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

Monday, December 10, 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-