Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Movie Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 3/19/04 (wide)
Running Time: 1:50
Rated: R (Profanity, drug use, sexual content)
Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo

Director: Michel Gondry
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Steve Golin
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman
Music: Jon Brion
Studio: Focus Features

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By now, if you are unfamiliar with the name Charlie Kaufman (in other words, if you have spent the last three years in outer space), that is undoubtedly a damn shame. Charlie Kaufman is unquestionably one of the most extraordinary and one of the (if not the) most inventive screenwriters in the game today. His previous projects, including Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, have broken cinematic formulas and expectations alike, and in doing so, both have become modern-day unparalleled masterworks. Fortunately, with his newest effort, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kaufman does not fall far from the level of innovation he emanated with his first two features. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a strikingly original story that blends both romance and memory loss like no other. It is yet another eccentric and aesthetic tale from one of Hollywood’s most gifted writers that all will surely find sharp, fresh, and cognitive.

Not only has Kaufman pieced together a pioneering screenplay on an often-adapted subject matter, but he has also concocted an aptly named title that has the power to place viewers in a state of surrealism and wonderment right from the get-go. The title of the picture is taken from a poem entitled “Eloisa to Abelard” by Alexander Pope. This historic elegy, which Kaufman also used in Being John Malkovich, directly refers to the human brain’s power of recollection. Reminiscent of both Memento and 50 First Dates, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind deals with the loss of memory; however, Kaufman’s script gives the frequently used topic an appetizing twist.

On a train to Montauk, Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey) happens to meet Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), a candid yet electric woman, who more-or-less seems like she could complete Joel in every way. The two form a relationship, and establish many happy memories together. Even so, in due time, their connection comes to a halt—Clementine becomes bored with Joel and Joel believes Clementine is too dependent.

Immediately after the breakup, Clementine chooses to have Joel erased from her memory. She travels to Lacuna Inc. – a company that specializes in the futuristic service of memory erasure – to seek the help of Dr. Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson).

Once Joel discovers that Clementine erased him from her head entirely, he reports directly to Lacuna for the very same service. However, once the Lacuna employees, Patrick (Elijah Wood), Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Mary (Kirsten Dunst), start wiping out Clementine from Joel’s mind, their service becomes a disservice; Joel becomes contrite and changes his mind about the procedure. Even though Joel is unconscious during the entire attempted erasure, he consciously tries to retain the memories of his love for Clementine within the walls of his own head, and attempts to hang on to at least a fragment of what they once had.

There is no question about it, this Jim Carrey’s finest work. He brings a clear spirited depth to the part of Joel—making Joel Jim’s most stark yet most respectable character role to date. Even though Eternal Sunshine may not be one of Jim biggest money making endeavors (compared to his comedies), it certainly puts him on the path of being perceived as an actor who is capable of seriousness. At far as earning an Oscar nod for ‘04, because of the film's early release date and the fierce competition up for the Best Actor nominations, Jim will most likely be gypped.

In addition to Carrey’s career performance, the remainder of the ensemble cast fares equally as well. Kate Winslet serves up some of her best non English-accented acting as the orange-haired and sporadically veclempt Clementine. (Sorry for the Yiddish slang.) Her work here is arguably better than anything else she has done—with the possible exception of her other near-astounding 2004 effort in Finding Neverland. Kirsten Dunst and Mark Ruffalo are as faultless as always, and both Tom Wilkinson and Elijah Wood are as top-notch as expected in their respective supporting roles.

With his superb use of light (or more appropriately darkness) and his watertight scene transitions, director Michel Gondry has crafted an utter joy of a film that cleverly starts out near the end and then wraps back upon itself by the conclusion. Overall, the quirky yet visual genius of Gondry combined with the warped yet brilliant mind of Charlie Kaufman has undoubtedly resulted in a beautiful and poignant romance. The manner in which Eternal Sunshine blends its romance and comedy gives the film a strong sense of undeniable individuality and makes for an overtly pleasing picture. Eternal Sunshine has the aptitude to tickle your thinking cap, sooth your sight, and hypnotize your heart. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind belongs in the absolute upper echelon of all that is romantic and unique. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Monday, November 29, 2004

Movie Review: Panic Room

United States, 2002
U.S. Release Date: 3/29/02 (wide)
Running Time: 1:48
Rated: R (Violence, profanity)
Cast: Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam, Jared Leto, Kristen Stewart, Patrick Bauchau

Director: David Fincher
Producers: Gavin Polone, Judy Hofflund, David Koepp, Cean Chaffin
Screenplay: David Koepp
Music: Howard Shore
Studio: Columbia Pictures

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Typically, a good number of suspense thrillers can get away with providing a sense of stress solely through musical crescendos and moronic women scampering either up the stairs or into a closet (when they should be running outside—courtesy of Scream)—making it completely obvious that danger is soon to appear on screen. However, Panic Room is one thriller where both of the film’s protagonists skillfully remain indoors to stay away from the threat at hand.

Suspense and tension are around every bend in this smart and superb production, and thankfully, there are no big-breasted bimbos in sight. Panic Room contains intelligent characters who continuously attempt to outsmart each other. It’s like a game of cat and mouse combined with a chess match between Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov. Overall, Panic Room is a platonic picture that provides not only an excellent screenplay, but also thrills, chills, and astonishing camera work.

In the late 19th century, it was common to have a “panic room” – a room that is completely surrounded by concrete and steel to keep out danger – in your living quarters. Nowadays, panic rooms are near nonexistent. While house-hunting on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristin Stewart) come across an impenetrable hidden fortress in an 1879 townhouse. They purchase the brownstone-esque house with a full-functioning panic room intact; the room contains food, water, its own phone line, and enough working security monitors to view every corner of the house.

After unpacking a few of their belongings and ordering a pizza, both Meg and Sarah fall asleep for the first time in their new home. While the mother and daughter are in bed, three men (Forrest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakum) break into the house with one objective in mind. Meg wakes up, manages to grab Sarah, and locks the both of them inside the panic room for protection. Unfortunately, what the men want is in that room.

From its eclectic opening credits – where the names of the cast are up against skyscrapers – to its closing credits, Panic Room flaunts its style. Director David Fincher, who previously showed his stuff in Seven and Fight Club, parades his panache even further in Panic Room. Frankly, no review of this film would be complete without mentioning Fincher’s glorious camera work. His smooth and unhurried tours of the mansion – through cracks of doors, keyholes, and coffee pots and from floor to floor, room to room, and inside to outside – provide for a creative and captivating view of the occurrences. Fincher also uses slow motion, silence, and a gritty lack of lighting to fabricate a splendid aura of ultimate suspense.

Screenwriter David Koepp has penned a near-perfect motion-picture that blends a delicious sum of dry humor, with an almost unbearable amount of edge-of-your-seat anxiety by inserting an unexpected twist around every corner. Panic Room is truly a much better project than Koepp’s other 2002 effort, the second-rate Spider-Man. It is good to see him here in top form.

Foster puts out a fine portrayal as Meg, the broken mother who recently divorced her millionaire husband Stephen (Patrick Bauchau). Foster and Stewart fit as a credible mother daughter team and their emotions help elevate this picture to its level of maximum tension. Likewise, the crack squad of Jared Leto as Junior, Forrest Whitaker as Burnham, and Dwight Yoakum as Raoul, further facilitate in making this film equally suspenseful and enjoyable.

If it’s a pulse-pumping and visually-mesmerizing motion-picture you’re hunting for, then Panic Room fits the bill and exceeds expectations. Its dim, grey, and gloomy atmosphere helps to sustain a sense of claustrophobia and tension like only the finest thrill-a-minute motion-pictures. Panic Room’s gumption alone will have you glued to your chair—trying not to blink. On the whole, Panic Room is beyond doubt a driving amalgamation of white-knuckling tension and dynamic technique that should not be by any means overlooked. (***1/2 out ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Movie Review: The Incredibles

United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 11/5/04 (wide)
Running Time: 1:55
Rated: PG
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Lee, Elizabeth Peña , Spencer Fox, Sarah Vowell, Lou Romano,Wallace Shawn, Eli Fucile, Maeve Andrews

Director: Brad Bird
Producer: Jon Walker
Screenplay: Brad Bird
Music: Michael Giacchino
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures

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Following the big box-office hits of Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monster’s Inc., and Finding Nemo, Pixar’s sixth collaboration film with Disney (in a seven film contract ending after next year’s Cars) is unsurprisingly another success. The Incredibles packs the first-class animation effects of all of its Pixar predecessors with the wondrous superhero action of the DC/Marvel comics. Then again, it lacks a little in the quality category compared to the likes of Toy Story and Finding Nemo. Even so, The Incredibles is enjoyable in numerous ways and provides for satisfactory end of the year entertainment.

The Incredibles covers the mid-life crisis of a formerly-happenin' superhero named Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). In his prime, Mr. Incredible was accustomed to saving countless lives and finding his face on almost every magazine cover and front page of the newspaper, but soon he found himself being sued by a man that did not want to be saved from committing suicide. In time, more and more people jumped on the bandwagon to sue the superhero for ridiculous reasons—forcing both Mr. Incredible and his newly wedded bride, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to relocate their lives and suppress their superpowers.

Fast forward fifteen years— Bob Parr (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible) spends his days jammed into a cubicle - the size of his upper body - settling insurance claims, while his wife Helen (a.k.a. Elastigirl) stays home and manages their three kids Dashiel (Spencer Fox), Violet (Sarah Vowell), and Jack Jack (Eli Fucile and Maeve Andrews). Dashiel (a.k.a. Dash) has the capability of running at super-speed, Violet can both supply a force field and turn invisible, and Jack Jack apparently has no superpowers at all—or at least he hasn’t been given a chance to show them off. At any rate, the three young children are told to never use their powers in fear of the family falling victim to the SRP (Superhero Relocation Program) once more.

While stuck in his dead-end job, Bob still manages to find the time to relive his glory days with his old pal Lucius Best (a.k.a. Frozone) (Samuel L. Jackson). After telling both of their wives they are taking part in a bowling league, Bob and Lucius venture out to listen to police scanners hoping something goes awry, and when the scanner becomes active, so do Bob and Lucius. When trouble strikes, they suit up as Mr. Incredible and Frozone and save the day (or night for that matter).

However, when Bob gets fired from his desk job and is offered another from an apparent superhero recruiter named Mirage (Elizabeth Peña), he decides to revert to his days of being a superhero. Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst of Bob’s addiction to the adrenaline rush of saving civilians, Helen thinks that Bob is just going on a series of business trips for his old insurance occupation. Conversely, Bob is not in his insurance-man suit and tie, but rather his new, red, capeless Mr. Incredible suit.

While on his new job, Mr. Incredible is given the task to defeat an evil robot named Omnidroid 7, and he triumphs. However, Mr. Incredible soon realizes that the Omnidroid 7 was designed with the intention to kill Mr. Incredible and other superheroes the same by Syndrome (Jason Lee), an evil inventor from Mr. Incredible’s past. Now, trapped on Syndromes’ fortress island, Mr. Incredible is unaware that his wife and kids have figured out his secret and that they are on their way to save him from Syndrome's wrath.

Not only does Brad Bird receive accreditation for writing and directing this feature, but he also plays one of the film’s most memorable characters—Miss Edna “E” Mode, the Incredible's very own superhero seamstress. Craig T. Nelson also does a superb job of humanizing a cartoon-looking hero, and Holly Hunter, although she has a little too distinct of a voice to hide behind an animated character, finds it easy to go from superhero to mother and vice versa. Samuel L. Jackson and Jason Lee are also equally notable.

If you happen to be slightly cultured in comics, it is quite easy to see where writer/director Brad Bird found his inspiration. Each of the film’s characters share an ability with one of the DC/Marvel heroes. Elastigirl is obviously comparable to Mr. Fantastic; Dash to The Flash; Violet to The Invisible Woman; Frozone to Iceman; and Mr. Incredible to The Thing—only Mr. I. is not made of stone. Also to note, is a scene in which Elastigirl is piloting a plane, which is quite reminiscent of Hunter’s prior work in Always. Be that as it may, while Bird’s muses may appear to be Xeroxes of other already-existing superheroes and motion-pictures, they are more likely signs of homage than thievery.

The Incredibles not only establishes itself with honorable action, but it also carries an omnipresent familial message. It proves that a nuclear family can possess powers—super or otherwise; it shows that parents’ impressions can impact a child’s demeanor in more ways than one; and it holds the supremacies of togetherness, love, and kin over all those that are superhuman.

While The Incredibles does say a lot about the command of a family, and in doing so will surely please children, adolescents, and adults alike, it isn’t exactly a film that deserves the superlative adjective “incredible” when commenting on the picture. Let me put it this way, it’s no Nemo. Nonetheless, The Incredibles is yet another Pixar production that deserves both blockbuster status and considerable acclaim. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Movie Review: Contact

United States, 1997
U.S. Release Date: 7/11/97 (wide)
Running Time: 2:30
Rated: PG-13 (Profanity, mature themes)
Cast: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods, Tom Skerritt, William Fichtner, Angela Bassett, John Hurt, Rob Lowe, David Morse, Jena Malone

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Producers: Doug Mitchell, Steve Starkey, and Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg based on a story by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, based on the novel by Carl Sagan
Music: Alan Silvestri
Studio: Warner Brothers

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Based on the 1985 bestselling book by Carl Sagan, Contact is a contagious selection of cinema that gets into your brain and bonds itself there in both vision and thought. Its effects are aesthetically pleasing and its action is undeniably satisfying, but this feature skillfully spends more time propounding queries and rousing discussions than it does distracting us with vacuous contentions.

Contact wisely places plot, concepts, and characters above all else. For example, the film holds scientifically feasible ideas supreme over the typical green-men gun battles one would expect. Hence, its ability to not conform to stereotypical standards is just one component that makes Contact smart, superior, and one of the best films to ever deal with ostensibly valid science applied to a fictional situation.

Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a scientist infatuated with the stars and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Working for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), Ellie listens for any audible sounds from the depths of the solar system that may signify some sort of alien acumen. However, stricken with the limits of bureaucracy, Ellie discovers the difficulty in convincing investors to back her “alien-searching” research. Nonetheless, she doesn’t give up, and shows inexorable determination to uncover something that is not of this world.

Ellie’s fortitude finally pays off when she discovers a recurring signal sent from the star Vega. Ellie and her team begin to decode the message as the world waits, watches, and prays. The message from deep space progressively becomes clearer, and it becomes apparent that whatever or whoever is out there is trying to communicate.

Contact may be completely celestial on its outer shell, but it’s primarily personal at its core. Though the majority of Contact’s plot focuses on the search for extraterrestrial life, the film is more importantly about the main character’s quest to find her inner self. Ellie searches for not only sounds from space, but also purpose in her life. Throughout the picture, she is all alone on a mission to find the very meaning of her existence, while – from a scientist’s standpoint – she is faced with the disconcerting conflict of physical evidence vs. faith.

Contact poses very pertinent questions - on the clash between religion and science - that powerfully provoke thought, yet prudently do not boast any opinions. The film persistently asks, “Why are we here?”, “Who are we?”, “Are we alone in the universe?”, and “Is there a greater power that be?” By asking these seemingly-unanswerable questions, the film offers an updated version on the faith vs. facts trial in Inherit the Wind and represents itself as an outstanding human science-fiction feature.

Jodie Foster plays the part of Ellie Arroway with unflinching zeal. Her role may seem a tad distraught, but as a portrayal of a curious scientist who is passionate about her work, it is wholly genuine. Matthew McConaughey fits the bill as both Foster’s love interest and a former seminary student who “couldn’t really deal with the celibacy” turned theologian. Additionally, Jena Malone as a young Ellie (albeit with the wrong eye color) and David Morse as Ellie’s father, assist in elevating the picture’s level of performance power.

Robert Zemeckis’s direction is enchanting; from his execution of the opening space-time continuum tour and inclusion of TV and media to tell the story, to his wondrous camera work (when Ellie runs up the stairs, for example) and sterling scene transitions, Zemeckis presents a fantastic follow-up to his equally euphoric Forrest Gump. In addition, the picture’s pacing is perfect—making its 150 minute length not a setback but a plus. Fortunately, Contact doesn’t fall victim to Hollywood’s typical under two-hour expectancy. In fact, atypical is an excellent word to describe Contact, because it is nonconforming and it doesn’t cop out in any way. Contact’s plot developments occur at precisely the right moments and its numerous themes irrefutably keep you captivated. In everyway imaginable, this film is truly flawless.

Ultimately, Contact contains enough grace, awe, humility, and wonder to float you onto a cloud and carry you away. It is a film that will not lose your interest for one second and a picture that will certainly impact you down to the very marrow of your bone. Without reserve, Contact is irrevocably a cinematic shining star. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004

Monday, November 08, 2004

Movie Review: Finding Neverland

United States/United Kingdom, 2003
U.S. Release Date: 11/12/04
Running Time: 1:40
Rated: PG (mature themes and brief language)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman, Freddie Highmore, Radha Mitchell, Luke Spill, Joe Prospero, Nick Roud

Director: Marc Forster
Producer: Nellie Bellflower, Richard N. Gladstein
Screenplay: David Magee, based on the play by Allan Knee
Music: Jan A. P. Kaczmarek
Studio: Miramax Pictures

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Over the past century, J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” has been rehashed on stage, video, and screen a myriad of times. On the other hand, a look at the story behind the author of this magical tale has only been done on stage in Allan Knee’s play, “The Man Who Was Peter Pan.” It wasn’t until Miramax decided that the story of James Barrie and how he was inspired to write his greatest work held just as much cinematic and thematic value as “Peter Pan” itself, that Knee’s play then became a motion-picture. However, a slight hiccup held the film from finding its way into theatres.

Initially slated for a December 2003 release date, Finding Neverland (then titled J.M. Barrie’s Neverland) was a picture set to be in Christmas-season competition with P.J. Hogan’s big-budgeted, live-action version of Peter Pan. Once Miramax realized that the motion-picture market would then contain two entirely different interpretations of Peter Pan and Neverland, Miramax pulled the plug and pushed Finding Neverland back to November 2004. Fortunately, for its impeccable cast and crew, Finding Neverland now doesn’t have The Lord of the Rings to contend with come February. Finding Neverland is one fall film that will be undoubtedly harvesting some early Oscar chatter.

The year is 1904, and playwright James M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) just cannot seem to produce a play that his audiences enjoy. After producing flop, after flop, Barrie knows that he must create a crowd pleaser or face the possible collapse of his career. Consequently, under the financial backing and moral support of Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), an American stage producer, James realizes that for his next play he needs a major muse to elevate him to the level of success.

Searching for inspiration, Barrie meets Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her intriguing four young boys—Jack, Michael, George, and Peter. Captivated by Sylvia’s children (in a non-perverse way—despite accusations), James begins to spend every waking hour with the Llewelyn Davies family and away from his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell). Disregarding both the angst of his wife and the anxiety of the boys’ grandmother (Julie Christie), James establishes a friendly relationship with all of the children and their mother. James takes a particular interest in the eight-year-old boy named Peter (Freddie Highmore) and starts writing his next play around him and their adventures together.

Due to a few fantastical parallels, it is safe to say that if you enjoyed Big Fish, then Finding Neverland will most likely strike your fancy. It shares a subtle mix of fantasy and reality, and has the potential to hit you emotionally to the point of weeping. Without a doubt, many will walk out of the theatre with their hankies in hand. In fact, if this story, and its faultless blend of an amiable biopic and a mesmeric drama, doesn’t bring you to the brink of welling up – where you can feel your heart turn to mush – then you truly need to be institutionalized.

Johnny Depp, one of Hollywood’s most talented and versatile actors, takes hold of his character with unbridled assurance; his Scottish accent is right on the money. As for Winslet, she pours on the emotion—making Sylvia her second noteworthy role this year, alongside her portrayal as Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dustin Hoffman (who ironically played Captain Hook in the "Peter Pan" adaptation, Hook) also adds his droll yet distinguished role of Charles that provides an ideal amount of comic relief. However, none of these main players match the single-most significant performance of the film from twelve-year-old Freddie Highmore. Freddie’s portrayal as Peter is one that will surely stay with you for a lifetime; the audacity and emotion that this young boy exhibits will certainly cause you to, at the least, shed a tear. Highmore is unquestionably the highlight actor of the film--not to demean any of the other actor’s praiseworthy presentations.

In addition to an impeccable cast, the direction, screenplay, cinematography, and score all deserve accreditation. Forster does a noble job in both following up his superb direction of 2001’s Monster’s Ball and displaying his capabilities behind the camera. Also, David Magee, a first time screenwriter, composes a beguiling gem of a script—proving that sometimes a freshman can be a breath of fresh air. Also, Roberto Schaefer’s intoxicating cinematography and Jan A. P. Kaczmarek’s stimulating score each garner respect in their own right. To date, it is entirely feasible to assume that Finding Neverland has the capability to clean house as far as nominations go.

Finding Neverland is truly a terrific film that has the power to both wet your tear ducts and whet your appetite for the Academy Awards. It is a picture that you can get lost in; a picture that will make you cry, smile, and laugh; a picture about love, compassion, and the importance of youth; and a picture that is creative, endearing, lush, and uplifting. To be able to find all of these attributes in a single picture, easily makes Finding Neverland my frontrunner for film of the year. (**** out ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004