Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Motorcycle Diaries / *** (R)

Ernesto "Che" Guevara: Gael Garcia Bernal
Alberto Granado: Rodrigo de la Serna
Chichina Ferreyra: Mia Maestro
Celia de la Serna: Mercedes Moran
Dr. Bresciani: Jorge Chiarella

Focus Features presents a film directed by Walter Salles. Written by Jose Rivera. Based on books by Che Guevara and Alberto Granado. Running time: 128 minutes. Rated R (for language). In Spanish with English subtitles.

I have to say at the outset that I knew very little about Che Guevara going in to this film. I doubt I know much more about the famous Cuban revolutionary having seen it, but The Motorcycle Diaries makes no claims to depict the better-known aspects of the life of this Cuban leader. The film states from the outset that this is not a tale about great men, but merely a tale of “two lives running parallel for a while.”

Taken from books written by both Guevara and Alberto Granado, The Motorcycle Diaries tells the journey of a young Ernesto Guevara and his friend Granado through the South American continent and their experiences in the many diverse countries within. Still a medical student, Guevara and Granado (a biochemist) decide to embark on an expedition to discover the land that birthed and bred them. Despite some protests from Guevara’s family, it is one of those life events that must be capitalized on before youthful inventiveness has passed them on.

The opening passages of the picture offer little originality on the buddy road picture premise. They begin their journey by stopping… at a large estate where Guevara’s love Chichina (Mia Maestro, TV’s Alias) lives with her disapproving family. Just when it seems the film will begin to make some sociological statement about the clashing between the white and blue collar classes of South America, the two rebel doctors move on and the storyline of Guevara’s love interest is conveniently dropped, but not without providing a prop for some later comedy with $15 of U.S. currency lent to Guevara by Chichina.

The first half of the film sort of drags along, as these two somewhat goofy characters make their way north from Buenos Aires on a fading Norton 500 motorcycle. The two get by concocting a premise for their journey as a study of the people of America for the purposes of advancing medicine so people will give them food shelter and some shady repair on their bike. While not the complete truth, there is some merit in their story as the final stop on their journey is a leper colony in Peru where Guevara plans to lay the groundwork for his primary field of concentration in medicine, leprosy.

Up to this point the film gets by on the charm of the two men, the good looks of Gael Garcia Bernal (The Crime of Father Amaro) as Guevara and the buffoonish nature of Rodrigo de la Serna (a star of Latino television) as Granado. Director Walter Salles (Central Station) provides a picturesque travelogue of South America; but without much dramatic through line up to the halfway point, one begins to wonder just what the point of this journey might be. Then the Norton breathes its last gasp and even the title of the film seems a bit limited.

Upon their arrival in Peru a sense of purpose begins to creep through, in the character of Guevara at least. Guevara has spent his journey observing the people of the land, people with both stories of success and failure; and with his introduction to the lepers, people not generally treated as equal, a feeling of injustice rises to the surface of Guevara’s consciousness and the pilot seeds of a future revolutionary are planted.

The leper colony is divided in half by the Amazon River; the nuns who established it quarter the staff on one side while the patients are quartered on the other, and it is under strict rule. Guevara pushes all the boundaries of the nuns’ rules, sickened by the way the lepers are not treated as people, but rather specimens. This section is the most powerful of the film with a relationship between Guevara and one of the lepers who refuses to undergo surgery providing some nearly poetic conversations. Guevara’s passion for the patients and the work to keep them healthy forms the heart of the story and grounds it into something beyond its more shallow beginnings.

The powerful second hour of the movie makes up for the meandering first half, but I fear hardly provides insight into what the real Guevara was about. The movie is true to its word of simply being about two men traveling along parallel lives for a while; and at the end those paths do diverge, although notes at the end reveal that Guevara and Granado did reunite in Cuba under Castro. It seems to me, however, that the Ernesto Guevara represented here is such a gentle soul and nice guy that this is more of a leftist rumination of the early life of the myth of Che Guevara, rather than a reality of the man who must have darkened more than a few human lives with his role in the revolutions of countries that weren’t even his home -- a man who committed acts and lead others to acts of which the boy in this film could never conceive.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Man on Fire / **½ (R)

Creasy: Denzel Washington
Pita: Dakota Fanning
Samuel: Marc Anthony
Lisa: Radha Mitchell
Rayburn: Christopher Walken
Manzano: Giancarlo Giannini
Jordan: Mickey Rourke

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Tony Scott. Written by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell. Running time: 142 minutes. Rated R (for language and strong violence).

The Denzel Washington starring actioner Man on Fire begins with the ominous factoid that in Latin America a kidnapping occurs every sixty seconds; then adds that only seventy percent of those kidnapping victims survive the ordeal. My immediate response to this news was to ask, “Why?” The story involves a child kidnapping victim and her bodyguard, who goes on a revenge rampage after the kidnapping. Man on Fire is not interested in answering questions as to what prompts this inundation of kidnappings in Central America, or even with pointing out that it is not only children that are the victims of these frequent ransom demands for loved ones. Man on Fire is only interested in showing the tortured journey of a man who finally finds a reason to live only to have it taken away from him.

Denzel Washington (The Manchurian Candidate) plays John Creasy, a man with a dark past that, while not explored here, continues to cause him pain. As the story opens, the clearly suicidal Creasy visits Rayburn, an associate from his former life as a government assassin played by Christopher Walken (Envy). Walken adds surprising definition to both characters, giving a sense of details from their contracted murderous pasts without actually revealing any specifics of that former life. Rayburn “lives like a king” in Mexico arranging security for a U.S. car manufacturer running assembly out of Mexico. Rayburn suggests a job as a bodyguard for the daughter of one of the Mexican plant owners in order to get Creasy back on his feet.

Creasy’s biggest problem holding any kind of a job since his days as a killer is his drinking, but Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) is not so concerned since the bodyguard is merely a necessity for him to renew the $10,000,000 kidnapping insurance policy to assure his social standing in the Mexico City business community. For his daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning, Taken) Creasy represents far more -- the father figure such an intelligent young girl so desperately needs.

Lisa, Samuel’s wife portrayed by Radha Mitchell (Phone Booth), at first likes Creasy simply because, like her, he is American. Eventually she comes to recognize the reluctant bonds Creasy forms with Pita. Then Pita is abducted, a ransom is demanded by a fugitive known only as “The Voice”, the police become involved along with a news paper reporter and an AFI investigator, and … Well, to reveal much more might be revealing too much, even though the film makers make such grossly unsubtle and obvious choices its hard not to figure out what is going to happen before it does. Needless to say, Creasy charges himself with the task of exacting revenge on each and every individual that had even the slightest hand in the kidnapping, thusly earning the film’s title.

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) seems to have gleaned a great deal of ideas from A.J. Quinnell’s novel, and perhaps from elsewhere, that he wants to express here. There is the state of personal terrorism that is exacted on these privileged families of Latin America, the financial and logistic workings of this little-known in America service industry of kidnapping insurance, the farming out of the American auto industry to cheap labor countries, even the isolation of these children of industry like Pita; but the only story this film is really interested in telling is one of vengeance. Helgeland does succeed in fleshing out the central character of Creasy into a convincingly flawed individual, and Washington captures every nuance of emotional pain this tortured soul carries with him. The relationship between Creasy and Pita runs the danger of being too cute for such a gritty environment, but Helgeland meticulously molds their bonding in a way that is believable.

Director Tony Scott (Enemy of the State) tells this gritty character study thriller in the jump cut/varying film stock and speed style popularized by David Fincher’s crime thriller Seven. This dizzying editing style might be employed to portray the alcohol addled daze in which Creasy spends the first thirty minutes of the film, or even the rage induced frenzy of its final hour, but it all seems much more random than that. I can’t help getting the feeling when I’m watch a film by Tony Scott, that he is desperately trying to live up to the skill and accolades of his brother Ridley’s work. Ridley Scott has employed these same storytelling tactics in films that seem much more focused on the overall objective of the material than it does here in Tony’s film. Tony even goes so far as to copy his brother’s Hannibal casting choice of the great Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini as a law enforcement authority of questionable motivations. Or perhaps he just uses Giannini in this similar role to make the audience question his motivations.

All these jump cuts and nearly subliminal images seem much more appropriate for the horror genre than this, albeit psychologically based, action flick. A visionary director knows when to employ certain filmmaking techniques, and more importantly when not to. Gore Verbinski comes to mind as someone who has employed this particular storytelling devise successfully in The Ring, and yet produced a picture sans flash editing that could have been directed by an entirely different artist with his Pirates of the Caribbean. There is one image in particular that is cheated to the audience in the opening moments of the film, which is finally contextualized in the closing shots. Is this meant to suggest a prophetic nature to the proceedings? A miscalculated story of fate? I don’t know.

Man on Fire is not a bad movie. There are some wonderful performances here by Washington, Fanning and Walken. The relationships are fully developed, a detail sorely missing from most action films. Even Latin pop idol Marc Anthony turns in an affecting performance in his largest American film role to date, although both of the parents’ roles are underdeveloped, especially Lisa who ends up becoming a much larger character than her shallow introduction would intimate. It also succeeds at delivering the terse, gritty action suggested by its title; but it seems at odds with itself. At once drawn out and undeveloped, it seems to want to be more yet content to let its most interesting elements lay by the wayside. The predictable plot developments only increase the longing to have it explore some of its unused ideas. I left thinking, Well, at least it was more engaging than Proof of Life.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Robots / **½ (PG)

With the voices of:
Rodney Copperbottom: Ewan McGregor
Fender: Robin Williams
Phineas T. Ratchet: Greg Kinnear
Big Weld: Mel Brooks
Cappy: Halle Berry
Crank Casey: Drew Carey
Piper Pinwheeler: Amanda Bynes
Herb Copperbottom: Stanley Tucci
Tim the Gate Guard: Paul Giamatti
Madame Gasket: Jim Broadbent
Mrs. Copperbottom: Dianne Wiest
Aunt Fanny: Jennifer Coolidge

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha. Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Based on the story by Jim McClain and Ron Mita. Running time: 91 minutes. Rated PG (for some brief language and suggestive humor).

The new theatrical release Robots topped off a weekend for me of watching movies with lofty goals that all fell just slightly shy of working. The goal of Robots seems to be to match the imagination and ingenuity of recent CGI animation, a bar set high by the films of Pixar Animation Studios (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles). It comes close in the imagination and ingenuity departments by taking its audience into a futuristic world populated entirely by robots, but seems to suffer from its very efforts to be clever and eye catching. I fear it is the story’s heart that gets lost in the shuffle.

The story is basic enough. Rodney (Ewan McGregor, the Star Wars prequels) is a young inventor who dreams of a better life for himself than the dishwasher job his father, Herb Copperbottom (Stanley Tucci, The Terminal), has worked so hard at all of his life for little gain. Inspired by the work of this robot world’s most famous and successful entrepreneur, Big Weld (Mel Brooks, Spaceballs), Rodney decides to leave his small town life for a shot at the big time in Robot City. When he arrives in Robot City he quickly finds reality never quite plays out the way dreams do.

Big Weld has not been seen by any robot in quite some time, and his company has been taken over by the money and power grubbing Phineas T. Ratchet (Greg Kinnear, Stuck On You). Ratchet, in collusion with his mother Madame Gasket (Jim Broadbent, Moulin Rouge), has set out to get rid of all outmoded robot models in order to make millions selling exclusively a line of over-priced upgrades. So then it becomes Rodney vs. Ratchet’s empire with only a ragtag team of misfit outmodes to help him.

The primary and most misfit misfit on Rodney’s side is a con-bot named Fender. Robin Williams brings his usual frenetic delivery to Fender’s voice, which affects Fender’s physicality into something resembling a hyperactive jackhammer. At first Fender acts as the custodian of the harsh realities and frenzied pace of the big city to Rodney, trying to con him into buying photos of himself he doesn’t want as soon as he steps of his train and eventually stealing his foot after he has been tossed out of Big Weld’s factory. But when Rodney reinstalls Fender’s decapitated head without even using the proper replacement parts, he becomes the champion of outmodes everywhere in Robot City.

Oh. And Halle Barry (Catwoman) voices a fembot on Ratchet’s executive board who empathizes with Rodney’s cause and eventually becomes a sort of romantic interest for him. If that crediting of Barry’s role seems abrupt and an afterthought of sorts, it only reflects the temper of the film itself. The universe in which Robots exists is a stunning one, teeming with color and character, rushing by at a pace slightly faster than a typical music video played at ten times its normal speed. There is wonderful detail in both the foreground and background of every shot of this film, but the only way to catch most of it would be through multiple viewings, as in seven or eight rather than two or three.

The jokes come at just as fast a pace as the action here, and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell (Parenthood) try to skewer every pop culture reference they can think of. No one, from Darth Vader to Brittany Spears, is safe from the wrath of these robots; and just how do these ’bots know so much about our current human culture anyway?

Directors Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha should be commended for their ability to evoke such a complete fantasy world, it is a shame the audience doesn’t get more of a chance to soak it all in. In Wedge’s and Blue Sky Animation’s first feature Ice Age there was the grounding presence of the human baby to slow things down and put the whole story of its prehistoric animals into perspective. In Robots everyone seems to be fighting so desperately for their own survival no one takes the time to appreciate just what they are struggling for.

Is it possible for a film to be too clever for its own good? The jokes and action in Robots are certainly clever, creating some great laughs and spectacular sequences, such as the giant dominoes set piece that reveals the Wizard of Oz-esque recluse Big Weld. But the filmmakers concentrate so hard on delivering their zingers and keeping the action moving, the characters and story get lost in the cyclone of sights and sounds.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Cat Returns / ***½ (G)

Featuring the voice talents: (English/Japanese)
Haru: Anne Hathaway/ Chizuru Ikewaki
The Baron: Carey Elwes/ Yoshihiku Hakamada
The Cat King: Tim Curry/ Tetsuro Tamba
Muta: Peter Boyle/ Tetsu Watanabe
Prince Lune: Andrew Bevis/ Takayuki Yamada
Yuki: Judy Greer/ Aki Maeda

Walt Disney and Studio Ghibli present a film directed by Hiroyuki Morita. Adapted to English by Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt. Adapted from the Manga by Aoi Hiiragi. Running time: 75 min. Rated G.

Disney has a lot to thank Pixar guru John Lassiter for, not only did Pixar extend its relationship with the once king of the animation universe by delaying the release of its final Disney CGI collaboration Cars until the profitable summer market in 2006 rather than rushing it out for the holiday season in 2005, but Lassiter was also the primary architect of the U.S. distributing deal Disney forged with Japan’s premiere animation studio, Academy Award winning anime director Hayao Miyazaki’s own Studio Ghibli. In the deal Disney obtained the U.S. distribution rights to all of Miyazaki’s masterful films (save My Neighbor Totoro which was snatched up by Fox long before the current popular anime video movement in America) as well as the rights to the great studio’s other properties; the first of which, Horiyuki Morita’s 2002 film The Cat Returns, makes its DVD debut this month.

Like the majority of Miyazaki’s work, Morita’s The Cat Returns does not play in the sword and sorcery/ sci-fi action of most anime popular in the U.S. video market, but tells an endearing and thoughtful coming of age story of a teenaged girl named Haru who is introduced to a hidden magical world due to an act of kindness she shows toward a cat. Haru is a typical teenager who is having trouble coming to terms with the mounting responsibilities leading up to adulthood. She thinks everything in her life is against her. Such occurrences as missing her breakfast because she can’t help hitting the snooze button on her alarm clock or the boy in which she is interested talking to another girl are life tragedies. Then, on the way home from school, she witnesses a cat crossing a busy stretch of road carrying a package wrapped with a ribbon. A truck speeds toward the unaware animal, undoubtedly about to end the creature’s life, when Haru throws herself across the road, scooping up the endangered cat with her lacrosse stick. The stick breaks as the two crash into the shrubbery of the dividing median, another devastating blow to the teen’s psyche. Then, to Haru’s amazement, the cat stands upright on his hind legs like a human, brushes himself off, thanks her for her good deed with eloquent speech, places his package back in his mouth, and plods off around the corner back on all fours.

This incident is merely the catalyst to a series of events that will teach Haru about real problems and how to deal with them with maturity, how even people of authority often lack maturity, and will introduce her to an entire universe that exists just beneath the attention span of human existence. Haru soon finds herself the object of the cat world’s attention, as they shower her with gifts for the good deed she has done, for the cat she saved is the prince of their world. But while the cattails in her yard and catnip in her clothes may seem splendid to the cats, Haru finds these newfound attentions more of a burden than a boon.

Soon she is visited by the Cat King himself to thank her for saving his son’s life. The Cat King is an utterly unique character, sitting on his carriage as if he never bothers to move himself, with eyes that liken him to the bug-eyed character actor Marty Feldman, who enriched so many Mel Brooks films. Eventually it is revealed that the Cat King is just as crazy as he looks when Haru is kidnapped and brought to the Kingdom of Cats to become Prince Lune’s bride. In an attempt to keep the captive Haru happy the Cat King marches a series of performers through the banquet hall to entertain the bride to be. As each performer fails to make the princess smile The Cat King has each one tossed out the window, which happens to be in one of the castle’s highest towers. It was all I could do to stay in my seat fighting off the laughter as each cat performer’s silhouette sailed out the tower window falling into oblivion.

Before Haru is kidnapped she enlists the help of the Cat Bureau to help her stave off the Cat King’s attempts to repay her. Muta is the fat cat who leads her to the Bureau’s chief The Baron, who promptly orders Muta to become Haru’s reluctant bodyguard. Muta treats all with the irreverence of a cat so large he has no need to show anyone or thing the respect he demands by his girth alone. The one thing in which he shows any interest beyond the blasé is catnip juice, which in turn provides one of the film’s most disturbingly humorous visuals.

The visual style of the piece is not as ornate as Miyazaki’s films, however still proves Studio Ghibli’s reputation as one of the best animation houses in Japan and the world. There is striking depth to some of the sequences that are given a mock third dimensional treatment, such as the scene where Haru originally saves Prince Lune from the speeding truck or when the Kingdom of Cats is first revealed to Haru and Muta. And only in Japanese anime can you find such imagination that utilizes objects and animals from the real world to create breathtaking images and ideas, like the swirling bird staircase that plays a part in the resolution of Haru’s fate.

The Cat Returns captures much of the youthful innocence and heartening sentiment of Miyazaki’s wonderful Kiki’s Delivery Service and throws in just a taste of the hidden mystery and eccentric characterization of his Academy Award winning Spirited Away. While here it is presented on a lesser scale than in those Miyazaki classics, The Cat Returns still outshines anything in the form of family entertainment produced by Disney or any other animation studio the U.S. has to offer, save maybe Pixar. And with Disney quickly abandoning its traditional animation style to compete with whomever ends up distributing Pixar after their relationship with that award winning studio is severed, Studio Ghibli may be traditional animation’s sole savior, at least in the family market.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Because of Winn-Dixie / ** (PG)

Opal: AnnaSophia Robb
Preacher: Jeff Daniels
Gloria Dump: Cicely Tyson
Otis: Dave Matthews
Miss Franny: Eva Marie Saint
Amanda Wilkinson: Courtney Jines
Dunlap Dewberry: Nick Price
Stevie Dewberry: Luke Benward

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Joan Singleton. Based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements and brief mild language).

I can recall going to “family” movies as a child, usually a matinee. I suppose movies have always filled me with a sense of wonder, but never so much as when I was a child. The Bad News Bears is one in particular I remember my parents -- it may have been even some other relative, grand parents or an aunt -- shuffling me off to without a suspicion or expectation in my head about what I was to see. I loved it. It made me want to play baseball -- for the brief time that it existed as a movie fantasy before its social reality was revealed to my reclusive nature.

A couple of weekends ago I gave the same experience to my own three-year old son, Jack. Well, his grandparents did anyway. I would have waited for a movie I expected more from myself. The movie was Because of Winn-Dixie, and Jack seemed to love it to the same degree I loved such innocent experiences as a child as well. He cried when the credits started rolling -- not so much because that particular film was over as because his trip to the theater was over. I only wish I could have experienced the film as he did, through the filter of the experience making anything on the screen worth sitting through.

Because of Winn-Dixie is an innocent sort of film that offers no surprises and a charming leading character with a charming leading dog and that is about it. Newcomer AnnaSophia Robb plays Opal, who says she did not find the stray dog she would hastily name after the local supermarket the Winn-Dixie, but rather Winn-Dixie found her.

Opal is a transplant to the town of Naomi, Fla. with her father who is a preacher for a church located in a closed down convenience store. Jeff Daniels (Fly Away Home) plays Opal’s father, whom she awkwardly refers to as Preacher rather than Dad for no good reason other than that is what quirky movie kids do to reject typical familial structures, as a man without much social or parental eloquence. He means well but provides little emotional comfort for his motherless daughter. The mystery of what happened to Opal’s mother I will leave so.

Opal is a loner, who has trouble making friends until she is introduced to a stray dog in an odd and whimsical sequence set in the local grocery palace, the Winn-Dixie. There is a disturbance in the store while Opal is picking up a couple of items for her father that has all of the employees of the Winn-Dixie running up and down the isles after it. I liked the way the audience is only given glimpses of what is going on, just as an actual customer of the Winn-Dixie wouldn’t be aware of what was happening. It turns out the disturbance has four paws, a wagging tail and a shaggy coat. In order to save the beast from the pound Opal claims it is hers. When pressed to call the dog by name Opal calls it by the first name that comes into her sight, the name of the very store she is in. Luckily for her and the dog both, the dog responds to Winn-Dixie.

After their “magical” bond is formed, Opal’s life changes forever and becomes a series of what passes for adventures in backwater small towns of America. I have to say this movie is accurate about that; there really isn’t a whole helluva lot to do in a town of about 100 people.

Their adventures lead them to make friends with an eclectic group of characters, including a bear-fearing librarian played by Eva Marie Saint (I Dreamed of Africa), the town’s reputed blind witch played by Cicely Tyson (A Lesson Before Dying), and the drifter/musician/animal tamer/roughneck/nice former felon played by Dave Matthews (Yes, that Dave Matthews!). These strange outcast adults form a life lesson support system for Opal that guides her into becoming the loving, caring girl she… already was.

Winn-Dixie has a good heart I suppose, but everything in it exists solely to fulfill long played out Hollywood traditions of how adults would like children’s lives to be. Instead of having any real child friends and childhood experiences, Opal’s life is populated with disparate adults who are better adjusted emotionally, or affected by only minor character flaws, than anyone in real life, let alone people who have been cast off by mainstream society.

But more importantly Winn-Dixie is just plain dull. Director Wayne Wang (Smoke) has had success in the past with films about eccentric adult characters working through everyday problems, usually with deep emotional cores; but this attempt to tackle a child’s point of view misses the free spirited resilience of being a kid. What pulls a kid through childhood isn’t their ability to relate to adults, but rather the way a child can just let the real world slide away and escape into their own fantasy world. Wayne touches upon some good ideas that could have gone somewhere, like the way Opal imagines the stories she is told with a literalness only a child could apply, but he abandons these ideas for the adult weirdoes that are going to make everything all better for her.

I hope Jack will remember his Winn-Dixie experience fondly. I am sure he will, just as I remember the experience of going to films like The Bad News Bears, Trail of the Pink Panther and Benji when I was little. The nostalgia I feel for the experience, however, does not necessarily mean those films were any good. Because of Winn-Dixie is not good. And why, in this digital age, do filmmakers feel it is necessary to digitally impose facial expressions onto animals as if their faces are constructed the same as humans? Any live action movie about a dog that literally smiles is one of which to be wary.