EW review: 'Zathura' a joy to behold
Also: Poor 'Get Rich,' wonderful 'Pride'
By Scott Brown
Josh Hutcherson and Jonah Bobo play brothers in "Zathura."
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(Entertainment Weekly) -- No disrespect to director Jon Favreau, but I hope he'll make nothing but family films for a while.
He's good at it and we need more of them -- more than we need, say, another "Elf," which felt like an honest kids' movie trying to wriggle out of a grown hipster's tight-fitting irony. "Zathura" is far more at ease with itself as it hurtles purposefully through the starlit void of encroaching adulthood.
Like its sister picture, 1995's "Jumanji," Zathura is based on a Chris Van Allsburg picture book about two siblings drawn bodily into the perilous world of a vintage board game. Unlike "Jumanji" (or last year's "The Polar Express," another Van Allsburg adaptation), "Zathura" isn't concerned with breaking any new ground in the field of visual effects; it trusts Van Allsburg's storytelling instead of trying to amp up the whispering vividness of his artistry.
The tale is simple enough: Squabbling brothers Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson) must learn teamwork in order to navigate their house back from the far reaches of the galaxy. Favreau manages to elevate this potentially trite setup into Cain and Abel territory without ever overstepping the genre's bounds or gunning the thrusters into Cartoon Network hyperdrive.
From a Hollywood that often settles for less in the family department, "Zathura" is a rarity: a stellar fantasy that faces down childhood anxieties with feet-on-the-ground maturity.
EW Grade: A-
'Get Rich or Die Tryin' '
Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum
Finding artistic inspiration is the least of Curtis Jackson's challenges. The massively successful rapper, who goes by the nom de multi-platinum-album gangsta 50 Cent, was 8 years old when his drug-dealing mother was shot to death in 1983; there was no father in the picture.
Raised by his grandparents in Queens, young Jackson knew early on that he wanted to be a rapper -- this was the era of Run-DMC, after all -- but he took to drug dealing as a day job, and got paid. He did jail time. In 2000, he was shot, nine times.
Jackson recovered, and continued to write his experience-based lyrics, never flagging in his confident hustle for fame and, especially, fortune. The grittiness of his resume, the charming brazenness of his ambition, and the immobile grandeur of his defiant, unsmiling stare impressed rocketing colleague and fellow stoneface Eminem enough to call Mr. Cent "my favorite rapper of the moment" and "the only one keepin' it real."
And the endorsement changed Jackson's life: A major-label deal followed, along with gargantuan album sales, awards, a business empire, and enough scratch to buy a multimillion-dollar 50,000-square-foot Connecticut mansion formerly owned by Mike Tyson.
Now there's this, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," a rags-to-riches bio-inspired pic with a title taken from Jackson's debut album and high hopes extrapolated from the success of Eminem's own impressive movie debut, "8 Mile." In "Get Rich," the man who once declaimed, "I'm the boss on this boat, you can call me Skipper/The way I turn money over you should call me Flipper" plays a star-to-be called Marcus from the Bronx (not Queens) hood. He's got a murdered mother, a felony rap sheet, bullets in his body, etc. Eventually he renounces his bad old ways and focuses his energies and battering-ram charms on winning friends (or at least demanding respect), influencing people, making music, and becoming r-i-c-h.
The fictionalized version of 50 Cent is also given Joy Bryant as a ladylike girlfriend, "Hustle & Flow's" Terrence Howard (in yet another great 2005 performance) as a colorful prison buddy, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, from "Lost," as a mentor only slightly less flamboyantly evil or intimately entangled with our hero's family history than Darth Vader.
The screenwriter is Terence Winter, acclaimed for his work on "The Sopranos." The outstanding cinematographer is Declan Quinn, who creates a gorgeously crumbly 1970s Bronx in colors of dirt and blood. The director is Jim Sheridan, who, although less known for his hip-hop cred than for his work with Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father," has announced himself as a rap aficionado who sees in Jackson's story "pretty powerful and interesting material to put on film."
But "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " is neither powerful nor interesting. It is (distressingly, as if what the heck does it matter, since 50 Cent sells himself and the tie-in soundtrack album, too) a run-of-the-mill movie "product" developed as part of a 50 Cent marketing plan, the opposite in style and wiles of Curtis Hanson's "8 Mile"; it's got the undifferentiated, bring-in-da-noise pacing of a work for hire.
It is also, surely, the first movie I've ever seen that incorporates graphic prison violence (complete with an "Oz"-like naked brawl among showering inmates), graphic make-up sex (more nakedness, this time gauzy and femme-friendly), unrelentingly raw language, and the close-range shooting of the central character, played by a man reenacting his own worst moment in real life -- and yet nothing shocks, distresses, or even registers. Which is itself, you know, kind of shocking.
Really, Jackson shouldn't be blamed for this: His 50 Cent persona -- the glower, threat, eroticism, and up-from-hell ballsiness of it -- works like gangbusters on stage, in music videos, in the recording studio, and at the bank. Not raised to let softness out, though, and not at ease with the free exchange of facial expressions, the centerpiece of the show looks exposed and vulnerable on screen, and not in a good way. He's clearly working hard, approaching his gig with discipline.
And yet, under Sheridan's watch, in a production that regularly brings the camera in close on opacity, he's regularly overmatched in two ways. For one thing, the overbusy script, with its many anecdotes to tell (the movie runs a baggy two hours), manages to distract from Jackson's importance in his own story, rather than intensify it. And for another, the wattage of the novice actor just can't match the brightness of his more experienced costars, particularly Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Howard, who are as delighted in and enthusiastic about the men they play, however good or evil, as Jackson appears to be ambivalent about representing himself.
There's nothing at all wrong with wanting to get rich as opposed to dying, but not every business plan requires a feature film to achieve that American gangsta goal.
EW Grade: C+
'Pride & Prejudice'
Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman
Though often dismissed as chick flicks with manners, middlebrow literary costume dramas of the Merchant Ivory school brought a slate of virtues to the cinematic landscape.
At a time when action flicks were taking over, they celebrated the pleasures of rounded storytelling, and even their proverbial theme -- the tug-of-war between love and money -- was tougher than it looked: At their best ("A Room With a View," "Persuasion"), these films anatomized romance, that dance of the spiritual and the worldly, as few other movies have.
Nevertheless, the genre, in recent years, has faded, a casualty of shifting tastes, and that makes it reasonable to ask: What could the dozenth adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride & Prejudice," with lush photography and Keira Knightley, bring to the party?
Quite a bit, it turns out, and it all starts with the party.
In the English countryside, Elizabeth Bennet (Knightley), sharp and headstrong, with a perky dimple of skepticism, is invited, along with her four giggly, eager-to-be-married sisters, to a ball at Netherfield Park, a magnificent stone mansion that sprawls like a castle. We've all seen a jillion of these scenes: the heaving bosoms, the group dances so stylized they're like an 18th-century version of speed dating, the glimmers of scandal whenever someone gets too ... forward. All of that is here, yet the director, Joe Wright, a veteran of British television, makes the past feel as swirling and alive as the present.
As the eldest Bennet sister, the lovely but shy Jane (Rosamund Pike), makes a play for Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), who is throwing the party, Elizabeth, known as Lizzie, sizes up a tall, handsome, and forbiddingly curt figure named Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), while the younger Bennet siblings make goo-goo eyes at any man in uniform.
The women prowl from room to room, seeking adventure around every corner, and the camera, in glorious long takes, follows them. Stately on the surface, the ball unfolds with the crowded eroticized mischief we associate with a great modern soiree. It sets the tone for a movie in which the search for love all but pulses with the excitement of uncertainty.
Those eager to see how Matthew Macfadyen's Darcy stacks up against Colin Firth's can seek out a DVD of the 1995 BBC version, but I can tell you that Macfadyen is sensational, with a noble profile just this side of surly and a plummy voice of such sullen quietude that you see how Lizzie might take it as dismissive. The plot, of course, gives our heroine ample reason to mistake Darcy for a cad (he scotches Bingley's romance with her sister), yet Macfadyen plays Darcy's "pride" as a cover for his buried ambivalence about love: never bitten, but still shy.
Darcy and Lizzie's war of misunderstanding, which keeps dousing their budding affection, is never predictable or coy, and that's because Keira Knightley, in a witty, vibrant, altogether superb performance, plays Lizzie's sparky, questing nature as a matter of the deepest personal sacrifice. She's not a feminist but a confused, ardent girl charting her destiny without a map.
The acting in "Pride & Prejudice" tingles with nuance and presence. Brenda Blethyn makes Mrs. Bennet's obsession with marrying off her daughters faintly hysterical but never just funny, Donald Sutherland, as the craggy Mr. Bennet, glows with sadness and joy, and rascally Jena Malone plays Lydia as England's original teenybopper. It's a heady pleasure to share their company.
EW Grade: A
'Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic'
Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman
If you're going to say the unsayable and stay charming while doing so, it helps to look more like Sarah Silverman than Andrew Dice Clay.
Silverman, who presents herself as the world's naughtiest nice Jewish girl, has porcelain skin, a silky cascade of straight black hair, and a slightly devilish but still wholesome smile that beams like a headlight through the darkness of a concert hall; she's like the anti-shiksa Ali MacGraw.
Silverman would be a singular talent even if she wasn't beautiful, but it would be foolish to deny that watching a stand-up comedian who resembles the world's sexiest art-history major toss off one-liners about porn stars, doo-doo, Nazis, and the politics of white people trying to cozy up to African Americans by calling them "n-----s" exerts its own nasty-cuddly-freaky appeal.
Silverman makes her attractiveness relevant by delivering each scathing, oooo-did-she-really-say-that? joke as if it were a come-on. She's flirtatious in her outrage: a stand-up coquette.
At the start of "Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic," a concert film with musical numbers, she performs a catchy neo-'60s pop ditty about how excited she is to put on a show, and for all the intentional stupidity of the lyrics, her ironic eagerness is infectious. Then, on stage, she launches into the world according to Silverman. "I was raped by a doctor," she says in a voice of confessional flatness. "Which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl." Score!
Even in our politically incorrect times, that's the tasteless equivalent of shock and awe: a joke that tweaks, and detonates, two taboos at once. When she's on, Silverman, with her willingness to say anything, can be liberating: a bomb-tossing jester in the blasphemous-and-proud-of-it tradition of Lenny Bruce and Howard Stern.
For all her fearlessness and talent, though, there's a crucial way, in "Jesus Is Magic," that she falls short of those artists. On the concert stage, Silverman drifts in a dreamy daze from one topic to the next, consciously parading -- and ridiculing -- her princessy narcissism. For her, the tragedy of 9/11 is that it was the day she learned her beloved soy chai latte had 900 calories. She sings to a group of retirement-home folks, "You're gonna die soon!" And so on.
The trouble with narcissism as a comic theme is that it starts to hem in one's responses to the outside world. Silverman's racial humor gooses forbidden stereotypes yet never reaches beyond those stereotypes. African Americans, in her act, are little more than layabouts and threats. We never hear her experiences -- just the cliches that have floated into her brain.
Ditto her feelings about sex. She's very funny when she describes blending jelly and fellatio and then worries that she's turning into her mother, but unlike, say, Richard Pryor or Margaret Cho, she leaves any true observations about sex or relationships off stage. The closest she comes to voicing a conviction of any kind is her rather creaky belief that Jews should refrain from buying German cars.
In "Jesus Is Magic," Sarah Silverman reveals her own head to be an intermittently hilarious place, but she'd do well to take a trip or two outside it.
EW Grade: B-
Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum
"Bee Season" answers the question no Talmudic student or fan of "Unfaithful" has thought to ask: What would Richard Gere look like as a learned Jewish scholar and teacher?
The answer is, much like the betrayed husband from "Unfaithful" -- great hair, great wire-rim eyeglasses.
Only instead of living the life of a WASP businessman named Ed, Gere's character is called Saul. And he lectures on matters of Jewish arcana to rapt students moved by his attractive silveriness as well as by his passion for Kabbalistic mysticism that's at once more rigorously erudite than Madonna's Red String brand, and equally, conveniently, spiritual rather than religious.
Then Saul comes home to a house very much like Ed's Westchester digs, filled with comfortable furniture and comfortably secular family problems familiar to all who live in a therapized world: While quiet daughter Eliza (newcomer Flora Cross) emerges, to the surprise and obsession of her father, as a whiz at spelling bees with an almost mystical ability to "inhabit" the letters she enunciates, older brother Aaron (Max Minghella, son of director Anthony Minghella), who previously held the position of favored smart child, feels neglected and is drawn to a proselytizing cult.
Meanwhile, Saul's wife, Miriam (French actress Juliette Binoche, to whom Paris-born Cross bears an uncanny physical resemblance), becomes more and more psychologically unstable, in ways that leave Saul dumb as a husband, however brilliant he is as an academic. And while Saul teaches the Kabbalistic concept of repairing a shattered world, Eliza becomes the conduit for fixing a broken family.
Directed by "The Deep End's" Scott McGehee and David Siegel from a script by "Running on Empty" screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal (mother of those Gyllenhaals), "Bee Season" shows a fondness for photographing things that shimmer -- letters in the air, crystals. The movie works earnestly to transform unfamiliar concepts of philosophy as well as by now exceedingly familiar concepts of endearing/sadistic spelling-bee hysteria into cinematically new representations of letters made flesh.
But that same ecumenical earnestness, with its mild message of nonsectarian interpersonal healing, contradicts the restlessness, incandescence, and specificity so intrinsic to the story of a girl who feels one with the word.
EW Grade: B-
'The Dying Gaul'
Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman
From the cutesy screwball of "You've Got Mail" to the lurid gamesmanship of "Closer," characters who toss dialogue back and forth via computer have always tried my patience; it just seems like a cheat to go to the movies to watch people typing.
But in Craig Lucas' "The Dying Gaul," Patricia Clarkson, with her face of pensive beauty, takes tapping-away-at-the-keyboard acting to a whole new level. Clarkson plays a Hollywood producer's posh and pampered wife, who learns that her husband, played with compartmentalized treacherousness by Campbell Scott, is cheating on her -- with another man, a screenwriter (Peter Sarsgaard) he has seduced both sexually and professionally.
You'd expect her to turn her fury on the husband -- that she doesn't is the film's biggest flaw -- but instead, she enters a chat room and toys with the screenwriter, subjecting him to a kind of soft-edged mental torture, even stealing the notes of his psychiatrist so that she can pretend to be his former lover, who died of AIDS. As Clarkson stares at the computer screen, her face shifts like a mood ring, from curiosity to compassion to cold vengeance. For once in a movie, typing is riveting.
All three lead performances in "The Dying Gaul" are brilliant. Scott, with his devious clipped joviality, makes the producer a study in how private duplicity can interlock with corruption in Hollywood, and Sarsgaard, as a tender soul with a cosmic capacity for rage, gives his fullest performance yet: He makes the suddenly hot screenwriter a deceptive naIf -- a man lured into a spiderweb, except that he's a spider too.
"The Dying Gaul" has too many contrivances, but as an act of sinister staging, it proves Lucas, the noted playwright, to be a born filmmaker.
EW Grade: B+
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