The Dark Knight Rises

Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard. A Warner Bros. release. Action/Thriller. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language.

The viewing public has a lot of questions about “The Dark Knight Rises.”
* Why does Bane sound like a 180-year-old Sean Connery? Gargamel has a more intimidating villain voice when confiding in his cat Azrael for the thousandth time that he’s going to get those Smurfs. Between Bane’s creaky chortle and Batman’s lozenge-demanding rasp, Maria Bamford could have turned up as Harley Quinn and been perceived as subtle and nuanced.
* Bane’s mask: What is its deal? It seems to involve tubes, hinges and levers, like a mouth guard for a steampunk goalie. Yes-that-really-is-Tom-Conti claimed the mask keeps the pain of Bane’s mauled face at bay, but that seems unlikely, biomechanically speaking. Surely with his resources Bane could afford some surgery and Vicodin. He probably wouldn’t be so angry at the world if he could eat a hamburger or brush his teeth.
* Why did the police officers trapped underground for three months come out looking like they were in there for three hours? One would expect to see the stench roiling off of them. Was there a subterranean Marriott with complimentary laundry service offscreen?
* What was the scar on Miranda’s back? OK, maybe it was best left underexplained, but subtlety is not a hallmark of this movie.
* Why would Alfred let a random temp server handle Bruce Wayne’s food and give her access to a secure area? Maybe he got a sneak peek at the will?
* Most of all, why was destroying Gotham so important to Bane? References to taking down the 1 percenters seemed to be a red herring on his part as he planned to annihilate one and all. Something about restoring a balance of power was mentioned, but without a lot of conviction. And the long con that emerges is a stretch, unless someone wanted to live their life with the goal of being an unpredictable movie plot twist.
“The Dark Knight Rises” could have sent a timely and highly relevant message about the state of our society and how easily those fighting evil can become evil themselves if they give in to baser instincts. We definitely could have used some glimpses of a few noble civilians trying to help out to show humanity is worth saving. Instead, we got some cool new Bat vehicles and some relatively satisfying character arcs. And a lot of things blowed up real good.

Published July, 2012

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

The Devil Wears Prada

Starring Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Emily Blunt and Adrian Grenier. Directed by David Frankel. Written by Aline Brosh McKenna. Produced by Wendy Finerman. A Fox release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for some sensuality. Running time: 109 min.

Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is the bright, just-out-of-college aspiring Serious Journalist of lore — the kind who’s happiest when writing stories about janitors’ unions and social injustice. But a thudding lack of response to her job applications has led Andy far afield of hard-hitting news outlets and into an interview for the post of Second Assistant to the editor of Runway, a top fashion magazine. The casually-garbed, designer-oblivious Andy already feels like a fish out of water just by entering the building, whose marble lobby is cacophonous with “clackers,” as she dubs the stilettoed staffers. But when she comes face to face with the imperious Miranda Priestly (a transfixing Meryl Streep), whose mere presence causes terror alerts among her own colleagues, it’s more like Andy has been transported to another planet, where everyone is fluent in Dolce & Gabbana, and haute couture is de rigueur. Where Anne Hathaway can be called fat with a straight face.

Dismissed as hopeless at first sight by Miranda’s super-stressed acerbic First Assistant, Emily (played with a strangely likable twist by Emily Blunt), and given an even more cutting appraisal by Miranda, Andy vows to prove them wrong by doing the job to perfection — not yet knowing that an average day requires the accomplishment of the proverbial six impossible things before breakfast. Out of her element, Andy enlists the help of Runway’s art director, the snarky but sweet Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who transforms her into the ultimate fashionista. In other words, to the unabashed delight of the film’s target audience, it’s makeover and outfit montage time! But by the time Emily declares to Andy that “you sold your soul the day you put on those Jimmy Choos!”, it’s obvious that the world Andy once ridiculed has practically subsumed her.

Based on the book by Lauren Weisberger, who drew from her experiences working at Vogue, “The Devil Wears Prada” is impressively free of black-and-white characterizations. A brimstone scent might follow the outrageously demanding and self-serving Miranda wherever she goes, but she’s also shown as being devastatingly intelligent and, as Andy points out in a Stockholm Syndrome moment, she is only criticized for her power-plays because of her gender. Supporting characters have their vices and virtues, and the only real enemy is the inner voice that tells us to be someone we’re not.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: June, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

The Lake House

Starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. Directed by Alejandro Agresti. Written by David Auburn. Produced by Doug Davidson and Roy Lee. A Warner Bros. release. Romance/Drama. Rated PG for some language and a disturbing image. Running time: 98 min.

You know what they say: Timing is everything. That’s true for “The Lake House’s” star-crossed lovers, who are two years out of sync with each other — but it’s even more of an issue for the film itself, whose languorous pace kills any sense of momentum.

Kate (Sandra Bullock) and Alex (Keanu Reeves) both live in a glass house on a lake. Only Alex lives there in 2004, and Kate has just moved out in 2006. On a visit back to her former abode, Kate checks her old mailbox for any unforwarded items, only to find correspondence from Alex replying to a timeslipped missive of her own. Thus begins a Griffin and Sabine-type pen-paramour romance wherein the past and present coexist in a precarious simultaneity, with true love just out of reach.

The payoff moments wherein realities are suddenly altered in dramatic fashion are undercut by bafflingly stilted direction by Alejandro Agresti, who seems to have taken all of the awkward elliptical moments from Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth” and dropped them randomly into his shooting script. There’s a general sense of confusion to the proceedings, not because it’s too complex or conceptually abstract, but because the exposition is amateurishly muddled. When Kate first corrects Alex as to what year it is, one struggles to recall Alex’s initial assertion of the timeline. And why did Kate move, and where and when? It’s unclear for a while that her visits to the magic mailbox are post-tenancy. Also, a pet dog seems to have had overlapping lives in a couple of parallel universes. Who knows — perhaps it’s not a glitch in the fourth dimension that Kate and Alex must traverse, but rather just some bad editing.

An American Haunting

Starring Rachel Hurd-Ward, Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek and James D’Arcy. Directed and written by Courtney Solomon. Produced by Courtney Solomon, Christopher Milburn and Andre Rouleau. A Freestyle release. Supernatural thriller. Rated PG-13 for intense terror sequences and thematic material. Running time: 82 min.

Slowly draining the life out of a victim may be a popular theme with the “Saw” set, but not when the injured party in question is the storyline. “An American Haunting” utterly stultifies the thrilling Bell Witch legend on which the film is based; the most disturbing ghost here is the wraith of opportunity lost.

The setting is Red River, Tennessee, circa 1818. Rachel Hurd-Ward (“Peter Pan”) is Betsy Bell, a picture-perfect blushes-and-ringlets girl whose burgeoning womanhood has been duly noted by her would-be suitors. Her solemn father, John (Donald Sutherland, looking striking with his flowing gray locks but employing some kind of silly cornpone accent), is not happy about his daughter’s innocent flirtations, but soon that’s the least of his worries. An angry neighbor gets revenge on John for a deal gone sour by putting a curse on the Bell family, and in short order an unseen poltergeist begins taking out its wrath on Betsy.

A fictionalized account of actual documented phenomena (reportedly even including U.S. President Andrew Jackson among eyewitnesses), Brent Monahan’s novel “The Bell Witch,” from which “An American Haunting” was adapted, builds tension in describing an entity that starts out wild and animalistic but soon gains alarming intelligence, as its disembodied voice begins singing hymns, quoting scripture and communicating with frightening articulation and acuity, ratcheting up the psychological torment. In the film, all that’s scrapped for endless cuts to doors creaking open, candles flickering, the occasional “Exorcism of Emily Rose” visual rip-off, and some hair-pulling and slapping that, while true to the source, probably shouldn’t have been accompanied by biff-bam comic-book sound effects. Writer-director Courtney Solomon pulls punches with the twist ending, and the semi-nebulousness makes it that much more of a stretch to go along with. Half-baked modern-day bookends add insult to injury.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: May, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

Kinky Boots

Starring Joel Edgerton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sarah-Jane Potts and Nick Frost. Directed by Julian Jarrold. Written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth. Produced by Nick Barton, Suzanne Mackie and Peter Ettedgui. A Miramax release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexuality, and for language. Running time: 106 min.

‘Pull yourself up by your kinky bootstraps’ is the theme of this based-on-a-true-story comedy in which “The Full Monty” meets Frederick’s of Hollywood’s shoe department. Charlie Price (“King Arthur’s” Joel Edgerton) is a wannabe ad exec finally breaking away from his father’s dream for him to take over the family shoe factory — but he’s obliged to return when Dad suddenly dies. Charlie learns that the manufacturing plant is also not long for this world, according to the red ink in the books. Despite it being the last thing he wants to do, Charlie feels obliged to save the company out of respect for its multigenerational lineage and for the sake of the workers. However, the quality product Price & Sons has always been known for has recently been snubbed by retailers in favor of inexpensive product that wears out quickly and thus keeps the customer in need of replacements. Charlie doesn’t know how to resolve this until fate teams him up with his niche market. One that needs top-notch, durable footwear. Preferably in a size 13 and made of red patent leather with snakeskin accents. For those who still haven’t twigged, this would be the transvestite sector.

When Charlie comes to the aid of a damsel-in-distress who’s being harassed by some thugs, his world changes when he learns that ain’t no lady. It’s Lola (“Dirty Pretty Things'” Chiwetel Ejiofor), a drag queen who bemoans, broken heel in hand, that stiletto boots weren’t made to hold someone six-foot-two with a boxer’s physique. The two team up, but both must surmount situational obstacles as well as their own insecurities before the rousing, Swarovski-crystal-studded feel-good finale.

Ejiofor is deeply charismatic yet elegantly subtle as Lola (né Simon), who can belt out lyrics like “I wanna be evil/I wanna spit tacks” without batting a false eyelash, but de-wig him and put him in a pair of jeans “and I can’t even sodding well say hello.” Edgerton, whom keen-eyed audiences might recognize as Uncle Owen from the “Star Wars” prequels, is likable as the straight man (literally and comedically), though his being Conan O’Brien’s doppelganger can be a bit distracting, especially when pop culture worlds collide and he has a Brad from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” moment on a Milan runway. Overall, the story’s beats and developments are a little too familiar, though quirky wit and a genuine warmth make getting from one to the next a pleasure.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: April, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

Akeelah and the Bee

Starring Keke Palmer, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Curtis Armstrong, J.R. Villarreal and Sean Michael Afable. Directed and written by Doug Atchison. Produced by Nancy Hult Ganis, Sid Ganis, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Romersa and Danny Llewelyn. A Lionsgate release. Drama. Rated PG for some language. Running time: 112 min.

Eleven-year-old vocabulary prodigy Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) at first shrugs off her uncanny ability to memorize, comprehend and, most impressively, spell some of the most daunting polysyllabics to take up space in the OED. She doesn’t see how being ridiculed as a “brainiac” is going to do anything but make her already troubled urban existence that much worse. Fortunately, she has an encouraging best friend who enthuses that “if I could spell like you, I could be a flight attendant” (however that connects), and a stuffy but caring language coach (Lawrence Fishburne) who “will brook no nonsense,” but will do everything in his power to help Akeelah reach her full potential. The neighbors also get caught up in the excitement of one of their own making a name for herself, and even the local thug quickly gets the hang of flashcard tutorials.

It all warms the cockles of one’s heart (insert Woody Allen griping “Just what I need — warm cockles” here) — but in a drama about an academic tournament turning life around for an inner-city girl, should the spelling bee challenges be more difficult than her familial and socioeconomic obstacles? Writer-director Doug Atchison dishes out tough love with words like ratiocinate, synecdoche, and one that “begins with an x” and only gets worse from there, but he pulls his punches when it comes to the more emotionally resonant issues faced by Akeelah and those closest to her.

Still, the film appealingly if formulaically shows that putting in your all, supporting your friends, losing graciously and winning even more graciously aren’t just good sportsmanship, but character- and destiny-defining traits. And considering the other lessons audiences have been learning lately — that sooner or later, you will probably be ensnared in a sadist’s torture trap, and that someone, somewhere, thought “Basic Instinct 2” was a good idea — any criticisms of this inspirational tale are as blunted as its harsher realities.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: April, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

V for Vendetta

Starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea and John Hurt. Directed by James McTeigue. Written by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Produced by Joel Silver, Grant Hill, Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. A Warner Bros. release. Drama/Thriller. Rated R for strong violence and some language. Running time: 132 min.

Who knew that smirky mask with the silky wig could evoke such power, passion and hope? Who imagined that a demonically grinning Pierrot with a fey taste for high art could reignite the human spirit? Certainly, it couldn’t have looked good on paper. But then, there was a time that Keanu Reeves as the savior of mankind didn’t play too well as a log-line, yet that didn’t stop the Wachowski Brothers from fulfilling their own destiny as box-office messiahs by seeing their vision through with “The Matrix.” Following the anticlimactic “Reloaded” and “Revolutions” sequels that didn’t live up to the epic mythos, the Wachowskis are back with a vengeance, so to speak, as scripters and producers of this all-too-resonant glimpse into a totalitarian future that’s neither far enough away in time nor from current realities.

It’s the year 2020, and the United States has plunged into disease, poverty and despair, becoming a living hell of a cautionary tale for the rest of the world. A power-hungry faction in the U.K. has seized the opportunity borne of fear and instability in their own country and established a thinly-veiled dictatorship. Its extremist policies are rationalized as being for the people’s protection, but has quickly devolved into a Hitleresque regime. Lulled by surface comforts while terrified by the administration’s deadly intolerance for dissent, London’s populace lives a cowed existence in which they get to sit around watching bigscreen plasma televisions, but have handed over all conceivable rights. However, souls are not so easily crushed, and when a masked vigilante makes a dramatic statement by blowing up the Old Bailey Courthouse amidst grandiose fireworks and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” blaring over loudspeakers, it sends shockwaves throughout the city — not of horror, but of hope.

Hugo Weaving draws on some of Agent Smith’s moves from “The Matrix” and “LOTR” elf king Elrond’s eternal wisdom (plus Tick’s hairstyling expertise from “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) to bring a magnetic charisma, flair, depth and gravitas to the freedom fighter known only as V. V disguises himself in a mask resembling the notorious Guy Fawkes, who on November 5, 1605, attempted to blow up the Parliament building to decry the government’s tyranny in what became known as the “gunpowder treason plot.” (This historical background is briefly reenacted in a scene that evokes “24” if it were in Roman numerals.) Weaving’s powerful characterization is counterbalanced by Natalie Portman’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Evey, a young woman who comes into V’s life at a pivotal moment and must decide whether to toe the line or stand up for what’s right.

The modern-day controversy of presidentially-authorized illegal wiretapping is taken to its chillingly logical extreme of regularly scheduled citywide conversation sweeps, a staggeringly visceral connection that couldn’t have been planned given the timing. That is apt for a film that’s all about meaningful connections and revelatory synchronicities. It all unfolds to an apex of the triumph of the best of humanity that could even change the real world. But if this sounds suspiciously like an overly-ponderous message movie, fear not: There are many deeply evil villains to dispatch, and V does it with elan, poetry, and bullet-time blades.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: March, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

Tamara

Starring Jenna Dewan, Matthew Marsden and Katie Stuart. Directed by Jeremy Haft. Written by Jeffrey Reddick. Produced by Danny Fisher, Chris Sievernich, Matt Milich and Martin Wiley. A City Lights release. Horror. Rated R for sequences of strong bloody violence, language, sexuality and teen drinking. Running time: 96 min.

By now, we all know what you did last summer and have had our ticket punched at our final destination. And nerdy girls have been turning hot and wreaking revenge on their nemeses at least since ZZ Top’s heyday. Perhaps the Seventh Art didn’t need a low-budget retread of ’90s horror and ’80s music video cliches, but teenagers who can’t get enough of peekaboo bras, short skirts and gory, pseudo-ironic comeuppances might sneak into this film after brining themselves in “Saw II” or “Hostel” for the tenth time.

“Tamara” is about a girl who I’m pretty sure has her name mispronounced throughout the whole movie. While that’s indignity enough, she’s further picked on because she has unstyled hair, wears glasses and has been dressed in a denim sack by the unsubtle costumer (who follows that up by garbing a drunken dad in what can only be described as a drunken dad shirt). When a prank on Tamara goes awry and she’s accidentally killed, the callous cool kids bury her in the woods and agree to keep quiet about the incident. They’re all shocked — or at least that’s the logical emotion audiences might project onto the tabula rasa acting — when the dead-and-buried Tamara turns up alive, kicking, tarted-up and flashing a Fairuza-Balk-from-“The Craft”-style wicked grin. Soon, Tamara is channeling dark forces to dispatch her enemies, but no magic can glamour over the fact that scripter Jeffrey Reddick is trying to resurrect his “Final Destination” concept, only to dig up a desiccated corpse that should have stayed buried. Or at least Frankensteined together with some fresher meat.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: February, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

Last Holiday

Starring Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, Gerard Depardieu, Timothy Hutton and Alicia Witt. Directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman. Produced by Laurence Mark and Jack Rapke. A Paramount release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references. Running time: 109 min.

First off, any movie that has hunky LL Cool J fall in love with the Plain Jane protagonist before her Gorgeous Georgia transformation is already several million points out of 10 ahead of the game with its target audience (women ages 15-95). Secondly, thirdly and fourthly, “Last Holiday” is warm, funny and inspiring. Add it all up and you’ve got anything but the usual throwaway dumbed-down rom-com, despite the January release date stigma.

True, “Last Holiday” inhabits a world where synchronicities are rampant, everyone acts just like you hope they would when given half a chance, and punishment-fits-the-crime comeuppances are meted to those few who are truly irredeemable. But you wouldn’t want anything else in a feel-good tale about a woman whose devastating diagnosis inspires her to truly start living.

Queen Latifah plays Georgia Byrd, a sweet but mousy department store sales clerk who is kind and generous to everyone but herself. She distantly hopes that good things — like connecting with her co-worker Sean (LL Cool J) and meeting her favorite gourmet chefs — might happen for her “someday.” But when a medical test turns up a fatal condition, Georgia resolves to make someday today. She liquidates her savings bonds and jets off to a five-star resort in Czechoslovakia to live large and meet her hero, Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu). Her grand entrance via helicopter, free-spending ways and adventurous streak cause a wave of speculation that she’s an eccentric billionaire, while her joie de vivre and newfound frankness win the admiration and devotion of everyone she meets. Except for the greedy villains of the piece, who try to thwart her, only to find fate thwacking them in the face at every turn.

Admirably avoiding the burlesque fish-out-of-water/makeover movie one might fear, “Last Holiday” is as joyful and winsome as Georgia turns out to be.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: January, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.

Nanny McPhee

Starring Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Kelly Macdonald and Thomas Sangster. Directed by Kirk Jones. Written by Emma Thompson. Produced by Tim Bevan, Lindsay Doran, Eric Fellner and Debra Hayward. A Universal release. Comedy. Rated PG for mild thematic elements, some rude humor and brief language. Running time: 98 min.

A fugly Mary Poppins meets “Nanny 911” in this family comedy whose overly familiar elements still go down easily as if with a spoonful of sugar. Adapted from Christianna Brand’s 1960s “Nurse Matilda” children’s books, “Nanny McPhee” is about a brood of children who just want their recently widowed father (Colin Firth) to pay attention to them. Since he’s too focused on trying to support his family, the kids act out abominably, driving no less than 17 caretakers away with their antics. The latest governess runs screaming from the house when the children pretend to eat one of their siblings, making quite a show of gnawing on chicken bones with baby booties on the ends.

Even with the help of a caring and comely scullery maid (Kate Winslet-alike Kelly Macdonald), Dad is at his wits’ end. Enter silently, suddenly and uninvitedly Nanny McPhee — “I did knock,” she always claims — to take control of the situation. One would think that a mere glance at her intimidating visage — Jimmy Durante schnoz, unibrow, hair-sprouting moles and all — would be enough to scare the sass out of any youngster. But it winds up taking magic, psychology, love, understanding, and CGI dancing donkeys to win these charges round.

The kids are ridiculously adorable, even at their most hellish, and Emma Thompson’s unflappable McPhee, whose strongest condemnation is a pointed half-syllable “Hm,” is a winsome counterbalance. But when anthropomorphized, dress-wearing barnyard critters come on the scene, it underlines a manufactured, pandering element that one would otherwise be inclined to ignore.

Published in Boxoffice Magazine: January, 2006

© Christine James – all rights reserved.