Saturday, December 29, 2007

Child’s Play: “Atonement” is a Grand Achievement That Isn’t Just For British Eyes Only

If you know me at all, you’ll be aware that I am the last person to go see a British period piece. Yuck city. “Sense and Sensibility?” Yawn. “The English Patient?” Oh please. “Gosford Park?” Zzzz. So it was with overwhelming surprise and delight that I found Joe Wright’s (whose previous effort was the very British Jane Austen saga “Pride and Prejudice”) wartime drama “Atonement” to be completely delightful. It has interesting characters, suburb direction, a great story and wonderful technical achievements. Anyone wondering whether they should just skip this because of the English accents is going to be missing out on one of the best dramas of the year.

Most surprising of all in “Atonement” is the shockingly amazing performance of little Saoirse Ronan, who commands the screen and nearly makes as good a performance as Helen Mirren in The Queen. She takes a character that is almost immediately unlikable and gives her a soul that you simply can’t look away from. Ronan is Briony, she’s a 13 year old girl who lives the rich life in the English countryside circa the early 1940s. She’s an intelligent young girl, since she writes plays for her and her cousins to act in for fun, but she’s still just a little girl. Certain circumstances lead her to accuse her older sister Cecelia’s (Keira Knightly) gardener lover Robbie (James McAvoy) of something very heinous. This sends McAvoy away to prison and eventually to fight in World War II. These are two lovers that just can’t be together and it’s all because of a little girl’s simple misunderstanding.

Of course, we assume it’s a misunderstanding, but remember I said Briony isn’t a stupid girl. She’s a friggin’ playwright for God’s sake! Perhaps it’s a little bit of jealously between her and her sister that causes this mess or perhaps it’s simply the innocence of being a child. Who knows really. But what’s so special here is the way the screenplay let’s us see events from multiple points of view. We see what goes on between Cecelia and Robbie from Briony’s point of view. We interpret it as a child but then we see what really happens and we’re back to being adults. This is a movie that hinges on an important and influential role and Ronan nails it (as do Romola Garai as Briony at age 18 and Vanessa Redgrave who is so memorable in nearly two scenes as an elderly Briony still seeking atonement for the actions of her childhood).

What a technical achievement this film really is. Director Wright employs a nearly six minute tracking shot when Robbie goes to war that is simply stunning. There are too many beautiful shots to even mention. Each scene is a portrait of the time. And each actor is terrific in reflecting that time period. And probably my favorite of all is Dario Marianelli’s terrific music, which incorporates the sounds of a typewriter into his score. The pounding of keys goes perfectly with Briony’s rigid movements. This is “Mickey Mousing” at it’s best and most complex.

“Atonement” is a film that has garnered a lot of Oscar talk, it’s certainly deserving of whatever amount of nominations it receives, although it’s steam has slowed down some over the past couple weeks. This is a film that seems like it was made to win awards, but nothing is further than the truth. It’s a film that will surprise you with how good it really is and for a British period piece set in war torn England that’s certainly saying a lot from me. GRADE: A

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Old Man and the Seed: Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman Put Their Father in a Home in “The Savages”

Perhaps it’s asking too much for a movie to be much more biting even though it contains a scene in which an elderly man, who is pissed off, spreads his feces all over a bathroom wall. This old man is Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco), his long time lover has passed away and the caretaker can no longer take care of him because the aged couple wasn’t married. So estranged son and daughter Jon and Wendy (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) are contacted and they go about finding a nursing home for the father, while the siblings bark at each other. The only real selling point here is to see the always good Linney and Hoffman go at it. Otherwise, we have a mostly uninteresting story of depressive state of growing old and no longer being able to care of oneself.

Director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) paints a portrait of family angst that doesn’t settle for cheap sentimentality. Those expecting a tear jerking cheese-fest should most definitely step away, however, could it have possibly hurt to include something in these characters that’s slightly relatable? We can see what a pain in the ass dealing with an elderly person can be and how sad it could be if it was your own parent, but the whole process isn’t exactly interesting or captivating. There’s nothing really too surprising or shocking to be found. The film is called “The Savages” but I didn’t really find it to bee too savage. It wasn’t as dark as I would have predicted, yet it’s not exactly a fairy tale.

I believe the film is being billed as a comedy, although it definite has a more dramatic tone to it. Linney’s character is caught in an affair with a married man and Hoffman’s is a drama professor. These are intelligent people, but I found their treatment of their father to be surprising. I’d expect that kind of behavior from someone who was having an affair, but as a man with a doctorate, Hoffman is surprisingly cold. I guess what I’m saying is that I’d almost wish these siblings were white trash who didn’t really know better and placed their father in a crummy home and hilarity ensues. The film just really isn’t all that captivating and I could really care less about anything going on.

The film is the second film of this year to deal with old age. The previous effort is Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her” which deals with a woman who begins having signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. That film, while not a comedy, also dealt with aging in a not-too-sappy way, and is a much better film about life without the sappiness of say, “The Notebook.” “The Savages” can be recommended for it’s acting, although if you want to watch a funny, cranky old man I would suggest watching Oscar winner Alan Arkin in last year’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” GRADE: C+

Saturday, December 22, 2007

She’s Having a Baby: Ellen Page is Knocked Up in the Hilariously Heartfelt “Juno”

What is it with pregnant women in movies? First “Waitress” makes a big splash at Sundance, then the Judd Apatow hit “Knocked Up” was a summer smash, and now we have “Juno,” a cute tale of an acid-tongued teen girl who gets impregnated by her sweet best friend. Perhaps it’s the notion that women can be just as funny as men and while growing a human being inside them as well. Having said that “Juno” is probably the sweetest and most funny comedy of the year. You want to reach out and grab the movie. Yeah, it made me want to grasp onto the movie and never let go. You want to dive into the screen and hug ever character. You’ll want to hug your friend sitting next to you and even the creepy guy behind you. Or not.

“Juno” really is as good as it’s been hyped up to be. It’s been touted as this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine” and it’s every bit as good and every bit as funny as people say it is. Ellen Page is a revelation in the title role. As small teen Juno, she’s larger than life. She has a witty or sly comment for everything and yet she’s never repulsive or annoying. You just want to be her best friend. Page is Oscar-worthy here and she rivals one of my favorite comedic actresses Amy Adams. It’s amazing how playing an expecting mother can really be a breakout role.

Director Jason Bateman has taken first time scribe (and former stripper) Diablo Cody’s pitch perfect screenplay and concocted a freshly rewarding film about life, love and friendship that drips with splendid dialogue that is music to the ears. Page and her co-stars deliver every line with perfection. Take for instance Juno’s reply when a character asks her whether her parents are worried about her: “I'm already pregnant, so what other kind of shenanigans could I get into?” There’s not a missed note along the way.

Arrested Development’s Michael Cera (who also starred in “Superbad”) is the slightly geeky Paulie Bleeker. After a night of awkward intercourse, Juno realizes much to her dismay that she is in fact pregnant. She tells her accepting father (JK Simmons) and stepmother (Allison Janney) the not so splendid news. How refreshing to see a set of parents that don’t freak out when they find out she’s with child. They are concerned yes as any parent would be, but they are not the enemy. There is no enemy here; remember I said you want to hug every character.

Realizing that abortion isn’t exactly the way to go, Juno decides to go through with the pregnancy and find loving, adoptive parents. While looking through the penny saver with her friend, she comes across an uber-perfect couple Vanessa and Mark (played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). Vanessa is so ready to be a mother but Mark isn’t as sure about being a parent as Vanessa. Juno loves this couple and is willing to give her child to them. She quickly bonds with Mark, because we learn he’s really just a grown up teenager and Mark and Juno have a connection. They share tastes in movies and music. We learn right away that Mark’s favorite film is “The Wizard of Gore” and it’s immediately obvious that he may not be prime daddy material.

The film is a fun, lighthearted laugh fest. It has some extremely funny lines that you’ll be quoting even days after seeing the film. And its soundtrack is equally fun with many quirky songs that completely reflect the tone of the film and its characters. The movie never pulls at your heartstrings in a manipulative way and its not ashamed to cause a tear or too. This is one of the most warm, happy movies of the year. So just see it and hug it already. GRADE: A

Mock ‘N Roll: Musician Biopics Get Their Due in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”

“In my dreams you're blowing me…Some kisses.” If you can laugh at the double entendre in this lyric found as part of the song “Let’s Duet” in the hilarious spoof “Walk Hard” you’ll be laughing the whole way through. Judd Apatow, who certain has had a great year having directed “Knocked Up” and producing “Superbad,” goes three for three by co-writing this funny send up of music biopics. Movies like Walk the Line, which tales the tale of the late Johnny Cash and Ray which features Ray Charles are given the “Airplane!” treatment. No stone is left unturn. They through ever gag at the screen, most of which actually stick. If you’ve gotten sick of the redundant pieces of crap like “Date Movie” and “Epic Movie” that have been masquerading as funny spoof films then “Walk Hard” is for you. It actually reaches the level of such classics as “The Naked Gun” and “Hot Shots!”

While it could have been called Biopic Movie, director Jake Kasdan (who also co-wrote) has rather decided to skip the standard “let’s-just-reenact-this-scene” way of making spoof movies. This is not a movie filled with scenes straight out of Walk Hard and Ray. They actually go beyond just recreating those scenes and actually create witty and funny situations. This film’s goal is to make you laugh and it succeeds admirably.

Over the past few years true life tales have taken a hold of motion pictures. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that wasn’t based on a “true story.” But more specifically, the musical biopic has become a staple of cinema, especially in the past few years. And what’s so amazing is that it doesn’t matter whose story is being told; it’s basically the same story. A simpleton who dreams big gets the chance of a lifetime when they hit it big and become a musical phenomenon, but that’s not until recoiling into a dark period in which mind altering substances take over the performer’s life, only to be saved at the last minute and become a legend in the music industry. Phew! The story of Dewey Cox (played gamely by Golden Globe nominee John C. Reilly) plays out in the exact same way.

As a child, Dewey Cox was raised by loving but stubborn parents. After a tragedy that takes the life of his older brother, Dewey pours himself into his music. He becomes a hit sensation and sets off on a lifetime of sex, drugs and rock n roll. He marries his high school sweetheart Edith (played wonderfully by SNL cast member Kristin Wiig). They reproduced about 10 times and while Dewey is off making music she must stay home and watch their children. This is a marriage guaranteed to end badly. Of course Dewey meets a new love Darlene (The Office’s Jenna Fischer in the June Carter-type role). The two become a duet sensation. But then band member Sam (Tim Meadows) introduces Dewey to drug after drug which puts him in a downward spiral of darkness and despair, only to become a music legend in the end.

One of the most surprising aspects of “Walk Hard” are the actual songs written for the film. They are fun catchy songs that reflect the time they were written. Dewey Cox goes through many stages of music he goes from 50s crooner to 60s head tripper to 70s disco dancer to 80s pop star. He even has Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison phases. And if anything, see this film for its many cameos. Almost everyone from the Apatow clan makes an appearance somewhere. And even Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam joins in on the fun.

You’re unlikely to find a film with a larger laugh per minute ratio than “Walk Hard.” It works beyond just being a comedic remake of movies like “Walk the Line” and “Ray.” This is movie is silly yes, but it’s actually intelligent. This is movie made by people who know about comedy and good filmmaking. It’s obvious everyone involved here had lots of fun and you will too. GRADE: B+

Friday, December 21, 2007

Little Barbershop of Horrors: Tim Burton’s Adaptation of “Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is a Cut Above the Rest

To put it simply “Sweeney Todd” the Tim Burton directed adaptation of the dark yet beloved Stephen Sondheim musical is one of the filmmaker’s greatest achievements. It seems to borrow all the best elements from his previous efforts and he thrusts them into high great to create a cinematic experience that pleasure the senses and makes you feel good. I can’t exactly say that you’ll be running out for a shave or a meat pie anytime soon, but the tale of a serial killer barber and the woman who turns his victims into delicious meat pies is such a mysteriously intriguing tale I can’t help but say it’s definitely one of the best filmed musicals of recent memory. Forget “Dreamgirls,” forget “Rent,” forget “The Phantom of the Opera” “Sweeney Todd” is open for business and it’s a simply smashing experience.

Take the beautiful production design and costumes of “Sleepy Hollow,” the performances of “Ed Wood,” the musical whimsy of “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the awkwardness and outcast themes of “Edward Scissorhands,” and the dark brooding of “Batman” and you have “Sweeney Todd” a wonderful symphony of images ands music that pleasures ever part of you. Burton favorite Johnny Depp signs his heart out (in a weird David Bowie sort of way) as Benjamin Barker. He has the perfect wife and child, but an evil, jealous judge (a deliciously malevolent Alan Rickman) decides Benjamin’s life is too perfect and sends him off on false charges to rot in prison. Benjamin returns to London, where our story takes place, years later as the brooding and vengeance seeking Sweeny Todd. He sets up shop as barber intent on finding the man who wronged him. Meanwhile, Mrs. Lovett’s (perfectly cast Helena Bonham Carter) meat pies in her pie shop are the “worst pies in London.” It’s only a matter of time before Todd and Lovett team up to turn his victim’s into tasty meat pies. Doing this serves two purposes; it hides the evidence and creates a business boom for Lovett’s shop.

This is the first time since Ed Wood that Burton has not enlisted the help of composer Danny Elfman. But this is hardly an issue. Famed musical composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s musical is a perfect fit for Burton’s demented cinematic sensibilities. It’s as if it were written for him, although it was a Tony Award winning musical staged over thirty years ago. The music is catchy and the movie benefits greatly from being directed by a film director instead of a theater director adapting a play. I always tend to go back to the film version of “the Producers” that was a dreadful film that failed because of the staginess of its production. It felt like it consisted of just filmed stage numbers. Burton, having never official directed a live action musical (Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride are his previous musical efforts) has found a new voice as a filmmaker. He stages musical numbers based in reality, yet we never for an instant feel uncomfortable when characters break out in song.

“Sweeney Todd” is punctuated with just the right bits of gore and blood and it fits perfectly with this dark tale of revenge. Depp and Bonham Carter work tremendously well together. This is perhaps finally the film that will give Burton his due as a tremendously talented filmmaker. Whether his wins an Oscar, I’m not sure; but who else really could have pulled off this film as well as he did? To think that this man has gone from directing “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” to this says so much. “Sweeney Todd” is Tim Burton’s swan song and it’s bloody good indeed. GRADE: A

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

One Man Bland: Will Smith is the Last Man in NYC in “I Am Legend”

To many people New York City is an impressive sight: thousands of busy people coming and going, all those tall buildings and endless amounts of gigantic advertisements. But it’s even more impressive with no people around and weeds growing nearly as tall as the man-made structures around them. The production design of the science-fiction parable “I Am Legend” is the most notable part of an otherwise drab story of a man who survives the spread of a virus that turns people into daylight fearing CGI zombie-creatures.

I guess if you’re going to want to spend nearly an entire film alone with someone you could do a lot worse than Will Smith. I mean wouldn’t it suck if you had to watch Gilbert Gottfried walk around Manhattan all by himself? I shudder at the thought of it. Will Smith takes on the Tom Hanks Cast Away role as a man trying to survive on his own. Except in this film a terrible virus (which was supposed to be the cure for cancer) turns people into vampire-like monsters who feast on the flesh of the living. I guess the moral of the story is not to find a cure for cancer.

Will Smith is Robert Neville who is, by reasons I believe to be unexplained, is immune to this virus and he ends up being the last human being alive in Manhattan. After three years of surviving on his own with his trusty German Shepard, he still is trying to find a cure for this virus that spreads very quickly and makes people into raging lunatics. It basically turns people in a hybrid of the zombies from “28 Days Later” and the cave-dwelling humanoids from “The Descent.” (Certain parts also recalled “The Birds” and “War of the Worlds”) Of course, those films on the whole were far superior, but this film does have a few effective scares here and there. There is a suspenseful sequence set inside a dark building while Robert looks for his dog.

Films like this tend to lean towards some sort of political metaphor. I’m sure there is some kind of larger meaning behind it all, but basically what we have here is a simple story of humans being wiped out and one man struggling to survive. Will Smith is a good actor but I’m not so sure that this entire film is completely compelling in the way other films of this genre are. “28 Days Later” (and it’s terrific sequel) was so much more than a zombie film and “The Descent” wasn’t just about women trapped in a cave. They have something bigger to say about how society works, while “I Am Legend” seems more interesting in showing off elaborate special effects which by the way…

…suck major ass. The zombie people are completely unconvincing as effects. I spend most of the film trying to figure out why director Francis Lawrence approved the effects here. It’s obvious the film has a large budget and it showcases some impressive action sequences, but the zombies are only scary when they jump out at you accompanied by loud music on the soundtrack. The escaped zoo animals that run wild throughout the city (lions and deer) are also horrible CGI creations that had me scratching my head. With so many credible shots of a rundown Manhattan it amazed me that the other computer effects could be so ho hum.

The bottom line here is that this really is just a standard science fiction thriller that has a few scares and a good solo performance by Will Smith, but nothing more. I was intrigued by Smith’s character’s daily routine and I though his dog was impressively intelligent, as most movie dogs are, but other than those stunning shots of a bare NYC, this is one legend almost worth forgetting. GRADE: C+

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sister Act: Nicole Kidman is “Margot at the Wedding”

I don’t know director Noah Baumbach personally. All I know is that he directed The Squid & the Whale and now he has brought us “Margot at the Wedding.” But if there’s any way to know a person just from the films they make, it’s Noah. His films are filled with things you would never see or hear in mainstream films. And assuming he takes bits from his own life and inserts them into his movies, we can deduce he’s had one strange life. He takes taboo subjects and places them in front of you. He’s much more true to life than most filmmakers would like to acknowledge. And for that, I have to give him credit. “Squid” was a strange film that took a few viewings to get used to. It’s strange moments is what elevated it above regular, every movies. “Margot” is also very strange, but in a way it almost works against it.

Nicole Kidman plays Margot. Margot has a son Claude (Zane Pais). They arrive at the home of Margot’s sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Pauline is getting ready to marry Malcolm (Jack Black). Pauline has a daughter Ingrid (Flora Cross). These family members spend a few days together before the wedding. And in those few days we pretty much get to learn a lifetime of what makes these characters act the way they do. This movie works because of the actors. They talk about things and people we don’t’ know about and it’s up to us to figure out what they’re talking about. It’s kind of amazing in a way. It’s like jumping in on the middle of a stranger’s conversation. We don’t know what they’re talking about but by the end we kind of get the history.

The film is mostly talk, so if you’re not a fan of dialogue stay away. But this isn’t your average dialogue. You have to hand it to Noah for creating such an odd, quirky script. This is a movie where you’ll have male characters discussing how they try urinating by sitting on the toilet. You’ll have discussions between mother and son about the son’s use of deodorant and whether it causes cancer. He gives his actors so much to do and they elevate the material to a level that is rare in most films today. However, I can’t really say I cared much about what was going on. In “The Squid & the Whale” I found most of the characters interesting. They all weren’t the most likable but you at least care about what’s going on. In “Margot” the characters seem so whiney and depressed that you almost want to stage an intervention and commit them all to a mental institution.

I have to give credit where credit is do. The actors do a great job with the difficult material they have been given. There are some laughs here although I can’t really say whether this is a comedy or a drama (Although learning about how Margot tried baking her sister in the oven when they were little was a little priceless). Margot is a Wedding is certainly an original creation (what about those wacky neighbors?!) and something you’ve never seen before. It’s really an actor’s showcase, but be prepared to declare, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto.” GRADE: B-

PS - Was it me or was the cinematography rather distracting? Some scenes were so underlit I couldn't tell the difference between Jack Black and Nicole Kidman.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Brothers Dim: Money Makes the World Go Round in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour play brothers in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” They need money and fast. The only way? Robbery. Of course this won’t be any ordinary robbery. This will be a simple and quick scenario: they will rob their parent’s jewelry store. They get the money and their parents will get insurance money. No one will be harmed and everyone wins. Not exactly. The plot of “Devil” is very similar to the equally entertaining dark thriller “Fargo” in which a family man plots to have his wife kidnapped so he could collect his wealthy father-in-law’s ransom. In that film things go terribly wrong in a mostly black comedy sort of way. Lumet’s film is much more a straight thriller that bends time and shows scenes from different points of view. It’s gripping from start to finish.

Ethan Hawke’s performance is phenomenal. He takes makes an unsympathetic character sympathetic. He’s pretty pathetic and easy to dislike, but we’re with him almost 100 percent as soon as everything hits the fan. Philip Seymour Hoffman is obviously sensational as well. I think I like seeing him as a bad guy more than the good eye. He seems to have more fun with the role.
Marissa Tomei also proves that she act without Joe Pesci’s help. Albert Finney is also transcendent. It’s amazing to see what his character goes through and what leads up to his character doing something he feels he must do.

Sidney Lumet’s Oscar worthy direction is simply outstanding. You would never guess that a man in his 80s would have the lucidness and prowess to take on such a film. But we learn from his past films, such as the heist-gone wrong thriller “Dog Day Afternoon,” that he is certainly the man for the job. Like in that film, we tend to sympathize with characters who do bad things (i.e., rob people) because they’re in a position where there’s nothing left to do but turn to crime to succeed. And by showing the depraved acts caused by these characters we can only learn that this is NOT the way to make a living. It works almost as an anti-violence tale without the preachiness of a PSA. The story is time shifted in places as are most film in this post-“Pulp Fiction” world. But unlike Tarantino who relies sometimes too heavily on dialogue, rookie Kelly Masterson’s script is all about the story and how it affects its characters.

Carter Burwell’s score is so essential it’s practically a character. Nearly half of the tension felt is because of the haunting music that accompanies the haunting action. The scene in which Hawke’s character realizes the robbery has gone terribly wrong is one of the most memorable scenes from a film this year. You can instantly feel every single emotion that he is going through. You get that horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach, like you’ve been punched in the gut. This film has the nerve to take your breath away but has the kindness to bring it back to you. It’s as exciting and compelling a film as you’ll see all year. GRADE: A-

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Gross-ry Store: “The Mist” Disturbingly Puts the Gory in Religious Allegory

Attention shoppers! Goo Light Special in aisle seven. The other Capote in aisle three. This is probably the best horror film to ever take place in a supermarket. And that’s a good thing. We, along with dozens of citizens of a small Maine town, are trapped inside a grocery store when a thick, ominous white cloud covers the entire building. A man, bloodied and weak, running for his life who ends up in the market, insists that everyone gather inside because there is something inside the mist. And the guy is certainly right because there are some horrific beasts in this fog that no one would ever be happy to encounter. We’re talking about creatures straight out of your darkest nightmare; in fact, they’re right out of the morbidly genius mind of one Steven King.

Yes I did mention in my title that “The Mist” offers a religious allegory. One of the citizens trapped in the store is Mrs. Carmody (a perfectly cast Marica Gay Harden) the local religious loon. After it's apparent that those trapped in the market are doomed she begins to spout passages from the Bible that insist God is getting back at mankind’s past sins. Of course there are ones that believe she’s nuts (myself included) and those that begin to follow her as if she’s a born again female Jesus. The other unofficial leader is David (competent B-lister Thomas Jane) who is trapped along with his young son (played by Nathan Gamble). David is a rational man who probably has the coolest job in the world: designing posters for Hollywood movies.

Director Frank Darabont’s, who also wrote the script, main goal is to create suspense. We don’t really know what’s out there at first and that’s good. The first creature stuff we get to see are some scary tentacles creeping underneath a loading dock door. And we see a less important character dragged to his bloody death. This isn’t any ordinary monster. And as the film progresses the monsters get scarier and almost unbearably creepy. But these creatures aren’t the only monsters: human beings can be just as scary in such a ridiculously stressful situation. Darabont is an assured director. While “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile” are his biggest successes, let’s not forget this guy started in B-movie horror films. He co-wrote the remake of “The Blob” for God’s sake! Here, he creates almost unbearable tension and some completely disturbing sequences.

As soon as it becomes clear that these people’s lives are seriously at stake (some people attempt to leave the market only to be ripped apart by the creatures lurking just outside) these ordinary citizens start to become rather loony. As Mrs. Carmody insists, it’s time to choose sides. Will you side with her and God. Will you pray for redemption or will you continue to not acknowledge the sins of mankind and face this horrific wrath of God? Better choose wisely, or you might end up a sacrific of the religious nutbags. David, along with a few other completely sane folks decide that they might be better off taking their chance with the malevolent creatures than these freaks. And it dares to raise the question? What is really more terrifying, giant bug-like creatures or people who insist that God is the only one to answer to? “The Mist” is sort of like “Lord of the Flies” meets “Alien” in a supermarket.

This is a film that is so easily likable because it seems to get everything right. It’s a character driven monster movie that knows suspense is its asset and uses gory effects to justify the tension it has created. And the film is almost disturbingly pessimistic that you simply have to thank it for not just wrapping things up in such a neat little package. It offers a mild explanation for this mist and let’s just say that King and Darabont don’t exactly paint an optimistic view of our government.

"The Mist" is the rare film that combines scares, suspense, gore, character, and themes of conspiracy, human nature and religion into an entertaining package. And it’s the first film in a long time that literally made me turn away from the screen due to an intense sequence involving overgrown spider monsters. This is a chilling roller coaster ride guaranteed to the give you the willies and damper your day. Thank God. GRADE: A-

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Royal Flushed: Amy Adams Brings Animation to Life in “Enchanted”

“Enchanted” is a delightful ode to the animated fairy tales everyone grew up watching. Everything from Snow White to Cinderella is referenced in subtle and not so subtle ways. In fact the film even features traditional cel animation for that old school vintage vibe. Giselle is a lonely girl who is rescued by a prince and they are soon to be married after meeting only once. Problem is, his wicked stepmother has banished her to a place where happy endings don’t exist: the live action world of modern day New York City. Each animated character has a human being counterpart and Amy Adams simply shines as the woman destined to find her prince and live happily ever after.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat. If you think you’re too old for this movie, get your head examined! This is a movie than can play to any age and either sex. Kids will love the kiddie stuff and grown ups will love everything else. In fact while this is a movie the whole family can enjoy, it’s really made with adults in mind. I mean, who else would spot all those classic Disney references?

Speaking of which, how many could you count? Look, there’s the woman who voiced Ariel as a secretary. I think I hear Under the Sea in the background of one scene involving a fish tank. Was that Pumba I spotted amongst other animated woodland creatures? Cute and cuddly animal sidekick? Check. Poison apples? Of course. Glass slipper left behind? You bet. Not to mentions countless other fairy tale references. It’s like a cinematic Where’s Waldo. Director Kevin Lima, who also directed Disney’s “Tarzan,” fills every frame with something remarkable to see. And it’s really astounding to see how amazingly clever Bill Kelly’s script really is. He’s obviously spent some time reading up on Disney clichés; one of my favorites being the princess who calls all her animal friends and uses her buddies to clean up any mess in sight during a catchy dance number. And it’s no until you see some of these situations acted out with live people that you realize how ludicrous fairy tales really are when compared to real life.

What’s so lovable here are the actors who fully embrace their characters. Giselle is a grown-up girl who loves to sing and prance her way through life. And Amy Adams (who was Oscar nominated for “Junebug”) plays her with such a terrific naivety you simply want to reach into the screen and knock some modern day sense into her. She fully embodies every twitch and innocent gesture with full force as if it was going to be her very last screen appearance. And heck if Julie Andrews could win an Academy Award for “Mary Poppins” why couldn’t Adams win for this? The film is simply radiant every second she’s on screen. When Giselle comes across a little person in a suit she automatically assumes it’s one of the Seven Dwarfs. A large billboard for the “Palace Casino” features a larger than life picture of a magical castle and she therefore assumes it’s home. Amy Adams perfectly captures her animated counterpart. Every moment is rendered perfectly. You really believe she walked out of cartoon-land and into the hectic world of New York City.

Giselle runs across divorce lawyer and single dad Robert (Grey’s Anatomy’s Patrick Dempsey) and his six-year-old daughter who are pretty much the only two friendly people in the entire city. The child is happy to come across a real life princess and insists that she stay as if Giselle were a lost puppy. Because she’s never head of women’s lib, Giselle is convinced her Prince Edward (James Marsden) will come and find her. And he does, sort off. Marsden spends the entire film in ridiculous purple coiffed attire that clashes terrifically with the city. He spends his time slaying buses; trying desperately to find his true love, through song if necessary. Of course Edward’s evil stepmother (played by Susan Sarandon) is hot on his trail along with her silly goon Nathaniel (Timothy Spall). Pip, the cute chipmunk sidekick, rendered here in expressive CGI, discovers his species cannot talk in NYC. Welcome to the real world, my friend.

The actors do such a great job of bringing their animated characters to life that you kind of forget how cookie cutter the plot really is. It’s a fish out of water tale (that kind of reminded me of the Tom Hanks movie "Splash") with a storybook ending but it’s told with such passion to keep the audience interested, laughing and surprised that we don’t mind the little contrivances here and there. You know who’s going to end up with who and that everyone will live happily ever after, but the journey is so much fun and the songs are so catchy (thanks to Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz) that it’s impossible not to fall head over heels in love with this enchanting movie. GRADE: A-

Friday, November 23, 2007

What About Bob? “I’m Not There” is a Surrealistic But Disappointing Portrait of Bob Dylan

“You’re kidding me right? I…I…I can’t watch this.” Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There

It’s not a new thing to see various actors play the same role. I mean seriously, how many guys have played Batman over the years? You can argue about who did the best job and who brought what to each role. But very few times have different actors played the same role in the same film. The most recent in my memory is Todd Solondz’s wickedly subversive tale “Palindromes” in which seven actors of different races, sexes and sizes played a young girl who just wants to have a baby. He used this gimmick in a fascinating way without forgetting that the ultimate point of a film is to entertain; message or no message. While there’s no doubt in my mind that director Todd Haynes is a talented artist, I’m not sure he can really make film that draws you in and makes you forget that you’ve been sitting in a seat for over two hours watching a screen.

Hayne’s film “I’m Not There” is supposed to be a surreal look at the many lives and personalities of singer Bob Dylan. He’s been such an iconic and bizarre pop culture phenomenon that it’s not surprising a filmmaker would want to take a weird look into the artist’s crazy life. Haynes sees Dylan as living 7 different lives and therefore he implores 7 different styles of directing to each of these stories and has 6 different actors play a version of Bob Dylan throughout the film. Each Dylan has his or her own name and each is supposed to represent Dylan in various stages in his life. I do not know too much about him and perhaps that is why I found all of this less than thrilling.

See this film if you are a really, really, REALLY big fan of Bob Dylan or if you can stand over two hours of surrealist, visually striking but ultimately mind-numbing images that don’t really gel into an enjoyable story. I actually enjoy Cate Blanchett so I was really drawn to the film because she plays an androgynous version of Dylan named ‘Jude.’ Jude is at the point in Dylan’s career when he decided not become a political spokesperson and decided to concentrate on the electronic sound of rock n roll. His fans didn’t really like his new sound and they promptly booed him in the film. Believe me, I wanted to join them.

What I really didn’t like about the film was how haphazard it seemed. There’s really no story here so if you go to this film to learn more about Dylan you’d probably be better off reading his Wikipedia page. This film won’t make any new Dylan fans. If you’re expecting Walk the Line, just walk away. I know I may sound like some guy who walked into the wrong film, but I knew this film was going to be strange going in which I don’t mind, but it just seemed incoherent. It flashes a bunch of random images at you that don’t mean anything on the surface and this gets old after awhile. This is a film that would be more fun to dissect in film class rather than to enjoy as a Saturday afternoon getaway.

The film is surrealistic but not interesting. It doesn’t grab you. It’s cold toward its audience and for someone like me it can be a tedious experience. It's made nor a narrow audience and those Dylan fans are more likely to be rewarded. There are things that I admire here. I like the original approach of having different actors playing the different aspects of Dylan’s personality. We get a conglomerate of talented actors who portray the mysterious singer in a variety of ways. We get Christian Bale as folk and born again Dylan, Heath Ledger as celebrity Dylan, Richard Gere, in the most dull sequences, as outlaw Dylan, Marcus Carl Franklin (who is Black and a child) as the train hoppin' youthful Dylan, and Ben Wishaw as the Dylan who doesn’t really get to do much except narrate the film. I was obviously most impressed with Blanchett who is worth seeing and will likely be a best supporting actress nominee. There are other notable actors here and there like Julianne Moore as a Joan Baez-type, David Cross as Allen Ginsberg and a nearly unrecognizable Michelle Williams.

I understand part of the film’s message about the power of celebrity and how famous people are looked at as if they were God-like creations, but most of it really went over my head. I didn’t really grasp the symbolism which was frustrating and I’m sure many people wouldn’t get it on a first viewing. But the thing is, I really don’t want to see this movie again. The film really is a direct reflection of the mystery that is Dylan which I guess in a way makes it successful. It’s obvious Haynes knows Dylan inside and out and I admire that but this isn’t a film that’s easy to enjoy. He seems to have made a feature length music video without making a logical story worth investing time in.

The film's one and a half minute teaser trailer is brilliant. It implores great use of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" which doesn't even appear in the film until the end credits (and can't even be found on the CD soundtrack!) You’re morel like to be entertained by the trailer than the film. If you listen to Dylan songs on repeat or if you can find surrealism entertaining than this is the film for you. This is a movie that is original, stylish, and beautiful and yet I couldn’t really stand it. Nothing is more disappointing than that. GRADE: C-

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Heist Tension: “No Country For Old Men” Has Enough Suspense For Three Movies

Hitchcock may be the “Master of Suspense” but I’ve never really had to watch one of his films through my hands. Psycho is my 5th favorite movie of all time and while it’s genius filmmaking and a terrifically realized movie-going experience, let’s all admit that it doesn’t have the punch it once did. Sure showering still hasn’t been the same and although Norman Bates is an iconic screen villain he doesn’t come close to matching the coolly intensity that Anton Chigurh (played coldly by sure-to-be-nominated Javier Bardem) brings to Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film “No Country For Old Men.” And like Hitchcock, the Coens can take the most mundane places, such as motel rooms, and craft masterfully made scenes of tension.

Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy “No Country” tells the story of lower class man Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) who, while out hunting in the open plains of Texas, happens upon a bag full of money (2 million to be exact), a truck full of drugs, and lots of dead bodies. It was some sort of big drug deal that we never get to see. Being a trail park guy with little moral instincts, he decides to snatch the money up for himself. Little does he know Anton is killing anyone in his way to get to that money. Anton’s weapon of choice is a hydraulic machine that’s used to kill livestock. He walks around these desolate locations so casually as if it were his trusty umbrella. The plot is twisty and fun and the Coens’ script never take a false step along the way. And yes it does have moments of dark humor.

The film is almost constantly searingly intense. It has scenes that literally made me grab my shirt to pull up over my eyes. I twitched in my seat, squirming with both pleasure and agony. My heart pounded. The film actually created a bodily response from me. I nearly ripped the armrest from the seat. It’s so easy to say a movie is a nail-bitter but when a film nearly makes you recoil into the fetal position, that’s potent filmmaking at it’s greatest.

The plot is classic Hitchcock an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. The movie works because of what the audience knows and what the characters don’t know. We know Anton is after Llewelyn but he’s not sure until one of the most suspenseful sequences of recent memory. Lucky for Anton he has a tracking device that beeps when he gets closer to the bag of money. Unfortunately Llewelyn doesn’t realize that a tracker is in the bag. He’s not the smartest character but he’s witty enough to be able to find ways to survive. And added into the mix is the Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who is also on the heels of Anton. It’s just a matter of time before Bell catches up with Anton or Anton catches up with Llewlyn.

You are completely drawn into the story right away and not a since frame is wasted (thank you brilliant cinematography Roger Deakins). And as quickly as the film’s story begins, it just ends. Yes this is one of those movies that just ends. It ends appropriately yet frustratingly at a point with pretty much nothing wrapped up. And that makes sense for a story like this. There can be no happy ending and no closure. You get to see point A to point B. But we purposely don’t get to see point C.

The Coens use music sparingly. In fact, I don’t recall music at all, just the sounds of silence. Silence is the score because nothing a composer could have written could have made the film any more intense. (Although Carter Burwell has some theme good music at the end during the credits.) It’s so good I want to see it again, yet it’s so relentlessly suspenseful I’m too scared to lay my eyes upon it.

This film has scenes that were made just so that they could be put in film textbooks. I don’t know if I’d call this a western although it takes place in Texas. I’m not sure I was just call it a suspense film although the tension overflow. I don’t know whether I’d call it a heist movie, because we don’t actually ever see a heist. It’s a conglomerate of genres, which is what the Coen Brothers do best. Call it “Fargo” in Texas if you want, but drop what you’re doing and catch this flick ASAP! GRADE: A

Friday, November 16, 2007

Poem Sweet Poem: “Beowulf” is a Stunning Adventure Full of Battles, Blood and Butts

“Just don’t take a course where they make you read Beowulf.” That line of dialogue spoken by Woody Allen in Annie Hall really says it all. The epic poem that has frustrated countless English students is one of the most indecipherable, boring and tedious texts one will ever hope to read. It only makes sense that anyone who would try to adapt it for the big screen would, not only be a completely misguided, but doomed to fail. However, director Robert Zemeckis, using his trusty CGI computer animation motion capture technology and a comprehensible script by Roger Avery and Neil Gaiman, has actually come up with a cinematic adaptation worthy of praise. While it may share characters and plot elements, the motion picture Beowulf is thankfully not nearly as dull as the text it’s based on. (And let’s face it, the original epic poem is so dreadful that even the author doesn’t want to admit he wrote it).

There are really only one or two reasons you want to see this animated epic. First off it is appearing on over 1000 digitally rendered screens in handsome, eye-popping 3D. And then there’s the nudity. Male nudity! Female nudity! Everyone gets a piece. But honestly the main draw here is the visual element. Yes, the film is nice to look at, but that’s not all. The animation really draws you in and the 3D effects help immerse you in the world of Beowulf. It’s really all about the experience. Zemeckis really wants you to get off your butts and go to theater to see this. This isn’t something you should be downloading illegally or buying on DVD from the sketchy guy on the street corner.

I did “read” the original story way back in 8th grade, which not coincidentally is the year I discovered Cliffs Notes. All I remember is it being about a hero who slays the big scary creature. And that’s basically what the movie’s about. Beowulf (voice by Ray Winstone; body by Aaron Stephens who didn’t get final credit for loaning Ray his six pack) is a heroic warrior. He’s practically a Swedish Superman. He can swim very far and slay monstrous sea creatures. He barely seems human though he is. He is enlisted by the drunken King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) to slay the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) who happens to be terrorizing his kingdom’s habitants.

Beowulf agrees to find this creature and so he strips down ready to face the beast on the same playing field with no weapons. This leads to an exciting nude fight between our hero (whose un-PG-13 friendly naughty bits are obscured Austin Powers-style) and Grendel. After defeating the beast, Beowulf sets out to even the score with Grendel’s even more evil mother (voice and nudity by Angelina Jolie). Grendel’s mother isn’t your typical monster. She changes form and uses her slinky tail and naked booty to seduce our hero. She seductively rubs his sword and it melts (paging Dr. Freud) and he promises not to kill her. And then he goes back to the village, pretends that he killed her, and then Hrothgar throws himself off his castle and Beowulf becomes the new king, only to realize that being king comes with a price…

I’m sure English teachers will be scratching their heads and ranting at the screen but you know what? This is Beowulf for people who didn’t like to read Beowulf. Therefore making movie vs. text references is kind of inapplicable. Anyone hoping that they could catch the flick instead of reading those confusing words will enjoy this fun and impressive movie from start to finish. And like I said, there’s naked people in it. Take that, stuffy lit professors! And although the film has a PG-13 rating, it tends to be surprisingly intense with creative use of violent images. I guess you can get away with a lot more when a movie is “animated.”

Beowulf is a technical achievement and it is a wonder to behold and it’s certainly more entertaining than last year’s epic snooze-fest “300.” It has some great voice work and the animation is impressive. Most of the fun is due to the 3D, so I guess the gimmick worked on me. It’s fun and briskly paced. If you’re looking for an entertaining time at the movies (or fleeting rear nudity) you need look no further than Beowulf. GRADE: B+

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Racketeer: Denzel Washington is an “American Gangster”

Many consider “The Godfather” one of the best movies of all time. I enjoy it, but unlike most people it’s far from being one of my favorite movies ever. Therefore you can’t really blame me for finding “American Gangster” less than amazing. It has plenty of good things about it, but as entertainment I’d rather see something else. The acting is good, the directing is good and the story is good. Many will love it, but I just liked it. I make the direct comparison to The Godfather, because it seems to be most like it. I wants to be as good, but it really just succeeds as being a gritty, 70s era drug and mob fest.

Director Ridley Scott has about as varied a career as you can possible imagine. He’s directed science fiction, romantic comedy and period epics. Although he’s never one an Academy Award, “American Gangster” might help him out just a bit. And I can honestly say that after seeing American Gangster it really feels like a film that seems guaranteed to be nominated for Best Picture next spring. I’m not saying that it doesn’t deserve awards attention, but there are so many more astounding films out there that probably won’t get the awards chance. Scott’s work here is very good, but he honestly doesn’t do anything that he hasn’t done before. If you ask me, he should have won years ago for “Thelma & Louise,” heck even “Alien.”

“American Gangster” follows the true story of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington, another likely nominee) who became the one of the most prominent Black “gangsters” back in 1970s Harlem. He actually had drugs importing into the country using dead American soldiers’ coffins coming back from Vietnam. He was able to rise up and no one could really stop him, until we’re introduced to Russell Crowe’s detective character Richie Roberts The film sort of cross cuts between Frank and Riche until finally Richie begins investigating Frank. And Frank is so powerful that he can shoot a man in the head on the street and no one can seem to touch him.

Where the film succeeds the most is in its feel. It really feels as though it came from the 1970s New American Wave of gritty crime dramas. The script by Steven Zaillian is competent but I can’t say that it fully engaged me as much as I would have liked. Yes this isn’t my favorite film genre but I know a good crime drama when I see one. Last year’s “The Departed” was my favorite of 2006, but American Gangster just seems alright in comparison. I also liked Frank’s brothers and cousins, I believe, who all had businesses that were fronts for their drug trade.

What is most interesting about this story is what comes towards the end. Without spoiling too much, we learn that there is really much more crime involved with those who are supposed to be the protectors. Yes, I’m talking about dirty cops (one of which is Josh Brolin in a great sleazy role). Frank becomes an informant and actually ends up helping bring sleazy cops to justice. Sort of the way Frank Abagnale Jr. went on to help out the police at the end of “Catch Me If You Can.” While Frank doesn’t exactly start a job with the NY police department, it is interesting to note the good and bad that lies within the Frank Lucas character. The moral ambiguity is something that Washington brings strongly to his role.

“American Gangster” is a movie that many will love but I think it’s just alright. It’s possible I could learn to love it, but like “The Godfather” it seems more appropriate to admire it than to actually love it. GRADE: B-

Friday, November 09, 2007

Blouse Trap: Beware the Psycho Security Guard in “P2”

The thriller “P2” does for parking garages what “Psycho” did for showers. How cliché did that just sound? Yeah, a little, but the biggest surprise is that P2, which many will find silly and stupid, is actually quite an efficient and enjoyable suspense film. When you compare it to other crappy so-called thrillers out there P2 actually has plenty to offer. It actually has plenty of elements that I enjoy in these types of films. And in fact I would compare it to the likes of “Misery,” “Red Eye” and “Panic Room.” While those films are all very much superior works of art, “P2”seems to be the neglected stepchild: the one that is just as good but doesn’t the get the respect it deserves.

I liked the small cast: we get two main leads, in fact we really only get two characters. Rachel (Angela Bridges) is working late in her high-rise Manhattan office building on Christmas Eve. She’s really late for her family’s holiday celebration and she’s just had some sort of bad confrontation with a male co-worker. Thomas (Wes Bentley) is the simultaneously helpful and creepy overnight security guard in the building who helps Rachel when she discovers her car won’t start in the underground parking garage. Turns out that creepy trumps helpful because before she knows it, Rachel is chained to a table in Thomas’s office. It seems as though he fancies her and would rather Rachael stay and spend the holidays with him.

I liked the interaction between the leads. Rachel is a good woman in distress. We care for her quickly and she doesn’t do anything too stupid. Bentley (who was also creepy as the bag-loving voeyer in American Beauty) plays up his sinister character with real camp value. He’s obviously insane and he’s not afraid to show it. It doesn’t really seem as though Thomas wants to kill Racheal, he just really has an inappropriate crush on her. He has a surveillance video of her male co-worker getting sexually harassing her and Thomas feels that she is a victim. He just so happens to have this guy tied up on a lower level of the garage. And he proves he’s psychotic by savagely murdering him in front of Rachel. He just sees this as getting vengeance.

Of course since this is a full-length film other stuff has to happen. Therefore, Rachel gets away from Thomas and most of the film is a cat and mouse game of suspenseful scene after another as she attempts to escape from the garage. A scene involving an elevator is equally tense and ridiculous but always enjoyable. I like these types of movies because it all takes place over one night and in one location. With a film like that the director is completely responsible for making it interesting for the audience. Franck Khaloun (who co-wrote the film with his “High Tension” buddies Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur) takes a mundane place where we’ve all been and makes it scary. We’ve all had creepy feelings while walking through a parking garage and this film is the epitome of that fear.

Casual fans of the suspense genre will find something here to enjoy. The film is brisk, scary and intelligent. There are genuine scenes of tension and although there are really two main characters, the filmmakers have surprisingly found ways to put some gore in there as well. The focus here is more on atmosphere than blood and guts but anyone who enjoys a scary ride will want to park it here. GRADE: B

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pain Killer: “Saw IV” is Painful Indeed

Another year, another Saw. When the third film in this chapter of the bloodily successful horror series was released last year I figured it would be a trilogy. In Part III, they went back to the first film to show us things that we know now that we didn’t know then. It was actually kind of neat, if you will. I enjoy going to see the Saw films, but I always seemed to be slightly disappointed. They films are dark (literally speaking) and the editing is just annoying. It’s as if the filmmakers are actually trying to torture the audience. They might as well hit you over the head with a hammer every 5 seconds. And of course, if William Castle was still around I’m sure he’d find a way to incorporate guaranteed audience thrills with seating wired with electricity to shock viewers in more ways than one. And now we have Saw IV, and with the news that Saw V and VI are already officially in the cards, what we have folks, is the Friday the 13th series of the new millennium.

When it comes to the Saw films only one real thing matters: the death scenes! Who cares about acting and the storyline. Although, I must hand it to the Saw filmmakers because although the main draw is killer (pun intended) torture sequences, there is a story buried in here somewhere. We have Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) who started the whole she-bang 3 years ago. He was dying (I believe of cancer or something related) and since he had nothing better to do he decided to trap people in moralistic death traps that somehow rely on the torture of themselves or another in order to survive. The moral? Be happy to be alive! His victims usually included drug addicts, or people with obsessions like vengeance. Like Jigsaw said in the third film, he’s not a murder.

And poor Donnie Walhberg. Not only does he have to live in the pathetic shadow of his younger brother’s success (check out Mark’s Oscar nom!) but he gets to spend the entire length of Saw IV hanging by his neck, only to have his head crushed by two gigantic blocks of ice. Nice. Too bad director Darren Lynn Bousman can’t make any of his scenes interesting, suspenseful or the least bit scary. And no offense, Mr. Walhberg, but when Mark Walkberg's brother is the biggest star of your film that's kind of pathetic. The Saw movies could seriously use some celebrity boost.

You know what? I really had no idea what was going on in this movie. In fact, this movie kind of reminded me a serialized TV show in which it’s been years between seeing episodes. I felt like they needed a “previously in the Saw saga” recap. The plot basically picks up where Saw III left off, except the mystery of the main character’s missing girl is completely dropped. But perhaps that’s what part V will be about? Who knows. Who cares? This film follows police investigator played by Lyriq Bent (who apparently was in the other Saw movies) who is taught a “lesson” about being obsessed with saving peoples’ lives (is that really so bad?). So Jigsaw, even though he’s really most sincerely dead at the beginning of the movie, sets up a bunch of ridiculous traps for him that involve fantastically gruesome killings. (Tobin Bell is really too good to be trapped in this film frachise, but it's he's most definitely welcome).

We all know the killings are the movie’s real draw here and they are disgusting. My favorite involved a man who had to push his face through knives in order to free himself. And a woman’s scap is pretty much ripped off her head as her ponytail is pulled tighter and tighter. And let’s not forget the guy who has the choice to poke out his own eyes or be ripped apart. Even though I am a fan of gruesome cinematic deaths, I’ll be the first to admit with Saw IV, is enough already! I think it’s time to put the horror torture genre to rest and bring back the scary masked slasher! Hopefully the financial success of the Halloween remake (along with the upcoming Friday the 13th redux) will put slasher movies back on the cinematic map.

As a fan of the horror genre, I’m not ashamed to admit that Saw IV is just really bad. This franchise should have ended with part III. Yeah you have to give credit to the filmmakers for coming up with creative deaths, but the writers have come up with an incoherent story that isn’t the least bit fascinating. GRADE: C-

Sunday, October 21, 2007

American Idol: Brad Pitt Stars in a Movie About “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford”

There are plenty of beautiful bad movies: movies that satisfy the eye but stupefy the brain. While “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” by definition isn’t really a bad movie, there are far too many elements that threaten to make it an enjoyable. Your eyes will be amazed…if they can stay open. Headlined by a terrific performance from veteran Brad Pitt and an equally strong supporting one by Casey Affleck (who’s on a roll after Gone Baby Gone). The photography here is simply stunning, it crackles with beautiful textures, lights and darkness. There’s so much here that director Andrew Dominik could have cut out; (although you have to admire this auspicious and continually delayed project), it seems like an editor’s wet dream.

The movie starts out so strongly, that you can’t help but feel slightly disappointed when it muddles and meanders in the middle section. We’re introduced to Jesse James (Pitt) circa late 1800s as he rocks back and forth in his old rocking chair and the narrator gives us a little backstory. Then we’re slowly introduced to his gang of outlaws. There’s Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite (Jeremey Renner), Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) and his brother Bob (Affleck). Then we have a terrifically exciting and technically masterful train robbery scene.

This is one of the best robbery scenes of recent memory. The suspense just completely builds in such a satisfying way. Jesse puts his ear to the train track and the scene goes completely dark until we see a faint light grow stronger in the distance. The camera remains motionless as the train comes forward and somehow the camera begins moving backwards with the train. I’m not sure how they did it but it was a pretty cool shot. The music, editing and camerawork all come together to put on a great cinematic show.

While the remaining two hours is still beautiful, I didn’t find much to care about when the film starts to focus more on Jesse’s gang than Jesse himself. Jesse was a celebrity back in the day, much like Pitt is now and I wish more was focused on Robert’s idolization of him. But the film’s last third is redeemed when the story focuses on Robert’s slight fixation. He emulates Jesse. We don’t really know if he wants him or if he wants to be him. Sometimes he seems so obsessed we’re waiting for him to strap Jesse down and take out his ankles with a sledgehammer. Of course, we all know what happens and it’s that passion that turns towards murder that is most fascinating.

The film’s cinematography by always reliable Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption) is simply among the year’s best. The music is haunting and efficient. The costume and set design are, as far as I could tell, accurate and definitely helped you believe this was taking place in the late 1800s. All of the creative artists have come together and do beautiful work. All the elements seem to be in place, if only the story could have been more exciting. Perhaps, it’s because I’ve never found the Western genre to be that particularly interesting. In fact, I can’t even think of a Western that I’ve really sat entirely through (unless you count “Back to the Future III”).

And of course, the acting is great. Pitt gives another great performance (after his terrific turn in last year’s Babel). And this certainly has to be Casey Affleck’s year. He finally is praise worthy and you’d never know he was related to that guy who was in Pearl Harbor (although his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone is certainly one of the year’s best movies). The scenes with these two great actors work the best. Unfortunately Mary Louise Parker as Jesse’s wife doesn’t get very much to do except cry immensely when her husband is shot and killed (hope I didn’t spoil it for you) although she’s very good as well.

The fact is, if you’re a fan of the technical aspect of good filmmaking “Jesse James” has a lot to offer. The beautifully composed shots are just plain astonishing. I did feel slightly confused through out its midsection as to why the focus turned to Jesse’s gang. In the end, it could have been much worse, but at the same time, it could have been even better. GRADE: B-

Friday, October 19, 2007

Girl, Interrupted: “Gone Baby Gone” Answers That Age Old Question: Can Ben Affleck Direct?

"Who directed it?"

“Ben Affleck.”

“The guy who was in Gigli and Armageddon?”

“Yes, you do know he has an Oscar, right?”

“Seriously? You’re kidding me, that guy sucks.”

“Well it’s a Screenwriting Oscar, he wrote Good Will Hunting. It was a great script.”

“Oh yeah, I remember that, him and the Jason Bourne guy won. Yeah I guess I'll see it, I'm sure it has lots of swearing in it.”

I imagine this is a very typical conversation circulating the country in what must be one of the biggest surprises of the year. Ben Affleck has made a terrific movie: “Gone Baby Gone.” He co-wrote the film with Aaron Stockard (who according to imdb was Matt Damon’s assistant on The Talented Mr. Ripley) who based the script on the novel of the same name. The film is about a missing girl in Boston and the young private investigator who digs up some dirty dealings revolving around the child’s disappearance. This movie has so many great things in it I’ll try to be concise. But simply put, this is a terrifically and efficiently made film. Affleck shows complete confidence behind the camera. Good for him.

Let’s start with the terrifically well-written screenplay. It starts off with a seemingly normal and sad story of a mother who lost her daughter, but it’s soon discovered to be a lot more than that. Helene McCready’s (Amy Ryan who totally lets loose) young daughter has disappeared. It appears to be a typical missing child case. There are no thoughts of kidnapping at this point. Helene’s brother and sister-in-law want to hire PI Patrick (Ben’s little bro Casey) and his partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) to widen the search. The little girl has been missing for a couple days and at this point any chance of finding her is slim. We see that Helene isn’t exactly Mom of the Year. She’s a drug addicted alcoholic who has a mouth like a dirty drug addicted alcoholic (Affleck & Stockard’s dialogue seems genuine and appropriately shocking). We don’t really sympathize with her, and although it doesn’t seem important now, it will be later on. We soon realize this is so much more than a story about a missing girl. As the story unravels, moral complexities are peeled away and characters’ true natures are revealed. We get a peek into this seedy lifestyle. And it’s simply fascinating. We delve deep into a corrupt society with dirty people who do bad things for several reasons. The raises an interesting question though: how can doing something “wrong” making something “right.”

If I was an ethics professor I’d show this film on day one. This film will spark conversations long after it’s over. As an audience we want the little girl found, but do we really want this crack addict mother reunited with this innocent child? To really say anything more about the plot would be to ruin the experience so I will go no further. At this point it’s up to you. This is a thoroughly morose and slightly depressing tale, but it's rewarding and well worth your time.

And like any film directed by an actor, it has terrific performances. The always dependable Morgan Freeman is superb in a pivotal role. And the fact that he’s such a lovable and unquestionably likable actor is vital for his role as the chief of the Boston police. Ed Harris adds another stunning supporting performance to his resume. I’m really amazed with the general casting on this film. I’m not really sure if many of these supporting actors and extras are really actors at all. Affleck and his DP John Toll have really captured the gritty underbelly of Boston in a way similarly to last year’s The Departed, although Gone Baby Gone has much more in common with Mystic River (also based on a Dennis Lehane novel) than that film.

Besides the ethics lesson, if there’s anything to be learned from this film it’s that Ben Affleck really deserves to be behind the camera instead of in front of it. You’ll gain a new found respect for the Beantown native. I’ve never really been too impressed with his staring roles but as a writer and director working on his home turf, he’s as comfortable telling this story as any one of us would be barbequing in our own backyard. GRADE: A

FUN FACT: While “Gone Baby Gone” is Ben Affleck’s feature film directorial debut, according to imdb, he did direct a short film called *taking deep breath* “I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney.”

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Rubber Soul: Ryan Gosling Falls For a Sex Doll in the Terrifically Quirky “Lars and the Real Girl”

Good actors will make you believe anything. In “Cast Away,” I’m reminded of Tom Hanks’ spellbinding turn as a man stuck on a deserted island who confides in a volleyball for human interaction. ‘Wilson,’ as the ball is eventually dubbed, is everything to Hanks’ character. We believe that the two are conversing and Hanks can stay sane on the island because he now has a companion. Making an audience believe that a socially awkward man could fall in love with a doll made primarily for guys who want to get it on with a mound of rubber is a whole other scenario. And the terrifically fascinating Ryan Gosling is up for the challenge in “Lars and the Real Girl.”

This movie either fails or succeeds on one thing: whether we, as the audience, believe that Lars (Gosling) believes that Bianca (an inanimate, non-living, motionless sex doll) is a real person. And on that fact alone the movie delivers. We empathize with Lars, who really is a more sympathetic Napoleon Dynamite, although we know (as do his family/friends/fellow townsfolk) that Bianca is simply and utterly a life-sized doll. But we gain to respect her as a real person because to Lars in his crazy little mind she is real.

Let’s back up a little. You’re probably reading this and wondering, what on earth are you talking about. Does a character really fall in love with a doll? And a sex toy no less. Yes it’s true. Gosling plays Lars who is a socially challenged individual who lives in the livable garage of his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer). He can’t really make human connections although Karin tries ad nauseum. They live in a snowy little town where everyone knows each other. Yes, this is that type of quirky independent movie. Before Gus and Karin know it they’re being introduced to Lars’ new girlfriend Bianca, who’s like a lifeless, brunette version of Pamela Anderson, which he ordered from the Internet.

Gus and Karin are appropriately horrified and dumbfounded. And the audience laughs at the absurdity of the situation. They not surprising seek medical attention and the shrink (Patricia Clarkson) suggests going along with it. Lars needs Bianca to work out whatever it is going on inside his head. Pretty soon it’s not just Gus and Karin that are welcoming Bianca but the entire town. You sense the community among the people and how they all come together to make Bianca feel at home. We believe she’s real because everyone else does.

It’s kind of impressive that Lars comes up with a complete backstory for Bianca. She was a missionary, her parents died when she was a child, she’s in a wheelchair. Both Lars and Bianca are religious so he insists that they don’t share sleeping quarters. And everyone else’s reaction to all of this craziness is something that’s key. We, as an audience, most definitely sympathize with his family members, because we can obviously see that Lars has simply gone to a place far removed from any sane person’s mind. We want to reject Bianca as simply a sex doll, which is what she is. However it’s kind of amazing how quickly we come to realize, like everyone else, that she is a fully realized human being to Lars. And that is simply the magic of the movies.

And simply put Ryan Gosling is a testament to amazing acting. He can submerse himself into various roles and completely have you accept him as that character. He can go from skinhead Neo Nazi, to crack addicted teacher, to lonely psychologically damaged goof in a snap. He makes it look too easy with every twitch of the eye and turn of the head. He’s without a doubt one of the great actors of his generation and has a long, rewarding career ahead of him.

And the fact that the film’s ending is so emotional is a testament to writer Nancy Oliver (of Six Feet Under) and director Craig Gillespie controlling the action in such a way that this can work even though it’s really far fetched. We become emotionally attached to Bianca the way Lars is. And it’s not really hard to believe that Lars would become so attached to this doll. Lars really represents all of us, because we’ve all had crazy thoughts at one point or another. And I’d like to point out Kelli Garner, who kind of reminds me of Claire Danes, is perfectly quirky and awkward as Lars’ co-worker who sort of harbors a little crush on the guy.

This movie is so fun, original and quirky, it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with it. And although the premise might make you think it’s a trashy movie, it simply isn’t. Taken into the hands of John Waters or the Farrelly Brothers this could have easily become something gross, but it’s not. It’s probably the purist movie out there and you can feel the warmhearted family values seeping through the screen. Those who complain that Hollywood doesn’t have an original idea left in its head certainly are up for a treat with this fantastic little movie. GRADE: A

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Mother Nature’s Son: Director Sean Penn Takes Us on a Visceral Journey “Into the Wild”

Please I beg of you. Stop reading this and just go see “Into the Wild.” No review can do it justice. It’s one of the best movies of the year. That’s all…and this review does contain some minor spoilers, but anyone familiar with Christopher McCandless’ true story knows what happens.

“Into the Wild” is the true story of two people, except that they’re really the same person. Alex and Chris. Alex used to be Chris. And Chris has become Alex. Emile Hirsch plays both of them with a fascinating intensity. We believe this young man when he decides to run away from his problems instead of facing them. We see the birth (not literally) of a young man’s journey to forget his past life and start anew. He has wiped the slate clean by cutting up his credit cards, destroying his social security card, leaving behind the people that love him and rejecting the formalities of society. He would rather hang out with trees and wild animals. He’s college educated but doesn’t want to feel strained by having a regular career like everyone else. He wants to be different and so does this movie. It’s a film that will grab you and won’t let go. It is potent filmmaking and will have a lasting effect on you long after the credits have rolled.

This movie has a visceral and emotional impact unlike any other film so far this year. No other movie has affected me in such a way that I felt physically altered, as if I was on the adventure with Alex/Chris. The notion Chris could give up his life, essentially erasing his identity and set off on a new life in the wilds of nature is simply crazy and astounding at the same time. Christopher is reborn as Alexander and the process is cathartic. He trades in his hectic family life for that of the unpredictable life of wandering rebel. He runs from the arms of his concerned birth mother to that of Mother Nature.

The scenic shots of the wilderness are amazing and just as breathtaking as anything on National Geographic and here we have characters we care about. Although, I’ve heard they made Chris’ character more likable for the film, which is understandable. I mean, seriously, would you want to spend 2 ½ hours on a cinematic journey through the landscape with someone you didn’t like? Of course not. While he’s not the most likable screen character (some will see him as a spoiled brat who doesn’t think of anyone but himself), I think many people will identify with his rebelliousness. After all, we all were that age once.

Seasoned actors who decide to direct films constantly amaze me. They always come up with great character driven films that have splendid performances. This film reminded me of the work of Clint Eastwood or Tim Robbins, but with out the lumbering pacing. Sean Penn (who also adapted John Krauker’s best seller) has made a movie that is over two hours that never feels overlong. It’s a journey we want to see stretched out forever because we know what will eventually happen to Alex. And just the fact that he signs his last note with his birth name was enough to give me the chills and turn on the waterworks. It’s an ending many will find depressing and that’s because it is. The ending is inevitable and packs an emotional wallop. But ultimately it’s the only ending that works. For someone who was so adamant about forgetting his past, he realized he couldn’t. He was finally able to acknowledge himself as being Chris.

And for a film that’s all about a man’s solo journey it’s filled with lots of supporting characters. First there’s his family William Hurt is dad, Marcia Gay Harden is mom and Jena Malone is sis who narrates the story for us and we get to understand what she’s going through. While abandoning his former life was practically an F U to his parents, he did care for his sister and we feel her loss. They never knew where he was or what he was really up to. And then there are all the colorful people he meets along his journey including Vince Vaughn as a wheat farmer, Catherine keener and Brian Dierker as an wandering, aging hippie couple, Kristen Stuart as a brief young love interest, and as a lonely old man who climbs a small mountain at Alex’s request Hal Holbrook. You really feel Alex has bonded with these people. And who could forget Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder’s haunting and well used songs that recall the success of the “The Graduate” soundtrack. Music here is also a supporting character in the film.

This movie is spellbinding and gripping from start to finish. It’s all the little details that add up. Alex makes extra holes in his belt to signify his hunger, which foreshadows...nevermind. The insert shots of animals, ice melting, birds flying, crabs walking are just beautiful. You really feel as if you’re in the wild with Alex. I can’t say enough positives about this film. Just go and see it and be happy. GRADE: A