Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Movie Review: Chocolat (2000)

U.S. Release Date: 12/15/00
Running Time: 2:02
Rated: PG-13 (Sensuality, mild profanity, some violence)
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Victoire Thivisol, Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina, Hugh O'Conor, Lena Olin, Peter Stormare, Judi Dench, Carrie-Anne Moss

Director: Lasse Hallström
Producers: David Brown, Kit Golden, Leslie Holleran
Screenplay: Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel by Joanne Harris
Music: Rachel Portman
Studio: Miramax Films

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Any connoisseur of "food films" would quickly inform a watcher of Chocolat that its confections are merely shadows of its inspirations. Mixing the fairy-tale feel of Like Water for Chocolate and the religious oppression of Babette’s Feast, Chocolat attempts to liberate its company with rich, delicate, and decorative chocolaty treats. Yet, in the process, Hallström’s stab at a food film comes off as largely unoriginal in plot and religiously undermining in scope.

In "a quiet little village in the French countryside," ruled by Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), tranquility and penitence are of chief importance—especially during the Lenten season. However, once Vianne Rouhon (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) arrive, with the North wind at their back, trouble begins to boil.

As soon as Vianne opens a chocolaterie in town, she begins to unshackle the townsfolk and stimulate their palettes with a mix of unrefined cacao and chili pepper. Among the influenced, are Vianne’s landlady, Armande (Judi Dench), a local shoplifter and abused wife, Josephine (Lena Olin), and a boycotted "river rat" named Roux (Johnny Depp). Conversely, when Reynaud speaks to his fellow parishioners – vicariously through the clergy – the bulk of the townspeople heed his warnings, which describe Vianne’s chocolate as being sinful.

Under the direction of Hallström (The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), Chocolat takes on a lengthy languid pace. While Chocolat may be of epic size, with its two-hour-plus running time, it overstays its welcome and borders on being overtly subversive. In addition, Chocolat is demeaning towards the honesty, humility, and sacrifice of the Lent-observing Christian. Sadly, instead of capitalizing on its decadence and charm, Hallström allows his paper-thin characters and "chilly disposition" to seep through the screen.

With names like Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Juliette Binoche, and Alfred Molina, Chocolat may sound like an ensemble production. In contrast, Molina dishes out the only acting that is actually worthy of mention. His character’s prayer to the Crucifix and closing indulgence are a breath of fresh air among the other forced and plastic portrayals.

Even though the film appears to possess a pretty outer shell (with flawless lighting) and emit an overall aura that is light and sweet, perceptions can be deceiving. On the inside, Chocolat is a processed and contrived treat. Shortly after you bask in its delights, what has come before loses its initial luster; the characters and their genuineness begin to melt; and a center that is somewhat spoiled is revealed. (**1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Movie Review: Tampopo

United States, 1986
Running Time: 1:54
Rated: NR
Cast: Tsutomu Yamazaki, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ken Watanabe, Kôji Yakusho, Rikiya Yasuoka, Kinzo Sakura

Director: Juzo Itami
Producers: Seigo Hosogoe, Juzo Itami, Yasushi Tamaoki
Screenplay: Juzo Itami
Music: Kunihiko Murai
Studio: Itami Productions
In Japanese with English subtitles

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“Everyone has their own ladder; some climb the rungs to the top, and some don’t ever know they have one.”

Akin to a steaming bowl of noodle soup, Tampopo is satisfying, enriching, and...hilarious?! Best described as a spoof/parody/satire on the American spaghetti Western, Tampopo’s protagonist shows a shadow of Clint Eastwood, and its plot follows the familiar formula of: cowboy comes to town; cowboy saves the day. However, in this Japanese Western (if you will), the cowboy doesn’t ride into town on a lightning-quick steed; he drives a semi. Additionally, spaghetti isn’t the pasta in question; it’s hand-rolled and homemade ramen.

On a rainy night, Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), an out-of-town trucker, develops a hankering for noodle soup and struts into the dilapidated restaurant of lady chef, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). After strongly criticizing her cooking, Goro and his friend Gun (Ken Watanabe) agree to teach Tampopo the arts of cooking and customer service. While on the quest for the perfect noodle recipe, Goro and Tampopo strive to acquire the right concoction of noodles, broth, spring onions, pork, and shinachiku (pickled bamboo shoots) to attract the hungry and stimulate the senses.

Amid the meat of the plot, a few vignettes are stuffed. While these seemingly-irrelevant scenes may first come off as nothing but dramatically pointless filling, in the long run, they are effective additives that offer generous asides on food. Be it the ordering at the business luncheon, the slurping at the etiquette seminar, or the sensual sharing of the egg yolk, each ingredient further encourages the viewer’s appetite to grow. To boot, the manner in which director Juzo Itami splices these scenes together is rewarding.

Out of all of the food films, Tampopo is perchance the most gifted. It packs in its gusto and guffaws in the most satirical of ways—keeping interest at a high. To label Tampopo the Japanese king of the food films would not be an overstatement. And to exclude Tampopo in any college colloquium film series on food would be an utter misfortune. Simultaneously, Tampopo is a cinematic and comedic delicacy for any food and/or film fan. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Movie Review: Dave Chappelle's Block Party

U.S. Release Date: 3/3/06
Running Time: 1:43
Rated: R (Profanity)
Cast: Dave Chappelle, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, the Roots, the Fugees, Bilal

Director: Michel Gondry
Producers: Skot Bright, Doug Levine, Greg Manocherian
Screenplay: Dave Chappelle
Music: Cory Smith
Studio: Rogue Pictures Release

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With Dave Chappelle’s recent success in landing a $50 million contract, not only did his income increase, but also his incentive to make charitable contributions. On September 18, 2004, Chappelle compiled some of rap/R&B’s finest artists for a free “block party” concert to take place in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. At first glance, Chappelle’s documentary of the preparation and the execution of this event may appear to be nothing but an extended rap video; yet, at long last, it is an entertaining concoction of culture, music, and comedy.

Chappelle starts the show by offering “golden tickets” – good for admission, hotel, food, and travel expenses – to a few of his hometown (Dayton, Ohio) residents. Among this list of invitees is the entire Central State College Marching Band—who later joins Kayne West in playing his hit, “Jesus Walks.” Consequently, all of the invited combine to create an energetic assembly of fans and artists that no rainstorm could possibly quiet.

By avoiding the pratfalls of “gangsta” rap and including artists who actually have something to productive to say in terms of politics and societal issues, Chappelle creates a concert that is sure to garner a newfound respect for the genre. With headliners like Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Jill Scott, the Roots, Dead Prez, and the Fugees, each viewer gets a dose of some of the best voices rap/R&B has to offer.

Sprinkled with improvised comedy and backstage footage, Dave Chappelle's Block Party is outright hilarious when it tries to be. However, as the film progresses, it gradually shifts from a comedic documentary on the mind of Dave Chappelle, to a pure unadulterated concert film. Nonetheless, laden with both jokes and song, Block Party possesses more entertainment value than your typical documentary.

Director Michel Gondry, whose last project was the quirky yet masterful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directs Block Party with unbridled confidence. His camera work, which captures the event’s down-to-earth atmosphere in every frame, is peppered with the perfect amount of passion that constantly calls attention to the bigger picture behind the surface of the event.

Ultimately, Block Party is an exposé on the human urge for the serenity of music, laughter, and togetherness. In addition, it’s an eye-opener to those not privy to rap and a joy to those familiar with the style of a comedic genius. And that, perhaps, is Block Party's biggest plus. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006

Monday, March 06, 2006

Movie Review: This Divided State

U.S. Release Date: 8/05
Running Time: 1:28
Rated: NR (Profanity, adult themes)
Cast: Michael Moore, Sean Hannity, Kay Anderson, Jim Bassi, Joe Vogel

Director: Steven Greenstreet
Producers: Phil Gordon, Steven Greenstreet, Kristi Haycock
Studio: Minority Films, LLC

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This Divided State opens with a quote from Joseph Smith, Jr. (the founder of Mormonism) that reads, “Political views and party distinctions should never disturb the harmony of society.” In the subsequent 88 minutes, Smith’s wish is perceptibly ignored, as director Steven Greenstreet captures the barking dogs from both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals and conservatives square off in this intriguing and intelligent documentary that does more informing than offending—no matter your political affiliation.

The basis for the film is grounded in the controversy of having liberal documentary filmmaker, Michael Moore speak to the students of Utah Valley State College (UVSC) and its surrounding community for a $40,000 fee. Considering UVSC is located in Orem City, Utah (a.k.a. Family City, U.S.A.), where the Republican to Democrat ratio is 12 to 1 and where 75% of the population is Mormon, Moore’s anti-Bush and “un-American” ideology is obviously not part of the majority’s mindset. Yet, as one college official states, “Colleges and Universities are supposed to be free markets of ideas...all ideas, all perspectives, and all point-of-views—including and especially those that we disagree with strongly.”

Once the announcement is made that Michael Moore will speak on UVSC’s campus, the tornado officially begins to churn. President of the student body, Jim Bassi, and Vice President, Joe Vogel, are barraged with hateful remarks and death threats. Students are encouraged to sign petitions, and community activist, Kay Anderson, is determined to cancel the event. Anderson campaigns to remove Bassi and Vogel from office, offers the school $25,000 to cancel the event, and even files a lawsuit.

To settle the conservative crowd, UVSC hires Fox News’ Sean Hannity (a self-proclaimed right-winger) to speak one week before Moore. However, the hiring of another voice only worsens the situation, as the townspeople discover that Hannity was paid $50,000 for his transportation—after he waived his usual speaking charge.

By not projecting his own politics into the film, director/producer/editor Steven Greenstreet greatly exceeds expectations. Unlike Michael Moore, who possesses no shame in voicing his own opinions, Greenstreet merely presents the claim and counterclaim of the status quo and then allows the audience to side with whom they please (or even end up somewhere in the middle). Moreover, both Greenstreet’s ability to condense 76 hours of raw footage into a terse and evenly-paced 88 minutes showcases his talent, while his choice to exploit the simplicity of “Pachelbel’s Canon” (at the opening and closing) to counter the complexity of the situation displays his taste.

Additionally, the film offers insightful opinions from the land of academia. When the animated UVSC Professor of Humanities, Alex Caldiero, says, “There is no such thing as an objective viewpoint,” and, “We all see things through filters...filters,” we listen. When one student exclaims, “You don’t stop the [ominous] messenger; you evaluate his message,” we are inspired. And, when a foreign exchange student speaks on the worth of the First Amendment, we are humbled.

At the end of the day, Greenstreet’s pre-2004 election memoir of the failure of civil discourse in America is both entertaining and effective. Its liberating effects of convincing the audience not to jump to uneducated conclusions, while still finding a common ground in conservative morals, are striking and influential. After all, the main aim of the feature is to unite our nation – be it liberal, conservative, Republican, or Democrat – under one roof and paint the house neither blue nor red, but rather one congruous color. (*** out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006

The Aftermath: Post-Oscar Analysis '06

Another New Year’s. Another Valentine’s Day. Another Academy Awards. Yet, despite an overall unappreciative atmosphere, a few aspects made the night unique. For starters, Jon Stewart: I wouldn’t say that the man triumphed or bombed; I would, however, say that he was no Billy Crystal/Steve Martin. It seemed as though Stewart’s jokes either fell flat or went over the heads of the audience members. Perhaps, the funniest part of Stewart’s “political” emceeing came when Stephen Colbert (Stewart’s former employee) voiced the campaign commercials—with Keira Knightley’s “God-dust” being the highlight. Maybe next year, the call will go to Colbert instead of Stewart. All-in-all, Stewart provided the sophistication factor, but lacked the oomph of Crystal’s musical numbers and Martin’s energy.

Additionally, the “play-the-music-during-the-acceptance-speech” strategy worked for the time-constraint, but sucked up most of the potential emotion like a vacuum. While some winners’ microphones were cut off, some of the “team/partner” winners were not even given the chance to speak. My advice is cut down on the montages and allow the winners to speak from their hearts.

As far as surprises go, I was thrilled to hear Rachel Weisz’s name called for Supporting Actress, and delighted to see Crash take the Best Picture trophy. I, along with most, thought for sure that Brokeback would take the cake—considering it had all the elements and a heck of a lot of positive press. Conversely, the voters selected right; Crash is most definitely the best picture of 2006 and one of the very best dramas to touch the screens in a long while.

Overall, I was 16 for 21 with my predictions—gaining one over last year's forecast. Though getting 3/4 of the winners correct may be only an average percentage grade, I will take it proudly—especially considering the incorrect selections were in non-major categories.

Perhaps, the most memorable moment of the night was when Three Six Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” upset Kathleen “Bird” York’s “In the Deep” for Best Original Song. I was not surprised with this win, considering a rap song (albeit a good one in Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”) won in the past. However, the quote of the night came from Mr. Stewart saying, “For those of you keeping score at home, that is Martin Scorsese zero, Three Six Mafia one.”

For some reason, in its 78th year, the Academy Awards did not live up to its hype of being “the biggest night in entertainment.” Instead, the show lacked the gratitude and dramatic wallops that have been present in year’s prior. Call me a drama king, but weren’t you secretly wishing for Jennifer Garner to fall, someone to kiss someone unexpectedly, and something better than a rap group getting bleeped out to top the headlines? Hopefully, next year, we can do away with the unnecessary montages, keep the number of live songs to three or less, and ignite some zest into show.

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Look into My Crystal Ball...(Oscars 2006)

Best Picture
Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck

In the closing months, the most hubbub and support has blanketed "that gay cowboy movie," Brokeback Mountain; however, the Brokeback Mountain that I saw was not the Best Picture of 2005. On March 5th, the Academy will disagree. If there is any chance for an upset, Crash is the film to do so. Crash is one of the finest films to come along this millennium, and to lose to a slightly overrated love story would be a travesty. Too bad the loss is practically a reality.

Probable Academy Pick: Brokeback Mountain

Best Director
**Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
Bennet Miller, Capote
Paul Haggis, Crash
George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck
Steven Spielberg, Munich

The director category is perhaps the most definite. Ang Lee is the low-odd favorite to win, and that's what he'll do. Haggis and Spielberg are equally deserving, but Lee's masterful work will win the award--hands down.

Probable Academy Pick: Ang Lee

Best Actor
**Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow
Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line
David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck

In the realm of Best Actor, you can parlay last year's Jamie Foxx prediction on the insanely talented Mr. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. His role as the intelligent and effeminate Truman Capote in Capote defines brilliance. The emotions that he emits and the persona that he takes on are both of the highest caliber. All four of the other nominated men deserve to be included on this list, but haven't got a chance to pull the carpet out from under P.S.H.

Probable Academy Pick: Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Best Actress
Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents
**Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice
Charlize Theron, North Country
Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

Maybe it's just me, but a role that requires a female to play a male who becomes a female is a bit more challenging than anything else attempted on film this past year. Plus, considering Felicity Huffman's recent fame with "Desperate Housewives," the voters may turn in her favor. However, it will take a great deal to steal the statue from Reese Witherspoon for her exquisite and charming role as June Carter, "the woman, behind the man, behind the legend." In addition, it is a shame that Joan Allen was skipped over for her marvelous work in The Upside of Anger.

Probable Academy Pick: Reese Witherspoon

Best Supporting Actor
George Clooney, Syriana
**Matt Dillon, Crash
Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt, A History of Violence

Matt Dillon's performance in Crash is shattering and better than any other supporting work of 2005; however, Dillon is up against stiff competition. Jake Gyllenhaal grabs his first nomination with his honest portrayal of Jack Twist. Paul Giamatti attains a nod after being robbed of one for last year's Sideways. And, William Hurt picks up a nomination that he has a chance to win. Yet, at long last, the Oscar will either end up in the hands of Dillon or Clooney. Dillon should win, but Clooney will capture the gold.

Probable Academy Pick: George Clooney

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Junebug
Catherine Keener, Capote
Frances McDormand, North Country
**Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain

Supporting actress is typically a tight race, and this year is no different. Ebert has his support behind Adams. Mine is behind the beautiful Miss Weisz. Yet, the Academy will choose Michelle Williams for playing the victim of true love. Brokeback Mountain can tally another one up on the board.

Probable Academy Pick: Michelle Williams

Adapted Screenplay--Brokeback Mountain
Cinematography--Brokeback Mountain
Art Direction--King Kong
Costume Design--Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Score--Brokeback Mountain
Song--Hustle & Flow
Makeup--The Chronicles of Narnia
Sound--Walk the Line
Sound Editing--King Kong
Visual Effects--King Kong
Animated Feature--Wallace & Gromit
Foreign Language Film--Paradise Now
Documentary--March of the Penguins

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2006