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

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

She Love’s You Yeah Yeah Yeah: “Feast of Love” Offers a Banquet of Characterizations

“Feast of Love” is about falling in love and out of love and all the crazy little things that loves makes us do. (Such as buying a dog as present for a loved one who has mentioned a million times that she doesn’t like dogs). Director Robert Benton, who won an Oscar way back in the 1970s for directing the family drama “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” brings a 70s-esque feeling to the standard melodramatic proceedings going on here. There is lots of frank sexuality and dialogue that is a throwback to the character driven dramas of the “New Hollywood.” And that alone is reason enough to indulge on this “Feast.” Please don’t let the title dissuade you: It’s a simply dreadful title. Whatever you may think this is not a pornographic horror film.

We’re introduced to Morgan Freeman’s character Harry who adds yet another splendid narration job to his overcrowded resume. He talks of the Greek gods about why they created love: simply because they had nothing better to do. And that pretty much describes Greg Kinnear’s character Bradley. He’s so emotionally blinded that he doesn’t even realize his wife (Selma Blair) is a lesbian and flirts with a fellow softball player in front of his face. Of course Harry notices, because like most narrators, he’s all seeing and all knowing.

Harry’s marriage to Esther (Jane Alexander) is also slightly on the rocks. It turns out they’ve had a huge loss in life and it’s possible that that void could be filled by Oscar (Tobe Hemingway) and his new co-worker/girlfriend Chloe (Alexa Davalos). Their love blossoms into full bloom before you can say, “This can only end tragically.” (And let’s not even mention Oscar’s drunken father played by Fred Ward, oops too late). Oscar and Chloe are workers at Bradley’s coffee shop where he eventually meets Diana (Radha Mitchell) during a heavy rainstorm. He’s instantly flooded with attraction, but remember I said his emotions are blinded: it turns out she’s having a steady long-term affair with already married David (Billy Burke). And of course Harry doesn’t even know it, but they decide to go ahead and get married. You can see where that’s going

I’m not really sure what the point of all of this is, but I can say that I enjoyed it for the most part. While the situations seemed slightly phony and more appropriate for primetime television, I couldn’t help but feel a little wrapped up in it mostly due to the actor’s great performances. They pretty much sell this weak material themselves. The script was written by Allison Burnett based on Charles Baxter’s novel. While the characters sometimes act like adolescents in the throws of first love, I couldn’t help but want to be a part of it. But I guess, like Bradley I was slightly blinded by the fact that this film doesn’t really add much to cinematic history. I appreciated it for what it is and I never found it to be boring or self-indulgent. I’m a fan of talky drams from Hollywood’s New Wave and this was a decent homage. It’s a little sappy to be sure, but it was enough to fulfill my sweet tooth. But darn it change that title already! GRADE: B