Saturday, June 24, 2006

Nacho Libre / *** (PG)

Ignacio/Nacho: Jack Black
Esqueleto: Hector Jimenez
Sister Encarnacion: Ana de la Reguera
Chancho: Darius Rose
Ramses: Cesar Gonzales
Emporer: Peter Stromare

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Jared Hess. Written by Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, and Mike White. Running time: 91 min. Rated PG (for some rough action and crude humor including dialogue).

After screening “Nacho Libre” with my wife Angie, she had the impression I was disappointed with the film. I wasn’t, but throughout the entire film I was embarrassed for Ang. I felt bad for her that I had won the evening’s viewing choice because her pick, “The Break Up”, started a half hour later. I couldn’t imagine she was enjoying the march of oddities acting oddly that was “Nacho Libre”, but she surprised me by saying she actually liked it. “It was kind of sweet,” she said. (Of course, she may have been covering to avoid telling me how she really felt.)

“Nacho Libre” is the result of the combined talents of two of the stranger forces and more unlikely successful partnerships in film comedy today — the actor/writer team of Jack Black and Mike White and the director/co-writing team of Jared and Jerusha Hess. Black and White have previously collaborated on two other films, “Orange County” and “School of Rock”, but “Nacho” marks their first joint effort under their Black and White production company. White, as a writer, seems to have an intrinsic understanding of Black as a performer, and writes characters which embrace Black’s unique penchant for the totally bizarre sentimentalist. “Nacho” is the sophomore film of the Hesses, a husband and wife team who found sleeper success with their 2004 cult hit “Napoleon Dynamite”. Both films prove their obsession with loser characters whose sad aspirations reflect the limited worlds they inhabit.

“Nacho Libre” has it own unique charm, but it takes some time for it to reveal itself. Black plays Ignacio, a friar cook in a small Mexican orphanage whose meals leave much to be desired. He tries to add flair to his dishes, which otherwise resemble vomit. Ignacio complains to the monks that he needs money for better food, and indeed, the day old chips he receives from a local restaurant are stolen by the nimble Esqueleto (Hector Jimenez).

There is little in Ignacio’s life to give him pleasure. As a child, he obsessed over the Mexican wrestling stars known as Lucha Libre, or luchador. His passion was squelched by the monks who took him in and still show him little respect. When the beautiful nun Sister Encarnacion (Mexican TV favorite Ana de la Reguera) comes to the orphanage, Ignacio is finally stirred into action and decides to become a luchador under the name Nacho to obtain the funds for worthwhile food.

These opening passages are oddly paced and only slightly peppered with the Hesses’ strange humor. It isn’t until Ignacio enlists the help of Esqueleto as his luchador partner that the film begins to discover its footing. The two find that even losing in the ring can make a luchador popular and well paid.

It’s with their second match that it becomes clear at just what level of absurdity we’re supposed to be taking all this. When Nacho and Esqueleto are assaulted in the ring by two flying little trolls, the movie jumps to a new level of comedy, both encompassing the oddity of the “Napoleon Dynamite” set and embracing Black’s over-the-top ideals.

Black presents his usual brand of insanity, although Ignacio’s ineptitude makes it hard to like him at first. The filmmakers may have abused the stereotypical “Jack Black” persona to a degree; they’ve thrown in a few excuses to have him sing that play like non-sequiturs and telegraph the laughs to the audience.

It’s the character of Esqueleto that truly steals the show, however, with his affable smile and love for a strange corn cob on a stick delicacy. Hector Jimenez has the same unforced appeal as Efren Ramirez, who played Pedro in “Dynamite”. Of course, Ignacio never appreciates Esqueleto as he should.

Just as Angie said, “Nacho Libre” is sweet, and it becomes sweeter as it nears the end, when Ignacio’s reasons for remaining a luchador become less selfish. But there’s no denying that it’s an acquired taste. If one is not a fan of either Jack Black or “Napoleon Dynamite”, it could be unbearable. Even a fan of one but not the other might have trouble with it. I wasn’t caught up in the cult hype of “Dynamite”, but did see its strange appeal. “Nacho Libre” is in some ways bolder and in some ways sillier, but that strange appeal of something different than your average comedy is still there. With a little patience, you might be able to see it.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Cars / ***½ (G)

Featuring the voices of:
Lightning McQueen: Owen Wilson
Doc Hudson: Paul Newman
Sally Carrera: Bonnie Hunt
Mater: Larry the Cable Guy
Ramone: Cheech Marin
Luigi: Tony Shalhoub
The King: Richard Petty
Sarge: Paul Dooley
Filmore: George Carlin
Chick Hicks: Michael Keaton
Mack: John Ratzenberger

Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation present a film directed by John Lasseter. Written by Dan Fogelman, Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Kiel Murray, Phil Lorin, and Jurgen Klubien. Based on a story by Lasseter, Ranft, and Klubien. Running time: 118 min. Rated G.

“Cars” is Pixar Animation Studio’s worst reviewed movie to date, according to Rotten Tomatoes, a national critics’ poll website. This seems like an unfair assessment of the film though, since, at 77% on their “tomatometer”, it’s still been better received than most films in current release. After Pixar’s endless stream of successes starting with 1995’s “Toy Story”, the critics may be wishing for a failure. Saying the movie is “good” seems to be the worst anyone can do.

But “Cars” is better than good. Like all of Pixar’s past efforts, it contains such strict attention to detail, commands such an intelligent delivery of its story, and reveals such universal insight into the imagination of the child in each and every one of us that “Cars” operates on its own stage altogether.

“Cars” takes place in a world populated entirely by cars. Well, there are jet planes and helicopters and vehicles of various types, but the car seems to be the dominant species. Little VW Beetle flies drive around on dusty windows and leave sets of tiny tire tracks. Tractors are this world’s cows, sitting in fields chewing cud until some juvenile truck comes and “tips” them. A harvester combine is the equivalent of a raging bull. And race cars are treated as royalty.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”) is the up and comer on the Piston Cup circuit. As the story opens, Lightning winds up in a spectacular three way tie for the cup, alongside the reigning champion, The King (voiced by NASCAR legend Richard Petty), and long-time runner up Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton, “White Noise”). A tie breaker race is set to be run in a week in California, and it’s believed that the first car to arrive will be The King’s successor for the sponsorship of the circuit’s biggest contributor, Dinoco.

After demeaning his pit crew into quitting, Lightning forces his big rig hauler, Mack (John Ratzenberger, TV’s “Cheers”), to drive through the night. During a particularly clever sequence in a film lined with them, some “Fast and the Furious” style street racers terrorize the drowsy Mack until he inadvertently dumps Lightning in the middle of the desert. Unaware of his cargo’s fate, Mack drives off, leaving Lightning stranded.

Lightning finds his way to Route 66 – the one-time heartline of the country – and the now nearly deserted town of Radiator Springs. Having never been coached in the etiquette of life outside the racing sect, Lightning causes some reckless destruction to this town upon his introduction to it, placing him under the scrutinous eye of the town patriarch Doc Hudson (voiced by Hollywood legend and auto racing enthusiast Paul Newman).

Doc sentences Lightning to repair the damages he caused. The town is populated by a collection of characters from all forms of auto life. There’s the VW hippie bus, Filmore (George Carlin, “Jersey Girl”), the Army Jeep surplus supplier, Sarge (Paul Dooley, “Sixteen Candles”), the hydraulics and paint specialist, Ramone (Cheech Marin, “Spy Kids”), the drive-in gas diner owner, Flo (Jenifer Lewis, Lifetime’s “Strong Medicine”), the Italian tire expert, Luigi (Tony Shalhoub, TV’s “Monk”), the grease monkey tow truck, Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, “The Blue Collar Comedy Tour”), and, of course, as a potential love interest, the attractive Porsche, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt, TV’s “Life with Bonnie”). As is expected, this rogue’s gallery of characters teaches Lightning the importance of friendship and nostalgia.

Despite the rather formulaic nature of the story, director and Pixar guru John Lasseter proves Gene Siskel’s rule that a movie’s success is not measured by what it’s about, but how it is about it. Lasseter is so dedicated to his setting and his characters that never does any of this seem hokey or contrived. He’s created such a complete universe, in such vivid detail, that just to behold the film is to find enjoyment in it.

When I first saw the teaser for this film, I was afraid that Pixar had finally picked a lemon with its talking cars, but the characters are all so solid and the dialogue so clever that you don’t have to be a child to buy this convention. And once again, Pixar provides a film appealing to all ages; we really all love cars, no matter what age we are.

Also be sure to stick around for the credit cookies. The cars reopen the Radiator Springs drive-in movie theater and watch a hilarious retrospective of parallel car universe Pixar classics and Mack presents a humorous observation about one of the voice-over artists. Plus, there’s a tribute to the late Joe Ranft, Pixar's head of story for over a decade.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Tristan + Isolde / **½ (PG-13)

Tristan: James Franco
Isolde: Sophia Myles
Lord Marke: Rufus Sewell
King Donnchadh: David Patrick O’Hara
Melot: Henry Cavill
Wictred: Mark Strong
Bragnae: Bronagh Gallagher

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film by Kevin Reynolds. Written by Dean Georgaris. Running time: 125 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense battle sequences and some sexuality).

In his most recent collection of film reviews, film critic Roger Ebert cites playwright George Bernard Shaw as stating that description itself could be criticism. Ebert then writes, “Sometimes to simply see what is in the movie, through your own eyes, is to comment on it.” I would add that to read the plot of a film can be an even better experience than actually seeing the film itself.

“Tristan + Isolde” seems to be a film from another time in Hollywood. Indeed, the film was originally conceived by Ridley Scott to be the follow-up to his feature debut, “The Duelists”, almost thirty years ago. It comes from a time when films were more romantic, more willing to explore older settings. It comes in the form of a sword and kingdom historical epic, but tells of a romance that could not be. Like the recent films “King Arthur” and Scott’s undervalued “Kingdom of Heaven”, it reinvents early European history to tell a more universal tale. And what a deliciously juicy tale it is.

During the years following Roman occupation of England, the strong forces that were able to drive the Romans out have crumbled and divided the land into separate districts. Meanwhile, Ireland has become a unified tyrannical force that persistently pillages the English provinces in an effort to break any chance of unification. When Lord Aragon (Richard Dillane, TV’s “Hustle”) gathers the lords of the English provinces to sign a treaty uniting them under one king, Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell, “The Legend of Zorro”), they are attacked by the Irish, and Aragon is killed in the presence of his son, Tristan.

Tristan is saved by Lord Marke, who loses his hand in the melee. Marke’s province of Cornwall is attacked at the same time and he loses his wife and son as well. Taking Tristan as a surrogate son, the boy eventually grows to become Marke’s best fighter and military strategist, leaving his nephew Melot (Henry Cavill, “The Count of Monte Cristo”) as second fiddle despite the blood relation.

During a rescue of slaves taken by Irish soldiers, Tristan is wounded by the poisoned sword of Morholt (Graham Mullins). His men take him for dead and give him a royal burial, setting him to sea. He washes up on the Irish coast, where Isolde resuscitates him.

Not knowing that Tristan murdered the man to whom she was unwillingly betrothed by her father, Isolde and Tristan begin to fall in love. She keeps from him the fact that she is the daughter of King Donnchadh (David Patrick O’Hara, “Hotel Rwanda”). When Tristan is well again, she forces him to leave Ireland so her father will not find and kill him. “I want to know that there's more to this life and I can't know that if they kill you. Please! Go.”

Upon Tristan’s return to Cornwall, King Donnchadh offers a truce and, as a calculated move to keep the English provinces divided, a tournament is devised. The winner will be awarded his daughter as a queen to an English throne. The tournament is in favor of Lord Wictred (Mark Strong, “Syriana”), a willing servant to Donnchadh and therefore a man the other lords of England would refuse to unite behind.

Tristan competes in Lord Marke’s stead and wins Isolde. At first, Isolde thinks Tristan has won her for himself, while Tristan is unaware that the prize is his Irish love. Both are pained that she must now marry the man to whom Tristan is bound by duty and love. Marke is a good man to both, making their feelings for each other that must more painful. There is no way this can have a happy ending.

The film’s trailer claims that, “Before Romeo & Juliet, there was Tristan & Isolde”, but the trail of deception and betrayal found here makes Shakespeare’s musings seem like nursery rhymes. This story has so much potential for pain, it’s surprising that the film, although handsomely produced and firmly executed, is not as moving as it should be.
Perhaps the performances by the lead actors are to blame. But I’m not inclined to think so, since

James Franco (“Spider-Man”) and Sophia Myles (“Underworld”), as the titular lovers, each have the zeal and presence to carry off a passionate romance. Perhaps then the fault lies in the direction by Kevin Reynolds, whose lively period pieces in the past have included “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “The Count of Monte Cristo”. It’s as if he’s tried to keep this story down to earth, going for a realistic portrayal of the period and choosing politics over melodrama.

There is further depth to the drama that I have not revealed here and it gains steam as it goes along, but the full potential of these characters’ painful circumstance is never completely tapped. Despite its glorious setting and well-drawn production values, “Tristan + Isolde” seems muted. The film is an honorable effort, but the filmmakers’ passion for the material doesn’t seem to match the passion required by the wonderful plot.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand / *** (PG-13)

Logan/Wolverine: Hugh Jackman
Prof. Charles Xavier: Patrick Stewart
Magneto: Ian McKellen
Ororo Munroe/Storm: Halle Berry
Dr. Jean Grey/Phoenix: Famke Janssen
Dr. Hank McCoy/Beast: Kelsey Grammer
Marie/Rouge: Anna Paquin
Mystique: Rebecca Romijn
Scott Summers/Cyclops: James Marsden
Bobby Drake/Iceman: Shawn Ashmore
Pyro: Aaron Stanford
Juggernaut: Vinnie Jones
Warren Worthington III: Ben Foster
Callisto: Diana Ramirez
Kitty Pride/Shadowcat: Ellen Page

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Brett Ratner. Written by Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg. Running time: 104 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action violence, some sexual content and language).

When I went to see the third installment of the “X-Men” franchise, I fully expected to be writing about its allegorical parallels to our current political hot button issue of illegal immigrants and the necessity for societal tolerance of others. The first two “X-Men” films, like the comic book they’re based on, have delved heavily into the topics of civil rights and tolerance (or lack there of) in this “land of the free.” “X-Men: The Last Stand” is no more shy about wearing its political banner on its sleeve than its predecessors, but it’s much more concerned with just getting down to the nitty gritty of an all out brawl between mutants and man (and other mutants).

In the X-Men universe, there are some people who have “taken the next leap on the evolutionary ladder.” These “mutants” developed super-powers that as unique as personalities, ranging from the ability to heal almost instantly to the ability to control and manipulate metal. Since only a select few have developed these powers, naturally the rest of the human race fears them. The first two films explored the socio-political ramifications presented by this development. Some mutants were shown working for the good of humanity by trying to promote tolerance and harmony between the humans and mutants, while other mutants, bitter from the humans’ fear of them, were shown trying to assert their dominance over the human race.

In “The Last Stand” a medical research facility has developed a “cure” for the mutant gene. Some mutants whose mutations are a little more obvious, such as Beast (Kelsey Grammar, TV’s “Frasier”) and Angel (Ben Foster, “Hostage”), or those who might find life easier to live, like Rogue (Anna Paquin, “The Squid and the Whale”), are not sure where their feelings lie about this cure. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood of Mutants, lead by Magneto (Ian McKellen, “The DaVinci Code”), sees this so-called cure as a call to arms for their kind to take their rightful place as the masters of the human race. The group of mutant heroes known as the X-Men are all that stand between Magneto’s Brotherhood and the fall of mankind.

The X-Men find themselves at a crossroads as the story opens. With mutantism having worked its way into society’s mainstream, their school for gifted young children, founded by their leader Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) as a safe haven and mentoring school for unwanted mutants, has become somewhat obsolete – especially if this cure becomes widely accepted. Some of their members are considering the normal life they’ve never been able to have before.

The group is also recovering from the loss of one of their own. In the previous film, Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, “Hide and Seek”) sacrificed herself for the rest of the team. When the two love interests of the deceased psychic, Cyclops (James Marsden, “The Notebook”) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, “Van Helsing”), begin to receive messages from her, things start heating up in some not so good ways.

“The Last Stand” is quite a prophetic title considering some of the surprises the movie has in store for fans of the series. There are some deaths of major characters. (Yes, there’s an ‘s’ at the end of that word.) 20th Century Fox has also promised it would be the final installment, but the box office receipts may rescind that order. And if you stick around for the credit cookies (I did not and had to be informed of what I had missed) it becomes apparent that nothing is final in the X-Men universe.

It is good to see some characters that have stood in the periphery of past installments take larger roles this time around. Storm (Halle Berry, “Catwoman”) takes a more prominent leadership role in Jean’s absence, which is natural considering the character’s formidable ability to control the weather. Pyro (Aaron Stanford, “The Hills Have Eyes”), who started out as a good guy in “X2”, is promoted to Magneto’s number one stooge, inviting a climatic face off with former friend Iceman (Shawn Ashmore, “Terry”). Colossus (Daniel Cudmore, “Alone in the Dark”) and Kitty Pride (Ellen Page, “Hard Candy”) have gone from cameo appearances to frontline X-Men.

As always, the casting for this series is perfect. Grammar is an inspired choice for the highly intellectual mutant Beast. It seems nobody but the former professional footballer Vinnie Jones (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) could have personified Juggernaut. And Ben Foster makes for a good looking Angel even though his role is so condensed he never even gets a chance to take his mutant name and is only ever known in the film as Warren Worthington III.

I’ve always loved the “X-Men” for its blatant socio-political allegory, but probably what most people find fascinating are the mutant powers and abundance of different characters. Both of these elements are featured prominently in this “last stand.” Director Brett Ratner (“Red Dragon”) does a good job retaining the mood of the previous films and an even better job of pumping the action up to a state of near anarchy by the final battle. This installment has so much action it makes the first seem like an episode of “Masterpiece Theater”. It is very much a success in those terms but seems to lack some of the intensity of meaning of the previous films. Regardless, it remains true to the comic book and should satisfy fans and summer movie goers, as well as leaving a high bar to live up to for the makers of “Wolverine”.