Sunday, November 21, 2004

Reel To Reel:
Finding Neverland

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet
Rated: PG
Red Flags: None, really, unless you count "graphic depiction of coughing."

Preconceived Notions: Strong buzz on this film. May be an Oscar contender.
The Bottom Line: Depp does it again in a highly-memorable two-hankie weeper.

In college, I had a drama professor who said Shakespeare was beamed to Earth by aliens in 1566 and told to become the greatest playright in the world. My professor was joking, of course, but he couldn't help concocting that theory given a popular entertainment of the time was bear baiting. How could somebody so eloquent and poetic emerge from such an environment?

I wondered the same thing about writer J.M. Barrie (Depp), author of Peter Pan, in early 1900's London -- a stiff, stuffy society consumed with class and manners. Barrie's imagination is running wild in a time where everybody is supposed to behave themselves. "Where are your manners?" we hear on more than one occasion.

As the film opens, Barrie's new play is opening to yawns. I couldn't really tell if it was supposed to be a comedy or a drama, but one thing's for sure -- it's boring. His producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman), is eating the costs of failure and sucking it up in the British tradition of quiet desperation. But Barrie still needs to make a comeback.

He finds his inspiration in the rambunctious children of widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Winslet), whom he meets in the park while writing. Their imaginations jumpstart his, and he soon becomes a surrogate father to them, engaging in playtime fantasies like an overgrown child, many of which are dramatized with the help of CGI. This comes at the expense of his marriage, and with the smell of infidelity, and worse, raising eyebrows among proper English society.

Barrie's adventures with the young ones form the basis of Peter Pan. The title character's name, ironically, is drawn from the most unchildlike of the Davies children, a boy (Freddie Highmore) still scarred by the death of his father and unable to let his imagination flow like the others. For him, imagination is falsehood, and falsehoods told to him about his father's condition before his death have embittered him. He would rather be an adult, as Barrie aludes to at one point in the picture. But as Barrie learns to set himself free through his words, he inspires young Peter to do the same, and soon the boy is putting his thoughts into words.

Back on the stage, Barrie's new play is coming together, and the bewildered actors are not sure what to think -- pirates, fairies, a boy who never grows up and a man in a dog suit. Remember, this is an age where children's theatre as we know it is not in the dramatic dictionary yet. Our nervous producer is bracing for yet another flop. But Barrie gets an idea -- and he takes a step with the audience which underlines the divide between children and adults of the age.

Finding Neverland is not wringed for tears, but it is honest about loss, love, and pain. It speaks to children and inner children alike, and it reinforces our need for escape, for fun, for play. It is about daring to dream. But it shows, more than anything, how much we really don't want to grow up, even though biology and sociology says we must -- just like Peter Pan.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Reel To Reel:
National Treasure

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Harvey Keitel
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Action Violence

Preconceived Notions: Jerry Bruckheimer tries to score again.
The Bottom Line: Better than the trailer makes it out to be, but nothing more.

National Treasure isn't so much a film, but a game of Clue stretched out over an hour and 40 minutes for a huge ancient jackpot. The clues on where to find it are on the back of the Declaration Of Independence, a document so old and so fragile it's a wonder they're still there given how much the original document has faded over the years. I know. I saw it at the National Archives a few months back.

What surprised me about the film is how much of it works. In some ways, it has the style and the pacing of a good caper flick like Ocean's Eleven. But note I said style. Beyond Nicholas Cage and co-star Diane Kruger dressed up for a DC-style ball, you don't see very much style. And you won't find much characterization or romance either. Not much of the latter is actually welcome, since it steers us clear of Yet Another Action Movie Cliche. But if we're going to talk about cliches, let's throw in The Nerdy Comic Relief -- Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), Cage's gadget guru and right-hand man.

The film opens with a young Benjamin Franklin Gates being told the legend of the lost treasure, protected for thousands of years up until after the Revolutionary War, where Masons left clues on where to find it in such a way that they could and the British couldn't. The Gates family, we learn, is pretty much a laughingstock among scholars for pursuing this treasure -- or trying to protect it.

Fast forward several decades, and Gates is searching beneath the Arctic for a ship containing a clue to the treasure. He finds it with the help of Ian Howe (Sean Bean), a Richard Branson-style thrill-seeker with deep pockets who isn't afraid to break the law. He and Gates part ways when they both find out they need to get their hands on the Declaration of Independence. Howe wants to steal it. Gates does not.

So the chase is on. Who's gonna get to the document first? Who's gonna get to the treasure first? And who's gonna end up with Kruger's character -- historian Abigail Chase, who's pushed into things when the plan to steal the Declaration goes sideways.

For a story obscessed with riches, National Treasure operates stingily, not developing itself any more than it has to. Even the payoff doesn't seem like an extravagant indulgence. But we are treated to a series of riddles and guessing games that propel us from one plot point to another. It's fun to watch, but it's not memorable beyond that game of Scene It? you played with your family the other night.

Saturday, November 6, 2004

Reel To Reel:
The Incredibles

How It Rates: ****
Starring: Voices Of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter
Rated: PG (but should really be a G)
Red Flags: Fantasy Violence (but nothing really intense)

Preconceived Notions: Pixar has a strong record, but Finding Nemo is a hard bar to reach again.
The Bottom Line: Pixar raises the bar again -- or at least gets high enough to match it.

You can't blame the people at Pixar Animation Studios for wanting to shake off their release deal with Disney. You can't blame Disney for wanting them to stay. Pixar has proven itself more than capable of creating animated adventures that don't need to trade on Walt's name. And their latest one only boosts the studio's clout.

File the The Incredibles in the same folder as Shrek (and its sequel) with the label "kids movie adults will want to see." While the film puts forward a message for kids -- and families -- it also has grown-up sensibilities and the wit and timing of screwball comedy. Its characters simply don't talk like cartoon characters, even if they have those big cartoon eyes.

Mr. Incredible (Nelson) is your standard issue superhero -- busy saving lives, catching crooks, snatching the occasional cat from a tree. But all his superpowers can't protect him from the power of attorney: lawsuits. Save the wrong person, wind up in court. So our superhero and his super-stretch superwife Elastigirl (Hunter), end up in a witness protection program for retired superheroes. No more saving the world. No showing off superpowers.

Incredible is reduced to Bob Parr, a cubicle drone at a tightwad insurance company. Elastigirl becomes hausfrau, raising Dash, a lightning-quick boy, and Violet, his disappearing sister. Mysteriously, their baby Jack-Jack has no superpowers -- yet? The whole family is trying to settle into their repressed identities, but Bob still feels the itch to battle evil. He sneaks out with old crime-fighting buddy Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to catch crooks and tells the wife he's out bowling. But a super-secret agency will soon bring Bob out of retirement and back into the superhero tights.

The Incredibles is simply a fun movie to watch, with zinging, zowie comic-book action heightened by the James Bond-esque score of Micahel Giacchino. An extra treat: Edna, a superhero costume designer (voice of writer-director Brad Bird) who is clearly channeling legendary Hollywood designer Edith Head.

A cute short film -- Boundin' -- preceeds the Incredibles, and while seeing Pixar's work is a treat, after the commercial reel and the trailer reel, warm-up attractions get to be a little tedious. You'll also get a sneak peak at Cars, Pixar's next major animated release due out this time next year.

NOTE: I do not understand the MPAA's "PG" rating for this film, citing "action violence." The action is intense, yes, it is violent, yes, but it is not any more than some of the Saturday-morning variety. Road Runner cartoons are just as intense. A "G" for this film is entirely appropriate, given this film's target audience -- kids to adults.

Thursday, November 4, 2004

What Kerry Should've Said

How about a break from the movie reviews? Especially since this site seems to be turning into a movie site -- which it was not intended to be. But it evolved into that because movies are one of the few things I feel confident about commenting on with some smidgeon of credibility.

But I can't let this one go. Folks, two months before this election, when the polls suggested President Bush was making a comeback in the polls after John Kerry got his post-convention bump, I told my ardently Republican dad to prepare.

"Get your Tums and Rolaids ready," I said. "If Bush wins in November, you're going to hear non-stop bellyaching."

I had reason to be concerned for the nation's gastronomical health. I'd read letters in the L.A. Times from people who had picked up on the Bush poll lead, whining about how Americans could be so g---damn stupid. It's one thing to take shots at a candidate's intelligence. We've been doing that for years. But when you start attacking the voters, the people who have every right to make one choice versus another, it really gets under my skin.

Democracy is founded on choices -- independent choices -- choices made of our own free will and formulated by our own criteria. That criteria comes not from superficial, shallow ideals of who should be sitting in the White House. People didn't vote for Bush because he had a nice-looking plane, as a Doonesbury cartoon suggested a couple of years ago. They wanted a leader with consistency. They wanted a leader they could trust in the War On Terror. They wanted somebody who connected with their values. Bush was their guy. Kerry wasn't. Shame on the person who believes Bush voters are lowering the national I.Q.

Kerry gets major props from me for doing the right thing and doing it quickly. Only hours after the networks began lamenting another long, drawn out fiasco of a presidential race, and lawyers began salivating at all the potential suits and challenges, the Democrat contender shut Pandora's ballot box with a gracious phone call to the president. Kerry did the math. The numbers wouldn't add up in Ohio. He didn't need an army of attorneys to futily attempt some December miracle.

The Massachusetts senator told the crowds at his concession speech elections were to be determined by people, not lawyers. He also said it was time for America to come back together. President Bush echoed those sentiments in accepting victory.

But Kerry could've gone further. He should've gone further. Decorum and a gracious demeanor prevented him from saying these words I wanted to add to his speech. But some high-profile Democrat needs to say them soon.

"My fellow Americans, I know many of you are not happy with the way things turned out. I know you did not want to see four more years of President Bush. But this is what we have. This is what your fellow citizens have chosen, and if you love democracy, if you love your country as much as I do, you will respect it. You will not treat the president's re-election as the re-ascension of some bastard stepchild. You will not mumble disparaging words about how people of faith vote. You will do your best to minimize your grumbling and and groaning, even though you have a First Amendement right to, because constant carping on the past will not help us in the future. You will 'learn to deal,' as young people are fond of saying. You will continue to stand up for the things you believe in. You will continue to support candidates you believe in. There will be more elections, more opportunites for victory. Just because your candidate doesn't win doesn't give you a license to start questioning the patriotism or mental faculties of your neighbors.

"We have become a nation divided because people can't accept other people making reasonable, legitimate choices we don't like. I realise this is a time of war and lives are at stake. But I would also remind you there was once a country where those who dissented with the ruling political party were thrown in jail or sent to mental institutions. That country was the Soviet Union. We live in America. We don't do that to our citizens. But I am deeply concerned that we are headed in that direction if we do not begin to re-embrace what it means to be Americans. And that means dissent, discussion, and debate are all welcome and encouraged, but at the end of the day we can share a common identity as human beings who have the greatest system of government in the world."