Wednesday, December 26, 2007

I Am Legend

Who better to play The Last Man on Earth than Will Smith? Think about it. The man’s got an incredible amount of star power with enough charisma to challenge the Rat Pack.

Remember Tom Cruise sprinting down an empty Times Square in the opening shots of Vanilla Sky? Or the more impressive opening moments of 28 Days Later, when Cillian Murphy stumbled around a vacant London? Forget about it. I Am Legend grabs you right away with its breathtaking shots of an isolated New York City. Every detail is perfected. Buildings are damaged, bridges are broken, even bits of grass spurt up through slabs of sidewalk. The amount of skill and special effects it must have taken to create these images are worth the $9 to get in the theatre. Unfortunately, they’re also the best parts of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong, I Am Legend is great, popcorn summer fun stuffed in the heavy-handed Oscar season. But it’s a little too smart for its own good. Will Smith plays military scientist Robert Neville who is the last remaining person alive, after a deadly “cure” wiped out the entire population. Smith, along with his extremely loyal German Sheppard, takes to the streets during the day. Hunting deer, gathering supplies, renting DVDs, talking to mannequins, the usual. But at night, everything’s on lockdown.

Cue the not-so-creepy, night-walking, living dead. When the sun goes down, fast, loud, demonizing creatures storm the streets, looking for… what? People? Food? Who knows. It’s best not to trouble yourself with the how’s and why’s of the movie (in which there are plenty, including one that leaves Smith hanging upside down, which I still cannot figure out).

If you’ve seen 28 Days Later, or its sequel, or The Descent, then these monsters won’t scare you. The zombie/infected-people genre has recently been revamped with a series of highly entertaining (and scary) films. But it’s getting old.

This film, based on Richard Matheson’s book, has been tried twice before. First with The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price (campy, even when it came out in the 60s) and The Omega Man with Charlton Heston (just plain bad). Although I Am Legend suffers some flaws, including a dreadfully cliché third act that’s simply disappointing, its thrills and chills should keep you entertained.

If you’re as lucky as I am, the film may even spark some delight post-movie chats. But take it for what it’s worth. Try not to let the film be as serious as it wants to be and you’ll enjoy the ride. B

Friday, December 21, 2007

Awake

It starts off kind of cool. A super-rich kid needs a new ticker while living a double life. One, he runs his father’s business and fronts a Mama’s boy attitude, two, he sneaks off to Brooklyn night after night to be with his love that Mama wouldn’t approve of. What Mama doesn’t know won’t hurt her.

The first act plays as a secret love affair, full of overnight trysts and deceitful lies. But once Hayden Christensen steps up on the operating slab to get a new heart, Awake flatlines. Jessica Alba has a little fun (especially in her later scenes), trying to hit emotional range while dropping several F-bombs. The film also has good supporting turns from the magnificent Terrance Howard and even a quirky Christopher McDonald.

But this impressive cast can’t save the film from its style. Once Christensen is out, he soon realizes that he is the victim of anesthetic awareness. He can’t move, he can’t talk, but he can feel everything, essentially, he is awake. And boy, do we suffer from it. Christensen delivers a horrendously unconvincing voice-over that will make you unintentionally laugh. And somehow he is able to get up off the table and walk around as a type of anesthetically aware alter ego, going back to crucial moments in his past. Get it? I didn't. Take it for what it’s worth.

The real travesty of Awake is the film’s all-too-revealing trailer. If you have any interest in seeing this film, ignore the preview. If you’ve already seen it, you’re screwed. There is a great plot twist in the film that changes its entire structure. Too bad I already knew what it was. It’s a real shame when a three minute preview can ruin the best parts of a mediocre, hour and 20 minute movie.

I remember What Lies Beneath, Robert Zemeckis’ great mystery-thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. The preview showed Ford’s character telling Pfeiffer that he had slept with a woman, whose ghost was now haunting Pfeiffer. And that was the huge twist in the movie. It was the big revelation in the final moments of the film. I suppose producers don’t know how to market some of their pictures, so they make the decision to reveal the most crucial plot points to fill seats. It’s a cheap, cowardly tactic that will in no way get people in their movie. Think about it, if you’ve seen the preview for Awake, the film is ruined, so why would you want to pay for something that you know is coming? I mean, it’s no Sixth Sense. D+

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Away From Her: now on DVD

We’ve all seen films about an older person losing a battle with their own mind. It’s when a film is done in a unique way that we remember it. Away From Her is a film you won’t soon forget.

Esteemed actress Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead remake, Go) gives a stunning writing and directing debut about two long-time lovers who suffer the loss through a terrifying affliction. Julie Christie plays a woman who quickly begins to descend to the affects of Alzheimer's disease as her dear husband, Gordon Pinsent, desperately tries to hold on to the 44 year love they share.

The initial beauty of the film (and there is much of it) is that it immediately deviates from formula. Instead of witnessing a slow, agonizing transformation into the depths of memory loss, we are given it right away, with the simple gesture of forgetting where a cooking pan goes. The film is also presented in a fresh narrative that is best not revealed.

Christie’s Fiona doesn’t deny her illness, she acknowledges the fact that she cannot attain information. It isn’t long before Fiona, along with her husband Grant, makes the decision to have her institutionalized. I’m afraid to say any more, because you’re thinking that you’ve seen it all before. Away From Her is different. It’s filled with shocking moments, and stunning discoveries. In fact this is one of the most haunting films I’ve ever seen, not in a gory, demonic fashion, but rather in a horribly realistic manner. Its true love gone astray, can you think of anything worse?

Thank Polley for the magnificently fashioned script. She writes her dialogue like a pro, filling her film with gut-wrenching moments, none greater than when the two are reunited after a mandatory 30 days apart. But somehow Polley manages to sneak in spirited, comical moments, namely a patient who never quite retired from his days as a sports announcer.

It’s hard to imagine that a 28-year-old director could get this much out of her actors. Christie is incredible. She reaches far and nails every single nuance of a daunting disease. Her blank stares and idle, thoughtless gestures are enough to wreck havoc on your heart.

Pinsent is utterly phenomenal; he is the person you won’t be able to shake. As the story progresses, his eyes swell further and further with tears, desperately trying to keep his educated composure. His tolerance for emotional pain is breathtaking. In a year dominated by big names, Pinsent is one you need to remember. His Grant is one of the most wonderfully restrained performances of the year.

Another highlight is the film’s beautifully arresting cinematography. Each shot is vivid, stunning and well paced, switching from a smooth, slow still shot, to a superbly timed tracking shot. The film uses light in ways rarely seen, drowning out empty halls with piercing sunshine, or casting a lovely shadow over a vast, snowy landscape.

Away From Her is a great, subtle exploration of the grieving process, fueled with some of the years best performances and an exceptionally memorable look. I’m not sure why Polley decided to adapt this story or direct it for that matter, but we all benefit from the reason. And while the Academy is notorious for stiffing female directors, her screenplay should surely put her on a short list for voters.

Most of us have lost someone. But few of us have lost a person that is still there. Away From Her explores that notion and begs you to hold on to what you have. A

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I'm Not There

There has been no better, more descriptive title for a film this year than “I’m Not There”. The title beautifully encompasses the complicated film. Don’t expect to make sense of this picture, prepare to be taken on a wild, seemingly random journey into one (if not) the most brilliantly complex musician of our time.

I can see why director Todd Haynes hasn’t directed a film in five years. The script must have taken months, if not years, to complete. Haynes’ last film, Far From Heaven was a gorgeous, highly unconventional exploration of 50s melodrama. He uses his same knack for unconventional wisdom here. This is perhaps the most eccentric bio-pic ever produced.

Bob Dylan is no Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. He’s intricate, involved and terribly convoluted. Haynes uses all of Dylan’s obscure qualities to fuel this wondrous new film. Six different actors play Dylan, from male to female, white to black, young to old, each actor represents a different part of Dylan’s life. Whether it is a period of his life, a way he acts, or a simple creation of his mind, it’s all here.

Once the film gets going, you hope for logical narrative, one actor then another then another, all in perfect, harmless order. Forget about it. Haynes begins the film with a version of Dylan played by young, black actor Marcus Carl Franklin. From there we move to Christian Bale (he is never bad, period) playing Dylan during his acoustic, activist years, to Heath Ledger playing an actor who portrays Dylan in a bio-pic, who’s divorce resembles that of Dylan’s first. Got it? That’s the point. Haynes isn’t concerned with you understanding or creating a gateway into the illusive mind of Bob Dylan. He wants you to see what everyone else sees, a troubled artist who faceted multiple personas.

At this point we get Cate Blanchett. Believe me, if there is one reason to see I’m Not There it’s to see Blanchett. Her uncanny ability to resemble Dylan is utterly startling. With the whacky hair, the large sunglasses, the movements, the walk, the talk, it’s all genuine. Better than any actor in the film, she is Bob Dylan. This performance will change the movies. People will be talking about it for years.

If the film hasn’t lost you already, the Richard Gere scenes most likely will. Gere plays Dylan as a secluded, Western man, hiding from his own demons. With plenty of zoo animals and creepy costumes to fill a David Lynch film, Gere delivers impeccable work as a version of a man torn from reality, fed up with existence.

It is very important to meet Haynes halfway here. You won’t get Dylan’s chart-topping, blasting classics, instead his more reserved poetic songs fill the soundtrack. You also will not get an easy-flowing, narrative plot, I stress the word unconventional. I’m Not There is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It is a unique portrait of a unique man. Filled with marvelous, Oscar-worthy acting (namely Blanchett), each actor matches Dylan’s eccentricities pound for pound. Watch the film with an open mind, roll with the hits and misses and you’ll be stunned. Like a rollin’ stone. A-

Monday, November 26, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Filmmaking duo, Joel and Ethan Coen have been captivating audiences since their profound, neo-noir debut, Blood Simple. Their fan base is so large due to, in part, their unique ability to create engrossing films from wildly different genres. They can be zany (Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art There?) period-gangster (Miller's Crossing) cult classic (The Big Lebowski) and thrilling brilliant (Fargo) at the drop of a hat.

It is hard to live up to the Coen hype. No Country for Old Men does it with ease. The brothers' latest venture into the unknown is a breathtaking spectacle of money, crime, passions and male dominance. The Coen's make a smart move by staying loyal to Cormac McCarthy's poetic novel, allowing the viewer to be taken on one hell of a wild ride through the warped minds of a pair of truly original filmmakers.

The intricate plot kicks off when regular guy Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong in the deserted Texas desert. Using his Vietnam War instinct, he finds a satchel with over two million bucks in it. Soon enough Moss has a calculated, homicidal maniac (Javier Bardem) after him and the local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) looking for them both.

There's the first ten minutes, and that's all you're going to get because it’d be a sin to ruin anymore of this flawless film. The attention to detail resonates in every single frame of the picture. From the clanking sound of a crappy, hotel room fan, to boot scuffs on the ground, the Coen's play off of McCarthy's keen eye for detail.

Josh Brolin has done it all this year. He’s contributed scene-stealing roles in Grindhouse, In the Valley of Elah and American Gangster. His performance in No Country for Old Men is the best work he has ever done, not to mention some of the best in all of 2007. He gives Moss a sick desperation to live a better life, dwelling deep in the spoils of greed at the expense of losing everything.

From the first moment you meet Anton Chigurh, you will not be able to shake him. Javier Bardem's stone cold, bloodshot eyes will haunt your dreams. You’ll forget there’s a handsome, Spanish, Oscar nominated actor behind that incredibly disturbing face. Going beyond serial killer stereotype’s, Bardem invests his credible acting into a man so morally corrupt, he will engage in lengthy, eloquent conversations before blowing your head off. A scene at a gas station is the single greatest exchange of dialogue from a movie this year. With the fate of an innocent clerk decided by a coin toss, you’ll feel bad for smiling at the way Bardem plays it. Twenty years from now, people will be talking about this performance. Anton Chigurh is matched with Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates as one of the greatest movie villains of all time.

Tommy Lee Jones, so good earlier this year in The Valley of Elah, contributes his familiar, Southern drawl as a small town sheriff, trying to make sense of madness. Often funny, his Ed Tom Bell is a man sick of the world he has seen, wondering why God hasn't entered his life. Look for a two-time Oscar contender. Supporting turns from Kelly Macdonald (as Moss's fragile wife) and Woody Harrelson (has he been better?) affirm the film's genuine intrigue.

Once again, cinematographer Roger Deakins (see reviews of In Valley of Elah, and Assassination of Jesse James) stuns us with shadows and landscapes. I cannot think of a better eye for gritty detail. Whether it's establishing shots of an isolated desert, or the reflection of a gun in an empty key hole, Deakins (a Coen vet) presents some of his finest work. His hat-trick of 2007 is now wonderfully complete.

It took me longer than usual to write my review of this film, for two reasons. I wanted a second viewing and I wanted to finish the book. As a culture that is spoon-fed its entertainment, be aware that No Country for Old Men divulges itself at being different. You’ll think there are plot holes. There aren’t. You’ll begin an endless game of who’s and how’s and why’s that you won’t be able to win. The film will inspire weeks of dinner-table discussions.

Reasons and motivations (and actions) do not need to be disclosed in order to make a compelling film. I can only offer a bit of advice, and that is to listen. I'll never tell just what to look out for, but after my first viewing, I wished that I had listened more carefully to the beautiful exchanges in dialogue. Much of it taken directly from McCarthy’s metaphorical words, it is essential to contribute your senses to the characters (namely in the third act) in order to walk away with some form of notable coherence.

Startlingly violent, smart, witty, frequently humorous and wonderfully paced, No Country for Old Men is the best film the Coen’s have ever done and quite possibly, the best film of the year.
One final contribution needs to be given, and that is to remarkable editor, Roderick Jaynes. Much like he did with Fargo, Jaynes uses a type of free editing that jumps from one main character to the next. The trick to the film is that each move is brilliantly calculated. Janyes (another Coen vet) presents a collection of scenes, usually with just one of the three lead characters, to make a remarkably cohesive film. No movie has been put together better this year. I can't wait to see a picture of Jaynes sitting in his seat come Oscar night. If not for their directing and writing, the Coen's should walk away with an award for editing, they have worked under the pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes for years. A+

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

If the first scene of Sidney Lumet's breathtaking new film doesn't get you stirring in your seat, then check your pulse. Don't worry, I'll never tell what it is, but it sets one hell of a marvelous tone.

1970s film auteur, Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) brings us his best film in years. The kind that reels you in quick, and fights hard to keep you. Sneaky, sly Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decides to bring his young brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) in on a crime caper. Andy plots to knock of a jewelry store, "Just a mom and pop kinda place," Andy assures the hesitate Hank. Little does Hank know that the jewelry store is none other than his actual mom and pop. Both the brothers need money, the store is insured and Andy promises no one will get hurt, so hey, why not?

It doesn't take long for things to go wrong, and for the whole family, including father Albert Finney, to be fatally affected.

The trick of the film is that Lumet, working with a brilliantly daring script from newcomer Kelly Masterson gives us the climax early. From then on, the events leading up to and after the robbery are seen from every major character's point of view. Lumet chooses an inspired path of nonlinear, narrative storytelling that echoes Tarantino.

Once tragedy strikes, the actors put on their A-games. Hoffman, so good, in well, everything, is mesmerizing as a corrupt sole who can't seem to please anyone, least of all himself. Two memorable scenes deserve all the praise Hoffman can get. I couldn't dare reveal them, but you have never seen just how shattering a decorative bowl of stones can be, until you see what Hoffman does with them. In a career full of accolades (including an Oscar for Capote), this is Hoffman's best work. So fierce with angst, yet so reserved with his guilt, you won’t be able to shake him.

Ethan Hawke, far better here than in his Oscar nominated role in Training Day, is equally as good. He gives Hank a uniquely aloof demeanor that asserts that he is in no way ready for the crime, let alone its aftermath. Hawke doesn't get tested much as an actor, but he strives here, reaching a career best performance that the Academy shouldn't dare turn its back on.

Finney and Marisa Tomei (as Hoffman's feisty wife) contribute to the film's power. But it is Lumet who is the real hero. At 83 years old, he is the most recent director to prove that he still has great films to make, age be damned. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a remarkable throwback to Lumet's finest work. Surely one of the year’s best. A movie that will grab you before the opening credits and trouble you long after the closing credits are through. Just like the good ‘ol days. A

Beowulf

Seldom do I question why the MPAA gave a movie a lower rating than it deserved. Watching Robert Zemeckis’ new adaptation of Beowulf, I was amazed at what snuck into its PG-13 rating. As entertaining as this film may be, believe me, it is not for the whole family.

Here Zemeckis masters his computer animation technique that he introduced with his dull Polar Express. Remember that story you read back in high school? Didn’t think so. A giant, ruthless monster attacks a village and its king (Anthony Hopkins) sends for a hero to slay the demon Grendel. Beowulf (the always fabulous Ray Winstone) travels the seas with his men to take on the challenge.

What follows are exciting battles and utterly jaw-dropping special effects. As Grendel's scheming mother, Angelina Jolie plays the role with a seductive prowl that you will enjoy. Her lack of clothes (and Winstone for that matter) defy the film’s rating. But it makes for one hell of an exciting ride. At the risk of ruining the adventure, I'll stop there.

I had the pleasure of seeing Beowulf in 3-D, glasses and all. And I must say, that feature made the movie. I can't vouch for the regular, flat screen version you're used to, but I imagine it isn't nearly as thrilling. In 3-D, the images literally jump off the screen and into your lap throughout the entire film. It is some of the most fun I've had at the movies this year, which doesn't necessarily credit the film's content. Forget the cheesy 3-D you've seen before. Zemeckis has created a movie that will stand as a landmark in the next phase of cinema.

See this one in theatres. If you can, see it on one of the 100 3-D screens that it's playing on. This won’t nearly be as good on DVD. You'll miss out on a massively breathtaking ride that will leave you in a permanent state of joy. This is the future of cinema, people. B+

Dan in Real Life

If I can think of one genre so tired, so worn out in today's cinema, it's the romantic comedy. Good news everyone, Dan in Real Life is different. Dan writes a successful newspaper column and has his hands full with his three young daughters. Having lost his wife some years ago, Dan bides his time, doing the best he can at keeping his family happy. But it's home for the holidays as Dan and his girls head to his parent’s house for Thanksgiving.

The movie is amusingly set up with various realistic antics caused by each of his children. Dan takes each barrel of teenaged angst with a nod and smile. Once at his parent’s house (Is this house real? I mean how big is it?) Dan feels like he'll be cut a little slack, with his daughters busy in family tradition.

Soon, Dan is in a book store and meets Marie. They engage in a memorable conversation that he cherishes. Once he gets home he realizes that his new love interest is, you guessed it, his brother's girlfriend.

That's the set up. From then on, Dan and Marie fight what they feel, and believe me, their battles are real and often funny. Several things help to make this picture good. The first is the introduction of Dan's brother, Mitch, played by the hyperactive Dane Cook. When we first meet Mitch, we barely see his face, we just hear a few words from him off camera. It is nothing short of refreshing to NOT have someone as bland as Cook immediately thrown in your face. Instead, Cook gives a controlled performance that previews that he may have more to offer than his typical, gross-out humor.

Another wonder is the casting of Juliette Binoche. Usually thrown more heavy-handed work, Binoche shines as Marie. She brings her reserved sexuality and tenderness to a role that is usually riddled with formula. Binoche gives Marie a heart and more importantly an adult conscience capable of making adult choices.

While the film does suffer a few clichés, it remains as entertaining a romantic comedy as I've ever seen. Steve Carell is a brilliant comedian, but here he stretches like he did in last year’s Little Miss Sunshine. A sit-down chat with his daughters affirms the fact that this is the best work Carell has ever done. He leaves his trademark quirkiness aside (don't worry there is still some) and replaces it with need.

In a genre usually reserved for twenty something characters who have no life worries except for themselves, Dan in Real Life succeeds at being different. The beauty of the film is that you get to see two adult people in adult situations that take rationality into account, but still make a lovingly amusing mess for themselves. B+

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

My Favorite Scene: Brokeback Mountain

Warning: Critical plot details will be divulged in this post. The ending will be spoiled.

In the third act of Brokeback Mountain, director Ang Lee stages one brilliantly poised scene after another. The first of which is the last encounter between fated lovers, Ennis and Jack. Once Ennis tells Jack he won’t be able to see him again for months, Jack bursts into a jealous, tormented rage. The most popular scene in the film (it dawned the now parodied line “I wish I knew how to quit you”), demonstrates the emotional arch that actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal feed their characters.

After a bitter screaming match, Ledger’s rough-neck Ennis finally breaks down, falling to his knees in agony, blaming his lover for his troubled life. As the two men hesitantly embrace, the film reaches an emotional climax.

That is all but forgotten moments later, when Ennis goes to Jack’s childhood home, talking with Jack's parents about his sudden death. Ennis is invited to Jack’s room, where he finds a pair of shirts, hidden in Jack’s closet. The shirts, resting one over the other on a coat hanger, were worn by the men when they first met on the mountain. Hidden in Jack’s closet for decades, Ennis tenderly holds the shirts to his chest, taking in the reminiscent fumes of his dear friend.
But it’s in the film’s final scene, when Ennis is visited by his daughter in his lonely trailer, that remains the most memorable. His grown daughter announces her plan to marry her boyfriend and then leaves her father in his solitude. Having forgotten her jacket, Ennis caringly folds it up and places it in his closet. Hanging on the closet door are the shirts he found in Jack’s room, along with a sole postcard-picture of Brokeback Mountain. Ledger’s eyes fill with tears and he manages to let out a few solemn words, “Jack, I swear.” Gustavo Santaolalla’s pivotal, Oscar-winning, musical score booms on the soundtrack as we fade to black.

In his recent Screen Actors Guild acceptance speech, Daniel Day-Lewis called that scene one of the most moving things he had ever seen. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic while watching the supremely talented Ledger, knowing that he will never again be able to pierce through our hearts with his eyes. It’s a marvelous scene that encapsulates a wonderful, yet all too short career of one of the best actors of a generation.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Lions for Lambs

Welcome to this week's Iraq war film. But this time around, we give you only a little action and a whole lotta talkin’. Gifted Hollywood veteran Robert Redford starts and directs this tale of three different yet connected stories which are all told in real time. The film covers about 80 minutes of lengthy battles in offices and on war zones.

Tom Cruise plays a senator who has asked that a renowned journalist, Meryl Streep, come in for an interview involving a new military plan currently going on in Afghanistan. Two soldiers simultaneously carry out the plan, which goes wrong quickly. All while the soldiers’ old poli-sci professor, Robert Redford, coaches a promising, new student on the lessons of life. Get it?

The film cuts away often, in an attempt to keep things fresh. Action buffs will want to get back to the stranded soldiers (played by two always-reliable actors, Michael Peña and Derek Luke) who lay helplessly in the snow, awaiting rescue. Others will come to watch the big-name showdown between Cruise and Streep. But the real treasure is in Redford’s story. As he talks with one of his smart, lazy students, his eyes are full of regret as he remembers hopeful students he had years ago. Flashbacks help tie everything together as Luke and Peña display youthful ambition in their classroom discussions. Redford sees that ambition again in his new pupil and he be damned if it goes to waste.

If there is one thing Tom Cruise can do, its play a cocky, Republican senator, who preaches what he has been told to preach. Streep matches Cruise’s every word, wit for wit. Their interview becoming a fruitless, polite argument that neither are bound to fall from. I was amazed how modern the snappy dialogue was, it seemed like it was covering headlines from last week. The films capability of remaining vividly contemporary is one of its greatest feats.

The movies carries a few flaws (I never knew you could jump out of a moving helicopter hundreds of feet in the air) but it remains a notable piece of filmmaking, without ever really becoming important. Redford isn’t worried about conservative criticism; he made his über-liberal film how he wanted to. At times engrossing, at times preachy, Lions for Lambs, carries a bold message. The hard part is trying to figure out exactly what that message is. B

Lust, Caution

Ang Lee, master of the unconventional, has crafted yet another powerful piece to add to his eclectic resume. The Taiwanese director has brought us 70s family melodrama (The Ice Storm), mesmerizing suspense, fused with whimsical romance (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and unusual, bold, beautiful love (Brokeback Mountain). His new feat is the magnificent Lust, Caution. Set in a Japanese-occupied Shanghai during Would War II, Lee brings a daring short story to the screen in a startling adaptation.

College student Wong Chia-Chi (Tang Wei, in her acting debut) is an aspiring actress with an uncanny ability. After getting raves at her first play, she is recruited by fellow schoolmates/actors to divulge in their biggest production yet. The group has foiled a plan to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Yee is a Japanese collaborator who tortures captives for information. It is soon developed that by getting close to Yee, Wong Chia-Chi will have to seduce him.

I’m almost afraid to keep going, in fear of giving too much of the 158 minute movie away. It’s that good. The quiet, slow-paced film is set to entice you. Its tedious movements and vivid look (thanks much in part to the breathtaking cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto) instantly attracts the eye. Things never go as planned. And as the story progresses, Wong Chia-Chi is forced to stay in character, no matter what the situation may bring.

Let’s talk about sex. Most everyone knows that the prudish MPAA has branded Lust, Caution with a dreaded NC-17 rating. Don’t let it stop you. If you can handle a little public hair and pelvic thrusts, then allow yourself to be compelled by a work of art. The frank sex scenes in the film show the pain that Yee carries with him. He takes out the anger and aggression from his job, through his carnal desires. I don’t usually feel that sex scenes are needed in a film, but believe me, here they serve a great, metaphorical purpose.

The actors, notably Leung and Wei, deserve all the accolades they can get. Wei gives as startling a debut as I have ever seen in a film. A devastating scene in which she describes the physical and emotional pain that she is going through is one of the most gut-wrenching moments from any film this year. Her courageous performance is the best any actress has shown us in 2007. It echoes Rinko Kikuchi’s stunning performance in last year’s Babel. Nothing short of brilliant.

Ang Lee is one of the most respected filmmakers in the business. He makes the films he wants to make, the way he wants to make them. He didn’t cut the film to get an R rating, he stuck with his art and the payoff is huge. He even called the film “a little too Asian” for American audiences, proving that he isn’t necessarily concerned with what the majority wants. He presents unconventional stories in captivating ways, tricking you with his keen sense of how to convey real passion on the screen. A

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

American Gangster

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are two of the best, most accomplished actors around. Like every great match-up in film, if done right, the interaction can be classic. Pacino and De Niro lived up to the hype, and then some, in Heat. Each word chosen carefully, each phrase spoken better than the one before. Washington and Crowe get their heavyweight scene. Although I’ll never tell exactly how it goes down, the actors exchange in a witty battle that will surely exceed your expectations.

American Gangster is director Ridley Scott’s new, powerful venture into drug-filled madness. Washington plays real life Harlem, heroin kingpin Frank Lucas. After Lucas’ father-figure boss dies unexpectedly, Lucas begins to build an empire. While the Vietnam War rages on, reports keep airing on the high level of soldiers becoming addicted to drugs. Lucas decides to skip the middleman and travel to Vietnam, getting his product from the source. He manages to get it back to the states (with some devilishly sneaky tactics) and starts to sell his untouched product for cheap.

Most of Harlem gets addicted to his Blue Magic and soon the money starts to roll in. Lucas brings his whole family up from North Carolina, giving his beloved mother (a fantastic Ruby Dee) a brand new mansion and hiring all of his brothers to work for him. But you’ve seen enough gangster-drug movies to know that no one stays on top forever. That’s why Lucas is being hunted down by Richie Roberts (Crowe), the last honest cop in New York.

Roberts is too good to be a cop, no one on the job trusts him after he turns in a million bucks in drug money. He desperately tries to maintain a sense of loyalty in his work, while is personal life crumbles. When Roberts is assigned to head up a new drug enforcement division, the hunt for the Blue Magic supplier begins.

American Gangster is filled with all those classic elements from the 70s mob movies. In fact, it feels like several of them mixed together, but with Scott’s own, gritty touch. Washington can play one hell of a villain. He gives Lucas a swagger, a walk and talk that will leave you on edge. You never know when Washington is going to turn, like the flick of a switch, from that cool smile, to blowing someone’s head off. Like his Alonzo Harris from Training Day, Washington is in good, evil form.

Crowe plays Roberts with that signature scowl. A man immersed in his work, eating crappy sandwiches and tossing women around like newspaper. He ferociously commands his scenes in the film. He enters a suspect’s home with a brilliant ease that will keep your heart pounding. After giving us his villainous soft side earlier this year in 3:10 to Yuma, Crowe is affirming his position as one of our best leading men.

So what’s wrong with it? At over two and a half hours, people may get restless waiting for a showdown. Also, Crowe’s story is given an equal amount of time to Washington’s. Some of this could be left out (a tired child custody battle) to tighten the movie and give people more of what they really came for, Denzel. The supporting cast is phenomenal, but unfortunately, most are underused. Chiwetel Ejiofor, shamefully, isn’t given much. Other players like Cuba Gooding Jr. (who knew?), Josh Brolin (it’s his year), Armand Assante (loving his Italian mob boss character) and rappers T.I., RZA and Common all make the best of their scenes. But it’s ol’ Ms. Ruby Dee who steals each of her powerful moments on screen. She is given a great speech which should earn her a seat come Oscar time.

American Gangster is a great, wild ride. With an excellent screenplay that gives us just as many smarts as it does action escapades. A climatic scene in a project housing complex is one of the best staged, most thrilling sequences in a film so far this year. The movie is only heightened by the two acting titans. Stick with it for the big payoff, once Denzel throws a cup of coffee across the room, you’ll know that this is what you came for. A

Friday, November 2, 2007

2007 Thus Far...

The first 10 months of 2007 have been enough. If the year was to end now, my movie going needs would be fulfilled. Crash and The Departed were already out by this time the year’s they won best picture. So the question is, have we already seen the best movie of the year, or is the best yet to come? If you ask me, we’ve seen enough. And then some.

So far:
The amount of memorable writer/director films has been astonishing, all with terrific lead actors.

In the Valley of Elah, written and directed by Paul Haggis- Haggis was the first guy in Oscar history to write two back-to-back best picture winners (Million Dollar Baby, Crash). His coming home from Iraq film resonated with audiences and contained Tommy Lee Jones’ best acting performance. Not to mention a powerful Charlize Theron.

Michael Clayton, written and directed by Tony Gilroy- Gilroy’s first time behind the camera produced one of the most riveting films in recent history. An excellent throwback to the greatest era in cinema. Clooney gave a career-best performance as the title character. Great supporting turns from Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, and Sydney Pollack.

Into the Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn- Penn gave a great effort in telling the true story of Chris McCandless, who gave up everything to gain all that life had to offer. Young actor Emile Hirsch gave a flawless and raw performance. An excellent Hal Holbrook shines above the impressive supporting cast.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, written and directed by Andrew Dominik- A magnificently paced exploration of the West. Tabloid sensation Brad Pitt proves his acting chops by delivering a mesmerizing Jesse James. But the standout is Casey Affleck who not only matches Pitt scene for scene; he’s the one that stays in your head.

Other mentions:
--David Fincher’s Zodiac
--Grindhouse (Tarantino’s section Death Proof, pictured)
--the multiple-short epic Paris, je t’aime
--Michael Moore’s Sicko
--James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma
--David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises

Memorable performances not mentioned include:
--Robert Downey Jr. in Zodiac
--Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart
--Don Cheadle in Talk to Me
--Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, and Armin Mueller-Stahl in Eastern Promises
--Keri Russell in Waitress (pictured)
--Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in 3:10 to Yuma
--Siena Miller in Interview
--Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone
--Benicio Del Toro in Things We Lost in the Fire

Technical Mentions (because this is a film-buff website):
The cinematography in
--Zodiac
--Death Proof
--Sunshine
--In the Valley of Elah
--Michael Clayton
--Into the Wild
--The Assassination of Jesse James...


Plus, the musical score in
--Elah
--Clayton
--Jesse James


Saving the best for last…
I have purposely left one film out that shines above all the rest in 2007. My favorite film of last year was Babel. The first time I saw that picture, I didn’t know how to feel. I was deeply disturbed yet moved. After multiple viewings, I recognized it as a masterpiece. Every aspect of Babel is seemingly flawless. It contained the best direction, writing, acting, camera work, score and editing of the year.
I was similarly touched by this year’s Rescue Dawn. Iconic, visionary filmmaker Werner Herzog has crafted a perfect picture. Out on DVD November 20th (a special DVD review will follow), Rescue Dawn has all the elements of a classic film. Christian Bale gives his best performance, among many great ones, in the true story about Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler. The film is haunting, humorous, tragic, heartfelt and most importantly, real. Klaus Badelt’s score is some of the best music I’ve ever heard in film, I find myself listening to it over and over, desperately trying to regain some of the emotion from the powerful film. Herzog is a masterful filmmaker and his Rescue Dawn is 2007’s masterpiece.

Still to come:
--Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (pictured)
--Ridley Scott’s American Gangster
--Joe Wright directing Keira Knightley in Atonement (hopefully as well as he did in Pride and Prejudice)
--Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War
--The teen-pregnancy comedy Juno (It’s written by an ex-stripper and stars Ellen Page, a promising newcomer)
--The Kite Runner (based on the book)
--Johnny Depp singing in Sweeney Todd
--Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood
--Sidney Lumet’s (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
--Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan bio I’m Not There
--and the one I’m most anticipating, The Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men (pictured).

If I ran the show, 2007 would be over. Not to say that there aren’t great films to come, if any filmmakers can put Herzog to the test, it’s the imaginative Coen’s. But just like last October, after I saw Babel, I knew that it wasn’t going to get any better. Rescue Dawn is a modern-day work of art that I’m sure will sadly be forgotten by Oscar voters. I only hope that people are as inspired by the film as I am. Remember November 20th, take two hours out of your weekend and let yourself be marveled. You will not be disappointed.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

Wes Anderson, who has redefined the word quirky, is a truly original visionary. Each of his films is undeniably distinguishable. Several aspects go into becoming such a modern-day legend. Anderson is notorious for his brilliant use of indie-rock music, his consistently unique, breathtaking cinematography, and his necessity to re-use his actors.

Anderson’s latest feat, The Darjeeling Limited, is much of the classic-Anderson same. The film begins with a heartbreaking short, Hotel Chevalier, in which a lonely man in Paris (Jason Schwartzman) is visited by his lost love (Natalie Portman). The short is a great prologue for what is to come, with Schwartzman introducing another insightful Anderson character. Once part II begins, we are taken on a whimsical journey.

Two brothers (Adrien Brody and Schwartzman) are invited by their brother (Owen Wilson) to embark on a month-long train ride in India to rediscover their relationships. The three indulge in wondrous conversations and hilarious shenanigans to fill their time.

Wilson has played a part in every one of Anderson’s films (as actor or co-writer), and they are where Wilson really shows his acting talent. The romantic and frat-boy comedies are okay, but only in an Anderson film will you get such delightful antics as Wilson barking polite orders to his brothers, all while his face is almost completely bandaged. Believe me, you’ll love every minute of it.

Anderson newcomer Brody delivers a career-unknown, brilliant comedic performance, as does Anderson vet (and co-writer) Schwartzman (who continues his Hotel Chevalier character). No actor is better than the other; it is a trio of true comedic acting. The characters are all equally well written and equally well acted that it makes for a great ride.

A dramatic turn will keep you engrossed and move you in ways completely beyond your expectations. I’ll never reveal the film’s best scene, which our three heroes are dressed in black. But it is in this extended scene that Anderson’s true talent in character development is apparent.

Anderson’s films are a tough sell. You either love it or hate it. You get them or you don’t. I didn’t get his last film, the overrated Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But The Darjeeling Limited does a smart thing by going back to the Anderson essentials. With echoes of the mesmerizing Royal Tenebaums, and even a hint of his first, and best film Bottle Rocket, The Darjeeling Limited lives up to any fan’s highest prospects.

Like other film products of the 90s (Tarantino, Fincher, Jonze, Aronofsky, and so on) Anderson is a filmmaker with intense originality, each of his films is an eccentrically beautiful venture into life.

I’m not sure why Anderson chose to go to India, but we benefit from his reasons. The Darjeeling Limited is one of his best films, whose comedic genius holds you, and its dramatic tones keep you. I’d expect nothing less, from such a refreshingly innovative filmmaker. A

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Saw IV

The Saw films are something of an anomaly. They aren’t well made, well acted, or well crafted at all. Yet, year after year they are released and they always make a great deal of money. The films also single-handedly kicked off a new genre of film, torture porn. Without Saw you get no Hostel, no Captivity, and so on.

I think I go to these movies based more on tradition and the fact that, four years ago on Halloween weekend, I walked into the original Saw not expecting much. Saw was made for 1.2 million dollars and grossed over 55 million in the United States. It made sense. I was genuinely intrigued by the creepy film, shot mostly in one room. Using mind tricks as a substitute for excessive gore.

Saw IV falls much into the same realm as the two before it. Parts II and III were tired and uninteresting. And while some of the killings seemed like fresh, new ideas, I always remind myself what I am watching, and that tends to ruin the film for me.

If you’re a fan, you know Jigsaw, the mastermind behind the elaborate mutilations was killed in part III along with his whacko sidekick. Well don’t worry, part IV is much of the Saw same, with plenty of shootings, stabbings, open brains, blood and guts to fulfill your needs (if you’re into that sort of thing).

I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite. Do I enjoy these movies? No. Is one better than the other? No. Do I go to them? Of course. Why? I have no idea. If Saw has just stayed Saw by itself, with no sequels, I think it would be remembered as one of the greatest horror films of all time. But now it has become jumbled with the mess that has followed. But don’t get me wrong, when part V makes its way to the screen next Halloween weekend, I’ll be one of the first in line. Why ruin a perfectly torturous tradition? Saw: A-, Saw II: C, Saw III: D+, Saw IV: D

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Most films cut away after something big happens. A funny line, a dramatic revelation, or even a gun shot can act as a director’s tool to keep the audience on edge. If used well, this can be a startling effect. It is rare, however, to see a film that stays in the moment. A film that is so purposely slow paced that it remains in a scene, through its entirety. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford director Andrew Dominik uses this plot device to fuel his breathtaking film.

If the characters are called in to dinner, plan to be at the table through the whole meal. If a man is trying to seduce a married woman, plan to see the complete seduction unfold before your eyes. That is what makes the film so originally thrilling, Dominik’s interest in the very fine, mundane details surrounding those big climatic moments.

Another device Dominik uses well is plot, mostly because there isn’t one. Jesse James is a film about story, and while the characters do things, they aren’t all reaching for one big feat. There’s no tracking down a pile of money, or planning a huge robbery. The film is set on following Jesse James through his last months, while beginning and ending several friendships.

Brad Pitt exceeds his career-high performance in last year’s Babel, as the iconic criminal, Jesse James. Pitt is remarkable to watch, you’ll forget the tabloid-printed face that you see every day. Pitt exemplifies a historical figure and makes him human. Dominik isn’t trying to get you to like him. He’ll show James for what he is worth. Cracking jokes one minute, and then spinning into an impulsive, mad rage the next, Pitt is convincing every step of the way. He gives James an unpredictability that will keep you guessing in every scene. It is a flawless performance, the best in an underrated career.

Equally as talented is Casey Affleck, who plays the man that became so entranced with James, he eventually killed him. Affleck gives the young Robert Ford a quiver with each word. His cracking voice personifies a uniquely built character. A dinner-table scene in which Ford recounts the similarities between he and James is creepily mesmerizing, all due to Affleck. With Jesse James and last week’s Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has proved that he is the more qualified actor in his family. It would be a sin to forget him come Oscar season.

Dominik’s only other directorial effort was the brilliant indie, Chopper. Made in 2000, Chopper is a startling true story about madman Mark “Chopper” Read, who actually cut off his own ears to get moved to a different ward while in prison. Both Chopper and Jesse James are about violent criminals who are immortalized. Although the films don’t fit an equal setting, they are both great, with Jesse James as an incredible seven-year-later, sophomore effort.

Nothing is forced in the film, every frame is deliberate. Skilled bits of narration taken from Ron Hansen’s book of the same name, and wonderfully fitting score from Nick Cave help to make this a modern day masterpiece.

The film is shot by the masterful Roger Deakins. Earlier this year, Deakins made hallways seem intimidating with In the Valley of Elah. Here he uses extended shots of the vast, wide open plains of the west to leave his stamp of perfection on the film. Deakins highlights Jesse James with subtle, yellow hues. But once snow begins to fall you will shiver in the way he lights a room using cold, blue tones. In a brilliant, five-time Oscar nominated career, Jesse James is his most illustrious film. Deakins can be added to the likes of Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan) and the late Conrad L. Hall (American Beauty) as one of the most influential men behind the camera. With Elah, Jesse James and November’s No Country for Old Men, Deakins will have one hell of a hat-trick in 2007, while firmly cementing his role as one of the best living men looking through a lens.

Dominik does a great thing in the final moments of the film. And although I’ll never reveal the scenes, I am only thankful that he learned to stay in the moment. Staying with the story, even after you think it has finished. A+

Rendition

Our post-9/11 cinema is becoming full of Middle East-set war films. Some have hit (In the Valley of Elah) others have missed (The Kingdom) and plenty more are to come. We’ve got a trend. Good or bad, none of these movies are making a great deal of money at the box office. Are people not interested? Are they not ready? Do they want to see films about a war that hasn’t even ended yet? As escapist art, how long can this trend last?

Based on Rendition, the latest film to fit the bill, this film genre is dead on arrival. Rendition tries (and believe me, it tries) to be a good film, but not even a powerhouse of a cast can save it. The movie must have looked great on paper, getting Oscar-celebrated names like Gyllenhaal, Witherspoon, Streep, and Arkin to fill the poster. But the immensely talented cast isn’t given enough to do, being provided with stiff words and tired actions to fill the dull film.

After conducting business in South Africa, Jeremy (Armis Knight) is taken at an American airport and flown back to a foreign country (the meaning of rendition) to be interrogated (tortured). Streep and others at the CIA think Jeremy may have information about a suicide bombing that has just occurred in a foreign land. Gyllenhaal plays the rookie state department officer who sits in on the questioning (torture) of Jeremy.

Jeremy’s very pregnant wife Isabella (Witherspoon) starts her own investigation, trying to track down her missing husband. She gets closer to the truth with the help of an ex-boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) and his connection with a powerful senator (Arkin).

All the while, there is a boring subplot involving a young man who may have been involved with the bombing and his trysts with the daughter of the man officially in charge of doing the questioning (torture) of Jeremy.

The countless torture scenes drive the meaning of the film a little too hard. Rendition makes its point but it doesn’t keep attention.

I learned back in Reservoir Dogs that if you torture someone for long enough, they are going to tell you whatever you want to hear, and it’s no surprise when that happens in this film. Rendition does have a few good points. Gyllenhaal does well at hitting his so-depressed-that-I’m-watching-the-brutalization-so-I-must-drink mark. The film also has a remarkable little twist of an ending, in which I sat, genuinely shocked, aimlessly trying to piece it together in my head. But that is all but ruined when it is completely spoon-fed to you. If the intention of such films is to make audiences think and then realize and then empathize, don’t you suppose we’re capable of figuring it out on our own? C-

Monday, October 29, 2007

Things We Lost In the Fire

Benicio Del Toro is one of the best actors of his generation. Or any generation for that matter. If he had stared in silent films decades ago, he would have been a star. It’s amazing to see how much the camera agrees with his face. His crinkled forehead and his baggy eyes can stress emotion more than any word. From his humorous, star-making turn in The Usual Suspects, to his breathtaking, Oscar-winning role in Traffic, the man is a significantly reliable star.

He’s also the best thing about his new movie, Things We Lost In the Fire, a film from Danish director, Susanne Bier. Although Halle Berry earns top billing, it’s Del Toro that steals the film. Berry plays Audrey, a recently widowed woman who begins to form a friendship with her husband’s best friend, Jerry, who Audrey has hated for years. Jerry lives in the slums of town, trying to feed his heroin addiction. Audrey disapproves when her royal husband Steven (a consistently useful David Duchovny) visits Jerry occasionally, trying to rekindle some of their childhood friendship.

After Steven is shot dead running a family errand, Audrey loses herself to loneliness. With two kids to support, she becomes entangled with the simple things. Cleaning up toys, eating breakfast, every undemanding task becomes a troublesome chore. Audrey asks Jerry to come and shack up in the garage of her lavish home. He tries to stay clean, helps with the kids around the house, and forms relationships all around.

From here on Audrey and Jerry will grow on each other and eventually fall in love. Wrong. Fire avoids most clichés and presents itself as a powerful character study on loss and life. Bier does a great job examining every aspect of the grieving process through Audrey, with some initial denial, several bits of anger (mostly geared toward Jerry), bargaining with Jerry’s company, being depressed over her loss and, thankfully, some harrowing acceptance.

Not since Traffic have Narcotics Anonymous meetings been portrayed with such harsh authenticity. The crowded circles and smoked-filled air present memorable moments of haunting struggle.

The film does suffer a few troublesome flaws. Bier uses an annoying amount of extreme close-ups on her characters. You’ll think you are in optometrist, conducting a few too many eye exams. There is also a distractingly out of place scene in which Audrey tells Jerry that she craves something. Berry stretches a little too hard to reach her Monster’s Ball ferociousness, and the scene plays out as an unbelievable mess.

The film is ultimately saved with every other interaction between Berry and Del Toro. Their first moment on screen together is the highlight of the film, nothing short of incredible, they say very little, their pain is immeasurable. But it is Del Toro commanding a fearless, gut wrenching performance (he sets a new standard for the detox scene) that remains etched into my head.

Things We Lost in the Fire has the good fortune of being scored with themes from the great Gustavo Santaolalla (who, with Babel, proved how effortlessly film and music can harmoniously merge). The music helps to illuminate the film’s tenderness. The flawless delivery of the final lines moved me to tears. I’ll never tell what they are but the words are repeated several times and with each repetition, the entire meaning of the film is beautifully reiterated. A

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

Boston has been a popular setting choice in recent cinema. Mystic River and The Departed have taught audiences that Beantown itself can act as a central character. A landscape shot of the city is proving to be more powerful than that of L.A. or New York.

Gone Baby Gone has that wonderful quality. Its opening shots establish the rich, city culture and a rugged authenticity. Director Ben Affleck (you read that right) also co-wrote the screenplay for his new, powerfully engrossing drama. It appears that Affleck has been taking notes while working with all those great directors. He directs his passion piece with an original style, working steady wonders with his camera and leaving the musical score subtle.

Affleck, a Boston native, makes another good decision in casting his younger brother, Casey, in the lead role. C. Affleck has been that great actor in the background, on the sidelines, sneaking in those perfect lines. Who can forget his whining for a double burger in Good Will Hunting, or his constant bickering with Scott Caan in the Ocean films? Here Casey Affleck is a revelation. His star-making performance as Patrick, a young, fearless, private detective, is thrillingly bold. (I imagine much of the same in the upcoming The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).

B. Affleck adapts Dennis Lahane’s novel about two PI’s who have been hired by relatives of a young girl who has gone missing. Simple enough, right? The story thickens from there, with plenty of thugs, drug dealers, good cops, and bad cops to fulfill your Friday night desires.

Michelle Monaghan is another actor who has yet to get her dues. Usually overshadowed by bigger names, she shines in the role of C. Affleck’s girlfriend/partner. Monaghan’s Angie brings a much-needed sense of “wake-the-hell-up” to Patrick’s stubborn, always right attitude.

Ed Harris is the police detective assigned to find the girl and Morgan Freeman plays a police captain. Harris is an actor of impeccable range, a scene outside of a hospital should earn him a supporting actor nomination. The man does not know how to give a bad performance. It’s good to see Freeman stretching a little bit. We thankfully get no warming Morgan Freeman narration, which was beginning to seem like a contract clause.

Amy Ryan, best known for her work on HBO’s The Wire, is miraculous as the missing girls’ mother. In a role that is typically given several teary confessions, Ryan does an incredible job avoiding formula, as a woman who is too involved with her party lifestyle to really care about what has happened. She has at least one scene with all the major acting players, and she boldly steals them all, her name should surely top Oscar’s list right now.

The film may suffer one too many twists but it remains a seriously engrossing piece of work. Bound to draw comparisons to those other, better, Boston set movies (especially Mystic, another Lehane novel) Gone Baby Gone is a film of great suspense, jaw-dropping turns and authentic acting. Ben Affleck not only directs the film like a genuine pro, he just may have boosted is younger brother up to A-list status.

There is a great moral dilemma posed at the end of the movie, and although I’ll never tell what it is, I only hope it stirs conversation and thought, long after you leave the theatre. A-

Sunday, October 21, 2007

We Own the Night

Writer/Director James Gray once crafted a fresh, bold film about the bonds of family and the turmoil of crime. Staring Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix, the film was a great little twist of drama. The Yards was Gray’s last directorial effort. His new film, We Own the Night lacks his previous films’ fearless creativity. The Yards was a well-received, little-seen, piece of independent film heaven. Those who remember it may think they are getting much of the same here. And those who have seen both, will most likely prefer the former.

Night is about two brothers, the popular, nightclub manager Bobby (Phoenix) and the stern, all business cop, Joseph (Wahlberg). Bobby dapples with drugs, gets the girls, runs a 24/7 party lifestyle and rarely manages to see his family. He spends more time at the home of the old, Russian owner of his nightclub, than he does at his brother’s promotional dinner.

The brothers have nothing in common and don’t get along. Their veteran cop dad (Robert Duvall) continually takes Joseph’s side and constantly judges Bobby. After Joseph busts Bobby’s club, it’s all melodrama from there. For those of you who are interested, I won’t reveal the many obvious “surprises” that Gray has in store.
Night tries to be a good movie and in some scenes, it succeeds. But overall, it’s a confusing, contradicting thriller. Phoenix and Wahlberg are both in the top of their acting game right now, but they aren’t given much to do here. Wahlberg’s Joseph is too much like his last screen role in The Departed. But where he shinned in that movie with his perfect timing and scene stealing moments, his character in Night falls flat. Phoenix makes the best of his many scenes, but he isn’t given proper words to fill the emotion. (I hope his talents are used to their limits in the upcoming Reservation Road.)

But on the other side of the spectrum you have a great Duvall, in an angry, gruff performance. This isn’t a Duvall we get to see often and he does good things with it. Eva Mendes, as Bobby’s loyal girlfriend, is wonderful as well. She tackles this throwaway role with great complexity. Mendes’ sexuality has carried her for most of her career, but here, she’s not only using her allure as a weapon, but she manages to stray away from formula, acting as Bobby’s true lover, not a typical two-timer. Night is by far her best role to date.

Great lines (“Better to be judged by 12, than carried by 6”) are outnumbered with basic, boring ones. Original, thrilling direction, (a simply miraculous car chase/shootout in the pouring rain), are forgotten among the multiple party scenes and the in-your-face soundtrack (Okay, I get it, it’s the ‘80s). Other moments, including a wire-tapped drug deal and a shootout in very tall grass, are just too normal. Gray wants to make a good film, and at times it even appears to be, but haven’t we seen this all before? C+

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Michael Clayton

Remember when Redford and Hoffman rolled back and fourth in their chairs, phones attached to their necks, working that newsroom? When Peter Finch was as mad as hell? When Jack found out about Chinatown? When Hackman chased trains with his car? When three desperate men needed a bigger boat? When Pachino yelled Attica, De Niro had a Mohawk and Brando made offers you couldn’t refuse? Those brilliant films of the ‘70s formulated suspense. They were the prototype of the smart, adult, thriller. Michael Clayton, a brilliant spectacle of a film, is the ultimate throwback to the ‘70s.

Clayton, is a perfect film. Powerful direction, an enthralling narrative, a fresh screenplay with endless amounts of addictive dialogue, rapid cinematography and some of the most remarkable acting of the year.

George Clooney, shedding that Danny Ocean bravado, plays the title character. He works as a “fixer” for a top New York law firm. “I’m not a miracle worker,” he assures a desperate client, “I’m a janitor.” He cleans up the messes that are caused, or will cause the firm any harm.

When the lead litigator of a 3 billion class-action law suit, strips naked in a deposition and runs bare-assed in a snowy parking lot, Clayton is sent to sterilize the mess. Star lawyer Arthur Edens (a miraculous Tom Wilkinson) is off his meds and appears to be losing his grasp on reality. But beneath his constant rambling, he may be on to something. He’s spent the last six years defending U-North, a company that manufactures a weed killer, which Edens has discovered has been the result of hundreds of deaths on American farms.

Clayton’s job is to keep his old pal quiet and medicated. Their arguments are battles of stalemate intelligence, each with their own seemingly logical perspectives on the situation. Wilkinson, an actor of consistent excellence, presents Edens as a tortured but compassionate soul. A lot rests on Wilkinson’s shoulders for the film to work and he exceeds with whimsical intensity.

The convoluted plot doesn’t nearly end there. Tinda Swinton plays a U-North consultant who takes matters into her own hands, hiring a couple of 21st century goons to tail Edens. Her Karen Crowder rehearses simple speeches to herself, sets out her power suits on her bed and wears her pearl necklace with a villainous glow. Here, Swinton is a revelation. An independent film Goddess, Swinton brings her subtle, controlled beauty to a role of fear and moral anxiety. You’ve never seen someone really sweat until she’s panicked in a bathroom stall.

Sydney Pollack, a great Hollywood multi-tasker, delivers his best acting performance to date as Clayton’s ethically-lacking boss. Pollack’s opening scene sets a beautiful tone for not only his character, but the film itself. You’ll love the way he calmly tells a reporter that her deadline has already passed. He brings a surprising bit of comic relief to the heavy-handed film. Try not to laugh when he casually calls a co-worker an asshole.

First time director Tony Gilroy, has already proved his talent with his screenwriting (The Devil’s Advocate, all three Bourne films). Clayton is by far his most intriguing script yet and with some help from a team of powerhouse producers- Clooney, Pollack, Anthony Minghella and Steven Soderbergh- Gilroy directs his complicated film into a modern day masterpiece. The cinematography is tight and smooth, straight from the book of Bourne. The music, from vet James Newton Howard, is crisp and commanding. Gilroy demonstrates how useful editing can be, teasing us just enough in the beginning of the film, only to have it come back full circle and still manage to shock us.

The film’s true wonder is that of Clayton himself. Picture after picture, George Clooney has won people over with his remarkable charm. His Oscar winning role in Syriana was a marvel to experience. Expect much of the same here. Clooney ditches his God-given charisma for a man who has deep-seeded issues and lives in a constant state of strife. A guy who resents what he does, only gets his son on Saturdays, has an unhealthy knack for cards and is in loads of debt because of his junkie brother. He doesn’t smile much and he doesn’t woo you with his smooth talkin’ voice, he speaks every line with his eyes and scruffy demeanor.

Every Oscar winning acting performance has that scene. A scene that put them over the edge of the competition, that got them the gold. From Denzel’s tear, to Sean Penn’s animalistic cries for his daughter, to Halle Berry stripping herself down to desperate passion, and so on. Clooney gets that scene here, and although I’d never tell exactly which moment it is, I only hope that you can distinguish it amongst several breathtaking ones. Gilroy gives Clayton several chances to be memorable and Clooney nails each one. From his first moment on screen, sinking away at a card table, to a significant, and rather inspiring closing credits, Clooney will have you convinced.

In a wondrous climatic moment with Swinton, Clooney proves that Clayton can be a miracle worker. So well in fact that for years to come, people will be putting the scene on a list similar to the one mentioned above. So fun, it’s impossible to forget. A truly outstanding film, which will make adults reminisce about the good ol’ days. When movies did more than just entertain, they thrilled and stirred thought, without you even knowing it. A+

Monday, October 15, 2007

Interview

Steve Buscemi is one of the best actors around. Think about it, I mean the guy is weird lookin’ (I dunno, just weird lookin’). He has an odd sounding voice and is instantly recognizable, and still he has yet to be typecast as the weird looking, odd sounding, very familiar, guy. With each role, he brings his quirky antics along with a strong dose of some serious acting. He uses his aesthetic flaws to build each of his characters and make them, usually, unforgettable. Who can’t remember his comically brilliant arguing in Reservoir Dogs? His casual psycho in Con Air? His constant degrading in The Big Lebowski? His creepily eerie turn in The Sopranos? And so on.

On occasion, Buscemi directs as well. His latest feat, Interview, is an enchanting wonder of a film, laced with his oddball sense of humor. Buscemi is Pierre, a political journalist who has been assigned, for reasons he cannot figure out, to do a personality profile on the “it” actress, Katya. Pierre is pissed. He would rather been in D.C. covering the latest shitstorm that has erupted there. But no, instead he is stuck in a trendy part of New York, waiting for the one-named, no talent “actress” to waltz into the restaurant where they are meeting.

She shows up (finally) and it’s all down hill from there. Katya is offended that Pierre knows nothing about her. He’s never seen one of her films and he doesn’t pick up the tabloids much. The dinner interview only lasts a couple minutes, after a few harsh words are thrown back and fourth.

Instead of wasting time on plot, I’ll just say that Pierre ends up at Katya’s nearby loft where the remainder of the film is spent. From then on, Buscemi does an incredible job of stripping away layer after protective layer that each of the characters has developed over the years. He keeps revealing more and more with each addictive scene.

Pierre asks Katya inane questions, she playfully dismisses them. They drink (a lot), she smokes (a lot), some coke is dabbled with, words fly, tempers swell, they dance, they laugh, they cry and it’s all delightful.

Think Sienna Miller can’t act? Joke’s on you. What Buscemi has done is cast an actress who is represented, in reality, the same way Katya is. Miller, best known for being cheated on by Jude Law, is a good actress. Such has been the case in films like Layer Cake and Factory Girl, but it is here that her breakout will be forever remembered. Miller embodies Katya to the fullest extent. After showing Pierre the different ways to cry for the camera, you’ll completely believe Miller when she later breaks down in a brutal confession. Her raw performance is one of the best by an actress this year.

Interview is a great film to listen to. The conversations are wonderfully scripted by Buscemi, who affirms his capability of writing and directing. I could never tell the most revealing revelations, which Buscemi saves for the end, but I will say that I was genuinely shocked and completely transfixed. A

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Kingdom

Stylish actor-turned-director Peter Berg wants to make a compelling film. He wants to surprise, stun, shock and elaborate on the nature of two vastly different cultures. Instead, Berg gives us just another action-packed, rock‘em sock‘em, American WHOO-RAH of a film. Where four of us can take on 50 plus, gun-toting, masked bad guys and come out with a few scratches, maybe a band-aid on the neck.

Things get ugly pretty quick in Saudi Arabia (the Kingdom) when a compound housing American-oil employees and their families, are sprayed down with bullets during a friendly baseball game. Cars get wrecked and bombs go off as an unseen villain videotapes the whole event from a hotel room, forcing his young grandson to watch.

Against state department orders, four of the FBI’s most elite personnel manage to get access to the Kingdom for five days. Ronald Fleury (a solid Jamie Foxx) is put in charge of the quickie mission. Along with him are a bomb expert (Chris Cooper, having a little fun), an intelligence analyst (Jason Bateman, who successfully manages to bring his effortless comedic timing to this serious role) and a forensics expert (a powerful Jennifer Garner). No 13 Going on 30 here, Garner, in her best screen role to date, is 100 percent badass. And she wants you to know it, if not by her constant cursing, then by an awesome, balls-out rescue scene.

Another mention in the acting needs to go to Ashraf Barhom, who plays a Saudi police chief, put in charge of the American’s safety. Barhom is a marvel to watch, his face taunt with confusion and turmoil. Look out for him, he will surely become a star.

But even with an impressive cast, Berg can’t seem to find a concrete point. The third act has enough action to keep young boys happy. A dizzying car crash, a holdup in an unsafe part of town and some great standoffs in an apartment complex all achieve grade-A thrills. Berg does have some fun with the script (look for his own brief cameo in an FBI briefing scene); his actors throw out constant one-liners and Foxx gets to give a shot-out to his hometown, Terrell, Texas. But I was longing for a purpose, something more. Much of the film is wasted, channeling 9/11, slain journalist Daniel Pearl, CSI and hell, even some Entourage (gray hair and glasses can’t help Jeremy Piven shake Ari Gold).

Berg is a good director. He has his own vision which did wonders for his Friday Night Lights. He uses the same shaky camera work from Lights and it works well here. But that nice, Texan twang that played through Lights, the subtle, comforting, fitting music, is a curse in this picture. Berg uses that exact same score for The Kingdom, in very awkward moments. Instead of feeling sad or remorseful as Berg intends, the music only made me feel inspired and uplifted, like it did in Lights.

Through its flaws, The Kingdom remains a firm piece of entertainment. It can be a little heavy and it relies too much on the convenience of Hollywood. But Berg is trying to assert the claim that Americans have their own definition of what is right and so do the other guys. The final line of the film is a little too cheesy, but it’s the best Berg can do to sum up his point. I could save you the two hours and reveal it, but don’t worry, I’ll never tell. B-

Eastern Promises

Before David Cronenberg’s pulse-pounding, wicked little masterpiece began, the audience was given a few trailers to dissect. One of which was Ang Lee’s new, already-controversial, NC-17 rated, Lust, Caution. When the smooth, enticing preview was over, an older gentleman sitting in front of me said, to the older woman he was with, “Wow, what a bad title for a movie, no one is going to see that.” Having just won top honors at the Venice Film Festival, I smiled at the fact that he couldn’t be more wrong. But hey, how can I blame him? He probably only goes to a few movies a year, saw the advertisements for Eastern Promises and said, “Oh, that’s the guy from those Lord of the Rings movies, I liked those.”

As the trailer for Promises promises, a plethora of fighting, killing, blood, sweat and tears will be presented to you. Not the case. What iconic director Cronenberg has crafted is a controlled movie with explosive elements. It’s filled with excellent storytelling, witty dialogue, gripping acting and yes, a few beautiful bursts of Cronenberg-ian violence.

After a young woman collapses in a London drug store, she is brought to the emergency room where she dies giving birth to a girl. Anna, a midwife taking care of her, finds the girl’s diary and through her Russian uncle, begins to have it translated. Her cranky uncle will only go so far, declaring that the secrets of the dead should stay buried. Determined to get answers, Anna is led to a Russian restaurant. Once she is invited in, her whole world is spun.

Anna asks Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the owner of the restaurant, to translate the diary for her. But soon, she is in way over her head. Semyon is the head of the Vory V Zakone family, a sect of the Russian mob. Anna is soon introduced to Seymon’s depraved son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his loyal bodyguard Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). The film is off and running as Anna discovers that the dead girl was part of a sex trafficking ring run by Semyon and she fears for her life of her family and the life of the still-unclaimed baby in her ward.

As he did with his brillant History of Violence, Cronenberg creates a story about seemingly average people put to extreme circumstances. He isn’t trying to post a vast narrative on the birth of the Russian mob, or Nikolai’s upbringing through brutal, Russian prisons, acquiring dozens of tattoos that tell his life story. No flashbacks here. Cronenberg simply starts a story where he feels necessary, in this case with the birth of a child, and ends it when he feels appropriate.

Much like Violence, the gruesome scenes in Promises are presented in a realistic manner. No slow motion, domineering musical score, or heavy amounts of blood. Cronenberg is interested in the real ways that the Vory dispose of a body, with no fingers in tact. If that’s how it’s done, then that’s how it’s going to be shown. Cronenberg uses his violence as a tool. He gives you just enough to keep you an edge.

Violence contained the best screen acting performances of 2005. Mortensen, Maria Bello and a devilishly wonderfully William Hurt, all gave their career bests. Promises maintains that same trait. Cronenberg is an actor’s director, he gives them the freedom to explore these dark, complicated characters, while keeping them reserved.

Mortensen, in a raw, courageous performance, excels past his Tom Stall from Violence. He gives the violent Nikolai a heart. His firm posture, jet-black hair, thin cheekbones and smooth mannerisms are completely believable. You’ll think Mortensen actually speaks Russian. Try to listen for a slip-up in his flawless accent, you won’t catch one.

In her best performance since 21 Grams, the always engrossing Watts is riveting. As a woman battling her own regrets and misfortunes Watts’ face is often wonderfully dwelled with fear. But she remains strong willed and exquisitely bold while going toe to toe with some remarkably evil people.

You may remember Cassel from Ocean’s 12 as the smartass, sneaky Frenchman. As Kirill, Cassel is a revelation. He dives deep into a haunted young man, longing to be accepted by his father, Kirill is filled with jealousy and rage. Those are daddy’s eyes in there, rooted with deep seeds of evil.

A supporting actor nominee for Shine, expect Mueller-Stahl to snag another nomination as the alluringly horrific Seymon. When he opens his restaurant door for Anna, the first time we see his face I was instantly reminded of Nicholson in A Few Good Men. Right away, you fear him. He hasn’t spoken a word, but you know that this guy is dangerous.

I usually find that sex scenes distract from a film’s plot, but Cronenberg’s sex scenes are almost always essential. As he did with Violence and the potently erotic Crash, Cronenberg uses sex as character development. You won’t fully know two of the character until one of them makes the other have sex with a drugged up young girl.

The naked fighting scene has already become “the scene” of the season. Like the do-or-die standoffs in Violence, this fight forces Nikolai to use the methods that got him through prison, fighting with what you can, innocent bystanders included and never assuming someone is down for good. Female admirers of Mortensen’s will flock to rent the DVD to catch an All the Right Moves-perfect-pause-moment of his… livelihood.

Eastern Promises is a wonderfully paced, subtle film. There is a great little surprise in here somewhere. Don’t worry, I’ll never tell. Just listen. Listen to the clever words and your jaw will drop. People looking for a Russian Departed should head elsewhere, what you’re going to get is a unique story with heavy, reliable acting and an occasional slit throat… or two.

Leaving the theatre a young man walking behind me said, talking into his cell phone, “Hey man, you wanna know what movie NOT to see? Eastern Promises. Totally lame.” Having just won top honors at the Toronto Film Festival, I smiled at the fact that he couldn’t be more wrong. But hey, how can I blame him? He probably only goes to a few movies a year, saw the advertisements for Eastern Promises and said, “Oh, that’s the guy from those Lord of the Rings movies, I liked those.” A