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ALEX & EMMA For the second straight movie, Kate Hudson has demonstrated that she's better than the material at hand. That's certainly a change from the past, when she proved to be among the weakest links in films like The Four Feathers and Almost Famous, but it may just be that she's an actress who's better suited to romantic comedies than anything else. That's certainly no crime -- Meg Ryan (for one) has managed to milk that teat for all it's worth -- and in both How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days and now this, Hudson has revealed an enviable ability to mix doe-eyed sentiment with zesty slapstick, the perfect combo for a screwball comedy heroine. In director Rob Reiner's first film since the horrific The Story of Us, Hudson plays Emma Dinsmore, a stenographer who's hired by successful author Alex Sheldon (Luke Wilson) to help him whip out a manuscript in 30 days so he can collect his advance and pay off a gambling debt. The twist here is that as Alex relates his period piece melodrama for Emma to type, the same two actors are also seen as the protagonists in the movie's fiction-within-the-fiction, leading to various comic situations as Alex and Emma try to hammer out the details of his novel and their changes invariably affect the actions of the characters he created. The easygoing rapport between Hudson and Wilson, as well as an amusing (if wafer-thin) look at the volatile nature of the writing process, helps disguise the formula at the heart of this half-clever, half-contrived fluff. 1/2


BRUCE ALMIGHTY In this hit-and-miss comedy, Jim Carrey, frequently playing to the rafters in what in anybody else's hands would have been a fairly restrained character, stars as Bruce Nolan, a TV reporter who's tired of fluff pieces and yearns to become the new anchorman. But instead of getting his wish, he ends up enduring the worst day of his life, leading to a tirade directed at God. Faced with this outburst, God (Morgan Freeman) pays Bruce a visit and offers him a challenge: Take charge for a while, and see if you can do a better job of overseeing the planet. If, as the saying goes, God is in the details, then that's also where to look in Bruce Almighty for some of the film's finest moments, as the throwaway bits are generally funnier than the big set pieces. Naturally, Carrey's adept (if overly exaggerated) with the comic shtick, but the quasi-serious scenes in which he expresses self-righteous anger are actually among the movie's strongest -- it's no wonder that at one point It's a Wonderful Life is shown playing on TV, because Bruce's predicament, a decent man who's been drop-kicked by life yet given the chance to envision an alternate reality, is the same one that plagued James Stewart's George Bailey. But because this is a summer popcorn flick, the movie backs away from taking Bruce to the edge -- he never flirts with the dark side, as George Bailey did. What's left is harmless, acceptable entertainment, just not the galvanizing religious experience that was within its almighty grasp. 1/2

THE DANCER UPSTAIRS Javier Bardem was already a superstar in his native Spain before his superb, Oscar-nominated turn in Before Night Falls made US viewers take notice. But if his performance as gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas showed off his talents as a chameleonic thespian, his work in The Dancer Upstairs trumpets his arrival as a down-to-earth movie star, the hunky "old school" sort best exemplified by the taciturn likes of Gary Cooper and John Wayne. An absorbing drama that marks the directorial debut of John Malkovich, this adaptation of Nicholas Shakespeare's novel feels like a page ripped from the Costa-Gavras filmography, though its most recent screen antecedent would be The Quiet American, another crackling political thriller grounded by an excellent central performance. Bardem stars as Agustin Rejas, a detective in an unnamed Latin American country (though it's based on events that occurred in Peru in the 1980s) who's as baffled as everyone else when dead dogs start hanging from lampposts and pert schoolgirls suddenly whip out machine guns to mow down government emissaries. A messy revolution appears to be underway, and Rejas doggedly tracks down clues, only pausing now and then to woo his daughter's ballet instructor (Laura Morante). Marred by a late-inning coincidence that's more suited to the inane likes of Hollywood Homicide, this is otherwise an intelligent motion picture that's especially effective at conveying a specific sense of time, place and mood.

FINDING NEMO As far as trivial pursuits go, ranking the Pixar/Disney animated efforts seems as futile an exercise as ranking favorite Beatles tunes: Because the high level of consistency between them is so comparable, we're basically talking about slight degrees of separation rather than quantum leaps in quality. In that regard, expect Finding Nemo to be hailed by many as Pixar's best movie to date while leading just as many -- myself included -- to deem it a delightful summer flick that still falls short of being an instant classic (on my scale, it's better than A Bug's Life but below Monsters, Inc. and the Toy Story twofer). Its animation is truly stunning, awash in a dazzling array of colors, and the storyline is a sturdy one, centering on the efforts of timid clown fish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) to rescue his son Nemo (Alexander Gould) from an aquarium. But for all its visual splendor and great gags, this falls short of most Pixar films primarily because too many characters seem more like "types" than unique individuals. What's more, two specific creations -- a blue tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) and Crush, a surfer-dude turtle voiced by director Andrew Stanton -- are as likely to alienate viewers as envelop them. (Crush actually emerged as my fave, but Dory's scatter-brained routine wore me down.) Still, it's downright curmudgeonly to remain focused on the negatives when the rest of the picture is saturated with invention and wit.

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