Sunday, November 25, 2007

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Written & Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin

Color, 122 minutes

Rated R

Grade: A+

When the book No Country for Old Men was released in 2005, it was considered a minor Cormac McCarthy novel. Which is about the equivalent of saying John Wesley Harding is a minor Bob Dylan album. Like Dylan, there is nothing minor about McCarthy's work. For the first two decades of his career, McCarthy established himself as an important American author, and then in 1985, his masterpiece, Blood Meridian was published, catapulting him into the upper echelon of the greatest artists to emerge in the 20th century. A few months ago he received a long overdue Pulitzer Prize for his latest masterwork, The Road. So, what is the secret to success when a filmmaker (or two in this case) goes to adapt the work of such a legend? The answer is simple: change as little as possible. Thankfully, Joel and Ethan Coen are smart enough to realize this. They treat McCarthy's work with the utmost respect, and end up with one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I have ever had. This is a brilliant, meticulously crafted film that stands, at this point in time, as the crowning achievement of the decade.

Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a down home West Texas welder who spends his free time teasing his young, naive wife (Kelly Macdonald) and hunting antelope. On one such hunting excursion, Moss comes across a litter of bullet strewn bodies, a truckload of heroin, and a suitcase holding two million dollars. Moss leaves the drugs and escapes with the cash, and before long, the chase is on. Hell is unleashed in the form of Anton Chigurh, cold hearted hitman extraordinaire, played to the hilt by Javier Bardem. Chigurh is a supremely intelligent killer, completely devoid of emotion, who puts his job first and will cross any hurdle to complete his task. Dry comic relief and words of wisdom come from Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a sheriff who has difficulty facing the changes that threaten to shatter the cherished ethical code that has been passed down to him from generations of lawmen. Three very different men, from very different backgrounds, who have one common goal: to have complete control over their own destinies. Moss wants financial security for he and his wife, Bell wants to live out his remaining years in a peaceful existence, and Chigurh wants nothing less than to be at the very top of the food chain. He wants to be the king of the jungle, sitting in his perch, looking out over all the terror and violence that he has infused into each and every being on the planet.

Such a tale of the nature between good and evil could be bungled in the hands of lesser individuals, but the Coen brothers have brought to this film everything they have learned over the course of their careers. For nearly three decades they have put out interesting, even great (Raising Arizona, Fargo) work, but nothing as refined and subtle as this film. Every composition is filled to the brim with detail, from Roger Deakins' arid cinematography to the exquisitely rendered sound design (dig the sound of that jumbo silencer on the end of Chigurh's shotgun). The performances are uniformly excellent, with Brolin making the most of a career catapulting role, and Jones delivering each line (love that drawl) with witty and sarcastic precision. Ultimately, though, it's Bardem who hits us the hardest. His performance has already been compared to Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter, but that is an unfair assessment in my opinion. Bardem is twice the actor that Hopkins is, and in a career of great performances, this is Bardem's best. His is a frightening, panic inducing portrayal that is beyond comparison, one that will be studied by peers, students, and wannabes for years and years to come.

Films like No Country for Old Men are the reason I fell in love with cinema so many years ago. It is a very rare thing when a work of art comes along that has the ability to touch on every human emotion. As I sat there watching this film, I went from one end of the spectrum to the other, laughing one second, and grasping my arm rest in fear the next. I read McCarthy's novel two years ago and experienced a great deal of emotion, but not like I did while watching the film. To make a great book into a good film is hard thing to do , I would imagine, but to make a great book into an even greater film is damn near impossible. Words like "masterpiece," and "perfection," could hardly do justice to such a thing. In fact, the words that immediately come to mind are not nearly as eloquent, but, I think, work nonetheless: See. It. Now.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Hills Have Eyes II (2007)

Directed by: Martin Weisz
Written by: Wes Craven & Jonathan Craven
Starring: Michael McMillian, Jacob Vargas, Jessica Stroup

Color, 90 minutes
Unrated (Originally R)

Grade: C-

Thirty years ago, Wes Craven unleashed The Hills Have Eyes. It has become a modest cult classic, and it even inspired a sequel in 1985. I was never a fan of the films, but unfortunately, I don't get to make the decisions in Hollywood. So, in 2006 we got a remake, directed by the fairly talented, but immature, Alexandre Aja. I wasn't a fan of that film either, in fact I pretty much hated it, but it made money, so now we get the sequel to the remake. Or is that the remake of the sequel? I'm confused. It’s no big deal, they all just kind of blend together anyway. But to be fair, The Hills Have Eyes II (the new one) isn't half bad, not as bad as I thought it would be, and probably not nearly as bad as it should be. Remember what Mel Brooks said about his films? He said that his movies "rise below vulgarity." He was too modest. But that is an accurate description of The Hills Have Eyes II, it's too bad to be any good, but too good to be all that bad. I don't know what's worse, the fact that I didn't hate it, or the fact that I'm actually giving it a minimal amount of credit. You be the judge.

The film opens up two years after the proceedings of its predecessor. The first images we see are of a woman's face, in close-up, moaning and screaming. Get your mind out of the gutter; she's just giving birth, to a mutant baby, that is. Of course, she's chained up, breasts exposed, and covered in dirt, sweat, dried blood and various forms of grime. A mutant, inbred, Quasimodo looking guy, presumably the father, stands over top of her, impatiently waiting. Finally, he's had enough, he walks over and yanks the baby out, stares at it, lovingly touches its face, and then beats the mother to death. I'd hate to think how a caesarean would have went over. Anyway, you kind of know what you're in for here. If you don't shut the film off in disgust, throw the remote in anger, or vomit after this scene, then the rest of the film will be a breeze. From here, we go to a group of National Guard trainees who are on an assignment to deliver some goods to a bunch of scientists stationed in New Mexico's mysterious Sector 16, the nuclear testing ground that the inbreeds call home. Upon arrival, the ethnically diverse (and stereotypically written and portrayed), men and women of the Guard find the base empty, with not a soul in sight. Signs of a single survivor come over the walkie-talkie, and the group makes their way up the rocky cliffs to find him. You can guess what happens next. The mutants lure the soldiers in, and pick them off, one by one, until the final showdown. But, we do get some interesting moments, such as a man being found in a port-a-pottie, a soldier being sucked into a hole by a mutant, his exposed leg bending until it's shattered, and the classy image of a female soldier who is kidnapped while taking a leak. It's a lot of fun.

So why do I give it such a low grade? Simple, the movie is idiotic. Yes, the movie is fun in a dirty, masochistic sort of way, but it's idiotic nonetheless. Unlike the 2006 remake, this film has the unfortunate luck (some would say good luck) to have Wes Craven as a screenwriter. He actually wrote the script with his son Jonathan (obviously not learning from his father's mistakes), and the father and son team indulge in the usual amateurish tendencies that have plagued every film the elder Craven has ever done. The plot is wafer thin, borrowing from nearly every popular horror film that came before it, the characters are practically none existent (with the exception of the usual stereotypes), and the typical shock tactics are the kind that stopped being scary forty years ago. The dialogue is ideal for sixth graders, with such gems as "Who the fuck asked you, peace-ass shit boy?" and "I killed someone... it was easy, that's why it's so dangerous." Very nice. Craven's worst attribute, however, isn't his story or his characters or even his tin ear, it's his complete and total lack of suspense. He is totally inept at shaping a scene, letting it breathe, drawing an audience in, and then truly shocking us. He relies on rapid violence to get his message across, and for that reason, his movies, including this one, are forgettable.

I'm picking on Craven, obviously, and maybe I should spread the blame around a little bit. He didn't direct this movie, Martin Weisz did. Who is Martin Weisz? Don't ask me, I've never heard of the guy before this. Apparently he is a famous music video and commercial director (aren't they all?) who has been given his shot at the big time with this film. Don't quit your day job, pal. Weisz's direction is all over the place, going back and forth from bland and routine camera set-ups to attention grabbing, imitation Peckinpah slow-motion photography. At times, it seems as if he really gets a kick out of what he's doing, and then there are moments where he was obviously snoozing on the job. One gets the feeling that Craven and the other producers weren't happy with elements of the picture, and asked for re-shoots. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy, who has done great work with director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Dog Soldiers), is wasted here, and it's a real shame. A desert setting should be open season to talented photographers, but McCurdy's work is strictly by the numbers. The acting isn't out to leave an impact either, which seems to be par for most of the horror genre today. We get the pansy guy (Michael McMillian) who turns out to be a hero, the hot blond (Jessica Stroup) whose makeup never seems to get smudged (no matter how much dust, shit, water, and blood is splattered on her face), and the hardass (the usually quite good Jacob Vargas) who sees himself as a cross between Tony Montana and John Rambo. Drama students should look elsewhere for role models.

All in all, the movie is what it is: a cheesy, violent, at times distasteful, horror film. It has all the usual horror hallmarks: the thumb in the eye socket, a head bashed repeatedly with a rock, and the slicing of the Achilles tendon. I could rag on the fact that the one liberal in the film is relegated to guarding a portable shitter, but I'll let it slide. Looking for political subtext here is like saying that Transformers is some sort of existential treatise on how technology ends up biting us in the ass. No go. This is a film full of schlock and gore that revels in it's own bad taste. The first rule of film criticism is to go into a movie with an open mind. I've never been too good at following rules, and obviously being exposed to this sort of material before, I had my expectations, and they were very low. The film exceeded them (they had nowhere to go but up), so I cut it a little slack. But this is the last time, I swear. If I ever have to sit through another mutant rape scene (or any rape scene really), I'm going to pitch a fit. You've been warned, Hollywood. The Hills Have Eyes II is a cheap, exploitive film, but I was mildly entertained, even though I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was set in the jungle and called Predator.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Transformers (2007)

Directed by: Michael Bay
Written by: Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, John Rogers
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson

Color, 144 minutes
Rated PG-13

Grade: C+

Michael Bay has been polluting the cinematic world for well over a decade now. His films have gone from bad (Bad Boys) to worse (The Island), and he’s established himself as a sort of modern day Edward D. Wood Jr., albeit one with far more money in his wallet, and far less passion in his heart. But Bay may have found his niche. His latest, and greatest, hack-attack is Transformers, arguably the longest and most stylish car commercial ever committed to celluloid, based on the (somehow) extremely popular toy line. Transformers is a film for the children of the 1980’s. It’s a veritable love letter to all of those who don’t want to grow up, who want to be Toys “R” Us kids forever, and on that level, the film succeeds. For everyone else, though, the film is a chore.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is your average teenager. He’s anything but popular, he’s desperately saving up for his first car, and he has a crush on local hottie, Mikaela (Megan Fox). His parents (played wonderfully by Kevin Dunn and Julie White) are obviously well to do, but they are trying to teach Sam the value of a dollar. He has to raise $2,000 for a car, and, if he does so, his Dad will match him dollar for dollar. Because he apparently doesn’t have a job, Sam has resorted to selling some of the artifacts left over from his great-great-grandfather’s days as a famous explorer. What Sam doesn’t know however, is that his grandpappy’s spectacles have been etched with the coordinates of the “Allspark,” a giant cube that a bunch of alien robots are desperately trying to find. Oblivious to the fact that the fate of the world lies in his hands, Sam is finally able to get himself a car: a rusted out canary yellow Z-28. There’s something wrong, though, and Sam’s car starts acting kind of funky. It runs though, and it gets him where he wants to go, notably a lame party near a lake where Sam tries his damnedest to impress Mikaela. Her jock boyfriend gets in the way and Sam retreats. Mikaela, pissed at her boyfriend for being a jerk, hits the road and begins the long walk home. All of a sudden, Sam’s Camaro starts blasting out The Cars’ “Drive” (nice touch), and the young man seizes his chance. He persuades Mikaela to get in the car, and slowly, the mismatched pair begins the long process of falling in love.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a US military base is under attack by vehicles gone haywire. A helicopter transforms into a giant robot and lays waste to everything in sight. The few remaining survivors, led by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson, manage to flee the area, only to find their lives threatened by a massive mechanical scorpion. The Pentagon gets word of this and the Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight, pretty much parodying himself) has resorted to some extreme measures: hiring a bunch of amateur techno-freaks to figure out just what kind of force they’re up against. In the middle of all this deliberation, a boom box on Air Force One turns into an annoying spider looking thing that hacks through the defense network, and locates the whereabouts of Sam and his antique spectacles. Then all hell breaks loose. A rogue police car stalks and attacks Sam in a parking garage. What looks like the end for Sam turns into a day of discovery when his Camaro transforms into Bumblebee, a gentle but strong robot who communicates through his radio. Bumblebee saves Sam’s life, and then sends out a beacon (kind of like the Bat-Signal that Commissioner Gordon uses) to his fellow Autobots (good guys), led by the incredibly boring Peterbilt truck, Optimus Prime. With the Autobots’ help, Sam must retrieve the spectacles and find the Allspark before the Decepticons (bad guys), ran by the evil Megatron (voiced quite unintelligibly by Hugo Weaving), beat them to the punch.

Yeah, there’s quite a bit of plot for a movie based on a bunch of action figures, but it’s all in vain. After an enjoyable first half, the film disintegrates into nothing more than scenes of robots blowing shit up. The special effects are great and all, but there is nothing under the surface, and there sure as hell isn’t more than meets the eye to these robots. Can you really care about a bunch of machines that are practically indistinguishable from each other? Children probably will, and most of them will love this film, but adults will have their fill and start to yawn. The bulk of the cast does nothing to help matters, and most of them are nothing short of horrible. Megan Fox is your typical window dressing and eye candy; she’s nice on the eyes, but hell on the ears. Duhamel and Gibson are pretty boys that are in good shape, and they’ll most likely please some of the female crowd. Voight is one note, as he has been since the late ’70’s, and John Turturro shows up to prove that he can act badly too. The dialogue, courtesy of writers Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci, famous for their work with J.J. Abrams (another hack of all trades) is as infantile as you would expect, and Bay’s direction is as flashy (and useless) as usual. But to his credit, this is the right material for him. As much as I could (and should) dog on this film, I’m going to let quite a bit slide, it is about giant alien robots after all. No, Bay still has no sense of pacing or suspense (one would think that Co-Producer Steven Spielberg could have helped out in that department), but he knows exactly how to utilize slow motion, and there was, at least, one time when I muttered to myself, under my breath of course, the word “Sweet.” Heretical, I know, but I couldn’t help it.

When you really get down to it, though, there is one reason, and one reason only, to sit through this film: Shia LaBeouf. The kid is fantastic, and his scenes in the beginning of the film have an almost domestic comedy feel to them that is extremely enjoyable. Remember Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti and Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? That’s LaBouf here. He is the perfect audience surrogate, bringing to mind, not only Dreyfuss, but also Jack Lemmon, Tom Hanks, and even Jimmy Stewart. He has a wide-eyed sense of wonder and curiosity that’s perfect for his role, but he’s also quick-witted, charming, intelligent, and natural. Now, I’m certainly not going to complain about the fact that Megan Fox knows exactly the right moments to arch her back and stick out her ass, but girls like her are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. Talent like LaBeouf is extremely rare. If you’re going to see this film, see it for him.

There are other problems: The focus on Chevy emblems is hard to swallow (although a transforming Mountain Dew vending machine is possibly the most clever product placement since Spielberg used Reese’s Pieces in E.T.), and a distasteful image of Megatron, in jet form, cutting a building in half brings back painful memories of 9/11. But most should be forgiven here, I mean, let’s face it; the Transformers toys and cartoons were dumb when I was a kid, you can’t really expect the movie to be much better. This is a movie made for juveniles, by juveniles, nothing more. Try to keep that in the back of your mind while keeping your eyes on LaBeouf, and you might have a decent enough time, just don’t try and justify it to yourself.

Monday, July 2, 2007


Written & Directed by: Michael Moore

Color, 113 minutes
Rated PG-13

Grade: A

The cell phones are put on vibrate, the audience finally shuts up, and the lights go down on Sicko, Michael Moore's scathing attack on the American health care system. In the past, I have laughed along with Moore's films. Sure, he's made me think, and made me angry. He has a special way of compiling so many obvious truths together that we can't help but be overcome, and his use of satire often outweighs the scarier moments, but Sicko is different monster. Yes, many people will laugh, they will find the irony and the hypocrisy, and they will enjoy their two hours. Some will laugh just because Moore himself is such a character, and some will laugh because that's the only way they know how to deal with the things that are put on display. But me, I didn't laugh. Ten minutes into the film, a devastating and unshakable feeling of sadness came over me. Not just for the nearly 50 million American citizens that don't have health insurance, but for all of us. To be honest, Moore doesn't present anything new or revolutionary with this film, he simply lays it out for all to see, and by the end of the film, I was emotionally spent. This is one of the most frightening, heartbreaking, utterly hopeless experiences that I've ever had watching a film. And I'm all the more thankful for it.

The first 30 minutes or so focus on stories of individuals, some covered by insurance, some not. We see one terrifying incident after another: accidentally losing two fingers to a table saw, a man has to choose which finger to have reattached; middle finger for $60,000 or ring finger for $12,000. Which do you think he chose? Parents, with a little girl going deaf, are manhandled and told that a cochlear implant for two ears is "experimental," they'll have to settle for one. A woman, who works for a hospital, fights for cancer treatment that could potentially save her husband's life. Each form of treatment is refused, because they too are considered "experimental," even though they are all FDA approved. Her husband dies. Another woman rushes her infant daughter to the hospital after a fever induced seizure. The E.R. refuses treatment, because her insurance only covers certain hospitals. Her baby goes into cardiac arrest, and dies. A Southern California hospital begins treatment on their homeless patients, reconsiders, and then puts them in a cab and leaves them, still in hospital gowns, abandoned on a sidewalk in front of the nearest homeless shelter. Are you starting to see a pattern emerge here? And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Moore, ever willing to pound his point further and further into our heads, visits Canada, France, England, and even Cuba just to show how inept and greedy America has become. We see how these countries benefit from Universal health care (a.k.a. "Socialized medicine"), and we see just how hard America has fought to keep us from becoming like them. Everything comes into play: drug companies, HMO's, Nixon, Reagan, Bush (Sr. and Jr.), Hillary Clinton, and even the American Medical Association. The oppressors spring up like a hydra, with heads involved in all aspects of government, virtually impossible to defeat. Every person in a powerful position has his or her price, and there is always enough money to throw around. The verdict is clear: health care in this country is nothing but an ever-growing stream of broken promises, paper trails, and lives lost unnecessarily. We've become a crumbling nation, one that is afraid, ignorant, and completely unsympathetic towards its citizens.

Sure, Moore knows how to spin, skip, and manipulate things to fit his artistic vision. We don't really need the close-ups of children, balling their eyes out, saying goodbye to their father who is leaving for a construction job in Iraq. We could do without the use of a certain bit of music from Platoon in a scene where a doctor testifies before Congress, saying that she essentially killed a man by denying him service in order to save the HMO a little bit of money. Taking 9/11 rescue workers, who were refused care because they were "volunteers," to Guantanamo Bay to ask for treatment is there simply to cram the irony down our throats, and we shouldn't forget that the foreign hospitals that Moore visits are very aware that there are cameras in front of their faces. They will obviously want to look good. Regardless of these complaints, I believe the film succeeds simply because there is so much truth and heartache from real people treated horribly, horribly wrong by the system.

To Moore's own credit, though, this is his most mature work to date. He plays it cool most of the time, letting images and stories unfold naturally. Yes, his voice over narration is always right around the corner with another smart-ass comment, but it's actually needed here. Without it, the proceedings would be nearly unbearable to sit through as frightening as they are. His voice, and presence, becomes a welcome addition, because it's essential to have a few light moments here and there. As an interviewer, he's less fierce than usual, he doesn't set out to make anyone look like an idiot, he knows this material is above that. Even though he ends the film on an egotistical note, his soapbox is not nearly as high off the ground this time. He wants this film to be accessible to everyone, and it is. Moore doesn't have the subtlety and patience of someone like Errol Morris, and because of this, he has to resort to more entertaining methods. They may be a bit much at times, but, more often than not, they work. Personally, I have enjoyed all of his documentaries, but this is his greatest achievement by far.

Some will not want to see this film, because of Moore's former excursions, but I ask you to look past that and reconsider. This isn't a political issue, it isn't a monetary issue, it's basic human rights. We should all see this film, not just for ourselves, but for our children and loved ones. Some of us are lucky, we haven't yet been treated unfairly by the health care system, but many of us out there are not as fortunate. Those individuals need a voice, and Moore is it. Take two hours, spend ten dollars, and put yourself in someone else's shoes for a while. You may not like what you see, but your life will be better because of it. Amen to that.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Black Snake Moan (2007)

Written & Directed by: Craig Brewer
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake

Color, 116 minutes
Rated R

Grade: C-

If a grown up, skanked out, half-naked Wednesday Addams chained to a radiator is your idea of a good time (you know who you are), then you're going to love Black Snake Moan. For the rest of us who aren't thirteen, Moan is a disappointment. The storytelling is hackneyed, and there is an unpleasant, arrogant air of provocation hanging over the entire film. Writer/Director Craig Brewer may have proved how hard it truly is out there for a pimp in Hustle & Flow, but here he proves that turning what may be an enjoyably brief, juvenile wet dream into a two-hour film may be even harder.

Christina Ricci plays Rae, a trailer park nymphomaniac, and as the film opens, Rae has her hands full. Her boyfriend Ronnie, played by Justin (don't quit your day job) Timberlake, is passionately jumping her bones. The act is bittersweet, however, because once it's finished, Ronnie makes a beeline for the bathroom and continues to puke his guts out (I'm sure that's what every girl wishes for after being drilled by Timberlake). Ah, but Ronnie has a reason for the stomach knots, he's being shipped off to Iraq. They shed some tears, blow some kisses, and then Ronnie heads on down the lane. Three minutes later, Rae falls to the grown, clutching her legs, tugging at her shirt. She's gotta have it, and have it she does with just about everything that can walk, wiggle, or squirm. She takes on the local pot dealer, most of the football team, and she even tries her hand at Ronnie's best friend. He sees the chance he's been waiting for, but she makes fun of his "manliness" and the bastard punches her repeatedly in the face. Trying desperately to wake her up, he senses something maybe wrong, and, not knowing what to do, he kicks her out of his pickup. She's left lying on the road, unconscious, clothed in nothing but a cutoff t-shirt and panties.

The next day she's found by Samuel L. Jackson's Lazarus (pinning the film as a Christian allegory would be giving Brewer too much credit), a farmer/washed up blues musician who's been scorned by the wife who left him for his younger brother. Lazarus takes Rae back to his house, bathes her, prays over her, and does his best to "get her well." Rae is in and out of consciousness, breaking out into fits, writhing around on the floor, and Lazarus, in all his infinite wisdom, decides to chain her up to cure her "sickness." That's one way to get Lindsay Lohan to stay in rehab, I guess. The days go on, and with the help of a Bible thumper or two, Rae gets better. Lazarus is able to take on the manifestation of a fatherly figure to Rae, and the two establish a sort of familial bond. Lazarus, feeling better than he has in years, is inspired to pick up the old Gibson and put his wife behind him. He finds himself drawn to Angela, the local pharmacist, played brilliantly by S. Epatha Merkerson. Love is in the air, but everything threatens to come crashing down once Ronnie, discharged because of anxiety, gets wind of what's going on.

First of all, let me just say that I believe Brewer is a real find. I wasn't crazy about Hustle & Flow, but I enjoyed it and recognized the fresh, young talent behind the wheel. The music in Flow was essential to the film's success, and was subservient to the story. Here, the music is nothing but an afterthought ("Wouldn't it be cool if we made Lazarus a blues guitarist?"). There's no reason for it. Brewer tries to have it both ways, and he fumbles the ball. He's like one of those guys who juggles chainsaws. Like tossing around bowling pins wouldn't be enough, you gotta try and top that, and essentially risk cutting a limb off in the process. The interplay between Rae and Lazarus is interesting enough on it's own without the music, and he really could have created something substantial there. We don't need the slow motion scenes of sweaty people dancing and flailing their hair around. Yes, it's cool that Jackson sings and does his own guitar work, but it lessens the potential dramatic thrust that could have made this film something unique.

Worse than that, Brewer trips up on his own stylistic indulgences. We automatically know we're in trouble when the title credits come down over a slow motion image of Ricci, walking in the middle of the road, flipping off a tractor that is trying to get her to move out of the way. That's real classy. We get the heavy-handed symbolism, the usual Southern stereotypes, and the unfortunate Cameron Crowe-like focus on soundtrack over more important, but not nearly as cool, stuff like character development, patient storytelling, and dialogue. But, I guess if I had to pick one thing about Moan that really sticks in my craw, besides Rae's Laura Palmer-esque tendencies, Brewer's wannabe Lynchian flashbacks, and the potentially offensive idea of a woman being chained to a radiator because she's obsessed with sex, it would have to be the fact that, above all, Brewer is a hopeless romantic. As a storyteller, it's his biggest flaw. The proceedings are rendered predictable, and the happy ending practically ensures that the film will leave us with nothing but a forgettable two hour excursion. And it's a shame.

While I could go on with my rant (why does Rae's behavior have to be justified with the same old cliches), I won't, only because there are a few positives that must be brought to attention. First off, this is the best work that Jackson has done since Changing Lanes. He takes Brewer's flat idea of a stubborn ("I ain't gonna be moved"), broken individual, and makes it flesh. Against our better judgment, Jackson makes us understand Lazarus, and the method in his madness. It's a touching performance that deserves recognition, and Ricci is every bit his equal. Her sickly appearance leaves an impression, but we're won over by the truth and vulnerability in her performance. It's a risky role, in any given scene she is either topless or shot from the waist down, but she pulls it off marvelously. I would like to think that people would stand up and applaud her work here, but Ricci has never gotten her fair shake. For years, she has been bold and selective in her choices, and one quick look at her career shapes up and stands right with Johnny Depp B.B. (Before Bruckheimer). There aren't many actors that are as talented and fearless as she is, and to be quite honest, I doubt there ever will be. This film, and most of her others, are worth watching just to witness her at work. We should be thankful.

With the exception of the wonderful, Oscar worthy Merkerson, the bulk of the supporting cast, led by the cardboard cutout Timberlake, does nothing to help matters. Most of them are acutely aware that the camera is turned on, and they do their best to make sure the audience knows they're taking things seriously ("Look Ma, I'm in a movie."). It's increasingly painful to watch people who have no clue as to what they're doing. Cinematographer Amelia Vincent does her best to make up for the amateurishness by creating a wholly believable atmosphere. Tennessee's back roads, farms, and run down road houses come alive under the guidance of her wonderful eye. You almost choke on the stench of stale cigarette smoke, rank body odor, and spilt beer. She's Brewer's best weapon, and he should consider himself lucky. God only knows how bad things could have been without her on board.

Overall, though, we need to give Brewer credit for trying something different. This is far more ambitious than his previous film, and I hope he continues to branch out. He needs to learn when to pull it in, harness the power that's already at work, and let things grow organically. He has a unique voice, and the potential to stand apart from the run of the mill junk that fills the multiplex every week. Not every film is a success, but they should all be learning experiences. Take it in stride Brewer, pick up the pieces and start again. American cinema needs more risk takers; don't blow your chance to establish yourself near the front of the pack.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Directed by: Gabor Csupo
Written by: Jeff Stockwell & David Patterson, based on the novel by Katherine Paterson
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Robert Patrick, Zooey Deschanel

Color, 96 minutes
Rated: PG

Grade: B+

Tuesday night at my house has been deemed "family movie night," and it's usually the same old thing. We'll rent the newest kids flick, our son will be mildly entertained, and my wife and I will go through the motions. During most of these excursions I make enough sarcastic comments to result in a lap full of popcorn (due to my son's impeccable aim) and an ample amount of bruising around my ribs (due to my wife's bony elbow), but this Tuesday was different. We picked up Bridge to Terabithia, a film that we had already seen earlier this year at the multiplex. At the end of each viewing of this film, I've noticed the lack of popcorn to clean up and bruises to tend to. I still maintain that I included my fair share of snide observations, but they became fewer and fewer as the film would progress. The reason is simple: for most of its running time, Terabithia is a pleasant, imaginative, even intelligent family film, and then it pulls the rug out. It goes to a deep, dark, resonant place that most conventional films would not even begin to approach. It's being sold as a Narnia/Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings knockoff, but I can assure you, it is far from that. It is nothing less than the Million Dollar Baby of family films.

Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is a typical tween. He enjoys running, drawing, and crushing on his music teacher (Zooey Deschanel). He has four sisters who constantly rag on him, and his parents aren't exactly the most financially inclined. On his first day of school, Jesse is searching endlessly for his ratty old sneakers, and then is heartbroken to find that his mother has thrown them away. With no option but to wear a pair of hand me downs, Jesse grabs a black magic marker to cover up the pink Adidas stripes. He does his chores, catches up with the bus, and heads to school with the only hopeful thought in his mind being of winning "the big race." Oh, how his dreams are shattered when he finishes second, losing to Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), his new neighbor. This is bad news for Jesse, because whatever tiny bit of "coolness" that wasn't ruined by wearing pink shoes has now been completely obliterated. To lose to a girl is bad enough for his credibility, but to lose to the new girl is simply earth shattering. Leslie's having her own trouble, not only is adjusting to her new environment causing difficulties, kids are constantly picking on her because she has a bit of an overactive imagination and her family has decided not to own a television. Kids can be so cruel, I know. As time passes, however, these two outcasts slowly form a friendship.

In the woods that run behind their homes, they find a refuge away from the trials of the everyday where their imaginations can run wild. They fix up a ramshackle old treehouse, and invent a magical kingdom called Terabithia, filled with fantastical creatures made up of the demeanors of school bullies, where they can be whatever they want. It's kind of like Heavenly Creatures with preteen sexual tension taking the place of lesbian subtext. Here they carve out new lives. They find an understanding and a bond between each other that is too strong to be broken by their differences in class. They are free to be children, and free to experience all of the innocence and imagination that youth should hold. Unfortunately, the real world catches up to them and in a masterfully handled third act, fantasy and youthful ignorance clash with the harshness and unrelenting horror of life.

For all the fun I may poke at it, I truly respected this film. Sure, I have my complaints. I mean, let's face it, if I had Zooey Deshanel for a music teacher and we got to sing Steve Earle tunes instead of the entire Disney repertoire, I would, undoubtedly, have fonder memories of grade school, but I wasn't as lucky. The teeny bop soundtrack is cutesy and it threatens to be a little overbearing at times, but that tends to come with the territory. These are minor quibbles anyways, and the meat of the film is in its extremely sensitive material. Director Gabor Csupo, coming from animation (he's responsible for the God-awful Rugrats), does a commendable job. He never lets the special effects take center stage, which is a smart move. The characters and situations are mature enough to compel an audience, and he knows it. As his cinematographer, Csupo has chosen the great Michael Chapman, who's responsible for lensing such warm hearted pictures as Taxi Driver, Hardcore, and Raging Bull, as well as one of my personal favorites, The Last Waltz (had to get that in there). Chapman brings the magic to life, shooting the film in warm, earthy tones that provide just the right amount of foreshadowing. Csupo also manages to get a big boost from screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Patterson, who obviously know their way around such delicate proceedings. They should; Patterson is the son of Katherine, the author of the popular novel on which the film is based. David's real life experiences were the inspiration for the story, and he infuses all that heart and tragedy into the film.

Even with all of this goodness intact, the film still wouldn't work without solid performers in the two leading roles. Thankfully, Hutcherson and Robb are fantastic. They're able to convey the awkwardness of childhood without overdoing it the way most films do. More than that, though, they have a real chemistry together and you could believe that these two have been friends for some time. They manage to draw in even the most hardened of audience members (me), and really cause a genuine sense of wonder and excitement. It's enjoyable to watch and you can tell that there is some real talent coming up in the world, and Hutcherson's exchanges with his father (a pitch perfect Robert Patrick) are especially touching. When the Harry Potter crap has had its run, and Daniel Radcliffe is desperately searching for another Peter Shaffer production to save the day, Hutcherson and Robb will still be making quality films. Bet on it.

This is the third production to come from the collaboration of Disney and Walden Media. The first (Holes) was lame, their second (Narnia) was a tad better, but harder to swallow because it reveled in its religious symbolism. Terabithia is a giant leap forward. It's mature, graceful, and literate, with much to say about the value of imagination, and it gets bonus points for taking the time to include one of the most intelligent discussions of Christianity in recent years (Ingmar Bergman himself would applaud). Maybe I'm a sucker, but I was won over by this little powerhouse. I think you will be as well.

Monday, June 18, 2007


Directed by: Brad Bird
Written by: Brad Bird, Jim Capobianco, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, Jan Pinkava
Featuring the voices of: Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofolo, and Peter O' Toole

Color, 110 minutes
Rated G

Grade: A

Let's pretend for a moment, shall we. Imagine that I work for Pixar, and I have the task of pitching Ratatouille to the studio chiefs. At the risk of sounding like an outtake from The Player, it would probably go something like this: Patrick Suskind's Perfume as envisioned by Chuck Jones. Yeah, that sounds about right, except that Ratatouille may be even better. It's a fantastic film, first frame to last, and it accomplishes a feat that few films in recent years have been able to do: it brings a smile to your face, and keeps it there.

As our story opens, we're introduced to Remy, possibly the cutest animated rodent to ever hit the big screen (imagine a more realistic looking Mickey Mouse, with less guffaw and better taste), voiced impressively by comedian Patton Oswalt. Remy's having a difficult time, he has an incredibly refined palate, and because of this, his family has elected him to the position of poison sniffer. Remy, however, has higher aspirations, and he looks up to his idol, the recently departed chef and best selling author Auguste Gusteau, for guidance. Gusteau is a believer in the philosophy that "anyone can cook," and Remy, ever the idealist, takes this to heart. After he's separated from his family, Remy is on the verge of starvation, and he's beginning to hallucinate. He imagines an itsy bitsy Gusteau, who flies around giving him advice in a Jiminy Cricket sort of way. With Jiminy Gusteau's help, Remy finds himself in a sewer located directly below (where else?), Gusteau's restaurant. He scurries his way up to an open window, and watches in delight. As his attention focuses on the sensory overload attacking him from the kitchen, we, the audience, find ourselves drawn towards a young man by the name of Linguini (Lou Romano). He's a lanky, awkward little guy, who has just been hired to take out the garbage and wash the dishes. As Remy is running rampant through the kitchen, he notices Linguini messing around with a pot of soup that is being prepared. Knowing that Linguini has botched the food's potential for success, Remy, in an astonishing sequence, rushes to the rescue, adding just the right amounts of herbs and spices to fix Linquini's screw up. Linguini notices Remy, and before he can do anything, the soup is served, to a food critic nonetheless. The soup, of course, is a hit, and Linguini gets the credit. He's given a promotion, yet he knows he can't possibly recreate what Remy has done, so he does what anyone in his position would do: he asks the rat for help. Now, anyone who has seen a Disney film can tell you that animals can speak English amongst themselves, as well as being able to understand the English that humans speak, but they can't necessarily be heard by human ears. This presents itself to be a bit of a problem for our two heroes. What ensues from this mess are delightfully inspired scenes of physical comedy in which the two try and figure out a way to work together without exposing Remy to the rest of the kitchen.

The two finally begin to mesh, and their work becomes a sensation. Gusteau's restaurant is having its biggest success since the death of its founder, but behind the scenes, there are complications. Collette, the meat and poultry chef takes a liking to Linguini, and a romance is on the rise. Just when things are starting to work out, Skinner, the head chef, has plans to buy the restaurant and market Gusteau's image on a series of frozen foods. He's skeptic of Linguini's newfound talent, and he becomes hellbent on exposing the truth. The plot thickens, as Linguini becomes even more of a threat when a shocking revelation from the past is unveiled. Remy, having a hard enough time trying to hold Linguini's hand, has his own problems when his family reenters the picture and appropriately begin to give him guff for being so trustworthy of humans. Our two heroes slowly begin to drift apart, and all hope seems to be lost. On the horizon, however, a storm is brewing, and his name is Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole in Eli Cross mode), a nefarious food critic (Cruella de Vil meets Andrew Sarris) who strikes fear in the heart of every chef in Paris. Ego's last visit to the restaurant had resulted in a scathing review that nearly ruined the establishment and most likely drove its founder to his grave. Can our two unlikely protagonists pull together and take on the force of such a villain? You better believe it.

Ratatouille has an abundance of plot, and it is handled remarkably well. Brad Bird, who was responsible for Pixar's The Incredibles, establishes himself as a master of economy, by never falling prey to the exposition. He uses widescreen compositions to capture so much detail that the film cries out for repeated viewings.
There are so many things going on at one time that you find your eyes darting from one side of the screen to the other, doing your best to soak it all in. As a feat of animation, it is dazzling, as a feat of direction, it is masterful. Bird is the most cinematic of the Pixar crew and the one most likely to be able to survive in the world of live action. He indulges in references to past films, including a tip of the hat to Citizen Kane that had me in stitches.

The voice talent shines in every role. Oswalt makes Remy an endearing, loveable, yet intelligent creature, while Romano provides a perfect sidekick in Linguini. The supporting cast makes the most of their time, with Janeane Garofalo making Collette an appropriate hard case, Brad Garrett hilariously overdoing his French accent in the role of Gusteau, while Ian Holm is particularly nasty as Skinner. Taking pride of place, however, is O'Toole. He has a gem of a villain in Ego, and he knows it, giving what may be the most infectiously fun voice work in all of Pixar's productions. He's having a ball, and so is the audience.

Let's face it, Pixar has had an incredible run, but after seeing the almost unbearably, and embarrassingly, cartoonish Cars, I began to get nervous. Breaking out in a cold sweat, my hands began to shake, I had to stop and collect my thoughts. Was this is a sign of Pixar's venture toward mediocrity? Could the animation powerhouse possibly be on the way out? Not if Brad Bird has anything to say about it. His Ratatouille is the most intelligent and mature work in the Pixar oeuvre. It is a breathtaking piece of filmmaking, and I couldn't possibly be happier with it. Pixar is back, baby, and better than ever.