Sunday, June 27, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Fahrenheit 9/11

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: George W. Bush as himself
Rated: R
Red Flags: A couple of graphic scenes of war injuries, but really, it's no worse than what you may have seen already on CNN or Fox News

Preconceived Notions: Disney dumped it. Dems delight in it. Repubs don't want you to see it. It won at Cannes. What is it in this film that people don't want us to see?
The Bottom Line: Like it or hate it, there's a lot of facts that can't be ignored -- selective facts, yes -- and a lot to think about.

DIRECTOR: We're 1:30 away. How's he looking?

FLOOR DIRECTOR: Fine. How's his mic?

AUDIO: Give me one more check.

FRANCIS: Okay, how's this. One, two, one, two. I'm speaking for a mic check.

AUDIO: A little hot. Okay, that's got it.

FRANCIS: Wait, I need to put my hat on.

DIRECTOR (after a pause): You're going to wear that?

FRANCIS (annoyed as he straightens black tricorn hat with white trim): Yes, I'm going to wear that. I consider myself a patriot. Those who came 200 years before us fought and died for free speech, whether we like it or not. It doesn't make a difference whether or not you like Michael Moore or not, he still has First Amendment rights. We all do--

DIRECTOR: Okay, okay, save it for the review. One minute away.

FLOOR DIRECTOR: Cameras, you're going to have to shoot him wide with that hat. Damn, it's bigger than I thought.

FRANCIS: Hey, size isn't everything.

DIRECTOR: Knock it off down there. In fifteen. Black is up.

[Pause... fade up]

It doesn't really matter what you think of Michael Moore as a filmmaker. He's caustically talented by any measure. He knows how to make a point and score points with his audiences. I remember him talking about why he did Roger & Me as a big-screen documentary instead of using some other medium to tell his story of the devastating effects of GM jobs outsourced from Flint, Michigan. Loosely, he said he liked movies, so he made one. But he had to figure out a way to get people to plunk down $8.25.

Thus was born the genre he has mastered: the goofumentary -- a hybrid of 60 Minutes and The Daily Show. Fahrenheit 911 is a two-hour long remix of news footage and original interviews blended with style and Mad-magazine satire like a club DJ. Moore's point is obvious: The American people were duped into supporting the invasion of Iraq when the real threats to America were (and still are) in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. He lays out his interviews and supporting evidence like Mike Wallace going in for the kill, but with a narrative style that sounds like a bedtime story, hyphenated with hilarious use of stock footage and pop-culture riffs. A play on the open to the TV western Bonanza for the war in Afghanistan is a howler. And we get to see numerous behind-the-scene clips of Washington's power players (including the president) being groomed for their close-ups.

Fahrenheit 911 opens with the 2000 presidential election debacle, with Moore explaining how Bush allies tipped the votes in George W. Bush's favor. Conservatives will jump all over this as sour grapes, but watch a little closer, and you will understand Moore is setting the stage for a larger point -- the fate of nations doesn't always rest on what's right or what's honest but what's least likely to disturb powerful connections, corporations, and allies. And there are plenty of powerful connections and allies, as Moore shows ties between the White House and the Bin Laden families. There are connections between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., and the White House and Halliburton, and things that must not be disturbed. And hundreds of enlisted men and women have died to protect those alliances -- not freedom, not safety. Heartbreakingly, we have allowed ourselves to give up freedoms we should be standing up for in the name of security.

Let's pause for a minute right here, before you go writing me off as some conspiracy theorist. Facts are subject to context. Truth is relative. I have no doubts Moore has picked and chosen which facts he wants to present, and not all of them are going to hold up. I spotted one glaring fact error in an interview with a congressman who claimed the U.S. terrorism alert level has gone up to red -- not true. Yellow is the highest it has ever been as of this writing. But this is Moore's movie, not See It Now. And the hard evidence is up on the screen, larger than life, and impossible to write off.

I'm not going to debate the politics of this film. That is another task for other people. But I can't understand why Republicans in Tucson are refusing to mount a full court press against this film if they dislike it so much. We tried to take a Republican and a Democrat to see this film for an edition of KOLD's Reel Life Movie Reviews. The Republicans declined, instead referring all responses to some higher-level spokesman. I can't speak for Pima County's GOP (I'm an independent, by the way), yet if I had a burning desire to confront what I thought were lies and distortions, I wouldn't allow myself to be gagged by my party leadership. And I wouldn't gag my members, either. Let them see this film and take Moore on if it's so flawed.

Democrats and the media take some licks here too. Especially damning is Democratic congressman Charles Rangel's admission that lawmakers don't read most of the bills they pass -- including the Patriot Act, which Moore reads on Capitol Hill over the loudspeakers of an ice cream truck. He also jabs the 2000 Senate -- a place with plenty of Dems -- for refusing to back party members in the House who wanted to voice objections to the results of the presidential election.

Moore goes to great lengths -- almost too long -- to prove he's not anti-soldier. Two of the most powerful sequences in the film involve mothers of soldiers who died in Iraq. And near the end of the film, Moore offers his own ironic tribute to the troops.

Conservative filmmakers are readying responses to Fahrenheit 911. One Tucson author has co-written a book trashing Moore. A conservative film festival is even in the works. Fine, go for it. Michael Moore would welcome you, even if he doesn't want to publicly admit it. But I doubt whether any of those responses will have the impact or smart-alek style of Fahrenheit 911. Conservatives, who have shown how they can set the agenda through Fox News and talk radio, have yet to score a major victory in the arena of independent documentaries. Some conservative Michael Moore may be hiding in an edit room somewhere, but I doubt it.

[fade to black]

DIRECTOR: We're clear. That's a wrap. But come on, did you really need the hat?

FRANCIS (pause): Why don't you ask Michael Moore?

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Saturday, June 19, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Terminal

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Rated: R
Red Flags: Mild profanity

Preconceived Notions: Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, together again. Sounds good.
The Bottom Line: The premise is a little far-fetched, but it's ultimately heartwarming.

[Special Note: This is not the original review. It got accidentally trashed while I was updating this blog and I could not recover it. However, the sentiments and the star rating are the same in this shorter, re-created version I have submitted below.]

The Terminal is that stray puppy you take in. It chews your furniture. It scratches your walls. But you love it anyway, and you keep it.

That's the way I felt about this film, which re-teams Hanks with director Steven Spielberg. Although it's based on a true story of a man who ended up stranded at a Paris airport, the concept itself is a stretch. Yet it redeems itself with plenty of heart from Hanks.

Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man from a non-existant eastern European nation -- not just in real life, but in the film's life as well. His country is in a coup, meaning his visa is not recognized by the U.S. So he is confined to New York City's JFK airport until the whole mess can be straightened out. Viktor comes up with creative ways of getting through the days -- building cracker sandwiches, collecting carts to get money, and even landing a job with a renovation crew.

Frank Dixon (Tucci) is in charge of security. He's trying to help Viktor, but he's thinking more about his career. A promotion is in his future if he can show he's doing his job to the letter. And ice water seems to be running through his veins. He enjoys screwing with one of Navorski's early money-making schemes and offers anything but gratitude after summoning Navorski's help with a Russian-speaking man who's out of control upon being caught with drugs for his sick father. And yet he tries to offer Navorski more than one chance at a way out that's not exactly by the book.

Navorski wins allies among a baggage handler who organizes poker games for unclaimed merchandise, a food-service worker who uses Navorski as a middleman to win the love of an immigration official, and a janitor with a mean streak. The foreigner also has a girlfriend (Zeta-Jones), who has enough troubles with men to warrant a picture of her own. Dixon, we should mention, tries meddling in there, too.

Through all of this, Hanks saves the picture with his strength as a character actor, playing his role with innocence and warmth. Viktor is a immensely likable character, a la Forrest Gump. But while Gump had a fairytale charm to it, The Terminal dampens its charm with improbability, including the very reason why Hanks has come to New York with a can of peanuts in his hand. Some of you will find his motivations charming and heartfelt, and some of you will find it just, well, nuts.

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Saturday, June 12, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Chronicles Of Riddick

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Vin Diesel, Judi Dench, Colm Feore
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Sci-Fi Violence, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: It's a sequel to Pitch Black, which I haven't seen. But Vin Diesel is back, and he hasn't missed yet.
The Bottom Line: Diesel's ultra-cool persona and sharp dialogue add spice to what's otherwise another CGI sci-fi film.

Vin Diesel will kick your puny butt and then tell you in that gravelly cigarette voice: "You should have gone quietly." I like him a lot in this picture.

In this sequel to Pitch Black, Riddick (Diesel) takes on the evil Necromongers. As Dench's character explains in the opening voiceover, they will convert you to their religion or kill you. Mostly it's the latter.

Riddick is the only hope of stopping these guys, being the only person left in a race the bad guys fear. But first he's gotta get some bounty hunters off his back and do a little housekeeping on Helion, a peaceful planet in the Necromonger crosshairs. They're quickly running out of targets, as their armies roll over anything faster than American troops in Baghdad. What are these folks gonna go when they run out of places to conquer?

Much of the picture, though, is spent with Diesel trying to get away from the bounty hunters -- or maybe con them somehow as part of his plan. He does plenty of kung-fu fighting, fast as lightning, before slipping back into wise-ass anti-hero mode.

Amusing through all of this is the dialogue -- not just Diesel's, but everybody's. In the old days, you would expect a musical stinger after one-liners like: "You mentioned HER!" It's almost self-parody. But boy, is it fun for the ears.

Vin Diesel has made better pictures than this (XXX ranking as my favorite). But he didn't do badly. However, with anybody else in the role, this would have been just another episode of Star Trek.

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Saturday, June 5, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language

Preconceived Notions: The boy wizard's growing up. J.K. Rowling's novels are getting deeper and darker. Hermione is morphing from cute girl to hottie.
The Bottom Line: Third movie in the series is darker, more mature, but runs like Cliffs Notes of the book.

Pity screenwriter Steve Kloves. He has the gargantuan task of boiling down a beloved children's book into a two-hour film. All right, we'll allow two hours and some change. He must extract from J.K. Rowling's intricate storylines and rich exposition a coherent screenplay. Did we say there was a two-hour time limit?

Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is a book well suited for film -- a five-hour long film, as one KOLD "Reel Life" reviewer suggested. No way would a major studio release a product that long. One notable exception was Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version of Hamlet, which clocked in at a little more than four hours. People gasped when the first Potter film ran more than two-and-a-half hours. I say you can make a four-hour Potter film that does the book justice and people will still lap it up. But that film will not be made under Hollywood economic mandates, and begging is futile. So the squeeze is on Kloves as well as director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien). Cuaron seems like the right fit at the right time, as Harry and friends grow out of their kid roles into more complicated characters.

The result is hit and miss. They hit some good stuff. They miss some good stuff. The film suffers from omission, and it's stunningly obvious if you've read the book. I kept asking myself, shouldn't another scene go here? How did we get here? Rather than try to massage some scenes to flow together or take necessary liberties with the storyline, Kloves cuts. It's as if he waved his screenwriters' wand, crossed his fingers and uttered the incantation, "Hope this works." But then again, he's trapped. He has to follow the book as closely as possible, because that's what the audience, largely Potter readers, demand.

In the third installment, a murderous wizard aligned with He-Who-Will-Not-Be-Named escapes from Azkaban prison, and he's looking to kill Harry (Radcliffe). So too are Dementors, shadowy grim-reaperlike spirits who suck the soul out of you. The rest of the Hogwarts gang is back, including Harry's pals Ron (Grint), Hermione (Watson), and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). So too are the usual foes: Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). Michael Gambon steps into the huge shoes of the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore.

Harry Potter and The Wizard Of Azkaban is as visually stunning as its two prequels, and not merely because of CGI spells and magical creatures including the half-eagle, half-horse Hippogriff. There are many moments when Cuaron lets the film breathe and saturate us into the world of Hogwarts. Cuaron works at setting moods to complement the pictures, and that is Prisoner's strength. Another strong point: many moments of dry, understated wit. But one key scene in the third act of the picture is a nightmare, brimming with breathless dialogue that is essential to us understanding the rest of the film, and yet it's going to go over a lot of people's heads unless you have read the book. That's obviously what Kloves counted on.

The fourth book in the series, in production now, will be the acid test. Steve Kloves will face an even tougher challenge condensing the darkest Potter book yet to be made. Plans to split it into two films have been abandoned. Bring it in at under three hours. The clock's running...

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