1/27/2008

Poll Results: Coen Brothers

We have the results for our latest poll that was all about The Coen Brothers (or The Brothers Coen as I like to call them to make 'em sound all Dostoevskyish).

In case you missed it, here was the question: Based on this list of critically acclaimed Coen Brothers movies, which one(s) would you consider to be their best?

And the results are as follows:

Miller's Crossing (34%)
Fargo (29%)
The Big Lebowski (27%)
TIE: No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple (21%)
Raising Arizona (14%)
Barton Fink (13%)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (11%)

Thanks so much for voting-- you guys have the greatest taste!

Cue Albert Finney's "Danny Boy" scene:

As a huge fan of Miller's Crossing, I was thrilled that it ranked as the best film. For the first several days of the poll, The Big Lebowski was leading the pack but then Fargo picked up some momentum and it became a very close race. Although, I'm surprised that Barton Fink came in second with O Brother earning the fewest votes, I agree with most of the rankings but probably would've placed the Texas Two (No Country & Blood Simple) ahead of Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski. On a related note, thanks for making No Country for Old Men one of my most read reviews and I'd like to especially thank UK's Guardian Unlimited for quoting it as well.



In celebration of the Oscar nominations being announced last week, I thought it would be fun to tie into the awards for the next Film Intuition poll. Looking at five-time nominee, the great Kate Winslet, I'm asking you to choose which Winslet performances were the most deserving of awards.

Yes, that's right, although she hasn't walked away with an Oscar yet, audiences have been relishing in her work for more than a decade. For fans of the actress, check out the hilarious BBC HBO series Extras, wherein Kate appears as herself taking the part of a nun in a WWII film to boost her Academy chances but still manages to find the time to step out of character to offer raunchy love advice to one of the extras.

Enjoy the poll!

1/24/2008

Cassandra's Dream

Director: Woody Allen



Synonymous in Greek with “she who entangles men,” the name of Greek mythological goddess Cassandra, which is half of the title of Woody Allen’s third UK cinematic venture Cassandra’s Dream, appeared previously in the director’s Greek influenced Mighty Aphrodite. As Wikipedia reported, the character of Cassandra briefly appears saying, “I see disaster. I see catastrophe.” However, the doomed predictions of Cassandra take the form not of a person in his newest thriller but instead of a boat purchased by two brothers in South London at the start of the film, which foreshadows the tragic events to come.

Whether it’s his position working in the family restaurant helping out his ailing father, or with the beautiful waitress he shares a bed with until he feels a need to trade her in, or in his constantly evolving modes of transportation driving posh cars he borrows from the auto body shop where his mechanic brother Terry (Colin Farrell) works, Ian Blaine (Ewan McGregor) is the type of man who’s never satisfied with his lot in life.

Everything about Ian seems temporary until he encounters two new ventures he’s decided will be a sure thing. The first is a chance to get his foot in the door by investing in California hotels and the second appears with the arrival of flirtatious and sexually confident actress Angela (Hayley Atwell) whom he rescues with a broken down car on the side of the road... never mind the fact that he has his current date in the front seat of his own borrowed automobile.

Playing hard to get makes Ian decide to play even harder to secure her affections and soon he’s decided that his two schemes of love and money go together when he begins to imagine jetting off to California for good with Angela after she teasingly asks him to run away with her one night. In what may have well have been a hypothetical lover’s question, suddenly the plot is propelled forward by Ian who’s determined to make everything work out to his advantage.

His equally determined brother Terry is a dreamer as well, although one whose weakness seems to be for betting in the form of dice, dogs and cards instead of betting on high class hotels and shapely brunettes. When he loses an overwhelming sum in an evening of high stakes poker, he and his brother Ian decide to consult their Uncle Howard (played with sharp cunning and confidence by Tom Wilkinson who excelled at playing the opposite traits in 2007's Michael Clayton).

Idolized Howard-- the family’s Golden Boy-- has become an international success and he’s discussed as the Blaine family savior repeatedly throughout Cassandra's Dream. Family is family, of course and Howard is willing to help out his nephews but his financial assistance comes with an impossibly high price revealed in a tense rain-drenched conversation where the swirling camera manages to catch the viewer feeling just as off-balanced as the two Blaine brothers when they’re given the terms of the murderous agreement.

Obviously, the perfect crime is never perfect as the two begin to cope with the perilous arrangement when faced with the prospect of investigating just what the two are capable of in order to realize their ambitions. While at first, I thought that casting tough "man’s man" Farrell as the sensitive heartbreaking Terry and Moulin Rouge, Down With Love star Ewan McGregor as the slick yuppie was a contradictory choice despite the fact that Farrell’s brooding blue collar handsomeness and the seductively polished McGregor physically fit their roles superbly but soon I was so lost in the story, that I actually forgot the actors and their previous credits. I was especially impressed by Farrell who manages to frustrate and win us over all at the same time and the interplay between the two was so devastating that The Big Picture’s Colin Boyd included his belief that “a touch of Lenny and George from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men can be seen in the performances” at the start of his Cassandra review.

Pulsating with a driving score by Notes on a Scandal composer Philip Glass, the film which comes off the heels of the similarly themed Sidney Lumet ’07 masterpiece Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead seems at first glance to be Allen rehashing the same moral decay and brotherly dynamic he’d explored in Crimes and Misdemeanors or the equally American Tragedy (although set in London, of course) tinged Match Point but as The New York Times wrote, Allen’s “latest excursion to the dark side of human nature, is good enough that you may wonder why he doesn’t just stop making comedies once and for all.”

While it’s hard to imagine the world without another Woody Allen comedy, movies like Cassandra’s Dream which are so much richer and prone to philosophical and cinematic debates afterward prove all of the critics who stated the auteur Allen had overstayed his welcome wrong. Perhaps, like Lumet, with several decades of life experience behind them, they’re finally able to tell the stories that resonate more deeply with them rather than worrying about a younger director’s fixations on box office scores and test audience reactions and filmgoers are lucky enough that they still want to share it through cinema.


The Pallbearer

Director: Matt Reeves

When I first saw The Pallbearer, I remember having a hard time believing that a character in their mid-twenties would have absolutely no memory of someone that was in not just their high school graduating class but supposedly in their circle of friends. Yet, now that I’m in my mid-twenties myself and it’s been less than a decade since graduation, I’m having trouble picturing even a handful of my classmates. Singer John Mayer might call it a “quarter life crisis” or perhaps the human mind can only hold the memory of a certain number of people but whatever the case, it’s this predicament magnified tenfold that twenty-five year old Tom Thompson (David Schwimmer) finds himself in near the beginning of Matt Reeves’ film, The Pallbearer.

Aimless Tom is trying to find his niche in the career world although it probably isn’t helping his plight any when he tells prospective employers in interviews that he hopes he’ll get the job so that he can move out of his mother’s house and get a place of his own. The sole single friend in his trio of handsome, successful, and smooth Scott (Michael Vartan) who lives with Cynthia (Toni Collette) and his engaged friend Brad (Michael Rapaport) whose fiancé Lauren (Bitty Schram) is clingy, nagging and controlling, Tom is given his own second chance for love when the girl that got away—Julie De Marco (Gwyneth Paltrow)-- his hopeless high school band crush returns to town. It’s around this same time that he is alerted by blonde, sexy, Ruth Abernathy (Barbara Hershey) that her son has passed away and as the deceased’s best friend, Tom is asked to be a pallbearer and deliver the eulogy. The catch is that Tom has no memory whatsoever of Ruth’s son but out of politeness, pity, and guilt decides to go along with it and although the intentions are good, the deception grows even more cringe-worthy when Ruth seeks solace in Tom’s arms. Before you can say, “we’ve got to hide it from the kids, Mrs. Robinson,” Tom finds himself in a Graduate like love triangle with the young, beautiful Julie and the older, no-nonsense Ruth that helps propel the plot along for the rest of the running time. Although Tom is slightly less likable than Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock and the whininess and grungy stripe-heavy apparel make him a character with whom it's hard to relate, the winning cast and some inventive bits of dialogue keep us interested in the tragicomedy that admittedly plays much better than second time around when one can relax a little now that the initial creepiness of deception has worn off.

Visions of Light

Complete Title:
Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography

Directors: Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy & Stuart Samuels

In the beginning of the stunning documentary Visions of Light, Do the Right Thing cinematographer Ernest Dickerson recalls watching the black and white 1940’s British classic Oliver Twist and being taken in by the film’s look but his reaction wasn’t articulated until his uncle complimented the film’s impressive photography. Film photography or cinematography is one of the most exquisite art forms involved in the process of moviemaking—the way it heightens themes, punctuates action, lights an actor’s face or dances with shadows can make or break a film, yet the visual way it tells the story is often overlooked in the minds of audience members who usually focus instead on the performances, story or more tangible details. Winner of three Best Documentary awards from critics’ circles in Boston and New York and the auspicious National Society of Film Critics, Visions of Light is a must for film lovers and for those studying the medium in postsecondary education or working in the field professionally.

While the early 90’s work is dated and leaves out some of the sweeping and spectacular visuals that have captured the hearts of filmgoers since its release, it provides wonderful history and firsthand accounts from directors of photography in following the evolution of the process from its beginnings in silent pictures that evolved by the way it was elevated in German expressionism, to new technology invented in machine shops by innovative pioneers as they overcame the limitations of the introduction of sound and microphone placement, not to mention its integral role in launching stars in the 30’s up through today. As devotees of 30’s cinema may recall, Greta Garbo had her cinematographer under contract to make sure she was always filmed by him and while the cameramen did have to work within the vanity of the star system, some truly memorable works of creative genius followed, especially in the form of Gone With the Wind until that was overshadowed by the significant release of Citizen Kane. Kane is, as some of the cinematographers interviewed note, a textbook for the job and its impact on the way that Kane still holds up today cannot be diminished; in fact, Welles was so aware of its importance that he shared his title card with cinematographer Gregg Toland. With investigative, if slightly brief looks at film noir and a good segment dealing with the films and cinematographers responsible for groundbreaking works in the 60’s and 70’s in films like The Conformist and cameramen such as Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis, and Haskell Wexler, it’s a riveting documentary sure to inspire film fans to start watching the movies they love with a new frame of reference and seek out the way that the photography plays an invaluable role in the film’s execution of storytelling.

Youth Without Youth

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

An existential meditation on metaphysics, evolution, doppelgangers, reincarnation and all of the ethical and philosophical questions that go with it isn’t exactly the most audience-friendly topic of cinematic contemplation. Perhaps knowing that most studios wouldn’t be interested and he’d only be playing to a very select audience, writer/director Francis Ford Coppola, working from the Mircea Eliade novella, raised the funds to finance his return to filmmaking after a ten year absence with profits from his California vineyard (IMDb). Despite a gorgeous trailer that teases audiences into believing it to be a war film, we’re quickly thrust back into the past with an old-fashioned credit sequence that sets the mood of the ponderous Youth Without Youth which, beginning in 1938 introduces us to a seventy year old Romanian linguist whose suicidal plans are interrupted when he is struck by lightning. Instead of being killed instantly, Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) baffles the medical staff during his post-burn treatment when inexplicably he begins to not only heal the flesh burns but also grows a new set of teeth and is soon transformed into a much more youthful man. Does lightning serve as the fountain of youth? While it seems like an easily dismissible proposition, the film grows steadily more confusing and complicated for the first mind boggling hour that tests viewer’s patience (so much that the film was annihilated by prominent critics’ negative reviews) but we become hooked when a love story develops as Dominic meets a Swiss tourist named Veronica who appears to be a reincarnated version of his lost love Laura.

While it’s impossible to completely forgive the film its pretentious air that comes off at times as smug and elitist, the wonder of Roth’s difficult performance along with the majestic beauty of the Independent Spirit Award nominated cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. and clever usage of visual trickery and effects recalls vintage American works The Third Man and Notorious and echoes some of the themes and philosophical contemplation of international classics such as Last Year in Marienbad and Solaris. Although I can’t wholly recommend the film that may have benefited from a tighter narrative and editing to shorten its overly long running time, Francis Ford Coppola hasn’t lost the ability to dazzle even in misguided attempts like Youth Without Youth that may actually do well to be a stunning background visual at a low-key party, shared perhaps with a bottle of Coppola’s wine.

The Business of Strangers

Director: Patrick Stettner

It may be a hip and humorous pop culture catchphrase when Donald Trump says, “You’re Fired,” but I can only imagine that it’s quite a different story when it’s said to someone’s face in the harsh light of day and it’s probably significantly worse when it’s said to an unseen individual on a cellular phone when the person the speaker wants sacked is just two feet away. Such as the case for young technical assistant Julia Stiles who, coming from a delayed flight, arrives forty-five minutes late to provide visuals for her tough talking superior, businesswoman Stockard Channing as she fails to close a deal and wants the offending Stiles dismissed. Of course, to be fair, Channing’s Julie Styron is having a rough day after business strategizing leads her to believe she may be out of a job but her moodiness is improved considerably when the opposite occurs and she’s put in charge of the company. Stiles’ Paula Murphy, returning to the airport hotel after her flight is canceled runs into Julie (Channing) in the bar and is surprised to find the woman has not only changed her tune but tries to make it up to her with drinks and conversation which leads to a fast bond as the women begin a game of provocative questioning, power struggles, and escalating dare based camaraderie that increases with not only the more alcohol they consume but also the more they get to know one another. The darkly comical, cynically addictive set-up evolves into some far more devious and dangerous when a company head-hunter who’d arrived to try and help out Julie is spotted by Paula who had a horrifying experience with the young man years earlier and along with Julie schemes to get revenge that starts off teasingly and then grows more frightening as criminal activity is introduced.

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, The Business of Strangers was labeled by some critics as a female version of In The Company of Men. However, Strangers works not only on the level of a thriller but also even more so as a fascinating character study of business dynamics between women who’ve been in the male dominated industry for so long that they have plenty of battle scars which are exposed when they try to settle the score on headhunter Nick (Frederick Weller). Intriguingly, for me, not only did the film evoke LaBute’s Company of Men but also the equally diabolical writer David Mamet, with whom Julia Stiles has worked in a few of his pictures including State and Main and recently in the much darker non-Mamet directed Edmond based on his controversial play about evil lurking in the minds of men and no doubt the terrific Stiles learned a thing or two from Mamet that she applied for her Strangers role. The back-and-forth dialogue between Channing and Stiles feels sinister and hyper-real, revealing more to the audience with the subtext and the inflections and body language employed by the actresses who earned numerous nominations and a few accolades for their turns in this difficult film that plays even better with a repeat viewing in order to evaluate all of the verbal and nonverbal information being offered. Hard to shake once you've seen it, it's tough going but not a film you'd want to fire.

Suburban Girl

Director:
Marc Klein

Although it was screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, the directorial debut of A Good Year and Serendipity screenwriter Marc Klein failed to garner a wide theatrical release, quietly appearing on video store shelves last week. Klein, adapting the stories “My Old Man,” and “The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine,” from Melissa Bank’s inventive and funny chick lit novel The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing and weaving them into a cohesive structure managed to craft a romantic comedy that’s fresh, fun and admirably intelligent which, despite its generic title of Suburban Girl, deserved a much bigger audience than it received. At first glance, it seems like a hybrid of Shopgirl and The Devil Wears Prada but whereas Prada focused mostly on work dynamics and there was an uneven match of opposites in Shopgirl, this clever May/December tale benefits from a terrific lead character brought to life by the woefully under-utilized Sarah Michelle Gellar. Playing what has become the standard female role in most works of chick lit and films such as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and several others, Gellar plays Brett Eisenberg who rises from her humble beginnings in middle class suburbia with her brains, taste and flair with a pen to a position as an associate editor in a Manhattan publishing house. Named for the memorable siren in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, writing seemed to be in the family genes as her brother was given an equally literary name of Ethan (from Wharton’s doomed Ethan Frome) and Brett’s residence in New York is in the family apartment that was owned by her late aunt, a successful wordsmith and publisher in her day.

Eager to climb the ranks in the publishing world and help bring out the best in her authors, workaholic Brett idolizes the legends that came before her and drags a friend along to meet successful, highly respected editor and writer Archie Knox (Alec Baldwin) who finds himself charmed initially by the beauty of his young admirer and later by her sophisticated sense of humor and intellect as they proceed to engage in the first of several scenes of irresistible brainy banter sure to delight fans of screwball comedy. Although she’s been in a relationship for a year, half of the time her slacker boyfriend Jed (Chris Carmack) has been overseas "finding himself" in Europe and after sending her one postcard in the six months he’s been away, Brett begins to appreciate the attention given to her by a man more than double her age whose quick and clever mind has become an aphrodisiac.

Admittedly the “ick” factor does sink in relatively quickly as we realize that perhaps Baldwin’s Archie had been involved in a relationship with her aunt and there’s such a visible difference in ages that it makes one do a double take. However, intriguingly I actually found myself more willing to forgive this coupling than the one in Shopgirl as Gellar’s mature Brett seems to be a woman fully of her own mind and less as easily manipulated as the more insecure clinically depressed younger woman played in the other film by Claire Danes. Plus, Baldwin jumps into the role headfirst, charming audiences with his wit and swagger similar to the way he dominates Tina Fey’s excellent 30 Rock and neither Gellar nor Baldwin ever sidestep the real emotions that may be at play in Klein’s intuitive script which doesn’t shy away from father and daughter issues plaguing the film’s main characters. Bright and energetic, try to overlook some of the contrived, sunny chick flick montage shots and girl power clichéd soundtrack because Suburban Girl is one romantic comedy that manages to do something unique with the tired genre mold.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Director: Sidney Lumet

Rounding out his cinematic hat-trick that began with turns in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War, Academy Award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a fiercely powerful and icy performance in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Yes, that’s right-- it’s not a typo—eighty-three year old director Sidney Lumet (Network, Dog Day Afternoon) has made his most powerful, harrowing and complicated ensemble drama in more than two decades with this story which takes its title from an Irish toast proclaiming its wish that others have (and I’m paraphrasing) a good amount of time in Heaven before the Devil knows you’re dead.

Opening with a frankly gratuitous and exploitative sex scene that may serve as a warning to viewers that the worst is yet to come in its saga of greed, betrayal and family dysfunction that will follow, the film picks up quickly as we’re shown a botched, violent jewelry store robbery that sets everything in motion. Afterwards, Lumet employs a brilliant Rashomon like technique of going back and forth to show the different points of view of various characters and events. We’re also introduced to two very different brothers—Philip Seymour Hoffman’s amoral yet successful, cool, calculating and easily devious businessman Andy Hanson who’s hiding a serious drug addiction and his more attractive and sensitive younger brother Hank played by Ethan Hawke. While on the surface, the two look nothing like one another, they provide a nice balance of how two children from the same family can grow up so differently from one another. As their father Charles (Albert Finney) tells Andy, as the first born son, he had it rough and there’s plenty of old wounds beneath his posh exterior that seem to open up whenever his brother (always called “the baby” of the family) gets out of things easier and is used to having his messes cleaned up for him by Andy. However, the childish squabbles and trivial problems of their upbringing haven’t prepared them in the least for the unspeakable situation they find themselves in during adulthood when both brothers-- desperate for cash-- decide to pull off what they naively assume will be the perfect, victimless crime of robbing an insured jewelry store without violence. Of course, these things always play out better in their imagination for as the audience knows right from the start, things go terribly and bloodily wrong for Andy and Hank.

Devastating, gloomy and unforgiving in its depiction of the very worst evil lurking in the hearts of scheming men, the film earned two justifiable Best Ensemble accolades for its stellar cast. However, some viewers (especially women) will soon get tired of the way that Academy Award winning actress Marisa Tomei is used mostly for her body as she is naked in a majority of her earliest scenes and one wonders just why someone of her caliber would take such a thankless part even though it’s possibly indicative of the male dominated ’07 cinematic ventures with very few parts being offered for women. Although despite this one major flaw and a beginning that will surely send some audience members straight for the door, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a stark and intelligent modern Greek tragedy and proof once again of the genius of Hoffman who, as a few audience members shared while walking out, may very well go down in history as one of our country’s finest actors.

Head Above Water

Director:
Jim Wilson

While my friends enjoy Scene It, poker, Taboo and Charades, it seems that movie characters often prefer to play “Hide the Dead Body” given the number of times a person ends up dead-- one way or another-- and instead of dialing the men in blue (the police that is, not the Las Vegas group), they start grabbing bags or sheets or shoving it from sight. In a movie like Clue that incidentally is based on a party game, it’s done for laughs when the bodies just won’t stay dead but it’s also a device used by thrillers or comedic thrillers such as in this 1996 American remake of the Norwegian film Hodet over Vannet.

A few years before the world realized that There’s Something About Mary, actress Cameron Diaz found herself the target of affections from a trio of other slightly deranged males in Head Above Water. Putting her wild days of booze, pill popping and Billy Zane behind her, young, beautiful Nathalie marries her much older judge George (Harvey Keitel). At first George reminds viewers of the dashing Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility—not conventionally handsome but attractive in his devotion to his young wife but soon the audience, like Nathalie begins to realize that there’s much more to both George as well as her none-too-content to be platonic friend Lance (Craig Sheffer) that meets the eye. The masks come off after Zane returns while the men are on an overnight fishing trip and after a night of flowers, chocolates and vodka Zane's found dead in Nathalie’s bed. Fearing the worst from her controlling husband whose fits of jealous rage in the past may have had Tony Soprano taking a few notes, Nathalie decides to play (you guessed it) Hide the Dead Body until of course, she is discovered by her husband and rather than phoning 911, they decide that they can’t take a chance that twelve angry men and women would decide to send them to prison on suspicion of murder. As is always the case, one lie builds on another until we realize there’s something dangerously sinister about the whole bunch but the film is surprisingly effective—breezy and unpredictable at the beginning until the tone and color palette changes when things take a criminal turn in a work that Variety called a “fine showcase for Diaz’s fast-developing acting skills.” Although for my money, nowhere near as fun as a game of Scene It with good friends, watching Keitel and Diaz play Hide the Dead Body is far more entertaining than several of the darkly comic amoral thrillers like Very Bad Things and The Last Supper (also starring Diaz) that populated the 90’s.


Raising Helen

Director:
Garry Marshall

Like the films made by his sister Penny Marshall (A League of Their Own, Jumpin’ Jack Flash), the same recurring theme frequently pops up in the films by Garry Marshall which is of the fish-out-of-water paradigm where main characters find themselves as outsiders stuck in situations and places in which they never wanted to be. Although more gender balanced in Penny’s oeuvre with Awakenings, Big and others, in the films of Garry Marshall we usually find a happy and free-spirited female character who needs to be tamed into a more traditionally accepted gender role. Whether it’s the appallingly sexist Overboard, the ugly duckling tale of Princess Diaries, or the hooker with the heart of gold premise of Pretty Woman, it shows up again and again and in the worst form in the atrociously anti-feminist Georgia Rule. Although on principle, I dislike this plotline for obvious reasons, some of Garry Marshall’s films have still been entertaining and heartfelt, including the cynical yet escapist and popular Pretty Woman but that “lesson” that each heroine learns in each successive film becomes more and more apparent such as in the trifle Raising Helen that succeeds mostly because of the charms of lovely leading lady Kate Hudson.

In the film, Hudson plays a successful executive assistant at a modeling agency working under the supervision of Helen Mirren who spends her days helping coordinate models and photo shoots and evenings dancing away with her clients in exclusive Manhattan clubs. Reality comes crashing down cruelly when her older sister Lindsay (Felicity Huffman) and husband are killed and twenty-something Helen learns she has been given custody of her two nieces and one nephew. Predictably she realizes that her wild lifestyle of hedonism and materialism doesn’t mesh with motherhood. Dutifully, she moves her brood to Queens where she ends up working as a secretary and later saleswoman at a car dealership and enrolls the kids at a Lutheran school where the principal and self described—1, 2, 3, cringe-- “sexy man of God,” Pastor Dan (John Corbett) becomes Helen's unlikely romantic interest. Meanwhile, she battles with the new level of responsibility in her life and tries to balance parental control with affable aunt-hood by consulting her no-nonsense sister Jenny (Joan Cusack) as things get increasingly more out of control. Sitcom light and a bit too convenient with the overabundance of shortcuts offered to the characters involved, Raising Helen is still one of his better party girl turned mother figure coming of female age films and one that can be enjoyed-- unlike the adult themed Pretty Woman and younger skewed Princess Diaries-- by a wider variety of ages.

1/19/2008

The Deal

Director: Stephen Frears

On the surface, The Deal seems like a companion piece to the critically acclaimed Academy Award winning motion picture The Queen as both films share the same director (Stephen Frears), writer (Peter Morgan) and even the same actor (Michael Sheen) portraying the same character. That character of course is former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and while in The Queen he wasn’t the primary focus, The Deal marks the first entry into Morgan’s “Blair Trilogy,” according to Variety. Recently shown on HBO after first being acquired by The Weinstein Company and produced by Granada Television’s Channel 4, the film was dropped by its first production company as who were worried about the film’s controversial political content (IMDb).

Reportedly based on author James Naughton’s book The Rivals, The Deal’s “rivals” in question are none other than Tony Blair and current Prime Minister Gordon Brown (played in the film by David Morrissey). As an American, I knew little about the Labour Party or Brown and my only knowledge of Tony Blair came from newspapers and CNN so after I began watching Frears’ film, I stopped it within minutes to go do greater research on the history of the party and feel that prior knowledge does greatly enhance one’s understanding of the politics. However, talented writer Peter Morgan is a superb storyteller and his screenplay is less politically motivated and more focused on the human dynamics and interaction between the two great men as they began as colleagues in the 80’s until political ambition, drives, and a spoken hypothetical agreement is called into question years later when, according to the film, Blair usurped the spotlight and they became friendly rivals. While Sheen stole the scenes he was in opposite the great Helen Mirren in The Queen, the real star of The Deal is Morrissey who gives a fully realized performance as Brown, managing to capture the passion, intellect and integrity as well as the flaws with the utmost respect. For his performance, Morrissey earned a Best Actor award from the Royal Television Society, UK and BAFTA and although, I may have had a different reaction to the piece being that I had little in the way of prior acquaintance of the facts and figures, so it’s be excellent to hear what viewers from the UK thought, for my money, I felt more invested and caught up in The Deal than I did by the more polished and cinematic award winning Queen.

Order the Tony Blair Trilogy

The Gingerbread Man

Director:
Robert Altman

After three decades of releasing such masterpieces as M*A*S*H, Nashville and The Player, director Robert Altman realized there was one genre he’d never pursued and with The Gingerbread Man he finally jumped at the chance to helm his first official thriller (IMDb). Based on an abandoned work from one of the 1990’s most popular authors, legal mystery novelist John Grisham, this southern tale of lust and mayhem tries hard to channel the sultry and hazy toxic combination of adultery and scams utilized in Lawrence Kasdan’s brilliant Body Heat to lukewarm effect in this atmospheric character drama that benefits from a stellar cast. Shakespeare veteran Kenneth Branagh adopts a Savannah, Georgia gentlemanly drawl as successful, smooth and morally questionable shark of a lawyer Rick Magruder who spends the time he isn’t winning in the courtroom or mugging for the press, being a slightly disinterested father of two small children during the divorce proceedings from wife Leanne (Famke Janssen).

Prone to a fast lifestyle of drinks, laughs and flirting with anything in a skirt including loyal girl Friday Lois Harlan (Daryl Hannah), Rick finds himself caught in a web of passion and intrigue after he plays knight in shining armor on a rainy night, offering the waitress of a catering company that had been hired for a party in his honor a ride home in his sports car after her vehicle was stolen. When Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz) climbs into his car with a cigarette and fishnet stockings, film fans who have seen more than one vintage film noir know precisely that this femme fatale will lead him down a wrong path and after the two fall into an impulsive one-night stand, Rick overlooks one of literally several warning signs that all magnify the fact that Doss is trouble with a capital T. It seems her deranged, schizophrenic, barefoot woodsman father Dixon (a menacing Robert Duvall) is stalking his daughter and Rick, wanting to once again assert his masculine control, intervenes by getting him picked up from his cult of wandering misfits and brought in for mental observation, before he’s (of course) bailed out of the joint by his crew and decides to get even on Magruder, Mallory and Magruder’s children as well.

While there are some gaping plot holes large enough to drive a truck through that make the final and admittedly predictable act go far beyond our ability to suspend disbelief, the moody visuals and terrific ensemble featuring the regular charms of Branagh and Hannah as well as a endearing and fresh mischievous turn from character actor Robert Downey Jr. as the private investigating sidekick of Branagh’s keep one amused. However, it doesn’t stand up to other films in the genre including the neo noir Body Heat nor will it stand the test of time as a memorable entry in Altman’s impressive career—there’s plenty of thrills to be had in some of Altman’s other pictures to leave the genre trappings of Gingerbread Man aside. Note: according to IMDb, dismayed at the amount of off-color language added in Altman’s screenplay revision, John Grisham adopted a pseudonym and the film’s script is credited to Al Hayes.

Bodies, Rest & Motion

Director:
Michael Steinberg

Quoting his father, young indoor housepainter and unlikely philosopher Sid (Eric Stoltz) advises Beth (Bridget Fonda) that “if you stay in one place long enough, luck knows where to find you.” Of course, Sid, unlike the often transient characters in Waterdance director Michael Steinberg’s Bodies, Rest & Motion has lived in small, sticky and desolate Enfield, Arizona his entire life. Based on the play by Roger Hedden and adapted by the scribe for its cinematic transfer, Bodies, Rest & Motion never fully abandons its theatrical roots and staginess in this conversational ensemble chamber piece which takes place over roughly forty-eight fateful hours in the lives of four aimless twenty-somethings.

Waiting until the night before he and his live-in girlfriend Beth are planning to move to Butte, Montana which he’d read is “the city of the future,” to tell his old flame and Beth’s best friend Carol (Phoebe Cates), slightly sleazy, rootless and irritable fired television salesman Nick (Tim Roth) is the type of guy who inexplicably attracts great women and just as inexplicably escapes from their lives, hoping that he can leave his boredom and problems behind the more miles he puts between himself and his old life. Taking off without Beth, Nick opts for what he thinks is an easy out, bolting from Arizona and later calls Carol who must break the news to his girlfriend. Understandably upset yet I think deep down resigned to the fact that Nick is who he is, Beth ends up seeking solace with adoring Sid who takes an immediate liking to Beth when he arrives to paint the place in readiness for the next tenants but takes his time and gets involved in the goings-on.

Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival and winner of the Director’s Week Award at Fantasporto, Bodies, Rest & Motion benefits from intelligent source material but doesn’t manage to hook its viewers until a little over the half hour mark after unlikable and self-absorbed Nick makes his getaway. The authentic sounding Native American score is wonderful but it doesn’t fit in with the piece and makes the film call too much attention to itself. However, the actors (especially Stoltz and Fonda) all keep us watching, even when one realizes that it’s essentially a southwestern Reality Bites and may have been superior on the stage.

Trust the Man

Director:
Bart Freundlich

If there’s one thing that I’m sure Miss Manners and Dr. Ruth would agree on, it may very well be that men’s discussing toilet behavior or general bodily function is probably not the world’s best way to get into a woman’s heart. I’d even be as bold as to say it’s probably not in the top 100 and it definitely isn’t something moviegoers want to see several times in the first ten minutes of writer/director Bart Freundlich’s latest romantic comedy/drama about the ups and downs of relationships. However, the reputation of the film’s actors including Julianne Moore (wife of Freundlich), David Duchovny, Billy Crudup and Maggie Gyllenhaal keep us watching even when we realize that not only can we not identify with the four characters onscreen but we’re not exactly sure that we care that much about them as well, despite feeling a certain kinship with the long-suffering female characters who we feel are both worthy of better male counterparts and a more sophisticated plotline to escape the juvenilia.

The film centers on two couples who are slightly past their expiration date and must realize whether or not they’d like to try and keep things fresh and stay together. Rebecca (the luminous Moore) is a talented actress beginning a challenging play with a pompous director whose concentration is blown by her relationship with sexually demanding Tom (Duchovny), her beloved husband who has quit his loathsome employment in advertising to be a stay at home father only to discover he’s not sure just what to do to fill his time. In between grocery shopping and flirting with another mom at his son’s preschool, Tom phones and meets Rebecca’s brother Tobey (Crudup), an equally immature freelance writer whose days are filled going to therapy and moving the car he never uses from one side of the street to another to find legal parking. Having never graduated to a mature e-mail address, Tobey uses his obscene screen-name to chat with his girlfriend of seven years Elaine (Gyllenhaal) while she busily multitasks at her publishing job and plugs away on her children’s book. When the idea of a long-term commitment and child enter Tobey and Elaine’s relationship, the two break-up only to find that their struggles echo the ones of their married good friends Tom and Rebecca as the men, predictably must learn to come-of-age belatedly and accept responsibility in their life in an overly stagey and contrived finale set in Lincoln Center. Although more accessible and entertaining than the director’s over-praised The Myth of Fingerprints and self-centered male drama World Traveler, as simply a film without comparison to the director’s other works, Trust the Man isn’t all that trustworthy of a movie rental in the overpopulated forty-something (second) coming of age independent comedy subgenre.

Carlito's Way

Director: Brian De Palma

To say that Brian De Palma loves movies is an understatement. Film buff De Palma has turned cinematic homage into an art form referencing pictures that span the globe and nearly every work he creates can be analyzed not only in the manner of entertainment but film students will delight in exploring the varied influences that pour from several frames. Some are more prominent than others such as Obsession, De Palma’s uneven spin on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Scarface which was a remake of the 1932 gangster classic, Blow Out that came from Antonioni’s foreign Blow-Up and of course, De Palma’s most discussed homage of the shootout on the staircase with a baby carriage going down the train station steps in The Untouchables that was directly inspired by Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.



In Carlito’s Way which reunites the director with both the star of Scarface (Al Pacino) and one from Casualties of War (Sean Penn), De Palma has another climax that’s indicative of the one used in Untouchables although it was his second choice after hoping to shoot the film’s finale in the World Trade Center which after the first attack was unavailable in ’93. That homage, while accidental, is one of a few others that call attention to themselves in more subtle ways such as using the same name for Al Pacino’s character’s nightclub (El Paraiso) as a food stand from Scarface and filming a tense hospital scene that recalls Pacino’s brilliant work in a similar scene from Coppola’s The Godfather and indeed, the exterior is the same as the one in the mafia classic (IMDb).



Carlito’s Way which was adapted by Jurassic Park and Spiderman screenwriter David Koepp from two novels by Edwin Torres chronicles Carlito “Charlie” Brigante (Pacino), who after being released from prison in the 70’s on a technical appeal after serving five years finds himself struggling with the decision to go straight after he is caught in the crossfire of a brutal shootout and drug deal gone bad. Using the money he claims from the crime to buy his way into the New York nightclub business, the Puerto Rican ex-con tries to reconnect with old flame Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) and rectify his feelings of indebtedness to his shady attorney David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn). Nearly impossible to recognize under the makeup, wig and costuming of the time period, Penn who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance (along with Miller) reportedly signed on to do the film solely to make enough money to fund The Crossing Guard, his second work as a director (IMDb).



Featuring impressive character work by actors ranging from an impossibly young Viggo Mortensen as a wheelchair bound con, John Leguizamo as a dangerous up-and-comer that Pacino (possibly reminded of himself) tries desperately to avoid, and Luis Guzman among others, Carlito’s Way is a compelling if minor gangster film that is unfortunately hindered by a lame voice over at the film’s end that is so filled with clichés and pseudo "wiseguy" speak it may cause unintentional laughter. Disappointing to end the film on such a forgettable, B-movie cheesy note but even weak De Palma is better than a majority of post Scarface gangster films that would populate the Tarantino-inspired (a De Palma fan himself) late 90’s.


Holy Smoke

Director:
Jane Campion

In the abundance of post-production press that actors complete to try and promote their most recent film, again and again we’re given clichéd one-liners about the people with whom they’d worked with lots of self-congratulations and pats on one another’s backs. Often it reminds me of the scene in Bull Durham when Kevin Costner teaches up-and-comer Tim Robbins that there’s only a handful of sentences he needs to say to reporters in exuding his passion to “do what’s best for the ball club.” Trust is a word often used by actors who say they have great trust for the directors whose artistic visions they tried to realize. While many say they trust their directors, actor Harvey Keitel went one hundred steps further and managed to walk his talk. How much did he trust his Piano director Jane Campion? The answer would be: so much that in their collaboration Holy Smoke he is shown wearing a dress and makeup, chasing down young, beautiful Kate Winslet through the Australian desert. Now that-- my friends-- is trust and far more revealing than hearing an actor recite their favorite curse word to James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio.

In Holy Smoke, we are taken along for the ride as gorgeous, independent and strong-willed Ruth Baron (Kate Winslet) embarks on a voyage of self-discovery in India while traveling with friends. Wandering into a guru’s trippy display of his powers, she abandons the Neil Diamond soundtrack that’s been playing in the background (an odd choice) and Campion’s film takes a psychedelic cue as the young woman falls under the influence of the religious leader. Fearing the worst, that Ruth has now become a member of a cult after she refuses to return home, has little in common with her former personality traits and adorns a sari, Ruth’s parents hire PJ Waters (Keitel), an admittedly chauvinistic cult deprogrammer whose swagger and macho demeanor announces his presence even before he’s given much in the way of dialogue. These few carefully chosen shots make viewers realize that his masculine pride and vanity will be his downfall after he meets beguiling Ruth who decides, once the two are holed up together for intensive deprogramming rituals, that two can play the same game as she exacts calculating personal revenge and mind games follow.

Keitel and Winslet’s scenes together are wonderfully potent, maddening, shocking, surprisingly funny and so addictive that we find ourselves completely willing to forgive the film its many shortcomings even after it begins to stay long past its welcome and we question the validity of the storyline and characters once PJ crosses the first of several lines and becomes romantically involved with Ruth. If as Leonard Maltin wrote in questioning PJ’s credibility, “This is supposed to be his 190th case; what were the other 189 like?” In addition to wondering about PJ, the audience also feels shortchanged about Ruth, having seen very little of the character before she’s manipulated and entranced by the guru. One of the most enlightening scenes—which would probably have been left on the cutting room floor in most other films except by the sing-along happy Cameron Crowe—has Ruth singing along to “You Oughta Know” at the top of her lungs and the way she drives Alanis Morissette’s lyrics home make you realize that there’s so much more to the lovely girl than meets the eye and we wish that in addition to the actors’ trust, Campion (who penned the film along with sister Anna) would have trusted her audience enough to give us more in the way of background information since we feel there’s much that we oughta know.

Buffalo Soldiers

Director:
Gregor Jordan

Based on the 1993 book by author Robert O’Connor, director Gregor Jordan’s Buffalo Soldiers seemed to be the latest cinematic entry in the darkly comical military films from the tradition of Dr. Strangelove, M*A*S*H, Catch 22 and Three Kings but two days after its debut at the Toronto Film Festival, an event occurred that would forever alter viewer’s perception in the form of 9/11. Shelved more than two years until a rerelease at Sundance where infamously an angry woman thrust a bottle of water at the cast in her disgust at what she perceived was Anti-American sentiment, there was a question of whether contemporary America would ever be ready for Buffalo Soldiers. However, in my recent viewing six years after its '01 premiere and when our country is involved in two wars, I can finally see it for what it is—an entertaining and compelling film and not at all the “evil” piece of propaganda that it’s been labeled in the past for as critic James Berardinelli wrote in his review, the film’s “viewership should not be diminished by the unfortunate and inaccurate ‘Anti-American’ label.” In fact, as of this writing, the film has a 70% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Featuring another great, charismatic and offbeat turn by Joaquin Phoenix (one of the most exciting chameleon actors of his generation), the film chronicles the exploits of Ray Elwood (Phoenix) who is persuaded to enlist in the army after getting into trouble with the law and ends up stationed at the Theodore Roosevelt Army Base outside of Stuttgart in West Berlin, 1989 just before the wall is going to fall. Using his experience as a criminal, Elwood works by day as the battalion secretary for his dim-witted but teddy bear of a commander Colonel Berman (Ed Harris) and sells anything he can get his hands on in the black-market. When he isn’t rerouting government requisitioned Mop ‘N Glo to the locals, Elwood has yet another job as a heroin cook for the intimidating Military Police who dominate the base but he begins to find himself jeopardized by first finding five million dollars worth of stolen arms and secondly, by the arrival of rough, tough Vietnam vet Sgt. Lee (Scott Glenn) who arrives on base to weed out crooks like Elwood. Lee’s methods go from offensive to defensive when Elwood begins dating his free-spirited young daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin) and in order to punish the soldier Lee uses his Mercedes as a target practice for the squad. Being the girl in a military film is never easy but mature Paquin dives right into it headfirst, the same way her character Robyn dazzles Elwood in her dives from the highest board above the army pool on the base. Although it’s hard to empathize with a character who is as scheming and dishonest as Elwood, we’re completely engrossed in the wickedly funny storyline. In fact we're so hooked that we stay tuned even as things get progressively more distressing and harder to believe thanks largely in part by the subtle direction and sharp performances by our leads with an especially impressive counter-balanced dynamic of Elwood’s two opposing male authority figures Harris and Glenn whose radical differences recall the Berenger and Dafoe characters in Platoon.

Despite its cynical approach, the film is one that comes from a long line of these intriguingly different looks at the armed forces and director Jordan (much like the book’s author O’Connor) respects the intelligence of his audience enough to trust that they’ll realize it’s satirical and one of the better M*A*S*H like military comedies of the new generation… that is, if viewers take the time to seek it out with an open mind.

The Grace Lee Project

Director: Grace Lee

When I was in the first grade, I realized to my dismay that the name Jennifer was not the most original when there were five of us in the same class. Jenny P, Jenny R, and the list went on until I was deemed Jenny J, which I ended up shortening to Jen in high school to separate from the pack. While the popularity in the 70’s and 80’s of parents naming their daughters Jennifer wore off—now we’re in a sea of girls named Madison—the camaraderie between us still exists as I just discovered a large amount of Jennifers, even including the professor in my current graduate school course. While the plethora of Jen, Jenny, and Jennifers (with a wide variety of spellings) is a minor annoyance, there’s a diverse enough group of women with the name that spans several cultures, races and backgrounds to keep things interesting.

However, as we learn in this rambling, personal and highly enjoyable documentary, the name Grace Lee had a more overwhelming effect in Asian culture with large numbers of women being given the name. It seemed to filmmaker Grace Lee that if you weren’t named Grace Lee, then you knew of at least one or more and the UCLA trained director set out to learn more about the women (such as herself) called Grace Lee, whom most passersby described when sharing their interaction with Grace Lees as “nice, quiet, and smart.”

“Does any other name scream generic Asian girl more than Grace Lee?” director Lee asks and after a consultation with a private investigator turned up far too many Graces in her home state of California, the director had an epiphany for tracking down savvy women who share the same name and created a website (gracelee.net) that soon was flooded with registrants who not only shared the same name, but after taking part in her survey, began realizing they had several characteristics in common. Filmmaker Lee’s survey resulted in an intriguing composite of the average Grace Lee who is described as roughly twenty-five years old, living in California, and typically the American daughter of Korean immigrants, who stands about five feet and three inches tall, holding an advanced college degree (typically a Master’s) after growing up with an average of three and a half years of piano lessons with 40% of Lees being named for religious or Christian reasons and some others who share their parent’s fondness for movie star turned princess Grace Kelly.

Not wanting these Grace Lees to be interchangeable, director Grace Lee journeyed to various states and countries (including a fascinating trip to Korea where the name reigns supreme for women, businesses, and much more) to encounter a few highly memorable Grace Lees. Not only is Grace Lee the name of Bruce Lee’s mother and one given to a large number of P.K.’s (which the director explains stands for Pastor’s Kids), but it’s also the stage name of a cruise ship singer, and a brainy and beautiful TV newswoman in Hawaii who shares that her name is so common that she felt a need to make an impression in order to stand out since she notes that she won’t be remembered for her name alone. We also meet one of several young Asian girls who feel they’re under enormous pressure to be perfect and excel in their academic pursuits (both due to parental and cultural pressure but also, the filmmaker realizes Asian stereotype) and hear of one in particular doing something atypical of a Grace Lee which is attempting to burn down her San Francisco school purportedly due to the fact that she was embarrassed by her scholastic performance. However, as the director notes with equal parts admiration and annoyance, even when Grace Lee is committing arson she’s still described by others as a nice, smart and quiet Chinese girl.

Although some critics may call the film a vanity project, I found it to be an alternately funny and informative documentary and I was amazed by the inclusion of a few stories that I know will stay with me long after the film ended when we meet two heroic and inspiring Grace Lees including one who became an integral part of the black civil rights movement in Detroit and another who went into hiding with her best friend and their children to escape the friend’s abusive husband. While Grace Lee the name is popular and recurring, Grace Lee the person in each and every case the director included is original and unique—valuable and once it’s over, one realizes (as I did with the name Jennifer) how much of an honor it would be to have been given the name of Grace Lee.

Death Sentence

Director:
James Wan

Now I’ve never been that gifted with statistics or probabilities—anything really relating to mathematics—but I think if I was a professional assessor of risk, I’d know that going after a group of murderous gang members on my own may not be the wisest idea in the long run... not only because it’s against the law but because it carries with it a hell of a risk. However, with his judgment clouded by unspeakable grief after watching his teenage “golden boy” Brendan killed in a gas station by a gang working on an initiation of new members, Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) disregards the risk and makes what appears to be a split-second decision to seek vengeance on his own after he changes his testimony and lets the trigger (or actually slice-and-dice) man go. Of course, audiences know he hasn’t really forgotten the sight of the man executing his son, but we’re even more shocked by the cool and calculating manner that this risk assessment executive goes from mild to wild in hunting down the first of several responsible with the intention of getting bloody revenge.

If this sounds familiar, it should for many reasons—the first is that 2007 saw two violent stories filmed in a gun metal color palette released just weeks apart, the first would be Saw director James Wan’s Death Sentence and the second was the Neil Jordan film The Brave One. While The Brave One is superior simply for the acting of Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard, I was surprised by just how involved I felt while watching Death Sentence (at least for the first half before it derails the logic train completely) and it’s definitely the more entertaining of the two. Death Sentence may also seem familiar to fans of the Charles Bronson Death Wish films of the 70’s—the film was made once before in the early seventies and it’s based on Brian Garfield’s novel that according to IMDb was a direct sequel novel to the author’s Death Wish.

However, as I touched on before, Death Sentence does evolve from terrifying and intense to gratuitously bloody and nonsensical after the gang members predictably peeved at lone killer Bacon decide to come after him and his entire family and the police detective assigned to the case (a wasted Aisha Tyler) does absolutely nothing by the book and pretty much lets events unfold while scolding Bacon like a schoolmarm and not like the intelligent officer of the law she’s purported to be. There’s a worthwhile twist at the end that was begging to have been explored in even greater detail as Bacon, now having lost more than he could possibly have imagined (though it barely seems to phase him onscreen) goes after the head member of the gang and in his transformation begins to look very similar to the “animals” he is pursuing, showing the thin line he’s crossed between right and wrong in his tunnel vision and quest for vengeance. Note to DVD renters—Death Sentence has been released with dual versions on the same disc featuring first the R rated version shown into theatres and secondly the unrated one with far more graphic violence. As a critic, I stuck with the R rated theatrical one and-- not to sound like the motherly character Tyler played in the film-- before I’d advise viewers to click on whichever version they choose, you might want to check out the first half hour of the film in its rated version to see if you’d even want to watch a more brutal version since in the hands of Saw’s James Wan, little is left to the imagination.

The Weight of Water

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

“Love is never as ferocious as when you think it’s going to leave you,” Sean Penn’s gloomily pompous poet Thomas shares with the three other people occupying a boat in Point Break director Kathryn Bigelow’s filmed version of Anita Shreve’s novel The Weight of Water. Going forwards and backwards in time, rocking back and forth like one of the ocean’s waves, we are privy to the inner turmoil and emotional conflict of couples at a crossroads in their relationships. Photojournalist Jean (Catherine McCormack) accepts an assignment to snap a few pictures that take in the scene of a brutal double murder that occurred on March 6, 1873 in the Isles of Shoals over a hundred years after the crime took place. Oddly choosing the assignment as a type of marital vacation, Jean brings husband Thomas along as they hitch a ride on his brother-in-law Rich’s boat to make the trek to the sea village. As distant and pretentious as the self-involved Thomas is, his brother Rich (Sweet Home Alabama’s Josh Lucas) is as welcoming, golden and friendly and one instantly feels that perhaps Jean married the wrong brother due to the tangible chemistry the two share once she boards the boat. However, she (like the audience) is surprised to find Rich’s bombshell poet groupie girlfriend Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley used mostly as window dressing) aboard. Adaline, fond of nude sunbathing and suggestively using ice cubes as seductive props to cool off, latches on to Thomas whom she’d met at a writer’s event earlier right away and the invasion of space the couples have in close quarters is evidenced within the first few awkward moments.

In addition to the quartet of contemporary professionals, we are introduced to Norwegian immigrant Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley) and her husband who come to America seeking a better life only to find danger when Maren is the sole survivor and witness of the slaying of two women at her residence. Based on an actual double murder that occurred on the island, Shreve’s novel plays up the highly debated outcome that involved a man who up until his execution swore he was innocent and as modern Jean begins obsessively researching the case, we begin to have serious doubts that justice was in fact served within the film’s first half hour. The first predictions we make initially seem to be red herrings but as the film goes on, we realize that we will be surprised at very little and the film’s overly long and tedious unfolding of events grows tiresome. Rather than using the murders as a backdrop for the unraveling of a marriage and the exploration of disagreeable Thomas who smugly tells his disagreeing brother that “talent excuses cruelty,” Bigelow (an accomplished painter turned successful action director) should have built up suspense from the get-go. In doing so, she along with her writers Alice Arlen (Silkwood) and Christopher Kyle (Alexander) would have constructed more of a mystery story that would lead us down the complications of the characters and case similar to the way that David Fincher’s Zodiac did in making us feel like we were in on the investigation. As Leonard Maltin wrote “the story’s ultimate revelations don’t bring any understanding of the contemporary characters or their problems,” and indeed the same goes for the uninvolving characters in the film’s extensive flashbacks.

1/13/2008

Results of Our Golden Globe Poll

Hello,

As the Golden Globe "announcement" press conference is being aired tonight in lieu of the usual award show, it's only fitting that our Film Intuition poll about the Globes wrapped up the same day.

Side note: Come on Hollywood and give those valuable writers what they deserve already! Without them there wouldn't be any works to nominate for Golden Globes.

Okay, off the soapbox and back to the poll. In case you missed it, here was the question: Of the following films nominated for Golden Globes, which one(s) would be on your Top 10 List for 2007?

The winner was Atonement at a whopping 40% of the vote. In second place we had No Country for Old Men showing strong at 36% with Juno and There Will Be Blood steadily tied at third place with 32% of the vote. Trailing behind those films was a tie between Eastern Promises and Sweeney Todd with 20% followed by Across the Universe with 12%. Coming in close to last was Michael Clayton and Hairspray tied with 8% and American Gangster earning a mere 4% of the vote. However, the least favored titles-- Charlie Wilson's War and The Great Debaters didn't garner a single vote.

Stay tuned for more and be sure to check out this week's poll that's all about the Coen Brothers.

- Jen

1/11/2008

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood (2007)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson



Read our Reviews of Paul Thomas Anderson's
Boogie Nights
Magnolia


Although it’s Citizen Kane that’s frequently cited in most critical reviews of Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant masterpiece There Will Be Blood (which was just named the Best Picture of 2007 by the National Society of Film Critics), Anderson has said that the film that inspired him the most was John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.



“All of life’s questions and answers are in” the film, according to the director who was so influenced by the Bogart vehicle that the Internet Movie Database reports that he repeatedly put the film on at night before he went to bed just to fall asleep to it while he was working on the screenplay.

As a jumping off point, Anderson used the first few chapters of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, which he’d purchased when he was homesick simply because it had a painting of California on its cover (IMDb) and later sent the unfinished script to the man for whom he was writing it, Daniel Day-Lewis.

As his producer JoAnne Sellar reported to Entertainment Weekly, There Will Be Blood may not have even been made if the reclusive Academy Award winning actor had declined the part but drawn to the film’s title which takes its name from the Book of Exodus, Daniel Day-Lewis agreed.

Despite suffering broken bones on the second day of the film’s shoot, the actor turns in his finest performance in years and commands the film in a way that makes one instantly aware that without Daniel Day-Lewis, the film would fail to have the same level of impact it does from the get-go.

Opening with Paul Thomas Anderson’s trademark of a constantly moving camera (IMDb) with what feels like over ten minutes of action without dialogue, we’re immediately transported to another time and place similar to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, as we watch gold prospecting Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) risk limb and life trying to eek out his fortune when suddenly he strikes oil.

It's all exquisitely photographed by frequent Anderson cinematographer Robert Elswit (Michael Clayton, Good Night, and Good Luck) and filled with nearly dance-like long takes cut together by editor Dylan Tichenor (Assassination of Jesse James, Royal Tenenbaums, Brokeback Mountain). The film’s classically stylized introduction, which is in stark contrast to the fast-moving, poetically narrated opening of Anderson’s Magnolia is heightened by a nearly Kubrickian 2001 like score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood whose haunting dissonance-filled yet unforgettably expressionist musical accompaniment gets viewers completely lost in this conversation free world.


However, now with the benefit of a successful oil business behind him, we along with the characters onscreen are jolted by Day-Lewis’s opening monologue to the “ladies and gentlemen” from whom he’s trying to procure land. Filled with the unique and commanding yet surprisingly polite cadence that only Day-Lewis can bring to the role, we realize at once that his ambition and greed will bring about his downfall in a film that spans a few decades in the life of the unapologetic misanthropic Daniel Plainview and his young son H.W. (played by adorable newcomer Dillon Freasier whose charisma will surely garner him more roles) after they are lured by the promise of an even larger fortune in California.

Once in California, Daniel meets the young man who will become his nemesis, Little Miss Sunshine’s Paul Dano who puts forth a career making performance as the deceptively meek young man who runs a Church of the Third Revelation. Dano's tyrannical hellfire and brimstone sermons and demands for more money for his congregation and the prominent fame and respect by Daniel to bless the first oil well, set about a series of catastrophic events as the two men square off against one another in their evolving relationship.

With a grueling finale that recalls both the reclusive alienation of both Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane and twentieth century icon Howard Hughes, the narrative eventually produces the wrath and violence foreshadowed by the movie’s title.

And with this, we realize that despite the Blood’s period trappings that may have made others view it as a film solely about a particular time and place, we’re instead handed a cautionary tale about the dangers of greed and paranoia in regards to the divisive hot topic issues of oil and religion with another one of Anderson’s trademark treatises on father and son dynamics thrown in for good measure.

Given the dangers facing the world and our two current wars it’s no wonder that Anderson chose to make such a film, for as we see on the nightly news again and again, when you add oil to religion, there will be blood indeed.

Criminal

Director:
Gregory Jacobs

Long time assistant director to Steven Soderbergh, Gregory Jacobs co-wrote what was to become his directorial debut with Soderbergh who used the pseudonym Sam Lowry. Based on Fabian Bielinsky’s brilliant Argentinean film Nine Queens, Criminal plays especially well to audience members who haven’t seen the original and for the rest of us, as a slightly above average remake the manages to fly essentially because of the compelling talent onscreen. John C. Reilly is the ideal choice to play sleazy, smooth conman Richard Gaddis who, after cheating everyone he meets including old partners and even his two siblings, happens upon a young charming upstart named Rodrigo (Y tu Mama Tambien and The Terminal’s Diego Luna) running a short cash con in a casino and propositions him to serve as his partner/trainee for the day until either one gets sick of the other. Of course, it feels distinctly like a set-up as Richard encounters the con of a lifetime in needing Rodrigo’s help to sell a forged note from the U.S. Treasury Department to a foreign businessman whose visa is set to expire the following day but the film operates like a con itself, leading viewers down the first of several twists and turns so that we’re never quite sure which character, if any is on the “up and up.” Smooth and controlling, Reilly easily dominates the sweet and adorable Luna but it’s fun to watch his game brought to another level when he encounters Maggie Gyllenhaal as his determined, long-suffering sister Valerie who’s been victimized by her brother one too many times and now may have the upper hand when the two conmen are forced to make their transaction in the posh hotel where she works. Tense and fast-paced clocking in at under 90 minutes, Criminal is a fun diversion yet in the sea of great films about stings and matchstick men, it’s not as memorable as its previous version Nine Queens.