Saturday, September 25, 2004

Movie Review: The Forgotten

United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 9/24/04
Running Time: 1:29
Rated: PG-13 (Violence, profanity, mature themes)
Cast: Julianne Moore, Anthony Edwards, Linus Roache, Gary Sinise, Dominic West, Alfre Woodard, Christopher Kovaleski

Director: Joseph Ruben
Producers: Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks, Joe Roth
Screenplay: Gerald Di Pego
Music: James Horner
Studio: Columbia Pictures

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WARNING: This review contains some spoilers. Regardless, I recommend you read this review and skip seeing the film.

It has been said that viewers can usually decide if they like a film or not after the first ten minutes of its running time. In the case of The Forgotten, all is well within the first ten, but then again, you may find yourself just as impressed with the main character’s home furnishings as the early-established plot. Regrettably, once the train gets rolling, The Forgotten soon derails.

With the premise: a mother grieves over her lost son, and everyone she confides in (including her husband) tells her she never even had a baby, The Forgotten may sound like it’s a fresh and intriguing motion-picture. And, with an equally absorbing trailer, The Forgotten may appear just as promising as it sounds. However, due to its stiff screenplay and unclear ending, it turns out to be nothing more than an insipid piece of work in the fashion of a so-so episode of “The X-Files.”

It has been 14 months since Telly Paretta lost her son Sam in a plane crash, and she still remembers him every day of her being. Each day for at least an hour she goes into his room, pulls a few of his belongings (a baseball glove, a New York Mets cap, etc.) from his dresser drawer, and grieves. To help with her daily grieving, she sees a psychiatrist (Gary Sinese) who attempts to alleviate some of her distress over the unbearable loss. However, with her son always on her mind, nothing comforts her. She can’t let go of Sam; she can't forget him like everyone else has.

Suddenly, every remnant of Sam - including photos of him and all of his personal possessions - has been obliterated. To the common world, Sam does not exist; only in Telly’s mind does any memory of Sam linger. Telly is told that there never was a Sam, and that nine years ago she had a miscarriage. There is no proof of Sam's existence to be found other than in Telly’s own head. Is she crazy? Or is there a conspiracy behind the death of her son? With the help of Ash (Dominic West), another parent who comes to remember his child (under Telly’s convincing) when no one else does, Telly hopes to get to the bottom of both of their child’s deaths and figure out how both of them could be completely wiped out of everyone's memory except for theirs’. Is the government to blame, or is an incomprehensible power?

As expected, Julianne Moore plays her part well, but sadly her performance alone cannot help to lift this picture to a recommendable level. Truthfully, I am surprised that this former Oscar nominee even associated herself with this wishy-washy feature. No one else and nothing else makes this movie recommendable—except maybe the scares.

Director Joseph Ruben is a master of getting the audience’s heart racing; in other words, Joe knows jolts. In the past he has used his scare tactics in The Stepfather and The Good Son (two other familial focused films), and here with The Forgotten (a film all about the bond between a mother and her son) we are treated to at least two huge jump-out-of-your-seat scares (possibly three). I guarantee you: the only way you won’t jump is if you happen to be catatonic.

Truthfully, Ruben may implore a few shocking boos here and there, but where he peaks with shock value, he plummets to a monotonous degree elsewhere. With his repetitive aerial views that make the city look like a Petri dish, and his recurring camera angles that start looking down at a building at 45 degrees and then slowly drop parallel to the ground, The Forgotten’s camera work comes off as cyclic and dull. Also, it seems like Spizos (the cinematographer) is overly infatuated with the Brooklyn Bridge, because he inserts it into the background of just about every New York street scene. In all honesty, all through The Forgotten, not only are the director and cinematographer at fault for losing their focus, but the screenwriter is equally culpable.

Normally with psychological thrillers, people are on the edge of their seat throughout the film’s entirety—always trying to guess which way the film will bend – and considering this film has been advertised as “the biggest jaw-dropper since The Sixth Sense” – one would expect a pleasantly drastic twist. However, what you get is an anticlimactic, inadequate, and barely-noticeable turn in the plot that is almost laughable in a bizarre “Twilight Zone” kind-of way. Instead of buckling up for the ride as the picture progresses, the film shamefully buckles on itself.

By the end of The Forgotten, we may know where to point the finger (no pun intended), but so many questions still remain unanswered creating craters in the conclusion. In its closing act, The Forgotten charters into terrain claiming it’s all just an extraterrestrial experiment, but no details are given to explain any of the contrivance we already sat through. How did the entire nature of the world change? Exactly who was responsible? What was the purpose of the experiment? And, did the spatial scientists formulate a hypothesis and use the scientific method?

With The Forgotten, I put the scientific method to good use. I predicted the movie was going to be thrilling, chilling, and have a brain. Sadly, my hypothesis was disproved. The Forgotten works well with Moore’s professional performance and a few jolting shocks, but on every other level, this film will most likely result in disinterest and ennui. Unfortunately, The Forgotten and the term "tolerable" can only be correlated if the confounding factor of alcohol is present.

Dominic West’s character was the smart one. In the film he plays a drunk—proving that he knows the only way to get through this attention-grabbing yet extremely dissapointing picture is to be inebriated. Alcohol induces memory loss, and I assure you that you will agree: heaping portions of The Forgotten are better off not remembered. If you think it is worth it to sit through 87 minutes of a drama/sci-fi gimmick, all for yet another emotional portrayal from Miss Moore and two chances to jump out of your skin, be my guest. Otherwise, if you appreciate intelligent films, The Forgotten will most likely not even be stored in your short-term memory. (*1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Movie Review: Kundun

United States, 1997
U.S. Release Date: 12/25/97 (limited), 1/16/98 (wide)
Running Time: 2:08
Rated: PG-13 (Violence)
Cast: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, Tsewang Migyur Khangsar, Tencho Gyalpo, Sonam Phuntsok, Gyatso Lukhang, Tenzin Trinley, Robert Lin

Director: Martin Scorsese
Producer: Barbara De Fina
Screenplay: Melissa Mathison
Music: Philip Glass
Studio: Touchstone Pictures

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Martin Scorsese – a name that is typically associated with both ruthlessly violent films (Goodfellas, Casino, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, etc.) and dark bushy eyebrows – is a director who always likes to integrate religious elements into his merciless yet artistic films. Twice he has ventured out of his typical territory and directed two features (The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun) that focus entirely on the lives of two heavenly men. Kundun is definitely an atypical Scorsese picture, but with its soothing cinematography, impressive score, and smooth camera angles, Scorsese’s skills as a filmmaker still shine through. Although Kundun may be a tad slow-paced and may lack the level of drama and emotion that one would expect, its simplistic spirituality and its captivating chronology substantiates that it’s hard for Scorsese to beget a bad motion picture.

After the death of the thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1933, the search began for the reincarnated fourteenth. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1937, that the reborn Buddha was discovered by a holy man disguised as a traveling servant. This holy traveler found a special two-year-old boy near the outskirts of Tibet. When asked, this chosen child flawlessly selected the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s belongings from a table full of loose articles—all the while he exclaimed, “Mine, mine, mine.” The holy man smiled, for he knew he had found their leader, and named the boy Kundun (which translates to “The Presence”) after the first Dalai Lama.

As a young boy, Kundun went through scrupulous training where he gained his sense of how to protect his people and how to passively resist violence. He also learned how to promote compassion and love all living things. From his meditations as young man, he acquired the serenity and wisdom to promote peace and to cherish silence. And, from his political hardships as a developed adult, he learned the brutality of war and the cruelty of a Communist China. This left Kundun with a demanding decision—flee to India, or stay and protect his people?

The entire life story of Kundun – from being a worshipped toddler to being an exiled adult – is told through his eyes—the eyes of His Holiness (the fourteenth Dalai Lama). Considering the storyline is told through the Tibetan spiritual and political leader’s eyes, we don’t see any of the violent images of war going on outside of the monasteries. Instead, we only see sudden glimpses of Kundun’s dreams and nightmares. This lack of exposure to the emotion and pain being suffered makes it harder to connect and sympathize with the Tibetan people. However, through Kundun’s visions and limited exposure to the violence, we can sympathize with him as he struggles to do what is best for his people.

One scene in particular stands out to support this point. Seeing Kundun standing among the thousands of bodies of his red-robed followers is not only visually stunning, but it is also emotionally startling. This incredible aerial shot is without a doubt the cinematic highlight of the feature.

Scorsese’s use of color, superb camera angles, and sound allows Kundun to resonate in your mind and heart long after the two-hour and eight-minute running time. Kundun is such a brilliant palette of reds and golds that it feels more like a dream drenched in soothing hues than a mere movie. Also, its bright cinematography makes it appear more like a series of stained glass windows rather than a strip of celluloid frames. In addition, Scorsese’s masterful camera angles provide a heightened view of this somewhat slow subject. His camera work, depicting a young Kundun hiding under his red robe, not only shows us that a Tibetan’s garb has a low thread-count, but also that Scorsese is as cinematically clever as they come. Furthermore, the film’s score is absolutely unforgettable. Much like the hymns in church, the score not only provides the background, but it also enhances the experience.

While Kundun is a beautiful documentary-of-sorts feature on the life of the fourteenth Dalai Lama and Buddhism, in terms of storyline and character development, it definitely is not one of Martin’s crowning achievements. It did however earn five Academy Award nominations including best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Music; yet, it won none. The award Scorsese has had at his fingertips on for more than twenty years – the "Best Director" Oscar – still remains unearned.

Nonetheless, Kundun still merits my recommendation because its simple yet sacred storyline stays with you, and its overall entrancing impression leaves you both in appreciation of the knowledge you obtained and in amazement of the sentiments you sensed. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Movie Review: Copper Mountain (A Club Med Experience)

United States, 1983
U.S. DVD Release Date: 5/18/04
Running Time: 1:00
Rated: PG
Cast: Jim Carrey, Alan Thicke, Richard Gautier, Ziggy Laurence, Rob Hebron

Director: David Mitchell
Screenplay: Damian Lee and David Mitchell
Music: Brian Bell
Studio: Platinum Disc Corp

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On the cover of the cheaply made and corny looking Copper Mountain DVD it reads, “Jim Carrey in one of his first and funniest films running riot on the Colorado ski slopes.” First off, this is not even a properly structured sentence! This poorly written quote pretty much foreshadows the quality of the film. Secondly, this quote does not come from any accredited critic or columnist; it is basically just a bias opinion from one of the filmmakers that is not even close to being accurate. To compare Copper Mountain in terms of comedic value to any other of Carrey’s films, is an absolute joke; the only thing that can be remotely considered laughable here is Carrey’s countless impressions. Even at that, these impressions usually don’t cause side-splitting laughter; they normally just result in jaw-dropping awe depending on how precise they are. Thirdly, by no means is this experience a running riot; it’s more like rotting disarray. Copper Mountain is a sixty-minute pointless picture that contains way too much music and way too little to like. It is so absurd that even calling it a movie is a compliment.

Bobby Todd (Jim Carrey) and Jackson Reach (Alan Thicke) are two young guys looking for a good time. Bobby is your stereotypical loser who constantly has trouble with women, and wherever he goes he can’t seem to catch a break. Jackson, on the other hand, is a slick overconfident skier who is looking to someday go pro on the slopes. For a weekend getaway, these two friends travel to the Club Med ski-resort in Colorado. There, Jackson hopes to earn a spot in the Pro-Am skiing competition, while Bobby just hopes to approach a lady and not have her run away in fear. Both Bobby and Jackson hope to score big on and off the slopes during their life-altering experience at Club Med.

Sadly, this film does not score on any level, nor is it life-altering in any way. The picture quality is so poor, fuzzy, and unclear that it is even hard to make out distinct facial features. The camera angles are beyond bad and the acting is equally objectionable. Also, the balance of volume between the dialogue and the soundtrack is absolutely atrocious. Copper Mountain is one of those painstaking endeavors where you need to turn the sound up when the characters are speaking, and then turn it down once the music starts blaring. Believe me, by the end of the picture your thumb will most likely acquire a cramp. This film contains about thirty minutes of sporadic dialogue, while the other half of the running time is really just the loud, obnoxious full-length tunes of Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins and friends.

For a greater part of this wretched reel, Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins leads a crap concert out on the snowy front lawn of Club Med. This musical train-wreck, which literally takes up thirty-minutes of the film’s abhorrent hour, is completely unnecessary and unrelated to anything that is going on in this straight-from-the-sewer motion-picture. Most of the time, none of the film’s characters are even around the concert stage, but for some reason, we are subjected to sit there and watch Ronnie and the Hawks (featuring additional performances by Bill Champlin and Rita Coolidge) perform just about a half a dozen of their “greatest” hits.

Once you start hearing Hawkins’ hits repeated over and over again (especially the dreadful “Low Die”), you really just wish an avalanche would come rushing down the mountainside covering the entire band and all of the film’s players—putting an end to this movie manure. Copper Mountain honestly should not even be considered a motion picture, but rather a live DVD for the Ronnie Hawkins’ band.

Copper Mountain is the absolute epitome of cinematic sewage. It is one big incoherent mess that attempts to survive exclusively on a few of the twenty-one-year-old Jim Carrey’s impressive impressions along with the music of a washed-up cowboy and his has-been Hawks. If this movie (that is more like a long commercial) actually had a workable plot and was even somewhat organized, it would quite possibly have the potential to move up a rung or two on the ladder, but it doesn’t. Instead, Copper Mountain is a wipe out from beginning to end. You’d be better off spending an hour of your life watching fresh paint dry. Seriously, take my advice. Don't go near Copper Mountain; it is an overall piss-poor experience, and its snow is yellow. (zero stars out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Movie Review: Spider-Man

United States, 2002
U.S. Release Date: 5/3/02
Running Time: 2:01
Rated: PG-13 (violence, sensuality)
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, J.K. Simmons, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson

Director: Sam Raimi
Producers: Ian Bryce, Laura Ziskin
Screenplay: David Koepp (based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)
Music: Danny Elfman
Studio: Columbia Pictures

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Just like midriffs and sand-blasted jeans, comic-book-to-film adaptations are the latest fad. Ever since Superman paved the way for excellence in 1978, movies based on comic-books have been popping up in endless amounts. The new millennium is now serving as a resurgence of bringing two-dimensional superheroes to the big screen. With franchise films like Spider-Man, X-Men, and Superman set for multiple sequels in the years to come, I can honestly say that Spider-Man is my least favorite film of the three. It may have grossed an exceptional $403.7 million, and it may have pleased comic-book convention nerds world-wide, but Spider-Man is really just a mediocre motion picture that is a little too flat, silly-looking, and immature for the common moviegoer.

After first hearing that Spider-Man was officially going into production, many were very uncertain and uncomfortable knowing that Tobey Maguire landed the lead role of “Spidey”. Maguire, previously seen in Pleasantville, just doesn’t come across as your stereotypical superhero. During the pre-casting selection process, rumors were flying that Jake Gyllenhall was in the running for the Peter Parker lead, but apparently Tobey – with more experience – edged him out. From my point of view, Maguire was a bad casting choice right from the get-go. I can honestly say that the entire cast – excluding Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin – did not sit very well with me. With Maguire, Dunst, and Franco, the movie acquires a teen-oriented aura that seems overly juvenile—compared to the well-established and adult-oriented feeling that the X-Men and Superman series bring to the table.

I am sure you all know the story of Spider-Man, but in case you have been living under a rock for the last forty years…here goes. Peter Parker is your average high-school nerd—a socially apprehensive loner who lives with his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and Uncle Benny (Cliff Robertson). Aside from being a studious nerd with an affinity for science, he serves as a photographer for the local paper. Parker’s interests in science and photography land him on a guided tour where he happens to be bitten by a mutant spider. After acquiring spider super powers (climbing on walls, sensing danger, and swinging from building to building by shooting webs from his wrist), Spider-Man is on a mission—to save the city from the evil Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and protect the woman he loves most (Kirsten Dunst).

First, let us cover the effects. The computer-enhanced special effects are mildly good and at most tolerable. At times, Spider-Man looks more like a video-game character than a live-action character. During the action scenes, he flings, flails, and flies around like a rag doll—defying the laws of physics. I mean, come on; he is a superhero, but he is also still a human-being. Gravity, inertia, and friction should still apply.

Secondly, the attire in this picture is absolutely appalling. While Spider-Man’s apparel is generally acceptable, that of his villain’s is amazingly dreadful. The Green Goblin’s garb is so utterly ghastly that it looks more like a cheap Halloween costume that was found on clearance at one of those mall stores that unsurprisingly sprout up every September.

Thirdly, at times, the dialogue is downright tacky. Some of the speech gives off the tone of one of those shabby old hero-vs.-villain cartoons where the villain plots, says “I’ll get you”, and then follows his thinking with an evil cackle.

Lastly, why is Macy Gray even in this movie? This is a question that will forever plague the minds of many.

Even though Spider-Man is an overall childish effort that comes off more like a cartoon with a poor choice of live actors than a comic-book turned cinematic masterpiece, it is still for the most part fun and entertaining. In comparison to the likes of other inferior superhero movies (The Punisher, Batman and Robin, and The Phantom), Spider-Man spins circles around its competition. But, should the best superhero movie of all-time be based on either earnings or quality? If it’s earnings, Spider-Man wins—no contest; if it’s quality, Spider-Man comes nowhere close. (**1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Monday, September 06, 2004

Movie Review: The Fisher King

United States, 1991
U.S. Release Date: 9/20/91
Running Time: 2:17
Rated: R (profanity)
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer

Director: Terry Gilliam
Producers: Debra Hill and Lynda Obst
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese
Music: George Fenton
Studio: Tri-Star Pictures

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The quest for the Holy Grail has been depicted on screen in many instances. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Excalibur, and Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail have all dealt with the hunt for Jesus’s drinking cup—the symbol of God’s divine grace. The Fisher King, yet another film from director Terry Gilliam, is a quaint and unique tale about how humanity and salvation can come from the most unlikely of sources. Underneath The Fisher King’s quirky artistry, its redemptive aspects, and its Christian symbolism, the film combines to make an eccentrically enjoyable motion picture.

Jack Lukas (Jeff Bridges) is one of those rude, shock disc jockeys who insults and belittles every caller and listener and still somehow sees his ratings climb. With his radio show being a success and with television offers streaming in, Jack’s career looks to be on the upswing. Subsequently, just after signing on to no longer be just a voice, but now also a face, Jack’s quest for stardom takes an unexpected dive. Apparently, one of the radio station’s troubled, frequent callers took Jack’s comments a little too seriously, and went on a shotgun shooting rampage inside a stylish, high-class restaurant—killing seven before turning the gun on himself. Now, with Jack Lukas at fault in the media’s eyes, his future in show business doesn’t look too promising.

Fast forward three years later, and we find the once self-centered deejay to be drunken and distraught. After placing the blame of the seven deaths on his own conscience, Jack thinks of himself as one of the lowlifes—one of “the bungled and botched.” He resorts to drinking his worries away, wandering alone on the streets at night, and even attempting suicide. However, just before Jack is beaten to death, he is saved by Parry (Robin Williams), a homeless man who thinks he is a knight in search of the Holy Grail. Parry is your stereotypical, crazy bum; he mumbles to tiny, fat, floating fairies; he runs from visions of Red Knights, and he thinks that the Holy Grail is sitting on a bookshelf in a Fifth Avenue mansion. Parry also believes Jack to be “The One” – the chosen one from God to retrieve the Holy Grail – and even though he may not be “The One”, there may be some sense behind Parry’s lunacy.

Once Jack discovers that Parry, the homeless mess, was formerly Henry Sagan the college professor and husband to a lovely woman who was suddenly shot to death by – you guessed it – a crazed and troubled listener of "The Jack Lukas Show," he feels that he owes Parry more than a helping hand. In the process, Jack not only hopes to help Parry, but he also hopes to find his own Grail and rid himself of his lasting guilt.

Without Terry Gilliam in command behind the lens, who knows what angle of approach any other director would have taken? Gilliam brings his abnormal expertise to the table and adds two touches to the film’s screenplay that were not there pre-Terry. His addition of the graceful Grand Central Waltz turns out to be the film’s centerpiece. And, his incorporation of the many Pinocchio images makes this feature deep and delightful. Gilliam’s Pinocchio idea further illustrates (metaphorically) that Jack wants to be a “real boy”—or in this case, a real human being with a heart.

Mercedes Ruehl delivers the lead of her life, that unquestionably warranted her 1991 Academy Award win, as Jack’s supportive girlfriend. On the male side of the spectrum, Michael Jeter steals the show with his debutante-with-a-mustache role, while Bridges and Williams really don’t standout. Bridges plays his part well, but for the most part, he is just under-the-radar of being notable. Williams performs a portrayal that is basically already his typical zany self to the tee; he flaunts around just as much as he normally does in most of his comedic films. However, here he does take a couple of daring risks. At one point, he goes off into a monologue on mystical bowel movements. Then, later in the film, Williams strips down to nothing with - as he says - “the little guy danglin’.” Even so, I assure you there is no need to worry; a bare Robin Williams still appears as if he is wearing a wool jumpsuit—his burly body hair really makes him look more like a furry animal than a naked human-being.

Despite this films unnecessary nakedness and rather lengthy running time, it is still an eloquent screenplay under the management of a master director. With Gilliam’s typical touch of testing the lines of fantasy and reality, we are treated to this part-realism/part-idealism concerning the importance of believing not only in yourself, but also in others.

While The Fisher King is not one of Gilliam’s best, it is still a highly regarded holistic effort. Its hints of mythology, grace, and spirit are just enough to allow the picture’s prevailing foundation to resound in your soul. Even though The Fisher King doesn’t exactly reign supreme, it still deserves its reverence and gains my approval. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004