of how any of this could be happening. We want to inject reality into this dream, because none of this is even remotely possible, but doing that would ruin this film. Watching The Lake House is like holding a delicate, mysterious gem in the palm of your hand. If you poke and prod it too much, it will crumble apart and scatter in the wind, but if you just hold it and admire at its beauty, then you will realize that it doesn't matter what elements composed it. It simply exists as a wonder to behold. Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves are reunited for the first time since Speed and they both have a likeability and chemistry that make us believe the impossible. Good characters are key to making plots like this work; we don't care how they are successful, so long as they are.

Argentinian director Alejandro Agresti used a very skillful eye in framing the beauty of Chicago and illiciting great performances from both Bullock and Reeves. The movie has been panned by critics who have apparently grown so cynical that unless a movie's plot can be explained by logic as clear-cut as a skyscraper, then there is nothing worth seeing. I couldn't disagree with them more; The Lake House is magical, moving, wonderful, and one of my favorite films so far this year.


Gouda's Final Grade: A

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Cars

Hey bud, even if we ain't as good as the other Pixar movies, that ain't necessarily bad!

You know the saying about how even when pizza and sex aren't great, they're still good? I think it's also safe to add Pixar movies to that list. The latest effort by the animation giant was clouded by uncertainty prior to its release as people were just not sure if a movie about talking cars could really live up to the previous movies about talking toys, talking fish, and talking ants. At least those were biological creatures, or appeared to be. But talking cars? With tongues, even? Call me a naysayer. What I do know is that Pixar has what is probably one of the best writing teams in Hollywood, and it was that and that alone that kept my hope alive for this film.

Imagine a world where every creature, from a city's inhabitants even down to the insects, are vehicles of some sort. It's a similar world premise as the one in last year's animated movie Robots, only imagine it in a movie that doesn't suck, and you'll have Cars. In this world, the main sport is, of course, racing and Owen Wilson voices a flashy, arrogant red rookie named Lightning McQueen (love the tribute to Steve in that one) who is on the fast track to winning the championship Piston Cup, only there is a problem; what should have been his winning race ended in a 3-way tie, forcing a three-way matchup between he and his rivals a week later. During Lightning's trip to California, however, his transport truck, aptly named Mack (voiced by Pixar fixture John Ratzenberger) falls asleep and events ensue which lead to McQueen's accidental exit from his comfy abode and in a pursuit to catch back up to his ride. In the course of this, he gets turned around and winds up from the main freeway to the dusty remains of the legendary Route 66, where he meets some colorful characters in the dilapidated town of Radiator Springs. Among them is Mater, a lovable, rusty tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), Sally the Porsche (Bonnie Hunt), and the grizzled Doc Hudson (Paul Newman).

This is where the story gets formulaic, but it also gets incredibly charming and I found myself, as I always do with a Pixar movie, starting to like and care for these characters. There are a lot of laughs, but there is also a ton of heart, particularly between McQueen and Newman's character Doc, who is a worn down racing champion from the 1950s.

The movie was full of subtle strokes of genius that set it apart from a "by the book" animated morality tale about the transition from arrogance to humility. The world created here was not only beautiful to look at (and by beautiful, I mean absolutely stunning and hard to look away from for even a second), but there were plenty of cultural references and nostalgia to keep the adults entertained. The use of Paul Newman in particular was a great move given his long involvement with NASCAR, and the history of the once great Route 66 and its eventual abandonment was portrayed so poignantly that even though I have never been on that stretch of highway, I found myself missing it anyway.

This is probably the best movie for children to come out so far this year, and although it doesn't quite stand up or endure the test of time like Pixar giants Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and even Monsters Inc, it retains most of the heart and intelligence that make their movies appeal to people of all ages.

Gouda's Final Grade: B+

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Omen

Oh yeah, kid? Well at least MY dad doens't have hooves!

One good thing about being a critic as jaded as I am is that I typically walk into most films with lowered expectations. With remakes, especially remakes of horror movies, I use those expectations to pad my shoes. If The Omen had opened on a regular Friday, I most likely would not have seen it right away. As it were, I'm sort of a sucker for marketing tactics like this, and before I knew it, I found myself sitting in a packed theater one row behind a guy who had glued horns to his head for the occasion.

I saw the original Omen about 10 years ago, mainly due to its presence on most "Top 10" horror lists compiled by people who think they are smarter than me. I thought the 1976 version was entertaining, but ultimately underwhelming. It centers around a powerful diplomat and his wife who have a baby and are informed that night that the child did not survive birth. The father is offered the chance by the doctor to adopt an orphaned child who was born that very night. The two raise the child as their own, completely unaware of his nefarious ancestry. As little Damien grows older, it becomes clearer that the boy is quite the creepy little bastard.

Not being able to relate to the historical context was probably the main reason I felt detatched from the original, and because the film centers around the son of Satan rising politically to bring about the end of the world (Damien's father is godson to the President and therefore has a very close avenue to achieving power), the political climate of the time didn't seem to resonate as clearly with me through the film. Yes, it was made during the Cold War, and the whole mutually assured destruction thing was indeed a frightening time for this country, but I think that today's events make for a more powerful backdrop, or at least it seems that way because my perception of the world is a bit sharper than it was when I was 16. There was also the fact that I found the kid to be generally unfrightening in the original, and I was therefore unconvinced of his underlying maliciousness.

In the 2006 Omen, we have a very faithful remake to the original in terms of plot, but it is framed with the modern horrific events that are supposed to signify the beginning of the end: the World Trade Center collapse, the tsunami in Asia, the Columbia space shuttle breaking apart in re-entry, among others. This is complemented by beautiful art direction and cinematography that made the movie a sheer joy to look at. Although it has been considered to be an almost shot-for-shot remake, the mood is top-notch and there are added psychological elements that amp up the creep factor to the more present-day, desensitized youth requirements. This is not to say that it is over the top. The film is still quiet and understated. People who are expecting to have their adrenaline levels spiked for 2 hours will be disappointed. The movie is all about setting a dark, thoughtful mood with the characters and the grim situations, and on occasion it jumps out to bite.

Liev Scheibner in the lead role as the father, Robert Thorn, strikes a pitch-perfect performance as a rational man who is slowly brought about to believe (thanks to the help of a smart photographer and a fanatical priest) that he might actually be fathering the son of the devil. Julia Stiles is also very convincing as a mother who is starting to suspect that her son might just be trying to kill her. This is not helped at all by the fact that Damien is being watched by a very protective nanny who is chillingly portrayed by Mia Farrow- a stroke of casting genius for anyone who saw Rosemary's Baby.

This movie has been unfairly maligned by critics. I have no idea if they saw a rough cut or if they just went in there expecting to hate it and fulfilled that prophecy all by themselves, but the new Omen is an engrossing, sleek, and yes- BETTER version of a "pretty good" but not "great" film. It was tweaked in all the right areas and given a modern enough spin to make it more than worth the price of admission.

And the kid? 4-feet of creepy. Director John Moore made the right decision to stick with the original formula of not having the kid talk much. Damien's piercing blue eyes and deceptive innocence are presence enough.

Gouda's Final Grade: A-