11/25/2007

Martian Child

Director: Menno Meyjes

Unlike other prospective adoptive parents, David (John Cusack) tells his sister Liz (Joan Cusack) that he doesn’t want a happy little Gap kid who goes with the flow. When Dennis, a six year old boy who spends most of his time in an oversized Amazon.com cardboard box (complete with the “Fragile: handle with care” warning) is ready for adoption, caring and good-natured Sophie (Sophie Okonedo) believes she has the ideal match for David. The fact that the previously emotionally abused Dennis believes he is from the planet Mars has classified him as difficult to place so Sophie figures that David, a successful and admittedly odd science fiction writer may be just the right key to unlocking the mysteries of Dennis’s world. Dutch Academy Award nominated writer turned director Menno Meyjes reunites with his Max star Cusack for this touching film based on the book by David Gerrold that channeled his feelings as a gay science fiction writer adopting a son in an appealing screenplay by Seth Bass and Jonathan Tolins. Obviously fearing the market for a film about a gay father, Cusack plays a straight widowed writer still reeling from the death of his wife two years earlier who finds himself questioning the justification in adopting the child he and his wife had wanted alone. As Roger Ebert notes, “few actors in the right role can be sweeter or more lovable than John Cusack…” and this is precisely the case yet again as from the moment the film begins and his character is explaining his past as a childhood outcast, we’re instinctively on his side and buy the film even at its most ridiculous and its most precious as the endearing David caters to the whims of his new “Martian” boy by purchasing numerous boxes of Lucky Charms at the local grocery store (the only food he eats) and helping him with his duct taped homemade battery weight belt to prevent the boy from “floating” away. The film features a winning Amanda Peet as the free-spirited Harlee, David’s best friend who bonds with Dennis and expectedly finds her relationship with Cusack complicated by his incessant flirting that, despite its feeling of ritual does eventually result in a subtle romantic subplot that luckily doesn’t veer the film away from its roots as a parent and child film. While some critics labeled it K-Pax meets About a Boy, I found the entire concept charming and handled with the utmost sophistication until I’d say about three fourths of the way through the film when it began to suffer from I Am Sam syndrome with one too many endings and a few contrivances that tried to bog the quirky movie down to a saccharine melodrama with forced speeches and predictable plot points. I actually found myself wondering at what point the film started to veer off course in the production in either the rewrite stage or test market but it may indeed have been the latter as IMDb cited a Los Angeles Times article revealing that director Jerry Zucker was brought in to film new footage only a few months ago. Still, despite the endings, Cusack is always a joy and Martian Child will definitely strike a chord with audiences who seek it out amidst the large spectacle films of the holiday season.

Away From Her

Director: Sarah Polley

Although the tagline of Away From Her proclaims, “it’s never too late to become what you might have been,” in the case of Canadian actress turned writer/director Sarah Polley who, just in her twenties made this film her feature filmmaking debut, it’s never too early to do so as well. Based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Away From Her which was adapted by Polley specifically with actress Julie Christie in mind (IMDb) won the young director numerous awards at festivals including the Portland International Film Festival, Sarasota Film Festival and Sedona International Film Festival. And now that we’re coming into award season, it’s being talked up again for the Best Actress category and Julie Christie in particular. Christie stars as Fiona, a beautifully happily married woman whose tendency to forget things has been increasing at an alarming rate. When she goes to the doctor’s office with Grant (Gordon Pinsent), her loving retired professor husband, they are saddened to learn that she has developed Alzheimer’s and will have to go into a nursing home soon. Being strong for her husband, Fiona makes the decision to check in but their relationship is put to the test after they discover that Grant will be unable to visit for the first thirty days as the staff wants residents to adjust. What’s thirty days after more than forty years of marriage? This rationalization is used to get the two to finally act but we find ourselves instantly worried and reminded of the story Grant often tells of his engagement to Fiona who proposed to him while still in her teens as sort of a joking hypothetical wherein he quickly agreed saying that he never wanted to be away from her. When Grant finally is able to check back in with his wife, he’s shocked when faced by both her mental deterioration that has now made him a stranger to her and also when he realizes that she has developed a romantic attachment to fellow resident Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a wheelchair bound man who although now a mute, Grant realizes that his wife may have known many years earlier. While Christie and Murphy are quite good as is Olympia Dukakis as Aubrey’s frustrated wife, the actor with whom I was most impressed was Gordon Pinsent whose moving portrayal of Grant was completely convincing. He’s a master at cerebral acting and we feel as though we are actually witnessing Grant having thoughts right there onscreen and it’s his quiet turn that serves as the perfect vessel for audiences in going along on the journey. Polley’s deft, knowing script feels completely authentic and she has a delicate yet powerful sensibility as a filmmaker never forcing scenes at us but letting them just sort of fall off the screen, much like the snowflakes that used to delight Christie’s Fiona-- a great lover of cross-country skiing. It’s a depressing but affecting work that may be harder viewing for those whose loved ones are afflicted with Alzheimer’s but it’s well worth the emotional investment.

Reel Paradise

Director: Steve James

I’ve always agreed with the sentiment of Francois Truffaut in the belief that there’s nothing more beautiful than witnessing the faces of audience members as they watch a film with flickers of celluloid dancing in their eyes. It’s this love of experiencing films with others that’s led me to creating both this website as well as a film discussion series at my local library and it’s the same passion that drives many movie buffs including independent film producer John Pierson who is featured in the documentary Reel Paradise by Hoop Dreams filmmaker Steve James. After his early days in the 1980’s screening films with fellow film buff and wife Janet (the two even married in a movie theater and showed a Buster Keaton film at their wedding) and helping to launch the movie careers of innovative directors including Spike Lee, Michael Moore, and Kevin Smith (who produced this film), John Pierson found himself tiring of the indie scene he chronicled in both book form and through a series on the Independent Film Channel that propelled him through the 90’s. When the 00’s hit, John and Janet grew wary of the independent film business and tried to get back to their original love of showing films to audiences with a bold, drastic and challenging decision to move to Fiji for a year and screen free films nightly at the two hundred and eighty eight seat 180 Meridian Cinema in the isolated Natokalan Village on the Fijian island of Taveuni. Packing up their stubborn and fiercely independent minded teenage daughter Georgia and slightly younger son Wyatt, the film crew of Steve James checks back in with the Pierson family in June of 2003 in the final month of their year long experiment as they deal with island politics, their second home burglary, culture clashes, angry rebellions of their children, and the dominant Catholic church that further thrusts the Pierson family into an us verses them dynamic which threatens to go against their initial intention of bringing movies to the people. The film, which first begins as a great film buff adventure quickly evolves into a cultural and sociologically fascinating work as we see the contrasts of the different ways of life on Taveuni island and while it’s a wonderful idea that film lovers can relate to, one does wonder just what was the larger motivation for Pierson. As numerous critics pointed out, it’s admirable to bring movies to the islanders but there is no cause and effect evidenced and one questions just what the intended result was as well as how the family processed their experience after returning back home to the states. All in all, a great documentary sure to spark conversation but I found myself with several questions afterwards and hoping for more follow-up with the Pierson family.

Margot at the Wedding

Director: Noah Baumbach

According to IMDb, writer/director Noah Baumbach’s follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, his critically acclaimed sour valentine to coming of age amidst parental divorce in the 1980’s was originally titled Nicole at the Beach in an homage to French New Wave director Eric Rohmer. However, the name was immediately changed once Academy Award winning actress Nicole Kidman was cast and despite the Rohmer tribute, and unlike Squid, very little of Margot seems to be directly inspired by French filmmaking. Instead, the influences run deep and seem most indicative of absurdist literature by French writer Camus, with a nod to both Deliverance and Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find thrown in for good measure. The use of such dark material is mostly vacant (save for a few pointed lines) from the trailer for Margot at the Wedding which sets itself up to be another dysfunctional family reunion film that’s all the rage in the independent film world with plenty of pathos and humor sprinkled throughout but it’s a far more disturbing work than one would think and justifiably baffled audience members expecting an entirely different film. Perhaps they were assuming it would be a "Nicole Kidman film" and not a Noah Baumbach film and I admit that, although I’ve seen all of his other movies, I too was expecting something entirely different until about halfway through when I realized that the darkness of Squid was just a prelude to this absurdist portrait of cruel, vicious behavior and the way it manifests in WASPs with backstabbing, emotional blackmail and infighting and in a shocking twist with the stereotypically “backwoods” neighbors who may indeed be sacrificing animals in their main room and have a son not above biting another kid in the ear a la Mike Tyson.

The film chronicles the relationship of short story author Margot (Kidman) whose history of using their dysfunctional upbringing and abundant daddy issues has alienated her sister Pauline (Baumbach’s wife Jennifer Jason Leigh). The two, despite a calculated long silence, have decided to try and mend the rift during a long weekend while they prepare for Pauline’s wedding. With her teenage son with burgeoning hormones Claude (Zane Pais) in tow, Margot arrives to realize that, much to her dismay, Pauline is marrying a man quite similar to as she puts it “the guys we used to reject when we were sixteen.” The intended in question is Malcolm (Jack Black) who is an unemployed “letter writer” that will spend days crafting his responses to newspaper music reviews and worries that he’s losing important pieces of his memory when he fails to instantly recall the name of a Motley Crue band member and isn’t above hurling a croquet mallet towards the sea in a fit of competitive anger when he senses things aren’t going his way. Black revels in the quirks and unlikable idiosyncrasies of his character and provides the perfect balance to Kidman’s wicked Margot who’s devious in ways that rival great literature as she passes judgment on all she comes across without paying even a fraction of the same time contemplating her own situation which consists of infidelity with a smug successful writer and the possibility of divorce from her husband. When husband John Turturro arrives later in the film for only a few brief scenes there was an audible sense of relief among viewers tired of watching the pathetic and angry characters cut each other down and eager to see a man whose integrity they admire in other films show up to sort of take a moral inventory with his innate goodness evidenced that stays with us long after he vanishes from the screen. While most of the ink being spilled by critics is analyzing the nuances of Kidman as the vindictive Margot, I was most taken by the complex portrayal of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Pauline who experiences two major life changes in the brief ninety-two minute film and manages to go through the entire emotional experience in ways both subtle and with complete conviction. She is the actress I’m hoping the Academy will remember come Oscar time and it’s refreshing to see her in such a difficult yet endearing role as only a few years ago, we may have expected to see her as Margot given the way she is typecast and Baumbach-- knowing his wife’s range-- gave her a terrific showcase. It’s only a shame that the film is so uneven and at times so wretchedly and aggressively unlikable that it’s hard to care about any of the people involved—yet, much like the literature of the writers whom he is channeling—despite their abundance of flaws, it’s impossible to look away.

Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire

Alternate Title: Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish
Director: Kevin Jordan

Shot on Super 16 millimeter in just twelve days on a budget of $40,000, director Kevin Jordan’s heartfelt and winning independent film earned awards at both the Toronto International Film Festival and Milan International Film Festival and also won him the support of Martin Scorsese as well as film critic Roger Ebert who chose it for his Floating Film Festival in 2000. Although Jordan collaborated on the original story, the real stars of the film are writers Derick and Steven Martini who also play our lead characters—the brothers Tony and Chris Remi who are half Italian and half Native American. Their Native American grandmother dubbed the two Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire when they were kids to note the difference in personality between the carefree ladies man and aspiring actor Tony (Steven Martini) and the responsible, serious accountant Chris (Derick Martini). After the death of their parents, Chris has taken care of his brother in their large home and as the film opens both brothers are in bed with their respective girlfriends and facing a crisis in their relationships. Admittedly contrived, the film wins the hearts of viewers once it picks up and they begin to realize that they must change their ways when Chris befriends an elderly black retired film soundman and each brother meets Ms. Right. Cute, funny and refreshingly uplifting independent film in a sea of so many works of dysfunction and doom, Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire is one that will hopefully engage audiences for years to come on DVD.

La Vie En Rose

Director: Olivier Dahan

Although I can count the number of words I understand in French on a single hand, ever since I received an iPod for Christmas last year, Edith Piaf’s stirring “Non, je ne regrette rien,” has occupied a permanent place in my track list. The song, which translates to “No, I Have No Regrets,” is the last song performed by Piaf (played by Marion Cotillard) in Olivier Dahan’s stylistically experimental biopic about the French singer and it perfectly sums up Piaf’s life as well as it is musical, succinct, and filled with fiery passion. In a role that the director and co-writer Isabelle Sobelman tailor-made specifically with the actress in mind, Marion Cotillard (A Good Year, A Very Long Engagement, Big Fish) gives the award winning performance of the year completely transforming herself from her early 30’s Parisian beauty movie star stature into adopting the distinct mannerisms, speech patterns and difficult physicality of the star over several decades in a way that never seems like an imitation. The sprawling film chronicles forwards and backwards in time and while I applaud any attempt to reinvent the stale biopic and usually enjoy nonlinear filmmaking (when done right), in the case of La Vie En Rose, it’s a confusing work to audiences that aren’t all that familiar with the intimate details of her life. Within the first twenty minutes, I was already feeling a bit lost in the shuffle having to try and infer more than I’d like some concrete details concerning her upbringing and the health conditions that plagued her in the difficult childhood which found Edith abandoned by her street singer mother and dumped into the brothel run by her grandmother until her circus acrobat father retrieved her. Despite the fact that more questions are raised than answers are provided, importantly, Dahan includes some of the vital details of her evolution from novelty songbird waif amusing passersby on street corner for francs to becoming the international sensation for her distinct styling and way she just tore into her songs with a full-bodied attack that no doubt probably wreaked havoc on a system that was already abused from the unsanitary conditions of her youth and alcohol and drug addled adulthood. Still, I found myself more dazzled by the performance of Cotillard-- who, so dedicated to her role, actually shaved off her eyebrows and up back into her hairline according to IMDb to better resemble Edith and endured extensive makeup sessions that could last up to five hours-- than entranced by La Vie En Rose as a film itself. In the end, I decided I may just have to pick up one of the many biographies available on the singer but until then, of course, there’s always the greatest source we have on her available to us and that is also her greatest gift—the music.

Unknown White Male

Director: Rupert Murray

“How much is our identity determined by the experiences we have? And how much is already there? Pure us?” These questions are asked by British documentary filmmaker Rupert Murray near the beginning of his haunting existential and controversial work about an old friend named Doug Bruce who woke up on a subway heading towards Coney Island in the summer of 2003 with absolutely no memory of who he was or how he’d come to be there. Piecing together the mystery, the film includes first person accounts by Doug Bruce as well as some of Bruce’s actual entries in the video diary he began keeping following his release from a psychiatric ward in a Coney Island Hospital where he was tagged “unknown white male” until he could be identified after the police, completely baffled brought the man in for medical evaluation. We learn that the thirty-something, attractive and intelligent Bruce is a former stock broker who left the occupation after amassing a small fortune and now spends his time devoted to his new hobby of photography by attending the university. As we watch interviews and reactions of family and friends who share their experience and back-history with the man in question we, along with those filmed including Murray who’d known Bruce for fifteen years beginning with when he resided in London, struggle with Bruce’s fierce opposition to trying to retrieve his old memories or ply others with questions, seemingly content with starting from scratch. It’s this stubborn complacency along with Murray’s lack of footage of medical professionals analyzing the admittedly rare condition without a viable root cause as well as his neglect of asking Bruce any tough questions that has frustrated viewers and critics alike who in some critical responses questioned the honesty and validity of not only the film but Bruce’s situation itself. “Is Mr. Bruce a bored rich guy whose interest in art resulted in a devilishly clever conceptual prank?” the New York Times asked in their review and although there is a medical twist near the end that, at least for me, helped prove that this could indeed be real, you are left puzzled by the lack of investigation. Still, it’s a fascinatingly disturbing and riveting piece of cinema that will stay with you and was nominated for a few independent and documentary accolades including the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Black Book

Director:
Paul Verhoeven

Although director Paul Verhoeven admittedly has a thing for strong women manipulating men with their sexuality with his most infamous 90’s films (including Showgirls and Basic Instinct), never has he put the combination together in such a mature, riveting and masterful way as he does with Black Book. Returning to his homeland of the Netherlands, director Verhoeven co-wrote this film about a young Jewish woman who struggles first to survive the war and secondly to become a spy for the Dutch resistance with Gerard Soeteman. Carice van Houten gives a passionate performance as Rachel whose safety is jeopardized when her hiding place is bombed and she makes a last ditch attempt to flee to the freed south in a night boat border crossing that’s interrupted by a near massacre of which she’s the sole survivor. Teaming up with other members of the resistance, the beauty and charm of the former cabaret singer is put to the test when she catches the eye of an SS officer on a train and is later sent into German headquarters to seduce the man and report back with information. Of course, the assignment predictably turns to love and although it’s set up as a sort of tawdry version of Notorious, we’re quickly fooled by the first of many surprisingly maddening and heart-pounding twists that Verhoeven has up his sleeve as Rachel (now Ellis) keeps getting betrayed. Reported by IMDb as the most expensive Dutch film ever made to date, this gorgeously photographed epic was the official Netherlands selection for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2007 but failed to make the cut of just five works chosen. Despite some film festival screenings near the end of ’06 and beginning of ’07, Black Book was finally released theatrically in limited release in 2007 which seems to beg the question of why Verhoeven and company didn’t wait an additional year to try and position the film for greater reception and perhaps a 2008 nomination. Still, in any case, now that it’s available on DVD, hopefully it will finally gain the audience it richly deserves as it is one of the only films in memory that I can recall in the over-populated World War II genre that paints a decidedly different picture of the idea of the resistance as well as some of the men and women who professed to help the Jewish people in various ways.

11/18/2007

August Rush

Director: Kirsten Sheridan

Kirsten Sheridan, daughter of director Jim Sheridan who collaborated with her sister and father on the Academy Award nominated screenplay for Jim’s In America crafted this gorgeous ode to childlike innocence, the power of the family blood and the magic of music sure to be a sleeper hit in the 2007 holiday season. With August Rush, Sheridan works from a script by Nick Castle and James V. Hart (based on a story by Castle and Paul Castro) that melds fairy tale elements with an homage to Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist about Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore) an eleven year old orphan boy who escapes the New York boys’ home where he’s taunted by others to track down his biological parents. Along the way he meets Arthur (or our “Artful Dodger”) played by Leon G. Thomas III, a fellow runaway turned street musician who takes pity on the goodhearted Evan and gives him shelter with the unstable schemer Wizard (Robin Williams who IMDb reports modeled his character on Bono). Together Wizard and Arthur realize Evan’s natural gift for music after the young prodigy becomes an accomplished guitarist literally overnight and soon Evan takes to the streets using the name August Rush and becomes a sensation. Although he later realizes it's his calling, Freddie Highmore with his infectious smile and earnest persona first becomes enamored of the idea of music as a way to reach his parents who viewers quickly learn were musicians in their own right in a beautiful flashback set-up at the beginning of the film. Waitress star Keri Russell plays the elegant Julliard trained cellist Lyla Novacek whose career is managed by her well-meaning but domineering father whose drive to keep his daughter sheltered and successful take a dramatic turn after she finds herself pregnant from a one-night stand with Louis Connelly, a gorgeous Irish lad (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, of course and thankfully keeping his accent) who’s a guitarist in an up-and-coming rock band made up of his brothers. The young lovers’ brief night that begins with Connelly crooning Van Morrison’s "Moondance" on a beautiful night on a rooftop overlooking New York’s Washington Square Park is one of the very few scenes Russell and Meyers share together onscreen and in fact, the main trio of actors are seldom seen occupying the same frame which may have been a problem in other films but in the hands of Sheridan, much credit is owed to her skill and ability to fill the rest of the cast with moving supporting players such as Terrence Howard as a genuinely caring child services worker named Richard Jeffries who finds himself moved by both Highmore and Russell’s pleas to track one another down. Although admittedly very little of the film feels at all real, August Rush is a beautiful and refreshingly optimistic family film filled with innocent idealism with just enough Dickensian elements thrown in for good measure—an escapist work with a wonderful musical soundtrack which will hopefully earn some recognition during award season.



Love in the Time of Cholera

Director:
Mike Newell

Last fall when I was at the movies with a friend, he walked in halfway through the trailer for The Painted Veil and, after hearing a few snippets of dialogue and the sweeping romantic music, turned to me and asked, “Is this for Love in the Time of Cholera?” After seeing the brand new adaptation by Pianist and Being Julia screenwriter Ronald Harwood and Four Weddings and a Funeral director Mike Newell, gosh I wish it would have been. The film is, of course, based on the deeply personal novel loosely inspired by the courtship of his parents and penned by Columbian Nobel Prize winning author and the man usually attributed with the beginnings of Magic Realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Love in the Time of Cholera tells the story of hopeless romantic Florentino (Javier Bardem) who devotes more than fifty years of his life to loving Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) from afar until the death of her husband Dr. Urbino (a dishy Benjamin Bratt) will allow him to once again profess his adoration and wish for it to no longer be unrequited. Of course, given our sultry sundrenched setting and the fact that he’s got a libido the dream of most Viagra television advertising executives, Florentino quickly abandons his wish to remain a virgin in waiting with what he felt would’ve been noble celibacy by proceeding to keep a journal of his 622 female conquests spanning most of his adult life until he can be with Fermina. Coming off the heels of his role as the air gun wielding killer with a coin toss fetish in the brilliant Coen brothers film No Country for Old Men, seeing impressive character actor Javier Bardem playing a romantic lead takes some getting used to and he never seems to feel all that at ease in a role that at times seems earnest, other times Almodovar-like campy (he’s practically raped during his first few encounters), and in addition silly and whimsical which makes us instantly recall Newell’s work with Hugh Grant in Four Weddings. I’m sure I speak for other fans of Marquez’s writing when I say that British sex comedy is probably the last vibe you’d like to have when watching an adaptation of his works which begs to mind an even greater concern that possibly he’s one of those brilliant and sensually evocative writers whose rich language and frequent use of metaphor doesn’t translate well to the screen. Instead of erotic in the vein of say The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it’s a strange hybrid of clinical forthrightness and child’s play that had some audience members laughing and others (such as myself) shifting in their seats. Although the gifted Newell and Harwood along with Cholera’s entire cast and crew had the very best of intentions and they crafted a lusciously photographed film filled with stunning art direction eye candy, perhaps they should have realized the significance of the fact that, according to IMDb it took producer Scott Steindorff three years of incessant courting to receive the rights from Marquez who was reluctant to part with a story that meant so much to him on a personal level and is beloved by readers around the globe. Steindorff-- that rare and admirable Hollywood producer who’s also a great lover of literature-- is sadly also known as the producer of the ill-advised adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, which you may remember made the unfortunate choice of casting Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins as a light-skinned black man much to the chagrin of African Americans everywhere. While Love in the Time of Cholera does benefit from a talented international group of artists involved, after seeing the disappointing finished product, I realize they may have been better off collaborating on a different project. Possibly The Painted Veil 2? (Just Kidding)

11/14/2007

American Gangster

Director: Ridley Scott

“They look at us like we’re the help,” Eva, Frank Lucas’s wife shares when the two leave old-world styled veteran gangster Dominic Cattano’s home mid-way through Ridley Scott’s newest film. Based on the magazine article by Mark Jacobson that was adapted by one of our greatest screenwriters Steven Zaillian (Falcon and the Snowman, Schindler’s List, Awakenings, Searching for Bobby Fischer), American Gangster is one of those rare films that starts out feeling like something we’ve seen before with an overly glossy and sometimes cheesy, exploitative set-up for the first portion that somehow resurrects itself halfway through to produce an infinitely superior second half that’s simply perfection. The details offered in the beginning are important—we meet Frank Lucas, a former driver and right-hand man to Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson (the same man who influenced Coppola’s Cotton Club) as he watches with admiration as a fellow African American rise from nothing to become successful in his chosen field that’s usually monopolized by the mafia. After Bumpy dies in a wholesale store no less, Frank decides to put those life lessons to good use turning a criminal venture into one that takes the very foundations of capitalism to succeed—he will find a product that’s in demand, create the very best that he can and cut out the middle-man to maximize profits. The fact that he picks heroin appears like a nonchalant side-thought in the film… that is until he begins realizing that the best place to get the drugs would be from where American servicemen are getting hooked. Soon Frank flies over to Bangkok to go directly to the source and creates a diabolically clever yet tragically amoral scheme to hide large quantities of heroin inside large army cargo planes carrying our deceased servicemen back to the states. His name brand drug Blue Magic is quickly the most sought after substance on the Harlem streets and while most crime films glamorize or leave in the background the fact that these villainous men (often depicted as folk heroes onscreen) are getting rich off of others' misery, admirably Ridley Scott doesn’t pull any punches. There are many shots depicting the itchy, sweaty, and bloody drive of addicts who may or may not survive a day after scoring not to mention the stable of drug cutting women (nude so that way they cannot steal anything) who run Frank’s business and seem to disturbingly represent a kind of creepy enslavement that stays in the back of our mind as we watch him amass a wealth of more than one hundred and fifty million dollars, purchase his mother a large home, marry Miss Puerto Rico and bring most of his family in from North Carolina to help run his empire.

Of course, when there’s a robber, there’s always a cop and Academy Award winning actor Russell Crowe turns in another fine, understated portrayal as Richie Roberts, a police detective who attends night school to study criminal law. Crowe’s Roberts is a bright womanizing police detective who instantly makes viewers recall the films of the 60’s and 70’s such as Serpico and French Connection when we realize that he’s unpopular in his department because honesty and ethical responsibility caused him to return one million dollars he found in unmarked bills in the trunk of an automobile. He can’t leave his usual beat fast enough and it’s not before long that he’s heading up his own team to combat the burgeoning drug problem that’s leaving scores of bodies in abandoned buildings and on the streets and soon, he finds himself on the tail of Frank. He’s not the only cop that’s caught on—following up his role as greedy dimwitted cowboy in No Country for Old Men, chameleon-like Josh Brolin dominates the screen with his snake-like portrayal of a greedy, corrupt cop out to blackmail criminals to help pad his paycheck.

While there’s enough plot involved to make the roughly two hour and forty minute film even longer, it ends up being the perfect length due to the by-the-numbers beginning that later evolves into riveting and exciting craftsmanship that is on par with Ridley Scott’s best. In addition to being a superb director of action and one particular frenetic hand-held chase that jolts us from our reverie of the beautiful smooth steadicam sequences preceding it is just one example, Mr. Scott is also a great director of actors and Washington and Crowe are even more charged when the two finally share a scene in what had been a Michael Mann Heat like division of the worlds. However, it’s still a glossy piece of Hollywood pulp that cribs from Scorsese’s structuring and Coppola’s ironic counterpoints (a religious "Amazing Grace" intercut with violence similar to The Godfather’s baptism) and one that’s caused some to note the glaring historical inaccuracies involved, despite Lucas and Roberts’ roles as consultants. New York Daily News writer Stanley Crouch cited the article and the BET documentary of the same name as Scott’s film for their adherence to the truth in not overly glamorizing Lucas who, going against the sophisticated portrayal by Washington was not only “illiterate and could not count,” (a fact that would’ve actually made Scott’s film even more fascinating, but had also put out and later rescinded a murder contract on one of his own brothers. In a film that some are referring to as a black Scarface, it is sad that we do have another somewhat fabricated and heroic portrayal of crooks as successful entrepreneurs and masters of capitalism but at the same token, I do applaud Scott in making sure that we’re always brutally aware of just how the man made his money and how many lives were affected (and ruined) by it.

First Poll Results

The results are in for the first weekly poll.

In case you missed it, the question was:
"Of the following genres, which one is your favorite?"
1) Documentary
2) Foreign
3) Independent/Art
4) Mainstream/Hollywood


Independent/Art was the overwhelming favorite with 69% of the vote with Foreign clocking in at second place (21%) and Documentary and Mainstream/Hollywood tying with 4% each.

Thanks for voting and stay tuned for more polls.

Darfur Now

Director: Ted Braun

As Don Cheadle points out, if as many people cared about the horrific situation in Darfur as they care about voting for American Idol, we may be closer to resolving the situation. It’s a sad yet astute observation regarding the importance of our celebrity-obsessed culture that serves as the launching pad of responsibility for our fellow man that drove Cheadle, first acquainted with genocide while shooting Hotel Rwanda to co-write a book entitled Not On Our Watch which outlines the genocide in Sudan’s western region of Darfur that led to the more than 200,000 people killed and 2.5 million displaced over the past four years. In filmmaker Ted Braun’s documentary, co-producer and star Cheadle is just one of the film’s six individuals highlighted for their contributions in calling attention to and trying to do their part to stop the conflict. In addition, we meet dedicated waiter Adam Sterling who formerly avoided leaflet hording protestors on his college campus to eventually change his mind and help pass a law signed by Governor Schwarzenegger that would divest investments by California companies out of industries and exports important to Sudan. Secondly we are introduced to inspiring humanitarian Pablo Recalde who runs the World Food Program delivering nourishment to millions of individuals in treacherous areas overrun with Janjaweed militia-men along with a female rebel fighter Hejewa Adam who joined the resistance after losing her baby. Perhaps most stirring is our acquaintance with the fight being led by Argentine International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo who is working on developing an air-tight evidence heavy case to arrest some of the guiltiest offenders of crimes against humanity at the court in The Hague, Netherlands. Braun’s film is at once both expectedly sad yet surprisingly moving—like An Inconvenient Truth, it’s a call to action and a worthwhile lesson on the roots of the situation and we’re shocked by the devastating fact that time and time again this type of horror occurs in countries around the globe since the incomprehensible atrocities of the Holocaust that should have served as a warning to never let it happen again. Yet again, it has and we’re educated as Variety’s John Anderson pointed out in his review that, “Braun makes it clear that Darfur embodies all the elements of current and future world tension: tribalism, religious conflict, global warming (drought was a factor in the war) and China, which gets 60% of all Sudanese oil.” Darfur Now, which was an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, has just been released in theatres with ticket sales benefitting the cause.

Run Granny Run

Director: Marlo Poras

In Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks sets off on a quest to run for no apparent reason. Doris “Granny D” Haddock has a reason and at the age of 89 she decided to lace up her shoes and make an incredible journey—although she’s not running, she walks the path from California to New Hampshire. Her reason is simple: to call attention to the issue and need for campaign reform and her passion for the country and in bringing awareness to the 50% of people who do not vote helped propel her for 3,200 miles. Five years later, she was overtaken by another spontaneous impulse inspired by her life’s passion of a truly democratic government to submit her name after the twenty-four hour vacant spot left in the New Hampshire senatorial race after the Democratic candidate bowed out following a monetary and staff scandal. Taking on the two time Republican incumbent senator and former governor Judd Gregg (a friend of President George W. Bush), Granny D.’s plight is given another boost by the involvement of strategists and managers from Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich’s campaigns. While her age prevents most from taking her more seriously than just a folksy casual interest and there’s questionable support from the Democratic party and she feels immense guilt in devoting more time to politics than to her daughter with Alzheimer’s, Granny D. draws on the strengths her son lists as “perseverance” and a remarkably high threshold for pain in her grassroots strategy utilizing homemade signs and individual donations (no PAC or Special Interest money) to walk around the entire state to get out the word. Marlo Poras’ film which as feisty as Granny D. herself premiered in March of 2007 at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas and is now available on DVD.

The Company

Director: Mikael Salomon

To simply say that Black Hawk Down screenwriter Ken Nolan had his work cut out for him is an understatement. Faced with the mother-load assignment of adapting Robert Littell’s almost 900 page historical novel that spans forty years of CIA involvement in global affairs, most writers would have opted for an excuse but Nolan rose to the challenge and penned a truly worthy and engrossing script. Although this miniseries is six hours long, it still feels more brisk and involving than director Robert De Niro’s feature The Good Shepherd which was just half the length. Like Shepherd, we begin with the tale of three Yale graduates (including at least one who’s a member of the infamous Skull and Bones fraternity) who take very different paths after graduation when one is recruited into following in his father’s footsteps in serving Mother Russia as a KGB operative and two join the CIA to throw their hat into the ring of the Cold War battle in the 1950’s. Produced by Ridley and Tony Scott for TNT, this beautifully photographed and painstakingly detailed cable film released recently on DVD benefits from the deft direction of Danish helmer Mikael Salomon whose impressive background as a cinematographer on Backdraft and Far and Away (just to name two) no doubt aided in the creation of The Company which has more in common with first-run feature films than most other television works.

Chris O’Donnell heads up an all-star cast as Jack McCauliffe, an idealistic agent whose perceptions and attitudes get clouded during his heartbreaking and violent forays in Berlin, Budapest during the revolution, and the Bay of Pigs invasion into Cuba, up through Vietnam and the demise of the Soviet Union. Although his career was launched with roles in Scent of a Woman and Circle of Friends, O’Donnell has never had quite a heroic and challenging role (aside from of course the less rewarding task of playing Batman’s Robin) but his character’s earnest boy-scout-like quintessential good guy persona is consistently upstaged by the flashier roles inhabited by Alfred Molina as his weary, hard-drinking boss in Berlin and Michael Keaton as the creepily brilliant CIA investigator James Angleton who only seems to warm up to the orchids he tends. Rounding out the cast is Alessandro Nivola and Rory Cochrane as O’Donnell’s old Yale chums with Nivola taking on the role of a power hungry CIA climber and the impressive Cochrane as Yevgeny Tsipin who, despite his affection for America is guilted into spying and also set-up by his family’s Russian background. It’s ultimately Cochrane— an exciting, subtle and emotionally convincing actor who most commands viewer’s attention with his quiet turn and despite the action-packed and mystery filled plot points monopolized by the tense CIA sequences, we still find ourselves wondering about Yevgeny even when he’s not onscreen and trying to guess the identity of the CIA mole throughout the entire picture. A stunner of a television miniseries and well worth tracking down for not only the Tom Clancy readers and Alias viewers in your family but anyone interested in getting hooked by the ever-evolving and intriguing situations that help illuminate some historical events of the past. Now if only the novel wasn’t roughly 900 pages, I would’ve checked that one out as well.
 

Lucky Break

Director: Peter Cattaneo



Lucky Break has one of those quintessentially creative and delightfully offbeat plot set-ups that have become the staple of excellent British comedies. One of the more popular British directors of the 90’s, Full Monty’s Peter Cattaneo tackles this musical tale about a jail break and a conflicted escapee who falls in love with an attractive prison employee. Match Point and Millions star James Nesbitt makes a charismatic and humorous leading man in his role as Jimmy Hands, who we meet roughly halfway through his sentence for an armed robbery gone awry.



The incompetent but well-meaning Hands is reunited with his bitter former partner in crime, Rudy (Lennie James) who is still predictably sore at having been abandoned by Hands during the mishap. Once inside the lower security prison, Hands realizes he has a lucky break when he uncovers and exploits the hobby of good-natured prison governor Graham Mortimer (Christopher Plummer) who has a passion for musicals.

Hands concocts the plan of staging the warden’s own musical composition in the old chapel next to the prison’s outermost wall and thus begins this funny, clever and compelling tale that finds our leading man having to overcome obstacles including persuading inmates to take part by bribing them with phone cards and being forced to include a fearsome con recently transferred while squaring off with a sadistic guard and becoming attracted to anger management counselor Annabel Sweep (Rushmore's Olivia Williams).



While most critics dismissed this film as a lesser trifle when compared with Full Monty, for my money, it’s even more entertaining and makes for a highly watchable and likable British comedy musical, that's even more fun on repeat viewings.

Our Very Own

Director: Cameron Watson

How small is Shelbyville, Tennessee? It’s so small that a group of five teens in 1978-- bored of borrowing cars to ride glass elevators at the Hyatt Regency or shopping carts in parking lots on quiet Friday evenings-- end up toilet papering one of their own homes just to have something to do. In writer/director Cameron Watson’s charming, earthy, yet forgettable 2005 debut film Our Very Own which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and won awards at both the Sarasota Film Festival (for ensemble acting) and Bluegrass Independent Film Festival (Best Feature), the five friends dream of being discovered by Hollywood actress Sondra Locke. Locke, who’s something of a recluse, is rumored once again to be returning to her Shelbyville hometown for the premiere of her latest movie. While attractive “good girl” Melora (Autumn Reeser) has her head in the clouds in her ambition for fame, her friend turned boyfriend Clancy (a winning Jason Ritter) is brought cruelly back to reality with his dysfunctional home life that consists of a town drunk out-of-work father who brawls on the courthouse lawn in broad daylight and his mother (Allison Janney) who is beginning to grow weary from trying very hard to keep up appearances of normalcy and domestic success. However, it’s far from melodramatic, and at its heart Our Very Own is like a clean-cut version of The Last Picture Show with teens all fighting against the limitations of their town and it’s refreshing to see such a close-knit group of kids who genuinely seem to support and respect one another, making the ensemble acting award for Reeser, Ritter, Hilarie Burton, Michael McKee and Derek Carter seem all the more justified and while the film is a slight but well-crafted time waster, it shows a great deal of promise from new filmmaker Cameron Watson and I look forward to the director’s follow-up.

The Last Supper


Director: Stacy Title

In this biting political satire that skewers both sides of the political spectrum and the horrid tendency we have at times to block out the opinions of others by simply assuming that we are fully just and in the right in fierce opposition to the first amendment we like to trumpet, writer Dan Rosen and Stacy Title take a look at idealism run amuck among the grad student set. Set in Iowa, The Last Supper centers on a group of five graduate student friends who share a home while pursuing their passions in higher education only to decide to turn to murder for what they believe is the good of mankind after an altercation with a racist and dangerous man (Bill Paxton) turns to murder after he gives a lift to one of the students and is invited in for dinner as a thank you. Quickly using the unfortunate event as a hypothetical, the students wonder what would have happened if someone could have stopped Hitler before he became Hitler and now feeling invincible and just, they proceed to invite extremists over for dinner with the understanding that if they cannot change their minds, they will poison their guest with wine at the end of the meal. Although the ingenious premise makes a wonderful source of dark comedy, it’s never quite cashed in to the fullest extent with a script that isn’t certain whether it wants to be a tragedy, comedy or strive for a 70’s style political satire and the set-up quickly gets repetitive as the guests start piling up in the tomato garden in the backyard, making the ninety minute film seem much longer. It loses some of its focus in the middle section despite a delicious twist ending and would’ve benefited from a few more wrenches being thrown in the students’ path but the appealing young cast including Cameron Diaz, Courtney B. Vance, Annabeth Gish, Ron Eldard, and Jonathan Penner (husband of director Title) help keep things afloat. Ultimately uneven but compelling, The Last Supper is destined to become a cult classic that will no doubt lead to a following among the college student set.

Montana Sky

Director:
Mike Robe

The wide open spaces of Montana get the lush cinematic treatment in Mike Robe’s made-for-cable film based on the King Lear inspired novel by Nora Roberts and adapted for the screen by writer April Smith. A wonderfully updated premise which leads to a humorous beginning finds three sisters who have never met one another coming together at the funeral of their self-centered, stubborn ladies man rancher father Jack Mercy. Ashley Williams stars as the uptight Willa who, like her father before her, is a natural at running the ranch and resents the arrival of her spoiled Hollywood screenwriter sister Tess (a scene stealing Charlotte Ross) and the lovely, shy Lily (Laura Mennell) whom audiences quickly learn is escaping an abusive ex-husband. Adding fuel to the emotional fire is the reading of the will which stipulates that the sisters must live under the same roof for a year in order to inherit the twenty-four million dollar property which has been divided equally into thirds with the clause that should one of them leave, the land will be forfeited and given over to the natural conservancy. Northern Exposure and Sex and the City star John Corbett puts his charm to work as neighbor Ben who has always found himself attracted to Willa despite her dislike of him and delights in Jack’s notation in the will that Ben must oversee the running of Mercy Ranch during the fateful year. The likability of Corbett makes us forgive the mismatch in the casting of the two romantic leads who share a visually fifteen or so year age gap that the script never acknowledges and in fact tries to persuade us to contrarily believe that they are much closer together in age. In a mystery subplot that actually takes away from the ingenious main set up of family drama and romantic entanglements (that makes readers such as myself who have never read a Roberts novel eager to pick up the book instead), we are introduced to a vicious plot to sabotage the ranch and scare the sisters off the land that despite the gore, does manage to distract us enough to be genuinely surprised by the outcome since we are led down quite another path. However we still feel like we’re missing out on more plot involving our charming leads. While Carolina Moon (also released on DVD this year) is still the superior Roberts adaptation, Montana Sky is an above average adaptation that may make us take back Lifetime Movie jokes... at least for the day.

11/10/2007

Movie Review: No Country for Old Men (2007)

Read Our Blu-ray Review

Directors:
Joel & Ethan Coen



“Hold still.”
These words are used by two different characters in the beginning of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film just before a gun goes off. The first speaker is sociopath Anton Chigurh—a man for whom the term hit-man may be a gross understatement-- who utilizes this request just before he dispatches his second of many victims that follow with a livestock air stun gun to the brain. 

The second character is cowboy Llewelyn Moss who makes the foolish mistake of greed, vanity and arrogant pride when he takes off with a satchel filled with two million dollars after he tracks an animal while hunting and stumbles upon the brutal remnants of a drug deal gone horribly wrong with most of the participants bathing in blood and west Texas sunlight. 

“Hold still” may be in the script but the action that follows it is anything but still and the brothers Coen may just as well have been talking to audience members who are now fully aware that they’ve unsuspectingly purchased tickets to one of the wildest western noirs in years and will just have to sit back for the ride.

Taking its title from W. B. Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” No Country for Old Men is based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel and although its old men whose values of past and melancholy remembrance of a time when sheriffs didn’t need to carry a gun is put to the test at the forefront, they’re just one of the victimized groups in the movie alongside the younger men, women and animals executed in the bloody two hours. 

Quickly into the film, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) packs up his pretty young wife (Kelly Macdonald) and sends her off to her mother’s place when he leaves their trailer park to go on the run from not only the law and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), along with the hired man who comes looking (Woody Harrelson) but most notably killer Anton (Javier Bardem) who walks softly but carries a big weapon. 

Blood, it seems to the Coen brothers, is no longer quite as simple as the name of their oft-praised debut film implies and the writer/directors follow in the grand tradition of western and Film Noir allegory to paint a bitter and dark portrait of the evil lurking in the hearts of men. As one character states, “This country’s hard on people,” and that seems to be the recurring theme throughout.

Set in 1980, we meet men who’ve served in Vietnam like Brolin, who sees his plan for the dangerous and dumb long-shot that it is and goes for it anyway, wanting to try anything to rise from his station in life as a cowboy in a land without any real need for them (except in country songs) and residence in a trailer park with a wife who works at Wal-Mart. 

Relying on his natural persona, Tommy Lee Jones settles instinctively into his role and even without his folk wisdom filled voice over and Texas vernacular that opens the film, he’s a man who believably exudes the law and seems like the ideal choice. 

Jones’s lawman asks questions first and prefers to shoot later, letting younger officer Wendell go through the door of a trailer first with his gun drawn, and later making the impulsive decision to drink milk left by perpetrator Anton left on the coffee table instead of locking down the crime scene or dusting for prints in a theatrical Dragnet style. 

But most of the talk surrounding the film is in regards to Javier Bardem’s chilling Anton who is a mostly silent villain with a cruel quirk of sometimes using a coin toss to coolly decide the fate of those standing in his path and it’s fascinating that the one who refuses to play along with what Anton surely feels is a logical game is a woman who calls him on the fact that it’s not logical at all and just a scapegoat since he’ll do his will anyway. 

Bardem, given a purposely horrid haircut discovered by the brothers in an 1890’s photo of a brothel patron (IMDb), is referred to as a ghost in the film and some of his scenes are setup painstakingly similar to the finale of Blood Simple

Although, after making films for more than two decades in a world that’s getting increasingly unpredictable, we’re never sure just what the Coens will have happen until a surprising finale left some critics angered by its anti-climactic out-of-the-blue quality that would surely have earned the screenplay an "F" in most college writing courses. 

I was prepared not for the exact details of the ending but the fact that it stunned others and while admittedly I was a bit dismayed at first, later I realized that it still seems to fit with the man vs. man mentality of the piece and the unpredictability of life itself that's a recurring Coen theme. 

Life is a coin toss after all and the fact that there's no overt payoff corresponds to the rules of the darkly existential, old testament style game being played. 

Ultimately it's quite an enviable literary achievement that's worthy of McCarthy instead of the same three act structure that's been forced down our throats again and again and boasts the same nihlistic sense of dark fate from which Anton was born in the first place on McCarthy's page.

To quote one of the more memorable titles in Elmore Leonard’s crime novel oeuvre, No Country for Old Men is “freaky deaky” indeed—alternatively pulsating between moody contemplation and tense action perfectly depicted by one of our most gifted cinematographers, the incomparable Roger Deakins. 

Nominated for the ’07 Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, not only is this vicious masterpiece sure to be one of the most discussed films when looking back at the very best of the Coen films but it’s also one of the best movies of 2007.

11/07/2007

Stop-Loss

Director:
Kimberly Peirce

Looking for direction in his life, my young cousin enlisted in the Marine Corps on September 10, 2001; little did he or the rest of the globe know that they would be waking up to a very different world on 9/11/01 with the horrifying events that shook our nation. After that fateful day, there was an unrivaled sense of patriotism that seemed to strengthen America across party lines, which united us in our goal of not only helping out the victims and their families in our country but also in trying to seek justice in other countries as well. Large numbers of young men and women voluntarily joined the military and ended up (like two of my relatives) going to Afghanistan and/or later Iraq when that war broke out a few years ago. Boys Don’t Cry writer/director Kimberly Peirce found herself in a similar situation when her baby brother (fifteen years her junior) volunteered for the army and stayed in constant contact with his sister through instant messages as he patriotically fought for America overseas and later returned wounded. After a Thanksgiving celebration, Peirce found herself struck by the sound of rock music permeating from where her brother sat editing together footage he and his buddies shot during the war to songs of his choosing and an obsession was born that eventually led to Peirce’s creation of Stop-Loss.

In order to promote her film in an advance screening months before the 3/28/08 release date, Kimberly Peirce came to Phoenix on Election Day this week to explain the way that her curiosity and obsession with wanting to tell the stories of veterans led her to more than one hundred hours of documentary footage after she flew throughout America, Canada and Mexico to interview soldiers and their loved ones. When she discovered the governmental policy widely referred to as the “back door draft,” a.k.a. the Stop-Loss Policy which, as publicity materials state uses “a loophole in soldiers’ military contracts to prohibit servicemen and women from retiring once their required term of service is complete,” Peirce realized that she’d found the hook she needed to craft a compelling work of fiction. Texas native Mark Richard collaborated with Peirce on the screenplay which came together in just two and a half months and was shopped around until Paramount and producer Scott Rudin gave them the green light to get their personal story of three friends who return after serving in Iraq made.

Veteran ensemble actor Ryan Phillippe (Flags of our Fathers, Crash, Gosford Park) turns in a compelling performance as Brandon King, a naturally gifted leader who manages to guide his troops through countless successful combat missions until a final one goes horribly wrong just before he returns to his small town in Texas where he receives the purple heart for his service. Rounding out the cast is an impressive performance by newcomer Channing Tatum as Sergeant Steve Shriver who finds it increasingly hard to turn off his war mindset on his first night back and charismatic, passionate yet hard drinking and troubled Tommy Burgess (Mysterious Skin, The Lookout and Brick’s star Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who is kicked out by his new bride Jeanie (Mamie Gummer) upon his return. Perhaps the greatest revelation in the fiery young cast is Candy star Abbie Cornish as Sgt. Shriver’s girl Michelle who, as Peirce notes, serves as the perfect way for the audience to vicariously become a part of the tight-knit community due to her status as an outsider. After Brandon learns that he has been stop-lossed when he returns to base to check in his gear, he angrily seeks out his lieutenant colonel (Timothy Olyphant) and proceeds to get into a heated argument that results in his impulsive decision to flee the base and go on the run with Michelle who, feeling alienated from Steve, helps protect her childhood friend out of love and loyalty in trying to aid him in his quest.

One of the biggest recurring problems with movies labeled war films is their tendency to transfer the ever popular video game mentality into cinema by taking a bunch of competent and attractive actors and thrusting them into battle without giving the audience any insight into their personalities. Intriguingly and to her credit, Kimberly Peirce takes the opposite approach of putting the characters into battle in a brief but tense beginning in order for us to grasp their dynamic and then having us becoming attached to the young men upon their return so that we, like the characters, feel a sense of urgent confusion in the fast change of scenery. The brilliantly rambling opening twenty minutes following the Iraq footage (which was shot in Morocco) recalls The Best Years of Our Lives not just because we're faced with three fast friends but also because we see three very different approaches to dealing with the situation and the bond illustrated from the get-go helps keep us riveted as the film continues and they spend much less time together onscreen. Two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Chris Menges (Notes on a Scandal, The Pledge) and Platoon’s Oscar winning editor Claire Simpson do an expert job at melding together different shots from varied mediums that give the film a sometimes home movie feel along with the combination of intimate close-ups and unnervingly tense action scenes to help produce Peirce’s vision. All in all, it’s both remarkably executed filmmaking and superbly crafted storytelling that succeeds not only on the level of the film itself but also-- more importantly-- based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback of attendees at the screening, including myself, who felt it was a compassionate, human and astute portrayal of servicemen and women. For more information or to hear others sound off, check out the film’s website here.

Dan in Real Life

Director: Peter Hedges

As hard as it is to find someone you’re compatible with, it’s even harder to secure that ideal romantic mate when the timing is off. While the old adage “all’s fair in love and war” is a great theory in principle, it’s sometimes one that genuinely caring individuals have trouble following. Simply put, some of us (and I’m certainly guilty of this) do not want to steal another’s boyfriend or girlfriend, no matter how much we may feel that they’re with the wrong person. However, for family advice columnist Dan Burns (Steve Carell), it goes even further than that—not only is the object of his affection dating someone else-- that someone else happens to be his brother Mitch. Feeling that he can’t tempt fate by trying to (as he phrases it) “win the lottery” twice, widowed Dan has basically given up on the idea of love after his wife passed away four years earlier. Instead, he spends his days as a tirelessly devoted father of three precocious daughters, spending more time than they’d like interfering in their personal and love lives until he is faced with his own after journeying with the girls to a family reunion weekend in Rhode Island. When Dan meets cute with beautiful Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore as he helps her choose a book that meets a highly selective yet rambling criteria, the two click instantly and spend the morning chatting until he manages to secure a phone number, only to find out when he happily arrives back at the family house that Marie was rushing off to meet boyfriend Mitch (Dane Cook). Not wanting to jeopardize his relationship with his younger brother whom he loves, Dan tries to keep his distance from the winning Marie who manages to impress every Burns in the overly crowded home and, tugging at his heartstrings even more, bonds with his three daughters. Although I was initially worried about the prospect of a romantic comedy that cast The Office’s admittedly annoying Carell and Employee of the Month’s Dane Cook opposite Academy Award winning English Patient star Juliette Binoche, she’s so natural and laid back in her role that she brings them to an equally realistic level, helping remind the comedians that less is often more instead of the medium’s usual tendency to utilize overly broad humor. A rare quality film that, unlike Meet the Parents or The Family Stone celebrates family in a way that goes against the cynical smart-aleck mentality of most of contemporary American cinema, Dan in Real Life proved to be a wonderful surprise that sneaked up and won me over as one of my favorite romantic films of 2007. In his Rolling Stone review Peter Travers wrote that “[It’s] the real thing in romantic comedy in that its characters manage to be romantic, hilarious and recognizably human at the same time.”Benefiting greatly from an Earthy, cool jazz influenced soundtrack by Norwegian musician Sondre Lerche that punctuates the film in a subtle and moody way, the real star of Dan in Real Life is the lovely, sophisticated and refreshing screenplay by Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges. Hedges who completed the screenplays for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (based on his novel), About a Boy (based on Nick Hornby’s) and Pieces of April which marked his directorial debut, is a compassionate director whose affection for not only his characters but humanity in general shines through within every scene. To once again quote Travers, having Hedges involved “means you’re in for a unique blend of humor and heartbreak, with the bruising and healing powers of family right at the core.” All in all, Dan in Real Life is one film you won’t want to miss-- just be sure to bring a date and of course, make sure you’ve got the timing right.

Zodiac



Click Here to Read the More In-Depth Blu-ray Review


Director: David Fincher

Although I loved David Fincher’s Fight Club and Panic Room, I still remember being absolutely repulsed and terrified by the exploitative, disturbing Seven—so much so in fact that it was with great hesitation that I sat down to watch Zodiac—Fincher’s return to the serial killer genre. However, humans are advised to face their fears for a reason and I couldn’t have been more surprised or impressed by Zodiac which, despite a few brutal and gory crimes in the beginning to set the tone of obsession that will follow, quickly becomes what Roger Ebert justifiably called the “All the President’s Men of serial killer movies, with Woodward and Bernstein played by a cop and a cartoonist.” Opening with Paramount and Warner Brothers logos that IMDb reported were nearly identical to the ones used in the 1960’s, we are plunged back in time to a long hot summer where two young lovers are murdered in their local make-out spot in the San Francisco Bay Area. The killer phones the police with cold, yet giddy excitement filled with details of his crime and later decides to send letters and ciphers to local papers including The San Francisco Chronicle. Crime beat reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) begins his series of articles on the man who soon named himself Zodiac and proceeded to break his own pattern with two more murders seen in the first half hour that, although shocking, do not seem quite as exploitative or as painstakingly gruesome as the ones exhibited on a typical CSI or Law and Order spin off series. The sudden succession of crimes in the beginning admirably, as most critics noted, gets the traditional horror out of the way so that for the rest of the case we can get lost in the mystery as Avery along with former Eagle Scout, Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) who later wrote the definitive book on the case begin trying to solve it. Their efforts consist largely of a love of research and bookwork that present a more academic side to the case, which is balanced out by the "just the facts" mentality and efforts of a talented group of police officers, including Anthony Edward’s Inspector William Armstrong and his compulsive animal cracker eating partner, the scene-stealing Mark Ruffalo’s Inspector Dave Toschi who movie buffs may recall was McQueen’s inspiration for Bullitt. The two inspectors try to coordinate their exchange of information with other local cops from nearby cities including Sgt. Jack Mulanax (Elias Koteas), and Capt. Ken Narlow (Donal Logue), among others. Although he’s a bit young for his role as Graysmith, there’s a certain natural boy scout quality about Jake Gyllenhaal that has us instantly on the admittedly nerdy hero’s side in his Clark Kent like quest that dangerously becomes such a preoccupation that he begins to receive anonymous calls at his home and his actions threaten the stability of the family he has with second wife Chloe Sevigny. Philip Baker Hall, Brian Cox, Adam Goldberg, Dermot Mulroney, Clea Duvall, James LeGros, Ione Skye (un-credited but her father Donovan’s "Hurdy Gurdy Man" is featured on the soundtrack) and a chilling turn by John Carroll Lynch as prime suspect Arthur Leigh Allen help us get lost in the compelling film with an admirable attention to detail that entrances viewers so much that it isn’t until later that one realizes the amount of visual artistry at work from former music video director David Fincher who’s a subtle stylist and received a much-deserved nomination for the 2007 Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival. Further research into his deliberate choices revealed that he cast numerous actors in the role of the Zodiac so that, for each scene, it reflects the victims’ and witnesses' impression of the perpetrator. It’s these little touches that are so easily lost in the crisp high definition digital cinematography by Harris Savides that calls to mind the same look of the work of Michael Mann. As someone who was very unfamiliar with the case and like some movie fans just recall the name and the facts being used as fodder for Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, it’s hard for me to judge whether or not viewers well-versed in the case will find it all too introspective and contemplative but it worked well for me and is one definite entry on the very short list of my favorite films of 2007; although sadly, I worry that it was released too early in the year to be first and foremost in the minds of Academy voters.

Griffin and Phoenix

Director: Ed Stone

Not to sound cold-hearted but after years of “feel-good” movies about death—and yes, I do get the irony but in Hollywood free-spirited terminal illness has become an actual subgenre—it seems like quite a cruel cliché to play “I Can See Clearly Now” over the soundtrack. The music in Griffin and Phoenix is excellent yet at times, it feels a bit too on-the-nose. Instead of seeming like a wry extra character commenting on the goings on similar to the way Cat Stevens’ music was utilized to brilliant effect in Ashby’s Harold and Maude, we’re bombarded over the beginning of Stone’s movie with lyrics that exclaim, “hey man, now you’re really living” that plays just preceding the news given to our main character Griffin (Dermot Mulroney) as he learns that he has an exceptionally aggressive form of cancer which is rapidly spreading into lesions creating a near star across his chest. Determined not to spend the last one to two years of his life in the hospital, Griffin keeps his news quiet but attends a psychology class on death and dying where he first sees attractive Assistant Dean of Academic Standards Sarah Phoenix (Amanda Peet). While she’s reluctant to his attentions preferring her life of quiet solitude, soon she finds herself becoming involved with Griffin whose sudden zest for risk-taking manages to help bring her out of her shell. Those familiar with the original version of this 1970’s made-for-television movie will recall a certain major twist that occurs midway through the film regarding the fate of one character but writer John Hill proves adept at rewriting his original for a twenty-first century audience, even though some of the other plot points are easy to predict. Peet and Mulroney are both likable actors and they help augment the tired material but overall, it feels less like an actual film than a sudsy television movie of the week that tries to force tears from viewers instead of keeping things relatable. Griffin and Phoenix is set up like it should be a Butterflies Are Free and Sweet November hybrid but suddenly the contrived ending makes us acutely aware of its roots in 1970’s television.

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Cellular

Director: David R. Ellis

Can you hear me now? Of course, it may help if there’s a scream. In David R. Ellis’s Cellular we’re introduced fairly quickly to a handful of characters in a rather cheesy and abrupt beginning that soon gives way to one of the most surprisingly involving thrillers of 2004. Like good modern day films of the genre, Cellular takes place in near real-time (occurring in the same relative timeframe that it take us to watch the film) and while it’s not as painstaking as say TV’s 24 or the classic Western masterpiece High Noon was in regards to this structure, Cellular works like Speed did a decade earlier and Panic Room did a few years ago. Namely, it launches us along with our ill-prepared and unsuspecting hero as he tries to use rational logic, which given the adrenaline and intensity of the events is at times clouded, to save the day. The set-up is at once both blissfully absurd and simple—a woman has been kidnapped and manages to hit and splice the wires together of a shattered phone, somehow dialing into the cellular line of a young college student. Using the opposite premise of his other film Phone Booth which found Colin Farrell trapped in just one locale, screenwriter Larry Cohen who penned the first draft of Cellular decided it would be fascinating to have a modern day character still trapped by one phone call yet able to move freely about the city. Chris Morgan who was brought in to edit and rewrite Cohen’s original manages to include some choice bits of humor and vibrancy that helps keep us engaged for this fast-paced thriller that should have served as a star-making showcase for its young star Chris Evans who’s an engaging and witty everyman playing the type of character that they’d probably cast Shia LaBeouf in today. For her role as the kidnapped science teacher Jessica Martin, actress Kim Basinger took a method approach by voluntarily cutting herself off from the rest of the cast and keeping the set with as few crew members as possible during her scenes to heighten the intensity, according to just one of the many wonderful behind-the-scenes interviews included in the DVD featurette. Although there are a few questionable errors in logic and we find ourselves trying to figure out why Jessica won’t just give the kid her home address so that he can figure out what’s going on or why he doesn’t conference in a third line to get help sooner, we’re soon acquainted with more characters and twists that help justify the action. In addition, Cellular offers a great role for William H. Macy who’s essentially there as the comic relief playing an honest police officer who’s been on the force for more than two decades but is ready to give up the job to open a day spa with his wife, along with an intense portrayal by Jason Statham as a highly convincing captor. Calling on his diverse and valuable background as a second unit assistant director, stuntman, and actor, effective action director David R. Ellis turns what could have been a straight-to-DVD style cult action film into a wonderful sleeper thriller. As Roger Ebert stated in his glowing review, Cellular’s “…craftsmanship is in the details, including the astonishing number of different ways in which a cell phone can be made to function—both as a telephone and as a plot device.” In other words, check your reception and dial in.