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-