Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Snooch to the Nooch!

What has it been this year with me and movies? I mean, it’s not as if there hasn’t been anything I’ve wanted to see- Lord knows there has been. I guess I just haven’t wanted to take the time to go see it. Part of it is my continuingly tight financial situation- though my finances are under control- keeping me from seeing movies I’ve wanted to see like “Why We Fight,” “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” and “Imagine Me & You” because I still don’t feel comfortable enough to think I can afford to pay for them. Part of it is, well, the theatre I work at just hasn’t been getting a lot of the movies I’ve wanted to see, and I haven’t felt motivated enough to go elsewhere to see them, though I did finally catch up in the 10 days preceeding this rundown with many of them. Of course, I’ve also been watching a lot of fascinating older films on DVD I still had yet to see, have been working full-time at the theatre, been making my own film, as well as writing the occasional piece of music. It also doesn’t help that my gang I like to see movies with and I haven’t been able to coordinate our schedules to get to some of these films like we have been in the past, but such is the case in the “real world.” So if the following is a bit lighter in content than in years past, believe me- I will be catching up as much as possible in the coming months. And on that note, check out my rundown of the summer movies I’m most looking forward to this year at the end of this, and have a good moviewatching season.

What Sizzled:
Actually, I quite enjoyed several of the 17 films I saw from 2006 between January and April; don’t be surprised if they end up faves for the year as well. Haven’t seen any real “A+” movies yet this year, but three came close- not surprisingly, all three hailed from a sort of old-school filmmaking aesthetic that was easy to get behind, focusing more on character and story than on appealing to the broadest audience possible. The best of them was also the smallest, and the most innovative- Steven Soderbergh’s indie offering “Bubble” (A), an experiment in movie release that is more significant for just being an exceptional movie from a great director starring non-actors. Next up was the hot-button comic book adaptation “V for Vendetta” (A), scripted by the Wachowski Brothers (“The Matrix”) and featuring some of the ballsiest political commentary in recent years and great performances by Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving. Finally, the big three for me so far is rounded out by “16 Blocks” (A), an old-fashioned cop thriller with a terrific lead performance by Bruce Willis, smart plotting and support, and the steady hand of Richard Donner as director making his best film since “Lethal Weapon 2.” Not far beyond these films- but not close enough- are a sly indie satire of lobbyists (Jason Reitman’s entertaining “Thank You For Smoking” (A-)); a hilarious and engaging spin on romantic comedy conventions (“Failure to Launch” (A-)); a smart and socially-aware heist movie from a bold director (Spike Lee’s crafty “Inside Man” (A-)); and a concert film from a Hollywood pro featuring a musical legend at his best (Jonathan Demme’s “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” (A-)).

What Sucked:
Some promising films. That’s “What Sucked.” Start with the bottom of the barrell so far for me this year, the uninspired “Basic Instinct 2” (F), which followed the plot of its’ terrific 1992 predecessor to the letter without the risk and audacity delivered by writer Joe Estherhas and director Paul Verhoeven. Pretty far behind, but still pretty bad in their own right, was the murkily shot story of the Earl of Rochester (played with bold charisma by Johnny Depp) in the dull “The Libertine” (D-), and the sometimes-inspired, mostly-predictable, pretty much unfunny revamp of a classic series in Steve Martin’s update of “The Pink Panther” (D), which I wouldn’t mind another go for without the director of “Cheaper By the Dozen” at the helm.

What’s Just OK:
A lot. Well, OK, a lot given how many films I’ve seen. And some of the films had promise to be exceptional (Paul Weitz’s “American Dreamz” (B) was too broad a satire to really bite, Kurt Wimmer’s “Ultraviolet” (C-) was too flashy to develop a mind). But most were just average Hollywood fare never really meant to be anything, but could have been with a little effort. “Firewall” (B+) was an entertaining return to action star form for star Harrison Ford to get audiences revved up for “Indiana Jones 4.” “Glory Road” (B) was a thoughtful look at an inspiring true story from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, but it played like “Remember the Titans” redux in the end. “Ice Age: The Meltdown” (B-) had some moments with Scrat chasing the acorn that were comic gold, and OK, I kind of got into the story, but it was no “Toy Story 2” (or “Shrek 2”) among animated sequels. And broad comedy spoofs “Date Movie” (C+)- redeemed by an over-qualified cast- and “Scary Movie 4” (C)- redeemed by some slight laughs- just couldn’t muster up the creativity of all-out movie spoof classics like “Airplane!” and “Scary Movie.”

Favorite Performances: Natalie Portman (“V for Vendetta”); Bruce Willis (“16 Blocks”); Hugo Weaving (“V for Vendetta”); Dennis Quaid (“American Dreamz”); Aaron Eckhart (“Thank You For Smoking”); Jodie Foster (“Inside Man”); Sarah Jessica Parker (“Failure to Launch”); Denzel Washington (“Inside Man”); Matthew McConaughey (“Failure to Launch”); Harrison Ford (“Firewall”); Johnny Depp (“The Libertine”).
Favorite Music: As you can imagine, due to the lack of moviegoing, not much has stood out as far as music. Still, a couple of scores have made the early shortlist for 2006 highlights, such as Dario Marianelli’s skillful score for “V for Vendetta” and Robert Pollard’s sparse but effective music for “Bubble”. Still, major props to Jonathan Demme for providing one of the best musical experiences I’ve had in the theatre in a long time with his wonderful concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold”; it reached at the heart of what film and music- when combined- can achieve in the best of circumstances. Kudos, also, to the title song Mandy Moore sings in “American Dreamz” and Rolfe Kent for the sly comedy score he did for “Thank You for Smoking”.
Favorite Scenes: the 5th of November- Parliment ablaze (“V for Vendetta”); Evey and the priest (“V for Vendetta”); pitching “cigarettes in space” (“Thank You for Smoking”); presidential awakening to the world (“American Dreamz”); paintball/meeting the friends (“Failure to Launch”); heart-to-heart between Sally and Omer (“American Dreamz”); Madeline and Dalton deal in the dark (“Inside Man”).

What to Watch This Summer- 6 Flicks to Get Psyched About:
1. “Cars” (6/9)- Early buzz is speculating that this could be the Pixar film that breaks the string of success the studio- as singular a powerhouse as we’ve seen in animation since early Disney- has had with “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters Inc.,” and the Oscar winners “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles.” From the trailers for this comedy about talking cars (voiced by the likes of Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, and Larry the Cable Guy), it’s easy to see why engines aren’t exactly revving up for this one. Of course, I remember similar hesitation greeting the $340-million grossing “Nemo,” Pixar’s first summer release. Here’s why I’m still waiting to see this ahead of any other film this summer: 1) Pixar’s perfect track record, a run of success unmatched in Hollywood history; 2) the film is written and directed by John Lasseter, Pixar’s resident genius and the new head of animation at Disney after the Mouse House bought Pixar outright, back in the director’s chair for the first time since “Toy Story 2”; 3) Pixar always finds the heart in even their whackiest stories (see “A Bug’s Life”); 4) you know the cast’ll be hilarious and heartfelt; and 5) Randy Newman is back as composer for the first time with Pixar since winning an Oscar for “Monsters Inc.,” after Thomas Newman and Michael Giacchino came aboard for “Nemo” and “The Incredibles,” respectively. I don’t care what the pundits say- that’s a receipe for success that couldn’t possibly fail for Pixar.

2. “World Trade Center” (8/11)- The most controversial film of the year. Period. I have yet to see “United 93,” and yes, “The Da Vinci Code” will get religious types upset all over again, but “WTC” trumps them both, and it comes down to one person- director Oliver Stone. The most polarizing figure in American cinema, Stone’s resume is filled to the brim with political hot potatoes either good (“JFK,” “Platoon”), bad (“Alexander,” “Natural Born Killers”), or unseen by me (“Born on the Fourth of July,” “Nixon”), and from the second it was announced, “World Trade Center” looked to be another one. But wait a minute- one scan of the story, as written in the screenplay by Andrea Berloff, shows not a trace of the touchy politics one might expect from a Stone 9/11 film. Stone’s never-dead provocateur nature might make an appearance, but the advance buzz about this film- detailing the story of two Port Authority officers who were the last survivors to be pulled from the rubble of Ground Zero (recreated in L.A.)- is that it’s a side of Stone we haven’t seen yet onscreen. The real-life subjects- Officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno- were on the set the entire time to give guidance to Stone and lead actors Nicolas Cage (continuing the risk-taking of “Adaptation.” and “The Weather Man”) and Michael Pena (one of the most underrated of “Crash’s” actors) every step of the way. With top-notch support by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello as the officer’s waiting wives, Stone has stacked the deck in his favor; if he succeeds, consider him a front-runner for his third directing Oscar.

3. “A Scanner Darkly” (7/7)- Postponed for nearly a year due to a tricky post-production, writer-director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel about a future overrun with drugs finally makes its’ way to screens this summer with a limited release that gradually expands over the month of July. Do you see a better way of selling audiences on a futuristic story starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, and Woody Harrelson where Linklater shot the film on a low budget in digital, and then- using the same technique he did on 2001’s groundbreaking “Waking Life”- animated the images, giving them a singular beauty. The trailers promise another visionary work of art from the indie-minded maverick who stumbled after the artistic triumph of 2004’s “Before Sunset” with last summer’s misguided “Bad News Bears” remake- here’s hoping it was worth the wait.

4. “Clerks II” (8/18)- So, what happened to “The Passion of the Clerks?” I guess Mel Gibson didn’t approve of the name, so they switched it to the blander, less-exciting “Clerks II.” I still want to see it. Twelve years after the original movie launched the Askewniverse and the career of foul-mouthed writer-director Kevin Smith, Smith returns to the two slackers that started it all as Dante and Randall- now in their 30s- have moved on from their days at the convenience store (because it burned down) to work at a local Mooby’s and for a hottie manager (“Rent’s” Rosario Dawson). The preview doesn’t promise the same level of rebellious laughs Smith achieved in the original- which was never all that- but given they’ve basically agreed on an Unrated rating for the film, you know they are gonna hold the raunchier- and cross your fingers for funnier- stuff off until the movie itself. Jay and Silent Bob return!! For a follow-up, Kev, might I suggest you get that “Clerks” animated movie off the ground…

5. “The Da Vinci Code” (5/19)- You know the story…you do, right? Heck, I haven’t even read Dan Brown’s mega-best-seller and I know the story. And it’s generating controversy again as the film- which opens this year’s Cannes before it hits American theatre- comes close to opening this month. Best-sellers of this level don’t normally live up to expectations, but here’s why you shouldn’t fret if you’re a fan- the director is Ron Howard, the versatile Oscar-winner (for “A Beautiful Mind”) who triumphed last year with the underappreciated “Cinderella Man”; the screenwriter is Akiva Goldsman, who after a run of boring blockbusters (including “Batman & Robin”) found his voice with scripts for “Mind” and “Cinderella Man,” among others; the composer is Hans Zimmer, whose propulsive aesthetic- perfected for the likes of “Hannibal,” “Batman Begins,” and “Crimson Tide”- should prove effective as he reunites with his “Backdraft” director; and the stars include Tom Hanks (his third film with Howard after “Splash” and “Apollo 13”), Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Paul Bettany, and Jean Reno. The latest trailer for the film simply sealed the deal- this movie’s gonna be huge (Author’s Note- People are underestimating this film’s box-office potential big time. Don’t be surprised if it’s in the top three for the summer and year).

6. “The Science of Sleep” (8/4)- I haven’t seen a trailer for this film. Nor have I seen much along the lines of a description about its’ plot except that it is about a “graphic artist held captive by his dreams” (that’s from Premiere). It stars Gael Garcia Bernal, who was kind of absent from theatres last year after two star-making performances in 2004, one in “The Motorcycle Diaries” as a young Che, the other in Pedro Almodovar’s wicked film noir “Bad Education” as a transvestite whose abuse in school transformed him as an adult. So what’s the draw? It’s the writer-director who created it. “The Science of Sleep” is the first fictional film from writer-director Michel Gondry since his astonishing Oscar-winner “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (he also directed “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” earlier this year). Whether he has “Sunshine” writer Charlie Kaufman’s gifts as a writer of surreal stories is yet to be seen (though he was the initiator of “Spotless Mind,” and was one of the three Oscar-winning writers), but on the strengths of “Mind” and 2002’s “Human Nature” (also scripted by Kaufman), Gondry- a former music video director- is one of the most singular visionaries working in modern cinema (I so have to get that Directors series set with his shorts and videos), so at the very least, this’ll be an interesting film to look at.

Here are some more movies to look out for this summer:
That headline kind of says it all, doesn’t it? This list includes: “Superman Returns” (6/30), the eagerly-awaited return of the Man of Steel to the big screen from “X-Men” director Bryan Singer (and his “X2” composer John Ottman, working with John Williams’ themes) with his “Usual Suspects” Oscar winner Kevin Spacey as an inspired choice as Lex Luthor to reek havoc on Metropolis and unknown Brandon Routh as Clark Kent/Superman (a brunette Kate Bosworth is Lois Lane); “X-Men: The Last Stand” (5/26), the smash comic book series Singer left for “Superman” which gets a new director in “Rush Hour’s” Brett Ratner, new cast members in Kelsey Grammer (as Beast), Ben Foster (as Angel), and Vinnie Jones (as Juggernaut) to go with returning cast including Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin, and Famke Janssen (that last trailer gives me hope post-Singer); “Lady Vengeance” (5/5), the last installment of Korean master Park Chanwook’s Revenge Trilogy, which includes the earlier stunners “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Oldboy”; “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (7/7), the first of two impromptu sequels by producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski to their $300 million 2003 smash with Johnny Depp back as Captain Jack, and Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley along for the ride and Bill Nighy (from “Love Actually”) as the bad guy (sorry, the trailers just hasn’t impressed so far with this one); “Miami Vice” (7/28), the latest big-screen update of a TV hit, this one of the ’80s crime story by writer-director Michael Mann (who executive produced the series before delivering the likes of “Heat” and “Collateral” on the big screen) starring Colin Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, and Gong Li; “Snakes on a Plane” (8/18), a late-summer horror thriller about, well, take a guess, starring Samuel L. Jackson that’s already achieved cult status from internet fans due to that wacky name (they did reshoots recently to go from a PG-13 to an R rating); “Lady in the Water” (7/21), the latest real world fantasy- this one a fairy tale- from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (“Signs,” “The Sixth Sense”) starring Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard; “The Break-Up” (6/2), a sort-of anti-romantic comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston and directed by Peyton Reed (“Bring It On,” “Down With Love”); “The Reaping” (8/11), an intriguing-sounding religious supernatural thriller starring Oscar-winner Hilary Swank; “Click” (6/23), a promising high-concept comedy starring Adam Sandler as a guy who gets a universal remote to control his life (Kate Beckinsale’s his wife); “A Prairie Home Companion” (6/9), the latest film from legendary director- and recent Oscar honoree- Robert Altman starring Lindsay Lohan, Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, and Kevin Kline; “Poseidon” (5/12), the latest film about danger at sea from director Wolfgang Petersen (he previously did “The Perfect Storm” and “Das Boot”), this time remaking the ’70s disaster film “The Poseidon Adventure” with Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, and Richard Dreyfuss; and “Mission: Impossible III” (5/5), the long-in-development third film in Tom Cruise’s spy series/vanity project with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the bad guy, Michelle Monaghan as the girl, and “Alias” and “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams in the director’s chair (his composer on those shows- Michael Giacchino- is bringing his creativity to the music). There are some other intriguing smaller films that I’m interested in, but it’s unsure whether they’ll see the big screen in the summer. You’ll hear about them though when they do hit the screen.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

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