2004 Holiday Movie Reviews
Stephanie Curtis Stephanie Curtis on the holiday movie scene
Minnesota Public Radio's movie maven scoops the cinema. Catch her picks for this season's releases, and discover what goes on behind the critic's curtain.

Friday, December 24, 2004
The end of the year begs for a love and loathe list - see my Best and Worst of 2004, and don't be shy: share your best and worst picks for 2004.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004
There's a good movie to be made out of the plot of "Flight of the Phoenix." It just hasn't been made yet. Neither the original or the remake really works. The tension never gets ratcheted up. The characters are thin and a little dull. But I have a solution for the next time someone decides to remake it. Change the hero. The hero should not be the pilot who gets them into the mess; it should be the nerd who gets them out of the mess.

A brief summary: A plane goes down in the desert. The plane was off-course without a radio. Thus, the only way out of the desert is to rebuild the plane. It could be fun to follow the engineer who makes the plane (Giovanni Ribisi) as he figures out how to make it out of trash. Instead, we follow the pilot (Dennis Quaid, admittedly more heroic looking than Ribisi). This, we remain in the dark about how this whole thing will work as much as the pilot and crew do. We never get into Ribisi's head or plans. So it feels like we are watching a bunch of thirsty people do grunt work that they don't understand. It's boring.

Isn't it more fun to get in the head of master-planner? Even if he is a little nerdy?

Monday, December 20, 2004
My name is Stephanie Curtis and I am a Hollywood Stock Exchange addict.

If you don't know about it (hopefully you have a life and don't) is a market which predicts how much money movies will make based on people buying and selling shares in movie. It's free! Of course, none of the people trading actually make money off the exchange. There are no prizes to be won. In fact, it's even hard to measure your movie-picking abilities against that of other people. So why do I do it? I have no idea, but every morning and every night I log on and buy and sell fake movie stocks.

It's sad, isn't it?

But what is even sadder is the fact that Hollywood Stock Exchange was crashed this week. I was bereft. I searched message boards for updates on when trading would resume. I looked for other traders online with whom I could commiserate (my family has banned me from talking about the exchange with them).

But I am happy to report that the exchange is back up and my life a fake movie stock picker can continue! So how am I doing? I'm ranked 28,002nd! (Yeah, I know. My family's not very impressed either).

Sunday, December 19, 2004
There are a lot of movies out now that I haven't yet seen. "A Series of Unfortunate Events" has opened, plus "Spanglish," "Flight of the Phoenix" and "House of Flying Daggers." But, of course, I am a whiner and a complainer. All I want to see now are the movies that are not open that I read about in the New York Times. Scorsese's "The Aviator," Almodovar's "Bad Education," Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby."

I hate platform releases - when a movie opens slowly across the country. First just New York and Los Angeles. Then maybe Chicago and a few other big cities. Finally, it reaches Minnesota (and then only the Twin Cities). By the time it gets here, it feels stale to me even if I haven't even seen it. So even though right now I would skip my Christmas presents to see "Bad Education" (and I love Christmas presents) I probably won't even go on the first day.

But, I'm in the Twin Cities, so I'll try to appreciate what I have and go see "House of Flying Daggers" and remember that a lot of people in outstate Minnesota don't even have that option.

Friday, December 17, 2004
First, I know that everyone says they are a "predictor" of the Oscars, but remember that they choose 10 different movies to nominate for best picture...they are liable to choose the some of the same films as the Academy.

Secondly, who ARE these people making the nominations? The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is notorious for being star-struck fans who know nothing about films (and Hollywood spends a lot of time rubbing shoulders with the members and basically buying nominations). Say what you will about the Academy voters being out of touch or stodgy...their members at least work in the business and the Academy lays down rules so its voters can't be bribed by stars and studios.

Finally, what kind of awards would have "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Incredibles" competing against each other? Why are they in the same category?

Enough. I am getting irritable just thinking about it.

Sunday, December 12, 2004
And the most improved award of 2004 goes to:

Natalie Portman.

The young woman who is best known for sleep-walking through George Lucas' latest trio of Star Wars films had been a pretty good actress when she was a kid. In "Beautiful Girls" and "The Professional," she had a real presence. But after her mannequin-like performances as Padmť Amidala and bland showings in "Where the Heart Is" and "Cold Mountain," I never expected much from her again. Maybe she just seemed good because she had been so eerily poised as a kid.

Then came "Garden State" and "Closer." Who knew the girl could actually act again? (Now, Clive Owen does put her and their other co-stars to shame in "Closer," but it would be hard to measure up to his shambling, predatory performance.) Who knows? Maybe in the latest Star Wars film, she'll shine, but it probably takes a true genius of an actor to escape the performance-crushing Lucas direction.

Friday, December 10, 2004
The big irritation for me at the movies right now - movies that start WAAAAAAYYYY past the time they are supposed to begin. I like seeing previews, so they don't really bother me (unless I see the same one over and over...I am going to shriek next time I have to sit through "The Aquatic Life with Steve Zissou" one more time). But more and more theaters in town are showing commercials before the previews.

Now, not all of them bug me. If you say the movie starts at 7:00 and at 6:40 you start showing some ads for a lame TNT movie - fine. No problem. But when you say that the movie starts at 7:00 and at 7:00 you start showing a Coke commercial, my blood boils.

I think theaters should have the time the previews and ads start listed AND the time the actual film starts so if we don't want to know about new low-carb coke, we don't have to see it. Or, at least keep the lights up full so I can read a novel.

Wednesday, December 8, 2004
I got this e-mail from Jay in St. Paul:

"I am trying to remember a movie from the 1950's. It may have been based upon a book "Call It Treason." The movie title had Morning in it. It is about a german soldier captured in WW II. He agrees to go back into Germany to obtain information as he is not sympathetic to the national socialist govt. In a touching scene he phones his father to hear his voice and then hangs up He is shot trying to cross a river to the US lines. It is B and W, many dark scenes and powerful. Can you help?" are so lucky I sit up watching American Movie Classics! There are so many movies that show up there and on Turner Classic Movies that are not on video or DVD. And who knows...maybe this film is on video, but I saw it on cable. It's "Decision at Dawn" directed by Anatole Litvak who also made "Sorry Wrong Number."

Monday, December 6, 2004
It's not on our holiday movie list, but it's out right now...I went to see "Bright Leaves" by Ross McElwee. He's a southern documentarian now living in New England. In the film, he goes to visit family and friends in North Carolina and looks into his ancestors ties to tobacco farming. It's a lot like McElwee's other movies; part social history-part personal history.

It made me think back to the other McElwee films I've seen. Watching "Sherman's March" as an undergrad at the student cinema. Seeing a video of "Six O'clock News" at my apartment about 8 years ago. It's wonderful to be able to remember not only a movie from the past, but where you saw it, who you saw it with and how it made you feel. McElwee's movies are so self-examining, that it prompts you to do the same thing to yourself after you're done watching them. It helps you remember who you were at different points in your life. So if you've never seen a McElwee film...see one ("Bright Leaves" is at the Bell Auditorium at the U for the next week), but only one. Wait a few years and see another. Maybe you'll be able to note how you've changed.

Friday, December 3, 2004
I've had some extra time in the past week to catch up on DVDs. My particular obsession of late is Bollywood. The over-the-top Indian musicals are nothing like any American films. They run for 2 and a half to 3 hours. The heroes and heroines swoon with emotion. Most of the films are a big mess: 4 big music numbers + 20 costume changes + 1 scolding mother + 2 comedic scenes that drop in the plot as complete non sequiturs + one big happy ending (that involves no onscreen kissing). What a glorious mess!

I am dying to see the Indian version of "Pride and Prejudice" that is coming out near Christmas, "Bride and Prejudice." It's not a strict Bollywood movie. It has western actors, it's in English and it's by the woman who made "Bend it Like Beckham," but the previews make it look like it contains that cacophony that makes Bollywood so delightful.

If you're looking to try a Bollywood movie, try Lagaan.

Monday, November 29, 2004
This weekend I saw Brad Anderson's latest movie, "The Machinist". Great trailer, so-so movie. Yes, it manages to builds up tension (which most movies can't seem to do). And Christian Bale gives a good performance beyond his freakish weight loss. But when you build up that much tension, you've got to deliver. Instead I thought, "That's it?!!" Good endings are hard to pull off in a thriller.

But this gives me the chance to mention one of Anderson's earlier movie, "Happy Accidents," a romantic comedy that is really a pleasure and has a great ending to boot.

On a side note, I ran into something I've never seen before at the Block E theaters in Minneapolis. At least one ticket seller there has a sign in front of him that reads "tips are appreciated." For what? Taking my money? I have a feeling that his attempt to pad his paycheck is not condoned by the management, but I kind of admire the kid for trying.

Friday, November 26, 2004
I owe Jerry Bruckheimer and Nicolas Cage an apology. Iíve been bad-mouthing them for years for their lazy, overblown action flicks. I went into the theater expecting that I would find ďNational TreasureĒ bloated, illogical and tiresome. Instead I completely enjoyed myself. Nicolas Cage wasnít his usual brooding, over-serious self. Diane Kruger is cute in the pretty-girlfriend-who-happens-to-be-smart role (see Bridget Moynahan inĒThe Sum of All FearsĒ for another of the same ilk). But the most credit should probably go to Jon Turtletaub who has more in common with Steven Spielberg that action director Michael Bay - he likes actors more than explosives.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004
Visconti may have ruined the entire holiday movie season for me. I went to see his 1963 film ďThe LeopardĒ starring Burt Lancaster and found it astonishing. Now, for those who love a quick-moving, action-filled plot, this ainít the film for you (and I donít think the worse of you because of that). The film simply follows a noble 19th-century Italian family in post-Garibaldi Sicily. But every other film this season is going to see unambitious after this portrait of the Prince of Salina; a generous, warm, stubborn man of a dying breed. Itís an emotional epic and makes me realize how often characters in movies donít seem complete.

Friday, November 19, 2004
"Alfie" gets 3 out of 5 stars

"Alfie" starts off completely charmingly with Jude Law filling Michael Caine's shoes ably. Then come the Big Lessons for Alfie. The movie was a solid four stars until the last 30 minutes...but the film punishes Alfie far more than he seemed to have deserved and punishes us with what seem like five endings; half of which don't ring true.

Thursday, November 18, 2004
Last night, I went to see David Gordon Green's "Undertow". What a relief to see a movie not set in a) the coasts or b) a suburb that's aggressively anonymous (in an attempt to appeal to as many ticket buyers as possible). Green's gothic, kudzu-dripped South appears purely fictional. Or at least I hope it is. The place oozes menace. I wouldn't want to move there anytime...but I would rather see a movie set there than one set in, say, the bland upper-middle class New York City of Nicole Kidman's "Birth."

Speaking of settings, I was upset that Alexander Payne - who had filmed his earlier movies in contemporary, unromantic Nebraska - decided to make a movie in the wine country of California. I should have had more faith in the man; Sideway isn't set in a sun-dappled, grape-strewn Shangri-la. Instead, his characters hang out in coffee shops, seedy motels and cheesy theme restaurants. The wineries look like any crowded, slightly upscale suburban liquor store. The grape country tourist board can't be happy with him.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004
The holiday movie season has arrived and, as always, I am a little giddy with anticipation. Scorsese! Almodovar! Oceanís 12! I think in exclamation points. Of course, with the beautiful holly come some thorns. Christmas with the Kranks appears to fall into one of my most-hated film categories: the series of lame sight gags and gross out scenes with a hollowly sentimental ending tacked on. And while the man can act, the idea of Kevin Spacey playing Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea makes me wince.

But letís focus on the positive. Get out there and see some movies. If you see a good one, tell us why we should drop 8 bucks on it (and if you like Christmas with the Kranks, defend your choice!) If you see a clunker, give us all a warning shot. Iíll keep you up my holiday movie-going and let you know what I recommend and why.

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