Monday, June 28, 2004

Movie Review: Big Fish

United States, 2003
U.S. Release Date: 12/10/03 (limited); 12/25/03 (wide)
Running Time: 2:00
Rated: PG-13 (Nudity, mild profanity)
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito, Matthew McGrory, Marion Cotillard

Director: Tim Burton
Producers: Richard D. Zanuck, Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks
Screenplay: John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace
Music: Danny Elfman
Studio: Columbia Pictures


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Big Fish is far from being a commercial production; it may appear as just another one of Tim Burton’s zany pictures, but Big Fish is a fantastical feature that deserves a lot more credit than what it will receive from your everyday mainstream movie fan. Burton, a director whose visions are far more out of the ordinary when compared to most conventional movie men, takes the adapted screenplay written from Danny Wallace’s novel and gives it his atypical, yet enchanting touch. Although, one aspect of his latest accomplishment is not very “Burton-esque."

Big Fish is bright in all three contexts of the word--as defined in your Webster's. Unlike just about every one of Burton’s previous pictures, in which he has used darkness and cynicism to his advantage, Big Fish is dazzling, brilliant, and buoyant—a refreshing change of pace from Burton, and without question one of his best.

William Bloom (Billy Crudup) has spent his whole life listening to this father’s stories. When he was a kid, they were amusing and impressive, but now that he is all grown up, his father’s stories are nothing more than outlandish exaggerations. With William thinking his father, Edward (Albert Finney), is nothing but a liar with no sense of genuine truth and personality, the father and son part.

During this father-son split, William falls in love with a young French woman named Josephine (Marion Cotillard). William is hesitant to bring her home to meet his father and his fabrications, but some bad news arrives causing the three to unite sooner than expected. Edward is terminally ill. William travels home to see if he can look past the stories that he believes to be false and really get to know who his father is before his father passes from this world.

Meanwhile, we hear and view Edward’s many fairy tale stories, as the young Edward’s (Ewan McGregor) life is told before our eyes. From his birth and his major growth spurt, to his encounters with a future-telling witch (Helena Bonham Carter), a giant named Karl (Matthew McGrory), the tiny tent man Amos Calloway (Danny Devito), and of course the love of his life Sandra (Alison Lohman), Edward’s stories are stretched to a near Tall Tale nature.

This film is by far one of the best examples of casting actors who actually pass for the same character at different ages. For example, it is not hard to believe that Ewan McGregor’s young Edward grows up and fills out into Albert Finney’s older Edward. Also, the likeness between Jessica Lange’s Sandra and Alison Lohman’s is so close it’s almost creepy. It looks like Lohman was just placed in a forty year aging machine to become Lange. The resemblance here – partially accredited to the film’s hair and make-up squad – is so strong that it seems feasible that the two actresses actually share the same genes.

Besides the uncanny look-alike contest going on throughout the film, there are several actors’ portrayals worthy of merit, even though the cast isn’t exactly star-studded. Both Finney and McGregor play the part of Edward Bloom with such Southern pizzazz—basically sounding like Forrest Gump with a bit more embellishment and intelligence. Lohman, the stunning actress with loads of talent, is at the top of her game as usual; she is undoubtedly worth working a year with no wages and taking the beating of a lifetime for, as Edward did in the film. Adding to the mix, Steve Buscemi is an actor who is always a pleasure to have on staff, regardless of his role.

Truthfully, I was enchanted with most of the actors’ characters including the mini circus man with the wolf-white hair played by Devito, and Karl the Giant played by Matthew McGrory, who looks like Gheorghe Muresan with a slightly distorted skull. However, there are two actors whom I felt were both miscast and who lowered the level of the picture. Marion Cotillard, who plays Josephine, William’s fiancé, attempts her best Penelope Cruz voice and really just looks like a female version of Elijah Wood. Her role is just “there”—with no emotion and really nothing special to add. But, because of her limited screen time, Cotillard is only a minor discrepancy of mine. On the other hand, Billy Crudup’s role of William, one of the film’s main characters, is flat and for the most part forced. Maybe it is the fact that Crudup is the voice of the MasterCard commercials that had him distracting and annoying me throughout the film; I kept hearing his voice and just waited for him to interrupt a pause with “Priceless…There are some things money can’t buy…yadda, yadda, yadda.” In my opinion, Billy Crudup was bloody cruddy.

Despite its title and tremendous opening credits, Big Fish is not a story about fish in a Finding Nemo kind of way. Big Fish does however play the metaphor card endlessly when comparing the life of Edward to his biggest catch. Edward is compared to a goldfish as he grows to fit his environment—obviously intended for larger things outside of his small fishbowl of a home town, Ashton. His momma once told him, “The bigger fish gets that way by never being caught.” Edward, taking this advice, realizes that the ocean is open for him, and he swims freely and swiftly out into its vast waters.

Big Fish contains such an adventurous plot that it is easy to get caught up in the superlative storyline and completely miss the superb special effects. There are two scenes in particular that jut out. One: the dizzying dancing scene in town of Spectre, and two: the stopping of time scene when Edward approaches the love of his life through the still circus. Both scenes are very exquisite and wonderfully shot under Burton’s direction.

With Big Fish having been crowned the next Wizard of Oz by many, I am surprised that it didn’t earn any more nominations from the Academy. Big Fish churns your imagination enough to allow you to escape the pitiless and pessimistic ways of the real world. There is nothing fishy about it; Big Fish is an optimistic endeavor that is both big and fun. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Movie Review: Amelie

U.S. Release Date: beginning 11/9/01 (limited)
Running Time: 2:00
Rated: R (Sexual content, brief nudity)
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus, Dominique Pinon, Isabelle Nanty, Serge Merlin

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Producers: Jean-Marc Deschamps, Claudie Ossard
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant
Music: Yann Tiersen
Studio: Miramax Zoë
In French with Subtitles


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For some reason, foreign films happen to be a huge turnoff to most Americans. These days, it is rarity to find a motion-picture spoken in a non-English tongue gaining interest and exposure in the States. Why is this? Maybe it is the unfamiliar styles and cultures represented, that turns a typical American away. Or maybe it is just the sheer fact that one must suffer through the enormous task of having to read something (subtitles through translation) while watching a movie.

In the case of the French film, Amelie, the subtitles are not, at any time, an annoying distraction from the visuals, nor do they feel like an exhausting chore; they rather go unnoticed and seem altogether nonexistent, due to the film’s playful yet captivating script and its extremely-likable lead.

Amelie is a simple, charming, and coy young female who enjoys the little things in life, like dipping her hand into sacks of grain and skipping stones over small bodies of water. She finds happiness and joy in the simplest of things, but she soon realizes that something in her life is missing. Once Amelie finds a toy tin full of a young boy’s treasured relics and returns it to its much-obliged, and now older owner, she is inspired to go out into the world and help everyone she encounters. In turn, she not only helps all of those around her, but she also helps herself.

Witnessing Amelie’s antics and stratagems, as she acts as the ultimate do-gooder, is not only entertaining but also fantastical. Her silly questions and ways of thinking are unique, comical, and quirky, and make the overall picture extra amusing and enjoyable. The character of Amelie, played by Audrey Tautou, is both perky and delightful, and truthfully, there could not have been a better casting selection for the lead than Audrey. This beautiful brunette possesses such a radiant and attractive aura that she makes the movie bright, feathery, and fun all at the same time.

This fine piece of French confection cleverly covers all of the facets of love, failure, intuition, and sex in such an original and energetic manner. While some of the scenes that display these themes are unexpected, they are all artistic and functional in their own intended ways. Amelie allows you to believe that each and every person has the ability to indefinitely impact so many, and that you never know which direction your life will turn, even within the short time-frame of only 48 hours.

Amelie is more than a movie; it is also a visual experience to behold. The flowing camera movements and varying angles add to create a visually stunning and artsy touch. Furthermore, the palette of digitally enhanced colors used, mostly full of shiny reds and glossy greens, make for an overall look that the eye cannot ignore, but only marinate in. (The reds and greens are not overly used to create the Christmassy look that one might expect; instead, they are balanced out with an occasional blue or yellow to fashion a colorful and pleasing picture.) This film’s five Academy Award nominations in 2001, which included the likes of "Best Art Direction" and "Best Cinematography", are all without a doubt warranted.

Acquaint yourself with this film, and allow it to paint its picture of a dreamy young woman who is both in love, and in the process of discovering herself. This may be a foreign work of art that you are unfamiliar with, but that does not mean that it does not deserve its observation and recognition just as much as any other picture in the gallery. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Movie Review: A Civil Action

United States, 1998
U.S. Release Date: 12/25/98 (limited), 1/8/99 (wide)
Running Time: 1:52
Rated: PG-13 (Profanity, mature themes)
Cast: John Travolta, Robert Duvall, Tony Shalhoub, William H. Macy, Zeljko Ivanek, James Gandolfini, Bruce Norris, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, Stephen Fry, Dan Hedaya

Director: Steven Zaillian
Producers: Scott Rudin, Rachel Pfeffer, Robert Redford
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian based on the book by Jonathan Harr
Music: Danny Elfman
Studio: Touchstone Pictures


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How many of John Grisham’s fictional legal novels have been adapted to the silver screen and lost their luster in the process? --Nearly all of them (i.e. The Firm, Runaway Jury, etc). Only in rare cases do movies go out of their way to outweigh or even match the effects and intentions of their textual basis. This transitional book-to-film loss is especially typical in storylines found under courtroom settings. However, A Civil Action, based on a true story and adapted from Jonathan Harr’s book of the same title, is not your average Grisham law novel turned screenplay, where the dramatic courtroom twists and turns, through testimony and legal actions, seem overly melodramatic, and where predictable triumphant revelations always abound; instead, it is an intelligent legal drama/thriller with a great overall cast that does not disappoint.

John Travolta plays Jan Schlichtmann, a personal injury lawyer and one of Boston’s ten most eligible bachelors. Jan ends up taking an “orphan case” (a case that has been passed around from firm to firm), which deals with the deaths of eight children—all due to several carelessly disposed of chemicals found in the local drinking water. It is not until Jan realizes the substantial financial gain, when he signs on and begins working in collaboration with his entire five-man firm. In an effort to win the biggest case of his career, against two very wealthy companies, and in an attempt to not lose everything, he must succeed and win his civil action suit—making a storyline and plot that is strikingly similar to the more recent Erin Brockovich.

This film’s all-star-esque cast assists in the overall impact of the film tremendously. Despite Travolta being a big name and a big-time actor, his lead role as Jan, who seems to wear the same three-piece suit, red tie, and black overcoat in every scene, is not very powerful or convincing. Then again, he does portray a lawyer; so maybe he is just skillfully fitting the stereotype. However, I believe that the once Danny Zucko, was in fact a miscast. Luckily Robert Duvall, William H. Macy, Tony Shalhoub, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quintar, and James Gandophini all make up for where Travolta lacks.

A Civil Action takes a great deal of time with the validity of the true story’s trials and tribulations. Throughout the film we acquire statistics on personal injury law suits, tidbits of knowledge on why most cases end in settlements and not verdicts, and even information on the chemical process of how to waterproof leather. The picture takes the time to intrigue us with intellectual matters concerning both science and public policy. The good thing about this film is that it doesn’t spoil itself by relying on inane action to keep it afloat; instead it focuses on the sciences and laws at hand, and surprisingly still manages to sustain the audiences’ interest.

There is no question that A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich both have parallel true stories and both address similar situations. But, if given a choice, I prefer the female counterpart film--to see not only a beautiful woman in her Oscar-winning role, but also a hands-down better picture. Nonetheless, A Civil Action is on the higher end of those in its class, and I would not object to recommending it as a book-to-film legal drama that will not hold any viewer in contempt. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Friday, June 04, 2004

Movie Review: Freddy vs. Jason

United States, 2003
U.S. Release Date: 8/15/03 (wide)
Running Time: 1:35
Rated: R (Violence, gore, sex, nudity, profanity, drug use)
Cast: Robert Englund, Ken Kirzinger, Monica Keena, Kelly Rowland, Jason Ritter, Christopher George Marquette

Director: Ronny Yu
Producer: Sean S. Cunningham
Screenplay: Damian Shannon, Mark Swift
Music: Graeme Revell
Studio: New Line Cinema

Honestly, I have never been a die-hard fan of either the Nightmare on Elm Street series or the Friday the 13th series, and frankly who really is anymore? Most of the original fans from the 70’s and 80’s (the decades when these horror films dominated) have grown up and established families, occupations, and lifestyles where this type of picture is not really of interest anymore; now this type of entertainment is only oriented towards the extreme horror enthusiasts and the rebellious immature teens who are just out to possibly sneak into an R-rated gore-fest and get their expected fair share of cheap scares and T & A.

After Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund) has been intentionally forgotten on Elm Street, he awakens Jason Voorhees (Ken Kirzinger) and sends him to Elm Street to wreak havoc on Freddy’s old hunting grounds. Once the ghoulish goalie-masked menace commits numerous murders, Freddy’s name naturally comes up--being that he is the expected assassin, considering the name of the street. Naturally, fear spreads as fast as high-school gossip--causing the knife-fingered, feared, and freaky Freddy to regain enough power to, yet again, return to his old neighborhood for yet another killing spree. It then becomes a killing competition, and jealousy comes into play between the two villains when Jason keeps hacking away at Freddy’s fresh stock of victims. As one would expect, it ends in a bloody battle between the badass hockey-faced hacker and the badly-dressed, bloody-faced slasher.

Let us now pause and recollect the vast majority of the unsuccessful movies that have contained the word, “vs.” in them. There is the more recent flops of Alien vs. Predator and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, the highlight of Tom Hanks’s career Joe Versus the Volcano (Can you sense the sarcasm there?), and quite possibly one of the worst films ever committed to film Zombie! vs. Mardi Gras. Oh, and of course we cannot forget all of the classic Godzilla pictures (i.e. Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, Godzilla vs. Destroyer, etc). And now, Freddy vs. Jason can be added to this list of poor, pathetic, and pitiable pictures.

In this horror battle, oddly enough, the big-breasted bimbos and their moronic boyfriends get more screen time than the title characters of Mr. Kruger and Mr. Voorhees. And speaking of the cast of characters, why is Kelly Rowland in this movie? The former member of the three girl singing squad "Destiny’s Child" and girlfriend of rapper Nelly, only serves as a mere prop for the “dark meat” quote and nothing else—she possesses absolutely no acting skills whatsoever. And the two main characters of Will (Jason Ritter, who happens to be the son of the now departed John Ritter, R.I.P.) and Lori (Monica Keena, who has the same Calista Flockhart-looking lip thing going on that Rachel Dratch so accurately depicts on NBC’s "S.N.L."), are played by two actors who have definite future film potential even though they chose to be in a poor picture that obnoxiously and sadly features a computer-generated caterpillar smoking marijuana. But hey, Josh Harnett got his start in the mediocrely-made “scary” movie, The Faculty, and the absolutely horrendous horror film, Halloween: H20, and look at him now.

If this movie continues to collect revenue through DVD sales, after its decent, yet undeserving, gain at the box-office, New Line Cinema will further flood the cesspool of horror film sludge in the form of sequels with a Freddy prequel and possibly (if New Line can purchase the rights to the Halloween series) a three-way brawl of Freddy vs. Jason vs. Michael.

The bottom line is: if or when you are indecisive at the rental store and are given a choice between Freddy vs. Jason in your right hand or pretty much any other film that you have the slightest bit of interest in seeing in your left hand, I say go with whatever your left hand holds. (** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004