Shotgun Stories (2007)

Jeff Nichols

As children, we are urged to deflect insults by recalling the tried-and-true rhyme, “sticks and stones may break our bones but names will never hurt me.” However, even if we repeat that phrase until we’re blue in the face, the secret that no one ever wants to admit is that names do hurt. And still reeling from the pain, it makes us recall another childhood morality lesson, specifically that “actions speak louder than words.” In fact, it’s what we do with those actions — whether it’s as simple as turning around and walking away or striking a blow — wherein we not only reveal our true character but sometimes, whether fair or not, chart the course our lives will take.

In Shotgun Stories, writer/director Jeff Nichols’ startling and deceptively quiet filmmaking debut about a bitter feud between two families, insults and violence coincide. And more than just creating an instant visceral viewer response to the film and its inhabitants, the bleak foreshadowing and bursts of hatred makes one think just as much about what we’re not being presented onscreen. Particularly we find ourselves dwelling upon what isn’t being said or done and what may or may not have happened in the past to the wounded, struggling young men depicted throughout the film. It’s only when you realize you’re that invested in a film that your mind begins to race to understand each nuance as if somehow you can reach inside the screen to intervene or mediate that you realize you’re in the hands of a masterful storyteller.

Produced by George Washington and All the Real Girls director David Gordon Green, Nichols’ award-winning festival favorite has garnered unprecedented word-of-mouth support from such notable critics as its greatest champion, Roger Ebert. It's been frequently compared to a modern day Greek tragedy, a Shakespearean epic, biblical morality play, as well as a new spin on the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. While every one of those parallels that have been drawn are indeed correct, one realizes more than anything and only within a few moments of Shotgun Stories, that this story is so effective because it's painted using many of the same brushstrokes as numerous other Southern Gothic morality plays, where the sparsely populated canvas is filled with wide open spaces and the dialogue is lean, muscular and only employed when absolutely necessary.

Not to mention there’s something about Nichols’ work that feels as though it could only happen in the United States as the sense that an American tragedy looms heavily as soon as we witness our main character, Son Hayes (Michael Shannon), a fish farm employee with a weakness for gambling, change his shirt to reveal that the overly scarred skin on his back resembles a bullet strewn battlefield. Additionally, upon discovering that the formerly abusive, drunk father who’d abandoned him and his two brothers had passed away, we realize that the father took the American opportunity of a second chance to become a born-again Christian, quit the bottle, and start a whole new family with four sons he’s doted on who live nearby in far better condition than Son’s discarded brood.

While the bitter mother who raised them refuses to go to the funeral, Son and his other apathetically named brothers, the loyal, sweet natured Boy (Douglas Ligon) who coaches children’s basketball and lives in a van overlooking the river, and the youngest brother Kid (Barlow Jacobs) make an appearance wherein, fueled by so many years of resentment and anger, Son curses his biological father and spits on his grave. In this volatile combination of insult and action, a war is declared by the four newest Hayes boys who consider Son, Boy, and Kid to be “a pack of dogs” without manners and they’re all too eager to get revenge.

What begins as a series of hard stares, dangerous pranks, and macho confrontations soon escalates into inevitable violence and although we’re prepared for it early on, it still comes as a shock when the boys start trying to one-up each other with an eye for an eye. Interestingly playing off that biblical warning that soon everyone will be blind, Nichols introduces us to a Shakespearean clown-like character named Shampoo (G. Alan Wilkins). He initially seems to be a laughable slacker but gradually grows into first an observer of the increasing rivalry but also an outside agitator as he not only eggs them on by reporting gossip overheard from the new brothers to the old ones but also in a climactic moment teaches one angry brother how to prepare a shotgun.

Still, admirably, much like the dialogue that is only offered when it’s crucial, the director isn’t one to revel in violence or go overboard in too much symbolism, which is quite a feat for a new filmmaker and especially one who’s following in the footsteps of such a rich historical tradition of classical tales of familial revenge. In the end it’s another one of those excellent, underrated independent films that may otherwise go unnoticed if it weren’t for its tremendous success earning awards and nominations from festivals across the country.

Impressively, Shotgun Stories feels far more naturalistic and real than most Hollywood films which deal with revenge-based violence and benefits from not only stellar acting especially by scene stealer Ligon in a heartbreaking role but also for its crisp cinematography which is punctuated by a nice, subtle score that becomes all the more apparent on repeat viewings, especially considering that the DVD offers an option to watch Shotgun Stories with a music only track from the band Lucero and composer, musician Ben Nichols. Featuring a photo gallery as well as trailers and an insightful audio commentary from writer/director Jeff Nichols, Shotgun Stories is one sleeper you won’t want to miss and one that — much like the effects of a shot — will probably continue to ricochet as more viewers discover this hidden work I highly recommend.


Mamma Mia! (2008)

Apple iTunes

Director: Phyllida Lloyd

I was raised in the era of “please and thank you,” “sir and ma’am,” The Golden Rule, and the firm belief that if one doesn’t have anything nice to say, one shouldn’t say anything at all. It’s a thought that goes back centuries to Jane Austen’s time when the women were advised to stick to the topics of either inquiring as to another’s health and/or restricting their comments to the weather.

Unfortunately, as a film critic, I seldom have that luxury and while I feel I’m far gentler than some critics who curse, berate, exaggerate and figuratively crucify films they loathe—although this being said my favorite critic Roger Ebert summed it up best in the title of a new book, I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie—instead, I turn from those manners implanted in me from my youth and go to an old Hollywood standby.

It’s become a movie premiere joke that if an attendee dislikes a film but doesn’t want to say this to another’s face, they usually begin by complimenting its cinematography in the fierce hope the topic will soon change. It’s a strange custom—“I really loved the cinematography” in Hollywood can be code for “I’d rather have a root canal than sit through that thing again,” yet cinematography is one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking.

However, in the case of the dreadful Mamma Mia! which is only slightly better than another ghastly film I’ve just seen but can’t even bring myself to review (Ellen Page in The Tracey Fragments which is so dreadful that it makes you start to rethink Page’s performance in Juno) but yet still worse than the mirthless comedy The Promotion, the only thing I can think to praise is the cinematography.

And the sad fact is, I’m not even being ironic or coy—director of photography, the amazing Sleuth and Venus lensman Haris Zambarloukos actually topped his underrated work on last year’s Sleuth. His picturesque, exuberant, and breathtaking Mamma Mia! shots that were so jaw-droppingly gorgeous, they helped detract from the much-crucified sadly giggle-inducing awfulness of Pierce Brosnan’s singing. Additionally, like a morally questionable yet talented plastic surgeon, they helped make a film I can only call shockingly “ugly” just by its direction, odd choreography, and off-putting humor, seem like any given frame could be clipped out of the reel and hung in a museum. Indeed, the travel board of Greece’s island Kalokairi, may want to think about hiring Zambarloukos to film any future travel commercials, yet I feel it’s probably superfluous as the monstrous hit, Mamma Mia! has probably garnered enough fans who’ve decided to visit just on their appreciation for the Broadway musical alone.

Before I even begin to address the film itself, let me preface this by saying—at great risk to my already nerdy reputation-- that in the late 90’s, there was no bigger ABBA fan than yours truly. Their greatest hits album Gold and its sequel had a permanent place in both my home and car CD player and I was often busted at stoplights by drivers in other cars who saw me singing my heart out along to the lyrics penned by Sweden’s greatest export, which was especially embarrassing when this very incident happened not only one block from my college but I was caught by my crush of the week who luckily found it charming, yet proceeded to tease me the rest of the semester by belting out the chorus of “Take a Chance on Me” whenever he saw me walk down a hallway. (Naturally, I took this as an invitation!)

In fact, super-fan that I was, I annoyed my DJ cousin for ABBA requests at receptions he worked until he clued me in that in the DJ world, there’s nothing less hip than a woman requesting “Dancing Queen.” While I told him that any other track would suffice, all I got was an eye-roll and a pat on the back but fortunately, after viewing ABBA: The Movie far too many times on VH1, I began to outgrow my love of the band… until-- that is--word came ‘round that their music had been used throughout a new Broadway hit, Mamma Mia!

It took a few years until I saw the show in a touring company in my hometown and while indeed it was fun to see others enjoy ABBA’s music (despite the overabundance of misguided middle aged men and women dancing and singing along in the aisles which instantly cured me of any major worship of the band), I couldn’t get over the feeling that the show itself was a bit forgettable and overrated.

Yet, to misquote the old Elvis slogan, I assumed that millions of fans around the globe can’t be wrong so when I learned it was going to be adapted to film, as a huge Hollywood musical lover (I know, I just get geekier by the minute), I hoped for the best. Initially, I was skeptical when I heard that Meryl Streep had been selected for the lead role of Donna, the film’s heroine whose soon-to-be wed twenty-year-old daughter Sophie (the adorable Amanda Seyfried) has unbeknownst to Donna-- after discovering her mother’s vintage diary--invited her three possible biological fathers to the wedding with the hope of identifying which one is her dear old dad.

While Streep is hands-down one of the finest actresses in the world, I just didn’t see her as the singing, dancing, earthily sexy, free-spirited Donna, imagining someone like the musically gifted Michelle Pfeiffer for her role. Thankfully, Streep's actually quite good in the film, managing to nail not only every required emotion but hit the notes in a nice way that never overpowers, and manages to win over any doubters with the showstopper “The Winner Takes It All,” for which IMDb reports the vocals were recorded in Sweden in just one take.

No, the problem isn’t with Streep—although she’s given some of the most unflattering, unfeminine, and downright ugly direction ever captured in a musical, with pratfalls aplenty and cannonballs into the sea. However, far more irritating is the continuous choreography that finds her landing with her legs in the air numerous times as though she’s overdue for a pelvic exam. This seems all the more grotesque when this is precisely the way that Mamma’s original stage director Phyllida Lloyd (who also helmed the film) decided to have her first encounter her three former lovers, as though she’s figuratively readying herself for a fertility exercise or about to give birth just as they arrive... complete with—and I kid you not—a Lamaze type breath out the side of her mouth to blow her hair off her face.

Yikes, baby, we’ve come a long, sad way from Cyd Charisse wooing with her sexy legs, or a flirtatious laugh by Ginger Rogers, or a come hither look by Catherine Zeta Jones in Chicago. And while the actors all try their best—even poor, pitiful Brosnan who always seems like he’s staring off in the distance, longing to leave the set and go home to his family, not to mention his James Bond residual checks— they’re given very little with which to work in an uneven translation from stage to screen-- making the fault lie squarely with Lloyd.

In the end and despite casting such excellent talents such as up-and-coming hunky British Generation Y star Dominic Cooper, the underrated Stellan Skarsgard and my favorite version of Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth-- overall Mamma Mia! is one over-the-top, bawdy, Fellini like carnvialesque freak-show. I'm not sure about Greece but in the tacky land of Mamma, often the women shriek for no apparent reason (including a wasted Christine Baranski who nonetheless kills in her one showstopper “Does Your Mother Know”) while playing dress-up complete with quirky props that probably would never have even made it into the far campier yet more successful John Waters musical turned film Hairspray from 2007.

In addition, don’t even get me started on a downright embarrassing and desperate sequence featuring Julie Walters crooning “Take a Chance on Me” to a nearly terrified looking Skarsgard, who-- par for the course of male stars in the film-- spends a majority of his time like Firth and Brosnan, trying his damndest not to look at his watch in the hopes that the madness will end sooner rather than later (probably much like a majority of heterosexual males dragged to the film).

And as someone who still knows every single word of every one of ABBA’s classic songs (yes, even the forgettable ones like “Money, Money, Money”), not to mention a film buff who truly makes an effort to champion musical filmmaking in the hopes that we’re given more quality musicals to rival the golden age of those unforgettable MGM classics, it breaks my heart to say that the film is one of the biggest disappointments of the summer.

However, it’s one that I can also say in complete honesty and without just trying to politely evade critique, that man, did I love that spectacular cinematography.

Love in the Afternoon (1957)

Billy Wilder

To borrow an adage my grandfather was fond of repeating, anything can be cured except for a broken heart. Despite this warning, cinema is my favorite prescription for anything that ails. Often, I’ve referred to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours as the perfect antidote to lifting one’s spirits after a horrible date since the film’s poor lead played by Griffin Dunne experiences unspeakably hellish and surprisingly hilarious misunderstandings over the course of one very bad night in New York. Yet another one of my favorite films to cure romantic ills is Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon.

A decidedly cynical yet irresistibly sophisticated romantic comedy—it’s the ideal film for women still weary from the lies told by wooing men-- especially when faced with any of the following on a sliding scale of misdeeds comprised of scoundrels whose eyes follow anything in a skirt even when in the company of another woman, sins of omission regarding men who flirt while neglecting to mention they’re the opposite of single, and worst of all, the revelations of either infidelity or the clichéd but ever-present (especially in this era of Viagra) over-the-hill philandering lothario.

How’s a woman to cope with a constant barrage of calculating manipulation? My remedy is taking great delight and comfort in the lovely, understated performance by Audrey Hepburn as the deceptively naïve, young Parisian girl Ariane Chavasse, who finds herself drawn to a notorious American playboy and decides to beat him at his own game—not through tacky promiscuity but by using intellectual strategy and mental manipulation of her own, taking a cue from right out of her lover’s playbook.

As the daughter of a respected private detective played by the always charming Maurice Chevalier, the motherless, precocious student Ariane finds her imagination working overtime when she’s relegated to practicing her cello in an adjoining room whenever her father discusses his findings with a constant parade of betrayed clients whose spouses have embarked on illicit affairs while making the most of France’s penchant for l’amour. When she learns that Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper), the international jet setting American businessman responsible for most of the marital carnage—not to mention whose dalliances keep her father in business—has become the intended target of an enraged, gun-toting, jealous husband, Ariane embarks on a secretive adventure to intervene in order to save the man’s life, only to lose her heart in the process.

While as far as romantic experience goes, Ariane is definitely a babe in the woods, she’s so familiar with Frank’s dossier that she knows his romantic scorecard by heart yet, much as she tries to prevent becoming ensnared by his smooth, well-rehearsed charms, she finds herself overwhelmed by the attention. And equally, Cooper’s Flannagan becomes utterly fascinated by the nameless waif who intervenes on his behalf, even more so when she refuses to give her name so as not to let Flannagan trace her back to her father’s home, leaving him no choice but to dub the mysterious beauty “Thin Girl.”

Although the two spend an unforgettable day together, as predicted, she’s completely devastated when he must leave Paris, but when he returns much later, Ariane has decided to keep up her mysterious charade by adopting a similarly promiscuous, philandering persona of her own, teasing the much older man with tales of her own “past lovers,” until it’s Flannagan who has ended up even more obsessed with the girl than she had been with him originally.

Intriguingly due to the moral code of the time: While it’s inferred that the two characters whose frequent romantic rendezvous in Flannagan’s Parisian hotel suite and idle dates aboard a boat in the water (in an homage to the impressionist painter Manet; Crowe 144) had been sexual in nature, due to threats from the Catholic church, IMDb reports that Wilder was forced to dub in dialogue indicating the contrary as Cooper is overheard stating, “I can’t get to first base with her” as well as an extra voice-over in the film’s concluding scene.

In an effort to craft his own cinematic version of the “sophisticated wit and style” which led to the term the “Lubitsch Touch,” invented by Wilder’s beloved Ninotchka and Shop Around the Corner writer/director Ernst Lubitsch, he embarked on a tremendously creative collaboration with long time writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond. And as the result of their nearly perfect effort, Love in the Afternoon, the overlooked gem boasts one of Hepburn’s greatest performances in a feminine role that would not only become quintessential to Wilder (she seems like an earlier version of McClaine’s character in The Apartment) but also seems to have had a major influence on writer/director and Wilder devotee Cameron Crowe.

Crowe who cited Jerry Maguire as his own Wilder homage in frequent interviews, seems to have drawn even greater inspiration for his Oscar nominated character Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson) in Almost Famous from Hepburn’s Thin Girl. In addition, he’s often shared the story of the now late Billy Wilder’s impressed reaction to Hudson’s memorable sequence illustrating Penny’s seriocomic heartache upon learning she was bartered in a poker game scene in Famous, making this parallel seem much stronger if you view Afternoon right before Famous. Additionally, the mutual respect the two share for each other is on excellent display in the nonfiction book I cited earlier, Cameron Crowe’s Conversations With Wilder.

Sadly, although the film always makes me recall the bittersweet and heartrending finale of Thin Girl running alongside Flannagan’s train until he makes the impulsive decision to pull her aboard (one of the most underrated romantic moments in movie history), most of the critical analysis given to the film concerns the staggering age difference from a far too old Cooper and his much, much younger love interest. Ironically, it’s rumored that Cary Grant was Wilder’s first choice for the role but he’d turned the film down because of the age issue himself. And while I do feel the chemistry would’ve benefited from pairing Hepburn with someone a bit younger or who possesses equally fiery intensity (possibly like Gregory Peck whom she sizzled with in Roman Holiday or even—to name two of her other costars—William Holden or Henry Fonda), Cooper does a fine job. In fact, in her autobiography, Hepburn stated that Gary Cooper had lost none of his sex appeal with age. And admittedly, although I do cherish the film, some scenes are a bit cringe-worthy when you realize that Cooper looks—if not as old—than in the same genuine bracket as Chevalier (who portrays her father), which does hinder its believability slightly.

Still, in a way, it makes his performance as Flannagan seem all the more fragile and therefore irresistible when the shy, innocent, yet love-struck Thin Girl manages to beat the manipulative, sneaky, philandering man at his own game by knocking him off his feet, all with the power of a few well chosen words and of course, the incalculable dazzling charisma possessed by Audrey Hepburn herself. Thus in the end, it's the delicate Hepburn and not tough High Noon star Cooper who manages to score one for the heartsick ladies.

For-- as The Beach Boys sang in “I Get Around”-- unless you’re willing to pay the price, “It wouldn’t be right, to leave your best girl home now on Saturday night,” so henceforth, Thin Girl gets around… if only in her imagination and only with the best of intentions. And after all, is there a greater intention than love?

Meet Bill

Alternate Title: Bill (2007)
Directors: Bernie Goldman & Melisa Wallack

Replacing the storm clouds and rain that established the dour tone of Gore Verbinski’s mirthless windy city set “dramedy” The Weather Man for sunnier skies and a lighter, brighter change of scenery, the similarly themed Aaron Eckhart vehicle Meet Bill not only benefits from the false sense of inviting warmth in its location change but also adds a subtle ironic counterpoint to the unraveling of our neurotic main character.

Whether he’s playing the cocky tobacco spokesman in Thank You For Smoking, the sleazy, racist, used car salesman adulterer in Nurse Betty, or the handsome, grown up boy scout in the final season of TV’s Frasier, like a lot of attractive men, Eckhart seems to have the most fun playing against his appearance and this latest performance is no exception.

Like Nicolas Cage’s Weather Man character, Bill (Eckhart) is filled with self-loathing and dysfunction but whereas Cage portrayed an aggressively ambitious, narcissistic louse, Bill is the type of guy whose name you’d probably immediately forget as soon as you shook his hand at a cocktail party, which makes the film’s poster all the more fitting. In fact, his own wife Jess (Elizabeth Banks) and smug, contemptuous and condescending in-laws including his boss and father-in-law, Mr. Jacoby (Holmes Osborne) and Jacoby’s sycophantic son John Jr. (Todd Louiso) hardly seem aware of him at all, except when the time comes to send him on meaningless errands, of course with the perpetual warning that he better not screw anything up.

Unhappily saddled with a trivial position at the Jacoby’s ironically named Family Freedom Bank, Bill’s rank as a useless V.P. is repeatedly in lieu of his true, unnamed position as the family’s whipping boy from running off copies like a glorified secretary to fetching the fresh kill of the Jacoby men from their latest hunt. Prone to second guessing every move Bill makes, it’s hardly a wonder that in that sort of environment, Bill seldom has the courage to make one on his own and although outwardly, Bill seems to have grown accustomed to constantly being patronized, internally, he’s a volcano ready to explode.

Nevertheless, as harsh as the Jacoby family is on Bill, like most insecure and sensitive individuals, he’s his own worst enemy. Sure enough, all the proof we need for Bill’s self-loathing prophecies can be found in the film’s opening minutes as we encounter the overweight, poorly groomed man sizing himself up in a bathroom mirror and in an unmerciful voice-over critiquing every aspect of not only his professional and personal life but his physical appearance as well.

It’s an image that one doesn’t often associate with conventional masculinity, even in our contemporary era of metrosexuals. And while granted, the screenplay for Meet Bill was in fact penned by a woman (Melisa Wallack who co-directed the film with Bernie Goldmann), the concerns that Bill expresses to himself don’t seem that far out of left field and any woman who’s been privy to the inner workings of the heterosexual middle aged male mind know that-- despite what the media would like us to believe-- both genders have similar preoccupations when it comes to their appearance.

Needless to say, what Bill needs most in life is change, and his unlikely agent to do so comes in the form of an unnamed precocious teenage boy (actor Logan Lerman in a role credited simply as The Kid) who bursts into Bill’s restroom of frustration to escape a school official. Possibly impressed by the fact that Bill doesn’t squeal on the youngster or perhaps drawn with pathos driven curiosity to the adult’s obvious midlife crisis , The Kid latches onto Bill like a magnet, and despite the elder man’s protests, surreptitiously maneuvering to become the student Bill is fast-talked into mentoring as part of a company-wide volunteer program.

However, we quickly realize that in Bill’s case, The Kid is the one doing most of the mentoring, helping Eckhart develop a stronger backbone in saying “no” for the first time in his life, supporting the man’s odd desire to open up a doughnut franchise to free himself from the Jacoby stranglehold and more importantly, coming to the rescue with a bizarre plan for revenge after Bill discovers that his wife has been having an affair.

If it sounds like a spoiler, rest assured it isn’t, since indication that Jess has been fooling around is introduced nearly from the get-go as we, along with Bill, sense an uncomfortably worrisome level of intimacy between Jess and Chip, (Timothy Olyphant), the local, cheesy “On the Scene” news guy. One of those local pretentious celebrities not unlike the one Cage played in The Weather Man, Chip is the type of guy we dislike immediately, possibly because—as his name implies—we know he’s going to chip away at Bill from the moment the two share a scene. Although, perhaps if we would have known how much fun it would be to watch Bill crumble, we would’ve thanked Chip instead of hating him from the start.

Innocuous, predictable, yet refreshingly affable thanks to the lead actors, Meet Bill thankfully avoids the trappings of raunchy, toilet driven humor for its genre and sadly after debuting at The Toronto Film Festival, failed to garner a wide theatrical release before being unceremoniously dropped on DVD shelves. And although her beautiful face appears prominently on the DVD box as a selling point, Jessica Alba turns in a nice if tragically underwritten performance in a very minor role as a kind lingerie salesgirl on whom The Kid nurses a hopeless crush. However, much like the surprising friendship between Bill and The Kid does feel a bit conveniently cinematic (and owes a great deal to Rushmore and Harold and Maude), admirably Alba’s role never feels clichéd, even when The Kid enlists her help in trying to make Jess jealous by pretending she’s the new woman in Bill’s life.

Despite an over-the-top third act which makes the unfortunate decision to abandon the film’s more subtle and clever style of humor in favor of going for bigger and broader gags to garner larger chuckles, the uneven but surprisingly enjoyable film is far more viewer friendly than your local gloomy Weather Man. And while it’s hardly on par with more sophisticated midlife crisis fare such as Sideways or Little Miss Sunshine, it’s a small gem of a sleeper. It’s also one that, for those who take the time to seek it out, offers additional evidence that Eckhart-- the same man who first made a terrifying impression on moviegoers in his dark roles in Neil LaBute’s first two films and most recently took on the role of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight-- is quite a versatile performer with equal gifts in drama and comedy, or more accurately, to cite Bill’s genre-- in dramedy.

Control (2007)

Anton Corbijn

Last year in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the increasingly popular genre of musical biopics was skewered for comedy by John C. Reilly, Judd Apatow and Jake Kasdan. And indeed, in this era of excellent, yet structurally similar works such as Ray and Walk the Line, or just downright experimental musical film portraiture (I’m Not There) that consistently draws both acclaim and Oscar nominations, venturing to make a rock ‘n roll biography has become both predictably dull business and cinematically ambitious all at the same time—or at least that’s the case when it’s done right. And Dutch rock photographer turned filmmaker Anton Corbijn manages to blend both the traditional narrative approach and cinematic artistry of the two aforementioned subgenre types into something uniquely his own, shattering old expectations and releasing and unforgettably searing, intimate, heartbreaking and wholly original work with Control.

Imagine this paradox: a quiet film about rock ‘n roll. Yet, when you consider the subject matter—the tragic tale of soft-spoken, melancholic Joy Division front-man Ian Curtis who took his own life at the tender age of 23, there is no other way to approach the material. Similar to the sound engineering, the decision to film in black and white isn’t artistically pretentious but natural as Corbijn-- who had himself shot some of the most iconic photos of not only the band and Curtis in the late 1970’s and just before the singer’s death on May 18,1980-- realized, as he shared on the DVD featurette, that for a band which released their albums with simple black and white sleeves and had became known to fans via this crisp dual tone photography, releasing the film in color wasn’t even an option. Intriguingly, when principal shooting began, Corbijn realized that using black and white film stock made his work seem far too grainy so he opted to use colored film, which he was able to flip to breathtakingly vivid black and white effect in the development. In the end, the result is a biopic that feels like a vivid document of the given time and place, as Corbijn and his crew filmed in Curtis’s hometown of Macclesfield, England while utilizing as the director noted on the DVD, not only Curtis’s own home but the streets he’d actually walked in his painstakingly accurate portraiture that follows seven years of the troubled musician’s life from age 14-23.

Formerly in cinema, the life of Ian Curtis and the history of the band Joy Division was used as an effective yet underdeveloped, fascinating footnote in Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant film 24 Hour Party People, an exceptional biopic of Granada television personality turned record producer and club owner, Tony Wilson, who helped champion bands of the underground and usher Manchester, England from the era of punk music to new wave. Some of the events of People are echoed here such as Wilson’s devotion to Joy Division, which he believed in so strongly that he actually signed the band to his label Factory Records using his own blood. Interestingly, whereas a majority of Winterbottom’s film was brash, in-your-face and as loudly chaotic as a night in one of Wilson’s clubs, the tone always quieted down when dealing with the character of Ian Curtis, especially before his untimely death and in doing so, American viewers, along with others not as well versed in British punk rock history, and/or those born after the events depicted found themselves longing for more back-story regarding the events.

Thankfully, instead of just using the material as fodder for a salacious tabloid style take from a filmmaker without any personal investment in the subject, photographer turned filmmaker Anton Corbijn made the ideal choice to helm an adaptation of Curtis’s life, having himself been so inspired by listening to the man’s music in Holland in 1979 that he impulsively packed a bag and decided to journey to England to be closer to where the music was made, according to the DVD. Expanding on this, he shared in the disc’s interview that he was close enough to the band for him to know the material and handle it in the right way but not so close that he would’ve been too emotional to be subjective or unable to turn it into a compelling film.

Equally beneficial to the film’s success was the phenomenally fortuitous casting of a relative unknown for the lead role, namely former child actor turned singer, Sam Riley who not only bears an uncanny resemblance to Curtis but given his musical ability, sung all of Joy Division’s songs and—because of his considerable anonymity—gives the film a near documentary feel.

From his earliest days killing time in his room listening to and idolizing glam rocker David Bowie, visiting elderly neighbors in order to raid their medicine cabinets with his best friend, scribbling down poetry and citing Wordsworth from memory, we’re introduced to a gentle, yet troubled Ian Curtis who always seems to feel easiest when alone or in small groups. After he falls in love with and spontaneously marries Debbie (Samantha Morton), his best friend’s girl to whom he states “You’re mine. Irretrievably. And you know it,” Curtis accepts an admirable if admittedly depressing governmental position securing employment for the mentally and physically impaired residents in his community.

Although, at the same legendary, early Sex Pistols concert that Tony Wilson referenced in 24 Hour Party People, the life of Ian Curtis was equally altered when-- high off the anarchic sounds of the punk bands-- he joined up with some mates. Using a rebellious and ironic allusion to the name of the brothel the German soldiers patronized in World War II—Curtis and company formed their own version of Joy Division where he accepted the role of lead singer, forever changing the face of British music.

After a rocky start, signing with Wilson propelled the band and the shy Curtis to stardom much to the chagrin of his humble wife Debbie who realizes that being a musician’s wife—especially when one is still so young—is much more than she bargained for, especially after the birth of their daughter Natalie finds her becoming a near single parent. This is especially taxing when, after his first major gig in London, the formerly healthy Curtis has an epileptic fit on the way home and-- considering the lack of information surrounding the condition in that particular time-- is given nearly half a dozen prescriptions with the medical claim that the doctors are unsure which ones will work and which won’t, as he must now accept life as an epileptic with a treatment best described as “trial and error.”

Perhaps fitting to the hateful adage that good things always happen with bad, while Joy Division becomes an astronomical success with Wilson booking more and more dates on the road, Curtis begins to unravel as the withdrawn, melancholic and solitary youth we first met becomes far moodier and introspective, possibly given the combination of both his new diagnosis or the laundry list of side effects that such powerful drugs can have on a man as they all begin to wreak havoc on his outlook on life.

Contradictions continue as things get unexpectedly sunnier yet infinitely more complicated for Curtis when he meets the beguiling, French Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara), a Belgian embassy employee who becomes taken with the singer at a performance and goes backstage to request an interview with the band as an aspiring journalist. Predictably, the two fall deeply in love. Soon Curtis finds himself leading a double life as a husband and father at home to a wife and daughter he barely knows or with whom he seems to relate anymore and feeling a strong pull towards the woman he feels is his soul mate on the road, as Annik becomes his devoted lover away from home, taking care of him against his wishes when he collapses onstage and becoming his favorite person to just sit with silently when he feels blue (which for Curtis is most of the time). Inevitably, Debbie discovers the betrayal and Curtis grows increasingly cruel and moody, pushing those closest to him away as—in a revealing conversation with Wilson—he begins to mistake love for hate, unsure what he wants in life, and beginning to tire from the breakneck schedule and constant push to perform.

Although viewers know exactly where his life is headed, Corbijn thankfully handles the final days of Curtis’s life with taste, never reveling in the horror of it, and instead just painting a fascinating, frustrating, beautiful, and completely objective portrait of the singer as a young man, never leaping to any conclusions, offering a comforting “bookend” or providing pat solutions as is the custom with many traditional music biopics. Instead, Corbijn and his tremendous lead actor Riley prefer to just let his legacy live on, most likely much like Curtis would’ve wanted with those addictively haunting songs.

Yet, in trying to go beyond the music, after viewing Control, the words and Curtis’s unique delivery of the lyrics of such classics as “She’s Lost Control,” “Isolation” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” become far more revealing, making the ironic, sadly deceased lone-wolf Curtis suddenly feel closer to us than ever and more alive all thanks to the filmmakers-- and by turn the audience's decision of having taken the time to walk a mile of his Macclesfield road.


Step Brothers

Adam McKay

In the gospel according to Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and even Will Ferrell, to become a successful comedic actor in Hollywood, it’s traditional practice that you go for giggles first and awards later. Along the way, these stars and others have literally done anything for a laugh from sticking bananas in tailpipes in Beverly Hills Cop to beating themselves up in a bathroom in Liar, Liar before suddenly these multimillion dollar men decide they’d like the opportunity go from pratfall to highbrow in order to earn some indie film cred, show off their acting chops, and maybe earn a golden statue or two in the process.

Unfortunately, regardless of numerous accolades and positive critical acclaim, the public usually isn’t as supportive of seeing someone like Adam Sandler cry in Spanglish or Reign Over Me. And by staying away from theatres in droves, it sends a loud and clear message to Hollywood that when it comes time for spending our hard earned dollar, we’d rather be the ones who cry… in fits of laughter, that is. More importantly, despite mixed views, when these stars stretch their range from comedy to drama, it reminds viewers just how skilled one must be as a performer to have made humor look so effortless, which becomes especially apparent when “serious” actors decide to tackle comedy to sometimes disastrous results. It’s become an oft-repeated phrase that the worst thing one can do as an actor in a comedy is to try to be funny and typically, that’s precisely the crime most serious actors are guilty of when they make the leap from Shakespeare territory to Judd Apatow country.

With this in mind, it’s been a refreshing and delightfully unexpected surprise to discover the ridiculous hilarity of former independent film favorite John C. Reilly as he’s gone from his earlier work in films like Casualties of War, Boogie Nights, The Thin Red Line, Magnolia, The Hours, The Good Girl and Gangs of New York to dazzling all of us with his Oscar nominated turn in Chicago. While his role in that film was filled with emotion most notably on display in the show-stopping number “Mr. Cellophane,” it recalled some of the comedic spark he’d begun to ignite even briefly in his previous roles. And after showing up for an un-credited daring turn as a bullying monk in Anger Management, the comedy world took note, and Reilly has just gotten funnier with each passing year, making the sad-sack character he cornered the market on in the past seem like a distant memory, especially when he was paired alongside Will Ferrell for the 2006 Nascar comedy, Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby.

The freewheeling, improvisational style of Ferrell clicked so well with Reilly’s unlimited range that even when the film threatened to take a few wrong turns and go off course, seeing the two of them together is what elevated that film above some of Ferrell’s lackluster comedies over the past few years as he’s spread himself far too thin. While Ferrell made the bold decision to forgo another easy paycheck to appear in a few serious works, including a tremendous turn in the woefully underrated Stranger than Fiction before returning to his humorous roots, Reilly continued to dabble with comedy, becoming an Apatow favorite after his work in director Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

However, as good as the men were solo, audiences who’d begun wearing out their Frat Pack comedy DVDs including Talladega, Anchorman, Wedding Crashers, Old School, Dodgeball, Semi-Pro and others longed for the two to reunite. And working with their Talladega team of director/co-writer Adam McKay and producer Judd Apatow, they’ve finally done so. With this in mind, they go from Talladega’s “Shake and Bake” to “Dragon” and “Nighthawk” a.k.a. Dale and Brennan in the far trashier but downright hilarious new release, Step Brothers.

Middle-aged, lazy and filled with a narcissistic sense of entitlement, the two star as overgrown children with one of the most twisted versions of Peter Pan Syndrome you’re likely to see in a mainstream comedy. Still living at home, without the benefit of college education and little in the way of job prospects which would undoubtedly interfere with their overreliance on video games, fanboy culture, junk food and round the clock television, Dale (Reilly) and Brennan (Ferrell) leech off their respective parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor).

Predictably however, just minutes into the film, at an out-of-town work conference, the parents meet and decide to marry after an impulsive coupling. Even odder, their horny hookup becomes filled with greater glee when the strangers bond in a hotel suite amidst the realization that they’re both stricken with the same ailment of not being able to kick their roughly forty year old children out of their houses. Although the bliss of the newlyweds is cut short when Nancy (Steenburgen) and Brennan move into the home occupied by Jenkins’ Robert Doback and Brennan’s equally immature new stepbrother Dale.

After sizing each other up on the front lawn whereby they state their wish to go by tougher monikers (the aforementioned Dragon and Nighthawk), the new family make a strained attempt at bonding over dinner. As expected when the “boys” are forced to share a room with one another and proceed to menace each other with vicious, foul-mouthed threats, in the following days it escalates into physical brutality culminating in an over-the-top fight which nearly tears apart the entire house.

However, soon the foes become fast friends when they unexpectedly bond upon the discovery that Brennan’s smug, yuppie, pompous, name-dropping, slang-happy, SUV driving younger brother Derek (Adam Scott) is an even bigger jerk than both of them put together. But after Derek-- who’s not above insulting his wife (Kathryn Hahn) and forcing his children into a sing along-- makes it his new mission to sell Robert’s home for a monster profit so the elders can retire, thereby forcing Dale and Brennan out of the house, the two newly aligned step brothers must concoct a grand scheme first to sabotage Derek’s real estate ambitions while avoiding taking on anything resembling a job.

Quickly, as expected and par for the Frat Pack comedy course, they realize that their antics are starting to drive an irreparable wedge in their parents’ relationship and understand that—better late than never and definitely on their own terms—it’s time to attempt to grow up. And while the third act falters and feels a bit forced in rushing to wrap up all the loose ends, it’s saved by a truly memorable musical number at a Catalina Wine Mixer that is sure to get fans recommending it to others, telling them that it’s something they’ll just have to see to believe.

Earning its “R” rating only moments into the movie, the overwhelmingly foul-mouthed and mean-spirited first forty-five minutes of the film threatens to kill the successful and genuinely earnest humor that follows. While it may leave a bad taste in your mouth—especially considering some of the unnecessarily vulgar sight gags, not to mention the guilty feeling of finding humor in something so juvenile-- it’s the charm of Reilly and Ferrell that saves the film.

Although you’ll definitely want to keep your children away, despite the appeal of the leads since the comedy isn’t as family friendly as the laughs served up in Talladega, the presence of the two and the sheer exuberance on display in their performances reminds us that no matter how cruel the actions of the characters are, you just know that it’s done with the best of intentions. And ultimately you can’t help but buy into the silliness as they damn near break their necks in order to just make us laugh, making Step Brothers a wickedly funny, if uneven blend of a little surprisingly sweet and some horrifically sour comedy.

Note: Be sure to stay in your seats after the credits begin to roll as Reilly and Ferrell exact revenge on a group of playground bullies in an admittedly tasteless yet unforgettably hilarious finale.


Love and Other Disasters

Director: Alek Keshishian

In order to try and battle what Breakfast at Tiffany’s heroine Holly Golightly would call “the mean reds” of writing traditional romantic comedy, writer/director Alek Keshishian borrows heavily from not only Tiffany’s but also British romantic comedies of the past for the David Fincher and Luc Besson produced Love and Other Disasters.

For his own version of Golightly, Keshishian casts the charismatically affable, brunette beauty Brittany Murphy as “Jacks” (real name Emily Jackson) in a role that demands his actress channel both Golightly as well as the woman who personified her, the legendary Audrey Hepburn. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, initially, Murphy’s characterization feels like an academic acting school exercise (at best) and a blithe parody (at worst) but soon enough, she wins us over. Much like the Clueless heroine Cher, played by Murphy’s costar Alicia Silverstone in director Amy Heckerling’s modern version of Jane Austen’s Emma, Murphy’s Jacks is a matchmaker gone wild.

Trying her best to keep everything running swimmingly, the perpetually rushed Jacks treats life as a never-ending party where as the “hostess” she must always ensure the guests are having the most wonderful time. And in doing so she often places the self-created dramas and romantic complications of her friends far above taking stock of things in her own chaotically fast-paced life where there’s barley enough hours in the day.

When she isn’t shagging James (Elliot Cowan), her formerly long-term, currently ex-boyfriend who just can’t seem to rebound from the fact that his love is one-sided, Jacks bonds with-- as Kathy Griffin would call-- her “main gay,” a.k.a. her endlessly supportive roommate Peter Simon (Matthew Rhys). Although aside from Peter, Jacks’ stable of friends are more irritating than winning. This is especially apparent in an extremely annoying and cringe-worthy performance by Catherine Tate as the Sylvia Plath wannabe Talullah who seems to have wandered in after being rejected from the set of either Notting Hill or Love Actually.

However, amidst juggling all of friends’ romantic subplots, Jacks is surprised to find herself enchanted by a new Argentinean colleague, Paolo (Santiago Cabrera). After confidently declaring that she has the best gaydar in the city, Jacks erroneously decides to fix her new acquaintance up with Peter. Of course, all the while the audience realizes she's mistaken Paolo’s intense looks, flirtatious compliments, and attentiveness as merely friendly when in fact Paolo has fallen in love with our flighty heroine.

If it all sounds complicated it is, and the ambitious Lebanese born, Harvard-educated filmmaker Keshishian (most famous for helming Madonna: Truth or Dare) naively tries to squeeze in far too many characters and situations into his film’s brief running time. And while at times the Tiffany’s homage feels overly forced as he unsuccessfully gives Jacks a misguided Golightly-esque catchphrase of calling cherished friends “babies,” it’s an interesting take on the original material.

In fact, it gamely acknowledges that the film version of Tiffany’s took the homosexual male character from the book and repacked him for straight audiences as a heterosexual in traditional romantic comedy fashion. Thereby, Keshishian uses his own lighthearted romp as an unlikely commentary on the decision by having loads of fun with sexual orientation misunderstandings in our contemporary era.

A beautiful and harmless trifle, Love’s carefree blend of sass and soap suds calls to mind the guilty pleasure of watching the superior CW soap Gossip Girl, but much like Gossip, it’s one of those experiences you may plead the fifth on if asked if you're a fan when in snobbish society.

Unfortunately, Keshishian’s attempt is muddled by superfluity as one feels a strong urge to reach for the “fast-forward” button whenever the obnoxious Talullah along with a few other annoying characters appear onscreen. However the chaos does serve an important purpose in augmenting Jacks and inviting viewers to identify with her a bit more than we could with Hepburn’s Golightly.

For instead of Tiffany’s diamonds, in the twenty-first century, multi-tasking is a girl’s best friend and it serves Jacks well in her self-described position as “a superficial assistant at a major fashion magazine,” namely the London branch of Vogue. Although, unlike Anne Hathaway’s discovery that in the fashion world, The Devil Wears Prada, Jacks puts her work—much like her own needs—on the back burner. And instead navigating the Golightly terrain of “rats and super-rats,” she predictably discovers that ultimately she must stop hiding behind luxury products, eccentric “artist” friends, and haute couture to let down her own guard long enough to fall in love.

Wrapping up the work utilizing the rarely beneficial screenwriting favorite "film-within-a-film" approach, much like Jacks, Keshishian called on the support of friends by serving up Gwyneth Paltrow and Orlando Bloom in an unnecessary concluding cameo that jars the whimsical tone and calls far too much attention to itself. Still, with an irresistible turn by Murphy, uniformly excellent work by Rhys, and a nice change of pace for gorgeous Heroes star Santiago Cabrera, one finds that in the end this Love is far from a total disaster.

New to the Screening Room...

Thanks to Erik, an astute reader affiliated with the launch of the site snagfilms.com which allows viewers to upload free, award-winning full-length documentaries right to their blogs and websites, we have quite a treat for you over in our Video Screening Room. Now playing, you can check out 3 terrific documentaries all right on your PC, including Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me. Enjoy and be sure to stay tuned for future updates!


Le Million

René Clair

In the final scene of Frank Capra’s classic weep-fest, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s young child proclaims, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” Well, as far as this reviewer is concerned, every time I’m in a theatre and an audience member laughs at vulgar, cheap, and unoriginal scatological humor, the artistic medium of cinema begins to die. Of course, it’s not the filmgoer’s fault but that of the filmmaker and while it’s the dramatic films that earn all of the awards and make us weep, one seldom appreciates just how difficult it is to create a perfect comedy, possibly since in its very nature, it’s supposed to look so spontaneous and effortless.

There are comedic rules and classic adages served up time and time again such as given enough time, even the most heartbreaking tragedy can be unspeakably humorous, repetition (especially in threes) leads to the most chuckles, and that certain consonants are funnier than others. However, when it comes to foreign comedies, unless one speaks the language, the last rule goes right out the window so new rules for just what makes something funny must be invented.

With this in mind, imagine the alternately terrifying and liberating feeling of crafting a musical comedy in France back in 1931, before all the advice had been summarized and before filmmakers hoping for a quick laugh crammed in as many toilet scenes as possible. Not only did famed director René Clair manage to live up to this challenge adapting Georges Berr’s play with co-writer Marcel Guillemaud but as noted by The Criterion Collection, their finished result, Le Million, would not only change the face of musical comedies forever, especially here in the states, but also inspire the masterful comedians Charlie Chaplin and The Marx Brothers. By employing the oldest trick in the comedic book that simpler is better, Clair and his comedic cohorts started with a simple premise and then began stacking up the obstacles like dominoes, building and building it with tremendous effect, weaving gorgeous circles and patterns to delight our senses until they knock it all down for our unparalleled amusement.

Opening with a merry celebration, the bulk of Le Million rewinds itself to relate the unpredictable events that transpired over the course of that particular day. Soon we’re introduced to the flirtatious painter Michel (Rene Lefevre) who finds he’s guilty of the sin of omission when the beautiful subject (Vanda Greville) he’s been leading on discovers that Beatrice (Annabella), the woman she assumed was his neighbor, is in fact his long-suffering fiancé. And by now Beatrice has grown infinitely weary and annoyed by both Michel’s favorite hobby of entertaining beautiful models as well as the fact that he’s endlessly indebted to creditors, thereby perpetually postponing his promise that they will eventually wed.

Shortly thereafter as Michel is predictably hounded by an angry mob of townspeople to whom he owes money, Michel and his best friend Prosper (Louis Allibert) learn that Michel is the lucky winner of the French lottery. Sure that the winnings will be the answer to all of Michel’s problems, they quickly return to retrieve the ticket from an old coat pocket, only to discover that—without realizing what was inside the pocket—Beatrice has given the worthless, tattered coat to an elderly, enterprising eccentric named Grandpa Tulip (Paul Olliver).

Complicating the deceptively simple plot even more in a way that seemed to inspire Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, Tulip later sells the jacket to an Italian tenor named Ambrosio Sopranelli (Constantin Siroesco) who feels it’s the ideal wardrobe for the character he’s playing that evening in the opera before he journeys over to America to further his career. Now with time running out before the curtain goes up, Michel and Prosper follow leads both separately and together, trying to win back the trust and affection of ballerina Beatrice along the way as they strive to claim their ticket, with the creditors and the beautiful Vanda Greville trailing them from only a few steps behind.

Fans of classic Marx Brothers comedies will immediately see the influence as Le Million gets increasingly chaotic, with characters just missing one another, the few maddening misunderstandings mixed in for maximum tension, and of course music throughout. However, while the music sometimes pulled one out of the Marx’s merry mayhem (most notably in the awe-inspiring but overly staged productions from A Night at the Opera), Le Million employs its soundtrack brilliantly. Much like the film’s opera “The Bohemians” which is listed as one crafted in three acts, there are three distinct acts to Clair’s work and he not only weaves in music from a natural source as one character sings or plays the piano either in rehearsal or for amusement but also structures his film operatically as well, with the creditors making up a singing version of a Greek chorus and other characters commenting on the action through song. And although as mentioned earlier, it’s cited as a definite Chaplin favorite along with impacting American musical movies, while it has much in common with musicals, one can’t simply stoop to pigeonhole Le Million by labeling it as belonging strictly to the genre, much like calling Jacques Demy’s 1960’s French New Wave classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a musical is a disservice as well.

In fact true to musical form, while there is a showstopper, Le Million’s is contradictory in that it’s subtle, accidental, and we feel we stumble upon it in the same way as our characters do. During the film’s opera in the final act, Sopranelli and his leading lady belt out a gorgeous song but our attention is diverted from their polished performance to a different part of the stage as Michel and Beatrice, hiding from the sight of the audience, seem to fall back in love right before our eyes, the only cues being the feeling the music gives us and the delicate touches in the cinematography as flower petals fall and it’s given a fairy-tale like glow. Seeing a shot as elegant, exquisite, and understated like this one not only made me nostalgic for black and white photography which sells the moment better than color perhaps could have—possibly making it more surreal or “precious” with pastels—but also felt like the ultimate antidote to viewing too many pre-packaged romantic comedies which end with a literal chase, the obligatory snappy one-liner, and a clinch.

While film can never actually be mistaken for real life, especially in an expertly choreographed 1931 French musical comedy, it heightens life. Moreover, in Clair’s simplicity, especially in scenes such as the one I just described, it somehow engages us in recognition and identification by its subtlety, making one relate even stronger to the gorgeously restored Criterion Collection classic than most contemporary films in the genre at your local multiplex. Thereby, although when films like The Love Guru and Meet Dave try their best to murder the medium, the late Rene Clair and his marvelous cohorts breathe much needed life back into the dwindling art of cinema when viewers ignore scatological, juvenile fodder and take the pains to seek out something like Le Million.


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Knife in the Water

Roman Polanski

From the first moment we slide into the driver’s seat, we’re warned of the dangers of the road, not the least of which is to beware of hitchhikers. However, when the hitch is on the other end and we find ourselves stranded, forgive the pun but the other rule of thumb is to be ever so careful of the people from whom we accept a ride. This is infinitely more suspenseful when the car is replaced with a sailboat and one finds themselves in the middle of nowhere on a picturesque yet eerily quiet lake, unsure wherein the ultimate jeopardy lies whether it’s in the perils of the voyage or in neglecting to follow the rules of stranger danger ingrained in us as children.

In most films, it’s the down-on-their-luck loners we find ourselves most concerned with whether it’s Billy Zane terrorizing Nicole Kidman in Dead Calm or the kill-you-with-kindness menace lurking just below that bland smile in the brilliant French thriller With a Friend like Harry. However, upon revisiting the gorgeously remastered cinematic debut from Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski with his anxiety laden, three-character stunner Knife in the Water, we’re never sure if the danger lies within the hearts of either the mysteriously nameless, young, blonde hitchhiker (Oskar Werner look-alike, Zygmunt Malanowicz) or the bourgeois couple with whom he finds himself traveling, including the aggressively boorish and antisocial Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and his visibly younger wife Krystyna (Jolante Umecka).

The film opens in sheer cinematographic bliss as Krystyna drives her husband down a deserted road as the shadows from the leaf-filled trees dance peacefully upon her windshield in crisp black and white punctuated with a sultry jazz score from saxophonist Bernt Rosengren. The tempo changes with a jolt as her husband demands his chance at the wheel. Obviously while one foreshadows the subtext about emasculation and male rivalry given the film’s title, possibly our first indication that Krystyna’s domineering husband is in an irrational, virility-driven midlife crisis occurs as soon as he gets into the driver’s seat. Soon the exquisite beauty of the film’s photography switches to cool, masculine, straightforward lines with a subtle, classical, old-fashioned score that is quickly forgotten when he slams on the brakes, nearly hitting the nameless deserted Young Man (Malanowicz) precariously standing in the middle of the road.

The fact that he refused to slow down earlier, preferring to wield his lethal power over a harmless, ill-equipped stranger says a lot about our wealthy lead. Trained by the predictability of suspenseful dramas, we worry that the Young Man will soon receive his comeuppance when he’s not only offered a ride with the two but also—with no particular place to go and an even vaguer timeline—is impulsively invited along for their overnight sailing excursion so that he can ride with them again in the morning. However, he’s not as naively innocent as one would assume. From the moment his rucksack hits the backseat of their car, he and Andrzej engage in petty male rivalry and one-upmanship subconsciously more to challenge one another than to garner the attentions of the female in their midst; the Young Man agrees to come along, noting that his elder wishes to continue “the game.” Dismissing this charge with a snobbish, “You’re not in my class, kid,” Andrzej doesn’t heed his own warning, proceeding to do everything in his power to toy with the lad.

Intriguingly, Polanski — fully aware of the way that men try to prove their virility in the company of women more out of sport than genuine affection — makes a choice that proves maturity beyond his young years just fresh out of film school, to allow his amateur actress and leading lady to first appear onscreen looking like a complete schoolmarm. As he notes in an eye-opening video introduction on the Criterion disc, the notorious storyboarding director Polanski cleverly depicted Krystyna in an unflattering light, initially hiding her eyes behind pointed glasses, her greasy hair up and body completely covered. This makes it much more effective as she grows progressively more dazzling from the moment her feet touch the deck of the sailboat, when the glasses come off, hair blows free, excess clothes are removed and we witness the shapely beauty that—without her intention—propels the foolish men to an unexpectedly violent yet inevitable confrontation over the course of the next twenty-four hours.

Expertly Polanski used his modest means as a first-time filmmaker to tremendous effect at what must have been a continuity nightmare to get every reaction shot just right in working with the unpredictability of the weather along with the vast inexperience of everyone involved. Indeed, Polanski and his co-writers note on the disc that they acted out the script amongst themselves, writing it over the course of five nights. Amazingly, although it was filmed more than a year later as they had to contend with objections of the government that the film wasn’t propagandist enough and far too “western minded,” it retains this fresh, authentic, and impulsive vibe much enhanced by the radical jazz score (another musical form frowned upon in Poland at the time).

However, perhaps its greatest artistic decision came from co-writer Jerrzy Skolimowski’s ingenious effort not to let their limited budget become a hindrance, using it beneficially by paying homage to the Greek dramas he loved that all consisted of the bare minimum of characters, set in the same location over a condensed period of time such as Knife’s twenty-four hour time span.

The film, which hasn’t lost its ability to surprise and keep us riveted by the tense psychological testosterone-fueled warfare—all driven by subtle Hitchcockian male gaze and the fact that the two rivals are far more similar than they’d like to admit—is one of the director’s very best works. Now given the double-disc luxury treatment from Criterion complete with Polanski’s participation and including several of his student films, I’d even go as far as to say that Knife in the Water holds up better than any of his other 1960s offerings including the excellent yet dated Rosemary’s Baby.

Although it will never top his masterwork Chinatown, Knife in the Water, which became the first Polish nominee ever included in the Best Foreign Language Film Category of the Academy Awards (predictably losing to Fellini’s brilliant 8 & ½), introduced international audiences to the director’s most frequently visited themes and inspired two more psychological ménage a trois films in a “loose trilogy” including the director’s Cul-de-Sac and the chilling Death and the Maiden.

In addition, those who know anything about the tragic biography of the filmmaker (who would later go on to make the intensely personal Oscar winning World War II film, The Pianist) will be greatly amused by IMDb’s inclusion of the popular rumor that the sailboat in Knife may have indeed been formerly owned by one of Hitler’s close friends, the Nazi party member Hermann Goering, which makes the setting of such primal male rivalry seem all the more fitting.

The Dark Knight

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Christopher Nolan

“Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?” The Joker (Jack Nicholson) memorably complained in Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece Batman.

Burton’s film — which took an infinitely darker yet still refreshingly humorous approach in updating the classic comic book character created by Bob Kane and later brought to brightly colored life in the popular '60s TV series and film — seemed to provide the definitive take on "the man, the myth, the bat." That was until Joel Schumacher took over the franchise and turned it into a campy, overcrowded mess in the late '90s, but that all changed when Memento director Christopher Nolan took the Batmobile out for a test drive with his Greek tragedy-tinged epic Batman Begins in 2005.

While nostalgia for Burton’s film grew each year as fans mourned the wrecked franchise, Nolan admirably avoided the temptation to try and rebuild the unstable remnants of Gotham City still left standing by Schumacher. Instead, like a master chef, he started from scratch, taking what he wanted from the comic book and earlier films and, along with his co-writers, inventing a richer, far more devastating interpretation of the Batman mythology. In stark contrast to the socially awkward, slightly bumbling and more lighthearted portrayal by Burton’s star Michael Keaton, Nolan opted to go further in depth into the origins of the tale itself. By putting a completely different spin on the character, he illuminates just how “his” Bruce Wayne came to be the existential, less than gregarious and downright arrogant man he serves up, therefore making Nolan’s Batman a genuine shock to fans, including myself, who remembered seeing Keaton's original characterization in the theatre.

While I still prefer Burton’s version — although I’m possibly biased, as much like one never forgets a first love, they never forget their first Batman -- Nolan’s adaptation of the series is uniquely his own. Upon watching Begins once more in preparation for this review, I became infinitely more impressed by Nolan’s filmmaking craftsmanship and the way he not only set up the character of The Joker in the finale of Begins but also subconsciously prepared audiences for the ultimate darkness that would fill his aptly named sequel, The Dark Knight. And indeed Knight is so entrenched in ominous, forbidding tones that it instantly recalls the nighthawk work of Michael Mann (most notably from Heat, Miami Vice, and Collateral) and makes Tim Burton’s ’89 venture seem downright sunny by comparison.

Admittedly, while Batman films have always been by their very definition distinctly preoccupied with the Bat, the events of Dark Knight’s post-production and the unspeakably heartbreaking loss of its star Heath Ledger earlier in 2008 turned all of the media attention to not only Ledger’s final completed performance — frequently cited as his best — but The Joker himself. Hearkening back to that unforgettable opening quote, somewhere in an alternate universe of movie characters, The Joker - as played by Nicholson in 1989 - must be grinning at the realization that finally it is he, instead of the Bat, who’s been given all of the press. And, this being said, is it any wonder that Nolan’s film is the first one in the series to neglect including the name Batman in its title altogether, thereby making each and every self-proclaimed “freak” in the film a Knight of darkness, if for no more than at least a few minutes?

Picking up where he left off, roughly a year after Begins, Nolan reacquaints us with Gotham City. Not only is Christian Bale’s Batman still deemed a controversial vigilante with police “orders” to arrest him on sight (repeatedly ignored by Gary Oldman’s Lieutenant Gordon) but he’s also unfortunately inspired a group of fame-seeking, action junkie Bat-wannabes who pull out their Halloween styled costumes on any given evening, making do with hockey masks and guns, predictably putting themselves in far greater danger, thereby making Batman’s job harder instead of easier. Of course, this is Batman we’re talking about (or elegantly “The Batman” as he’s called throughout in homage to the comic) so despite needing to iron out a few kinks and take the suit in for additional repairs from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), he takes everything in stride.

However, that all changes when The Joker (Heath Ledger) appears on the scene and forms a terrifying alliance with the heads of the city’s mafia. He also makes it his personal quest to turn Gotham’s crusading — and far more press friendly “white knight" — District Attorney Harvey Dent (Thank You For Smoking’s Aaron Eckhart) “dark” after Dent becomes the city’s saving grace by taking 549 criminals to court in a landmark RICO case. Whereas Batman must lurk in the shadows and speak in a ridiculously disguised voice to avoid being identified as his carefree playboy alter-ego Bruce Wayne, Dent is the man deemed the true hero in Gotham’s eye. This becomes much harder to bear when Wayne learns that his true love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal gamely filling in for Katie Holmes) has mixed business with pleasure, falling in love with her dashing colleague, Dent.

Nolan’s version of the exceedingly arrogant Wayne was never one to take things lying down. Thus he proceeds to challenge their courtship at every step, impulsively inviting himself along on a double date, rerouting the leggy stars of the entire Russian ballet aboard his yacht so that Dent is unable to take Rachel to the show, and foolishly trying to inspire envy in his love by making grand juvenile entrances with an endless parade of silicone-enhanced bimbos every chance he gets. While normally — if Wayne was even a fraction more likable — we would feel his pain in not being able to reunite with his true love, most of the time he comes off like an overgrown schoolboy. And intriguingly, the lovely Gyllenhaal has little chemistry with Bale (especially evidenced in a clinically cool kiss) but manages to flirt playfully with Eckhart’s Dent, therefore and possibly without Nolan’s intention, making Batman seem like an annoying third wheel.

But more importantly, this time around, our attention isn’t focused on Batman and it certainly isn’t preoccupied with his nonexistent love life, for as soon as Ledger appears on the screen, teasing us in a fast intro before appearing grandly at a mafia sit-down laughing maniacally, he’s the one keeping us riveted during the film’s overly long 142 minute running-time. While — mostly due to the writing — it isn’t on par with his turn in Brokeback Mountain, Ledger, who drew equal inspiration from Sex Pistols bass guitarist Sid Vicious and A Clockwork Orange’s villainous Alexander DeLarge, does some of his finest work in the film, even if he’s woefully under-used and sadly obscured beneath an unnecessarily sloppy and complicated plot that tries to squeeze in not only every criminal in the city along with all of Gotham’s kitchen sinks. Although I was and still am a true admirer of Ledger’s immeasurable talent, I’d hesitate to go along with the possibly legacy driven sentiment that he’s the worthiest of a Best Actor nomination so far in 2008 since in my opinion that title goes to In Bruges’ Colin Farrell. Still, he heightens every scene he’s in with his musically cadenced voice that punctuates a lackluster score, which never comes close to topping Danny Elfman’s brilliant, instantly recognizable ’89 composition. This time around, and given nowhere near as memorably snappy dialogue as Nicholson was nineteen years earlier to better fit his character, Ledger’s version of The Joker — much like Bale’s Batman — seems far more dangerous, freakish, and twisted than as portrayed in the other films.

In fact it’s ironic that he is called The Joker. Although his face is carved into a frighteningly extra large smile and Ledger delights in spinning a new sinister yarn for every victim he threatens as to how he earned his scars, there are very few jokes or moments for laughter, even nervous chuckles. Instead of teasing us with lines like Nicholson’s proclamation that, “Jack is dead, my friend. You can call me Joker. And as you can see, I’m a lot happier,” merry mayhem and knife-driven chaos proves to be this bipolar Joker’s most effective antidepressant, although the benefits seem short-lived. For quickly after getting his fix, The Joker is out on the street again, cruising for another kill in an unceasing effort to take out The Batman, leaving unpredictable carnage in his wake as major characters are jeopardized and the fate of one in particular I’m still not entirely sure I understand, given the film’s tendency to offer an “ah-ha” magic trick of bringing the dead back to life and vice versa.

Although I’d rather watch Nolan’s original Batman Begins for a richer and more complete storytelling arc, despite its rather rushed conclusion (proving they may be the director’s Achilles heel as it occurs again in Knight) and Burton’s first offering is still my definitive take on the character, when it comes to staging action sequences, The Dark Knight topped every single film that has come before it in the series during four unbelievably tense action sequences specifically photographed in IMAX. Making up for an unrelentingly wandering camera that distracts our eye from cinematographer and longtime Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister’s gorgeous usage of blues and blacks in early dialogue scenes where the camera seems to be tied to a tether ball until it makes a decision to hold steady for one memorable line or moment, Nolan, Pfister and his amazing cinematic partners in crime, ramped up the action for tremendous effect.

While I hesitate to reveal anything in the way of spoilers, be sure to remain in your seats during a sequence involving the transportation of Harvey Dent as Nolan employs the Batpod, motorcycles, semi trucks, helicopters, and S.W.A.T. vehicles in a bravura experience that demands to be appreciated on the big screen (although those with sensitive ears may want to pack along earplugs). In fact, it’s so good, I was still talking about it one day after the screening and it actually out-performed my previous 2008 favorite action sequence included in Spielberg’s awe-inspiring jeep chase from the latest Indiana Jones film two months ago.

So ultimately, despite the film’s flaws as well as our wish that we could go back and rework it at the screenplay stage to make the most of it for the staggering talent involved (especially the late, great Ledger), to quote Nicholson in Tim Burton’s film — in the end, Gotham City, and by association Batman, “always brings a smile to my face.”