Friday, October 19, 2007

Gone Baby Gone

“If we don’t catch the abductor by day one only about 10% are ever solved. This is day three.”

The story begins with the disappearance of a young girl (Madeline O’Brien) from her home. Two private investigators, Patrick Kezie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), are hired by the girl’s aunt (Amy Madigan) and her husband (Titus Welliver) to find her.

Ben Affleck, who does double duty here by co-writing the film, his first since Good Will Hunting (he adapted the tale from Dennis Lehane‘s novel), and directing his first feature, produces a pretty good flick. Centered around the poorer section of Boston each character feels real. It may not be a pretty view of America, but, sadly, it’s a far more realistic one than most of us are willing to admit.

For the first hour the film slowly unfolds as the investigation by John Ashton (Sgt. Taggart!!) and Ed Harris and led by Morgan Freeman uncovers only dead ends and false leads. The case is complicated by the mother’s (Amy Ryan) drug addiction, her recent decisions, and the people surrounding her that may have a reason to hurt her, or possibly her child.

The film starts out as a character study as each person, from Patrick and Angie, to the cops, to the mother, to the people they talk to, as each reacts differently, and genuinely, to the situation. The film uncovers sad and brutal truths that, if not for the circumstances, would most likely be better off buried. For an hour Ben Affleck weaves a mesmerizing tale with little violence or action but filled with tension and emotion.

And the the film takes a sharp left turn. Out of nowhere the film begins a series of inexplicable plot twists (are we sure this wasn’t based on a James Patterson book?), one on top of another which left my head spinning. When the film dealt with character and consequences it made for stark drama, but when it takes a back seat to plot, when the story becomes more important than the characters’ reaction to it, something is lost. The film does manage to right itself ending back where it began - centered on hard choices and their consequences. I just wished it wouldn’t have taken that unscheduled 30 minute detour to crazywackofuntown in the middle. If the film would have simply ended before beginning this unscheduled roller coaster ride there’s a strong possibility it would have shown up on my list of top films of the year. Too bad it didn’t know when to quit, or when to trust the characters and story without relying on overused twists and gimmicks.

Great beginning, average middle, and pretty strong ending, that is how I would describe Gone Baby Gone. When it’s all said and done it’s not the great film it was during the first hour but it is a pretty good film, even given its odd and unnecessary shift in focus, and is a strong entry for any first time director. I’d say you might have found a new niche Mr. Affleck.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


“I have an M.D. from Harvard, I am board certified in cardio-thoracic medicine and trauma surgery, I have been awarded citations from seven different medical boards in New England, and I am never, ever sick at sea. So I ask you; when someone goes into that chapel and they fall on their knees and they pray to God that their wife doesn’t miscarry or that their daughter doesn’t bleed to death or that their mother doesn’t suffer acute neural trauma from postoperative shock, who do you think they’re praying to? Now, go ahead and read your Bible, Dennis, and you go to your church, and, with any luck, you might win the annual raffle, but if you’re looking for God, he was in operating room number two on November 17, and he doesn’t like to be second guessed. You ask me if I have a God complex. Let me tell you something: I am God.”

Nothing is quite what it seems. Not with the happy couple of Andy (Bill Pullman) and Tracy (Nicole Kidman). Not with the womanizing alcoholic doctor with delusions of grandeur, Dr. Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin). Not with the emergency surgery which leaves Tracy unable to have children and her marriage with Andy in shambles. And not with a serial rapist who is prowling the area.

The screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank gives us a world of mirrors and shadows before slowly peeling away each layer as Andy learns the truth about himself, his unborn child, that fateful night at the hospital, and his wife’s past.

Although Malice isn’t a great definition by anyone’s standards it does hold up as a better than average entry into the thriller/plot-twist genre. And it does has it’s moments. The quote above is taken from my favorite scene in the film where Alec Baldwin’s character delivers the speech in defense against a malpractice suit brought against the hospital. It’s worth the price of the DVD rental by itself.

Baldwin isn’t the only one who performs well here. Pullman provides a terrific guide as a man who slowly realizes how little he truly knows about his life, his wife, and the world around him on his journey to discover the truth and Kidman is just angry and bitchy enough on screen to enjoy. There’s also some nice supporting performances put in by Anne Bancraft as Tracy’s mother, which provides another nice scene about deception and scotch, and Bebe Neuwirth as a cop who investigates Andy for the rapes around town. Close movie watchers may also want to keep an eye out for a young Gwyneth Paltrow in one of her earliest roles as one of the rapist’s victims, and George C. Scott as Dr. Jed’s mentor.

Okay, it’s not a great film, but the writing is far above that of many of these types of films and the performances add layers to the deception and suspense making it actually suspenseful and entertaining. Filled with good actors and good performances, each put in the right role to succeed, the film is a nice surprise and better than it has any right to be.

Friday, October 12, 2007

We Own the Night

Studio execs love to take a film and change it in some way to make a different film which can play to the same audiences. Die Hard is a classic example as studios rushed to make Die Hard on a boat (Under Siege), Die Hard on a plane (Passenger 57, Con Air, Executive Decision), Die Hard on a train (Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) and many others.

The only other thing execs love more (than easy sequel or adaptations) is to combine two different films. Now I don’t know for sure that this is how this film came about but I think it went something like this… “Hey, I got a great idea for a movie. It came to me as I was watching The Departed” “I don’t know, I mean Scorsese just did that.” “No man listen to this. When I finished the movie and popped out the DVD I turned the cable on and there was that Studio 54 flick with Austin Powers.” “Yeah?” “We combine the two films!” “That’s a great idea!” “Yeah, we can even cast some of the stars of The Departed.” “Not Nicholson, he’s way too expensive. Hmm, what about Marky-Mark?”

The film’s story centers around nightclub manager Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) whose lifestyle is at odds with his father (Robert Duvall) and brother (Mark Wahlberg) who are hard-nosed NY cops. When his brother is put in charge of a taskforce to clean up the drugs in the city Bobby is forced to examine his life and choose between his family and his friends and business partners.

What you expect is what you get. Phoenix acts moody, crazy, and looks like he needs a good night sleep. Wahlberg is a tough and stand-up guy (sadly without the humor of his Departed character), Duvall is the hardboiled but loving father, and Eva Mendes is the girlfriend (or more accurate - the whining eye-candy).

The story is good though not great and the incident that forces Bobby to help his father and brother is well executed (although I would have liked to have seen more time spent on the fallout). The film also includes several sequences which are both engaging and compelling including a most memorable car chase and a tour and an escape from a drug house.

Although the film has several moments which work these are separated by stretches of monotony and boredom that may put some audience members to sleep. Also troubling is an early giveaway to a plot twist which takes place late in the film and filler scenes from the nightclub which add liitle, besides running time, to the overall story. There are also some huge logic holes and one-dimensional thinking. For example, in one scene the cops trap a criminal in a field. They line-up and set it on fire. The problem? All the cops line-up on one side of the field not even considering the bad guy just might possibly get away by running out the other end.

Also an issue is the time frame of the film. Although 1988 is the stated year of the events some parts of the film look far more at home in the 70’s (and even sometimes late 60’s). Sometimes movies to a tremendous job with period pieces and sometimes they don’t. What is so odd about this is there is no reason the film couldn’t have worked just as well in the present day (or even better without little inconsistencies in look and style).

There are going to be people who no doubt love this movie, but as I watched (and long after) I was reminded of many other movies in this genre which I would rather be watching (and gangster cinema is far from my favorite genre). Still, it’s a good film that will entertain you at times with some style, but be prepared for some insomnia-curing lags which you may need someone next to you to keep you awake.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

se·quel - Something that follows; a continuation.

Director Shekhar Kapur‘s follow-up to 1998’s Elizabeth is something of a train wreck, a lush and well acted train wreck to be sure, but a train wreck none the less.

Where the first movie chronicled Elizabeth’s (Cate Blanchett) rise to the throne this film splits in focus in many directions including the Queen’s fascination and friendship with the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), court intrigue and her relationship with one of her ladies in waiting, the “other” Elizabeth (Abbie Cornish), Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) investigating and torturing traitors, the plot to assassinate the Queen and to put Mary Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) on the throne, the machinations of King Phillip II of Spain (Jordi Molla), and the war between England and Spain. If that’s not enough we also get subplots including Elizabeth’s (Cornish) brother (Steven Robertson), Walsingham’s son (Adam Godley), a burgeoning relationship between Elizabeth (Cornish) and Raleigh.

Much of the film is well done; much being the operative word. The film tries too hard to force too many events and plot threads into one film (and one under two-hours, though it feels much longer). There’s enough material here for a full mini-series, but all crammed into a single film it’s just too much. The scattershot approach might make for a good trailer but there simply isn’t enough time to fully develop and examine all the film’s threads and so each gets slighted and none of them get the attention they deserve.

Despite my issues with the film I am still recommending it for the performances of Blanchett and especially Clive Owen who practically steals the film in every scene in which he appears; the movie lags when Sir Walter isn’t around. Aside from the acting, the art design, look, costumes, and style of the film are all first rate. There is a terrific scene between Elizabeth and her generals as the plot strategy on a gorgeous marble floor map of the world. However, when the film’s most memorable moments are almost all based on costume and set design you know there’s something missing.

When you get right down to it the film, despite it’s high quality and impressive look is still a sequel, and like so many sequels, fails to add much new or surprising to the original. As with all sequels you will ask yourself, “Did this film really need to be made?” Is it better than your average Hollywood sequel? Sure. Is it a good film where you will get your money’s worth? Yes. Is it a great film? No. What it does come off, sadly, is a vain attempt to try and win Blanchett an Oscar for a role many think she deserved, though oddly enough her performance isn’t the film’s best. Oscar bait maybe, but not really a great film (even for a sequel).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Across the Universe

“All you need is love.”

The film begins with an English dock worker named Jude (Jim Sturgess) who travels to America to find his father. His journey takes him to a college where he befriends a screw-up named Max (Joe Anderson) and falls head-over-heels for Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).

Traveling to NY with Max Jude finds himself living with a nightclub singer (Dana Fuchs), a guitar player (Martin Luther), and a young lesbian named Prudence (T.V. Carpio) struggling with her place in the world. Making a living as an artist and designer Jude enjoys his new world until the terrors of war fracture the group’s fragile peace.

What follows is an exploration of love against the backdrop of the 1960’s, Vietnam, civil unrest, violence, and change. Max is drafted, Lucy becomes a civil activist, fame and glory strain the relationship between Sadie and JoJo. The world changes and each struggles once again to find their place in it, stay true to themselves, and grow and change with the times.

Where to begin? Well, let’s start with the music. Set against the backdrop of the 1960’s the characters’ identities, including names and destinies are all tied to Beatles songs. Prudence, Jude, Lucy, Max, Sadie, and JoJo all are named after Beatles songs and lyrics which are performed throughout the film by various cast members. Over 30 Beatles songs are used in the film. Each is thoughtfully placed, and sometimes even suprising as in the case of “Revolution,” and each one is performed with both skill and heart.

Some films you watch and some you experience. Across the Universe is the later. Filled with evocative images, psychedelic trips, and important themes of death and love, here is a film that needs to be seen to be believed. I’ve tried to explain the basic premise of the film, but that doesn’t begin to cover what the film is like to watch.

The film is filled with short cameos of actors and musicians performing including Bono, Eddie Izzard, and Salma Hayek. And then there’s Joe Cocker, who shows up to perform “Come Together,” and young Timmy Mitchum singing “Let it Be,” providing two of the films best, and most memorable, numbers. But this is a film filled with such magical moments. From Prudence’s introduction in the smartly framed and shot “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” to Max’s refrain of “Hey Jude,” and to Jude’s heartfelt “All You Need is Love” the songs not only help entertain, but frame the importance of each moment and help tell both a dazzling and personal tale.

The movie is filled with vibrant music and weighty issues, but at it’s core it’s a simple love story that rings true. Evan Rachel Wood’s Lucy is the heart of the film. We see how quickly Jude falls for her, and how could he not? At the age of 20 she continues to show us acting chops of a woman far beyond her years. And if Lucy is the heart, Jude is our guide. It’s through his eyes and ears, that of an outsider, a foreigner, that this world is presented, often confusing, but ultimately excepted and understood. This pair, and the outstanding supporting cast as well, deserve all the praise that can laid at their feet in coming off as vibrant and as real as any characters in musical have a right to be.

Here’s a chance to experience cinema and it most entertaining. I was entralled and moved by the vivid colors, the kick ass music, and, more than anything, the near perfect portrayals and performances and the simple, honest, and heartfelt love story. Outstanding and unexpected Across the Universe is pure magic and one of the year’s best films.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

“He was born Jesse Woodson James on September 5th, 1847, and was named after his mother’s brother, a man who committed suicide. He stood five feet eight inches tall, weighed one hundred fifty-five pounds, and was vain about his physique…he was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious lest that mutilation be seen…he had a condition that was referred to as granulated eyelids and it caused him to blink more than usual, as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept…he could be reckless or serene, rational or lunatic, from one minute to the next. If he made an entrance, heads turned into his direction; if he strode down an aisle store clerks backed away; if he neared animals they retreated. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rains fell straighter, clocks slowed, sounds were amplified.”

Based on the novel by Ron Hansen the film tells the story of the famous outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his friend who shot him in the back, Bob Ford (Casey Affleck). The film is filled with supporting characters and events too numerous to mention here. Plot divergences, threads, and events that work both with and against the main tale. But at its core this is a film about two men and how their destinies became intertwined during their lives and long after their deaths.

The look and feel of the feel is amazing and I commend both director Andrew Dominik and cinematographer Roger Deakins on its style. Narrated (Hugh Ross) from Hansen’s own prose, which gives the right amount of compliment and contrast to the stylistic cinematography, makes this is a film to watch and savior every nuance.

The 160 minute running time is trimmed from the original, more than three-hour, cut of the film. It’s still too long, and, at the same time, in doing so some of the characters and smaller events appear incomplete. There’s simply too many characters and periphery scenes that, although well acted, give little information or substance to the main plot of the film. Also troubling is the movie’s unwillingness to choose a central character. It’s a film about Jesse James, it’s a film about Robert Ford, and it’s a film about the Ford family, the outlaws, the James family, and so on and so on. Unfocused, the film meanders more than it should. A novel can move between such storylines from chapter to chapter, but the same approach comes off too often as haphazard on screen.

One of the film’s strengths, and also its weaknesses, is presenting all the characters as shades of gray. Jesse is a good husband and father, but also at times crazy, paranoid, and downright mean and onery to his closest friends. Affleck’s Ford worships Jesse but also is constantly put down and shamed by his hero. Bob Ford is a coward, and a man who wants so desperately to be Jesse James and ends up destroying what he most worships. The section of the film following his life after the death of Jesse James continues to paint him as a tragic and hopeless figure. If the film had chosen one or the other as the main character or at least stable point of view I believe the film could have been better arranged and edited into a more coherent whole.

Those expecting a big shoot-em up or fun romp on the plains in the style of recent westerns such as Young Guns and American Outlaws are bound to be disappointed. Even with my complaints with the film I am giving it a strong recommendation. Slow paced and cerebral, the film insists on patience from its audience as it slowly unfolds the many layers of its tale. Although I have only been able to view it once, it seems to me the type of film which may improve on multiple viewings, and I look forward to seeing it again. It’s not a perfect film, but it is memorable and strives to give you more, not less, than you paid to see.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Heartbreak Kid

“You made a joke? About anal rape?”

Ben Stiller plays his usual self - a normal guy who gets into an unlikely situation that gets worse and worse until finally everything is resolved at the last minute. Sound familiar? If you’ve seen There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents, Along Came Polly, and the like, then you’ve seen Stiller’s trademark character who he trots out every couple years for another film.

This remake of the 1972 film finds a 40 year-old single man pressured into marrying a relative stranger (Malin Akerman - doing a scary, awkward, and charmless Cameron Diaz impersonation) only to find out on his honeymoon that’s she’s not the woman he thought she was. Shocker!

Things get complicated further when Eddie (Stiller) falls for a young woman (Michelle Monaghan) vacationing with her family at the resort and tells a small lie about a former wife and an ice pick that leads to all types of implausible misunderstandings. You know those films where you don’t see things coming? This isn’t one of those.

Filled with profanity, gross-out humor, and situations that push the limits of both good taste and common sense the film is a roller-coaster of craziness. The filmmakers don’t seem to care about making a compelling, or even coherent film, instead relying on putting Stiller through his trademark paces of living down horrible and embarrassing situations on screen. Nor do most of the jokes succeed. The jokes seem half-hearted at best (sending Stiller to the kid’s table at a wedding reception) to groan worthy (Carlos Mencia‘s politically incorrect resort worker), to downright dumb (mostly, everything else).

Sure, there’s a couple laughs here and there (which shock you out of the boredom and stupor you are in for the rest of the film) but you’d be better off to save some of you cash and rent one of Stiller’s other films, which even if you’ve seen them a few times, come off better than this. Stiller, who’s getting a little gray to be doing these roles, needs to find some new material, and audiences need to find a more worthy film to spend their time and money on (at least until they can see it free on cable).

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Seeker: The Dark is Rising

“When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, Bronze, iron, water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.”

Based on the second book of a five book series by Susan Cooper comes a tale of a normal young American boy, Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig), living in London with his five older brothers and young sister (Emma Lockhart). On his 14th birthday Will starts noticing odd events and becomes the focus of several strange adults who call themselves Old Ones (Ian McShane, James Cosmo, Jim Piddock, Frances Conroy).

It seems Will is the seventh son of a seventh son (and if you’ve read Orson Scott Card’s books you know that makes him special). He is also the last of the Old Ones and “the Seeker” of the six signs of power which have been hidden throughout time and only he can find. And find them he must, for unless all signs are united in five days the Rider (Christopher Eccleston) will usher in a new age of shadow and darkness. Will must unite the hidden signs and return the power of the Light before it is lost forever to the Dark. (And if you made your way through that without giggling or scratching your head you did better than me).

The movie just never quite works. The main Light vs. Dark theme is a little too simplistic, even for a kid’s film, and the set-up of the world and the characters is rushed and confused (which is usually what happens when you start with the second novel instead of at the beginning). What exactly are Old Ones? What powers does Will have (and why doesn’t he use them)? Why does the Rider not kill Will on the, countless, opportunities he has? Why isn’t anybody curious or suspicious about all the odd things that keep happening to and around Will? How exactly do these artifacts make Will powerful? How does he use them? Eccleston left Doctor Who for stuff like this? All these questions, and more, are not answered over the course of the film. Add to this some average special effects and lame plot twists you will see coming looooong before they arrive and you’ve got yourself a pretty forgettable film.

Fans of the novels may also be disappointed by several changes including the removal of characters like The Walker (scenes were shot but did not make the final cut of the film), the shift forward in time to make the story more contemporary, aging Will from 11 to 14 and making him American instead of English, the addition of a love interest (Amelia Warner), and more emphasis on stunts and fighting rather than exploring the why’s and wherefore’s of the plot.

Although some pre-teen boys might have an okay time at the theater the film doesn’t deliver what a fantasy should be. Has the Harry Potter franchise raised the stakes on what kid fantasy picture needs to be? Yes, but even if it hadn’t the film doesn’t quite work. It lacks the grandeur and wonder that is necessary to balance against the inherent silliness of such a tale. It’s not quite as good as last winter’s flawed Eragon, but at least it’s better than Narnia.