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.