Thursday, April 26, 2007

Deja Vu

Director: Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel, Adam Goldberg, Bruce Greenwood

Running Time: 128 min.

Rating: PG-13

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

Deja Vu
is a routine action movie that hides behind a self-important facade of intelligence. The movie thinks it's clever when actually it's rather silly. It moves along briskly and is entertaining at times, but when it was over I was left wondering what the point of this was, besides making the studio money. The title is appropriate because when you're watching this film you won't be able to shake the feeling you've seen it a thousand times before. It's The Lake House meets Minority Report, but with more explosions and ammunition.

The film is directed by Tony Scott (Enemy of the State, Man On Fire) and is a Jerry Bruckheimer production, which is an open invitation for all kinds of jokes. In all fairness, when Scott and Bruckheimer are on their game few are better at making a fun, popcorn action movie. Unfortunately though, they've been slipping and their collaborations have gotten progressively worse over the years to the point where it now feels like they're just phoning it in. Scott always had a strong visual sense as a director (which is on broad display here) and the first hour of this film is actually quite good. For a while you think it's actually going to be one of Scott's better efforts, until mindless nonsense and silliness take over in the second half.

Denzel Washington is ATF Agent Doug Carlin, who's hand picked by FBI agent Andrew Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer) to investigate the bombing of a ferry carrying more than 500 military personnel and their families off the shores of post-Katrina New Orleans. He soon discovers a connection between the bombing and the dead body of a woman named Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton) that washed up on shore earlier that morning.

Through the use of new advanced surveillance technology they're able to look into the past (exactly four days and six hours) on a giant screen. This device has its limits. It excludes the ability to rewind, is limited in scope and other complicated details the script seems to make up as it goes along, so much so that it begins to become frustrating and ridiculous. That's a shameful distraction because it's at this point the movie actually makes me think it may have more up its sleeve than I expected. They use this window into the past to track Claire, hoping it will lead them to the bomber. It does, but something else happens to. Doug becomes obsessed with her (Vertigo style) and the movie hints at the morality of invading this woman's life and tinkering with the past.

There are really some good ideas going on here that you can't wait to be fully explored. I actually thought this thing was headed into Hitchcock territory. It had the potential to. Unfortunately we're reminded at the worst possible moment that this is a Jerry Bruckheimer production and the movies completely flies off the rails. We have a silly car chase sequence that's not really a car chase because no one's chasing anything since the characters are in two different time periods (don't even ask). We're also out of nowhere given the revelation that this device not only allows you to look into the past but to travel into it as well. How convenient. I wouldn't mind if the movie just made its rules clear early on, but instead they withhold information and then bring it up for the convenience of the plot when necessary.

When Carlin does travel back in time to prevent to try and prevent both the girl's death and the horrible ferry bombing the movie does contain some exciting, if completely standard, action sequences in its third act. I also have to admit I liked the way the movie brought up visual details from the beginning of the story to show that while Carlin may believe he's changing the future, he's just fulfilling destiny and not changing a thing. That was kind of clever. The whole premise is kind of clever actually, which is why it's so disappointing that the movie contains no surprises and falls back on typical action clich├ęs. I recently posted a list of my favorite twist endings in movie history. If there's such thing as an opposite of a twist ending, this is it. I was not only able to predict the exact ending of this film (which doesn't mean it makes any more sense), but was able to call everything right down to the last lines of dialogue spoken by the characters.

I love time travel movies, but lately I've noticed a disturbing trend going on in Hollywood where the time travel element is just being used as a device to give us explosive action scenes. There's no attention given to the nuances of the idea or the development of characters. It's almost as if producers have gotten the idea these past few years that time travel makes a great excuse for things being blown up and people getting shot. If they can fit a hot looking girl whose life needs to be saved in there then that's an added bonus. Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps all the good, original ideas for time travel have run dry and this is all we have left. Maybe I should just make do. Even if that's true and I do acknowledge these kinds of movies can be fun, this one has enough plot holes to drive Mack truck through.

I also have to say I'm officially sick of seeing of seeing Denzel Washington in these parts. People are complaining about Nicholas Cage and his non-stop streak of action movies (which now includes a similarly themed movie to this one called Next opening this week), but Washington has been worse. He's been playing the same exact cop or detective character in the same action movie for the past 10 films. Try remembering the last time he starred as anything other than a cop. He's great at it but it's really about time he move on to something new at this point. He's too good an actor for this. I'd really like to see him in more interesting, challenging roles and I have a feeling I'm not alone on that.

A couple of weeks ago I rented a 2005 movie called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang starring Val Kilmer and he gave what was easily the best performance of his career in a really interesting role. Imagine what a shame it is then to see him slumming it here as a character that could pretty much be summed up as "control room guy." It's a completely throwaway, useless paycheck part that could have been played by anyone and serves no function in the story other than to get a big name actor on the marquee.

The bombing suspect is played by Jim Caviezel, who's a good actor but is given nothing to do here but emote menacingly and shoot a lot of guns. Ironically the best performance of the film belongs to Paula Patton, who with limited screen time makes you understand why Washington's character would be obsessed with her, even if the screenplay doesn't. She has a strong screen presence and you get the feeling if she were asked to do more she'd be able to pull it off, but unfortunately the character is hurt by the fact that her involvement in the story is purely coincidental. When this film was released there was a big hoopla that it was the first film to shoot in New Orleans on the heels of Hurricane Katrina and there's even a dedication to the spirit of the people of the city at the end of the film. That's a nice gesture, but it would have been an even nicer gesture had a more intelligent movie accompanied it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

Director: Richard Eyre
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Andrew Simpson, Bill Nighy
Running Time: 92 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

At some point in your life you've met someone like Barbara Covett. Maybe she lived down the street from you. Maybe she's your aunt. Or your babysitter when you were a kid. She could have been your math teacher. The one all the kids hated. You know exactly who she is. She's one of those old ladies who hide their emotional pain and loneliness behind a strict and demanding facade. At first she may seem nice, until she realizes you're not doing things exactly how she wants them done. It upsets her "plan." She lives for her job because she has no friends. She goes home to her cat.

In Notes on a Scandal Judi Dench gives one of the most realistic and frightening performances of the past year as this woman and one that justifiably earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. To call it a performance would be selling the achievement short. There's nothing in her work here that suggest she's "performing" anything. She becomes this person. In a way it both helps and hurts the film. It obviously helps create an incredible sense of realism within the story, but hurts because there's no way the story can deliver on what we'd expect from her character. If it does, the film runs the risk of heading into thriller territory. Think Fracture starring women. So what we have instead is basically everything you've seen in the commercial for the film and nothing more. It's a fascinating character study, but by the end I kind of found myself asking: "That's it?"

Barbara Covett (Dench) is a teacher nearing retirement who isn't exactly miss popularity with her colleagues and students at the school. Basically she's exactly as I described her above: Old, strict and cranky. The only satisfaction she gets from life is writing in her journal (which supplies the narration for this story) and caring for her aging cat, Portia. She's basically a good woman, but she's spent far too much time alone and it's starting to take its toll on her emotionally.

When the young, attractive Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett, also Oscar nominated here, but for Best Supporting Actress) joins the faculty as the new art teacher, Barbara takes an immediate liking to her. Well, that's not true exactly. She completely disapproves of her carefree attitude and lifestyle which she writes vigorously about in her journal. Still, she finds herself completely drawn to her and takes her under her wing. Barbara finally, for the first time in her life, has a real friend. Her friendship with Sheba soon turns to fascination and then to obsession.

One of the wise choices Patrick Marber's screenplay (which is adapted from the 2003 novel by Zoe Heller) makes is that it just hints at a lesbian sexual desire for Sheba on Barbara's part but never goes all the way with it. He wisely realizes it's creepier and more realistic if it lurks ambiguously just below the surface. She does little things like stroking her arm and keeping a strand of her hair but that's as far as it goes. However the way director Richard Eyre films it he lets us know that to Barbara it may even be more erotic than sex. After all, it's the closest she's probably going to get.

Sheba has an obession of her own: a 15 year-old student named Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson) whom she's been privately instructing after school. Her marriage to a much older man, Richard (Bill Nighy) is stagnant and she faces the stress of caring for a son with Down's Syndrome and dealing with a rebellious teenage daughter. For Sheba, Steven represents an escape from this. A release. At one point she even admits that she feels she's "entitled" to this student affair despite the fact it's so morally and criminally wrong. She's done everything right her entire life and now is the time to collect. In her warped rationalization she's earned it.

To the filmmaker's credit they actually cast someone who looks like he's a 15 year-old kid and they really go all the way with this. That took guts, on both the part of the filmmakers and the actors involved. It's really uncomfortable to watch this woman presumably in her late 30's or early 40's making out with and having sex with this kid, but that's the point. As an actor and a director you really have to believe in the material and think it's important to get it out there in order to do something like this. They do and it is.

While I was watching I couldn't help but wonder what the reaction would have been if the roles had been reversed. What if this had been a male teacher and a female student? Actually I do know what the reaction would have been. There wouldn't have been any because the film would have never been released. Both situations are wrong, but it's interesting how our society looks upon the two of them. The film knows this and also knows that the female teacher-male student dynamic is trickier territory to navigate. They'll be some sympathy for her even though she's an idiot and they'll always the be that portion of guys in the audience cheering this kid on and asking, "Why couldn't I have a teacher like that?"

One night after school Barbara discovers Sheba's secret and is thrust into an interesting position. Does she go to the school board (as she's contractually obligated to) with the information? Or does she keep the secret and use it to her own benefit? You could probably guess which option she takes.

Armed with this devastating and incriminating secret, Barbara uses it as a weapon to bring her and Sheba closer together. She makes it look like she's doing Sheba a favor by keeping quiet, but when Barbara feels her generosity isn't being appreciated or her affections reciprocated, she snaps. This leads to the best scene of the film when Barbara has a personal emergency and takes it upon herself to intrude on Sheba's family time. An emotionally and physically intense confrontation unfolds outside Sheba's car and you'd figure by this point she'd realize this woman isn't her friend and she's being blackmailed. That's not exactly what happens and it's from this point on that I felt the movie faltered a bit.

Without giving too much away, I think they pulled the trigger too early. I was hoping Barbara's schemes and blackmailing would escalate to dizzying levels with her further intruding upon Sheba's home life and leading the two on a collision course to self-destruction. I thought of 2003's brilliant House of Sand and Fog which took a believable everyday situation much like this and escalated it to incredible, but always believable heights. That movie had very sympathetic characters so it actually had a tougher job. Here, all the elements are perfectly in place for fireworks to go off, so there's no excuse. I didn't want it to turn into a psychological thriller but the stakes could have been raised further. It reminds me of a screenwriting course I once took where the instructor always advised us to "Raise the stakes!" At the time I thought that was silly advice (and it is if you take it too far), but it does apply here.

While I don't doubt the actions Barbara takes in this film are completely realistic and totally in line with what this person would do (after all she isn't rational), they really aren't all that exciting and make for a flat and somewhat inconclusive ending. She shouldn't have turned into a female Hannibal Lecter, but more could have been done with her in the third act. It's all but promised early on and all signs point to it. I understand this is an intimate character study and they wanted to be grounded in realism, but some opportunities were missed that could have turned this into an unforgettable film. This is only a minor complaint because on the whole this is a very intelligent motion picture that does an excellent job examining what drives us as human beings.

One of the smartest decisions made in the making of this film was the casting of Cate Blanchett. It has more of an impact on the success of the movie than it might appear at first glance. She has an unconventional beauty to her but she doesn't look so good that she's unbelievable as a real teacher, which would cause a distraction. Casting someone like, say, Jessica Alba wouldn't work. Yes, I'll concede the thought of Judi Dench stroking the arm of and collecting strands of hair from Alba is pretty hysterical, but this isn't supposed to be a comedy. It also helps that Cate Blanchett is one of our best actresses because she has the tricky task of portraying not just a woman who beds a 15 year-old, but a school teacher who makes a terrible and stupid mistake. Blanchett holds up her end of the deal as much as Dench does and delivers a ferocious performance.

The unsung M.V.P. performance of the film belongs to Andrew Simpson as the 15 year-old for doing just what he's supposed to do: act like a 15 year-old. If he did anything else, we'd feel the strings being pulled and the story would lose its impact. All of these characters are pathetic and unlikable, but they couldn't possibly be more authentic and that's where the movie strikes a chord. It sheds light on a sensitive, taboo subject in an intelligent manner without ever exploiting it. It's tricky terrain that the film navigates brilliantly. I'm willing to bet when these sorts of things occur this is exactly how they happen. Notes on a Scandal is a nice, little character study that could have been even more, but when it's over you'll definitely have a lot to consider and discuss.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Greatest Twists in Movie History

In my recent review of Smokin' Aces I wrote the film contains "a twist ending that actually seems like it required some thought because it does make a lot of sense, is surprising, and I'd imagine it makes the film look better on repeated viewings."

This got me thinking about some of my favorite twists in movie history. For a twist to really be effective and work for me it has to accomplish a few things:

1. It can't cheat and must play fair. No "it was all a dream."
2. It can't be a one-trick pony (i.e. "He was dead the whole time").
3. Of course, it must hold up to logical scrutiny and make sense.
4. It must be shocking, but not done just simply for shock value.
5. The twist must make a larger important thematic point within the film and take the motion picture to another level it wouldn't have reached without it.

The films I'm about to list, as far as I'm concerned, represent the cream of the crop as far as twists. The twist doesn't have to come at the end of the film, but most here do. Originally I was going to do a top 10 list but realized there really aren't 10 I feel are worthy and I didn't want any crap on here. So we have 9. I'm also going to attempt to explain why they're so great without revealing any of them. No spoiler warnings here. I wouldn't dare ruin these surprises for anyone.

9. The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Over four years ago when a friend recommended this film (Roger Avary's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' 1987 novel) to me he said it should be required viewing for every incoming college freshman across America. I was wondering what he could possibly be talking about until midway through when we find out who's been putting those letters in Sean Bateman's mailbox. We and the characters in the film couldn't see what was right in front of our faces the whole time. It's at this point the movie mines territory a whole lot deeper and darker than we thought it could. This is the only twist on the list that's actually difficult to watch. Harry Nilsson's "Without You" hasn't sounded the same to me since.

8. The Village (2004)

Okay, let the hate mail pour in. I'm probably the only person in America who not only enjoyed this film, but consider it Shyamalan's best. Did he steal the twist from an episode of The Twilight Zone? He sure did, but if you're going to steal ideas from someone, Rod Serling is a damn good choice. Plus, he was able to take that twist and plug it into his own compelling story in a fresh and original way. I saw that Twilight Zone episode, but still couldn't telegraph this ending coming from a mile away. You can have your Sixth Sense, but I'll take The Village. Ask yourself this question though: Did the twist in The Sixth Sense work as a social commentary and deep meditation on the world we live in?

7. Oldboy (2003)

This one's a sensitive subject for me because this twist was actually ruined for me before I saw the film. Putting that aside however, I really hate it when a movie writes a check its ass can't cash. Oldboy doesn't do that. It creates a mystery: Why has Oh Dae-Su been locked up for 15 years? Then it delivers on its promise and that revelation not only meets, but exceeds our expectations. But that's not even the twist. That comes when he opens that mysterious box. What's inside cruelly reminds us that revenge is a dish best served cold.

6. The Usual Suspects (1995)

Like many great twists this one begins with a mystery that's solved by the end of the film: Who is Keyser Soze? Is he real or just a myth? Alright so this one breaks rule #1 a little bit and the ending admittedly does kind of negate the entire film. But it does make sense and provides an excellent showcase for Kevin Spacey, who's performance in this film led to a well deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. When the smug, smart-ass Detective Kujan thinks he has it all figured out he drops that mug to the floor and realizes…well, let me stop there. A shocking movie moment. Effectively spoofed in Scary Movie.

5. Saw (2004)

Sure Saw II and III had effective twist endings but neither worked as well as this, the original that set it all in motion. The Saw franchise is often credited as being just a blood and gore exercise, and while that may be true for the latter films, the original never really gets the credit it deserves for being a smart thriller. This is demonstrated in the big twist at the end which not only holds up to logic but accomplishes the rare feat of being completely guessable yet nearly impossible to see coming. When it does finally come in the final minutes we're introduced to one of the most memorable and complex modern horror movie villains in Jigsaw. I'm convinced part of the reason this franchise still going strong and is showing no signs of slowing is because of the clever execution of this twist in the first film. It's nice to shock (especially in a horror movie), but it's even better if you have a great story to support it.

4. The Planet of the Apes (1968)

Here's one of those twists that everyone seems determined to spoil. The shocking final image was even plastered on the VHS and DVD releases of the film. Rod Serling came in to write the twist ending, which remains to this day one of the most enduring closing images in cinema history. Like The Village it adheres strictly to my #5 rule and gives you something to think about when it's over. It's not just shocking to be shocking. Serling's specialty was social commentary and he was at the top of his game with this one.

3. Citizen Kane (1941)

You're probably thinking this isn't a twist ending, but it is, and in the most literal sense. It takes a seemingly minor detail earlier in the film and rewards the viewer at the end for paying attention to it. This is fitting because so much of what make Citizen Kane special are the little details, technical and otherwise, that are buried just beneath the surface. It's in the film's final moments that one of those little details become supremely important in answering the infamous question: What is "Rosebud?" The answer suggests that in the end the Charles Foster Kane that everyone thought was long gone was actually still there, if just barely.

While Welles' picture may be considered the greatest film ever made, its final twist is criminally underrated. It always boggles my mind that all the critics feel it's their duty to spoil this twist since they assume "everyone knows it anyway." Even worse, they hide behind the film's lofty reputation as if it affords them the right to spoil it. Even worse, they're probably keeping audiences, who are already intimidated by it, away. I love the film but would I have loved it more had I not known the big secret going in?

2. Fight Club (1999)

How deep is the twist at the end of David Fincher's Fight Club? I once wrote a 10- page thesis paper on it for a psychology course in college and I probably could have gone on for 10 more. This is one of those twists that so perfectly fits into the theme of the film and is so multi-layered I can't even get into it without giving it away. Let's just say everyone was rejoicing when Edward Norton was named as the new Bruce Banner for the upcoming Incredible Hulk film largely because of the work he does here in a tricky role. Maybe the quintessential film of the 90's.

1. The Game (1997)

This is the closest I'll get for now to reviewing a film that on any given day could compete as my all-time favorite. It's easily the best thriller I've ever seen. Much of this has to do with what unfolds in the final 10 minutes. Sure I've heard all the complaints about it not holding up logically. Well, it does. Without giving too much away, it's important to remember due to the nature of the story we couldn't be shown all the strings that were being pulled.

The twist is so simple, yet unbelievably complex. It takes a movie that up until its final minutes was a way above average thriller and turns it into a harrowing, devastating tale of redemption. When the curtain was finally pulled back on the who and the why behind Nicholas Van Orton's birthday present, my heart was in my throat, and it works just as well on repeated viewings. After watching it once go back and marvel again at the supporting performances (particularly Sean Penn's) and John Brancato and Michael Ferris' Rubik's cube of a script, that helped pull it all off.

The biggest twist of all may be that this film came from the notoriously bleak David Fincher, one of our darkest directors (just see number 2 on this list). The most unlikely director to be behind a morality tale. It's never given credit as his best film or as one of the best thrillers of the modern era. This is the very definition of a perfect twist ending.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Smokin' Aces

Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Ben Affleck, Jeremy Piven, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Common, Jason Bateman, Peter Berg, Chris Pine, Nestor Carbonell, Tommy Flanagan

Running Time: 109 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

If Michael Bay and Quentin Tarantino somehow conceived an ugly child, it would be named Smokin' Aces. The film joins a long list of what's become a very popular sub-genre in Hollywood since around 1996: "The Pulp Fiction knock off." Except there's one key difference between Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces and other lesser films that fall into that category. This movie is actually fun. It's a mindless, frenetic, dizzying bloodbath that features fun performances and an intriguing premise.

You may hear people occasionally describe a movie like this as junk food. I couldn't possibly think of a better description. You may forget about days after you've seen it, but there's no denying it delivers an amazing short term adrenaline rush you're not likely to get from most films. It also wins points for having a fully loaded star-studded cast that isn't just there for decoration, but to serve the story's central purpose. That central purpose in question, which fully reveals itself in the film's closing minutes, is also surprisingly clever and hints that this film may have had more on its mind than we originally thought.

Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a sleazy Las Vegas illlusionist and FBI snitch who has a $1 million bounty put on his head by a dying mob boss. He's hauled himself up in a posh penthouse suite in Lake Tahoe, Nevada (which makes for a visually fantastic set piece) with enough hookers and cocaine to last a lifetime. Meanwhile an entertaining assortment of hired assassins and career killers are descending upon the hotel ready to take his life and heart (literally). FBI agents Messner (Ryan Reynolds) and Carruthers (Ray Liotta) are dispatched by their superior Stanley Locke (Andy Garcia) to Nevada in order to thwart the attempts on Irael's life so he can provide the damning testimony, then enter protective custody. At least that's what they're told.

The rogue gallery of thugs sent to take out Israel include three bail bondsmen (Ben Affleck, Peter Berg and Martin Henderson), a group of neo-Nazi skinheads known as the Tremors (led by Chris Pine), two lesbian hitwomen (Alicia Keys and Davenia McFadden) a Jigsaw-like torturer (Nestor Carbonell) and most interestingly of all, a master of disguise named Lazlo Soot (played creepily by Tommy Flanagan).

Nearly the first 45 minutes to an hour of this film is all plot set-up and introduction but when this wild assortment of characters do eventually descend upon the hotel in Lake Tahoe (and it's worth the wait) fasten your seatbelts. What unfolds is a violent firestorm of bullets an a dizzying sequence of action scenes that are so intense it's almost exhausting to watch. There's one shoot out in an elevator that really needs to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, since this is one of those Tarantino knock-offs there must be some attempt at witty dialogue and black humor. It's in this department that Carnahan (who previously directed the low budget cop thriller, Narc) fails miserably. We have bad sight gags such as ventriloquism with a dead body and a particularly annoying bit with a deranged, Ritalin fueled, hyperactive kid. Now I could understand how on paper it might seem like a funny comedic interlude, but anyone who's ever encountered a kid like this knows there's absolutely nothing funny about it and you feel like strangling him. It's no less irritating here.

Oh, and Carnahan also thought it might be funny if the kid had a boner. Why is this so hilarious? I have no idea, but you might want to ask Carnahan himself, who's laughing about it on the DVD special features like it's the funniest thing he's ever filmed or witnessed in his life. The only joke that really worked in this movie was a hilarious cameo from Jason Bateman as a delusional, cross-dressing attorney, but he's really only in one or two scenes.

These are small complaints though, because much of what this film is trying to do works, and honestly, a lot of that can be attributed to Jeremy Piven's manic, over the top performance as Buddy Israel. This is supposed to be his first big starring role coming off the heels of his Emmy nominated work on HBO's Entourage. I've never seen Entourage but know him from his strong, but largely overlooked supporting film work over the years. People tell me his character here is similar to the one he plays on that show, just with the volume turned way up.

Here he really takes advantage of the opportunity given to him and just chews up the scenery as Israel. There's a scene he has with one of his henchmen (played by rapper Common) that's just amazing. He somehow finds a way to convey deep levels of sadness and despair from beneath the surface of this sleazy, strung out prick. The casting of this role was crucial because nearly everyone in the film exists to murder this character, so it's important that we care about him. Not necessarily like him, but care what happens to him. Piven makes us care. Without that, this whole enterprise would have been doomed from the start.

Ryan Reynolds really surprised me with his work in this, as I didn't think he could be a capable action lead, but he pulls it off well. As hitwoman Georgia Sykes, Alicia Keys (making her film debut) has a much larger role than you might expect and also does a much better job with it than you might expect. It's an impressive debut for her.

There's a twist ending in Smokin' Aces that actually seems like it required some thought because it does make a lot of sense and probably makes the film look better on repeated viewings. The film also closes perfectly and doesn't go on a second longer than it needs to. I can't tell you how many times I've seen action movies like this that seemingly end, then proceed to go on many scenes longer than necessary with a hundred false endings. Carnahan delivers his big twist and then ends the film with a final action that's brief and impactful. That it's so low-key compared to the rest of the film just makes it that much more surprising and effective. That's how you close a movie. Going into Smokin' Aces you can leave your brain at the door, but be prepared, because like its central character, the movie does have a few clever tricks up its sleeve.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

From The Vault: The Stunt Man

Director: Richard Rush
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Allen Garfield, Alex Rocco

Running Time: 131 min.

Rating: R

Release Date: 1980

*** (out of ****)

One of the many positive things to come out of the recent release of Grindhouse is that it finally shines the spotlight on the unsung heroes of movie making: stunt people. Zoe Bell's performance in Death Proof is the only instance I can remember where a stunt person is actually portraying themself in a film. They might have the most difficult job (and easily the most physically taxing) in movies, but must stand behind the curtain as the high paying actor or actress gets all the credit. Of course there are exceptions, as Tom Cruise supposedly performs most of his own stunts (which he's more than happy to tell us). You could probably name all the actors and actresses involved in your favorite action scenes, but try naming the stunt people who actually made them possible.

This got me thinking about the most famous movie ever made about stunt men, Richard Rush's The Stunt Man, which was received by critics as a masterpiece upon its release in 1980. It was considered to be the first great movie of the 80's, but time has instead revealed it as one of the last great ones of the 70's. While the press embraced it and it even earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Peter O'Toole, audiences stayed away and it fell off the map. The stress of actually getting it made, greenlit and its subsequent box office failure lead to a 14 year exile from Hollywood for director Richard Rush. While I don't think The Stunt Man is the masterpiece its fans proclaim and has some serious flaws, it is a lot of fun and worth checking out. If nothing else, it features an amazing performance from the great O'Toole and the most unintentionally hilarious film score you'll ever hear in your life.

Cameron (Steve Railback) is a fugitive on the run who stumbles upon the filming of a World War I movie directed by the eccentric and enigmatic Eli Cross (O' Toole). Cross offers to help Cameron hide under the condition he step in and replace his stunt man who was (accidently?) killed during filming. He falls in love with the movie's star, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey) but soon suspects Cross is crazy and attempting to kill him by eventually having him perform the very stunt that killed his predecessor. The whole movie and movie within the movie becomes a tighrope walk between perception and reality.

This may be one of the most far fetched films I've ever seen. If aliens came down and abducted every character in the film that would probably be more believable than what we actually witness. Here's just a few examples:

1) Despite a stunt man being killed on the set of a major motion picture there's really no formal investigation, yet a buffoon cop (Alex Rocco) decides to just hang around all week yelling at the crew and director, making empty threats to shut down production.

2) A man who looks homeless is taken off the street and replaces the deceased stunt man despite having no experience.

3) The beautiful star actress of the movie falls in love with the new stunt man instantly.

4) All action scenes in this movie are filmed in uninterrupted takes. They go on for up to 15 minutes at a time with the director not once calling for another take or yelling "cut!" The action is accompanied by what sounds like vaudeville carnival music.

5) This director decides it would be more convenient to travel around set on his moving camera crane (when they're not filming!)

6) This director also sets up a barricade so members of the cast or crew can't "escape." The police (who should be investigating him for murder) are not only behind the idea they later take cameo roles in his movie.

From what I just listed there you'd probably think I hate this film but nothing could be further from the truth. It's so bizarre and determined to entertain that you just can't. A lot of that stems from the performance of Peter O' Toole as Eli Cross (who supposedly based his portrayal of the egomaniacal director on his Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean). Even though Railsback's Cameron is the title character and in just about every scene, O'Toole owns this movie. He's charming, funny, selfish and arrogant, all while remaining completely likable and just believable enough to hire a criminal off the street to kill him in his film. The movie tries to juggle a lot of balls at once as it tries to be a dark comedy, an action/adventure, a romance, a mystery and a drama. By the end I think I came to the conclusion it was a dark comedy. I think. Without O'Toole the movie couldn't have even been anything.

Steve Railsback is adequate as the fugitive stunt man who may or may not be paranoid (even though his performance becomes whiny and irratating as the film wears on), but Hershey adds some real substance in a role that otherwise would have been forgettable. Now about that music. Dominic Frontiere's score for this film is so cartoonish and catchy I started to wonder if it was being done as a joke. It's distracting and hilariously out of place given the subject matter, but I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't humming the theme for hours after the film ended. It sure is catchy. It's in my head now as I'm typing this. Maybe it's fitting a film this weird contain a musical score that's even weirder. Still, like most of the elements in this film, I have to give it a pass because there's no doubt it'll entertain the hell out of you.

The Stunt Man was released on DVD in 2001 in a special collector's edition, which includes a making of documentary entitled The Sinister Saga of Making The Stuntman. The doc is almost as long as the film itself (it clocks in just under 2 hours) and is hosted by the film's director, Richard Rush. I absolutely loved this documentary and it may go down as one of those special features that are actually as entertaining as the film itself. On very few occasions have I seen a "making of…" documentary where the director was this passionate and excited about the film they made as Rush is here. Some may think he's just stroking his own ego, but I don't think so. Even if he is, so what? He's proud of himself and the film he made and there's nothing wrong with that. He's like a 5 year-old at Christmas and his passion and enthusiasm for filmmaking is contagious. You can't knock that.

Rush seems to be having the time of his life explaining the technical and narrative aspects of the movie. He also isn't afraid to make a fool of himself and participates in some ridiculously cheesy visual tricks to demonstrate the themes of perceived reality in the film. The movie may not nearly be as deep as he thinks it is, but he certainly makes a good case. He hosts this entire 2 hour affair himself which had me wondering: Why can't other filmmakers be as giving as this guy is on their DVD releases? If he has this much excitement and enthusiasm for the film, how can I not? This was one of those rare cases where the supplemental material increased my appreciation for the actual movie.

The sad footnote to this saga of The Stunt Man is that Rush only made one other film after it (The 1994 Bruce Willis flop Color of Night) and all but disappeared from Hollywood. His problems with the studio system are even hinted at in the documentary as at times he comes across as somewhat bitter about the struggles he had to get it made and the audience reception. He entertainingly takes little inside shots at how studios aren't receptive to any idea that may be somewhat original and complex (a statement that rings even truer now) and criticizes them for trying to change certain aspects of the film. Good for him. He seems like the kind of guy who wants to make films he's passionate about and do it his way. It makes sense that he wouldn't fit into the Hollywood system, which could be the one thing he has in common with the fictional director O'Toole portrays in his film.

I've heard rumors that Rush was considered to be a judge on the upcoming Steven Spielberg/Mark Burnett reality show On The Lot premiering in May. I've yet to get a confirmation on that but really hope it's true because Rush seems like a great guy who could add a lot of insight and education into the world of filmmaking, even for the most casual viewer. It would be fantastic to have him back. For now though, we get to look back on The Stunt Man as fun, interesting entertainment that, despite its flaws, took risks very few films today seem capable of.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


Directors: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Rose McGowen, Freddy Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Josh Brolin, Marley Shelton, Naveen Andrews, Jeff Fahey, Michael Biehn, Stacy Ferguson, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Traci Thoms, Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Running Time: 191 min.

Rating: R

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

isn't just a movie, or even two movies. It's an experience. It isn't something you just watch. It's something you survive. For the past few weeks I've had everyone telling me how this is the kind of film you have to see in a theater (preferably a really grungy one) to truly appreciate and watching it in the comfort of your own home couldn't possibly do it justice. Now I know exactly what they were talking about. I was fortunate enough to see it with an audience who understood that. In the course of the over 3 hour double feature I found myself immersed in laughter, screams, applause and in some cases, walk outs. This is a trip where you're either on board or you're not. Those who appreciate it will have the time of their lives and a movie experience they won't soon forget.

With Grindhouse Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have made all their crazy fanboy dreams come true and have let us share it with them. In paying tribute to the exploitation films of the 70's that they grew up on, we're taken back to an age of cinema we thought was long gone. We see their love for those movies in every frame of both features. What's most impressive though is not how accurately they managed to capture look and feel of those B-movies, but how they also managed to recreate the experience of seeing movies in the 1970's. They've even thrown in some fake old school slasher trailers that will likely have you rolling on the floor with laughter. More importantly though they've also made two movies that would be considered fun in any decade, especially this one.

I can't beat around the bush with this one. Of the two features, Rodriguez's Planet Terror may provide more fun but Tarantino's Death Proof is the superior film and the one that will linger in the mind long after it's over. Rodriguez set out to make bad (good?) zombie flick and succeeded. He effectively and hilariously pays tribute to the films he loved, while sprinkling his own touches along the way. It's a blast, but Tarantino goes one step further. Actually, he goes a few steps further. He's not content on just paying tribute to or sending up 70's car chase, slasher or revenge films, he wants to make a great one of his own, and succeeds. Death Proof also contains some of the most beautiful actresses working in movies today, yet Tarantino never once makes it about that. He's always been an "actor's director" but it's never been displayed as broadly as it is here, as the performances he gets from them are unusually strong considering the material. While Planet Terror may be a great cult trash movie, Death Proof is something more.

Within the first second of Planet Terror you know you're in for something special. We're treated to go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowen) pole dancing in a scene not unlike the Jessica Alba cowboy hat and chaps strip dance in Sin City. I'm not a fan of Rose McGowen. I don't think she's a particularly good actress and looks kind of trashy. However, those qualifications work to her advantage here and make her absolutely perfect for this part. She gets to give a bad performance in a film that actually calls for it. The funny thing is that she doesn't. She's gives a good performance in a role that couldn't possibly fit her better.

Cherry is joined by her ex-boyfriend Wray (a bad ass Freddie Rodriguez), an outsider with a violent past, in a battle to rescue a Texas town besieged by zombies. Rounding out the fun is the town sheriff (Terminator's Michael Biehn), a barbecue cook (Jeff Fahey in a hilarious turn), a biochemist (Lost's Naveen Andrews) and best of all the sadistic, abusive Dr. William Block (Josh Brolin) and his lesbian anesthesiologist wife, Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton), who has a very close relationship with her needles. I found this sub-plot the most fun and Brolin and Shelton look like they're having the time of their lives playing the feuding spouses.
We also get some interesting cameos from the great B-movie legend Tom Savini, the not so great singer Stacy Ferguson, Bruce Willis (as a corrupt military official who has the thankless task of actually trying to explain the plot of the film) and Quentin Tarantino as a sadistic rapist. I should divulge that the second Tarantino appeared onscreen the whole audience literally erupted with laughter. Let's just say he's never going to win an Academy Award for his acting but something unintentionally hilarious about his onscreen presence. He's so distracting as he screams all of his lines while making these ridiculously contorted facial expressions. In any other movie it wouldn't work, but of course here it's perfect. He shouldn't quit his day job though.

All of the performances and generally everything about this picture are hilarious and firmly rooted in the B-movie tradition with Rodriguez getting all the details right of the films he's honoring. The missing reels, the dirty prints, the muffled sound, the campy one-liners, the John Carpenter influenced early 80's synth score and the cheesy special effects. Despite this style though, Rodriguez manages to keep the gore level pretty high, as the film is actually incredibly graphic and disgusting. When Cherry is finally fitted with her infamous machine gun prosthesis by El Wray after losing her leg to the flesh eating zombies, it's an unbelievable moment because we were made to care about her. That's something you wouldn't find in any the zombie movies he's spoofing. McGowen will probably never in her life have a part as great as this again, but she's made me a believer that she deserves one. I thought the film kind of ran out of steam toward the end and the finale was anticlimactic, but is that really important in a movie like this? It's just supposed to be crazy mindless fun and no one can say Rodriguez underperformed there. Planet Terror is a wild ride.

Before and in between the double feature we see some fake slasher and revenge movie trailers, the first of which is the "re-imagining of a horror classic" with Rob Zombie's Halloween. Oh wait, that one's real. Well I guess if they HAVE to remake this (which they don't) Zombie's just about the only guy who can be trusted to do it. Seriously though, the trailer did look menacing and at least we know the remake is being tackled by someone who appreciates and respects the genre. Zombie also directs a hilarious fake trailer for Werewolf Women of the S.S. the title of which probably says it all. It's a Nazi exploitation spoof that features a hysterically memorable cameo from Nicholas Cage.

Rodriguez's own faux trailer for Machete starring Danny Trejo as a Mexican day laborer out for revenge against those who betrayed him, was hilarious and is the only trailer so far confirmed to be turned into an actual feature. Supposedly Rodriguez has nearly enough scenes already filmed for it. But that's not the one I really want to see made into a feature. That honor goes to Hostel director Eli Roth's Thanksgiving, which features a demented pilgrim carving hapless victims up as a creepy, muffled voice promises, "you're going home for the holidays…in a body bag." Classic. If I didn't know I would honestly think it was actually made in 1980. Roth's definitely going places as a filmmaker. Where? I'm not sure, but he's going somewhere. You also see a pretty neat trick involving a topless cheerleader, a trampoline and a knife. That's probably all I should say.

As pure comedy, no trailer worked better than Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright's for Don't, which is so simplistically stupid it's genius. The audience I saw it with agreed, as they would scream the word "Don't" at the screen along with the narrator. Now that's a good time. I'm not sure how this would sustain itself as a feature film but supposedly Wright's going to try.
There's a lot of talking in Death Proof. This isn't a surprise. It's a Quentin Tarantino movie. It's unfortunate in a way that it had to follow Planet Terror on the bill only because the films are so fundamentally different in style and execution that it almost forces the viewer to take sides. That's not really fair as Rodriguez and Tarantino are each making a film that reflect their own unique vision and style. After the adrenaline fueled ass kicking that is Planet Terror we slow down to enter the colorfully verbose world of Tarantino where characters talk, keep talking and then talk some more. Some would argue he just likes to hear his own dialogue. I can't argue with that and nobody ever claimed he wasn't self-indulgent. But if you wrote dialogue like that, you'd be self-indulgent too. Tarantino has a gift that few screenwriters can claim to possess: the ability to write the way people actually talk. Not only how they talk, but what they talk about. In Death Proof he does something that's becoming a lost art in slasher films: builds charcaters.

While Death Proof does have a throwback feel and look, Tarantino's print isn't nearly as scratched as Rodriguez's and he tells a slower paced story which of course includes Quentin trademarks like a great soundtrack filled with songs and bands only he's heard of. At least he has good taste. They only thing Planet Terror and Death Proof have in common is that they're both B-movies that would play as part of a grindhouse double feature. The similarities end there.

Kurt Russell is Stuntman Mike, a scarred former Hollywood stunt driver who's black 1971 Chevy Nova is one hundred percent death proof with the only catch being, as he gleefully boasts, that you have to sit in his seat to get the full benefit of it. You see his car is a weapon of mass destruction and homicide he unleashes on the unsuspecting young women of Austin, Texas. At first glance Mike seems like a charming guy who just came into the bar for a couple of drinks and then it's back on the road. Lurking beneath that calm exterior is a crazed psychopath and Tarantino shows the foresight not pull the trigger on that too early. We can wait. It'll be worth it.

It's a thrill to see Kurt Russell in a role like this again. He's one of those underrated actors who's always good in everything (even lightweight family fare like Miracle and Sky High), but this is the bad ass Russell we've wanted to see return and has been suppressed for too long. Finally a role that harkens back to his glory days as Snake Plissken in Escape From New York.

The first group of girls to feel the wrath of Mike and his deadly muscle car are led by Sydney Tamiia Poitier as local D.J. Jungle Julia. Her entourage includes Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and pot dealer Lanna (Monica Staggs). Rose McGowen also returns as his very first victim, but in a role far different and more subdued than her work in Planet Terror. We also get more distracting and funny director cameos from Tarantino (this time as the owner of the bar) and Eli Roth as…some guy. I'm not completely sure what his purpose was but it was funny seeing him.
All the actresses are great, but one of them really stands out. Every once in a while when you're watching a film you have the privilege of witnessing the birth of a star. That moment comes the second Poitier appears on screen. She just commands your attention. She has it right way obviously by how she looks, but the girl can act and deliver Tarantino's rapid-fire dialogue like it's nobody's business. The first half of Death Proof literally belongs to her. When the moment of homicidal destruction does finally come it's just brutal, especially when Tarantino takes the camera inside the car and you feel what it's like to be sitting, quite literally, in the death seat.

The second group of girls consist of Hollywood makeup artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), stuntwomen Kim (Traci Thoms) and Zoe (New Zealander Zoe Bell, Uma Thurman's stuntwoman in Kill Bill, playing herself) and sweet, air headed actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Tarantino lets us spend what seems like a week and a day getting to know these women in long uninterrupted takes, which means there's some really impressive acting here. Some people will dig this, others won't. I was hanging on every word. Stuntman Mike has them on his radar, but this time he picked the wrong girls. They're not taking shit from anybody and are going to put up the fight of their lives. What unfolds next will go down as one the great car chase scenes in motion picture history.

Tarantino proudly wears his cinema influences on his sleeve as he directly references killer road films like Two-Lane Blacktop, Gone in 60 Seconds (the original "not that Angelina Jolie shit") and best of all, Vanishing Point. It's the 1970 Dodge Challenger from that film that the girls decide to take on the test drive that leads to the film's thrilling final 20-minute thrill ride that uses no CGI. It becomes pretty clear soon why a professional stuntwoman had to play herself. I could lie to you and say this was one of the few times I found myself worried for the safety of an actor or actress in a film, but I was so caught up in the thrilling scene that it was actually the last thing on my mind. It didn't hit me how dangerous it really was until after it ended. It's a reminder of just how much CGI have destroyed movies.

Ironically the whole purpose of computer generated effects in movies was to create a sense of wonder, but it's actually done just the opposite because they always look so ridiculously fake. Here, a woman is really hanging on for her life on the hood of a car going 90 mph. No computer image can replicate that thrill. This sequence was a reminder of how we need to get back to that.

It helps that we're personally invested in the fates of these extremely likable women because we were given the time to get to know them. I don't think I ever cared more about what happens to anyone in an action movie than I did here. They're not characters, but real people with feelings, thoughts, ideas, beliefs and problems. You can accuse Tarantino of a lot of things but no one can say he objectifies or denigrates women. These women are strong, empowered and out to kick ass. Tarantino made a chick flick. In any other film all these roles would probably be played by men.
These four actresses are given the ball and run all the way with it, especially Traci Thoms as Kim. I'm pretty familiar with Thoms, from her co-starring role on tv's Cold Case to some of her supporting film work (Rent among others), but nothing could have prepared me for the spunk she brings to this role. If Poitier owned the first half of Death Proof, the second half is all hers. Zoe Bell isn't an actress, but she definitely will be after this. She exudes a natural charm and likablity in her very first acting role. I don't care if she's "just playing herself" because she's doing it extremely well.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives a really adorable performance as Lee. So much so that you can actually understand Rosario Dawson's position in her supposed on-set argument with Tarantino about leaving Winstead's character behind with that sleazy redneck. However, we never do see what happens and it is an absolute necessity of the story, so Tarantino wins. But what a testament it is to Winstead and the film that we really do care what happens to her. I have a feeling this controversy is something we'll hear more about on the DVD.

Lately everyone's been trying to figure out why this movie flopped at the box office. Was it the over 3 hour running time? The hard R rating? Did the grindhouse idea fly over current moviegoers' heads? I'm both disappointed and relieved that the movie didn't make any money. Obviously disappointed because it's an incredible experience that deserves to be seen and appreciated by a wide audience, but relieved because it will now exist exactly where it should be: on the fringe.

The second it was over I already had a burning desire to watch it again. It's that kind of movie. It's box office failure could be considered the ultimate tribute to trashy grindhouse cinema. Really, how many of those 70's movies even made a cent? Tarantino and Rodriguez will continue to do what they do best no matter how much this rakes in, and as much as he hates it, Harvey Weinstein knows there's nothing he can do about it. It's only April but I'd be shocked if there are many better films this year than Grindhouse. If there is, or even if there isn't, 2007 will go down as one hell of a year for movies.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Good Shepherd

Director: Robert DeNiro
Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, William Hurt, Michael Gambon, Tammy Blanchard, John Turturro, Gabriel Macht, Timothy Hutton, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Oleg Stefan, Keir Dullea

Running Time: 167 min.

Rating: R

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

The Good Shepherd
is an incredibly well made, ambitious and impeccably acted motion picture that will likely bore you to tears. History buffs will adore a movie like this as it really does an excellent job covering every facet of the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency and does manage to tell an engaging and intelligent story featuring interesting characters and situations. However, audiences just looking for some entertainment and escapism will have to search elsewhere.

After I was done watching all 2 hours and 45 minutes of it I tried to think of the right word to describe my experience. Then it hit me. Laborious. Watching this film was a laborious exercise. It felt like a chore. Almost like I was in history class with a professor who would tell the same story over and over, changing a couple of details along the way. I suppose here is where I make a crack about how DeNiro shouldn't quit his day job, but I'm not going to do that because this is a well directed film that, despite its gargantuan length, is never self-indulgent. You can tell it was made with great love for the story and DeNiro has clearly done his homework as it looks and feels like it's from the golden age of 70's cinema. As a director, he probably has a great work in him somewhere. This just wasn't it.

The movie opens in 1961 with the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro due to some kind of informer or leak. Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is anonymously sent a photograph and a reel to reel to tape that could possibly be a clue to the identity of the informant. We then flash back to 1939 and Edward's college years at Yale which includes his membership into the infamous Skull and Bones Society and his romance with a deaf student (played very well by Tammy Blanchard). A standout poetry student, Edward forms a bond with his poetry professor Dr. Fredericks (Michael Gambon) until he's recruited by an F.B.I agent (Alec Baldwin) to spy on him, believing his Frederick's German cultural society is actually a Nazi front. Reluctantly he takes the assignment, impressing Bill Sullivan (DeNiro in a small role), who sends him to work overseas for the Office of Strategic Services, which would later become the C.I.A.

The deeper the disciplined and emotionless Edward gets into the organization the more he finds himself in conflict with his own personal beliefs. He cheats on the love of his life with a respected Senator's daughter named Clover (Angelina Jolie) and marries her only because she's carrying his son. He rationalizes that he's "doing what's right", but you see that's the catch. Do what Edward's been doing long enough and see if you can even tell what right is anymore, or whether it even matters. The secrets and lies rip him and his family apart. He's not the same man and soon must make a difficult, if not impossible, choice between his personal and professional life if he wants to rise through the ranks of the C.I.A.

The movie tells what's actually a simple story in a very convoluted way as it jumps back and between timelines constantly. At times I found great difficulty trying to figure out whether we were in 1939 or 1961 and it wasn't made any easier by the fact that Damon's character didn't appear to age one bit. That actually isn't a problem per se (the last thing we need is to be distracted by an unconvincing make-up job), but it sure had an impact in deciphering what year it was. Sometimes a subtitle would appear in the corner of the screen letting us know what time period we're in. Sometimes it wouldn't. We'd spend an hour in 1961 and then we're in 1939 for two minutes. Then vice versa. The film doesn't flow well and when it runs close to 3 hours that's the last thing that should happen.

The real meat and potatoes of the picture is during Edward's time at Yale when he's still an idealistic, disciplined student losing his innocence as his eyes are being opened to the covert operations of our government. Once the film exits that territory everything after it becomes redundant. It's like a history lesson. We know what the C.I.A. did, but in case you didn't it's reenacted for you in pain staking detail for nearly 2 hours. You can tell a lot of work went into this script (as it's based on the life of the C.I.A's founding father James A. Angleton), but I'm not sure to what end. At times it felt like DeNiro was adapting a novel, but refused to cut anything out and just handed the book to the actors as scripts. It's a very dry, sterile film. Not necessarily boring, just tedious.

Part of what makes this film so difficult to connect with is Damon's performance as Edward. While he gives a performance that's completely necessary and appropriate for the film, it's an uninvolving one for the audience. Given the nature of the character and the situation, Damon can never show his cards and must act with cold, deliberate precision as Edward. He does an excellent job, but since there's no glimmer of any personality or emotion it's hard to care about him. If we can't care about the protagonist it's obviously difficult to care about the story. As long as Edward keeps us at arm's length, so does DeNiro.

Rounding out the stellar cast is Billy Crudup, William Hurt, John Turturro, Gabriel Macht, Joe Pesci, Timothy Hutton and Keir Dullea. Given the topic and DeNiro's pedigree it's not hard to see how all these major talents signed on, but you might be surprised, through no fault of their own, how little they all contribute despite the lengthy running time. Blame Eric Roth's dense script for that. The movie delivers what it believes to be a major twist in the last half hour involving the Bay of Pigs leak and presents it as being Earth shattering. It isn't and by the time you get there you likely won't care because, like the story, you'll be out of gas. I know I was. I understand what the movie was trying to do, but it has a real struggle getting there. Everything seems harder and longer than it needs to be.

You can tell DeNiro was trying to make an epic about family loyalty in the United States in the vain of The Godfather, which makes sense since Francis Ford Coppola was a producer on this project and at one point was even attached to direct. It would have been interesting to see what Coppola would have done with it and certainly would have been a welcome return to form for him after popcorn drivel like Jack and The Rainmaker. As is though, DeNiro delivers basically a facsimile of what we would have seen had Coppola helmed it as it has a real throwback quality that I actually liked. It's beautifully shot, features great performances but is completely inaccessible. I'm looking forward to DeNiro's next film, hoping it's less bloated and more willing to let us in.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Cult Classic Corner: Heavyweights

Director: Steven Brill Starring: Aaron Schwartz, Tom McGowen, Ben Stiller, Keenan Thompson, Tom Hodges, Leah Lail, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Jeffrey Tambor
Running Time: 100 min.
Rating: PG
Release Date: 1995

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

As a kid I never really liked camp. To me it was like summer school. Really, if you think about it it's essentially the same thing except you're wearing shorts. I always thought camp was actually worse because at least school didn't pretend to be fun. Maybe the problem was that I never went to a sleep away camp or never went to camp with anyone other than who I went to school with. Or that I had terrible counselors. Or that I was just a miserable kid who just couldn't have fun anywhere. Maybe it's because I wasn't fat. If I was I'm sure I would have had a great time at camp if it meant I got to attend one that was anything like "Camp Hope" in the 1995 Disney cult comedy classic Heavyweights. I doubt a camp this fun could ever exist anywhere but in the movies but for an hour and a half it's fun imagining that it does.

Released in 1995 and directed by Steven Brill this family film was billed as being from "the creator of The Mighty Ducks." Needless to say that tagline didn't exactly send moviegoers rushing to the multiplex. Critics weren't any kinder and the film quickly fell off the radar. Shame on them. In the 12 years since its release the movie slowly started to find new life on video and DVD and picked up a cult audience that could recite all the lines of the film by heart. This is what I love most about cult films. If for some reason a real quality film fails to make any money, is bashed by just about every critic and completely falls through the cracks, the fans are right there to save it. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, the filmmakers made a family comedy that everyone of all different ages can enjoy and has held up years later upon repeated viewings. How many other "family films" can claim that? Watching it now you can see how it's subversive, dry humor created a template for future comedies like Old School and even more directly Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. I can't imagine anyone seeing this and not at least enjoying It for what it is. I couldn't wait until it was over so I could watch it again.

Heavyweights tells the story of young Gerry Gardner ( a really likable Aaron Schwartz) who when school is let out for the summer is ordered by his parents to attend a boys weight loss camp known as "Camp Hope." I should break here and let you know that Gerry's dad is played by Jeffrey Tambor, who looks EXACTLY like Dr. Phil McGraw in this movie. Even more so than usual. A camp representative (Tim Blake Nelson in a small role) comes to the house and shows the family an uplifting video featuring the camp's founders, the Bushkins (played by Ben Stiller's parents Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara) and overweight counselor Pat (Tom McGowen) which actually makes the camp look fun and somewhat convinces Gerry things may not be as bad as they seem. When he arrives there they're actually not, as Gerry becomes friends with Roy (Keenan Thompson) and the kids come up with funny, clever ways to sneak junk food into the camp. Everything's about to change with the arrival of Tony Perkus (Ben Stiller), a compulsive, insane fitness guru who just bought the camp from the Bushkins and is determined to turn his new exercise regime for "Camp Hope" into the number one weight loss infomercial in the country.

The kids are given ridiculous "Perkus Power" shirts, have their go-carts destroyed, are forced to go on 20 mile hikes, subjected to weigh-ins, humiliated in front of girls at a camp dance and are basically emotionally and physically tortured by the most mentally unstable person you'll ever see at a summer camp. He also brings in an evil new counselor, Lars (Tom Hodges) who I can't even do justice describing here. The hysterical performance of Hodges is reason enough alone to see this movie, but believe me there are plenty others. The real hero of the film ends up being McGowen's Pat, the 18-year veteran counselor who must learn to stand up for himself, the kids and overcome his fear of talking to the pretty camp nurse, Julie (Leah Lail).

What's so special about the film is how it manages to accomplish it's goal of being a heart warming and uplifting picture for kids, while at the same time sliding in some really clever humor for teens and adults, all the while maintaining it's clean PG rating. That's impressive. Just as impressive is that the movie never takes itself or its message too seriously, yet never makes fun of the kids or being fat. I was surprised how well written the picture was, but shouldn't have been when I saw one of the names on the credits. The movie was co-written by Judd Apatow, the comic mastermind behind the 40- Year-Old Virgin as well as television's short-lived but brilliant Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared.

If they really were trying to make a Disney family comedy somebody forgot to send Ben Stiller the memo. There were many times during this when I thought there was no way this guy could have been following the script and the movie's all the better for it. It seemed like the entire performance was improvised. It's like he walked in from the set of another film and decided to just do his own thing. As Tony Perkis, clad in a spandex body suit, his head insanely disproportionate to the rest of his body, he gives the funniest, most darkly comic performance of his career. The finale of the film is like a Stiller free for all (involving back flips and broken glass) the likes of which you've never seen before. Now that he's always saddled with playing wimps or losers we forget how effective and funny he can really be in a villainous role. He makes this movie I'll go out on a limb here and say his performance the primary reason the movie has found new life on DVD.

It's been 12 long years, but the legacy of Heavyweights lives on. While none of the actors in the film (aside from Stiller) are huge names some went on to enjoy moderate success. Keenan Thompson went on to star in Good Burger and became a regular on Saturday Night Live. Tom McGowen you'll recognize as one of those character actors who seems to have been in just about every show on television (Frasier and Curb Your Enthusiasm to name a couple). Tim Blake Nelson went on to direct (2001's O) and star (2000's O' Brother Where Art Thou?) in feature films . There's even a blink and you'll miss him cameo from Peter Berg as the camp cook. The funniest (or maybe creepiest considering this is a Disney film) piece of information I found out while surfing the internet movie database was that the young girl that made the rotund campers' jaws drop at the dance went on to become a Playboy model.

Stiller has often stated his appreciation for the Perkis character and even modeled his performance as White Goodman in Dodgeball after it. He's said in interviews that he's interested in reprising the role for a sequel and I really hope that comes to fruition. Reuniting the original cast is easy and it shouldn't be too difficult for Disney to get behind it after all the success Stiller and Apatow have enjoyed in the years since the film's release. Heavyweights is one of those rare family films that really is for the entire family and its influence can still be felt in today's comedy landscape. Its cult classic status is well deserved.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

From The Vault: A History of Violence

Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes, Heidi Hayes, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Peter MacNeill

Running Time: 96 min.

Rating: R

Release Date: 2005

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

Spoiler Warning! This review contains spoilers and gives away key plot points.

It's often said that certain directors are experts at "establishing a mood" in a film. Very few filmmakers have done as good a job with this in any recent film than David Cronenberg does within the first half hour to forty minutes of 2005's A History of Violence. In many ways the whole movie hinges on what he does within that time frame to draw us into the story. The Canadian filmmaker best known for his shocking horror and science fiction films (including Scanners, Dead Ringers and the underrated eXistenZ) is remarkably restrained here and that restraint makes the violence that comes later that much more horrific.

Despite its title, the film ( which is loosely adapted from the 1997 graphic novel by John Wagner) actually isn't your typically violent motion picture. It's not interested in being that. It's more interested in what causes it. Typical of Cronenberg's films, the violence we do see is graphic and brutal, but this time it doesn't eat up a tremendous amount of screen time and its placement within the context of the story is carefully chosen. This is an intelligent meditation on violence and how it can intrude on our daily lives when we least expect it and shake us to our core. In this day and age, where the depiction of violence in the media is more scrutinized than ever, it's a relief to see a film that doesn't just show violence, but explores it.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a local diner owner who lives in small town Indiana with his loving wife, Edie (Maria Bello), teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and small daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes). One evening at work he becomes a local hero when he kills two armed robbers who hold up the diner and threaten the lives of the customers and employees. The story receives some national exposure and attracts the attention of some mysterious men in black suits, who come to town to pay Tom a visit. The leader of this group is the facially disfigured Carl Fogarty (a scary Ed Harris), who's a member of Philadelphia's Irish Mafia and swears that Tom is really a man named "Joey Cusak." He claims they have a score to settle because it was "Joey" who shredded half his face with a barbed wire 20 years ago. Tom, who claims he's never seen Fogarty in his life and doesn't have a clue who this "Joey" is, enlists the help of the local sheriff (Peter MacNeill) to protect him and his family from this growing threat.

The more Tom denies he's "Joey" the more menacing a presence Fogarty becomes in him and his family's lives. He stalks his wife and daughter while they shop and drives past the diner to mess with Tom's head. Meanwhile at school, Tom's son Jack is having problems of his own as he's constantly being picked on by a school bully, but can't find the guts to fight back despite his rage growing exponentially by the day. This sub-plot, which seems inconsequential at first glance strongly reflects the theme of the film and becomes much more important later. Thus far, the story is essentially a mystery and a very effective one. Is Tom telling the truth? Is this just simply a case of mistaken identity? Or, is Tom hiding a violent, criminal past from his family and friends? Read no further if you don't want the answer.

Tom is really "Joey Cusak" and he was a member of the mob 20 years ago when he disfigured Carl Fogerty. He put that part of his life behind him (or so he thought) and started anew as Tom Stall in small town Indiana. Does the mean he's been living a lie? To Tom it doesn't because in his mind "Joey" has been dead for the past 20 years and he started over. The cleverness in the script is that Tom himself is so convinced that he's no longer that man that we, like his wife, really believe him when he tells us he has no idea why these guys have come to town.

Early on we do have some doubts about whether this guy is telling the truth but we don't want to listen to them because Mortensen plays Tom as a nice, laid back guy we'd love to have as our next door neighbor. You could actually imagine him coming over, popping open a couple of beers and sitting on your couch watching the game. However, when his diner is held up it brings something out of Tom he thought was dormant. He was in a hopeless situation and had no choice but to react the only way he could: violently. He's a hero for it, but his actions had the unfortunate consequence of digging "Joey Cusak" from the grave. When those men identify him, Tom has no choice but to defend his family, while at the same time struggle to keep his dark secret from them.

A History of Violence
is ultimately about disguises. The film opens with two men (played by Stephen McHattie and Greg Bryk) calmly checking out of a motel. Cronenberg makes us think the movie will be about them, especially after we realize they've left two dead bodies in their wake. That's just a front though and one of the many disguises in the movie. We quickly shift gears into this small, idyllic Indiana town where everything in it seems to be straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, especially the marriage between Tom and Edie. In this way, the opening of this film reminded me of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (which makes sense since Cronenberg is like Lynch's twisted cousin as a filmmaker), where we're given a perfect picture of small town America, but there's something that seems just slightly off.

We just have a feeling that something will happen. We're not sure exactly what it is, but it's coming and our stomachs sink with dread at the thought of what it may be. Cronenberg brilliantly creates that mood and unwinds the narrative slowly, allowing us to get to know and care for Tom and his family before the hold up takes place, then shocks us and springs the movie forward in unexpected ways. Like the character of Tom, Cronenberg's movie wears a disguise for it's first act.

When Edie eventually does find out Tom's secret she's obviously devasted she hasn't been married to the man she thought she was all these years. Their lives are a lie. This leads to the most controversial scene of the movie where they have rough, violent sex on the staircase. I'm sure there are many who will find that scene implausible. Why would this woman who just found out she's been lied to all these years by her husband (and also discovered he's a killer) want to sexually ravage him? The answer to that question is in an earlier scene at the beginning of the film where Edie dresses up as a cheerleader to turn Tom on. They're role-playing, except this time Tom's doing the dressing up. As "Joey." She doesn't want to have sex with Tom, but with "Joey," the mysterious and violently dangerous new man in her life. "Joey" becomes Tom's cheerleader costume and one of the many disguises Cronenberg uses to maximum effect in this film.

If this were any other film, the revelation of this gigantic secret would cause the story to deteriorate into a violent, action-adventure territory. Instead, Cronenberg uses the secret to dig deeper into the lives of the characters and what makes them tick. Possibly no one is more affected by this revelation than Tom's son Jack, a shy reserved kid who has now just been thrown into a world of violence and it changes him in ways he probably never thought possible. All of it is manifested perfectly in Ashton Holmes' incredibly subtle performance and leads to one of the best scenes in the film where he finally stands up for himself and Cronenberg puts us in an interesting position where we're not sure whether to cheer or cringe in horror.

To end it all and protect his family Tom ultimately has no choice but to "Joey's" old stomping grounds of Philadelphia to settle the score with his own brother, mob boss Richie Cusak (William Hurt in an Oscar nominated supporting role). Now before going into this film I was informed that Hurt was nominated for Best Supporting Actor despite being in the film for just a couple of scenes.

There have been instances in the past where I felt actors have come close to deserving award recognition despite enjoying just a few minutes of screen time (Rodney Dangerfield's cameo appearance in Natural Born Killers comes to mind), but doubted Hurt could make that much of an impact in so little time. I mean we're already three quarters of the way through the movie at this point. I was wrong. From the second Hurt makes his appearance he creates a character so bizarre and unlike anything you've ever seen that even if you remember nothing else about this movie, his Richie Cusak, for better or worse, will be ingrained in your conciousness forever. He doesn't just chew the scenery, he eats this movie for dinner and he only needs about 10 minutes to do it.

Even at its climax, where the movie turns into a violent, bloody showdown the focus is really on the redemption of Tom Stall. When it's all over, he doesn't go to the river to just wash the blood of his brother off his hands. He's cleansing himself of "Joey Cusak." The final shot of the film is especially brilliant and emotionally moving as Tom returns home with his place waiting for him at the dinner table. Things must go back to normal, but the Stall family knows nothing will ever really be the same again.

I had a tough time believing this was actually adapted from a graphic novel, because the story is so deep and complex. Supposedly the graphic novel deals in much greater detail with Tom's time in the mob and is more of a violent gangster story. Screenwriter Josh Olson made a great move by choosing not to go in that direction but instead examine the themes the novel suggests. In doing so he puts us in the position of the characters, wondering what we would do in a similar situation. It helps that the situation is not far-fetched in the slightest and is completely grounded in the reality Cronenberg establishes within the first half hour. I was convinced everything that happens in this film could really occur.

The performances, particularly of Mortensen and Bello as a seemingly happy all American couple, go a long way in establishing that. Bello might one of the most underrated supporting actresses working today and here she's given her most unglamorous role and convincingly portrays a loving wife who's world has been turned upside down. Mortensen, in the performance of his career, plays a cool, laid back guy yet has no problems flipping on a dime to make us believe there's a man with violent tendencies hiding just beneath the surface. Cronenberg has said in interviews that the title of the film can be interpreted in two ways. As our country's ingrained legacy of violence that we struggle against every day or a human being's capability of violence that resides in all of us. Whichever it is, you can be sure that A History of Violence is a film you'll never forget.