Thursday, March 29, 2007

Children of Men

Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Claire-Hope Ashitey, Charlie Hunnam

Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, adapted from P.D. James' 1992 novel, is the latest in a long line of films depicting dystopian futures on the brink of self-destruction (think 12 Monkeys, Blade Runner, or 1984). What Cuaron's film has, however, that those other titles don't is that it presents a dark future that's actually somewhat plausible and realistic. It looks like present day... except worse. That's the way it should be. Whether the story is the better for it is up for debate, but there's no doubt that it makes it very interesting to look at and a serious technical achievement.

The right decisions were made for the look and feel of the picture, which is a rare occurance in today's Hollywood system. This is first class filmmaking, yet its brevity prevents it from fully tackling the lofty issues it wishes to address in its sparse running time. While it may not stay with you long after it's over, Clive Owen's performance definitely will. It's one of his very best and anyone familiar with his resume will know how much that's saying.

It's November 16, 2027 and Owen is Theo Faron, a former political activist currently residing in London. The London we see here is one ravaged by terrorism, overpopulation, and environmental destruction. For nearly two decades women have been infertile (although the movie never makes it precisely clear how) and the oldest living human on the planet, an eighteen-year-old named "Baby Diego" has just been murdered, sending the entire country into a further tailspin.

Theo is kidnapped by his ex-wife Julian (an effective Julianne Moore in a smaller role than you'd assume) and she needs a favor. A big one. She needs a travel permit for an African refugee named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) so her and her band of revolutionaries (known as "Fishes") can get her to something known as the "Human Project." a secret group dedicated to saving the human species. Theo obtains the permit from his cousin, which stipulates he must accompany her. The catch: she's pregnant. How she could possibly be pregnant is somewhat of a miracle the movie never really explains, but doesn't have to since miracles don't need to be. Her pregnancy is now the last hope for the human race and it's up to Theo to protect it. What happens in their journey to find the "Human Project" I won't reveal but lets just say it involves the firing of a lot of rounds of ammunition, deaths, and a pot smoking Michael Caine.

What works about Children of Men has more to do with what it doesn't do than what it does. For example, I can't tell you how relieved I was to finally see a movie set in the future where the cars weren't flying and people weren't wearing ridiculous Jetsons style clothes. In a film where the world is coming to an end one would figure the filmmaker would be smart enough to make the right choices, but I bet few would. Director and co-writer Cuaron (Y tu mama tambien and Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban) is smart enough to do very little to let us know we're in "the future." He realizes it's much more terrifying to give us our world as we see it now, but ravaged by decay, war and neglect. With the direction we're going in these days some of the images and ideas in this film don't seem too far-fetched, and that may be the scariest thing. What we're witnessing in this film doesn't feel that off the mark.

The way Cuaron shoots it is also a lot smarter than you would expect. There seem to be many long uninterrupted takes that give the movie a documentary type feel like every thing is unfolding in real time. That was a very wise choice that gives the film a real sense of urgency and dread I don't think another director could have had the foresight to accomplish. There's a scene late in the film where Theo is on a bus and gunfire erupts. You see blood on the camera lens. Theo gets off the bus and starts running through the streets with the same camera tracking him, blood still dripping from it. If that doesn't make you feel like you're there I don't know what will.

Watching, I was reminded of the original Star Wars trilogy and how George Lucas' attention to detail was such that you could see specs of dirt on the light switch plate in the background of the shot. It's that same kind of detail Cuaron brings to this picture. He took the time to make sure everything was right and realistic given the situation, but that it never causes a distraction or draws attention to itself. It takes a very skilled filmmaker to do that and isn't the kind of work that's immediately noticeable. It shouldn't be because it's so masterfully subtle.

It's getting to the point that whenever I see Clive Owen's name attached to a project I know it's guaranteed to deliver. He's a chameleon who can slip into any role but lately he seems to be specializing in playing ordinary guys thrust into extraordinary situations. A lot of actors do it, but few do it better than he. I don't think anyone he's played has been more ordinary than Theo. He and his ex-wife haven't spoken in 20 years and he's still grieving over the death of their son. How Owen tackles it is interesting because he wisely underplays him. This is a man who's basically dead to the world and walks around in a self induced haze. He could care less about anything and when his character is forced to step into the uncomfortable position of hero we feel like we're right there along with him. He's just a regular guy trying to get through the day hiding his pain with the small bottle of whiskey in his pocket. He never asked for any of this, yet when it happens he does the only thing he knows how to do: help.

Moore, as usual does great work, this time in a small role. While I would have liked to see more of her, the limited involvement makes perfect sense in the broad spectrum of the story. In fact, it's a necessity. Michael Caine is entertainingly loopy as Jasper, an old friend of Theo's and now the only person he can trust to help protect this girl. As Kee, newcomer Ashitey is basically the heart and soul of the film as she conveys the girl's conflicting emotions of anger and hope perfectly. It's actually a very brave performance.

If there's a problem with the picture it's that it settles into a routine of hide-and-seek, making it feel at times like just another action movie, while the story behind it suggests anything but. While it's incredibly exciting (especially the last half hour) I kept waiting for it to take that next step and become something truly special and unforgettable. It never really gets there. Perhaps the film could have used more time to explore all the issues it brought up, but as is it's a very focused and compressed motion picture that doesn't slow down for a second.

I haven't read James' novel on which this film is based but I heard it's a very loose adaptation with many changes. What we're seeing is nearly exclusively the director's vision. I can't say Children of Men breaks any new ground as far as storytelling in this genre, but it is smart and an impressive technical achievement that confirms Cuaron is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Rocky Balboa

Director: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, Burt Young
Running Time: 102 min.

Rating: PG

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

While many laughed when Sylvester Stallone announced plans to make a sixth and final Rocky film, I thought it was a great idea. The franchise never really got the sendoff it deserved and other than an interesting turn in 1997's otherwise forgettable Cop Land, Stallone really hasn't found his footing as an actor ever since the original Rocky. That's not because he's a bad actor. While he isn't going to be accepting any Academy Awards any time soon, if he's given the right role he can be effective and entertaining.

In Rocky Balboa, Stallone once again gives a surpringly confident and touching performance as the "Italian Stallion" that's a joy to watch. Imagine my disappointment then when I discovered that the movie surrounding it doesn't really amount to much. It almost feels like a pilot for a failed television series. There's an expression that says a movie is made in the editing room. I don't think I completely knew what that meant until seeing this film.

It's 2006 and Rocky Balboa is now in the minds of many, himself included, a washed-up has been. Life has dealt him some rough blows. His beloved Adrian has passed away from "woman cancer" as he calls it and now he runs a restaurant in her name while in his spare time sulking around the streets of Philadelphia with a hangdog expression on his face. His son, Rocky Jr. (Heroes' Milo Ventimiglia in a nothing performance) doesn't want anything to do with him and now even Paulie (the returning Burt Young) is getting sick of Rocky's inability to move on in the wake of Adrian's passing. When a computer generated dream match theorizes that Rocky in his prime would defeat the current heavyweight champion, the cleverly named Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Carver), something is awakened in him. He's making a comeback to fight Dixon, even though everyone thinks he's out of his mind.

The only person with any faith in him is Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a girl he walked home when she was just a kid and has now reconnected with after a night at a bar. She's almost as lonely and depressed as he is and they make a perfect match. I liked that touch in the story, except the relationship doesn't really go anywhere and everything feels so rushed that it can't have any emotional impact. The first hour of this film is actually very good (even if it's so depressing you'll want to hang yourself) and Stallone gives maybe the finest performance of his career. You really feel for this guy and it reminds you why Rocky was such an iconic figure in American cinema. He may not be the brightest guy but he has a huge heart and Stallone plays him just right.

I can't tell you how badly I wanted to love this film or how much I respect Stallone for making it, but he makes a crucial misstep in the film's second half that pretty much ruined everything for me. After Rocky has his revelation that he's going to challenge Dixon we have our big training montage set to "I'm Gonna Fly Now"(this time he runs the steps with his dog) and then we're in the big fight. That's it. Virtually no build-up at all. His son argues with him about going through with the fight, yet seems absolutely fine with it by the next scene. He's even in his dad's corner. Rocky's an out of shape mess one second and the next he's in the ring completely ripped and shredded. It's like half the movie was left on the cutting room floor. Of course there's the weigh-in with Rocky and Dixon where.... well, nothing. Absolutely nothing happens.

Probably the worst part of this movie is Mason Dixon. I know this is a Rocky movie and I don't expect the villain to have a ton of depth, but would it hurt if he had a little charisma? He doesn't even look like a world champion. He's not in good shape (which they actually acknowledge, but that doesn't excuse the error in judgement), isn't physically imposing and Tarver (who's shockingly a real pro boxer) has absolutely no screen presence. His performance makes Tommy Morrison's in Rocky V seem Oscar worthy. If there was ever a situation that called for a larger than life, charismatic, "float like a butterfly sting like a bee" type character this was it. Imagine Mekhi Pfeiffer or Jamie Foxx in the role. Now that would be something and add an incredible amount of fuel and emotion to the final fight.

Even worse, this "champion" is portrayed as a complete wuss who only fights people he can crush. So now Stallone has written himself into a corner. If Rocky wins he's beaten a guy who sucks. If he loses, then he looks even worse than that. I appreciate the Rocky films are not about winning and losing, but they are about accomplishing something for yourself against all odds. If the opponent is weak than regardless of the outcome it makes Rocky look bad. He's accomplished nothing either way. If this really is the last film in the series, or even if it isn't, Stallone should have come out with guns blazing and an incredible antagonist for Rocky to play off of. I'm not saying a cliched villain, just a strong opponent at least.

The good news is that the big fight is exciting and fantastically filmed. It could be be the most exciting fight in all of the Rocky movies, but even this has some problems. For one, there's a stupid and unnecessary cameo from Mike Tyson that takes us right out of the movie. I'm not sure what purpose it served other than to further remind us how bland Rocky's opponent in the ring is. Then there are flashbacks of Adrian and Rocky's past together inserted into the fight. Was this really necessary? We get the point. Adrian was his life. We know this already. Plus, It's just visually bizarre and out of place to see Adrian's head floating above the ring in the middle of this major physical battle.

There are actually a lot of flashbacks during the film. So much so that you have to wonder if the movie and Stallone himself are as guilty of living in the past as his character. If you think about it the whole movie is just a replay of the original, with very few of the elements that made that film so special. It runs 102 minutes but it feels more like 10. This final installment (if it is the final one) wasn't the time to hold back. But I'm sure all the diehard Rocky fans out there are going to love this and won't care at all what I say. They're just happy Stallone made a decent Rocky movie and would have probably liked anything he put on screen. Rocky Balboa will please them, but the potential was there to do so much more.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Blood Diamond

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, David Harewood, Kagiso Kuypers, Arnold Vosloo
Running Time: 144 min.
Rating: R

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

If you've seen the commercials and trailers for Blood Diamond you may be led to believe the movie is a political drama with a very heavy-handed message. Imagine my surprise then when the film turns out to be more like a gruesomely violent version of an Indiana Jones film set against the backdrop of beautiful scenery and astonishing performances. More than that though, it's a deep human drama that intelligently explores serious moral choices and consequences.

It tells a story about "blood diamonds" or "conflict diamonds" as they are better known that are mined in war zones and sold to major diamond companies to finance their rebellions. But that's not what the film is really about. It's about three strangers brought together by horrible circumstances who are using one another and how they must reconcile that. At times the film is difficult to watch because of it's brutality and violence (especially toward children) but director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) deserves credit for not sugar coating anything and letting us witness the horror exactly as it happened in Sierra Leone in the late 90's.

When I recapped the Oscar telecast last month I said that just based on the thirty-second clip they showed of Djimon Hounsou as one of the nominees for Best Supporting Actor it looked like he deserved to win. That was only thirty seconds, but now after watching the nearly two and a half hour Blood Diamond I'm convinced I was right. What he does in this film isn't just "acting." He literally transforms himself and commands our attention with unbelievable emotion and power. That's not to say his co-stars are phoning it in because everyone is impressive across the board, but Hounsou in particular is amazing.

The year is 1999 and Sierra Leone is in the midst of a civil war that's ripping the country apart. Solemon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is a Vende fisherman captured by the Revolutionary United Front (R.U.F.) rebels and separated from his family. He's forced to work for a sadistic soldier known as Captain Poison (a scary David Harewood) in the diamond fields, where he finds and hides a rare pink diamond. Before Poison can get his hands on it they're attacked and the prized stone remains hidden, with only Solemon aware of it's location.

Enter Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a sleazy diamond smuggler from Zimbabwe who hears about the rare stone in prison and offers Solemon a deal: take me to the diamond and I'll get your family back. It sounds like a great plan, but there's one huge problem. Solemon's son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) has been kidnapped by the R.U.F. and is being trained and brainwashed to be a cold blooded killer. To say this portion of the story is emotionally unsettling and difficult to watch would be a huge understatment and it's the aspect of the film that by far resonates the strongest. That's saying something too, because everything in this film resonates pretty strong.

Along for the ride as well is Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connnelly), a beautiful American journalist who encounters Danny at a bar and sees him as her big chance to expose the blood diamond scandal. She's using him as much as Danny's using Solemon and I love the way the characters are aware of this and even point it out to one another. Their knowledge, however, does nothing to change their behavior. Danny's not giving into Maddy without a fight but that becomes increasingly difficult as the two grow closer.

Three incredibly different individuals with three vastly different agendas are headed on a violent and dangerous journey to find the diamond further complicated by the fact that the clock is ticking on Danny's life if he doesn't get it. He wronged his mentor, a South African mercenary named Colonel Coatzee (Arnold Vosloo) on a deal and now he's breathing down his neck for the pink diamond. If it sounds like I've given too much away, don't worry I haven't.

The plot isn't so much complicated as it is deep and requires the viewer to pay close attention to every character's motives and how they manifest themselves in the context of the story. There are plenty of surprises and in a movie like this you know it's virtually impossible for everyone to come out alive. How the screenplay handles this and other issues such as the relationship between Solemon and his brainwashed son (which at one crucial scene in the movie recalls the father/son face off in Return of the Jedi) and the emerging relationship between Danny and Maddy is ingenious at times.

You should be warned going into this that the violence is graphic, with villagers being shot and killed in nearly every scene of the movie. Particularly gruesome is the first ten minutes where we witness the raid on Vandy's village with rebels literally axing people's hands off so they can't vote in upcoming elections. Zwick doesn't pull any punches and the result is a powerful motion picture that never sermonizes, just tells an involving and moving story from beginning to end.

There's been a lot of talk as to whether DiCaprio got nominated for the wrong film in 2006 and he should have picked up his Best Actor Oscar nod for The Departed instead of this. I can definitely see their point, but I don't think after seeing this film anyone could argue his work here was undeserving of its nomination. There have also been some complaints about his South African accent in the film, but I thought he pulled it off credibly. There was never a point during the picture where I was distracted by it or felt it took me out of what was happening in any way. Some people forget just how difficult it is to pull off any kind of foreign accent and he deserves praise for his effort. Between this and The Departed, 2006 will go down as a breakthrough year for him. Of course, it's rare any actor gets a chance to play two characters that complex and well written within one calendar year.

I've you've read any of the other reviews for this film, you may notice Jennifer Connelly's character described as "the love interest" for Danny in the film. That's not true. Writer Charles Leavitt is too clever to fall into that trap and realizes it has no place in a movie like this. I really liked the way they handled this because the relationship is treated as being important to the story (which it is) but it never crosses the line into where it becomes an unnecessary distraction. Because the character of Maddy is being played by the criminally underrated Connelly, in just a few scenes she brings a whole range of depth and intelligence to a role that in the hands of any other actress would probably seem shallow and insignificant.

It also helps that for obvious reasons you can't take your eyes off her every time she's onscreen. Does she look "too good" to be a reporter? No, I don't think so. If there are ugly reporters, why can't there be really good looking ones? If we didn't cast actresses in certain roles because they looked too good, Connelly wouldn't be a working actress. She's been fighting and winning that battle for the past twenty years, proving with her talent that she's earned every role she's had. The scene where she first meets DiCaprio's character is fantastic as the two play off each other so well that you hardly even notice important exposition is being slid in. She disappears for a good portion of the movie but her absence makes sense. She's done what she can do and there's no need for her to stick around.

Blood Diamond isn't a perfect movie, but it comes pretty close. It's only problem (and this is a minor quibble) is that Zwick isn't the kind of director that brings a particularly unique style to his pictures. You're not likely to see a film and know he directed it. That's okay though because his movies are always beautifully shot and consistently entertain. In fact, this may be his best. I'm just curious what another director would have done with this material. I don't think anyone would have necessarily done a better job per se, but they may have brought more interesting elements to the proceedings.

At times the film is so action packed it almost feels like a very highbrow Jerry Bruckheimer production. I probably would have ended the movie a scene earlier but I understand Zwick's need to include the final scene, even if it is a bit political, as it does accomplish its goal tying everything up. Blood Diamond is one of those increasingly rare motion pictures that's full of excitement, but also leaves you thinking about an important issue that many, myself included, wouldn't have considered before seeing the film. Will people now think twice before buying diamonds? Probably not, but one of the most refreshing things about this film was that it wasn't made to lecture us about it.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Casino Royale

Director: Martin Campbell
Starring: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikellsen, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright, Caterino Murino
Running Time: 144 min.
Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

I have a confession to make: I've never been a Bond fan. From the silly opening credits, to the stupid theme music, to the silly gadgets, the campy one-liners and the women named after female body parts. The only actor I ever liked in the role was Sean Connery and I actually felt a great deal of sympathy for him having been saddled with it. The latest incarnation of Bond asks us to forget all of that. In fact, it asks us to flat-out pretend it never happened.

We're back at the beginning and this Casino Royale is a faithful adaptation of Ian Fleming's source material, not to be confused at all with the 1977 Bond spoof of the same name starring Peter Sellers. I always thought it was ironic that they made a parody of the Bond films since they were really just parodies of themselves anyway. This isn't. In an effort that likely made the Bond producers' heads explode, they actually managed to greenlight a 007 movie with a shred of intelligence that actually takes itself seriously. That's a reason to see the film, but not THE reason. The whole thing works because of Daniel Craig's performance. I would say he's born to play James Bond, but that would be an insult because he's capable of so much more than that as an actor and here creates a Bond completely unlike any of his predecessors. In other words, he's a complete bad ass.

The movie starts off with Bond being assigned 00 status even though M (a returning Judi Dench) doesn't think he's anywhere close to being ready and lets him know it. From there the movie actually has us worried that it will follow the traditional James Bond non-stop action and no plot formula it's mastered for years. There's a spectacular sequence involving a scaffold chase and later an attempt by Bond to stop a bombing at the Miami Aiport. Where the movie goes next though, is surprising and ends up setting it apart from every single Bond movie before it. There's actually an attempt (and a largely successful one at that) to bring depth to the story and characters. To build suspense. To make James Bond an actual person, instead of the wisecracking cartoon character we've been tortured with for the last three decades.

Like most of the Bond films he must bring down a world renowned terrorist (a baddie named Le Chiffre played by Mads Mikkelsen) but now things are a little more interesting. To do it he must enter a poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro. Oh and he can't lose because if he does he's basically funding terrorism. No pressure. Along for the ride, watching his back and the money is Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Fans of Bond will be surprised just how little action there is as a lot of this movie takes place at the poker table.

Much effort is put into building not only tension, but developing the relationship between Bond and Vesper. For once I got the impression the Bond girl was actually an important part of the story and not just there for decoration. The romance develops between the two happens in a way that's believable and subtle, two words I never thought I'd use in a review of a James Bond film. It helps that Green gives probably the best performance ever from a Bond girl (although I'm not too sure how high a compliment that is). It was almost as if the filmmakers finally woke up and realized that it was okay to finally make a Bond movie that was gritty and realistic with characters who have actual feelings and motivation.

At times though, they almost got too carried away as there were long stretches during the film where absolutely nothing was happening. At almost two and a half hours the film goes on for about a half hour to forty minutes too long. Also, you're likely to spot a plot twist toward the end of the film coming from miles away. Those are minor complaints in the broad scheme of things and a small price to pay for watching the best Bond outing in decades.

Casino Royale was directed by Martin Campbell and Paul Haggis has a writing credit on it, which isn't a surprise since he seems to write everything we see these days. It's beautifully shot in exotic locations, has a great feel to it and technically the most well made of all the Bond pictures. The film just drips in cool from it's lead character to the atmosphere surrounding him, and takes the best elements from the 60's era Connery Bond films, while wisely removing the campy qualities. The opening credit sequence (which in previous Bond movies have been unbearably cheesy) is visually amazing and Chris Cornell should have been giving an acceptance speech on Oscar night for his original song, "You Know My Name."

After viewing the special features on this 2 disc special edition release (which includes a documentary on all the actresses to play Bond girls) I was reminded just how awful some of those Bond movies have been. Worse than I remembered them, if that's even possible. This movie didn't have much competition, but still it's quite good. Like those other films it's mindless entertainment, but with much better writing and a performance from Daniel Craig that elevates the material. He has the ability and the opportunity that other actors playing Bond didn't to show vulnerability. How many other Bonds can you remember actually falling in love and being brutally tortured?

This is a change the series needed desperately and it boggles my mind it wasn't done sooner. Maybe it's because they couldn't find the right guy who could pull it off. It took a while but they finally found him in Craig. He's the reason to see this movie. No one else can do the role justice and every second he's on the screen he proves it. He's now stuck (for better or worse) playing Bond. I say for better or worse because he's undeniably incredible at it, but we all know someone with his talent should playing roles with more depth to them than this. I hope he chooses to do other things because he's too good to be locked into this his whole career, despite the fact that for now it's a blast seeing him try. But at least the series is finally, for the first time in a while, heading in the right direction.

Friday, March 9, 2007


Director: Larry Charles
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Davitian

Running Time: 86 min.

Rating: R

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

I've actually tried to avoid seeing Borat. Usually any movie accompanied by so much hype is bound to dissapoint. It's almost inevitable. I mean, how could this movie possibly be as funny as everyone claims it is? Well, it is. For nearly its entire 86 minute running time I was on the floor in pain from laughter. Does every single joke work? No, because it never does in any comedy but I'll go out on a limb and say that about 80 percent of them do here. I'm convinced the character of Borat probably wouldn't work in a regular comedy, but in a mockumentary where he's unleashed on unsuspecting people who think he's real, it's a home run. The ironic thing about the film is that Borat's goal is to take what he's learned in America back to his home country of Kazakhstan, but by the time it's over we've unintentionally learned more about our own country and the people in it than we could from any real documentary.

Kazakh t.v. reporter Borat Sagdiyev is dispatched to the United States with a documentary film crew which includes his producer Azamat Bagatov (Ken Davitian) to report on American culture. He starts off in New York, but after watching Baywatch all night in his hotel room he becomes determined to travel cross country to California to meet and marry the woman of his dreams, Pamela Anderson. I suppose this is the part of the review where I tell you all the crazy things he does and says to his clueless, but mostly deserving victims (some of whom come off better than others) who actually think this guy is a from another country, but there's no way I could describe it in any way that does it justice.

We witness Borat in a women's group, at a gay pride parade, taking an etiquite class, hanging with a bunch of college frat boys, and most memorably performing the national anthem at a rodeo show. When he takes the mic at that rodeo show and dispenses his views on Iraq before singing his country's national anthem the movie takes a turn from hilarious to scary as when we realize these people are cheering his rantings (which include wishing President Bush to drink the blood of all men, women and children in Iraq). You may be surprised at the number of social, racial and ethnic issues brought up amidst the craziness of this movie.

No matter what your feelings may be on this hilarious and often times controversial satire, you have to give Sacha Baron Cohen credit for coming up with a completely fresh character out of thin air and an original idea for a comedy (which is scarce these days). Most importantly, he had the balls to go way all the way with it. The movie doesn't just cross the line, it demolishes it. It's surprising he was able to make such fools out of complete strangers the way he does and escape the filming without any physical altercations (at least that we've heard about).

Supposedly releases were signed by the participants, but there has been some legal controversy because those papers of consent were for involvement in a documentary. There were already four lawsuits filed by people who claim the film and their involvement in it were completely misrepresented to them. Personally, I think they should get a life...and a sense of humor. I would have been thrilled to appear if only for two seconds in one of the most original comedies to come along in years, even if it made me look like a complete idiot. I'm sure most participants in the film probably do share that view, even if we don't hear about it.

The movie isn't perfect and does start to run out of steam a little toward the end simply because there's only so much of this guy you can take. The good news though, is there can't possibly be a sequel (watch this statement come back and haunt me) because the character is now world famous, which puts an end to fooling ordinary people into believing this guy is for real. Without that there's no reason for the character to continue and I think Cohen realizes this. The element of surprise and spontaneity would be gone. This is probably for the better as Borat deserves to survive in the canon of film comedies as a stand alone accomplishment without being watered down by any attempts to top it.

A lot of controversy has been made over Pamela Anderson's involvement in the film (arguably the shining moment of her career) and how Kid Rock furiously ended their marriage because of it. Something tells me if that's enough to cause a divorce there may have been some deeper problems there. Just a guess. Kid's reaction proves an important point though. With Borat you're either along for the ride or you're not.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

From The Vault: Closer

Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen,
Running Time: 104 min.
Rating: R

Release Date: 2004

*** (out of ****)

"A heart is a fist covered in blood!"

- Larry

"Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off, but its better if you do."

Released in December, 2004 Mike Nichols' Closer (based on Patrick Marber's acclaimed stage play) is likely one of the angriest films about sex and relationships you'll ever witness. It unfolds like a chess game, with each character carefully making their move to inflict pain on one other and, in an interesting twist, using the truth instead of lies to do it. The film, which garnered supporting acting Oscar nominations for Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, also has some of the most insanely quotable dialogue in recent memory. The first quote you see above is actually one of the tamer lines in the film, but merely transcribing can do no justice to the ferocity with which Clive Owen's character delivers it. Anyone familar with the band Panic at the Disco! will probably recognize the second quote above (which was spoken by Natalie Portman in the most memorable scene in the film) because they took it as names for two of their songs.

It's a powerful film, yet when it was over I couldn't help thinking the whole didn't quite equal the sum of its parts. It checks in at a brisk but emotionally draining 104 minutes, which actually works in its favor because I'm not too sure how much more of it I could have taken. If nothing else, it's worth seeing as an actor's showcase as there are some really interesting performances amidst some admiteddly bizarre casting decisions. You'll see some actors in roles unlike anything you've ever witnessed them in before. For all you Natalie Portman fans out there (and I know there are many), you'll be happy to know that you can tell anyone if they watch one starring her, this should be it. But they'll have to wipe the drool off themselves when it's over.

"Hello, stranger." Those are the first words to open Closer as a magenta-haired Alice (Natalie Portman) lies on a London street after being struck by a taxi cab. She looks up at Dan (a whiny, annoying Jude Law), an obituary writer comes to her rescue and accompanies her to the hospital. It's the beginning of a beautiful romance. Well, no actually it isn't. It's the beginning of an emotional nightmare for this couple and one other, as well as for the audience.

Flash forward a year later and Dan has written a book based on Alice's previous life as a stripper in New York called (ridiculously as one character points out), "The Aquarium." He goes to the loft of photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) to get his shot taken for the book jacket and not so innocent flirtation soon turns into something more. Maybe the best moment in the entire film occurs when Alice arrives at Anna's loft to meet Dan. I'm not going to spoil what happens in the scene, but the way it plays out is nothing like what you'd expect and Portman is amazing in it. However Anna, who spends most of this movie falsely believing she's on a moral ground higher than the rest of these characters, puts the skids on the relationship.

An angry Dan decides to play a little prank on her. He poses as Anna in a dirty internet chat room and sets up a meeting with Larry (Clive Owen), a horny dermatologist who's in for the embarassment of his life when he shows up and the real Anna is there. The joke's on Dan however as Anna and Dr. Larry's mutual amusement at the situation leads to a relationship and eventually marriage. We flash forward again a little further to Anna's photo exhibit and the affair between Anna and Dan suddenly seems to be on again, in no small part due to Dan's needy, obsessive, stalkerish infatuation with her. It's here where the story becomes emotionally brutal and the characters hurt each other rather senselessly and pathetically. They hurt only with words, but those words are like a knife to the heart as Marber's dialogue jumps off the page and out of the mouths of these talented actors.

We're used to romantic dramas, especially those involving infidelity to follow the same general formula. A man or woman cheats and then spends most of the rest of the film lying about it or trying to cover it up. Then the significant other somehow finds out and everything explodes at the end. This screenplay does something very interesting by having the characters being completely open and honest about their heinous behavior, thus resulting in nearly every scene in the film exploding with conflict. The movie is extemely talky (as most adaptations of stage plays are) but it holds your interest because of the power of the dialogue and the conviction of the performances. It also raises the question that if you tell the truth, does that make what you've done any less worse? Sure, these characters are being honest with one another but they're doing it just to hurt one another and ease their guilty conscience.

You'll have fun ranking them on their levels of deplorability as you watch the film. Many consider Clive Owen's Dr. Larry to be the worst of the bunch because he seems to take way too much delight in hurling his hurtful but witty one-liners and, like Anna, has a false belief he's acting more responsibly than everyone else. I actually thought he was the most likable because unlike the rest of the chracters he at least had the self-respect to fight back even if his methods were questionable. Owen (who actually played Dan in the stage version) is known for playing dark, brooding characters, but here he starts out as kind of a hapless sap, who due to circumstances beyond his control is turned dark and brooding. It's a huge transformation but Owen pulls it off and it's no surprise to me he was also able to play the role of Dan on stage and Larry on screen. He's that versatile.

2004 was the year Jude Law was in just about every other movie and he's the weak link in this as he mopes from scene to scene adding nothing to the role of Dan. I realize this guy is supposed to be a loser and a coward, but Jonathan Rhys Meyers played nearly the exact same role a year later in Woody Allen's Match Point to far greater effect. Law just seemed to sleep walk through this. Julia Roberts is actually really, really good as Anna. That I believed Law's character would cheat on Alice with her (when on paper it would seem unfathomable) is a high compliment to Julia as an actress. There's also something really funny and exciting seeing an actress who's been known as "America's sweetheart" having to deliver the dirty, graphic lines she does in this movie. Here's an example of casting against type that actually works.

The most sympathy to be had is for Alice, in no small part due to the fact that Portman is playing her, which I'm sure Nichols knew. She gives a great performance , made all the more brave and admirable by the fact that, like Roberts, she is completely miscast. By the end though, our sympathy dwindles for her as we're given a hint she not only hasn't been straight with the other characters, but with us.

What's strange about the film is that it presents itself as a no holds barred look at sex, infidelity and relationships but there's absolutely no sex or nudity in the picture. The closest we get is the now relatively infamous scene at the strip club with Alice and Dr. Larry. This encounter should give Portman fans a heart attack and joins the list of reasons the pause button on a remote control was invented. It comes dangerously close to being offensive and expoitive but Portman's performance reigns it in. I read an interview with her saying she took this role to overcome her fears and prove to herself she could do something different like this. She did, but I'm not sure at what cost or whether that's the right reason to ever take a role. Supposedly a nude scene was filmed then taken out at her insistence. but trust me she comes close enough that it didn't really make a difference either way. From what we know about her and her previous film choices, this had to be an ordeal for her to shoot and I commend her bravery in doing it.

Since the movie was filmed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?) we know at least an adequate job was done visually to make it look like it's an important film. I have to be honest though and say that by the end I'm not too sure what we accomplished. Everything seemed to go back to where it started off originally, despite Nichols' attempt to visually convey an amazing transformation of sorts (for Alice at least) at the end. That attempt, which really bookends the entire story, is set to Damien Rice's haunting and hypnotic song "The Blower's Daughter." I mention that not only because it's an integral part of the story because the music video for that song is the only special feature available on the DVD release of this film.

You'd figure if any film deserved an in depth analysis complete with commentaries and interviews it was this. How did Portman feel about doing that strip club scene and how did she approach it? What would director Nichols have to say about the deeper themes of the story and how he tried to convey them? You could go on all day. A film exploring as many issues as this deserved a double disc set. The movie may not be as important as Nichols intended it to be but there is a certain cruel irony in the film's title. When the story's over we feel no closer to the main characters than they do to one another, which is probably for the better.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

Director: Marc Forster
Starring: Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, Tom Hulce, Linda Hunt
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 113 min.

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

Over the past couple of weeks I've had the opportunity to watch some Oscar nominated films and review them. Two of which I even gave four stars to. They deserved four stars, but it was based primarily on technical achievement. When they were finished, I admired and respected the work that went in to to them even if they didn't reach me on a personal level. They kind of get what could be considered a "golf clap" from me. They earned four stars no doubt about it, but I'll be honest and say I'll probably never watch either of them again.

So, what does Stranger Than Fiction have in common with this year's Best Picture Oscar nominees? Absolutely nothing, because it's better than all of them. When I watch a movie I want to laugh. I want to cry. When it's finished I want to eject a disc out of my DVD player knowing I experienced a film that tells us something about ourselves and makes us think. Stranger Than Fiction is a tragedy, a comedy, a romance and a coming of age tale all rolled up into one

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is an I.R.S. agent stuck in what could be called a routine. He wakes up every morning to the alarm on his perfectly synchronized Timex watch, counts the exact number of brushstrokes as he cleans his teeth, catches his bus at the exact same time every morning, counts his steps on his way into the office and takes a perfectly timed thirty second coffee and forty five minute lunch break every day. It's time efficient. In actuality, he leads a painfully boring existence, but that doesn't really occur to him. It wouldn't since those immersed in their routine rarely stop to consider if they're bored or not, or more importantly if they're even remotely satisfied or happy. 

Things change for Harold one morning when he's brushing his teeth and hears the voice of a woman with a British accent narrating everything he's doing. What he doesn't realize yet is he's the main character of the comeback novel of author Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson), a chain-smoking, suicidal recluse with a bad case of writer's block. She can't seem to find a way to kill Harold Crick and her publisher has hired her an assistant (Queen Latifah) to get her out of her funk.

Meanwhile Harold seeks help from a psychiatrist (Linda Hunt) who tells him he has schizophrenia and renowned literary professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman) who tries to get to the bottom of whether he's in a tragedy or comedy. On top of this he finds he must audit the tax return of Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a free-spirited, tattooed bakery owner who hates Harold because...well, he's an I.R.S. agent. You're supposed to hate I.R.S. agents. A funny thing happens. He starts having feelings for her and bumbles his way through many of their encounters, consistently embarrassing himself. That doesn't matter though. What matters is that for the first time Harold is actually feeling something and must come to terms with it in the face of his "iminent death" at the hands of Eiffel's story.

How he handles the news he's about to expire is surprising and touching, taking the story in new directions and affecting everyone around him, especially the author. It's a movie about an awakening, not just for Harold but for everyone in his story. Kay Eiffel's book within the movie forces Harold to take action and be become, for the first time, driving force of his own destiny. It forces the other characters in his life to examine how he's affected him and delivers a message (without pounding us over the head with it) that everyone is important and every moment matters. This is especially true of the ending, which is pitch perfect. Some may complain it's a cop out, but how can it be? It ends the only way it can because the characters who are part of this story choose for it to. It's earned.

Zach Helm's script joins Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation and Being John Malkovich as the most original, intelligent screenplays to come along in a while. I always thought what separates a good movie writing from a great movie writing is the care taken with the supporting characters. It's tough giving each of them a life of their own but Helm does it, and Forster (aided by perfect casting) directs each of them to magnificent performances that fill every frame of this motion picture with humor and uncontainable energy. All the decisions made in the film make sense and are based on what these people would do, not dialogue a writer has written for them.

We believe Harold would take the advice of this looney English professor Hilbert because he's smart and his advice is surprisingly good. He might be crazy, but he's right. And what a joy it is to see Dustin Hoffman, for the first time in what seems like forever, in a great role that fits him. He works so little and is given so few opportunities to show what he has that we often forget he's still one of our most treasured actors. I loved how the care was taken to make the narration of Harold's life interesting and funny, giving us the impression that if this was a real book it would likely be a bestseller. Those only familiar with Emma Thompson as a dramatic actress will find themselves surprised at her dry wit and comic timing as Kay Eiffel, especially the way she plays off Queen Latifah's character. No one in the story is as deeply affected by Harold Crick as she is. In a way, he's part of her.

For me, one of the biggest surprises of the film was how well it succeeds not only as a morality tale, but as love story. On paper Gyllenhaal and Farrell seem like the weirdest pairing imaginable, but every scene they share together in this movie is a joy to watch. Her part's relatively small, yet she really brings a realistic quirkiness to it while still conveying an intelligence that lets you know she always knows what's going on. If Harold wants her, he has to earn it and she's not making it easy for him, nor should she. If anyone needs to be challenged, it's this guy. Their relationship develops organically and isn't forced on us by strange coincidences or plot contrivances. The chemistry between the two are electric, especially in a memorable scene where he plays guitar on her couch.

If you're going into this film looking for traces of Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby, you won't find any of it in Will Ferrell's performance. He's shy, reserved, restrained and introspective. Everything you wouldn't expect from him. In many ways he's perfect for the part because upon first glance he's amazingly ordinary in terms of looks and appearance. He's an everyman you'd believe wakes up every morning to a stagnant, boring existence. Yet, when the story and Harold's life kicks into high gear Ferrell turns it up to just the right level. Lately many comedians have tried to stretch their acting muscles in more dramatic fare. This should rank as the most successful attempt and if the Academy ever stepped outside the box every once in a while I think they'd notice Ferrell's work was nomination-worthy. However his own skit on the Oscar telecast jokingly acknowledged his chances of a comedian ever being nominated for anything. Now that might really be a tragedy.

I'm actually very amazed, but relieved that a movie like this could be released by a major studio. I'm also surprised a movie could take a premise as promising as this and not squander it somehow. It's such a high concept, the film was almost destined not to live up to it. But director Forster knew the premise he had and was determined to have it cross the finish line in one piece. The film's been compared endlessly to 1998's The Truman Show about a man (Jim Carrey) unwittingly starring in a t.v. show about his life. That was an incredible movie, but it rarely touched on as many issues as this. With all the sequels and remakes being vomited out by Hollywood these days I sometimes wonder if there are no more new ideas and every story has been told. A movie like Stranger Than Fiction proves that isn't the case and reaffirms our faith that the well of creativity hasn't run dry yet.