In this Britney-and-Beyonce-obsessed age 'tis a wonder anyone other than an art history buff knows who Rembrandt is let alone that other Dutch painter guy--what'shisname Vermeer. In fact very little is known about the 17th-century painter who died in debt at 43 and left most of his works including his most famous of a young girl wearing a pearl earring shrouded in mystery. Girl With a Pearl Earring is director Peter Webber's adaptation of the 1999 Tracy Chevalier novel that spun a gauzy fiction about the painter's unrequited obsession with a young maid who became his muse and the subject of said painting. The maid in question is Griet (Scarlett Johansson) whose tilemaker father's accident forces their family into poverty and her into servitude--and it's no picnic. Morose henpecked Vermeer (Colin Firth) hides in his studio away from the household which includes the puffy and pampered wife (Essie Davis) he keeps eternally pregnant; her tyrannical domineering mother (Judy Parfitt) who brazenly solicits work for Vermeer from patrons like rich lecher Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson); and a multitude of Vermeer brats. Full-lipped and nubile the servant Griet becomes the artist's secret obsession--he spies on her cleaning his studio teaches her about painting (or at least how to make his paints) and seduces her while painting her portrait behind his wife's back.
With little dialogue to speak Johansson's Griet is a study in silence. Her wide-eyed earnest stares and Mona Lisa smile do the talking for her proving a picture certainly can say a thousand words. She may get more attention for Lost in Translation but this is her vehicle. Johansson's quiet understated performance makes the others look that much more overstated--Wilkinson's vulgar mustache twirling art patron for example and Davis's jealous and ranting Catharina Vermeer for another although they too are very solid turns. Firth's Vermeer fades into the background surrounded by these big personalities understandably and fittingly so; he's the brooding artist who'd be far happier left alone to gaze upon his subject. Although the master and the servant never do much more than exchange looks the sensual energy between them is palpable.
This movie is beautiful absolutely stunning--it's as if cinematographer Eduardo Serra saw Vermeer's life through the artist's eyes and that vision comes through in exquisitely framed and lit shots. Some scenes--of young lovers walking along a tree-lined canal in fall light beaming across the girl's face as she cleans the studio's beveled windows--are literally breathtaking. Just as an artist's work is tactile so does this film feel--in the sounds of a heavy knife chopping vegetables and a spatula grinding pigment into paste…volumes are spoken in the clean white crispness of Griet's bonnet. First-time helmer Webber occasionally allows the camera to hang too long (a lip-licking scene in extreme close-up for example) but he creates a fully enveloping period and confidently leads his cast through this fairly thin story. You can pretty much guess what you're in for with a movie about a 17th-century Dutch master; knowing that if there's any criticism to be made it's that the pic feels every bit of its 95 minutes long. A lovely score by Alexandre Desplat also deserves a mention although it sometimes overwhelms scenes with unwarranted portentousness.
Go ahead and throw logic out the window on this one folks. A mysterious Tibetan monk with no name (Chow Yun-Fat) has spent a lifetime protecting an ancient document known as the Scroll of the Ultimate--a parchment that will yield unlimited power to anyone who reads it. After running around the globe for 60 years the Monk knows it's time to hang up his robes and find a new guardian but spotting a successor isn't easy in the hustle bustle of the 21st century where Tibetan traditions and rituals are almost non-existent. Maybe the next protector should be the crafty rebellious pickpocket Kar (Seann William Scott) who learned martial arts from watching kung-fu movies; after all Kar helps the Monk escape from the scroll's most avid pursuer Strucker (Karel Roden) a sadistic old Nazi who wants to use the its power to rid the planet of inferior races. Or maybe the Monk's successor is the elusive but beautiful bad girl Jade (James King) whose skills are numerous and who seems to pop up to help Kar whenever he gets in a jam. Whomever the Monk eventually chooses they must first unite to battle the ultimate enemy--and keep the scroll safe.
If it weren't for Yun-Fat Bulletproof Monk would be pretty hopeless. The charismatic actor finds a nice balance no matter what he does and in this case he resists the obvious temptation to play the Monk as a fish out of water in the big city. Since he's long been one of Chinese cinema's most well-known action heroes he's definitely in his element in Monk standing on top of a car with guns blazing and the Zen master persona he discovered in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon serves him well here too. The script requires him to spout off fortune-cookie mumbo jumbo but he manages to do it without sounding ridiculous. The petite King actually holds her own as the brawny-yet-brainy tough chick but the wisecracking Scott is completely out of his element for the first time in his career. He handles the little comedic tidbits well but in no way is it possible to believe that the "Dude" who couldn't find his car and the jackass who drank someone else's bodily fluids in American Pie can be a martial arts hero who saves the planet. It just isn't going to happen.
Bulletproof Monk relies on the ghosts of movies past including Crouching Tiger and the 1986 Eddie Murphy stinker The Golden Child for its plot which results in a film that's chock full of cliches especially the evil Nazi who has spent 60 years chasing after the scroll using his tow-headed granddaughter whose cover is an organization for human rights to do the dirty work. A few bright moments with Yun-Fat coupled with director Paul Hunter's good use of fast-paced martial arts action make the rest of this unimaginative movie somewhat palatable--even novices Williams and King look good doing the moves--but all in all Bulletproof Monk is shooting blanks.
One thing The Country Bears has in its favor is that the film keeps the plot simple. A convoluted storyline in which bears and humans interact would only make this even more painful to watch. Set in a music-video-type format where the bears and the humans sing and dance and have a grand old time the movie focuses on 11-year-old Beary Barrington (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) a young lad growing up with a very loving--and very human--family. Yet something doesn't feel right to Beary. Maybe it's because his jealous older brother Dex (Eli Marienthal) keeps telling him he has been adopted. Or maybe it's because he is a bear. Whatever the reason Beary feels connected only when he is playing his guitar and worshipping a hugely successful '60s rock band called The Country Bears--a quartet of big hairy fellows with names like Tennessee O'Neal Ted and Fred Bedderhead and Zeb Zoober who broke up over "creative differences" many moons ago. Beary decides to head out into the wild beyond to look for his true heroes--and find his place in the world. What he discovers is that the old Country Bear Hall where those wily bears used to perform is going to be torn down by the evil Reed Thimple (Christopher Walken. Yes we just said Christopher Walken.) Beary can't let this happen so he comes up with the plan to find the ex-Bears get them back together for a benefit concert and save the venue. Yee-haw.
Everyone associated with this film (from the actors to the long string of cameos by real-life musicians) surely believed they were making a fun-filled romp for the kiddies. You know "something to take the whole family to see " but they may not have realized how incredibly inane it would turn out to be. Or maybe Disney called in a lot of favors. Walken could have just lost a bet. The point is this--the human cast simply serves a purpose as the framework for the bears. Megan Fay and Stephen Tobolowsky are Beary's sugary-sweet mom and dad. Diedrich Bader and Daryl Mitchell play bumbling police officers looking for the hairy little fellow. Only Marienthal's Dex recognizes the absurdity of the situation--Beary is a bear and Marienthal gets to say probably all three of the best lines in the film. Cameos by artists such as Bonnie Raitt Don Henley and Elton John are fun but don't add much to the fray. Meanwhile the vocal talents are notable only when real-life singers like Raitt and Henley (who "sing" a duet as Tennessee and lady bear Trixie) and country singer John Hiatt (also as Tennessee) get to perform. Haley Joel Osment as the voice of Beary is more animated than the young actor has ever had the chance to be onscreen but there may be a reason for that--Osment is annoying as a chipper guy.
Most of us know about Disney theme parks and their most popular attractions--the Haunted House the Pirates of the Caribbean and of course the Country Bear Jamboree. Now Disney has gotten the bright idea to turn these attractions into movies--cashing in on the familiarity--and those singing dancing bears are the first guinea pigs. In other words Disney is grasping at straws. Granted the film is intended for children but let's not insult their intelligence as well. Besides a bad script so-so puppetry and sappy original songs the most bothersome thing about The Country Bears is that the bears walk and talk like their human counterparts have jobs eat in restaurants and play in rock-and-roll bands but there are only about six of them altogether. There aren't any other bears around. Or any other animals for that reason. At least in a Muppet movie the Muppets are everywhere and so it's understood they simply co-exist with humans. If you were to meet one of these Country Bears on the street you'd be very afraid.
Leave it to Pixar to come up with another clever story. We are introduced to a thriving monster metropolis where Monsters Inc. employs an elite group of big bad guys to go into children's closets and gather the city's energy supply--the children's screams. But lately there has been an energy crunch; it seems kids are not getting as scared as they used to. Enter top Kid Scarer Mr. James P. Sullivan a.k.a. Sully (voiced by John Goodman) a big blue fuzzy monster who along with his assistant Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) a green one-eyed wisecracker gets potent screams from the kiddies. Unfortunately the one thing Sully Mike and the others are deathly afraid of is the children themselves. And when one child Boo (voiced by Mary Gibbs) makes her way through the closet door into the monster world things get decidedly complicated for Sully who learns kids aren't so scary after all.
Honestly how could you go wrong with the vocal talents of John Goodman Billy Crystal Steve Buscemi and James Coburn? In Monsters Inc. they absolutely shine. Oscar-winning Coburn brings the head of Monsters Inc. Mr. Henry J. Waternoose a crablike spidery monster vividly to life. Buscemi as the evil Randall Boggs a slimy serpent monster who can camouflage himself to blend with anything plays the perfect foil to Sully a monster with grand plans who rivals the big guy in the quota for kids' screams. Crystal is hysterical as Mike with enough neuroses and wild antics to offset the sweet Sully--without stealing the show. Even the little girl Boo comes across convincingly as a two-and-a-half-year-old especially when she sings in the bathroom. It's Goodman who makes the movie complete--his Sully is one big galoot you can wrap your arms around.
Pixar Animation must constantly search high and low for the cream of the crop in animation and story development; they never settle for second best. The studio has the Midas touch when it comes to computer-animated films--its three features so far Toy Story Toy Story 2 (still one of the best sequels ever made) and A Bug's Life have grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. Yes Dreamworks may have given Disney a run for its money with its spectacular summer blockbuster Shrek but Pixar isn't going to roll over that easily. Monsters Inc. is a wonderfully inventive film especially in its creation of such otherworldly settings as the factory and its assembly line of closet doors. The movie combines all the right elements--there's a good guy a funny sidekick a slimebag a climactic chase scene and an adorable reason for things to end happily.