Jade's Trick

Reviews, Spotlights, and Randomosity of all things under the sun.

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Location: Hartford, Connecticut, United States

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Sunday, June 26, 2005

"I don't get out of bed for less than half a million dollars." -- Mr and Mrs Smith

Two things: this week's review will be shortish, because there's not really all that much to say about the movie, and the proposed edits of all reviews has been postponed until next week, so that it can be done at the conclusion of the first half of the year. I like symmetry.

Mr and Mrs Smith is one of the movies that's part of the inauguration of the Summertime, when the weather is warm, the sun is shining, that there book-learnin' is forgotten, and the movies are light and fun. There, review over. Have a nice week.

Just kidding.

No, I'm not simply trying to fill space. Shut up. *cough*

Ok, time to get seriously serious. Mr and Mrs Smith starts out rather mundane and pedestrian; our protagonist couple has been married "five or six" years now and their marriage has become a little boring. So, we see a marriage counseling session, a flashback to when they first met and fell in love, and a few scenes at their cold steel-and-glass house. In other words, these two appear entirely unspectacular (although that's not to say the audience is here bored). Then, the bomb drops, and we find out that they're really assassins who have been keeping their nightlives from each other all this time. They discover each other's secret and a consistent, low-level current of humor and copious action/violence ensues. Rinse, repeat, and you've got the rest of the movie. Yes, it's very predictable, but since the point of the movie is to have a little care-free fun, this doesn't really detract.

Ok, obvious stuff first: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. If you didn't know it before, well, gird your loins: these two are fabulous actors. During the intro, they are suitably cold to each other; it is very very easy to believe that they are in a slowly failing marriage. Then, the other overpriced foot-protection device manufactured by under-paid children in third world countries is affected by the force of gravity and impacts with the floor: their respective occupations become known to each other, the excitement with and understanding of each other kicks in, and a flow of many electrons discharges between the two. In short, they very effectively display perfectly realistic chemistry.

Action. At it's heart, this movie is a mindless action flick with a mind. There's a lot of action to be found here, and although it isn't as mind-blowing as The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it consistently entertains and titilates with big explosions, dramatic gunfights, and complex chases. After all, these two are high-class assassins; flashy, unrealistic killing and bullet-dodging is part and parcel of the job. However you put it, the action scenes go a long way towards making the movie the fun summer popcorn flick it was meant to be.

You know that mind part I mentioned? Although the arguably allegorical plot and terrific acting are aspects of this mind-of-the-mindless, the humor is really what makes the movie a slash above the average action flick. Only rarely laugh-out-loud funny, the film maintains a very consistent level of low-key humor meant to do nothing but keep a very wide grin on your face for the two hours of mayhem and slaughter of faceless enemies. The dialogue is always witty, but never too witty, always interesting, but never too deep. Another fun thing that the movie does is to make the occasional self-conscious crack; for example, take careful note of the captive's T-shirt whilst the two Smiths interrogate him.

Mr and Mrs Smith expertly twirls with your character alignments, batting them around like a cat playing with a catnip-laced ball of yarn. Once the two Smiths find out that the other is a spy, obviously so do their respective agencies, which promptly sic each one on the other. However, the movie does not play favorites, and it sets up the situations such that you never really root for one character over the other, making especially scenes in which the two are hunting each other particularly delicious.

Like I said, rather short. Look, it's over already!

Action: 3.5/5 bulletproof windshields (The action is big, loud, over-the-top, and entirely not groundbreaking. I don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing, as it's still quite fun to watch, but in all truthfulness, the action isn't anything new).
Acting: 4.5/5 streaked tears (I've already praised Lara Croft and Tyler Durden en mass, but I've got to say something about Vince Vaugn: great one-liners this man has and deliver them well he does. Every scene with him is a joy and rapture).
Comedy: 4/5 steak knives (The mostly-black humor adds just the right touch to what would otherwise be a mere morass of explosions).
Story: 2.5/5 ski masks (Predictable and with a few plot holes gumming up the works, the plot is definitely not one of the movie's better selling points. I don't think this holds the movie back as a whole, but others may disagree).
Visuals: 3/5 weather channels (The action was well shot, the camera angles suitably nonstandard, and the explosions very big, but the cinemetography of this movie isn't really anything special).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 3.75/5 riding crops (I definitely recommend this if you're in the mood for some very fun, very fluffy action, but this flick is no Casablanca).

Sunday, June 19, 2005

"I'm leaving, and I'm taking the monkey with me." -- The Majestic

Now, I've got a metric ton of free time this week, so I thought instead of a review, I'll give all my other reviews a nice polish for next weekend. I might end up doing a review as well, but if I don't, I'll toss up another post reminding you why. In other news, I'm going to stop forcing myself to use passive voice for the first sentence of the actual review.

I know I'm in the minority, but I really like The Majestic. It's not The Godfather or Star Wars: The Empire Striked Back, but it is nevertheless one of my favorite movies, sporting great acting, great drama, great cinematography, good humor; basically, it's the whole package. In my oh-so-humble opinion, the movie did as poorly as it did because of the expectations the public had of Jim Carrey. Audiences thought they were in for a standard Pet Detective-like mindless poop joke romp and instead got a mostly serious acting-heavy drama.

The story sounds a little cheesy, and it kinda is, but for the most part, the movie pulls it off pretty convincingly. Peter Appleton (played magnificently by Jim Carrey) writes movie scripts for Hollywood in the early 50's and is on his way to catching a Big Break when someone fingers his for a Commie, causing the movie studio to suspend all business with him (at least, until after he gets by the charges), his actress girlfriend to dump him, and a local bartender named Jerry to glean a small fortune from profits made by selling the very depressed Peter quite a bit of alcoholic beverages. After filling his stomach with said alcoholic beverages, Peter decides that a nice long coastal drive would really hit the spot. He drives for a while, crashes his car on a bridge, falls into the water, and thwacks his head against the concrete foundation of a leg of the bridge, causing (gasp!) amnesia! (This is the Limburger of which I spoke; don't worry, it only looks bad from the outside) . And it goes from there.

The movie's strongest strength is it's acting. Jim Carrey pulls off Peter Appleton, Wide-Eyed Amnesia Victim, and Luke Trimble Wannabe with perfection and poise, never for a moment wavering. Jim Carrey is well known for his facial expressions (most his his characters have been built from the ground up on them), and they here serve him well, blasting out with an interior view for anyone looking. For example, although the camera is tightly on him -- and only him -- during the opening scene and he only has one or two lines, we get an extremely good idea about what his character is about (he's clearly aggravated that the movie executives are eviscerating his script, and yet he goes with the flow without blinking). Laurie Holden plays Luke Trimble's former fiance Adele Stanton who took the California State Bar Exam just prior to her appearance early on in the movie, and she also does a stellar job, particularly during the romantic scenes between her and Jim Carrey. She has this great ability to portray and communicate the awkwardness of the situations (as most of them, at least at first, are awkward; she and Luke were engaged just before Luke went overseas, and then he died) without making the audience awkward (I absolutely *loath* when movies make the audience feel awkward. I can get myself into awkward situations without paying, thankyouverymuch). The rest of the cast was good-to-very-good, but not particularly worth spending more time on.

This movie's cinematograhy sings. I mentioned the opening scene: it starts by playing the voices of people arguing over something, a movie. The darkness gives way to a closeup of Jim Carrey's upper torso and head, listening to more voices batting back and forth increasingly corny ideas about how to draw more tears from the eyes of the audiences. The shot says very specifically that although we need to know what they are saying for context, the speakers just aren't important. A bookend shot also plays near the end of the movie that functions much the same way, and I personally liked the symmetry. One more example: the pan shots of The Majestic's neon sign. Done beautifully well, these precisely capture the feelings of, well, majesty that the theater is said to possess.

Now we come to the part of the movie that is difficult to review: the preaching. Unfortunately, the movie has quite a bit of preaching against the censoring McCarthyism and the HUAC did in the 50s. The good news is that this is decoy preaching; after all, history has come to the conclusion that McCarthyism and the HUAC were wrong, so preaching against them would be a horrible waste of everyone's time. The movie is really railing against the passive, those who want to avoid moral difficulties, and thus decide to take the easy road that robs them of dignity (see the description of the opening scene to see one way this plays out with Peter). It's still preachy, but at least it's not terribly irrelevant preaching. Just remember that every single mention by anyone of Commies builds towards Peter's eventual decision to grow a backbone and doesn't really have anything to do with Commies, and the movie seems a little less eye-roll inducing.

One last thing to mention before I get to the ratings: this movie has a number of decidedly funny parts. Although not a comedy, it's got a few balloons here and there to help lift the serious, and sometimes overcast, mood. Peter's drunken blatherings, Adele's hiccups (and their "cure"), Peter's discovery of his piano talent, Peter's answers to the HUAC's questions; these are funny moments all.

Action: 3.5/5 bothersome possums (Almost completely devoid of action, there was but one scene requiring it, and in that one scene, the action was extremely well done and extremely plausible).
Acting: 4.75/5 lighthouses (Excellent performances from Jim Carrey and Laurie Holden, and at good performances from everyone else. Denied a perfect 5 because I'm a miserly bastard when it comes to Acting).
Comedy: 3.5/5 grinning monkeys (The comedy here brought a huge smile to my face, but rarely made me audibly laugh and never split my sides).
Story: 3/5 convertible Mercedes' (Although it's got some decidedly corny parts to it, I feel the story overall works rather well).
Visuals: 4.5/5 neon lights (No computer effects from what I can tell and minimum effects otherwise, this movie gets most of it's style points from camera placement, and it does that very well. The setting also gets mad props for looking like the 50s should look, feel like the 50s should feel, and overall just being nifty).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4.5/5 Purple Hearts (Consider this oft-passed-by movie strongly recommended!).

Sunday, June 12, 2005

"This episode was badly written!" -- Galaxy Quest

... but this movie wasn't.

Galaxy Quest was the first movie I saw on DVD. I vividly remember watching it about a dozen times in a row, marveling about how it has a menu and how you don't have to rewind it (not to mention the Special Features). Perhaps that was why I've left it until now; I remembered it so well it faded into the background. Well, no more. It popped back into the foreground for me when I wrote my Star Wars Episode III review a few weeks ago, and I now give you a more in-depth recommendation.

Galaxy Quest at its roots is parody/satire at its best. The story follows Tim Allen's Jason Nesmith as he goes about his life as a washed-up actor who made his mark as the Commander of the N.E.S.A. Protector of Galaxy Quest, the movie's Star Trek analogue from the early '80s. 18 years later, he and his fellow actors have been reduced to doing various Galaxy Quest-related gigs, including autograph-signing at the annual Galaxy Quest convention, for money, unable to get any other acting work. Awoken by a group of people calling themselves Thermians after a depressing night of hard drinking, Jason finds himself transported through space and commanding a real working version of the Protector fighting a cruel, bipedal, bladed turtle named Sarris. Apparently, the Thermians have mistaken the accidental transmissions of the show into space as so-called "historical documents" sent out purposefully for whoever is interested, and have accordingly modeled their society after the show. After enlisting the help of his fellow actors from the show, Jason goes back to the ship, fights Sarris, and eventually prevails. And hilarity ensues.

Thus movie is a popcorn fare. Although not a particularly Great Work, it manages to be a boatload of fun and funny fancy. It works best if viewed as a very soft SF parody of Star Trek, matching that show extremely well on virtually every count. The "command crew" behind the scenes is how we might envision it really was; the captain, arogant, convinced of his own greatness; the thespian, sorely dissatisfied that he cannot find other acting work and must continue to say the same line over and over to pay the bills; the blonde sexpot, who knowlingly plays a character with no purpose other than to serve as something for the fanboys to droll over. The show itself (we are treated to a few minutes of it) is campy and rather trite, the SF elements questionable at best. All in all, the film makes it easy to believe that this really could have been the way it happened. Similarly, the film also works well as a gently satire. Fun is poked at the campiness, at the Red Shirt expendable glorified extras, and even at the fans (but as I said, it's gentle; no one is really being skewered or anything).

The characters in the movie are multidimensional, vibrant, and still funny; although they are in many ways caricatures, they maintain their humanity and thus remain wholly believable. Character development also thrives here; for example, Jason Nesmith's egotism is a compelling character flaw that he works through.

In keeping with the believability of the characters, there is not a line out of place or a single fake reaction to be found. Superb the acting is, and although little of it is particularly impressive, there are no spots which threaten to remind us that this is, in fact, just a movie. The only "bad" acting is that of the Thermians, and that is very obviously purposeful.

The sound is suitablly camptastic and highly reminiscent of something you very well might hear during one Star Trek episode or another. Orchestral and vocal riffs reign supreme, as do explosions and impacts. Best of all, the sounds support the humor well, bringing many moments to bear right on the funnybone.

Saving the best for last: the humor. This movie is very, very funny. It's really indescribable, but I'll try: it hits all the right notes. First of all, you can't go wrong with actors like Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, and Tony Shalhoub, all of whom have proved their worth here and elsewhere. Second, the lines and the plot lend themselves to excellent humor. Rare is the joke for which the movie had to reach. And third, all the little things, such as the Trekkie-ish extras, the music (already mentioned), and the absurd props. As I said, very, very funny.

And that's pretty much it.

Action: 3.5/5 rocks (Although the action is pretty good, it's not the focus of the movie and thus not a whole lot of time is spent on it).
Acting: 4/5 Berrilium spheres (Very good acting all around. The comic timing is especially good. However, there weren't really any particularly notable acting jobs here).
Comedy: 4.5/5 latex scalps (Very Funny. Kinda like TBS, but better).
Story: 4/5 communication voxes (The story itself is rather interesting, and the parody elements are particularly juicy).
Visuals: 3.5/5 Omega 13s (Good special effects, good sets, good makeup. Goodness all around).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4/5 magnetic mines (Although it's not the best movie of all time, it is very fun and very enjoyable. It's a great way to spend 100 or so minutes).

Saturday, June 04, 2005

"If you tickle us do we not laugh?" -- William Shakespeare's the Merchant of Venice

I've wanted to see this movie since it was first released on the, uh, lead screen some months ago, but certain circumstances prevented that outing from occurring. Too bad, too, as this is an extraordinary film.

William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is a screen adaptation of Shakespeare's play of the same name. Of all his plays, this one is one of the touchiest, being the subject of much criticism for the perceived anti-semitic bias. Now, such a claim insults both the play and Shakespeare, for it simplifies a script which clearly intends to be complex (and, indeed, is). There is anti-semitism, and the "villain" is a man of Jewish descent and religion, but the play overall can easily be used to display how wrong prejudice is (it can also be used to push anti-semitism, but given the sparcity of stage directions in Shakespeare's plays, any of them can potentially be misconstrued however you like).

As always, I will alert you to my personal shortcomings and strengths which may tint my analysis: I have not read The Merchant of Venice, and I find Shakespeare rather easy to read. However, I don't think either of these will affect the review as I'm reviewing the movie just like any other movie, and the actors are so good that the play is made wholly accessible. Onward, march!

Let's start with the acting. In a word, superb. Rather than exhaust my personal supply of superlatives, I shall merely state that there was not so much as an extra with inferior acting ability. Shylock and Portia both deserve special mention, as they both pull of exceedingly difficult roles with perfect ease; Pachino plays Shylock as both menacing and sympathetic; Portia runs the gamut of emotions, and Collins perfectly slams them all. Perhaps the best acting comes, surprisingly, when a character is not speaking; the lines are delivered well, which is to be expected, but these actors pay attention to everyone's lines and react accordingly.

Another major boon, the visuals. I know it's trite, but only "visually stunning" properly describes this movie. Renaissance Venice is the stage upon which this play is enacted, and it could not feel more real without a Smell-O-Rama machine installed into the DVD case. Never for a moment does the audience question anything they see, which is one of the highest compliments anyone can give to the cinematography. Certain shots just really stick with you, such as the vista view of Portia's estate-island and the ending image of servants catching fish with bows at the rising of the sun.

The music drenches the film in a slightly sad splendor. Very renaissance-sounding instruments strum out of very renaissance-sounding score, creating a highly complex atmosphere for a highly complex movie. Thus, it complements, and does not distract from, the story, characters, and lines.

Let's chat about that complexity I've been telling you so much about. It is impossible to completely hate or to completely love any character in this movie. Like real people, they all have their virtues and their vices, their admirable qualities and their detestabilities. Antonio is very generous and has a good degree of humility, but is also an emo and a bigot. Bassanio is handsome, eloquent, and loyal, but also a mooch and not the best at keeping his oaths. Portia is intelligent, beautiful, also eloquent, and tricksy, but also seems to have a bit of a sadistic, scheming streak. And finally, the most complex of them all, Shylock has been the target of extreme racial and religious persecution, has lost his daughter, and gets some of the very best lines in the movie (his "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech inflicts goosebumps), but he also says some very unsympathetic things about his daughter, and there's the whole pound of flesh thing. It's great fun being always up in the air, although it does require some investment of thought from the audience.

And then, of course, there's the screenplay. It's basically Shakespeare with some cuts (as almost all Shakespeare is shown), so the words spoken are obviously excellent, but the pacing is also very very well done (it drags just a little bit in the beginning, but overall moves quite swiftly). And as I mentioned above, this is a very accessible version of the play, so don't expect to have to go in with a dictionary.

One of the few things I did not like about this movie was the nudity; essentially, you see the exposed breasts of whores in passing several times. It just seemed rather gratuitous to me, and it feels so stupid for a collective thirty seconds of stuff in the background to bump an otherwise entirely PG movie up to R. Don't get me wrong: there should be prostitutes here (as not only does it make the setting feel more real but also poses an interesting question: why can there be Christian whores but not Christian moneylenders?), but it's just such a small thing to give the movie the rating it has.

Action: n/a.
Acting: 4.75/5 silver caskets (The performances showcased here are all truly Great Acting).
Comedy: 2.5/5 false moustaches (Hey, this is a Comedy, right? Well, sorta. It's really only a Comedy by construction, as it isn't really very funny, and what funny parts there are are few and far between).
Story: 4.5/5 red hats (One or two little things could have been a tiny bit clearer, but otherwise the story was very interesting).
Screenplay: 5/5 ducats (It's Shakespeare jury-rigged to film well. What more could you want?).
Visuals: 4.5/5 sunrise-glinting lakes (Merchant films very prettily).

Overall (not necessarily determined by the above categories): 4.25/5 portraits of Portia (This is one darned good Shakespeare film. There are a few I like more than it, but it has earned its place among the pantheon).