Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A dark, beautiful fairy tale for grown ups

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a fantasy film, but is by no means kid’s stuff. It is a graphic, violent film that is very much for adults.

Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro has crafted a fairy tale in the original tradition of such writers as the Brothers Grimm. After years of sanitizing such stories we have forgotten how often twisted and tormented fairy tales could be. They didn’t always leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling. Del Toro knows this and doesn’t pull back from going to dark, frightening places.

The film is set in fascist Spain in 1944. As the film opens, a captain (Sergi López) has just married a woman (Ariadna Gil) who is pregnant with his son. The Captain reluctantly takes in his new wife and her daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), but there’s no sense of love or compassion. He cares only for his unborn son.

Ofelia meets a fairy that leads her to a labyrinth on the captain’s property. There she is told by a faun that she is the long lost re-incarnation of the princess of a magical kingdom who can only return by completing three tasks.

The film recalls numerous stories, books and films including “Alice and Wonderland,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Shining,” “Beetlejuice” and numerous others. Its story is familiar, but its tone is unique.

Where most fantasy films spend most of their time in the fantasy land, much of “Pan’s Labyrinth” is rooted in a bleak reality. The captain is a sadist who takes cold pleasure in using a plethora of tools to slowly torture people.

There are bursts of sudden violence that are shocking, even for a country desensitized by the gruesome horror of films such as the “Saw” franchise. The captain’s comeuppance and its aftermath are particularly disturbing.

If the fantasy world Ofelia enters is an escape it is only marginally so. An encounter with a creature with eyes in his hands and a hunger for blood is the stuff of nightmares and even the intentions of her guide the faun are ambiguous at best. And yet this world offers Ofelia something that war torn Spain cannot: hope.

Del Toro, who has worked within Hollywood on films such as “Blade 2” and “Hellboy”, says he never could’ve made this film in Hollywood. It is a fairy tale for grown ups that creates a genuine sense of menace and dread. You fear the worst for the young heroine. It isn’t clear that a happy ending is guaranteed.

The film is astonishing on the level of visuals and deserved its Academy Awards for art direction, cinematography and make up. The creature effects and make up on the faun, eye-hands monster, fairies and a giant frog are nothing short of amazing.

In this post-CGI era of filmmaking it is nice to see effects that haven’t come from a computer. There is an immediacy and physicality to the visuals in the film that is often lacking from effects that are too obviously computer generated. There is real beauty in the film. Del Toro’s camera, in both real and fantasy worlds, takes its time with slow, tracking shots that absorb the details.

Del Toro drains reality of color, where the fantasy land bursts with color, but in both cases there is a slight other worldly quality. You are reminded that both worlds are seen through the eyes of a child and that it is probable that one of the worlds could by entirely of her own creation. The film doesn’t offer answers in that regard and leaves it the viewer to decide if the fantasy is real.

'Music and Lyrics' is an amusing diversion

“Music and Lyrics” is the sort of lightweight, fluff you expect from a movie starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. For romantic comedy fans this will go down easy, but it lacks the crossover appeal of some of Grant’s other films, most notably, “About a Boy.”

The premise – or the excuse to have two seemingly opposite personalities fall in love – centers on a former 80s pop icon, Alex Fletcher (Grant) getting a lucky break when he is commissioned to write a song in less than a week for teen pop star Cora Corman (newcomer Haley Bennett). The only problem is he needs a lyrist; enter Sophie (Barrymore) his quirky plant waterer with a way with rhyming.

Grant has grown well into his romantic persona. Gone is the awkward, nebbish, man-boy, replaced with a more confident model. Few living actors can toss a barbed one-liner or a charming phrase with equal aplomb. Grant makes it look easy.

Barrymore’s sunny, slightly offbeat personality plays well off of Grant. They have a pleasant chemistry and banter well with each other. The film is at its strongest when it focuses on the creative process between Grant and Barrymore which yields some real laughs. There is a sense of a rapport and attraction developing as the songwriting progresses. Their professional relationship segues nicely into a romantic one.

But the film plays its cards too early and the song is finished with 45 minutes left in the film. The film goes into autopilot and let’s formula set in with a fight breaking our lovers apart only to have them reunite in the end.

Audiences expect this inevitable development from this sort of film, but the dispute feels like a mere a plot device rather than a natural progression of the story and as a result the final stretch of the film sags badly. The film regains the viewer’s goodwill with a strong finish at the big concert presentation of the song.

The song, “A Way Back into Love,” is a catchy, lyrically strong ballad and Grant, who does all of his own singing, has a surprisingly good voice. All this is important to the success of the film. If you’re making a movie set in the music world the music better hold up to repeat listenings. One of the factors that killed the music industry satire, “Be Cool” was all of the supposedly amazing music being produced in the film was rubbish.

That isn’t a problem here. All the music, with the exception of the intentionally bad Cora Corman material, is solid pop music. The film opens with a hilarious and spot-on parody of 80s music videos with “Pop Goes My Heart.” From the hair, to the dress to the music to the dancing, it is all so accurate it could have genuinely been from that era. The song itself is the sort of cheesy fun you expect from a 80s song.

Current pop is skewered with “Welcome to Bootytown.” The song is an all too accurate reflection of today’s pop. Bennett as Cora Corman nails the ditsy pop star persona. In a possible jab at Madonna, Cora has discovered Eastern mysticism, which guides her life and gives her sitar beats to gyrate her body to.

Music and Lyrics,” which also features solid supporting performances from Brad Garrett (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) as Grant’s manager and Kristen Johnston (“3rd Rock from the Sun”) as Barrymore’s sister, is a better than average romantic comedy that will satisfy its core audience.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

'Alpha Dog' has bite

Writer/director Nick Cassavettes’ “Alpha Dog” shows a world of privileged suburban teens and twentysomethings playing at thug life. We’ve been shown this world before and told of its dangers, but “Alpha Dog” runs deep by exploring the line between pretending to be a tough guy and really being one.

With little to no supervision or responsibility the characters in “Alpha Dog” live a life of partying with a steady stream of drugs and alcohol and breathe in an atmosphere of testosterone, homophobia and machismo.

“Alpha Dog” chronicles the true story of the escalating beef between a would-be drug dealer, Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsh, “Lords of Dogtown”) and Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster, “X-Men 3”). When Jake comes up short on a deal Johnny kidnaps Jake’s 15-year old brother Zach (Anton Yelchin).

Zach is perfectly content being a hostage as he is tired of his overbearing mother (Sharon Stone) and wants the escape. It is left to Justin Timberlake’s Frankie to watch after Zach. He likes the kid and invites Zach to join in the party life. Things are light, fun and it all feels more like hanging out than anything dangerous, but there’s underlining menace to the whole affair.

Timberlake gives a surprisingly strong performance as a nice guy who doesn’t necessarily believe the thug life he plays at. Some will pounce at the fact that pop star Timberlake isn’t entirely believable as a gangster, but that’s the point.

Frankie wears the uniform and lives the lifestyle, but is more a goofball than a hard ass. Timberlake gives a likable performance and develops a good chemistry with Yelchin, which yields emotional payoff when things turn dark.

As the title suggests, Johnny is trying to be the top dog in his circle of faux-tough guys. He walks the walk well and has a group of loyal minions. He drinks, smokes, fights and talks hard. Hirsh gets the surface toughness down, but knows that to a degree it is only act. He gives Johnny an undercurrent of insecurity that doesn’t materialize in dialogue, but in quiet gestures and actions.

Johnny is a phony when compared to Jake, whose violent outbursts reveal a sociopath in the making. Foster, a former child actor who is making his mark as an adult by playing intense, often frightening men, gives a dynamic performance here by making Jake more than just a psycho. Jake loves his brother and isn’t necessarily a bad person, he has just started down the wrong path and can’t turn around.

“Alpha Dog” is the kind of film that blurs the line between independent and mainstream cinema. While it features big names like Stone, Timberlake and Bruce Willis as Johnny’s father, it is not as glossy or neat as the typical Hollywood film. It is commendable that Cassavettes made it. After the success of his previous film, “The Notebook” he could’ve gone on to make cookie cutter romances for the rest of his career.

Even so, Cassavettes’ direction is at times questionable. Large portions of the film are so frustratingly dark that you can barely make out what’s happening. It is clear he is attempting to distance himself from the polished sheen “The Notebook,” but he is trying too hard for indie cred.

That being said, he has pulled powerful performances from everyone involved, even Stone who is heartbreaking in one scene as a mother who has hit bottom. As a writer, Cassavettes has crafted a strong cautionary drama of weight and substance.

'Prada' sends the wrong message to girls

On the surface, I enjoyed “The Devil Wears Prada,” a comedic, but not quite satiric take on the cutthroat fashion world. Meryl Streep’s fast-talking, demanding, fashion magazine editor is played to near perfection. It is a sharp characterization that adds substance to what could’ve been broad caricature. Streep even manages to elicit sympathy for her supposed she-devil.

Emily Blunt as Streep’s acid tongued second hand person also scores laughs, as does Stanley Tucci as a gay fashion expert that works at the magazine. That he doesn’t fall entirely into stereotype is commendable. Anne Hathaway is a likable enough, but an unremarkable lead.

While I admired the work of Streep, Blunt and Tucci, the film left me uneasy, but I shrugged it off until a friend told me she thought the film was anti-feminist and in some regards anti-human.

The film is working within a formula, one usually told with men, but the arc is the same. A cold, cynical, powerful, but charismatic business mogul takes a young protégé under their wing, the newbie begins to change and sacrifice their own identity to succeed, but ultimately sees the error in their ways and sets things right.

This story has been told numerous times, but almost always from the male prospective. Does the fact that the audience doesn’t question the gender switch to the formula show the progress women have made? Typically, in this type of film women are regulated to the one-dimensional role of the sidetracked girlfriend. In the case of “Prada” it is Adrian Garner in the equally flat boyfriend role.

Despite the gender switch, “Prada” doesn’t diverge from its formula and that is the problem. With women in the lead roles, there is more at risk, more of a struggle, but this is largely glossed over.

In the male version of this story, when the guy goes back to his girlfriend after forsaking the soul eating job there’s a sense that he has priorities straight. This is a trite Hollywood ending no matter the gender, but the same develop in “Prada” feels even more so because of its presentation.

Hathaway’s character doesn’t want to work in fashion. She wants to be a serious journalist, and turns down her fashion magazine job in spite of the fact that she is very good at it. That she reverts to her true self and original dream is an admirable message, but as presented in the film it is done for the wrong reasons.

It is only after Hathaway is told she will become like Streep, powerful, but without love, friends or any true family that Hathaway runs back to her boyfriend and to the career in serious journalism, if you can call a job at the New York Post serious journalism.

The heavy implication of this scene is that all women that achieve the level of success that Streep does have lives that are bereft of love and meaningful relationships.

Are there women like Meryl Streep’s character in the real business world? I don’t doubt it, but there must also be examples of women who are successful both professionally and personally. Perhaps if “Prada” had offered a successful woman with a rich personal life as a counterbalance to Streep the ending wouldn’t feel so condescending.

On the flip side, it would’ve been refreshing to see Hathaway not have to go back to her estranged boyfriend. It has been done. At the end of “In Good Company,” a film that follows the same archetype, Topher Grace learns his life lesson, but doesn’t get the girl, in this case Scarlett Johansson. And he’s okay. It is still a happy ending, just not in the traditional sense.

If “Prada” had taken a similar approach it not only would have broken from the conventional ending, but it would have shown that it is possible to be alone and happy and would represent a message of a strong independent woman.

Instead, Streep’s character is unhappy as a successful, independent woman because she always put work before her relationships. This is a fairly timeless message, but once again there is an inference that all successful women are alone and unhappy. It leaves a nasty aftertaste.

That isn’t the most off-putting aspect of the film though. The way “Prada” presents weight is dangerous, especially for a film targeted at the teenage girl demographic. Throughout the film, Hathaway is referred to as fat. The film even says what the “bad” size is.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 90 percent of those who have eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25. There is enough pressure for girls to be thin, there doesn’t need to be an Oscar nominated film telling girls the “good” and “bad” sizes.

Hathaway is an attractive, healthy looking woman that she’d take a role like this is disheartening. She must have been blinded by the opportunity to work with Streep. For that matter, you have to wonder why Streep was involved in the first place. She clearly has having fun in the role, but at what cost?

The film plays Hathaway’s “fatness” off as a joke, but it is hardly funny and the film never addresses the dangers of telling a healthy person they are fat. The consequences are not shown and everything winds up fine.

Is “Prada” an accurate reflection of the fashion world? Would a woman start to conform and lose weight to try to fit in? Sadly, that is probably all too true, but the film isn’t a hard hitting expose. If the tone of the film was more clearly satiric it might have been able to get away with this sort of irresponsibility. “Prada” borders on satirizing the fashion world, but pulls back, plays it soft and instead relies on formula.

Hathaway could’ve been shown finding success at her job without losing weight, maybe it would’ve been dishonest to the reality of that world, but it would’ve been more responsible filmmaking. At the very least, the subject matter should’ve been handled with more sensitivity.

Some might argue it is asking too much of a “light comedy” to be socially conscious, but it wouldn’t have taken much tweaking to the script to make it so. There’s an idea that comedies like “Prada” are harmless fluff that aren’t meant to be taken serious. That’s a dangerous train of thought if the film is sending the wrong message.

Unfortunately, there are numerous reality shows currently showcasing the worlds of modeling, hair styling and fashion that are putting across the same message. There is definitely the sense of needing to conform on all these shows. You do see people sacrificing their true identities. Original thinkers are often tossed aside for not following current trends. What are we telling kids? What are we telling ourselves?

Despite the advances regarding gender roles, films like “Prada” are still perpetuating the same tired ideas regarding the female body. We need to look around, be attentive and not let those feelings of unease slip away. Sometimes dangerous ideas come in the form of Oscar nominated comedies.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

'Alfie' is more universal than you may think

“Alfie” would seem like the least likely candidate for a 21st century update and certainly not one with the gloss of Hollywood. The original is usually found in the romance or romantic comedy section of video stores, but doesn’t really follow the conventions of either, although it does have elements of both.

In truth, both versions are less genre films than they are character studies of a man who realizes his different-girl-a-night lifestyle, may leave him rather sad and lonely. At times his story is harrowing, at moments amusing and occasionally even perceptive. It was a hit in 1966, but only did modestly well in 2004 because, like so many films, it was a victim of mis-marketing.

The new “Alfie,” like its predecessor, isn’t a romantic comedy, but naturally was sold as one. It doesn’t deliver on the expectations of the genre and those hoping for the comfort of a pretty boy and girl getting together will be let down. Those who appreciate a film that breaks from the norm will be pleasantly surprised by the new “Alfie,” which in its own way is a daring little film.

Alfie as personified by Michael Caine in 1966 was a limo driver living it up in swinging London. Every night was a different woman, all relatively lifeless and uninteresting, merely prey to fall under Alfie’s charms. The story is so deeply rooted in the sixties, how could this work in a modern, post-feminism, post-AIDS era?

The 2004 model of Alfie comes in the form of Jude Law, who is now a limo driver in New York, which almost excuses Alfie’s sexual exploits. At one point Alfie is referred to as Euro trash, and yet women always fall for his accent.

Director and co-writer Charles Shyer does the rare feat of creating a remake that isn’t a mere retread. Shyer’s direction blends a fun mix of sixties styles and modern techniques to create a feel that is unique and fresh.

On the level of content, the film is relevant and has much to say about modern love and life. It has more depth than you expect from a film about a man interested in shallow sexual encounters. The film manages to find unexpected truths and does so with a lot of honesty and heart.

As an audience we shouldn’t like Alfie. He is a sexist, insensitive, sexual predator, who loves them and leaves them once things start getting too close. In the original, he is a father that doesn’t do the right thing; the new version softens that detail away.

In both films we get a guided tour of Alfie’s life in the form of casual, candid to the camera monologues. Maybe because we are seeing it all from his perspective we can accept his more deplorable actions. Or maybe because he is in the form of Caine, and Law we are just as taken in by his charms as the women in each of the films.

By the nature of Alfie’s lifestyle, the female characters don’t have substantial screen time. The women in the new version come and go just as quickly as they did in the original. Even so, as played by the likes of Marisa Tomei, Nia Long, Sienna Miller and Susan Sarandon, they are stronger and a bit more independent than their predecessors. They are given enough time to be more than mere cookie cutters.

Tomei, sadly, is given the least to do as Alfie’s single-mom sort of girlfriend. She is sweet and thankful isn’t written to be a nag trying to rope Alfie into a relationship. She does the dumping because she knows Alfie is no good for her or her son. Tomei is convincing in what little screen time she has.

Long is Alfie’s best mate’s ex-girlfriend that he has a fling with, which results in a pregnancy. The original Alfie’s most heartbreaking scene was an illegal abortion that still packs a wallop today. The new film can’t go down that path and have the same controversial emotional impact, but even though this parallel plotline doesn’t have the same weight as the original, writers Elaine Pope and Shyer, find a new way to explore similar emotions that is believable and valid in this modern age.

Miller’s character, a train wreck of a woman with bipolar tendencies, is given a bit more time to develop her role. It would be easy for this character to come off as nothing more than a maniac stereotype, but Miller keeps the character from going completely over-the-top. There’s a real sense of sadness when she tries to make amends for her mood swings only to be dumped.

Sarandon (like Shelley Winters before her) plays the older woman with a taste for younger men, who gets under Alfie’s skin. They are kindred spirits. Sarandon is a female version of Alfie, but she has a thicker skin than Alfie and has been at the game longer. In both films Alfie let’s his guard down only to be hurt the exact way he hurt so many himself.

This is what ultimately makes Alfie more than just a letch and allows the audience to empathize with him. As both films progress, Alfie begins to regret his lifestyle, he wants to change, but can’t break his habits. It is this development that lets the character transcend his sixties roots and become a universal character.

Alfie develops into a tragic figure as he begins to realize how empty his life is. The original ends on a down note with Alfie accepting that he can’t change and will have a lonely, loveless existence.

It is so rare in modern filmmaking that a Hollywood film doesn’t go for the ending that bares its name, so the remake of “Alfie” is sort of remarkable that it retains the spirit of original’s ending.

Alfie doesn’t go through a 180 transform. He isn’t welcomed back with open arms by one of his many lovers. The new version dares to be ambiguous and leave its conclusion open ended, in fact the film takes the gamble of concluding with the sort of question that is usually a start point not an end note. For some viewers this may frustrate, but for those seeking something different it is oh so satisfying.

A pleasant, but unremarkable 'museum'

In trying to sell “A Night at the Museum,” ads for the DVD have dubbed the film “the biggest comedy adventure in history.” Despite a game all-star cast, that is hardly the case.

A movie starring Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan (“24 Hour Party People”), Ricky Gervais (the UK’s “The Office”), Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney could be a comedy smash, but instead it is only an amusing distraction for a lazy afternoon.

Movies with large comedy casts almost always disappoint because expectations are so high. Having a lot of comedy talent isn’t enough if the material isn’t sharp. “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” had practically every comic alive in 1963 and even that film wasn’t the greatest comedy adventure in history.

“Night at the Museum” is pitched at children and compared to a lot of what Hollywood tries to pass off as family entertainment, it is a vast improvement. Too often family fare panders to children and wallows in gross out humor. Movies for kids can and should be intelligent and clever.

Thankfully, “Night at the Museum” has moments of smart writing and even glimpses of wit, but unfortunately they are stuck in a plot that is formulaic and tiresome. Formula filmmaking can work if done well with a wink and knowing nod. Movies like “Elf” and “School of Rock” follow timeless templates, but do so in fun, fresh ways. “Night at the Museum” frequently allows its plot to get in the way of the comedy instead of nourishing it.

Stiller plays a deadbeat father who loves his son, but can’t seem to do anything right. He starts a new job as a night guard at New York’s Museum of Natural History only to find that the museum’s exhibits come alive at night. It goes without saying that through his new job Stiller will redeem himself and become a better person. He’ll also manage to get the girl, a pretty tour guide played by Carla Gugino (“Spy Kids”), in a tagged on romantic subplot.

Although the film’s inspired premise is never quite explored to its full potential, the film does have its fair share of funny moments. After a slow start it eventually finds its rhythm and ends brightly.

There are some great set pieces spread through out the lulls. A T-Rex skeleton that likes to play fetch with one of its rip bones is a reoccurring joke that stays funny. Wilson and Coogan as rival model miniatures, a cowboy and Roman respectively, are the highlight of the film and steal every scene they are in. Slapstick hijinks involving a troublesome monkey, cavemen and Atilla the Hun also earn a few grins and giggles.

Williams as Theodore Roosevelt isn't as funny as it sounds. Williams is naturally funny and therefore has moments that are amusing, even laugh-out-loud funny, but he’s hampered by a barely sketched subplot that has him in love with Sacajawea. Again, not as funny as it reads.

It is nice to see veterans Van Dyke and Rooney as Stiller’s night guard predecessors. They are clearly having a lot of fun and relishing the chance to let loose in a comedy again. Gervais as the museum manager plays a variation of his “Office” persona, but is largely wasted.

Stiller is fine, he can do this sort of performance in his sleep. This is basically a different shading of the characters he played in “There’s Something About Mary” and the “Meet the Parents” films. Stiller is a likable performer and he remains so here, but he has more range than this.

“Night at the Museum” isn’t a bad film. You’ll laugh, but the overall experience is underwhelming. It is like eating a fast food meal. You may leave feeling satisfied, but you know you could’ve gotten a better meal somewhere else.