Michelle Pfeiffer

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

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Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Hercule Poirot is back on the big screen with this newest version of one of one the greatest mystery novels of our time: Murder on the Orient Express, based on Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel of the same name. Directed and staring Kenneth Branagh as the world’s greatest detective, Poirot, the film is the fourth adaptation of Christie’s novel, following 1974 film, a 2001 TV film and a 2010 episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. What could have been just another remake ends up being a new and fresh adaptation of the old story, adding new themes and elements while staying with the core tone that makes this one of the greatest mysteries ever.

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Movie Issues: The Witches of Eastwick

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Movie Issues: The Witches of Eastwick

Well Halloween is over and gone for another whole year, but we just couldn’t quit cold turkey on some macabre movies, so to ease out of October and into November, we did one more movie that deals with some spooky elements. We watched 1987’s The Witches of Eastwick, where Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer summed the perfect man, but they get the devil in disguise in the form of Jack Nicholson. Yeah… that happened. So please download and enjoy as we try to understand this from start to finish.  Read On

Movie Issues: The Family

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Movie Issues: The Family

The Family is based on the novel Malavita by Tonino Benacquista, directed by Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) and executively produced by Martin Scorsese. This mob comedy finds a mafia boss and his family relocated to a sleepy town in Normandy (France) under the witness protection program after snitching on the mob. Now out of place, the family has a hard time letting go of bad habits and solving their issues the “family” way, all while trying to stay undercover so their former mafia ties don’t track them down.

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Movie Issues: Dark Shadows Review

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Movie Issues: Dark Shadows Review

Based on the 1960s television show of the same name: Dark Shadows is the story of Barnabas Collins, a vampire turned after breaking the heart of a witch. Buried alive, he is accidentally set free in 19721 and returns to his beloved town and family home of Collinwood, now occupied by his dysfunctional descendants.

Directing this new take and homage to the TV show is macabre master Tim Burton. Once more bring his quirky style and morbid sense of humor to another dark story.

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Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas

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Recovering nicely from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Dreamworks animation tackles the legendary pirate Sinbad (voiced slightly distractingly by Brad Pitt). This movie is animated, and it takes full advantage of the magic which can only be expressed through animation. With a nod to CGI’s mechanical advantages (and one jarring CGI/hand drawn blend early in the story), Sinbad rolls with the grace and delicacy with which hand-drawn animation still reigns supreme. It is a serious action movie, for starters, with, to be frank, majorly kick ass (no matter how insanely impossible) sequences and nonstop adrenaline. This ain’t Snow White!

SinBrad is so very, very macho, and with that comes a devil may care attitude, a general superiority over women (particularly his friend’s fiancee, Marina, sexily voiced by Catherine Zeta-Jones), you know, a pirate’s pirate, pirate about town. But for myself and my companion, the real star of the movie is the goddess of chaos, Eris, voiced equally sexily by Michelle Pfeiffer. My companion described her brilliantly as a post-modern Maleficent. Eris is the best character, the least predictable (appropriately) in the formula of human frailties that makes for legendary drama, and her animation is simply awesome. The IMDb does not specify each character’s lead animator, else I would be giving you his or her name here. Eris *makes* this movie.

The movie is so adventurous, it’s almost like a really good video game (and I shudder to think that that was on purpose) – each sequence is very exciting, the resolution is creative, and the segue to the next sequence is quick, painless, and visually exciting. Dreamworks, unconstrained by the Disney aura of old school respectability and, well, family friendly fare, is free to be a little more violent, a little more sassy and adult with its themes, and they even slipped in a couple of tasteless jokes (well over the heads of anyone who can’t yet ride a bike, well, except me). It was surreal but refreshing. Eris and the sirens can be more sexualized and more naked, and the payoff is something a little more believably seductive than chubby, bow-headed centaurs.

I’m not knocking Disney, mind you, but for an increasingly sophisticated audience, Dreamworks is keeping up. With the exception of Spirit, they have produced animated movies that dare to add a little complexity to their characters. Pixar also does this, I’m not saying it hasn’t been done; but adults who continue to eschew animation would do well to check out Dreamworks. This movie is an action movie before it is a character drama; this ain’t American Beauty, Ok, but it’s a very satisfying ride, with fantastic use of color and light and kinetic energy, and a pretty adult situation for our hero to resolve. Take a kid, they’ll thank you for it, and you will like it too.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 7/2/03
Time in minutes 85
Director Tim Johnson, Patrick Gilmore
Studio Dreamworks

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White Oleander

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Based on Janet Fitch’s novel, White Oleander is the story of Astrid’s relationship with her mother, and with several mother substitutes she is stuck with in the foster care system after her mother’s imprisonment. For fans of the book, the movie is a nice, quick recap of the major events. For folks who have not read the book, as with any film adaptation, some of the events seem quick and haphazard, when in actuality they are far more involved and affecting to the characters. (To clear up one item that those who have not read it might make assumptions about, Ray is not really remotely that creepy.)

Alison Lohman’s performance as Astrid is very layered and nuanced for her age, and despite a distractingly terrible dye job to make her blonde for the role, she is perfectly balanced between innocent and wise, battered and strong. Her brown eyes glow under the cool waves of power emanating from her mother’s blue ones. Brown eyes may be a dominant gene, but in this family, having such warmth in one’s eyes is clearly recessive, a weakness. Perhaps it is that inner warmth that enables Astrid to make it through the emotional prisons within physical prisons she is confronted with.

Never has Michelle Pfeiffer been more perfectly cast. Lyrically beautiful, aloof and cold, yet emotionally intense, craftily wise and gracefully strong, she embodies the character of Ingrid, Astrid’s mother. Her ice blue Nordic eyes burn like those of a caged panther, steely with passion. While Lohman is ostensibly the star of the film, Pfeiffer (as does her character) saps Astrid off the screen with her icy smolder.

Supporting Alison and Michelle are Robin Wright Penn and Renee Zellweger. Both these characters, like Astrid and her mother are beautiful blondes, but flawed in some way that makes Astrid and Ingrid somehow more exotic, more rare, more zoologically different. Robin and Renee are also perfect for their respective roles (I mean that as a compliment). Robin plays Starr, Astrid’s first and most outwardly complex foster mother, and Renee plays Claire, perhaps the most inwardly complex. I was hiding my eyes like it was a horror movie when Claire and Ingrid meet. Fantastic performances.

Sadly, we are left to our own devices with Patrick Fugit’s character Paul, whom she meets in the foster group home, and with Ray, Starr’s boyfriend. The filmmakers definitely focus keenly on the womens’ relationships here and let us make our own stories for the men, which mars the film somewhat. Even Starr’s son Davey is short-changed in his impact on Astrid’s life, and for that the film suffers. Thomas Newman’s music echoes in work in American Beauty and Road to Perdition, but while it is the same, it works just as well.

Thankfully, though, director Peter Kosminsky and screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue (Beaches) do not betray the pain, the work that Astrid has to do to find her place, and no one magically rescues her either. Despite her setbacks, the movie does not pause to let us or make us feel pity, or even empathy; we skip along the milestones breezily. We watch Astrid grow in every reel so her final destination (in the film) feels right. The film itself would be only Rental & Snacks, were it not for Michelle Pfeiffers amazing performance. Chilling.

MPAA Rating PG_13
Release date 10/11/02
Time in minutes 109
Director Peter Kosminsky
Studio Warner Brothers

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The Story of Us

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Perhaps the fact that I have close friends marrying in a week and as a result, the institution as a whole has been on my mind, affected my judgment; perhaps my innate need to compartmentalize my memories into a photo album not dissimilar to how the screenplay is structured appealed to me. Maybe it’s that I feel I have the characters portrayed by Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer (a surprisingly winning couple) at war within my own psyche – but no matter what the reason, I really enjoyed Story of Us. I also think many people might find it dull or aimless or even simplistic. So I don’t want to carte blanche recommend it to everyone because it might just be me.

That said, Story of Us is an interesting story, spanning 15 years of marriage and never really settling on what time is “the present” – there is a perceived present, where the fate of the relationship hangs in the air, there is an interview style present which one would think would be the start of a clip-show of flashbacks (as implied by the preview), and there are multiple time periods shown to differing degrees of complexity in the film. Personally, I felt that the way the flashbacks were handled in the storyline was very nice, very organic (not like a clip show sitcom – “oh and remember when…”), and quite often, very moving.

You know when you are watching a standard emotional story, maybe a love story, maybe a drama, but one where there is a standard structure of exposition, inciting incident, action, obstacle, action, climax, denouement? And you know how at the obstacle, you have that grinding anxiety in your stomach as you watch them inexorably blow it (hence, the obstacle), the pain, occasionally the urge to cry? The Story of Us is that story moment almost the whole way through – the structure is obstacle interrupted by action which is punctuated by exposition leading up to a not-forgone conclusion. The performance of the climax is lovely, is all I will say. Both our leads perform beautifully (Bruce adding more weight to the hair/acting ratio – the less hair, the better he is) and have great chemistry, happy or angry.

So, anyway, the whole movie you feel like you want to cry – you see glimpses of their earlier life as they remember it, windows to a painless past from a painful room. This is not a bad thing – you are entirely engaged in the characters and the action because of that grinding sensation. I was sucked in and interested (and choosing sides) almost before I even knew who everyone was. A smattering of amusing side characters were nicely, simply drawn, and Rita Wilson in particular was the most real element in a fantasy cast of friends (not unlike as she was in Sleepless in Seattle). Yes, I cried at long last – the long buildup of almost crying was going to end up nowhere else, but it is a release. Willis and Pfeiffer are a nice balance of flaws and amazing traits, irritating habits and sweet honesty. I really dug them as a pair, and the quick snips of their life as I saw it felt truly as if we had missed long, well-established scenes. I wouldn’t recommend this movie to the about-to-be-wed, the commitment-phobic, or people with no empathy – I think anyone else would enjoy the payoff.

And yes, that great song, Classical Gas, from the preview, is in the movie. Soundtrack comes out 11/23.

MPAA Rating R for language and brief sexuality.
Release date 10/15/99
Time in minutes 95
Director Rob Reiner
Studio Universal Pictures

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A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)

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All I can say is, thank goodness I saw this film with a high school drama teacher – I thought to myself (dimly recalling my own high school’s production) that something was not quite right, but my Shakespeare-doting friend assured me that plenty of thematic but not plot-driving content was removed. Knowing this, it would behoove the casual viewer to peruse the play before catching the flick – or perhaps, better yet, afterward – the visuals for this movie are incomparable.

I don’t need to inform anyone that the lyric beauty of the Queen of the fairies, Titania, is most closely expressed on earth in the form of Michelle Pfeiffer, and Kevin Kline as Bottom is truly an inspired casting choice as well. Rupert Everett is the hunkiest Oberon imaginable, and believe it or not, Calista Flockhart only vaguely resembles Ally McBeal in this bicycle-riding Bardic beaut. “Use me as you would your dog” is a rather Ally thing to say, and who better to beg to be treated as their spaniel than Christian Bale? Woof. Oh yeah, and Stanley Tucci, who is Puck in real life anyway (see The Imposters!) is actually wasted because of all the good gushy material that the production team seems to have seen fit to eliminate.

I was bummed (after my companion reminded me, I can’t claim all this intellectual credit for something I only half-felt in my gut) that the delicious sniping rivalry between Titania and Oberon was snipped in favor of wordless set pieces apparently intended to develop Bottom’s real life character…perhaps they were trying to make him into the every man…heck, I dunno. It was gorgeous, beautiful, nicely acted, sexy, amusing, magical…full of bikes?

My incredibly brilliant theory is of course tied to the moment in history that is exemplified by the advent of widespread bicycle riding (see my junior year in college box of papers, somewhere in there is a snappy all-nighter of a paper about the subject) and its effect on women’s stature and autonomy in society. Of course, Midsummer is basically set in Elizabethan times and women were not allowed to marry anyone their fathers did not allow, so the dialogue was a bit jarring – and I’m sorry, is that supposed to be Athens? I can accept that all Shakespeare’s plays are by law to be performed with English accents for the most part, but these kids were just three years off the newsie job lines. (Sorry, Christian – no offense!)

Basically, it is a lovely movie – go, watch the pretty people on their pretty, false sets say pretty words (but not all of them) and then read the original and picture Kevin Kline’s delightful turn as the Lead Actor in his troupe – truly Oscar caliber, that, despite all the weird extra such and such with a wife…? It only makes him less sympathetic somehow. I don’t know, I was only an English major (with a theatre minor – shame on me!). I pledge to my non-email enabled high school drama teacher friend to read more Shakespeare from now on!

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 5/14/99
Time in minutes 116
Director Michael Hoffman
Studio Fox Searchlight

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The Prince of Egypt

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Clutching my newly purchased soundtrack, ticket stub still warm in my hands, I basked in the glow of one excellent movie. Animated or no, The Prince of Egypt is a must-see. I know there are a lot of adults out there who refuse to see anything animated no matter what – and as those of us who were kids or have kids or are arrested development kids know, they are missing out. Before P.O.E., they showed a preview for Warner Bro’s The King and I (based on the musical) and Disney’s next summer hit, Tarzan (looking cool!). If King and I was all that was out there, I could understand why these people would skip out, missing treasures like A Bug’s Life and Mulan – but listen to me now. GET OVER YOURSELF. Just because someone drew it doesn’t mean it’s inferior in any way. Besides, Godzilla and Sphere were live action stinkers not fit for anyone – how can these be any worse? I always rant in my animation-advocate lunacy when I see a good one, so reference my previous reviews for my feelings on the genre.

The Prince of Egypt opens with a disclaimer, fending off the purists who might picket, a la The Last Temptation of Christ. I don’t know enough to say what deviated from the Exodus tale, but this is a movie for Christians, Jews, for all those various warring religions now in the Holy Land…it’s just Great. I wouldn’t say it’s for the kids, necessarily – it’s not gory but it is a mature theme. It’s a drama, an animated musical drama. Go figure. I can’t think of an adult who would think it’s just a kid’s movie, besides those anti-animation fuddy-duddies out there. People, open your minds. Some of the very best movies this year have been animated. Think about that.

Val Kilmer, uncharacteristically humble and gentle, is Moses. Ralph Fiennes is his brother Rameses. Patrick “talk to me” Stewart is the Pharaoh. But there’s more than that! Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Sandra Bullock, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Helen Mirren. The first time anyone spoke I was surprised by recognizing the voice, but once I settled in (except for Patrick Stewart – oh, how can a Pharaoh who speaks in such dulcet tones have killed all those children?) I was right with them. OK, maybe Sandra threw me a little too. Good actors, good voices, and the animation team responds with beautifully evocative visual acting in return. Having just seen the awkward, Scooby Doo-esque preview for King and I, I could appreciate the nuances of good body language even more keenly.

The beauty of newly-built Egypt, its shining alabaster monuments, the lush architectural and design skill of the Egyptians (even if they are the bad guys in the story, they sure had grace and style!) is jaw-dropping. Oh man, it’s gorgeous! Moses has a dream, and it’s the coolest dream sequence I have seen in forever! Lovely. The people are all a little wan and long, but it’s a design thing, not a Calista Flockhart trend.

Not being all that well versed in the story of Moses, I was interested and emotionally involved and I felt neither preached to nor neglected for my ignorance. It is stirring and oh! I have no words. I was actually getting verklempt! My male roommate admitted to me in the parking lot that he got misty at the beginning and after the Red Sea, and I wasn’t even going to TELL him I had done so as well – oops, now I told all of you. I’m not ashamed! When was the last time I cared about a bunch of people I never met in a movie! Titanic, that’s when!

And the soundtrack! Oy vey my children let me sing unto you of the songs and the score. Stephen “Godspell” Schwartz, a theatrical Biblical scholar and all around nice Jewish boy, writes the songs that misted us up, and Hans “Muppet Treasure Island” Zimmer composed and produced the score. Unappreciated musicians both – MTI is an incredible score, regardless of what you think of the movie. Pfeiffer, Martin, Short, and Fiennes do their own singing in this one (oddly enough, not vocal talent and acclaimed narcissist Kilmer) and the rest are vaguely recognizable substitute voices. Ofra Haza (Moses’ mother and grown-up sister) sets the emotional tone for this lovely, epic music, and Pfeiffer and Sally Dworsky eat up the big climactic “When You Believe” – oh man! Schwartz is a fairly lousy playwright but a scorcher for complicated lyrics and Biblical content (despite Pocahontas)…anyway I didn’t write this review until I had grooved on the score LOUD, just to get the feeling back. It worked! I got all misty again! I didn’t even cry in Saving Private Ryan!

Soundtrack album warning: There are two “companion albums” to avoid AND the actual motion picture score rudely interrupts itself with POP tracks. Thankfully, these only ruin the credits of the film, but they are stuck in so you can’t have that Disney convenience of them all being grouped at the end so you can just hit stop. So see the movie, buy the CD immediately (like I did) and skip tracks 1, 16, 18, and 19. Unusually, Amy Grant’s cover of the River Lullaby doesn’t make me want to burn down Dreamworks.

Dreamworks may have lost in the Antz vs Bug’s Life battle (well-fought) but the jury is still out on Mulan (ancient hero, gorgeous movie) vs. Moses (ancient hero, gorgeous movie) – and Disney’s monopoly on the animated/musical Oscars is finally over. Did I mention it’s GORGEOUS?

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 12/18/98
Time in minutes 99
Director Simon Wells, Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner
Studio DreamWorks