Saturday, October 28, 2006

Stars & Stripes Forever: “Flags of Our Fathers” is More Than the Flag-Waving Film You’d Think It Would Be

“Flags of Our Fathers” just very well may find itself on the ballot for Best Picture this spring at the Academy Awards. Of course that would just seem like Clint Eastwood overload after Clint’s previous two Oscar-grabbing efforts “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River.” One can’t help but wonder what the heck Clint is putting in his gin & tonic to help him make such fantastically successful films. While it’s easy to dismiss his latest directorial effort as just another World War II drama trying to impersonate Steven Spielberg’s genre defining “Saving Private Ryan,” Eastwood’s film is much more than just elaborately staged battle scenes with emotionally charged performances. It has an interesting story to tell, based on actual events no less, about the Battle of Iwo Jima and the effect that one particular flag raising had on entire nation sick and tired of war.

It’s obvious from the time we live in that war films no longer have the flag-waving “proud to be an American” feel they way they did back in the 40s and 50s. War films are constant truthful reminders that war is an evil that no human being should have to suffer; yet thousands have, do and will throughout the years. The story of Flags of Our Fathers revolves around the infamous photo of several American soldiers raising an American flag upon the top of a mountain during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the South Pacific. This image forever changed the view of the war. Americans were tired of war but the government insisted that they press on and continue to fight. The image represents the American can-do attitude and it instantly became a staple of America’s hope to come out on top during this tragic period in time.

Eastwood’s film certainly does justice to this extremely interesting story of war being sold as if it were popcorn at a movie theater. War can very well be a product and the waning American people’s interest in supporting the fighting turned around as soon as the government turned those men who raised that flag into a symbol of helping support the war, “buy war bonds!” The cast Eastwood has assembled is simply wonderful. Ryan Philippe is as strong here as he was in “Crash.” The same goes for the other assorted young men including Jesse Bradford, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Joseph Cross and the relatively unknown Adam Beach who turns in a great performance as Ira Hayes, an Native American who is constantly the target of disgusting racial discrimination.

What is so interesting about the film is the way its two stories are intertwined. We get lots of footage of the actual Iwo Jima battle that many will agree seems to be in direct comparison with the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan.” But give Eastwood credit, these scenes are very well done (the DP is John Stern) and certainly stand well on their own. A simple flag mounting on the island and its photo is enough to change history. We get to see the soldiers as they reenter society as heroes. The photo is in every newspaper and monuments are erected. These men aren’t just turned into heroes of Iwo Jima they are turned into an image of how America is the best and we can overcome anything.

What a perfect time for a film like this to come along with our current state of affairs overseas. It’s so simple to turn one image into something completely different. Writers William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis (Crash’s Oscar-winning screenwriter) craft an interesting story about war, hope and heroism that will certainly make people think about the parallels of present day. In a time where so many are being killed everyday, maybe a movie can help many of us change our minds for the better. GRADE: B+

Friday, October 27, 2006

Cut it Out: Hopefully “Saw III” is the End to this Blood-Soaked Thrillogy

There are some things that Saw III is and some things it is not. Saw III is gross and bloody. What it is not is suspenseful, scary or “Return of the Jedi.” While I’m not exactly a Star Wars aficionado I do know the ending of a trilogy when I see one. But what I don’t get is why the end of Saw III which kind of wraps things up nicely, leaves the door open for Saw IV: A New Beginning. Have the Saw movies, low-budgeted, bloody and wildly popular, turned into the Friday the 13th films of the 21st century? Are we bound to have 10 more installments in which helpless victims are strapped into heavy duty, expertly designed devices ready to gouge, rip and shred up the people foolish enough to be trapped in one? If there’s one thing I’m thankful for the Saw films is reinventing the hard R rated horror film with plenty of blood and guts to make The Passion of the Christ look like a fairy tale. What I don’t like is the style in which these films are made, let’s credit director Darren Lynn Bousman for copying James Wan’s style from the first “Saw.”

I get a headache every time the camera whips around the room in circles, the focus going in and out, and hard rock music blaring on the soundtrack, with an edit every 10th of a second. It’s mind-numbing and headache-inducing. If there’s one thing we can expect in a Saw film is lots of blood and guts. So just linger on it already! You’ve ripped open someone who had metal hooks attached to every one of their body parts so why must you shake the camera so much that we can’t even see what’s going on? If you’re trying to avoid actually showing us the gore maybe you shouldn’t of hired a make-up guy and just pulled a Blair Witch and imply the violent dread. What’s the point of showing a person’s ribcage being torn open if you’re just going to cut away? Ok I may sound like a freak here, but the camerawork of Saw III (and all of them) is the most annoying thing about them. It’s supposed to be stylistic, but it’s not.

While I didn’t love the second Saw installment, I must say the plot of it was more interesting than Saw III. Here we have our villain Jigsaw, a cancer stricken patient on his deathbed (ooo scary!) and his apprentice Amanda, who was a victim in the first film. It turns out she was in on the torturous events of the second film, and there’s something that we’ll learn about her and Jigsaw that is mildly interesting (No, Jigsaw is not her father). They have kidnapped a surgical doctor and placed a device around her neck that will make her head blow up if Jigsaw’s life-support machine flat lines. And let me just say this guy’s about 20 minutes away from death. He has to be kept alive so that he can witness the game that is being played on a man who has lost his young son to a hit and run driver. This man is all about vengeance so it’s Jigsaw’s job to torture him until he realizes that he should give up trying to find the man responsible for his son’s death. Jigsaw isn’t just a sadistic cancer patient, he makes people realize the value of life. That’s something you don’t see in a Jason flick. We don’t get to learn anything about this guy, which is why I liked the second film better, because we get to see the people work together to escape the torture house, and see the evil that is waiting inside every human being.

There are some pretty decent death scenes in the film but the camera moves so fast or scenes are so under lit that it’s kind of hard to tell what’s really going on. We get a woman who freezes to death, a man stuck in a huge bin with pig guts nearly drowning him, and let’s not forget the guy in the twist-o-matic, in which his arms and legs get twisted so that his bones break and protrude from his flesh. Okay if this all sounds gross, maybe you shouldn’t see the movie, but it’s surprisingly not as gross as the second installment. And it’s most definitely never scary. The parts I did like were going back to the beginning (the first film) and seeing things we know now that we didn’t know then. There are some interesting surprises that fans of the series will look forward to seeing.

All in all, Saw III fits the other films well. If you like sadistic horror, this is your ticket. Unfortunately the film isn’t scary or that well made. It’s obvious that the filmmakers are amping up the visuals to make up for the lack of budget, good acting, plot, yada yada. But do we really care about any of that? I don’t think artistic merit is on the menu when you buy a ticket to film called Saw III. GRADE: C

American Psychos: Bening is a Cut Above the Rest of the Crazies in “Running with Scissors”

If we can’t laugh at life’s quirky events while growing up, what can we laugh at? Unfortunately in the film adaptation of Augusten Burrough’s memoir “Running with Scissors,” there’s not much that’s funny. What read as funny on the page doesn’t necessarily translate well to the big screen. The eccentricities of Augusten’s childhood and teen years read very well in a book that acts like a bunch of wild vignettes about his mentally unstable mother and moving in with her even more mentally unstable psychiatrist and his odd family. Burroughs makes life’s little tragedies and peculiarities into extremely hysterical and emotionally truthful episodes, but as a film director Ryan Murphy (creator of TV’s Nip/Tuck) has turned this story into a awkwardly toned, dramatically inconsistent film that doesn’t always work.

The cast is top-notch and they do very well with the translation that Murphy has written. Annette Bening gives a tremendous performance as Deirdre, Augusten’s wildly unstable mother. All she wants to be is a famous poet. She feels she was destined to be a renowned auteur. Her son Augusten (Joseph Cross) feels he was also destined to be great: as a beautician and perhaps the head of a major line of beauty products: perhaps the next Vidal Sassoon. Augusten’s alcoholic father played by a restrained Alec Baldwin soon leaves the Burroughs’ home after he and Deirdre decide to call it quits. So it’s just Deirdre and Augusten until she begins seeing Dr. Finch, played by an unrestrained Brian Cox. We soon get to know Finch and his wildly eccentric family (and that’s an understatement). These people would have driven the Brady Bunch out of the neighborhood. The eldest daughter Hope (Gwenyth Paltrow) is a Bible dipper (don’t ask) and works at Daddy’s office. I wanted to see more of Hope (she’s has a large part in the book). The younger daughter Natalie (Evan Rachael Wood) enjoys hooking people up to her dad’s old electric shock therapy machine. Then there’s my favorite of the Finch crew, the matriarch
Agnes enjoys watching corny old horror films and munching on dog chow. I was waiting for Nomi from “Showgirls” to join her. This clan lives in a dilapidated old Victorian house. They certainly give the Addams Family a run for their money.

While the book focuses a lot on Augusten’s adjustment to moving in with and then becoming a part of the Finch family, the film focuses more on Deirdre’s psychological issues. This in turn let’s Bening steal the film away from her talented co-stars without them even knowing it. While mental unstableness isn’t really a laughing matter, Burrough’s crisp writing had a strong sense of satire that was funny yet emotionally powerful. While reading you’re always either laughing or feeling sorry for the beyond strange circumstances this young teen found himself in. He had no boundaries as a child, no rules. And neither does the film really. The film isn’t as emotionally grounded as it could be. And since the dramatic intensity is pushed up it unfortunately undercuts the comedy aspect. There are parts that are funny and will make you laugh, but other parts that should be funny rarely are. And some scenes either weren’t funny or emotionally satisfying. Some parts just kind of hung there as if Murphy couldn’t decide what was funny or dramatic.

Any success of the film rides on Annette Bening’s powerful performance. Not as satirically funny as she was in “American Beauty” or Joan Allen was in “The Upside of Anger” and not as hopelessly pitiful as Ellen Burstyn in “Requiem for a Dream.” Her character seems harsh and unpleased at first, because she is, but you do eventually feel sorry for her once you realize what a whack job her shrink is. While Bening’s acting raises the film to another level, I almost wished her character didn’t take up so much screen time. Life at the Finch’s house for Augusten was more interesting to me, when it was treated as comedy. I wanted to know more of the oddities of the Finch home, and more about what it felt like to grow up in that crazy house, which fortunately I know since I’ve read the book.

This is a wildly inconsistent adaptation of Burrough’s novel, but the actors do a good job and the film is mildly engaging. It’s obviously difficult to squeeze in everything from the book, but turning up the dramatics just seemed unnecessary. The book is funny so the film should have been too. While the film is a decent time capsule of the 1970s (I dug the soundtrack) I can’t help but feeling an emotionally empty film that could have been a lot more grounded and focused. While the film works on some levels, it’s certainly a step down from Burrough’s wonderful novel. GRADE: B-

Monday, October 23, 2006

Do You Believe in Magic: “The Prestige” Offers Enough Twists and Turns to Keep the Viewer Engaged

I enjoy watching a magician perform feats of magic just as much as the next guy. As a little kid I always wanted to know how they did it. How did he guess that person card? How did that coin end up in that lady’s purse? How did David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear without the use of CGI? But there’s one thing I know I would never want to see: a performer drowned alive right before my eyes. And what about sawing a lady in half? I remember being terrified that severed body parts would spurt out from the stage. So not only is magic exciting it can also be kind of freaky and disturbing. Director Christopher Nolan takes the excitement and apprehension of magic and concocts an intriguing tale of two rival magicians well played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. While the film isn’t perfect there are worst things to do with your time.

The film is set during the brink of the turn of the 20th century in England. Jackman and Bale along with assorted others, including Jackman’s wife (Piper Perabo) are part of a magic stage show. Without giving too much away, a terrible tragedy occurs. This incident rather abruptly leads to a chain of events, which sparks a heated, and at times extremely vicious, rivalry between the two leads. What was once for the betterment of the forefront of magic has become a whirlwind of “anything you can do, I can do better.” A 19th century version of "Yo Mamma" if you will. Bale and Jackman are good at playing nice, friendly men or mean, evil men. And here they mainly channel evil and so it’s hard to really side with either character. We slightly understand the motivation behind each one, but it’s a lot more complicated than he’s the good guy and he’s the bad guy.

It’s practically impossible to describe the film without revealing important plot points and twists. What can be said, without regards to the story, are its artistic merits. The film is virtual tour de force of costume and set design. The art direction is simply spot on, not that I’m an expert in this particular time period, but I image this is exactly how it would look. The camera work is equally dark, gloomy and beautiful. Nolan is an extremely gifted filmmaker who is always bringing a strong sense of dread, mystery and darkness to his films (Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins). The acting is also very good. While no performer out acts another, nor gives the most impressive performance of the year, what we are given are people that we believe to have existed during the film’s time period. It was actually refreshing to hear what I think is Bale’s native accent. The supporting cast which includes Michael Caine, David Bowie and Scarlett Johansson doubling as a love interest and magic trick spy. Rebecca Hall plays Bale’s wife and their relationship is consummated so quickly I hardly bought that they were in love.

The plot, which I can’t really describe beyond the fact that to call this a period thriller makes good sense to me, is twisty without really being confusing. We get fragments of the past and present but the time line isn’t as screwy as Memento. After all what good is a story that is too twisty to actually follow? It’s pretty interesting where the film leads. It brings up some moral issues dealing with the theme of fantasy vs. reality and illusion vs. science. This helps raise the film beyond the level of simple entertainment.

For all the fancy sets, camerawork and costumes, what we really have is a story of two men not willing to let each other get in the way of their magic acts. The film’s title refers to what is called the third part of a magician’s act: the prestige, but it also more importantly refers to the status both men are willing to achieve at ANY cost. Of course there’s a whole lot more to it, but why should I give away the secrets and spoil the magic? GRADE: B+

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Desperate Housewife: Kate Winslet and Her Adult Cast Amaze as “Little Children”

Everyone remembers being a child. Life was so carefree and simple. You basically got to do whatever you wanted. Go to the playground to have fun with other kids. Sleeping time so you could get reenergized. But let’s not forget the bullying because let’s face it: children are children. And in Todd Field’s new film “Little Children” we learn that even adults can be children. Kate Winslet is Sarah, a young housewife with a young daughter. Sarah brings her daughter to the park every weekday to play with the other kids, even though she can’t stand the other annoying moms. And while the children are gleefully cavorting about, their mothers are acting even more childish than their offspring. We’re then introduced to the lone, attractive stay-at-home dad whom these desperate housewives refer to as the Prom King. He is really Brad (Patrick Wilson) who’s married to Kathy (Jennifer). They have a young son. And we get the feeling right away that perhaps Sarah and Brad will be doing some playing of their own.

Director Todd Field is an actor’s director. This is because he is an actor (Unfortunately, I really only know him as one of the storm chasers in “Twister”). His only other feature film is the Academy Award nominated “In the Bedroom,” where he displayed a brilliant knack for getting extremely good performances from his stars (Three of whom were Oscar nominated). He manages to again wring remarkable performances from everyone in “Little Children.” Winslet is simply suburb as a young suburban mother. There’s no hint whatsoever that she really has a British accent. Wilson also amazes. With every film he does he improves. He’s a far cry from the stageyness he displayed a few years back in the film version of “The Phantom of the Opera.” But of course that’s because he’s a Broadway veteran. And Connelly makes the best of her smaller role as Brad’s too busy wife, who just might be starting to suspect something.

A wry suburban satire, which was previously a novel written by “Election” scribe Tom Perrotta, (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Field) children focuses on Sarah and Brad and how they quickly and humorously form a public friendship because they both have young children. This quickly turns into a very private sexual relationship that they both really want but aren’t altogether prepared for. Sarah’s husband is a distant and rather cold man, who is a fan of Internet porn. Brad’s wife Kathy is an extremely busy documentary filmmaker. It’s a longing for something different and perhaps something better that brings these two people together. The film, which has the structure, look, and aura of a deep, tragic melodrama, is actually punctuated with extremely funny and well-placed humor. The humor isn’t as obvious or as present as in let’s say “American Beauty” but it fits the film extremely well. The voice over narration, which seemed odd at first, actually suits the movie (its read as if this were a child's bedtime story) and adds to the character’s underlying motivations.

Put into the mix a subplot about Ronnie, a local sexual predator being released back into society played by the original Bad News Bears’ Jackie Earle Haley. It’s just simply amazing how the film approaches everything about this man who is treated as a full fledged human being (by the filmmaker, not the film’s characters) and fully realized character and how all the adults in the film treat him. It’s as if they are all bullies on the playground. A scene in which Ronnie shows up at the public pool is extremely funny and downright heartrending all at once. Then we have Brad’s ex-cop friend Larry (Noah Emmerich) who is the worst of all. He constantly appears on the man’s front lawn at odd hours of night with a bullhorn shouting to the neighbors about the pervert who should be locked up. It’s interesting how this storyline and Sarah and Brad’s all come to an end. Especially since the film is constantly building and building. And an ending that could have had a million possibilities makes the most sense.

This film is engaging, well made and extremely deep. It’s a film that can be analyzed to death yet extremely entertaining. Field brings an audacity to the film that just simply makes it sparkle. He never lets the humor break the emotional tension. And he never let’s the mature subject matter get in the way of the humor. The film has so much to say about how sometimes adults just never grow up and are sometimes less mature then their own kids. This is a film that turns the mundane suburban life into thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile experience. GRADE: A

Friday, October 13, 2006

Mr. Williams Goes to Washington: “Man of the Year” Doesn’t Get My Vote

There’s one fact that I know is true: Robin Williams is funny. There’s also a fact that some may disagree with me on: Robin Williams in “Man of the Year” is not funny. How is that possible? Because the film doesn’t know whether it wants to be a comedy when it grows up or a thriller. That sounds just crazy, you may ask. All the advertisements I’ve seen make Man of the Year seem hilarious. Ah hah, seem is the key word. Perhaps the film should have been called “The Illusionist.” Because if you’re in the mood for a hysterical political satire you’re barking up the wrong voting booth. It’s deceptively not the film you’d think it is. If you want to see a funny movie in which Robin Williams becomes president, this isn’t it.

“Mrs. Doubtfire” is my 3rd favorite movie of all time. If you think I’m crazy, I won’t even tell you what number 2 is, but I digress. Robin Williams is a hilarious and genius comic. He has a gift to carry an entire film on the weight of his shoulders without ever outshining his costars. In Man of the Year he just seems like everyone else. He’s Robin Williams playing a less funny version of Robin Williams as a late night political talk show host. (Think Jon Stewart or Bill Mahr) Life imitates art in this film and many people are fed up with the current government (although in this film the current prez is a Democrat). An audience member suggests Williams should run for president and low and behold he does without any real motivation or explanation. Williams is surrounded by a staff who is supposed to be funny including Christopher Walken and Lewis Black.

The film doesn’t really begin as a comedy and then switch genres. We understand right during the opening credits that there’s some kind of conspiracy/cover-up that is going to happen. This mostly involves Laura Linney who mostly looks like she took this role to get a paycheck. I mean she’s good cause she’s Laura Linney and that’s about all. One of her scene’s seems right out of a “Halloween” film, which normally I would love, except it seems odd in a comedy starring Robin Williams. I’ll try not to give anything away but Linney knows something she really shouldn’t and well I don’t really want to ruin anything for you, but a scene in which she goes bonkers attempting to buy a cappuccino is simultaneously odd and funny, yet the audience is completely confused as to what the tone really is.

Writer/director Barry Levinson doesn’t seem to know whether he wanted to write a comedy or a drama. The film feels like it should be a comedy, according to the ads, but it’s really more of a conspiracy thriller with unfunny Robin Williams quips thrown in. All of this I could really care less about if the film was overall just plain fun and entertaining. The dramatic parts make the comedy less funny and the comedy makes the dramatic parts less thrilling. There is a great scene at a presidential debate between Williams the current president and the Republican candidate that I enjoyed. If only the rest of the film could be up to this scene’s standards. It’s funny and poignant and he takes sharp jabs at the current way things are run that are extremely relevant in real life. A stop by Weekend Update at SNL Studios with Tina Fey and Amy Pohler was a much-welcomed breath of comedic air.

If anything “Man of the Year” is just a disappointment and a slight misfire. It’s a movie I can’t really recommend because most people who thing they are going to see a funny Robin Williams movie are going to be in for a surprise. Those interested in a political comedy would best having a double feature of “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “All the President’s Men.” Call me Deep Throat if you want, but “Man of the Year” is a big fat liar. GRADE: C

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Rating Game: “This Film is Not Yet Rated” Shows How Some Films Will Never Be Coming to a Theater Near You

Kirby Dick’s intriguing documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated” manages to take an interesting subject and make it really interesting. The film comes so close to perfection that one gets disappointed when certain aspects continue to bog down the entire thing. I’ll be the first to agree that the Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating board is slightly bonkers. Their “guidelines” for how films receive parental guidelines are basically outrageous. And I’m not even a parent! Let’s give a little lowdown. We have G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17. Most are probably familiar with let’s say the R rating. That’s the rating that restricts youngsters from seeing a movie unless they have a parent or look over 17 years of age. Anyone can get into a G, PG or PG-13 movie. And no one under 17 can get into an NC-17 rated film. This doesn’t really seem to be a problem right?

“This Film…” takes a few stands against the MPAA’s ratings board. Of course it’s important to understand why some filmmakers are so outraged. A film that receives an NC-17 is basically a financial disaster waiting to happen. No posters, TV spots, or other forms of ads are really allowed in most areas let alone the fact that most theaters won’t show films with this rating. But why? It’s probably because the NC-17 used to be the X rating and we all know what that means: porn porn porn! But not really. Yes material in these films are considered more graphic and risqué, but equating a film that’s rated NC-17 with pornography is just wrong. This film insists the way movies are rated is unjust. Also, the major studios control the MPAA which basically means when they want a softer rating they’re more likely to get it. Hence independently financed films have a harder time getting an R rating.

Dick does a great job of giving us lots of useful information that is clear, precise, to the point and beyond fascinating. And “This Film…” is a movie lover’s dream. There are oodles of film clips that are interesting to see in context to how they were rated by the film board. We get to see the “uncut” versions of some scenes. Like what had to be cut in order to go from an NC-17 rating to the more financially friendly R. And not only do we get clips from movies but we get insights from the filmmakers themselves. Interviews range from king of the bizarre John Waters to Mary Harron the director of “American Psycho.” We get Matt Stone of South Park fame and “Clerks” director Kevin Smith. Their comments are insightful and really interesting when they discuss how an NC-17 rating can really offend a person and the grief that it can cause a filmmaker with a particular artistic vision. I also enjoyed watching Dick’s journey to get have his own film rated (slapped not surprisingly with an NC-17) and unsuccessfully appealed.

Everything about the film is fascinating. And then there are the sequences in which the filmmaker hires a private detective to find out who exactly the people on this film ratings board are. The MPAA keeps these people who view films, discuss them and then give them a rating based on objectionable content are kept private so that outsiders don’t influence them. (Gimme a break, they don’t want their names publicly announced so that they aren’t beaten to death by angry mobs of filmmakers). It’s a fact that although ratings are “made by parents for parents” it seems odd that some of the raters have kids in their 20s or have no children at all. Scenes in which Dick and the detective sit outside the MPAA headquarters (and go through their trash) are kind of silly and while it’s funny to see them practically stalk the raters and flash their real identities on the screen as if they were all secret superheroes, it tragically grinds the film almost to a halt. The private detective’s job is not nearly as interesting as the film clips, interviews and history of motion picture censorship provided throughout the rest of the film. I wouldn’t say this aspect was unnecessary; it just seemed awkwardly fit with everything else.

The bottom line is that the film ratings system is imperfect. That’s not really a bad thing and not too surprising. There is no perfect way to let parents in on what objectionable content a film has. But when the film board says that it’s not promoting censorship and then slaps a film with an NC-17, which in turn means it basically can’t be shown anywhere, that just doesn’t make sense. NC-17 films should be able to be shown everywhere. The stigma that these films are pornographic is ridiculous. What this rating means is that kids shouldn’t be seeing it, and that’s all. That shouldn’t be punishing adults who want to see these films. If adults want to pay to see trash like “Showgirls,” it’s their right. I don’t want to live in a society in which films like “Showgirls” can’t be accessible to everyone over the age of 17. Anyone even remotely interested in how the film industry works with find everything in “This Film is Not Yet Rated” absorbing. GRADE: A-

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Boston Illegal: Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” is a Fascinating Masterwork of Writing, Acting, and Directing

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not one of Hollywood legend Martin Scorsese’s biggest fans. I saw his remake of Cape Fear a while ago. It’s decent. I rented Taxi Driver from the library years ago. It was all right. I sat through all 2.75 hours of The Aviator two years ago. It was okay. I probably responded most to The Aviator. It had extremely great things going for it: a good cast, a wonderful look, just an overall great production. I couldn’t help but think there was just something missing. And so I have yet to see any of his other films, for I have felt none of the ones I’ve viewed were anything too special. And now comes The Departed. A turning point for both the director and I. Perhaps I’ll give his other films a shot, perhaps the filmmaker will get an Oscar. But more importantly this is a film in which all of his others from now on will be judged.

Scorsese starts in a new location, Boston, MA. It is the land of overly pronounced As, the Red Sox, and Irish crime lords. One of the latter being Jack Nicholson in one of his best performances (and you know that’s saying a lot) as Frank Costello. Here is a less campy Joker from Batman; a tough talking’ racial slur speakin’ tough guy with many an evil expression to spare for the film’s quickly paced 2 1/2 hour run time. To put it simply just give the man his fourth Oscar already and call it a night (In fact just give everyone an Oscar). But there’s plenty more astounding actors from where that came from. We get Leonardo DiCaprio, finally completely convincing, as an undercover cop infiltrating Costello’s crime ring. On the other side Matt Damon is part of Costello’s gang who has trained to become a cop and he might as well be called Evil Will Hunting. These characters set up what could have easily become a tired retread of other lesser-made crime thrillers. The cast elevates the material extremely well. Also great here are Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg who are the only ones who know of DiCaprio’s mission. Alec Baldwin also shows some great acting chops. Vera Farmiga is just about the the only female in the cast and she's terrific as a link between DiCaprio and Damon.

While the film isn’t as visually scrumptious as The Aviator there is plenty of terrific technical aspects worthy of note. The film maintains a frenetic energy without the use of overly shaky cameras or quick fire editing. The imagery is extremely strong. Scorsese, not known for his restrained use of graphic violence, uses the brutally potent images to shock and let you know not everyone in this world is a saint. I also enjoyed the use of music. While Howard Score provides a score, most scenes are filled with rock-pop Irish jigs and most notably The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter.” Not only is the music pleasing to the ear, but so is the dialogue. While disgusting racial and homophobic comments, including other pervasively colorful language, fill the character’s mouths, it’s hard to argue that screenwriter William Monahan hasn’t created pure poetry with each spoken line. And boy do I love those Bawston accents!

“The Departed” is a wholly enjoyable movie that has to be seen to be believed. Every cinematic element is spot on. The story is exciting and works like a thriller, but it’s so much more. It’s a superbly entertaining piece of art. This is a great example of a film, a collection of sounds and images that are put together expertly to create a thoroughly pleasing experience. This is filmmaking at its best. GRADE: A

Friday, October 06, 2006

Red State Horrors: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” is Delightfully Depraved

If you have no intention of seeing this gloriously disgusting and repugnantly sadistic exercise in masochistic horrors stop reading right now. There’s nothing I’m going to say to help convince the slightest non-horror fan to see the latest Leatherface flick to hit the multiplex. If you’re interested in how a person could find such disgustingly graphic violence and cruel images a form of entertainment keep reading. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” is in no way a terrific motion picture. It doesn’t deserve to be mentioned anywhere along the lines of classic cinema. Heck it hardly deserves to be mentioned with trash cinema. But to horror film fans who delight in seeing the make-believe world of bodies being ripped open from end to end, it’s a splendid piece of putrefied celluloid that is dank, dark, depressing and wholly enjoyable to anyone who gets a thrill by seeing blood being spilled and splattered.

There’s nothing I can really say to anyone to even convince them this is a “good” movie. Even the word “entertaining” is pushing it, because I’m sure many think a person would have to be Jeffrey Dahmer to enjoy such movies. The odd thing is there are many “normal” folks out there who are nice, decent and wholly moral human beings who enjoy watching movies that scare them, sicken them or make them feel like they’ve been punched in the gut. Yeah I’m sure normal’s the word.

So yes, I am one of those people. I enjoy a good kill on screen and it doesn’t have to be particularly scary. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be particularly gory. But it has to be one or the other. While some delight in seeing wizards conjure magic, and lovers bathing in the warm summer sun, and spaceships battling it out in a galaxy far, far away, I’m one of those people who would rather see a teenager get a chainsaw to the gut. Speaking of chainsaws, “The Beginning” actually lives up to its red state influenced title. This is a chainsaw massacre if there ever was one.

Director Jonathan Liebesman begins screenwriter Sheldon Turner’s story of “The Beginning” with the birth, quite literally, of our favorite chainsaw-wielding maniac. Leatherface fans get to see him at work in the slaughterhouse and make his first human skin mask. We get to see how his uncle’s legs were removed and how his deranged surrogate father (an always menacing R. Lee Ermey) became the dying town’s “sheriff.” These cannibals are deranged beyond belief (I guess you’d have to be if you were a cannibal). And into the story comes two attractive couples (the two guys are about to be sent off to Vietnam) who likely won’t have their good looks for long. A traffic accident sets up the rest of the film’s ‘story” and then we get scene after scene of escape, capture and kill. And let’s not forget the car that won’t start and characters asking each other if they’re ok when they been bear-trapped and skinned alive. And why won’t lead Jordana Brewster just get the hell out of there when she has the chance. Did I mention the gruesome scenes of sadism???

I am not recommending this movie for anyone except those who enjoy watching gory thrillers. This movie is sick and repulsive and I was amazed at how it achieved an R rating (Although I’m not actually too shocked). I jumped, I winced, I vocalized, “yeah that’s gross” and I found myself enjoying the entire ride (Even more than the 2003 remake). Do yourself a favor, grab a barfbag, watch this brutal flick and go out for an extra rare steak dinner afterwards. Wow, I never realized how repulsive I am. GRADE: B