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Though marketed as formulaic nonsense about a high school football team that goes on to an improbable victory, Friday Night Lights is a stunner. It is a profoundly upsetting film in which football isn't just a game, or even a way of life, but a Texas town's only source of hope and validation. The screenplay ignores cliches, opting instead for poignant, subtle insight -- watch the way that the injured star runningback's uncle, trying to reassure the coach that his nephew would be back in action before long, uses "we" instead of "he," or how a character who in a lesser movie might just have been the stereotypical abusive father turns out to have motivations that are ambiguous and complex. Director Peter Berg shoots genuinely exciting football action, and the plot goes in directions few will expect. Here's a movie that's concerned about football, yes, but also about the people who play it and the people it affects. Friday Night Lights may make grown men cry.
There isn't a frame in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow that I wouldn't pay good money to hang on my wall. A stunningly gorgeous technological achievement, the film creates an amazing fantasy universe of giant robots, kidnapped scientists, mercenary heroes and a villain named Dr. Totenkopf. The plot is nice and simple, but also breathtakingly vast, not just a jokey homage to the adventure serials of the '30s but legitimate science-fiction all its own. And the visuals, which sometimes resemble German Expressionism and other times a Miyazaki cartoon, suggest a boundless imagination given an unlimited budget. Sky Captain was actually made for a comparatively scant $70 million, making it all the more impressive.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was filmed entirely in front of a blue screen, with all of the backgrounds, environments and effects added in digitally. The only things that are "real" are the actors and the objects the actors touch. Director Kerry Conran talks about the homegrown short film that started it all, and his contribution to the digital revolution.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 is such a hairpin turn away from the amusing but disappointing first chapter of Quentin Tarantino's epic that unsuspecting moviegoers can almost be forgiven for the knee-jerk negative response it is sure to elicit. I was absolutely flabbergasted by the film, and I sat stunned in my chair watching perfection emerge from what I had written off as a self-indulgent, masturbatory mess.
At "the Plough & the Stars," a popular Irish-themed bar and restaurant tucked into an out-of-the-way corner of Old City, the staff is well-acquainted with the Penn crowd. Though it is a relatively low-key establishment, few of its employees fail to tell of the Penn fraternities that occasionally make en masse ventures to 2nd and Chestnut streets. From the kid who was carted out in an ambulance after drinking too much at a fraternity shindig to the party of 500 expected that very night (the mind boggles at the prospect of fitting 500 people into the large but hardly sprawling eatery), Penn is a fact of life for those who work here.
Movies and religion have never mixed well. Inevitably, a movie will misrepresent one religion or another and be faced with protests and threats of boycotts. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has sparked the fiercest debates since ... well, since Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, when Christian groups screamed bloody murder over the auteur's supposed blasphemy. This time, most of those same organizations have rallied behind the movie, which purports to faithfully recount the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ's earthly life as it is described in the New Testament. In the other corner is the Anti-Defamation League along with various other figures of Jewish and liberal communities, levying charges of anti-Semitism against the film and the filmmaker, stirring up controversy everywhere one looks.
If you've waited your entire life to see Anthony Hopkins play a black guy, your time has come at last. In The Human Stain, based on a novel of the same name by Philip Roth, Hopkins is cast as Coleman Silk, a prominent classics professor who happens to be a light-skinned African-American -- so light-skinned that virtually no one, not even his wife, knows his true identity. In an irony so delicious it could almost be true, Silk is accused of racism when he uses the word "spooks" to describe two conspicuously absent students who also happen to be African-American. This ridiculous spat costs him not only his job, but also his wife, whose heart gives out upon hearing of the incident.
Mark Wahlberg wants to know what we did over Spring Break.
Actually, he wants to know why we're interviewing him instead of "on Spring Break having fun, drinking beer," before realizing that Spring Break would most likely be over and asking the operator to open up the lines of our previously listen-only conference call so that we could tell him how we spent our vacations.
His new movie, The Italian Job, comes out next month. Perhaps its most distinguishing feature is the fleet of tiny sports cars driven by its heroes. They can do anything -- navigate traffic jams, rocket through subway tunnels, outrun a helicopter, whatever you want! I went into this interview wanting to know about the little cars. "They're fun to drive, but horrible to be in the passenger seat," says Wahlberg. Then, in the more-than-you-wanted-to-know department, he adds: "I almost threw up when I was in the passenger seat with Charlize [Theron]. But they're very fun to drive."
Wahlberg got his acting career off to a helluva start six years ago in Boogie Nights, and deserves now to be respected as a serious actor. Before that he was, of course, Marky Mark, model and rapper. He's been known to become angry when asked about those youthful indiscretions, and I was dreading the moment when an unsuspecting college reporter would broach the forbidden subject and upset the guy. The moment came, of course, but Wahlberg maintained composure. When asked whether he would ever return to the music world, he just replied curtly, "No. I miss the freedom of being in the music world, but I need the discipline that goes along with making films."
In The Italian Job, Wahlberg got to work with some very high-profile, talented actors, among them Donald Sutherland and Edward Norton. He gushes about Sutherland, calling him "amazing... Donald Sutherland is one of my favorite actors of all time, and he was fantastic. He is also one of the most generous actors I've ever worked with." As for Norton, who plays the villain in the film, well: "I got to crack him in the head, which was very pleasurable"
I was in shock when I first heard the news of a thriller set entirely around a Times Square phone booth, potentially starring Jim Carrey. Then, of course, I learned that Carrey was out and Colin Farrell and director Joel Schumacher were in. My level of anticipation dropped considerably, but there was still that kick-ass gimmick to look forward to.
All of this will be old news to the movie buffs among us. Cronenberg is revered in cinemaniac circles as a god of the disturbing and bizarre. Having seen his new movie Spider and spoken to the man himself, I can report two tidbits that may come as surprises: a) Spider deals with a perversion of the human mind, not the human body and b) Cronenberg is a calm, collected, erudite, normal dude.
The premise of the movie -- a schizophrenic man (Ralph Fiennes) moves to a halfway house and begins to recall his childhood and the events that led him to be institutionalized -- is so far removed from the usual Cronenberg repertoire that the question "What attracted you to this film?" seemed less banal than it usually is. "It was really the screenplay and thinking of Ralph in the role that I responded to," was Cronenberg's answer.
While watching Spider, I came up with what I smugly thought was a great analogy: in the way that the film has the viewer utterly confused until the final frames, when a revelation makes everything more or less clear, it structurally resembles David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Mostly in the interest of finding out what he thought about the man whom many consider his long-lost twin brother, I asked Cronenberg to contrast his new movie with Lynch's two year-old masterpiece. "I didn't think it was as coherent as Spider because it's not contained within the mind of a main character whom we're following all the way through... I understand why you say that, but I do think the structures are pretty different."
I related a personal anecdote to Cronenberg: the weekend before the interview, I sat down for a double bill of The Fly and Dead Ringers. The movies made me feel genuinely bad. Cronenberg commented, "Sadness is the real feel of all of my movies, and so that you should feel that is not surprising to me... when I make a movie, I feel that I'm sharing it with my audience, and I'm looking for things, I'm finding things out, and I'm saying look at what I experienced... and so I don't think of it the way Hitchcock did, where he's sort of a puppeteer and the audience are marionettes, and he is making them jump, and laugh and scream... I'm sharing it. If you're going to be an existentialist, it means you're going to look things in the face, whether they are pleasant or not pleasant, so I think that's what you were getting. At the same time, I have to believe that ultimately, maybe not the evening that you went to bed, but eventually, you realize the fact of art, that to make the films is in itself an affirmation of life, because if you were really depressed, and really sad, you wouldn't have the energy to create."
Oh, and Spider is a pretty good flick. You should check it out.
Anyone who has lives in Philadelphia for a considerable period of time knows that visitors, remarkably, are still fascinated with those damn Art Museum steps. They're neat, I guess, but I'm always puzzled when they become the primary point of interest for tourists. So, here I am with three actors on a publicity tour for their upcoming movie Biker Boyz and the first thing I hear is, "We're gonna check out Rocky on our way to the airport -- go to the Rocky steps and run 'em."
If you've seen the Biker Boyz trailer and are particularly cynical, you might conclude that running those museum steps would be far more interesting than watching what looks like a cheap Fast and the Furious rip-off. You would be wrong, because the movie is a surprise: a well-made, sure-footed modern day western that has its heart in the right place. It essentially ignores Fast and the Furious's fringe elements, like the criminal underworld and the police investigation. Instead, director Reggie Rock Bythewood has made a straightforward, clean-cut racing movie about a young buck nicknamed Kid (Derek Luke) who tries to unseat reigning "King of Cali" Smoke (Laurence Fishburne) and become the proverbial Fastest Gun in the West after his mechanic father is impaled by a flying motorcycle. Yes, I said "impaled by a flying motorcycle."
Still, comparisons to the unexpected Vin Diesel hit are inevitable. Asked whether he thinks Biker Boyz can carve out a niche of its own when it hits theaters, Brendan Fehr, who plays one of Kid's cohorts, seems a little uncomfortable. "I hope so... there are obvious comparisons for obvious reasons, but the obvious comparisons aren't always accurate." Derek Luke, who may or may not harbor some bitterness towards Dreamworks' marketing department, adds that "Biker Boyz has its own uniqueness, so if that's the slot that they choose... I personally believe it has much more, but we'll let someone else decide that."
If Luke is unhappy, it's for good reason. Coming out smack in the middle of the traditional early-year doldrums, the movie may be hurt by its derivative advertising. The commercials show a lot of revving, skidding and burning out, but not much else, neither doing the film justice nor inspiring one to run out and see it. Logically, studios will imitate past successes, but the move has backfired before and likely will again.
Once the touchy topic of The Fast and the Furious was behind us, the conversation turned livelier. I asked them to address whether Biker Boyz pushed the envelope of the MPAA rating, and if they thought a better movie could have been made if they weren't required to turn in a PG-13. Fehr responded with what may be blasphemy to the male college audience: "We didn't need more tits, we didn't need more swear words, we didn't need more blood, we didn't need any of that. That's not what makes a good movie. I think it would have made for a worse movie if we had that freedom [to get an R rating]." Right.
If the film will be remembered down the road, it will be for the rather incredible motorcycle stunts performed by real bikers at great risk to their well-being. Did the actors learn any tricks of their own? Rick Gonzalez, who plays a fiery, fast-talking biker boy named Primo, reports that he was disappointed. "No, man, Dreamworks isn't letting me learn anything, because then I'm going to be out there trying to do it... They kept me away as much as they could from the bikes."
The real story, of course, is Derek Luke, for whom Biker Boyz follows-up to his much-lauded debut in Denzel Washington's Antwone Fisher. Though confident about his abilities as an actor, the 28-year-old is still in a slight stupor of disbelief. At the Sundance Film Festival premiere of his next project, a quieter film called Pieces of April, he was stunned at the movie lovers' reception. "There was a tent, and there were 500 people waiting, and I'm like, 'What movie is this?' "
A man on the edge of stardom can be forgiven the urge to run the art museum steps and jump up and down.
Clad in a surgically attached polo shirt and jeans, Michael Moore takes to the streets of America, trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with this country. But is he a fearless leftist hero or just a manipulative bully with a camera?
After seeing countless regurgitations of the same formulas, one tends to have a certain respect for the bizarre. Secretary, billed as a romantic comedy with an S & M twist, is certainly odd, and as such it demands attention. Its lack of quality will likely be a secondary consideration for those scouring the art houses in search of a diversion from the Swimfans and Sweet Home Alabamas that dominate the multiplex. It's hard not to admire the effort, but harder still to admit that, in this particular case, one may have better luck at the multiplex.