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-


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-


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 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 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 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-


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.


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.


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


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


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