Monday, November 10, 2008


TRANSSIBERIAN (***1/2) is a nasty little thriller. Directed by Brad Anderson (THE MACHINIST) from a lean-and-mean script he co-wrote with Will Conroy, the film centers on Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer), two American’s who have been working in Beijing and decide to take a six day train ride from China to Russia. They meet a mysterious couple on board the train. Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) has smoldering, wandering eyes while his girlfriend Abby (Kate Mara) is aloof and slightly suspicious. Roy is a train enthusiast who loves the idea that he’s on a big-time train trip and Jessie seems happy enough to be along for the ride. Carlos and Abby seem like they could be trouble but the script is so slyly drawn that you never quite know what’s what and who’s who. Ben Kingsley also stars as a Russian police investigator who is trying to solve a sketchy murder and drug theft. For the first 75 minutes or so, there is a sense of dread and foreboding (much like the atmosphere of THE MACHINIST) and the genius of the film lies in the brilliant misdirection of Anderson’s cool directorial style. You’re waiting for something to happen and then it doesn’t. When you’re least expecting something to happen – it does. Then, the film takes a positively sinister turn in its last act (get ready for an intense bit of on-screen torture), and while there is some action aboard the train that strains credibility in an otherwise credible thriller scenario, TRANSSIBERIAN closes out in a satisfying way. The performances, especially Mortimer and Noriega’s, are all excellent, and the snowy landscapes of Xavi Gimenez’s desolate cinematography are visually arresting. This is one of the better thrillers I have seen this year, but be prepared for a wallop of a last act.
You know, it’s funny. Whenever you finally get around to seeing a classic movie you’re always at odds with your expectations. Example: RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD. As a kid, I never saw Sly tearing up the Pacific Northwest. My parents made the decision that RAMBO would be off limits. So, over the years, the film escaped me, I never had any real interest in catching up with it when I got older, and I formed a distinct idea in my head of what Rambo was and is. Then, after I finally saw the movie a few years ago, I was struck by many things: how smart the script was (at least the first and second acts), how little violence there was (relatively speaking), and how introspective the film was at times. Because it took me so long to see the film, my expectations had been shaped by the media, reviews, and what the name “Rambo” has come to mean in our society. A similar situation occurred recently when I finally sat down to watch Blake Edwards’ BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (***), which was nothing like I expected it to be. George Axelrod’s screenplay, based on the novel by Truman Capote, was a lot fizzier than I imagined. Over the years, the title “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” has come to mean something to me, something the film didn’t necessarily live up to. Not that that’s a bad thing; I found the movie to be enjoyable and while nothing was ever truly at stake within the narrative and I called all of the twists that the plot took, I was never bored and wanted to know what was going to happen at the end. I had imagined a completely different movie, one with a serious story. Maybe something involving a girl named Tiffany and an important breakfast. Audrey Hepburn was extremely hot but damn, did she need to eat some burgers and fries – way too skinny. The racial stereotyping of her Asian landlord was interesting in that a depiction like that would never be allowed by today’s standards. And the idea that Hepburn’s romantic interest in the film starts the story off as a gigolo must’ve felt very subversive at the time. The problem with watching classic films out of social context is that they have a tendency to lose their immediate voice when viewed from a remove of years. BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S ultimately struck me as a cute little rom-com that felt like a cross between MTV’S The Hills and any one of the recent female-star-of-the-moment rom-coms that pop up every few months at the multiplex. And by the way, I thoroughly enjoyed FIRST BLOOD.

I don’t really have much to say about KUNG FU PANDA (**1/2). Animated movies aren’t normally my bag, but I had some interest in this Dreamworks production based on the idea of a cute panda who’s an expert at martial arts. The colors are vibrant and shiny, the script is cute enough, Jack Black does some humorous vocal mugging, and the action moved along at a brisk clip. But, as with so many other animated films, I just didn’t care about what I was watching. I am sure that little kids loved this movie and I am sure they’ll all love the sequel which is now in development. But KUNG FU PANDA is a long way away from the brilliance of something like WALL*E or RATATOUILLE. Everyone is just a shadow of the Pixar giant.

BABY MAMA (**) was a supreme disappointment. You’ve got a ton of excellent comic performers – Tina Fey, Greg Kinnear, Steve Martin, Amy Poehler, Dax Shephard, Romany Malco, Sigourney Weaver, and Will Forte – all surrounded by a lame, unfunny script by Michael McCullers (who also directed) that should have been more vulgar and envelope pushing. The idea of BABY MAMA had some potential. Fey is a career-woman who never had time to get married and settle down. All she wants is a baby. So she enlists the help of Weaver who runs a posh child-surrogate company who hooks her up with the skeevy, white-trashy Poehler as her “baby mama.” A clash of cultures ensues between the two women while an unlikely friendship is tentatively born. Kinnear plays a juice-smoothie store owner who has a meet-cute with Fey but everything in this film is dry and wooden. There were maybe one or two honest-to-goodness laugh-out-loud moments but for the most part, McCuller’s script is stale and not edgy enough. He’s also done no favors by his flat looking visual sensibilities. Horrible lighting and poorly timed editing didn’t help matters either. Had this been rated R and had a different director been at the helm, than BABY MAMA could’ve possibly been the female version of KNOCKED UP. In the end, all you’re left with are a few throw-away laughs (mostly generated by Martin as a New Age, douchey corporate slug) and the always cute and watchable Fey. This is the epitome of the “in-flight movie.” Go watch some 30 ROCK repeats instead.

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