Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Visitor

Let’s start an Oscar campaign. Richard Jenkins, a great character actor known most recently as the ghost-dad in HBO’s Six Feet Under, gives the best performance of his underrated career, not to mention one of the best so far this year.

As a widowed, down-on-life college professor, Jenkins molds himself into Walter Vale. With remarkable subtlety much in the way of Lost in Translation and Sideways, Jenkins is so engrossingly powerful, that you will undoubtedly forget you are watching an actor.

Sent to a conference at NYU, not too far from the Connecticut school where he teaches his single class, Walter discovers a foreign couple living in his city apartment. They aren’t squatting; they think they are renting legitimately. Soon, Walter asks if they would like to stay with him, causing a completely unselfish change in his life.

Tarek (Haaz Sleiman, beautifully restrained) from Syria and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) from Senegal, allow Walter to wake up and start embracing life. This engrossing transformation is thanks, in part, to Tarek teaching Walter to play an African drum. The Visitor is marvelous at demonstrating the universal power of music.

Written and directed by talented actor Tom McCarthy (if you saw the last season of The Wire, you’ll never forget his factually inept journalist). McCarthy isn’t afraid to detour his film on a completely different path once Tarek is arrested and put in an immigration jail. He also does not shy away from pointing out what he feels are flaws in the American policy and practice of deportation.

The film is hardly a political event, McCarthy rather focuses his attention to the human connections that we can make regardless of voice, race and misunderstanding. Once Tarek’s mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) is introduced, the film hits a new emotional peak. Jenkins and Abbass are perfect together, sustaining each other’s emotions flawlessly.

The Visitor is a small film with one hell of an emotional wallop. Oscar needs to be aware of McCarthy’s poignant screenplay, the three supporting characters, and most notably, Jenkins’ magnificent portrayal of a man finding himself through foreign means.

The final scene of this film is so intense in its execution and subtext that you will not, for the life of you, be able to let is escape you. And believe me, that is a very good thing. A

Standard Operating Procedure

Errol Morris doesn’t make documentaries in the conventional way. His method and technique are as distinguishable as any great narrative storyteller. He plays his films like Hollywood productions, spending dubious amounts of money to entertain the audience, all while teaching them something.

Morris made his approach famous in his breakout film The Thin Blue Line. That film, which got a man released from prison for a murder he didn’t commit, highlighted Morris’s use of constant reenactment from various points of view, booming musical score, tight slow motion shots and direct-eye interviews.

Standard Operating Procedure uses all these traits flawlessly in examining the pictures we’ve all seen from Abu Ghraib. The naked prisoners with underwear over their heads, the human pyramids, the Christ-like figure of a man standing on boxes, these all made headlines back in 2004. But most of us, including Morris, wanted to know what the papers wouldn’t tell us.

Morris tackles the story behind the camera with extreme journalistic integrity, never stating an opinion or political agenda. He lets the characters speak for themselves; it’s up to you if you want to believe them.

Lynndie England was the soldier most of us saw of the front pages. At barely 100 pounds, it was hard to forget her tiny frame “dragging” a naked prisoner by a leash while smiling into the camera. Love, she explains, was her greatest enemy. It appears that the unseen monster behind the madness was staff sergeant Charles Graner, who England, at 15 years his junior, fell desperately in love with.

Most of the interviewees were in the prison when this mistreatment took place, some of them, like England, are responsible for the pictures themselves. Most everyone in a picture got jail time, and now they present themselves as soldiers who were simply following orders.

Several questions are raised on this topic, the most obvious of which is why. Why were they doing this to the prisoners? Why have them naked? Why put them in sexual positions? Why these particular men? Morris doesn’t answer any of these questions with 100 percent fact, we only know what the people tell us.

The pictures, of which there are thousands, speak volumes. Their haunting images are enough to unsettle any movie goer. This is not an easy movie to watch. But more frightening that the photographs themselves are the testimony’s of the soldiers involved. “These pictures weren’t torture,” one soldier tells us. “It’s what went on when there was no camera there, in the interrogation rooms. That was torture.”

Confessions like these make you wonder how much of this behavior really went on in Abu Ghraib, and how much continues today that we don’t hear about?

I’ll never tell any of the startling discoveries that the film unfolds, but it should be known that not all of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib were bad men. Some were regular citizens, who, when thrown into hellacious circumstances, ran their mouths a little bit. Wouldn’t you? A

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

In every Indiana Jones movie, there is this thing. Call it a trick, or technique or specific shot, but in each of the four films, director Steven Spielberg dedicates a few scenes for you to really take Harrison Ford seriously. The set-up: Ford is talking with someone, very serious and gruff in his manners. As he speaks, the camera steadily zooms closer and closer to his face. Somehow the small line of dialogue Ford was spitting out turns into a three-paragraph monologue, and you’ll wish you had been paying attention the whole time.

This trick, I’m sorry to say, is the best part about the new Indiana Jones flick. The scene takes place in a diner, while Ford smoothly impresses young greaser Shia LaBeouf. Soon after, LaBeouf and a few of his leather-glad buddies are in a standoff with the preppie gang. It’s a great moment, like West Side Story mashed with Grease. But then, sadly, we get back to the movie at hand.

Indy is older, Spielberg not only wants you to know it, he makes a point at highlighting it. Set in the 1950s during the Cold War/nuclear holocaust scares, Spielberg is genius at setting up Americana nostalgia that older crowds will get a kick out of. And there in lies the problem. After its amusing first half-hour, Indiana Jones falls into a tired, confusing and rather boring plot.

The story, which is damn-near impossible to explain, involves Russian Communists, old Indy flames, giant disgusting bugs and even makes room for a completely out-there extra terrestrial subplot.

Spielberg, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, has two sides to his vast talent. On one, he flexes his inner-child, showing off his boyhood desires. Sci-fi pics like E.T., Minority Report, and Jurassic Park are always fun. On the other end of the Spielbergian spectrum we get the serious auteur. The man that creates masterpieces like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich. Although we can all acknowledge his talent in his “fun” work, we usually wish he showed us all he’s got.

But here’s the low down: if you’ve enjoyed watching Ford thrash his whip for the past 20 plus years, then you’ll most likely enjoy this too. An impressive supporting cast with the likes of Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen (where the hell did they find her?) and LaBeouf (the kid is going to be a big, big star) help move the film along. But it’s Ford you came for, and it’s Ford you’ll get. Kudos to the aged actor for still being able to so seamlessly emerge himself into the character.

Spielberg’s technical talent is unquestioned, thanks much in part to fantastic stunts and reliably superb cinematography from collaborator Janusz Kaminski. I just wish he took the film more seriously (or less seriously for that matter) because even a talented cast can’t stop you from checking your watch. C-

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Iron Man

Summer movie season is here, and damn if it doesn’t kick off with a bang. If the big blockbusters this summer are anywhere near as thrilling as Iron Man, then we are in for one hell of a season.

Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly (and unexpectedly) cast as billionaire Tony Shark, a boozing, womanizing asshole who manufactures weapons to fuel wars. “If we had peace, then I’d be out of business,” he says early on. Downey Jr. completely embodies Shark’s right-wing, capitalist philosophy and it comes as no surprise that he nails the superhero aspect, too.

Shark is captured by terrorists, who tell him to make a bomb for them, or else he is dead. Knowing he’s dead anyway, Shark begins to create an iron clad, indestructible suit, that is the prototype for his Iron Man.

Gifted actor turned director Jon Favreau (Swingers, Elf) directs Iron Man from one thrilling scene to another, not all of which, thanks to a great cast, involve explosions. Terrance Howard plays a Colonel who doubles as Shark’s best friend and soon-to-be sidekick. Gwyneth Paltrow has fun as Pepper Potts, Shark’s personal secretary and love interest. (Have no fear geeks, this comic-book adaptation of a film won’t ruin your time with a boring lost-love subplot.) And Jeff Bridges with no hair and a sinister goatee does a great job filling in the role of the main villain.

Much in the way of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, where Christian Bale was superb as an unexpected choice for Batman, Downey Jr. fuses his best qualities as an actor into a usually predictable role. He gives his Iron Man a sense of believable duty with equal parts guilt. Little details set this film in a different class from garbage like Transformers. Just becoming Iron Man is not enough far Shark to escape himself. He still has a weakness for liquor and women; there has been no sober transformation in becoming a super hero. Such a trait is bold and sincerely refreshing.

Pulling in huge box office numbers (a sequel is already scheduled for a 2010 release) it will be interesting to see where Favreau takes his character. But like this year’s sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight promises to be a film worth watching. For now, enjoy the show. There’s no way the summer can keep up with Iron Man’s heat. B+

Redbelt

There aren’t many writers that can match David Mamet. For style, the man is nearly invincible. His distinct voice is the best part of his work, always managing to find the perfect actors to speak his explosive words. He brought the talent from his early screenplays like Glengarry Glen Ross and Wag the Dog and now puts them into his directorial efforts. Similar to his State and Main, Heist and Spartan Mamet’s new film Redbelt will have you laughing in cynicism.

Redbelt takes place on the familiar rainy streets on the wrong-side-of-town setting that Mamet has made famous. Gulf War veteran Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) owns and instructs a jiu-jitsu dojo where he teaches the fundamentals of “the academy”, practicing the philosophy of a strict code of moral behavior that he lives by. His wife (a smoking Alice Braga) busts his chops constantly about money, something Mike feels unnecessary. It isn’t soon before a plethora of characters are thrown into the mix and become entwined in each other’s lives.

After an event with a lawyer (Emily Mortimer) and cop Mike instructs, wheels are set in motion to fuel the charged film. Soon a famous action-hero actor (Tim Allen, in his best role to date, nailing the Mamet dialouge in a breezy bar scene) and his squad of gooney guys are stirred into the Mamet pot to dive deep into a dark underworld.

Redbelt acts as a who’s-who for character actors, most of which are Mamet vets. David Paymer and Joe Mantegna always deliver their best work when Mamet his written their lines. And Ricky Jay (a great performer) gives another spot-on performance. No one utters a Mamet line better than Ricky Jay. Other supporting characters fill out the full cast sheet, all while making their mark. Cathy Cahlin Ryan who plays Vic Mackey’s wife on The Shield gives one of the best five minute performances I have seen in quite some time. Her eyes pierced with anger, her words filled with disgust.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (pronounced chew-a-tell, edge-e-o-four) gives yet another brilliant performance as a guy who is forced to relinquish all he has lived. The title of Oscar Winner will precede his name before too long.

Mortimer, great in Lars and the Real Girl, always has her voice on the edge of cracking, ready to whisper or scream in an instant. The scene when she tells Mike why she is an embodied mess will stay with you for a long time.

But the real star here is Mamet himself. He doesn’t make mainstream movies, his films appeal to a narrow group of people, but that group expands every time he releases something new. I always tell people that they haven’t heard the F-word until they’ve heard it from a David Mamet character. The plots themselves almost seem second to the dialogue, the beauty of Redbelt is its ability to stand up to the material. A

Snow Angels

The first remarkable film of 2008 is here, and most of you haven’t heard of it. David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels is a poignant examination of small-town life, much in the way of In the Bedroom and The Ice Storm. Green takes the characters from Stewart O’Nan’s novel, and forms a powerful adaptation full of twists, turns and classic cinematic drama.

A series of narratives are introduced through our many characters. There isn’t just one central plot to follow, a hard feat that the film tackles with sly ease. Arthur is a loner, highschool band kid who begins to fall for the desperately cute Lila. Their tender relationship is the backdrop for a separate, tumultuous affair that wrecks havoc on the town. Arthur’s old baby sitter Annie (Kate Beckinsale, breaking us down with her eyes) is trying to support her daughter and keep a safe distance from her separated husband Glenn (a miraculous Sam Rockwell).

Snow Angels is so layered and deep, it would be criminal to share any plot details. Once Glenn returns to the town (after a few months away, from where, I’ll never tell) with a new religious attitude on life, conflict is bound to ensue. He’s given up booze and wants to be a part of his wife and daughter’s lives. Annie gives him a few chances, but she has her own problems to face, not finding the time to baby sit a grown man.

As young, talented actors, Beckinsale and Rockwell have never impressed this much before, these are the best performances they have ever delivered. Oscar nominations, please. Beckinsale buries her British beauty and encompasses her every manifestation into Annie. The result is a daring and harrowingly gut wrenching performance. Rockwell, who has proved himself before with Heist, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Matchstick Men gives his Glenn s hauntingly razor-sharp edge. His tortured, bearded face won’t be able to escape your thoughts, days after you leave the theatre.

Olivia Thirlby (we’ll be seeing a lot of her) hides behind her thick glasses, shadowing herself from her breakout role last year as Juno’s best friend. Thirlby, whose first role was as a passenger on United 93, is a perfect match for Michael Angarano’s Arthur. The two have more chemistry then most adult actors in movies today.

With Snow Angels, Green has crafted a quiet little masterpiece. Unforgettable in its execution. Most films save the dramatic wallop for the last few minutes of the picture. Here, it is unleashed early in the second act, a bold move that pays off. Green is hoping that the conflict will keep your attention for the duration of the film. It not only grabs you, Snow Angels cuts you deep and never, for a second, let’s go. A+

Speed Racer

If you have a faint eye for motion sickness, then skip this one. Worse than The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, Speed Racer will set your head spinning. As a friend described to me, “This movie is like spending two hours in a slot machine.”

Matrix creators Andy and Larry Wachowski remake the classic anime TV series into a semi live-action mess. The characters talk and walk and race cars all with lavish, Candyland backdrops. The colors are so bright and over-the-top, you’ll wish you popped a couple aspirin before sitting down.

Talented young actor Emile Hirsch (brilliant in Into the Wild) looks bored playing the title character. Likewise for seasoned pros Susan Sarandon, John Goodman and Christina Ricci, who all suffer by uttering such lame dialogue, that even little kids may notice.

The plot? Who cares. If you’re watching this then you hopefully are bringing a much younger person with you. There’s no reason to put yourself through this headache, unless you bring someone who can mildly enjoy it. Kids will like it, and that’s good enough. For something you can both enjoy, take them to Iron Man. It’s a mild PG-13, no blood or harsh language, and no headache. D-

Monday, May 5, 2008

My Favorite Scene: Traffic


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

Watching Steven Soderbergh’s drug-epic masterpiece is like punching a clock. When you sit down and watch, you are in for the long run; for two and half hours, you cannot take your eyes off the screen. Dedicating your time to the film’s convoluted, unique story, is like fighting 10 rounds with a raging bull, it knocks you right out.

Picking a favorite scene from one of the best films of this century isn’t easy. In fact, it’s impossible without explaining a few others.

Of the three stories in the film, Benico Del Toro’s conscience-riddled police officer, Javier Rodriguez, is the most emotionally severe. Just watching Del Toro’s face, clenched and bent into confounding complexity is reason enough to earn him the Oscar he won for his performance.

It’s no surprise that the film’s most inspiring scene is carried out with him.

The DEA has set up a meeting with Del Toro to talk about his new boss, drug kingpin General Salazar. While Del Toro sits in the back of a car in a vacant parking garage, he panics, not feeling safe, not knowing where the two agents are taking him to “talk”. The officers plead with him, “Where do you want to go, Javier!?” We instantly cut to a swimming pool, Del Toro and the two cops are neck deep in water, kids splashing all around them.

When money is discussed in exchange for information Del Toro may have, Del Toro simply asks the men, “Do you like baseball?” Confused, they say nothing. He goes on to tell them that the baseball fields in his town need lights, so the kids can play at night, so it is safe. “This is what I am talking about, my friends,” he says as he gracefully swims away.
The issue isn’t discussed for the rest of the film, and we almost forget it ever happened. But much later, after several cataclysmic events have occurred, including Del Toro’s partner being murdered, and Del Toro ratting out Salazar, we are offered a stunningly poignant scene in American film.The last scene of the film shows kids playing on a baseball field, at night, under the blanket of brand new lights. As the kids play their game we cut to Del Toro, sitting in the middle of the crowd, a modest smile on his face. A ball is cracked and the crowd cheers, Del Toro smoothly clapping his hands along with them. He brings his hands up to his face, putting them together, almost in prayer. This is his doing, his gift, his life.

Scored by Brian Eno’s hauntingly passionate “An Ending (Ascent)”, the scene proves that simplicity can stretch higher than the furthest desires of the imagination. The credits start, but we stay on the game. The scene is, quite simply, one of the most inspiring and heartfelt sequences that I have seen captured in film. After devoting so much time, this is our big, emotional payoff. Kids playing safely, under the warm glow of the lights.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

In 2004, America was introduced Harold and Kumar, the Cheech and Chong of a new generation. We followed the stoner best friends around for a night while they tried to score the perfect meal, burgers from White Castle. Four years later, they are back out at in a far less funny, far more political romp.

Picking up about an hour after the first movie ended Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are packing for Amsterdam to catch Harold’s new love interest. Before they know it, they land in Guantanamo Bay as suspected terrorists, getting “cock-sandwiches” shoved in their faces.

The movie may just as well be call Harold & Kumar Get Busted on a Plane, or Get a Nice Car in Miami, or Find an Inbred Kid in a Basement, or better still, Have a Political Agenda. Their escape from Guantanamo is minor scene in the film, like the ones mentioned above; it has no business being the title. These movies don’t aim for accuracy, which is fine, but if you want to be over-the-top, then make it funny, leave the political agendas out.

Speaking often about prisoner treatment, racial profiling, racism, and our current administration, this sequel dedicates too much time to preaching not enough time toking, which is what the frat-boys came to see.

The movie will attract and please its core audience (especially with the likes of two knockouts, Danneel Harris and Paula Garc├ęs) but the rest of us expecting a hint of the humor we got in 2004, we better look elsewhere.

There is a great flashback scene in which we are introduced to the guys in college. Before Kumar was wild and crazy and irresponsible, before he had ever taken a hit. This is the makings for a far more entertaining movie. A prequel, Harold and Kumar Before the First Hit, if you will. That’s something I’d see. D

Baby Mama

Tiny Fey (creator and star of TV’s best sitcom, 30 Rock) has an unusual way about her. She tends to play the same type of characters, yet is completely irresistible in everything she does. Her Baby Mama character is much like her Liz Lemon from 30 Rock save a fancy corporate job. As the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live, I’m relieved that Fey is finally getting her big break.

Baby Mama is a cute, often funny film about a big-shot career woman who cannot get pregnant. She tries various methods before paying 100 grand to get a surrogate mother to have her child. SNL alum Amy Poehler is great as the manically immature surrogate who moves in with Fey during the pregnancy. A typical conflict is introduced, but the actors work well with it, trying to relieve the film of blandness.

A supporting cast including Dax Shepard, Greg Kinnear and Sigourney Weaver all hit their marks. But it is Steve Martin as a eco-friendly, mega-millionaire, chain-store owner, and Romany Malco (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Weeds) as the tell-it-like-it-is doorman who steal the movie. The scenes with these characters are by far the best in the film. While the film is nothing special, they give it spark, and keep it away from dullness. B-

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Semi-loser boyfriend gets dumped by his much-more-attractive significant other of 6 years, then attempts to comically wallow in his own grief. Sound familiar?

The “break-up” movie is becoming increasingly popular, and while most fall flat with tired formula, comedy genius Judd Apatow gives Forgetting Sarah Marshall a fresh, hilarious spin on the used romance.

Jason Segel (who also wrote the script) is fantastic as Peter, a struggling musician who gets dropped by his famous actress girlfriend, Sarah Marshall. In an effort to get over it, Peter travels to Hawaii to escape his misery. Of course, Sarah is staying at the same resort with her new beau, British rocker Aldous Snow. But Peter has his eye on one of the workers from the resort, Rachel (Mila Kunis from That ‘70s Show). Jealousy takes hold as our characters developed antic after wild antic.

Director Nicholas Stoller takes good notes from Apatow, making the most normal situation hilariously awkward. The break-up scene is one for the ages, free-ball and all. Stoller has a keen eye for comedic timing and quick editing; the rebound-sex montage will leave you gasping for breath between out-loud laughs.

Sweet, innocent Kristen Bell (TV’s Veronica Mars, Heroes) gives Sarah a great wit with a bag full of insecurities. Credit Bell for being able to jump out of her usual role, she knocks it out. Kunis, far from her whiney ‘70s Show character, is great as a young woman smitten by a man’s grief. Kunis’ charm is unlike any other I’ve seen from this generation of actors. Don’t be surprised if you fall victim to her impeccable beauty which she outshines with her acting skill. We’ll be seeing a lot more of her.

A great supporting cast of Apatow regulars (Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, Bill Hader) all contribute to the film’s bliss. Jack McBrayer (the geeky page from 30 Rock) has a lot of fun as a sexually repressed newlywed. But it’s Segel’s show. The scene stealer from Knocked Up (he was the sporty-clothed charmer of the group that lived in the house) gives a star-making performance. His rapid-paced timing shines through in every scene.

While Segel and the two beauties are the stars, there is on performance here that exceeds all others. Russell Brand as Snow is one of the funniest, most rich comedic characters I have seen in some time. Brand, a British comedian, effortlessly glides through the film, delivering his lines with a reserved-suave charm, never over-the-top. He makes Snow one hell of a likable guy, leaving sleaziness out. Snow’s nonchalant attitude is the best part of the film, Brand is the one you’ll be quoting long after you leave the theatre. A-