Monday, February 02, 2009

All This And Hamlet 2 - Several New Release DVD Reviews

(Dir. Marina Zenovich, 2008)

In an early '80s television interview Roman Polanski, over wine in a ritzy restaurant, casually responds to a question about liking young girls: “Here you come to a concrete case for which I have been behind bars and that’s what you want to talk about.”

So begins this documentary examination of one of the most notorious court battles in American history. For those who don’t know, (which I can’t imagine) in 1977 Polanski was charged with statuary rape, among other things, and after a year of wriggling through rigorous red tape he fled the country never to return. If he does attempt to come back he’ll be immediately arrested despite being forgiven by the girl in question (Samantha Geimer) and her mother years ago.

Most folks know those basics but what this film lays out is all the particular twists and turns that resulted in the legendary director’s exile and it’s a fascinating and well crafted study that plays at times like a tight legal thriller.

Over 30 years later this is still an ongoing case as just today it was reported that Polanski lost a dismissal bid by the Los Angeles County court system. As we see in tons of TV news footage and vintage photographs, Polanski is small in stature usually sporting a bemused expression under his Beatle-esque mop top. His work though was never small in stature – the classics CHINATOWN, ROSEMARY’S BABY, and his Oscar win for THE PIANIST confirm this.

Polanski was roundly criticized by the press after the tragic death of his wife Sharon Tate for appearing to not be in enough mourning for their liking so when this incident broke they had a ferocious field day. This is good news for the film makers here because they never seem to be at a loss for the proper accompanying shot or sound bite to tell the story. Polanski only speaks from footage and interviews from the period but lawyers, press, colleagues, and most interestingly Geimer provide much insight into the complications and frustrations involved.

The film takes its title from a quote from French producer Andrew Braunsberg: “In France he’s desired and in America he’s wanted.” That defines the culture difference that court reporter Richard Brenneman explained best: “The European reporters looked on Polanski as a tragic brilliant historic figure…the American press tended to look at him as this malignant twisted dwarf with this dark vision.”

The film only falters when it utilizes scenes from Polanski’s movies to illustrate certain points – it really isn’t necessary to have a clip of Mia Farrow dialing a phone from ROSEMARY’S BABY when somebody talks about getting an urgent call. As the film progresses however, these bits of his filmography are filtered in more effectively and arguably the flavor of his fine (for the most part) work should have a place in this portrait. As intriguing and informative as a documentary can get, this is vital viewing and not just for film buffs though obviously that’s who it’ll most appeal too.

HAMLET 2 (Dir. Andrew Fleming)

Poor Steve Coogan. Like his fellow brilliant Brit blokes Simon Pegg and Ricky Gervais he’s finding it hard to carve out a niche in the American comedy movie marketplace dominated by Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, and the ever present Apatow academy. This didn’t make much of a dent when it came out late last summer but it didn’t matter because Coogan was concurrently rubbing elbows with some of that comic crowd in TROPIC THUNDER (albeit briefly before blowing up).

For his starring role in this wannabe indie quirkfest he sure gives a go of it as a high school drama teacher with delusions of grandeur in Tucson Arizona (“where dreams go to die” he laments). When he finds out that the drama program will be cut he stages the improbable sequel of the title in an odd attempt to save it. Coogan cites teacher inspirational movie fare like DANGEROUS MINDS and MR. HOLLAND’S OPUS when trying to connect to his class but there’s very little that’s poetic about his soon to be dead society.

With Catherine Keener as his unsatisfied sarcastic spouse it’s like SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK but with the artistic existential angst replaced with hit and very miss one-liners! Well, not really – I just couldn’t resist the reference. There are a number of genuine laughs throughout but they don’t stack up into anything resembling classic comedy. It’s too broad, only occasionally cutting, and Coogan is so over the top with his character that his antics would make Jim Carrey cringe.

The Keener subplot involving a live-in David Arquette (who I keep mistaking for Ryan Gosling) should have been excised completely and the supposed show stopping song “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” frankly isn’t that funny either.

Still any movie that has an over eager Amy Poehler assisting Coogan in chewing the scenery and Elizabeth Shue playing herself isn’t a complete waste of time. If only it was named HAMLET 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO – then maybe we’d really have something here.

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS (Dir. David Feloni, 2008)

I guess because I grew up on the original trilogy I feel obligated to see every movie under the STAR WARS banner. Despite the fact I hated the prequels, dislike the video game style of the animation I saw in awful trailers, and all the terrible reviews (it’s at 19% at I still put this in my Netflix queue when it dropped on DVD. 

I know this bloated pilot for the Cartoon Network series is intended to be for children but I watched most of it with my Brother’s 3 kids last Christmas and when I said “hey, it’s 6:00 – should we keep watching or switch to a Simpsons rerun?” They all screamed “Simpsons!”

My sentiment exactly for this is a stone cold bore from its opening intergalactic newsreel replacing the sacred scroll to its stock celebratory ending. Somewhere in between there is bland battle after battle with lasers, explosions, close call escapes, and scores of other action that I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for.

Plot you ask? I know you didn’t ask but it’s about Jabba the Hut’s son (who for some odd reason seems based on Truman Capote) being kidnapped and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker (voiced by James Arnold Taylor and Matt Lanter) being called upon to save him to preserve the Republic or some such. Sounds riveting, right?

A new annoying character to the misguided mix is added - Ashley Eckstein as Jedi trainee/weird orange freak Ahsoka Tano. She brings her own brand of obnoxious banter as she calls Anakin “Sky Guy” while she bounces through the confusing tangled terrain of this sci-fi crapfest.

The voices of prequel veterans Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Lee fail to spark the STAR WARS spirit and even a late third act cameo by C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) can’t save this animated abomination.

George Lucas should be more ashamed by this than for The Star Wars Holiday Special. Don’t worry I’m not going to claim my childhood was raped but damn, it did cower in the corner for a bit after enduring this.

X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE (Dir. Chris Carter, 2008)

“I’m done chasing monsters in the dark” says former agent now full time Doctor Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and apparently so is X-Files creator/writer/director Chris Carter because this is strangley stripped of the supernatural elements that were the bread and butter of the TV show and the 1998 movie (X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE).

There’s no cigarette smoking man , no lone gunmen, and most surprisingly – no aliens. In other words everything that was cool about the X-Files is absent.

A bearded Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is yet again needed by the FBI after years of being hunted by them. He’s reluctant at first to help them with the case of several missing women, one of them an agent, but of course he shaves while Anderson dons her one of her best '90s professional pant suits and they rev up the old trusty X-Files Mystery Machine van onto a road into the wilderness chasing adventures while blaring Mark Snow’s immortal theme song on their vehicle’s sound system. Okay, I mostly made that up because I was so disinterested in what really happened.

It all begs the question – why bring back Duchovny, Anderson, and Mitch Pileggi as Walter Skinner for a plot that’s just one step removed from an Ashley Judd/Morgan Freeman formula thriller? It doesn’t make sense to just drop tidbits about the not-so superduo’s child and Mulder’s long lost sister instead into diving head first into what fans want and deserve – that is, to actually be X-Files.

The first film was creepy fun, this is just creepy. Real life subjects like Duchovny’s addiction to internet porn and the case of Anderson’s missing career * would be more compelling than this. Carter said that if this movie was successful there would be a third film that would deal with aliens and all the conspiracy stuff that this severely lacked. Well, the film bombed but I still hope he’ll make a third one solely to serve as an apology. I wanted to believe that this film didn't suck but alas, it’s as bad as its title.

* I know that’s a cheap shot. Anderson has actually been in a few recent notable movies such as THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND and TRISTHAM SHANDY: A COCK AND BULL STORY with Steve Coogan recently.

Okay, so that makes one excellent documentary, a fair only fitfully funny comedy, and 2 franchise failures. Hope my next batch of Netflix envelopes will be much better.

More later…

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