Bewitched (PG-13) Bewitched proves once and for all that Nora Ephron has no idea what she's doing behind the camera--that is, unless she's pointing it at Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. While she has directed far worse films than this "reimagining" of the classic television series (take, for instance, either of her John Travolta starring vehicles), this is probably her most frustrating. If necessity is the mother of invention, then unfounded hubris is the mother of "reinvention," as Ephron takes a perfectly workable, big-screen-ready concept and renders it needlessly complicated and barely recognizable.
Contrary to what the title would lead one to believe, this is not a true adaptation of the sitcom centering around Darrin and Samantha Stephens, a normal young couple settling into married life in the suburbs--except for the little fact that she's a witch. Instead, Ephron has fallen into the post-Adaptation. meta trend (Seed of Chucky and Fat Albert, anyone?), with the show merely serving as a self-referential backdrop/counterpoint to a new and far less interesting supernatural comedy. Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell), a washed-up movie star attempting a career comeback on the tube with a revival of Bewitched. So as not to be upstaged, Jack casts a complete unknown by the name of Isabel Bigalow (Nicole Kidman) as Samantha to his Darrin, but little does he know that she just so happens to be--drumroll please--an actual witch!
Thus Ephron and co-writer/sister Delia set themselves up for a twofold failure. The connection to the television series is so tangential that those drawn in by the recognizable title, to say nothing of the show's die-hard loyalists, will feel cheated; the occasional name-check of characters and the occasional nose twitch are hardly satisfying. So it's up to the Ephrons' new storyline to pick up the slack, and Jack and Isabel's world is nowhere nearly as engaging, let alone magical, as Darrin and Samantha's. The tired jokes about the entertainment business not nearly as clever and barbed as Ephron obviously thinks they are; her big biting zinger appears to be that--shocker--big celebrities can be insufferable egotists! The headlining stars have their moments: a game Kidman obviously has fun as the flighty Isabel; Ferrell generating the very few decent laughs with his broad (and, I suspect, largely ad libbed) physical and verbal schtick; and Michael Caine (as Isabel's father) and Shirley MacLaine (as the diva cast as Endora, Samantha's mother) make the most of their limited screen time. But the true magic behind the TV Bewitched was not so much the low-rent witchcraft effects (pumped up here in true summer movie fashion--yet still looking rather cheap) nor the silly jokes than the bewitching appeal of spunky star Elizabeth Montgomery with either of her sweetly straight-arrow Darrins, Dick York and, later, Dick Sargent. The most Kidman and Ferrell are able to create together are nominally convincing friendship vibes, making for a screen pair one is not so eager to see inevitably transform into a screen couple.
What one is eager to see after watching Bewitched is more of the original series (now available on DVD), clips of which are seen throughout the film--and putting any of the new material to shame with its simple, effortless spirit and charm. This Bewitched is belabored, befuddling, and, ultimately, a besmirchment of a beloved brand name.
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Darkness Movie: ;
DVD: The Nameless (Los Sin Nombre) (R) Movie: ;
Much like how some writers are not meant to direct, some directors have no business writing. Such is the case with Spanish horror director Jaume Balagueró, whose 2002 English language production Darkness has the dubious distinction of being the Miramax Annual Christmas Day Dump Release, 2004 edition. One can easily see why this thrill-less thriller languished on the infamous Weinstein shelf for two years; assembled from spare parts from The Shining, The Amityville Horror, and just about any other haunted house yarn one can name, this tale of an American family dealing with various mysterious goings-on in their new home in the Spanish countryside has too many plot and character lapses for comfort, even in the traditionally logic-flouting horror genre. Why is it that no one else in the family but plucky nubile heroine (Anna Paquin) makes note of all the disturbing happenings going on right under their noses? Why does a baddie, so close to achieving his Nefarious Goal, decide to willingly release a captive in time to possibly thwart his plan? One thing that is also readily apparent, however, is Balagueró's skill at creating creepy atmosphere; had his script been more sturdy, the sense of dread in the admittedly interesting conclusion would've been downright unsettling. As it stands, it's (no pun intended) darkness in a vacuum.
Balagueró earlier displayed his gift for atmosphere--and his far-lagging writing abilities--three years prior to Darkness with the 1999 Spanish-language Los Sin Nombre, which is even more inscrutable and frustrating than the later film. The set-up is effective: a now-divorced mother (Emma Vilarasau), starts to receive phone calls from a young woman claiming to be her daughter--who was found murdered five years prior. After the Vilarasau character does some creepy investigating in an abandoned clinic, the film goes downhill quickly, making a wild leap from an intriguing, intimate chiller to over-the-top nonsense about cults and grandiose plans about unleashing some type of Ultimate Evil. Just how wildly the film flies off of the rails is enough to set eyeballs spinning--that is, if viewers' eyes are even open by that point.
Given Darkness's commercial failure and The Nameless's status as an obscure foreign film, Dimension/Miramax's DVD releases are unsurprisingly on the barebones side, save for a token four-minute behind-the-scenes featurette on Darkness (whose PG-13 theatrical cut is also available in a separate edition).
Darkness specifications: 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen; English 5.1 Surround; French Dolby Surround; English and Spanish subtitles. The Nameless specifications: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; Spanish Dolby Surround; English 5.1 Surround; English subtitles. (Darkness: Dimension Home Video; The Nameless: Miramax Home Entertainment).
Bunty aur Babli (Bunty and Babli)
Bollywood has a reputation for churning out fairly inconsequential, candyfloss films, and while this rollicking romantic caper indeed proves to be one of those so-labeled "timepass entertainers," it also proves that that doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. The "Bunty" and "Babli" of the title are actually small-town dreamers Rakesh (Abhishek Bachchan) and Vimmi (Rani Mukerji), a would-be entrepreneur and Miss India wannabe, respectively. When they meet up by chance after both of their big city ambitions quickly come crashing down, they decide to stick it to the powers that be by becoming ace con artists--not so much for the money than the sheer thrill of it. Determined to end their reign of fun is a cop (Amitabh Bachchan, marking the first time he and his son have appeared together onscreen) hot on their trail.
Per the Bollywood norm, it is a fairly thin plot to fill three hours of running time, but also as usual, it's up to style to carry the day, and the sweet allure of this fast-paced confection cooked up by director Shaad Ali (in a far cry from his hit 2002 domestic drama Saathiya) is no con. Ali keeps the pace light on its feet, and he deftly keeps the proceedings from becoming overly episodic or redundant as the pair move from swindle to swindle. Contributing in no small part to the film's forward drive is the reliably catchy song score by the composing triumvirate of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. The film hits the ground running with a rousing opening number that plays like a cross between the classic "Chaiyya Chaiyya" sequence in 1998's Dil Se... (From the Heart...) and a vintage Disney "I Want" song, in which Rakesh and Vimmi relate their dreams beyond and frustration with life in their little towns full of little people. Ali gives each song thereafter equally lively picturizations, including a sultry item featuring a special appearance by a certain Bolly-Holly crossover queen. If some of the numbers seem a bit jarringly extreme--such as a high-energy dance number featuring the normally rather demure Mukerji shaking her groove thang in skimpy black vinyl, fishnets, and fuck-me boots--one must credit the go-for-broke exuberance.
And most exuberant and appealing of all is the toplining pair of Bachchan (the younger) and Mukerji. Last seen together as a most dysfunctional and destructive couple in last summer's gritty Yuva (Youth), the genuine romantic chemistry that made them so heartbreaking in that film easily translates to a far sunnier setting. Playful, sweet, and sexy, Bachchan and Mukerji make this rogue pair an easily loveable one, and individually both obviously have a blast; Bachchan's dancing is far less gangly than usual, and Mukerji's priceless delivery of the line "You BI-ITCH!" is alone worth the price of admission. No, this is not world-changing cinema we're talking about here, but for the shallow summer popcorn season, it hits the spot.
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Pocahontas 10th Anniversary Edition (G) Movie: ;
Ten years after its theatrical release, Disney's underappreciated 1995 animated historical romance Pocahontas is finally complete. Unlike the songs integrated into the special edition versions of Beauty and the Beast and the DVD of The Lion King, the love duet "If I Never Knew You" was originally intended to make the theatrical release version and half-completed--until the studio high-ups, overreacting to some soft test screening numbers, cut the song very late in production. The number has finally been completed and restored to its rightful place in Disney's 10th Anniversary DVD edition of the film, and what a difference those three minutes make. While I had seen the scene in its uncompleted form on laserdisc and on a years-ago special broadcast on ABC, seeing it complete and in its proper context confirms the film's status as a woefully underrated gem. This late song number, in which the titular Native American heroine (spoken by Irene Bedard, sung by Judy Kuhn) and English Captain John Smith (Mel Gibson) finally declare their love on the eve of his scheduled execution, ties together so many elements planted earlier in the film: it lends voice to their central instrumental love theme; it completes a visual cue introduced in Pocahontas's opening "I Want" song "Just Around the Riverbend"; and it's the culmination of the animators' sterling work throughout the film. Such vivid expressiveness in character faces has not been seen in feature animation before or since, and in a film full of such standout work--Pocahontas and John Smith's initial wordless confrontation in particular--the remarkably wrenching looks exchanged by the two during this song hits an even more stunning height.
Having now seen the film as directors Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg originally intended, it's unthinkable that the film ever existed without the emotionally climactic number--a thought apparently shared by the powers that be as expressed in the DVD documentary featurette about the history of the song; it's amusing to see how what was initially a tossed-off suggestion (by composer Alan Menken) snowballed into the costly (both financially and artistically) decision to lose the key romantic moment of the film. That's just one of the many worthwhile features in this loaded two-disc set. More thoughts on "If I Never Knew You" are offered in Gabriel and Goldberg's insightful feature commentary (in which they mention the year being 2003, meaning this edition was ready to go for a while). The bulk of the production information can be found on the second disc, in which a half-hour making-of special obviously produced for television broadcast is supplemented by early presentation reels, storyboard comparisons, deleted scenes, and various design sketches. All of the film's theatrical trailers--including the much-buzzed-about first teaser, which featured the Oscar-winning "Colors of the Wind" in its entirety--are here as are the poster concepts and a featurette on the film's historic outdoor premiere in New York's Central Park. This being a Mouse release, there are also a few extras for the young 'uns on disc 1: sing-alongs to "Colors" and "Riverbend" (previously featured on a volume of Disney's old Sing-Along Songs VHS series) and the "Follow Your Heart" game. Curiously, given the film's historical basis, there is no featurette on the real-life Pocahontas, but I suppose the studio didn't want to emphasize how much the film deviated from the actual story. While the array of extras is impressive, the reason to buy the disc is the expanded version of the film--which I hope will go some way in silencing (or at least softening) the film's harsh critics.
Specifications: 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen; English, French, and Spanish 5.1 Surround; English subtitles; English closed captioning. (Walt Disney Home Entertainment)