Monday, December 3, 2007

A Mighty Wind



I have to say that when the characters weren't singing, the laughs were scarce. When the plot finally reaches the concert, all is forgiven.

I think that A Mighty Wind takes a stab at sentimentality (with the Mitch and Mickey storyline) that didn't take. I think Guest works best when there is little reverence for the oddities that are his subjects.

Check out the deleted scenes and concert footage on the DVD to get a better taste of the funny.

***

For Your Consideration



I enjoyed this lampoon of the Hollywood buzz machine more than Best in Show and perhaps A Mighty Wind (minus the deleted scenes and full concert DVD extras). I laughed more consistently and really got a big kick out of John Michael Higgins and thought he stole the show from the also hilarious Fred Willard.

Hollywood poking fun of itself can wear thin, but I thought the characters were comedically interesting (more so than both Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) to keep me involved and laughing riotously at times.

Like other Guest films, the laughs can really be hit or miss, but I felt struck more often than not. But seriously, someone should tell Christopher Guest that Jennifer Coolidge's non sequitur witticisms are not funny and she should cease and desist immediately. She knows how to kill a scene.

***1/2

Superbad



I laughed my ass off in the theater more so than any other movie for the longest time (probably since Little Miss Sunshine). I couldn't defend its morality in a church, but it certainly is an interesting bit of pop culture in that it reflects what media thinks 18 year old high schoolers are like. I wonder how far along the feedback loop Superbad is...

I thought that all the B-story scenes with McLovin and the two cops were comedic gold and served to keep me involved and chuckling through any lulls in the main narrative.

I think it's interesting that I could be nostalgic for a high school life unlike anything I've experience personally. I was able to look at the characters from a distance and while grinning say, "Those crazy kids. What will they think of next?"

It's also the best display of male/platonic love in a long time. At the end of Stand By Me, Richard Dreyfus writes on his ancient computer, "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?" I think the same can be said for high school friends. I never really thought about it, but my friends during these strange social growth periods (elementary school, high school, college) in part define those periods.

****

Friday, November 30, 2007

Movie Poems



DOYLE’S LAW by A. Gates

Black and white and red and all sorts of sores.
The poor dog chewed up from the fight,
Tired and dying on the bridge,
Whimpering and scared,
Angry and fed up.
So much hurt for the ol’ boy,
But they couldn’t take his bite.
He still wanted blood.
Not knowing love.
Learning to fight less than before.
The trunk the best place he had ever been.



DEAR BIANCA by A. Gates

I lose touch with reality
I long to
It’s not so great lonely in winter
I see you come to life
You stay with me
What did I do to deserve wonderful you?

You’re making friends
I don’t mind,
No, I mind
I don’t want to lose time with you
It seems you’re really harder to be with
Than I believed you would be
But I love you
God help me
I do

You are good people
Many people know this to be true
And though you are leaving us
Losing touch
I don’t want to be sad
I see good things ahead
Like you wanted me to

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Best in Show



I enjoyed this movie but could not help but notice that it is not as consistently funny as Waiting for Guffman. It isn't until Fred Willard is introduced as the dog show's clueless TV commentator that the movie finds any sort of rhythm. Still, there are wondeful scenes strewn about the films first act.

Christopher Guest has some priceless moments with his bloodhound, and his transformation into a Southern fishing store owner is quite amazing.

Sadly, the other characters never really completely gel in their storylines. Parker Posey and her husband in the film are one-note funnies.

The gay couple is pretty straight forward, easy laughs. Still, the more flamboyant guy gets in some zingers every now and then.

I do enjoy Eugene Levy and see him playing within his own little niche in pretty much every movie. He's kind of a lovable amusement, but his storyline with Catherine O'Hara is not the stuff of comedic gold.

Give the kudos to Willard for his comedic panache and for again bein the shoe-in for well-earned laughs.

I guess my chief complaint is that Guest allowed for an interesting, funny character like his to be relegated to the background after some promising moments.

***

Monday, November 12, 2007

Waiting for Guffman



This film has been built up over the years into some kind of legend. It couldn't possibly live up to expectations. But it did. It's the funniest movie that I've seen in years. What's sad is I would have been impressed by the fictional play in real life if I had seen it if the zany actors hadn't performed it. Instead, I guffawed heartily. What will stick with me the most is how spellbound by the play the fictional audience was. I've also got lines of songs stuck in my head. Comedic genius.

****

Lars and the Real Girl



Lars and the Real Girl is the biggest surprise of the year so far. It somehow manages to take what on the surface seems like a "frat pack" movie (man falls in love with a sex doll) and turns it into something tender, heartbreaking and emotionally resonating.

I am positive that the movie takes mental illness and skews it to its own benefit, but using the doll as a extension of Lars problems proves to be a convincing ploy. By all logic and expectations, I should have no connection to this inanimate hunk of plastic; but I grew attached to her so much, I think, because I knew as the townspoeple did that Bianca was so important to Lars who was important to them.

The film also portrayed the townspeople and Christians as caring, helpful, and decent people. I want to move to that town. It doesn't exist, but write me into a town where people care that much about their neighbors.

The second best film of the year so far behind Zodiac.

****1/2

The Darjeeling Limited



I was drawn into the movie through its characters, distinct from each other in mannerisms, speech, and habits, but connected in a storied relationship crafted with a history that is revealed naturally instead of overtly. The characters' bond with each other becomes all the more clear when a tragic event takes us back into their last shared tragic event so that the audience can see that although these people are tied together chiefly by blood, their love becomes apparent when something hard, sad, and quieting happens.

I also believed that traveling on a train with my two brothers across a foreign country could alternately be the greatest and worst times I've ever had.

****

Monday, November 5, 2007

Broken Flowers poem



DON'S AWAKENING by A. Gates

Broken Flowers.
Women in bed.
I am wit and empty.
They’ve all seen my end.
It came on the trip when I saw again
I can not be enough for anyone.
A father to a letter in pink,
A color shading the earth in front of me.
Comes to nothing in the end
But a man standing in the middle of the road
Looking to find his kin in every kid.

Broken Flowers



Broken Flowers is easily the best Jim Jarmusch film I have seen, even surpassing the excellent Dead Man. It's sublte humor and sadness always drew me in even in slow parts (which I have learned to live with throughout my Jarmusch experience). It seemed to me that more than anything else he has done, Broken Flowers was not only trying to say something, but also actually saying it. It was also the most visually stimulating of his work that I have seen.

The ending was fascinating as it became clear that Don was going to see his hypothetical son in every young man he came across. The sadness and nervous excitement that comes along with that was palpable. The swirl and subsequent quiet around Don at the end was breathtaking.

****

The Painted Veil



I don't get too into traditional love stories told in periods I can hardly relate to, but the one presented in The Painted Veil was certainly engaging enough to warrant my attention and admiration. I enjoyed the performances and the refreshingly slow way the romance developed even as I knew all the while that it would. China makes a great backdrop for this piece of historical romance.

The clash of cultures was one of the more interesting issues in the film. China was understandably resistant to Britain's presence in their culture even when some of the English were trying to save them.

Some beautiful things about romance and relationships were said, especially about the expectations we have of others.

I think I am able to see now that I am in awe of Naomi Watts' beauty rather than her acting talent, but neither is in question.

Even though I haven't seen too many films like this, I was able to predict its moves at almost every turn.

***1/2

Fargo



I've grown to really appreciate this film for its odd sense of humor and unique way of placing a Dateline-ready plot in the snowy podunks of North Dakota. The film both recognizes the quaint nature Midwest and the unsuspecting intelligence of its wonderful heroine. How the film manages to walk the fine line between the parody and love of these people is beyond me, but it does so wonderfully throughout. Characters remain watersheds of modern cinema.

****

The Passenger



I really enjoyed The Passenger because it took what could have been a Hitchcock thriller and made it a thoughtful character piece. Impulse leads a reporter to leave his life and take the identity of a dead arms dealer. He runs from his old life and chases after his new one at the behest of curiosity and a young woman. It took me a while to get used to the slow pace and long silences, but I soon grew to love the way the director allowed the actors to act without forcing anything in their scenes. The characters simply exist. We just spend a short span of time with them.

***1/2

American Gangster



Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington play characters living separate lives, and each is interesting in their right. When their two stories start to converge, the movie only gets more interesting than it already was. When they finally came face to face, I felt a bit disappointed. All the action built up to that moment, but somehow the camaraderie that the two characters found felt false in light of their characters motivations and histories.

What led up to that point truly was an epic tale of two flawed men with principles in divergent worlds that were quickly moving away from those values.

Washington is getting all the press, but Crowe is just as good or better as the cop after Washington's gangster of the title. The gangster doesn't require Denzel to do much different from what he has already done in past roles (but really, does anyway do it better?) except with more brutality, but Crowe's role is unique to the actor. He displayed similar qualities before, but he made his character feel completely new to me. He's no Serpico, but he's a cop for the books.

I marveled at how the movie vilified and honored Washington's gangster. His rise was glorious. He picked his family up by his bootstraps. They finally got a piece of the pie. He also dragged them down with him and took away any promise for a long, happy life that any of them had.

He was also a dealer of death whose handiwork led to the death of thousands. Even though that gets mentioned both in sight and sound, I thought the film was less concerned with that than it should have been.

Perhaps the best thing the movie can say is how the world is changin' and leaving the old guard, villains and heroes, behind.

****

Monday, October 29, 2007

Tim Burton's Batman "The Joker is more of an annoying pest than a villain."



I didn't see this movie until college. I liked it. I thought it was a lot of fun. I asked for it for my birthday. I got it. I watched the excellent special features yesterday afternoon. I got excited to see the movie again. By the time the credits started rolling, I was disappointed. There's no real excuse. I first saw it when my eye for quality was developed. I had seen it several times on AMC (albeit in parts). I hadn't loved the film as a kid, so nostalgia wasn't an excuse for my mistake.

Batman is an exercise in ambition. Tim Burton and the film's producers had big plans for the movie. From the DVD interviews, it's apparent that they thought they had created something really special. The problem is that ambition is nothing without execution. Batman fails in nearly every aspect of its execution.

It's hard to criticize Jack Nicholson for going over the top with his performance. He's the Joker, for Moses' sake. There aren't any rules for playing a character like that. There should have been, though. Nicholson is clearly having the time of his life playing the role, but I must admit I had very little fun with him. He does anything he pleases and I wish a director would have reigned him more. Nicholson unleashed in any situation is cause for alarm. He's not menacing enough. And somebody tell somebody that Jack Nicholson's little jigs in character are not amusing.

That led to other problems. The screenwriters have to make scenes for Nicholson to do his thing, so they put him in that stupid museum scene. A chance to work in the Prince music ("Partyman" is the title of the song) should have been passed up. A terrible idea. Batman's entrance and exit are good. The rest is hammy junk.

Another scene suffering from failed ambition is the bell tower scene. Great plan. Bad execution. It shows sparks of quality, but crumbles under the weight of Nicholson and Basinger's goofy routines. Seriously, there's nothing less climatic than watching Nicholson ham it up as he dances on that ledge and makes his getaway.

Putting Batman into action is the best thing the filmmakers do. It's when they throw him in the mix with the Joker that things falter. And that's a lot of the time. I actually liked the action scenes for what they were, but again the Joker is more of an annoying pest than a villain. Batman should have kicked the crap out of him twenty times over.

The Bruce Wayne scenes are fairly bad as well. There is no chemistry between Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger, so their scenes together are always a bit awkward. It doesn't help that Basinger isn't a good actress. I'm not saying the role called for her to stretch her acting muscles, but any number of actresses could have added zest to the role. Keaton can play the charming billionaire well, but when he's out of costume, he left me itching for him to jump back into it. His knight in shining armor shtick at Vale's apartment is weak and laughable at best. Put the guy in that suit and let those eyes and that cool, stoic hero's voice do the work.

The sets are great. The first third of the movie is actually quite good. But I'm afraid that the corniness and levity that the filmmakers said they so wanted to avoid eventually crept in and sapped all the entertainment from Batman.

**1/2

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ratings System

I've adopted the popular five star system primarily because of the specificity it offers over the four star system (you'd to try both to understand), but I've never really thought through what those stars mean.

I was looking at one of my favorite sites, Filmspotting.net, and they seemed to say it best. So, instead of trying to put what they said in my own words to show unique meaning and failing, I'm going to quote 'em.

"Ratings systems serve a purpose. They're a shortcut. A provocation. Symbolic advertising for critical writing." "(I) feel that assigning a rating to a film can over-simplify (my) perspective. That being said, your time is valuable. And (I) appreciate your curiosity. Below, the (Films Through A Fishbowl) ratings, on a 5-star scale.


Loved it *****
Really liked it ****
Liked it ***
Didn't like it **
Hated it *
"

I hope that didn't come off as utterly without original feeling because I do echo those feelings. Stars are a quick reference point. Hopefully, they spark interest in the entirety of reviews. But I want the audience to realize that I am not saying that I think Dan in Real Life is as a good of a film as Days of Heaven, because I don't. What the stars are meant to be is a record of my reaction to each film.

I know it seems strange to make such a big thing out of the number of stars, but it's just a idiosyncrasy unique to reviewers that I cannot really explain. It matters to me.

Days of Heaven "Trying to understand why (Days of Heaven's) characters said "yes" is where the unique interest lies."



Watching Days of Heaven was an experience unlike any I have had before. I think I about threw up from all the gut-wrenching drama - a distressing nausea I embraced.

I got to watch the wonderful mind of writer-director Terrence Malick (The New World, The Thin Red Line) at work and finally see what all those David Gordon Green comparisons were about. There is a splendid and awe-inspiring poetry to Malick's films. While his films follow a narrative structure, they pause for the beauty of nature, stolen moments in the characters' lives, and alternatively plain-spoken and poetic or philosophical voice overs.

For the first time, I saw a Malick film in which there was a singular narrative voice-over. Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby's (Brooke Adams) daughter ( tells the story of how they left Chicago and headed out west to work the fields of a wealthy, lonely farmer (Sam Shephard). The farmer is dying. He begins to fall for Abby. Soon, Bill is urging Abby to wed him so they can become rich off of his money once he passes. But he lives longer than anyone expected and the growing tensions between the three create the gut-wrenching drama I mentioned earlier.

Brooke Adams is not very attractive to me (I think it's her mouth line that does it for me), so I had to look through the eyes of the men in the movie. And I began to see some of that indescribable "somethin'" she possessed. I still wouldn't have married the woman, but that's mostly because I knew the scheme.

Because I knew the scheme, I felt pain for the farmer that he could not yet understand. Here was this supporting character that's only shortcoming was that he fell for the wrong woman. I liked Bill and Abby in spite of their awful sins, but I really pulled for the farmer. What a great guy! What a raw deal!

A dramatic question was posed by the film (would you push you lover into a new marriage for money?) that reminded me of another dramatic question that still rushes through my mind every so often (The Big Chill asked if you would push your husband into impregnating a friend). These questions wielded much different results in their respective movies. I can assuredly answer "no" to both, but trying to understand why each film's characters said "yes" is where the unique interest lies.

****

Dan in Real Life "I was able to relate to this blunt sting of emotion that comes with angst and sharp emotions. Adult angst."



When I was watching this movie with my mom on Saturday the word "saccharine" came to mind. Partly, it was because I wanted to seem smart, even to myself. Partly, it was because it fit. Dan in Real Life is sweet, but not so sweet that it rots your teeth. Instead, it was the kind of sweetness that left my spirits buoyed about the possibility and necessity of love the way only the fictionalized world of film can do (that's both sad and pleasing).

In short, Dan is a columnist, widowed dad of three young daughters, and part of a larger family of brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and parents that gather together to close down their lakeside house for the year. Dan has a meet-cute with Marie (Juliette Binoche), who he really likes but is dating his brother (Dane Cook). Dan tries to balance his new elation and hope for this woman with his devotion to his brother and temperamental daughters. The emotional turmoil that ensues equals hijinks and emotion that entertain and satisfy that warm, fuzzy part of my being.

The film doesn't stray much from the order of events you'd expect from the set up, but what raises this film above the trappings of a sitcom or cookie-cutter rom-com is its strength of characters (particularly Dan and Marie) and strict believability in the way the characters handle the events while still maintaining the genre's sensibilities.

Steve Carrell continues to show depth and range beyond what he became known as on the Daily show - the clueless but endearing and pleasant buffoon. That continues in The Office (albeit with a more room for development). Now that he's in films that embrace his range, I'm beginning to latch onto his skill and persona. His solid work in Little Miss Sunshine was deserving of more recognition and his work as Dan only serves to further his nuanced forty-somethings. His Dan is going through growing pains normally attached to adolescence - the thrill of impulsive love - that somehow link a diverse audience to this family man. I don't have kids. I haven't lost a wife. But I was able to relate to this blunt sting of emotion that comes with angst and sharp emotions. Adult angst. It makes for a very good character.

Julliette Binoche, whom I must admit I just recently discovered in her small role in Paris Je T'aime, makes up the other half of this interesting infatuation. I am amazed by her subtle specificity. Her face carries so much information on it in action and reaction that I thought I could read her so much better than many of the female characters I have seen in more traditional rom-coms. She's also believable. Even when Dan and Marie's interactions are pulled directly from the rom-com rulebook, she and Carrell are able to give a sense of spontaneity that rings much truer than what I've seen before. The fact that I really, really liked her and Dan made me really pull for them. And because of that, the conflict was all the more involving. Conflict without investment in the characters and situations surrounding it is fruitless.

Eventually, the film does pull off one of those familiar sweet as candy endings, but by then I was so rooted in the characters that I was able to dismiss (well, mostly) the derivitive nature of the moment. The fact that the ending is open and closed shows off some of the films respect for its characters.

That respect extends to the family as well. The family interactions are familiar, but still ring of authenticity in the relationships. Family members are uniquely pleased and annoyed by each other because there is that foundation of love. So, even when characters respond in ways that further the conventions of the genre, I was satisfied that a loving family was being portrayed in that it saw one of its members struggling and reacted in a way related to truth from that ideal.

It's a solid, crowd-pleasing movie that left me smiling. Among all the rough and tumble of the films at the multiplex this time of year, I was very happy to leave a film not only excited about production values, acting, directing, writing, thrills, chills, sadness, and relevancy, but also for the good I felt coursing through me as I walked out of the theater.

****

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Jarhead "When things threaten to happen, I admit I felt what the soldiers in the film felt: a sick anticipation and longing for battle. "



I liked this movie, but it was an overwhelming like when all the elements were in place for a love. I wasn't blown away by this movie. I've seen it twice. The first time I saw it I had high expectations. It didn't meet those expectations. The second time I saw it, I had lowered expectations, but again I was disappointed. But not to the point where I disliked the film. A second viewing only solidified my opinion of the movie.

On the surface, I cannot identify at all with the soldiers in this film. They are young men thirsty for war, for action. When they go to war and it is nothing like the films they saw (an interesting scene takes place during a frenzy at a showing of Apocalypse Now), they feel empty. There is pride in what they are, but a lack of doing what they were trained to do leaves a sour taste in their mouths.

I strongly related once the film took shape. The movie creates an uneasy atmosphere of waiting...waiting to do anything. Things happen, but none of them fit in with the expectations I had from every war film I had ever seen. Jarhead is unlike any war film I have ever seen. The Gulf War is unlike any other war I have seen in film (forget the murder mystery Courage Under Fire). It began and ended in a blur, but the time for the soldiers (at least the soldiers depicted in the film) was slow and tiring. Again, things happen, but they're only stale representations of training, ritualistic lining up and dehydrating, restlessness and bonding for better or for worse. When things threaten to happen, I admit I felt what the soldiers in the film felt: a sick anticipation and longing for battle. Instead, they get showboating officials, men with murdered camels, and the remains of a bombing. It seems they are doomed to narrowly miss the thrill of battle and it makes them stir crazy. And I related watching the film. Like a trained baboon I wished for them to "shoot somebody already".

The performances reflect that restlessness, but the freak outs that occur in opposition to the waiting and disappointments mostly rang false. It was as though the actors didn't know how to get past all that listlessness when they were called to. They tried admirably, but could not raise my attentiveness. Again, I equaled their disappointments.

As a document of that war at that time for those people, it does manage a real sense of authenticity without fully achieving utter truth. A decent film that could have ruled my world if only I wasn't ruined as the soldiers were by the expectations of our popular (and military) culture.

***

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dead Man Poem



THE WALKING DEAD by A. Gates

Mistaken for more than ordinary.
Killed and living among the rustic.
I am not the wordsmith you thought,
Not the bad man with the smoking gun.
But lo and behold what I have become!
A sly fox slipping out of this world and back
More alive each wake than the time before
Though I am a skeleton wearing skin.
And now my weapon has replaced my tongue.
I shout quiet pows and feel no remorse.
When I return from whence I came,
I drift back into the other world.

The Good German "(Maguire's) adhering too much to the contemporary view of classic cinema - no subtlety, scenery chewing, melodrama."



They don't make 'em like they used to, but that sure doesn't stop them from trying. I am more a fan of contemporary cinema than any of the black and white Hollywood hey day movies. I've tried to branch out in recent years, even making a summer noir series of my own with Laura, The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, and Casablanca. I mention Casablanca not because it's a great example of noir, but because The Good German wants to be like it so very, very much (only with more swearing). It's a lofty goal it cannot reach.

The Good German is really only an excellent imitation of those melodramatic, love torn, post- and pre-war film noirs. It offers nothing to set it apart from anything that has ever preceded it. Instead, it boldly goes where many, many films have gone before it. Normally, this would be a major detraction (and it still kind of is), but The Good German really wants to be those movies you saw before. It loves those movies. It hopes to Moses you love those movies, too.

I had problems from the start with Tobey Maguire. He must have been told to "explore the studio space" because he's adhering too much to the contemporary view of classic cinema - no subtlety, scenery chewing, melodrama. He plays an unsavory character with constant strain in his voice and face. He can't handle the dialogue or the character. It's outside the realm of his abilities. Hey, I love the guy (Go, James Leer!), but he's pretty awful in this movie. Luckily, he doesn't factor much into the major storyline later in the movie.

Thankfully, George Clooney and Cate Blanchett know what they're doing...most of the time. They handle the dialogue pretty well, save the normal difficulties you'd expect from actors trying to speak old timey/edgy/cool dialogue from a script emulating someone else's script. Clooney and Blanchett's scenes together are the best in the movie and I think everybody knows it because they get tossed in each others way a lot.

Clooney doesn't have to do anything he hasn't had to do before, and he appears to be the most comfortable in the world of the film. And the world of the film and the camera love him...a little too much. The camera almost fetishizes Clooney in that soldier uniform and hat - from behind, from afar, from above, from the ground, from the front (oh, it loves looking at ol' Clooney's dashing hero gaze). Clooney does have trouble in one scene in particular where he has to grab Blanchett by the arms and shake her and say, "Why won't you let me me help you!" in his best noir impression. That's the thing with The Good German - it's more than happy just to be an impression of anything real though its depict real moments in history.

Blanchett has a German accent throughout and it's really only a glaring bump because it's Cate Blanchett speaking in it. The same could be said for her Katherine Hepburn accent in The Aviator. I just think the accents are "so not her" that they remove me from the world of the movie. She does deliver the most consistent performance. She knows how to milk a scene for all it's simmering heat (milk the heat?). I never really think of females as brooding, but Blanchett certainly does brood.

Story stuff: Blanchett plays Lena, this German femme fatale that was so memorable and alluring in a pre-war affair with Jake (Clooney) that he purposefully heads back to Germany after the war to find her. The big problem for me is that she's not really all that great. I can't really imagine what's so great about her that all these men are wanting her so much. For Tully (Maguire), it's clear his thrill is in possessing her; but for Jake, it seems he's helping her out of some nostalgia for feelings that I can't imagine pretty much anyone having for her.
(edit: Perhaps this is the point the movie is trying to make - the woman Jake fell in love with has been ruined by the war.)

Also, Clooney gets involved in three skirmishes in his hunt for a mysterious man everyone's after. He gets beat up pretty bad by his assailants, but they just leave him there writhing in pain or knocked out or what have you. Nobody ever really gets the idea that "Hey, this guy's always turning up and gumming up the works...maybe we oughtta kill the jerk." He dusts himself off and goes back to the search.

Also, that ending! No! Don't do it! It involves a revelation that should have happened earlier, and not so awkwardly spoken or located. The movie should have ending in the crowd of all the people. Whenever I watch the movie again, I'm going to stop it there. That's a decent movie. It's still pretty decent anyways, but it would have been decenter (decenter?).

But, lo and behold, I am recommending this movie. I really enjoyed the entire second act and much of the third. Once Maguire faded into the background and the intrigue really started, I committed to the movie and was mostly satisfied despite all the words above to the contrary. It's a solid movie. I commend its ambition. It's hard to call a movie that emulates other movies ambitious, but it's really quite an undertaking in this day and age to evoke the atmosphere and spirit of another day and age.

Clooney's good. Blanchett's good. Maguire's bad, but the rest of the supporting cast is good in spite of him. I actually even liked the story for its simplistic storyline that masqueraded as a complicated web.

I LOVED the cinematography. If I loved the movie, I'd find a way to make a poster of some of the shots and put them up on my wall. Gorgeous black and white picture.

So...

***

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Further Thinking on Rendition

I was talking to my brother about the movie and something occurred to me. The movie saves face by making a point midway through the film. Peter Sarsgaard's character is grilling Meryl Streep's character about a man she ordered to be interrogated in another country. She asks if he's taking issue with the treatment of one man he has personal ties to or rendition as a policy. If memory serves me correctly, Sarsgaard doesn't answer. And in that way he does. Rendition is about rendition in the case of one man whose terrorist involvement is up in the air, but is most likely a case of misunderstanding. Very early on, we learn that Anwar passed a polygraph that should have saved him from the ordeal but was dismissed as inconsequential.

If the film had dealt with rendition in the case of someone who was interrogated and revealed information that saved hundreds, thousands, or millions of lives, the policy could have been seen in a different light. Still, the questions of whether evil is ever necessary, or if the ends in the case of rendition justify the means are some worth talking about.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Dead Man



Go Jarmusch, go Jarmusch, go!

Well, he finally won me over. Dead Man is an excellent, offbeat drama/western with occasional dry wit common in Jarmusch films. The film started off very strange and included a series of events that led me to think the film was going to be a kin to Scorcese's After Hours. Dead Man ended up being a little less out there (although it tip-toed on that fence the whole time) than Scorcese's film. Still, Dead Man includes an Indian named Nobody, a cannibal assassin, a gun happy lumber yard honcho, and Iggy Pop in a bonnet and dress.

Dead Man is simultaneously a trademark Jarmusch film and a huge leap forward in quality for the director. A bigger budget, a professional cast, wonderful cinematography, and a more plot-based script than any of the other Jarmusch films that I have seen make for a fantastic movie. None of these things necessarily makes a great film. But, in the case of Dead Man, all these things gel together to create a very, very good movie.

The story is about William Blake (Johnny Depp), an accountant from Cleveland traveling out West to start a new job at a lumber mill. After a series of misunderstandings, he's shot and running from the law and the wrath of Dickinson (Robert Mitchum), a strange businessman, who hires three gunslingers (Michael Wincott, Lance Henrikson, and Eugene Byrd) to bring Blake back dead or alive.

Blake is saved by an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) who speaks in mystical nonsense or plain common sense and believes that William Blake is the same man as the poet whose works he has read. "Did you kill the white man that killed you?" Nobody asks. "I'm not dead," Blake answers. "Am I?"

The film plays with that question. Nobody sees Blake as a skeleton after indulging in peyote. Blake continuously drifts in and out of consciousness for much of the movie. The question isn't exactly the meat and potatoes or sole source of meaning for the film, but does set up much of Nobody and Blake's interactions as well as a e ending.

The ending is anticlimactic, but in a very ironic way that fits the tone of the movie and left me mostly satisfied. Still, I somehow think the ending was not enough to finish the grand, strange journey there. I think the ending was saying something that lost me in translation. If you're listening Jim Jarmusch, what is your point? Or am I supposed to decide? Because that very well may be.

In Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law, Jarmusch wasn't exactly trying to tell me anything other than people are strange. I think he's also saying that in Dead Man, but there's something else, something that I'm missing.

While Blake is on the lam, he has run-ins with unique characters. He happens upon a group of weirdos (Billy Bob Thorton, Iggy Pop, Jared Harris) at a campfire. He faces two marshalls out for the reward for Blake. And in a great scene, he meets a narrow-minded, bigoted, fire-and-brimstone priest running a trading post out in the middle of nowhere. By this point, Blake is a famous outlaw and has become an excellent shot and more hardened man. When he is challenged, he lays waste to the men around him. "I'm tired," he says. It's more informative and conversational than a voice of inner turmoil.

It's an example of Jarmusch's handling of the drama and wit of his western. It's not like any movie in the genre that I have ever seen. While it stands out amongst its peers, I never felt that it was crazy and strange just for the sake of being crazy and strange. Maybe this is because Jarmusch's zaniness is so relaxed and non-chalant that it's easy to look over unless you're tuned into his vision and tone.

Depp and Farmer are excellent. Their scenes together are some of the best in the film. Depp starts off bright eyed and soon can't seem to keep his eyes open. Blake becomes just the kind of man everybody mistakenly thought he was in the first place. Nobody explains the change matter-of-factly as though no change has occurred at all. This new Blake was expected by Nobody all along and it seems there are no real surprises in Blake's journey back to where he came from. And when he gets there, there is beauty in the strangeness of the moment unlike all the strangeness that Jarmusch has unleashed in all the other movies of his I has seen.

Depp's seamless transformation and quiet meditations are perfectly portrayed. I would have become endlessly bored by his constant drifting in and out of consciousness if he and Jarmusch didn't make every moment he was awake so priceless. It's a startling performance because of Depp's ease moving between strange, dry wit and gun-toting bad ass.

Farmer, whom I think I've only seen before in a minor role in The Score, is wonderful. In some ways, Nobody is a stereotypical Indian guide like we've seen before in film - the wisdom of the rustic. But in some ways, he also has the strangest wit of all the characters. He leads the journey, but in some ways he's unconcerned how Blake gets there.

All is I know is that I really enjoyed the trip.

****

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Rendition



Political movies are tricky. If they take a stand too quickly and too strongly, they can come off as preachy. Now being preachy is not necessarily a bad thing. It has its place at public meetings, news shows, debates, editorials, and the like. However, bonkinbg someone over the head with a message in a movie is rough. Leaving no room for interpretation is a bad way to construct a film. Still, taking a side should not lead to a viewer to dismiss a movie altogether, especially if that movie is intelligent and provocative in a necessary way. Rendition is just such a movie.

Rendition is a government policy that started in the Clinton administration. Basically, suspected terrorists can be shipped off to other countries and interrogated without being charged or legal counsel. It surely is a product of the times we live in, but to think that this was enacted before September 11 is an eye- opening look at the state of government actions prior to the War on Terror.

Rendition the movie follows four different story lines that intersect in a way that is popular in movies of the last few years (Babel, Crash, etc.). One story follows Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) a Egyptian family man who has lived in the U.S. for the past twenty years, graduated from an American university, married an American woman (Reese Witherspoon), had a son, and worked as a chemical engineer for many years. He is apprehended on his way home from a conference in North Africa by the U.S. government on suspicions of terrorists activities, flown out of the country, and questioned by Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor) in a interrogation observed by Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a U.S. government employee who is promoted after his colleague is killed in a suicide bombing.

The other story follows Fawal's daughter Fatima as she rebels against her father's attempts to marry her off to someone she does not love. She runs away and flees to the arms of her secret boyfriend Khalid (Moa Khouas).

Back in the States, Anwar's wife Isabella (Witherspoon) worries when her husband does not come home. She heads to Washington to seek the help of her old college friend Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) who works for a Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin). It is from Smith that Isabella and the audience learn (a little too quickly) the meaning of rendition. She works to learn what has happened to her husband and why he was taken away.

Another Senator, Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), is in charge of the committee that orders rendition. Whether or not she is right in her thinking, she is definitely shown as the film's villain.

The story revolves around the interrogation/torture in the other country, and Gyllenhaal's character provides the eyes through which we see the atrocities. The film's handling of the torture scenes should be commended. Unlike the recent slew of horror films forcing torture into entertainment, there is no torture glorified or glamorized in Rendition. Whether you agree with torture or not, it is displayed with all its violence and pain. Still, it could have been a lot worse to watch. Even though it was tough to take in, we are not presented with horrible blood splatters or close ups that over-accentuate the acts.

Gyllenhaal's character starts out in the movie much like I did. He was aware of the act of torture and saw it as a unfortunate way to receive life-saving information. He knew what was involved, but until he was forced to see it first hand, he was able to turn away and sleep well at night. When he does come face to face with torture, he is not able to ignore it. When you have to think about it, it hurts.

There is a scene that takes place after several days of torture. Gyllenhaal's character has not handled his observation well. He asks to be left alone with Anwar. He starts out asking for answers. Then he snaps and grabs Anwar forceably by the throat and demands answers. It is a harsh scene, but after thinking about it, I understood what was really happening. Freeman (Gyllenhaal) was begging for an answer because he could not stand the torture any longer. He wanted to go home. He wanted to try to forget. Eventually, he found out he could not forget or ignore what was happening any longer.

The film doesn't really allow for any amazing feats of acting. No one is given juicy scenes to show off or play extreme depth or internalization of their characters. That is okay. Everyone does deliver solid performances. A solid performance by any one member of the amazing cast is better than a amazing performance by any number of performers. No goes above and beyond because no one has to. I hope that director Gavin Hood stretches his casts more in future movies.

The multiple story lines are also not handled as well as they could be. Each are shown with equal importance for two thirds of the movie, but Anwar and Freeman's storyline as well Fatima and Khalid's storyline move into more screen time and the foreground of the film in the last third. The Washington storyline moves into the background and dismisses a key character when it chooses much before it should have.

I was not interested in the Fatima and Khalid storyline for most of the movie before its relevance was made clear in the last act. I would have appreciated a more involving handling earlier on by the writer and director.

I did really like this movie. The connection of all the story lines is solidified in the end and satisfies in a way I was not prepared for by the average first two acts. I think I appreciated the movie as a great conversation starter that made me more aware (albeit in a fictionalized/stylized manner) of problems I was not aware of. It is an interesting film in the way that it evokes a reaction, but does not offer any answers that would help the audience in their next steps. That is part of the reason this politically-minded film avoids the preachiness that derails so many other films.

***1/2

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ordinary People



For the longest time, the only time I heard about Ordinary People was when people mentioned that it robbed Raging Bull of Best Director and Best Picture Oscars in 1980. Then I saw Timothy Hutton in Beautiful Girls a while back and tried to find out what he's all about. Turns out he won a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1980 for Ordinary People. "Huh," I said. "I oughtta see that." And now i finally have.

Ordinary People is a film boiling over with emotional truth. The ordinary people of the title are relatable. I could know them. I could be them. I certainly saw parts of myself in characters.

The film is about a family struggling to connect and keep a sense of normality after the accidental death of one son and the attempted suicide of another. That's enough to make any family crack. And they certainly do.

Hutton plays the son, Conrad, who attempted suicide. The film starts as he is going back to school at the beginning of a new school year. He received the Oscar for a supporting role, but his story anchors the entire film. He carries it. Everybody else helps, but he shoulders the best of it.

He delivered a big, bright, and amazing performance. Somehow he was able to stare blankly at nothing and convey an avalanche of thought behind his eyes. His awkwardness and anger in therapy scenes with Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) were accurately and believable performed. What really struck me in those scenes was the details he put into inflection, stops and starts, and change in emotions that were impeccable.

Hirsch played the dream psychiatrist, one who pulls you through your reluctance and resistance to a place you could never have reached on your own. It might be a movie myth - this amazing type of psychiatrist. But it certainly works in Ordinary People.

I liked that the love story between Conrad and a co-ed (Elizabeth McGovern), although helpful and ultimately rewarding, was shown as a brief interruption from troubles, but ultimately not the answer. A lesser movie would have made the journey to revelation for Conrad be with his girlfriend and not his psychiatrist.

Conrad's parents are a mess. They're able to fake pleasantness and stability, even happiness, but it's all just an escape from all the shit that keeps happening around them. The father Call, played by Donald Sutherland, is attempting to address the hardships head-on. The mother Beth, played by Mary Tyler Moore is trying to get over it all and get on with their lives.

The parents are a flip on conventional parental and gender roles. Cal is worried, nurturing, loving, and supportive. Beth is emotionally distant and/or callous, and wants to gloss over the past in favor of a happy future. This displays a characteristic common to all the characters and performances. They are all complicated, layered, and detailed.

I've never seen Sutherland like this before cautious, questioning, contemplative. And his work as a father fits him well. It's hard when an actor's been around so long that and the young people (myself and contemporaries) are only familiar with his work in Outbreak, The Italian Job, and The Puppet Masters. He's good.

Moore is amazing in this role. It's the performance of a lifetime. Her Beth is complicated and maddening but still sympathetic somehow amongst all her transgressions. When her characters was finally revealed as weak, the revelation clarified everything that preceded it and acted like a magnifying glass on Moore's perfect gift for imperfections.

Robert Redford directed the movie and handles his performers exceptionally well. His handling of flashbacks and memories was less successful. The echoed voices, the fuzzy outlines, the quick cuts - it's all too conventional and too showy for a movie that is able to understate other big themes and performances so well.

This movie was like therapy for me. The aftermath of a suicide attempt is familiar. The loss of control. The way others handle you with kid gloves that bothers ya', or bothers ya' when they don't. And most familiar was the struggling with what confronting real, raw, and honest emotions will mean. Ordinary People does it all so well.

Good Will Hunting and American Beauty owe debts to Ordinary People. They didn't steal from it, but they still owe a lot.

****

The Pope of Greenwich Village



The Pope of Greenwich Village is about Charlie (Mickey Rourke) a cool Italian New Yorker trying to get by and move up. The only thing standing in his way is his cousin...his obnoxious, cowardly, big time wannabe, dim-witted cousin Paulie (Eric Roberts). But, hey, he's family, right?

Paulie's the perpetual screw up who doesn't even realize he's a screw up. He screws up and can't say he screwed up. Charlie takes care of him, humors him, and watches out for the guy. One man can only take so much, but Charlie sticks with Paulie because they're not only pals (best friends even) but also family. So, even when the fairly stupid cousin brings a fairly simple heist, Charlie goes in. Turns out the heist wasn't nearly as easy as Paulie made it out to be.

Mickey Rourke was reborn on my TV screen during The Pope of Greenwich Village. There was no more mutant face or smoker's growl. Just charming, smooth, cool as ice though guy Mickey - the way it should be always as never shall be again. There was a time when Rourke was going to be big. Pope was part of that ladder to the top.

Eric Roberts is out of control, let off his leash to run wild. Sometimes that's good and sometimes bad, but it seems that the role was made for show-stopping, scenery-chewing, stand-on-the-tips-of-your-toes theatrics. And in that way, Roberts serves his purpose.

Daryl Hannah played Charlie's girlfriend. She usually bothers me, mostly because I think she looks manish, but she's solid enough in the supporting role.

A problem for the movie is that there are scenes that are too big for everybody's britches - too much music, too much theatrics, too much spiked punch.

However, some scenes are tight. Watching Charlie getting ready to make a big impression and swaying to Sinatra, having a verbal and physical sparring with Hannah, and especially his "Pope of Greenwich Village" moment - all memorable for the best reasons and all involving Mickey Rourke. He never made it all the way to the top. He made sure of that, but it's sure fun to watch him on the way up there.

***

The Spanish Prisoner



Slights of hand, trickery of the verbal, visual, and plot kind - must be Mamet. But wait! What's this?! PG-rated Mamet?! This cannot be! Surely the sizzle and grit is gone. But no. The Spanish Prisoner is actually quite good.

The film follows Campbell Scott, a inventor of sorts, whose character has created something that will make the company he works for a lot of money. Keeping his hands on the secret seems easy enough. Should be.

I watched the first 45-60 minutes of this movie wondering what I was watching. I couldn't categorize the film, not because I couldn't follow it. Rather, I had no idea where the plot could or would go.

I should say that I was able to figure out where. And I knew what kind of movie it was. I started out thinking it was like an Alfred Hitchcock movie - maybe The Man Who Knew Too Much. Then I realized I was going about it all wrong. The Spanish Prisoner should be filed under Mamet in the video store, cause it has his handiwork written all over it.

That's both good and bad. Like I have noticed in his other movies (Heist and Spartan specifically), he pulls the wool over your eyes but leaves a peep hole. You get tricked, but the real trickery is making the trickery so obvious that you miss it anyway. I started to think, "That's not all that smart. It's simple, really. Maybe too simple." But that's the genius of Mamet - too simple to be dumb. Does that make sense? He plays your judgments against you. Trying to figure out what's happening only makes you miss things you should have been paying attention to.

If Mamet's struggled at his own game, it's most apparent in The Spanish Prisoner. The problem isn't that he didn't take me for all I'm worth. He did. He got me fair and square. The problem is that he was too obvious this time around. He made specific reference points stick out (WAY out) in front of the audience. He said "This is important! Remember this!" So I did. In that way, he makes his most accessible movie. No one's gonna get lost. It's all there. The audience can jumble things around, question themselves, but still figure it out long before they're supposed to. I know I just said he got me. The thing is that any number of people could have paid enough attention to be on the up and up the whole way through. It's not hard. I'm just the kind of guy ripe for the fooling. That's not Mamet's fault. It's mine. His problem is over accentuating the clues.

I praise and criticize Mamet for the same thing. I must be out of my mind, right? A little. Happily, Mamet challenges me. He's always successful, but he doesn't always go about it the right way.

Other things - his handling of the end was soft. Satisfying, but only because it wrapped things up, not because the dialogue was Mamet-sharp or even all that convincing. It winds up in a fashion not above that of a TV movie or Law and Order.

I am a HUGE fan of the first two acts. Yahoo! Write-it-down-in-love with the first two acts. But that last act, which I can certainly tolerate, brought me down off my high.

Campbell Scott - good. Steve Martin - solid. Rebecca Pigeon - so so. And that's the thing. Mamet could have casted dozens of more accomplished and more talented actresses than his wife. I like Rebecca Pigeon. I even liked her in this movie. But she ends up just being okay. And she kind of blows her part in the last act. I loved her and she was good in State and Main, but if I'm honest with myself, Mamet can do better...you know...casting wise.

I know this review is confusing. I'd like to say that was on purpose to try to play off some of the same slight of hand Mamet uses, but it's just because Mamet drives me crazy. For better or worse.

***1/2

Monday, October 15, 2007

Stranger than Paradise



Stranger than Paradise lives up to its title. It's strange all right. It's like an impenetrable, boring, morose, deadpan strange trip to Cleveland, New York City, and Florida. And that be exactly what writer/director Jim Jarmusch was going for. If so, Bravo! Still, the film left me wanting ol' Roberto Benigni from Down by Law to waltz in with his zaniness and liven up the joint.

Instead, I got the droll, monotone comedy and silence of John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson. Lurie plays Willy, whose cousin Eva, played by Eszter Balint, from Hungary comes to visit during a stop on a trip to Cleveland, Ohio. When she leaves, a year passes before Willy and his pal Eddie, played by Richard Edson, drive out to Cleveland and rescue Eva from a cold winter and boring nights at home with Willy's aunt (a deadpan, monotone, very foreign, and funniest performance by Cecillia Stark). When they get to Flordia, they discover Florida isn't the Paradise they expected it to be. A series of comical miscommunication and misunderstandings follow.

John Lurie is an actor I'd prefer not to see in movies again. He is as bland as they come. Even when conveying emotion, he's lifeless. Any laughs from the film are hard to come by because the comical moments are so underplayed that it's hard to know if they're even supposed to be funny. So, instead of natural reactions of laughter, I did a lot of head scratching trying to figure out if things were funny or if I just needed to find something to laugh at to keep me going. Lurie is the chief culprit, but Jarmusch writes and directs moments engineered for this strange ambiguity of appropriate reaction.

Most of the time, my reaction was just looking at sometimes beautiful black and white cinematography and freeze framing shots in my mind (or literally with the pause button).

Like Down by Law, I don't really get the point or points if any that Jarmusch is trying to make. If his point is just to entertain, he failed me.

I can say that there is a big improvement from Stranger than Paradise (his first movie) to Down by Law (his next movie after that). I can only hope that if I see enough of his movies, his work might eventually improve to a completely enjoyable experience.

**

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Paris Je T'aime



Paris Je T'aime is an anthology of short film love letters to Paris. Each of the film's 18 shorts deals with love with Paris as a setting. Some of the world's premiere directors filmed a short for the anthology including the Coen Brothers (Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou), Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Elephant), and Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election).

Each of the short films is only about five or six minutes (and seem shorter), so I had difficulty at first because I spent such little time with characters before the next story would begin. I began to feel at ease when some of the directors took special care when constructing their stories with beginning, middles, and ends in a more traditional sense.

I felt a wide range of emotions while watching the short films. For the most part, I felt truly satisfied by each segment, though some were much more successful than others.

I liked how the films were able to take an idea like love in Paris and stretch it more than just falling into romantic love. Some people narrowly missed love, lost it, or lost it and then regained it. There was also familial love, love for life, and love for Paris itself.

I was impressed how well some of the directors told their stories. I was continually amazed by how many films were able to surprise me in such a short amount of time. Just when I thought their narratives were going in one direction, they zig-zagged a different way.

Some of my favorite segments were Faubourg Saint-Denis by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) about a blind man's recollection of fleeting love found quickly again, Quartier de la Madeleine by Vincenzo Natali about a giving of self for love for a vampire, and Place des FĂȘtes by Oliver Schmitz about a dying man making one last attempt to charm a beautiful woman who has eluded him.

Not all the films are good. I did not take to Porte de Choisy by Christopher Doyle about a salon products representatives dream hair appointment, or Parc Monceau by Alfonso Cuaron about a father and his daughter talking about old habits and new trials. Neither film handles the time frame well. Porte de Choisy tries to fit too much all at once into its tiny run time, and Parc Monceau does not do enough with its run time.

That proved to be the deciding factor in determining the quality of the segments - How well did they entertain or captivate their audience in the amount of time they had? How did they structure their shorts? What were they trying to do, and did they accomplish that?

More often than not, Paris Je T'aime sweetly and sometimes sadly told short stories that will last much longer in my memory.

***1/2

Across the Universe


Across the Universe is one of the worst films that I have seen in the theater in a long time. It is a mess of a movie.

The film follows a rag tag group of young people during the turbulent 60's. Our protagonist is a English lad named Jude. He goes to America to find his dad, but stays after meeting Max and his sister Lucy. Lucy and Jude are destined to be entwined in young love.

That's really the story. It is as thin as a paper cup and just as disposable and recyclable. Everyone who has seen a movie about the 60's has seen this plot or elements of the plot before. It tries to touch on everything - hippies, music, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War and the struggle of the "radicals'" protesting at home among every other instance of 60's nostalgia you can imagine.
The characters are also 60's stereotypes masquerading as memories.

The problem is the filmmakers love The Beatles (whose music makes up the entire musical's soundtrack) too much. The story exists because of the songs, not the other way around as it should be. The story is thin because it merely bides its time with a loose narrative as an excuse to fill time between musical interludes. Those small pieces of narrative cannot sustain the audience's interest, so the filmmakers chose to make the time in between songs short and forgettable so we can push right on through to the next number.

Some of the musical pieces serve as bold interpretations of The Beatles musical catalogue and contain interesting images, but most stick out like sore thumbs in the context of the narrative. A few of the musical numbers did stand out as quality pieces of filmmaking including "Let it Be" during race riots, "Strawberry Fields Forever" in a Vietnam and artist freak out montage, "Across the Universe" on a subway car, and "Because" lying in a field of tall grass.

Still, the film has no subtlety in its purpose: to use as many Beatles songs as possible. That means having characters named Jude, Lucy, and Prudence. Max might as well been named "Eleanor Rigby" to keep the trend going.

Certain things bothered me above all. There was use of a heightened reality common to film musicals, but that was no excuse for a lifeless and bland film in the midst of all the vain attempts to shower the audience with vibrant life. I have never seen a better example of style over substance.

Another annoyance was the love story. I could not be invested in the two lovers' fates at all. Perhaps I have been spoiled by the recent indie musical Once with its wonderful characters and lovely love story. The big deal is that the love story is really the meat and potatoes of the narrative. If I could not care about the love story, I was doomed to not care about the whole movie.

The film did manage to find some level of balance and relative skill in the third act, but by then it was too late. I was turned off by the movie early on and had no hope for reinvestment.

*1/2

Michael Clayton



Michael Clayton is a top-notch legal thriller from the mind of writer/director Tony Gilroy (he of the Bourne franchise fame). I sat down in my theater seat expecting a solid movie, but what I got was one of the best films I've seen this year.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is the protagonist of the title. He is a man down on his luck and searching for a way to keep his head above water after a bar business never gets off the ground. He is a reforming gambler. He is also the go-to "janitor" of one of the biggest law firms.

A janitor is a lawyer who cleans up other lawyers' and clients' messes. He does not go to trial. His job is to make sure everything is not a disaster by the time the transgressions go to trial or avoiding trial altogether.

His current dilemma in the movie is fixing the ruins after one of his colleagues and friends strips naked at a deposition in a three billion dollar lawsuit against a major farming corporation.

It seems that Clayton's friend, played with manic fear, energy, and sparkle in his eyes by former Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson, went off his medication around the time he had a mental breakdown/epiphany that threatens to destroy the case. Clayton is sent in to do damage control.

The threat is looming over chief council for the corporation played with nervous energy by Tilda Swinton. As she loses hold over the case, she struggles to contain the damage in more questionable ways than Clayton is pursuing.

It seems everybody is unhinging. As Clayton learns more and more about the case, he watches more of his professional and personal life unravel around him. The real mystery of this thriller is not who is going to get hurt or who is at fault for inflicting the damage, but rather what kind of man Michael Clayton is. He becomes faces with a crisis of conscience, which is especially difficult for someone whose conscience has been pushed into the background for so long.

Unlike the John Grisham thrillers that every critic seems to compare Michael Clayton to, Michael Clayton does not use one shred of heavy-handedness or exploitation of its genre conventions. Instead, the film boils slowly at a deliberate pace. Still, I was amazed very early on how tight the film's plot was. There is not an ounce of fat on it.

That is because the film's exposition and characters develop slowly at a natural rate of revelation. Nothing is rushed or forced. Every little detail begins to matter. Not in the way a mystery unravels, but in a way that the details tie together motives, morality, and world of the characters.

Clooney and Wilkinson deliver Oscar-caliber performances in Michael Clayton. Their scenes together burst with tense verbal fireworks. Gilroy and the actors are aware of the necessity of good characters.

Clooney especially gets to display some of the intensity he showed in his Oscar-winning role in Syriana two years ago. He is at his best handling heavy dialogue with either intensity or cool levity. The former is the case here. He does not disappoint.

Eventually, the film culminates in a showdown too simple and familiar to satisfy my growing love for the film. However, it follows suit with the importance of details. Everything before it leads to the finale. Still, the script, which had been so effortlessly smart and fresh throughout, showed a bit of strained effort at the conclusion.

It is still a tad early to be making top ten lists for 2007, but I would not be surprised if Michael Clayton makes its way onto mine.

****

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Kaze no tani no Naushika (U.S. Title - Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind)



I've been wanting to see this movie for a while. I saw the DVD at Best Buy and almost pulled a blind buy, but the cost was too high for such a maneuver. I tried to find it to rent around the area, but to no avail. I looked it up on Google Video and was surprised to see that the whole movie was up for viewing (probably illegally). And so, for the first time, I watched a movie illegally. And I don't feel all that bad. I'm asking for the DVD for my birthday. So everybody wins. Everybody wins!

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind reminded me a lot of Princess Mononoke. Each features one wise person preaching the saving of the environment from rulers bent on destroying it. Both plots balance action with quiet conversations amongst the wild and within towns and villages. And both are really good. Princess Mononoke gets my pick over Nausicaa, but both rule.

Nausicaa is considered to be the first of the Studio Ghibli films. That's particularly interesting because Nausicaa is much more like Princess Mononoke than other 1980's Studio Ghibli films even though the two films were released 15 years apart from each other. Still, the Miyazaki animation style is present. The detail and beauty of his hand-drawn art is breathtaking. I've noticed that he animates smoke and fire better than any other animator than I've seen. There's something so distinctive about his style that makes his films' look and storytelling unique, which is a pleasure amongst the now standard Disney animated fare (still...goooooo Pixar!).

The story is basically that the world is overwhelmed by a toxic vapor emanating from the jungle where giant deadly insects rule. Chief among the insects are slug/snail, caterpillar/what-in-the-world-looking behemoths who transform from docile eyesores into raging runaway trains at the drop of a hat. It seems that only one person can calm these creatures, save her people, bring peace to the land, and learn the secrets to the preservation of her world. That person is Princess Nausicaa.

Princess Nausicaa is a refreshing heroine. She possesses many characteristics that make her a good role-model - determination, strong leadership, wisdom, strength, love, courage, and much more. What a gal! I was reading on Wikipedia (the famous beacon of truth) about how a U.S. version titled Warriors of the Wind was released in the 80's with a poster/VHS box art featuring male characters that appear only briefly or merely as supporting characters. And there was Princess Nausicaa, the true protagonist and great character as a background afterthought. Rotten, no good, boy-centric-programming 80's!

A major plus was some swell aerial action scenes that were smooth poetry and excitement. Its a blast to watch complicated movements and details flow perfectly across the screen. It's a bummer to think that movies like this (immaculate hand-drawn animation) will be non-existent soon enough. That's why it's really worth checking out Miyazaki's films even if you find the pacing boring or the stories strangely childish though told ultra-seriously.

Some things that bothered me included some of the hijinks humor that I have found to be common in Miyazaki's films. Presumably this is because these films are created for children, but I can't really imagine any kids being able to pay attention to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind long enough to get a kick out of it. Still, I might be selling today's kids short because I can only speculate that I wouldn't have been able to sit still through the 2 hour run time at age 9 or 10. I've also realized that some of the zaniness of the hijinks and humor can be cultural specific. After all, all Miyazaki films premiere in Japan way before American eyes ever see a frame.

***1/2

Monday, October 8, 2007

Down by Law



Down by Law is still walking around in my brain. I saw it last night. I'm still deciding how I feel about it, so this may end up being a stream of consciousness review when all is said and done.

I think I liked it. It definitely did not possess the usual attributes and qualities I look for in a film, especially independent film. It's atmosphere is pretty bare. Jarmusch creates a stale air speaking "Louisiana, Louisiana" and "jail, jail." I can't really put my finger on it more than that.

I felt distanced from the film and the characters for most of the film. There were times when they opened up or had a brief spell of interaction that was mildly amusing, but there was also a lot of bland waiting and silence. It can surely be said that silence can say a lot, but I don't think the silence in Down by Law said that much. More accurately, it said what it had to say and then kept repeating it over and over again.

Of course, whenever you add Roberto Benigni to the mix and you get more interest and excitement than whatever you had before. he adds life and mischief to the film. The best moments in the film - and there are several really, really good scenes - take place after Benigni joins the other two characters in their jail cell. I'm not particularly a fan of Benigni, but I am impressed by how his mere presence in Down by Law made the film and the other two main characters interesting.

Jarmusch employs a leisurely pace. He certainly doesn't rush things. At times, he tried my patience. Other times, especially when the three main characters were on the lam, he kept me engaged (for the most part).

Since this is only the second Jarmusch film I have watched all the way through (the other being Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which employed a similar leisurely pace), I can only really speculate here...but I think Jarmusch is still trying to find his voice in Down by Law. He doesn't really say that much in the film. And what he does say, he doesn't say well. I might be looking for meaning in all the wrong places, but it seems he was really just making a dark, bleak, sometimes zany comedy about casual friendships and the long arm of the law. It also moves along the lines of a tough-love letter to the seedy streets, back alleyways, back woods and swamps of Louisiana.

I had a love-hate with the cinematography. On the one hand, the black and white images on screen could be beautiful. Black and white lends itself to beauty. But the camera was stationary or static for many shots. This added to the stale air. It must be difficult to film a jail cell and make it interesting, but Jarmusch didn't even try. If his intention was to show the boredom of jail, he succeeded. As a setting for a film, I think that setting has to be visually interesting for the audience.

I'll give this movie a marginal recommendation, though I do want to see Down by Law to see if I missed the point along the way the first time. I also look forward to seeing what ol' Jarmusch has up his sleeve.

***

Monday, October 1, 2007

Trainspotting



I must start off this review with a disclaimer:
I am a huge fan of Danny Boyle's work. I tend to use hyperbole when criticizing his work. I am able to find flaws. I don't like The Beach or a Life Less Ordinary.
And so I begin.

Trainspotting is a revelation of sorts for me. I realized I can see a movie in my youth as a disappointment and rewatch it as a treasure. Trainspotting is just such a movie.

I've complained about Ewan McGregor before on this site. I think it started when I reviewed Stay. I claimed he's too over-expressive. In Stay, he certainly was. But he really delivered an amazing performance in Trainspotting as Renton. I think what impressed me was that he was able to play the contradiction of the character so well. Renton is smart enough to see through all the glossy glamor of the drug world and the smiles and cheers of his mates, but he sticks with both. He leaves each. He comes back. Or sometimes each comes back to him. There's a loyalty to the character that can be almost maddening at times. Yet, he is prone to steal, lie, and curse his mates. He knows what he should do. He rattles off a list of answers to his dilemma in a short spark of dialogue at the beginning of the film. All are good reasons to "shape up" (as my mom used to say), but as Renton states, "Who needs reasons when you've got heroine?"

That's kind of the duality of the film. On the one hand, it portrays witty, rag-tag characters enjoying the high life, drugs that is, brick, scag, what have you. Sure, it's hard to watch them stick those needles in their arms, but they sure seem to be having a blast. I laughed. I've been trained to. Stoner comedies are run-of-the-mill now. If movies have taught me anything, it's that stoned people are funny. Trainspotting plays that up for almost half of the movie until the wages of sin become much, much clearer.

Characters talk about how getting high is better than sex. Their reactions don't deny this idea. But it is when they're getting high as a infant crawls around a floor covered in needles that you start to get the point. It's not funny. Even when the most famous scene takes place (where Renton emerges from inside a disgusting toilet triumphantly because he's found the drugs he shat out, I cringed. I really did. I got a bit sick to my stomach. I love the scene. Visually, it's unforgettable. I laughed. It's absurd. But the point of fact is the guy dived into the worst toilet in Scotland to fish out drugs that had been up his bum. Disgusting. The point where the film really switches gear from good times to bad times is when the same infant who had been crawling through trouble dies of neglect. What is the first reaction they all have. Horror. Intense fear. Then they shoot up. No calling the cops, an ambulance, their moms and dads, or a shady alleyman who can dispose of the body. They just sit on the floor waiting for the heroine to cook.

Even though the film portrays this depravity, it never really completely lets go of its humor. Horrible visions are counteracted with laughs in later scenes. I'm not sure whether to applaud or admonish that, but I do know I would have cried myself to sleep without it. And like Danny Boyle is prone to do, the film manages to end on a lighter note than the misery that proceeds it. A character promises he's going to be better, stop messing up, and make things right. I smiled, but all along I knew he'd be right back at square one soon enough. So, the movie provides the smile, but doesn't trick anyone. I don't think it tries to.

I enjoyed the acting. McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, and Ewen Bremner have never been better. I also enjoyed seeing Kevin McKidd as Tommy. His character begins saying that a high is better than sex, but later in the movie his eyes betray his words as he becomes stricken with AIDS. Watching Robert Carlyle at work as Begbie is exhilerating mostly because he was shocking, crazy, interesting, scary, and funny at alternating times, though I never knew which Begbie would jump out at me at any given second. It's a performance that is ripe for showboating. I can't really excuse Carlyle from falling into that trap, but he can be brilliant in the role when he wanted to.

And ole' Boyle. Now I shall praise in hyperbole. The man knows how to carry humor into the depths of despair and fear. Visually, he always makes interesting movies. Trainspotting is no expception. Fans still talk about dozens of shots for a reason: the cinematography and creativity visually are stunning and instantly memorable. As far as handling his actors, he let Carlyle go a bit too much, as evidenced in his interview on the DVD. I also think he found a good tone with the humor. I laughed a lot out of nervousness, and I think that's a hard reaction to earn justly.

I'm a fan. It's an excellent movie. Cheers, mates!

****

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Perfect Score



Ah, the SATs. How can a group of teens with different dreams for the future band together to steal the answers and beat the system? Humorlessly.

I caught this movie Friday night on TBS. I should have gone to bed. Somehow I excuse myself from putting the movies I watch on late nights on the weekend through the same standard set I employ during the week. I'll sit through much worse films at 2 am on a Saturday morning than I would at 7:15 pm on Friday night. And I don't know why. It's almost always a mistake.

One such mistake was watching The Perfect Score. It had a lot going for it. Scarlett Johanson (who has been good in movies such as Lost in Translation, Ghost World, and Match Point), Erika Christensen (who was good in Traffic), and Chris Evans (who surprised me with solid work in Sunshine) all have major roles. Well, okay. That's pretty much all it had going for it.

The scheme is lame and would never work, not even in my wildest dreams. The cast of misfits and popular kids never gel as a acting team. In fact, three of the performers should be ashamed of their performances in the film. Bryan Greenburg, Darius Miles (who, granted, is not a professional actor), and Leonardo Nam are awful. Everyone else is bad, but Greenburg, Miles, and Nam are truly awful. Nam in particular is all bravado and hi-yucks as the stoner of the crew. He sets the tone for the movie. Any easy joke available will be made. The movie is as smart as a stoner in the middle of a long day of bong-induced pleasure.

Even though the movie hints at the desire to look at the complexity of those high school-types that we know all too well, it fails. Everyone ends up being the sum of what we already know about them. Even as the characters change near the end (which they do all at the same time oddly enough), they still remain the products of the writers' memories of high school and certainly movies set in high school (they reference The Breakfast Club). But rather than exploring teenagers through in-depth conversation as in TBC (except maybe a few on rooftops or in the woods), we learn of these students' "complexities" through this hair-brained scheme.

Ah, the scheme. Even though the writers' put forth a lot of effort into making the heist of the answers exciting with close calls, alarms, and setbacks, I was bored. When they decide to steal the questions and complete the test as a team after a setback, I cringed. They'll beat the system by taking the test? Yahoo!

And you know some of these teens have to hook up! It wouldn't be a teen movie if nobody kissed or tightly embraced each other. Even The Breakfast Club fall into that mold.

Do they take their team answers and "cheat" on the test? Do they realize their dreams? Does anyone care? Not me.

P.S. - this movie is the perfect example of the misuse of voice over...

*1/2

Chad Betz reviews Eastern Promises



And now...Chad Betz:

"I think David Cronenberg has always had trouble with depicting fully two-sided relationships. The Fly, Spider, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, etc. have prominent relationships that mostly just function as something for the protagonists to react to as they continue their disintegration. This is put into a hilarious light by Rabid with whiny boy chasing porn star girlfriend across the country. The dynamic between Law and Leigh in eXistenZ is semi-interesting, but mostly besides the point anyways since that film's excellence has everything to do with its conceptual and formal rigor.

And it didn't matter because that was all that those films needed. They were focused on their singular central characters. Dead Ringers is so awesome because it's a sort of non-exception, it's Cronenberg and Irons exploring one character from two sides and using that split for the conflict and reactive purposes served by Geena Davis in The Fly or Miranda Richardson in Spider. But instead of cheapening the internal conflict by externalizing it in some BS abstractive move, Cronenberg and Irons still treat both brothers as whole entities and people, and so the internal conflict just gets doubled and plays contrapuntally. And it's freaking great.

*SPOILERS*

With Eastern Promises, you have Viggo Mortensen's Russian mafia driver/undertaker/rank-climber who's pretty interesting, and then you have Naomi Watts' investigative midwife, who isn't. She's just underwritten, the background information of a miscarriage isn't used enough in her character throughout the middle of the film, the time spent with her mother and uncle is mostly a waste -- the Viggo-Vincent Cassell comrades/lovers (Cassell plays the homosexual son of the mob boss played by Armin Muehler-Stahl) dynamic's about a hundred times more involving. This would be okay if Naomi's connection to Viggo interacted with him in compelling ways; it would even be okay besides that if the film's conclusion didn't depend on there being a balanced give-and-take between the two. But.

I mean, I get it, at the end Naomi's complete because she gets the baby. Viggo's incomplete, he's still in "the Zone," the deadness he says he's felt since he was young. He got a glimpse of completion and life with Naomi, he kisses it goodbye at the end. Or did he? Oh my, the ambiguity. I just find it disappointing because the conclusion has little emotional resonance when it could have had so much, when it could have been a regular Dead Ringers if Naomi's character had just been better developed and better integrated with Viggo's storyline, and if we could have really seen how Naomi might have represented Viggo's last hope. And the twist with the police muddies the issue even further. It feels like a botched storyline because it's a half-assed one that can't hold up to the otherwise striking implications of its finish.

But I'll still take it over A History of Violence, which, for my money, had zero interesting characters and a completely listless closing scene. Plus no crazy bath-house fight."

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Simple Plan



If movies have taught me anything, it is that keeping a big bag of money will only make things worse (unless you're the English boy in Millions). That is the lesson learned from A Simple Plan, a movie where problems arise and only get worse at every turn.

1) Don't trust anyone. 2) Don't think you're smarter than everybody else. 3) Don't get anyone else involved. 4) Don't pretend no one will get hurt. And 5) never ever make a plan. Or, if you want to make a nail-biter of a movie, do the opposite. It worked in A Simple Plan.

Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton in his only good performance...ever) and his brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thorton in a time when he wasn't typecast as the disgruntled, mean a-hole in buffoonish comedies) and Jacob's drinking buddy find a crashed plane with a bag containing millions of dollars in cash. They conspire to keep it, though Hank has to do the thinking for the others who are greedy and dream big immediately. Soon, Hank can't think fast enough to avoid the schemes, mischief, and mistakes his co-conspirators make on the path to financial heaven.

Money changes people. Or, sometimes it just plain ruins them. The path to ruin is where the film is particularly engaging. I found a strange fascination with watching the plan spin hopelessly out of control. It was like slowing down to look at a car wreck as you pass by. Only in this case, I got to see every misstep along the way. These are not bad people, per say. They are just people who keep digging their own graves by making stupid decisions and not following my list at the beginning of the review.

I actually loved the writing of the film. Even as the characters did horrible things, I rooted for them to pull out of the film with some hope even though it went against my conscience and logic. That's part of the dilemma the characters face: to try to be logical about an act/plan that will never submit itself to logic. Or maybe the lesson is that logic doesn't bend to the whims of men. Or maybe the lesson is don't take what isn't yours. Billy Bob Thorton creates a dim-witted, kind-hearted, drunk, social disappointment who I couldn't help but let my heart break for. There're layers to the character. His loyalties, intelligence, will, and love are tested. And all along it is clear that he isn't up to the task.

And Bill Paxton...Bill Paxton...Bill. Well, he's ruined many a fine film. He's even ruined many a bad film. But he doesn't do anything in A Simple Plan that ruins the quality of the film. Actually, my heart pounded every time I saw his look of distress. And that look abounded. I can't say that a different actor couldn't have done just as well or better, but he did well. Let it be known that Bill Paxton is capable of something better than the crap he usually turns in.

And scrappy little Bridget Fonda...what a good time. Her sudden turn into the scheming, conniving, Lady Macbeth was stunning. The very model of sweetness with a belly big with child switches into a would-be mastermind funneling ideas and dreams into her husband every time he loses faith.

The film struggles in its climax to keep the same quality of acting that it carried throughout, but it's a true diamond in the rough. It's also nice to see Sam Raimi do something other than his horror/comedies and superhero flicks. He can do all sorts of good.

***1/2