December 16, 2003

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

At Butt Numb-a-Thon 5, our host Harry Knowles gave us a whole song and dance about how "Return of Captain Marvel" was one of the great movie serials in serial history, and I'll admit the first chapter was pretty great, so great in fact that I moaned loudly when the film ended and the screen went black. Then the curtains started to open wide and the New Line logo appeared. That son of a bitch Harry never stops with his trickery and deceit. I'm not going to review THE RETURN OF THE KING beyond these few words: This film caps off the greatest in-total film experience I've ever had. The trilogy is worth more than the sum of its parts because of ROTK. It confirms and restores my faith in the potential of big-budget filmmaking (although it does not give me much faith that any other filmmaker will take the time and muster the spirit to undertake such an ambitious project). But more than anything, if you have any stake in the "Lord of the Rings" story and characters (either in book or film format), you will cry at the end of ROTK. Maybe more than once. There's no way you won't.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:35 PM

Butt Numb-a-Thon 5 recap

A fun-filled, full-of-surprises bag of goodies for the mind and soul is how I'd best described this year's Butt-Numb-a-Thon. Organizer and my Ain't It Cool News boss Harry Knowles dropped me countless clues to what this year's line up would be, and I only guessed one of the titles correctly. We had seven premieres, but five of them you'll probably never get a chance to see, at least not on the big screen. Here they are:

1. HAUNTED GOLD--Not a great film, but since we know we get to see RETURN OF THE KING at some point during the 24-hour event, we allow Harry this opening indulgence, the film that sort of triggered an idea in his head that has become GHOST TOWN, his first venture in the producing arena for Revolution Studios. It's not that young star John Wayne hits like a girl in this movie, it's that he hits and sounds like a girl, and he wears one of the fruitiest cowboy outfits I've ever seen. I kept expecting him to break out into the chorus of "Y.M.C.A."

2. Harry gave us a whole song and dance about how "Return of Captain Marvel" was one of the great movie serials in serial history, and I'll admit the first chapter was pretty great, so great in fact that I moaned loudly when the film ended and the screen went black. Then the curtains started to open wide and the New Line logo appeared. That son of a bitch Harry never stops with his trickery and deceit. I'm not going to review THE RETURN OF THE KING beyond these few words: This film caps off the greatest in-total film experience I've ever had. The trilogy is worth more than the sum of its parts because of ROTK. It confirms and restores my faith in the potential of big-budget filmmaking (although it does not give me much faith that any other filmmaker will take the time and muster the spirit to undertake such an ambitious project). But more than anything, if you have any stake in the "Lord of the Rings" story and characters (either in book or film format), you will cry at the end of ROTK. Maybe more than once. There's no way you won't.

It was terrific that Peter Jackson took time out to come to BNAT, but the truth was, beyond saying "Thank you, thank you, thank you," I was at a loss for words, and I'm usually not around filmmakers. A lot of people were subdued to a point during the Q&A. The emotional impact of seeing ROTK took so much out of us that having Jackson right there after the screening was just overwhelming. I needed time to digest what I'd just seen. Today, I'd have a million things to ask. That day, I felt like I needed a nap.

3. As a thanks to Jackson for three years of making our BNAT dreams come true, Harry played a beautiful archival print of THE GENERAL starring Buster Keaton with a live band providing the soundtrack. This is one of Jackson's (and my) favorite films, and for those of us who'd seen the film before it was a great chance to decompress and simply laugh and enjoy.

4. OLD BOY--I sought out Harry's top pick as the best film of 2002, SYMPATHY FOR MY VENGEANCE from South Korea, and was floored by it. But nothing prepared me for the layered sock-in-the-kisser that was OLD BOY, from the same director. At its core, it's about a man trying to justify 15 lost years of his life. All he cares about is finding out who in the world hates him enough to kidnap him and lock him away from so long; nothing else matters, not getting on with his life, not love, nothing. The film is always moving forward, even when it flashes back to the man's past. At first you think that the identity of the kidnapper will be the big secret, but it's not. Then you think that finding out what this guy did wrong so many years ago will answer all questions; it doesn't. When the final missing piece to this puzzle is revealed you almost want to throw up from all the built up anticipation. It's that good, and probably ranks as the best film (after LOTR: ROTK and the final film) we saw in the 24 hours.

5. NID DE GUEPES (WASPS NEST)--Set this film in the U.S. and it would get lost in the weekly barrage of actioners. Set it in France and maybe it stands out a bit more, but it's still a fairly typical (but still strong) action-thriller about a high-security team guarded the transportation of a dangerous international criminal running smack into an army of faceless soldiers trying to rescue said criminal running into a group of high-tech thieves robbing a warehouse of laptop computers. Ka-Boom! Nothing too original but still loads of fun.

6. Harry was kind enough to let me introduce the next film, the second sequel of the day, GINGER SNAPS UNLEASHED, the so-so, straight-to-video in March follow up to the much talked about GINGER SNAPS from a couple years ago. Even though she died in the last film, Ginger's still around tormenting her sister, who is trying desperately to hold off her impending change into a werewolf. There's nothing unforgivable about this film, but it's clear that the makers were working on the cheap and it hurts the end product. Still, the metaphor of a werewolf transformation and sexual awakening still works especially in the much discussed group female masturbation scene. That woke us all up.

7. HAUTE TENSION (SWITCHBLADE ROMANCE)--Loved this French stalker film that turns into a French art film by the end. The film's big revelation near the end may actually negate half of what we've seen to that point in the story. I know that doesn't exactly make sense, but if you can remember "Donald Kaufman" man chasing himself screenplay in ADAPTATION, you have an idea of the confusion surrounding this film. Having said that, it makes no difference if huge sections of the film make no sense. It's still a great, serial killer trucker vs. hot chicks film that attempts to gross you out and turn you on all at once. Welcome to French grindhouse.

8. TEENAGE MOTHER--It's been said already, but I'll say it again: Harry is an evil bastard for showing us this movie. What begins as feature-length mental hygiene film quickly turns into all-out puke-worthy exploitation circa 1968. The bad acting, the puritanical views on teen sex, drugs, and "troubled kids" are laughable enough, but I'm still wondering how I kept from heaving my guts out during the final 10 minutes of this movie. I'm not saying anymore. Go see my BNAT5 write up on to see my more graphic description of this film.

9. After the bloody mess that was TEENAGE MOTHER, the zombie film from New Zeland, UNDEAD, was a bit underwhelming. Timing is everything. Still, I'm not sure I would have been that enthused by it in any context. By combining the undead with a heavy extraterrestrial element, UNDEAD may have been a bit too genre crowded for its own good. It doesn't hold a candle to Peter Jackson's BRAIN DEAD, and I'm afraid that's the film it will be compared to most often.

10. THE PASSION OF CHRIST--Stunning, breath-taking, even in its rough-cut state (it still needed the real soundtrack, a few special effects, and a few less subtitles, according to attending director Mel Gibson. More people have questions for me about this film than any other in BNAT5. I hope that means they'll check in out upon its release. I can't wait to see it again finished, some of the effects shots Gibson mentioned in the very long (about 90 minutes) Q&A that followed sounds so beautiful. I have a feeling that there would have been extended discussion after this movie whether Gibson had been there or not, but having him there enlightened us to his thinking, his agenda (or lack thereof), and his love of alternative audiences. I genuinely believe his showing this movie to us was an attempt to see what true film enthusiasts think of it. Apparently, we love it. I know I did. A few tears fell during this one as well.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:33 PM

Girl with a Pearl Earring

This is an easy film to review because very little happens, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Based on the popular novel by Tracy Chevalier about master painter Johannes Vermeer (played by the master actor of angst Colin Firth; serious has any actor played more characters in love with women below his character's standing than this guy?) and the maid (LOST IN TRANSLATION's Scarlett Johansson) who served as the model for one of his most famous paintings. The story speculates that Vermeer fell in love with the maid (although never acted on that feeling) much to his wife's disapproval. There are countless subplots in the film involving Vermeer's wicked children, his lecherous patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), the other servants, and a butcher's son played by 28 DAYS LATER's Cillian Murphy, but none of these are as interesting as the nearly wordless interplay between Firth and the stunningly expressive face of Johansson. Never has catching a glimpse of a woman's uncovered hair seen quite so erotic. And never has Colin Firth been so pent up and repressed as he is here.

Yes, the brief glimpse that first-time feature director Peter Webber gives us of Vermeer at work and his technique is fascinating, but the fact remains that next to nothing actually transpires here, and this may turn some people off to the film. It feels like everyone in this film is on the brink of exploding from repression. Vermeer's wife suspects him of all sorts of indiscretions, although he hasn't done anything but sin in his heart. So little goes on in the household that the servant gossip about even the smallest out-of-the-ordinary events. GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING might be the most tension-filled movie I've seen this year that didn't result in some explosion or bloody death. The film is an excellent chamber piece, beautifully photographed, with a handful of perfectly understated performances. What more do you need? I have no idea whether any of this took place in the Vermeer house, but the film is so convincing that in my mind, this is exactly what happened. It opens wide this Christmas.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:27 PM

Calendar Girls

Everything you've heard about CALENDAR GIRLS is true. This is the real-life story of a group of middle-aged to elderly British women who posed artfully nude for a calendar a couple years ago to raise funds for Leukemia research as a tribute to one of their late husbands and ended up earning piles of money and breaking worldwide calendar sales records that rivaled and outsold the likes of Britney Spears, making them international celebrities. This film is NOT the female version of THE FULL MONTY. Anyone who says that is lazy and wrong. These members of the Rylstone Women's Institute in North Yorkshire are a far cry from the working-class schlubs of MONTY. However, both films possess an innocent humor that will win you over in the first five minutes, due in large part to the genius and talent of Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. These two should make 10 more films together. Their natural banter and utterly convincing performances as two old friends bored to tears with the WI meetings and calendars is what sells the film and provides its deep heart. Being that this is one of the few films I've seen in quite a while that features this many women in the this age bracket, my guess is this will be THE "small" UK hit of the holidays, following in the tradition of films like MONTY, WAKING NED DEVINE, and most recently BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM.

The film is a no-frills account of the birth, execution, and success of the calendar ideas, and it was both fascinating and funny to watch the process of women in their 50s and 60s talk themselves and others out of their clothes. The success of the calendar brings the women and their families some unwanted attention of the notorious British tabloids and from Hollywood types looking to cash in on their popularity. I didn't think the Hollywood stuff held a candle to the British-based parts of the story, but it was intriguing to see which women let fame go to their heads and which remember the source of inspiration for the calendar and try to keep the proceedings dignified. I've had a not-so-secret crush on Julie Walters since I saw her in EDUCATING RITA, and my well-documented love for Helen Mirren knows no bounds (I know she's way too good for the likes of me, but a guy can dream, right?), so to see these two together is something of a dream come true. The film is light-hearted fun, a unique story told in a fairly conventional way. I'm guessing older women are going to be knocking down us youngsters to get to this one. It opens this weekend in most places.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:26 PM

Stuck On You

It's not the best work that the Farrelly Brothers (Bobby and Peter) have done, but like pizza, even bad is good. Although they've had mentally challenged people in their films before, this time around the Farrellys actually feature a handicap (conjoined twins) as the running gag...and it doesn't get old, even at 120 minutes. The twins are played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear, and as much as I like Damon as an actor and in this film, it's Kinnear that makes the film work. Damon's Bob character is a bit dopey and perfection content to maintain his life in Martha's Vineyard as a master short order cook, but Kinnear's Walk has ambition and wants to take his success as a local actor to Hollywood. You must see Kinnear's "one-man" show at the local community theatre as Truman Capote. Brilliant! The two decide to move to Hollywood and give Walt's acting career a shot.

Since conjoined twins aren't exactly hot property in L.A., it's not surprising that the pair find it difficult to get work. They do find an agent in the form of Seymour Cassel's Morty O'Reilly, the sleaziest agent ever in films. He's great. The boys rent a cruddy motel room at the Rising Star and meet super sexy Latina Barbie Eva Mendes (OUT OF TIME), as a bubbly airhead whose an actress but has mainly done lingerie modeling. Bob has been carrying on an internet romance with an Asian woman named May (Wen Yahnn Shih), whom he's never met but since she lives in L.A., he thinks he might try to hook up. The only problem is he's never mentioned that he's a conjoined twin. After a series of failed audition, Walt decides it may be time to head back east when he's spotted by Cher (played, oddly enough, by the real Oscar-winning actress), who wants him as her leading man in her new T.V. series. What she really wants is to not do T.V. at all and she's hoping the network will kill the show after seeing the pilot and she'll be off the hook. Instead the network sticks with the show and it becomes a huge hit. It looks like things are going great for the guys, so great in fact, they start to wonder if it's time they thought about being separated. The share a liver and there's some risk that Walt will die upon separation. I don't want to get too much deeper into the story, but STUCK ON YOU sneaks up on you and actually wins your heart while it making you giggle. Kinnear and Damon are a terrific comedy team, and you rarely find yourself laughing at what the can't do because they're connecting; you laugh at what they can do (let's just say, Walt has much better luck with the ladies than Bob).

Besides Cher, another extremely talented and famous actress makes a cameo in STUCK ON YOU that I won't ruin, but her appearance elevates this film in ways I didn't think possible. STUCK ON YOU is a totally enjoyable, sometimes off-color, always smile-inducing film. Check it out.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:25 PM

Something's Gotta Give

I guess technically this Nancy Meyers written and directed film would have to be considered a romantic comedy, but that doesn't really do it justice. There's a lot more going on here in this film that will most defintitely make you laugh, but it also has quite a few astute and stinging observations about the nature of relationships between older men and all women. If you've seen even one commercial for this film, you know the set up: Jack Nicholson's Harry Langer is dating the much younger Marin Barry (Amanda Peet). Harry is a legendary bachelor in New York City and best known for his taste in beautiful younger women. The two decide to spend a romantic weekend in her mother's house in the Hamptons, but much to their surprise, playwright mom Erica (Diane Keaton) and her best friend Zoe (Frances McDormand) have also decided to spend the weekend there. The four decide to be grown ups and share the house for the weekend. Harry and Marin haven't actually slept together, but upon their first attempt, Harry has a heart episode, landing him in the hospital under the care of doctor Julian (Keanu Reeves, a strange but effective casting choice).

Marin must return to the city but Harry has been ordered to stay in town so Dr. J can keep an eye on him. Erica and Harry seem to be designed to dislike each other, but unfortunately he must stay with her until the doctor clears him, so the two share the house for about a week. It just so happens that the doctor has a big crush on Erica, and the two start dating. On the home front, not surprisingly, as Harry and Erica start to talk and get to know each other, they fall for each other too. The plot's real twist comes when you find out that all of this only takes up half the film. It's the film's back half that's entirely unpredictable. Getting Erica and Harry in bed together the first time seems easy, keeping them together is the tough part. The best scenes in SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE are, naturally, between Jack and Diane. There's one conversation during a beach-front walk that feels so natural and spontaneous that I refuse to believe it was scripted. And maybe for the first time in film, we get a real look at Nicholson as romantic, charming lead. It's difficult to believe that any woman watching this wouldn't feel a little attracted to her charisma. It's also great to see Keanu Reeves embrace his good looks and play something of a romantic lead himself (even if he is a bit wimpy compared to Jack). Myers the writer has a great ear for grown-folk conversation and a some insightful observations that alternate between humorous and painful. In all likelihood, you will also cry a couple times while watching this film. SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE is both total Hollywood love story and highly untraditional anti-Hollywood love story. Few avenues are left untraveled, and nothing feels tagged on to make us feel better. See the movie to see have the professionals do things.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:23 PM

Big Fish

Director Tim Burton was beginning to worry me. Not since 1994's ED WOOD has he done a really solid piece of work that I could whole heartedly recommend to pretty much everyone. MARS ATTACKS! is junkie, SLEEPY HOLLOW was pretty good but mostly due to Johnny Depp's bizarre performance, and PLANET OF THE APES was a surprisingly so-so Hollywood actioner that was extremely easy to forget five minutes after it had ended. BIG FISH may surprise people, particularly Burton's oldest fans who remember just how twisted (BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN) this guy can get. BIG FISH is shockingly normal. The film it most reminded me of in terms of its way of telling a story was FORREST GUMP. Only in this film, the lead character, Edward Bloom (played as an older man by Albert Finney and played younger in flashbacks by Ewan McGregor), isn't taking part in world events; he is the event, at least the way he tells the story.

I'm not spoiling anything by saying that Finney's Bloom is a dying man, estranged from his only son William (Billy Crudup), because William is sick to death of Edward's tall tales. There isn't a story you, can come up with that Edward can't top. He has elaborate concoctions about the war, about his days working in the circus, about falling in love with his eventual wife, Sandy (old: Jessica Lange; young: Alison Lohman), and about his time marketing freaks (giants, conjoined twins) into top-notch entertainment acts. He has boyhood tales of meeting a witch and seeing how he is going to die. These are great stories, and McGregor portrays the younger Edward as a man who simply accepts these strange occurrences in his life with a dignified elegance. He's the most polite man you could ever meet, and McGregor sells his southern accent with much zeal. It's fairly obvious that Burton had the most fun filming the scenes at the circus (with ringmaster Danny Devito) than, say, the sequence in the world's most perfect town, which basically doesn't go anywhere. Although it's in these scenes that we meet a famous writer named Norther Winslow played by Steve Buscemi, so it's not so bad.

As much fun as I had watching the adventures of Edward Bloom, I could kind of tell where things were leading. One way or the other, we would discover that whether Edward's stories were really fiction or not. But things don't quite play out that way. William does a little investigating and discovers a mysterious woman named Jenny (Helena Bonham Carter). Was she Edward's mistress? I'm not telling. But I will say that the scenes with Bonham Carter are the ones that finally pulled me in emotionally to BIG FISH. I actually started caring with my heart about Edward's fate and his believability. I cared about whether the relationship with his son gets mended. There are also some sweet scenes between Finney and Lange that got to me. These moments with the female leads are the ones that elevated BIG FISH in my mind, not only in comparison to Burton's other recent films, but also compared to much of what is in theatres now. BIG FISH is Burton's most emotionally satisfying film since EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, and it verifies that his abilities as a compelling storyteller have not abandoned him; they just weren't be serviced with great material. It's nice to see Burton stretch his wings beyond what's expected of him every once and a while. The film opens around the country on Christmas day.

Posted by sprokopy at 07:21 PM