Saturday, November 26, 2005

Movie Review: Rent

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 11/23/05
Running Time: 2:15
Rated: PG-13 (Profanity, mature themes, violence, sexual situations, brief nudity)
Cast: Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Anthony Rapp, Tracie Thoms

Director: Chris Columbus
Producers: Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Robert De Niro, Mark Radcliffe, Jane Rosenthal
Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky, based on the musical play by Jonathan Larson
Music: Jonathan Larson
Studio: Columbia Pictures

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The best thing that can be said about Rent is that it’s faithful to the award-winning Broadway musical. Conversely, it is easy to argue that Rent is too faithful of an adaptation—bringing its lack of character development and hammy stage theatrics along as baggage. Yes, I have seen Rent on Broadway, and yes I enjoyed it; after all, live on stage is the very medium to see Rent shine. On the other hand, as a film, Rent fails to exhilarate the viewer, yield a reasonable running-time, and light the candle within.

Set in the East Village of New York City, in the year 1989, Rent chronicles the lives of eight closely-knit friends from one Christmas to the next. Mark (Anthony Rapp) is an aspiring filmmaker, whose Jon Bon Jovi look-alike roommate, Roger (Adam Paschal), can’t seem to find the inspiration to complete a rock song on his guitar. Roger is stricken with AIDS and scared to start a relationship with Mimi (Rosario Dawson), an exotic dancer and heroin addict who lives in their building. However, considering the two roommates’ friends Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) and Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) are also stricken with the disease, yet still carry on with love for one another, they provide all with hope.

Meanwhile, once Mark’s girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel) leaves him for a woman named Joanne (Tracie Thoms), Mark attempts to warn Joanne that her new lesbian lover has a hard time being faithful. Joanne takes some convincing, but soon realizes that retaining Maureen as a life partner will be a difficult task. Nevertheless, a more complicated undertaking plagues them all: the group of friends must avoid eviction from their former friend Benny (Taye Diggs), and learn to appreciate their lives day-in and day-out.

Six of its eight principals are original cast members from the 1996 world premiere. The two new additions are Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, and ironically, these two boast the best vocals and emit the strongest acting emotions. Jesse L. Martin, in the role of Tom Collins, fares well in voice, but looks too old to be convincing. Wilson Jermaine Heredia stands out as Angel, the drag-queen with a caring heart, but truthfully, the Utz chips promotion is more memorable than any individual’s performance.

As for Idina Menzel who covers the part of Maureen, watching her air-suck a cow’s udder is definitely the low-point of her horrendous “artistic” performance piece. If the director wanted to embarrass Idina and cause the entire audience to be unable to stifle their overwhelming laughter, then here are two words for Mr. Columbus: mission accomplished. Personally, I could have also done without seeing her pale tattooed buttocks.

Jonathan Larkin’s original score is charging, yet mostly mediocre. While songs like “Seasons of Love,” “Rent,” “La Vie Boheme,” and even “Out Tonight” segueing into “Another Day” don’t necessarily disappoint, the majority of Rent’s numbers feel juvenile and affected. Lyrically, Rent attempts to bask in the profound and the political, but most of the words come out as spoon-fed schmaltz. While the film focuses on the effects of drug use, AIDS, and poverty, it fails to leave a lasting impression—despite continually driving home the “No day but today” theme.

In comparison to the musicals of recent-past, Rent doesn’t hold up. While Chicago cleverly incorporated its musical numbers into its script, Moulin Rouge dazzled the eye and ear, and even The Phantom of the Opera displayed a few positives in making the leap from stage to film. However, with Rent, the pauses between its musical numbers constantly deaden the pace of the film. Just as the audience senses minor emotions of elation, the screen fades to black and we are forced to wait around awhile for the next song to start.

On the whole, Rent is merely a stage show captured on camera, and the close-ups don’t do the thirtysomething leads any justice to the twentysomething parts they are playing. It also doesn’t help that the film closes with both the most ridiculous resurrection of all time and a documentary film that looks like a few snapshots carelessly thrown together. Plus, the film feels like its 525,600 minutes long.

Certainly there will be “Rentheads” who are disappointed, “Rentheads” who can’t wait for the DVD to be released, and “Non-Rentheads” (virgins to the experience) who either immensely enjoyed themselves or weren’t impressed. But, the bottom line is “Renthead” or not, Rent – as a major motion-picture – is largely cornier than a five dollar bucket of popped kernels and cheesier than a nacho tray full of processed orange goo. (** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Movie Review: City of God

Brazil, 2002
U.S. Release Date: 1/24/03 (limited)
Running Time: 2:15
Rated: R (Extreme violence, sexual situations, nudity, profanity, drug content)
Cast: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Frimino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, Deu Jorge, Matheus Nachtergaele, Douglas Silva

Director: Fernando Meirelles
Producers: Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Mauricio Andrade Ramos
Screenplay: Braulio Mantovani, based on the novel by Paulo Lins
Music: Antonio Pinto, Ed Cortes
Studio: Miramax Films
In Portuguese with English subtitles

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Hundreds of motion-pictures come and go year after year. Seldom, one stands out by making an indelible mark on its genre. Rarely, one soars to the status of an all-around tour de force. Yet, City of God masterfully manages to attain this very level. As it shuns the superficial and broadcasts the breadth of human violence and poverty, City of God secures a spot on the shelf alongside the acclaimed classics of The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and Cinema Paradiso.

In the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro, where drug trafficking employs just as many as those who are on a fixed payroll, hostility churns between both the pre and post-pubescent gangsters and the police. The citizens of the City of God (Cicade de Deus) know they have no way out. Their violence stems from an unimaginable dearth that breeds death and establishes a never-ending cycle of suffering.

Fortunately for Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), his interest in photography could be his ticket out of the favela, but that won’t stop him from having run-ins with the city’s most threatening thugs. Li’l Zé (Leanadro Frimino da Hora) is the prime example of a “hood” who strives to be seen as the town’s top-tier dealer. He murders unmercifully, shows no respect, and refuses to let anyone jeopardize his rise up the hierarchy—including rivals Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and Knockout Ned (Deu Jorge).

First-time director Fernando Meirelles has compiled a narrative based on actual events that includes kids whose stories are as daunting as they are intriguing. Without the slightest ounce of reserve, Meirelles takes an unflinching look at life in the ghetto. His scenes of violence, such as when Li’l Zé traps two children into a corner and forces his protégé to pull the trigger and when Knockout Ned’s girlfriend is battered and raped, are unforgettably unsettling.

City of God is so intense that, by the film’s end, you’ll swear it was in English. This Brazilian tapestry covers the harsh realities of greed, drugs, and war in the most kinetically stylized of fashions. Never before has a film so aggressively grabbed me by the collar, gone right for the jugular, and yet still shown a hint of hope and a heap of exhilarating artistry.

To further encourage all to see this motion-picture: Even after observing the quote, “This is one of the best films you’ll ever see,” (from the world’s most renowned movie critic) on the DVD’s cover art, your expectations will still be abundantly exceeded. City of God is a brilliant work of transcendence and a monumental masterpiece that blesses the eye in every way, shape, and form. If I were the curator of a cinematic museum, I would make sure that City of God had its own glorified display. (**** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Movie Review: Like Water for Chocolate

Mexico, 1992
U.S. Release Date: 3/93
Running Time: 1:45
Rated: R (Nudity, sexual situations, violence)
Cast: Lumi Cavazos, Marco Leonardi, Regina Torne, Mario Ivan Martinez, Yareli Arizmendi

Director: Alfonso Arau
Producer: Alfonso Arau
Screenplay: Laura Esquivel
Music: Leo Brower
Studio: Miramax Films
In Spanish with English subtitles

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The title Like Water for Chocolate alludes to the Mexican custom of continually boiling a pot of water until it reaches its highest temperature – so that when the water is mixed with hard cocoa, the chocolate can easily melt and the hot cocoa can be enjoyed. This symbolic title also implies the inherent desire for lovers to release their sexual fervor by connecting the sensory with the sexual at the opportune moment.

Based on the novel by Laura Esquivel (who also penned the screenplay, narrates the motion-picture, and is the wife of the film’s director/producer Alfonso Arau), Like Water for Chocolate is a fantastical food-centric film; yet, it’s more of a lavish love story than anything else. On the whole, it is the combination of the suppressed romance and the film’s recurring food metaphors that elevate this foreign affair to the level of eroticism, enchantment, and extravagance.

In the early 1900’s, Mama Elena (Regina Torne) – a cruel widow, ranch owner, and mother of three daughters – informs her youngest, Tita (Lumi Cavazos), that she will never marry. Instead, in accordance with the family tradition, Tita must remain single and look after her mother until she dies.

Ignorant to this family tradition, Pedro Muzquiz (Marco Leonardi) falls in love with Tita. In an effort to get closer to the woman of his dreams, he agrees to marry Tita’s older sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi). However, Pedro still longs for the touch of Tita, and Tita still incessantly yearns for Pedro. Through her frustration, Tita learns to expend her sexual energy into the food that she prepares, and in doing so she impacts those around her in grandiose ways.

Her sister Gertrudis (Claudette Maillé) is so aroused by Tita’s quail with garlic and rose petal sauce that she is spontaneously swept off her feet by a revolutionary cowboy. Her other sister, Rosaura, is assigned to a special diet to cope with her severe digestion problems, and the love of her life, Pedro, is awestruck by Tita’s attempts to gain his heart via his stomach.

Undoubtedly, the heart of the picture is in examining the effects of Tita’s cuisines on others; whatever emotion she pours into the recipe, the results are easily observable. She possesses the ability to stir her sentiments into a batter and bake them into an entrée, and by doing so, she is able to speak to those around her in a manner that does not require verbal communication.

In all of its wonder, Like Water for Chocolate is a story that combines the oppression of Cinderella, the mysticism of Babette’s Feast, and the sumptuous beauty of Romeo and Juliet. It is a magical tale straight from the heart of Mexico that covers all the bases from repression to freedom and jealousy to tragedy. For a voluptuously delicious cinematic comida, Like Water for Chocolate is sure to spike your senses. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Movie Review: Derailed

United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date: 11/11/05
Running Time: 1:45
Rated: R (Violence, profanity, sexual situations, rape)
Cast: Clive Owen, Jennifer Aniston, Vincent Cassel, Melissa George, Addison Timlin, Giancarlo Esposito, RZA

Director: Mikael Håfström
Producer: Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Screenplay: Stuart Beattie, based on the novel by James Siegel
Music: Edward Shearmur
Studio: The Weinstein Company/Miramax Films

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With a near nonexistent advertising budget for Derailed, The Weinstein Company opted to conserve its cash and hope that their A-list actors were enough to increase the head-counts in every theater. Even though the best reason to see Derailed is for the impulsive infidelity of its marquee actors, the film is mostly implausible, ridden with clichés, and entirely predictable. Anyone familiar with the ways of the genre will be correctly suspect from the onset of the action.

After a chance meeting on the commuter train to work, advertising executive Charles Schine (Clive Owen) and financial advisor Lucinda Harris (Jennifer Aniston) hit it off and begin an affair. Despite the fact that both are married and have a daughter, they allow their passion for one another to escalate to the point of purchasing a hotel room.

Once inside the hotel room, Charles and Lucinda are interrupted by Philippe Laroche (Vincent Cassel), a French criminal who wants more than their money. After holding the two at gunpoint and stealing Charles’ wallet, he beats Charles to a pulp and rapes Lucinda. Knowing that Charles and Lucinda were having an affair, he threatens to both inform and harm Charles’ wife (Melissa George) and kid (Addison Timlin) unless he receives a large sum of money.

Much like a combo of his characterizations from Closer and Sin City, Clive Owen is able to exude the full embodiment of the protagonist in distress with ease. Similarly, Vincent Cassel draws on his role as the villain in Ocean’s 12 and effortless plays the part of the maniacal gum-chewing antagonist. Aniston, on the other hand, is difficult to accept as the anti-girl next door. Nonetheless, by depicting her potential depth in films like this one and The Good Girl, she is surely on the path to becoming a more mature and prevalent Hollywood star.

Surprisingly, the Wu Tang Clan’s RZA and MTV’s Pimp My Ride’s Xzibit hold their own in their respective roles. While RZA stands out more with his charming wit, Xzibit simply doubles as an outline for your stereotypical sidekick thug.

Derailed is not a bad movie; it’s just too much of an obvious amalgamation of films like Unfaithful, Fatal Attraction, and Cape Fear to be called original and unpredictable. Yes, it has its parts of successful suspense and dynamic drama, but the picture is more generic and protracted than anything else. With its “December” epilogue that pays homage to the horror genre (in a sense that the killer, who is presumed dead, comes back for one final scare), Derailed renders the effectiveness of its artificial ending defunct.

In one of its opening scenes, Derailed mentions the importance of possessing an intriguing narrative and sucking people into the storyline. Sadly, Derailed doesn’t practice what it preaches. While it is marginally better than your average thriller, in this day-and-age, that ain’t saying much. With an obvious twist and one-too-many unlikely occurrences on its tracks, this train leaves the rails and violently collapses on its side. (** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Movie Review: Eat Drink Man Woman

Taiwan, 1994
U.S. Release Date: 8/3/94
Running Time: 2:04
Rated: Not Rated (Mature themes)
Cast: Sihung Lung, Kuei-Mei-Yang, Chien-Lien Wu, Yu-Wen Wang, Winston Chao, Chao-Jung Chen

Director: Ang Lee
Producer: Li-Kong Hsu
Screenplay: Ang Lee, James Schamus, and Hui-Ling Wang
Music: Mader
Studio: The Samuel Goldwyn Company
In Mandarin with English subtitles

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From the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Wedding Banquet, and the imminent 2005 Oscar contender Brokeback Mountain, comes this charming Chinese food film entitled Yin shi nan nu, which literally translates to “eat, drink, sex.” With Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, these essential ingredients of life serve as both a substitute for communication in the characters’ familial relationships and the crux of the storyline. By gracefully and colorfully blending the enriching traditions of food with the love and nostalgia of the father-daughter bond, Lee makes Eat Drink Man Woman a universally heartfelt and harmonious drama.

Every Sunday, father, widower, and master chef Tao Chu (Sihung Lung) slaves over the hot stove and cooks an extensive multiple-course-meal for himself and his three unappreciative daughters. Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei-Yang), the oldest, is a chemistry teacher in her late twenties, and in-between her lectures on valance electrons and orbitals, she chooses to look after her aging father, lament the loss of her former lover, and worship Jesus Christ as her loving savior. Jia-Chen (Chien-Lien Wu), the middle daughter, is a busy corporate executive for a major airline company. Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang), the youngest of the three, is a cashier - at the local Wendy’s fast-food restaurant – who inadvertently steals her friend’s boyfriend.

At each of the Chu’s Sunday meals (or “torture rituals” as the three daughters label them), someone exclaims, “I have an announcement to make.” With these words, the words that follow initially appear detrimental to the very fabric of the family. When Jia-Chen explains that she is moving out, or when Jia-Jen and Jia-Ning discuss their wishes to marry, Master Chu realizes that just like his sense of taste, his girls are leaving him in his old-age. However, the actions that push the family farther apart ultimately bring them closer together.

Eat Drink Man Woman drives home the theme that fathers knows best. Throughout the film, Chu’s Confucian fatherly figure – for the most part – lacks fluent communication with his daughters; yet, in the end, he exploits the strength of family ties and the importance of verbalizing his love. Even though there may have been both a contrast between his and his children’s attitude towards the dynamics of the family and a distinct separation between their perceptions of being selfish and selfless, Chu elects to redefine himself and his relationship with his daughters.

Perhaps Eat Drink Man Woman’s most intriguing attribute is that, amid all of its poignant family moments, it still manages to incorporate a few unexpected twists. Not that the film goes as far as turning everything that has come before on its ear, but when the plot does twist, it is entirely unpredictable and surprisingly effective.

Eat Drink Man Woman is mellow, moving, and visually stunning. And even though it is slow-moving at times, never is it boring. With its wondrous cinematography (especially the walk-through of the monstrous kitchen and the pan of the final family dinner) and neatly trimmed script, Eat Drink Man Woman defines itself as one of the most lustrous food films to date.

At one point in this flavorsome film, Master Chu tells his friend, “My food is only as good as the expression on your face.” If the same line of thinking is applied to this film experience, most are certain to exit their seats with a smile that is warm and hearty. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005