Monday, August 27, 2007

The Nanny Diaries / **½ (PG-13)

Annie Braddock: Scarlett Johansson
Mrs. X: Laura Linney
Grayer: Nicholas Art
Harvard Hottie: Chris Evans
Judy Braddock: Donna Murphy
Lynette: Alicia Keys
Mr. X: Paul Giamatti

The Weinstein Company presents a film written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, based on the novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for language).

Some might see “The Nanny Diaries,” or read the bestselling novel upon which it is based, and think that people like the parents in the story don’t really exist. But like the film’s Manhattan locations that I long to revisit in person, there really are parents this reprehensible. I don’t think this film exaggerates as much as we might hope.

“The Nanny Diaries” tells the story of Annie Braddock, a new college graduate who finds she is unsure of what she wants out of life. She dreams of pursuing anthropology but is being pushed by her mother into finance. Instead of pursuing either, Annie discovers the strange subculture of Upper East Side moms and their nannies during a somewhat typical Meet Cute with a six-year-old boy named Grayer (Nicholas Art). Grayer’s mom, who is only referred to as Mrs. X, mistakes Annie for a nanny, and Annie finds an unplanned direction for her life.

While Mrs. X is pleasant enough before she takes Annie on as her new nanny, she quickly becomes a tyrant. Annie develops an instinctual love for the boy and an appreciation for his situation, despite their rocky first days together. Before their bonding begins, Grayer’s terrorizing leads to a more unusual romantic Meet Cute with another resident of the X’s building, the man Annie refers to only as Havard Hottie (Chris Evans, “Fantastic Four”). However, one of Mrs. X’s many unreasonable rules is that Annie is not allowed to date.

The focus is squarely on the two women. Scarlett Johansson (“The Prestige”) is effective as the college grad who has yet to determine a direction for herself. And despite her natural beauty, the costume department has effectively given her the frazzled look of a nanny run ragged. As the decidedly more glamorous Mrs. X, Laura Linney (“Breach”) has the difficult task of portraying a monster who must also inspire sympathy from her victim. Linney is an actress of tremendous range who achieves her cold veneer effortlessly and adds the most minute, almost unnoticeable, dash of humanity. Mrs. X becomes a character we still don’t like, but we can understand her.

The writing-directing team of Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini use the fantasy life of Annie to add some visual artistry to a story that might have been told more basically in other hands. Annie sees her life as an anthropology study and imagines many of the character types she encounters as subjects in the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History. She also fantasizes a red umbrella that draws an appropriate parallel to another nanny tale, “Mary Poppins”. I couldn’t help but think, however, that if someone with Julie Andrews’ positive spirit were in this movie, it might be more fun.

Berman and Pulcini were responsible for the wonderful “American Splendor”, a biography of the comic book artist Harvey Pekar that also used fantasy sequences. “The Nanny Diaries” is a far more standard story treatment than that film. Somehow, despite the visually inspired fantasy sequences and the strong lead performances, this film never quite rises above its more pedestrian trappings. Annie’s best friend Lynette (Alicia Keys, “Smokin’ Aces”), for instance, seems only to exist to provide the profound observations of a true friend, which only seem to be articulated in the movies.

The treatment of the husband, Mr. X (Paul Giamatti “The Illusionist”), begins promisingly. Initially, I thought that I would be criticizing the filmmakers for casting such a wonderful character actor in the role as a man whose face is never seen. But after just two brief scenes where his features remain conspicuously concealed, Annie finally sees his face and the gimmick is left for dead. And while Mrs. X’s avoidance of her problems with her husband fits within their social structure, Annie’s reaction to Mr. X should be less mannered.

“The Nanny Diaries” is far from a bad film, but it is a little dull. It cooks on a slow simmer when it should boil and percolate. The comedy is never as funny as it should be. The biggest laugh comes from a kid crying in a George Bush mask at a costume party, while the main story inspires chuffs at best. And the tension between Annie and Mrs. X never builds or breaks. When Annie does finally confront Mrs. X about all the things she’s missing with her son, it isn’t really a confrontation at all. It compromises all of Annie’s passion and robs her of the release of facing her fears and forcing Mrs. X to face hers. Mrs. X’s reaction to this confrontation, while providing the closure that is not available in the book, is pretty far out of character.

This film may be enjoyable to fans of the book, and it is good to see Linney get another high profile chance to show us a real person on screen. But “The Nanny Diaries” could have used to be just a little more supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Buy it: Nanny books and movies

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Invasion / *** (PG-13)

Dr. Carol Bennell: Nicole Kidman
Dr. Ben Driscoll: Daniel Craig
Tucker Kaufman: Jeremy Northam
Oliver: Jackson Bond
Dr. Stephen Galeano: Jeffrey Wright
Wendy Lenk: Veronica Cartwright

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Written by Dave Kajganich, based on the novel “The Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney. Running time: 93 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images and terror).

“For better or worse, we are human….” – Dr. Stephen Galeano

The individual nature of the human spirit is a subject that has been mined countless times by the film industry, especially within the science fiction genre, and in particular with the four film adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers”. The latest version, titled simply “The Invasion”, arrives during a period when it seems like Hollywood releases a film every couple of weeks that reflects the state of fear dominating our political climate and countless aspects of our media-driven culture. “The Invasion” uses this volatile atmosphere to re-submit questions about the importance of individualism to our values and pose one question that hasn’t been asked before.

The storydetailing an invasion from outer space where the aliens take human bodies as hosts and turn the human race into a mass entity that acts as one―first found its way onto the screen in 1956 as anti-communist propaganda in the classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. It was remade in 1978 under the same title and again in 1993 under the novel’s original title. Each incarnation of the story has been a metaphorical celebration of our independent spirit as both Americans and as humans. “The Invasion” follows in these footsteps but adds an element of confusion that the previous installments lacked.

Nicole Kidman (“The Interpreter”) takes the lead role this time around as psychiatrist Carol Bennell. After the crash of a space shuttle mission under strange circumstances, Carol begins to notice that some people are beginning to act differently. One of her patients, Wendy Lenk (played by Veronica Cartwright, who starred in the ’78 version), tells her, “My husband is not my husband.” At first, Carol thinks Wendy is delusional, but when her own ex-husband suddenly takes an interest in their son Oliver (Jackson Bond), she starts to see signs of these personality changes everywhere around her.

Carol’s ex, Tucker Kaufman (Jeremy Northam, “Gosford Park”), heads the CDC, which starts a vaccination campaign against a mysterious virus that was brought to Earth on the downed shuttle. Suspecting something is strange with her former husband’s actions, she enlists the aid of her boyfriend, Dr. Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig), and his colleague, Dr. Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright). Craig and Wright are dressed down a bit here from their “Casino Royale” tuxes.

As this personality-shifting plague spreads, the global news coverage shifts to a more positive note as conflicts end (including those in Darfur and Iraq) and treaties are reached. The world seems to be growing more placid and peaceful. Meanwhile, the hero doctors discover that this alien virus seems to be triggered when its victims sleep. The key to a vaccine appears to lie in finding people who are immune to the virus; but with Oliver missing, Carol’s priorities lie with finding her son.

Now, this synopsis may not make this version seem much different or even necessary. But the key to its success lies with Carol’s pursuit of her son. Her motivation to protect her son at all costs gives a new direction as the story’s hero. She abandons her duty to the human race as a whole to her duty as a mother, and this conflict serves to clarify the struggle inherent in the story’s question of individual importance. Do you serve the whole or the one? Is serving the whole the individual choice? Our individuality makes us human, but is that not also what makes us inhumane? Would a world devoid of conflict really be a bad thing?

The movie does not answer these questions, but I was happy to see it pose them. As the statement I quoted above suggests, it is always assumed that we are human “for better,” despite the “worse.” But perhaps that is just selfishness. Carol’s selfish act in this film changes the course of the world (I will not reveal how), but her decisions are not the clear cut choices of the heroes in previous versions of the story. She isn’t sure she’s doing the right thing. And the fact that she cannot fall asleep for fear of activating the virus that may be within her only adds to her confusion. But isn’t confusion a large part of our individual natures? Or at least a result of it?

The editing of the film also reflects this confusion. We are shown some sequences of action out of order, some long before the story has arrived at them. And another source of confusion is that I can’t say for sure who to credit for this effective vision. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (“The Experiment”, “Downfall”) is credited as the film’s director, but the Wachoski Brothers and James McTeague (all responsible for “The Matrix” trilogy and “V for Vendetta”) were brought in by the studio to re-write and re-shoot much of the film. And while it is easy to tell this latter team ratcheted up some new action sequences for the end of the film, it is unclear what overall changes they may have made to the themes. Whatever changes were made, it worked as a whole for me despite the fact that the beginning and end seemed rushed, and the stunning car chase seemed to belong to another film.

By saying it worked for me, I am departing from most of the critics in the country. But I stand by the nature of this story. I believe most of my peers have missed the boat by confusing any studio tinkering that may have occurred with the success of what is on the screen. The film’s confusion is by design, yet it clearly states its message about our current state of world affairs. And it’s an effective thriller to boot. But then this is coming from a man who still believes that “Superman Returns” is a great movie. Just remember that during an alien invasion, the crazies are usually right.

Buy it: classic alien invasion movies

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Rush Hour 3 / * (PG-13)

Detective James Carter: Chris Tucker
Chief Inspector Lee: Jackie Chan
Kenji: Hiroyuki Sanada
Genevieve: Noemie Lenoir
George: Yvan Attal
Soo Yung: Jingchu Zhang
Dragon Lady: Youki Kudoh
Varden Reynard: Max Von Sydow
Detective Revi: Roman Polanski

New Line Cinema presents a film directed by Brett Ratner. Written by Jeff Nathanson. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of action violence, sexual content, nudity and language).

While we were walking out of the theater, my wife said, “The bloopers during the closing credits were the best part, like always.” I wondered to myself why I had even bothered with “Rush Hour 3”. I didn’t like the first pairing of martial arts star Jackie Chan and comedian Chris Tucker in “Rush Hour”, and felt I had been completely ripped off by “Rush Hour 2”. But it somehow still seems like the combination should work, so I went into number three with the hope that this time they got it right. However, the third time is not always the charm.

What is truly amazing about this film is that a director like Brett Ratner, who has so successfully followed up other directors’ franchise material in films like “Red Dragon” and “X-Men: The Last Stand”, could do such a poor job cobbling together the third installment in his own franchise. I mean this movie is so flawed it wouldn’t receive a passing grade in film school. Consider a sequence where Tucker’s character rescues the showgirl Genevieve (Noemie Lenoir, “The Valet”) from Chinese Triad hit men during a Paris revue. The hit men are prepared to shoot the beauty in plain sight while she is on stage doing a solo, but when Carter appears onstage with her, it is enough to stay their trigger fingers. Forget that Carter himself is already on their hitlist for foiling their attempt to kill the Chinese Ambassador at the World Criminal Court in Los Angeles just days before. For that matter, does this World Criminal Court even exist? And should I really be questioning its existence during an action film in which it plays a pivotal role?

Chief Inspector Lee (Chan, “Shanghai Knights”) and Detective James Carter (Tucker, don’t ask me where he’s been since “Rush Hour 2”) bungle their way into discovering why the Triads have targeted the ambassador for assassination. The trail leads to Paris where—after a mind boggling cameo by director Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”) as a Parisian Police Inspector who feels it is necessary to torture visiting law enforcement officers for no reason—the two discover that Genevieve is the bearer of a list of names integral to the Triads’ existence. While beautiful, Genevieve couldn’t be much a rocket scientist to think that revealing this list to the ambassador wouldn’t go unpunished. But she seems sure it will still be safe to continue to work her very high profile job. And the true nature of Varden Reynard could not be more obvious even if he wasn’t played by such a frequent heavy as Max Von Sydow (“Minority Report”).

“Rush Hour 3” is strictly amateur night at the multiplex. The plot is a flimsy excuse to place the stoic Chan into action situations, which Tucker can then ridicule; it’s a wonder they even bothered. It isn’t that Tucker isn’t funny. There is a good Laurel & Hardy type of bit where Carter is trying to take names in a martial arts dojo, but it immediately follows a fight scene with a giant that lies somewhere in the realm between “Beverly Hills Ninja” and “The Little Dragons”. Strictly kids stuff.

There was a time when Jackie Chan could amaze and awe his audiences with an ability to combine martial arts with a use of his environment and adept comic timing. At his best he has been compared to other great physical comedians like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. As he has gotten older, his action sequences have relied less on his hands-on ability to work the physical environment his characters find themselves in, and rely more so on conventional action setups and long shots that don’t require as much physical risk for the action star. As a result his comedy does not flow so freely from the action, often forcing the comedy into the action sequences.

As for the rest of “Rush Hour 3”, it’s all been seen before, and most of it has been scraped from the bottom of the movie cliché dung heap. Even the great composer Lalo Schifrin’s score conjures the hackneyed and overdone swells of sappy melodrama.

With material as formulaic as the buddy cop action comedy, originality is not really something the filmmakers could be expected to present. But still, someone should have pointed out to Ratner that just a little more of an effort was needed for scrutinizing audiences to care about these characters the third time around. People are more than willing to move on to something fresher. But instead Ratner has forgotten any lessons he might have learned from carrying another director’s work into a sequel, and just thrown whatever he could get on screen, saving his best work for the blooper reel.

Buy it: Rush Hour series

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum / ***½ (PG-13)

Jason Bourne: Matt Damon
Pamela Landy: Joan Allen
Noah Vosen: David Strathairn
Nicky Parsons: Julia Stiles
Simon Ross: Paddy Considine
Ezra Kramer: Scott Glenn
Dr. Albert Hirsch: Albert Finney

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Paul Greengrass. Written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, and George Nolfi, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum. Running time: 111 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence and intense sequences of action).

There is a fight scene in “The Bourne Ultimatum” that had me gripping the armrest with an intensity that may have left finger indentations. A sense of uncomfortable curiosity pervades the viewing experience of this film that is something akin to watching a car accident. And, in fact, there are several of those to be witnessed in what is easily this summer’s most exciting cinematic experience. While rogue CIA hitman Jason Bourne is cool as ice throughout this wall-to-wall action piece, it is the audience that must bear all the anxiety of this extreme thriller.

In this third installment of the series, Jason Bourne is still on the run, his past still a mystery. How did he become one of the most wanted men in the world by the very people who trained him? How could he have such incredible knowledge of the world of espionage and not remember how he gained his knowledge? And just who is Jason Bourne really? As the film opens, he is beginning to remember snippets of images from his past, but none of these memories make much sense out of context.

Joining Matt Damon (“Ocean’s Thirteen”) as Bourne are some returning cast members and the usual new set of government conspirators who make Bourne the focus of an intense death hunt. David Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck”) portrays Bourne’s primary pursuer, CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen, head of a special division with executive privilege over who is considered for execution as a national security threat. This division is backed by CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn, “The Silence of the Lambs”), who places Pamela Landy (Joan Allen reprising her role from “The Bourne Supremacy”) on the task force chasing Bourne, based on her previous experience with his case. Albert Finney (“A Good Year”) also shows up in a role pivotal to Bourne’s past.

Director Paul Greengrass (“United 93”) wisely populates the supporting cast with actors who are skilled enough to know what kind of film they are in. The action takes the front seat in this thriller and performances can only distract from that purpose. These are actors who don’t perform, they just are. It is particularly impressive to see the incredibly overlooked Strathairn and Allen working so closely together in roles that could easily involve boisterous melodramatic delivery. These two play their tension subtly and without pretense of their own importance to the events as they play out. They know this is Damon’s game, and their underplayed gamesmanship makes the game itself the focus.

It is also good to see Julia Stiles (“The Omen”) return as Nicky Parsons, a character that the series has only teased us with until now. While she had only a couple of scenes of dialogue in the first two installments, Parsons becomes a full-fledged victim of the Bourne syndrome; she has to run for her life from assassins just for speaking with the man. Her action sequence—the white-knuckler I mentioned earlier— is particularly suspenseful. But then just about every frame of footage in this actioner is knuckle-whitening.

So while the cast may be excellent and mysteries may finally be solved, it is Greengrass’s direction of the action that makes this the most thrilling ride of the summer. His kinetic, signature hand-held camera work keeps the movie quite literally nonstop. There may not be a movement-free shot in the picture. The car chases are out of sight and will spin you around just as many of the cars get spun. And the hand-to-hand combat is just as frenzied. Might I suggest some Dramamine before entering the theater?

As punctuation to the fact that this film is all action, the dialogue seems to have gone the way of the spaghetti western; there’s just enough to tell the story. And, truthfully, there isn’t a whole lot of story to tell. Bourne’s motivation hasn’t changed since the first couple of minutes in the series opener, 2002’s “The Bourne Identity”. “Who am I? Who is responsible?” And when the answers come, it just proves that it’s the journey that is important, not the destination. Sure, the answers to those questions are satisfying, but let’s not kid ourselves, we’re watching for the action not the answers.

“The Bourne Ultimatum” is easily the best of the series because it has given itself entirely over to the exercise of being a pure action picture. And while it’s true that you won’t find a more adrenaline-fueled rush in a cinema this year, I hesitate to use that hackneyed phrase, because “The Bourne Ultimatum” is the furthest thing there is from cliché in the action genre.

Buy it: Jason Bourne movies, books, and music