Wednesday, September 26, 2007
There are very few things in this world that are pretty much unsurpassed in the sheer beauty of their construction. One example is the Bugatti Veyron -- the fastest, most powerful and most expensive street-legal production car in the world. With an incredible 1001 horsepower and the ability to rocket from 0-60 in a mere 2.46 seconds, this engineering marvel, built in the Alsace, is definitely one example that comes to mind. The same can be said for the resplendent silhouette of the Lockheed Constellation, generally considered to be the most graceful airliner to ever slip the surly bonds of earth. And who would argue that the Orient Express was, in its heyday, the most stylish, elegant and comfortable mode of rail travel known to man?
This brings me to A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT, which I believe is the most visually stunning motion picture to grace the silver screen since 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
Folks, it doesn't get much better than this.
There's intrigue, mystery, humor, humanity, romance and more -- all magnificently crafted by Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. With the help of Guillaume Laurant, Jeunet has exquisitely captured the heart and spirit of the acclaimed novel by Sebastien Japrisot. With production values that have to be seen to be believed and the phenomenal performance by Audry Tauto to tie together the multi-dimensional, complex story, A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT is nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece. Lightning can and does strike twice; Tauto teamed with Jeunet to triumph just three years earlier with the immensely endearing AMELIE -- the Best Film of 2001 in this reviewer's opinion. If you only rent one DVD this year from your local Blockbuster, A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT is the one to take home. DELTA FARCE and BLADES OF GLORY be damned.
The film opens with five French soldiers being condemned to death during the Battle of the Somme in World War I. Each has shot himself in an attempt to be sent back home, but their individual efforts backfire as each is systematically court-martialed and sentenced to be banished, hands tied to their backs, to No Man's Land where they will surely be killed by German troops who are entrenched only a few hundred yards from where the French lines begin. One by one we are presented background information about these men and their next of kin. One by one they meet death in the open battlefield -- or do they?
Methilde (Tauto) is a young peasant girl afflicted by polio when she was a child. Her fiancee is one of the condemned men, but despite all the evidence to the contrary, she steadfastly refuses to believe he is dead. What follows is a remarkable journey that takes her (and us) to the absolute height and depth of humanity.
"The War To End All Wars" was brutal and horrific in every sense of the word. Not since Stanley Kubrick's haunting PATHS OF GLORY (1957) has the absurdity of war and the tremendous cost of each and every life lost been so compellingly portrayed. Appropriately, such an epic theme deserves epic treatment. What makes A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT so effective and so engaging is that Jeunet's stylish blend of visual mastery and emotional intimacy combine to not only deliver an extremely visceral anti-war film, but an intricate, unforgettable, heartfelt love story as well.
Un Long Dimanche De Fiancailles: C'est un film exceptionnel. Vous devez le voir.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
The tagline for this film should have been:
One small step for man.
One giant leap for movie audiences.
It is relatively rare to find a film script that has more stretch marks than the hordes of middle age white-trash moms I saw Schlitterbahning this past summer, although in their case the stretch marks are usually hidden by massive waves of pasty white flesh that covers the unsightly lines as they waddle past wearing their skimpy two-piece Catalinas. Looks like an invasion of beached Beluga whales.
Alas, screenwriters Mark and Michael Polish make no effort whatsoever to mitigate the countless unforgivable stretches of credibility existing in their screenplay for THE ASTRONAUT FARMER. The audience is given no respect; it's as if they felt Rodney Dangerfield was the only one who would bother to watch.
This comes as a huge surprise since the Polish Brothers -- identical twins by the way -- also wrote, directed and starred as the Siamese twins in TWIN FALLS IDAHO, a wonderful film that critic Roger Ebert described as having "no payoff, no answer, no solution and no resolution," yet he still declared it one of the best movies released in 1999. (For the record, there's no comma in the title either). Clearly these guys have talent, and as exasperating as the script for THE ASTRONAUT FARMER is, Mark and Michael still manage to pull off an entertaining film. It's like digging a six-foot deep hole and ending up with a small flower growing atop the grave -- one that smells like a rose.
At it's core THE ASTRONAUT FARMER is a fantasy film about the need for fantasy -- or at least dreams. Remember the good old days when we were told that it was o.k. to dream and that when we grew up we could be anything we wanted to be? Remember when being "free, white and 21" actually meant something? Well, the Polish Brothers still believe and they are not ashamed to give us a little dose of Capracorn even though Frank is long since dead, as is the "American Dream" for so many among us. All-in-all this Polish Pollyanna is a good thing, a very good thing indeed, and so even though they play us like a Stradivarius and they do so with gargantuan plot holes and a virtual disregard for logic, I came away actually liking the THE ASTRONAUT FARMER.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have an excellent cast headed by the always reliable Billy Bob Thornton and the always radiant Virginia Madsen who just gets better and better in every film she appears in. Bruce Willis has a significant part as a real astronaut, but for some reason he is not credited. Odd. And speaking of odd, Bruce Dern plays the grandfather living with the Farmer family. (Yes, the family name is "Farmer" and Billy Bob plays a farmer -- well, he's more of a rancher actually, but this is a minor quibble).
Special mention should also be made concerning the Farmer children, played by Max Thieriot and Jasper and Logan Polish. These kids were, unbelievable as it may seem, totally believable. It's rare to find a reel family acting like a real family, but these three young actors were flawless in their performances. Rounding out the most memorable cast members is J. K. Simmons as the FAA jerk determined to stop Mr. Farmer from launching his rocket into U.S. airspace.
As many of you know, I am a private pilot, instrument rated, and I own a 35 year old Cessna 172. Speaking for pilots everywhere, having the FAA bureaucrat portrayed as such a pompous villain is right in step with the unofficial, but highly accurate FAA motto: "We're not happy until your not happy."
NASA spent billions of dollars to bring us Tang and Velcro and, allegedly, a few moon rocks. The Polish Brothers spent around thirteen million to bring us THE ASTRONAUT FARMER -- if only they had spent a few additional shekels on plausibility.
(I wonder what Lisa Nowak thinks about Billy Bob...)
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Originally released in 1986, THE HITCHER has become a cult favorite in some circles due to its almost non-stop psychological terror and the acclaimed performance of Rutger Hauer in the title role. (Only Klaus Kinski might have been better.)
Rutger plays John Ryder (a clever name, huh?) and he's certainly one nasty dude. The entire film takes place along a stretch of nearly deserted Texas highway and within five minutes Screenwriter Eric Red lets us know that the "rule of thumb" has a far different and menacing meaning when it comes to this "hitcher."
"He came from hell. Don't ask him where he wants to go."
C. Thomas Howell is cast as Jim Halsey, the unlucky and feeble-minded young driver who stops to give Mr. Ryder a lift. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to get emotionally involved with the plight of our protagonist. Howell's on-screen persona is about as vanilla as the Smithson Valley High School Glee Club; they just as easily could have cast David Dewhurst had the Lieutenant Governor of the Lone Star State auditioned.
The same can be said for Jennifer Jason Leigh. The usually reliable Ms. Leigh portrays a truck-stop waitress who serves as the love interest until she is literally torn apart behind the back end of a Peterbuilt. Her role called for a young woman of fierce determination and, for lack of a better word, a feistiness that simply never developed. Clearly the young Ms. Leigh was stretched both literally and figuratively...
If Rutger Hauer is the on-camera reason for THE HITCHER's cult status, then the screenplay deserves much of the behind-the-scenes credit. Yes, there are even more plot holes than pot holes to be found along this barren, backwoods TxDOT blacktop, but the stark, minimalistic, almost stream-of-consciousness style used to advance the story is highly effective. The real kicker for THE HITCHER, however, is the sly homosexual guilt undercurrent that exists between the two main male characters. This added element of tension elevates Eric Red's screenplay to a level that none of the numerous sequels or remakes or retreads come close to accomplishing.
Needtovent gives THE HITCHER four thumbs up -- and one thumb down for the Texas Department of Public Safety patrol car that is seen with California license plates.
(Yes, the entire film was shot in California.)
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
Luke Wilson plays Private Joe Bowers, a flesh-and-blood Beetle Bailey, who is cryogenically frozen by the U.S. Army in a trial experiment to see if the process actually works. Alongside him is Rita (portrayed by Maya Rudolph), a simple prostitute willing to undergo the same experiment for a reduced criminal sentence. Unfortunately, they are both forgotten and it is not until the Great Garbage Avalanche of 2505 that they find themselves unearthed and unfrozen.
Narrator: "The years passed. Mankind became stupider at a frightening rate. Some had high hopes genetic engineering would correct this trend in evolution, but, sadly, the greatest minds were focused on conquering hair loss and prolonging erections instead."
Bowers find himself in immediate trouble and befriends Frito (Dax Shepard in an amusing role), a lawyer who is so inept he makes Alberto Gonzales look like Perry Mason. However, once it is discovered that Bowers is clearly the smartest man in America his legal troubles come to an end and he is made the Secretary of the Interior. No, there's no Bush in the White House in 2505; no Clinton either. At least there is something to look forward to a mere five hundred or so years down the road.
Writer/Director Mike Judge's premise of a future populated by impoverished, slovenly, moronic, junk food-addicted, masturbatory cretins looks like a winner on the surface. Alas, the creator of BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD proves to be nothing more than a butt-head himself in this painfully inept, sophomoric attempted satire of current pop culture trends forecast to the far distant future. No wonder Fox Studios took two full years before deciding to ultimately release this mind-numbing mess, even going so far as to forgo trailers and TV ads. Clearly the Fox executives were embarrassed, and rightfully so.
The screenplay is so lame that Barbaro is turning in his grave. If it took Butt-Head more than three Mountain Dews and two morning constitutionals in the Minneapolis Airport to write this miasmic mess he is even more acutely addled than Larry Craig.
To be fair and balanced, which is the least I can be for any division of the Fox Empire, there are several relatively funny moments in the first half of the film.
Frito: "Yeah, I know this place pretty good -- I went to law school here."
Pvt. Joe Bowers: "In Costco?"
Frito: "Yeah, I couldn't believe it myself. Luckily my dad was an alumnus and pulled some strings."
IDIOCRACY is pretty much all downhill from here. In fact, anyone who continues to watch after this exchange of dialogue might as well partake in this year's Hahnenkamm.
I'm reminded that there is an old adage that if you don't have anything good to say, keep quiet. I will adhere to that.
When it comes to IDIOCRACY, even Marcel Marceau agrees.