December 2005

Poorly Produced

by Alan Rapp on December 25, 2005

in Movie Reviews 

Ugh…The Producers is a staged remake of the Broadway show which was remade from the original movie starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel.  So it’s a remake of a remake (of a sort) and it feels like it.  Is it bad when the Springtime for Hitler number is the most professionally done (and still nowhere near as good as the original) of, well anything, in the film?

The Producers (2005)
1 Star

I never went to see the play The Producers, until now.  I say that because the film looks like so much like a stage show that I wondered why they didn’t just tape a Broadway performance on Betamax and distort the image through a projector onto the screen.  I guess that would have aimed too high.

I am a huge fan of the original film which I consider to be Mel Brooks’ funniest film (though not best, here’s that review).  I could have lived without seeing the never-ending disaster that Susan Sroman, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Uma Thurman create out of such a great script.

The story more closely follows the stage version rather than the original movie which involves producer Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) and accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) deciding to produce the biggest flop on Broadway, sell off more than the play is worth to backers, and pocket the cash when the play closes opening night.  A great plan, but this is a comedy so what happens?  The worst musical in the world Springtime for Hitler becomes an instant smash success and the talk of Broadway!

I would have preferred to watch a two hour version of Springtime for Hitler or Police Academy 6: City Under Siege or even receive a caning.  Everything goes wrong here except life doesn’t imitate art and this flop sadly never becomes a hit.  Mel Brooks wrote the roles of Leo and Max specifically for Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel.  Broderick and Lane just can’t fill their shoes.  Even in the best moments of this movie (all three of them) the feeling of “yeah, but that’s still not as good” comes to mind.

Broderick doesn’t have Wilder’s innocence and fragility.  The actor that as a kid pulled off the super confident Ferris Beuller just doesn’t fit the insecure Leo Bloom.  Lane is a little better, though he too is doing more of an impression than his own character.  The whole movie feels like a Saturday Night Live skit based on the original movie rather than a movie of its own.

The story has evolved, changed, and lengthened as Mel Brooks turned it into a play.  Part of the problem was giving the helm to stage director Susan Stroman who never makes the necessary changes to take the Broadway musical and turn it back into a film.  The timing and action of the piece, the sets and musical numbers, all seem out of place on film.

I’ll give you an example of how the new model fails to live up to the original:

After waiting roughly 105 minutes for the curtain to finally rise on Springtime for Hitler (the original is a total of 88 minutes, versus this 134 minute version) what we get is truly disappointing.  In the original the full musical number is performed including cannons, singing Nazis, a choreographed swastika dance, flags and banners.  As the number ends the camera pans to a stunned audience except for one man who is beaten down for his jubliant applause.  The audience starts to leave and is only stopped by LSD’s (Dick Shawn) performance (a character NOT included in this version).  FUNNY!

Lane and Broderick try to hide from
anyone who has seen this film

So what does this version do?  It pans to the audience several times during the opening number showing shock before anything really shocking occurs on stage and the audience actually accepts and applauds before and during the swastika number accepting and appreciating it.  Confusing and UNFUNNY!! 

Also missing is the bar scene where Leo and Bloom’s celebration is cut short by the terror of intermission as they hear the audience praising the play, and the ending that includes the plot to blow up the theater.

The film is full of such changes.  The removal of LSD as a character broadens the one-joke characters of writer Franz Leibkind (Will Farrell) and Roger de Bris (Gary Beach).  Problems start to occur immediately however as the actors are asked to do too much with such limited roles.  The film also makes de Bris and his band into crude, stereotypical, and tasteless gay caricatures.  How bad is it?  The Village People appear (no, that’s not a joke, though I guess Brooks thought it would be).  Farrell is fine as Leibkind but has to improv too much as his character, like all the rest, is on screen too long.

Uma Thurman plays Ulla the Swedish secretary.  She actually is pretty good in the role (though was her make-up person blind? or maybe cross-eyed?).  Her accent comes and goes (especially during the signing numbers) but she comes off better than most of the cast.  Yet here again a one-joke character from the original “Bialystock and Blum, got dag pa dig” is stretched thin in an unecessary lengthy role.

Don’t pay a dime for this; save your money and go out and get the DVD of the original 1968 version of The Producers.  This version is just a waste of a theater that could be showing something better (like Narnia or Kong or a three hour documentary on yeast infections).  Hopefully people will stop trying to remake Wilder’s films now, but I have this horrible fear that I’ll see a new Silver Streak with Owen Wilson and Chris Tucker announced any day now.  Stop trying to ruin the films I love and just get back to making more Hollywood crap that people so enjoy…hey I hear Fantastic Four 2 is on its way.

The Rumors are True

by Alan Rapp on December 25, 2005

in Movie Reviews 

With a clever script, great performances, and some truly funny moments this is one film I’d recommend to anyone.  Jennifer Aniston finally finds the perfect leading role and Shirley MacLaine reminds us that she can still own the screen.

Rumor Has It…
4 Stars

What if you found out that a well known book and film were based off the real experiences of your family?  That’s what happens to Jennifer Aniston’s character as she realizes that, for her family, The Graduate may just have some added meaning.

Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston) is going through a crisis.  She’s unsure about her recent engagement to Jeff (Mark Ruffalo) and is traveling back home with him for her younger sister Anne’s (Mena Suvari) wedding.  All this anxiety is nothing compared to what will happen next.  A discussion with her grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) and her mother’s best friend (Kathy Bates) lead her to believe that the book and movie The Graduate was written about her family.  She travels to San Francisco to find the man who romanced both her mother and grandmother, Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner), looking for answers and wondering if this man could be her father and if not will she fall under the same spell as her mother and grandmother?

This is just a joy of a movie.  After a series of so-so projects, Jennifer Aniston finally finds the right leading role to showcase her talents.  She infuses Sarah with humor, wit, depth, and tenderness mixed with her perfect comic timing and even holds her own in scenes with MacLaine.  And Mena Suvari is delightful as her sister who “bounces”; with her supporting performances here and Domino she’s finally showing what she can do if given the right opportunities.

Let’s not forger Shirley MacLaine in an Oscar worthy performance as the spurned oldest woman of the clan.  With snappy dialogue and deft delivery she’s fabulous every second she appears on screen.

The film is carried by the female performances but I’ll stop a second to mention the men.  Costner as the aging playboy who it seems loved many members of this family is well cast in a relaxed middle-aged role that he has come to play so well in recent years.  Ruffalo and Richard Jenkins are caught in harder roles as they mostly have to play straight men to the madness of these women.  Jenkins comes off quite good here and Ruffalo is fine in his underwritten role as the fiance.

I’ve gotten this far without discussing the story itself which is both clever and funny; I don’t want to give away too much so I’ll leave it at that.  The idea of behind the film is truly inspired and well carried out by director Rob Reiner who strikes all the right notes in this enjoyable romp.

Well worth checking out, Rumor Has It… is a clever, fun, quirky little film that all can enjoy.  Rumor contains great performances by all the women (especially MacLaine) and is a delectable vehicle for Jennifer Aniston to truly shine.


by Aaron on December 23, 2005

in Movie Reviews 

2005 may well be remembered as the year that Hollywood remembered it’s power to tell relevant stories with depth and intelligence. The theme of consequences has run through out most of the better films this year (a fact I’ll go into more with my end of year roundup), but topping off the list is Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which tells the story of Israel’s response to the killing of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympics by Palestinian terrorists. Eric Bana heads up a secret team of Mossad agents whose only job is to find and eliminate anyone connected to the plotting, funding, or execution of the Munich attack, a job he takes with relish only to find the cost of vengeance is always more violence. Beautifully shot with exceptional performances from all the actors involved, Munich tells a story that’s every bit as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. Perhaps it’s not the uplifting holiday fare you might seek on this Season, but Munich is very easily the best film of 2005.

5 Stars

How far is too far in righting a wrong? Can vengeance ever be a means to an end, no matter how noble the purpose? Or is retribution merely a link in an endless chain of violence? These are themes that resonate just as much today as they did in the mid 70s, when Steven Spielberg’s Munich takes place. Even handed to a point, Spielberg refuses to pick sides in the war of aggression between Israel and it’s attackers, but it’s perfectly clear that he knows that blindly labelling the other side as ‘evil’ won’t solve the problem. By showing us the bloodthirsty desires of a nation through the eyes of the men charged with making it happen, Spielberg reminds us that it’s far too easy to become that which we seek to kill.

Opening with a mix of archival and dramatized footage from Black September’s kidnapping and eventual killing of 11 Israeli athletes, Spielberg uses his opening salvo to show a world unfamiliar with terrorism: the Black September members are helped over the gate into the Olympic Village of 1972 Munich Germany by a group of carousing athletes who are unconcerned with security. Minutes later the world will change thanks in no small part to the 24 hour live television coverage of the kidnapping and shootout. People from around the world were shocked by a realization that times had changed, but none more so than the Israeli government, who soon decide to find those responsible and make them pay. Soon a group of Mossad agents are officially removed from the records and set loose in Europe with the single aim of tracking down and killing anyone involved in the Black September attack. Led by Avner (a phenomenal Eric Bana), these five men give up their identities, their families, and their country in the name of extracting a bloody retribution upon Israel’s enemies.

What begins as almost eager anticipation soon turns to grim determination (and finally outright paranoia) during the years Avner and his crew are out on their mission. Cut off from all they know, eventually they find themselves living and dealing among the same elements they’re supposed to be fighting. So much so that their grim crusade makes the team as hunted as their prey, unsure of who to trust or even who they’re supposed to be after.

Munich could easily be considered the flip side of Spielberg’s summer entry, War of the Worlds. Where WotW dealt with the assault, Munich explores the inevitable reaction of a government obsessed with retribution. But where Worlds was all CGI, flash, and thrill, Munich is washed out colors, grim 70’s style cinematography, and unrelenting tension. There are no easy bad guys in Munich. Even the so called enemy is giving a human face, and often the hit squad’s allies are as shady as their target.

Spielberg finds a perfect guide for us in Eric Bana’s Avner. The undistinguished son of a war hero, Avner is eager to prove himself in service of a country he loves even if it means leaving his pregnant wife for a mission that may well take years. He’s surrounded by a team as dedicated (and inexperienced) as himself, all portrayed rather convincingly by Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, and Hanns Zischler.

As difficult to watch as some of the violence is (indeed the returning flashbacks to the Munich attack are heartwrenchingly realized), it’s almost harder to watch Avner’s descent into moral confusion and paranoia.  After one of their own is killed, the remaining team members exact bloody vengeance on their own in a scene that’s one of the most disturbing of the film.  There’s no question the individual has it coming to them, but when it happens you feel the same horror and confusion as the men who are supposed to be the good guys.  It’s at that moment when they all realize that they’ve become no different from those they’re supposed tobe fighting against.  They seem to know it can only get worse from there.

A shockingly violent film that never lets you forget the cost of that violence, Munich strips away slogans and feel good phrases like ‘war on terror’ to show us the human cost of pursuing vengeance both personal and as a nation. A final shot that includes the then-new World Trade Center drives home the inescapable fact that until we forsake the desire for retribution, we’ll continue to pay a heavy price for our efforts. In a year of great films, Munich is an unflinching powerhouse of a movie, and easily the best thing Spielberg has made in years. Go see this movie.

Spielberg’s Best Film in 12 Years

by Alan Rapp on December 23, 2005

in Movie Reviews 

  • Title: Munich
  • IMDB: link

munich-posterStephen Spielberg‘s Munich is a personal story that is deeply moving and emotionally challenging to the viewer.  Hard questions are asked about the nature of revenge, assassination, and the right of a people to protect themselves through any means necessary.  Not since Schindler’s List has Spielberg taken on such a momentous undertaking that produced such extraordinary results.  This is his best film in over a decade and, it can be argued, the best film of his entire career.  In Munich Spielberg becomes the storyteller of a very personal story of pain, loss, vengeance, betrayal, murder, and death.  Munich is tremendous filmmaking and one of the best movies of the year.

The film begins with the abduction and murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.  Munich tells the story of the fallout of this tragedy as Avner (Eric Bana), a Mossad officer and son of a hero, is chosen by the Israeli Prime Minister (Lynn Cohen) to lead a team and hunt down and kill all 11 of the terrorists responsible.  Avner accept the assignment and leaves his pregnant wife; he travels to Europe with his team to track down and assassinate the members of Black September.

[click to continue…]

The Eel and the Cave

by Alan Rapp on December 23, 2005

in Movie Reviews 

Memoirs of a Geisha wants to be a meaningful and masterful work of cinema but never puts in the work to get there.  Beautifully shot with sets and costumes to make you drool over the film is a visual delight.  Yet in the end the film bares more than a striking resemblance to a Britney Spears music video.  Sure it’s great to look at, but really what’s the point?

Memoirs of a Geisha
3 Stars

Memoirs of a Geisha wants to be a grand and epic story; it’s not.  Beautifully shot the film lacks the story and the emotion to tell the tale worthy of the performances it wastes.  Though incomplete and somewhat shallow the film does give some worthy moments to compliment its magnificent look and is worth viewing, but I wanted a little more than the film was willing to give.

The story tells of a young girl Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) who is sold by her father (Mako) to become a geisha.  She grows up the house as a slave and eventually realizes her dream of being trained and reborn as Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang) a true geisha before all is taken away by the war and she must then decide how to put her life back together.

The movie breaks down into three segments: the life of Chiyo/Sayuri as a girl, the life in training to be a geisha, and the life after World War II.  The first is relatively pointless exercise that involves Chiyo trying to escape and sets up her life long crush on the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) who offers the young girl a small bit of kindness.  The second gets the story moving as her training begins with another geisha (Michelle Yeoh) and begins to explore what a geisha is but only in a Cliff’s Notes kind of way as much is left unsaid and witheld.  The final part of the movie is mostly an overlong epilogue about reclaiming your position after tragedy and trying to find happiness with the one you love.

The film is beautifully photographed by Dion Beebe including some visually stunning shots that have a Kubrick-esk style to them.  The costumes and the music help to frame the timelessness of the piece and the style of the locale.

My main trouble with the movie is the script does not measure up to the style.  The film never truly decides on what a geisha is and what it means to be one.  It often expounds the idea that a geisha is not a prostitute yet offers scenes where a geisha sells herself to men.  Nor are the negative aspects involved in such a position adequately addressed. 

Sayuri herself has issues.  All of the evil things that happen to her are from evil people not as a reaction from the circumstances of her chosen profession or any fault of her own.  We should feel sorry for her, yet the actions she takes and the way she uses many people for her benefit make her unattractive and unacceptable as the victim of the piece.

I enjoyed Watanabe in his performance that so resembled Gregory Peck I couldn’t help but make the comparison.  Li Gong is fine as the competing geisha who constantly attacks and betrays Sayuri but her character isn’t explored or explained so she becomes more like an evil caricature than an actually human being.  I also found some joy in Ted Levine‘s performance as Colonel Derricks towards the end of the film and Youki Kudoh as a friend of Sayuri who provides one of the most wickedly enjoyable moments of the film.

Memoirs of a Geisha is neither as good as it wants to be nor as bad as it could have been.  It’s a fine visual piece that lacks the story and direction to become something more.  I still recommend the film for the cinematography and for Ken Watanabe who I will refer to now on as the Japanese Gregory Peck.