Monday, September 25, 2006

Rent

Director: Chris Columbus
Starring: Rosario Dawson, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin

Running Time: 128 min.

Rating: PG-13


**1/2 (out of ****)


Ten years ago I saw the musical Rent on broadway and it was easily one of the best live theatre experience I've ever had. It stands to reason then that the film based on Jonathon Larson's pulitzer prize winning play about New York's east villagers struggling with poverty and AIDS in the early 90's should be as equally compelling, since it changes absolutely nothing from the play. Strangely though, it isn't.

This is about as direct an adaptation as you can get with most of the actors from the original cast reprise their roles and amazingly it doesn't look like they've aged a day. Yet the movie is a mixed bag and left me thinking how something that was so powerful live could feel somewhat dead and emotionless on the screen. Next time I'll think twice before criticizing filmmakers who demand to "re-imagine" the source material, be it a novel or a broadway production. This movie has the opposite problem. It stays rigidly faithful to the original. Too faithful. What works onstage doesn't always work on film. It's a different medium and sometimes compromises sometimes have to be made. None were made here and the material suffers a bit as a result.

The movie starts out with all the characters onstage singing the opening number, "Seasons of Love." Why they're onstage I have no clue but it gives us an early hint the direction Chris Columbus is heading. He's not changing a thing. Rent follows eight bohemian type New Yorkers by way of the protagonist, aspiring documentary filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp). Mark's still getting over being dumped by Maureen (Idina Menzel) for female attorney Joanne (Tracy Thoms). Everyone's about to be evicted from their appartment if they don't pay Benjamin (Taye Diggs), their landlord. He used to be Mark's roomate, but moved out, married into money and now wants to kick them out.

Mark lives with aspiring HIV positive rocker Roger (Adam Pascal) who's falling in love with exotic dancer Mimi (Rosario Dawson, who despite not being one of the original broadway cast members gives probably the best performance in the film), who's an HIV positive drug addict. We're also introduced to tranvestite Angel (Jermaine Heredia) who finds Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin) mugged in an alley and takes him in. They both are also, as you could probably guess, HIV positive. There's no doubt AIDS was nothing to laugh about and a major problem in New York City and the country in the 1980's, but I couldn't help thinking this whole story seems really dated now. I suppose I can't punish the movie for that, since it's meant to reflect a certain time and place in our history, but you can't help thinking if this movie came out about ten years earlier it would have packed more of an emotional punch.

Even for a musical this had a lot of musical numbers, with some piled on one after another with no direction in the story and making the movie feel like it actually was 525,600 minutes. I heard a lot of numbers from the play were cut and dialogue was addded, but more dialogue should have been added because at times it seemed like Columbus was trying too hard to cram the music in. The good news is most of that music is fantastic and all the performances are top notch (only Pascal was pretty bland as Roger) with all the actors doing their own singing, and doing it well. Menzel and Dawson fair the best though.

After ten years it was good to know my three favorite songs in the play ("One Song Glory", "Out Tonight" and "Santa Fe") sound just as good as I remembered them. The movie was shot entirely in New York City, but the problem is the movie has absolutely no hint of realism at all. That's okay on broadway, not ion screen. It's as if they literally took the stage production, filmed it as is, and assumed it would have to work as a movie without opening up any of the locations or taking any risks. The ending, which had the audience in tears when I saw it on broadway ten years ago seems almost ridiculously contrived on film even though it's exactly the same.

None of this, of course, is meant to detract from the power of Larson's story, which is as great now as it was then. In fact, the second disc of this two-disc special edition DVD set contains an unbelievable documentary that tells the inspirational story of how Larson literally gave his life to create this musical. We meet his friends and family and learn sadly that basically everyone he knew did really die of AIDS and when he was dirt poor he wrote this for them. It's more emotionally moving than this movie. Those expecting a cinematic adaptation of Rent that's faithful to the original won't be dissappointed, but those hoping it does their play justice, will be.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Hills Have Eyes

Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Aaron Stanford, Dan Byrd, Emilie de Ravin, Vinessa Shaw, Kathleen Quinlin, Ted Devine
Running Time: 107 min.

Rating: R

*1/2 (out of ****)

The Hills Have Eyes is a complete waste of time. It calls itself a horror film yet there isn't a single scare to be found and it's not suspenseful in the least. It's just gory and disgusting. I haven't seen the original 1977 Wes Craven film on which this is based but it has to be better than this. It just has to be. The only thing that scared me about the movie was that Wes Craven, a master of suspense and horror (although he has been slipping lately) would actually have his name on this trash as a producer.

The entire film is an exercise in gratuitous violence with the antagonists having no clear personalities or motivations, but I know that's digging too deep. Looked at for what it is, a modern day slasher film, it's still a failure. If anything, it's just a cheap rip-off of the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which I actually enjoyed. That movie built suspense and was terrifying at times. Plus, it had Jessica Biel. This has nothing. We've seen movies like this executed far better so there's no reason to fall for an expensive knock-off.

What there is of a plot concerns a family heading to San Diego for a vacation in their RV, which soon becomes stranded in the middle of the desert. We have Bob Carter (Ted Devine) his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlin), teenage kids Bobby( Dan Byrd), Brenda (Lost's Emilie de Ravin), and oldest daughter Lynne ( (Vinessa Shaw) who brought along husband Doug (Tadpole's Aaron Stanford) and their newborn baby. I wonder what will happen to the baby. All of the characters are ridiculous stereotypes such as the gun-toting right wing tough guy dad and the rebellious teenage daughter, which is fine if any of them were the least bit enjoyable to watch or likable. Instead they argue with each other for the entire insufferable first half hour of the film. The teenage daughter would rather be in Cancun. Dad hates his son-in-law because he's a liberal. We could go on and on.

I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that many of these characters die, and they die in disgusting, brutal ways at the hands of miners who were deformed as a result of government nuclear testing done in the 1950's. One of the most insulting things about the movie is this touch, which was a pathetic attempt to humanize the cannibals and add political undertones to the story.

These cannibals look exactly like what they are: Actors who stepped off a Hollywood backlot after hours in the make-up chair. The only nice things that can be said about this film are that it's well shot and there are some resonably good action scenes in the final act. While watching this film I came to a realization about modern horror movies. For whatever reason, there's this propensity to show everything and use the best special effects imaginable. It's as if the filmmakers have learned nothing from the success of low budget 70's horror films and movies like The Blair Witch Project from 1999. It's what you don't show, not what you do that makes a horror movie. Just ask Steven Spielberg. He'll tell you how much worse Jaws would have been if the shark actually worked all the time.

Monday, September 11, 2006

United 93

Director: Paul Greengrass
Starring: Christian Clemenson, Cheyenne Jackson, Trish Gates, David Alan Basche, Polly Adams
Running Time: 111 minutes

Rating: R


**** (out of ****)

How do you even review a movie like this? I'm giving United 93 my highest rating yet find it difficult recommending anyone see it. It's painful and horrifying. I told myself going in I'd try to look at it objectively as a film without letting my thoughts or feelings on 9/11 influence my opinion. Minutes into the picture that approach was thrown out the window. The movie is frighteningly real as if it were shot by someone who was there, camcorder in hand. It's less a film than a claustrophobic historical account. There's nothing movieish or actorish about it as everything unfolds in real time and by all accounts pretty close to the 9/11 Commission's report on the crash of highjacked United Flight 93 onto a field just outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was the only one of four planes that didn't reach it's intended target that day.

This film alternates between what starts as an ordinary day at the National Air Traffic Control Center and and the passengers who are boarding Flight 93, including the four Arab men who plan to hijack the aircraft. We watch as the air traffic controllers attempt to keep track of all the allegedly hijacked planes that day and see them react as the as the World Trade Center is hit. Sadly, we see the government's ridiculously slow reaction time and inability to employ any aircraft to immediately deal with the situation. This isn't political propaganda though. It's true. By all accounts, this is how everything happened.

The terrorists are depicted as nameless, faceless nobodies and the passengers have no back stories at all. We know nothing about them. Deliberately, no name actors have been cast in any of the roles, further heightening the realism. The scariest part of the movie is the waiting. The waiting for it to happen. Watching the terrorists make it past security and the passengers go about their normal conversations completely unaware anything was going to happen was practically unbearable. A lot of time is spent at the beginning of the film in the air traffic control center and I think I know why. Besides giving us insight into how those on the ground handled the situation, it would have been too much for viewers to handle getting right into the situation of the hijacked flight. It's too jarring. We had to be eased into it.

When we're finally in the air there's more waiting. It becomes clear these terrorists really don't have much of a plan. They keep looking at each other wondering when it's the right time. They can never agree. The sloppiness of the situation only makes it scarier. There were points when I felt like screaming at the screen for them just to do it so it's over with. When it finally does happen some of the details are surprising. Like how the terrorists don't seem to care everyone's plotting and making phone calls. How they're in a panic the whole time unsure of what to do.

I, like many others, have always wondered how just a few guys with box cutters could possibly hijack a commercial aircraft. The film answers this question. They can and the passengers did absolutely everything in their power to stop it. We know how the story ends yet there's still tension as we realize the passengers were extremely close to escaping alive. We even learn one of them was even a pilot and ready to take over if they could break through into the cabin. We hear the phone calls the passengers make to their families right before they make the decision to take these guys down. You can hardly breathe the last twenty minutes of the film. There's no grandstanding or performances here. It feels like we're watching and hearing the real thing.

The film is disturbing but it's never offensive or exploitive. Clearly Greengrass put a lot of thought into how this was to be presented in a way that gives gravity to the situation without overdramatizing it. Less is more. It was the right direction to go in and the most respectful. This presents a straight forward take of what happened to Flight 93, but believe me that's more than enough. The debate will rage on whether it was too early to make a film about this, but at least it's one of high quality and noble intentions that doesn't attempt to sensationalize anything. There's a special feature on the disc that lets you watch interviews with family members of the doomed flight. Good luck drumming up the desire to see it. Watching the film is just about all anyone will be able to take.

Saturday, September 9, 2006

Brick

Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emilie de Ravin, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Meagan Good

Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.

Rating: R


*** (out of ****)
Brick requires the viewer to take a huge leap of faith, just let go and just buy into its unusual premise. At first, I couldn't and it took me an entire second viewing to fully comprehend and appreciate what it was trying to accomplish. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it works quite well. By the time the ending credits rolled I had to at least respect the first time writer-director for trying something different we don't often see in modern films. It also features one award-worthy performance from an up-and-coming actor who's also somewhat of a familiar face. The movie is a hard boiled detective mystery straight out of 1940's film noir, except with this twist: It takes place in a modern southern California high school and the kids talk in 1940's gangster style slang. Think The Maltese Falcon meets Dawson's Creek.
Brendan Frye (Gordon-Levitt) is a teenage loner who receives a mysterious note in his locker from his ex-girlfriend Emily (de Ravin) who's been missing for two months and no one has a clue what happened, or so they claim. He meets her and finds out she's in serious trouble. She's fallen into the wrong crowd and tells him something about a "brick" and the "pin." That's the last time he sees her alive. Two days later she's murdered. With very little to go on, and with help from his trusted source "The Brain" (Matt O' Leary) Brendan steps out of the shadows and has to follow the clues negotiating his way through the different high school cliques to finally find out what really happened to Emily.

The plot, which is intricate and complicated, involves a rich, popular girl, Laura Dannon (Zehetner) who can't be trusted, a bitchy drama queen (Good), and most interesting of all, a local drug lord known simply as "The Pin" (Haas) who operates out of his mother's basement and has a hot-headed thug "Tugger" (Noah Fleiss) do all his dirty work for him. The "brick" of the title refers to a stash of heroin. All of these people are involved in this huge high school crime ring and have connections in one way or another to Emily. They're all hiding something. Brendan's mission is to find out what.

It really does take a couple of viewings to truly understand what everyone's purpose was and how they fit into this jigsaw puzzle of a detective tale. This is not made the least bit easier by the fact that everyone is talking in slang delivering lines like "I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you." Huh? In a way though it strangely works because all the actors play this completely straight and convey enough through their emotions that we're never really left in the dark as to what they're saying.

The casting choices in this movie are really interesting as I don't think anyone thought that the kid from 3rd Rock From The Sun had it in him to do something like this. Apparently someone suspected so and I'm glad they did because Gordon-Levitt does things in this movie few actors his age could reasonably be expected to pull off at this point in his career. At first, it's off-putting seeing this scrawny kid with glasses walking around like a brooding mini-Brando beating the hell out of everybody. Yet it's a testament to his abilities that after a while we don't question it at all. He pulls it off, building his reputation as one of the best rising young actors of his generation. I've also never seen a jacket take as much of a beating as his does in this movie. It almost gives it's own performance in the movie.

Lukas Haas is effectively creepy as "The Pin" complete with cane and cape, probably giving his most memorable turn since he played an Amish kid in Witness over twenty years ago. Nora Zehetner (Everwood) is just perfect as the mysterious seductress who definitely knows more than she's letting on. She's not what you would consider conventionally beautiful, but there's something about her that you just can't take your eyes off of. There's a scene in the beginning of the film where she's singing and playing piano at a bizarre high school party that looks like it was lifted out of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. I guarantee you won't be able to look away. She's amazing.

Upon first viewing I thought there were some problems with the film, like the fact the entire situation escalates to absurd heights before the police are even involved. I also thought a scene involving Brendan and the Vice Principal (Richard Roundtree) played kind of ridiculously, but I guess that was inevitable given the movie's commitment to it's central premise. In fact, part of the fun of the movie comes from the fact that there's hardly any adults present anywhere and when they do show up they're presented as completely unaware of anything that's going on. The Pin's mom even serves apple juice and cookies, oblivious to the fact a drug ring is operating out of her house.

The movie was shot in and around where writer and director Johnson went to school giving the film a look of authenticity. It really feels like high school and all these actors are believable as high school students despite the gigantic scope of the story they're involved in. The movie wouldn't work otherwise. Despite the movie's shoestring budget, it's photographed amazingly well and the score is terrific. Also have to say I loved that Velvet Underground song that played over the credits. This is one of the those movies I reluctantly give three stars to now but may later regret it because I have a feeling it will age very well, as it's not easily forgettable. Brick may be built around a gimmick, but it sure is an interesting one.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

The Sentinel

Director: Clark Johnson
Starring: Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland, Eva Longoria, Kim Basinger
Running Time: 108 min.

Rating: PG-13


*** (out of ****)

Recently a foreign film was made depicting the fictional assassination of President Bush. It hasn't found a distributor and will likely never see the light of day in the United States. Why? Apparently, unbeknownst to me and probably a lot of other people, there's some kind of unwritten rule that you can't assassinate the President in a movie, much less the actual sitting one. The Sentinel doesn't do that, but depicts a believable scenario in which it could actually happen. It also gives us more of an inside look into how the Secret Service works than I thought was legally possible. If everything they showed us about how that organization works was completely ficticious (and for our President's sake I hope it was) they sure did a good job convincing me it wasn't. This could have easily been a mediocre thriller but it's bolstered by a smart script that presents a believable scenario and interesting performances from Michael Douglas and Keifer Sutherland.

Weathered Secret Service agent Pete Garrison (Douglas) is considered a hero in the organization for taking a bullet in the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt. Now he finds himself the primary suspect in an attempt to assassinate the current President. The movie opens with his longtime colleague being killed because for uncovering that there was a mole in the Service plotting to kill the President. Called in to investigate the case is Breckinridge (Sutherland) and his new partner Jill (Longoria), who's as green as grass having only been an agent for all of two days. He says he wants her since she hasn't been "tainted" yet by years in the field.

Everyone in the Service is forced to take a polygraph test and only Garrison fails it. When the evidence starts to pile up that he's the mole (even though he's clearly being framed) Breckinridge becomes obsessed with bringing him down, although we suspect it has more to do with the fact he thinks Garrison, his former best friend, slept with his wife. It's true he's sleeping with somebody, except it's the First Lady, Sarah (Basinger). Before long, Garrison is in a hopeless situation and on the run to prove his innocence, determined to thwart the assassination attempt and clear his name.

What's interesting about this movie is how it reverses your expectations. You expect Sutherland to play a variation on his Jack Bauer from 24, but instead that role goes to Douglas while Sutherland is actually playing Breckenridge as the kind of agent Bauer would hate and rebel against. In the beginning of the film he gives a speech about how following your gut instinct is wrong because it forces you to just look at the evidence confirming that gut instinct. Then, ironically, he all he does is follow his gut instinct and personal feelings, which of course are completely wrong.

Eva Longoria's character may seem useless and just an excuse to bring in the young male audience (which was likely a huge factor), but she actually does serve a purpose in the story. Breckinridge needs fresh eyes on the case to keep him honest and that's what she does. It's not a demanding role, but she gets the job done. No one plays characters who fall from grace or experience some kind of reversal of fortune better than Michael Douglas (see The Game) and it's great to see him in this kind of role again. He's at his best here as a veteran who must now use his years of Secret Service knowledge to outsmart that very same organization he served heroically for years. I liked how he may be older, but used his mind and experience to escape life threatening predicaments.

I also felt The President (David Rasche from the great 80's t.v. series Sledge Hammer) and First Lady were actually excellent in their roles, which goes a long way in adding credibility to the story. If we can't believe the President, we can't believe an assassination attempt on his life. In too many movies the Presidency is treated as a joke, but here the actors infuse the roles with dignity and actually look and act how you'd expect the First Couple to in real life.

The movie suffers having nameless K.G.B. thugs as villains instead of a charismatic loner (like John Malkovich in In The Line of Fire) but in a way that made the events seem a little more realistic, so I understand the decision. While it's fairly obvious early who the mole is, what happens to him in the end, and the turn the plot takes, actually isn't. In fact, the final act has some great action scenes that will keep you on the edge of your seat. I also liked how the film didn't insult our intelligence by pretending Garrison would be promoted for breaking virtually every procedural rule in the Secret Service and endangering the life of the President by sleeping with the First Lady.

There's an alternate ending on this disc and your opinion of it will largely be based on how much you care about the relationship between Garrison and Sarah and where it ends up. One ending tells you. The other doesn't. It really makes little difference. The real draw of this movie is the cat and mouse game that unfolds between Douglas and Sutherland. As far as political thrillers go, The Sentinel is an intelligent surprise.