Monday, December 8, 2008

Milk

Politician Harvey Milk ran several rigorous campaigns in San Francisco before he became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the United States. He preached peace through practice and understanding. He was frank and precise with his politics, namely the fail to pass Proposition 6, which would’ve fired all openly gay teachers from public schools. He was ultimately killed by fellow city supervisor Dan White, who got off on a light jail sentence for killing Milk and San Francisco mayor, George Moscone.

That’s what you can get from The Times of Harvey Milk, Rob Epstein’s remarkable, Oscar-winning documentary. But in Milk, Gus Van Sant’s bold, incredible new film, you get a whole lot more.

In Milk we get a more personal view of a motivated man with many faults. Milk (Sean Penn) was a failed Wall Street banker who immigrated to a free-spirited California in search of meaning. He quickly made a name for himself on San Francisco’s Castro Street, becoming known to gays and straights alike. Soon enough a business in the Castro couldn’t function successfully without Harvey’s say-so. The film continues to follow Milk through his political career, battling Prop 6 and the conservative White, while also paralleling Milk’s personal life and his inability to hold a relationship.

The film, with a tight script by Dustin Lance Black (Big Love) is executed with subtle power by Van Sant. Milk has its big, climatic moments, sure, but they aren’t presented with a blazing musical score or fancy cinematography. Instead, it’s as if you are in the crowd, as another spectator. Milk plays out so accurate to real life that it’s startling.

As Harvey Milk, Sean Penn gives the best performance of his career. Penn, often known for the ferioucious intensity he brings to films like Dead Man Walking, Mystic River and 21 Grams, is so remarkably subtle in Milk that we hardly know it’s him. He embodies Milk to the fullest extent. Wearing the three-piece suits, flawlessly recreating Milk’s accent and mannerisms; it is a triumphant performance, one of the best in recent memory.

Penn is backed by the year’s best cast, a multitude of young actors who all deliver career bests. James Franco, as Milk’s longtime partner, and Josh Brolin as Dan White, are namely profound. They should compete against each other come Oscar time.

Maybe I haven’t talked about the plot as much as I should. But plot isn’t necessary in describing this film. Milk has all the elements of classic filmmaking, those elements may not be executed in a way that’s familiar, but the film is a daring feat by any estimation.

Van Sant, who was nominated for Good Will Hunting has made his best film yet. In lesser hands, we would’ve had a conventional bio-pic. Milk is an outstanding work of art that touches a broad range of emotions. With the recent headlines concerning Prop 8, the film makes you question how much we’ve accomplished. It stands timeless and unique, and my God if it doesn’t give you hope. A+

Slumdog Millionaire

Hold your breath, folks, you’re in for one hell of a ride. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire breathes life into the film medium. It’s multi-genre’d, original as hell and all together remarkable.

Dev (Jamal Malik) is an impoverished Indian teen who has wound up on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”. Dev may not be the smartest kid around, but somehow he’s one question away from being as rich as the host. How did he get here?

Slumdog Millionaire’s unique narrative (which is a character itself) answers that question by cutting from the questions Dev is asked in the game show, to past experiences in his life that somehow reveal the answer. So essentially, every question is a story. Some of the stories are hilarious, others heartbreaking, several cringe-worthy, but they are all poignant and fierce.

Over the film, Dev, his wily older brother, and Dev’s love interest, Latika (Freida Pinto) are each played by three different actors. Each actor blends perfectly with the other ones. At times, it’s hard to even notice that they’ve grown up. That’s a very good thing. We’re so engrossed with the story, that we never see the switch, not too many films can pull that off.

The authenticity of the film helps with its overall brilliance. Filmed in the streets of Mumbai, we get a front row seat to musty brutality. You’ll feel cramped in the streets as Dev runs from the police, bustling his way through thousands of people. You’ll feel the wind in your hair as Dev catches a free ride on top of a train. You can smell the grime and taste the shit.

I’m not going to talk about any of Dev’s stories or the outcome of the game. But know that this is a brutally honest often frank portrayal of life in the hard knocks.

Visionary director Boyle, who never makes the same film twice, has grabbed us again. He defined drug addiction with Trainspotting, made zombies scary again with 28 Days Later…, even cooked up a thoughtful family film with Millions. Now, giving us his best film yet, he’ll shoot right to the top of the list for best director.

Slumdog Millionaire is rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language. The violence is sparse, yes, but when it comes, it comes fast and furious. Give Boyle credit for doing it tastefully. I only mention the rating because I think this is a film that every single person needs to see. I’ll even call it a family film given the values that are presented.

It makes it all the more prevalent that several of the filming locations were recently struck with unspeakable tragedy. Seeing the film now is like watching a whimsical love story that takes place in the twin towers. But get ready, Slumdog Millionaire is a big Oscar contender. It’s the most original film of the year. Should you go see it? You don’t need any lifelines to figure that one out. A+

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Synecdoche, New York

To be honest, I have no idea whether or not I liked Synecdoche, New York. On one side it is wildly original, fiercely acted and beautifully imaginative. On the other hand, it is almost completely incoherent, pointless and seemingly dull.

Charlie Kaufman, the wondrously twisted mind behind the screenplays of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directs his first feature which appears to be a little too weird for its own good.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (consistently great) plays Caden, a mildly depressed, quick aging theatre director who gets a genius grant that lets him create whatever kind of production he wants. Caden decides to make a never-ending play featuring thousands of actors and sets as large as city blocks. Caden wants something real, something true to life. This explains why the actors play the people around them. For instance, Caden hires a man to play Caden. He hires a woman to play his love interest, a woman to pay his wife and so on. This creates something of a mess.

The idea is terrific in a Kaufman sort of way, but the execution is flawed. I couldn’t understand, for instance, the ironcal signifigance of one of the main character’s houses always being on fire. The people in the film know it’s on fire, they acknowledge it frequently, yet they go on living in it. Sleeping, eating, having sex, and so on. Do we take it at face value? Of course not. But what then? Or why? I have no idea.

To its benefit, Synecdoche, New York has a great, female friendly supporting cast including Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams (at her very best), Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson and Diane Wiest. But even that many talented faces aren’t enough to comprehend what is happening.

Synecdoche, New York will make you think, and it could very well inspire some post-film chatter, but mostly out of annoyance. Seeing this won’t do you any favors, skipping it may. C-

Quantum of Solace

Bond is back, and better yet, he’s back as Daniel Craig. Craig, the best Bond since Sean Connery (and may prove to be better, in time) kills it as our favorite international spy. Only this time, his antics are a little less distinguishable.

If you like Bond films for the gadgets, the corny dialogue and the cheesy slogans, you better skip this one. Quantum of Solace is far more like Craig’s first outing as Bond, Casino Royale than such farce as Moonraker.

Casino Royale breathed life into a seemingly dead franchise with awesome power. It will go down as one of the very best Bond films. Quantum of Solace is not so lucky. Yes, Craig is good, but that is about it. In addition to having one of the worst titles in franchise history, Quantum of Solace does little to impress.

Sure there are explosions and chases and machine guns and gorgeous femme fatales, but the film lacks any real substance. If you’re worried about plot (is that really why we see these?) then here it goes. In the franchise’s first straight-up sequel, Bond is out to find the people that axed off his love from the last movie. He chases after them and gets wind of a secret organization that wants to control… water. Not oil, not weapons, but… water. Amazing.

My first question is, why hire brilliantly subtle director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) to helm a Bond film? I was hoping to be shocked, but I wasn’t. Forster is in way over his head, and it shows.

All of my quips aside, Quantum of Solace did entertain me, but it lacked the startling originality of Casino Royale. Shame, considering the incredible energy Craig brings to the table. Craig, who is contracted for two more Bond films, will benefit from some better material next time around. Until then, go rent Casino Royale. B-

Role Models

Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott bring their respective senses of humor to this somehow refreshing comedy romp.

Rudd, a consistently sarcastic, quick-bantered everyman; and Scott, consistently stuck as Stiffler, are two energy drink salesmen who ran their truck a little ramped and end up doing community service for a Boys and Girls-type foundation.

Rudd is paired with a shy dork (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, aka McLovin) who likes to reenact live-action medieval games. Scott is teamed up with the much funnier, foul-mouthed hellion Ronnie (Bobb’e Thompson).

The film delivers some genuine laughs, most from Thompson and Jane Lynch as the whacko who runs the organization. But it stalls hard in the third act. I understand that director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) wants to put a delicate action-humor spin on the film, but it takes away from the rest of the movie.

Don’t get me wrong, Role Models is funny and Rudd and Scott make a good a pair. I just wish things turned out a little differently. Side note: if you like Elizabeth Banks and don’t want to see two movies, skip Zack and Miri Make a Porno, this is far better. B

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Welcome to this year’s hidden-indie wonder. Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme’s new mini-masterpiece, is completely alive.

Kym (Anne Hathaway) gets a temporary release from rehab to attend her older sister’s wedding. The funny, educated Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting hitched to subtle musician Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of indie-rock bank TV on the Radio), at their beautiful childhood home.

The film follows Kym around for the wedding weekend. We meet her protective, flamboyant dad (Bill Irwin), old friends, step mothers and so on. But what we’re privy too, and what we notice right away, is the tension between these people.

To call this family dysfunctional would be a complement. They have past tortures (mostly caused by Kym), that has all but ruined them. The characters engage in long, brutally honest conversations that feel as authentic as any conversation I’ve heard in film.

Many of these scenes are hard to watch, due to their shear realistic nature. There is one such scene, when Rachel blows up at Kym in front of the whole family, that felt like it was taken right out of my own life. I’ve had conversations like these, I’ve lived through some of these times. And that’s why Rachel Getting Married is so brilliant, it touches chords in us that are rarely exposed in the film medium.

Anne Hathaway is a revelation. You don’t too often find a character in rehabilation who is actually happy to be there. There is no relapsed scene, no use of drugs at all in fact, there is just a blatant honesty that echoes off the walls. Each one of Hathaway’s scenes is better than the one before. She’ll grab you just as easily in an NA meeting as she will fighting with her mother (Debra Winger). This is a flawless performance. Oscar, here she comes.

While I was so utterly impressed with Hathaway, it must be said that the real marvel here is DeWitt. I can’t recall seeing her in anything before, but she’s the one that has stayed with me. DeWitt gives Rachel a presumed innocence of a life lived in the shadow of her troubled younger sister. But don’t let her charm fool you. Rachel is ready to go pound for pound with any family member, her wedding be damned. There is a scene towards the end of this film, involving a long hug between mother and daughters, that could very well earn DeWitt an Oscar nomination, or even the award.

Demme hasn’t been around much lately. Hot in the late ‘80s- early ‘90s with films like Married to the Mob, The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme now directs his best work in over a decade. Using low-quality HD cameras, no real musical score and a heartbreaking script by Jenny Lumet (Sidney “Dog Day Afternoon” Lumet’s daughter), Demme gives us an unforgettable experience. He also gives what I’m sure will remain one of the very best films of the year. This is a triumph in cinema, everyone will be moved. A+

Changeling

At 78, who’s better than Clint Eastwood? The man has released four masterful films in the last five years. And he has another one out in December. Most directors get lazy with old age. Not Eastwood. He’s ripened with glory.

Changeling is the true story about Christine Collins, a single mother whose son as abducted in the late ‘20s. Collins fought a corrupt LAPD system, imposters and serial killers. She was a single, working mother in a time when single, working mothers were very hard to come by.

To be honest, I don’t want to say any more. There is a sudden shift in the storyline about halfway through that people may already know about (it’s not Million Dollar Baby drastic, but it is significant.) So rather than revealing it here, I’ll focus more on the acting and technical proficiency that goes into making an Eastwood film.

Angelina Jolie is fantastic. She embodies the very essence of loss and grief, something she did marvelously just last year in the underrated A Mighty Heart. I can’t say if she is better in Changeling, but I’d say she’s damn close. I believed her intentions in every single scene of the film, it’s a knockout performance.

The supporting players, mostly male, are terrific as well. John Malkovich is convincing as an unselfish pastor, willing to help Christine at any cost. He despises the LAPD and he uses his church influence to magnificently persuade. Jeffrey Donovan does horrific wonders with his slimy LAPD captain; desperate to conceal what he knows is true. Michael Kelly shines as a cop with a clue. Even Amy Ryan shows up as a mental patient with a harsh tongue.

But the real scene-stealer is Jason Butler Harner, an actor I had never heard of. I’m reluctant to say what role he plays but believe me, you won’t be able to get his face out of your head. He's charming yet monsterous. Think Heath Ledger's Joker.

Eastwood uses grim photography and a subtle piano score (by him) to capture the time period. The costumes and makeup are spot on, bleeding with fluid authenticity.

Like his other recent films, Changeling has some hard scenes to watch. They’re meant to disturb and they do a great deal. But be patient, Eastwood respects his audience, he’ll never do you wrong. Just when I thought this movie was over, he kept on going, usually a problem in today’s cinema. But here, I didn’t want the trip down memory lane to end.

I can’t say if this film is better than Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby (although few are to me). What I can say is that Changeling stands on its own. It has a compelling vision that locks you in right away. Enjoy the ride. A

RocknRolla

Let’s face it, Guy Ritchie has never been able to live up to his explosive debut, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He came close with Snatch, sure. But each film he’s done since has been a worse reimagining of those first two.

RocknRolla is no different. Here we get Ritchie’s usually mash-up of crooks and gangsters. There’s a bald and fat Tom Wilkinson as a high-level mob guy who controls the real estate market. The badguys who work for him, (and subsequently rip him off… twice.) The cool, calm and collected Russian. The junkie rock star. And on and on.

RocknRolla, while mildly entertaining, is still muddled with Ritchie clichés. His characters go off on long, pointless monologues about things like crawfish, and his violence is drawn out and tiring.
So, what’s good about it? Criminally sexy British actress, Thandie Newton is radiant as a crooked accountant. She gives vibrancy to a seemingly throwaway role. Another actress may have made this character forgettable, not Newton. You can’t take your eyes off her.

And there’s Mark Strong as Wilkinson’s right-hand man. Strong is known for his villains (he tore off George Clooney’s fingernail in Syriana). I actually enjoyed Strong in this. His sly gestures and swift smacks to the face almost kept RocknRolla afloat. Almost. C-

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

You don’t have to be too imaginative to guess what this one’s about. Life-long pals Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Eizabeth Banks) need cash in order to keep the apartment they share. Because the two lack any dignity and family members, Zack says, they decide to make a low-budget porno.

Kevin Smith, one of the pioneering indie filmmakers of the ‘90s, directs his latest with the same raunch that he’s know for cooking up. Zack and Miri is nowhere near as original or clever as his Clerks, but it does have its moments.

There is a great, all-too-brief scene with Justin Long as a gay porn actor from LA. Long, the funnyman from Accepted, The Break-Up and Waiting…, gives this film its best scene. He talks with a deep, raspy voice while sipping a cosmo. It’s flat-out hilarious. And is that the most recent Superman as his lover? You bet.

Unfortunately, the rest of Zack and Miri lacks any real comic zeal. Sure a few of the gags are funny, (I particularly liked the result of the cameraman filming underneath two people during the porno shoot.) But for the most part, this is throwaway humor that almost mocks your stupidity. D+

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pride and Glory

There are too many cop shows to even keep up. And with excellent ones like The Wire and The Shield, who needs more? The movies aren’t usually any better (We Own the Night anyone?). But here is a wildly explosive, refreshing take on a used formula.

Director Gavin O’Connor dives head first into a story about an investigation that follows the brutal murder of four NYPD cops. Veteran cop Francis Tierney (Jon Voight) wants his smart, burnt-out detective son Ray (Edward Norton) to lead the investigation. The four cops worked under Ray’s brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich) and with Ray’s brother-in-law Jimmy (Colin Farrell). Ray hesitantly accepts the job, and is soon in way over his head.

With a riveting script by O’Connor and Joe Carnahan (Narc), Pride and Glory is a witty thriller that keeps you pinned to your seat. Ray soon discovers that Jimmy is dirty (way dirty) and his brother Francis may be in just as deep. So Ray, not knowing who to trust, has to go at it alone to find out what went down, and why.

Edward Norton (as always) is incredible. His blistering performance is his best since 2002’s 25th Hour. He gives Ray an emotional complexity that’s hard to find in most police-character dramas. Colin Farrell, who makes The Shield’s Vic Mackey look like Mother Teresa, delivers some of his best work as Jimmy. His villainous charm actually reminded me of Heath Ledger’s Joker, completely willing to push his kids on the swings, and in the next scene, use a hot iron as in interrogation tactic.

I’m glad Francis Jr. was cast with Noah Emmerich, an exceedingly talented character actor who has never fully reached stardom. Emmerich (so good in The Truman Show, Little Children and Miracle) is completely believable as a conflicted family man, bound to his cancer-stricken wife, and often turns a blind eye to the men in his unit. And Voight gives us a performance that’s so nuanaced, it reminds us of that Midnight Cowboy he once was.

Pride and Glory has suffered through several theatrical delays. Why? I’m not sure, probably business politics. But if it is marketed properly, its cast could receive a few Oscar nominations. I enjoyed this film immensely, even if the end is a little too easy. But with this group of extraordinary men, you can’t go wrong. A-

W.

Who other than Oliver Stone (the man behind such controversial films as JFK and Nixon) would make a film about the current Commander and Chief? Stone is a man driven making people fully aware of who they vote for next week. He wants us to make the right choice, and elect the right person.

The film focuses an equal amount of time between young and old Bush, jumping back and forth in narrative. It shows his young, drunk antics as a youth, eager to impress his Poppy. His confusing, middle-aged years, when he cannot figure out what to do, and finally, his years as President.

Josh Brolin, in the title role, delivers the performance of his career. Aside from the fact that he perfectly nails every nuance of the man, he also, rather marvelously, makes the character his own. While I am no fan of Bush, I was completely enthralled by Brolin.

His supporting cast is one for the ages. Richard Dreyfuss digs deep into the seeds of Dick Cheney’s master plan, Toby Jones delivers a hauntingly optimistic Karl Rove, Elizabeth Banks makes for a sensitive and hesitant Laura Bush, James Cromwell is a perfect fit for Bush Sr., and the beautiful Thandie Newton does a spot-on impression of Condie Rice.

Politics aside, W. is a bit off-balanced. For one reason or another, the film completely dodges such topics as the 2000 election and 9/11, but manages to make room for a choking pretzel scene. There is a fantastic, 20 minute 'war-room' scene where everyone talks about what to do after 9/11. At the beginning, it is all about Afghanistan, but somehow, thanks to the help of a very convincing Cheney, the focus switches to Iraq. It is a great arch in dialogue and storytelling as Bush stands at the head of the table, seemingly confused about what is being presented.

I saw the film as a story about a wealthy kid with a massive daddy-complex, whose only real dream was to be the commissionaire of baseball. Once in the White House, he let people like Rove and Cheney control his puppet strings.

Is the film accurate? I don't know. And I don't really care; I don't see movies for historical lessons. Oliver Stone based the film mostly on books written by people who were actually in those meetings (like Colin Powell). But honest to God, by the end of the film (which really only goes up to the year 2004), I felt bad for Bush. I saw him as a guy that was in over his head, and when he finally got there, he was just as stunned as everyone else.

W. isn’t all that entertaining and it isn't very informative, but I did appreciate it. People who lean to the right probably won’t even bother with it, but I doubt Stone minds. He’s never been a filmmaker that aims to please all audiences (maybe with World Trade Center). But here, he lets his actors, Brolin in particular, flourish with emotion. B

Saw V

I see these solely based on tradition. They offer no new insight to anything and are getting dumber and dumber. The Jigsaw killer (who died in part III, I think) somehow manages to come back alive through worthless flashbacks that set-up a whole new “plot”. It is never really explained why an FBI detective has taken over for Jigsaw, but it doesn’t really matter, I suppose. People come to these for one reason: to see if the filmmakers have thought of new, interesting ways to kill people. The acting and the plot wholes are so bad in this franchise, that you won’t even care who dies, or how they are killed. But it is Halloween, and if it’s Halloween, it must be Saw.

Judging by the end of this one, this franchise may keep going for a while. The films usually make their money back in their opening weekend grosses, so let’s guess how many of these there will be. It’s a scary thought, but five years from now, can’t you picture a Saw X? D-

Quarantine

I wasn’t expecting much from Quarantine, but damned if I wasn’t surprised. Taking a lesson from The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, Quarantine is a one-camera movie; the whole film is seen through the lens of a television camera. But where Cloverfield was amateurish and shaky, Quarantine is being filmed by a professional TV cameraman, so things are a little less rocky.

Based on the Spanish horror film REC, Quarantine opens with an eager TV journalist (Jennifer Carpenter) doing a story on LA firefighters. The squad gets a call to an apartment building and once inside, strange things start to happen. Soon enough, everyone in the complex is locked in by authorities on the outside. They are told that if they try to escape, they’ll be shot.

I don’t usually go for movies like this, but I was into this one the whole way. At only 80 minutes, I never felt stuffy or claustrophobic. The actors, Carpenter in particular, do a convincing job of trying to understand what is happening, (and no, it isn’t aliens).

Unfortunately, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen far too much. But if you want a fresh dose of a tired genre, Quarantine is all thrills. B+

The Duchess

Is there a period piece that Keira Knightley isn’t in? In The Duchess she plays real-life Georgiana, The Duchess of Devonshire, who married into extreme wealth when she said yes to the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes).

The Duchess soon grows tired of her loveless marriage to a man that resents her for not being able to deliver a male heir. Her big costumes and bigger hair excite a nation and get the attention of old flame Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper). The two start a passionate affair, but only after Georgiana’s best friend Bess (Hayley Atwell) begins sleeping with the Duke.

It’s all pretty familiar, although I was interested to find out that the Duchess is a very distant relative of Princess Di. But for the most part, The Duchess relies on its lavish costumes and set pieces to tell the story. It helps that powerful performances from Knightley, Fiennes and Atwell keep things going. But in missing this, you aren’t missing anything new. B-


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Choke

Choke is the kind of movie that has a real problem trying to figure out what kind of movie it really wants to be. It moves from sexual satire, to serious family drama, to mock-historical period piece, to quasi-psychological behavioral study. The movie seems so confused on what it wants to be that we the viewer are left… confused.

The film, about a sex addict named Victor who strives for attention from is dementia-afflicted mother, follows too many subplots. In addition to screwing whatever he can, Victor likes to force himself to choke in public places so he can… pick up on women… make people feel better about themselves? I don’t have a clue.

But don’t blame the talent. Sam Rockwell was our “hero” delivers his usual goods. He uses his brilliant wit to charm the hell out of us. Few people can play off something so ridiculous as being just another mellow thing. Although I wasn’t feeling the flow of the film, I followed Rockwell the whole way.

Choke is based on the novel by overhyped author Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk is a cult writer with a dedicated following, but his books have limited range. He often writes, with his defined style, about the same thing. His only decent book (and only movie adaptation) was “Fight Club”, which still had its faults.

The film is directed by talented actor and first time director Clark Gregg. Gregg is a remarkable actor with impeccable range, his guest appearance on The Shield a few years ago, as a remorseless serial rapist, was that series’ best episode. And while I won’t call his Choke a misfire, I believe his intentions were good, I think he could benefit from different material. C-

Monday, October 13, 2008

Appaloosa

Appaloosa is Ed Harris’ take on the throwback western, where the good guys ride in to town from the hills, and usually end up leaving the same way.

Harris steps behind the camera for the first time since his brilliant Pollock and delivers a subtle film with enormous intensity. Virgil Cole (Harris) and his partner, Everett Hitch (played with familiar swagger by Viggo Mortensen) are been hired to get Jeremy Irons (devilishly fun) and his gang out from the small town of Appaloosa.

Virgil is a legend, he’s well known for ridding towns of scum, he’s a great shot and an even better killer. Everett has more feeling. He strides around with a huge 8-gauge shotgun, ready for action at a moment’s notice. The two make a great team and when they kill their first few men, it’s business as usual. But as Irons tightens the screws, things start to heat up. The introduction of Allison French (Reene Zelweger) puts an interesting spin on things, too.

I liked Appaloosa for several reasons. Virgil and Everett don’t waste time fighting over Allison; the bad guys don’t always get caught, and so on. Sure, there are a few wild-west-showdowns, but that’s what you came for right?

I loved how Harris gives his actors time to play with a scene, giving them long takes and great dialogue. Mortensen is the one you can’t take your eyes off of, but you have to credit Harris for letting Mortensen work his magic.

The violence comes quick, and it comes lethal. There is never a question of “should we do this?”, it is just done. Appaloosa has its flaws, but for the most part, it is subtly enjoyable.

This is a great setup for Mortensen’s next role. Playing the lead in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road isn’t going to be easy. But based on his performance in Appaloosa, I’ve got a pretty good feeling. B+

Religulous

Religulous is going to appeal to people the same way a Michael Moore film does. You can’t deny the talent in filmmaking but there are a lot of you that won’t even bother watching it because of its content.

Bill Maher is pretty outspoken about his politics (duh) and even more frank about his disbelief in all things religious. As he says in the film, he doesn’t rely on “fact” like many religious people do; instead he relies on doubt, because he has no idea what to believe.

In the film Maher, teamed with Borat director Larry Charles, cruise around America and venture abroad to try and gain some insight on religion. Nothing, as you may guess, changes Maher’s mind. But what we get is something rather hilarious.

With his clever way of blackballing the person he’s interview, Maher sets his speakers up, only to have them stumble on their words. One senator admits that “you don’t need to take an IQ test to get into the Senate.”

Throughout the film, Maher gets tossed out of the Vatican, asked to leave the grounds of the Mormon temple, and gets harassed by several angry, God-fearing people. It’s funny to watch such self-dignified people get so offended when they are asked questions.

Watch as an “ex-gay” pastor tries to convince Maher that there are no gay people, only “confused” people. In exchanges like these, Maher has the perfect answer for anything.

Religulous doesn’t really follow any narrative path. It’s just a collection of scenes, very well edited of a guy trying to get peace of mind. What we get is something very shocking, very funny and very informative. That is… if you can handle it. A-

Blindness

Fernando Meirelles, that brilliant mind behind City of God and The Constant Gardner has created a film designed as a new concept, but really just a rehash for something old.

In Blindness, an infectious plague sweeps an (unnamed) city. Citizens become blind for no logical or scientific reason. Soon they are transported to “holding places” which are more like mini-Nazi prison camps. The people being detained against their will, start to go mad. Chaos ensures and there is no real justice, just trigger-happy guards waiting for someone to venture off.

Sounds original, but what Blindness really becomes is a zombie knockoff. The people are infected, they question what’s happening, the walk around in a daze and after a while, they start killing each other.

Julianne Moore is the only one who can see (this, like many things in the film, are never explained), so she becomes a guide for everyone else. The acting is convincing, especially from Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Gael Garcia Bernal (an excellent monster of a man). The cinematography is incredible, dipping in and out of focus or cutting to a blank screen whenever it wants.

Now I want to pose a question: can a film be dubbed as awful due to one scene? Or, on the flip side, can a film be labeled as great because of one impeccable sequence?

Blindness is pretty enjoyable. Despite its flaws I was interested the whole time. Until a scene that simply repulsed me. Much like Miracle at St. Anna (but far worse here) there is a scene in this film that is so poorly executed and so blatantly unnecessary that it sickened me. The fact that the scene could’ve easily been edited out only makes matters worse. The point would’ve been clear and effective had it been editing around. But instead were left with a torturously long sequence that I don’t even want to describe.

Call me crazy, or call me picky, but there are some very talented filmmakers out there who have lost sight of when enough is enough. C-

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Miracle at St. Anna

I enjoyed the first 15 minutes. An old guy sits alone in his desolate apartment, murmuring at the TV. Cut to him in a bank, selling people stamps. I guy walks up. Our old guy takes one look at him, pulls at a German luger and BAM, shoots him twice. It’s pretty catchy, and its style is very, very Spike Lee (that's a good thing).

Everything pretty much goes downhill from there. We go back a few decades to an all-black platoon in WWII. They get ambushed and many of them die. But this is like no war battle you’ve ever seen. Here we have overbearing jazz score by Terrance Blanchard (which is usual so poignant in Lee’s films), unconvincing acting and cinematography that’s way too jumpy; it’s a real Saving Private Ryan rip-off.

Four surviving soldiers take shelter in a nearby Italian town as they wait for their comrades to come rescue them. And that’s pretty much it.

After the success of Inside Man, Spike Lee was told that he had the power to make any film he wanted. So, he decided to adapt James McBride’s novel about four stranded black soldiers, struggling to find absolution. It’s a good concept, and an admirable one at that given the fact that there are so few films made about black soldiers (Glory was made in 1989, people). But what you can credit to concept, fails miserably in execution.

Spike Lee is one of my favorite filmmakers. He’s responsible for such classics as Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour and the searing documentary When the Levees Broke. But I dare say that success has finally caught up with him.

I’ve never seen such bad acting in a Lee film. With the exception of the always marvelous Derek Luke, the other three soldiers scream and shout in a way that is so unconvincing, it’s cringe worthy. There are other things. I five minute scene featuring John Leguizamo, has no real place here. In fact, I was questioning the reasoning of several scenes, trying to figure out if they were necessary. At nearly three hours, this film would benefit from a drastic edit. Alas, were left with some of the most disappointing work of a filmmaker I admire a great deal.

Furthermore, there is a scene in this film (the scene that explains the title) that is so grotesque, that I almost walked out of the theatre. After the film, I asked myself, “I wonder how Scorsese or Spielberg or Soderbergh would’ve handled that scene?” The answer was easy: they would’ve left it out. D

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What I'm Excited for: A (Brief) Fall 2008 Movie Preview

Most of these are heavy-hitters (aka Oscar contenders), some are just plain fun. But don't take my word for it, click on the film title to view its trailer. Enjoy.

September

Miracle at St. Anna the reviews are mediocre, but I’ve always enjoyed Spike Lee at his most serious, i.e. Malcolm X, 25th Hour, When the Levees Broke. In theatres now.

Appaloosa Ed Harris’ last directorial effort, Pollock, is one of the most vivid portraits of an artist that I’ve ever seen, I’m interested to see what he does with a Western. In theatres now.

Blindness Everyone goes blind except Julianne Morre. The trailer is wicked cool, plus Fernando Meirelles did wonders with City of God and The Constant Gardner. In theatres now.

The Duchess Keira Knightly was great in Pride and Prejudice and even better in Atonement. She’s one of the few people that can get me to see (and enjoy) a period piece. In theatres now.

October

Religulous Although Bill Maher is targeting a slim audience (those who oppose religion and are willing to make fun of it), critics have said it’s as funny as Borat, and just as offensive. Oct. 3

Rachel Getting Married Anne Hathaway is said to be an Oscar shoe in as a drug addict temporarily released from rehab to crash her sister’s wedding. Critics have said this is Jonathan Demme’s best film since Silence of the Lambs. Oct. 3

Happy-Go-Lucky Don’t want to see a feel good movie about a feel good girl with no conflict? Think Amelie. Oct. 10

W. Satire? Drama? Who cares. I’ll pay good money to see our President exploited for the dumbass he is. Plus, who has more balls than Oliver Stone to attack a current Commander in Chief? Oct. 17

I’ve Loved You So Long My favorite critic, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, said that Kristen Scott Thomas gives the best performance of this or any year. You don’t think a French-speaking role can earn an Oscar? Marion Cotillard begs to differ. I’m in. Oct. 24

Pride and Glory The release delays are a bit discomforting, but it is Edward Norton, so… I’m there. Oct. 24

Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, makes his directorial debut. Expect weirdness. Oct. 24

Changeling Clint Eastwood directing. Angelina Jolie acting serious. John Malkovich as a good guy. This Cannes sensation is a must see. Oct. 24

Zack and Miri Make a Porno Why not? It could be fun. Oct. 31

November

Quantum of Solace New James Bond, with skilled director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, The Kite Runner) taking over. Nov. 14

The Road (no trailer, yet): This is risky. It’s either going to be brutally real and daring, or it’s going to be a boring misfire. I’m going for the former. Nov.14

The Soloist Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. are in top form in what I hope will be a great, powerful film. Nov. 21

Australia The last time Baz Luhrmann directed Nicole Kidman, we got Moulin Rouge. Now we get what could be the year’s most elaborate romance. Nov. 26

Milk The fall film I’m anticipating most. A great cast anchored by a flawless Sean Penn, with the year’s best trailer to boot. Nov. 26

December

Frost/Nixon Just watch Frank Langella in the trailer. Enough said. Dec. 5

Doubt This is a touchy subject handled by playright John Patrick Shanley. Expect sparks to fly. Dec. 12

The Wrestler (no trailer, yet): Everyone is talking about it. It swept the major film festivals. Mickey Rourke is the front runner for best actor. How can you resist? Dec. 19


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button David Fincher and Brad Pitt always make a great match. Put them together with a cleverly unique story, and I think we’ve got movie magic. Dec. 25

Gran Torino (no trailer, yet): No one knows too much about this except Clint Eastwood’s directing himself as a hardass war veteran. This late-year tactic did wonders for Million Dollar Baby. Dec. 25

Revolutionary Road Two matured stars. A brilliant director. And a heavy story. Oscar, here they come. Dec. 26

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Paul Newman

You can’t put the words iconic and movie star in the same sentence without immediately thinking of the legendary Paul Newman. For nearly six decades, Newman came alive on screen as one of the world’s most recognizable personas. Responsible for many of the great movie characters of all time, Newman had an impeccable way of keeping our attention.

A ten time Oscar nominee, and winner for The Color of Money, Newman’s recent death prompts any film fan to ask: what was your favorite Newman?

While I am a great admirer of Newman’s, I haven’t nearly seen his entire body of work. So here I present you with the Newman roles that grabbed me. Here’s to the unprecedented Paul Newman.

The Hustler (1961)
Eddie Felson
A great introduction to stardom, Newman makes his presence known as an actor with a force to be reckoned with. Many critics consider this his best work.


Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Luke Jackson
One of my favorite films of all time, Newman’s timeless work as an imprisoned ex-war hero is one of the definitive film performances in the cinema’s history. I can watch this movie over and over, from the fated boxing match with George Kennedy, to the encouraging moment when he leads the other prisoners to pave the road all too quickly, to the egg eating contest; Newman’s Luke has never failed to communicate with audiences.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch Cassidy
Newman has a great time with his younger co-star Robert Redford in a rousing true story about the famous outlaws. Newman makes his role fun, searing and iconic.

The Sting (1973)
Henry Gondorff
Back with his Butch Cassidy director and co-star, Newman and Redford blaze up with screen in this best picture winner. Through all the double crosses, you may not know if you can trust Newman, but you’ll damn sure have a fun time trying.

The Verdict (1982)
Frank Galvin
Newman began to accept his aging features when he took the ballsy role of an alcoholic lawyer who finally grows a conscience. Newman uses David Mamet’s pulsating script to deliver one of his best performances.

The Color of Money (1986)
Fast Eddie Felson
Reprising his Hustler role in Martin Scorsese’s fun pool hall flick, Newman’s performance finally got Newman the Oscar, which most regard as an overdue gift. Regardless, the film is encouraging and entertaining.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Sidney J. Mussburger
Fitting surprising well into the Coen brothers’ zany comic family, Newman, as a high-powered industry mogul, showed us his funny side to amusing results.

Road to Perdition (2002)
John Rooney
Newman delivered some of his best work as an ailing mafia boss in Sam Mendes’ haunting film. His scenes with Tom Hanks, in particular his last one, proved that the old man still had it.

Elegy

Watching Ben Kingsley in Elegy is watching a master having a little fun. Kingsley dives head first into the role of David Kepesh, a successful writer who now teaches at Columbia. David has a habit of falling for his much younger students, so it’s no surprise when he becomes enraptured with the elegant Consuela (Penelope Cruz).

Soon, the two are engaged in a passionate romance that David (through his ironically cynical narration) feels is doomed. It’s simple: he’s too old… or she’s too young. But either way, it is going to have to end. Consuela feels differently, she’s in love and having fun, age is hardily a factor for her.

The beauty of Elegy is how director Isabel Coixet makes you feel for this immature, horny, old man. Because David is played by Ben Kingsley, it’s hard not to like him, even if he is a bit of a prick. For instance, David can’t seem to tell his frequent bedroom partner (a fiery Patricia Clarkson) about Consuela, he’s so afraid of the truth, afraid to be alone.

Dennis Hopper adds a nice touch as David’s best friend with a brutally “realistic” view on life. But it’s Cruz and Kingsley who bring everything to the table. As she did in Vicky Christina Barcelona, Cruz is proving that she can hold her own against some heavy acting players.

Elegy is a simple, yet delightfully crafted film. I wasn’t quite sure where the story was taking me, but I was glad when it got there. B+

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burn After Reading

For those that loved No Country for Old Men and are excited to see what those brilliant Coen brothers have in store for us, you may need to go rent instead.

Burn After Reading is the Coen’s returning to their familiar form. Much in the way of Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty, the Coen’s deliver yet another tall tale about stupid people doing stupid things.

This time we have a recently laid off CIA man (John Malkovich) whose snotty wife (Tilda Swinton) wants a divorce to be with her dimwitted lover (George Clooney). But somehow some of Malkovich’s secret CIA files are found by an over caffeinated gym worker (Brad Pitt) who shares his plot for blackmail with his BFF (Frances McDormand) and well, you get the idea.

Not to concern ourselves with plot, which lets admit, the Coen’s can get a little ahead of themselves with, lets instead focus on the performances. Brad Pitt, fresh off his miraculous performances in Babel and The Assassination of Jesse James, is a revelation. As Chad, Pitt jumps in head first, mocking his celebrity status and giving a completely balls-out performance as a moron with a plan. Chad wears his blonde hair high in the air, lip syncs to whatever is blasting on his iPod and comes up with idea after ludicrous idea.

From the first moment Pitt was onscreen, I was hysterical. He delivers every line with comic zeal, an incredible performance that could earn him a nomination.

Pitt is backed by the goofy Clooney who now completes his “idiot” trilogy with the Coen’s after O Brother and Intolerable Cruelty. McDormand (aka Mrs. Joel Coen) has a lot of fun filling Chad’s head with bad ideas. Swinton is devilishly good, using that same proper arrogance that got her in Oscar for Michael Clayton.

But if anyone can match Pitt, it’s the wacky Malkovich. This is his best work since he played himself in Being John Malkovich. Watch his first scene, as he slowly becomes more and more offended by the accusation that he has a drinking problem.

Burn After Reading is completely enjoyable, but those expecting No Country or Fargo should look elsewhere. The film may bite off a little more than it can chew and it wraps things up a little too neatly, but oh well, it’s fun. I’ll give anyone $10 if they don’t burst out laughing when they see what Clooney’s character has been making in his basement. B+

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Most of Woody Allen’s characters talk in a mad-hysteria of banter. They speak fast and furious, conversing as though they have memorized the dictionary and the thesaurus. It’s common knowledge that you either love Woody Allen or you hate him. I used to be in the latter group, but I’m starting to come around.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Allen’s new European-set film. After Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, Allen is making a wise decision to step away from his constant Manhattan setting. By getting out of the city, Allen presents wondrous landscapes of places and people that intrigue us.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are best friends spending the rest of their summer in the sexy hills of Barcelona. They stay with Vicky’s relative (Patricia Clarkson) and soon meet a dashing artist, Juan (Javier Bardem) who invites them for a weekend away for great wine, good food and passionate love making.

Vicky, the uptight, soon to be wed to a rich, pompous Wall Street guy, is repulsed by the offer. Cristina, on the other hand, is wildly turned on. They accept Juan’s proposal and soon a whimsical love triangle develops. But it isn’t until Juan’s semi-psychotic ex-wife (an incredible Penelope Cruz) comes in, that the film really takes off.

Bardem and Cruz (who are dating in real life) engage in fantastically believable arguments that send sparks flying. Watching Cruz break Bardem down by berated him in Spanish is great, delicious fun. Bardem, in a complete 180-transformation from his No Country for Old Men role, really sinks his teeth into this juicy role of a Spanish bravado.

Like other Allen characters, most of these have no idea what they want. They pretend that they don’t care, or that they care too much, but usually, they make bad decisions and start to question everything. No one does this better than Rebecca Hall. You may remember her from The Prestige as Christian Bale’s tortured wife, but as Vicky, she is incredible. I believed her guilt, passion, desire and angst more than anyone else. I’d give her a nomination hands down.

So, if you’re an Allen fan, then check this out. If not, go rent Hannah and Her Sisters, or Annie Hall, or hell, even Match Point. A-

Righteous Kill

It’s sad to say, but putting two of the greatest actors of all time together on screen does not necessarily give you a good film. Jon Avnet’s new movie is one of the most heartbreaking experiences I’ve had at the cinema this year. Not because Righteous Kill is emotionally complex, God no. It’s because about a third of the way into it, you know that names like Pacino and De Niro can’t save it.

Plot? Umm. Pacino and De Niro are 30 year partnered cops who are trying to catch a vigilante that is killing off scum in New York. If you’ve seen the preview, you know that most clues point to De Niro as the culprit. And if you see 20 minutes of the movie, you’ll know how it is going to end. But of course, the filmmakers try to deliver a grand surprise that just falls completely flat.

The last (and only other movie) these two have shared screen time together was Michael Mann’s incomparable Heat. After Righteous Kill was finished I had already forgotten most of the film, but I got to thinking: what was their last great movie.

To define “great” along Pacino and De Niro is to put the word in a whole other category. Honestly, does acting getting any better than De Niro’s Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta? How about Pacino’s Michael Corleone or Sonny from Dog Day Afternoon? I think not.

In fact, many consider Heat to be both actors’ last great performance. But there are exceptions. Take De Niro in Sleepers or even Wag the Dog, Pacino in The Insider, Insomina and Angels in America for instance. But, for the most part, neither actor has delivered anything substantial within the last decade.

Maybe it’s unfair to compare their work now from their hey-day in the ‘70s. They were young and relentless. Their older now and time has weathered them both.

Little can be said for Righteous Kill, no excuses can make up for this, but I’m still waiting for that one shock performance that sends me back to the days when "Attica!" is yelled in the streets, or the words, "You talkin' to me?" send chills down my spine. D-

Disaster Movie

From the guys that wrote the Scary Movies and directed other spoofs like Date Movie, Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans comes their take on the disaster genre.

Who cares. These movies are a complete farce that bares not a thread of substantial content. But they are cheap to make and they usually turn a profit. So, as long as they keep making a buck, we’re going to be getting more of them.

Disaster Movie is currently rated as the worst movie of all time on IMDB, enough said. This movie is simply… disastrous. F

Hamlet 2

The faux-commercials that open Hamlet 2 are equally as funny as the fake trailers before Tropic Thunder, and that is saying a lot.

Steve Coogan, that zany Brit best known as the in-over-his-head director in Tropic Thunder plays Dana Marschz, a terrible actor and even worse drama teacher at a quaint Tucson high school. Dana has dreams of creating something more substantial than the boring, unoriginal plays he conducts with his only two actors. Trying to gain the approval of a little pip-squeak journalist, Dana comes up with his most far fetched idea yet: a sequel to Hamlet.

Doesn’t everyone die in Hamlet? No problem, he has a time machine. You want to bring Jesus into the mix? No biggie, songs like “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” help to add context.

Hamlet 2 may feel a little unbalanced at times, but the laughs, for the most part, are totally genuine. Catherine Keener, Amy Poehler and Elizabeth Shue (playing herself) are all consistent with their jokes. But it’s Coogan that steals the show. What we’re left with is a fast-moving, catchy-as-all-hell finale that will have you belting out, “rock me sexy Jesus.” Inappropriate or not, who cares, it’s all wicked fun. B

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Man on Wire

Man on Wire, a beautiful, new documentary, is a film that examines the limitless passion that some men feel. Frenchman Philippe Petit was fascinated with wire walking since he was young. Stringing up a make-shift wire in a field, he practiced relentlessly to master his craft.

When he was young, he saw a picture of the World Trade Centers under construction. He realized that they were not going to be far apart, and so began his dream. Practicing on structures like the Notre Dame, Petit spent his life working up to the big payoff.

Like the films of Errol Morris, Man on Wire is told using interviews, old footage and reenactments. The funny, dynamic crew talks about how they were stupid enough to even consider stringing up a wire between the two towers. During the interviews, the film cuts between the actual job itself and the leading up to the job.

With a great deal of luck, Petit and his grew managed to get to the top of the towers. They spent the night dragging the wire between the two, so come morning, Petit could walk on top of the world.

Some of the most breathtaking shots I have ever seen are the pictures of Petit, slowly making his way across the wire. His face one of blankless determination. It is awe inspiring to see a man live out his life goal right before your eyes. Director James Marsh does a very smart thing by letting these images speak for themselves. No zany narration from Petit needed. We know his passion, we feel his desire.

The images in this film represent so much more than what they appear. It’s impossible not to shed a tear in nostalgia, watching this loony man walk where it is no longer possible. In fact, Man on Wire ranks with Antwone Fisher as being one of the most inspirational films I’ve ever seen. When the credits began and the lights came up, not a single person in the audience moved or spoke. We were all holding onto the magic of the film. If you’re lucky, that infectious magic will stay with you long after you leave. A+

Transsiberian

Transsiberian is on of those great hole-in-the-wall thrillers. It’s a movie you likely haven’t heard of, but when sought out, it delivers way beyond your expectations.

The film explores one of our great American fears: a vacation gone wrong. Co-writer/director Brad Anderson takes the used plot of an innocent couple in danger and puts several refreshing twists on it.

The couple in question is Woody Harrelson (getting a career resurge after North Country and No Country for Old Men) and Emily Mortimer (one of the best working actresses right now), who have just finished up a volunteering project for their church in China and decide to take the Trans-Siberian railroad to Russia, then fly home. They’re roomed with a creepy couple, who we soon start to be weary about.

Needless to say, our heroes are thrown into some pretty dramatic circumstances, which include a shifty police officer played with steely remorse by an excellent Ben Kingsley.

Transsiberian is a thriller that delivers one thrill after another. It kept me on edge and guessing the entire time. Mortimer, so good in Match Point, Lars and the Real Girl and Redbelt, deserves an Oscar nomination for playing this character so well. Her Jessie goes through one arch after another, testing herself in ways a human being should never have to. Keep your eye on her; this British beauty is destined to be a star. A

Tropic Thunder


At first, you may not understand what the hell is going on, but pay close attention, the opening scenes to Tropic Thunder are some of the funniest screen moments you’ve seen in a while.

After our main characters are brilliantly introduced, we are thrown into an over the top action sequence being filmed for a huge Hollywood film (called Tropic Thunder). Co-writer and director Ben Stiller stars as chauvinistic, not so good actor Tugg Speedman. He’s supported by funny man Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and super-talented, five time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (a side-splitting Robert Downey Jr.).

The three are adapting the true story of Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), a Vietnam veteran who wrote a bestseller based on his time in the war. Before long, their in-over-his-head director (Steve Coogan) enlists his actors to go off in the jungle by themselves and film the movie “gorilla” style, with dozens of hidden cameras.

The actors are too dimwitted to realize that after a few minutes, they aren’t being filmed, but rather being chased by an army of heroin drug lords, who mistake the actors for the DEA. But enough with plot, lets get to the good stuff.

Tropic Thunder has been hit with a lot of controversy, mainly because of the “profane” way it talks about mentally handicapped people. The main conversation in question is when Downey Jr. explains to Stiller how you can never go “full retard” for a film role and expect to win an Oscar. The conversation is funny in and of itself, but made more so due to Downey’s hilarious antics. His character is an Australian who has dyed his skin black to portray an African American soldier, (more controversy).

The thing to keep in mind is that these offensive words are being spoken from complete morons. These are people who care only for themselves and have no hesitation to speak poorly about others. The screenplay, by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, doesn’t make these speeches hip. They are making the point that if you talk this way, you really aren’t that intelligent.

In terms of content and plot, Tropic Thunder is a ridiculous film, but the beauty of it is that it knows it’s absurd. And while Downey Jr. proves that he is at the top of his game with yet another hit this summer, there is a scene stealing performance in this film from an actor who has been down and out recently. If you don’t know, then don’t ask. Just look out for that fat, bald, dancing man. You’ll be stunned. B+

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Edge of Heaven

What a hidden little wonder. Here is a movie you likely haven’t heard of, and you’re likely not to see. But it’s my job to convince you to drive ridiculous distances to an independent theatre, or remember the name when the DVD comes out, because The Edge of Heaven is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

First released at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (it won best screenplay) and considered for Best Foreign Film at last year’s Oscars (why it wasn’t nominated, I have no idea) this Turkish-German film is a fascinating character study of inter-looping characters who may or may not ever meet.

The beauty is in the characters. A Turkish man living in Germany, teaches German studies at a college. His widowed father offers a prostitute to live with him and keep him company. The prostitute, who is fleeing from thugs, is tempted by the old man’s offer. Her daughter, a political rebel in Turkey, longs to find her mother. The daughter’s lover, a female German student, meet by chance. The lover’s mother that disproves of the radical, new Turkish girl, and round and round.

All of these characters get their moments to shine, some of them share the screen, several of them never meet, but they are all connected. The film has a narrative similar to Amores perros or Babel; three distinct stories told in order. The first story plays out, then we go back to the second story and so on. I won’t even dare reveal the titles of two of the stories, because they tell you that two different characters will die. At first, this turned me off, but then I realized the significance of it. Writer-director Fatih Akin is giving us something before the characters know it, this way, we sympathize even more.

The plot is complicated, yet elegantly executed. One character accidently kills another. Then one of them goes and tries to find another character, while that character is trying to find another. Confused? You won’t be, I’m only being vague to keep the surprises fresh.

There are several moments when the characters come within seconds or feet from one another, yet never make contact. They’ve been looking for each other for months, and never knew that they had just missed them. The Edge of Heaven is a magical masterpiece, like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’m curious to know why it has such a small release, and why it wasn’t nominated for any Oscars.

There is a scene in this film that stands out among every other poignant one. Two characters speak to one another, one of them apologizes then the other looks confused and simply says that there is nothing to be sorry about and then explains how she is going to help the other one. By this point in the film, both characters have suffered insurmountable loss, they have not gotten along for the entire film, but in this moment, there is forgiveness, there is a longing to move forward. This 30 second scene is one of the most moving moments I’ve ever seen captured on film. It is heartbreaking, hopeful and completely real. Remember this film, seeing The Edge of Heaven will do you good, it will refresh your positive motives, and affirm that there is decency in human contact. A+

Tell No One

Tell No One, a new French thriller from actor turned director Guilaume Canet, is some kind of phenomenon. The film is a perfect blend of drama, suspense, thrill, humor, action, wits, twists and turns. You’ll feel like it is too much, you’ll look desperately to expose plot holes that don’t exist, you’ll be mad that you can’t figure it out, although you aren’t supposed to right away. And then slowly, but surely, you’ll fall madly in love with how well you’ve been deceived.

It’d be a sin to reveal too much of the plot, so I’ll briefly set it up. Alex (Francois Cluzet) is a successful doctor who is steadily recovering after his wife’s murder eight years ago. Soon enough he is the main suspect in the murder of two people and someone is e-mailing him, hinting that his wife is still alive. There’s the first ten minutes, and that’s plenty.

What’s brilliant about Tell No One is how it manages to successfully fuse several genres by using a vivid screenplay, sharp direction and pitch-perfect acting. Every single performance in this film is genuine, fierce and completely absorbing. Characters are thrown at you in rapid succession, some of them not only look alike, the have the same occupation, all in the fun of throwing you off. Cluzet has a scowl that is remarkably convincing; he looks like a ‘70s Dustin Hoffman, fearless yet terrified. His wife, seen mostly is flashbacks, is played by Marie-Josee Croze (the head nurse in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) who does a great job of imprinting her face in our heads for days.

The supporting cast delivers as well. There’s Alex’s sister, his sister’s lover (a fiery Kristen Scott Thomas), a street-thug who owes Alex, hitmen, creepily skinny female torturers, good cops, bad cops, good lawyers, bad lawyers, rich people, poor people and on and on. You may trust someone in one scene, then despise them the next.

Tell No One has suspenseful moments that rival Hitchcock, chase scenes that match the Bourne films, humor that makes you laugh out loud and a soundtrack that is uncontested. I’m a big fan of music in film, I think the right song can not only make a scene, but make a movie classic. Tell No One has its perfect song moment, when a breathtaking scene is scored to U2’s With or Without You. I’ve rarely seen a song used so expertly in a film, it’s simply stunning.

I’ve made this movie sound like a school project, like you have to devote too much attention to it, which is somewhat true. Although it is passionately entertaining, you do have to engage yourself more than most films. (But believe me, the payoff is worth it.) If you see that as a flaw, then go waste your time with Transformers. But if you want to venture out a little bit, then buy a ticket, read the subtitles and be completely blown away. This is one of the best films of the year, folks, impossible to forget. A+

American Teen

American Teen is one of the realist experiences you’ll have at the movies this year. That’s fitting for a number of reasons. One: it’s a documentary, so it should be real. Two: the five “characters” in the film are real people with real emotions and no censored expressions (i.e. The Hills, The Real World). This is far from “reality” TV. This is real life.

The film follows five teenagers through their senior year of high school in Warsaw, Indiana, a white, podunk town in middle America. The clichés are all there. There’s the popular, bitchy, backstabbing mean girl, Megan. The nice-guy, Jay Leno chinned jock, Colin. The good-looking, kind-hearted, Mitch. The self-described, nerdy band geek, Jake. And the rebellious daring, Hannah. Each character is presented acutely and fairly.

American Teen will expose your best and worst moments from high school. It’s effective because it’s accurate. I personally lived through some of the issues and experiences that the characters go through. The bad skin, the polarizing fear of being ridiculed, the lashing out to hide your real feelings, the breakups, the falling in love, the day to day battle that takes in the hellish hallways. Each character has down and out moments, and each character faces moments of extreme happiness.

The standout of the group is the dynamic Hannah Bailey, who cannot wait to escape Warsaw and explore a west coast life as a filmmaker. Even though her screen time is equal to the rest of the cast, Hannah’s buoyant personality is remarkably refreshing in a place where conservative ideals seem so etched in everyone’s head. I related to Hannah more than the other characters, I felt her pain because I experienced high school similar to how she did. But that isn’t to say you will too. Everyone who sees the film will compare themselves to one of the characters. And that’s part of American Teen’s fun… which one were you?

Director Nanette Burnstien (The Kid Stays in the Picture) shot over 1,000 hours of footage of the five teens, scrapping it down to two hours of narrative bliss. The film is fast, fierce and fun. You'll hate (or at least be frustrated with) each character at least once. You may be repulsed by Megan but sympathize with a story from her past. You may adore Mitch but despise him for what he writes in a text message.

The characters in American Teen each have an arch that most Hollywood films get wrong. It’s high school at it’s most honest. Brutally real. Inexplicably painful. Yet, at times, overwhelmingly joyful. I dare you not to ask yourself… which one were you? A

Pineapple Express

Here comes another one from Judd Apatow and company, I swear, the man must never sleep. For an Apatow film you can always count on articulate losers who get high and waste time by telling numerous dick jokes. Pineapple Express delivers up to those standards.

Directed by indie-God David Gordon Green (Snow Angels, Undertow), Pineapple Express is an action-comedy romp about process server Dale Denton (Seth Rogen, the same in every movie) and his drug dealer Saul Silver (James Franco, simply genius). Saul gets a hold of a new strand of weed, pineapple express, that he lets Dale sample. Before long, Dale has witnessed a murder by Ted Jones (Gary Cole) who also happens to be Saul’s boss. And before long Dale and Saul are being chased by Ted’s goons, all while a drug war between Ted and “the Asians” begins.

Pineapple Express is funny, don’t get me wrong. But quite frankly, I’m tired of movies with the same brand of humor. Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Apatow’s earlier summer release, was a refreshing comedy, one that made me laugh out loud. For the most part, Pineapple Express just feels old and drawn out. That being said, there are a few positives to touch on.

James Franco (who based his character on Brad Pitt’s hilariously dumbfounded stoner in True Romance), is a revelation. There have always been rumors to Franco’s comic wit (hinted at briefly in his cameo in Knocked Up), but here, he really gets to flex his funny bone. As Saul, he makes the most out of a familiar story by giving his character amusing quirks. Watch how, when in a rush, Franco runs with little-kid strides, his feet barely getting off the ground. Look at the headband he sports for most of the movie, where did he get that anyway? And in the film’s best scene, watch how he manages to escape from a cop with his foot stuck through the windshield.

The film moves from comedy to a violent action-thriller that isn’t all too thrilling. The final showdown scene is long, contrite and aimless. I understand that that was the point of the filmmakers, an over-the-top parody of action, but it’s just simply too much.

I’ll recommend Pineapples Express for its seldom funny moments, and Franco’s refreshing performance, but not for any other reason. C+

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog, the great, visionary, German director is like a poet with a movie camera. He’s responsible for such classics as Aguirre the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, and Grizzly Man. He directs just as many feature films as documentaries, and he never lets a studio influence his vision. He is a true auteur.

Herzog is a filmmaker who continually looks for a challenge. He isn’t a thrill seeker, he is just a man who enjoys testing his limits, regardless of his age. He’s moved a 300 ton boat over a mountain, climbed into an active volcano, swam in the ferocious waters of Thailand, walked from Berlin to Paris barefoot, eaten his own shoe and so on. He has no problem fusing fiction in his documentaries and bringing truth to his features. When he had finished his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly he told his star, Dieter Dengler, that the story wasn’t over. Ten years later Herzog revisited the story with the fictional film, Rescue Dawn. Rescue Dawn is a better film that Little Dieter, even though it’s considered fiction, it’s the Herzog vision that propels it to a classic.

His latest venture into the unknown is the miraculous Encounters at the End of the World. Herzog was fascinated with the people who live in Antarctica, so he flew down, with only his cameraman, to get these people’s stories. While there, he comes across a village that looks like a small, mid-Western town with a lot of snow. They have a bowling alley, a grocery store, and an ice-cream machine. Herzog, no fan of commercialized intervention, is repulsed by this place, so he quickly makes the effort to travel farther, to find the real eccentrics.

The stories in this documentary film are heartbreaking. In one scene, Herzog talks with a man who cannot describe his past or why he left his country. He tries to speak, but he gets too choked up, tears flush from his eyes, “You don’t have to talk about it,” Herzog says with this tender voice, “Thank you,” the man says, and the scene ends.

There is a general theme from the people we meet in the film. Most of them were tired of the busy life, they are escaping to find themselves. These are people with Ph.D’s and very specific, academic skills that they now rarely use. Herzog fits right in.

The film is scored with Herzog passionate narration, and hauntingly fitting music that sounds like a grand German opera. When we go underwater to explore the vast glaciers and hidden sea creatures, Herzog lets the images speak for themselves. And believe me, these fluid images speak volumes (can a documentary be nominated for best cinematography?).

Encounters at the End of the World may be Herzog’s most poetic film yet, a bold statement seeing as how I am such an admired fan of his. Let this scene prove my point. Because this is Antarctica, Herzog dedicates a few moments to a flock of penguins. At one point, some of the flock decides to head in a new direction to gather food. One of them branches off and heads directly for a mountain, miles away. Herzog explains that he was told to never interfere with the life of a penguin. Although he has no idea, this lone penguin is walking to certain death,. He is just curious, wandering into the unknown. At one point, the penguin looks back at us, ready to turn. Instead he turns right back around and heads toward the mountain. The image is haunting, visceral and heartbreaking. I’d expect nothing less from one of cinema’s great creators. A

The Wackness

The Wackness presents itself as a new indie-hip dramedy with a cool soundtrack, but the truth is, The Wackness has no idea what kind of film it wants to be.

Writer and director Jonathan Levine gives us a story of a loner stoner high school graduate who deals weed to people out of the beat-up ice cream cart he pushes around. Luke (Josh Peck) is starting to realize that his only popularity comes from his dealing. In fact, he doesn’t have a single friend to count on. In comes his shrink, Dr. Squires (a zany Ben Kingsley) who trades his psycho-analytical services for Luke’s latest product.

Luke and Squires form an offbeat relationship that has them wandering the streets, getting high, making out with hippies, getting arrested, and doing it all over again. This is where The Wackness falters. The movie borrows from several, better, films that highlight a general theme. Luke walks around, aimless of life and authority (Kids), Luke and his shrink form unconventional relationship (Good Will Hunting), Luke falls for shrink’s stepdaughter, they form tender, romantic relationship (Say Anything-ish), and so on.

I enjoyed some aspects of The Wackness, such as the performances. Peck, a former Nickelodeon star, branches out from his tween roots and Kingsley has moments that nearly reach his full talent. But it’s Olivia Thirlby, as Luke’s love interest, that steals the show. You know Thirlby from Juno (as the wise-ass best friend), but this is the best work she’s done. Her Stephanie is a quick-witted, stress-wise chick who loves the wild life. Thirlby actually grew up in New York City, so it comes as no surprise that she feels like the most genuine presence in the film.

The Wackness is set in 1994 for no other reason that I can see, than for Levine to score his film with old-school rap music. Another film, 8 Mile, used this setting technique in a far more effective way. In fact, in one scene from The Wackness, Luke goes to get more product from his Jamaican hookup, played by real-life rapper Method Man. After they finish their business, the Jamaican goes over to a boom box and turns up the song. He starts telling Luke how good this artist is, how fresh the sound will become. The song is by, are you ready… Method Man. So what we have is a character, played by Method Man, listening to a musician, himself, and telling another character how good it is. This is a cheap trick that makes The Wackness well… whack. C-
Correction, dated 7/09.
It has come to my attention that "the music in the background (of my troubled scene) was Biggie's, not Method Man's. Meth's album didnt come out until 1995. He was on the track but it wasn't his song."

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My Favorite Scene: Crash


Paul Haggis’ 2005 Best Picture winner is full of emotionally charged scenes. Take your pick: Thandie Newton stuck in a burning car, Beverly Todd telling Don Cheadle he killed her son, Matt Dillon informing rookie cop Ryan Phillippe of his inexperience on the job, Sandra Bullock bitching out her husband, and so on. I could write about any scene in the film as being the best and I wouldn’t be wrong. Each storyline is given its own depth and structure to fuel the basis of a modern-day film masterpiece.

By far the most engrossing scene is when Michael Peña’s young daughter gets mistakenly “shot” by Shaun Toub. But that sequence means next to nothing without the foundation of the characters, which is set in a previous moment.

Early in the film, shortly after Bullock dismisses Peña as a “tattooed gangbanger”, we get our first glimpse into the film’s underlying spirit. Crash was ingenious in the way it exposed racial discrimination and proved most of our assumptions involving race to be dead wrong. On the surface, it’s hard not to assume Peña’s locksmith character as a thugged-out, gun-totting gangster. But once we are invited into his home, we are exposed for our narrow-mindedness.
Peña, getting home late from a job, notices that his daughter’s light is still on. He goes in her room and finds her under the bed, resting peacefully in a makeshift space full of cozy blankets and stuffed animals. Peña lies down, facing her, and so begins Crash’s warmest and most enduring moment. Studio heads wanted Haggis to cut the scene down to a mere moment, only to highlight the significance of Peña as a family man.

Thankfully, Haggis fought and lobbied for this extended take.

Peña asks his daughter (the wondrous Ashlyn Sanchez) if she still thinks about the bullet that came through her window in the previous home they lived in. She says she does, and in an effort to comfort her, Peña tells an elaborate fantasy story of how he was supposed to give her an invisible, impenetrable cloak on her birthday. A cloak that cannot be breached by knives or bullets. The premise sounds silly, but my God if these two don’t pull it off.

Young Sanchez is a revelation. Her youthful charm matches Peña’s playful wisdom line-for-line; she conducts herself as well as any of the A-listers in the film. But it’s Peña (who should’ve received an Oscar nomination for his criminally underrated performance) that steals us.
As he slowly, with great specific detail, takes off his invisible cloak, his daughter watches with an insightfully curious eye. He wraps the imaginary cloak around his daughter, mindful of her hair and ties it snuggly around her neck. He tucks her into bed and as he quietly leaves her room, he looks back to see her smoothly stroking her new blanket of security. The actors are so natural and convincing that because they believe it, we believe it. Taking this moment to heart makes it a little less shocking that Crash beat out front-runner Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture (does this scene justify that? Well, that’s another story.)

There is no screaming, yelling, or racial slurs thrown around like most of the other scenes in the film. Instead, the doors are opened for the dramatic climax of the film. Later, when Peña clutches his daughter, silently screaming into the afternoon sky, devastated by the life that was just taken from him, we are moved beyond words with one sentence. “It’s okay,” Sanchez whispers into Peña’s ear, “I’ll protect you.”

The essence of Crash does not lie in the screaming matches and arguments. It lies in the innocence of a girl’s bedroom floor. A girl protected from the bounds of hatred by the impenetrable force of love. Love that has the power to shield us from the unnerving cycle of discrimination.