8 posts categorized "4 Jalapeños"


'The Help' wanted, very wanted

Every once in a while a movie comes along that's daring enough to lift the lid covering the grisly history of mistreatment of black people in this country up just enough for movie-goers to take a clear, often painful look at reality.

In 1985,Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple" drew an Academy Award nomination for Whoopi Goldberg as Celie, a mentally and physically abused victim of incest first seen as a teenager and followed for 30 years.

"Precious," ironically also about an incest victim having a second child, moved the struggle against social injustice into modern-day Harlem.  Like Goldberg, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who portrayed the mentally tortured title character, made the short list of Oscar nominees, but did not win.

"The Help," based on Kathryn Stockett's best selling novel of 2009, operates in the same downtrodden arena. This time, though, there's a buoyancy of levity to ease the blows as snooty white society "ladies" mistreat their nannies and maids in 1960s Jackson, Miss.

Here's what those who dearly love Stockett's novel need to know first:  Don't worry.  "The Help" is, in my semi-humble opinion, one of the finest films of 2011.

If you don't fight back tears, laugh out loud and want to stand up and cheer more than once, it might be a good idea to have someone check you for a pulse.

Director Tate Taylor worked with Stockett, his longtime pal on this project.  They grew up in Jackson, Miss., so capturing the mood of the era is never a problem.  And there's this.  This project was churning along as a movie-in-the-works before the author even found a publisher for the novel.

For that reason, "The Help" deserves a break from the usual concerns the transition from novel to big-screen of hugely popular books ("Harry Potter," "Twilight," "Eat, Pray, Love") usually stir up.

Viola Davis, who earned an Oscar nomination for brief screen time opposite Meryl Streep in "Doubt," graces this inspiring tale of courage throughout.  Davis turns in a brilliant, understated performance as Aibileen Clark, a Mississippi maid and nanny who has raised 17 white children of employers.  During that long stretch of low-pay servitude, Aibileen saw her only child die needlessly.

Reluctantly, Aibileen reveals the secrets, struggles and sacrifices it takes to be a black servant in white households in the racist '60s Old South.  She gradually opens up to Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent Ole Miss grad who dreams of being a writer.  Skeeter, gradually standing up to her racist grownup of childhood pals, might just have an ear for a novel about black maids willing to tell all.  A New York City magazine editor is intrigued.

This may sound like grim subject matter, and it certainly is at times.  Armed with a smart, inspirational script he co-wrote, however, director Taylor ("Pretty Ugly People") uses the comic talents of Octavia Spencer ("Dinner for Schmucks"), who plays Minny (Aibileen's best friend), and others to garnish the difficult subject matter with effective Southern fried humor.

"The Help" is what I used to call a station-wagon movie.  We can update that now to call it an SUV movie.  That means gather as many friends and family members as you can pack into your car, van or sports utility vehicle and get to the movie house to see a spectacular crescendo of emotions likely to sweep you off your feet.

When you steady yourself, you might discover you're in a better place; a place of acceptance, compassion and understanding.


Carrey's frantic love call for 'Phillip Mor-ris'

Jim Carrey has been waiting a very long time to make a dagger of a movie like "I Love You Phillip Morris."

This outrageous tale -- based on actual events, by the way -- about a family man turned con man turned gay con man desperately trying to impress his soul mate, but having to continually bust out of jail to do it, is not a drama as such.

It's a black hole dark comedy congealed with drama.  In this case, that's an odd dynamic perfectly suited to Carrey's charismatic charm and fits of wild abandon.

If you're wondering just how dark the comic elements might be, know this.  "I Love You Phillip Morris," based on former Houston Chronicle investigative reporter Steve McVicker's book, is co-written and co-directed by writing partners Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
Can't quite place the names?  Ficarra and Requa are the screenwriters who fed Billy Bob Thornton's outstanding way-down and way-dirty performance in "Bad Santa" (2003).

"Phillip Morris" sneaks up on you.  When we first meet Steven Russell (Carrey), he's a seemingly happy family man playing organ for the church choir in Virginia and working as a police officer.

Never quite getting over the fact that his mother gave him up for adoption, Steven bends the rules, using his law enforcement computer to track down his birth mother.  The meeting doesn't go well, and "I Love You Phillip Morris" launches into a tale of self-discovery about living a lie (he's gay) and learning that his outgoing nature may be more suited to a career as a con man than a cop in uniform.

One of the things I like best about this raw embracing of a person's inner (and long-hidden) drives is that the co-directors (in their initial feature film effort) and Carrey flamboyantly keep the tone pedal to the metal.

Maybe it's because I've seen Carrey not reach his full potential in films like "The Number 23" (2007) and "The Majestic" (2001) that I celebrate (perhaps along with him) for gathering up his comic charisma, his likable on-screen nature and his yearning for dramatic effect and rolling it into an improbably charming cinematic snowball.
While refreshing, this is one snowball that hits us in the gut and leaves a mark.

Set primarily in Texas (but shot in Louisiana), "Phillip Morris" chugs along at a brisk pace.  Steven meets Mr. Right (Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris) in jail, then goes more than a little nuts busting out of confinement on several occasions to be with the man he loves.

Leslie Mann, who shared the screen with Carrey in  "The Cable Guy" (1996), brings proper charm and dismay to Debbie, the wife left not for another woman but for a man.  Any man, in fact, at least in the early going.

McGregor scored his own acting triumph this year in "The Ghost Writer." He tones everything down to play Phillip, who, in the long run, becomes as perplexed about Steven as his former wife did.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" will likely blindside you with real, growing sentiment near the end.  Not the fake kind, either, like in "The Majestic," a failed barely disguised remake of "It's a Wonderful Life."

I'm talking the real thing; convincing dramatic acting from a gifted comic who has always wanted to move his audience without a scrunched-up face or a pratfall.

I love you, "Phillip Morris," for finally giving Jim Carrey that chance.


'Avatar' reignites Cameron's epic movie magic

James Cameron doesn't simply make movies.  He relentlessly innovates and pushes the art form forward.

"Avatar," the Oscar winner's first narrative feature since "Titanic" in 1997, fills the screen as the first perfect blend of computer-generated special effects, animation and meaningful human acting in the history of cinema.

We can add the most effective use of 3-D as well.  Although "Avatar" will be available in both 3-D (for a slight premium, of course) and standard 2-D, I highly recommend spending the extra buck or two in this instance.  The added dimension makes sense for a futuristic sci-fi fantasy adventure that unfolds in 2154.  That's especially the case when the action unfolds on a vegetation-filled lush moon called Pandora 4.4 light years away from a seriously energy depleted Earth.

If you've been anywhere near a television set or movie theater in the past month or so, you already know that "Avatar" features 10-foot-tall blue-skinned indigenous natives who don't take kindly to Earthlings bull-dozing their precious rain forest.  The unwelcome interlopers are in search of a rare mineral that might hold the key to Earth's dire 22nd century energy crisis.

What you might not know going in is that the script, written by director Cameron, very smartly uses all the innovative gadgets, but only as elements of what Cameron calls his "tool box."

The motion capture filming process, where actors perform with sensors all over their body, but enhanced here to include intimate facial expression,  effectively inserts key actors under the alien skin.  Animation makes their tails sway in sync with the bodies, and 3-D -- never, ever used as a jump-out-at-the-audience gimmick -- makes an exotic, animal-filled, vividly colored, computer-generated alien world appear to actually exist.

The story itself is a bit of a pulp fiction sawhorse.  The filmmaker admits as much.  This time, though, when the newcomer (Sam Worthington) rides into a foreign land and mingles with the locals, it's not Kevin Costner going native with the Sioux in "Dances With Wolves), it's a wheelchair bound ex-Marine whose mind is inserted into a lab-created Na'vi body.

Jake Sully (Worthington), or Jakesully as the natives refer to him, is on a scientific mission headed by Grace (Sigourney Weaver) to learn the secrets of communing with nature.  That would make a fascinating little story.  But it that would also deprive Cameron the fun of bombastic conflict, and perhaps some not-so-veiled comments on this country interloping on other lands for precious resources.

Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephan Lang of "The Men Who Stare at Goats," "Public Enemies") and the greedy bottom-line-profit-driven corporate project leader Carter Selfridge (excellent actor Giovanni Ribisi, also in "Public Enemies") set the stage for mortal combat quite effectively.

At the heart of "Avatar," however is a totally believable love story.  And it doesn't merely involve a former Marine who gets a second chance at movable legs, albeit long and skinny and alien, who falls hard for Na'vi princess warrior Neytiri (Zoë Saldana of the "Star Trek" remake).  Saldana deserves an Oscar nomination for a superbly human performance in what amounts to an alien body.

A film this creative, this spectacular, this perfectly performed comes along once in a blue moon, or whenever Cameron gets the itch to innovate on the highest creative scale again.

I hate to be the one to say it, but if "Avatar" catches fire at the box office, Cameron could be headed for another one of those embarrassing Academy Award night outbursts at the winner's podium:

"I'm the king of the other-world, too!"


Urban drama erupts into something 'Precious'

"I shouldn't have said none of that.  Mama gonna kill me."

It's 1987 in the welfare state of Harlem when "Precious:  Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" opens.

A 16-year-old illiterate 9th grader named Precious has just served up undercooked pig's feet to her monstrous, anger-ravaged mother.  Precious isn't exaggerating when she says her mama might kill her.  Her mother's fits of violence can go from zero to 60 in a racing heartbeat.

It's unlikely, though.  Mama is too lazy to cook her own pig's feet.

Actually, it's her father who comes closest to destroying Precious's life force.  Precious is pregnant with her absentee dad's second child when the slightest glimmer of hope shows up in the deeply troubled teen's hard knock life.

It's fair to wonder why we as movie-goers should go to see a grim urban drama gritty enough to leave lasting dark shadows not only on the souls of the characters, but on ours as well.

Overweight and overwrought, Claireece "Precious" Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) escapes into flights of fantasy whenever the real world becomes too ugly.  Her mother Mary, a monster in almost every sense of the word, is portrayed to perfection and a step or two beyond by outspoken (and we can now add "fearless") comedian Mo'Nique.

In some ways, "Precious" is a disaster movie.  It works as startling, bleak entertainment because when the projector shuts off, many of us can walk out into the sunlight of better circumstances.  

There are other reasons to embrace "Precious."  Better reasons.  Hailed with Audience Awards at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, which is a first, this tough love/tougher hate drama is one of the finest films of 2009.

It could rank as the absolute best from this aisle seat, although a few other films remain to be seen.  Certainly, "Precious" impacts the psyche with the most emotional force of the year so far.

Part of the dramatic impact comes from the filmmakers, of course.  In only his second feature film in the director's chair, Lee Daniels ("Shadowboxer") pulls no punches on grim reality; poverty, ignorance and the welfare misery-go-round that blindsides too many of our citizens with a life-force knockout punch.

The script, adapted from the novel "Push" by Sapphire, comes from newcomer Geoffrey Fletcher, who studied under Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee.  Fans of the book will notice that Fletcher expands on the flights of escapism fantasy.

What I admire most about "Precious" are the performances.  Sidibe, who was 24 at the time of filming in 2007, could very well find herself in the Oscar race her first time in front of a feature film camera.  Mo'Nique, who also appeared in Daniels' "Shadowboxer" (ironically as a character called Precious), is a shoo-in for at least a supporting actress nomination, if you ask me.

Also, look for solid performances from singer Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss, the matter-of-fact social services worker, and Paula Patton ("Deja Vu"), the empathetic alternative school teacher. 

Spike Lee has explored the urban landscape for over 20 years.  But even Lee's gritty style of his early work ("She's Gotta Have It," etc.) has always involved some sort of heightened reality.

There's nothing heightened with "Precious."  It's about as painfully real as a dramatic feature film can get.


'Inglourious Basterds' any film buff must meet

It took Quentin Tarantino two episodes to "Kill Bill," but only one glorious -- or "glourious" -- one to change the course of history.

"Inglourious Basterds," as skewed in style as the misspelled title implies, is a devilishly clever, sometimes comic and brutally violent fable that envisions a revisionist outcome of World War II as only Tarantino can.

Who else but the movie fanatic-turned-filmmaker who gave us the stylized heist drama "Reservoir Dogs" (1992), the comic crime-thriller "Jackie Brown" (1997) and Tarantino's first masterwork, "Pulp Fiction" (1994), would take it upon himself to serve up World War II revenge cinema for the Allies in general and Jews in particular?

I call "Pulp Fiction," which raised the bar on crime-comedy, Tarantino's first masterwork.  That's because "Inglourious Basterds" -- all two hours and 32 minutes of it -- is the outrageous writer-director's second.

Brad Pitt is the marquee name at the top of a brilliantly selected cast list.  The Oscar nominee earlier this year for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is only part of this story, though.

Tarantino rolls out his larger-than-life comic-drama in chapters.  By the time the end credits roll, you'll be wanting to know more about Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who portrays Nazi Jew hunter Col. Hans Landa, and French actress-filmmaker Mélanie Laurent, just to mention a couple.

Laurent portrays Shosanna Dreyfus, owner of a Paris movie house.  She escapes Col. Landa once only to become entwined in his deadly spider web a second time.

When we meet Pitt, he's Lt. Aldo Raine.  Sporting a mustache, a goofy grin and a hillbilly accent, Lt. Raine heads what might today be called a "special ops" team of Jewish-American soldiers.

The mission is not only to infiltrate enemy lines in Occupied France.  It even goes beyond brutally killing any German soldiers they encounter.  Aldo wants Nazi scalps.  Lots of them.  And when his "dirty dozen," including "Hostel" filmmaker Eli Roth and B.J. Novak of "The Office," aren't gleefully taking scalps, The Bear Jew (Roth) is beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat.

Welcome to Quentin Tarantino's heightened reality redux of World War II.

As the story unfolds in what can only be described as the filmmaker's unique, signature grandiose style, the gifted ensemble is headed for shared screen time at -- what else? -- a glamorous movie premiere.

Tarantino's love for the art of cinema permeates every frame.  An early scene where Col Landa inspects a French farm house that might be hiding Jews is, without a doubt, the finest scene on any movie screen in years.  The Col., portrayed to perfection by Waltz (who could march right into an Oscar nomination), toys with his prey like a cunning fox in no hurry to pounce.

The closing sequence, which will not even be hinted at here, elevates Tarantino and his cast to an unsurpassed artistic level blending an operatic style and visual perfection with kill-thrill mayhem.

Excuse me while I gush, which I rarely do, but:

Gloury, gloury, halleluujah!  "Inglourious Basterds" is Quentin Tarantino's new pulp fiction masterwork.


Oscar winner 'Departures' a must-see

Like the mournful wail of the finely tuned cello that forms the emotional center, Yojiro Takita's "Departures" doesn't hit one sour note as the Japanese filmmaker navigates sensitive subject matter.

This year's Academy Award-winning foreign language film, "Departures" is the antithesis of most movies that deal with funerals and the recently departed.  Cameron Crowe's "Elizabethtown" (2005) and "Death at a Funeral" (2007) from Frank Oz  both emphasized the comic foibles of the living.

In Japanese with subtitles, "Departures" weaves its intensely emotional story by utilizing the recently deceased as key players.

Young cellist Daigo Kobayashi (rising Japanese star Masahiro Motoki) is living his dream when "Departures" opens.  He's playing his expensive new cello in a Tokyo orchestra. 

Daigo dreamed of traveling the world as a professional musician ever since he was a boy in a small village in northeastern Japan.  When his orchestra folds suddenly, Daigo and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) return to his hometown.

Daigo's low on self-esteem and cash.  He neglected to mention to Mika that he paid 18 million yen for his beloved cello.  Daigo answers a vague ad in the newspaper classified section that offers big money.

The ad said something about departures, so Daigo assumes it must be some kind of travel agency. Naturally, the naive young husband is a little mystified to see caskets lined up against the office wall.

Tight-lipped company owner Sasaki (veteran actor Tsutomu Yamazaki) hires Daigo on the spot, despite the fact that the young man chosen on instinct alone has never even been in the same room with a dead body. 
Even though he hides it from his wife as long as he can, Daigo hires on to be an encoffineer. 
"Departures" respectfully, and with humor at times, reveals encoffination to Western audiences.  It's the ceremonial ritual of washing, dressing and placing the deceased into a coffin as bereaved family members and friends look on.

There's more to the story, of course.  Daigo is estranged from his father, for instance, and is haunted by the separation.  Also, Daigo's bold new career choice drives a wedge into what has been a happy marriage up until that point.

Half the battle for any emotional drama with comic relief is setting the proper tone.  Director Takita ("When the Last Sword Is Drawn," "The Battery") and first-time screenwriter Kundo Koyama immerse the audience slowly, expertly into the potentially difficult subject matter.  It's similar, in a sense, to the soothing feeling Daigo gets as he submerges himself into the heated waters of his village's bathhouse.

Good movies take the audience somewhere they haven't been before.  Great movies do it with a style befitting the unfamiliar.

Thanks to very solid acting from Motoki, who debuted as the unlikely sumo wrestler in "Sumo Do, Sumo Don't," and Yamazaki (the addict in Akira Kurosawa's "Heaven and Hell") as his aging mentor, "Departures" is true testament to the value of quality foreign film imports.

Beautifully staged and purring with the exquisite soundtrack from composer Joe Hisaishi ("Spirited Away," "Howl's Moving Castle"), "Departures" is a majestic, wonderfully orchestrated tale of woe and behold.
By venturing to Takita's far-off land of ceremony and emotional evolution, we might just rekindle strong feelings lurking deep within ourselves.

Perhaps not so oddly, they're likely to hit very close to home. 


Heavy metal, heavier heartache

The really good rock 'n' roll documentaries, like Martin Scorsese's "Shine A Light" of last year, showcase the musicians and give the audience a little backstage peek or two. 

Mick Jagger driving Scorsese crazy by not providing a song lineup until just before show time is the kind of "personal" stuff we usually get.

A truly great rock 'n' roll documentary needs to reveal more than just the flash and dash and close-ups of rock stars performing into the glaring spotlights as thousands of hypnotized devotees worship their idols wildly.

"Anvil!  The Story of Anvil" is not just a documentary that digs deeper.  This astonishing, truly magical look at the band fame snubbed isn't merely a documentary like that.
It is THE documentary like that. 
"Anvil" slams your heart hard and asks for nothing, with the possible exception of a couple hours of your time.  

Is it worth it?  "Anvil!" rates above even the phrase "must see."

Director Sacha Gervasi, who left home at 16 in the early '80s to serve as a roadie for the band he adored then and now, has managed the near-impossible.  This is an extremely intimate portrait of rock music's long and winding road that's full of detours, pot holes and tough-as-nails honesty.

If you've never heard of the heavy metal band that formed in a Toronto basement in 1973, that's just the point.  You don't have to love or even like heavy metal music to appreciate what's happening here.
School friends Steve "Lips" Kudlow (guitar) and drummer Robb Reiner started rocking together in Reiner's basement when they were 14.  By all accounts, "Anvil" out-rocked the big boys (Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, The Scorpions) at a sold-out stadium show in 1984.

But as someone says as this very personal tale unfolds of two guys who made a pact back in that neighborhood basement to keep rockin' until they're old, "Sometimes life deals you a tough deck."

Fate forgot one little thing, though:

These heavy metal jokers are wild.


'Slumdog' wants to be a millionaire

With “Slumdog Millionaire,” we get a compelling sense that Charles Dickens’ 19th century London has somehow landed in Mumbai in 2006.

The artful dodgers spring from the Indian slums in Danny Boyle’s intoxicating tale that tumbles coming-of-age, survival of the fittest, romance, crime and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” into the year’s best film.

Fast-paced, stylish and magnificently layered, “Slumdog Millionaire” is cinematic lasagna. Each layer, whether it is about a boy survivor from the slums (thus “slumdog”) or focusing on the abused girl he deeply loves, delights the palate.

Boyle, the curious, daring British director of almost amazing diversity (“Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later,” “Millions”) brings an outsider’s eye to the project.

He had never been to India before committing to direct Simon Beaufoy’s stirring transformation of Vikas Swarup’s debut novel “Q&A.”

The novel was a series of a dozen sometimes disconnected stories, however. What Beaufoy does so wonderfully here is tie the tale together — or as Boyle says, “give it a spine.” As unlikely as it sounds, this is a poignant story of one teen’s journey into manhood, torture at the hands of the police and, if he answers correctly, 20 million rupees thanks to India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” 

“Slumdog Millionaire,” in Hindi most of the time with subtitles, does everything a movie needs to do. It takes us somewhere most of us have never been. Despite a region teeming with slums and poverty, Anthony Dod Mantel’s cinematography is often breathtaking. And the story? Absolutely marvelous.
Jamal (Dev Patel), who emerged from the Mumbai slums with his brother Salim, has baffled authorities with his correct answers on the popular quiz show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
When the show takes a break for the night, however, Jamal just wants to survive torture and electric shock at the hands of the police.

Someone thinks the boy is cheating. He’s not, though. As Jamal relates his life odyssey to a jaded police inspector through the night, the real beauty of “Slumdog Millionaire” begins to rise to the surface.

What Boyle does, with the able assist of Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan, is reveal how this uneducated boy knows the answers that pop up at random.

He’s an innocent, of sorts. Corruption is all around him, from the police department to the game show itself. Jamal may not even be in all this for the money.

His life is nothing without Latika (Freida Pinto), a childhood friend who has owned his heart for years, but who also got swept up in the seedy side of survival of the fittest.

“Slumdog Millionaire” has been piling up well-deserved “best film” awards ever since it took the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Most recently, the Golden Globe nominee (best motion picture — drama, best screenplay and best director) drew top honors from the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, where it got the vote from this aisle seat.