Friday, April 28, 2006

If You Don’t Catch United 93…

This weekend sees the “controversial” opening of director Paul (Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy) Greengrass’ United 93, a drama that tells the story of the passengers and crew, their families on the ground, and the flight controllers who watched in dawning horror as United Airlines Flight 93 became the fourth hijacked plane on Sept. 11, 2001.

Is it too soon for such a film to arrive in movie theaters across the nation? Is Hollywood sensationalizing a thoroughly painful and recent event? My answers are no and it depends.

I do not think it is too soon to be reminded of a tragedy that changed the course of our lives – especially considering that its effects are still very much felt today.

And I do not think Hollywood is being opportunistic per se – the business of show is driven by profit, but something tells me that money wasn't the main goal in making this film. (Greengrass reportedly counted with the blessing of the majority of friends and family of the fallen depicted in the film.)

It goes without saying that United 93 will be a different experience for a movie watcher. The film recreates the doomed trip in actual time, from takeoff to hijacking to the realization by the passengers onboard that their plane was part of a coordinated attack unfolding on the ground beneath them.

But I wholeheartedly believe that, as difficult as it may be, United 93 might be something worth looking into, if anything just to pay tribute to those who died so valiantly – and to remember that day, which is something that many pledged to do but few seem willing to.

Keeping in mind that some will not catch United 93 this weekend, here's a quick word on two films that opened wide last week – Friends with Money and The Sentinel – and that I saved for this week (options, my peeps…that’s what it’s all about).

Friends with Money is a darling and often cutting indie from Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing), starring Jennifer Aniston (playing a teacher-turned-maid), Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener, and Joan Cusack as for long-time friends dealing with life’s trials (love, marriage, money, work) in their own very different ways.

Though not a fully realized movie (the character development is quite uneven), I liked Friends with Money because I found it relatable and rather true.

If action is more your cup of tea, then check out The Sentinel, starring Michael Douglas as a most decorated Secret Service agent-turned-presidential assassination suspect. Kiefer Sutherland (TV’s 24) and Eva Longoria (TV’s Desperate Housewives) play two agents (a by-the-books type and a rookie, respectively) tasked with unraveling the murderous plot.

I found The Sentinel to be a bit slow in the beginning – there is a lot of talk about action but very little of it (Longoria appears to have nothing more to do than to stand behind Sutherland in several scenes) – but ultimately the movie hits its mark.

I do wish Sutherland would take on a different type of roll (perhaps a dramedy?), as I found myself wanting, perhaps too frequently, that he channeled his Jack Bauer alter ego from 24 and took charge, already, in as much a riveting fashion as he does on TV.

My Rating **** (United 93); *** (Friends with Money); ** (The Sentinel)

Photos: Universal Pictures (United 93); Sony Pictures Classics (Friends with Money); 20th Century Fox (The Sentinel).

Friday, April 21, 2006

American Dreamz

By asking its audience to “imagine a country where more people vote for a pop idol than their president,” American Dreamz, the latest from Paul Weitz, the director of American Pie and About a Boy, arrives in movie theaters this week to offer its insightful and often hilarious two cents on the state of current political and pop culture affairs.

A mordant satire of the most zeitgeist-y phenomenon in recent years (the titular Dreamz refers to the American Idol send-off around which the story and its characters gravitate), as well as the askew morals and values of American society, the movie is also a thinly-veiled homage – wink, wink – to the current administration and the politics of politics, as well as the war and the real motives behind it.

One character astutely and ambitiously points out early on (read on to figure out which one) that any idiot can be on TV nowadays. Later, another, under different circumstances, also points that any idiot can do “it” (the “it” being leading the country). Do you see where the filmmaker is going?

American Dreamz takes aim at not only these people, but also their mentality. And it is all very funny.

The movie starts on the morning of President Staton’s (a bumbling, Southern-accented Dennis Quaid) re-election. Perhaps wondering what it is all about, the president decides to read the newspapers for the first time in four years, which leads him to obsessively re-examine his black-and-white views of the world.

Holing up in his bedroom in his pajamas for days, his behavior invites press speculation of a nervous breakdown and alarms his Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe), who figures something needs to be done. So, he decides to push the president back into the spotlight by booking him as a guest judge on the weekly talent show American Dreamz, a ratings juggernaut of which the country cannot get enough of.

This is, of course, a tremendous coup for the show, and especially for its host, the self-aggrandizing, self-loathing Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant, doing his best Simon Cowell), who is always on the lookout for the next bright young thing to turn into an instant-celebrity.

Tweed’s latest crop of hopefuls includes Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore, turning in a finely nuanced performance that made think of her as young Michelle Pfeiffer, acting ability-wise*), a conniving steel magnolia with a hopelessly devoted, not-all-there veteran boyfriend (Chris Klein), and Omer (Sam Golzari), a recent Southern Californian immigrant (who just happens to be a show tune singing, would-be terrorist awaiting activation).

As you can very well imagine, when both Sally and Omer make it to the final round of Dreamz, the stage is set for a show the nation will not soon forget.

While American Dreamz does not trek new territory, it does a swell job at being this nice little package of timely, cutting commentary on many of the topics that so irk some of us.

It's also a fine showcase of talent – the cast includes Marcia Gay Harden as a Laura Bush type, the invaluable Jennifer Coolidge and Judy Greer (TV’s Arrested Development), Seth Meyers (SNL), and Shohreh Aghdashloo as a beyond-Americanized Middle-Eastern woman and polar opposite of the similar role she played two seasons ago on TV’s 24.

*I mean both Pfeiffer and Moore seem to thrive in roles that call for them to be slightly wicked (see the erstwhile Catwoman in White Oleander, and Moore in Saved!).

My Rating ***1/2

Photo: Universal Pictures.

Friday, April 14, 2006

La Mujer de Mi Hermano

Featuring a magnetic international leading cast (Uruguayan Bárbara Mori, Peruvian Christian Meier, and Colombian Manolo Cardona) – and simply gorgeous original music by Angelo Milli and cinematography by Andrés Sánchez – La Mujer de Mi Hermano (My Brother’s Wife) is a stylishly moody, yet unfortunately lacking, movie.

Based on a novel by controversial Peruvian author Jaime Bayly (Don’t Tell Anyone), La Mujer de Mi Hermano is an angst-y exploration of relationships (a crumbling marriage, a strained brotherly bond), and the passion and secrets that surround them. It also marks the feature-film directorial debut of Peruvian filmmaker Ricardo de Montreuil.

It is a little bit of a shame that while the movie is so beautifully looking, it is also terribly unfocused. (The movie's much too much about and essentially told from the perspective of the titular wife.) Nevertheless, the story's gripping enough – at least for the first act and most of the second.

Zoe (Mori) and Ignacio (Meier, who also starred in Don’t Tell Anyone) appear to have a wonderful marriage: They are good-looking and doing well (they live in an ultra-chic, ultra-modern home, all concrete, glass, and chrome), and, though childless, seem to really love each other.

After almost a decade of marriage, however, Zoe has come to realize that her marriage to Ignacio no longer carries the passion it once did.

Fiercely methodical – or avoidant – he will only make love his wife on Saturdays. Emotionally adrift, she's left to search for what's missing in her marriage in someone else, and soon finds it and herself seduced into the arms of Gonzalo (Cardona), her husband's carefree artist brother.

At first, Zoe becomes reinvigorated by the romance; both she and Gonzalo enjoy their many rendezvous, and he becomes a sort of confidant, offering Zoe a new perspective on her somewhat puzzling husband.

But eventually her decision spirals into a series of events that drives the three through a gauntlet of despair and resentment, as painful secrets from the past are brought up, and the time for everyone to face the truth fast approaches.

Being familiar with Bayly’s oeuvre, I can tell you that his stories are usually engrossing and very, almost too specific. (Most of them are set in his native Lima; the screen version of La Mujer de Mi Hermano is set in Mexico City – surely idiosyncrasies were lost in translation, as it were.)

By relocating the story, for not telling it from the brother-in-law's point of view, and by upping the melodrama with every twist and turn, La Mujer de Mi Hermano lacks energy, and finds its mood less invigorated by plot than by passionate performances.

My Rating **1/2

Photo: Lionsgate Films.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Brittany Murphy Purrs in Song – And I Likey!

Looking back on the first time I heard that actress Brittany Murphy (at right, with a “Don’t say I can’t or I’ll cut you!” look) wanted to pursue a singing career, I probably thought to myself, “Oh, great: another pretentious starlet wanting to bite on more than she can chew.”

Figuratively speaking, of course, as we have seen Murphy shrink from frumpy Tai in Clueless to scary-skinny leading lady in Uptown Girls and Little Black Book by way of edgier – and better – fare like 8 Mile and Sin City.

I think the news came way back in the early 2000s, at a time when Murphy was doing her very best at coming off as annoying, hanging from Ashton Kutcher’s neck
, appearing in forgettable movies but making the most of them (“I’ll never tell…”), and running her mouth on how much she wanted to play Janis Joplin in one of the long-gestating biopic projects on the legendary “Piece of My Heart” singer.

Well, now comes the (surprisingly welcome) news that Murphy’s singing aspirations have materialized, as she is featured in “Faster Kill Pussycat,” one of the tracks on DJ Paul Oakenfold’s latest release, A Lively Mind (in stores June 6).

Check out the hot track here
. All I can say is Faster Sing Brittany!

Photo: Dimension Films (Sin City).

Friday, April 07, 2006

Thank You for Smoking

In the wickedly humorous and smartly poignant Thank You for Smoking – (son of Ghostbusters director Ivan) Jason Reitman’s satirical feature-length directorial debut, based on Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel – Aaron Eckhart plays a sly tobacco industry lobbyist who oh-so effectively spins on behalf of cigarettes while trying to remain a role model for his 12-year-old son Joey (Birth’s Cameron Bright).

The star-making role calls for Eckhart to appear in just about every scene of Thank You for Smoking, and his presence is one that's both revelatory and most welcome.

How ever did Hollywood fail to sing Eckhart’s praises sooner in the same way that it is today baffles me.

Wasn’t he just the cat’s meow in such films as In the Company of Men, Erin Brockovich, and Possession? Trust me – he was, and he’s not too bad to look at, either.

More important, though, is the undeniable fact that Eckhart is a terrific actor. His comedic timing (on fine display in Smoking) is just as impressive as is his talent for conveying, with just one look, ruggedly smug son-of-a-bitch-ness (see Company of Men) or a hint of fear (also on display in Smoking).

Up until Thank You for Smoking, however, Eckhart hadn’t had the chance to really carry his own movie (his most memorable work is perhaps his truly supporting turn as Julia Roberts’ biker boyfriend in Brockovich).

Obviously, I’m an Eckhart fan, so enough about that.

Thank You for Smoking follows the travails of Eckhart’s Nick Naylor, the official mouthpiece for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a cigarette-funded institute dedicated to the defense and promotion of smoking.

As it happens, though, Big Tobacco is under siege. Sales among target demographics are down, and an agenda-pushing, Birkenstocks-wearing Vermont senator (William H. Macy) wants a skull-and-bones warning label affixed to every cigarette pack. This is a problem, and it is up to Nick to solve it.

So, much like a superhero (it’s Smoke Man!), Nick must wily-charm and fast-talk his way out of trouble, and so, after a quick brainstorming session with like-minded people, he travels from Washington, D.C. to Hollywood to enlist the help of a studio mogul to product-place cigarettes in movies.

This is just one of the tactics Nick will employ to clean cigarettes’ toxic rep: another calls for him to go on a talk show and debunk the cigarettes-cause-cancer theory…vis-à-vis a lung cancer patient! There is nothing Nick won’t do for his job. He loves his job – someone has to do it, right?

He knows this, and he knows people who know this, too. People like two fellow "merchants of death," alcohol lobbyist Polly Bailey (A History of Violence’s Maria Bello) and firearms lobbyist Bobby Jay Bliss (Anchorman’s David Koechner), with whom he meets regularly for dinner.

Lobbying is starting to take its toll on Nick, though. While on route to Hollywood, Nick and Joey make a stop to pay a visit to a former Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) who's dying of cancer. The meeting, which involves a subtle bribe overheard and asked about by his son, leaves Nick feeling something new: a job-related conscience pang.

It also doesn’t help that an ambitious reporter (played by Katie Holmes – in presumably her last pre-Tom Cruise role – with that determined Joey Potter look that served her well on TV's Dawson’s Creek but not here) is dead-set on uncovering the truth behind Nick Naylor.

Thank You for Smoking works because of Eckhart and an effective cast that also includes Rob Lowe, The O.C.’s Adam Brody, and Spider-Man’s J.K. Simmons, and also because the social commentary it makes isn’t preachy but rather easy and on the mark.

Once the smoke has settled, Nick sees what’s really important, and with any luck Thank You for Smoking will help you do just this and it will surely entertain you.

My Rating ***1/2

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures.