Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Savages

“People are dying Wendy, right inside that beautiful building right now. It’s a fucking horror show and all this wellness propaganda and the landscaping is just there to obscure the miserable fact that people die, and death is gaseous, and gruesome, and it’s filled with shit and piss and rotten stink.”

Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a college professor and writer of scholarly work in Buffalo. Wendy Savage (Laura Linney) works temp jobs and is a struggling playwright in New York City. The pair are brought back together to deal with their estranged father’s (Philip Bosco) increasing dementia and failing health.

This is a film about the tough choices and circumstances families go through with the ailing of their parents. It doesn’t shy away from the pain and guilt inherent in the tough but necessary choices so many families are put through dealing with parents who can no longer take care of themselves.

There are no simplistic Holiday sappy moments here. These people aren’t going to live happily ever after, but they will struggle and survive, learning about life and themselves in the process. It’s not always pleasant, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes funny, but there are many memorable moments throughout the film’s near two-hour running time.

In terms of performance it is really a three man piece. Linney, Hoffman and Bosco do well in their roles as family members who care but don’t quite know how to take care of themselves, let alone each other. Each one is terrific in their own way. Hoffman’s Jon is a man who wants to control a life out of control and is forced to deal with his long standing issues with his father and the forced deportation of his longtime girlfriend (Cara Seymour). Linney is just right as a woman who has gotten so good at lying and rationalizing that it’s become second nature to herself, her family, and the married man (Peter Friedman) she is having an affair with. And Bosco balances the anger and sadness of a man slowly losing control of his own mind.

The naming of the Savages, although perhaps a little too clever, works well as these children (Jon and Wendy) living out their own dreams and lives are forced to return and deal with harsh reality. It’s not a perfect movie and does contain a couple of almost-too-cute-for-film moments (including the aftermath of Hoffman’s tennis injury), but its got a good bruised heart which it’s willing to share.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

“There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit, and the vermin of the world inhabit it, and its morals aren’t worth what a pin can spit, and it goes by the name of London.

For those unfamiliar with the original story and the Broadway musical, the plot involves a young barber named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) whose wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) and infant daughter Johanna are taken from him by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Turpin steals the women for himself and sentences Barker and banishes him from London forever. The film opens with the return of Barker years later under the new name of Sweeney Todd

Todd has returned to London to take his revenge. To get close to the Judge, Todd opens a new barbershop above Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) Pie Shop who informs him his wife is dead and his daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) has been raised by the Judge. Todd’s revenge and his frustration of not being able to kill the Judge soon start a body count which Mrs. Lovett finds a, shall we say, unique resolution.

Tim Burton returns with his keen eye and the film looks magnificent. This London is everything it needs to be; we believe Sweeney Todd lives here.

Most of the parts aren’t cast for their voices but the younger stars stand out immediately. Ed Sanders who plays the good-hearted but rather dim orphan Toby and Wisener and Jamie Campbell Bower as Johanna’s young suitor Anthony Hope give great performances blow the doors off the theater with their musical numbers. And Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sascha Baron Cohen all fit in well and prove they too can carry a tune.

And then there’s Mr. Todd. Although physically Johnny Depp is perfect for the role, many, including me, were unsure of the logic of casting Depp in a role where he needs to sing throughout the film. We needn’t have worried. Depp proves up to the task providing a more than adequate voice to go with Todd’s vacant stare and murderous heart. If this performance doesn’t earn him and Oscar nomination I’d suggest he should rightly pull out his razor and do some hunting of his own!

The film trims the lengthy Stephen Sondheim musical to almost exactly two hours. Because of this the film’s story and narrative, pushed forward by great music and score, have a quick pace yet still ample time to hit all the right notes. You want a complaint from me, here it is - the film is too short! Here’s a film I would have gladly spent another 30 to 40 minutes with and enjoyed myself all the more. My only other complaint, and I admit it’s a small criticism, are the matching of shots in a couple scenes, most notable during “A Little Priest” as the cleaver in Todd’s hand moves in the different camera angles during his dance with Mrs. Lovett. I’ll admit it’s a small issue, but that’s all I can really find to complain about.

Sweeney Todd isn’t really your average Christmas film. It’s dark, moody, bloody, vengeful, and doesn’t contain a either a happy ending or an important moral lesson. What it does have is a look, sound, a style and a soul unlike anything else seen on film this year. It’s like a demented version of The Music Man, and although the plot and songs themselves are sometimes quite macabre they’re also quite catchy and moving. It’s not the film to pile the entire family in the car to see, but all the same it is a must-see for fans of both great cinema and musicals, and of films that become more than their parts and enthrall and entertain you completely (even when the body count starts to rise).

Charlie Wilson's War

“You can teach them to type, but you can’t teach them to grow tits.”

Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a junior Congressman from a small district in Texas, did the impossible. Not only did he spearhead the largest covert war in United States history, but he kept it a secret for years.

Wilson, a member of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee and the only Congressman from a district “who doesn’t want anything,” was in an unique position to change the world while nobody was looking.

After learning about the Afghan resistance against the Soviets, and being cajoled into providing more assistance by a powerful political contributor (Julia Roberts), Wilson with the help of his friends and CIA operative Gust Avrakotots (Philip Seymour Hoffman), over the course of the decade began increasing the money, weapons, and training being put into Afghanistan and began fighting a covert war which only a scant few even knew was taking place. And we aren’t talking a small increase here; we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.

Where to begin? It’s nice to see Hanks in a slightly more tarnished role, though some of his fans may object to his womanizing and boozing “Good Time Charlie” it’s a nice harken back to characters he played earlier into his career. At this point in his career he also effortlessly infuses the character a weight and humanity allowing Charlie to carry the film with ease and allow us to dismiss, and even enjoy, his short-comings.

Also worth noting are Philip Seymour Hoffman, almost sure to pick up some awards gold for the controlled insanity of Gust, Julia Roberts in a nice supporting role, and the many women of Charlie Wilson who include Amy Adams, Hilary Angelo, Cyia Batten and Charlie’s support staff (which he refers to both as his Charlie’s Angels and Jail Bait throughout the film) Wynn Everett, Mary Bonner Baker, Shiri Appleby, and Rachel Nichols. They provide many of the film’s funniest moments including Hoffman’s first scene waiting outside Charlie’s office doing nothing but watching the women work.

The script, penned by Aaron Sorkin, balances the absurdity and reality of the situation in a way that’s mesmerizing. Although you can enjoy the film simply as one of the strangest untold stories in history, Sorkin also infuses an underlying message about these events, about the nature of government, and about US responsibility abroad; all of which have increased resonance given the US role in world affairs today.

Those expecting a warm and fuzzy Hanks’ flick like The Terminal, You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle might be a little put off by the more adult subject matter, but I would heartily recommend the film to everyone. Great performances and one of the best scripts of the year make Charlie Wilson’s War a winner.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

“It ain’t easy to walk to the top of a mountain. It’s a long hard walk, but I will walk hard.”

The collaboration between Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow is a perfect parody of recent overly serious and sentimental music biopics like Walk the Line and Ray which examine the entire life of an artist with all the skill and depth of a Behind the Music special. The film follows Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly, who plays the character from the age of 14 to 71) who faces the tragic death of his brother to an unfortunate machete accident, the disapproval of his father (Raymond J. Barry), drugs, booze, and women, to become a legend.

Although it helps if you’ve seen the films this one parodies it’s not a necessity to get most of the jokes (though you will miss some of more subtle moments including specific shots and camera work). Reilly is terrific in a role that let’s him prove just what a great dumbass he can play. And, as he proved in A Prairie Home Companion (read that review), he can sing. It’s a combination of the music and sharp unrelenting wit that transforms this film from the regular mass produced parodies like the Scary Movie franchises, and moves into the elite company with This Is Spinal Tap and Airplane.

Aside from Reilly, there are several good supporting performances including Jenna Fischer and Kristen Wig as two of Dewey’s wives, and a damn fine performance by Tim Meadows (yes, Tim Meadows! Who knew he was even still alive!) who plays Dewey’s drummer, friend, and drug guru.

Although the film doesn’t keep the breakneck laugh-a-minute pace it starts out with all the way through, the many high-points more than make up for the scattered lows. Some of my favorites are Dewey and Darlene singing “Let’s Duet” which aside from being the best song of the year provides a perfect spoof of the genre, Tim Meadows opening line which sets up the endless parody of Walk the Line, the best marijuana scene captured on film in recent memory, a great scene between Dewey and the Beatles (Justin Long, Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman and Paul Rudd as funny as he’s ever been as John Lennon), and some hilarious word and music jokes (watch out for The Temptations and a joke about Dewey and an up and coming rap artist). Several jokes and gags (the sinks, the often repeated deadpan line of Dewey’s dad, the recurring drug introduction scenes) are repeated but somehow they are funny each time, and I never became tired of them. As parody the film frees itself to step on a joke or two to make its point, but also finds more than enough big laughs to fill its relatively short running time of an hour and a half.

The film isn’t for everyone, and there are scenes I’m sure some will no doubt take offense, but in terms of comedy it’s a gut buster of a comedy which relies more on brains than gross-out humor. The only other film from this year that made me laugh harder than Walk Hard was the terrific British farce Death at a Funeral (read that review), so I’m pretty comfortable naming Walk Hard: The Dewy Cox Story the best American comedy of 2007. Get on your feet and walk to the nearest theater. Walk Hard.

P.S. I Love You

“I wish I had someone dead telling me what to do.”

Holly (Hilary Swank) and Gerry (Gerard Butler) are the cutest couple ever! They met cute, their first kiss was precious, and they even fight cute. This movie is so stuffed with cuteness it makes The Care Bears Movie look like Schindler’s List. Problem is, he’s dead. But don’t worry, it’s not a downer because Holly even mopes cute.

After an excruciating long lead-in we learn Gerry has died and left letters and presents for Holly to be sent to her over the course of the next year. In movieland this is a cute adventure, but in reality this is almost insanely cruel forcing a wife to continue pinning away for her dead husband. So early on you realize this film relies completely on movie logic (also known as the lack thereof).

Gerry’s letters bring back memories and uber-cute flashbacks as well as gifts and instructions. No, nothing smart or magical about the meaning of life from a man who knows he’s dying. Instead we get Holly singing karaoke and taking a trip with her two best friends (Lisa Kudrow, Gina Gershon) to Ireland.

The film is just relentless. Even the bartender (Harry Connick Jr.) at her mother’s (Kathy Bates) bar, who hits on her at her husband’s funeral, has that cute but dumb movie guy thing down cold. There are no surprises here, only more forced cuteness and canned laughter and tears.

Swank feels oddly out of place her in a traditional chick flick and I can’t help but wonder what kind of blackmail it took to force her to do this film. As an actress known for her strong roles in previous films, she’s badly miscast in the role of a the whinny Holly. I can only assume she wanted to prove she could make an inane romcom like everybody else, but she should leave such twaddle to Kate Hudson and Mandy Moore.

For a film about a man dying of brain cancer this is about the sunniest film I can remember. Sure it tries to fit in sad moments in between all that sugary sweetness, but it’s hard to feel sad when you’re going into insulin shock from the amount of pixie sticks being relentlessly shoved down your throat. Mark this one up to a mistake folks, and do what Holly should have done early in this film, move on.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


“Look, in my opinion the best thing you can do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what-have-you, the right person is still going to think the sun shines out of your ass.”

Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is a bit of an outcast at school with a small circle of friends including cheerleader Leah (Olivia Thirlby) and her best friend Bleeker (Michael Cera) who she decides to sleep with, which leads to some unforeseen consequences.

On discovering her pregnancy, and quickly dismissing the other options after a trip to the local abortion clinic, Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. She finds Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) from and ad in the Penny Saver and everything seems like its going to work out, but this is a comedy so you know there will be some bumps along the way.

What I must mention first is the wonderful script by first-time screenwriter Diablo Cody. Filled with quotable one-liners (the film includes a terrific line about doctors which might be the funniest on-screen diagnosis of the medical profession I’ve heard), and moments both humorous and poignant, it just might be the best screenplay of the year. What surprised me most was how the film would introduce a typical Hollywood plot point making you sure you knew where the film was headed only to immediately take a 90 degree turn and lead you somewhere else. Nearly every decision here is the right one.

The film is completely centered around the performance of Ellen Page who knocks this one out of the park by flexing her muscles and displaying a wide range of acting ability. She was scary as hell in last year’s Hard Candy (making men cringe all over the country, read that review) and here shows great range in comedy as well as drama. It’s one of the best performances of any actress this year.

And she’s not alone. Michael Cera is perfectly cast as the lovable but unsure best friend, Bateman and Garner both put in nice turns in characters who are not quite what they initially appear to be (and make you forget recent career misteps like The Ex and Elecktra) and Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons are terrific as Juno’s parents. Also worth mentioning are Thrilby as Juno’s confidant and Valerie Tian as Su-Chin in a terrific role outside the abortion clinic in a short scene which sets up all that is to follow.

Jason Reitman makes all the right decisions here and the cast takes this terrific script and gives us one of the best films of 2007. Witty, sweet, and downright lovable, Juno is a must-see.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

National Treasure

National Treasure is a treasure hunting movie of the finest caliber. With great locations, strange clues that must be deciphered intertwined into U.S. history, a race against time to find the treasure, a great cast, and peppered with action sequences but with its soul relying on the characters’ intellect rather than only their brawn, it’s all you can ask for, and a little more. Disney has had mixed success in its live action movies, but this can be put alongside the best of the bunch.

The movie begins with John Adams Gates (Christopher Plummer) telling his grandson the story of a great treasure of King Solomon passed down through the generations and protected by the Knights Templar and Freemasons who eventually smuggle the treasure to the New World and hide it, leaving a series of clues by which it might later be uncovered. Through mischance the Gates family has the only known clue to the treasure which he now passes on to his grandson.

The rest of the movie takes place years later as Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) has finally deciphered the clue and starts the search for the treasure. Along for the ride are his assistant Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), Ian Howe (Sean Bean) a profiteer who soon turns against them, and Abigail Chase (Dianne Kruger) who works at the National Archives and joins the search when they discover the map for the treasure has been written on the back of the Declaration of Independence and decide to steal it in order to protect it and the treasure from Ian.

The movie continues across the eastern United States as our heroes race to solve the clues before Ian or the FBI can track them down. From New York to Philadelphia our heroes race to solve a mystery and find the treasure.

The package comes with quite a few special features for a one-disc DVD release. Deleted scenes and the original ending for the film (which is pretty good) and an anamorphic sequence are available with or without director commentary. Also included are documentaries on the making of the film, (pretty standard stuff here) and quite a few special features that have to be unlocked. Included in these are a documentary about actual treasure hunters, a short feature about the Knights Templar, a list of features for Verizon users, and an entertaining feature and game about cryptography, codes and puzzles. All in all, a very nice collection. The only real disappointment is the lack of any commentary for the film itself.

I loved this movie in the theater and it works just as well on DVD. It’s wonderful fun, and the rare thinking man’s action flick. The information about the Templars and the Freemasons (including some of our founding fathers) and the

amount of history discussed and used to decipher clues makes for a much more interesting movie than your regular summer movie fair. Also, the heist of the Declaration of Independence is so well thought out and done, it makes the film worth seeing just by itself. As to whether the treasure is real or if they find it, it doesn’t really matter. What the characters learn about history and about themselves is the main quest here. It’s the journey, more than the destination, that matters.

The DVD extras are quite numerous, though most seem geared to teenagers and children rather than adults (this is a Disney DVD after all). The documentary for the movie is pretty standard stuff, and the shorter features on the Knights Templar and on real life treasure hunters, while interesting and well done, are not long enough to give more than basic information. I do like the decision to provide the code in the booklet that comes with the DVD that allows you to unlock the second level of extras for those of us who don’t want to take the time to figure out the code. Aside from the lack of a director’s commentary I’m very happy with this Disney DVD.

Added note: The sequel to the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets, scheduled for release the end of 2007, will find Gates and his tema uncovering the truth behind the mystery of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. I don’t know if the magic of the first film can be recaptured, but with Kruger, Bartha, Harvey Keitel, and Jon Voight back on board and the addition of Helen Mirren, Ed Harris and Bruce Greenwood, I’m looking forward to finding out.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Man in the Chair

“Will you be willing to pay the price to be the man in the chair?”

Cameron Kincaid (Michael Angarano) is a troubled kid, in trouble at school, with the law, and at odds with his overbearing step-father (Mitch Pileggi); his only escape is through film.

One day after school he meets Flash Madden (Christopher Plummer), a drunken loudmouth who seems to know more about films than anyone Cameron has met. Flash worked for years as a gaffer in the movie biz and was given his nickname from Orson Wells (Jodi Ashworth) on the set of Citizen Kane. Cameron strikes up an uneasy friendship with Flash and convinces him to help make a student film. Flash persuades his friends at the nursing home, all of whom worked in the movie business, to help and Cameron finds himself with the most experienced crew any student has used to shoot his first film.

There are many things which work in the film. First off the performances are good across the board especially those of the leads, Plummer and Angarano. Although Plummer’s performance smells a little of Oscar Bait there’s enough to enjoy.

The film also has some issues, aside the the believability and coincidence of all these events happening at the same time just when they can help fix everyone’s lives. The entire subplot of the mean kid (Taber Schroeder, who comes off as a second rate William Zabka) is a complete waste of time. As is the confusing subplot of Flash’s hatred for the local dog pound. Neither of these threads lead anywhere, nor are they all that well told or at all interesting. The story of the family relationship with Cameron, his step-father and mother (Mimi Kennedy) is well set-up but isn’t given the same time and care as the rest of the film, and leads to a hastily forced conclusion that I had trouble buying.

Also troubling are director Michael Schroeder‘s forced attempts at odd camera effects which I got tired of very quickly. These jumbled images might mean to add an extra layer to the film (like a poor man’s Tony Scott), but they simply don’t work. Sadly these shots only come off as distracting at best, and, more often than not, both intrusive and annoying.

Man in the Chair has its problems. It’s predictable, it’s a little naive, it’s poorly explored subplots and simplistic periphery characters keep getting in the way of the main story, and the director thinks he Federico Fellini. Even with these problems there’s still much here to enjoy including some good performances and a love of cinema. I’m still giving this film a moderate recommendation despite its issues. It’s not a must see by any stretch of the imagination, but if you can overlook its many faults there’s a good film in there trying to get out.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Golden Compass

“That is heresy!”
“That is the truth.”

The story centers around Lyla Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) a young girl with a great destiny, in a parallel world ruled by a theocracy known as the Magisterium. In this world a person’s soul exists outside their body in the form of an animal who can talk and think. Children’s souls, or Daemons as they are called, are able to change shape until the beginning of adolescence where their Deamon chooses a permanent shape. The reasons for this are a substance known as Dust, but we’ll learn more about that later.

Lyra leaves the comfort of Jordan College with the lovely but secretive Ms. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). With the help of an Alethiometer, a small golden compass which can tell the truth of the future and the past, Lyla learns much about herself, Ms. Coulter, her uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) and others, and begins an adventure over the seas and through the Arctic with Gyptians, witches, and armored polar bears.

Although quite pretty and filled with talking polar bears, Daemons and witches, the story doesn’t always feel as magical as it should. There are several good special effects including the Daemons themselves changing shape, talking, and reacting emotionally to various stimuli. I also quite enjoyed the different looking technology of the world. And the look of the witches, especially Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), flying through the air and fighting in battle is well done. Throw in a huge polar bear fight, the horror of intercision, and some bloody battles and you’ve got the basis for a fun ride.

In a film centered around a child the casting becomes hugely important. Luckily for us Dakota Blue Richards does a great job as Lyra capturing her rambunctiousness and independent attitude. Ben Walker and Charlie Rowe also have some nice moments as Lyra’s friends from Jordan College. Hopefully the casting of Will in the sequel will be as good.

There are more than a handful of characters introduced over the course of the film, and more to come in the next one. Because of this some of the nuance has been cut away or simply lost in this trimmed down film version. We don’t learn as much about the Gyptains or the Polar Bears as we do in the books. One of my favorite scenes from the books, involving the discussion of Lyra and Iorek Byrnison (Ian McKellen) about the differences between humans and bears and why you can fool one but not the other, has been removed completely.

Religious Note - Some are going to object to the theocracy of the Magisterium as casting the church or organized religion as the villains of the piece, but it is a fantasy world where polar bears talk and people’s souls are outside their body changing shape and talking to people! Simply put - it’s fantasy, deal with it. And for those who don’t believe that a church run state can take it’s power too far and act in ways that can only be described as evil, I’d suggest you take a short look through history, starting with The Inquisition. Now back to the review…

Although the film works in many ways there are some problems. The first is the film’s lack of focus and flow early on. We jump through different scenes all meant to introduce the characters and the world, but they are only loosely and hastily cut together in a way that seems more like greatest hits from the book than a film version of the full story.

Also troubling is how long the film takes to let us in on the secrets of the world and the point of the story. In a novel you can tease the reader, but in a film (especially one which has to remove much of the excess scenes and plot to make its under two-hour running time) you need to explain such a dramatically different world a little better. Those who haven’t read the book may wonder just what Dust is and why it’s so important. Stay patient, the explanation is coming, though you’ll have to wait about 100 minutes to get to it.

I would recommend reading the books, at least the first one, before seeing this film, or taking someone with you who can answer your questions. At the screening I attended those who hadn’t had experience going in with Philip Pullman‘s world seemed lost and bewildered for most of the film. And much like The Two Towers those who have read the book may be upset by the chosen ending of the film which leaves a large portion of the first novel untold. Is it a great adaptation? No, not really, but it’s passable, and likely the only one we’re ever going to get.

The Walker

Paul Schrader has penned some great scripts (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ), he also wrote Light of Day (and directed Cat People). The Walker, which Schrader wrote and directed, falls somewhere in between.

Carter “Carr” Page III (Woody Harrelson) is an escort to the wealthy and influential woman of Washington D.C. He’s what is known as a “walker,” he walks ladies from place to place providing company, juicy gossip, and companionship. Although he delights in telling his clients about the hot topics in our nation’s capitol, he speaks very little of his own life or of his long time relationship to a struggling artist (Moritz Bleibtreu). To some he’s an acquaintance, to others an embarrassment of his name and the legacy of his father. Harrelson does well in balancing the different facets of the character who will turn the other cheek and offer a smile even in the most dangerous circumstances.

Carr’s life is thrown for a loop when his favorite client (Kristin Scott Thomas) finds her lover murdered. Unable to stand the scandal it would deal to her and her Congressman husband (Willem Dafoe) she refuses to call the police, leaving Carr to do it. A District Attorney (William Hope) and a Detective (Geff Francis) smelling scandal and headlines go hard after Carr and his life of ease and leisure comes to an end.

There are many good things to say about the film. The look and feel of the characters and setting have style (too bad there isn’t more substance). There are several good, though not great supporting peformances from the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ned Beatty, and Lily Tomlin.

Although much works, there is just as much that doesn’t. Harrelson is good in the more comedic parts of the film but struggles with the more dramatic scenes (and his accent leaves a little to be desired). The story contains good elements but they don’t seem to lead anywhere as a character study is quickly dropped for a run of the mill murder flick taken from the perspective of one of the suspects - the least interesting and informed perspective you can have in such a film.

Although there are several elements here the film just never clicked for me. I think the movie is worth seeing, though I wouldn’t actively seek it out as you will probably have to do for this small independent film which will play mostly in art houses. Gossip, whispering campaigns, and a rather uninspired murder mystery don’t add up to much more than casual fancy, and sadly, in the end, that’s all The Walker really is.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Margot at the Wedding

You know I can handle a chick flick, but Margot at the Wedding is a chick flick on speed, (and not that good of one).

The film is centered on Margot (Nicole Kidman) an overbearing and smothering loudmouth who drags her child (Zane Pais) to her sister Pauline’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding, not to celebrate to to break it up and find some time cheat on her husband (John Turturro) to bone an old school chum (Ciarán Hinds).

Subplots of the film include the averageness of Pauline’s fiancé Malcolm (Jack Black), the cute and seductive neighborhood girl (Halley Feiffer), suggestions of child abuse and incest, and the increasingly odd and crazy argument with the neighbors over the fate of the family’s favorite tree.

Aside from being really, really boring, and having large stretches that may make your brain explode, the film has several flaws. First, and most problematic is the character of Margot herself. The movie (much like Halle Berry‘s character in Things We Lost in the Fire) pushes all bounds of common sense and logic to make her as unlikable, but not downright evil, as possible.

Since she isn’t evil we can’t hate her, but since she is such a bitch we can’t like her either and so we are left not caring about what happens to the central character in the film; that’s bad. Margot’s constant behavior and demeanor, which become more predictable and cartoonish as the film goes on, also narrows the choices of where the plot can go to two choices - alone and miserable or forgiven and redeemed. I won’t tell you which the film choices, but I will say it’s as unbelievable as the rest of the film.

Also an issue is the style of which the film was shot. Several sequences are shot with little or no light and are hard to decipher what is happening (it doesn’t help that the plot makes little to no sense during many of these moments). The film tries to base it’s story on the illogicality of female logic, and so leaves anyone without ovaries completely in the dark. Now I’m all for use of shadow and light in interesting ways (The Third Man, Clint Eastwood‘s later films like Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby) but when it’s done poorly it doesn’t look artistic; it looks crappy and juvenile.

The film tries to balance a horrifically depressing tale with some comic zingers from Jack Black, but his character is more of a prop to get the sisters together and discussing their issues than a real character and so much of his performance is wasted. Oh, and the zingers, sadly, don’t have much zing.

Are the performances good? Well, yes, but only because the film is designed solely as Oscar Bait to get these actresses Oscar nods. Scenes exist throughout the film not because they are part of the narrative but only to show off the talent of the stars.

Get a testosterone patch before you go in because this film has more estrogen than any Lifetime mid-afternoon double feature. It’s a complete loss and disappointment only existing to shell for some Oscar gold.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


What’s Thanksgiving without a turkey? Hitman is exactly is good as you would expect from a flick adapted off a series of video games. It’s not the mind-numbing disaster Doom was (thank God! read that review), but it’s not exactly good either.

Timothy Olyphant stars as “Agent 47,” a bald hitman with a bar code stamped on the back of his head. He works for a secret organization performing assassination and murder for hire, that is until (for no apparent reason) he’s sold out by the people who own him and he goes on the run with a whore (Olga Kurylenko) owned by the man he must kill and avoid capture by the Interpol agent on his tail (Dougray Scott).

Here is the perfect example of video game logic versus screenplay logic. In a video game I’m sure it’s exceptable to have an assassin who sticks out like a sore thumb (I don’t know about you but I think I’d notice a guy with a bar code tattooed on the back of his head), but here, even though our guy takes no steps to conceal himself, he’s almost impossible to find. And when he is caught more logic goes out the window. In one scene he faces off against three other men with guns only for all of them to drop their weapons and pull out identical twin swords (out of their collective asses, since they couldn’t conceal such weapons on them) and fight. You know you are in trouble when you’re watching a scene and asking “Why is this in the film?” and the only answer available is “Because it was in the video game.”

Aside from huge logic holes, a background story which is never developed, and some pretty shitty acting across the board the film also gives us no reason to care. Our main character is an emotionless killer, neither evil nor good, seemingly invincible and without care. We are given no reason to root for, or even against, him as the plot trudges on to its inevitable conclusion. There’s no drama or tension here as our bland video game character is never truly challenged or put in danger he can’t escape from. Even most of the action scenes are tame. And the only interesting part of the story, this organization which trains and brands assassins from childhood, is never explored. This is a second-rate xXx (a movie, by the way, I didn’t care for either) complete with just enough explosions and partial nudity to try and pull in the dumber part of the bored 17-20 audience with absolutely nothing else to do on a Friday night.

There’s just nothing here. Like the many films before it, and the many yet to come, video game movies (aside from a select few) just don’t play on film. When taken out of a video game world the stories often translate poorly, or as in this case, don’t translate at all.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

August Rush

“I believe in music the way some people believe in fairy tales.”

There are two stories here. The first involves a young orphan (Freddie Highmore) with untapped musical talent who leaves the orphanage to “follow the music” and find his parents. His journey leads to new friends (Leon G. Thomas III, Jamia Simone Nash), a stint as a street musician under the control of the Fagin-esque Wizard (Robin Williams, in a cowboy hat), and a trip to Juliard where his talent blossoms.

The second story (shown mostly in flashbacks) involves cellist Lyla Novacek (Keri Russell) and rock band member Louis Connelly (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Their chance meeting a decade before was dashed by Lyla’s father (William Sadler) separating them for years. Lyla’s unexpected pregnancy puts her career at risk and her father snatches up a chance accident to make her believe her son is dead. Jumping back to the present Lyla learns the truth and with the help of a social worker (Terrence Howard) begins to search for the son she’s never met. At the same time across the country Louis facing his own midlife crisis searches out the woman who he still loves.

Let’s start with the problems of the film since they are neither small nor easily overcome. First, the entire Oliver Twist storyline is as dumb as it sounds and is only saved by the small moments it allows our young prodigy to further his music. Williams is ridiculous in what looks like a sort of half-assed Bono meet Fagin impression. Also troubling is the film’s constant and incessant fallback on coincidence that keeps allowing the storyline, which otherwise would stall multiple times, to make giant leaps forward despite all logic to the contrary. How illogical is it? Here’s an example: Lyla’s father signs away her child when she gives birth after a traffic accident. No one questions a comatose woman signing away a baby she never sees and no nurse or doctor ever mentions the child to congratulate her on her son or to discuss her decision to give away the child. Yeah, there’s stretching credibility and there’s fantasy. Add to this the controlling and manipulative nature of the story and you’ve got a film which should be a complete disaster. And yet…

The use of music in everyday life and how music is portrayed as something that gives life meaning and can connect people is incredibly well done. The different types music used in the film from simple to complex, from classical to gospel to rock, all add a unique flavor and sound to the story. It’s when the worlds of Lyla and Louis are filled with music that they are truly alive and find each other. And it’s when they rediscover a piece of themselves and reinvest in their music that their worlds begin to make sense again. Just as the newly anoited August Rush plays in hope of making his parents hear him, they both, separately, play to each other, to their love, and to a child they have never met.

The cast, aside from Williams who does his crazy act doing the best he can with the least interesting character in the film, are terrific. Highmore is the heart and soul of the film. And the casting of Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as tortured lovers is inspired. Both actors possess an ability to convey a hopeful melancholy which plays perfectly on film. These three actors allow us to dismiss some of the clumsiness of the script and invest some time and emotion in the characters.

Even with its many problems the film is, somehow, a joy. It’s sweet, and when it’s not getting in its own way, quite moving. Your brain may reject much of August Rush, but I think your heart will have a grand time.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

No Country for Old Men

“It’s a mess ain’t it sheriff.”
“If it ain’t it’ll do ‘til the mess gets here

Brutally violent, with eloquently scripted dialogue and sumptuously cinematography No Country for Old Men has all the pieces in place for a great film, but although it’s certainly a very good film it loses much of its momentum over the course of its two-hour running time ending with more of a whimper than a bang.

The story begins when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) discovers the remains of a drug deal gone wrong and finds $2 million in cash. A moment of conscience leads to him being marked by both sides after the money and LLewelyn sends his wife (Kelly Macdonald) to her mother’s (Beth Grant) as he takes to the road to stay one step ahead of a hitman (Javier Bardem) who knows his name and always seems only one-step behind.

The film begins in terrific fashion and the dialogue is perfect, especially the simple scenes between Llewelyn and Carla Jean (MacDonald). I wish she had a larger role in the film because the two work so well together. Bardem puts in a strong performance as the mysterious sociopathic hitman.

If I have a complaint with Bardem it’s how we learn too much about his character and his mysterious dread is replaced by an almost cartoonish Tarrantino ridiculousness that takes much of the menace away from him. And the film has some minor recurring characters (played by Tommy Lee Jones and Woody Harrelson) that, although well performed, seem to keep getting in the way of the main storyline in an attempt to do the now ever popular Crash-style juggling of different stories of individuals each dealing with their own issues (read that review).

My other complaints are harder to describe as they involve events from the films final act and to list them here I would have to give away too many secrets of the film. Instead let me say simply that the film runs out of gas well before it ends and leaves many questions unanswered before ending with a discussion of a cryptic dream sequence that left me more bored than intrigued.

There have been similar films in recent years including the Coen’s own Fargo and Sam Raimi‘s A Simple Plan which do as good a job if not better given similar resources and storylines. The film is certainly good, but I still felt disappointed as it ended. So much of the promise of the film isn’t fulfilled and so many questions and storylines are left up in the air (in a more mainstream Hollywood film I would have expected “To Be Continued” in large caps). The last half-hour of the film, in which many of these questions are ignored, seems rushed as if the film was cut for time and is now missing several crucial scenes. But what the film does well it does very well. It’s a very good film, which could have been great, but still is worth seeing, and discussing. Is it the Coen’s return to glory? Not really, but it’s a good first step.

Friday, November 16, 2007


“I am Beowulf!”

The film follows a condensed, and rushed, variation of the original epic poem. After his hall is attacked by a fearsome creature known as Grendel (Crispin Glover), King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) offers half of his fortune to anyone who can rid his kingdom of the monster. The legendary warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives, for the glory of defeating the demon.

The film follows Beowulf’s battle with Grendel and his encounter with Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) in the dark caves of the mountains. Secrets will be unearthed, curses laid down, and Beowulf’s glory will grow - though not without a cost.

In terms of look the film achieves much of what it sets out to do. The appearance of the characters (each taken from the individual actors) is the best I’ve seen human beings done in this type of computer animation. Also worth noting are the battle scenes which work quite well, especially if you have a chance to see the film in the IMAX 3-D version where the blood and spears shoot out at you.

Though the look works there are many problems with the non-human characters. The monsters in the film are scary in only a depressing B-movie kind of way. Grendel is a big dumb ogre, the dragon is ferocious but bland, and we never get to see the true form of Grendel’s mother (though it is often teased in reflection). The only real monsters worth mentioning are the sea creature Beowulf slays during a flashback in what is the best scene of the film.

Another huge issue is the tone of the film. It ranges from cheesy to serious, and bloody to bufoonery. At times it is a fairy tale and at others it is a brutal slash fest. At times it, not so subtly, plays on sexual themes and at others it loses all tension. It’s just all over the place and never decides what type of story it wants to tell. Had the film been done in a more dramatic and hardcore vision (as some of the battle scenes are) it might have stood a chance (and would no doubt earned a hard R or even possibly a NC-17). Sadly for us however the film went for the PG-13 market dumbing down its story, dulling its edges, and scantily cladding its more adult themes into a poor excuse for a teenage geek fantasy.

And although the film’s 3-D effects are interesting to look at, during large stretches of the film that is all that is happening. Sure the 3-D rendering works well in the action scenes, but since the majority of the film isn’t action you are left with effects like “Gee, that chair is closer to me than that table” or “Wow look at how close that glass of mead is.” Though it is odd at least it keeps your interest, in a minimal sort of way. Had I viewed a regular print of the film I have no doubt it would have put me to sleep.

Is Beowulf worth seeing? Eh. Although the 3-D effects work well it’s hard to justify the higher price movie goers will have to pay to see it. And without those effects the film suffers (I’d drop a half-star off my rating for the non 3-D version of the film). It will be interesting to see how the film will fare on DVD. Also troubling is the campy nature of some of the scenes which would seem more at home in a skit satirizing a bad film than the actual theatrical big budget film which is meant to be taken seriously. Other than one or two good memorable moments (and many, many more unintentionally bad ones) there’s just not much to remember this hero. The tale of Beowulf may have survived for hundreds of years, but it dies a slow death on screen.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Lions for Lambs

“The problem is not with the people who started this. The problem is with us, who do nothing.”

Robert Redford‘s latest flick is what we would call a message film. The characters themselves aren’t that important; they are only there to promote the message the director and writer want to convey. The odd thing about the film is, for a message film, it’s all over the place.

The film moves through three different storylines. The first involves a professor (Redford) trying to motivate on of his brightest but most apathetic students (Andrew Garfield). The second involves the preemptive Republican nominee for President (Tom Cruise) giving an interview to a reporter (Meryl Streep) about a new military strategy. The third story involves a group of Army Rangers (including Michael Pena and Peter Berg) making an attack inside Afghanistan.

It doesn’t really matter how the different threads connect, but if you care go see the film or simply check out the trailer. What is important is the message of the film and what it sets out to say about America, our government, and our responsibilities and duties both at home and overseas.

Although the performances are all quite good I had more than a few issues. I never bought Cruise as a Presidential nominee, though I could buy him as a Senator promoting his own agenda. Nor did I buy Streep as the ace reporter who becomes too easily flustered by the circumstances and events in which she finds herself.

The film has no coherent narrative as events, flashbacks, and different stories are layered one on top of another, and for a message film it is eerily unmoving and unfocused in its attack as it points and accepts blame in all directions. One of the most interesting points however which I liked about the film was the scene between Cruise and Streep in which he implicates the media in the current situation of Iraq. It’s a slow build up to the scene and it works quite well (though Streep’s later scene with her editor describing the interview is simply dreadful). If the rest of the film had been handled with similar care I might be more inclined to give it a higher review.

The film is hurt by the contraption of the three separate stories which muddles the message of the film to no end. Part of the film feels like an Army recruitment film and part feels like an indictment of all current military and government operations. I can’t quite bring myself to recommend such a flawed and unfocused film, but there are some important issues that it does cover, if you can get over the heavy-handed diatribe on how they are presented, that are worth hearing and discussing.

Fred Claus

“My brother is Santa Claus.”

Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn) is an immortal schmuck. The older brother of Santa Claus (Paul Giamatti) has spent his life in the shadow of his famous sibling. He’s a con artist, a thief, a liar, and an all around unlikable guy. Needing money for his latest scheme he takes a temporary job in the North Pole working for his brother.

There’s more to the film including a reunion with Fred’s parents (Kathy Bates, Trevor Peacock), an evil efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) trying to put Santa out of business, an elf (John Michael Higgins) with a crush on Santa’s little helper (Elizabeth Banks), a troubled orphan named Slam (Bobb’e J. Thompson), and Fred consistently screwing up his relationship with a woman who is too good for him (Rachel Weisz).

Would you believe, with all these stories, not a single one is interesting? Yeah, Giamatti is not too bad in the role of Santa (and Miranda Richardson does a tolerable job as his wife), but other than look like Santa there’s nothing for him to do in the film except play the straight man to Vaughn’s antics.

And Vaughn’s Fred is such an unsympathetic asshole we are given no reason want him to find happiness or to root for to succeed. I don’t mind films with unlikable lead characters, but if the film expects or demands me to grow to care for, or want the redemption of, a character like Fred Claus then a little effort (like any at all) is called for. Fred isn’t evil, he’s just a prick, and a pretty bland one at that.

Add to this a myriad of unanswered and inexplicable plot problems and you’ve got a sleigh wreck of a film. Here are some questions the film never attempts to solve. Who is the efficiency expert and who does he work for? Who has the power to fire Santa? How can it be nighttime all around the world on Christmas Eve at the EXACT SAME TIME!!!? How does Santa get into houses without a chimney? Where does the normal size Charlene (Banks) come from in a North Pole full of only elves? The movie “explains” that saints, and their families, live forever but why do Santa and Fred age so differently (especially if Fred is the older brother)?

In this dreary film the only real bright spot is Fred’s short appearance with a support group called Siblings Anonymous where he meets other people dealing with the success of their brothers (including Stephen Baldwin, Roger Clinton, and Frank Stallone playing themselves). It’s not quite as good as it sounds (nowhere near the level of the group therapy session from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery), but in a film with nothing else worth mentioning it’s a least one good moment that doesn’t suck all the joy from your heart.

This X-Mas film is a dud and far inferior to similar films like 1994’s The Santa Clause which at least attempts to explain how some of Santa’s powers work. The film never has the balls to make Fred enjoy his behavior (like Willie in Bad Santa) and so it tries to stay in a safe place where Fred is a complete dick, but doesn’t do anything unforgivable leading to a depressingly cheerful and easily foreseeable ending. Unfunny, unoriginal, uneventful, and completely forgettable, this film is about as holiday friendly as a hunk of coal in your stocking.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Color of Money

“It’s even, but it ain’t settled. Let’s settle it.”

The film is a sequel to 1961’s The Hustler with Paul Newman reprising his role as “Fast” Eddie Felson. By this time out (25 years after the original film) Eddie is the old hustler who has lost a step or two and decides to take a talented but raw pool player (Tom Cruise) under his wing and teach him the ropes of hustling. Although the film earned itself five Oscar nominations (Newman won for his role) the film has largely been forgotten and ignored by those who feel it is one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser works, but to me it remains a nice reminder that sometimes sequels are worth seeing.

Newman is terrific, and although the film works better if you have seen the original it isn’t a necessity to enjoy the tale. Cruise is well cast as the not too smart hot shot, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio puts in a strong supporting performance as the film’s smartest character. You might also want to keep an eye out for some great cameos from the likes of Forest Whitaker, Iggy Pop, and several professional pool players.

In terms of sports films (if you stretch the definition to include pool) the film doesn’t rank among the greats like Hoosiers or Field of Dreams. But the film does belong in that next category of films presenting strong characters, snappy dialogue, and a look into a world many don’t know that much about. I’d compare it favorably to films like 1998’s Rounders (which coincidentally also has John Turturro in a small supporting role) in how it takes it subject matter seriously but manages to enjoy itself at the same time.

Sadly the film has only been released on a bare bones single disc DVD without extras or fanfare. I’d love to see this get the Special Edition treatment (who wouldn’t want to hear Cruise and Newman on commentary together?). But for now you’ll have to settle for the film sans extras.

Is the film as good as Casino, Gangs of New York, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver or The Departed? You might be hard pressed to find anyone to argue that point (and I won’t try to here either). I will say that The Color of Money is the most fun film Scorsese ever made. That ain’t nothing, folks. If you haven’t seen it, or it’s been awhile, go out and rent it or simply pick it up (you can find it for $10 or less in most stores). It’s a film that can be enjoyed over and over, and with each viewing I think you will appreciate it a little more.

Friday, November 2, 2007

American Gangster

“No black man has accomplished what the American Mafia hasn’t in a hundred years!”

“Frank Lucas is the most dangerous man walking the streets of our city.”

Much like Michael Mann‘s Heat the film follows two separate and concurrent tales on opposite sides of the law. On one hand there is Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who after the death of his mentor takes over the drug business in Harlem and, in turning into a profitable empire, pisses off everyone who knows him. The other story follows Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), the lone good honest cop left in New Jersey whose honor has cost him a marriage, custody of his son (his wife is played by Carla Gugino), and the anger and resentment of his fellow cops.

Roberts is given a new assignment by his commander (Ted Levine) and runs his own group of guys to track down and bring down the drug suppliers and dealers. Over time and hard work the unknown Frank Lucas is brought to Roberts’ attention and their two worlds collide.

Based on a true story the film shows us Frank’s rise to glory and the personal life and ups and downs of both men. At a running time of 157 minutes it’s more than a little long, and it meanders at times, but the story continues to progress forward culminating in the confrontation between the two men (much like Heat). After this there’s a prolonged, yet condensed epilogue, which tells us what happened next.

Much like Blow the film spends a long time showcasing the drug trade and how things work while intermingling the personal life and problems brought on by the business. It isn’t anything new, but there is a certain style to it and even if it goes on too long at times it remains interesting.

Aside from length I had some trouble with how noble Roberts appeared to everyone else in the picture. Although in reality many of the cops during this period were on the take the film makes it seem that all of them were and they all hated straight shooters like Roberts, yet when Roberts needs to put together a new squad of guys who he can trust he doesn’t have any problems? There’s a logic gap there. It’s not a big issue, but there are moments like this where the film uses generalities and simplifications to justify behaviors and events, something you wouldn’t think a near three-hour film would need to do.

People who haven’t seen Heat or Blow, both of which I think are slightly better films, each in their own way, will probably like this a little more than I did. Given a choice seeing a cops and robbers flick starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro or Crowe and Washington, I’ll take Pacino and De Niro (though this isn’t exactly chopped liver). Still, the stars shine and the supporting cast is more than good enough to carry the film even when it gets off track and meanders through the personal lives of both men. It’s a very good film that wants hard to be a great film, and it comes close many times. It’s an easy recommendation, and I expect it will garner some Academy attention come award time. Even though I have some small nagging problems with the film, it’s certainly worth a look or two.

Bee Movie

A courtroom drama may sound weird for an animated film. Sorry, but it is weird for an animated film! Although cute, and with a few moments of wit, there isn’t much memorable about this film about bees which doesn’t quite measure up to recent bug-themed filcks like Antz and A Bug’s Life.

After graduating college a disillusioned Barry B. Benson (Jerry Seinfeld) leaves the hive and travels into the outside world. Barry isn’t ready to buckle down to one job for the rest of his life. His adventure goes awry, as these things do in movies like this, and Barry finds himself staying with a florist named Vanessa Bloom (Renee Zellweger). Barry falls hard for the beautiful human and breaks the bee’s taboo never to talk to people.

His friendship with Vanessa leads him to learn of humans consumption of honey, which in turn leads Barry, with the help of his pal Adam (Matthew Broderick) to sue all of humanity for stealing honey.

The film includes many colorful characters Barry meets on his journey, all voiced by well-known actors including Vanessa’s jealous boyfriend (Patrick Warburton), a mosquito named Mooseblood (Chris Rock), the famous Bee Larry King (Larry King), a sneaky Southern attorney (John Goodman), and Ray Liota (playing himself as the owner of a huge honey business).

Although there are a few moments that may make you smile and the film has an important message about the environment and how all living things are tied together, it is also lacking in many areas. First there are some puzzlers, like why are there so many female bees in the hive? The Queen Bee is elected? Why is she called a queen? I could go on and on about little nagging problems like this but there are bigger fish to fry. There are no memorable jokes or big laughs, nor does the story ever elevate itself to the level of a feature film. Instead what we get, though well done, feels like a straight-to-DVD release or something you’d see on Nickelodeon. While many might enjoy this, mostly young kids, I don’t know how happy parents will be paying $10 a pop for it.

Bee Movie will keep your interest, make you smile now and then, and when it’s over you will completely forget it. Is it better than whatever is showing on Nickelodeon? Probably not. Kids should have a fun time, though young ones might not understand the legal process any better than these writers do. The question is, is it worth you time? Maybe, if you’ve got time to kill, but I’d suggest waiting until you can see it on cable (where it really belongs).

Martian Child

“I don’t want to bring another kid into this world, but how do you argue against loving one that’s already here?”

John Cusack stars as David, a science fiction writer who is still dealing with the loss of his wife. A social worker (Sophie Okonedo), who had been working to place a child with the couple contacts David about a special case. Dennis (Bobby Coleman) is an odd little kid who spends most of his time in a box, collects (steals) items from other children, and wears a weight belt made of batteries. Oh, and he thinks he’s a Martian.

You can probably guess where the film goes from here. David and Dennis have their problems and grow to love each other. It terms of storytelling the film doesn’t break any new ground, but the script from Seth Bass and Jonathan Tolins, based on the novel by David Gerrold, does hold our interest with smart characters and a story willing to hedge its bets on whether the kid is delusional or actually an alien.

There are some nice supporting performances here in roles that are could have been easily forgettable with less talented actors. Amanda Peet charmed the socks off me as David’s sister-in-law, Joan Cusack is good as always playing a role she knows well - the sister, and Richard Schiff brings his trademark gruffness to the head of the review board who has the power to take Dennis away from David. Although none of the characters are that well-written, these actors infuse them with energy and charm; there are several scenes between Peet and Cusack which nearly steal the film.

Before ending I must mention young Bobby Coleman who does a good job playing the role of both a troubled young man and a strange being from another world. Although the film eventually makes a statement about whether or not Dennis is from another world it never closes the door on other possibilities, and that’s a good thing.

Yes the film gets sappy in some scenes (as, for instance, the quote I used above), and even though the film takes place on the west coast Cusack still finds a way to get a Chicago hat on the kid. You can take the kid out of Chicago… These are small problems however, especially since you know this is the type of film you are walking into. No, missing the film isn’t going to hurt you at all. But for a family film that all ages can find something to enjoy without any objectionable material you could do far worse than Martian Child.

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.