Think Mean Girls meets High School Musical meets whatever other high school teen scenario you can think of. Here four teenage girls make up the Bratz contingency each come from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds—just like the dolls they are based on. There’s Yasmin (Nathalia Ramos) a quiet Latina beauty with a great voice; Sasha (Logan Browning) the outgoing black cheerleader who loves to dance; Jade (Janel Parrish) a lovely Asian fashionista who also a wiz in chemistry; and Cloe (Skyler Shayne) the tall Caucasian blonde who despite being a klutz is a star on the soccer field. They’ve been best friends forever (or BFF as they lovingly refer to it) but once they hit high school they drift apart and into respective cliques organized by the narcissistic class president Meredith (Cheslea Staub). Still these BFF’s—who live for clothes make-up and hair products—won’t be pushed down. They’re gonna shake things up and prove it’s always best to just be yourself and stick together. You can’t really blame the unknown girls—each very cute in their own way—for wanting to bring the Bratz dolls to life. It’s a big deal! They get to sing and dance and wear all these cool clothes! They get to throw food in a cafeteria lunch fight! They get to serve sweets at Meredith’s Sweet 16 party dressed as clowns and still look fabulous! All the young girls in the audience will idolize them and wish they were a Brat too (perhaps to their parents’ chagrin). No it’s the adults in the movie you have to scratch your head about and ask “Do they really need the money that bad?” Character actors such as Lainie Kazan who plays Yasmin’s wise grandmother and Jon Voight as the inept high school principal and Meredith’s father just embarrass themselves over and over again—especially Voight who along with his mediocre appearance in Transformers has become the go-to guy to star in movies based on toys. And what’s with this latest trend to make live-action flicks based on toys? You can understand Transformers because they already had their own cartoon show and you know the movie would at least be action-packed full of cool visual effects. But a Bratz movie is a little too much. Even though it tries really hard to send positive messages there’s really nothing redeeming about turning little dolls—who frankly dress a little on the trashy side—into flesh-and-blood teenagers obsessed with how they look and dealing with high school politics. Bratz really only distinguishes itself from other Mean Girls-type movies because of the toy franchise. It would have been easier to take had it aired on the Disney Channel.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.
After being honorably discharged from the Navy Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal) heads home. With only his duffel bag and rifle he seems an aimless and penniless drifter but Elvis knows exactly where he’s going: Corpus Christi Texas to find his estranged father (William Hurt). Now a locally renowned pastor David Sandow has absolved himself of any and all sins he committed before “becoming a Christian ” which includes his illegitimate son with whom he wants no contact. So Elvis goes behind the pastor’s back and forges a relationship with his pristine naïve teenage daughter--and in reality Elvis’ half-sister--Malerie (Pell James). When her brother (Paul Dano) a teenager who wears the Bible on his sleeve threatens to reveal their love affair everything changes irrevocably. If The King were to ever get more than a very limited release in American theaters as many as three of the actors could vie for Oscar noms. Leading the way is Bernal (in his first English-speaking role) who may have the most esteemed resume of any contemporary actor (Y Tu Mama Tambien Amores Perros Bad Education The Motorcycle Diaries and Cannes’ most buzzed-about film this year Babel are just a few). His Elvis is impenetrable and still there’s a sense of menace--which is a feat no actor has pulled off this side of Brokeback Mountain; Oscar-worthy. Hurt fresh off his Oscar nom for A History of Violence again shows us why he’s one of the best most versatile in the biz. He embodies a man whose crisis of faith is but the tip of the iceberg following a role that couldn’t have been more the opposite; Oscar-worthy. James (Undiscovered) can’t quite succeed in obscuring her beauty but she does everywhere else lending a naïveté and an uncanny Southern accent to Malerie who’s 13 years younger than James herself; Oscar-worthy. And Dano gives perhaps the most haunting albeit very brief performance as a misguided teenager hurt more than helped by his dad’s heavy hand.
The King will ruffle more than a few feathers in the Jerry Falwell--and perhaps George W. Bush--sect for its thinly veiled take on Christianity and religion altogether. Well praise the Lord! Finally someone has used the medium of film for something besides a CGI test drive potentially spurring--dare we say--healthy debate in the process. That someone is British director James Marsh who co-wrote the film with Milo Addica (Monster's Ball). Together the two are careful to never assign condemnation to any one character and they touch upon every single dark almost gothic theme imaginable resulting in a film as engrossing as it is galvanizing. And the cinematography is so beautiful it surpasses CGI with landscapes so lush and vivid they look surreal. All of these elements pooled together form a story reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet or something Faulkner might concoct if he were around. But again for its sinful look at Christianity good luck finding it in (American) theaters.
The story arc of Bridget Jones Part Deux is identical to the first except for one little detail: Instead of trying to find a man Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) worries about losing the one she's got. She has already climbed her highest mountain and dreamed her impossible dream she has her soulmate Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) all wrapped up in a little bow and yet the movie keeps going. And going. In the short span of four weeks together Bridget and Darcy have already become the couple that don't speak. She stares at him while he sleeps. He chastises her for it grumpily she apologizes and then she freaks out thinking that he will break up with her. Rinse and repeat. His slinky secretary (Jacinda Barrett) flirts ominously. Bridget feeds her insecurities by stuffing her face drinking like a sailor and then slurring insults at whatever passing character will provide the maximum of shame and embarrassment. It's charming really. Hugh Grant rears his scaly head as former paramour Daniel Cleaver and a song and dance routine breaks out in a Thai prison. I wish I was kidding.
The massive appeal of the character from the books and the first film isn't that difficult to understand. Bridget isn't the smartest girl or the prettiest girl or the thinnest girl but she still wins Prince Charming. She's sweet though and she's funny and she offsets Darcy's stuffiness in a neatly symmetrical opposites attract way. But if the point of Bridget the First is finding the character's attractiveness within the point of the sequel is that Bridget is fat and stupid and the object of our ridicule.
Zellweger famously put 25 pounds back on to reprise the role but this time it seems closer to 50. Bridget's fat is zoomed in on enlarged jiggled fetishized and dragged through pig dung. And her unabashed quest to humiliate herself in public knows no bounds. None of this is exactly Zellweger's fault--the screenplay is terrible for starters--and yet all of it is. She decided to take on a sequel with a character that had absolutely nowhere to go and she doesn't muster the energy needed to save her this time. Even the acclaimed Oscar-nominated English accent sounds a little shaky.
Grant and Firth are caddishness and constipation personified but the stereotypes are way too easy. Firth's Darcy is depicted as a saint of course but one begins to wonder what sickness lurks within a man who watches idly as his girlfriend humiliates herself so brazenly. Grant's Cleaver with his thirst for random conquest is at least explainable. But Darcy seems to crave a woman who will need a quick hook at every social event and a bib at every restaurant. Maybe it's not the slinky secretary Bridget should be worried about it's the bag lady feeding the pigeons. On a positive note Jacinda Barrett is hands down the greatest actress who has ever emerged from MTV's The Real World.
Beeban Kidron who directed the hideous drag melodrama To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar clearly doesn't get the Jones phenomenon. She ratchets up the camp factor well past tolerable pushes it into misguided slapstick and culminates in nails-to-the-chalkboard shrillness in the Thai prison. And making matters worse not a shred of effort appears to have been expended to make the whole undertaking any more original. Entire scenes are repeated from the first movie. The "Ugly Sweater" scene. The "Big Underwear" scene. The "Fight" scene. And so on. This isn't the first time a sequel has been a glorified remake; Desperado and Terminator 2 spring to mind. But at least those movies had some shred of ambition. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason aspires to nothing and succeeds handsomely.
Based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's bestselling book of the same name Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the dusty West Texas town of Odessa where nothing much happens until September rolls around. That's when the town's 20 000 or so denizens pour into Ratliff Stadium the country's biggest high school football field every Friday night to watch the Permian Panthers Odessa's "boys in black " take to the field. All the town's hope and dreams are pinned on the padded shoulders of these young gridiron heroes--including insecure quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black); cocky self-assured running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke); headstrong self-destructive tailback Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund) who must contend with an overbearing abusive dad (Tim McGraw--yes that Tim McGraw the country singer); and the team's spiritual leader middle linebacker Ivory Christian (newcomer Lee Jackson). The Panthers begin their season with one thing on their minds--winning their fifth straight championship for the first time in the team's 30-year history--but for their coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) it also means instilling a love and joy of the game in the boys' hearts amidst tremendous pressures and expectations. Easier said than done.
There isn't a false note in any of the performances and no one falls back on clichéd versions of their characters as is so easy to do in rah-rah sports movies. Thornton does a particularly good job as Gaines keeping you guessing whether he's going to be a hardass insensitive to his players' emotional needs (like so many movie football coaches before him) or if he truly means to coach his boys in a fair and decent way. Gaines too has to deal with his own pressures especially from the townsfolk who are likely to string him up if the team loses the championship. As for Gaines' players Black (the oh-so-serious kid from Thornton's Sling Blade) is all grown up and buffed out and still very serious. It works for the young actor though as the beleaguered Winchell struggles with the love-hate relationship he has with his chosen sport. Other standouts include Luke (Antwone Fisher) as the star player Boobie whose cocksureness leads him to an injury; Hedlund as the volatile Billingsley trying desperately to please his father; and McGraw making his film debut as the father a former Permian Panther champion who sure hasn't given up his competitive spirit basically beating it into his son. First Faith Hill (McGraw's real-life wife) in The Stepford Wives and now McGraw--who knew country singers could act?
From All the Right Moves to Varsity Blues to Remember the Titans Friday Night Lights unfortunately doesn't completely distinguish itself from the pack of football movies before it--like those this is all about how the young players--be they underdogs second-string nobodies or stars--rising above the mounting pressure and playing the best they can bless their hearts. Still there's no question the sports genre--particularly football--always gets the juices pumping with FNL being no exception. It might have something to do with our sick fascination with watching bone-crunching hits and body-punishing tackles. It's dangerous out there for these guys; no other sport (besides maybe hockey) can elicit such wince-inducing emotion and actor/director Peter Berg (The Rundown) exploits that. Obviously influenced by Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday Berg effectively paints his own gritty documentary-style picture of the competitive sport without relying on too many trite gushy over-the-top moments. And to give it credit the film does not necessarily have a feel-good "let's win one for the Gipper" ending; it is based on a true story after all and as we know real life isn't all sunshine and roses especially in the bloodthirsty world of Texas high school football.