April 2005

Okay, you can panic a little

by Aaron on April 29, 2005

in Movie Reviews 

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not without it’s charms and moments of inspired absurdity, but ultimately it fails to come together enough to feel like a complete film, and instead settles for rewarding the long-time fans with in-jokes, references, and nods to the original source material, as well as it’s various incarnations.  Part of that incompleteness is due to the film’s obvious aspirations to being a multi-part series, but mostly it lies in the source material itself.  Viewed as one long novelized comedy skit, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy works as a brilliant piece of absurdist satire, but as a film it might leave you feeling cheerful and amused, but still a little bit let down.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
3 Stars

In the over 25 years of being a bestselling cult classic Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has been adapted for every medium except film.  After languishing in Development Hell, and having been passed from director to direction, Adams’ classic is finally on the big screen.  With a script from the author himself (which had been completed before his untimely death in 2001), former music video director Garth Jennings has crafted an adaptation that fans will recognize as utterly Adams, but with entirely new characters, sub-plots, and relationships that may leave long time readers feeling a bit confused. 

The Cult Classic finally arrives

The convoluted history of Hitchhiker’s is one filled with almost never-ending revisions, additions, and complete re-writes of what came before, most of which required of the reader to hold an almost blind faith towards its creator’s intention and vision.  Originally created for a BBC radio comedy show, Adams continually tweaked and altered his creation so many times that even the Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide collection requires a substantial introduction to explain the various changes and permutations the cult classic has endured throughout it’s lifespan.  So it’s no surprise that the new film version features a good 35 minutes of material that was created specifically for the film by Adams himself. 

In what the filmmakers almost surely intend to be the first of a series of films, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tells the story of the ultimate everyman, Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman).  A man continually befuddled and confused by the world around him, Arthur wakes up one day to find bulldozers ready to demolish his home in order to make way for a new bypass.  His day only gets worse from there as his best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def) arrives to tell Arthur that, not only is Ford actually an alien from somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, but that the Earth itself is set to be demolished in 12 minutes by a race out to create a new hyperspace lane.  Soon they’re bouncing across the galaxy with an on-the-run rock star styled President Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), fellow human Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), and a manically depressed android (Alan Rickman) as they attempt to escape the ire of a race of ultimate bureaucrats while searching for the ultimate question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. 

With its absurdist Marx Brothers dialogue, distinctly British sensibility, and wild sense of high adventure, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would seem like an easy transition to film, but there’s a reason it’s taken so long to actually get made.  Namely, there’s no real plot to the series, only breakneck paced episodes and (in what surely constitutes the majority of the text), the actual entries of the titular Guide itself.  So the idea that Adams and the filmmakers would create a wholly new plot, while strengthening the relationships of the characters should come as no surprise to those familiar with Adams’ less than reverential approach to his own work. 

So how does it work?  Only partially.  The Monty Python flavored opening sequence sets a standard that the film never really manages to reach.  In order to preserve the tone of the book, Jennings chose to make the Guide itself a sort of character, with various entries being read to the audience by the voice of the Guide (Stephen Fry), and displayed as a series of short animations.  These explanations are almost completely necessary to convey the mind-bending concepts of the Hitchhiker Universe, but only a few of the entries really connect, and the rest just stop the film in its tracks.  The character of Arthur Dent has been significantly beefed up from the novels (where he serves as sort of a dumbfounded substitute for the reader, only capable of reacting in stuttering gasps and complete befuddlement).  In the film, Dent is more of an active participant, out to find his place in the Universe and win the affections of Trillian, the adventurous girl he almost had, but lost to party crashing Beeblebrox.  And while Freeman’s portray of the constantly put upon everyman is absolutely spot on, the romantic comedy aspect of the film feels more like filler material than an essential element of the story, as do the newly created sub-plots and characters. 

Mos Def obviously had a lot of fun playing the Hunter S. Thompson-esque Guide writer Ford Prefect, and it’s almost impossible not to be infected by his madcap persona.  Sam Rockwell is perfectly cast as the completely deranged Beeblebrox, though flamboyant and egocentric madmen seem to be his stock in trade these days.  As the level headed Trillian, Zooey Deschanel makes it easy to understand why Arthur would be so hung up on her, but overall the film is completely stolen by Alan Rickman and Bill Nighy, whose Marvin the Paranoid Android and the world-designing Slartibartfast just ooze with easy brilliance perfectly suited to their roles and the spirit of Adams work. 

The design of the film is a clever mix of high-tech CGI and goofy costuming which works to give the movie a comfortable feel that should be easily recognizable and familiar to fans of British Sci-Fi.  The sets run from showroom floor clean (as befitting the newly christened ship Heart of Gold with which the main characters jet across the galaxy) to the lived in and grungy realism that George Lucas made work so well in the first Star Wars.  Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was responsible for the alien creations that pepper the film, which seems like an unlikely choice in an age where CGI characters are so readily available, but the design and execution of the various creatures lends the film a wonderful throwback quality that works in its favor.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not without it’s charms and moments of inspired absurdity, but ultimately it fails to come together enough to feel like a complete film, and instead settles for rewarding the long-time fans with in-jokes, references, and nods to the original source material, as well as it’s various incarnations.  Part of that incompleteness is due to the film’s obvious aspirations to being a multi-part series, but mostly it lies in the source material itself.  Viewed as one long novelized comedy skit, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy works as a brilliant piece of absurdist satire, but as a film it might leave you feeling cheerful and amused, but still a little bit let down.

xXx is for exXxtremely bad.

by Aaron on April 29, 2005

in Movie Reviews 

Since audiences have shown Hollywood that even the most ridiculously inept drivel can pass as quality action fare, there’s no doubt that this cinematic train wreck will probably spawn yet another sequel of equally diminished return. Fans of incessantly awful cinema might find a timeless gem here, but only after a copious amount of heavy, heavy drinking and several swift punches to the skull.

xXx: State of the Union
Negative Stars

Lest it be thought that the following review is the work of some unabashedly elitist movie snob, let me say this: I absolutely adore action flicks. Bullets, grim heroes, and very large explosions tickle my fancy in ways even the greatest of dramatic works can’t achieve. Give me a beer, some popcorn, and some needlessly violent gunplay and I am one very happy monkey indeed. Hell, I even enjoyed The Rundown, and that starred Seann William Scott, an actor I would happily see brought before the International Court for crimes against humanity.

Oh, there but for the Grace of Vin Diesel go thee

The original xXx was made in a fairly callous attempt to kick the spy genre firmly away from its tuxedo-clad and upscale roots. Trading upper class education and high society for eXtreme sports and Hollywood envisioned street smarts, Vin Diesel’s growly charisma managed to give the film enough charm to keep it from being just a moronic 2 hour exercise in blowing stuff up.

Since the original film was a fairly successful endeavor, it is safe to say that the only thing that would have prevented this sequel from being made would have been the utter destruction of our universe, and even then it’d have a 50/50 chance of release. Hollywood proved long ago that it’s capable of existing in an airless vacuum.

Sadly, trading in Vin Diesel’s diminishing star power for the long-past faded Ice Cube is akin to trading your RC Cola for a Shasta, but in a move that should surprise only the most mind-bogglingly naïve moviegoer, that’s exactly what the makers of xXx: State of the Union have done for this incomprehensibly stupid action sequel.

This time around Ice Cube plays a former Navy Seal who is tapped to take the coveted title of xXx when a NSA facility in Virginia is attacked by unknown assailants. A returning Samuel L. Jackson, who must have some serious investments in the telecom industry, phones in his trademark performance as the gruff and wise intelligence operative who taps the incarcerated Cube to save the current slate of old, white men. Nona Gaye and Xzibit play the shady characters from Ice Cube’s mean streets past, while Michael Roof plays the tragically unhip Q to Cube’s Bond. Rounding out this sorry lot is a partially effective Scott Speedman and Willem “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this” Defoe.

Though the film is supposed to be a race-against-time action film about stopping a political coup (and settling an old score), the film takes so many ridiculous turns that it’s akin to reading Mad Libs submitted by local sanitarium patients. Plot and logic holes large enough to drive a jacked up and armored Ford Truck through take a film that could be dumb to a level of medical retardation. Remove the budget and big special effects, and replace Ice Cube with Lorenzo Lamas and xXx: State of the Union would be completely at home alongside the slew of arrestingly stupid action films that peppered cable movie channels throughout the late 80s and early 90s.  Rest asssured, those of you unwilling to pay 9 bucks to see it on the big screen will inevitably find it sandwiched between Coors and Axe ads on Spike TV.

If nothing else, perhaps film historians will one day look back and recognize State of the Union as the film that single-handedly set back race relations in America a good 15 years, as its characters are uniformly do-gooder thugs and back stabbing blue-bloods (An important lesson learned in the film is “don’t trust rich white chicks”). The filmmakers attempt a couple of clumsy stabs at showcasing the economic and social gap of Washington elites and the lower-class citizens who provide their basic services, but such moments are played for easy laughs rather than insightful commentary. Although on the surface a pro-American film, this mindless action film treads a pretty uneven political line. Chock full of class-warfare and sniping, what starts out as a PCP addled liberal conspiracy freak’s cautionary tale feels more like a Reagan era shoot-‘em-up with it’s main character’s motivation rooted more in vengeance than any sense of civic duty. Though conservative filmgoers will probably be a bit put off by the U.S. Army being portrayed as about an effective military force as Darth Vader’s Imperial Stormtroopers (who by all rights must surely be the Washington Generals of the cinematic military canon.)

Since audiences have shown Hollywood that even the most ridiculously inept drivel can pass as quality action fare, there’s no doubt that this cinematic train wreck will probably spawn yet another sequel of equally diminished return. Fans of incessantly awful cinema might find a timeless gem here, but only after a copious amount of heavy, heavy drinking and several swift punches to the skull.

The Flower of My Secret

by December Lambeth on April 27, 2005

in DVD Reviews 

Spanish film maker Pedro Almodóvar (Bad Education and Talk To Her) softens his touch, bringing out some ugly realities to disappointment in life and love.

The Flower of My Secret
1 & 1/2 Stars

Released on DVD Spring 2005

Spanish film maker Pedro Almodóvar (Bad Education and Talk To Her) softens his touch, bringing out some ugly realities to disappointment in life and love.

Spanish film maker Pedro Almodóvar, known for such films as Talk to Her, Bad Education, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, brings us a more down to earth story about a woman hitting a mid-life crisis, with all the bells and whistles. She gets to experience all the great shit that life likes to throw at you right at the point it is least invited.

A romance novelists, Amanda Gris is her secret identity, Leo Macias (Marisa Paredes) true name, is finding out that her life is ending up less and less like her romance novels and more like some form of nightmare. Leo finds out that her U.N. husband is no longer in love with her and has been sleeping with her best friend for years. He very seldom came home because his job required a great deal of travel and when he did come home he blamed Leo of being to sensitive and touchy about things. He would never call her, even if she had called and left plenty of messages. When she did get ahold of him he was short and impatient with her. This treatment only steamed and motivated Leo into great depths of depression and writing. She began writing the exact opposite of her romance novels and started writing about death and mystery. When she finished her first novel in it’s new form and presented it to her publisher he turned it down for content, he reminded her that she was under contract to write fluffy trashy romance novels. This request gave Leo a great deal of difficulty because the last thing she was feeling was love and romance.

Her best friend had suggested that she go and visit with a newspaper editor, Angel (Juan Echanove), so she could find a different outlet for her depression and her writing abilities. When meeting with Angel, Leo had seen an Amanda Gris book on his desk and asked who was the fan. He had replied that he was a huge fan of Amanda’s work and has a pro column on her novels. Leo had shown much disappointment and disgust towards her book, she had wanted to think about other types of writing not writing a column on how great her hidden personality is. Angel had suggested that maybe she writes a column disputing his on Amanda Gris’ novels and her ability to write; Leo, deciding that wasn’t the best thing for her, leaves Angel wishing he had not suggested it in the first place. Later on down the line Angel called her and said that her writing was so brilliant that she most certainly publish the book she had provided to him for samples and he was to help her. With a renewed since of confidence she tells her publisher to F-off and goes home ready to give it one last try with her husband.

When her husband shows up she finds out all about the cheating and the deception and in a fit of depression she makes an effort to overdose. A call from her mother saying she was going back to the village and nobody truly cared set a fire under her and she made herself throw up and get out of the apartment. Even though Leo got out of the apartment she headed straight for a bar, not a good idea. Leaving the bar in a ray of despair she runs into Angel, who takes her to her mom and drives them to the old village. There Leo is nurtured back to health and accidentally shared with Angel who she truly is, Amanda Gris. Angel had been smitten with her before, but now he can’t help himself. Knowing that her husband is out of the picture and Leo could use a shoulder to cry on, Angel puts himself right there by her side and shows Leo that life isn’t over yet.

Leo picks herself up and gets her mystery published and finds just the right pair of boots to fit her in the end.

Not a typical edgy charactered film for Pedro Almodóvar and a little slow, but certainly a great story. Most women can relate to what Leo was going through, if not in all areas then some. I get what it’s like to be disappointed in what seems so comfortable and finding it hard to leave what you know, but taking the risk and making that leap of faith is all part of life. Everyday somebody is getting the shit end of the deal, it’s how you deal with it that makes you who you are.

Dogtown & Z-Boys: Deluxe Edition

by Aaron on April 25, 2005

in DVD Reviews 

I didn’t pick this up at it’s initial release, having seen it in the theaters, but I’m glad I’ve got the Deluxe Edition now. It’s a simply fascinating look at the origins of skateboarding, as well as being just a top-notch documentary. Even non-fans of the sport should find something worthwhile to find in Dogtown.

Dogtown & Z-Boys: Deluxe Edition
4 Stars

In 2001 it was easy to take skateboarding for granted. Tony Hawk Pro Skater was one of the most successful video games of it’s time, the X games were a bar & grille tv staple, and most people didn’t give a second to thought to considering skateboarding a ‘sport’. So long-time skateboard icon Stacy Peralta’s incredible documentary Dogtown & Z-Boys detailing the birth of modern skateboarding takes us back a time when skating was a long-abandoned fad just waiting to be revitalized by a group of incredibly gifted surfers and skaters from wrong side of Santa Monica, serves as a powerful reminder of just how far skateboarding has come.

Far from being the multi-million dollar industry it is today, skateboarding was the realm of only the most die-hard enthusiasts, whose style was heavily influenced by the popular surfers of the day. When surfboard maker Jeff Ho, artist Craig Stecyk, and surfer Skip Engblom got together to form a surf shop, and in the process taking in the neighborhood kids, their anti-mainstream attitude and street tough style opened the horizon of what skating could be. Future superstars Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta were just two of the incredibly gifted kids just out to kill time between waves, and their accomplishments make for one hell of a documentary.

The birth of pool skating? That was them. The first verts? Ditto. The Zephyr skate team redefined what could be done on 4 wheels, some trucks, and a hunk of wood. Dogtown & Z-Boys tells their story by interviewing the members and founders of the Zephyr team, as well as those who were there to document their growth. Dirt poor beginnings, hard scrabble times, the first big tournament, fame, fortune, and downfall are all here. Director Peralta made his name on the pavement and behind the camera (for the infamous Bones Brigade videos), so rather than an outsider coming in to document history it’s the story being told by those who lived it with the easy comraderie that can only be forged by a group who has been through it all together. Former surf-rat Sean Penn lends his voice for the narration, and such punk culture notables as Henry Rollins and Ian McKaye, as well as skate icons Tony Hawk and Steve Caballero, lend their thoughts on the influence and impact of those sun-bleached stars of Dogtown.

I didn’t pick this up at it’s initial release, having seen it in the theaters, but I’m glad I’ve got the Deluxe Edition now. It’s a simply fascinating look at the origins of skateboarding, as well as being just a top-notch documentary. Even non-fans of the sport should find something worthwhile to find in Dogtown.

D’s House

by Aaron on April 22, 2005

in Movie Reviews 

I’m normally distrusting of coming of age films, as they almost universally miss the mark on conveying the inner changes of lives in progress.  Add Robin Williams playing a retarded man to a project written and directed by a former television actor and my cynic meter almost redlines.  Thankfully David Duchovny pulls it off and lets me leave the theater with a pleasant smile on my face.

House of D
3 & 1/2 Stars

I’m normally distrusting of coming of age films, as they almost universally miss the mark on conveying the inner changes of lives in progress.  Add Robin Williams playing a retarded man to a project written and directed by a former television actor and my cynic meter almost redlines.  Thankfully David Duchovny pulls it off and lets me leave the theater with a pleasant smile on my face.

House of D

According to the world of cinema, our lives are defined by a single event which serves both as a landmark and an easy explanation for the rest of our lives.  In the real world however, our lives are redefined each and every day with every moment and action helping us become more and more ourselves.  There are powerful moments with long-lasting effects, but without a director’s hand or screenwriter’s plot, each life is a compilation of endless series of moments.  But that would make for some seriously long-ass movies, wouldn’t it?  So we’ll have to settle for the snapshots of life provided by our current technology, I suppose.

Effectively casting off the remaining shreds of his iconic X-Files career, David Duchovny makes his writing and directing debut with House of D, a not-really-autobiographical coming of age film set in the early 70’s Greenwich Village.  Duchovny plays Tommy, an artist living in Paris who tells his estranged wife and 13 year old son the story his own 13th year to explain the man he’s become.  Anton Yelchin plays his 13 year old self, a prep-school student who lives with his widowed mother (Tea Leoni), pals around with his retarded friend Pappass (Robin Williams), and is looking for any guidance he can get to weather through those uncertain and confusing preteen years.  His home life and his best friend force him to play an adult role he’s wholly unprepared for, but Tommy’s exuberance and humor allow him to remain the child he still is.  With no stable adults in his life to turn to he’s in the dark as to how to win the affections of schoolmate Melissa (Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda, making her film debut), so he turns to the advice of “Lady” (Erykah Badu) a Women’s House of Detention inmate he’s never seen only heard. As every adult knows, the best intentions of our youth often make for disastrous consequences, and Tommy is forced to learn this lesson in a horrific series of events.

On the surface House of D may seem unfulfilling, as young Tommy’s life is nearly idyllic with the wide open streets of the Village before him, a delivery boy job that is low stress, easy money, and great fringe benefits, and a beautiful young girl who wants his attentions.  But his grace filled path to adult provides friction with his friendship with Pappass, who’s just smart enough to know that he doesn’t get to grow up with his friend. Tommy’s mother is a shattered, chain smoking husk of a woman who wants to be a mother, but relies on her young son to take care of her.  Eventually Tommy is forced to make a choice that erases every shred of his carefree life, and that is what’s kept the grown-up Tommy from being a fully complete human being. 

Though the film does wander into some treacle-covered moments (particularly in the finale), the performance of Anton Yelchin is what makes this movie so enjoyable. I’m convinced that somewhere outside of Hollywood there is a lab dedicated to the creation of each generation’s Henry Thomas (E.T.).  The last one churned out was the talented and quirky Jeremy Davies, but I truly hope Yelchin’s career has more staying power than that.  His easygoing charm and good-natured humor sucks you in, and makes you want Tommy to have the life he deserves.  There’s no awkwardness or stiffness in his delivery and body-language, and he holds his own alongside Frank Langella, Leoni, and a thankfully restrained Williams. 

Robin Williams playing a retarded adult was the thing that made me the most trepidatious about House of D, but outside of playing the character just a tad more intelligent and knowing than is probably accurate, his performance works well.  He never overshadows his young co-star, and his asides and mannerisms help keep an already funny film more lighthearted.  It’s about time Robin Williams found a dramatic role that didn’t require him to maintain a pained grimace from start to finish. 

Tea Leoni has just a few snippets of screen time, but her almost trademark neurosis works incredibly well in her scenes.  It’s always painful to watch parents reduced to relying on their young offspring, and her performance maintains the right balance of pathos and sympathy.  Sure she’s a selfish wreck, but she obviously loves her child.  It’s just that she doesn’t know how to be there for him like Tommy is for her.

Zelda Williams isn’t given much screen time either, but her Melissa feels natural and unaffected.  It’ll be interesting to see where she goes from here.  And Frank Langella? Well he’s as solid as ever.  HBO’s “Unscripted” has him perfectly cast as the jaded mentor to a group of young actors, as he just exudes authority and confidence with every laconic line that leaves his lips.  His stern Catholic headmaster works because for all his gruff and seeming disinterest, he’s genuinely concerned for his charges and just as genuinely disappointed when they fail. 

Duchovny has gone on record as stating that his intent was to make a fable as well as a film, and in that regard he’s succeeded.  Everything is just a little bit more than might be found in everyday life, but only so much as the story requires.  As I stated before, the ending loses a little of its impact, as things wrap up a little too perfectly, but what fable doesn’t?  Overall I’m reminded of Peter Weir’s excellent autobiographical film “The Year My Voice Broke” which might serve as the more realistic and downbeat cousin to House of D.  Both films have a deep and lasting sadness to them, but what life doesn’t?  The heartbreak and loss we suffer define us as much as our accomplishments and House of D does a beautiful job of balancing the humor, the hurt, and the general imbalance of those in-between years. 

If nothing else, go see this film for Anton Yelchin.  If Hollywood knows what’s good for it, this should be the first of a long series of great performances from a young actor with just oodles of potential.