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.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Breach (2007)

Directed by: Billy Ray
Written by: Adam Mazer, William Rotko, Billy Ray
Starring: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney

Color, 110 minutes
Rated: PG-13

Grade: A-

Writer/Director Billy Ray is back, his last film was 2003's criminally underseen Shattered Glass (a.k.a. Hayden Christensen Acts?!), a brilliant expose on "journalist"/liar/professional fabricator Stephen Glass of The New Republic, and we should be thankful. This time around, Ray takes aim at another factual target, Robert Hanssen (played by the incomparable Chris Cooper), a former FBI agent, with a Catherine Zeta-Jones obsession, who sold information to the Soviets for 22 years before being caught in 2001. Breach is a considerable step up from Glass, in scope and ambition, but Ray proves himself worthy by never losing sight of the little things, and we as an audience get the opportunity to see the emergence of an important new voice in American cinema. Breach is a small, modest masterpiece of a thriller that avoids all the usual cliches, and makes all the right moves.

The audience's surrogate is Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a young, hardheaded operative looking to fast track his way to agent status (he's got a young bride (Caroline Dhavernas) on the home front, and can't bring back the bacon with his measly salary), who gets tipped to keep tabs on Hanssen. The higher-ups keep O'Neill in the dark, telling him only that Hanssen is a "sexual deviant" whose actions could be quite embarrassing for the Bureau if they were to get out. O'Neill agrees to the detail, but finds it quite boring, noting that Hanssen may be a prick, but he is no way a threat. Tension is tight between Hanssen and O'Neill at first, but their relationship grows due to common bonds, they're both Catholic, they're both married, and they both love their country. O'Neill begins to respect his target, and he willingly begins to accompany Hanssen and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) to church and family get-togethers. It's all in good, clean, ultraconservative American fun, that is, until O'Neill gets hip to what's going on behind the scenes. Now, what use does a sexual deviant, he makes videos of he and his wife knocking boots, have for a trunk full of Uzi's and AK-47's? They're not for role-playing, I can assure you. O'Neill buckles down and raises his game, and you can pretty much guess the rest.

This type of material, which is done via television on a weekly basis, usually wouldn't make me take notice, let alone hand out kudos, but, then again, it is rarely ever handled this well. Instead of going the more-bang-for-buck-route, Ray revels in restraint. He pulls the leash; keeps it quiet, and allows the story to grow organically, focusing on the method, and putting the madness on the back burner. He's deep into his material, he knows it from the inside out, and he understands how incendiary it can be in its most simplistic form. He never shouts, he never rubs it in your face, and because of this, the tension builds, and you're drawn in closer to the screen, waiting silently for the bubble to burst. Through the intelligent and literate screenplay, he is able find the nuance in each character, adding dimensions that make them all the more sympathetic, and at times, frightening.

Speaking of characters, how about Chris Cooper, could this guy possibly be any better? Has there been a role that he couldn't conquer, or a film that he couldn't enhance exponentially? For Cooper, it's not enough for us to get the sense that Hanssen is a bad dude, he makes us look deeper, to peel away the layers of the individual. He makes us see all sides, from the loyal Opus Dei member to the gun aficionado to the devoted grandfather to the pervert, and we realize that this isn't an ordinary movie villain, but rather a fully formed character that we rarely get to see anymore. Most costars would cower in the presence of such a performance, but Phillippe stands his ground. Unfairly overlooked by the Academy for his superb work in Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, Phillippe sets out to make viewers notice him this time around. O'Neill is a tough character, because on one hand, he obviously fears his opponent, but on the other, he respects and even admires him as well, but Phillippe nails it. He latches onto O'Neills inner turmoil and lets it boil just close enough to the surface that we know he means business. He doesn't play second fiddle here, he goes toe to toe with Cooper, and it's spellbinding to watch. Call it a secondary role if you want, I call it a role in which stars are made. Take note, Hollywood. Ray does a fine job filling out the rest of the cast with familiar faces and reliable character actors, most notably Laura Linney as Phillippe's superior, but when all is said and done it's the battle of wills between Cooper and Phillippe that retains in the memory banks.

Ray's eye for detail easily rivals his knack for casting. Together with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who paints the screen in cold and sterile steely blues reminiscent of his work in Silence of the Lambs, Ray embellishes his mise-en-scene with telling subtleties, such as a displayed crucifix, the replacement of portraits, and claustrophobic departmental hallways with unopened boxes of brand new computers. Ray is growing more assured as a visual stylist, and his work here hearkens back to such '70's filmmakers as Pakula and Coppola. Let's hope that he keeps it up.

Call me excitable if you must, but thoughtful, confident filmmaking such as this is all but absent in today's marketplace of rehashes and repulsion for over-excitable audiences. The symbolism can overstay its welcome at times, and the ending might be a little too flat, but overall we have a mature, compelling piece of work that asks for our attention instead of our basic reactions. Breach is a member of a dying breed. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ghost Rider (2007)

Written & Directed by: Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Peter Fonda

Color, 123 minutes (Extended Cut DVD)
Rating: Extended Cut Not Rated (PG-13 Theatrical)

Grade: C

As a child, I was fascinated with comic books and over the last seven or eight years I've been happy, in a nostalgic sort of way, to see so many of the beloved heroes from my youth make their way to the big screen. The nostalgia is officially beginning to wear off, and my patience is nearing its end. There have been plenty of terrible comic book adaptations in this young century (Fantastic Four, Constantine, X-Men 3), but there has always seemed to be a good one somewhere right around the corner. That corner seems to be fading from view, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to tolerate the continuing onslaught of comic book crap, so, you can imagine my surprise when I didn't ooze hatred for Ghost Rider. I know, I know, I'm getting soft, right? Maybe, but Ghost Rider is a film that, in spite of all its cheesiness, has its heart in the right place, even though its skull may be on fire.

Nicolas Cage stars as Johnny Blaze, stunt rider extraordinaire, who, as a child, sold his soul to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), just call him Lucifer, in order to save his father from cancer. Satan, being the bastard that he is, cures Papa's illness, then goes back on his word by killing him during a motorcycle stunt. Poor little Johnny, who would have thought that you couldn't trust a guy who demands that contracts must be signed in blood. Pissed to high heaven, Johnny blazes a trail out of town on his Dad's chopper, and goes down to the crossroads, Robert Johnson style, where he's met by Satan, who tells him that he is now a Ghost Rider, kind of like the Devil's version of Boba Fett with a motorcycle in place of that cool backpack. Flash forward a decade or two, and Johnny, all grown up, does his Evel Knievel routine on a, seemingly, weekly basis. He jumps football fields and Black Hawk helicopters, somehow managing to cheat death every time. Johnny's manager (Donal Logue) is worried about him, but JB shrugs him off, choosing to spend his time eating jellybeans out of a martini glass and furthering his obsession with monkeys. All this changes when Roxanne (Eva Mendes), Johnny's ex-flame, strolls into town. She's become a hot shot reporter, and she wants an exclusive. Johnny, however, has his own exclusive ideas about Roxanne, and when he begins to make his move, Satan shows up with another interesting proposition: If Johnny destroys Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the Devil's wayward son; he can have his soul back. Johnny, apparently not willing to learn from his past mistakes, reluctantly agrees, and is transformed into a flaming skeleton, ready to do battle with the forces of Hell. It ain't exactly Faust, I know, but it'll do in a pinch.

Ghost Rider, like Blade, was never a huge success as a comic. It had its followers, of which I was not one, but it never really took off with the masses. It never had much to offer in the way of character, and existed for so long simply because it was a bit different. This all changed in the early '90's, when Todd McFarlane took the same basic idea and created a much more inventive, and interesting character in Spawn. Nonetheless, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, who made Daredevil (another film I didn't hate), does his best with what little he has to work with. Even though the film is heavy with special effects (albeit very bad ones), he puts the crosshairs on Johnny Blaze's struggles as a person, instead of endless fight scenes. I could be giving him too much credit, the film's budget was rather small for this type of film, and having Cage as a star pretty much guarantees that he gets more face time than anyone else does, including his bony, CGI alter ego. Either way you want to look at it, you can't deny Johnson's obvious love for his material, and he essentially creates something out of nothing, which is always deserving of a little credit.

The performances are, for the most part, in earnest. Cage revels in this type of material with his usual tics and flaring of the eyes. He's quite possibly the most neurotic superhero to grace the big screen. Adding a dash of H.I. McDunnough from Raising Arizona here, a pinch of Sailor Ripley from Wild at Heart there, and a little bit of Dubya's voice pattern to top it all off, Cage has fun, and it's hard to hold it against him. Eva Mendes fulfills the cleavage requirements quite nicely, but she does her best to become more than the love interest/damsel in distress. Fonda's Mephistopheles isn't necessarily a man of wealth and taste, nor his menacing or devious in any particular way, but I can see where Johnson thought it would be clever to feature Fonda in another motorcycle movie, though we all know that of the Easy Rider crowd, Dennis Hopper would have ate this shit up. The biggest problem comes in Bentley (the kid with a video camera in American Beauty) as Blackheart. He doesn't do much of anything except for bitching about how he won't "fall" like his father did. For the Antichrist, he's a bit of a pantywaist. He's followed around by a group of minions who look a bit like Depeche Mode with worse makeup. Sam Elliott, who narrates the film, provides his usual reliably grizzled support as a wiseass gravedigger who knows more than he probably should. The films real star, however, is gifted Aussie cinematographer Russell Boyd (Master and Commander). He shoots the daylight scenes like a western, and then, when it's dark, he bathes the screen in deep, dark blues that accentuate the flames that emanate from Ghost Rider's body. He creates a moody atmosphere, and, even though the special effects let him down, he treats the more ghoulish imagery seriously, and while it's not exactly on a par with Fuseli, it is a hell of a lot more than what this material deserves.

Ghost Rider, despite the bad press, is not a terrible film. The special effects would seem more at home in a direct to DVD release, and the fight scenes are nothing new, but Johnson makes up for this by bringing the characters to the forefront, and allowing them some room to breathe. He gives Mendes a nice Linda Hamilton moment, and Cage does his best Tom Joad material at the end, and you go through the motions and you can laugh it off, but you can't hold it against them, it is just a comic book adaptation after all. I mean, what should I do? Should I complain about the dialogue being corny? Of course the dialogue is corny here, but Sam Raimi has worked with Oscar winners and Pulitzer Prize recipients throughout the Spider-Man trilogy, and he hasn't done much better either. Ghost Rider is a film of modest ambitions, and because of that, it's not a complete failure. Did I enjoy it? Not necessarily. Did I hate it? No, certainly not. Am I going to lose sleep because I regret spending two hours of my life on it? Not at all. Sue me.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Alpha Dog (2006)

Written & Directed by: Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Ben Foster, Anton Yelchin

Color, 117 minutes, Rated R

Grade: D-

The apple falls very far from the tree. Nowhere is this more evident than in the films of Nick Cassavetes. Nick's father, John, was the preeminent force in the foundation of American independent cinema. He specialized in making cheap, 16 mm films that starred family (wife Gena Rowlands in particular) and friends, and were shot on real locations, that sometimes included his own home. His films are truly legendary, and they changed cinema for the better. Nick, however, has none of his father's talent, and his films are some of the most painful cinematic experiences I have witnessed in my 24 years on Earth. From butchering his father's screenplay in She's so Lovely to making Denzel Washington look bad in John Q to heightening every cheesy, weepy, overwrought moment in The Notebook, Nick Cassavetes has done his best to ruin every great thing that his parents have accomplished, and it seemed impossible that he could get any worse. Welcome to a new low. Cassavetes' latest film, Alpha Dog is truly one of the worst films I have ever seen.

Based on the true story of drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood, Alpha Dog gives us a character named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a Southern California pot pusher in his late teens who's living the good life. He owns his own home, cars, and a huge TV. He keeps a bunch of flunkies around to do his bidding, and when he's not hitting the bong, watching MTV, or working out, he's collecting dough from those that owe him. Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), a self hating Jew who has an obsession with Nazism, is one of Truelove's customers whose credit is no longer any good, it's time to pay the piper. The problem is that Mazursky doesn't have the money, and as a result of this, the shit hits the proverbial fan. After Mazursky and some cronies ransack Truelove's place, Truelove hits back, kidnapping Mazursky's 15 year old stepbrother, Zack (Anton Yelchin). He leaves Zack in the hands of Frank (Justin Timeberlake), the only one of Truelove's cohorts that has a conscience, and the two bond over the course of a couple days, while Zack enjoys the glamor of drugs and underage girls. Once Truelove and his crew realize the ramifications of the crime, they do what they have to make their problems go away.

As if it wasn't bad enough that these events really took place, Cassavetes makes sure that he rams everything down our throats. His direction is flat and lifeless, and it seems like the only true gift he has is in exploiting his subjects, and draining every bit of nuance and genuine emotion this story may have had. He fills his cast with a bunch of photogenic but incredibly untalented "actors." Hirsch walks around aimlessly, spouting profanity, and gives us an idea of what Tony Montana may have been like when he was still in diapers. Foster's performance is brimming with intensity, and it's obvious that he is trying to echo Edward Norton in American History X and Ryan Gosling in The Believer, but unlike those two superior performers, he doesn't know what it means to be subtle. His scenes are flat out laughable, none more so than when he takes a dump on Truelove's carpet. Timberlake's performance has been praised in some circles, but like the film itself, it's neither genuine nor believable. He tries hard, and he may have some potential, but with a script like this, he doesn't have a chance.

Cassavetes does throw in some more famous actors to make sure the film isn't seen as a total circle jerk. Unfortunately, Bruce Willis has never been that welcome of a presence, and his few minutes here confirms that belief. Great character actor Harry Dean Stanton, however, is always welcome, but Cassavetes gives him nothing to work with, and it's almost embarrassing to see a man of Stanton's talent reduced to this kind of crap. I will give Cassavetes points on one thing, he somehow manages to get Sharon Stone, who plays Zack's mother, to give the worst performance of her career. It's almost fascinating to watch a consistently horrible actress slide further down the drain, and the scene in which she wears a fat suit, grinning profusely, marks a watershed for cinematic terror. It is one of the scariest things you will ever see, the thing of nightmares.

Somewhere in this gigantic mess of a movie there lies a redeeming force, and his name is Anton Yelchin, and 18 year old actor who blows the rest of this cast of the water. His performance as Zack brings a real sense of truth to this film. He captures the innocence and naivete of youth, and he manages to convey the terror that confronts his character in the film's climax. This is a remarkable performance, one that deserves mention. His performance is remarkable, not only because it is incredibly nuanced, but because it is unfaltering in the ridiculous company that surrounds it. Keep an eye on this young man, he's got a gift.

Cassavetes reportedly had unprecedented access to the real life case files of these proceedings, but it doesn't matter, information and research are no substitutes for talent. He thinks we can learn from his film, that, like Willis says in the opening scene, "You can say it's about drugs or guns or bad decisions, whatever you like, but this whole thing is about parenting. And taking care of your children." Thanks for reminding us, Nick. Yes, many parents aren't ideal, and sometimes children turn out to be bad, but no movie is going to fix that, especially not one as banal and stupid as Alpha Dog. Try as it might to be another in the long line of films, such as At Close Range and Elephant, that deal with the disaffected youth of America, it fails in every regard. In the end it's more like sitting through amateur night at the Apollo, a train wreck, and a high school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat all at once. It hurts.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by: Iris Yamashita
Story by: Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis
Starring: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara

Color, 140 minutes
Rated R

Grade: B+

I've always been a fan of Clint Eastwood. The man has come a long way in his career, and approaching 80, he shows no signs of slowing down. He has accomplished a great deal in his career, and he has seemingly went on to surpass those that have directed him in the past, most notably Sergio Leone (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) and Don Siegel (Dirty Harry). Since 1990's underrated White Hunter, Black Heart, Eastwood has become increasingly obsessed with the violence that men can do. He has had a few clunkers since then (The Rookie, Blood Work), a few genuine masterpieces (Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby), and at least two overlooked gems (A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County), but 2006 was the year that his ambitions would reach their zenith. In tackling the battle of Iwo Jima, Eastwood has given us a depiction of a fight from both viewpoints (the Americans in Flags of our Fathers, the Japanese in Letters), and in doing so he has created what may be the most definitive and authentic portrayal of a single battle ever committed to film. The problem is that they play much better as a double header than they do as separate achievements.

On the island of Iwo Jima, Japanese soldiers are preparing for the onslaught of American forces. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) has been put in charge of defending the island. He is an idealistic and intelligent man, chosen mainly because of his familiarity and knowledge of American tactics. Upon arriving on the island he promptly starts stepping on toes. His fellow officers are confused by his tactics and unsure of how to handle him. When he learns that no reinforcements, either from air or sea, will be made available to his soldiers, Kuribayashi orders his men to dig a series of underground tunnels and caves across the island and in the mountains. What others may see as inevitable suicide, Kuribayashi sees as their only hope.

The first half of the film is devoted to the construction of these tunnels. Aside from Kuribayashi, Eastwood and rookie screenwriter Iris Yamashita focus mainly on a few characters. We meet Saigo (Japanese pop idol Kazunari Ninomiya), a former baker who has a pregnant wife waiting for him at home, Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic horse rider who brings his beloved animal along with him, and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), a former special forces type with a shameful past. Eastwood gives us the quiet moments between these characters, creating a genuine sense of foreboding that culminates in the film's last hour in which we see soldiers, holed up in the caves, who would rather blow themselves up with grenades than surrender their honor.

Because of my admiration for Eastwood, I have always been willing to forgive some of the glaring flaws that inhabit his films, and Flags was no exception. Letters was a different experience for me. Although the use of letters as a framing device is a little old, the film has no obvious flaws that are worth mentioning. Tom Stern's cinematography is the best of his career, taking the faded, washed out look pioneered by Steven Spielberg (Eastwood's coproducer on the Iwo Jima saga) and Janusz Kaminski on Saving Private Ryan to new heights. All of the performances are top notch, particularly Watanabe and Ihara. For some reason, though, I found the film lacking something that I can't put my finger on. It's obviously a better film than Flags, it's more human, and far more poignant, but it doesn't have the bite that Flags had. For all it's sentimentality, Jesse Bradford's poor acting, and Paul Haggis' horrible dialogue, Eastwood was able to find something deeper in Flags, he was able to show how a war is sold and the hypocrisy of blind patriotism. Letters, however, is just more of a slow burn, and it hampered the experience for me.

Now, in all fairness, Eastwood's direction here is probably the best it's ever been. Less frenetic than Flags, Letters is full of spare, dark, and haunting compositions. Eastwood's patience behind the camera rivals only Ozu, Bresson, and the later work of Dreyer. He knows how to let a scene build to it's most effective point, without ever compromising it with overexcited editing. It's a joy to see this guy churn out better work than most filmmakers half his age.

Letters from Iwo Jima is a very good film. The overwhelming critical acclaim that it has received seems to me to be more of a celebration of Eastwood's enduring spirit rather than the greatness of this film, but it is a hell of an accomplishment. It's a rare thing to see the viewpoint of our "enemy," and Eastwood should be commended for his even handedness. The film is not as great as some have said, but that doesn't really matter. The fact that it was made is a huge step for American cinema. It deserves to be seen for that reason alone.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Apocalypto (2006)

Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
Starring: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez

Color, 139 minutes
Rated R

Grade: B+

Over the course of his last three directorial efforts, Mel Gibson has established himself as some kind of bizarre, masochistic visionary. He is a highly manipulative filmmaker, never afraid to fall back on good old slow motion to get a point across, and at times it even seems as if he enjoys wallowing in the extreme violence that he displays on screen. In spite of all this, Gibson's talent shines through. Like Clint Eastwood, Gibson's ability behind the camera has already begun to outshine his teachers. There are quite a few negative things that could be said about Gibson the filmmaker, but you certainly can't say he's a coward. It takes a certain amount of balls and conviction to bring such a singular vision to the screen once, let alone multiple times.

Apocalypto is the latest addition to that particular vision, and it's a wild one. The Christian right across the country come out in droves and bought out entire screenings of Gibson's previous film (I don't think I need to remind you what that was), making it a box office smash, but, oddly enough, they stayed away this time. I guess people are willing to sit through an extremely violent, two and a half hour subtitled film as long as it's about Christ, but if it applies to any other subject then you can forget it. I digress, and descend from the soapbox because I too admired The Passion. It was a flawed film, for sure, but the technical aspects were stunning, and the same thing could easily be said of Apocalypto.

Set near the end of Maya civilization, the story focuses on a young man named Jaguar Paw (Youngblood) whose existence is severely threatened when his village is attacked by another tribe. Images of horror and destruction abound as limbs are hacked off, throats are slit, and children are swung by their ankles. Jaguar Paw is resourceful enough to lower his pregnant wife (Hernandez) and young son into a cave, but he is eventually captured along with the rest of the survivors, and taken on a journey to a great Mayan city to meet his doom as he's sacrificed to the gods. Jaguar Paw, of course, has other ideas, like getting back to his family, and the film culminates with a 45 minute run through the jungle.

While it's plot doesn't have a shred of originality to it, and Gibson and Safinia enjoy throwing in every jungle cliche imaginable (quicksand, waterfalls, etc.), Apocalypto is a wholly unique film. This film gives us a glimpse of a civilization we've never seen in cinema. Whether it's entirely accurate or not is irrelevant, and I could personally care less. Gibson and his cinematographer Dean Semler create very weird, almost surreal images that will burn themselves into your memory. Using high definition instead of film, Semler mixes crane and handheld camera work to great effect, and comes out with the best jungle photography ever put on screen. Production designer Tom Sanders (Bram Stoker's Dracula, Saving Private Ryan) is at his peak here, providing lavishly textured sets filled with eye popping detail. The great city itself is a work of art. The costumes by Mayes C. Rubeo are intimidating, frightening, and extremely beautiful. In fact, one could write an entire review praising the visual aspects of this film alone.

Going The Passion of The Christ one better, not only does Gibson retain the authentic Yucatec language, this time he gets amateurs to do the acting. This doesn't hinder the film, though, it only adds to it. Rudy Youngblood brings a vitality to this film that's missing in most of these kinds of period films. He has the grit of Kirk Douglas in Spartacus and the intensity of Gibson in Braveheart, but he's more effortless and charming than they were. His athleticism is obviously a big help in a role like this, but Youngblood is a naturally engaging performer, and I would like to see his career take off because of this. The entire supporting cast is great, most notably Rodolfo Palacios as the evil Snake Ink, who takes a special pleasure in torturing Jaguar Paw.

Unfortunately, Gibson has a tendency to lay it on pretty thick. He relishes in giving us close ups of wounds, blood, and torture. On top of this, we get too many lingering shots of crazy looking people staring directly into camera, most notably in the ridiculous scene with the prophetic, plague infested, demon girl. Gibson's flair for excess hampers the flow of the film, and threatens to really hurt the picture at times.

In the end, though, Apocalypto is a film you won't forget anytime soon. You may love it, you may not, and you can look as hard as you want for another reason to crucify Gibson, but he's here to stay. This film isn't perfect, but as a feat of action filmmaking, it's superb, and it's unlike anything you've ever seen before.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Written & Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sergi Lopez, Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdu

Color, 120 minutes
Rated R

Grade: A+

Before Pan's Labyrinth was released, Guillermo del Toro was an above-average genre filmmaker who had a bit of a cult following. I admit that even though I enjoyed most of his work, especially The Devil's Backbone, there was a small part of me that thought he was more than a bit overrated. Any time there is a director who makes an acceptable and enjoyable genre film, the geeks flock around like they're announcing the second coming of their messiah, so I tend to try and avoid the hype. I'm here to say that the geeks were right. With Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro not only proves that his work can go beyond an exercise in genre mechanics, he proves that his work can reach the highest levels of artistic expression.

Near the end of the Spanish Civil War, a young girl named Ofelia (Baquero), is traveling with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to the home of her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Lopez). The Captain is a cold man, and his estate reflects his personality. Ofelia retreats into her books until she meets a fairy disguised as a kind of stick bug. The fairy leads her into a labyrinth in the middle of the forest that's ran by a towering faun, who tells her that she is Princess Moanna , "daughter of the underworld." The faun gives her three tasks to complete before the coming of the full moon in order to prove her "essence." The tasks include a giant vomiting toad and The Pale Man, an ogre that is obviously influenced by Francisco Goya, but that's creepy enough to give Francis Bacon nightmares. Ofelia is up to the challenge, and the viewer is led on a magical, surprising, violent, and ultimately heartbreaking journey that will affect you in ways you wouldn't believe.

Like Neil Marshall's work on his imaginative film The Descent, del Toro takes no pains to hide his influences. Little Red Riding Hood, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (also set during Franco-era Spain), and Kubrick's version of The Shining are all lovingly referenced, but del Toro's vision is his own. Instead of becoming a simple Fascist allegory, del Toro pushes his material higher, bringing out the amount of fear and imagination present in the soul of every child. His goal is extremely ambitious, he wants us to remember this film, and by God, he succeeds.

With the help of his usual cinematographer, the brilliant Guillermo Navarro (Jackie Brown), and production designer Eugenio Caballero, del Toro constructs two entirely different, yet always believable worlds ( the magical, warm and welcoming, and the real, cold and sterile) that are always at odds with each other, and del Toro's constantly mobile camera makes the most of each moment . The technical aspects of this film are nothing short of astonishing, none more so than the marriage of CGI, puppets, and makeup. Pan's achieves a balance between these three that would make Peter Jackson salivate.

In lesser films, the performances would take a backseat to the more fantastical elements, but here, the actors find the drama in the story, and carve out their own piece of the pie. Lopez's Captain Vidal is one of the most frightening villains in recent history, and Maribel Verdu, who was so effortlessly sexy in Alfonso Cuaron's Y tu mama tambien, is fabulous as Mercedes, the homely yet strong willed servant who becomes a type of surrogate mother to Ofelia. Doug Jones, doing double duty as both the faun and The Pale Man, goes way beyond mimicry and touches on something far deeper than is usually required. In the end, however, it's Baquero that owns the film. She gives Ofelia the right amount of intelligence and bewilderment that avoids the typical cliches of childhood acting and automatically makes the audience buy into this little girl's fantasy. Her performance is strong enough to rank her alongside the best portrayals given by children, right up there with Henry Thomas in E.T., Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun, and Ana Torrent in both The Spirit of the Beehive and Cria cuervos.

Pan's Labyrinth was the best reviewed film of 2006, and it easily stands next to Cuaron's Children of Men, and Almodovar's Volver as my personal favorites of the year. This is a remarkable work, an instant classic that demands and rewards repeated viewings. It is a masterpiece, plain and simple, and it will surely stand the test of time.

The Twilight Samurai (2004)

Directed by: Yoji Yamada
Written by: Yoshitaka Asama, Yoji Yamada
Starring: Hiroyuki Sanada

Color, 129 minutes

Grade: A

Wait a second. A samurai movie that focuses on relationships and family? That’s right. Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai is unlike any samurai film I’ve ever seen, and that’s a good thing. The story is set in mid 1800’s Japan, and the focus is a man named Sebei Iguchi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a former master swordsman who is now scraping to get by. He works as a low level accountant and must support his two young daughters and his senile mother by also working in the fields and making insect cages. His wife has recently died from consumption, and because of the funeral, he is in debt up to his ears. His co-workers invite him out for drinks everyday after work; Sebei humbly refuses because he has to get home to his daughters. His colleagues make fun of him behind his back, calling him Twilight because he rushes home before dark, and they complain about his smell. Sebei doesn’t have time to take a bath, doesn’t have time to care for himself, only his family. He is not a pathetic man, and he is content with his life. When his great uncle scolds him and tells him he needs to find a new wife, Sebei disagrees. He enjoys being able to watch his children grow old, even though he sometimes gets angry that his mother doesn’t recognize him.

One day, Sebei runs into his childhood friend/sweetheart Tomoe. Tomoe is recently divorced from a cruel man that abused her. Sebei and Tomoe spend the evening enjoying each other’s company, and reminiscing about their childhood. When night falls, Sebei accompanies Tomoe back to her brother’s house, only to find that Tomoe’s ex-husband is there, drunk and trying to start a fight. Sebei restrains him, and the drunkard challenges him to a duel. Sebei reluctantly agrees, and the fight is scheduled for the following day. At home, Sebei tries to sharpen up on his old tricks. He’s rusty and he knows it, but he honors his agreement and shows up for the fight. Instead of a sword, Sebei shows up with large stick. He doesn’t want to kill his opponent, only teach him a lesson, and that he does. The word spreads about the fight, and one day Sebei is called upon to assassinate a rogue samurai. He is offered a handsome reward for his service, but Sebei doesn’t want the task. He has too much to lose, and he’s not as quick as used to be. After realizing that he has no choice in the matter, he reluctantly agrees, and the audience is lead into one of the most unique climactic battles I’ve ever seen.

Now if it sounds like I’m giving too much away, I’m not. The plot line is almost inconsequential; this film is about character, not action. Over the course of two hours, director Yamada pulls us in slowly and gives us a character that we completely believe. Sebei is a normal everyman. He is not the typical Kurosawa samurai; he is completely human. He loves his family, and they love him. He pines for Tomoe, even though he believes she is too good to be with a petty samurai like himself. This is a man with real life, everyday problems that happens to be good with a sword. Hiroyuki Sanada is absolutely brilliant in the role of Sebei. American audiences may know Sanada from The Last Samurai, and Danny Boyle’s upcoming Sunshine, but Japanese audiences have had the chance to see this man’s talent for years. This actor has displayed more range in one film than any recent American actor has shown throughout their career. He has the dramatic chops to pull off the humility in Sebei, and he can wield a sword well enough to give us a hint of what this character may have been in the past.

Sanada’s performance is reason enough to recommend this film, but Yamada’s direction is a marvel in and of itself. The dramatic scenes are just as good as anything Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story) ever dealt out, and the action scenes, although there are very few, would make Kurosawa proud. The climax itself is one of the most brilliantly timed action set pieces ever put on film. High praise, you say? You better believe it. Now, I know nothing about Yamada. His biography on the DVD says that he has directed over 80 films, and that by now he is about 76 years old. Evidently, this is the only film of his to get any sort of release in the U.S., and I’m here to tell you, that’s a shame. This is a remarkable film that only a master could make. It has been compared to Unforgiven, and while I can see the comparison, I would venture to say that this film may be better. Eastwood’s Will Munny was a stone cold killer. Sure, he cleaned up for a while, but in the end he came full circle. In this film, Sebei is not a bad man, he is a respectable man, a man of honor - the Jimmy Stewart of samurai, if you will. The last thing he has ever wanted was to take a life, and this is where The Twilight Samurai succeeds. We see ourselves in Sebei, and all we can do is hope that everything turns out alright for him.