Monday, August 29, 2005

Movie Review: Sin City

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 4/1/05
Running Time: 2:03
Rated: R (Violence, nudity, sexual situations, profanity)
Cast: Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Jamie King, Brittany Murphy, Benicio Del Toro, Nick Stahl, Elijah Wood, Michael Clarke Duncan

Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, Quentin Tarantino ("special guest director")Producers: Elizabeth Avellan, Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez
Screenplay: Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez
Music: Robert Rodriguez, John Debney, Graeme Revell
Studio: Dimension Films

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Any phrase, that begins with the word “visually” and ends with a superlative adjective, could be said about Frank Miller’s Sin City. Be it “visually invigorating,” “visually arresting,” or “visually inventive,” Sin City is truly an orgasm for the eye. However, Sin City not only appeals to your sense of sight, it also allows you to feel for its captivating characters, hear the intriguing thoughts of its voiced individuals (multiple characters do not speak at all), and taste the finest adaptation of a comic-book/graphic-novel ever put into motion.

In a city full of murder, prostitution, cannibalism, and rape, three separate storylines chronicle the ways of Marv (Mickey Rourke), Dwight (Clive Owen), and Hartigan (Bruce Willis). Based on “The Hard Goodbye,” Marv is out to take vengeance on the man who killed a prostitute - who gave him the night of his life - named Goldie (Jaime King). Derived from “The Big Fat Kill,” Dwight helps a group of girls, who forcefully keep their streets clean, conceal the murder of a crooked cop named Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro). And finally, with “That Yellow Bastard,” Hartigan, an aging cop with a “bad ticker,” tries to protect a young girl named Nancy (Jessica Alba).

Sin City is, by far, Robert Rodriguez’s shining feature. At the very mention of his name, Sin City should crawl from the very cusp of your cerebellum right to your lips. Movie fans everywhere must learn to forget the futile time he spent working in three-dimensions, with both Spy Kids and The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl, and remember Rodriguez for his more generous deeds--like providing viewers a setting so unfamiliar, yet blissful, in Sin City. Also, after the Director’s Guild gave him slack for making Frank Miller – the author of Sin City, a co-director – Rodriguez immediately handed in his resignation. Now, if that doesn’t define commitment and class, what does?

Quentin Tarantino also makes a “special guest” appearance in the director’s chair. Responsible for the scene in which Dwight is driving to “the pits” and talking to Jackie Boy’s corpse, Tarantino wanted Jackie Boy’s Pez-dispenser-of-a-head to have an affect on his speech. Also in this scene, Tarantino directed Dwight to verbalize his thoughts, instead of using a voiceover; this way, the scene stands out and seems all-the-more surreal. With Tarantino’s garnishes and Rodriguez and Miller’s meat and potatoes, Sin City is a modern-day Pulp Fiction and a feast for comic-book noir buffs.

For those who appreciate cult classics, Sin City deserves the status. While its three-pronged storyline – jolted with brilliance – is enough to push you to your knees, its brute force and style are enough to knock you flat—face first into the mud. Sin City is as gritty as a mouthful of sand and as machismo as The World’s Strongest Man--dripping with adrenaline and infused with a drum full of anabolic steroids.

Throw all of the trash talk - concerning sexism and nihilism - down the drain, and immerse yourself in this wet, stark, and insanely satisfying endeavor. If it is a stylistic sock to the jaw and the darkest, most unabated work of the year you yearn for, then search no further; Sin City is the remedy for every cinematic woe attributed to uniformity. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Movie Review: The 40-Year-Old Virgin

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 8/19/05
Running Time: 1:55
Rated: R (Sexual situations, nudity, profanity, drug use)
Cast: Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie Mann, Jane Lynch

Director: Judd Apatow
Producers: Judd Apatow, Shauna Robertson, Clayton Townsend
Screenplay: Judd Apatow & Steve Carell
Music: Lyle Workman
Studio: Universal Pictures

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Steve Carell should be a name/face you know. Many will probably distinguish him as Michael Scott from NBC TV’s “The Office,” while others will identify him as Brick – the mentally-challenged weatherman – from Anchorman. Regardless if you recognize him or not, just note that in the near future, Steve Carell will be one of comedy’s leading men. The 40-Year-Old Virgin only marks the onset of the Carell Capades.

With The 40-Year-Old Virgin being the vehicle to get Steve Carell’s cinematic career – as a lead role – off of the ground, funny-man Carell is setting his bar high. Virgin is one of the funniest films of the year, and while audiences may not match the intensity of a few laughs they had during this year’s Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin kills with consistency—spreading its laughs out evenly from beginning to end. Apart from director Judd Apatow’s recent failure, Kicking and Screaming, The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a cohesive comedy that contains a healthy balance of both heart and funny bone.

At age 40, Andy Stitzer (Steve Carell) stills collects toys and reads comic books. In addition to discovering these juvenile characteristics, Andy’s male coworkers find out that their pal, Andy, is a virgin. Even though Andy imagines his first time blossoming from a relationship of love, his guy friends have other options in mind.

David (Paul Rudd), Jay (Romany Malco), and Cal (Seth Rogen), all commiserate Andy for his abstinence and submit themselves to the task of finding their friend a woman. All three give Andy endless pointers, place him in a speed-dating service, and even offer him a prostitute. However, once Andy lays his eyes on Trish (Catherine Keener), he is charmed. Andy desires to have a relationship with Trish, but a young voluptuous blonde by the name of Beth (Elizabeth Banks), offers him an alternative.

Much like Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin manages to squeeze in a love story for its leading man. Nevertheless, with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the romance works on a much greater scale. In between laughing at Andy’s loneliness and immaturity, the audience is rooting for the guy, and once he shows that he is a tactful and respectful man, he becomes a true and tender hero.

On the downside, The 40-Year-Old Virgin runs 10-15 minutes too long. In contrast, the tight script keeps the train rolling. The only point where the film shows any sign of losing steam is when Andy’s relationship inevitably crashes for a preposterous reason—just long enough to bring him to a crossroads and present him with a choice between two women. As the reel comes to an end, Andy makes the right decision (as expected)—sending viewers home happy and content.

As for those who post a limit on their raunchometers – that is, if the raunchy humor in films like American Pie and There’s Something About Mary disgusted you in any way – then chances are, you will not enjoy the randy comedy that The 40-Year-Old Virgin has to offer. Just remember, this film did not succumb to temptation and censor down for the PG-13 crowd. Conversely, if you enjoyed these two sexual, yet classic, comedies, then hold on to your hat, sit back, and enjoy the fun.

If its poster isn’t hilarious enough to provoke you into seeing the film, then take my recommendation: see The 40-Year-Old Virgin; you won’t regret it, and even on repeated viewings, it is sure to be just as satisfying as the first time. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Monday, August 22, 2005

Movie Review: The Godfather Part II

United States, 1974
Running Time: 3:20
Rated: R (Violence, mature themes, language)
Cast: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, John Cazale, G. D. Spradlin

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Producer: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo based on the novel by Mario Puzo
Music: Nino Rota
Studio: Paramount Pictures
In English and Italian with subtitles

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The term sequel is a word frequently applauded among production studios and appalled among critics. However, most recently, The Lord of the Rings trilogy proved that sequels can equal or better the very majesty that birthed them. In the ‘70’s, The Godfather spawned Part II – an effort that matches the marvelous original in both size and scope.

The Godfather Part II is the only sequel to grab the Oscar for Best Picture besides the 2004 winner, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. With that said, The Godfather Part II is an entrancing continuation of a hard-to-top masterpiece and a film that can best be described as refined, realized, and remarkable. It is the prime example of how to construct an epic motion-picture; it’s long, yet substantive in its characterizations and masterful in its presentation.

In a series of extended flashbacks, we observe the beginnings of Vito Corleone (Oreste Baldini). After both his parents and brother were murdered by Don Francesco Ciccio (Giuseppe Sillato), Vito flees to America to start anew. In America, Vito (Robert De Niro) lives as an impoverished immigrant for quite some time, but eventually, his ambitions overcome him. Before long, Vito is one of the most powerful men in New York.

Meanwhile, amid the flashbacks, we witness the growth of both Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his inherited Mafia empire. Some forty years later, the times are changing, and so are the family’s relations. Michael soon suspects that there is a traitor within the Family. In addition, he realizes that both his sister Connie (Talia Shire) and wife Kay (Diane Keaton) are becoming rebellious and untrusting. Michael must identify who sold him out, restore his family’s ties, and attempt to make the Family business legitimate once more.

As expected, the acting is top-of-the-line. Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and John Cazale all return and provide exceptional support. Robert De Niro is superlative as the young Vito—exhibiting both signs of Brando’s signature raspy voice and a spot-on Italian dialect. Lastly, Al Pacino is both convincing and menacing in his reprise role of Michael. He successfully makes it apparent that his character truly cherishes his father’s values and wants to uphold his legacy. At the same time, the expression on his face – post Kay’s revelation – is priceless. There should be no question as to why Pacino was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1975.

Is Part II better than the original? As far as I am concerned, both are compelling enough to be deemed masterworks. While Part II does not quite keep on pace with the emotions and iconography of its predecessor, its style of splitting the storylines and driving home the sizeable “like-father-like-son” theme is exquisite. Three cheers for The Godfather Part II – one of the best sequels in all of cinema. I bow to thee and kiss thy hand; The Godfather saga of the ‘70’s governs absolute. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Friday, August 19, 2005

Movie Review: Guess Who

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 3/30/05
Running Time: 1:45
Rated: PG-13 (Sex related humor)
Cast: Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, Zoe Saldana, Judith Scott, Kellee Stewart

Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan
Producers: Jason Goldberg, Steve Greener, Ashton Kutcher, Bernie Mac, Erwin Stoff, Betty Thomas, Jenno Topping
Screenplay: David Ronn, Jay Scherick, Peter Tolan
Studio: Columbia Pictures

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Guess Who. No, it’s not that Milton Bradley game where you ask if the other player’s person is wearing glasses or balding. Guess Who is the motion-picture that is simply a slight twist on the Meet the Parents storyline, with that twist being race. Considering its lead couple is interracial, Guess Who presents itself with several opportunities to tackle the black/white barrier, and when it tries, it succeeds. It is just that, on the whole, Guess Who does not contain enough redeeming qualities to make it a memorable comedy.

After Simon Green (Ashton Kucher) quit his job with a reputable company, he can’t bring himself to tell his fiancée Theresa (Zoë Saldana). Simon elects to keep his unemployment a secret from Theresa to prevent himself from spoiling their trip to her parents’ home.

Theresa’s parents, Marilyn (Judith Scott) and Percy Jones (Bernie Mac), are planning to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary by renewing their vows. However, considering Theresa did not share any specifics about her new beau with her parents, both Marilyn and Percy are shocked to discover that their baby’s boyfriend is a white man. From moment one, Percy is determined to separate his daughter from her non-athletic, dishonest, Caucasian boyfriend. In the process, Percy digs himself into a hole.

If you have been predisposed to Guess Who’s trailer, chances are you already know where the picture is going in terms of its laugh-grabbing antics. Basically, all of the film’s gags can be observed in the preview of the film. It is a shame that the trailer isn’t featured on the DVD’s special features; that would make for a quick and easy means to watch the film in all of its comedic splendor.

No, Guess Who isn’t the worst film, but it isn’t a masterpiece either. It is just another run-of-the-mill comedy involving in-laws and a lovey-dovey duet that can’t stop calling each other, “baby.” Truthfully, Guess Who does have all the elements to be a successful comedy, only sequences like the go-kart race and the lingerie try-on scene push the picture from enjoyable to inane.

Let us hope that the film’s producers aren’t ordering a sequel in which Theresa would go to Simon's house to experience more of the same. That scenario just wouldn’t work on screen, and it couldn’t possibly improve on this mildly engaging yet forgettable feature. (** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Movie Review: Secretary

United States, 2002
U.S. Release Date: 9/20/02 (limited)
Running Time: 1:45
Rated: R (Sexual situations, S&M, nudity, profanity)
Cast: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren, Amy Locane

Director: Steven Shainberg
Producers: Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby, Steven Shainberg
Screenplay: Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the short story by Mary Gaitskill
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Studio: Lions Gate Films

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Secretary’s DVD cover slightly misleads any potential viewer into thinking that it is a borderline-porno feature about kinky sex and bondage, between a lawyer and his secretary. However, Secretary is not quite the S&M hormone-inducing film that one would expect. While its main characters’ relationship is highly unconventional, its first hour is extremely sluggish, and after thrusting along at a leisurely pace, the picture pulls out before climaxing.

After Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is released from a mental institution, she applies for a position as a legal secretary. Although, once E. Edward Grey (James Spader) grants her the job at his law firm, her occupation isn’t the only position Grey places her in.

Once Grey notices Lee’s burn marks, open wounds, and scars from her days of self-mutilation, the two develop a relationship of taboo proportions. Grey channels his secretary’s energy, which she previously used to mutilate herself, by presenting her with another exploitative option. With each typographical error that Lee makes, Grey abuses Lee—both verbally and violently, in the manner of a sexual fetish. Grey goes as far as spanking her, masturbating on her backside, and making her both wear a saddle and eat a carrot like a horse, and Lee loves it all.

With that said, Secretary is nowhere near a pornographic film, but rather a bold picture about replacing one violent behavioral fixation with another. The most important thing that can be taken from this film is a beautifully logical explanation of why one would want to multilate oneself.

Chances are, if you are anticipating the sadomasochist segments alone, you will walk away unsatisfied. At its center, Secretary is a love story—albeit atypical and perverse, yet a love story nonetheless. Mind you, Secretary is not quite the perfect film to rent for a sweet Saturday-night date; however, its elements of romance are still original and deep.

For many, the notion of sex in an office setting is stimulating, but in the case of this feature, its effects are principally unfulfilling. If you find yourself keen on the idea of observing pointless and unarousing aggressive fantasies fulfilled – without actual seeing any of the action – between a scarred woman and a psychotic man, then Secretary is the film for you. On the other hand, if you value romantic films that rely on bubbly character chemistry and dreamy relations, then Secretary is only worth your time and money if your options are limited. (**1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Movie Review: Chicago

United States, 2002
U.S. Release Date: 12/25/02 (limited); 1/17/03 (wide)
Running Time: 1:52
Rated: PG-13 (Sensuality, profanity, violence)
Cast: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifa

Director: Rob Marshall
Producers: Marty Richards, Harvey Weinstein
Screenplay: Bill Condon, based on the play by Fred Ebb & Bob Fosse
Music: John Kander, Danny Elfman
Studio: Miramax Films

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After opening in 1975, the Broadway musical Chicago was rewritten in 1996 with a couple of differing numbers. Ever since the success of this revised musical, a film adaptation has been in the works.

Early on, Goldie Hawn and Madonna were cast as the lead roles, but wisely production suddenly stopped. Once the filmmakers observed the magnitude of negative reviews that Madonna received for her role in the major musical flop Evita, they felt that Chicago wasn’t going to work with "The Material Girl" as the lead. Production on the film ceased entirely. The popular jazzy musical was not given another shot at the big screen until choreographer-turned-director Rob Marshall picked up the project. Needless to say, Marshall choreographed a musical gem that earned 13 Oscar nominations and won six of the categories, including the Best Picture of 2002.

Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) is your everyday housewife, who is married to a hardworking loving man named Amos (John C. Reilly). Roxie is striving to become a vaudeville star just like Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the successful singer/dancer whom Roxie sees perform. This young wannabe would do just about anything to get her chance to make it big—including sleep with other men and even kill.

After shooting her lover, who promised to help her get her singing career up and running, she finds herself on the ladies’ death row with none other than Velma Kelly. Both women are then represented by the undefeated lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), whose tactics include giving them continuous media coverage and promoting their charm and innocence. Roxie plans to use her newly acquired fame to hit the stage and become the biggest name in the lights, but Flynn must first “razzle-dazzle” his way out of another one in order to save her from being hanged.

The musical numbers build into the story’s structure like side notes to the script; they blend in smoothly with the dialogue and acting. With tunes such as “All That Jazz”, “Cell Block Tango”, “Mister Cellophane”, and “We Both Reached for the Gun” coming unexpectedly from actors with surprising splendid voices, Chicago is the musical America has been waiting to see for more than a decade. Excellent choreography, camera work, and lighting add to a super screenplay with top-notch performances, to make a picture deserving of its Best Picture nomination. At the same time, The Pianist should have easily trumped Chicago for the title of the Best Picture.

One can only hope that more well-written musicals with more surprise vocal performances, will follow in Chicago’s wake. Although it is not as masterful and entrancing as some of the late 50’s and early 60’s musicals (Singin’ in the Rain, My Fair Lady, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and West Side Story), Chicago is still inspirational, fun, and nicely done. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Movie Review: Wages of Fear

France, 1953
Running Time: 2:24
Rated: Not Rated (Violence, brief nudity)
Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck, Folco Lulli, William Tubbs, Vera Clouzot

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Producer: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi, based on the novel by Georges Arnaud
Music: Georges Auric
Studio: DCA
In French with subtitles

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Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur) is a film that embeds itself deep within the trenches of your brain’s every fold. Subsequent to an initial viewing, the film will surely cling to your thoughts and inspire you to indulge in its expert craftsmanship again and again. Its camera work is close to the cream-of-the-crop of the time, and its ability to close like a Shakespearian tragedy rather than a happily-ever-after tale, makes it far more rewarding than most of the stock stories that have followed.

The two-hour-and-twenty-four-minute running time abides by a fairly simple premise: four men must drive two six-wheeled trucks full of nitroglycerine for more than 300 miles. Once their task is complete, they will collect a wage of $2,000 apiece. On the downside, if the truck hits a bump too hard or the temperature gets too hot, the nitroglycerine will explode in atomic fashion. The two teams of men must maneuver their way through the treacherous terrain as cautiously as humanly possible in order to get the deed done.

The four brave, yet desperate, men to attempt this stunt are: Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Focco Lulli) and Bimba (Peter Van Eyck). All of whom are eager to “clear out” of the poverty-stricken town in which they currently reside called Las Piedras. The four men decide to risk their lives so as to gain an opportunity to live a better life elsewhere. Once the rickety wheels begin to roll, the four daring souls have a one-way ticket down a long, long road full of obstacles.

With director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s other masterful suspense thriller Diabolique, the man they call the “French Hitchcock” provides an excellent one-two punch. Despite Clouzot’s continuous use of wipe-away screen transitions, he uses the camera in a flawless manner—traversing the two trucks and their separate storylines, emphasizing the action that the men encounter, and intensifying the suspense that they undergo.

Wages of Fear is the absolute epitome of high tension and as good as it gets in terms of establishing trepidation. While the trucks do endure various accelerations and sudden stops, it is in every steer of the wheel and every loss of traction that the levels of nervousness are heightened. When considering films like Speed and its own 1977 remake Sorcerer, it is obvious that Wages of Fear is the granddaddy of all that is gripping.

For those who are unfamiliar with a bulk of black-and-white foreign films, this one will have you yearning for more. By the picture’s end you will most definitely have both a pair of white knuckles and a movie title to add to your list of favorites. Wages of Fear is a multilingual nail-biter, which proves that human beings can hold their breath longer than science perceives to be possible. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005