random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Friday, January 13, 2006

REEL REVIEWS: Fun with Dick and Jane (2005) **

Fun with Dick and Jane (2005) early poster

PG-13 (for brief language, some sexual humor and occasional humorous drug references).
1hr. 25 min.
written by: Judd Apatow, Nicholas Stoller, & Peter Tolan
produced by: Jim Carrey & Brian Grazer
directed by: Dean Parisot

This past Tuesday a bunch of us fellas high-tailed over to the five dollar theater to catch a movie. It was kinda slim pickin' as far as choices. Some have already seen this while others didn't wanna see that. So, we decided on this here flick. Everyone figured it'd be good for a laugh. I went in not expected too much and it turned out I was neither disappointed or surprised. I had "fun" hanging out with the fellas but not so much with "Dick and Jane."

In the year 2000....Dick (Jim Carrey) and Jane Harper (Tea Leoni) are living the ideal life in Southern California. Dick has an executive position at mega-corporation, Globodyne. Jane works as a travel agent. Both successful careers.They live in a beautiful house complete with a huge flat screen HD TV and a newly laid-out lawn turf with affluent neighbors all around. They have a stereotypical Latin maid/babysitter and have a clever little Latin-obsessed son (hmmmm, wonder why?).
Who they are and the world they live in is all established within the first coupla minutes. It's all up on the screen for us to read....literally.

Yes, everything is looking great, possibly perfect for the Harpers.

What can make it even better? Dick gets sent to the 51st floor of Globodyne to be told that he's getting promoted to Vice President of Communications. Whoa! This is it, they think! Now Jane can quit her job and get more time with their boy. Dick gets invited over to CEO, Jack McCallister's house for breakfast where Jack (Alec Baldwin) and his business partner Frank Bascom (Richard Jenkins) tell him how wonderful he is and how great he is for the job. They sit him down and tell him that his first duty is to go on live television and tell the world the current status of the company. How great for you Dick!

But it turns out McCallister has secretly transferred and depleted funds from Globodyne leaving....nothing. Dick is humiliated and devastated in an on-air interview and comes home to find that Jane has quit her job. All the money they had was in Dick's company. Jane freaks out! They lose their savings, their lawn, and their HD TV!

After many humiliating job interviews and getting fired the day he was fired at what was supposed to have been a Sam's Club, Dick realizes that there are no jobs and then comes to the revelation that if stealing worked for McCallister....why can't they?

Hilarity ensues in ways only a movie with Jim Carrey can and should. There's plenty of funny moments as we see first Dick then Jane then both of them commit various acts of thievery. Yeah he robs a convenient store. That was funny. They rob a coffee shop and order drinks while at it. That was funny. They dress up as Sonny and Cher at a car dealership and steal money there. That was funny. They steal the neighbors Mercedes and ram it through a jewelry star dressed up like the Blue Brothers. That was funny. They even break into one of the guys Dick interviewed with, tied the guy up, and stole a bunch of stuff from him. That was funny. Yeah, it was all funny and after a while it was.....tiring. Really, how many times can we see them doing this? I mean after a while it's just funny, that's it. Nothing new. Just different locations. It got me tired and kinda bored.

Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni in Columbia Pictures' Fun with Dick and Jane

Part of it was I didn't really care about these characters. I saw them as one-dimensional, materialistic go-getters. Their priorities were all messed up. Dick is obviously a deadbeat dad cuz he doesn't even care that his housekeeper has more influence on his son that he or Jane. Jane seemed like she had a little more common sense than Dick but then she goes and joins him in his criminal pursuits.

Yeah, sure it's funny Jim Carrey schtick but if you want that go see the funnier "Liar, Liar" or "Bruce Almighty". In those movies at least the audience can connect a lil more with his characters but here, this Dick Harper is a big baby. I was quite impressed with Tea Leoni's comic timing here. I feel she matched Carrey each step of the way which I imagine for any actor is not easy to do. She's done good comedy before like "Flirting with Disaster" but here her physical stuff is really funny. Overall, the acting was good but the characters were annoying.

Now that I think about it, there's nothing really that funny about the aftermath of an Enron-like style meltdown. Trying to hold on to your life as everything comes crashing down around you is not funny either. I guess that's why there was something a lil unsettling about this remake. Yeah, this is a remake from the 1977 movie of the same title starring George Segal and Jane Fonda as Dick and Jane. Never saw it. Not gonna break a sweat to see it, either. So, yeah, I'd say this is kind of a rental or netflix of whatever you kids do out there.

By the way, some of you may know the name "Dick and Jane" from the controversial series of textbooks written by Zerna Sharp. The books were used to teach children to read from the 1930's through the 1960's. The main characters were Dick and Jane, a little boy and girl with supporting characters including Mother, Father, Spot the Dog, Puff the Cat, Jack the Clown (ew, creepy), and Tim the Teddy Bear. By the 1950's, these books were used by 80% of first graders. The books relying heavily on "sight-reading" and "repetition" using phrases like "Oh, see. Ph see Jane. Funny, funny Jane."The infamous phrase "See Spot run" was from these books as well. After a while, they were put aside cuz they were seen as kinda remedial.

They were controversial because of the way life was depicted or rather idealized. White-picket fenced families living in white suburbia. Kinda like in the movie. Hmmph. Black characters were not introduced till 1965 when the books were declining in popularity anyway. In 1955 Rudolph Flesch criticized the "Dick and Jane" series in his book, "Why Johnny Can't Read." First editions of the books are now worth as much as two hundred dollars. The books were reissued in 2003 and over 2.5 million copies were sold, but this time the publishers had warned against using them to teach reading to children. Related merchandise, such as shirts and magnets, also gained wide popularity, particularly among people who had never been exposed to the original series but were familiar with catch phrases like "See Spot run!"

Fun with Dick and Jane (2005) poster

Thursday, January 12, 2006

REEL REVIEWS: Capote (2005) ****

Capote (2005) poster
R (for violent images and brief strong language)
1 hr. 54 min.
written by: Dan Futterman (screenplay) & Gerald Clarke (book)
produced by: Caroline Baron, Michael Ohoven, & William Vince
directed by: Bennet Miller

A coupla Fridays ago, Adrian and I went and saw this movie after work.

My intention was to play catch-up with the list of all the movies that I've been wanting to see and this film happened to be one of them. Primarily those films that have received acclaimed reviews and award noms. It's hard to convince others to go see a movie that has been little seen but widely praised and is about a person not too many know about. I did my best to sell Adrian on it and after he saw the trailer online, he was up for it.

The movie is a biopic based on what Capote and those around him went through as he did research for his book, "In Cold Blood." In the movie, Capote coins the foreign (at the time) term "non-fiction novel". The book and his approach would go on to change the way people looked at and wrote about true crime and non-fiction stories.

"Capote" was on my list mainly for the talk of Philip Seymour Hoffman giving such a superb performance as American writer, Truman Capote. It was announced yesterday by the National Society of Film Critics that "Capote" had won the best picture award of 2005 and Best Actor for Hoffman. he also won Best Actor at the Critics Choice awards last night for this role. In recent weeks it has been awarded nominations for Best Actor from the Screen Actors Guild and Best Director for Bennett Miller from the Directors Guild of America.

The movie is that good to warrant all those noms and awards but it's not for those with short attention span or for those who are used to whiz-bang special effects out of there movie experiences. It's about real people and the effect one individuals self-absorption and obsession has on others.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and Catherine Keener as Nelle Harper Lee in Sony Pictures Classics' Capote

By 1959, Capote (pronounced Ka-poe-tee) was writing for The New Yorker and was already quite famous for writing the novel that inspired the film, "Breakfast at Tiffany's." He was a well known figure among the wealthy Manhattan social circles. He was an eccentric character, openly gay, as much known for his high-pitched voice, outrageous manner of dress, and wild fabrications about acquaintances and events, as he was his literary talent. It was because of these characteristics that he was considered an outsider pretty much wherever he went.
Around this time he was looking for his next "great work" to write. He found it on November 15th, as he was reading he noticed an article about four members of a Kansas farm family who were shotgunned to death. This intrigued Capote enough to contact his editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) and convince him that he should be sent out to Holcomb, Kansas to do an article on this story. He feels it presents an opportunity, he believes, to test his long-held theory that, in the hands of the right writer, non-fiction can be as compelling as fiction.
Capote also sees this tragedy as a clash of cultures coming together. There is the killer (or killers) and then there is the Clutter family, a middle-class, well-respected, small town family. It was reported that the entire family was murdered in the middle of the night after a break in. Why did this happen? Why was this family picked? What impact has this had on the townspeople? These are the questions that Capote initially takes with him as he travels to Holcomb.
Accompanying him is his friend from his childhood, writer Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) who kinda keeps Capote "in check. Because the personage of Capote is such a contrast, Lee acts as a sort of, translator. She understand him. She gets him where no one else would. Kansas folk may not know what to do with such a charismatic and eccentric character but they and she knows it. She is there for Capote and everyone around him in an effort for the well-known writer to be not necessarily respected but at least understood. She also serves as his conscience as he becomes obsessed in his pursuit of the story in an effort to help him keep any type of morality or sensitivity intact. Truly we see the story working on Capote as well as him working on the story.
First stop for Capote and Lee upon arriving is the local law enforcement where they meet Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) the agent from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation in charge of the case. As others around him are kinda put off by his peculiar behavior, Capote wins the acceptance of Dewey, yet not by much. In hopes of letting him know that he's just doing a story on the community, Capote tells Dewey, "I don't care one way or the other if you catch who did this," which doesn't sit too well with Dewey. It's his case and his community and he is determined to find out what happened to this family.
The way in which Capote goes about researching the event is often quite manipulative and at times creepy. He tried to relate to a girlfriend of one of the Clutter daughters, when he says, "Ever since I was a child, folks have thought they had me pegged, because of the way I am, the way I talk." Lee is there with him, she can see it but he does indeed succeed in gaining the confidence of the girl. He even somehow manages to view the four dead bodies in the funeral home. We see him look underneath the cloth wrapped around the mutilated heads of the family members. Later, he tells his lover, writer Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) over the phone that he found his private peek fascinating.
Then two drifters, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pelligrino), are apprehended and soon sentenced to death. Finding himself increasingly drawn to the story by the sentence, Truman begins personally interviewing the murderers, particularly Perry Smith, at their maximum security prison. Avoiding discussion of the murders themselves, Capote learns more about their lives outside of crime, finding a humanity never put into print before and causing him to extend his article into a full-length novel. It would be the first True Crime novel ever written.
His extensive interviews with Smith lead to a strange relationship open to many terms of controversial interpretation. He feels compelled to assist the men and lead the world's opinion away from demonizing headlines. Capote even goes to lengths to find them a decent lawyer for their Supreme Court appeal although that act seems to be more an effort to prolong their lives for his novel. Yet, it kinda backfires for him in a way. When we see him give a reading of the book in New York, the audience was unprepared to deal with such a humanizing look at such vicious attacks. It certainly reinforces for some Capote's reputation for the peculiar.
Cinematographer Adam Kimmel opens the film on a gray prairie where only the Clutter's lone house stands. It sets the color palette of dark tones and earthy colors that portray a quiet, cold feel for the film even in the New York scenes. At times, it was almost like watching an Edward Hopper painting come to life.

The film is yet another biopic that succeeds in peeling the layers of a famous character to reveal (in Capote's case) the insecurities and selfishness that propels him to greatness. There is no typical hard living, drug addictions, or affairs here that are common in most "based-on-a-true-story" films. Instead we see a talented master manipulator face himself and his muse in a way unseen till now.
I mentioned above that the movie isn't for everybody. that's probably why not too many have heard about it. Some may walk out and think it too depressing or slow. Well, that may be the case but it is also one of the most well-acted, character-driven, and enthralling stories on the screen in 2005. Unfortunately, this will never be a movie that will be number one at the box office (which is kinda fitting considering the main character was such an outsider) but it will be a movie that will linger with you long after it envelopes you.

Saturday, January 7, 2006

REEL REVIEWS: Walk the Line (2005) ****

Walk the Line (2005)

PG-13 (for some language, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency)
2 hrs. 15 min.
written by: Johnny Cash, Gill Dennis, & James Mangold
produced by: James Keach, & Cathy Konrad
directed by: James Mangold

It was kinda nice to have the day after Christmas Day and New Years Day off work this year due to the fact that both holidays fell on Sundays. It gave me an opportunity to recover from holiday festivities and also (like many of you) to catch up on some films. So between going to the theater or staying put on the couch, I found myself trying to catch up on some films I haven't had the chance to see. Being a fan of Johnny Cash, people were quite surprised that I had not seen the this biopic yet. As I always say, I don't get paid to see movies. I like movies. But, like anyone else, it takes time and money. Those two factors were aligned on both of these recent post-holiday days and I finally got a chance to see this here film.

Now, lemme first say that I did not become a Johnny Cash fan upon hearing about this movie or it's release. I've known of Cash and his music for quite a while. My father turned me on to Cash at an early age. I remember him humming the classic "boom-chicka-boom" sound that Cash originated way back when I was a wee lad. I had known about his legendary live concert prison albums from Folsom and San Quentin. I grew up in a time when Cash's life was known more for his legal and drug trouble rather than his great music.

Regardless of alla that, I knew when I heard his voice I was hearing something real. Cash's powerful voice resonated something true within me that made me wanna listen to him. His voice came from the blackest of nights with a stark solid beam of light hitting just the right chords. Cash sang of the down-trodden, of the guilty and of the wrongly accused, as well as songs of love and hope. His music and behavior would pave the way for rock, country, Folk, punk, and rap.

Cash has written about his personal transformation from self-destructive pop icon to the iconic "man in black" in both "Man in Black" and "Cash". He's a man who's faced down his demons, stubbornly fought for love, and learned how to walk the razor-thin line between destruction and redemption.

Johnny Cash , the subject of 20th
 Fox's Walk
 the Line

When I heard they were gonna make this movie I was quite nervous. I mean who could possibly portray the larger-than-life Cash respectfully let alone successfully. But, then I heard that Cash specifically selected Joaquin Phoenix to play him. I know Phoenix to be a talented, capable actor and with Cash hand-picking him, I wasn't gonna be too upset. Then it was announced that Reese Witherspoon would be playing June Carter Cash and somehow I just knew that'd be fitting. As the movie was released I had read that these two actors actually did their own singing as well. After watching the movie, I gotta admit it was one of the most dead-on performances I have ever seen. More on that later.

The movie starts out at Folsom Prison in Sacramento, CA on January 13, 1968. From outside the concrete & steel, we hear the roaring and cl aping of inmates combines with the thundering "boom-chicka-boom" of Cash's band as they all await his appearance. Cash is seen in what appears to be a shop room that he's using as a backstage room. His brow is sweaty and his gaze is fixed on the razor's edge of a table saw blade. Something keeps him there. Blocking all other sound he runs his finger along the blade and you just know there's somethin' goin' on behind that steady stare.

Then the movie takes you back to Cash's childhood years in rural Dyess, Arkansas where his hard-working parents raised him along with his brother, Jack and his sisters. He and his brother were best friends. He looked up to him and often felt like Jack was a better boy than him cuz his father, Ray Cash (Robert Patrick) often favored him. They grew up listening to gospel music on the radio and went fishing together. Young Johhny's world would forever be changed when in 1944 Jack died from wounds he received from a horrible table saw accident in the mill they worked at nearly teared the poor boy in two. The death was devastating to Cash because that day he decided to go fishing instead of help Jack work. It didn't help that the hard-drinking Ray blamed Johnny and even said to that God "took the wrong son." In the movie you sense that the drive behind a Johnny Cash song was defiance. He was going to sing it no matter what anybody thought....especially his old man.

Maybe it was his despair over his brother combined with his spite toward his father that drove Cash on his journey. He leaves Arkansas to join the Air Force in Germany where he writes his first song "Folsom Prison Blues" inspired after seeing the B-movie "Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison." When his service ended he came back to the states and married his first wife Vivian Liberto (Jennifer Goodwin) in Memphis and Johnny took a crack at selling appliances door to door. No success. At the same time he was trying to start his recording career and would practice songs with his band at night. Yet when he referred to "his band", Vivian would say, "your band is two mechanics who can't hardly play." Sadly, she was kinda right.

Cash happened upon Sun Records in Memphis where legendary producer Sam Philips (Dallas Roberts) reluctantly gave them an audition. After Philips didn't even let them finish their rehearsed gospel songs, he asked Cash if he had anything besides gospel songs. He starts playing "Folsom Prison Blues" and his poor guitarist, Luther Perkins (Dan John Miller) and bassist Marshall Grant (Larry Bagby) didn't know how to follow along as this was the first time they were hearin' it. It is at this audition where Phoenix's performance shows us that this is where Johnny found the sound he needed to be real. As they do their best to keep up with him and back Cash up you can hear the infamous sound come together.

"Walk the Line" isn't too far from many other musical biopics, in that there's childhood trauma, drugs, romance, & too much success. Then there's the recovery from the addiction (hopefully), finding and keeping love, and claiming a lasting stardom. The difference in each of these movies is that it's always different characters and music. Although they may go through the same drama, it's how they handle life's situations is what separates them and draws you to them.

Just like in real life, the movie would not have been the same without June Carter Cash in it. Witherspoon's performance is filled with endless energy and fierce vulnerability. June was a part of the famous Carter Family, the founding voices of country/gospel that he would listen to on the radio as a boy. By the time Cash finally meets her he is both starstruck and captivated. We see in the movie that June had developed a comedic persona onstage to make up for what she thought was sub par vocal talent. She is seen as having a knack for hooking up with the wrong men as she goes through a coupla of marriages. It would appear that Cash is just another wrong man despite how well they work together onstage. She holds him at a distance due to his marriage and even after his divorce, all the booze and pills.

The film's most harrowing scene shows Johnny onstage after an overdose, his face distorted by pain and anger, looking almost satanic before he collapses. What is most fearsome is not even his collapse, but the force of his will, which makes him try to perform when he is clearly unable to. You would not want to get in the way of that determination. When Cash is finally busted and spends some time in jail, his father is dependably laconic: "Now you won't have to work so hard to make people think you been to jail."

Although Cash's father (played with merciless aim by Robert Patrick) eventually does sober up, the family that saves him is June's. The Carter Family were country royalty ever since the days their of broadcasts from a high-powered pirate station across the river from Del Rio, Texas. When they take a chance on Cash, they all take the chance; watch her parents as they greet Johnny's favorite pill-pusher.
Knowing Cash's albums more or less by heart, I closed my eyes to focus on the soundtrack and decided that, yes, that was the voice of Johnny Cash I was listening to. Phoenix and Mangold can talk all they want about how it was as much a matter of getting in character, of delivering the songs, as it was a matter of voice technique, but whatever it was, it worked. Cash's voice was "steady like a train, sharp like a razor," said June.
The movie fudges some on the facts, but I was surprised to learn that Cash actually did propose marriage to Carter onstage during a concert; it feels like the sort of scene screenwriters invent, but no. Other scenes are compressed or fictionalized, as they must be, and I would have liked more screen time for the other outlaws, including Waylon and Willie. Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis make brief excursions through the plot, but essentially this is the story of John and June and a lot of great music. And essentially that's the story we want.
Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter in 20th Century Fox's Walk the Line
Whether you're into country music or not....the story of his life is compelling enough to move you as well as entertain you, of course.I saw it with my wife and she thought it was great and she isn't even as big of a fan as I am. Like last years "Ray", it doesn't matter whether you like the music, it's the characterization and the amazing acting that makes the this the best biopic of 2005 (sorry "Cinderella Man"). Now, "Capote" was great but to nail a role in both acting and singing is truly a feat that not many can do. Go see this for Phoenix and Witherspoon and see if you can't get caught up in a burning "Ring of Fire."

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