DVD Picks: Letters to Juliet & Spirited Away

Well, I didn’t get a chance to see The Social Network this weekend, though they hardly need my patronage to take the top spot for the second weekend, dropping only 30% to take in $15.5 mil (per Box Office Mojo). Initially I wanted to see the dark comedy/drama The Joneses with David Duchovny and Demi Moore (see trailer here), but it wasn’t available at the DVD vending machine at my office, so I got this rom-com instead.

Letters to Juliet

I gotta admit I’m not a huge fan of rom-coms in general, but I actually like the trailer when I first saw it. Perhaps it’s the Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero casting that grabbed me, I mean romance knows no age after all, so it’s nice to see the 70-something real-life couple getting all lovey-dovey on screen. Of course there’s the gorgeous setting in Verona, Italy where most of this movie was shot, it’s one of those flicks that made you wish you could be transported right into the screen!

The movie opens with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), an American girl on vacation with her fiance in Verona who finds an unanswered ‘letter to Juliet’—one of thousands of notes/messages left at the fictional lover’s Verona courtyard. Apparently, at the end of the day these letters are collected by one of the ‘secretaries of Juliet’ and of course it’s no surprise that Sophie inadvertently became one of those secretaries. The story pretty much picks up when the woman who wrote the letter 50 years ago, Claire, receives it and goes to Verona along with her handsome grandson to meet whomever writes her back. You know what happens next, as the trailer pretty much tells us so, that Sophie ends up going on a quest to find Claire’s long-lost love.

Love knows no age… Franco & Vanessa

As predictable as this movie is—you pretty much know what’s going to happen next scene after scene—I actually don’t mind it so much. The 25-year-old Seyfried is such an affable and sympathetic leading lady, she makes you want to experience the journey with her. She has such earnest quality about her that is a rarity amongst beautiful young starlets. Aussie actor Christopher Egan (who looks like a younger version of Matt Damon) makes for a pretty charming love interest, and the two have a considerable chemistry. But the highlight of the movie for me came when Franco Nero finally showed up, the way every prince charming did in those Disney fairy tale flicks… on a horse looking all macho and heroic! It’s schmaltzy no doubt, but I totally bought it and I couldn’t help get all teary-eyed in the scene when the two are reunited.

As I said in my trailer post though, the only head-scratching casting here is Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, Babel) as the obligatory oblivious fiance. In the Special Features, it sounds like Bernal wanted to try a ‘lighter’ role, but the professional chef Victor is such a one-dimensional character that the talented Mexican actor is kind of wasted in this role.

In any case, I thought this was a nice little movie to spend on a Friday night. Definitely a good one to watch with the one you love.

***

Spirited Away (2001)

I’ve never been a fan of anime, even though growing up I did read a lot of Candy Candy manga novels. I had a high expectation going into this as the credentials are beyond impressive, according to IMDb Trivia: In 2006, this film was still the highest-grossing non-US-produced film in the world and still holds that record to this date. Spirited Away is also the first film to earn US$200 million before opening in the U.S. and the first anime film to be nominated for (and win) an Academy Award! Walt Disney Pictures dubbed this English adaptation, under the supervision of Pixar’s John Lasseter. Lasseter is a personal friend of the Spirited Away’s Hayao Miyazaki, considered one of the best Japanese animation directors.

The movie starts off when 10-year-old Chihiro, the protagonist, and her parents are on their way to their new home in the suburbs. Her dad inadvertently takes a wrong turn into a mysterious wooded path and ends up in front of a peculiar looking tunnel. Despite Chihiro’s persistent protests, her adventurous parents decide to enter the tunnel and find what looks like an abandoned theme park on the other side. As they wander around, they find a deserted restaurant and Chihiro’s parents decide to help themselves to some food while their daughter refuses to take part.

Chihiro finds a friend in Haku

The story pretty much picks up a few minutes later when Chihiro finds her parents have been transformed into food-gobbling farm animals and soon she too is whisked away into a magical and creepy world ruled by an old witch, with only a boy named Haku to help her to survive and hopefully be able to return to her own world once again.

This is definitely not a movie for young kids, there are imagery that would frighten them, and I even find myself spooked–not to mention grossed out–on a few occasions. The story actually speak to adults with themes of loyalty, courage, dedication, diligence, perseverance and ultimately love, that permeate Chihiro’s journey. I really sympathize with the previously-spoiled-brat young girl right from the get go and watching what she has to endure is heart-wrenching as well as uplifting. By the end, you really see her grow as a person and the message is that life lessons sometimes involve hard work and facing challenges head on without losing your identity.

Chihiro picks up interesting friends throughout her journey

I don’t know if it’s what the director intended, but I see the scene of cleansing of the stink spirit the same way that can happen on our human souls when we let it get bogged down with ‘junk’ and evil stuff. If we let all the bad stuff of this world ‘consume’ us and take over our lives, it can have awful consequences to ourselves as well as those around us, and sometimes it could take drastic measures to get rid of those so we could be ‘free’ once again.

Glad I finally got a chance to see this. Spirited Away totally lived up to the hype, it boasts a well-written, touching story and stunning visuals that definitely make a lasting impression on me. I don’t even mind the fact that this was dubbed to English, I normally would prefer that movies are left in its native language with subtitles.

I’m curious to check out Miyazaki’s other works now, such as Princess Monokone and Castle in the Sky.

***

If you’ve seen either of these titles and would like to add your thoughts about ’em, you’re more than welcome to do so!

DVD Picks: Slumdog Millionaire & August Rush

I wrote these reviews before I decided on the Britastic blog series, but they work just fine because they’re both British-related. Slumdog Millionaire is directed by talented British director Danny Boyle, and Freddie Highmore who plays the title role in August Rush was born in London. They both also share a similar fairy-tale element in the storyline, but obviously these are two very different films.

Slumdog Millionaire

I finally got a chance to view the 2009 Best Picture Winner, and I’m glad to say that this one does live up to the hype. British director Danny Boyle paints a compelling and heart-wrenching rags-to-riches story that tugs at your heart right from the start.

The film centers on an unlikely teen, Jamal Malik, who grew up in the slums of Mumbai. He somehow defies all the odds to win the highest prize of the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” and the story of how he got there and knew all the answers is told in flashbacks as he’s being interrogated on suspicion of cheating.

Though the one of the endorsements on the dvd cover says, ‘The feel-good film of the decade,” Slumdog Millionaire is actually tough to watch at times. Boyle doesn’t pull any punches in presenting the stark contrast between the haves and have-nots, and it’s fascinating to see how movie stars there are worshiped as if they’re immortal gods. The length Jamal took to get an autograph from one of them — who arrives on the slum via a chopper no less — is bizarre and devastating at the same time. There’s also scenes of unimaginable tragedy that these two boys have to endure that force that to survive on their own.

Dev Patel & Frieda Pinto

The heart of this fairy-tale is an unfaltering love story between Jamal and Latika, who also manages to escape the massacre in their village. Somewhere along the way they get separated, but Jamal refuses to give up on his long-lost love up no matter what the cost.

Played by three different actors, all of them portray Jamal with such heart and charm, though the older they get the lesser the resemblance between the two brothers (tricky casting I presume). Dev Patel as the older Jamal captures the essence of a young man who’s seen too much too soon, yet somehow retains that seemingly-uncrushable buoyant spirit. Gorgeous Frieda Pinto is enchanting as Latika, and the two share a believable chemistry even with so little words spoken to each other.

On top of all the great points I’ve mentioned above, this movie looks and sounds good as well. The cinematography is exuberant and colorful, and the music by A.R. Rahman compliments the urban realism nicely with its high energy and edgy beat. Kudos to Boyle for creating such an extraordinary film. His versatility is quite impressive, but whether he’s tackling a zombie thriller flick (28 Days Later) or sci-fi adventure (Sunshine), he rarely disappoints.

….

August Rush

“I believe in music like some people believe in fairy tales,” Evan Taylor tells us in the beginning of the movie.

From the time the movie opens in the lush wheat field, it sets the fairy-tale tone of the movie. This is the kind of movie cynics need not bother, as it insists that you simply surrender to its sweet energy and let it touch your heart. Really, once the music starts playing, whether it’s a refined symphony or the ‘music’ of the hustle and bustle of every day life, I was ready to be swept away. Predictable? Yes. But the journey is worthwhile to watch.

The story basically revolves around Evan Taylor, an outcast in an orphanage who never stops believing that somehow, somewhere, his parents miss him as much as he misses them. That dream and the music around him keeps the lonely boy company and helps him cope with the harsh reality. The movie is none too subtle in revealing that the young dreamer’s got an extraordinary musical gift, and he knew it’s the key to finding his parents.

Highmore and Robin Williams as 'Wizard'

The rest of the movie goes back and forth between Evan’s journey to New York — which also reveals the significance of the title August Rush — and the flashback story of how music is definitely in his genes. Throughout the movie, music plays an integral part, the blending of classical, hard rock and ‘street’-music was phenomenal. In fact, the music is a tremendous factor in what make the movie so enjoyable. So clearly the filmmaker is as passionate about the music as Evan does.

Freddie Highmore — one of the best young actors working today — first caught my eye in Finding Neverland. As the title role, the 18-year-old actor who was 15 at the time looks believable enough as an 11 year old, and he is affecting with his wide-eyed tenacity and sincere longings, even without much words spoken. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Kerri Russell as the estranged parents have a nice chemistry together, though is it just me or does Rhys-Meyers looks like he’s about to cry in every single scene? Robin Williams as ‘Wizard’ is not as over-the-top as he usually is, though his character isn’t fully developed and we never really know what his real motive is.

Beautiful parents: Jonathan Rhys-Meyers & Keri Russell

This movie is a real tearjerker so have a bunch of Kleenex handy as it was hard keeping my eyes dry throughout the movie. I find this movie far more touching than another musical-themed movie The Soloist, for sure this one is far less tedious. The cinematography of places like Central Park and close-up shots of instruments being played are beautiful, though in some of the close-up shots of the Evan playing the guitar, it’s clear that it’s a mature adult’s hands, ooops!

If you appreciate music of any kind and don’t mind a little schmaltzy-ness and grand happy endings, this is a movie for you.

DVD Picks: Easy Virtue and A Good Year

Easy Virtue

I’ve wanted to see this when I saw the trailer early last year, but wasn’t fast enough to make it to the theater. Adapted from Noel Coward’s 1924 play, it’s a comedy that pokes fun at the stifling British upper class. Jessica Biel stars as a feisty American divorcee Larita who re-marries a young man from a wealthy family, and immediately causes a stir as soon as she arrives at his parents’ crumbling stately home. She’s surrounded by mostly British cast (always a good thing in my book): Ben Barnes as her young husband John, and Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas as Barnes’ parents, the Whittakers.

I have to admit, I was baffled at first by her casting but Biel is quite a revelation here. Not only does she look really good in the retro costumes – they look flattering on her bodacious figure – but she’s also quite believable in her role. Best of all, she seemed to hold her own against the more experienced actors. She did seem a bit of an outcast at times, but in this case it’s actually a good thing as as her character is meant to feel that she didn’t belong.

I enjoy the whimsical comedy and witty banters, but as the movie progresses, I find that there’s more to the story than it seems to be. Firth’s melancholic but earnest performance adds gravitas to this movie, he plays a rather glum war vet and distant husband, increasingly weary of his nagging wife. He welcomes the new addition to the family with open arms, especially because his wife detests her. Their interaction slowly sheds a light as to who he, as well as Larita, really is. Perhaps it’s Firth who brings out the best in Biel, the great repartee between them is fun to watch.

The fairy-tale-free ending isn’t quite what expected, but in hindsight I quite like it. Larita’s old secret has been revealed, which led to her being dismissed by John, leaving her all dressed up with no one to dance with at the party.  Mr. Whittaker steps in and the two wounded souls finally come to terms with their predicaments as everyone around them watch them dance the tango together passionately and defiantly. It’s a great scene not only because I enjoy the sequence itself, but because of the significance of what their action/choices mean to them and the people inside that house.

Jessica & Colin's tango scene is one of the movie's highlights

The thing I find a bit odd is how the movie switches from comedy – laden with slapstick scenes – to a more weighty subject almost abruptly. But overall it’s still a pretty charming movie. Like Firth said in the premiere interview, “it’s a substantial movie that’s surprisingly light in tone.” That about sums it up.
….

A Good Year (2006)

Thanks to loyal FlixChatter reader Samantha — who shares my fondness for Russell Crowe — for urging me to see this movie. This is Crowe’s second collaboration with Ridley Scott after Gladiator, but unlike the first one, A Good Year was trashed by the critics, with most of them basically lambasting him for his lack of comedic talents. Now, Sam’s theory is that it was panned seemingly for no other reason than that people were weirded out by an Aussie tough guy actor and a director known for doing intense thrillers doing a ‘soft’ movie. She might have a point there, it’s their own expectation that prevent them from enjoying the movie for what it is. I actually enjoyed it and it’s refreshing to see the gentler side of Crowe.

Maximillian may share a similar name to Maximus, but there’s no resemblance of that Roman general here. This successful investment broker Max is self-serving, ruthless, and unfeeling. In fact, all Max cares about is himself and as his best friend says, what Max Skinner does best is make money (the kind that’d give Gordon Gekko a run for his millions). He hasn’t spoken to his only surviving family member who helped raise him, uncle Henry. One day, a letter arrives informing him of his uncle’s passing and that he inherits his chateau and vineyard in Provence. Max doesn’t think much of that gift, and inclines to immediately sell it for profit.

Marion Cottilard

But it’s when Max visits the vineyard to renovate the place that things take an unexpected turn. Despite his initial reluctance, eventually Max begins settling in with the leisurely life, buoyed by his fond childhood memories he shared with his uncle growing up. He also meets a beautiful woman whom he unknowingly ran over the road as he was fumbling with his phone whilst driving, played by the ravishing French beauty Marion Cottilard, whose almost as gorgeous as the picturesque French countryside. As luck would have it, Max’s lucrative job is suddenly put in limbo pending an investigation into a questionable bond transaction, so the seemingly ‘trivial’ inheritance could become a life-changing matter. To complicate matters though, a young California girl suddenly shows up at his doorstep claiming to be Henry’s illegitimate child (the radiant Abbie Cornish).

Based on a best-selling novel of the same name by Peter Mayle, Scott’s personal friend, the story speaks about making the most of life’s simplest joys. The critics bark at the unhurried pace of the movie, but that’s kind of expected given the moral of the story where the protagonist takes a break out of his high-intensity life and discover there’s more to life than monetary success. Besides, the quieter scenes give you a chance to marvel at the lush scenery —  it’s almost worth renting this movie just for the cinematography alone, which might compel you to book a trip to France pronto.

The excellent Aussies Cornish & Crowe

Crowe is quite charming as Max, and he’s got a nice chemistry with Cottilard. It also boast terrific supporting performances from British-Indian Archie Punjabi as Max’s saucy assistant, Tom Hollander as Max’s best bud Charlie and best of all Albert Finney as uncle Henry. I particularly liked the flashback scene with him playing tennis with the young Max (Freddie Highmore) and his wise words: “You’ll come to see that a man learns nothing from winning. The act of losing, however, can elicit great wisdom. Not least of which is, uh… how much more enjoyable it is to win. It’s inevitable to lose now and again. The trick is not to make a habit of it.”

Turns out there are quite a few good things going for this movie. It might not be Scott/Crowe’s best work, but it’s definitely worth a look.

Weekend Roundup: Amélie & 28 Days Later

Happy Monday, readers, and welcome to March!

Hope you had a nice weekend, wherever you are. It was a nice, mellow weekend for me, can’t complain really when the sun shone for the entire weekend with temp ‘soaring’ to the mid 30s (yes, that’s a ‘warm’ front for us Minnesotans after a long, cold Winter!). On top of our girls’ monthly movie nite on Friday, I managed to squeeze in another movie this weekend, as well as a trip to a local arts museum on Saturday. Below is my Amélie and 28 Days Later reviews:

Amélie

Finally watched this French movie with my girlfriends – as it’s been well-recommended by fellow bloggers (thanks guys!) and something my friends have also been curious about. Now I finally get why everyone just loves this movie.

Immediately we’re introduced to the film’s charming heroine Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou), whose unusual childhood shapes her imaginative propensity as a way to cope with her loneliness. Ever since she was a little girl, Amelie has a certain way to deal with what life throws at her, including one particularly traumatizing event, and we’re in for a treat as we’re pulled in to see the world through her curious eye.

As a young woman, she lives a quiet life as she glides about through the streets of Paris. She lives alone in a tiny apartment, works at a local cafe, and occasionally pay her also-lonely father a visit. But one day, she discovers a tin box containing a boy’s childhood memento, which sets off an adventure as she strives to find the rightful owner. It is then that Amélie comes out of her ‘shell’ – and her imaginary world – to bond with people around her, and inadvertently finds love in the process. When I wrote my post about unconventionally romantic flicks, several people mention this movie as one of their top picks, and it’s easy to see why. From the time Amelie first bumps into Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz), they both embark on an endearing and whimsical journey that finally leads to a joyfully rewarding climax as the two finally meets. Unlike Hollywood movies are overloaded with cliched and hackneyed circumstances of couples who ‘meet cute’ or ‘initial hostility that grows into love’, etc., the love story here is utterly charming and sweet but not sickeningly saccharine.

Amelie & Nino in the cafe

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet paints a visually-dazzling film with its stylized cinematography. The skewed camera angles and clever direction makes the surreal, even bawdy scenes downright amusing, and they help enrich the simple story. But amidst the aesthetics, Tautou is hands down the star of the film. She dominates nearly every frame with her adorable wide eyes and mischievous grin, and all of us girls couldn’t stop admiring her gorgeous haircut that only such a pretty face as Tatou’s can pull off. But her quirkiness is matched by her kind heart as well, which is probably what I love most about this character. Even when she pulls on some pranks on people, it was motivated by benevolence and a sense of injustice that came to her attention.

I’m so glad I finally saw this movie. Amélie is a delightful film that charms you from the start with its unabashed kookiness. It’s also a joie de vivre … a hearty celebration of life and humanity.

4 out of 5 reels


28 Days Later

After watching a quintessential ‘feel-good’ flick, this is obviously as far-flung as it can possibly be in more ways than one. Yet they share something in common in that both are critically-acclaimed, and I’m glad to say that both of them exceeds my high expectation. Promoted as a gory zombie horror flick, I’ve avoided this flick for a while. As it turns out, it’s so much more than a ‘scary’ movie and it’s definitely not your run-of-the-mill flesh-eating corpse story.

Directed by British director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire), the movie opens at a Primate Research Center facility where a group of animal activists attempt to free the test-subjected chimps from their cages. Ignoring the scientist’s desperate warning that the primates are infected with rage, the group’s action sets off a devastating calamity. The rest of the movie takes place 28 days after that incurable virus has spread throughout the UK, and only a tiny handful survivors are left in the city. One of them is Jim (Cillian Murphy) who wakes up completely naked from a coma after a traffic accident. He exits the hospital and keeps walking into the city, baffled as to why the entire city is deserted.

Jim surveys the deserted city of London atop Wenstminster Bridge

The part of Jim in his hospital gown wandering on top of Westminster Bridge with the Big Ben looming in the distance is such an iconic scene, and it’s got such a realistic feel to it as the movie is shot almost entirely on digital video. According to its Wikipedia page, in order to depict these locations as desolate, the film crew closed off sections of street for minutes at a time, usually in early morning to minimize disruption. The quietness of the scene makes the ensuing fracas as Jim discovers the zombies – in a church of all places – all the more terrifying. The incident brings him to the first non-contaminated people, Mark (Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris), and they enlighten Jim about the incident that leaves the world in utter chaos and immensely deprived of what we take for granted every day: order (government, police/army), basic necessities (electricity, running water) and any form of communication (TV, radio).

Gleeson, Murphy and Harris were perfectly cast

In their quest for survival, those left standing are united with two additional ‘healthy’ people, a father-daughter duo who occupies an abandoned condominium. The dad, Frank (played brilliantly by Brendan Gleeson), urges the team to go to Manchester to find a band of soldiers he heard over a pre-recorded radio broadcast, that not only promises shelter but also “the answer to infection.” Aboard Frank’s black cab, their journey provides for comic relief – but not entirely devoid of suspense – and gives a nice opportunity to get to know the characters. But as soon as they find the abandoned military blockade, a tragic incident robs another survivor’s life, and the rest of the team are led to a bolstered mansion where seemingly ‘good’ people will offer them protection from the savagery of the ‘infected.’ Yet, we quickly learn that there’s more than meets the eye, and that these seemingly good’ people end up being as harmful and terrifying – if not more so – in their perversion disguised as a ‘survival tactic.’

The movie is not without violent/gory scenes, but they’re served in context of the realities the survivors now face, not for pure shock value. In fact, it isn’t so much a movie about zombies, but more about how the survivors cope with dire circumstances. It also makes a commentary of what people are capable in desperate measures, which can be both horrific and admirable, sometimes even both. The zombie attack scene at Jim’s parents’ house is harrowing not exactly for the actual attack, but when it shows the extent of survival instinct that compels us to do the unthinkable. It’s just one of the many scenes that make your skin crawl and stick to your gut because of what they represent, which is a reflection of human nature that are sadly just as scary as the crime-laden headlines we read every day.

Overall, it’s an impressive film for its witty, no-nonsense script and clever direction, boosted by great performances throughout, particularly Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who’s also excellent in sci-fi flick Sunshine, his second collaboration with Boyle. Both Gleeson and Harris were notable as well, this is the first time I’ve seen the latter, but I hope to see more of the London-based actress in the future.

I’m glad I step out of my comfort zone and give this ‘horror’ flick a chance. It proves that you don’t need a big budget or hi-tech gizmos to create a great film. A must-see indeed.

4 out of 5 reels


Thoughts on either one of these films?

DVD Pick: Maiden Heist

Maiden Heist DVDMy friends and I saw this movie on Halloween night. Since nobody’s keen on watching a horror flick, we stumbled upon this one as we’re browsing the Redbox site. The biggest draws were the main actors: Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman and William H. Macy. You’d think that with names like those it’d be a dark drama or intense thriller, but the fact that it was billed as a comedy was even more of a draw.

Here’s the gist: Walken (Roger), Freeman (Charles) and Macy (George) play three Boston art museum security guards who, over the years, have become attached (or obsessed to be more accurate) to the artwork they protect. Upon learning that their beloved pieces are being transferred to a Denmark museum, they concoct a plan to “steal” them so they don’t have to part with them.

Macy, Freeman & Walken the trio of museum thieves
Macy, Freeman & Walken – the trio of museum thieves

With not much going on in their lives, they spend their days staring into their beloved paintings, or in the case of ex-military George, it involves saluting a nude ‘bronze warrior’ statue in the exact same pose. So yes, Mr. Macy is definitely very, very proud of his athletic physique as we get more than our fair share of seeing him in the buff. The caper mission undoubtedly give the three new-found friends something to live for. It’s a crazy and ludicrous idea, and we’re on for a ride to see how — or if — they can pull this off.

The Die-Hard-ish opening sequence made me think this was going to be an action-packed film, but after that sequence ends, the movie moves along at a rather sluggish pace, save for the last 15-20 minute of the ending. But despite that foible, the movie is still comical and entertaining because of the excellent cast. They’re all in top form, even if the script is far from perfect. In fact, they make the most of the thinly-written characters they’re given into something well worth-watching.

It’s such a hoot to see Walken plays an average, low-profile husband who loves & even submits to his demanding, high maintenance wife (Marcia Gay Harden in a rather over-the-top performance). He usually plays such an eccentric or even freaky kind of roles, so it’s nice to see him play a ‘real’ guy, though still not without his quirks. It’s such a pleasant surprise to see Freeman’s goofy side as the skittish and somewhat effeminate Charles. Gone is the respectable and judicious wise man we’re accustomed to see him play, and the actor seems to be having fun relishing in his comedic flair. Bill Macy also delivers a terrifically wacky performance — a lot of the time sans clothes — that deliver the funniest bits in the movie (no pun intended).

The scenes of the three of them together are the most fun to watch. There’s the hilarious scene involving a physically-demanding military-like practice led by George, which makes their plan look even more dubious. I also love the part where the three of them sit on a bench in a park with Charles holding a big cotton candy whilst the paranoid & delirious George gets all jumpy about someone finding out about their secret plan. The heist itself is quite fun and genuinely suspenseful. The moment when George almost gets discovered by a security guard in the warehouse that sends the already fidgety Charles into a state of frenzy is downright funny.

Charles & George in a top-secret rendezvous

But these great moments are underscored by how uneven the whole movie is. And the biggest problem for me is that the whole thing lacks momentum to build the audience’s excitement throughout. There are times when it dragged on and on with not much pay-off to justify it. Nonetheless, the performances of these three actors made it a worthwhile flix for me, especially if you enjoy caper-type comedies.

On a side note, I learned that this movie went straight to dvd with no theatrical release. LA Times pondered how three Oscar winners equals to one straight-to-video movie. “It’s why I always end up wondering each year what happened to some of the delightful little movies I saw at the Toronto Film Festival that never ended up seeing the light of day.” Which reminds me to another Chris Walken flix, a musical, I happen to catch at TIFF that also never made it to theaters: Romance & Cigarettes. Directed by John Turturro who introduced the film — apologizing for showing such a raunchy film at 11 o’clock in the morning — it boasts an even more impressive cast: James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Susan Sarandon, Mandy Moore, Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken. The MGM/Sony studios legal mess was reportedly the culprit, which goes to show that not only is it challenging to make a movie, but to get it in front of the audience can be an even trickier battle.


DVD Pick: The TV Set

The TV Set poster
The TV Set poster

With the workplace comedy Extract opening today, I somehow feel like bringing up this movie I saw quite a while ago. It’s got one of the most fitting and clever tagline: “A place where dreams are canceled.” The TV Set, as it’s aptly named, is a satire about the journey of a TV pilot as it goes through the grueling network process of casting and production before it finally airs. Coincidentally, it stars Jason Bateman’s sister, Justine, as David Duchovny’s wife.

As we’re gearing up for the Fall season with a bunch of new shows coming up, we’re hardly aware of all the drama that goes on behind the scenes—the cast reshuffling, pilot re-shooting, etc. So it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of that and the whole ordeal the creators have to jump through to get a show into our living room. It’s inevitable some of the new shows we’re seeing the ads for right now might not make it past Thanksgiving, and this movie kind of makes you think about TV in whole new way.

Duchovny, with his dry humor, is perfectly cast as Mike, an idealistic TV writer who’s working on his show that’s based on the aftermath of his brother’s suicide. His boss is the ruthless, tough-as-nails network honcho Lenny—played superbly by Sigourney Weaver—who insists on ‘cheering up’ the plot a bit as she deems that suicide is too depressing. She constantly pushes Mike’s buttons as the show is all about the bottom-line for her, not an instrument of creativity. British actor Ioan Gruffud plays a former BBC producer consulted to add some sophistication and class. He is pretty much caught in the middle as he strives to bring balance between the two opposing characters.

I don’t know how accurate the depiction of the situations and characters are, but they seemed pretty realistic to me and I could imagine them happening in real life. The dialogue between Lenny and Mike are ironically hilarious, they make you cringe and laugh at the same time. Anyone who’s a TV watcher would sympathize with Mike as we all want something original and different, alas, the writer is hardly the same person who holds the purse strings. It kind of make me wonder when I watch a particular show whether it’s the original vision of the writer(s) or the 12th rewrite or whatever, y’know. Is a particular actor the first choice or a replacement as a result of a pilot overhaul? Take CBS’s Three Rivers for example. British actress Julia Ormond (Legends of the Fall, Sabrina) was replaced by Alfred Woodard when her character didn’t test well. Similarly, none of the eye network’s Moonlight show original pilot cast survived, with the exception of lead actor Alex O’Loughlin. In The TV Set, there’s a scene in  about the audition process and how a lesser actor gets chosen over a talented one because the studio thinks he’d appeal to a broader audience and the writer/director just have to deal with it and make it work.

It’s an amusing movie with clever and funny dialogue from start to finish. The performances are solid overall, including Judy Greer who plays Mike’s manager. Her character here actually has more to chew on than her usual ‘sidekick’ role. I’m partial to Duchovny as he’s a talented and versatile actor but Sigourney is the scene stealer here with her deadpan humor as the ‘villain’ of the movie.

A couple of trivia for you courtesy of IMDB: Just like her role as television network president, Weaver’s father, Sylvester (“Pat”) Weaver, was for many years president of NBC. The writer and director of The TV Set Jake Kasdan, was a producer and writer on Freaks and Geeks, which aired on NBC (albeit many years after Pat Weaver’s retirement).

The Apple site has the trailer, but here’s a behind-the-scene clip with interviews with some of the cast:

Oldies but goodies? High Fidelity

TGIF, folks! Just a few more hours before the workweek is over and I tell you three things I’m excited about this weekend:

1. My BFF is returning from Indo tomorrow after being home for over a month!
2. The AVATAR in 3D free-screening I’ll be seeing tonight at 7 – with sincere hope it’ll blow me away more than the recently released teaser trailer.
3. High Fidelity DVD

I’ll update y’all on #2 on Monday, so I’m going to suspend my two-cents of the trailer until then as well.

John Cusack as a record store owner
John Cusack as a record store owner

Now, as for #3, what’s to get excited about this one? Well, I’ve been wanting to see it ever for a while. And then I came across these posts: Top 25 Romantic Movies For Guys and Top 10 Chick Flicks Guys Like not too long ago. Of all the flicks on the list, something about this movie caught my attention. Not sure what it is exactly, as I’m not even a John Cusack fan. The lure of great dialogue & one liners plus great music certainly is a factor, but perhaps I’m just tired of the stereotypical chick flicks with predictable endings and banal over-sentimentality. From what I heard and read so far, this one appears to be neither. And the fact that it’s based on a Nick Hornsby book makes me want to see it even more. I quite like his book adaptation About a Boy, even if it stars the king of rom-com, Hugh Grant.

For those who’ve seen this, what are your thoughts on High Fidelity? Is my enthusiasm over this flick justified? No spoilers please …